Visitors to the Queen’s House at Royal Museums Greenwich may be aware that something new is on the horizon… fittingly, as spring is around the corner, so is ‘The Garden of England’, an installation of three works by textile artist Alice Kettle, which will open on 14 March in the Queen’s House.
This is the inaugural project of the Royal Museums Greenwich contemporary arts programme. Three new works by Alice Kettle draw on the museum’s portrait collection, celebrating the queens and courtiers of the Queen’s House, and its original setting as a garden retreat, capturing the richness and flamboyance of the Stuart court.
The costume of Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, for whom the Queen’s House was begun (but was left incomplete on her death in 1619) shows the embroidered motifs and colours that were popular in the early seventeenth century.
Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) about 1605, attributed to John de Critz (1551-1642)
They had their own set of meanings and could be read as a sort of code. In the language of colours and flowers the carnations, which are embroidered on Anne’s doublet and the forepart of her skirt, mean perfection. Her pink ribbons and cuffs indicate modesty while the silvery white of her dress represents innocence and purity. The blue ribbons are for amity or friendship and goodwill. Overall, a fitting choice for a queen consort.
The satirical play Captain Underwit (performed before 1641) lampoons this vogue, as Device, an aspiring man of fashion, explains his ribbons and their colours to Lady Huntlove: ‘Shall I decipher my Colours to you now? Here is Azure and Peach: Azure is constant and Peach is love; which signifies my constant Affection.”
Alice Kettle uses both the floral themes brought to mind by gardens – as gardening was a fashionable pastime in the seventeenth century – and the use of floral emblems on clothing and incorporates them into a luxuriously patterned garden. I’ve included a detail here:
Detail of Flower Bed, 2013, copyright Alice Kettle
Alice has also created a stitched portrait of Henrietta Maria, the French princess who married Charles I in 1625 and who, with architect Inigo Jones, completed the Queen’s House in 1633. This new portrait of Henrietta Maria will hang with portraits of Anne of Denmark and their courtiers.
In the Tulip Stairs – the motif is really a stylised fleur-de-lys the emblem of France, for Henrietta Maria – Alice uses floral motifs to reference both queens, Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria. ‘Flower Helix’, to which Alice Kettle is, as I write, putting the final, magic touches, is a hanging of knotted thread work with delicate lacework petal and flowers attached to it, to create a cascade of frothy white flowers, akin to ‘Queen Anne’s Lace.’
Here are the flowers before they’ve been attached to the ‘Flower Helix’. The piece will be assembled in situ in the Queen’s House itself.
Flowers to be attached to 'Flower Helix', made by Alice Kettle with contributions from a variety of makers
These details from Alice’s work are only a sneak preview, but I hope to be able to give further updates, with more images, as Alice begins to install her work at the Queen’s House in the next couple of weeks.
Over the past weeks, some nasty and exotic substances from nineteenth-century medicine chests have been presented. Today however, I am going to focus on some substances that are commonly found in nineteenth-century medicine chests, but that are also still in most kitchens today.
“Spirit of Hartshorn” for example, sounds very mysterious, but is in fact nothing more than an ammonia solution. The Romans called the ammonium chloride deposits they collected in ancient Libya ‘sal ammoniacus’ (salt of Amun) because of proximity to the nearby temple of Amun or Ammon. Before the mid-nineteenth century, this compound of nitrogen and hydrogen (NH3) was usually made from horn shavings, hence the name ‘spirit of hartshorn.’ We now keep its chemically manufactured equivalent in our cleaning cupboards. In medicine chests the substance can be found under various names, such as Liq. Ammon Fort., and it was used to treat stings and insect bites, as it reduces pain an irritation of the skin.
You’d be surprised what you can do with spices…
Other substances that are very common in nineteenth-century medicine chests are all kinds of spices and plant extracts, such as ground ginger, rhubarb powder, and clove oil. Most of these were introduced in Europe in the sixteenth century, when explorers and traders brought them back from newly discovered regions. Rhubarb however was indigenous, although in the nineteenth century medical handbooks sometimes distinguished between various geographical origins, i.e. Turkish and European rhubarb. Savory, a chemist, stated that rhubarb was “…an excellent remedy in case of flatulent affection of the bowels attended with griping pains, and in diarrhoea free from inflammation; but it should not be indiscriminately administered in every case of pain in the bowels, on account of the stimulating nature of the spirit with which it is prepared.”
Ginger, either dried and powdered or in the form of an essence, was advised in all kinds of ailments, but particularly in cholic and gout. It was thought to be warming, and with a more lasting effect than other spices. Rhubarb and ginger were also often combined, most famously in Gregory’s Powder. This mixture of rhubarb, ginger and magnesium carbonate was one of the most common self-prescription medicines for over a hundred and fifty years after it had been developed by James Gregory (1752-1821), a professor of physic in Edinburgh.
Clove oil may not be in your spice rack, but cloves, whole or powdered, probably are – and even today sucking on a clove may alleviate a toothache, albeit temporarily. Clove oil can also still be purchased in pharmacies without a prescription. This is because the active ingredient, eugenol, is a natural analgaesic and antiseptic. For that reason, clove oil is found in so many medicine chests from the nineteenth century, especially in chests that were assembled for travellers. They could easily find themselves many days away from a dentist, and then clove oil was their first resort. All this shows that while many nineteenth-century drugs were ineffective or even harmful, some were innocent and even quite useful.
