Category Archives: Explore Europe

The Fashion Museum in Bath: Blackout Curtains to Ball Gowns

Bath’s charming Fashion Museum is always worth a wander. And there’s a large central gallery where one and all are invited to try on new identities. How does that wig fit, Sir?

In this town where Jane Austen lived and wrote in the early 1800s, there are always Jane-esque muslin gowns on display. The placard explains that in the 1780s Marie Antoinette and her ladies at Versailles wore similar gowns in their private off-duty hours. In France, these refreshingly simple dresses were called chemises de la reine: dresses of the queen. They were inspired by archaeological discoveries of the ancient world in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

By 1900, fashions had gone fancy and formal again. To appear at court, a lady had to wear a dress with a train that trailed at least three yards from her ankles–nine feet. I’d be hopeless in a getup like that, I’m afraid. I’d trip myself and anyone in a nine-foot radius.

Sailor suits for little boys were popular in Victorian times. The fashion started when the five-year-old Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, wore a miniature version of a sailor’s uniform from the HMS Victory. It was the flagship of Lord Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

During and after World War II, blackout cloth was about the only fabric that was not rationed. Enterprising ladies used it creatively for dresses. The one above is from 1945.

In honor of the postwar accession of Queen Elizabeth II, a little girl’s mother treated her to a homemade dress printed with scenes from the coronation.

The smocked dress features a border and collar with the coronation procession.

I lived through the 1960s, but I have to say I would not have appeared in public in a “knickerbocker dress.” Was this really a thing? Mary Quant, the swinging 60s designer, thought so, and actually sold this little number in her boutique in 1961. Not for me, thanks. I do remember wearing geometric minidresses, though.

In 2018, the Fashion Museum features a special exhibit of clothes worn by several British royal women.

The exhibit starts with Princess Alexandra, subject of a previous post.

Next is Queen Consort Mary of Teck. She was married to King George V.

Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, wore this Norman Hartnell ball gown in 1954.

My favorites were the exquisite gowns worn by Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen.

The striped 1949 Dioresque gown above was designed to encourage postwar women to wear British textiles, including reasonably-priced cotton. It was the work of Norman Hartnell.

Best of show, in my opinion? Margaret’s ethereal ivory chiffon evening gown with tied bolero jacket, above.

The Fashion Museum is a bit off the beaten path in Bath, but worth the slight detour.

And did I mention that guests are invited to try on historic outfits for size?

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

St. Hallvard of Oslo

How many cities have their own patron saint? Oslo does, and May 15 is his feast day. Since the Middle Ages, images of local boy St. Hallvard have appeared on the city seal of Oslo, and elsewhere in the city. Above is a carving of St. Hallvard from the City Hall.

The entire City Council Assembly Room is dedicated to St. Hallvard. It was designed by Magnus Poulsson, with a beautiful tapestry designed by Else Poulsson and woven by Else Halling.

But wait, who is that woman lying at Hallvard’s feet in the first carving? Legend has it that Hallvard was a farm boy, born around 1020, who gave sanctuary to a poor pregnant woman who was accused of being a thief. He believed in her innocence. He allowed her onto his boat to get away from her accusers, and offered them recompense for the supposed theft. But they killed both the woman and Hallvard with arrows–three arrows for Hallvard. The carving just above shows him shielding the woman while bad guys shoot him. But what’s that round object in the lower left-hand corner?

According to legend, the murderers buried the woman, then tied a millstone to Hallvard and tried to sink him. But he would not sink. So their crime was discovered. Hallvard is usually depicted holding a millstone in one hand and three arrows in the other.

The tapestry is front and center in the assembly room.

I can’t tell whether Hallvard was ever officially declared a saint by any authority. The people just admired him and wanted to remember him. Christians saw him as an example of righteous self-sacrifice. A cathedral was dedicated to him in 1130, and it was the most important church in Oslo for several centuries. Its ruins are still visible in a park.

Anyway, I think the City Hall is the best place for Hallvard. In egalitarian, practical Norway, common people and their common lives are celebrated. Like the other fine art in Oslo’s City Hall, Hallvard’s tapestry shows people building, caring for others and for animals, enjoying a peaceful life, and generally getting along.

