Making Australian History by Anna Clark is a remarkable book. Just the concept got me excited. A book about Australian historiography written for a general audience. I thought it’d be hard to pull off, but Clark surpasses all my expectations. Making Australian History is not only immensely readable, but is incredibly perceptive, timely and succeeds in deconstructing and exploring the inherently complex nature of Australian History (I’ll follow Clark’s convention of using the capital H when I’m talking about the History discipline) whilst articulating its and Clark’s position within its narrative. Simply I’ve never read another book that so clearly explains Australia’s historiography with eyes wide open to all its issues.
So it’s clear I liked the book.
I wanted to start with a quick discussion about what the history of history means for me and this blog. I am trained traditionally in the History discipline and I currently work as a librarian, both of which are structurally set up to preference a telling of History through sources held in libraries, archives and other collecting institutions. They are also both inherently colonial methods of knowledge keeping and knowledge management, which often preference a white and masculine narrative. I am also fifth generation Australian on both sides of my family, with my ancestors arriving as part of colonisation in the mid 1800s and I have benefited from the structural privilege this entails. But while I unavoidably bring these prejudices with me as part of my background, I do try to be aware of them. And on this blog I do try to find the gaps, to tell the stories that might not otherwise be part of a broader narrative. I am also very aware that History is not immutable, it is not a clear definition of fact or not. This is why you’ll find a lot of use of the word arguably on this blog, as any version of the past is very much only one argument. History is also written by those who survive to tell it, those who are doing the writing and by the structures that perpetuate it, which when you’re looking at Western and indeed Australian History are invariably white and male. So that’s the background I’m bringing to this and all my posts.
Why is this important? For this review it is essential. Making Australian History is about the history of History in Australia, how it has shaped our national identity, but also how History has been shaped. Clark firmly positions the creation of Australian History at the same time as Australia was forming a national identity, but also at the time the study of History was being formalised and professionalised internationally. This ‘scientific’ concept of History, where facts are immutable, personal opinion should not come into it, where History is unbiased, is at the core of the book. In unpicking Australian History Clark exemplifies the issues with this approach. Largely, the sidelining of non traditional sources including: oral history, First Nations history (through oral history and art work amongst other sources), family histories, local histories, non professional histories, fiction (including poetry), and other unwritten sources. By bringing these voices and sources back into the traditional view of History Clark makes the History richer, and explores how these alternative sources enable alternative voices to be heard.
Clark’s narrative is thematic, but also largely chronological. She splits the book into 16 sections: making history, beginnings, contact, convicts, nation, memory, colour, protest, distance, silence, family, gender, emotion, imagination, country and time. Each section begins with a single source that exemplifies its theme. Holding with the overall concept of the book, these sources are not all traditional written sources; they range from: First Nations art work, to convict songs, to photographs, to poetry, to fish traps. This is not say Clark excludes traditional sources with: speeches, early histories of Australia and other books also receiving the spotlight. Clark places these alternative sources on the same standing as traditional sources.
What Clark does masterfully is explain the intense complexity and contested nature of Australian History, both on a professional History stage and on a national stage. Simply put I learnt a lot about whole areas of the history of Australia that I hadn’t explored before. Clark highlights that while History is inherently colonial, and was imported to this continent, it doesn’t mean that First Nations people didn’t have a History or a method of telling it before colonisation, or that their History didn’t continue after colonisation. This last point was especially key for me, though it may seem simple. It is easy to see First Nations history as being suppressed completely once colonisation occurred, but Clark tells the story of its continuation as First Nations people continued to tell their own stories in many forms to advocate and fight for their rights. Their history is there, even in colonial sources, it is just often put aside by broader History.
Clark’s chronology follows History in Australia. She works from contact through to Federation (where the nation building drove a more blinkered version of Australia national identity that you see in the 1800s). Continues through convict stories (as in the reality not the romanticised version) and their displacement as a ‘stain’. Then through the White Australia policy and how History facilitated Australia’s national narrative as white. On to protest (with an especially illuminating looks the the extremely constructed national History on display at the Australian sesquicentenary). Along to The Great Australia Silence (the deliberate exclusion of First Nations people from Australia’s history). Into family history (including her own- Clark is the granddaughter of Manning Clark) with a special focus on Judith Wright’s work. Along to gender and women’s history, being both written into History but also looking at History overall from a domestic female lens. Continuing to emotion and ‘bias’ and the History Wars. On to the importance of imagination in History, looking especially at Tony Birch’s poems that draw on the letters of First Nations people living on reserves. Then examining Country, looking at the concept of ‘Country’ and whether it can be expressed in Western History but also the affect of landscape on History. Concluding with time looking, at the concepts of deep time and how it supersedes modern Australian History by thousands of years.
Clark concludes with “our understanding and practices of History reflects values and beliefs at a point in time as much as it does any knowledge about historical time: histories shift and change with each iteration, according to their context, author and audience. This text represents my present, as well as my reflections on History’s past.”
This succinctly summarises the over all point and what I took most from the book. History is biased, it is biased by the writer and the time. But History also should be personal, in writing History we are bringing our own views in, we can not write the past or the present dispassionately as disinterested observers. Our imagination fills in the gaps and that is OK, arguing possibilities when there is no one reality is essential as long as we acknowledge what knowledge and views we are bringing to the telling.
Making Australian History is an immensely interesting, informative and exciting book. It connected me to Australian History in all its flawed and often painful complexities more than anything I’ve ever read. As the national conversation and national identity continues to be shaped in an increasingly divisive and divided world, reckoning with our past and understanding it is vital. This is something I hope to continue to play a small part in with this blog.
I just wanted to finish with an image, a source of my own I guess. I finished reading Making Australian History in the Organ Pipes National Park. I took the book with me on a hike. It was a Monday afternoon so I had the park pretty much to myself. It’s an ancient landscape formed about a million years ago with molten larva flowing over the Keilor Plains. It was the site of First Nations grasslands and cultivation for tens of thousands of years, before it became part of a pastoral run following colonisation, and then a national park in 1972. It is a very Australian landscape and as I sat by Jackson’s Creek with dust on my boots it felt an appropriate place to reach the end of what is a very Australian book.
References: Making Australian History by Anna Clark ISBN: 9781760898519 you can buy it from any bookstore, but you can also borrow it from your local library and I can speak for the quality of the copy in the PMI Victorian History Library https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=32577
As I said in my, slightly unplanned, video; welcome to the first edition of Ragbag on Road. These entries are going to differ a little from my normal posts, because rather than a detailed history of a person, building, painting, book, topic etc., I’m going to take you on a wander with me through a new place. In this case I’m beginning with Maldon, a town in north central Victoria. This isn’t a full history of the town, but I’ll be talking briefly about several of interesting sights and sites and hope you enjoy this ramble with me.
I want to start by acknowledging both the Dja Dja Waurrung people on whose land Maldon stands and the Bunurong people on whose land I write from. The history of the Dja Dja Waurrung stretches back tens of thousands of years before white colonists arrived and ‘discovered’ gold in the Maldon area. The history of Australia is not new and clean and everything that was ‘discovered’ was already part of the land of the First Nations people. Australia’s First Nations’ history is ancient and in writing about recent history I acknowledge and celebrate a millennia of First Nations’ storytelling and knowledge keeping. The story of the Dja Dja Waurrung is not mine to tell, but I direct you to https://djadjawurrung.com.au/ the Dja Dja Waurrung Land Council which explores their history. I just want to be very clear that Maldon is Dja Dja Waurrung land.
To explore the town itself. This will be a little random because I tend to wander around new places and see what I can find, and I’m hoping to take you on that journey with me. I will give a little history to get us started though.
As I said in my opening video gold was found in Maldon in 1853, but that’s not the beginning of colonial history in the area. In 1836 the area was passed through by surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell. I’ve actually written about Mitchell’s survey of the ‘Australian Felix’ before you can find that post here. The land was soon settled by Europeans, and as pastoralists moved into the region First Nations people were denied access to their food and water sources and eventually forcibly moved on to reserves, including one at near by Loddon, with only a small number remaining in the area.
The Maldon region would have remained as the pastoral run of the 100 000 acre Cairn Curran property if gold hadn’t been found in 1853. The region was quickly flooded with people as part of Victoria’s gold rush with an immediate rush of up to 40 000 people. As you can imagine this massive influx of people only continued to grow and infrastructure was needed. The town as you see it now was laid out in 1856 by Thomas Adair at the behest of the Colonial government. He named it Maldon. The gold in the area proved to be a very rich seam and, while the alluvial gold petered out in about two years, mines were soon being dug. The deepest reached 75 meters and there were roughly 40 mines in the area. It’s believed that over 2 million ounces of gold were produced from the region, which in today’s money would be worth billions of dollars. The town grew quickly after it was declared a municipality in 1858 and this is the streetscape you see today. The photos below give you an idea.
This is the intact street scape that led the National Trust to declare Maldon Australia’s first ‘notable town’ in 1965. So that’s the basic history, now it’s time for our wander.
We begin, down the end of the main street (mainly because that’s where I could find a car park) with the Warnock’s Flour Mill.
This was the site of the local flour mill run by James and Samuel Warnock (the entrance was via rear lane) it was converted to shops in the early 1900s and is now famous for its Bushells sign. It is technically a ghost sign as Bushells is no longer sold there, but it’s so vibrant it’s hard to see it as especially ghost like.
You’ll have spotted the nice brick building next door. This is the Free Mason’s Hall.
This building was originally part of the Warnock’s store but the facade was added in 1908 and the Freemasons moved in and used it as their hall until the 1980s.
In our first random jump we move past some of the other high street buildings (I’ll return later). One of the key reasons I wanted to visit Maldon is its Athenaeum Library, but as it doesn’t open until the afternoon I have a quick wander to find it before going for lunch and on the way I discover two of Maldon’s many churches on the way. Both in fact Baptist churches.
The smaller building is the original church opened in 1865. It began as a Welsh church due to the large number of Welsh miners in the area. There was a division of the congregation which resulted in the construction of the larger church just round the corner in 1895. But eventually the differences were solved and the congregation reunified in 1930 into the larger building, using the small church as the Sunday school. The light you can see next to the original church is a modern replica of the lamp built in the 1880s so that passers by could read the times of upcoming Baptist sermons.
We then wander along to the Maldon Progress Hall. It was opened in 1873 as a Temperance Hall and is now owned by Mount Alexander Shire and used as a community hall.
Looking back we see Brook’s Store which was built in 1866 and run as cooperative store by a shareholding company. The Co-op never really got off the ground and the shares were liquidated in 1872. Brooks took the store over and the Brooks Family ran it until 1986- very little of the building has been changed.
Our next stop on the way to the Athenaeum is the Post Office. It was opened in 1869 and has one really interesting claim to fame. Australian author Henry Handel Richardson grew up there when her mother was post mistress from 1880 to 1886. It features in her work Myself When Young.
Ok, so we have now reached the Athenaeum. It was opened in 1863 though the current building dates to the 1930s
As you can see it is currently closed, so now that I’ve located it I’m headed off for some lunch, exploring a couple more interesting sites on my way back to the main street. Below you can see the Holy Trinity Anglican Church which is just opposite the Athenaeum.
It was built in 1861 of local stone (hornfels), which is known for its hardness. Some of the deep gutters are also built of it. It is the largest stone building in the town. It was designed by D.R Drape. You can see also see one of the outbuildings and an olive tree which was planted by Bishop Bowden to mark the centenary of the Bendigo Diocese in 2002.
The last building before lunch is the Market Building. It’s now the home of the Maldon Museum (which is closed when I visit but wrote most of the remarkable array of historical brochures which I am basing this post on). The Market was opened in 1859, but closed in 1860 because of a depression. It was converted into the Council buildings in 1865 and they remained there until 1964. In the photos below you can also see grounds around the Market building which contain two English Oaks planted in 1863 to commemorate the marriage of Prince Albert Edward to Alexandra Princess of Denmark. The rotunda dates to 2008 but it is a realisation of a long held dream with the petition to raise funds for a brass band rotunda presented to Council in 1883.
After lunch I go straight back to the Maldon Athenaeum Library and it’s open.
It was opened in 1863. The original wooden building burnt down in early 1900s with all records lost along with, apparently, the stuffed albatross in the window. The building dates to the 1930s and it is still community owned and run. It’s one of only eight mechanics’ institutes in Victorian which still have lending libraries (I work for one of the others). The Athenaeum is volunteer run and it’s a fascinating little building and collection. I hope the below photos give a good overview.
So Athenaeum explored I wander back to the main street via one more church and some hotels.
The Wesleyan Church and Parsonage which you can see above dates to 1863, it is the earliest church building still intact in Maldon. The brick chapel behind was probably the first building used as a church in Maldon. There is also a spring on the site and the stories say the minister threatened legal action against anyone who was caught removing more than one bucket of water. The building has been beautifully converted to The Cascade Art Gallery.
After the church I make my way past a couple of hotels.
Maldon Hotel opened in 1908 by Thomas Butler. Its site was originally a creek bed, but after severe flooding in the 1860s a drain was erected.
Another casualty of the creek bed was Shakespeare House, after the original wooden building was flooded the drain was built. It was delicensed as a hotel in 1910. It remains intact to the period.
At the end of the main street I head up to the Beehive Mine which I shoot my opening video from.
The chimney is 30 metres high and was built in 1863. The mine itself opened in 1859 and operated until 1911. You can see the remains of the building foundations in the second photo.
After a quick wander around the mine I make my way back to my car and drive out to the railway station.
The station opened in 1884 and was closed to passengers in 1941. It now runs as a short tourist heritage railway.
Now I have my car I head for my final stop in my wanderings, the tower at the top of Mount Tarrengower. Part of the tower is an original mine poppet head and it is still used as a fire watching tower today. It has been lit up every Easter since 1926. This was originally done with kerosene lamps but now electric lights are used. Local children grow up with the legend that the tower is the Easter Bunny’s house. The top of Mount Tarrengower is also roughly the centre of Victoria (there is a survey post I just couldn’t find it). The view from the top is incredible.
After admiring the view I head for home and the storm you can see in the last photo hits me on the way back. It’s been a fascinating day and I hope you have enjoyed wandering with me.
This post doesn’t cover every heritage building in Maldon by any stretch of the imagination. I recommend a visit and I intend to go back. Contact the Maldon Museum if you would like further information.
Two posts in two days is unusual for me, but as I was writing yesterday’s post about Susanna Gale I was discussing the fictional story I’ll be working on as a result of the research for that post. In doing this I realised I hadn’t written anything about my recent win at the Scarlet Stiletto Awards. The Scarlet Stiletto Awards are a prize offered by Sisters in Crime Australia for Australian women writing crime short stories with a female protagonist. This year I entered my story The Gospel of Cecily and was lucky enough to take out the Cross-Genre Prize and third place overall.
So why is this relevant for Historical Ragbag? There’s a few reasons. One is because I’ve spoken about writing fiction here before and I wanted to give an example, a second is because the word limit for the story was 5000 words and I was right on the word count so I didn’t get the chance to write an historical note and thirdly because the story is about a real medieval woman.
So a little about the story first: The Gospel of Cecily takes us to Hereford in the Welsh Marches in the year 1200. Cecily, formerly Countess of Hereford, is reading when she is interrupted by shouts of a body in the library. What follows is an exploration through time, story and sorcery as Cecily and her friend Marcus trace the body, which inconveniently keeps reappearing, through Hereford’s illuminated manuscripts in the hope of saving a life.
As you can see from the description, there’s a fair bit beyond a straight historical narrative. What excited me most in writing it was putting Cecily front and centre and exploring the very real illuminated manuscripts that would have been at Hereford Cathedral at the time.
Not much is known about Cecily. She was the daughter of Pain FitzJohn a middle rank Anglo-Norman Baron and Sybilla who was probably a de Lacy- an important Marcher family (the Welsh Marches are the lands on the border of England and Wales). Cecily married Roger Earl of Hereford firstly then when he died in 1155 she probably married twice more. There really isn’t a great deal more known about her. If you’ve ever read Elizabeth Chadwick’s books she appears as a minor character in Shadows and Strongholds. In this book she’s a young woman, but when I appropriate her for my narrative in 1200 she is in the last years of her life, she probably died in around 1204. I have no proof she was in Hereford in 1200, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. So she became my lead character.
The main reason I wanted to write about Hereford in 1200 was to include the illuminated manuscripts. I started with the Hereford Gospels (something I’ll write a longer post about on another day) which are magnificent 8th century illuminated gospel books probably made in Wales. They’re one of the treasures of the Hereford Cathedral Library. You can see some of the illuminations below.
But the collection of manuscripts in Hereford Library is much more extensive and I had a lot of fun using the catalogue to work out exactly what books would have been there in 1200 so my characters could explore the illuminations. Below are the illuminations that are specifically featured.
These are just some of the specific illuminations that inhabit the world of the story. While the books were why I set the story in Hereford I have also done my best to be faithful to the history of the cathedral itself. In 1200 the cathedral was in a bit of a state of flux as it was between Bishops. I have appropriated Dean Richard (the Dean was the head of the chapter of the Canons who were the ruling body of the cathedral), as he would probably have been the figure of authority without the presence of a Bishop. Nothing is known about him, so I’ve made his an overly officious antagonist to Cecily, that’s one of the nice things about fiction you can fill in gaps as you wish. I have also stayed as true as possible to the lay out of the cathedral. The story is set within the cathedral complex, and I’ve imagined the cathedral school as closer and slightly more organised than it probably was (again there isn’t a lot of information available), but the new Bishop’s Hall is based on early descriptions. You can see Hereford Cathedral as it stands now, below.
What you see now is partly 19th century as the west tower collapsed catastrophically in 1786 and major restoration works were undertaken in the early 1800s. They were based on the previous layout of the cathedral though. Really the room I have taken the most liberty with is the library, as it is unlikely that there was a room dedicated as a library in 1200, the books would have been stored in the places they were being used. I have tried to reflect this, by having some of the books in different areas of the cathedral and the complex, but narratively I needed a library so I’ve also had the library irretrievably damaged by sorcery which can of course explain its absence from history. Again there are many advantages to fiction.
I just wanted to finish with a brief mention of my other main character Marcus, he’s not an historical figure but does feature as a main character in my as yet unpublished historical fantasy novel set in 1185. So you may see him pop up again in the future.
I did want to include the chained library and the mappa mundi which Hereford Cathedral are rightly famous for, but sadly they were too late (chronologically) for my purposes.
This blog post takes me out of my comfort zone (era wise) as I know very little about the mid 18th century and I’ve never written about an artwork before. But in many ways it is also right in my wheelhouse, exploring the lives of women in history to bring them out of the shadows. But before I introduce you to Susanna Gale, I need to go back to the beginning.
One of my favourite places in Melbourne is the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s an amazing bluestone building with the ambience of the ancient cathedrals. It’s also home to Leonard French’s stained glass ceiling- the largest in the world. It is Melbourne tradition to lie on your back on the carpet and look up at it when you visit the gallery. You can see the view below.
Anyway, as soon as we were allowed out again after lockdown the NGV was high on my list of places to visit. I started with the medieval section, best place to see reliquaries in Melbourne, and then headed for Tiepolo’s magnificent (if incredibly historically inaccurate in just about every conceivable way) Banquet of Cleopatra. It’s one of the NGV’s stalwarts and it’s nice to visit.
On my way, I noticed a new hang from the last time I’d been in the gallery, including one painting that literally stopped me in my tracks. Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Miss Susanna Gale. Reynolds is a master painter, which is one of the reasons it stood out, but I was also enthralled by her, by Susanna. And I wanted to know more. The information on the picture didn’t tell me much other than her name, the artist and the fact it was painted in c. 1763-1764 so I did some digging. I write fiction too and originally I was intending to just use the research for a short story. I am currently working on a story about Susanna, memories, a rose and Debussy, but she captivated me enough that I thought she deserved her own post. So in all the finest traditions of Historical Ragbag here she is.
So who was Susanna and how did her painting come to be at the National Gallery of Victoria?
Let’s start with Susanna, as she is the subject of the painting and the point of this post. Susanna was an heiress, the daughter of Francis Gale and Susannah Hall. Francis Gale was a wealthy British sugar planter from Jamaica. Susannah Hall was an heiress in her own right, her father James Hall was a silver mine owner also from Jamaica. You can see what is thought to be a painting of Francis Gale below. It dates to 1763 and interestingly was also painted by Reynolds. It is held by the National Trust in the UK at Montacute House.
I want to pause here to examine something that must immediately come to mind when we’re looking at British commerce in areas like Jamaica in this era, especially sugar plantations: slavery. When I started writing this post, I only had the supposition about the time and place. I have since found the Gales listed in the database of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. When Francis Gale died in 1775 his probate indicated that he owned 45 people: 28 men, 17 women and 8 children. In all honesty when I found this, I wondered whether I should continue writing about Susanna at all, as she definitely profited directly from slavery. When I thought about it though, I decided to continue because history should be explored in all its complexities and dark places, and her life should be acknowledged in all its parts. There is scant information about Susanna, but her family’s past is part of the tapestry of her life.
