Thurs 2nd October 2014
John Singer Sargent
At the first meeting of Wells Evening Society’s new season, members heard a revealing and inspiring talk on the Edwardian portrait painter John Singer Sargent. If some of the members previously knew little about this extraordinarily multi- talented painter, by the end of the evening they must have been wondering just where they might go to see examples of his work.
Mary Alexander is a much travelled lecturer and writer on the arts and has specialised in the exciting period which emerged at the turn of the 20th century which we know as Edwardian. . With pertinent photographs and examples of his amazingly varied paintings she was able to give us the historical context into which we can fit Sargent and his work. She explained how although born to American parents he grew up as a European. His early years were spent in the south of France and he trained in Paris. He then moved between England and America with fluent ease, and travelled widely all over Europe. It was written at the time that he” was born in Italy, educated in France, looks like a German, speaks like an Englishman and paints like a Spaniard.”
His mother was a proficient artist who loved living and painting in Europe, whilst his father was an unhappy man who longed to return to his native America. From an early age and working in both oils and water colours, John Singer Sargent seems had an amazing capacity to obtain a likeness. With fluent draughtsmanship and sweeping brushwork he could paint with apparent ease; the results were never facile, but always penetrating and sympathetic. We were shown a particularly touching portrait of his father done when Sargent was a young man. It is brilliantly executed but clearly shows the son’s loving sympathy.
Although he seemed socially adept Sargent was in fact a driven and private man. He painted and drew obsessively. We were shown many remarkable images and by no means all were from the portrait studio. On a crossing of the Atlantic he painted a storm with a ferocity and power which drew an audible gasp from the audience and we saw landscapes and skies, trees and meadows which were as fresh and impressionistic as those of his contemporaries in France. His friends Degas, Monet and Manet influenced his work but he was essentially a radical in his own right. His favourite words were exotic, bizarre, curious, mystery and luminosity and all these elements can be found in his work.
His early success was very nearly lost just as he was embarking on his career. In 1884 the rising star asked to paint a well known Parisian lady of renowned beauty and chose to depict her with a plunging neckline and a shoulder strap suggestively slipped down her arm. The implications were blatant and the painting shocked and appalled Paris society. For six weeks the painting of “Madam X” hung in the Paris Salon causing outrage and condemnation and eventfully Sargent had to conform to the Rules of Society and adjust the shoulder strap to a more seemly position. For a society painter to be thus castigated could have finished him. He had a melt down and retreated to England.
In England he found solace painting with friends in the Cotswolds and it was in London that he built up a new life. Soon he had a huge following: at first amongst ‘new money’ but before long amongst the aristocracy too. Max Beerbohm the cartoonist drew a satirical sketch of a row of society ladies queuing up outside his studio, and by 1893 all London was at his feet. Whether a bewhiskered milord in shining boots or a bejewelled Society lady with flowing dress and shimmering shawl, he captured both the essential character of the sitter and the nuances and textures of their dress. He painted children with remarkable psychological insight. The relaxed baby playing and the brooding adolescent were far from the starchy formality of earlier child portraits.
By 1909 almost everyone of significance on both sides of the Atlantic had been painted by him- or wished to be so. He said “I have entirely given up portrait painting which I hate” and began to turn down commissions. Travelling to and fro from England to the States he devoted many years to a series of huge allegorical murals for the Public Library in Boston and only occasionally painted portraits. We saw a notable example of a his work from this period; a portrait of John D Rockefeller done in1917 shows the legendary oil millionaire and philanthropist as something like a thoughtful mediaeval saint.
Towards the end of WW1 and at the age of 58 John Singer was asked, as an American painter, to create a work embodying Anglo-American co-operation.’Gassed’ - over 20 feet long - is an extraordinarily vivid painting , now in the Imperial War Museum in London. The man who had sat in duchess’s salons was now researching his subjects on the battlefield, as always making the many sketches and studies necessary for the finished work. The result is a magnificent painting, full of touching and intensely painted detail. In a spooky phosphorescent light we see a pathetic row of soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, being lead by orderlies across the debris of a battle field. We look upwards over the bodies of dead and wounded men to see the line of the dejected figures walking along with their eyes bandaged. During the lecture Mary showed us intimate details of many of Sargent's paintings and here the detail revealed a distant image of men playing a game of football behind the lines.
Although so much in demand in his day, after his death in 1925 Sargent fell from fashion for many years. The opinion forming Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry thought little of his work, seeing it as irrelevant to 20th-century modernism. This very month, the National Portrait Gallery is apparently on a mission to rescue the painter “from the consequences of his own brilliance, the dazzling, lightning-quick technique that saw him dismissed for generations after his death as a clever crowd-pleaser who churned out society portraits.”
The audience at Mary Alexander’s fascinating lecture were lucky to have been given such a succinct and revealing introduction to this extraordinary artist who painted so excitingly and can tell us so much about the world of a hundred years ago.
Thurs 6th November 2014
Britain's Pagan Heritage
Professor Ronald Hutton is senior lecturer in History at Bristol University, with a remit period covering over 34,000 years of British History. At the meeting of Wells Evening Society on 6th November he was focussing on the first 33,000 of these years, with a talk entitled ‘Britain’s Pagan Heritage’. His knowledgeable academic approach was laced with wit, so he managed to inform and entertain us at the same time.
