Rosemary Hill

Rosemary Hill has finished writing a history of antiquarianism.

At Tate Britain: Aubrey Beardsley

Rosemary Hill, 24 September 2020

‘Irepresent things as I see them,’ Aubrey Beardsley said, ‘outlined faintly in thin streaks (just like me).’ Beardsley, who died at 25, passed his brief life in the fin-de-siècle milieu of Max Beerbohm and Oscar Wilde. Like them, he was his own artefact. Immensely thin and hollow-eyed with long fingers and a large nose, he seemed to the actress Elizabeth Robins,...

Ooh the rubble: Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill, 16 July 2020

Thereare more than a thousand books about Winston Churchill, but this is the first about his cook, Georgina Landemare. Since it may well also be the last, it’s fortunate that she has fallen into the sympathetic hands of Annie Gray. Gray is a food historian and she sets Landemare’s long life in the context of changes in diet and eating habits over nearly a century. The story...

LadyAnne Glenconner has lived her life ‘in the shadow of the crown’. She is a friend of many members of the royal family and was, for thirty years, a lady in waiting to Princess Margaret. Her memoir, however, is written in the shadow of The Crown, ‘the popular Netflix series’ in which she was played by Nancy Carroll with Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret. In the...

At the Corner House

Rosemary Hill, 20 February 2020

We had a rag at Monico’s. We had a rag at the Troc,And the one we had at the Berkeley gave the customers quite a shock.Then we went to the Popular, and after that – oh my!I wish you’d seen the rag we had in the Grill Room at the Cri.

JohnBetjeman’s ‘’Varsity Rag’ is a hymn to the bright young things of the 1920s, who roared round London’s...

Woof, woof: Auberon Waugh

Rosemary Hill, 7 November 2019

While his men were getting into position, he noticed that something was blocking the elevation of the machine gun on the front of his armoured car. He got out to fix it, taking the opportunity to ‘seize the barrel from in front and give it a good wiggle’. As recounted in his autobiography, the incident unfolds in a laconic slow motion: ‘I realised that it had started firing. No sooner had I noticed this than I observed with dismay that it was firing into my chest. Moving aside pretty sharpish, I walked to the back of the armoured car and lay down.’ Six bullets had gone through him, inflicting injuries that compromised his health for the rest of his life and contributed to his early death at the age of 61 in 2001. The journalism with which he made his name took essentially the same approach.

Was Plato too fat? The Stuff of Life

Rosemary Hill, 10 October 2019

My friend Katy​ used to be fat: not medically obese, but what our mothers would have called ‘pleasantly plump’ with a wink and a remark to the effect that ‘men like something to get hold of.’ But to our generation she looked fat, so she went on a diet and lost weight. This gave her access to more fashionable clothes, but it also changed her relationship with her...

Among scientists perhaps only Stephen Hawking has given his admirers such a strong feeling that they knew him personally. Strangers wrote with random queries, such as why do pigeons fly in circles, and anecdotes of animal behaviour: R.M. Middleton of West Hartlepool explained how he had managed to house-train his parakeet. Not all the letters were answered, but an impressive number were. Only once, on a letter from the Prague-born astronomer Anton Schobloch, who wanted to know ‘how is it possible, that there are hemaphrodits’ [sic] did Darwin go so far as to write ‘fool’ at the top in blue crayon.

In​ the early 1970s, an archive came to light containing what seemed to be the work of a forgotten Victorian photographer called Francis Hetling. His photographs, somewhat in the style of Lewis Carroll, gave a feeling of everyday life in the 19th century. It was decided to rescue him from obscurity with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1974. All was going well until a...

Hm, hm and that was all: Queen Mary

Rosemary Hill, 6 December 2018

The present queen​ was not the only person to feel, when her grandmother Queen Mary died in 1953, that she ‘could not imagine a world without her’. The ‘old queen’, as she was generally known to the public, had become a totemic figure, rigidly upright in her toque and pearls, a grandmother to the nation. Her daughter-in-law, the queen mother, later fulfilled the same...

Short Cuts: Successive John Murrays

Rosemary Hill, 8 November 2018

Some things​ in the relations between authors and publishers never change. Dear Mr Murray, edited by David McClay (John Murray, £16.99), a collection of letters written to six generations of the Murray family, is full of familiar complaints. Jane Austen was ‘very much disappointed … by the delays of the printers’. Maria Rundell, author of A New System of Domestic...

Presumably​ the British Museum doesn’t have a giant inflatable banana in its collections or it would have been included in I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent (until 20 January 2019) as Hislop’s personal contribution. In May 1989 Sonia Sutcliffe, wife of the Yorkshire Ripper, was awarded record-breaking libel damages of £600,000 against Private Eye. Standing...

Gobblebook: Unhappy Ever After

Rosemary Hill, 21 June 2018

A marriage that makes a good end to a comedy will often make as good a beginning to a tragedy. If any couple bore out that maxim it was Annabella Milbanke and George Gordon Byron. The ‘happy’ chapter lasted barely 24 hours, the ‘ever after’ is with us still.

One​ of the most evocative objects in Ocean Liners (at the V&A until 17 June) is a diamond and pearl tiara by Cartier. Not particularly spectacular as Cartier tiaras go, it was once the property of Lady Marguerite Allan, who took it with her when she sailed from New York on 1 May 1915 on board the Lusitania. Six days later, off the Irish coast, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship, which...

Clothes, for those who could afford to choose them freely, had always been to some extent an expression of the wearer – of their status, character and taste – but it was in the popular Modernism of the interwar years, when so many men had died and women consequently found themselves with more room to manoeuvre in society, that the particular compound of woman + clothes, Woolf’s ‘frock consciousness’, became a significant aspect of female experience, a colour on the writer’s palette, a possible agent in a narrative.

