Monday, 27 July 2009

Some Useful Beauty

Details from an unused Edwardian account book found in a charity shop. Beautifully bound, all three edges of the paper marbled, hinges strengthened with linen, index letters individually stamped in alternating red and black. Manufactured just outside the City, sold near the Stock Exchange. Perfectly useless but I had to have it. You never see anything like this at Rymans.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Shelley and the Photographer

A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade, Gloucestershire

THE wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset's ray,
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

They breathe their spells towards the departing day,
Encompassing the earth, air, stars, and sea;
Light, sound, and motion, own the potent sway,
Responding to the charm with its own mystery.
The winds are still, or the dry church-tower grass
Knows not their gentle motions as they pass.

Thou too, aerial pile, whose pinnacles
Point from one shrine like pyramids of fire,
Obey'st I in silence their sweet solemn spells,
Clothing in hues of heaven thy dim and distant spire,
Around whose lessening and invisible height
Gather among the stars the clouds of night.

The dead are sleeping in their sepulchres:
And, mouldering as they sleep, a thrilling sound,
Half sense half thought, among the darkness stirs,
Breathed from their wormy beds all living things around,
And, mingling with the still night and mute sky,
Its awful hush is felt inaudibly.

Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild
And terrorless as this serenest night.
Here could I hope, like some enquiring child
Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight
Sweet secrets, or beside its breathless sleep
That loveliest dreams perpetual watch did keep.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

This photo from about a hundred years ago is from whatsthatpicture's flickr account, which along with his associated website of mystery photos can provide hours of innocent bafflement and frustration.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Mystery of the Vanishing Horse Skulls

A while ago I was struck by this passage in the note on Southwold in H Munro Cautley’s Suffolk Churches
In the chancel are a series of stalls with misericordes having fronts with fully traceried panels and standing on a pierced curb of stone. Extending beneath the whole area of these stalls is a chamber 54” deep and 39” wide and this was no doubt provided by the mediaeval builders for some acoustical purpose., as at Norwich in two churches where there are similar chambers, one was filled with acoustical jars and one with horses skulls.
This is an extraordinary image: the hidden heads of dead horses singing along in harmony with the choir. I had to find out which these two churches were. An answer comes earlier in the book, in the section about Choir stalls. Monro Cautley discuss the raising of choir stalls on hollow platforms. He says of the chamber at Southwold:
Unfortunately it has been completely cleared out and no records remain of what was found. There really can be no doubt as to the purposes of these chambers, for in similar ones at the Norwich churches of S.Peter’s Mancroft and S.Peter’s Mountergate, acoustical jars were found built into the walls of the chambers with mouths of the jars facing outward. Specimens of these are in the Norwich Museum.
This is curious. Firstly because our delightfully pagan horse heads go unmentioned, and secondly because it’s not clear why Munro Cautley thinks the chamber at Southwold has been “cleared out“, when the Norwich chambers are described not as having been filled with jars, but rather having them built into their walls. In fact he gives the impression of not having read his own book.

I turn to the only other book on mediaeval church architecture in my limited if somewhat eccentric library: The Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture by Matthew Holbeche Bloxham In the second volume of the 1887 edition he has a section headed Earthen Jars:
Church walls have been found sometimes to contain empty earthenware jars It is supposed they were placed thus for acoustic purposes.
In or about the year 1864 in repairing the chancel of Denford Church Northamptonshire some singular orifices were discovered on the north side over the arcading which lines the chancel, and beneath a discharging arch. These orifices had all originally contained or been lined by earthenware pots, the bottoms of which had been removed. In one of them the pot still remained. Some years ago some earthen vessels were found immured in the walls of a church in Oxfordshire. In 1852, during restorations carried out in St Peter’s Mancroft, Norwich, the remains of passages were found under the chancel floor, having earthen jars embedded in their side walls. The vessels of red ware with a slight glaze on the uper part wee laid horizontally , about 4 feet apart, their mouths being flush with the face of the wall; they measured 8 inches in height, and the diameter was about 6 inches.
This seems pretty definitive. Bloxam was writing much nearer the time of the restoration and his description is clear and precise. And anyway, some of the jars remain in the collection of the Norfolk Museums service.

