The Evolution of Men’s Fashion in the 18th Century

When I was writing An Uncommon Duke, I had fun playing with a character quirk of my hero, Gabriel Pearce the Duke of Winterbourne. Gabriel heads up an undercover group of operatives that protect King George and the Prince Regent. His work is dangerous and much of what occurs protecting the crown is out of his control. One of the things he can control is his wardrobe and because of that, Gabriel is a bit obsessed with his clothes. Someone referred to him as the Regency version of a sharp dressed man. Researching men’s fashion in the Regency era was fun and I spent many hours on Pinterest and museum sites looking for inspiration for Gabriel’s wardrobe.

Recently I had the opportunity to see the fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Masterwork: Unpacking Fashion. I knew I’d enjoy taking a look back at 300 years of fashion history and I’d learn some new things. I was disappointed to find it did not include men’s fashion from the Regency era, however it did include 18th century men’s fashion and some of those styles did carry over into the Regency era. The collection highlighted garments from France and Great Britian reflecting the roles these nations played as centers of textile production and as styles leaders in Europe and America. Fashions from the 18th century are from an era shaped by political and industrial revolutions as well as expanding global trade. The examples given in this exhibition reflected that.

So sit back and enjoy this peek at what fashionable men wore in the 18th century.

Banyan

Beginning in the 18th century, British gentlemen wore loose, informal gowns in the privacy of their homes as a comfortable alternative to the stiff and physically restrictive suits they wore in public. These gowns were made of imported materials from the European East India companies and went by various names such nightgowns, morning gowns, India gowns, and banyans. This banyan is made of Chinese silk that was quilted for warmth and has a fitted cut which became popular in the mid-18th century. The fitted banyan combined Persian, Turkish, and Indian influences but followed the silhouette of contemporary European coats, making them well suited to wear informally when receiving guests at home. The banyan was an essential garment for fashionable men and suggested sophisticated, worldly masculinity. This banyan was made in England in 1760-1770, and is made of blue diamond-quilted silk satin.

A Gentleman’s Suit

The suit above was made of red wool-silk poplin in England between 1770 and 1780. It is an example of the relative simplicity in appearance of 18th century English menswear, which influenced fashionable men’s style throughout Europe in the latter half of the century. The plain style was an alternative to the elaborately embroidered and ornately patterned men’s wear in France. This reserved style of dress became linked with broader political values and greater personal liberty that French philosophers, such as Voltaire, associated with England. Just like the banyan above, this garment has a slim silhouette which was fashionable in the 1770s. English tailors were expert in making these tailcoats appear simple, while actually doing an excellent job emphasizing a man’s physique. The fine details of this coat include a gracefully curved front, narrow sleeves, and side seams that arch toward the center of the back, creating the impression of a tapered waistline. While the suit appears simple, the color shows a lingering taste for bold color.

The tailcoat above is French and was made in the 1790s from dark brown, gray, and blue warp-printed plain weave silk with green ombré silk satin stripes. With its high turned down collar, narrow back and wide lapels, it’s typical of the exaggerated silhouette that was fashionable in post-revolutionary France. The museum curators placed it alongside the redingote (the dress) to show the harmony between men’s and women’s fashions during this period that extended to fabric as well as cut. For men, stripes were a decorative substitute for the ornate embroidery of earlier suits. It was interesting to find out that in centuries previous to the 18th, stripes had been associated with the clothing of socially marginalized groups. I think it’s worth noting that even though embroidered suits went out of fashion, embroidery on waistcoats was still popular.

 

The exhibition also included a suit of a French Incroyable (Incredible) that made me smile. The Incroyables were rakish men who lived in France following the French Revolution. They stood out among fashionable men of the time due to their tightly fitted clothing which took on extreme proportions. This coat was made in France of red wool broadcloth between 1787 and 1792, and predates the most exaggerated styles embraced by the Incryoyables in the late 1790s. As the decade progressed, the cut of their clothing became even tighter than this. The high, turned-down collar, narrow sleeves, and sharply curved coat front of this coat still manages to create the impression of an elongated figure. I think the high cut of the top of the waistcoat also helps.

The banyan featured in this exhibition is close to the one I put Gabriel in in An Uncommon Duke. It seems to be the perfect thing for a sharp dressed man to wear while lounging in the doorway of his wife’s bedchamber.