We were told that Britain has the most complex and fascinating collection of pre historic (‘pagan’) remains in the world. This seemingly extravagant claim was justified with Dr Hutton’s huge list of sites and physical remains that are to be found on these islands. Whereas other countries have one pagan history, we have very many. From 34,000 years ago we have the ‘Red Lady’ from South Wales, discovered in 1823 and thought to be the oldest ceremonial burial found anywhere in the world (in fact ‘she’ was identified in 2009 as a young man.) We were then taken swiftly through Neolithic sites with cave paintings and carvings, long barrows from the new Stone Age, Iron Age earthworks and the amazing fact that Britain contains over nine hundred stone circles. The most famous of them all, Stonehenge is the oldest stone circle on the planet. After these more ‘ home grown’ cultures, we can count a plethora of sites from the Roman period representing the multitude of gods and goddesses introduced from all over the empire during their occupation, and then on via Sutton Hoo and the Anglo Saxons to Vikings and their burial sites.
The nub of Dr. Hutton’s argument is that although we can tell exactly where these various sites and objects appear geographically, we can never be sure exactly when they happened. We can make informed guesses as to how they were fabricated, but we certainly will never be sure why. Focussing on two particular examples, Stonehenge and the Lindow man, he clearly demonstrated these points.
Stonehenge was, according to Dr Hutton, built by careless megalomania carpenters! They were careless in that it was built in a hurry; stones which had been broken during the building process were re-fitted together for use and the alignment was not accurate enough to embrace the mid winter solstice as probably intended. They were megalomaniac in that stones had to be carried great distances at presumably huge cost of effort and life (although - had a lucky stroke brought the blue stones long ago from West Wales with the movement of ice?) They were carpenters in that the techniques of stone construction, uniquely, are those of woodworkers, with planed surfaces and mortise and tenon joints.
Most of this we can deduce but what we just cannot tell is exactly why all the great efforts were made. Through the ages since the “discovery” of Stonehenge as of archaeological significance ideas on this have changed significantly to reflect various attitudes of the times. The romantic Geoffrey of Monmouth thought in 1140 that the henge was created by the magic of Merlin in Arthur’s court. In Tudor times, it was thought to be from the Roman or Viking period and in 1740 Scholars declared it to have been built by Druids from pre Christian ancient Britain. By the middle of the 20th century Stonehenge had somewhat predictably become an early computer built to predict eclipses and more recently, it has been firmly identified by rival archaeologists as both a site for healing magic and a shrine for the dead. Conclusion: we do not know why it was built!
So called Lindow man was found in a peat bog in Cheshire in 1984. The well preserved torso of a young man was taken to London and examined by a two pathologists. One identified three separate wounds: the skull fractured, the neck garrotted and a severed jugular vein and announced that this must have been a ritual killing. This placed the death firmly in the pre-Roman period when, according to their historian Tacitus and subsequent belief, Druids ritually committed human sacrifices. The body was placed in the British Museum with this explanation and caused great interest.
This theory however conflicted with the carbon dating evidence. This showed that the body was more likely to be from later: from Roman or post-Roman times and ten years ago, the “triple death’ was queried, by Dr Hutton amongst others. A bone surgeon pronounced that the smashed skull suggested the victim had been beaten to death. He suggested that the cord marks on the neck (signs of garrotting) might have been where the body was hauled to its resting place in the bog. Perhaps the severed artery was caused years after the death by the single cut of a peat cutters metal blade! We can no longer be sure of a ritual death. The young man might have been attacked by robbers or executed as a felon meeting his just end. With no clear human sacrifice, the date of death is again not clear; as supported by the early carbon dating it could have been in Roman or even mediaeval times,. There is less certainty so we are asked to weigh up the evidence and come to our own conclusions. The body of Lindow man now rests in the British Museum with a less sure description of the timing and method of his death.
Dr Hutton finished his talk telling us that, even with hard evidence, we must always be prepared to re-evaluate conclusions. Although experts are paid to provide answers, we the public should be willing to think for ourselves! There were a great number of questions from the audience and eventually the chairman had to bring an end to what had been a fascinating evening.
Thurs 4th December 2014
New music to commemorate the First World War - Two musical commissions from inception to performance
On December 3rd Wells Evening Society heard a lecture with a musical theme. Composer Dr. Liz Lane described the thinking behind two specially commissioned pieces she has written to commemorate the tragedy and bravery that lay behind First World War.
The grandly conceived Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium, was unveiled on 24 July 1927. The site marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line in the Ypres salient. The memorial consists of an enormous stone arch and is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the many appalling battles fought in and around that unhappy area. Carved in stone within the arch are the names of 54,896 soldiers who died and whose bodies have never been found or identified.
Traffic passes through the great archway but every night at 8 o’clock it stops and the Last Post is played by a lone piper. Liz explained that Hall of Memory is a piece of music that she was commissioned to write for the Gloucestershire Youth Symphonic Wind Band. It has been played in several different locations but in July 2013 Liz felt she was honoured because her piece was played, just before the Last Post, within the Menin Gate itself. With great scrolls of apparently un-ending names carved into the high walls above we saw film of the touchingly young musicians playing. When composing her music Liz told us that she had pictured a little bird flying about within the archway, representing a worldwide symbol of hope and freedom. Taken from a mobile phone, the film we saw could hardly reflect the full drama and pathos. We could only imagine the emotions stirred by that hopeful melody as it rose high up into the name -filled arch above.
