Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ugbrooke Park: Saving a Historic English Country House

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Isabella reporting,

Many of us Nerdy History Folk dream of living in a grand English country house, whether Pemberley, Downton Abbey, or, in the case of Loretta and me, the imagined house in our current WIPs. But in too many cases, that dream country house proves more of a nightmare for the families who inherit estates burdened with taxes and hundreds of years of deferred maintenance. The scores of servants necessary to support such an estate have vanished, and in many cases the necessary income necessary has disappeared as well. It's estimated that 1 in 6 of the great English country houses has been demolished in the last 75 years, and the inescapable economics of a long-gone way of life means that others houses are sure to meet the same fate.

But one house that teetered on the bring of such a disaster has returned to flourish: Ugbrooke Park, located in Devon. Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Clarissa Clifford, Lady Clifford of Chudleigh, and the current mistress of Ugbrooke Park, speak at Winterthur Museum about both the challenges and rewards that Ugbrooke has offered.

The Cliffords have the kind of family history that novelists like me love. Scattered through the centuries are a royal mistress and an Elizabethan privateer, an adventuresome lord who rode the American plains with General Custer, another who became a cardinal, and yet another who was an eccentric famous for founding the Mystic Evolution Society.

But the ancestor most important to Ugbrook was Thomas Clifford, 1st Baron of Chudleigh, who was one of the most trusted of Charles II's ministers. (If you've read any of my Restoration-set historical novels, then you'll recognize Lord Clifford's name, even though he wasn't well-liked by any of my heroines.) In return for Lord Clifford's services, the king granted him the land that would become Ugbrooke.

The 4th Lord Clifford, Hugh, transformed the property extensively in the late 18th century, adding beautiful interiors by Robert Adam and landscapes and gardens by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. The turreted exterior with a medieval flavor was the latest fashion at the time, but a mixed success in a land of Palladian symmetry; it's that somewhat squat appearance that has earned Ugbrooke its reputation as an "architectural ugly duckling."

But over the centuries, the house's fortunes declined. While the 20th c. members of the family preferred their lands in New Zealand, Ugbrooke languished, serving as a school, a refuge for soldiers, and, most ignominiously, a granary. When the 13th Lord Clifford returned with his family in 1957, he began the monumental challenge of making the house once again fit to be a home, a task that the 14th Lord Clifford continues today.

There were many decisions to be made. Instead of restoring the house into a museum-like setting, the family chose to make it a family home with modern amenities where the children's pets were as important as the Robert Adam ceilings. History was respected and embraced – one of the highlights of the restoration was discovering Adam's
working drawings – but never overshadowed the present. Budgets were strict, and addressing unglamorous projects like new roofs, dry rot, and plumbing were methodically accomplished year by year. To help fund the restoration, a family heirloom – the state papers of the secret 1670 Treaty of Dover between Charles II and Louis XIV that had been given to the first Lord Clifford for safekeeping – was sold at auction.

Lady Clifford is a professional London-based interior designer who, after her marriage, threw herself whole-heartedly into the house's rebirth on a budget. Stables and attics were searched, and long-neglected furnishings were restored and given a fresh place in the house. Murky forgotten paintings became glorious again once cleaned and rehung. When recreating an elaborate plaster frieze proved prohibitively expensive, a printed trompe l'oeil version was substituted instead. After a half-century, the transformation is still on-going, but that's to be expected when your renovation has more than eighty rooms.

Today Ugbrooke Park has a new life as Ugbrooke Enterprises. The estate can be hired for destination weddings, corporate retreats, concerts, and hunting parties, and also hosts events as diverse as classic automobile shows and whippet fun days. Lord and Lady Clifford entertain overnight guests from around the world, including groups from Winterthur. (You can read more here on Ugbrooke's website.)

And from Lady Clifford's presentation, I'd say Ugbrooke looks once again thoroughly dream-worthy.