 

St. James’s Church – A Fashionable Place to Marry During the Regency Era

Not too long ago, I traveled to London to celebrate the release of An Unsuitable Duchess. It seemed an appropriate place to celebrate since my Secret Lives of the Ton series takes place there during the Regency era. While in London I had fun searching out locations to include in the third book of the series entitled An Unexpected Countess, which will be released June 1, 2017.

Whenever possible, I like to use locations for my stories that still exist today so readers can visit them if they have the opportunity. I knew I needed a church for this story, and most Regency romances that I’ve read use St. George’s Hanover Square in Mayfair. I wanted to find a unique location and knew there had to be other churches from that time period that members of the British aristocracy would have gone to. I just needed to find one. My search led me to St. James’s Church on Piccadilly in the exclusive area of St. James’s, and I thought I’d give you an armchair trip to see it with me.

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The Piccadilly entrance to St. James’s Church.

When St. James’s Square and the area around it began to be developed in the 17th century, it created a need for an extra church to accommodate the additional parishioners of St. Martin in the Fields. Henry Jermyn, the 1st Earl of St. Albans, gave some of his land for an additional church and churchyard. In 1672 he hired noted architect Christopher Wren to design an Anglican church. It was finished in 1684, and in 1685 the separate parish of St. James was created.

Wren designed the church to be built of red brick with Portland stone dressings. Grinling Gibbons, who was a noted sculpture and woodcarver of the day, made the carved marble font and limewood altarpiece.

 

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According to the church’s website, “accounts by visitors to St. James’s during the eighteenth century stress the fashionable element in the congregation. John Evelyn remarked that a sermon which he had heard elsewhere on the subject of costly apparel would have been more appropriately delivered at St. James’s or some other of the theatrical churches in London, where the ladies and women were so richly and wantonly dressed and full of jewels. James Macky complained that a stranger had to pay for a convenient seat so that it cost one almost as dear to see a play, but he still thought the church worth a visit on a holiday or Sunday, when the fine assembly of beauties and Quality come there. In later years, James Boswell confessed that his mind was distracted when he attended a service at the church but excused himself because his warm heart and a vivacious fancy made him give in to love and to the most brilliant and showy method of public worship.”

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The back entrance of the church from Jermyn Street.

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The door leading up to the spire.

The interior of the church, which had been admired for its beauty by contemporary writers, owed its brilliancy not only to the richness of the congregation’s dress but also to the whiteness of the walls, the gilded fittings, and the handsome furniture all illuminated in winter by scores of candles.

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The English poet and painter William Blake was baptized in St. James’s Church in 1757 and the musician George Thomas Smart was baptized here in 1776.

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William Ince and John Mayhew, who were partners in a successful furniture business, married sisters in a double wedding in St. James’s in 1762. Fredrick de Horn married the artist Angelica Kauffman here in 1767. For those interested in scandal, the groom was an imposter who was already married. And Philip Hardwick, the architect, married Julia Shaw in St. James’s in 1819.

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James Gillray, the famous caricaturist was buried in St. James’s in 1815. Mary Beale, one of the first professional women artists, was buried here in 1699. And William Douglas, the 4th Duke of Queensberry, was buried here in 1810.

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A simple gravestone, now used as a paver stone at the entrance of the church.

In May of 1940, a bomb destroyed the rectory and vestry, and incendiary bombs also took out the spire and most of the roof. The churchyard and outside graves were destroyed as well. While I roamed around the churchyard, I had the opportunity to talk with Reverend Lucy Winkett. She informed me that after the explosion many of the tombstones were left scattered about the churchyard. Because supplies were scarce due to the war, the parish decided to use those tombstones in front of the church as pavers leading to the building when they rebuilt the church in 1947. You can see them today if you enter the grounds through the Piccadilly entrance.

 

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The churchyard is raised and behind this wall on Jermyn Street.

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St. James’s Church is the black square you see under the “i” in Piccadilly. Map courtesy of Greenwood’s Map of London from 1826.

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This is a map of the parish boundaries for St. James’s Church.

If you have the opportunity to travel to London and are in the area, it’s worth a stop to see this lovely church which I found a way to use in An Unexpected Countess. You’ll have to read the book to find out how.

 

Works by 18th Century French Artist Vigée Le Brun at The Met

A few days ago I went to see the Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) is considered to be one of the finest eighteenth-century French painters and among the most important women artists of all time. She was known for her expressive portraits of French royalty and the aristocracy. She was the same age as her patron, Queen Marie Antoinette, and their association caused Vigée to flee France during the Revolution. According to the exhibition catalog, “Vigée Le Brun exemplifed success and resourcefulness in an age when women were rarely allowed either.”