Liz’s second piece was commissioned by Bristol City Council. It is entitled Silver Rose and was written for brass band and narrator. The music forms her response to five poems by poet Isaac Rosenberg who was born in Bristol in 1890 and killed in action during the last year of the war. First performed last month in Bristol Museum, the piece was beautifully performed by the Lydbrook brass band, a community band based in the New Forest. Sometimes in between and sometimes over the music, the poems were read with subtlety and drama by actor Robert Hardy-
We heard a recording of the performance against a photograph of the Museum’s impressive central gallery where it took place. Listening to a recording of the music and the powerful readings, our imaginations could perhaps take us through sadness and horror to a wistful sense of hope. Liz explained how, as the last movement draws to a close, the players all stand. Fewer and fewer instruments play and the piece ends with one solo bass playing and the remainder of the band in silence. The lecture was an unusual way to remember and honour the Great War and Chairman Jane Lee the chairman thanked Liz for her insights into the processes of both composition and performance.
Thurs 8th January 2015
Bath – Conservation Challenges and Solutions
On Thursday January 8th, architect Geoff Rich spoke to Wells Evening Society on the theme: Bath: Conservation Challenges and solutions.
Living in or near historic Wells we must be very aware of the problems of balancing conservation with development, heritage with the demands of the 21st century. It was therefore fascinating to hear Geoff explain how some of these complex dilemmas are being addressed in Bath.
Geoff told us that his first job was with Caroe and Partners in Wells, where he had his office over Penniless Porch. Inspired by his work here and fired with a deep interest in conservation, he moved to Bath to work with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. This is a large architectural practice which works all over the country in the fields of conservation, re-development and new build.
As well as being aesthetic and technical designers, architects must also be diplomats and negotiators because they are often dealing with many conflicting interests. They need to balance conservation with enhancement, practicality with financial viability and planning consents with different authorities. This is as well as the demands of English Heritage – and in Bath’s case UNESCO. For over two thousand years Bath has been continuously developed in harmony with its very particular surroundings: the seven green hills which echo the seven hills of Rome thought to lead the Romans to this site..In the entire world only Venice and Bath have been designated by UNESCO as complete cities including their surrounding landscapes.
Water dominated the city for 2000 years and today its presence and significance still forms many challenges. .Excellent aerial photographs clearly showed us the original town nestling in a loop of the river Avon as it winds its way through the city. There are remains of mediaeval basements far beneath the present street level and these would have lead straight out onto the river which at the time would have been used as a sewer. Pultney Bridge, with its integral shops and graceful arches designed by Robert Adam in 1774, rises eight metres above the water level but many of the buildings in this area still echo a less glorious past. We heard of current plans to develop the 19th century collonading (originally stabling) along the river, with walkways and restaurants where the attractive new weir can be viewed from much nearer the water. There are intentions to restore forgotten mediaeval streets, encouraging people to explore right down to the river‘s edge.
Further down, the Avon flows through the city’s industrial sites, past the gas works and factories of 19th century Bath. There were engineering works of which the largest, Stoddart and Pitt, exported cranes to the whole world and the railway as well as the river took Ralph Allen's stone from local quarries up to London. All this activity is now long past. The catchily named Bath Riverside Enterprise Area Master plan has been formed to redevelop this area: to build the houses and to create the jobs which must increase the local economy by £600 million annually. Of course not everyone approves of all this and Geoff made everyone laugh with the very relevant acronym BANANA....Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.
The Roman Baths with their unique flow of warm mineral water were of course originally built by the Romans but further developed during the eighteenth century during the heyday of the city as a fashionable Spa Town. They are a major attraction for tourists and the city receives more than one million visitors a year. Lying six metres beneath the city the remains of the original Roman baths have over the years been made increasingly available for viewing. There is always more excavation to be done and original Roman paving had been covered by pedestrian access. Today’s high standards require much easier access for the disabled visitor.
Geoff explained how these problems are being addressed. We were shown various design approaches which were considered and how after many experiments there is now an expanded metal walkway through which the Roman paving can be viewed. With ramps for access, the wlkway is hung on wires suspended from the ceiling, cleverly making attractive and yet unobtrusive access for all.
Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios are in the process of developing better visitor facilities for Bath Abbey as well as essential new areas for its administration. Geoff gave us a brief history of this magnificent building. Often called the Lantern of the West because of its many windows, the late Gothic structure was built in the late 15th century to replace a much larger Norman cathedral. There are no possible spaces around the Abbey for new buildings and with significant archaeological remains almost everywhere there are many problems in excavating areas under the ground.
One must understand the building and its history in order to create new spaces, so hundreds of paving stones - all originally carved stone memorials - were moved from the floor of the nave so that trial excavations could take place. Roman pavements appeared deep beneath this area, so more digging was made on the south side up against the Abbey walls. Here no significant remains were found and with cut-through drawings and plans we could see how a new world will appear deep beneath the Abbey Courtyard. There will be practice rooms for the choristers, meeting rooms and storage facilities, all surmounted with an exciting glass dome through which the Abbey’s tower will be glimpsed far above against the sky.