I know that every city and town has its own undeclared secular saints: people who quietly work for good and give of themselves. We need to celebrate them all, as Oslo celebrates its native son, St. Hallvard.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

If It’s Tuesday, That Must Be Talleyrand

Or, Why You Might Not Want to Travel With Me. I’m nearing the end of a 9-day trip to France, and for sure I know I married the right guy all those years ago. He cheerfully drives anywhere, this time from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Loire Valley and back, with at least two or three stops at sights every day. If you don’t like a slightly hectic travel pace, you might not want to tag along with us.

We based ourselves in tiny Chenonceaux, pretty central for the Loire Valley. (The town’s name ends with an X but the chateau’s name is Chenonceau).

And Chenonceau is the most beautiful and fascinating chateau anywhere, if you ask me. Plus Chenonceau always smells wonderful. Every single room always has fresh flowers, as no doubt they did in the days that Diane de Poitiers and later Catherine de Medici gazed out the leaded-glass windows at the River Cher.

Thanks to the wonders of our Garmin GPS to find places, and my trusty iPhone cellular data to double-check opening times, we covered a lot of ground on this trip. Also, we were seeing some of these places for the second or even the third time. (For us, history never gets old. It just gets more interesting).

Here are a few of my other favorite things from this trip:

Claude Monet’s Gardens and Home in Giverny.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau: a jewel of a Renaissance castle, recently renovated and sparkling on its own pretty little island.

Chateau de Cheverny: owned by the same family for hundreds of years, plus they have about one hundred happy hunting dogs.

Chartres Cathedral, one of the greatest medieval pilgrimage sites, always spectacular (even though I don’t understand why the interior was recently whitewashed. I have mixed feelings about the very controversial recent “renovation”). I really love the mismatched towers, pretty unique in cathedrals. What were the builders thinking, as the second tower went up? Who gave them permission? Well, it works for me.

Chateau de Blois, layers of history plus a generous serving of murder and mayhem.

And as for Talleyrand? He was the right-hand diplomat of Napoleon Bonaparte, among many other things in his gleefully scandalous life. He pretty much did as he pleased and had a wonderful time. His Chateau de Valencay is lovely in a faded-elegance way, and very entertaining.

Just above, the fairy-tale towers and turrets of Chateau d’Usse.

I have lots more just to list, but I still have a couple of days to see as much as possible. Time to plan what else to see. I’ll finish my trip list later. Naturally, I took a ton of photos and picked up a ton of guidebooks. I’ll post much more about each of these sights and all the rest after I catch my breath. To be continued!

Monet’s Garden in Giverny

Claude Monet was not always the rich and famous inventor of “Impressionism.” In fact, “Impressionism” was not always a revered art movement, or a way to sell countless silk scarves and coffee mugs. In 1872, the 32-year-old artist exhibited a painting titled “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, rising sun”) which was ridiculed for being a mere Impression, not a real painting. But he persevered.

In 1876 Monet’s young wife Camille became ill with tuberculosis, common in those days. She was weakened further after giving birth to two children. She died at age 32 in 1879, apparently from uterine cancer on top of everything else. She never saw the gardens at Giverny; they did not exist in her lifetime.

In 1876, Monet and Camille had been invited to the chateau of businessman/collector Ernest Hoschedé, where they met Edouard Manet and other artists. His wife, Alice, became a good friend to the young couple. Then disaster struck. Hoschedé went bankrupt, abandoned his family, and fled to Belgium in 1877. Alice began caring for Monet’s two children, along with her own six children. She and Claude decided to join forces and bring up their children together. Neither of them had much money, and there were years of hardship.

They were finally able to marry in 1892, once Alice’s estranged husband died.

After all their troubles, it seems they happily raised their large family and grew old together. In their house, I loved this photo of the two of them feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

But during their years of poverty and somewhat scandalous living arrangements, the couple lived in rented houses which Monet hated. In 1883, he caught a glimpse of Giverny from a train window. He rented the existing house and began cultivating a garden.

His painting career was taking off during these years. Soon he was able to buy the house. He and Alice entertained all the important artists and writers of their time. Today, reproductions of the paintings of Monet and his friends are informally displayed on shelves, as the originals were in his lifetime.

Monet added various rooms to the house. His own sunny corner bedroom featured some of his favorite paintings, now replaced by reproductions.

He especially liked Renoir’s serenely sunbathing lady. So do I.

I imagine there must have been a kitchen garden in Monet’s time. The blue-and-white-tiled kitchen was large and equipped to serve a big family and plenty of guests.

If I could choose one time and place to time-travel to dinner, it might be to the cheerful yellow dining room at Giverny.

As in Monet’s time, the house is full of the Japanese prints that he and so many other artists had begun to collect. Japanese art, which had only recently become widely available outside Japan, strongly influenced all the artists of the time.

As his garden grew and thrived, Monet always had something beautiful to paint close at hand.

Above is a detail from “The Garden at Giverny,” 1900, now in the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Eventually Monet was able to buy adjoining property with a stream. He created his famous lily pond with its Japanese bridge.

Alice died in 1911. Monet lived and painted his beloved garden right up until his death in 1926, at the age of 86.

Is Monet’s home crowded and touristy? Oh, yes. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and the crowds get worse every year. The gardens are large enough to absorb quite a few people, but the house must get unbearably packed. I think the house should have timed entries.

On a weekday morning in late April, I arrived early and there were plenty of people. By the time I left at noon, the line to get in stretched at least a full city block. If I encountered a line like this, I would leave for awhile and come back in late afternoon. The light would be better anyway, and the tour buses would have left.

Still, there’s magic to be found in Monet’s gardens, in any season. I’d cheerfully go again tomorrow–but I’d arrive even earlier.

St. George’s Day and a New Prince

St. George has been the patron saint of England since around the end of the fourteenth century. His feast day is April 23, and the royal Chapel of St. George on the grounds of Windsor Castle is dedicated to him. It’s one of the most beautiful and historic churches in England, but photos are not allowed inside–a fact I bemoan, but also respect. (At least nobody is taking a selfie). The photo above is from the guidebook: St. George casually resting his foot on the vanquished dragon. It’s on a baptismal font.

In 1415, St. George appeared in the sky above the battlefield at Agincourt, presumably helping King Henry V win his great victory over the French, against overwhelming odds. The photo above, again from the guidebook, is a 1998 copy of a gilded 15th century wood carving, now too fragile and precious to be on display.

That same year, Archbishop Chichele ordered that St. George’s Day be celebrated like Christmas Day. (This lasted until 1778, when it went back to being a simple day of recognition mostly by English Catholics).

The origin of the saint is probably of an early Christian martyr, possibly from the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Legends grew up around a story about a virtuous knight who defeated a dragon that demanded human sacrifice. In some stories, the dragon had a princess in his clutches, and St. George happened along and killed the dragon.

The dragon in the legends represents pure evil, defeated by goodness. Naturally, the story was adapted to various times and places, the dragon standing in for contemporary enemies of Christianity or the ruling powers. In the Swedish Cathedral of Stockholm, there’s a huge and elaborate sculpture of George and the Dragon. I’m not sure of the date, but everybody in Sweden after 1471 remembered that Swedish troops wearing the image of St. George defeated the cruel oppressive Danes at the battle of Brunkeberg.

I liked the simplicity and modesty of an early medieval wood carving of St. George and the dragon from the Hinnerjoki Church, now in Finland’s National Museum in Helsinki. The Finns appealed to St. George not so much as a military hero as to protect their livestock.

I also liked a contemporary needlework depiction, in a display at Canterbury Cathedral a couple of years ago.

Today in London a new prince was born, fifth in line to the throne. I happened to be in London the day Princess Charlotte was born. Today, I imagine a lot of BLUE party hats and banners in the crowds waiting for a royal sighting outside the hospital.

Meanwhile, St. George’s Chapel is getting ready for the royal wedding of Prince Harry and the American commoner Meghan Markle next month.

I won’t be there, but I’m happy to have spent time in St. George’s. And I’ll be up early to watch whatever is on TV about the happy occasion!

Dusty, Drafty and Doggy-Doting: Lytes Cary Manor is a Perfect British Country House

Armed with a National Trust Pass, I could wander the British countryside for weeks on end. I never seem to get tired of old houses. Above is Lytes Cary Manor, begun in the 1400s and added to over the centuries. (Did it rain while I was there? Just a little. As Jane Austen’s heroine Anne Elliot told dreamboat Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, “It’s nothing that I regard.” She wanted him to walk her home in the rain).

Lytes Cary still has its Great Room from the 1400s. The Lyte family used to eat at the long table on the dais at the end of the room.

Each ancient roof beam is supported by an angel holding the coat of arms of the Lyte family.

Carved owls in the entry passage look a bit newer, but in a house so old, whooooo knows?

Of course I also like much grander mansions such as Harewood. Many of them still have deep-pocketed owners with the means to bring in modern and avante-garde art.

But National Trust properties, which have often come from families hard hit by misfortune and crushing inheritance taxes, lovingly preserve the old stuff that came with the property. The mirror frame above, at Lytes Cary, was worked up in the old needlework technique of “stumpwork” in the 1600s. In the early 1900s, a relative of the newest owner learned the technique and added some panels, including the view of the house in the upper left-hand panel.

A pair of mysterious old leather mannikins, about 3 feet tall, stand beside the fireplace in the Great Parlor.

Their purpose? Possibly to fill chairs in case the dining table would otherwise have 13 guests.

Or possibly they could have been set up in windows to make thieves think the house was occupied when the family was away.

The fireplace settee is very Downton Abbey, don’t you think?

Sir Walter Jenner, the last owner of Lytes Cary, was the son of Queen Victoria’s physician. The Lyte family had been forced to abandon the property way back in 1755. Subsequent owners and tenants allowed the house to fall into decay. Sir Walter bought what was left of it in 1907 and set to work restoring it.

Sir Walter planted yew bushes along the walk. He trimmed them into topiary forms which he named “The Twelve Apostles.”

He kept peacocks which used to scratch at the door for handouts at teatime. Now there’s an enormous peacock topiary beside the front door.

Being abandoned actually saved the house. In Victorian times, rich people busily “improved” medieval manor houses, much the way people today install new Sheetrock walls to cover antique stone or paneling. That’s rare and valuable “linen fold” carved oak medieval paneling above, original to the house.

A little parlor has a “squint:” a tiny narrow window.

It looks like this from outside.

The squint is positioned so that a person could stay inside the house by the fire and still see Mass being celebrated in the little chapel next to the house–which most likely happened regularly in medieval times.

Sir Walter lived happily at Lytes Cary for decades with his wife Flora and their only child, Esme. Sadly, Esme died at age 37 from pneumonia after catching a chill while out riding. She was a keen hunter, serving as Master of the Sparkford Vale Harriers. She died in 1932. (Sir Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin in 1928, but antibiotics were not yet in wide use).

Sir Walter outlived both his wife and his daughter. A wistful memorial to them both in the little chapel reads, “My Little World!”

When Sir Walter decided to will Lytes Cary to the National Trust at age 88, the director came out to the house to see him, and found him in his canopied bed in nightcap and dressing gown. The house was chilly and drafty, as it was in medieval times.

Another bedroom features a “campaign bed” from around 1800. From Napoleonic times up through the Victorian era, aristocratic military officers who were used to comfy canopied beds ordered custom-made fold-up ones to take with them to training camp and even to battlefields. Why not live in the style to which they were accustomed?

I recently watched a 2016 movie called “Golden Years.” A group of old British friends, battered by loss of their pensions and closing of their subsidized social club, stumble into a plot to roam the countryside, robbing banks and innocently hobbling away to their getaway vehicle: an RV parked in the handicap zone. Cops rushing to the crime scenes try not to knock over the old dears. They’re caught when a sharp detective with elderly parents of his own notices that the banks are always near National Trust properties. The bank robbers have very sensibly combined one of their favorite pastimes with larceny. (It’s a comedy, so all ends well!)

The British love to visit old houses, and they love their dogs. Most National Trust properties encourage dog-walking on the grounds. So do a lot of privately-owned mansions, like Chatsworth. (I also love the very British wordage beside this gateway, “Dead Slow, Hoot.” Translation: If you’re driving into the courtyard, roll ahead at a snail’s pace and lean on your car horn).

National Trust properties almost always have teashops where dogs are welcome at the outdoor tables. The dogs are always polite, though they do cadge table scraps.

It’s easy to strike up a conversation when I stop to pet someone’s dog. I meet a lot of lovely people that way.

Getting to these out-of-the way places requires a brave driver. Country roads are narrow, often only a single lane with occasional pull-offs for when cars meet. And even when there are two lanes, we Americans are driving on THE WRONG SIDE. I wouldn’t do it myself, especially with jet lag. But my husband, bless his heart, thinks nothing of it.

I’m the navigator. I used to maneuver three or four maps at a time to locate things. Navigation got infinitely easier when we acquired a Garmin GPS device with updatable maps. I just plug in the name or the postal code of the destination and we’re pretty likely to get there by following the voice commands and the purple line on the screen. (Note to self: write a post called “How Garmin GPS Saved My Marriage”).

Still, sometimes Garmin gets us into a pickle. Wait, Voice from the Satellite, you really mean we should do a loop-de-loop and then leave the road? Excuse me while I check my paper map.

English country houses: Dusty, Drafty, Doggy-Doting. And sometimes the Directions are Dodgy.

It’s worth all the trouble. Yesterday, daffodils, asters and bluebells were in glorious bloom at Lytes Cary.

I Love England, Heartless Yobs and All

Sensible people who live in places where it snows (a lot) in April go off for sunny beach vacations if they can. Not me. I’m off to England where I fully expect a little rain.

I love medieval buildings that people still live in and use daily. The two above are in Lavenham. Pretty much the entire town looks like this, and it has looked like this since the 1400s. The roads are better now, though.

History abounds. The gatehouse above, at Charlecote, was familiar to both William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. It was old even in their time, property of the Lucy family.

Bodiam Castle dates from 1385.

I haven’t had a chance to actually visit Stonehenge in years, but it’s a thrill to drive by the ancient mysterious stones and see them from the highway.

The British love their history. At Erddig in Wales, family servants were honored with portraits. That’s the venerable Spider Brusher above.

Schoolchildren make a day of learning to be servants at Erddig. Looks like more fun now than it probably was in the past!

The British love their Queen.

And she’s surprisingly easy to rub elbows with, if you know where to go and how to dress for the occasion.

If I were invited to the upcoming Royal Wedding, I’d certainly wear a fascinator. Sadly, I’m not invited.

The wedding will be in St. George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle. Anyone can attend the daily 5pm Evensong there, and it is a beautiful experience. A couple of years ago, my husband was shown to his seat in the choir. It’s where Prince William sits during the Order of the Garter ceremony! His coat of arms was right there on the back of the seat (photos were not allowed inside).

I might be in England when the new royal baby is born. When little Charlotte arrived, I happened to be near the hospital. The fence was decorated with pink pennants celebrating the birth, and I mingled with people who had camped outside for weeks in hopes of a royal sighting.

Part of the reason I love England is that I have some British ancestry. As a child, I heard all about my ancestor Thomas Guy, who founded Guy’s Hospital in 1721. He had made a fortune from the slave trade, sold that business, and then made more money printing unauthorized Bibles. Years ago I made a pilgrimage to the huge hospital/medical school complex, only to learn that Thomas Guy never married and had no children. So he was not a direct ancestor! But he did divvy up his money among various nieces and nephews and such. The great diarist Samuel Pepys was one of the witnesses to his will. I was disappointed, but I still like being a distant relative of an illustrious British subject.

This will be a fairly short trip, and it will be relaxed. I’m hoping for a lot of time in tea shops and cafes, reading the very readable British papers. I don’t exactly know the definition of “yob,” but that’s half the fun is sitting down for a British cuppa. And then there are the scones with clotted cream and jam…I’m off!