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Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons by Vigée Le Brun, ca.1782 (Kimbell Art Museum)

This exhibition was stunning, and I highly recommend seeing it if you’re in the New York City area. There are restrictions on photographing many of the beautiful paintings, including those of Marie Antoinette, and honestly, the photos I did take do not do justice to Vigée’s fine brushwork. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share a few pieces with you, along with some fun tidbits about the paintings and the women who sat for them.

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The Maréchale-Comtesse de Mailly in Van Dyck Costume by Vigée Le Brun, 1783 (Private Collection)

Blanche Charlotte Marie Felicite de Narbonne-Pelet, the Maréchale-Comtesse de Mailly (1761-1840) was a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette and was known for her kindness and sense of mischief. Her husband was marshal of France and was guillotined during the French Revolution in 1794. Blanche and their son barely escaped the same fate and went into hiding in Paris. In 1797 the administration of Sarthe returned to her all the marshal’s unsold properties and the money raised from the properties already sold. On Napoleon’s orders, she was obligated to spend her time at the imperial court and to send her seventeen year old son, Adrien, to the Ecole Militaire. When he was wounded during the Russian campaign in 1812, Adrien was saved by Napoleon, who would not allow the last of the Mailly line to perish. Blanche lived to the age of seventy-nine.

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The Comtesse de Gramont Caderousse Gathering Grapes by Vigée Le Brun, 1784 (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Marie Gabrielle de Sinety, Comtesse de Gramont Caderousse (1761-1832) was also a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette. The comtesse is depicted as a grape harvester in keeping with the Queen’s love of contrived rusticity. Vigée persuaded Marie to forgo powdering her hair for this painting, wishing to show her ebony black locks. This was a radical departure from the powered hair usually worn by women of court and the privileged classes. After one particular sitting, Marie left and went to the theater as she was. According to Vigée, this action set the fashion of unpowered hair, which became wide-spread.

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Comtesse Du Barry de Cérés by Vigée Le Brun, 1784 (Toledo Museum of Art)

The Comtesse Du Barry de Cérés was born Anne Marie Thérèse de Rabaudy Montoussin (1759-1834) and she married the comte Jean Baptiste Du Barry de Cérés, thirty-six years her senior when she was eighteen. According to Vigée, Anne had a “charming and sweet face though you could see something false about her eyes.” That falseness was evident when she diverted public attention away from her liaison with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, controller general of finances, by spreading rumors that it was Vigée Le Brun who was engaged in an affair with the man. This rumor hurt Vigée’s reputation.

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The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Two Sons by Vigée Le Brun, 1787 (National Gallery of Art)

This portrait was commissioned by the Marquise de Rougé, who appears in the center of the painting with her two sons, Alexis and Adrien. By the time this portrait was painted she had been widowed about four years. Her husband, Colonel Marquis de Rouge died while returning from a distinguished military career. The other woman in the painting is her dear friend The Marquise de Pezay, who was also a widow. This is one of my favorite paintings in the exhibition. I love the iridescent gown of the Marquise de Pezay, and there is a sweetness in the way the boys are snuggling up with their mother. But I think the aspect of the painting that touched me the most was that it includes two girlfriends. It is a sweet tribute to what must have been a very close friendship.

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Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1790 (Institut de France, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris)

When Vigée arrived in Naples in 1790 she met Ekaterina Vasilievna, née Engelhardt (1761-1829) at dinner. Ekaterina was the wife of the Russian plenipotentiary in Naples. Vigée recalled her as “sweet and pretty as an angel. I remember her telling me that in order to go to sleep she had a slave under her bed who told her the same story every night. She was utterly idle all day, had no education, and her conversation was quite empty. But in spite of all that, thanks to her lovely face and her angelic sweetness, she had an incomparable charm.” Ekaterina is believed to be staring at a miniature of her husband in this portrait.