Water from the hot springs runs down through this area at over 40 °C and heat will be extracted from this to help warm the new basement rooms. With no significant damage to either the structure or archaeology of the area this development is indeed an example of a solution meeting a conservation challenge.
There were a lot of interested questions from members and the chairman had to call time so that she could thank Geoff for his very informative talk. We will all visit Bath with renewed interest in future and look forward to viewing the excavations in the Abbey Yard when they start next year.
Thurs 5th February 2015
Surviving the Volcano at Monserrat
On Thursday February 5th popular speaker David Edwards returned to talk to the Wells Evening Society with a lecture entitled Surviving the Volcano at Monserrat.
The island of Monserrat measures 10 miles long and seven wide. A clear map showed us that it lies in a string of isles which loop around the eastern edges of the Caribbean. Rising in the south to a 3000’ high mountain, covered with lush forests and surrounded by clear blue seas it is an extraordinarily beautiful island. It is known as the ‘Emerald Isle’ as much for its rich greenness as for the many Irish Catholics who settled there when escaping from persecution in the 17th century.
Astonishingly, 40% of the creatures rendered extinct by mankind came from the Caribbean islands. David is by training a geologist but it was as a conservationist that he became involved in recording the native animals and amphibians which are under threat on Monserrat.
Virtually all the Caribbean Islands were formed in the distant past by volcanic action and Monserrat is no exception. In July 1995, as the small group of three conservators passed through Antigua on their journey to the island, they saw a newspaper headline which read”MONSERRAT VOLCANO THEATENS TO ERUPT.” David, as a geologist, was rather excited by this idea and since his colleagues were keen to get on with their project they flew on undeterred and set straight down to work.
Work was very carefully examining the island for its native species. A grid was drawn dividing the island into one kilometre squares and random samples of these were systematically combed, one square at a time, by both day and night. Long, hot days and impenetrably dark nights were full of painstaking searches for lizards, frogs, bats and snakes, with each species being caught in different ways.
A tiny tree frog the size of half a thumb nail emits a high pip-pip-pip and with experience this could be located by ear. After ploughing through dense undergrowth the pip-pipping frog would be the found hiding under a leaf. Nets were used at night to catch the sharp clawed fish bat which hunts by swooping low over the sea, using their sonic system to detect the fins of small fishes. The local lizards grow to an intimidating size but luckily were relatively easy to entrap when young. David’s least successful efforts were in trying to catch snakes; these were not poisonous but could speed away, hide, wriggle and fain frozen in turn. We heard an animated description of how a six foot long snake lashed upwards and tried to attack his head. At this point, he decided he would leave snake catching to the biologists in his group.
As they worked away in the jungle, an ominous vapour cloud of sulphurous smoke hung over the 3000’ high mountain which rose above them. The “dead” volcano, extinct for 3000 years, was waking up. As David put it, one day it “coughed” and clouds of sulphurous ash fell on the landscape. Following this there were several small earth tremors (3.5 on the Richter scale) which worried him; he realised this was a sign of magma stirring deep beneath the earth’s crust.
Monserrat is a protectorate of the UK and now the Governor alerted the government back in Britain and asked for help. The Royal Navy patrols the Caribbean constantly and HMS Westminster was summoned to the island; volcanologists had started to arrive and the ship’s Lynx helicopter flew them over the volcano’s mouth to monitor its activity. Montserratians were given the opportunity to leave the island and many did so. We saw photographs of these as they embarked at the airport for a flight to safety.. Others were more stoic, and remained behind. A tee-shirt appeared “Now she puffs, will she blow? Trust the Lord and pray it’s no!”
One day as he continued with his work in the forest, David heard a deep rumbling behind him and looking upwards saw what he thought was a pyroclastic roll of hot ash tumbling down the mountain towards him. These avalanches of hot gasses can travel at up to 100 km an hour and he thought that in one minute he would be enveloped and killed. Very bravely he took an astonishing photograph, which he believes to be unique, showing the mountainside and forest above him enveloped in a foaming white cloud of ash and gas. In fact the ash was not rolling straight down the mountain but had exploded upwards and was now collapsing, due to gravity, much more slowly. David and his colleagues had time to make their way to safety.
Now that the volcano was really active evacuation was essential. The whole southern half of Monserrat was made into an exclusion zone and its inhabitants moved to temporary shelters in the safe northern third of the island. Tents supplied by the Royal Marines were erected on the island’s beloved cricket pitch. Maps delineating safe and unsafe areas were issued and the radio gave out constant information and warnings. People had lost their homes and livelihoods and life could never be the same again.
David and his colleagues left the island, their work not finished. Ash continued to fall and augmented by heavy rain the pyroclastic flows slowly engulfed the fields and forest of the southern part of the island, travelling on into the sea to form white moon-like landscapes of the dead. Large swathes of the island were engulfed including the capital, Plymouth which, with its lovely villas, new hospital, shops and offices lies deserted.
