This Page

has been moved to new address

The Dustshoveller's Gazette

Sorry for inconvenience...

Redirection provided by Blogger to WordPress Migration Service
The Dustshoveller's Gazette: December 2011

Monday, 19 December 2011

On the Anniversary of Turner's Death: A Giveaway

It's a week of anniversaries and art.  JMW Turner (1775-1851) died 160 years ago today.  "I never miss an accident" he once said, and true to his word, he was out on the night of the fire at Westminster in 1834. Armed with his two notebooks he spent hours absorbing the colour and drama of the scene, both on land and water.  I haven't been able to get all of his watercolour pictures of the fire into my book (one of them, and the two famous oils will be), but here are some wonderful reproductions of the rest from Tate Britain which houses the Turner bequest.  They are not on permanent public view at the gallery because that would damage them, but they can be studied in person on request.  In 2005 they were displayed alongside works by Monet and Whistler, and it is obvious the debt which those two other artists owe to England's greatest painter.

For more information on Turner's paintings of the 1834 disaster, I recommend the very interesting catalogue by Katherine Solender, Dreadful Fire! (Cleveland OH, 1984) produced for the 150th anniversary of the fire by the American gallery which holds one of the oils.   It's now out of print, but during my research, I managed by mistake to acquire two copies of this small but fascinating paperback from separate secondhand bookshops.  I have one in good condition to give away - if you'd like to win it, please follow this blog (if you're not already) and add a comment or two about Turner or these paintings, or both, by 31 December.  I'll choose a winner at random from contributions.


Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Albert and the Armada

At 11pm on 14 December 1861 at Windsor - 150 years ago today - Queen Victoria declared beside the sickbed of the Prince Consort, ‘Oh, yes, this is death!’.  Her husband of 21 years, was gone, aged only 42. For many years it was believed that Prince Albert (1819-1861) had died of typhoid, as written on the death certificate by the royal physician, Dr Jenner, but Victoria also believed that her husband had died from overwork and worry occasioned in part by the latest antics of their eldest son, the future Edward VII.  However, Albert had been aware of some sinister symptoms - probably stomach cancer - for at least four years before his death, which he kept from the Queen, and it was probably this, combined with pneumonia caused by being caught in a rainstorm returning from a confrontation with the Prince of Wales at Sandhurst, which actually killed him.
The last moments of HRH the Prince Consort (Wellcome Library)
Albert's awareness that something was seriously wrong with him accounts for his manic activity in the years before his death, and one of those activities included the Royal Commission on Fine Arts, a body he had been chairing since its formation in 1841. The Commission was responsible, among other things, for commissioning the fine art and sculpture for the new Palace of Westminster - much to the disgust of Charles Barry, its architect. At the time of Albert's death, one of its major projects remained unfinished: a replacement scheme for the Armada Tapestries, lost in the 1834 fire.

The intention of the Commission was that six panels in the Prince's Chamber of the new Palace should contain painted facsimiles of some of the lost tapestries but only one sample had been commissioned by 1861 (by the pre-Raphaelite, Richard Burchett), when Albert died.  With his impetus gone, and with the costs associated with building and fitting out the new Houses of Parliament rising alarmingly, the scheme was never finished, and the empty spaces were simply infilled with Pugin wallpaper.

The Prince's Chamber, with two of the empty panels
visible, wallpapered in red
Then in 2007, the American philanthropist Mark Pigott donated a sum to the House of Lords Collection Trust, to complete the scheme.  As a trustee, and head of the Parliamentary Archives, I was able to visit the artists' studio set up at Wrest Park, an English Heritage property (one of the few viable places where the creation of the massive canvases was possible) during the creation of the five remaining paintings.  It was a fantastic day, with curators, historians, publicists and funders all coming together to see the amazing work in progress led by Anthony Oakshett.

Monumental painting in progress at Wrest Park

Oakshett painting one of the five layers which comprise each artwork

Reconstructing the tapestries in paint, when the originals had been consumed by fire and the only source was some 18th century engravings, was a huge challenge as these articles in The Spectator and History Today explain.  The massive, finished, paintings were first put on display in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords over the summer of 2010 so all the detail could be seen close up by the public - including the fabulous dolphins and sea monsters with their silvery highlights. 