Snakes and Leeches: The Great Stink

Rosemary Hill, 4 January 2018

The last day​ of June 1858 was a warm day, though not the hottest of that summer. Two weeks earlier the temperature in London had reached 90 degrees, the highest ever recorded. Even so the atmosphere in the Palace of Westminster was close when the parliamentary committee inquiring into the working of the Bank Acts met. Gladstone was present, as was Disraeli, then chancellor of the...

Puffed up, Slapped down: Charles and Camilla

Rosemary Hill, 7 September 2017

His twenties were probably the most successful decade in terms of public perception. Young, good-looking and rich in his own right with the income from the Duchy of Cornwall, he could, from a certain point of view, be seen as a prince for the swinging 1960s. After that the biographies chronicle a succession of increasingly difficult milestones. As he faced his 30th birthday he addressed the Cambridge Union in hair-raisingly ingenuous terms: ‘My great problem in life is that I do not really know what my role in life is.’ None of the journalists he complained about could have said anything more undermining.

Short Cuts: What Writers Wear

Rosemary Hill, 27 July 2017

Why​ should writers mind about clothes? More than any other profession they spend their most productive hours alone. They can wear anything – or nothing – and nobody is any the wiser. Yet as Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando, clothes have ‘more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.’ In the...

One’s Self-Washed Drawers: Ida John

Rosemary Hill, 29 June 2017

Among her fellow students at the Slade School were some of the 14 children of the wealthy Salaman family whose father had made a fortune in the ‘feather boom’ of the 1880s when fabulous prices were paid for ostrich plumes. Ida became engaged to Clement Salaman. She liked him perfectly well. He was reliable, suitable and fond of her. They might have been happy enough had not her ‘beautiful warm face’ caught the eye of Augustus John. Then she knew what it was to have a grand passion and to be on the horns of a dilemma.

At Pallant House: Victor Pasmore

Rosemary Hill, 20 April 2017

According to​ Herbert Read, ‘the most revolutionary event in post-war British art’ was Victor Pasmore’s conversion from figurative to abstract painting. Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality at Pallant House in Chichester (until 11 June), examines that moment around 1948 and its place in Pasmore’s long career. The essays in the catalogue argue for it variously as a...

Churchill’s Faces

Rosemary Hill, 30 March 2017

If anything​ justifies the use of the word ‘iconic’ to mean an instantly recognisable image with emotive associations it is representations of Churchill. The cigar, the V for Victory sign and the siren suit are the stuff of caricatures, oil portraits and monumental sculpture from Parliament Square to Fulton, Missouri. So potent was his image in the early months of the Second...

In 1942​, the Ministry of Food issued the Emergency Powers Defence (Food) Carrots Order. The ministry had requisitioned all carrots ‘grown on holdings of one acre and above’ the year before, buying them in at twopence per pound, and it now had a hundred thousand tons to get rid of. Before the outbreak of war in 1939 Britain imported 70 per cent of its food. Rationing was...

Snob Cuts: Modern Snobbery

Rosemary Hill, 3 November 2016

I once found​ a copy of Jilly Cooper’s Class (1979) in the bargain box outside a friend’s second-hand bookshop. When I asked how much it was he winced visibly and said: ‘Just take it, I can’t bear to have it in the shop.’ Subtitled ‘A View from Middle England’ and written in Cooper’s usual rollicking style, it’s a witty read spiked...

Herberts & Herbertinas: Steven Runciman

Rosemary Hill, 20 October 2016

He was a popular laird, organising Easter egg hunts for the children and cooking for house guests. Attractive young men were invited first to his St John’s Wood house and if they passed the audition would be ‘summoned to Eigg as a special further favour’. Runciman’s social network was ever-expanding, especially in the direction of crowned heads, though he could be ungracious about royalty too. He received his knighthood in characteristic tones: ‘I don’t think it quite my line … so associated with Welsh aldermen and failing jockeys. I suppose I’ll get used to it.’

Do put down that revolver

Rosemary Hill, 14 July 2016

Certain changes came to every kind of country house. Stables gave way to garages and as flying became fashionable some acquired landing strips. The ‘between-wars cult of the tub’ saw bathrooms inserted wherever possible and in due course electricity, which was not without risk. At Hatfield there were alarming blue sparks and at Woburn some guests groped about in the dark, having no idea how it worked. The Duke of Bedford had enamelled notices saying ‘Electric Light’ placed over the switches.

At Sotheby’s: Debo’s Bibelots

Rosemary Hill, 17 March 2016

Early​ this month Sotheby’s held a champagne-and-canape viewing for the sale of possessions of the late ‘Debo’, Duchess of Devonshire. The lots were arranged to suggest room sets, with tables laid, sofas positioned by rugs and blown-up photographic backdrops, one showing the dining room of the dower house where the duchess spent her last years. Another by Norman Parkinson...

At Tate Modern: Alexander Calder

Rosemary Hill, 3 March 2016

Sculpture​ conventionally does one of two things; it either creates space by carving, or creates volume by modelling. Once the material has been cut back or built up, a statue, as the word implies, is static in its relationship to space. Moving sculpture occupies space in a variable way and it has its own history, from devotional objects in the late Middle Ages fitted with clockwork to make...

Bypass Variegated: Osbert Lancaster

Rosemary Hill, 21 January 2016

Arriving​ at his prep school in the bleak winter of 1918 the ten-year-old Osbert Lancaster was made even more miserable than the average new bug by the fact that St Ronan’s, Worthing was a spectacularly sporty school. The headmaster, Stanley Harris, had captained England at football and was also a distinguished cricketer and rugby player. Lancaster, an only child who had lost his...