Recently, David returned to the island. With so much land destroyed the island’s usable space is down to one third of its original size. The southern half can only be viewed from the sea and stern notices forbid entry to the exclusion areas. A new harbour has been constructed the north of the island and a new, much smaller, airport built on the site of the cricket pitch. There is now a purpose built observatory for volcanologists and a museum. Using all these facilities, tourists are being encouraged back to the island. Only 5000 inhabitants remain out of the original 11,000, and many of these are incomers who arrived looking for the building work which took place after the eruption
In spite of all this, the remaining Montserratians have stayed remarkably friendly, calm and relaxed and David told us how he admires their philosophic and optimistic approach to life. Answering a question from the audience, he told us that his group’s conservation work was by no means wasted. Breeding pairs were brought back to zoos in Britain to assure the species’ survival and thanks to their recording work there is a well documented baseline to use when analysing the recovery of wildlife after the eruption.
On his return to the island David saw an unusual house name painted onto a swinging board: ASDIP. He realised that this was an acronym when saw the reverse of the board which read “A Sunny Day in Paradise.” His vividly described experiences on Monserrat had both fascinated and horrified us, but this was somehow reassuring: the island and its population intend to survive.
On the same day, David gave a lecture to years 12 and 13 at Wells Blue School. This was sponsored by the Society and, on a similar theme, gave the students an eye-opener into a conservationist’s field work as well as the full drama of a volcano in action. Undaunted by the prospect of further eruptions and perhaps lured by the wonderful snorkelling, one question was “How much is the air fare to reach Monserrat?” !
Thurs 5th March 2015
Peter Warwick FRGS
The Golden Age of the Royal Navy
Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! On Thursday 5th March the Wells Evening Society heard the significance of the famous song in an excellent lecture by Peter Warwick. Peter is a naval historian with a huge range of images and facts to illustrate his theme. A marvellous series of prints and paintings flowed past on the screen as he covered three hundred years of history with a light yet informative touch.
One of the audience commented that many of us thought that it was King Alfred who was the father of the English Navy. Peter told us that in fact it was Henry VIII who expanded the navy to defend his newly Protestant country against Catholic Europe. He had fifty eight ships built for his fleet and we saw images of these because he proudly commissioned artist Anthony Anthony to paint every one. Privateers such as Drake and Hawkins were really pirates with a royal blessing and during the reign of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth they sailed the seas and fought the enemies of England very successfully. After victory over the Spanish Armada the Glorious Queen had herself painted with her fleet behind her and her right hand placed on an orb. Her finger rests on the oceans; already it was understood that England’s destiny lay in controlling the seas.
Charles 1st did not have control over his Navy and this certainly contributed to his downfall. His successor Oliver Cromwell saw clearly the necessity of naval supremacy, appointing Robert Blake from Bridgwater as Admiral to command the Commonwealth’s fleet. Originally a general, Blake left the army to take command of his ship. He proceeded to lead the navy successfully, winning the first of three wars with the Dutch, the new enemy which arose at this time. The ‘sea general’ introduced military discipline into the navy and the first official Articles of War and Fighting Instructions to Naval Commanders came at this time.
After the restoration, Charles II also appreciated the value of a maritime force and he named his fleet the Royal Navy; as it is known to this day. We learn a lot about Britain’s preoccupation with naval supremacy under the Stuarts from Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, who rose to become Chief Secretary to the Admiralty. Amongst many fascinating details Pepys recorded that £179,793-10s was needed annually to run the Navy of that time with its requirement for a constant supply of new ships and equipment. To help in the protection of Britain’s ever expanding trade overseas a strong maritime presence was needed to counter the threats from France and Spain. It was for this purpose that in 1698 the newly formed Bank of England sold bonds to raise money.
With clear contemporary drawings Peter showed us how naval battles were fought at this time. They were still following age old traditions, with up to a hundred ships from each side forming lines facing each other. Each side would then fire canon shot at the other, meaning that sea battles were effectively wars of attrition. It was a brave admiral who would take independent action, sneak through enemy lines or break rank and attack at an oblique angle. Admiral Benbow was well known for his original tactics yet in 1702 he died in action fighting gallantly in the Caribbean because his unconventional approach had no support from the rest of his squadron.
Arguments continued about how to conduct battles at sea. In 1756 Admiral Byng failed to behave according to the strict Articles of War and was blamed for losing the island of Minorca. It is now thought that the Admiralty was at least partly to blame due to the poor manning and repair of the fleet but he was perceived to have retreated from the enemy, court marshalled and condemned to death. On the quarterdeck of his ship and in command to the last, Byng waved a white cloth to order the fatal gun shots. Peter dramatically dropped a white handkerchief to echo’s the brave admiral’s last gesture. The French writer Voltaire wrote cynically "in (Britain) it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others." It was something of a relief to hear that Byng has been the only admiral to die in this way.
During the rest of the century naval procedure became progressively more daring and aggressive. Canada was gained from the French by enterprising naval manoeuvres and although the American colonies were lost Britain kept the West Indies when Admiral Rodney turned the tables on the French at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. He ‘broke the line’ of the enemy’s fleet, and in doing so used daring tactics that would had been previously unthinkable. Back in England enthusiasm grew for the navy and its successes. Each new victory was celebrated joyously and paintings of ships and their naval encounters became fashionable. People admired and collected the many beautiful, accurate depictions of vessels in action and at this time artists also began to paint the men who sailed the ships. We saw how the exciting paintings from this time reflected that Britannia was indeed now ruling the waves.