Installing the Paintings in the Royal Gallery for temporary viewing, Summer 2010
They were then installed high up in the Prince's Chamber next door where they look as if they they've been there ever since Albert's death, and in final - and fitting - fulfilment of his Commission's vision.
President Obama and the Lord Speaker, Baroness Hayman, under the
installed Armada Paintings in the Prince's Chamber, May 2011 (Parliamentary Copyright)

Labels: ,

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Good History Book Checklist

If you want to choose a great read this Christmas for you or someone else, here are my top tips for finding a good 'un (and I'm talking here about non-fiction, not historical novels):

1) Check the biog of the author on the book jacket.  How do they describe themselves?  What's their platform? Do they sound credible?  When was the last time they published a book?  Producing a book like clockwork every year doesn't leave much (or any) time for original research.

2) Does the author have a track record of specialisation in the period or topic in question?  Or does their list of other publications indicate that they cherry-pick subjects from all over the place, skimming across the surface and not doing anything in depth?

3) Call me old fashioned but I do like a good footnote.  Personally, I find histories without them frustrating and suspicious. (Sorry to postmodernists). If I want to know more, or to follow a lead, then I can - with a footnote.  And I can tell what is new research, and what is anecdotal or apocryphal.  Similarly, you can see immediately if there is too much dependence on a small number of secondary works, and all you are going to get is reheated history.  Footnotes which cite only titles and no page numbers are, well, a bit odd, in my opinion - it seems lazy and superficial, and doesn't save any space.  Sometimes books don't have footnotes at all because of space constraints imposed by publishers.  But that itself makes me wonder about the seriousness of the publisher too.  One way round this is that some authors put footnotes and references on their websites.

4) Flick to the back.  What does the bibliography look like? I avoid books which have only used about ten books in their preparation, but equally a long bibliography of books which are 30 years old is not a good thing either.  A  sign that a book may be compelling, with lots of new ideas, will be a bibliography citing:

  • manuscript (ie archival) sources, including foreign archives, where appropriate.  That means the book should contain some original work.
  • many academic journal articles (of a recent date) and/or a number of recent unpublished PhD theses.  That's because here will be the latest ideas on a topic; the author will be up to date, or at least aware of current trends and new discoveries.
  • recent publications, up to a year before the book in question is published ie up to the time the manuscript went to the publisher.
5) Look at the acknowledgements.  Who do they thank?  Lots of libraries, archives and other specialists?  Good.  In addition,  I'm usually nervous of any author who has used researchers to find material for them.  Why aren't they doing themselves?  Unless you're very old or infirm there doesn't seem to be a good reason not to do your own legwork; not least because only you can spot connections when researching and make serendipitous links. If an author's used a researcher to help them identify and translate odd bits of material in a tricky language, then that's OK, but if they are seriously specialising in a particular country's history it does make you wonder why they haven't learnt the language first. 

6) And finally, of course, have a read of the introduction or opening chapter.  Is it gripping right at the start?  If not, then you may be in for a bit of a slog.

7) Enough from me - what are your top tips?  Post your comments below!

Happy reading!

Labels: ,

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Modest Proposal

So, while I'm waiting for the OUP copyeditor to contact me about deadlines for edits to The Day Parliament Burned Down, I'm working on mini-pitches to my agent Bill for the next book.  Though we've discussed some ideas face to face, I'm a bit diffident doing this off the top of my head and feel much more comfortable writing ideas down and making them punchy (probably goes back to a mispent year working in a PR agency straight after university).  So far I've got five paragraph-long pitches for books, some Parliamentary, some going back to my roots as a medieval historian.  I have another five or so in my head that I'm working on.  Once we've got a list, it'll be a question of discussing, rejecting, refining, or expanding.  Book No 2 will need to be something I know a bit about already, plus something which hasn't been written about before (or which needs a modern interpretation), plus something the market wants, plus something which I am prepared to spend two or more years of my life working on.  That's quite a tall order.  If anyone has any ideas, please feel free to write them on a postcard below...