Short Cuts: Shakespeare’s Faces

Rosemary Hill, 7 January 2016

It is​ a curious fact of history, which my research on antiquarianism has brought home to me, that if something is believed in or wanted for long enough, it will eventually materialise. From John Aubrey’s passing remark in 1665 that Stonehenge might have been built by druids, through William Stukeley’s obsessively detailed and almost entirely invented account of the druidic...

‘This is a film​ about toy trains. These are real toys – not scale models. That doesn’t mean that toys are good and scale models are bad – but they are different.’ To most people, who have never thought of making a moral distinction between toys and scale models, Charles Eames’s schoolmasterly voiceover at the beginning of Toccata for Toy Trains (1957),...

Bright Blue Dark Blue: ‘Weatherland’

Rosemary Hill, 5 November 2015

When​ does weather begin? In the sense of detailed, day-to-day observations of light and temperature, the stuff of art and conversation, weather would seem to be a relatively late development. Seasons, the overarching and background reality of life, are older, although as Alexandra Harris explains, ‘spring’ was invented only in the late Middle Ages. Before all that there was...

Unlike the Mosleys the Windsors seem to have had no ideological commitment to the Nazi regime, or to anything else either. They drifted into the relationship with Germany, which was to tarnish their reputation for ever, propelled by nothing more than a desire to assert themselves and annoy the rest of the immediate family. How far relations went is unclear. Wallis was rumoured to have had an affair in London with Ribbentrop.

On the field of Waterloo​ the corner that is for ever England is the Château-Ferme de Hougoumont. Here, on 18 June 1815, 2500 British soldiers held off 12,500 French, nearly a quarter of Napoleon’s army, for most of the afternoon. By the time fighting petered out in the early evening the battle was almost over, leaving about five thousand men dead or seriously wounded at...

Death in Belgravia

Rosemary Hill, 5 February 2015

‘Well,’​ said the heavily bandaged Countess of Lucan from her hospital bed, eyeing her sister and brother-in-law with no great affection, ‘now who’s the one with paranoia eh?’ Forty years after the murder of the Lucans’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, the answer is pretty much everybody. The events of the night of 7 November 1974, when Rivett was bludgeoned to death...

At the V&A: Constable

Rosemary Hill, 23 October 2014

Constable​, as the V&A’s press release puts it, is ‘Britain’s best-loved artist’, and that in a way is the problem. (Constable: The Making of a Master is at the V&A until 11 January.) While his contemporary Turner bestrides the history of European art, Constable remains a largely domestic taste. There was a time when almost every home had a reproduction of

At the V&A 2: Wedding Dresses, 1775-2014

Rosemary Hill, 9 October 2014

Of all​ the 19th-century innovations disparaged by Eric Hobsbawm as ‘invented traditions’, the white wedding must rank alongside clan tartans as the most enduring, a convention now so firmly rooted that many people think it’s medieval. To the Georgians a white wedding was a foreign novelty. In 1818 a British traveller in Normandy, Dawson Turner, remarked on a bride...

‘It will not​ have escaped such an audience as this that Sex played a large part in my uncle’s life.’ E.M. Forster was addressing an early meeting of the Bloomsbury Group’s Memoir Club, and was reading a paper about his closest male relation, the disliked, unmissed and now dead Uncle Willie. The evidence for Sex lay somewhere in William Forster’s unhappy,...

At Tate Britain (2): Kenneth Clark

Rosemary Hill, 3 July 2014

In part ten​ of Civilisation, Kenneth Clark turned his attention to the Enlightenment, the age of the great amateurs. These were men ‘rich and independent enough to do what they liked’, who nevertheless did things which required considerable ability, men like Lord Burlington, the architect earl. A connoisseur, an ‘arbiter of taste’, Clark explained, ‘the sort...

At Tate Britain: ‘Ruin Lust’

Rosemary Hill, 3 April 2014

Ruins are unstable things, sometimes physically, culturally almost always. Their appeal as occasions for art is only partly aesthetic; they are the remains of something else, of which they must necessarily be a shadow, an echo or a critique. Tate Britain’s exhibition (until 18 May), drawn mostly from its own collection and gathered under the capacious heading of Ruin Lust, takes too...

Only More So: 1950s Women

Rosemary Hill, 19 December 2013

War was looming when Alexander Korda’s film Fire over England was released in 1937. It stars Flora Robson as Elizabeth I, and as the opening titles roll the voiceover sets the scene: ‘the free people of a small island’ defy the tyranny of a Continental power and ‘a woman guides and inspires them.’ Robson, firm of jaw and bristling with double-decker ruffs and...

In Split: Diocletian’s Palace

Rosemary Hill, 26 September 2013

The train journey from Zagreb to Split takes six hours and entails a degree of mental adjustment. Zagreb is quiet in summer. A city of government and business, it mostly closes for August, leaving the streets to tourists, who come in modest numbers. Stucco-fronted apartment blocks in ice-cream colours, the dripping Jugendstil of the Croatian Secessionists, tree-lined squares; on the verge of...

The Festival of Britain in 1951 marked the centenary of the Great Exhibition. It came six years after the end of the Second World War and three before the end of rationing. By this time Barbara Jones was 39, an established artist and designer. The titles of the books and magazine articles that made her name as an illustrator tell their own story: a translation of Boulestin’s Ease and...

It is difficult not to admire Roy Strong, though there are moments in this account of his first 32 years where he seems to be doing all he can to make it easier. Born in 1935, he became in 1967 the youngest ever director of the National Portrait Gallery. It was a remarkable achievement, but by mentioning it three times in the first seven pages Strong begins at an early stage to try the...