Everything seemed to lead to the arrival of the greatest admiral of them all: Horatio Nelson. We heard a vivid account of Lord Nelson’s extraordinary powers of leadership and of his superb grasp of both strategy and unconventional tactics. A proficient swordsman, he was wounded several times in combat, losing an arm and the sight in one eye in different engagements. A fearless and inspirational leader, he famously said “.... happiness is to command a band of brothers” and led his fleet to many daring and decisive naval victories.
Nelson became temporarily out of favour because of his dalliance with another man’s wife, Lady Hamilton, but he became the saviour of the nation when in 1805 he led the British fleet at Trafalgar.
His famous signal went out “England expects that every man will do his duty", and under his command from the Victory the fleet completely disoriented the French by breaking the enemy’s line in several places. The ensuing battle became Britain's greatest naval victory, with twenty seven British ships triumphing over thirty three French. Visibility would have been very low with smoke billowing out from the canon fire but during the action Nelson was fatally wounded by a chance shot from a French sharpshooter only fifty feet away in the rigging of the French ship Redoubtable. His body was brought back to England where he was accorded a state funeral and immediately became acknowledged as one of Britain's most heroic figures. He was celebrated with paintings, statues, pottery and literature.
He is still considered to have contributed above all others to the golden age of the Royal Navy.
A board in Wells Town Hall celebrates the thirteen men and boys who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, only one of whom is recorded as having been killed during the battle. A member of the audience asked Peter about these men. He explained that whereas a small percentage would have been impressed into service, most would have volunteered because their various trades would have been useful on board a ship. Peter’s feast of images and the tidal rush of history left the audience both lit up and informed and the chairman had to call time on the many questions.
Thurs 9th April 2015
Dr Allan Phillipson
Painting the Fallen Woman: Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelites
Dr Allan Phillipson currently teaches cultural studies throughout the South-West, both independently and for the Workers’ Educational Association. He gives day-schools on art and social history and he has published articles on Victorian social history, New Zealand literature and film and detective fiction
Review to follow lecture
Thursday 3rd October 2013
Archaeological Adventures in Albania
Dr Louise Schofield, former Curator of Greek Bronze Age and Geometric Antiquities at the British Museum, is no ordinary archaeologist. She has worked extensively in Greece, Albania and Ethiopia and is a popular speaker who lectures worldwide.
The first lecture of the new season for the Wells Evening Society was held on Thursday 3rd October. An enthusiastic audience welcomed back a favourite speaker: Louise Schofield, an exceptionally adventurous archaeologist. Last time she spoke to us in Wells she described her work in Ethiopia. which involved local people in her archaeological work. Water was piped to the area, the valley terraced, and toilet facilities and a little museum were built so the findings have become a tourist attraction which is breathing new life into a previously desolate and underprivileged area.
This time Louise spoke about her long relationship with another troubled and underprivileged country. Albania lies alongside the Adriatic Sea opposite the island of Corfu. It is blessed by a beautiful coastline and a wonderful interior with dramatic mountains, rivers and lakes. But the country has had a particularly stormy history and we were lead with images and stories through its many centuries of occupation by Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and Italians. We heard of the unsuccessful attempt to establish a lasting royal family in the 20thcentury, and of the extreme form of Communism which more recently isolated the country from the rest of the world.
When the Communist regime crumbled in the early nineties, piece meal development began to despoil the beautiful coastline. Somewhat surprisingly, encouraged by Mussolini and the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, archaeological work had been proceeding for a number of years on Butrint, the site of an ancient city dating back thousands of years. It was a fortunate chance that a villa owned by the Rothschild family lay on Corfu immediately opposite this coastal area and in 1993 the Lords Rothschild and Sainsbury set up the Butrint foundation. This paid for work to continue on the site and preserved the area as both an environmental and archaeological park. It was here that Louise came to work when she left the sobriety and safety of the British Museum for a more active and adventurous life as co-director of excavations in that wild and sometimes lawless country.
Archaeologists have a term phasing which refers to the sorting out of different phases of land use by logical deduction of works found and recorded during excavation. A single photograph made the necessity of this clear: just one wall had obvious remains of different civilizations dating back not hundreds but thousands of years. Where do you start? The answer is with immense patience and accruing knowledge as you go. Pottery from 1200 BC leads to remains of an 8th century BC acropolis, and then to the town being re-built as a colony by the Greeks, complete with an theatre which has been restored to much of its former glory. Roman occupation followed the Greeks, and emperors came and went with such regularity that they were represented by identical bodies with only a different head to distinguish them from each other. Fishing has always been a vital activity in the area and fish and marsh birds form decorative features right back to the time of the beautiful Roman mosaics discovered from this period.
A major earthquake caused floods which destroyed most of the city and lead to its decline. Reoccupied on stilts over the water-logged site, many of the remaining population died – it is thought of malaria – and the skeletons from this time give grim evidence of this. In the 6th century, an early Christian settlement became the seat of a bishop and new construction included a large baptistery, which had the civilised addition of heated water so the ceremony of baptism must have been quite a pleasant experience.