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The Princess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris by Vigée Le Brun, 1793 (Private collection)

This is my favorite story about any of the paintings in this exhibition. When Vigée was in Vienna, Prince Alois I von und zu Liechtenstein (1759-1805) requested two enormous paintings. One of his wife Princess Karoline Felicitas Engelberte von und zu Liechtenstein (1768-1831) and the other of her sister. Vigée decided to paint the princesss of Liechtenstein as Iris. This is Vigée’s recounting of this painting in her Souvenirs: “That young princess was very shapely; her pretty face had a sweet and heavenly expression, which gave me the idea to represent her as Iris. She was painted full-length, soaring into the air. Her scarf, in the colors of the rainbow, fluttered about her. You can well imagine that I painted her barefoot; but when that painting was placed in the prince’s gallery, her husband and the heads of the family were very scandalized to see the princess without shoes, and the prince told me he had a pretty pair put under the portrait, telling the grandparents that the shoes had just slipped out and fallen onto the floor.” At the time, the prince was thirty-four and the princess was twenty-five. Prince Alois liked the painting so much, he also commissioned the present bust-length version that is displayed in this exhibition. I found it sad the cheeky prince died at the young age of forty-six.

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Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1796 (Musée du Louvre)

After receiving a number of commissions from Russians in Vienna, Vigée decided to travel on to St. Petersburg in 1795. This portrait of Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya was painted after Ekaterina had been widowed for three years. It is considered a boudoir painting due to the relaxed nature of her dress and is believed to have been painted for her younger sister, Tatyana. Providing a seat and something to lean on were comforts that Vigée liked to give her sitters.

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Countess Anna Ivanovna Tolstaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1796 (Private Collection)

Anna Ivanovna (1774-1825) was married to Count Nokolai Alexandrovich Tolstoy, a renowned collector of books and prints and an intimate friend of the future Tzar Alexander I. Anna was well known for her tall stature and her friends nicknamed her “La Longue”. She commissioned this portrait by Vigée in keeping with her mother’s preference for women artists. The chemise dress is reminiscent of the attire Queen Marie Antoinette favored in the 1780s.

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Luise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia by Vigée Le Brun, 1802 (H.R.H. George Friedrich, Prince of Prussia, Hohenzollern Castle)

When Vigée left St. Petersburg she traveled to Berlin, capital of the Prussian kingdom. Three days later she was summoned by Queen Luise (1776-1810) to Potsdam Palace to paint her portrait. The queen treated Vigée more like a hostess than a patron. She offered rooms to Vigée at the castle, but the artist declined preferring to rent a room in a modest hotel. The queen sent her coffee, provided her with a loge at the theater, invited her to visit Pfaueninsel and its castle in a carriage supplied by the court, and gave Vigée two bracelets that the artist had admired. Sadly, the thoughtful queen would die at the young age of thirty-four.

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Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina by Vigée Le Brun,1820 (Private Collection)

Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina (1797-1869) suffered from lung disease and, accompanied by her husband, left Russia to seek medical treatment abroad. While they were in Paris she posed for Vigée. The painting suggests the sitter’s reserve and withdrawn personality.

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The Duchesse de Berry in a Blue Velvet Dress by Vigée Le Brun, 1824 (Private Collection)

The Duchesse de Berry is a woman who I keep running across in my research and in a few of the antiques I’ve purchased. In fact, I’ve written a number of blog posts that include her. Marie-Carolina Ferdinanda Luisa di Napoli e di Sicilia, princesse de Bourbon-Naples (1798-1870) was married at seventeen to the second son of the future Charles X, Charles-Ferdinand d’Artois, duc de Berry. Destined for the throne, he was assassinated two years after their marriage by a fanatic bent on eliminating the house of Bourbon. Shortly after her husband’s death, the duchesse gave birth to their son, Henri, duc de Bordeaux, later comte de Chambord. She was a fashion trend-setter of her day and after her husband’s death, she devoted the rest of her life to trying to restore the Bourbons to the French throne, in the form of her son.

Viewing art is such an individual experience, even if we are standing in a gallery surrounded by other people. When we look at a painting, we bring our life experiences with us and see the work through our own unique perspective. I’ve told you about some of my favorite paintings from this exhibition. I’d love to know what your favorite is. Make a note in the comments section and let me know.

Reference:

Vigée-Lebrun,  Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, Paul Lang, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. Print.

Costume Jewelry in the Georgian Era

A few days ago, I went shopping for a birthday gift for a friend. She likes to wear rather large statement pieces of jewelry, and I found a perfect necklace for her at Henri Bendel. Today, wearing costume jewelry is quite common, but did you know there was something similar to costume jewelry during the Georgian era? It’s true. In the 18th and 19th centuries, all that glittered was not gold.

Although the Merriam-Webster dictionary dates the term “costume jewelry” to 1927, jewelry made out of inexpensive materials to resemble gold and fine gems dates back much earlier. The first type of fake jewelry I’d like to discuss is paste stones, which are fake gem stones. Paste is a particular type of imitation gem stone that is made out of glass with a high lead content and has been around since the 18th century.