Flings: The Writers’ Blitz

Rosemary Hill, 21 February 2013

On 31 August 1939 Alan Cameron was at his desk at the BBC, where he was secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting, when he heard that the British fleet was mobilising. This meant that war with Germany was imminent and Cameron telephoned home to give his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, the news. She received it without apparent emotion and with an awkwardness of tone that...

Every generation gets the queen mother it desires, or deserves (to adapt Jacquetta Hawkes’s remark about Stonehenge). Seemingly impassive as any megalith, she waved and smiled through a century. From blushing bride to reluctant queen to the good old queen mum, she was respected, fawned on, laughed at or detested largely according to the prejudices of the beholder. In public she said...

Two of England’s best remembered kings, Henry VIII and Charles I, stand in the shadow of lost princes. Each had an elder brother who was Prince of Wales and expected to succeed. Had Prince Arthur and Prince Henry lived the Reformation and the Civil War would have followed different courses or might not, it is sometimes suggested, have taken place at all. In the case of Prince Henry, the...

Against Michelangelo: ‘The Pinecone’

Rosemary Hill, 11 October 2012

Not much is known about Sarah Losh and those biographical facts which have survived offer little more than a misleading series of clichés. Born on New Year’s Day, 1786, into a solid and prosperous county family in Cumbria, Sarah, or Sara as she first called herself, was the eldest of three surviving children. Wealthy, intelligent and good looking, she made her debut at the age of...

In Walthamstow: William Morris

Rosemary Hill, 13 September 2012

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow was reopened on 2 August by Chris Robbins, leader of Waltham Forest Council, who pronounced its refurbishment ‘truly stunning’. He said how ‘extremely proud’ he and his fellow councillors were to have been part of the ‘multimillion-pound development’, which has seen the fine Georgian house that was Morris’s...

At noon on 7 January 1779 the British merchant ship Westmorland, en route from Livorno to England, was captured by two French warships off the Spanish coast. France having joined the War of Independence on the side of the Americans, the Westmorland’s captain, Willis Machell, was prepared for trouble. He had a crew of sixty and 22 cannons, but was outgunned. The ship was towed into...

Hairy Fairies: Angela Carter

Rosemary Hill, 10 May 2012

Angela Carter didn’t enjoy much of what she called ‘the pleasantest but most evanescent kind of fame, which is that during your own lifetime’. She was known and admired, but on nothing like the scale that has caused her to be described since her death in 1992 at the age of 51 as ‘one of the 20th century’s best writers’ and inspired Lambeth Council to name a street in Brixton after her. This posthumous enthusiasm is not the first major reassessment of a reputation that always had something of a switchback ride.

Shaving-Pot in Waiting: Victoria’s Albert

Rosemary Hill, 23 February 2012

There were at least three Victorian ages, one of which, from around 1845 to 1861, might better be called Albertine. These were the years when the queen’s husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was largely responsible for setting the tone, the pace and the scope of the monarchy and so to some extent of the reign. Despite which, as a personality, he remained obscure. Caricatured in his...

At the Hayward: David Shrigley

Rosemary Hill, 23 February 2012

There has been a certain amount of huffing and puffing among the usually imperturbable gallery-going set about David Shrigley’s Brain Activity exhibition at the Hayward (until 13 May). People who value the power of art to shock far too highly ever to be shocked by it themselves, have nevertheless been somewhat put out, complaining that Shrigley, who is best known as a cartoonist, should...

As God Intended: Capability Brown

Rosemary Hill, 5 January 2012

In the summer of 1771 William Constable had just returned to Burton Constable, his house in the East Riding of Yorkshire, after a lavish Grand Tour. He and his sister Winifred had spent £7000 and came home laden with pictures, sculptures, books and miscellaneous antiquities. Constable now regarded himself as a connoisseur or, as he put it, ‘a bit of a Vertu’. When the treasures were unpacked and tastefully disposed around the house, he turned his attention to the view from the windows and decided that it too needed bringing up to date in line with informed modern taste.

No False Modesty: Edith Sitwell

Rosemary Hill, 20 October 2011

‘Gothic enough to hang bells in’ was, apparently, the response of one American visitor to a portrait of Edith Sitwell in the Tate. Elizabeth Bowen, herself an imposing physical presence, described Sitwell in real life as like ‘a high altar on the move’, and Virginia Woolf, on first encountering her in 1918, noted that she was ‘a very tall young woman, wearing a...

What We Are Last: Old Age

Rosemary Hill, 21 October 2010

There is something irreducible about old age, even now when, in the West at least, the several stages of life have become blurred. The Ages of Man, which until the 1950s seemed as distinct as the life cycle of the frog, have blossomed into a Venn diagram of intermediate phases. From kidulthood to the Third Age one man in his time can now play several parts at once. Yet nothing can disguise...

On 30 January 1734 eight young men met for supper at the Golden Eagle Tavern in Suffolk Street near Charing Cross. They were a high-spirited, hard-drinking and well-connected group. One was an earl, two of the others were viscounts and all but one were members of the recently formed Society of Dilettanti. As the evening wore on one thing led to another. Some of the diners started a bonfire...

I Will Tell You Everything: Iris Murdoch

Rosemary Hill, 22 April 2010

Iris Murdoch was not dead before the battle for her memory began. Her husband John Bayley’s first volume of reminiscences, Iris: A Memoir, was published when she was in the later stages of dementia, an undignified, soul-stripping illness whose details Bayley did not spare. After her death in 1999 things sped up. Peter Conradi’s portly authorised biography was smartly challenged by...

Late Worm: James Lees-Milne

Rosemary Hill, 10 September 2009

Lees-Milne worried at times that that was all he was, the sum of his responses to other people, so chameleon-like that maybe there was nothing at the centre. Yet he found himself, for all these shortcomings, fascinating. Ivy Compton-Burnett, a shrewd if unkind analyst of character, left him a looking-glass in her will.

Written out of Revenge: Bowen in Love

Rosemary Hill, 9 April 2009

Civil war is an unpleasant business and the story that unfolds in the letters and diaries of Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, the Canadian diplomat with whom she was in love for more than thirty years, is not a happy one. This was not so much what the publishers are pleased to call on the dust jacket ‘the love affair of a lifetime’, more like a fight to the death. Not that...

In 1997, three years before her death, Penelope Fitzgerald asked her American publisher, Chris Carduff, who had offered to send her any books she wanted, for a copy of Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher. An account of a 30,000-mile journey around the continent by two naturalists, it was originally published in 1955 and was being reissued in memory of Peterson, who had recently died. Fitzgerald wanted it, however, for the sake of his co-author, who had been her cousin. ‘I’ve so often driven about with him,’ she told Carduff, ‘with the zoo’s first Chinese panda in the back of his car, together with a supply of bamboo shoots.’ (Fisher, she explained, was working at London Zoo.) After five hundred pages of her letters the reader is, if not exactly used to this sort of thing, then perfectly prepared for it. The eruption of the startling, the comic and the inexplicable, into a life that Fitzgerald was often at pains to portray as humdrum, gives her correspondence its character and makes these letters, written mostly to family and friends on small occasion or none and with no eye on posterity, completely compelling.

As house prices fall and mortgage rates rise, there is a sense of unease, bordering on panic, that goes beyond economics. An idea of home that is dear to the English middle class is, it seems, under threat. Hermann Muthesius, whose Das englische Haus first appeared just over a century ago and has now been translated in full for the first time, would have sympathised. For him too the English...

The world in which the Society of Antiquaries came into existence in 1707 had been created in 4004 BC, on 22 October, which was a Saturday. So at least Archbishop Ussher had calculated, using the Biblical sources which were the only ones available to him, or anyone else. Antiquaries, those who study the physical remains of the past as well as the written records, had been around for several...

Ann Fleming once remarked that she was so depressed that ‘last night I would have put my head in the gas oven, if I wasn’t too frightened of the cook to go into the kitchen.’ The uneasy balance of power between domestic servants and their masters and mistresses, especially mistresses, is the theme of Alison Light’s study of the home life of Virginia Woolf, whose complicated relationship with her own cook, Nellie Boxall, involved a degree of intimidation on both sides. The sight of Virginia and Leonard pacing the squares of Bloomsbury, well out of earshot, anxiously discussing what to do about Nellie is one of many moments when Light lets us see them, as the servants did, from unexpected and sometimes undignified angles.

Keep Calm: Desperate Housewives

Rosemary Hill, 24 May 2007

The last daughters of the Victorians were destined to occupy a peculiar place in history. Born before women got the vote, many of them lived through two world wars to see The Female Eunuch published and watch Margaret Thatcher arrive in Downing Street. Contraception, education, economic independence all became widely available to women in their lifetimes, while the institutions that had seemed to frame their destiny at birth, the empire, the class system and marriage, came to count for much less. In some ways that made them fortunate, witnesses to if not participants in the forward march of emancipation. Yet in others they were particularly unlucky. As old certainties broke down behind them, the new opportunities were often slow to open up ahead. They were caught in a kind of social airlock.

Bang, Bang, Smash, Smash: Beatrix Potter

Rosemary Hill, 22 February 2007

‘How amusing Aunt Harriet is, she is more like a weasel than ever.’ From an early age Beatrix Potter, a pretty, if disconcertingly observant child, saw the similarities between humans and other species: the childlike bravado of rabbits, the self-interest of certain cats and the unmistakeable resemblance of a middle-aged woman in a panic to a duck in a bonnet and shawl. Her family,...

In the chilly spring of 1958, with war still a vivid memory and rationing an even more recent one, queues were a familiar sight. But the line that formed in front of the railings of Buckingham Palace on 18 March was peculiar enough to attract a small crowd of onlookers. There, shivering in silk and chiffon, the debutantes waited with their mothers and fathers to curtsey to the queen. After...

It is 21 years this summer since the Battle of the Beanfield, the bloody confrontation at Cholderton in Wiltshire between police and a travellers’ convoy heading for Stonehenge, which resulted in 420 arrests and the end of the Stonehenge Free Festival. For more than a decade after that the authorities kept the public out at the solstice with a ferocity bordering on hysteria: razor wire,...

Tragedy in Tights: Poor Queen Caroline

Rosemary Hill, 22 June 2006

As marriages of convenience go, few can have turned out less conveniently than that of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick. The couple brought out the worst in each other, and there was a great deal to bring out, for among the few things they had in common were obstinacy, irresponsibility and an almost total lack of self-control. From the moment they met until what Walter Scott called the...

Even Purer than Before: Angelica Kauffman

Rosemary Hill, 15 December 2005

Lady Elizabeth Foster sits beneath a tree and avoids our gaze, lost, it seems, in thought. Behind her the Italian countryside is bathed in a warm autumnal light that sets off the delicate white and cream of her softly ruffled dress and fashionable Leghorn hat. She too is fair, her pink and white complexion carefully shaded from the afternoon sun. Painted by Angelica Kauffman in Naples and...

Patrician Poverty: Sybille Bedford

Rosemary Hill, 18 August 2005

Beginning in the middle, as she announces at once she intends to do, Sybille Bedford starts her memoir in 1953, the middle, more or less, of her long life and of ‘our frightful century’ whose history is as much her subject as her own peculiar story. Her opening scene is a summer morning in Geneva, where she passed a few hours between trains, a woman in her early forties,...