A beautiful Venetian tower may well cover remains of much earlier buildings and the history of warring Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans and Italians from the mainland is reflected in the different castles which dominate the hill sides. Eventually, the local Ottoman governor Ali Pasha retrieved Butrint from Napoleon’s occupation and it became a part of the Ottoman Empire until Albanian independence in the early 20th century. By that time, surrounded by malarial marshes, Butrint, the site of the original city, had been unoccupied for centuries.
All this could have been dry academic stuff, but not as delivered by Louise! The country came to life as we heard anecdotes about her work with its people. For example: we heard that thanks to there being no capacity for aerial photography in Albania the (excellent) aerial photos that we were shown were taken by an intrepid local. He would strap himself to a rocket and, launching himself with wings from a near-by mountainside, could in this way photograph the excavations as he descended unsafely back to earth.
It is clear than Louise is a very successful organiser and galvaniser of others but it is also clear that sometimes she longs to be back in the pure world of excavation. She told us the story of a particular find: a happy accident amongst all the painstaking work that can be associated with archaeological digs. A young student and she were carefully examining a ten foot deep trench, and as they climbed down into it they balanced their feet on a small piece of stone half way down the unexamined side. (Archaeologists always leave half a trench for the next generation, aware that methods and knowledge may have improved by the next essay on the dig.) The piece of stone than was their foothold looked unusual. They first brushed, then scraped, then dug...and eventually revealed the beautifully carved marble toga of a nobleman from the second century AD. Perhaps he was an emperor, but it was a ‘socketed’' statue with no head, so who could tell?
There is still such a lot to tell about the sites and history of Albania, but for the time being the digs in Butrint are finished. On holiday there this year, Louise was hailed by a group of men who materialized to be students of hers from ten years ago who are now leading their own excavation, the last in the present series. This meeting obviously pleased her as much as her amazing find of the marble statue. We were all fascinated to learn about the wild and un-explored country of Albania and we were warmed as well as enlightened by Louise’s frank and illuminating talk about her particular and exciting world of archaeology.
Thursday 7th November 2013
The History of Punch and Judy
Bertie Pearce is a Member of the Inner Magic Circle with Gold Star as well as a lecturer for NADFAS. He performs and lectures all over the world sharing his passion for Magic, Punch and Judy and Victorian Pastimes. After his hugely popular talk on Magic two years ago, he now returns to Wells.
On Thursday 7th November, the Wells Evening Society was delighted to hear a talk from a favourite speaker: Bertie Pearce. Bertie is a conjuror and last time he talked to us about the History of Magic, but this time his theme was the History of Punch and Judy.
He began by questioning why a foul mouthed, violent, ugly puppet is such an integral part of our cultural heritage. It may sound pompous to describe him in this way, but apparently in a 2006 vote for the icons that make up our cultural heritage Punch appeared in the top six – alongside Holbein’s defining painting of Henry VIII in all his majestic glory.
We were shown a number of images of the antecedents of Punch the puppet, and realised that the use of masks and puppets stretches back through mediaeval to Roman times. Comedia dell’ Arte was a humourous theatrical presentation which began in Italy in the early 16th century and quickly spread throughout Europe. It was performed by strolling professional players, whose parts embraced all the stock comic characters that might grace a TV sit-com today. There were the star-crossed young lovers, (“eye candy – the Posh and Becks of the time” as Bertie succinctly described them!) and the ugly but big hearted bar-maid figure, the penny-pinching old man with a flighty young wife and the gormless servant. Always there was the main character: the universal clown, the likeable cheeky chappy who in his anarchic way thumbs his nose at convention and the strict rules of society.
This last figure was called Punchinello, and he was universally popular. He developed over the centuries and in many countries, from actors in masks into marionettes into the glove puppet Mr Punch that we recognise today. Politically correct, he is not. He over reacts to his long suffering wife’s grumbling by violently beating her with a thick stick. He throws the baby out of the window, belabours the policeman with a string of sausages, makes fun of authority figures, hangs the hangman in his own noose, whacks the Devil and escapes justice to the end. To our 21st century sensibilities this is all done in a remarkably non-PC manner!
Samuel Pepys saw a performance of Punch and his adventures in Covent Garden in 1662. Apparently two things aroused his attention: a pretty chamber maid and “the prettiest puppet play that I ever saw.” A hundred years later, Dr Samuel Johnson recorded seeing the puppet in action, commenting “I have seen the Devil very lustily belaboured by Punch.”
The crude rough and tumble ceased to be so socially acceptable in the high society of the late 18th century but Mr Punch with his anarchy and rough wit and violence was enthusiastically adopted by the working classes. We were shown a series of delightful paintings of very mixed audiences revelling in the antics of Punch and his wife Judy.
In the 19th century the well known miniature theatre booth became a traditional part of the newly popular seaside holidays and, sanitised by the Victorians, Punch and Judy began to appear in drawing rooms. Bertie still gives performances for smart London children’s parties and he entertained us by describing how mild young Marcus and polite little Petronella cry out “More, More!” when asked should Punch stop beating the policeman with the sausages.
The practicalities of puppetry were also explained. The puppets, although crude by design, are flexible and tough and, unlike marionettes, can be operated by only one person. The swazzle is a small thumb-nailed piece of metal which when inserted into the throat can transform the voice into the rasping squeaky tones of Mr Punch and his companions. The slap stick is a special double stick which clatters satisfyingly when used to beat Punch’s many enemies. The crocodile (introduced into the plot at the time of foreign travellers returning to these shores with tales of outlandish creatures) has been used by Bertie himself to snap at annoying children!
