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22 August 2017

Sir Hans Sloane as a collector of “strange news”

Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) was a major figure in the flourishing scientific culture of Enlightenment London, serving as both President of the Royal Society and President of the Royal College of Physicians. However, his greatest legacy lies in his vast collections of books, manuscripts, specimens and other objects, which after his death became the bedrock of the new British Museum, the ancestor of the British Library.

Sloane’s collections were particularly strong in natural history, medicine and travel, but their overall scope was astonishingly broad. Ongoing research into different parts of his collections is gradually uncovering more detail about their richness and variety. One product of this work is the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue (SPBC), a free and fully-searchable online database that records over 35,000 printed items from Sloane’s library (and counting).

To take just one example of the research possibilities provided by the SPBC – Sloane was a collector of “strange news”. “Strange news” was news of unusual or dramatic events, such as earthquakes, freak weather, monsters or medical marvels, usually accompanied by a supernatural interpretation, such as divine judgement or demonic influence. It typically appeared in the form of short printed pamphlets, bearing titles that promised accounts of “strange”, “miraculous”, “wonderful” or “extraordinary” events to their readers.

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Title-page of Sloane’s copy of Strange news from France… (1678), bearing Sloane’s catalogue/shelf number ‘c 626’. (BL 8755.c.27.)

The SPBC lists 57 items with titles containing even just the word “strange”, alongside “news/newes/relation”. For instance, one pamphlet of “strange news from France” owned by Sloane provides an account of a storm of fist-sized hailstones that destroyed everything except – significantly – a Protestant church. Another of “strange and true news” tells of severe weather across the Midlands that saw snow smother some and floods drown others, depicted as God’s judgement for wickedness. A third relates a nine-foot-long winged serpent that terrorised the people of Essex – complete with frightening illustration.

Image 3
From Sloane’s copy of The Flying Serpent, or strange news out of Essex… (1669?), A1v. (BL 1258.b.18.)

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Title-page of Sloane’s copy of Strange and true news from Lincoln-shire, Huntingtonshire, Bedford-shire, Northampton-shire, Suffolk… (1674), bearing Sloane’s catalogue/shelf number ‘N 788’. (BL 8775.c.67.)

“Strange news” was part of a diverse and sophisticated culture of news in early modern England. Although this era saw the birth of the printed newspaper, which generally contained foreign or domestic politics, this was far from being people’s only source of news. Strange news was another – and very different – kind of news in circulation. Its popularity came partly from its raw sensationalism, but also from its supernatural explanations, which appealed to a religious and superstitious culture.

But why did Sloane, a man of science, collect strange news, which represents such a different mental world? Although it is impossible to be certain, there are several clues. Sloane once said he was curious about “very strange, but certain, matters of fact” – in other words, unusual natural phenomena – and accounts of dramatic earthquakes, storms and floods (if not of giant flying serpents) may have appealed to this desire to explain the bizarre-but-true. He may also have been interested in collecting the pamphlets’ supernatural interpretations specifically to expose them as false, as it has been argued that he acquired other objects for this purpose, such as “Quacks’ Bills” (dubious medical adverts) and “magical” tokens. Whatever the reason, Sloane’s collecting of “strange news” indicates that he may have been at the forefront of the Enlightenment, but his interests were not restricted to the products of the new science.

Edward Taylor
PhD placement student, Sloane Printed Books Project

Further reading:
Delbourgo, J., Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane (London: Allen Lane, 2017) – including discussion on Sloane’s attitudes to magic and the supernatural.
Mandelbrote, G., ‘Sloane and the Preservation of Printed Ephemera’, in G. Mandelbrote and B. Taylor, eds, Libraries within the library: the origins of the British Library's printed collections (London: British Library, 2009), 146-168.

18 August 2017

Illuminations in celebration of the peace

In 1814, after almost 20 years of war with France, Britain and the coalition forces defeated Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). With the French leader exiled and the Hanoverian Kings marking 100 years of sovereignty, there was a lot to celebrate, and in the summer of 1814 London's parks played host to a scheme of spectacular entertainments. Free and available for all to enjoy, the events were depicted in brightly coloured prints, such as these examples from the King's Topographical Collection.

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John Fairburn (active 1789-1840), Description of the Grand National Jubilee, held in St James's, Hyde, and the Green Parks, on Monday 1st August, 1814, published by John Fairburn at Fountain Court, Minories, London, August 1 1814, etching and letterpress with hand-colouring, 430 x 335mm, Maps K.Top.26.7.y.

Arguably the most magnificent spectacle was the Temple of Concord, created in commemoration of peace treaties. The Temple was unveiled in a hugely theatrical show. It was initially concealed from view within the walls of a gothic castle, around which a mock siege was performed with cavalry, artillery and rockets. When the siege reached a dramatic climax the walls of the Castle were dilapidated to reveal the Temple in all its dazzling glory. Unveiling the Temple in this way was seen as highly symbolic of the transition from war to peace.

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Thomas Palser (active 1803-43) ,The Fortress (which inclosed the Grand Pavilion) in the Green Park, with the ascent of the Balloon, published in London by Thomas Palser, 24 August 1814, etching and aquatint with hand-colouring, 29.2 x 40 cm, Maps K.Top.26.7.bb.