For nearly three generations, from the high-water mark of the Victorian age to the eve of the Second World War, the Stracheys were prominent in English life. Noted for their intellect and their boisterousness in argument, and characterised, in most cases, by long limbs and large spectacles, they struck Leonard Woolf as ‘much the most remarkable family I have ever known’. His wife,...

The mutable nature of our relationship with the past is the underlying theme of Sentimental Murder, John Brewer’s compelling and surprising pursuit, across two and a half centuries, of the events of a single evening in 1779. What happened in Covent Garden on 7 April was simple enough and largely undisputed at the time or later. Soon after 11.30 p.m., Martha Ray, the Earl of...

The second child of Maria-Luisa and Celestino Schiaparelli would, it was hoped, be a boy. When, instead, another daughter was born in September 1890, they were at a loss as to what to call her. At the last minute they christened her after her German nurse, Elsa. This ‘Wagnerian’ name displeased the little girl. It was, she recalled, her ‘first disappointment’ and she...

I am the thing itself: Hooray for Harriette

Rosemary Hill, 25 September 2003

Most people know two things about Harriette Wilson, one of which is untrue. She is rightly famous for that most tantalising of opening sentences: ‘I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.’ With it she ushered in her Memoirs, published in 1825 as a frankly commercial venture. As well as making money in the usual way from the sales...

There are maps both in Elizabeth Wilson’s book, which deals with bohemians in general, and in Andrew Barrow’s, which is a study of two in particular, but the street plans of Soho, Paris or Munich are not much use as a guide to the subject. Bohemia is a country of the mind, a flying island that may land anywhere and take off again just as quickly. No sooner have the upwardly mobile...

Rosamond Lehmann was born the day after Queen Victoria’s funeral. When the First World War broke out she was 13, on holiday with her family on the Isle of Wight. The imminence of hostilities had put an end to a plan, much dreaded by Rosamond, to send her and her sister to stay with relatives in Germany. From her own point of view the war was ‘a personal and miraculous...

Frank Doubleday, the American publisher and friend of Rudyard and Carrie Kipling, once arrived at their house in Sussex to find Rudyard in a sweat in front of the hall fireplace shovelling a pile of his manuscripts into the flames. It was a horrifying sight, especially to a publisher. ‘For heaven’s sake, Rud, what are you doing?’ Doubleday asked. To which the answer came:...

The first three volumes of The Buildings of England appeared in 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain. The last, Staffordshire, was published in 1974, on the eve of the miners’ strike and the three-day week. Nikolaus Pevsner, begetter, editor and principal author of the series, had travelled thousands of miles over those years. England and its buildings had also come a long way. To...

Bigger Peaches: Haydon

Rosemary Hill, 22 February 2001

In May 1804, at the age of 18, Benjamin Robert Haydon left his home in Plymouth and set off for London to become a great artist. His mother was distraught, his father furious, but there was no doubt in Haydon’s mind either of his vocation or of his genius. He could have worked in his father’s bookshop and inherited a secure, independent income but he didn’t want to. So he...

Frock Consciousness: fashion and frocks

Rosemary Hill, 20 January 2000

In A Journal of the Plague Year Defoe’s narrator keeps an eye on premises belonging to his brother, who has taken his own family out of the stricken city. Walking one day towards the warehouse in Swan Alley near London Wall he meets, in the otherwise deserted street, three or four women coming toward him wearing high-crowned hats. Reaching the warehouse he finds it broken open. Inside, half a dozen more women are trying on a consignment of the hats, meant for export, ‘fitting themselves … as unconcerned and quiet as if they had been at a hatter’s shop’. It is a dream-like scene: the fashionable looters, each looking for her size, while around them London rots and grass grows in the Strand. It is also a striking demonstration of Freya Stark’s maxim that ‘there are few sorrows through which a new dress or hat will not send a little gleam of pleasure however fugitive.’‘

When Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food appeared in 1950, many of the ingredients it called for were unobtainable. But even after meat came off the ration, few people can have had much practical need for a traditional Turkish recipe for stuffing a whole sheep. That was not the point. Saturated with description, of figs and aubergines, of fishing boats at anchor in Marseille and paella pans left out to dry in Spanish courtyards, Mediterranean Food brought a beakerful of the warm South to chilly, postwar England.

From The Blog
18 March 2015

Battersea Arts Centre, badly damaged by a fire last Friday, started life as the town hall. In the spirit of late Victorian civic pride and aspiration, the capacious porch is decorated with figures representing Labour, Progress, Art and Literature instructing the infant Battersea, who looks remarkably confident about the likely benefits coming his way. Built in 1892-93 to the designs of E.W. Mountford (the architect of the Old Bailey), the imposing exterior anticipates Edwardian Baroque while the interior is tinged with the dawning of art nouveau, most strikingly in the great coloured glass dome, painted with tendrils of golden foliage, like a giant Tiffany lampshade.

From The Blog
10 November 2014

Chris Larner’s comedy The Frida Kahlo of Penge West had its first performance last June at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, where the mere mention of Penge no doubt guaranteed a quick, if cheap laugh. All the braver of him then to take the play into the lion’s mouth by putting it on at the Bridge House Theatre in Penge High Street, that defiantly hipster-free part of southeast London where, as one of his characters puts it, ‘London was sick over Kent.’

From The Blog
13 November 2013

There is nothing obviously odd about the generic military-man-on-a-horse partly visible through the nearly leafless trees in Cavendish Square. He is William, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65), and the plinth would lead you to believe his statue has been there since 1770. It hasn’t.

From The Blog
23 July 2013

On Sunday I went to my first Prom of the season. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, Shostakovich's 10th Symphony and 'Magiya', a new piece co-commissioned by the BBC from Sean Shepherd. This last was the programmers' equivalent of cod liver oil, the bit they put in every concert to keep you in touch with new work, which is Good For You and must be taken along with the cake and jam.