 Savory, A companion to the medicine chest, 1836, p. 92
Bond’s Companion to the Medicine Chest, ca. 1862 p. 25
If you have passed the Museum lately you may have noticed the arrival of a giant ship in a bottle which was formerly located in Trafalgar Square.
A campaign was launched by the Art Fund and the National Maritime Museum at the end of 2011 and successfully raised £362,500 enabling the National Maritime Museum to acquire and permanently display Yinka Shonibare, MBE’s much-loved sculpture.
In order to help explain the meaning behind the sculpture and its new home at the National Maritime Museum we met up with Yinka Shonibare and our very own Simon Stephens.
There have been a number of major changes at the National Maritime Museum in the last few months – some physical, with new buildings and infrastructure as part of the Sammy Ofer Wing and new galleries, and some virtual, with new websites and gallery interactives.
The changes to the Collections website are significant. We launched this as part of the new wing in July and have been running it as a live beta. It has a vastly improved visual interface, driven by a desire to make it easier to experience some of the amazing works of art, objects and records we have.
We’ve improved the search behind the scenes so that we can hopefully get you to the right object or record you are looking for quickly. We also hope it directs you to related content and lets you see how the object is part of other exhibitions, personal collections, themes or related publications.
We now have more than 250,000 records available and will continue to release more. This means making content available where we don’t have full records. All of the research showed that doing this was the priority, even if we had some gaps in our knowledge. Help improve our records This is where we hope you can come in. If you have information that you feel is important or key to a record then we would be very glad to hear from you. Each record now has a ‘Share your knowledge‘ feature, where you can contact us and help improve the information we have. We have already had a significant number of records updated, and these records now feature a credit to the person who has helped us.
Other important features are the ability to save searches, create your own collections, download images and add tags. We hope that the ability to share and add collections to your own websites and social networks will also prove useful.
Opening up our data
One of the primary reasons for changing the collection website was to enable the data to be used in more flexible ways, both by the Museum and by software/application developers. Providing our content with an API (Application Programming Interface) means that other people can use our data and find new contexts for our content – whether that is another museum, university, public body or just someone with a good idea and some understanding of developing web services. We’re using it to help do new things in the Museum’s galleries and to bring you more of our vast collection.
The new site is helping us discover parts of the collection that were perhaps a little hidden before.
We have switched over to the the new site permanently now and hope it works for you too. We are making lots of changes as we go and we’re always looking for feedback, so do let us know your thoughts.
In August 1858, Britain and the United States of America were united by a submarine telegraph cable that spanned the Atlantic. The news of this great achievement was met in the cities of America with parades, fireworks and parties. New York was the centre of the festivities and saw military and civic processions, including a torchlight parade by the Firemen, a spectacle so brilliant it was depicted in this engraving created to celebrate the new cable uniting the Old and New Worlds.
This image depicts a very American affair, not just because the American firemen are centre stage, but also because it depicts several American men as pillars of the achievement. You can see Benjamin Franklin, pioneer of the use of electricity; Samuel Morse, whose Morse Code was used to communicate on the telegraph line; Cyrus Field, founder of the New York, Newfoundland and London Electric Telegraph Company and Captain Hudson of the US warship Niagara, one of the steamships used to lay the cable. It’s clear that these men did all have a role to play leading up to and during the 1858 laying, but the cable itself was predominately funded by Liverpool merchants and went through Ireland and Canada, strongholds of the British Empire. Consequently this image may not portray an accurate image of the relationship between America and Britain in laying the cable, but it does show who celebrated it the most and the ideals they associated with it.
This is just an example of the types of objects created to commemorate this great achievement of scientific and engineering ingenuity, and within the National Maritime Museum’s collection there are many other clues as to how people celebrated and commemorated the laying of the submarine telegraph cables.
The Museum has many sections of submarine cable from a variety of telegraph lines, including some apparently from the 1858 Atlantic laying. It is not clear, however, whether any of these were sold as souvenirs – rather, they appear to have come from personal collections of people directly related to the cable industry. But from contemporary sources we do know that sections of cable were set in gold and sold as ‘charms’ in England, advertised in newspapers like the Illustrated London News and The Times. Furthermore, in America the company, Tiffany, spotted an opportunity and bought the surplus cable from the laying company, cutting it into small sections and mounting it with brass ferules. These were engraved with the Tiffany name and sold for fifty cents each.
As well as sections of cable, Tiffany also made commemorative medals like this one, although these don’t appear to have been on general sale, but were commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce of New York to give to individuals who had had a role in the laying of the cable. It’s a good reminder of the central role of business and trade in this venture.
Unfortunately the 1858 Atlantic cable’s success was short-lived, and by mid-September it had stopped working completely, leaving many of these souvenirs redundant and rumours that the Atlantic cable had all been part of an elaborate hoax. The failure of the cable resulted in lost fortunes and a government enquiry that meant the next attempt at laying a submarine telegraph across the Atlantic wasn’t made until nearly a decade later. But with the added glamour of the largest steamship in the world, the Great Eastern as the cable-laying ship, souvenirs for the 1866 Atlantic cable exploded onto the market, including a few that remembered the 1858 cable. One jug, for example, shows both the HMS Agamemnon, one of the ships involved in the 1858 cable-laying, along with the Great Eastern, the much celebrated vessel that helped make the 1866 laying a success.
Despite the 1858 failure, the feat of laying a cable across such a vast body of water was successful in capturing the public imagination, resulting in many souvenirs, books and artworks of the 1866 Atlantic cable. Some other examples can be seen in this NMM Library blog.