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A paste demi parure, ca. 1820. Courtesy of Bonhams.

 

According to Collector’s Weekly, “in 1724 the French jewel designer Georges Frédéric Strass created ‘paste,’ a kind of leaded glass that he cut and polished with metal powder until it appeared to shimmer like a diamond in the light. These white ‘diamante’ or ‘strass’ were a hit with glamorous Parisian high society.” Eventually the popularity of paste spread.

During the Georgian era it wasn’t technically possible to cut and polish diamonds the way we can today, and diamond jewelry had to be made around the shapes in which the diamonds were found. The advantage to using paste was that these stones could be cut and polished into the shapes jewelers needed for their designs. Therefore, some of the most exquisite pieces of Georgian jewelry are made out of paste.

Paste earrings from my private collection, ca. 1775-1790.

Early paste stones were backed with either clear or colored foil to reflect the light. The backs of foiled paste stones are “closed” which means the back of the stones are covered with silver or gold to protect the foil backing. If you look into the center of a white paste stone, you may see a black dot that was placed there to help the piece resemble a diamond.

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White paste earrings, ca. 1790. Courtesy of Three Graces.

I think it’s worth noting that you wouldn’t have been embarrassed to wear paste jewelry. The people who wore these pieces would not have been poor and weren’t wearing them to deceive people into thinking they were wearing precious gemstones. The settings they were placed into and their high sparkle made them very desirable in their own right.

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Lozenge-shaped cross in openwork decorative scrollwork set with paste stones, ca. 1809. Courtesy of Three Graces.

If you own antique paste jewelry, it’s important not to get it wet—especially if there is foil behind the stones. The moisture could ruin the stones’  appearance. Brushing the jewelry with a soft dry toothbrush is an ideal way to remove any dirt. You can also polish your piece with a soft dry cloth. Another thing to keep in mind, paste stones are softer than many natural gemstones, so they should be stored separately.

Another form of Georgian “costume jewelry” is Pinchbeck. Pinchbeck resembles gold but is made from a combination of copper and zinc. The formula for this metal was developed by Christopher Pinchbeck, a London clockmaker who lived from about 1670 to 1732.

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A bloodstone and pinchbeck fob seal. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Pinchbeck was an affordable substitute for gold, and records indicate that travelers often carried jewelry and accessories made from Pinchbeck if they felt they were at risk for robbery during their journey. Their more expensive pieces were kept safe at home.

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18th century portrait miniature with pinchbeck locket frame with engraved border. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Pinchbeck could be worked into the same intricate designs as gold, and it retained its yellow color unlike other gold substitutes of that period which were prone to fading. In the mid-19th century Pinchbeck’s popularity waned when nine karat gold became legal,which allowed buyers to purchase jewelry made from a less expensive type of gold. And about that time the plating process known as electro-gilding was invented, adding to Pinchbeck’s decline.

So the next time you look at a portrait from the Georgian or Regency eras, consider that the jewelry worn might not be what it appears.

References used:

http://www.bonhams.com

http://www.collectorsweekly.com/fine-jewelry/paste

http://www.georgianjewelry.com

Goldemberg, Rose Leiman, Antique Jewelry: A Practical and Passionate Guide. 1976.

 

 

A Shocking Way to Entertain Guests During the Regency Era

 

Electrifying Machine

When you’re entertaining, you want your guests to have a good time. While good conversation over a meal and then cocktails afterwards can be the makings of an ideal dinner party, sometimes we have an urge to do something a bit more memorable. Our Regency era counterparts were no different, and in the early nineteenth century one way you could make an impression on your guests was with a spark of electricity.

During the Georgian era electricity was a hot topic. Benjamin Franklin completed his famous experiment with lightning, and Luigi Galvani was studying the reactions of muscles to electricity. By the later half of the eighteenth century, friction machines were used for generating electric shocks to amuse spectators at public exhibitions. In England, popular interest in electricity led to arguments about the propriety of demonstrating these effects in public. A political controversy arose along party lines in Parliament, with the Whigs championing the scientific demonstrations and the High Tories claiming that it was blasphemy to expose God’s secret before an “ignorant populace.”

By the early nineteenth century, electrifying machines became hugely popular and eventually cheap enough to find their way into the homes of the gentry. Scientific experimentation was one of the few areas of Regency life in which women could participate on something approaching an equal footing with men. Therefore, using an electrifying machine was an ideal activity to entertain both the male and female guests during an evening at home.