But what of St Peter Mountergate ? (There are several variations on the name.) An internet search turns this up in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries for 1873 :

James Fowler, Esq. FSA exhibited a plan, three views and a section of one of the so-called Acoustic Pots, discovered at fountains Abbey in 1854, and described by Mr Walbran in his guide. The arrangement is similar to, but much less complete than that discovered about the same time in the churches of S.Peter Mancroft and S.Peter-per-Mountergate Norwich, described by Mr Minns*
No horse skulls here either. I downloaded a couple of books with chapters on the subject of acoustic jars. In his contribution to Antiques and Curiosities of the Church , edited by William Andrews FRSA , published in 1897, George C. Yates FSA gives further details. The find at St Peter Mountergate is described as being of a similar nature to that of St Peter Mancroft, but the jars having ears and handles. At the very end of the article Yates says
Occaisionally the skulls of horses have been found in sacred buildings, the popular idea being that, like earthenware jars, they were built in for acoustic purposes.
We’re back on the trail. Usefully, TF Thiselton Dyer, in Church Lore Gleanings, published a little earlier, in 1892, covers the same subject in more detail. He explains:
Occaisionally the skulls of horses have been found in sacred buildings; the popular idea being that, like earthenware jars, they were built in for acoustic purposes.
Just a minute, haven’t we been here before? In fact no less than four of the ten pages of Yates’s article (on finds at East Harling, Leeds (Kent), Fountains Abbey and Youghal, (though not incidentally, those at Norwich) are taken verbatim from the one chapter of Thiselton Dyer’s book. It seems even fellows of Royal Societies aren’t above a little cut -and- paste. Thiselton Dyer goes on:
…although it has been suggested that the remains of sheep and horses found under the floors of churches indicate the traces of heathen sacrifice on the spot in earlier times. Some years ago “ a horses head was placed under the organ of a parish church in Munster,to give increade effect to the music, “A superstition” writes a correspondent of Notes and Queries (4thS. Iii.564), “very prevalent in the county Clare…” In the bell turret of Elsdon Church Northumberland, there were found built in the masonry three skulls of horses. Horse’s skulls. too, have frequently been put into the sounding board of Presbyterian ministers in Scotland:and when an old meeting house in Bristo Street, Edinburgh was taken downin the early part of the present century, to make way for the church, the old sounding board above the pulpit was found filled with horses skulls.
Fascinating stuff.But no mention of them being used in chambers under choir stalls, or why H. Munro Cautley should have made this peculiar suggestion

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Amoretti LXVII: Like as a Huntsman

Like as a huntsman after weary chase,
Seeing the game from him escap'd away,
Sits down to rest him in some shady place,
With panting hounds beguiled of their prey:
So after long pursuit and vain assay,
When I all weary had the chase forsook,
The gentle deer returned the self-same way,
Thinking to quench her thirst at the next brook.
There she beholding me with milder loook,
Sought not to fly, but fearless still did bide:
Till I in hand her yet half trembling took,
And with her own goodwill her firmly tied.
Strange thing, me seem'd, to see a beast so wild,
So goodly won, with her own will beguil'd.

Edmund Spenser

This picture is one of a pair - the other is of a spaniel chasing a bird. I bought them in a charity shop a few years ago, having originally seen them in window the a couple of weeks before and assumed they were some kind of lithograph. On closer inspection they turned out to be pencil drawings with the animals picked out in very finely painted watercolour. Unfortunately. they've suffered a bit from the acidity of the low quality card mounts mounts . This one is signed "R.N.A. Reid cop." Whose work it was copied from and for what purpose remains a mystery, though I've wondered if it was in connection with the preparation of a print, or a painting on ceramic. Both have legible watermarks - one WILMOT and the other WHATMAN TURKEY MILLS, which along with the style would fit with a dating to the 1830's or 40's.

Fly of the Week # 3 Heliophilus pendulus

Another hoverfly, this time a  striking wasp mimic. The markings make me think, rather obscurely, of the Swiss Guard. Not to be confused with swiss chard.

From now on meetings of the Fly of the Week Club will take place on

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Fly of the Week # 1 The Bee Fly

The Bee fly Bombylius Major. This photo is from last year, though I`ve alredy seen a couple this spring. They can be seen hovering in front of flowers, steadying themselves by just resting their legs on the petals. Seen against the light the apparently sturdy beelike body turns out to be mostly an array of bottlebrush- style bristles around a rather weedy abdomen. All proboscis and trousers!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Mystery Jug

If anyone has any ideas about the origins of this jug I'd be interested to hear from them. 18cm high, glazed base incised with what l think is N5. It's got that slight iridescence in places I tend to associate, quite possibly wrongly with older slipware, and the decoration has a kind of North Devon look,though I can't find any exact parallels : the pattern is sprigged with a few minor incisions rather than cut through a complete covering of slip, as seems more usual.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Bees` Wedding

Rather more genuine natural history went into the making of this image than it might at first seem.
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