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Thomas Palser (active 1803-43), The Grand Pavilion in the Green Park, published in London by Thomas Palser, 12 August, 1814, etching and aquatint with hand-colouring, 317 x 48.1 cm, Maps K.Top.26.7.gg.

The mastermind behind the Temple was Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Congreve (1772-1828), a rocket designer and Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich. He had served many campaigns throughout the Napoleonic War (1803-1815), and led a company known as the 'rocket brigade' at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

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Matthew Dubourg (active 1806-1838) after John Heaviside Clark (approximately 1770-1863), The Revolving Temple of Concord Illuminated: as Erected in the Park in Celebration of the Glorious Peace of 1814, published Bond Street, London, August 12, 1814 by Edward Orme (1775-1848), aquatint and etching with hand-colouring, 260 x 384 mm, Maps K.Top.26.7.ff.

The Temple revolved so everybody could see its lavish decorations, rendered on semi-transparent fabric lit from behind with rows of oil lamps. Congreve had commissioned some of the nation's best artists like Thomas Stothard to design and paint allegorical scenes of these transparencies, each tableau praising 'the Triumph of England under the Regency'. Congreve had also designed a special type of firework, described by the magazine La Belle Assemblé as a rocket within which a 'world of smaller rockets' were contained so that as soon as it was discharged 'it bursts and flings aloft into the air innumerable parcels of flames, brilliant as the brightest stars'.

London's print sellers never missed an opportunity for business, so cheap and eye-catching prints like this would have been plentiful, and purchased as souvenirs for affordable sums at booths in the parks and print shops.

 

Over 500 views and maps from the King's Topographical Collection and other British Library holdings are available to view at https://www.bl.uk/picturing-places. Keep up to date with what's being discovered at: https://twitter.com/bl_prints.

Alice Rylance-Watson

16 August 2017

“Old Dad” – Turner and Son in Twickenham

A widowed father in his sixties sharing a small house with his ambitious, unmarried son in his thirties; running the household while his son runs the business.  Sounds familiar?  Steptoe and Son?  Try Turner and Son.

The great painter JMW Turner’s father, William Turner, was born in South Molton, Devon, in 1745, but moved to London around 1770, following in his father’s trade as a barber and wig-maker and settling in Covent Garden.  His wife Mary, sadly, suffered from a form of mental illness, which resulted in her being admitted to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks in Old Street in 1799 and then Bethlem Hospital in 1800, where she died in 1804. Her condition had not been helped by the loss of her daughter, Mary Ann, who died just before her fifth birthday in 1783.

In 1807, JMW Turner was a successful artist with a flourishing studio and gallery in Queen Anne Street, off Harley Street, and had recently been made Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy.  Because of the Napoleonic Wars, most of his painting expeditions at this time were within the UK.  He also had a busy private life, which included a daughter born to his mistress, Sarah Danby, with another born later.  Turner needed somewhere to escape to for relaxation, so he bought a plot of land in Twickenham and designed a two-bedroom house, Sandycombe Lodge, which was built over the next five years.  In 1813 he moved in with his father, fondly known as “Old Dad”.

Turner Old Dad

John Linnell’s drawing of Old Dad made in 1812, when he attended one of his son’s lectures at the Royal Academy. The eyes below are those of Turner, looking at his notes. Image © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported).  

Old Dad kept house for Turner and tended the plot of land, sometimes complaining of the hard work involved in controlling the rampant weeds. Turner Senior also acted as studio assistant, preparing and varnishing canvases, and initially walked the ten miles to Turner’s studio.  However, he swiftly made the connection between the local market gardens and Covent Garden and could often be seen sitting on top of the vegetables in the market gardeners’ carts, the agreed fare being a glass of gin.

Turner Sandycombe Lodge

Sandycombe Lodge, Twickenham, Villa of J.M.W. Turner, engraved by W.B. Cooke, published 1814. Image © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported). 

There are many visitors’ accounts of the good times that were had at Sandycombe Lodge, which was used for picnics, parties, fishing expeditions and the meetings of The Picnic Academical Club, a sort of artistic lads’ drinking society.  Old Dad played a central role in the organisation of these festivities.  According to an early biographer, Walter Thornbury, he was ‘very like his son in the face, particularly as to the nose...he had a habit of jumping up on his toes every two or three minutes which rather astonished strangers.  The father and son lived on very friendly terms together’. They certainly had a very close relationship and Turner was known to change his plans to be with his father on his birthday.

After 1815, Turner was able to travel more freely in mainland Europe and his visits to Twickenham became less frequent.  Old Dad’s health also began to fail and in 1826, Turner sold Sandycombe Lodge and moved his father back to Queen Anne Street.  This is the part of Turner’s life that is depicted in the film “Mr Turner”. Old Dad died in 1830, at the age of 81 and is buried in St Paul’s, Covent Garden (The Actors’ Church).

Turner memorial

Old Dad’s memorial in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden - photograph by the author   Noc

 

David Meaden
Independent researcher

Sandycombe Lodge has recently undergone extensive restoration to return it to Turner’s original design and is now open to visitors. Twitter @TurnersHouse

Further reading:
J.M.W.Turner, R.A. The Artist and his House at Twickenham, Catherine Parry-Wingfield, 2012.
The life of J. M. W Turner, R.A.; founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow academicians, Walter Thornbury, 1897.

Richmond and Twickenham: A Modern Arcadia
Turner's topographical watercolours