The watercolor painting at the top of this post shows a fun glimpse of Regency life. It’s dated May 25th 1817 and was painted at Dynes Hall in Essex, England, by a young English woman named Diana Sperling. Diana enjoyed capturing scenes of everyday life. This painting depicts an evening after her brother-in-law, Henry Van Hagen, had purchased an electrifying machine, possibly to entertain his family and friends.

He is shown cranking the machine to create friction, which would carry an electric shock through the string. His wife is behind him, apparently having no desire to take part in the experiment. Henry’s mother starts the chain of guests and has the honor of holding the machine’s string. When enough friction was created, all the guests would receive a shock. I suppose this was considered a novel way to have fun. My favorite part of the painting shows Diana’s sister Isabella, leaning against the wall. It appears as if she is either swooning or cannot believe her family has convinced her to take part in this odd experiment.

I recently held a dinner party for a few friends, and I think they would have been shocked if I suggested we have a go at running electrical current through our bodies for amusement. I think enjoying cocktails and amusing conversations probably was entertaining enough.

References used include:

Longford, Elizabeth, Mrs. Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823, (c. 1981)

Jago, Lucy, Regency House Party (c. 2004)

 

A Regency Era Tourist Attraction: The Crypt of St. Martin’s-le-Grand

There are times when I’m combing through historical information and have the good fortune of uncovering a gem that sparks my imagination. This happened not too long ago when I was researching locations in London and read about the crypt of St. Martin’s le Grand. Since today is Halloween, I thought it was an appropriate day to tell you about this regency era attraction.

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Around the year 700, a collegiate church and sanctuary was founded by Wythred, King of Kent, and dedicated to St. Martin. The epithet le-Grand was added afterwards, because subsequent monarchs granted it extraordinary privileges. William the Conqueror confirmed the endowments and the closing words of his charter states: “If any person whatever shall presume to alter anything hereby granted, let him perish with Judas the traitor.”

Even after the dissolution of the monasteries, the area remained a privileged one, and constituted the precinct known as the Liberty of St. Martin’s-le-Grand. In 1548 St. Martin’s was turned over to King Edward VI and the church was pulled down. A wine tavern and houses were erected in its place, and for a considerable period of time this area also possessed its own prison, bailiff and court. In 1815, Parliament approved this location for a new general post office. When the workmen were clearing the site in 1818, they made an interesting discovery.

This is the account from The Times, dated the 25th of September, 1818:

“As the workmen employed in clearing away the ground in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, which is to form the site of the new post office, were a day or two ago removing the foundations of the old houses which stood in the rear of St. Leonard’s-Fester Lane, they discovered the roofs of some ancient vaults. As soon as the rubbish on the particular spot was removed, three vaults were discovered, each communicating with the other by a narrow passage or gallery: they are built chiefly of large square bricks, intermixed with stone and some flint, the depth about eighteen and the breadth about six or seven. They appear to have been each originally divided into two compartments. In the back of one of the vaults was found a large quantity of human bones, thrown promiscuously together, as if collected from different graves. In one of them is a stone coffin, rather short in length, made in the shape of the ancient coffins, square in the head, and inclining in a tapering form towards the feet; a space is rather rudely shaped for the head of the body to rest upon, and the remains of a skull and some decayed bones are in the cavity. Adjoining, and in the same line with these arches, is a vaulted roof, supported by small and short stone shafts or pillars, from which spring semicircular arches, intersecting each other at equidistant points, and presenting to the eye the skeleton of a structure, at once simple, durable and beautiful. The subdivisions of the intercolumniation [sic] were evidently open when built, and so arranged as to admit a communication with other parts of the building. The floor of these vaults is about 29 feet below the pavement in Newgate-street, the loose ground on the same level bears all the appearance of having once been a cemetery, from the fragments and calcined parts of bones intermixed with soft earth which are observable in the vicinity.” 

The Crypt of Kirkstall Abbey circa 1806-7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Crypt of Kirkstall Abbey c. 1806-7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Other reports state that a Roman coin was found in the crypt and the stone coffin contained a skeleton. After accounts of the discovery ran in the papers, people came from neighboring areas to visit the crypt and for a time it was a tourist attraction.

The General Post Office opened in 1829, and was a grand Neoclassical design by Robert Smirke. From this location mail coaches departed for destinations all over the country. The building was torn down in 1911, and was replaced by a new post office to the west.

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The General Post Office in St. Martin’s-le-Grand by Thomas Shepherd c.1829

Sources used include: