Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Backward Letter from Jane Austen, 1817

Sunday, January 21, 2018
Susan reporting,

Whenever I'm in New York, I always try to stop by The Morgan Library to see what treasures from their extraordinary collection have been rotated onto display. As usual, I wasn't disappointed. Among the current exhibits are a score by Mozart, a Gutenberg Bible, a proclamation from George Washington, letters from Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (!!!), and this wonderful short letter from Jane Austen. These items and others are part of the current Treasures from the Vault exhibition, on display through March 11, 2018.

At first glance, the words appear to be beautifully written gibberish. But there's a trick to reading it: each word is spelled backward. According to the Library's placard, the letter was written by Austen to her eight-year-old niece Cassandra Esten Austen, the daughter of her brother Charles. The code is a bit challenging, but not so difficult that a clever eight-year-old (and being Jane Austen's niece, Cassandra must have been clever) couldn't decipher it. I also imagine Cassandra treasured it, too; her aunt died only six months later, leaving her final novel, Sanditon, unfinished.

I'm not providing a translation (the Library didn't either), so you can try to figure it out for yourselves. It begins "My dear Cassy I wish you a happy new year" and is signed "Your affectionate aunt Jane Austen." What lies between is up to you. Please click on the image to enlarge.

Above: Jane Austen (1775-1817) Autograph letter, written backward, to her niece Cassandra Austen, signed and dated Notwahc [Chawton], 8 January 1817, The Morgan Library. 
Below: Mr. Morgan's Library, The Morgan Library
Photos ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Breakfast Links: Week of January 14, 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• Bullet-stopping Bibles.
• How an earthenware jug can be a radical object.
• Why did Charles Dickens have a personal postbox?
• A seldom-seen part of New York City: the vanishing towns along Hook Creek.
• An overlooked benefactress: new research discoveries about who paid for Alexander Hamilton's education.
• Image: Cross-section of a Regency-era townhouse in Brunswick Square.
Katherine of Aragon's prayer book.
• How the newly rediscovered kitchen at Monticello fits into the history of upper-class dining in the west.
• Empress Josephine and the creation of Malmaison.
• Two suns? No, it's a supernova drawn in Kashmir over 6,000 years ago.
• A graveyard of ghost ships near Coney Island.
• The tattooist of Auschwitz - and his secret love.
Image: This is the world's oldest known woven garment, dating from 3482-3103 BC.
• The countess, the gout, and the spider.
• Then and now: fifteen historic New York scenes.
Unicorns in an 18thc Persian medical manual.
• Image: Cutaway reconstruction of late 12thc polygonal keep at Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire.
• Distilling the essence of Heaven: how alcohol could defeat the Antichrist (at least in the 16thc.)
• A rare cast & chased gold medal of Queen Elizabeth I that was likely a gift from the queen to a favored courtier or ally.
• Unbelievable images from Weird (er, World) War Two.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Video: The Wedding of Princess Elizabeth & Philip Mountbatten, 1947

Friday, January 19, 2018

Susan reporting,

This is for all of you out there who are engrossed in The Crown on Netflix. Here's a short newsreel segment with the highlights of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten on November 20, 1947. As grainy as this black & white footage is today, how exciting it must have been to people in the cinema in those pre-television days - and how very different from the second-by-second broadcast of the last royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Newly Discovered Painting of Gen. George Washington's Headquarters Tent, 1782

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Susan reporting,

"National treasure" is a heady designation, but I can't think of any artifact that deserves it more than George Washington's headquarters tent, middle left, now the star of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA. The old tent's once-stout canvas is worn so thin that it now requires an elaborate internal substructure to support it, and so fragile that it can only be shown to visitors a limited number of minutes a day. Yet there are few objects that are both so weighted with history and so emotionally evocative of a long-gone time and spirit.

I've written before in detail about the tent's history here, and about the hand-sewn replica of it (the "stunt double" used in the museum's film) made by the tailors of Colonial Williamsburg here. For visitors to the Philadelphia area, the tent has become a must-see - though I should warn you that everyone I've taken to see it has been overwhelmed to the point of patriotic teariness.