From The Blog
31 December 2012

Critics have not been kind to Viva Forever!, the musical based on the story of the Spice Girls, but as Alexis Petridis pointed out in the Guardian, that doesn’t really matter. It is ‘critic-proof’, and nobody in the audience three nights ago looked as if they would care what Michael Billington thought, even if they knew who he was. I went with three friends as much inclined as I am to over-think popular culture, in the hope of a night off for our critical faculties, and very successful it was too. Yes the plot is slight and implausible, the characters are indeed over-drawn to the point of caricature and the music is patchy, but you could say the same about a lot of Verdi. As a pop Christmas panto it works very well.

From The Blog
23 October 2012

Like many of my contemporaries I saw Emmanuelle in its much-censored British version at the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square. I went with my first long-term boyfriend. We were both working in Foyles in our gap year, commuting in from Sevenoaks or thereabouts and I suspect that beneath the somewhat laconic discussion afterwards we were a bit shocked by it. I know for a fact that I was. It must have been almost exactly ten years later that I met Sylvia Kristel when she opened her front door to me in Ghent.

From The Blog
30 March 2012

It seems that the usually irresistible force of Foster + Partners, architects, may have hit an immovable object in the form of the London Stone. Minerva, the developers who commissioned the Walbrook Building from Foster’s firm, have applied for permission to move the stone from its present location in Cannon Street in the City of London to a ‘purpose built display’ in their new complex, thereby getting it out of the way of the 35,000 square feet of ‘retail and restaurant accommodation’ they have planned for the ground floor. The case remains undecided but there are a number of significant objectors, including English Heritage and the Victorian Society.

From The Blog
25 November 2011

Not much happened in Camberwell during the riots. Morrisons was boarded up and there was some milling about on the Green one evening, but that was as far as it went. All around us, in Peckham, Brixton and at the Elephant and Castle, there was trouble, but this end of the Walworth Road, properly called Camberwell Road, was unscathed, or rather it remained scathed in the same way as before. From the Green northwards Camberwell presents a collage of changing use and disuse, a continuous Mexican wave of opening and closing shops and businesses, squats, pubs, charities and churches.

From The Blog
1 June 2011

I can see the Shard from my bathroom window. I can also see it from my bedroom and from outside the front door of my office. Millions of other people can see it too as it rises next to London Bridge station. That is the famous thing about it: it’s big. When completed next May it will be, at 310 metres and 72 storeys, the tallest building in western Europe, a fact on which its website and its architect, Renzo Piano, harp relentlessly. It is impossible to overestimate how much size, in the simplest, crudest, mine’s-bigger-than-yours way, matters in architecture. The Strata Tower at the Elephant and Castle enjoyed the not especially impressive title of ‘tallest building in Southwark’ for a few brief months. Now it is eclipsed before it is finished and sulks within sight of its rival, its rooftop turbines (which apparently make too much noise to switch on) sullenly immobile.

In the 15 years her memoir covers Emma Tennant transformed herself. The poised, if slightly stolid-looking debutante of 1955 was, by the end of the Sixties, a three-times-married, chronically hard-up, left-wing novelist. There was little more to wish for. Given the temper of the times and the Tennant family’s established bohemian tendencies it was not such a surprising trajectory. But all lives are surprising to those who live them. Tennant evokes, sometimes with too much vividness to be entirely coherent, the bewildering experience of a life lived forwards by someone who never considers herself its heroine and indeed often seems to herself to be struggling for a speaking part.

A Scene of Furniture: Hogarth

Rosemary Hill, 4 February 1999

An artist who becomes an adjective is difficult for the biographer. The Hogarthian world of teeming streets, lubricious drawing-rooms and earthy taverns has been softened by censorship and repetition until Gin Lane has, somehow, come to seem part of Merrie England. The occasion for this book was the 1997 tercentenary of Hogarth’s birth, which was also marked by several small exhibitions. The Tate, the British Museum and the National Gallery all showed the works in their own collections, but there was no attempt to form an overview or to revise his reputation in a single, major display. Perhaps this reflected the fact that while the paintings and their details remain eternally popular the moral world they represent is one in which the late 20th century is not at ease.

Anything but Staffordshire

Rosemary Hill, 18 September 1997

William De Morgan’s Life, death and reputation form a curious episode in the history of taste. He died, in 1917, a famous Edwardian novelist, and was almost forgotten. Nearly half a century later he was rediscovered as a great Victorian ceramist. Appropriately, the technique in which he excelled as a potter, lustre, is one that has itself been several times lost, rediscovered and discarded again by different civilisations. It requires a mixture of artistry and chemistry for which De Morgan was ideally suited.

The Limit

Rosemary Hill, 2 November 1995

The lives of Christopher Wood and Barbara Hepworth are case-studies, each in its way unhappy, of the artist as a product of his own creation. For both the idea of art, the lure of fame, the wish to escape from the stolid Northern middle class into which they were born, were motivating forces as powerful as the desire to express a vision through painting or sculpture. Hepworth was born in 1903, the daughter of a Wakefield surveyor. Wood, the older by two years, was the son of a doctor in Huyton, outside Liverpool. From these remarkably similar starting-points they set off in pursuit of the same, ultimately elusive, ideal.

Heaven’s Gate

Rosemary Hill, 8 September 1994

Pugin’s first professional commission, in 1827, was to design furniture at Windsor Castle. He was 15. Three years later, already drafting an autobiography, he recalled that the French master joiner at Windsor, Desmalter, had been ‘a very ignorant conceited man’. What Desmalter, head of one of the most famous Parisian furniture studios for thirty years, thought of the child designer can only be imagined. In later life Pugin repudiated the ‘scamp’ he had been at 15. He was much harder on the furniture.