So as an heiress Susanna came to London to finish her education. And this is the moment when Reynolds painted her. She’s fourteen or fifteen in this painting, but for me it’s her face that is most intriguing. She looks like she’s poised on the edge of taking steps into a new world, a child trying to be an adult. That is certainly how she is styled, her clothing and posture very much reflect a contrast to her youthful face, there are reasons for this which I will return to later. She didn’t stay in England for long. The painting dates to 1764 at the latest and we know she married a man called Sabine Turner by 1765. There is very little known about Sabine, they were married in Jamaica but he failed to make any mark. Sabine was dead by 1766. We don’t know what Susanna did in the immediate aftermath of his death, but in 1769 she married the promising navy captain Alan Gardener in Jamaica. This proved to be a good match for Susanna as Alan would go on to become Vice-Admiral Lord Alan Gardner, he was a contemporary of Nelson’s and almost as well known in his own time. The title of Baron Gardner was created for him. You can see his portrait below.
As usual there is a Wikipedia article about her husband and his accomplishments, but very little about Susanna after their marriage. We know they had ten children, nine sons and one daughter, and that Susanna became Lady Gardner. Of those children, the eldest Alan inherited his father’s titles and followed him into the navy, the second Francis-Farrington became an admiral in the navy, the third William-Henry became a major general, the fourth Henry-Cossley died young, the fifth Herbert didn’t do anything remarkable, the sixth Edward was a resident at the Court of the Rajah in Nepal, the seventh Valentine died young, the eighth also Valentine was a captain in the Royal Navy, the ninth Samuel-Martin didn’t do anything remarkable and the tenth and only daughter Susannah-Hall married well.
With such a large family and with so many in the military we can presume that Susanna’s life was much taken up with bearing, raising and in fact burying her children, she outlived at least five of her children and her husband. Lord Alan died in 1808 and Susanna lived until 1823. As the wife of the Baron Gardner she would have had property to help manage, especially with her husband away at sea often. From this scant information we can extrapolate a life similar to most of her station in this era. But we can add no detail. Looking at the painting, it’s hard to imagine the girl depicted as a twice widowed mother of a dynasty, a military wife, and an old woman with scores of grand-children. She is captured on the cusp of a life she couldn’t have known. Which brings us neatly back to the painting itself. It is the reason Susanna is remembered at all. Which comes back to the central question, what is it doing in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia, a world away from its origins?
Unlike the details of Susanna’s life, this is a question that can actually be answered. But before I do, I want to talk a little about the composition of the painting and how it came to be painted. I preface this with the disclaimer that I am not an art historian, so please forgive any errors.
When Susanna came to London, Joshua Reynolds was the painter de jour, especially of portraits. He painted up to 150 sitters a year. With this in mind he had a streamlined process of generally three sittings of about an hour and a half each time. This would be sufficient to complete the face then as Reynolds described it in 1777 “the rest is done without troubling the sitter”. Everything else was modelled by his servants and pupils, from clothes to the hands. This might have been efficient, but does mean that you do see similarities between portraits. The best comparison in the case of Susanna’s painting is Reynolds’ portrait of Mrs Thomas Riddle painted in 1763. You can see it below and the parallels are obvious even to a completely untrained eye.
Reynolds was also drawing on a long artistic tradition, especially the work of van Dyck and specifically his painting of Elena Grimaldi, from 1623. You can see it below.
Susanna is cast into a role demarcated by more than century of artistic tradition, and I’d like to return to her specific portrait. Interestingly, the painting at the NGV is not the only version. It is the original, but there is a copy held by the National Trust in the UK in Clarendon Park. It was painted after 1763, but before the original was cut down. You can see it below.
The really interesting bit about this is ‘before the original was cut down’. The painting was taken to sea by Lord Alan on several of his voyages (I like the thought of him wanting the portrait of his wife with him-maybe it’s an indicator of a happy marriage?) and it was damaged so much that the dimensions had to be reduced. It also suffered some kind of injury when it was in transit on the Midland Railway, necessitating restoration. Close examination of the painting in 1956 by the NGV noted evidence of the painting having many skilfully mended cuts and tears especially across the top. It had also been relined and possibly re-stretched. So the painting has not lived a comfortable life gathering dust on the wall of the family mansion. And this brings us back to the question of how did it end up in Melbourne?
Once Lord Alan died Susanna gave the painting to her daughter Susannah Cornwall and when she died in 1853 it passed down to her descendant Reverend Alan Gardener Cornwall. The painting remained in the family until 1872 when it was sold and came into the possession of banker Bertram Currie you can see him below.
When he died in 1896 it was inherited by his son Laurence Currie. Laurence died in 1934 and the painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria from Christies as part of the Felton Bequest. The Felton Bequest was set up by Alfred Felton who was a successful Melbourne businessman. You can see his portrait below.
Felton began collecting art from the late 1880s onwards, he lived with his art collection at the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda. He donated paintings to the gallery during his life time, but it was his will that really shaped the gallery’s collection. The bequest continues to this day and is responsible for purchasing 80% of the NGV’s finest artworks that are valued at over 2 billion.
The will was drawn up in 1900 with trustees of a committee of five to administer the funds. The income was divided equally between donations to charity and to purchase art works for the NGV. The committee was able to appoint art advisors in Europe and around the world and the only stipulations for purchasing was that the works had “to have an artistic and educational value and to be calculated to raise or improve public taste” The overseas advisors were key to the purchasing of art under the bequest and Randall Davies was appointed the London advisor in c.1928. He presided over the bequest until 1934, and one of his final recommendations was Joshua Reynolds’ Miss Gale which was bought for 3500 pounds. The Argus newspaper at the time printed a photo of the newly hung portrait.
The Argus reported:
Referring to the picture and its history, Sir Charles Holmes, the English painter and critic, says that it bears no trace of the two accidents which overtook it-once, when Admiral Gardner took it to sea with him, and once in a railway smash. At Christies, while under a darkened varnish, the picture still left a delightful impression of dignity combined with youthful grace. After cleaning, the picture revealed an unexpected richness and glow of colour in the rose-red dress and russet background, coupled with a freedom of brushwork, anticipating the magnificent ease and breadth of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s maturity “I cannot help feeling,” Sir Charles Holmes says, “that on this occasion Sir Joshua had in mind some work by his great rival Gainsborough, an inspiration reflected in the free brushwork, the transparent colour, and, above all, in the sensitive refinement, the gentle distinction, with which the young lady is invested other works by Reynolds maybe more profound, more imposing, but I know of very few indeed that would be so desirable a possession”
She was hung on Tuesday the 7th of August 1934 and has remained at the NGV ever since.
So that brings us to the end of both Susanna’s story and the story of how a Joshua Reynolds portrait of a Jamaican British heiress painted in 1763-64 came to be hanging on the walls of the National Gallery of Victoria in 2021 to enthral me. I’ll leave you again with the painting, and if you’re ever in Melbourne, maybe go and visit her.
I’m working on a novel that, while contemporary, deals with a lot of Welsh history. So I’ve been working back through my old blog posts reading about some about the Welsh castles in particular. In doing this I’ve come across one of the most fascinating Welsh women from early 12th century. I’ve written a bit about her before when writing about her grandson Gerald of Wales, and Pembroke Castle which her husband was custodian of. Her name is Nest Ferch Rhys, and I thought she deserved a post of her own.
As usual with Historical Ragbag I’m not trying to break new ground. Nest has been written about before, but women so often inhabit the shadows, I’ll take any chance to bring them out into the light. Besides, Nest’s is just such a good story.
Any woman who is remembered as more than a name from this period is usually someone who steps outside the box, intentionally or otherwise, and Nest is no exception.
Born in around 1085 Nest found herself at the heart of the Welsh /Anglo-Norman conflict for much of her life. It is arguable on a number of occasions whether she was a pawn or an instigator or somewhere in between.
Nest was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdr King of Deheubarth, a kingdom in the south of Wales. You can see it roughly on the map below.
Unfortunately for Rhys, he came into his kingdom in c.1078 in a period of intense conflict. William I’s victory at Hastings in 1066 had brought the Normans to the island and having claimed the Kingdom of England they turned their eyes to Wales. The Welsh Princes admittedly didn’t help by fighting amongst themselves rather than uniting against the new threat, but when William crossed Rhys’ lands heading for St David’s in 1081 Rhys was forced to do homage to him as William I. Norman incursions only increased under William’s son William II, known as William Rufus, and it wasn’t long before Norman castles were popping up on Welsh land. The new Anglo-Norman barons claimed significant sections of Welsh territory, which would eventually come to form that liminal border land known as the Welsh Marches. The Anglo-Normans quickly began fortifying their positions by marrying into the Welsh nobility, a practice that would shape all of Nest’s life, but I’ll return to her in a moment. Rhys got caught up in these wars when Bernard de Neufmarche (an Anglo-Norman baron who was married to a daughter of a Princess of Gwynedd) began overrunning Brycheiniog a small Welsh kingdom to the east of Deheubarth (you can see it on the map above). The Anglo-Norman’s were a real threat to Deheubarth so in 1093 Rhys rode to Brycheiniog to attempt to fend them off. The Welsh Chronicle the Brut y Tywysogyon eloquently describes the result.
Rhys, son of Tewdwr, king of South Wales, was killed by the French [Anglo-Normans], who inhabited Brecheiniog; and then fell the kingdom of the Britons. And then Cadwgan, son of Bleddyn, despoiled Dyved on the second of May. And then, two months after that, about the Calends on July, the French came into Dyved and Cereddigion, which they have still retained and fortified the castles, and seized upon all the lands of the Britons.
It says it all really. This was the first real death blow for an independent Wales as all Welsh Princes to come after would have to temper their authority to the rule of their Anglo-Norman neighbours. Additionally much of Rhys’ kingdom was lost permanently, as Anglo-Normans claimed lands and built castles including the origins of Pembroke Castle, the early stages of which you can see in the model below. Pembroke would go on to play an important role in Nest’s life.
But where did this all leave Nest? She was still a child. A child who have lived in the privileged but itinerant Welsh royal household. Women in Wales held a slightly different position to their Anglo-Norman sisters, but their lives were still very much circumscribed by the authority of men (either husband, brother or father).With the death of her father Nest was taken hostage along with her mother and her brothers. In the medieval period hostage didn’t have the same connotations that it does today. However, she would have been a valuable commodity as the daughter of a King of Wales. Through Welsh law women didn’t inherit lands, but by Anglo-Norman law/convention they could and more importantly they conveyed the rights of those lands to their husbands (they were never intended to rule them in their own right). At the very least marriage to Nest would lend legitimacy to any Anglo-Norman lord looking to claim territory in her father’s former kingdom.
Despite her value Nest’s reality must have been difficult to say the least. Her father was dead, one brother had been taken to Ireland, another was probably the captive of Arnulf de Montgomery probably at Pembroke. Nest though, was most likely removed from Wales. She may have been placed in a convent, or with a foster family, she may even have been sent to the royal court of William Rufus, we simply don’t know. We also don’t know if her mother would have stayed with her or if they were separated. Regardless of the circumstances, Nest would have found herself in an unfamiliar household, where she didn’t speak the language or know the customs. As an important hostage she probably wouldn’t have been mistreated, but it would still have been a terrifying new world.
It is likely that even if she didn’t start there, she did eventually end up at the court of William Rufus because we know she met his younger brother Henry, who would go on to become Henry I. We know this because Nest is one of his documented mistresses. This might seem like a time jump, young scared Welsh girl in a totally alien world to mistress to the King. So a little background. The earliest she could have met Henry is 1094, at William Rufus’ Christmas court, but it was probably later around 1097. Henry would have been in his early 30s and Nest at most fifteen, which to the modern ear sounds very young but wasn’t an unusual age for marriage in the medieval period. Nest would have been a tempting marriage prize for many of Anglo-Norman barons who were trying establish footholds in Welsh territory, but marriage would not have been Henry’s aim. Henry is known at have had at least twenty illegitimate children, with any number of mistresses (they aren’t all documented) and Nest was said to be very beautiful. What beauty meant in the medieval context is debatable, but she was probably fair in colouring. The courtship may not have been one sided, Nest’s position was precarious and she may have seen being the mistress of the brother of the King and possibly the mother of his children as a position of more certainty (Henry was known to provide for his children). She may have been looking for a protector. She may also have not been given a choice, there is simply no way of knowing.
Whichever of them instigated the relationship, we do know that Nest was definitely Henry’s mistress and the she bore him at least one son, Henry, before 1105. We even, incredibly, have a picture of the two of them both crowned (Henry became King in 1100) from Matthew Paris’ illuminated manuscript held in the British Library and dating from the 13th century.
Nest did not end her career as Henry’s mistress. The next development in her story, actually takes her back to Wales. And again it is, as usual, arguable how much say she had in it. She was married to Gerald de Windsor the custodian of Pembroke Castle. This was a marriage sanctioned by Henry, she was no longer his mistress at this point. Henry had put down rebellions by Arnulf de Montgomery and his family and wanted the lands in a safe pair of hands. Gerald had held Pembroke for Arnulf, but had gone over to Henry’s side. Therefore he had invaluable experience in dealing with the Welsh- he was described by his and Nest’s grandson Gerald of Wales as a “stalwart and cunning man”. Whatever his pedigree, he was sensible enough to see the honour of marriage to Nest, especially in the legitimacy her birth would grant him, and knowledgeable enough about Welsh customs to know that the Welsh would not see her as an heir to her father’s lands so she wouldn’t be a focus for Welsh rebellion. That Nest was young and beautiful certainly wouldn’t have made it an unpalatable decision. Marriages on both sides of the border, however, took pragmatic considerations into account well above any personal connection. What Nest thought of the arrangement, as usual we do not know. But she may have seen it as a chance to return to the lands of her birth, or at the very least the chance to have a position and status of her own. They were married by 1105 at the latest and local tradition has it that Gerald built the near by Carew Castle for her you can see it below (though little remains of the original medieval structure).
They had four children at least; with a good mix of Welsh and Anglo-Norman names, reflecting their dual heritage: William, Maurice, David and Angharad. Whether the relationship was one of affection or not, we can’t really know but it did bring Nest back into the complex world of early 12th century Welsh and Anglo-Norman politics. This is period of time that the Welsh Marches were really developing and the rules of life between the two different people were being established. As custodian of Pembroke, Anglo-Norman held land with Welsh land around it, Gerald and thus Nest were very much at the heart of it. Especially because after 1109 Henry I was often on the continent, leaving Gerald with somewhat of a free reign. You can see Pembroke castle in the photo below, though the stone defences were mainly built after Gerald and Nest’s time.
Pembroke occupied, in fact it still does, a rocky outcrop jutting out into the Cleddau Estuary- commanding the peninsula
Soon after Gerald and Nest were married, along with Carew, Gerald most likely had Cilgerran Castle built to help control the land around Cardigan. So it is possible that Gerald had some administrative control over the Cardigan region as well.
You can see Cilgerran below, again it would have been largely wooden in their time.
Cilgerran, is important for a couple of reasons (beyond it being an expression of Gerald expanding his authority). The Brut y Tywysogyon records that at Cilgerran Gerald;
Settled; and there he deposited all his riches, his wife and his heirs, and all that was dear to him; and he fortified it with a ditch and a wall and a gateway with a lock on it.”
So Nest re-enters her own story. Cilgerran was not a major castle like Pembroke, and it’s a little odd that Gerald moved his wife and children closer to Cardigan which is part of Ceredigion, the over lordship of which was disputed with Powys (another Welsh kingdom). An act that conceivably placed them in danger. It is likely that he was concerned about assault from Powys, but was hoping that Nest’s lineage would be able to help with negotiations with Cadwgan, the then leader of Powys, as they were related. The leaders of Powys spent a lot of time murdering eachother in this period (Welsh infighting was many times as much a problem as the Anglo-Normans), with brothers and cousins turning on each other, and often in fact siding with the Anglo-Normans when expedient. But in 1109 when Nest really enters the history books (literally) Cadwgan was nominally in charge. The idea of a wife from the other side of the border as a negotiator isn’t as alien as it sounds. It’s the role that Joan (daughter of King John and wife of Llewelyn Prince of North Wales) played for most of her marriage in the late 12th and early 13th century. You can read more about Joan here. In this case though, we will never know how Nest might have filled this role. 1109 is when she gained her reputation as the ‘Helen of Wales’. The incident was related in full in the Brut y Tywysogyon so I will let it speak for itself, but I want to start by saying firstly that this is one translation from the 1800s hence the formal language and secondly we have no way of knowing whether Nest was a willing participant or an unwilling hostage. It has been spun both ways.
And when the feast ended Owain [Cadwgan’s son] hearing that Nest, daughter of Rhys, son of Tewdwr, and wife of Gerald the Steward, was in the castle above mentioned [Cilgerran], went accompanied by a small retinue, to visit her as his kinswoman, and so she was; for Cadwgan, son of Bleddyn and Gwladus, daughter of Rhilwallon and mother of Nest were cousins; as Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, sons of Cynvyn, were brothers, from Angharad, daughter of the king Maredudd. After that, instigated by the devil, he came on a certain night to the castle, having with him a small number, about fourteen persons; and having privately excavated under the threshold of the castle, they got over the wall and the ditch, unawares into the castle, where Gerald and Nest were sleeping; and they set up a shout about the castle, and kindled a fire in the surrounding houses to burn them. Gerald awoke on hearing the shout not knowing what to do; and then Nest said to him ‘go not to the door, for there thy enemies wait for thee, but come and follow me’. And that he did, and she conducted him to a privy, adjoining the castle whence it is said he escaped. And when Nest knew that he had escaped she cried and said to the men outside ‘why call ye out in vain? he is not here, whom you seek; he surely has escaped.’ And when they entered they searched for him everywhere and not having found him, they took Nest, with her two sons and daughter, and also another son that he had by a concubine; and spoiled and laid waste to the castle. And after burning the castle and having connexion with Nest, Owain returned to his country.
So essentially Owain met Nest, and then later ‘instigated by the devil’ possibly at the thought of her broke into the castle, Gerald escaped down the toilet and Nest was kidnapped and raped. The question that hangs over the whole incident is was Nest a willing escapee/participant? The chronicles characterise the incident as ultimately an act of love on behalf of Owain. Cadwgan was not happy with his son because of the violation committed upon Nest but also because he didn’t want to upset Henry I. He ordered Owain to send Nest and her children back to Gerald. He was not successful but the Brut y Tywysogyon continues with Nest’s entreaty to Owain
‘If thou would have me faithful to thee, and remain with thee, send my children to their father.’ He then, from an excess of love towards the wife, suffered the children to be returned to the steward.
But what of Nest her self? You can see how she is characterised as Helen here, the desired woman, the wife of another man, kidnapped, possibly willingly. It is also possible that this story is somewhat allegorical as it was being told retrospectively, and hits many of the same beats as traditional Welsh epic poetry and stories from the period. The one facet of Nest’s personality that comes through is her practicality. It’s her idea for Gerald to escape and it is her who persuades Owain to send her children back to their father (where they would be safer). It’s perfectly possibly that there was no romance at all, but an opportunistic abduction as part of a larger raid. Taking hostages was not un-common, in fact if you remember Nest became a hostage after her father’s death. It was not an act that went unpunished either. Bishop Richard of London who was Henry I’s representative at Shrewsbury sent Owain’s cousins in, offering them Cadwgan’s lands if they could take them. This was to become one of the key strategies for the Anglo-Normans in dealing with the Welsh. Sending aggrieved family members against each-other. This time it was successful and Owain fled to Ireland.
But where does this leave Nest? The Brut y Tywysogyon conveniently forgets to mention what happened to her. It’s very unlikely that Owain took her to Ireland, she would have been a hindrance. She most likely remained in Wales and either willingly or unwillingly returned to Gerald. They definitely had at least one more child and her brother stayed with Gerald at Pembroke in c.1114 something that was unlikely to happen without Nest’s presence. Pembroke would be at the centre of the remainder of her life. Nothing really remains of the castle she would have lived in. But, there is an extraordinary cave under Pembroke Castle, which would not have changed much since Nest’s time. It’s known as Wogan’s Cavern. I like the idea that there is one extant space that Nest may have spent some time in.
Her brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys, stayed at Pembroke for some time. But he went on to cause all sorts of trouble, rebelling against the Anglo-Normans with their other brother Hwyel (who escaped from Anglo-Norman captivity). In the ensuing rebellion Gerald had the chance to face Owain (Nest’s abductor) in battle and Owain was killed. Gruffudd lost the rebellion and spent the rest of his life as a minor landholder, possibly supported by his sister.
So that brings us back to Nest again, like many medieval women it’s very easy for her to get lost even in her own story. We don’t know exactly when Gerald died but it was before1136. Nest was left in a precarious position. Widowhood was one of the few times in a medieval woman’s life that she had some authority over her own life, but Nest lived in the complex world of Anglo-Norman and Welsh alliances. She would have been seen as possibly both a threat and again a valuable marriage prize. She would still have been of childbearing age, and was known to be beautiful. It has been implied that she had a number of illegitimate children after Gerald’s death, but it is more likely that she married again, possibly twice. Both Anglo-Norman lords of Welsh lands. By this time she would have been a familiar figure in the Anglo and Welsh landscape, having grown up in both worlds and in many ways representing both. A Welsh Anglo-Norman lady living in Wales. We do not know when she died but it would have been around the mid 12th century. We do know that she passed on her sense of Welshness to her children, with her grandson Gerald of Wales celebrating his Welsh roots and other grand children being given Welsh names. Her children and grand children went on to impact both the Welsh, Anglo-Norman and Irish worlds significantly.
A real picture of Nest can be hard to discern through the competing stories, and because she is often drowned out by the complexity and the in-fighting in South Wales throughout her lifetime. The flickering images that do come through are of a practical woman, a beauty who was buffeted by fate, but used what little control she had to survive, to raise children and a dynasty in a world that was being made anew. She was not the last woman to find herself caught between the Welsh and Anglo-Norman world, but her legacy paved the way for those who came after. She is deserving of being remembered in her own right, not just as an allegorical ‘Helen of Wales’. Local legend has it that she haunts Carew, the castle Gerald possibly built for her. If I believed in ghosts, I think that’d be a pretty good place to haunt.
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For the first time I’ve been sent a book for review, a somewhat novel experience for me, but one that I hope will continue as I expand my range of book reviews on this blog. I always love having the chance to talk about a woman who played a crucial role in history, but whose voice and or story has been lost to the broader narrative. In being sent Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Woods, I’ve had the chance to learn about an intriguing woman, and also about the role of the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau, which could easily have been a book in and of itself. So thank you Simone from Shebang for sending me the book.
Simone’s contact wasn’t the first time I’ve actually seen this book. I bought it for work, as I’m always keeping my eye out for any books about women in Victorian history, that can help to fill gaps in the predominantly male narrative, especially military narratives which often write out women entirely. So I’d purchased the book for the PMI Victorian History Library. Sadly, I don’t have time to read every book I buy for work (it would actually be physically impossible) and in all honesty Vera isn’t one I would have picked up and read for myself. I saw it as a reference book to be dipped in to for information as needed, not something to read cover to cover. This supposition is supported by the format, a somewhat awkward slightly oversized hardback. The book does not promote itself as a popular biography. Given this, I was intending to dip in and out for this review, but I was surprised to find how readable Vera is.
Much of this readability comes from the compelling, improbable and complex nature of Vera Deakin’s life and that’s where I want to begin.
Vera Deakin, born in 1891, was the youngest daughter of Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. She was many ways a deeply conventional woman, but she stepped forcibly out of the conventional mould in pursuit of what she saw as her duty to serve.
Vera begins describing her somewhat idyllic childhood, of literature, family life and education both in Melbourne and in Point Lonsdale (where both Vera and her husband chose to be buried). It explores her immediate family, and the role of both her parents Pattie and Alfred Deakin. It’s in this section that narrative lost me a little for the first time, as it skipped around in trying to create atmosphere at the same time as describing non essential people and jumping forward and back in time to allude to future events. Vera does encapsulate the world of learning and music that was the foundation of Vera’s life. However, despite extracts and comments from Vera’s own diaries and letters, Vera herself is a little lost (along with the narrative thread) in the sheer welter of new people, houses being bought and then sold, laundry listing of events, family dynamics, connections, atmosphere setting and external references.
Vera really catches you when we reach World War One. With war declared Vera, who in the preceding chapters had been travelling in England and Germany to continue her musical studies, wants to do her part, very clearly wants to serve and is rebuffed. This is where we see Vera really step into her own story. No one else (especially her father) envisions a role for her in the war other than helping at home and running canteens with her mother, so she makes one. This is where we see the Vera who would later be described as autocratic but deeply compassionate, who inspired fierce loyalty, love, but also awe and in some cases fear. If she had been a man, no doubt the autocracy would not have been commented on.
In finding her own place, Vera got on a ship to Cairo to join the Red Cross support services in Egypt. This was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to the Red Cross. It is not an exaggeration to say that she was the backbone of the organisation in Australia. Arriving in Egypt, Vera was at the coalface of the beginnings of the Australian Enquiry Bureau. Essentially this was a service of tracking down soldiers and sending news of them to their relatives, they also took requests from relatives to track down their loved ones. This might sound like a simple enough concept, but dealing with the conflagration of disorder that was World War One, it was anything but simple. By 1915 enquiry lists were stretching out to 900 pages. These were all soldiers listed as missing, or wounded, or dead. The idea was to provide context for families, the military notification was stark ‘missing’ ‘wounded’ ‘died of wounds’ ‘killed in action’, the Enquiry Bureau filled in these gaps, finding the soldiers, letting their families know of their condition, communicating with prisoners of war (a little later) and sending care packages, and if the solider was dead not only confirming the death but also how they died, usually by talking to another solider who had been there. As you can imagine this was a mammoth task, they had searchers who went out to all the hospitals and military units etc to ascertain the information, but it all had to be sorted and communicated and made useful. Vera was at the heart of this. When the action moved more to Europe, the Egyptian Bureau closed and Vera moved it to London in 1916, she remained there, running the Bureau until the end of the war. The Bureau provided comfort to thousands and thousands of families, but also soldiers, through contact with prisoners of war, helping soldiers on leave and visiting sick and wounded soldiers. Vera was again at the coalface of this side of the operation often ‘adopting’ soldiers and taking them to entertainments on leave, hosting parties, visiting them in hospital and, on one memorable occasion, taking Christmas to a particular hospital when her parents visited in 1916. She also formed relationships with the families of soldiers she was helping to trace, in several cases maintaining correspondence even after the solider was found to be dead. She kept in contact with one father until his death twelve years later.
Vera did not undertake this work alone. She was the heart of a dedicated group of some paid but largely volunteers. This included several women from a similar background to her own, who became lifelong friends, and some of whom she continued to work with when she returned to Australia. As a snapshot of the sheer volume of work that was undertaken- in 1917 the Bureau received 26953 cabled enquiries from Australia and sent back 24610 responses. They received 9175 posted enquires and another 11444 enquiries from Britain and France. 32753 reports come in from searchers and a further 4501 reports from soldiers, matrons and padres. We know these numbers, because of the meticulous records that Vera ensured were kept, and ensured went back to Australia. They are now at the Australian War Memorial and some are in the process of being digitised.
At the cessation in hostilities Vera began to close down the London office, and to move back to Australia. They continued their work right up to the last, sending searchers back on the troop ships, seeing it as their last chance to collect stories from the soldiers of others missing, or stories of how the dead died.
There was one more twist in the World War One part of Vera’s story though. One of the prisoners of war that Vera had been corresponding with early on in the Bureau’s existence was Thomas White, an Australian Aviator who had been captured early in the war flying in Mesopotamia, and held captive by the Turks. The Bureau corresponded directly with him, as he was the best contact to provide support for the rank and file prisoners. The officers were given slightly more lenient treatment. White escaped in 1918 and stowed away on a Russian freighter, making his way to England by circuitous route.
On the 21st of December 1918 another former Turkish prisoner from Geelong, Les Luscomb, came to the Bureau. He and other Turkish prisoners had been held for so long they didn’t know much about what had been happening in the world, so the Bureau helped reorient them. Vera invited Les to visit the Temple Church in London. She saw the soldiers as crusaders describing the deceased at the armistice as “the voices of those Crusader souls who have given their lives on the battlefield & the high seas” and thought he might appreciate the crusader knights’ effigies found in the Temple Church which dates to the 1185.
I just want pause very briefly here to put on my medievalist hat, as people reading this review have probably read some of the rest of this blog, and say that none of the effigies in the Temple Church are crusaders, but you can see where the sentiment was coming from. Les Luscomb met Vera at the Temple Church the following day. He brought his friend Thomas White, Thomas and Vera were engaged three weeks later and married for 37 years. Thomas went on to be a prominent member of parliament and Australian High Commissioner to London- where he was knighted- and it was in her role as his wife that Vera’s path and the book’s narrative continues.
This is not to say that Vera was only his wife. She certainly supported him, but she kept up her volunteer work. When World War II broke out, the Whites had both spoken out against appeasement, Vera set up and ran the Bureau again, but this time from Melbourne rather than London. It feels like an injustice to skate over this part of her life, which was filled with the same complexities as World War I and was instrumental in establishing structures that are still used by the Red Cross today, but like the book I can not cover all aspects of Vera’s life in a review. She was a woman of vision, determination, education, insight, incredible organisation, authority and deep compassion. She was also clearly a woman of her times, she was deeply dedicated to Empire and England, militaristic, pro conscription in both WWI referendums (a concept I can’t understand from someone who saw the suffering first hand), and I found her vision of ANZACs of noble crusaders uncomfortable, but that is again reading this book as a medievalist first. She and White dedicated the rest of their lives to the memorialisation of the ANZACS and all those who fought as heroes. She was at the core of the creation of the ANZAC legend, so it is ironic that her story and the story of the many dedicated (mainly female) volunteers has been lost from the narrative.
Vera does a good job telling the story of Vera’s life and I would like to note the excellent index, but it hovers in the difficult territory of trying to be both a readable, enjoyable biography and a useful reference book. It doesn’t quite achieve either. It is in many ways hampered by the fullness of Vera’s life, some sections feel skated over, a laundry list of achievements rather than a story and examination. Vera tries to ride too many horses; telling Vera’s story, telling the Red Cross’s story, examining her family dynamic and Alfred Deakin, exploring broader military history, Thomas White’s story, even the Bureau’s story. Any of these could have been a book by themselves, and I found myself wanting to know more, to be move involved in the narrative. I also wanted more from Vera herself in her own words integrated into the narrative (as there was clearly been a lot of access to letters, diaries etc). For me, the section that could have been sacrificed to allow more space for the others would have been Vera’s years in Germany and Budapest, and her early tours of England, which while formative, simply aren’t as interesting as her later life. At 210 pages Vera is not a long book, and this has meant the sacrifice of depth in some areas.
All that being said Vera Deakin and the Red Cross does a wonderful job bringing Vera out of the shadows and placing her back at the heart of the ANZAC story, and the formation of the Red Cross- right where she belongs.
The above photo is the non contemporary memorial for Matilda of England. As there are quite a lot of Matildas found in the medieval period in England, I’m going to start by clarifying who I’m talking about. My Matilda, also known as Maud, was the only legitimate surviving child of Henry I of England, and was made his heir.
Matilda is a very prominent figure in 12th century medieval history, and as such a lot has been written about her, so I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I will tell Matilda’s story, but in a series of vignettes of the key moments in her life, but I also want to talk about perspective. This question brings me back to the image above. The wording on her tomb, I think, is really interesting. The loose translation is
Here lies Henry’s daughter, wife and mother; great by birth, greater by marriage, but greatest in motherhood.
Matilda daughter of Henry King of England and Duke of Normandy, Wife of Henry Emperor, mother of Henry father of Richard the Lionheart.
The final untranslated section is about the reinterment of her remains in Rouen Cathedral, but I’ll come back to that part later.
The key link to perspective, for me, is that Matilda is defined by her relationship to others. In my short description of her at the beginning of this post, I could find no other way to describe her but as in her role and relationship with others. This was the only way to give context, and it is not lost on me that in doing so I am falling into the same paradigm, as those who wrote the description on her tomb. The inscription was written in the 19th century when her remains were reinterred in the cathedral, but it is believed that the words of the first sentence were commissioned by her son Henry II, on her original tomb. The second sentence has to have been written later as it references her grandson Richard the Lionheart.
Either way, this epitaph shows inescapably how Matilda’s life has been construed by history, as a wife, daughter and mother, not as a ruler in her own right, not in some ways as a person in her own right. This is true of most medieval women who manage to stick their heads above the parapet of history, and actually have some of their story survive the decay of time. In Matilda’s case though, the question of perception extends beyond this, because she is judged in her ability to rule differently to male rulers of her time, both by her contemporaries and by subsequent historians. It is this question of perception, that is at the heart of this series of posts.
If you want to learn more about Matilda, I highly recommend Matilda: Empress, queen warrior by Catherine Hanley. An in depth biography which places Matilda back in the position in history the she should always have occupied, that of a woman with her own skills and power, on the level of male rulers of her time. This book stands in line with other books about medieval women that are coming out now. In the past the paucity of sources has meant that medieval women have very much hovered in the shadows, but as more active work is done to dig them out, their stories are coming back into the light. I’ve just finished an excellent book about the Queens of Jerusalem, which I’ll review later, and I’ve already written a review of the recent book about Joan Lady of Wales, which you can find here.
But to return to Matilda and her story. As I said earlier I am not intending to write an exhaustive account of Matilda’s life.
Matilda was not born with the destiny of being Queen of England. Fairly soon after her own birth in c. 1102, her brother William was born. They were the only two legitimate children of Henry I of England, a king known for having at least 20 illegitimate children. Their mother was Matilda of Scotland, a very pious woman, who was descended from the old Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Matilda of Scotland’s mother Margaret, was the Granddaughter of King Edward Ironside and the sister of Edgar the Aeithling. Edgar was actually elected king after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but William the Conquerer put paid to that. So Matilda and William were the binding together of both the new and the old royal families. William was known as William the Aethling, an English not Norman term for heir.
From a very young age Matilda was intended for the fate of most royal princesses, marriage to a secure alliances and power for her family. As such, at the age of 8 she was sent to what is now Germany to be the wife of Henry V the Holy Roman Emperor (the second of the Henry’s mentioned), he was 24. While they were formally betrothed and she was crowned queen in 1110 they were not married until 1114 when she reached the canonical age of consent- I’m sure you can do the maths there. In the intervening four years, she was trained in the world of the German court of the Holy Roman Empire, and her role as queen consort. This would have been her life, if not for two factors.
The first was that Henry V died in 1125, leaving Matilda a childless widow- if she’d had a son she might have been able to act as regent. Despite this, she would probably still have remained in Germany if not for the second factor-a disaster that rocked medieval England, the sinking of the White Ship. It was the 900th anniversary of the sinking at the end of last year, so I’ll give you a little background. It was November 1120 and Henry I was sailing back to England from Barfleur, one of the main ports from which to cross the Narrow Sea (today’s it’s more of a fishing village). The White Ship was a magnificent new and shiny ship and (according to contemporary chronicler Oderic Vitalis) its master Thomas FitzStephen approached Henry I, saying his father had carried Henry I’s father (William the Conqueror) to England and I ask you, my lord king, to grant me his fief: I have a vessel which is aptly called the White Ship, excellently fitted out and read for the royal service.
To which Henry was reported as replying Your request meeting with my approval. I have indeed chosen a fine ship for myself and will not change it, but I entrust you my sons William and Richard [Richard was one of the illegitimate ones] whom I love as my own life, and many nobles of my realm. So essentially most of the young nobility sailed on the White Ship, including another illegitimate daughter of Henry I. William the Aethling, allowed the sailors to open the wine in celebration. They decided to to try to overtake the king’s fleet which had already made it to open water, but they were drunk and unlucky and the White Ship struck a rock not far out of the harbour and sank. Some accounts have William the Aethling being put on a boat by his guards, but insisting on going back to rescue his sister, and the small ship was overwhelmed. In the end it is likely that only one person survived, a butcher called Berold who managed to cling to a piece of wood. His cloak was makes of sheep’s wool, so he didn’t die of hypothermia as the more finely dressed nobility did.
When Henry I found out Oderic says, he was overcome with anguish. You can see him depicted mourning the sinking of the ship in the illuminated manuscript of Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle from the early 14th century.
Henry moved on quickly, because he had to. He married, Matilda of Scotland was long dead, Adeliza of Louvain, who was probably in her 20s. Henry was in his early 50s, but he’d sired many illegitimate children, so it would have been expected that he would have a son with Adeliza. This was another turning point for Matilda, because if a son had been born (Adeliza went on to have a number of children in a later marriage) she would have stayed in Germany. But no son was forthcoming so in 1127 Henry dragged Matilda back to England and forced his barons to swear to accept her as his heir. It’s a testament to his personality that they agreed. William of Malmsbury described the situation as All therefore, in this council, who were considered as persons of any note, took the oath. While all the barons did swear, it is worth noting two men in particular; Robert of Gloucester and Stephen of Blois. They were the greatest landholders in England at the time. Robert was Henry I’s illegitimate son, possibly the oldest of Henry’s illegitimate children, and Stephen was Henry’s nephew. Both would become extremely important to Matilda’s story.
What Henry I was doing, oddly enough, was forcing power upon Matilda. There had never been a queen of England ruling in her own right. There wasn’t even really a word for it. The Anglo Saxon word for queen “cwen’ and the latin word ‘regina’ meant wife of the king. This is what Matilda had been to Henry V, but what Henry I was setting her up as was queen regnant, queen in her own right with the same status as an anointed king.
As Matilda re-enters the story here, her lack of agency is evident. She was not given a choice in going to Germany in the first place, but she would most likely have seen it as home having lived there since she was eight. She in fact styled herself as Empress Matilda for the rest of her life, and her son Henry II was known as Henry FitzEmpress. William of Malmsbury described her position as The empress, as they say, returned with reluctance, as she had become habituated to the country which was her dowry, and had large possessions there.
Matilda, now roughly twenty-five, was brought back to England, and thrust into another completely new world. Henry chose her for a reason, making it very clear, according to William of Malmsbury, that it was Matilda to whom alone the legitimate succession belonged, from her grandfather, uncle, and father, who were kings; as well as from her maternal descent for many ages back: inasmuch as from Egbert, king of the West Saxons, who first subdued or expelled the other kings of the island, in the year of the incarnation 800, through a line of fourteen kings, down to A.D. 1043.
We do not know what Matilda thought about her new position, we know she was at the ceremony and she accepted the position of authority, these were binding oaths, and we know from her subsequent behaviour that she believed fundamentally in her own right to rule. None of the sources talk about her in this ceremony beyond Henry I’s reasons for choosing her. They all focus more on the men who swore to her and the precedence of who swore first. Again Matilda becomes a symbol in her own story.
Even though Henry I had chosen her as his heir no one, expect possibly Matilda, thought she would be able to rule without a husband, preferably to produce a male heir to secure the succession. The choice of husband was fraught though. Firstly, it was unclear how the prospective husband would be king, as the barons had sworn to Matilda, but medieval law, both secular and church, clearly made the woman subject to her husband. What Henry I really wanted was Matilda to marry, produce a male heir and for himself to live long enough for that heir to be old enough to rule.
But first a husband had to be chosen. A foreign marriage risked a foreign lord ruling over the barons, but an English marriage risked raising one baron above all the others, which none of them were really keen on either. In the end Henry I turned to an old alliance. William the Aethling had been married to Fulke of Anjou’s daughter to secure the bottom of the border of Normandy, but that betrothal hadn’t survived the White Ship. Henry still wanted the border secure though and Fulke’s son Geoffrey was of marriageable age. To make him a suitable match for Matilda his father would soon be dispatched off to be King of Jerusalem (by right of marriage to another famous queen Melisende) so Geoffrey could be Count of Anjou. You can see a relatively contemporary image of Geoffrey below.
It is unlikely that Matilda was in favour of the match. She was a widow, one of the only times that a medieval woman held any power in her own right, and Geoffrey was only 13, an untried youth. She was also marrying a Count, when her last husband had been an Emperor. A letter from Hildebert of Lavardin alludes to conflict with her father at this time, saying he wanted to write to her about the will of the king and what the father’s breast was feeling about the offence of the daughter. Roger de Toringi described Henry I as he despatched his daughter, the empress, into France to be married to Geoffrey. It’s fairly clear that Matilda had no choice, but she did acquiesce because they were betrothed in May 1127 where they would have met for the first time. They married in June 1128. She was escorted to her wedding by Robert of Gloucester and Brien FitzCount. Both of whom would become key figures later in Matilda’s story.
As this post is intended to be a collection of vignettes, I’m going to skip forward a little in time. Her marriage to Geoffrey was famously acrimonious, they separated within a year, and they continued to live separately until 1131 when another council was held in England. Both Henry I and Matilda were present and William of Malmsbury described it as the oath of fidelity to her was renewed by such as had already sworn, and also taken by such as hitherto had not. It was also at this council that, according to Henry of Huntingdon, it was determined that the king’s daughter should be restored to her husband, the Count of Anjou, as he demanded. She was accordingly sent, and received with the pomp due to so great a princess. It is worth noting that Huntingdon never refers to Matilda by name, she is either the king’s daughter or the Countess of Anjou, once again defined by her relationship to others.
Matilda did not make her own decision to return to her husband. The reunion worked well enough, they may have both decided that the sooner they had an heir the sooner they could have as little to do with each other as possible, that on the 5th of March 1133 Matilda gave birth to a son, christened Henry. Henry I must have been delighted. He did not manage to fulfil his dream to live long enough to see his grandson grow up as a viable heir to the throne though. Henry I died unexpectedly in 1135. Matilda was in Anjou, she’d had another son christened Geoffrey in 1134 (she almost died giving birth). She didn’t hasten immediately to England for a couple of reasons; it would have taken time for the news to reach her, she was also pregnant again with her third child which made travel difficult, and because after having done everything that was expected of her, after producing two male heirs and after two councils where all the barons of the land and princes of the Church swore to uphold her as heir, she may have reasonably assumed they would keep to their oaths. It was not to be though. Her cousin, Stephen of Blois (remember him from earlier) moved incredibly quickly to steal her throne. Henry died on the 1st of December 1135 and Stephen was crowned on the 22nd of December 1135, with the support of the barons. Once he was crowned he was irrevocably an anointed king. And thus began the period of anarchy described by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as a time When Christ and His Saints Slept.
I want to pause Matilda’s story, we’ll get back to her response to the usurpation in a moment, to look at Stephen. He was backed by his powerful brother Henry Bishop of Winchester, but William of Malmsbury described him beautifully
He was a man of activity, but imprudent: strenuous in war; of great mind in attempting works of difficulty; mild and compassionate to his enemies, and affable to all. Kind, as far as promise went; but sure to disappoint in its truth and execution. Whence he soon afterwards neglected the advice of his brother, befriended by whose assistance, as I have said, he had supplanted his adversaries and obtained the kingdom.
This would be the pattern of Stephen’s reign, a good man but not a good king.
But we left Matilda in Anjou, pregnant, with her crown stolen. She and Geoffrey were in the process of taking parts of Normandy after Henry I died, and Matilda was probably in Argentan in the south when she found out that her crown was lost. Stephen not only had her crown, he had the treasury of England and while Normandy gave Matilda a starting point, she simply didn’t have the resources to challenge Stephen directly, not with all the barons who had sworn to her supporting him. She couldn’t even style herself at Queen of England, as Stephen’s wife (confusingly also called Matilda) had been crowned Queen. Facing a seemingly unsolvable problem, she could have resigned herself to being Countess of Anjou, and living a reasonably obscure but probably fairly safe and uneventful life. As we will come to see, safe and uneventful were not Maud’s coin of choice.
She did stay quiet for a while, there really wasn’t much she could do while pregnant, and she styled herself as daughter of the King of England and Empress, empress as I said earlier is a title she would continue to use for the rest of her life. There is not a lot known about Matilda in this period, Stephen consolidated his power in England, with the only rebellion being Matilda’s uncle David King of Scotland, which came to nothing.
Stephen’s honeymoon and Matilda’s brush with obscurity was not to last though. Soon the barons began to take advantage of Stephen’s easy-going nature, and to rebel as soon as they saw that there wouldn’t be consequences. Essentially the first rebellion was Baldwin of Exeter, but when Stephen forced him to surrender his castles he not only let Baldwin go free but let the whole garrison go, with no repercussions. Even the pro Stephen chronicle the Gesta Stephani couldn’t manage to make it sound like a sensible decision, the chronicler described it as Stephen “being desirous rather to arrange all things upon an amicable and peaceful footing, than to foster a spirit of discord and disunity.” Although Stephen was ultimately successful in driving Baldwin off, by letting him go he drove him straight to Matilda and Geoffrey, where his arrival was hailed with great joy and Stephen’s gains began to crumble. This was only the middle of 1136, so six months into Stephen’s reign and the cracks were beginning to show.
To return to Matilda though. Baldwin’s dissatisfaction was just the tip of the iceberg. Stephen systematically alienated much of the remaining barony, and rebellions popped up like spot fires across the country. The key defection though was Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half brother, one of the most powerful landholders in the country and from 1138 Matilda’s staunchest supporter. More men came over to Matilda’s side, and in 1139 Matilda returned to England for the first time in ten years.
Matilda’s landing in England was due to the support of another woman we have already met. Adeliza of Louvain, her step mother. Adeliza would have been a similar age to Matilda when she married Henry I so that was most likely when they developed a relationship. When Henry I died, Adeliza married William d’Aubigny one of Henry’s advisors and later Earl of Arundel. You can see one of the castles they built, Castle Rising, below.
For Matilda though, Adeliza and William’s key holding was Arundel castle (which Adeliza held in her own right as part of her dower). It is about five miles inland on the south coast of England. Adeliza agreed to let Matilda and her forces land on the 30th of September 1139. Robert departed immediately for his stronghold at Bristol to collect his remaining troops and Matilda remained in Arundel castle, taking the first real steps towards her crown.
The triumph was short lived unfortunately. She had been at Arundel for less than a week when Stephen arrived unexpectedly, with troops. This was a crux point for Matilda. She didn’t have a stronghold in England yet, her supporters were scattered rebellions rather than a directed force, Robert was in Bristol, and Arundel Castle wasn’t hers to command. Adeliza and William were also in a difficult position because William hadn’t renounced his fealty to Stephen. Adeliza played pretty much the only card she had, and played it well. John of Worcester described the situation as
When, however, he [Stephen] learned that the ex-queen had received the ex-empress, with her large band of retainers, at Arundel, he was much displeased, and marched his army thither. But she, being awed by the king’s majesty, and fearing that she might lose the rank she held in England, swore solemnly that no enemy of his had come to England on her invitation; but that, saving her dignity, she had granted hospitality to persons of station, who were formerly attached to her.
Stephen could have taken Matilda at this point, but it would have involved a siege and Robert was in Bristol, and would have come to his sister’s aide, along with her other supporters. Adeliza had put him in a bind as well, because it wasn’t technically illegal for her to have invited her step daughter to Arundel. Stephen as was so often the case throughout his reign, did the honourable thing. He let Matilda go to Robert in Bristol. It seems like an act of lunatic chivalry, and some contemporary chroniclers saw it that way, but none of his options were ideal. Regardless Matilda left Arundel and joined Robert at Bristol. For the first time, in England, in person, on the quest for her crown. Thus the period of anarchy began in earnest, and Stephen probably grew to regret his decision.
And that is where we will leave Matilda for now. Part 2 will cover the years of fighting as Matilda tried to become Queen in her own right, and in the process did actually rule parts of the country.
This is going to be a slightly different post to usual, as it will not be straight history. I will cover some of the history of the ballroom above Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Victoria, but I will be telling the story of how I experienced it for the first time (I’ve been trying to get inside for about ten years) as the exhibition space for Patricia Piccinini’s Miracle Constantly Repeated. So this piece will be part history, part personal narrative, and part art exploration. It also ties nicely back to a post I wrote some years ago about art interpreting historical spaces.
But back to the Ballroom. The Flinders Street Ballroom is one of those almost mythical places in cities, that everyone has heard of, and most people have never seen. The sort of place that pops up in newspaper articles every few years or so, with new ideas for its future, or stories of its past. These are the sort of places that strike at the heart of a city’s imagination, kind of like secret tunnels. But unlike most supposed secret tunnels, the Flinders Street Ballroom is very real.
Flinders Street Station has had trains running from roughly the same location since the 1850s, it’s the main station in Melbourne, and ‘meeting under the clocks’ remains a tradition to this day. The current buildings, you can see in the photos below, were the result of a design competition and were completed in 1910.
The Ballroom was not part of the original plan and was added during construction because of the creation of the Victorian Railway Institute. The VRI was founded in 1910 with the aim of promoting the intellectual, social and physical well-being of the members- who were largely railway staff. They still exist actually, though they have expanded beyond railway workers. The ballroom was originally the VRI’s lecture hall, and the other rooms housed, a gym with a boxing ring, a lending library which took books to members by train, and education classes at night. It was a similar concept to Mechanics’ Institutes, you can read more about MIs here. You can see members of the VRI in the then lecture hall in the photo below from the State Library of Victoria.
Much of the original lecture hall can still be seen today in the remaining fabric of the Ballroom. And you can see the activities of the VRI still reflected in the surrounding rooms. The message you can see scrawled on the wall in the final photo below, though, is thought to date to the late 1960s, once the upper floors had already begun to fall into disrepair.
By the early 1900s the lecture hall had become a ballroom, you can see an image of it all decked out in bunting from roughly the 1930s from Victorian Railways Corporation records, held at PROV, below.
By the 1950s, the dances there were so popular a mezzanine had to be added to accomodate more people. The balls always finished by midnight so everyone could catch the last train home.
By the 1970s the rooms began to fall into disuse, the last dance in the ballroom was held in 1983. It wasn’t until 1985 that the public use of the ballroom and surrounding rooms pretty much ceased completely. Every ten years or so another announcement of refurbishment pops up, there’s been ideas of locating the Melbourne City Library on the third floor (an idea I’d be in favour of as they badly need the space), of reopening the Ballroom as a ballroom, or running a school up there, along with many other concepts, none of which have come to fruition. The Andrews Government began restoring the whole Flinders Street Complex in 2015, including removing 10 tonnes of pigeon poo from the dome. The Ballroom is part of this redevelopment, but what it will be used for in the future remains very much up in the air. You can see some of development of the Ballroom (and the rest of the station) in the video below.
While the future of the use of the Ballroom remains uncertain, it has been open to the public occasionally. Either for Open House Melbourne (which ran on a ballot system which I was sadly never lucky enough to be successful in) or for artists to work in. This included the recent Rising Festival, which is where my journey into the Ballroom begins, and where we step away a little from the history and into the world of art.
As I said at the beginning, I’ve been trying to get into the Ballroom for about ten years, it’s just one of the those places that light up my imagination, and my desire to explore odd historical places (kind of the point of this blog). So when it was announced that Rising would be opening the Ballroom, I couldn’t get a ticket fast enough. Then, as has been a familiar story across the world, COVID reared its head again, forcing Melbourne into a two week lockdown, and effectively cancelling the festival, which was devastating to all involved. There was one bright light though. Miracle Constantly Repeated was being held inside in a space that wasn’t being used for anything else, so Rising managed to extend its run. And lucky enough for me restrictions lifted the day before I had my ticket. So I was one of the first groups to experience Patricia Piccinini’s extraordinary installation, in the endlessly fascinating Flinders’ Street Ballroom and surrounding rooms. For me the exploration of both the installation and the third floor rooms was a linear experience, so I thought I’d recreate it. There is just so much layered history in the rooms, that you’ll find a lot of pressed metal photography, and small corners where the origins of the stripped back rooms are poking their heads through. I hope you find it interesting, and it can give you a taste of the transcendental experience of the combination of the installations and the palpable sense of History that hangs over it all.
My journey began with the entrance to the stairs that lead you above.
I really didn’t have a clear idea of what I would find as I began the three story climb, even the stairs show a building that has lived a complex life.
Until ultimately you reach the top, and a corridor that seems to run into the horizon.
Piccinini’s installations are in the rooms along the corridor in both directions, culminating in the the full installation in the Ballroom, which really has to be seen to be believed.
As I wandered amongst their wonder, I was also exploring the building, finding the small places where time (and builders) had pulled back layers. But also looking at Melbourne literally from a new perspective.
There is also a lot of very lovely pressed metal, walls and ceilings, and I may have got slightly too excited about it, so I thought that rather than including them along the journey, I’d just do an overview.
Piccinini’s works is an exploration of nature and the urban environment, of a hybridisation between inanimate object and nature, with objects taking on natural characteristics, or nature adapting to more mechanisation, of chimeras’s who fit in both worlds and how humans find a place. But it is more than this too, she looks at elevating the notion of kindness and caring, for other humans and for the environment, of evolution and change. She creates odd creatures, that challenge how we see ourselves, she creates forests of flowering organs that tell stories of the future and the past, of rituals and ecology. She also has what has to be my favourite line for an exhibition description that “big sculptures don’t just have to be about important men in hats on horseback”.
It’s one of those exhibitions that you really need to see in person to appreciate, especially the way she has worked with the building. Everything I’ve said and will say is my own interpretation, based on the guides provided. You could view her work and experience something totally different, and that’s what I love most about art. We are seeing the expressions of someone else’s thoughts, but the pieces become our own as well, as we view them through the lens of all our own beliefs, and concepts of the world. I’m not going to include the whole installation, because if you have the chance you really should go and see it, but this should give you an idea.
You begin your journey with Diorama, an art with historic links that blurs the line between realism and the artificial.
We then move through to Sapling, where the concept of a tree’s personhood and sentience is explored.
In the same room as Sapling are the Shoeforms, which epitomise Piccinini’s concept of naturalised technology.
In a room further along you’ll find The Couple based around the central conceit of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, in this case what would have happened if Frankenstein loved the creature he created. It’s essentially a meditation on the importance of empathy and caring. I especially loved that Piccinini created the whole room around her ‘couple’ and how it felt incredibly lived in, with the aesthetic of the old building.
The following room was my favourite, ballroom aside. Celestial Field is mesmerising, the human and natural border are collapsing as flowers, like organs, grow and hang from the ceiling and in the middle is The Balance- the naturalisation of mechanisation, as two mechanical forms reach for each other.
I also shot a short video, just to give a real feel for the atmosphere Piccinini creates.
We move along to No Fear of Depths the aforementioned large sculpture of caring.
Probably my favourite of Piccinini’s individual works came next ‘The Supporter’ the idea of a natural environemnt growing out of an urban one, and a sybiotic relationship where humans, nature and the urban world, all sort of hold eachother together.
And finally we culminate in the Ballroom, which honestly I’m not going to try to describe, as the pictures speak for themselves.
As truly miraculous as Piccinini’s A Miricale Constantly Repeated is, the small parts of the building that speak with her work, the old bones that you can see, the small stories- which is kind of what this blog is about- matter to me as much, so I wanted to finish with those.
When thinking about what to write about today, I was looking at some of my recents posts, book reviews, castles and abbeys for the most part. So I thought, maybe I could write about a person? I hadn’t done a biography in a while, so I had a look at my books and my photos, photos are always a key decision maker when it comes to Historical Ragbag posts, and couldn’t decide on anyone. Therefore I had a look at some of my draft posts, things I’d either started writing about and didn’t finish, or posts that never got further than a heading. I came across one mysteriously titled, 13th century tiles, with nothing but the heading. I have written about medieval tiles before in the context of longer posts: Strata Florida Abbey in Wales and Mellifont Abbey in Ireland. Both have lovely examples of medieval tiles. You can see the posts in the links below
So what had been my original intention been in titling a post 13th century tiles? I’m not 100% sure, but regardless I decided that writing about medieval tiles a little more generally could be fun, and give me an excuse to visit the State Library for some books. So hence, this post was born. I hope you find it interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of medieval tiles, but it should be (I hope) a nice overall look at them, their purpose, how they were made, as well as lots of photos of course. I’ve deliberately changed the name to medieval tiles because I want to look beyond the 13th century.
As medieval tiles were floor coverings not that many survive in tact, undamaged, or in their original positions. This just makes the ones that have survived all the more precious.
To begin though, I said Historical Ragbag is about photos, hence here’s my favourite of my photos of a medieval tile
This tile is from Mellifont Abbey in Ireland, probably dates to the early 13th century and was excavated in the 1950s. It’s my favourite for two reasons, firstly the lion rampant design is still so clearly evident and secondly because I was allowed to hold it. It is surprisingly heavy, and made from earthenware with a lead glaze. It’s not the only medieval tile at Mellifont, you can see more in the photos below. As they were excavated in the 1950s they aren’t in their original positions, and while they have been laid out close to their original patterns, they are in a protected area because there was an issue with vandalism.
You’ll find common patterns across most medieval tiles. The ones at Mellifont encompass roughly 25 common designs. It is, though, the only place in Ireland where a lion and a griffin in a circle has been found.
Mellifont is a Cistercian abbey, the oldest in Ireland, and the introduction of tiles there in the 1230s is most likely due to the increasing Anglo Norman influence on Irish religious institutions. The tiles there are lovely, but they are not unusual in terms of medieval tiles more generally.
This brings me to the making of the tiles. It was first thought that they were made by the monks, but most likely they were made by laymen. Originally if you wanted a tile pavement for your religious institution, you’d pay a tiler who would set up on your land and make your tiles, as time went on and more tiles were needed commercial tileries were established. Definitely by the 14th century commercial tileries were the norm. They often stayed local though, and it wasn’t until the mid 14th century that importing tiles was more common. The commercial tileries were high quality, but the designs were more generic. So how were they actually made? A tile kiln was most likely two parallel chambers separated by a spine wall, with a furnace. The kiln was usually built of tiles as well. You can see a hypothetical tile kiln the in the image below- it is from the book Irish Medieval Tiles. The materials the tiles were made from was largely dependant on the soil in the local area. The glazes used for the patterns were lead, and the tiles were most likely fired at 1000 degrees centigrade.
Physical manufacture was only part of the process. The designs of the tiles, either in pattern or layout, was also incredibly important. The tiles would have been coloured, with yellow, green and white glazes being common. The local availability of material could also affect the colour choice. I’m going to run quickly through the main overall design types. I don’t have photographic examples that I can say are definitely correct to a type, so I’m afraid we’ll have to rely on description.
Plain Tile Mosaics: Essentially tiles that were glazed a single colour, without a design, of different shapes and arranged in a pattern.
Two Colour Decoration: A single colour tile with a design impressed on it with another colour, usually done with white clay.
Two Colour Mosacis: When the two colour principle was applied to different shapes to create a mosaic.
Two Colour Square Tiles: More complicated designs, where the design was the point of the tile, not the overall mosaic. These designs were usually figural, heraldic shields, lions, griffins and dragons, sometimes a national symbol.
Line Impression Decoration: These designs were incised into the tiles.
Line Impressed Mosaics: The designs were incised, but intended to be part of a broader mosaic pattern- often irregularly shaped.
Line Impressed Square Tiles: Designs incised into square tiles.
Relief Decoration: The design is impressed with a stamp.
Relief Decorated Mosaic: Stamped designs on tiles intended to be a mosaic.
Relief Decorated Square Tiles: Stamped designs on square tiles.
You can see some of the different colours and typical designs in the collection collated at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury below.
As time went on and the manufacture of tiles was more commercialised the designs on the tiles did become generic, but they would originally have had a figurative power beyond simply being beautiful. In theory the more ascetic monasteries, such as the Cistercians, kept the designs simpler but even in these cases symbolism can be found. Religious motifs were common, with allusions to the Virgin Mary, or a fish on an oval ground, a lily for the annunciation, the Lamb of God for the Templars, or Catherine Wheels for St Catherine. There were also pagan symbols, you find these in a lot of church carvings too, especially the Green Man and lions’ faces. These more figurative tile designs, like a lot of church art work, would have helped to convey the stories of religion and medieval life more generally to a largely illiterate population. Aside from the figurative, coats of arms were also popular along with other heraldric devices. These could indicate a patron of the institution, or a local family.
An excellent example of a mixture of the more generic imported tiles, with still some local influence, is Strata Florida in Wales. These have some really interesting patterns. They are most likely 14th century and were uncovered in the 1880s. They have heraldic images, the arms of Hugh Despenser, the Fleur de Lis of France which may be a nod to the Abbey’s mother house in Clairveaux, as well as a few allegorical designs. You can see them in the photos below.
As you can see they are a mixture of some impression designs and some probably either stamped or painted designs. These particular tiles became a tourist attraction at the end of the 19th century and unfortunately some were souvenired. They are now kept under a roofed area for protection from the elements, but would have originally been laid in the main part of the Abbey and tradition is that only important guests and choir monks were allowed to walk on them. They were made in England and imported which might explain the presence of Hugh Despenser’s arms (you can see the shield in the top right of the second photo) as he was reviled by the Welsh.
Now, I promised pictures, so I wanted to move on to some examples of medieval tiles outside of Mellifont and Strata Florida. Hopefully they’ll give you an idea of some of the different uses of medieval tiles, and their geographic range. The selection is limited to tiles I have photographs of, but they should give you a good overview.
St Dogmael’s in Wales.
The tiles here are out in the elements and incredibly worn, you can see the impact that being a ground cover can have.
The Franciscan Friary in WaterfordIreland
Like St Dogmael’s these tiles exhibit the wear that medieval tiles are subjected to, but you can make out the remains of some inscribed designs.
A Pavement laid out in the Musee de Cluny- the middle ages museum- in Pairs.
This pavement dates to the end of the 13th century, is of two coloured tiles, with a mosaic border and you can see the heraldic Fleur de Lis as well.
Westminster Abbey is home to the Cosmati Pavement, an unparalleled work of inlaid stone from the mid 13th century. It stands at the high altar and you aren’t allowed to take photos inside the abbey, but you can see it at this link https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/cosmati-pavement . The photo below is from the near the Chapter House, where you are allowed to take photos, and showcases some beautiful designs.
Winchester Cathedralin England
The tiles in Winchester are mainly 13th century and give you an incredible example of the sheer scale of some of these pavements in large religious institutions. They are the oldest area of medieval tiles to survive in England, and you’re still allowed to walk on them!
I wanted to finish the tour with a couple of anomolies, or different ways of covering the floor in medieval religious institions. The first Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the jewell box of a church that Louis IX of France had built to house the holy relics he collected. As you can see the floor is painted, the church dates to the mid thirteenth century.
Secondly, I wanted to look quickly at Chartes and its labyrinth. A subject I will return to in much more detail at a later point. Chartres Cathedral has a labyrinth inlaid into its floor. It most likely dates to the beginning of the 13th century, like a lot of our floor tiles, its exact purpose has never been clear, but pilgrims continue to come to walk its meditative meanderings.
So that brings us to the end of our exploration of medieval tiles. They were first and foremost floor coverings, but they were also beautiful, hand made and told their own stories. The ones that survive are in varied states of repair, but they can give you an idea of how truly majestic these pavements would have been.
Medieval Floor Tiles by Jane A Wight
Irish Medieval Tiles by Elizabeth Eames and Thomas Fanning