While the actual tent still exists, as well as numerous descriptions of it dating from the Revolution, there wasn't an 18thc image that showed it in use in the field. However, in one of those fortuitous discoveries that make history so special (and delights viewers of Antiques Road Show), an 18thc watercolor showing the tent suddenly appeared at auction last spring, only weeks after the MoAR had opened. While the auction house had labeled it as simply a "Revolutionary War Camp Scene," to Dr. Philip Mead, Chief Historian and Director of Curatorial Affairs for the Museum, recognized the tent  as once. Fortunately, no other potential buyers did as well, and the Museum was able to acquire the drawing for its permanent collection.

The watercolor is long and narrow - about 12" high and seven feet in length, and far too long to capture in its entirety here - consisting of multiple sheets joined together to create a panorama of the Continental Army's 1782 encampment at Verplanck's Point in New York's Hudson Valley. (The single sheet, below, shows the visible joinings between pages.) Rows and rows of the soldiers' small, peeked tents are depicted in precise detail, right, as are the more elaborate tents of the officers. Set apart from the others and on a small hill in a position both commanding and unmistakable, is Washington's field tent, complete with its decorative entryway, above left.

"We have no photographs of this army, and suddenly here is the equivalent of Google Street View," said Dr. Mead. "Looking at it, you feel like you are walking right into the past."

But the tent and the military landscape surrounding it are only part of the watercolor's story. Additional study, analysis, and preservation confirmed that the scene was painted by Pierre L'Enfant, the French-born military engineer who traveled with the Continental Army during the war. L'Enfant was a man of many talents; he also designed the plan for Washington, DC, and the Diamond Eagle of the Society of Cincinnati (featured in my blog here.) A skilled artist, L'Enfant's eye for detail and accuracy was remarkable. Although this same landscape along the Hudson River today includes a few modern buildings, it's surprisingly recognizable from L'Enfant's painting, over 235 years later.

The watercolor is currently on display through February 19 in the exhibition "Among His Troops" at the Museum of the American Revolution. In addition to other artifacts used at the 1782 encampment, the exhibition includes the only other known L'Enfant panorama, a view of West Point, also painted in 1782. I'll be writing more about this second painting later this week.

Click here for more information about the exhibition.

Many thanks to Phil Mead and Scott Stephenson for the early tour of the exhibition, and to Alex McKechnie for her assistance.

Photographs courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Blonde Lace on the 19th Century Red Carpet

Monday, January 15, 2018

1833 Bridal Ensemble

Loretta reports:

Some of my readers have asked about blonde lace.

Certain of the ladies’ magazines listed who wore what at court events. If you type “blonde” into the search box for this 1831 Royal Lady’s Magazine, you will notice that nearly every single lady wore blonde or blonde lace to the Queen’s Drawing Rooms.

Naturally, then, blonde features in my heroines’ clothing. And quite naturally also, readers have asked about it, some puzzled especially by the notion of “black blonde.”

Blonde lace is a silk bobbin lace. A search on YouTube will show it being made, and give you an idea why the handmade version was so very expensive and highly prized. The “blonde” part refers to the silk’s natural color. Once a way was found to make the silk stronger, it could be lightened, for a white blonde, and dyed for black blonde.
1833 Carriage Dress

Sleuthing online, one ends in a confused state. “Next to Chantilly the blondes are the most important among the silk laces.” Elsewhere, we’re told that Chantilly is a blonde lace. My impression is, the blonde made in Chantilly was considered superior. I await elucidation by textile experts.

For the purposes of my books, this isn’t crucial, any more than it was crucial for the magazines to distinguish. For the purposes of A Duke in Shining Armor in particular, what you’d probably rather see are examples.
Beechey, Queen Adelaide

The bridal ensemble (at top) I gave my heroine Olympia includes “a pelerine of blond extending over the sleeves” and “a deep veil of blond surmounting the coiffure, and descending below the waist.”
The “French” dress she donned at the inn was based on several images, but this pink carriage dress from the Magazine of the Beau Monde, though listed for August 1833 (my story is set in June of that year), about covers what I had in mind. She wears “a black blond pelerine with square falling collar, the points descending low down the skirt and fastened in front with light green ribbon noeuds.”

However, portraits capture the look of the lace much better than the stiff, stylized fashion prints. Queen Adelaide (consort of King William IV, monarch at the time of my story) is wearing blonde lace in this image from about 1831.
Giovanina Pacini

Giovanina Pacini, the eldest daughter of the Italian composer Giovanni Pacini wears what I'm pretty sure is black blonde in this 1831 image.

You can see a sample of Belgian Bobbin Lace in this lappet.
And here is a sample of French Pillow-made Silk Blonde.

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

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