Denatured

Rosemary Hill, 2 December 1993

By 1815 London was the biggest city anyone had ever seen. It was the most stable and prosperous Western metropolis and had been enriched further by a flood of Continental refugees and by works of art similarly cast loose on a tide of war and revolution. There was now an interest in European painting among the British unequalled since the days of Charles I, and despite the war, English art and architecture, in particular the Gothic and the landscape garden, had many admirers in France and Germany. Napoleon himself ordered Gothic furnishings from London. In the years after Waterloo it was inevitable that cultural tourists should flock to Britain to see at first hand what they had for so long been reading about.

Into the Gulf

Rosemary Hill, 17 December 1992

No one ever failed more completely to be the hero of his own life than the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, for whom heroism was an obsession. He used his own head as a model for Christ, Solomon, Alexander and Marcus Curtius and believed that heroic history painting was the highest form of art. Today his only generally remembered work is a portrait of Wordsworth. In his lifetime Haydon was well-known and not without admirers but he was dogged increasingly by ridicule and failure. In 1846, after his designs for frescos in the Houses of Parliament had been rejected, he exhibited two of his massive historical paintings in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. The public flocked to the building, but to see the midget, General Tom Thumb, who was being shown downstairs. On the first day Haydon attracted only four visitors. ‘I would not have believed it of the English people,’ he wrote in his journal, with that absence of insight or humour that makes him such a sad, and at the same time such a tiresome figure.

In memory of Lydia Dwight

Rosemary Hill, 9 April 1992

In the early Eighties an Italian family in North London was successfully prosecuted and fined £100 for putting flowers on a relative’s grave in contravention of cemetery regulations: they had impeded the cutting of council grass. The grim reaper had, it seemed, finally given way to the municipal mower as ultimate authority. It is hard to imagine the bewilderment and unhappiness the family must have felt, and impossible not to be ashamed of the nadir in English culture that this episode represents. It has become a commonplace that we no longer know how to deal with death, that it is the modern taboo about which we dissimulate as much, and in similar ways, as the Victorians did about sex.

Smocks

Rosemary Hill, 5 December 1991

The woods around London offered some curious sights in the 1840s. To the north in Epping Forest the infant William Morris could be seen riding out in a toy suit of armour, while down in Surrey, in the Tillingbourne Valley, little Gertrude Jekyll was learning to make gunpowder. In the event it was Morris who became the political revolutionary and Gertrude Jekyll who withdrew into a secluded world of romance in the house and garden she created at Munstead Wood. Yet such extremes of public and private life were essential elements in what might be called the Arts and Crafts temperament: a mixture of idealism, sentimental fantasy and Victorian middle-class confidence.

From The Blog
23 September 2009

The Elephant and Castle is an architectural graveyard over which a huge new tombstone is going up in the shape of the 43-storey Strata tower. Things began rather well in 1769, when Robert Mylne laid out the route south from his new bridge at Blackfriars and joined it to the old turnpike road with St George’s Circus. This was the first ‘circus’ in London, predating Piccadilly, the capital’s first roundabout. Since then almost every new idea in town planning – high-rise, low-rise, shopping precinct, pedestrian underpass and ever bigger roundabouts – has been imposed on the Elephant, with singular lack of success.

From The Blog
7 July 2009

From my desk I can see the Lakanal flats which caught fire so catastrophically on Friday. I've looked at the modernist slab block, end-on, almost every working day for the last three years. On Friday afternoon there was thin grey smoke coming from one window. As I went out into the street a woman from across the road told me that she'd just called the fire brigade. While we watched the smoke turned black and then with a muffled sound, somewhere between a thud and a roar, flames burst out of the front. Glass and burning debris started to shower down. After twenty minutes or so I left. I wasn't doing any good. People were running towards the estate but by this time the police had tape up and were holding them back. Lakanal, named after Joseph Lakanal (1762-1845), the French revolutionary educationalist, is part of the Sceaux Gardens estate.

From The Blog
6 July 2009

The Guildhall Library has just finished cataloguing Elizabeth David’s archive of cookery books and memoranda, down to the last wine-stained post-it note and quite right too. It is impossible to know what will interest later generations. The Belfast Women's Institute will go down to history as perpetrators of the ‘most revolting dish’ David ever came across. A nasty confection involving macaroni, tinned pears and raw carrot it nevertheless evokes some sympathy in me, and a certain queasy nostalgia for my mother’s more elaborate efforts.

Letter

Draw what you see

30 March 2017

I am interested to know from Anthony Paul that Gerald Scarfe intended his drawing of the ageing Churchill to convey pathos rather than hostility (Letters, 20 April). Much as I admire Scarfe I don’t think he realised his intention in this case. The original, which is charcoal on four sheets of paper, did hang in Portcullis House, but is there no longer. On 5 April it appeared as lot 134 in Sotheby’s...
Letter

Late Call

2 November 1995

It was never my intention to imply, nor does Sally Festing suggest in her book, that Barbara Hepworth committed suicide. In contrasting her posthumous reputation with that of Wood – who did kill himself – I wrote a sentence that lent itself to this construction. It was careless and I apologise. Of Festing’s accuracy it is difficult in many instances to judge, without, as Alan Bowness...
Letter

Humble Pie

17 December 1992

Having taken the authors of London: World City to task for getting a date wrong it was particularly unfortunate that I promptly did the same myself (LRB, 17 December 1992). The Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834 not 1835 – apologies and humble pie all round.

Very Pointed: Pugin

Dinah Birch, 20 September 2007

Modern lives look prim beside the turbulent existence of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Distractions and misfortunes proliferated throughout his career: shipwreck (he was in his own boat,...

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