Photos top and bottom left copyright Patrick Baty.
Photos right copyright Ugbrooke.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Victorian Corsets: Some Facts & Myths

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Loretta reports:

I had the good fortune recently to attend a lecture by historic fashion and textile expert Astrida Schaeffer at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA.  Ms. Schaeffer very kindly gave me permission to take photographs of her lecture.*

As this blog’s regular readers are aware, we periodically point out fashion myths, especially those about corsets.**  However, my research area is the early part of the 19th century, not the Victorian era, so I was interested to distinguish truth from myth regarding later corsets, constructed with materials like steel and metal grommets strong enough to allow more intense tightening.

The changes were not as extreme as we tend to think.  No, the 16”-18” waist wasn’t the norm but the exception.  Ms. Schaeffer presented several images showing the waist we associate with Victorian women, and pointed out that these were not usual, but corset ads or images of actresses whose claim to fame was a teeny tiny waist.  The average woman didn’t go to this extreme.  Her corset was meant to create a smooth line under her clothing, and she came in all shapes and sizes as women do today.

Ms. Schaeffer also pointed out the way the corset redistributed flesh.  From the front, the waist appears narrow, especially with a great skirt ballooning out below.  But if we look at the lady from the side, she’s rather wider.  The experiment was tried with an actual human being, and the picture shows what happened.

These images, front and side, give you an idea.

Another false image is the Victorian woman lying or swooning on her sofa  because her corset prevents activity.  Also not true.  I couldn’t keep up with all the photographic examples, but here’s just one, of women jumping rope.  In other photos from The Happy Valley, they’re climbing fences and jumping down from them, ice skating and roller skating, running, leaping fearlessly from stairs, and so on.  As we’ve pointed out before, when you live in a world where the corset is the norm and not wearing one is abnormal, you are simply accustomed to doing everything wearing a corset.  It doesn’t debilitate you.  If you’re in the last stages of a galloping consumption, that’s another story entirely.

If all goes smoothly, I’ll have something to say at another time soon about Ms. Schaeffer’s book, Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail.

The gold dress, c. 1896, which belonged to Ellen Rodman Motley, is part of the museum’s extensive collection of clothing.  A small but fine selection is on view at present.

*Not wishing to be obnoxious about it, I limited photo-taking to one or two examples in each  subject she covered.
**Please click on the corsets label for more on the topic.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

From the Archives: Queen Victoria's Baby Tooth Brooch, 1847

Sunday, October 19, 2014
Isabella reporting:

Yes, it's that finish-the-infernal-manuscript time again, and so for today I'm sharing a favorite post from our archives. 

I'll freely admit that I'm as sentimental as most mothers, and that like a lot of us, I squirreled away my children's first lost baby teeth as mementos. They're tucked in my desk, inelegantly sealed in business envelopes, preserved for...something.

But then, I'm not Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

When Victoria's oldest child, the Princess Victoria, Princess Royal (1840-1901), shed her first baby tooth, it, too, was preserved, though not in a lowly envelope. The seven-year-old princess's father, Prince Albert (1819- 1861) tugged the tooth free himself in 1847, while the royal family was visiting Ardverikieby Loch Laggan, as a guest of the Duke of Abercorn. As a memento of both the enjoyable visit (Victoria was so smitten with Scotland that she soon purchased Balmoral Castle as her own retreat in the Highlands) and to commemorate the landmark event in Princess Vicky's young life, Albert had the tooth made into a special brooch, left, for Victoria. Set in gold, the tooth forms the blossom of a gold and enamel thistle, the symbolic wildflower of Scotland. A "private" piece of jewelry as opposed to royal jewels for state occasions, the small brooch had never been shared with the public until 2010, when it was included in the Victoria & Albert: Art & Love exhibition at Buckingham Palace.

It's easy to dismiss a brooch featuring a baby's tooth as one more example of slightly macabre 19th c. taste, but in some circles, such mother's jewelry is still made and worn. Check out actress Susan Sarandon's custom-made bracelet, featuring her children's assorted baby teeth as the charms.

Above: Brooch, gold, enamel, & tooth, 1847. Commissioned by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria. Photo copyright The Royal Collection.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Breakfast Links: Week of October 13, 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014
Served up fresh for you - our weekly round-up of fav links to other blogs, web sites, articles, and images, all gathered via Twitter.
Dudes of the Dutch Republic.
• Woman's hilarious tale of her husband and the healing power of tea, 1733.
Edinburgh in calotype: atmospheric images from the earliest days of photography.
• Marie Antoinette's last letter before she was taken to the guillotine.
• Strange story of documents thrown overboard and later recovered from a shark's stomach, 1799.
Image: Art Nouveau leather, gold, and gem-set owl purse, 1905.
• Delight in the splendor of the Belle Epoque with this publication from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, free to read online or download.
• Mad for plaid: George III, tartan archer.
• Top ten haunted hotspots that make up England's spookiest sites.
Image: Pembroke Castle, by Paul Sandby, 1808.
• The peripatetic life of 19th c. traveller Isabella Bird.
• Try not to end up in a squalid boarding house or addicted to laudanum: dating advice from classic literature.
• The historical difference between "Miss" and "Mrs." : starting point - they're both short for Mistress.
• For whom the ghost tolls: an irritating sort of haunting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, NY, 1901.
Image: an oh-so-striking red redingote, 1810.
Jeanne Garnerin, 18th c. female ballooning and parachuting pioneer.
• Modern science reveals secrets of the mummified corpse of 2,500 Siberian princess.
Image: Luncheon menu from Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, celebrating the 60th year of her reign.
• The top remedies of the 17th c. that you'd probably want to avoid today.
• The high cost of appearing fashionably rustic: details of an 18th c. stomacher.
• Privately held photos of Titanic's launch shown for the first time.
Bachelors looking for love in 1910: pretty sure bachelor #22 is still on OKCupid.
Image: Magical 15th c. house in gorgeous gardens, Stoneacre, Kent.
French soldier's room unchanged 96 years after his death in World War One.
• The 18th c. mystery of Oliver Cromwell's missing head.
• True story behind the myth of Mrs. O'Leary's cow starting the Great Chicago Fire.
• What do Columbus and Tony Soprano tell us about the history of American immigration?
• When fonts were FONTS: the Caslon Letter Foundry, London, 1902.
Image: Spectropia: an exquisitely stunning spooky book cover, beautiful gentle lettering.
• What tattoos can reveal about the lives of the Victorian poor.
• Chop-chop-chop chopines: a part of 17th c. Venetian shoes.
• Meet the Teddy Girls, the forgotten 1950s Girl Gang.
• Diagrammatic writings of UK asylum patient, first published in 1870.
Image: The Victorians knew a thing or two about traveling in style....
• Never stiff the undertaker: "The Undertaker's Revenge" with a mysterious death and missing entrails.
• Lantern slides with theater etiquette for early 20th c. movie-goers.
• Recipes from the 17th c. for St. Anthony's Fire.
• The forgotten (and now long-gone) streets of old Chelsea.
Image: Dior photoshoot at the Acropolis in 1951.
• What made a "fine gentleman" in 1783.
• Princess Victoria's cycling adventure, 1901.
• Ancient Viking treasure hoard including old textiles discovered in Scotland.
Image: Amazing detail in the costume: Portrait of Aletta Hanemans by Frans Hals.
• For fans of Sleepy Hollow and Washington Irving: retracing the journey of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman through the real Sleepy Hollow.
• Just for fun: British parrot missing for four years returns home speaking Spanish.
• And a just-for-fun image: Library Cake.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Casual Friday: Victorians get funny

Friday, October 17, 2014
Street Acrobats
Loretta reports:

No YouTube video today, because of my brain.  But I am sharing a link to some amusing photographs of those supposedly prim and proper Victorians.

You can view them here.

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the captions will allow you to read at the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.
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