Bertie the conjuror did one final trick to satisfy us. How can a newspaper, torn before our eyes into 24 pieces, become one again at the flick of a wrist? This was a satisfyingly wondrous end to a fascinating evening and the audience reacted enthusiastically with much laughter and a hearty round of applause.
Thursday 5th December 2013
Capturing the Moment - 150 years of Wedding Photography
Paul Atterbury, FRSA, is a British antiques expert, writer, lecturer and broadcaster - probably best known for his many appearances on the BBC TV programme Antiques Roadshow.
On Thursday 5th December the Wells Evening Society welcomed back Paul Atterbury, well known for his appearances on the Antique Road Show. His talk this time, entitled Capturing the Moment, was a visually delightful trip through one hundred and fifty years of wedding photographs.
Paul introduced his talk by saying that wedding photographs can tell us about many things: not only about the conventions, fashions and tastes of the time, but also about the people themselves who stand there captured in time and space on their special day. They are often anonymous, but it is their very anonymity which is often so poignant. We can only imagine why the older lady looks so grumpy, or the bride so taut, or the bridegroom so jocular.
Paul’s fascination with wedding photographs began at one of the Antiques Roadshow meetings, when a lady brought in a collection of these which she had made over the years. He found them very intriguing and suggested that she might allow him to base a book on her collection. At first she agreed, but withdrew her permission later because she felt it was an invasion of the various peoples’ privacy. Although he in some ways agreed, he had by then committed himself with a publisher and set about making his own collection. The photos we were shown came from jumble sales and car boot sales, EBay, family and friends. They covered the years from 1863 to 2010 - a photograph of Prince William with his bride Kate.
In 1863 a photograph was a rare thing indeed, and this one was of Edward Prince of Wales with his bride, the Princess Alexandra. They stand bolt upright, formally arranged and gazing fixedly at the camera. As with the contemporary image of William and Kate, the photograph was for dissemination to the public and then as now there were many wedding dresses made to imitate the new royal fashion.
Only the rich or famous would have a photo taken to celebrate their wedding in these early years. We saw an intriguing image of Tom Thumb, world famous at that time for his miniature stature. Tom stands with a bride and two friends of the same height, all stiff as posts in their formal dress. It was inevitable that the subjects of photographs in these early years were posed formally, and rarely smiled. It must have been quite a feat to keep the same expression and pose during the necessary thirty second exposure. Add this to the fact that for many people this was the only photograph taken of them in their lifetime, and it is no wonder the faces are set and the attitudes stiff!
We moved from Victorian times up to the turn of the century, by which time photography was a more commonplace affair. At the beginning the photographs mostly took place in the photographer’s studio, with the happy coupe re-enacting the day - their clothes carefully arranged about them in front of a painted backdrop. With less prosperous couples, it is sometimes evident that their clothes might have been borrowed...the man’s cuffs are too long, or the bridesmaid’s dress is not quite the right length. After the turn of the century, photographers had more portable equipment and began to move out of the studio, so larger groups could be taken. We saw the couple’s parents and friends gathered in a garden, with a practical rug on the grass to preserve the ladies’ shoes and hems. Paul commented that sometimes the expressions on their faces make clear how little love was lost between the different parents....
Where there was money, fashion was to be followed at all cost. Formal clothes are difficult to date but, as we moved through the decades, it was possible to date the photos to some extent by the length of the bride’s train, the bridesmaids’ dresses or the guests’ hats. As the Great War approaches, the men start to appear in uniform and the photographs become poignant. Private soldiers clutch their sweet young brides and immaculate officers in blues stand formally by their ladies; as we see the different young couples we imagine the tragically short time together which often lay before them.
The period between the two wars was reflected in wonderful groups of flapper bridesmaids with short skirts and cropped hairstyles and American photographs with images influenced by Hollywood as dapper moustachioed grooms struck dramatic poses with their film star brides. Gretna Green entered the scene and we saw postcards of couples standing triumphantly outside the famous blacksmith’s shop.
By the time of WW2, the Box Brownie camera had become universally available and many photographs would have been snapped by amateurs. The images become much less formal; there were brave displays with utility clothing made enterprisingly from window netting and soldiers snatching the time for a wedding photograph during their four day leave. Colour photographs enter the scene and we moved through the fashions and fads of the last fifty years. We saw 1950s groups with men in white suits inspired again by Hollywood, cheerful couples from Harlem in their colourful array and brazen British Teddy boys with their flashy molls. Carnaby street reflected the 1960s with flowery shirts, very short dresses and beehives hair dos. Perhaps by now the audience was recognising their own wedding outfits! Later we saw the eco-wedding, the registry office wedding and the self-consciously informal wedding. Paul told us that although it is still possible to find many an old photo of the wedding day, it is those of wedding cakes that are rare. This is apparently because they have often been acquired by chefs who want to copy the decorations.
We had raced through the social upheavals and fashions of a hundred and fifty years, fascinated by the intimate glimpses of so many anonymous couples but sad that all thephtogrphs had so obviously been lost to the families concerned. Paul ended the evening by looking at several photographs produced by the audience which had been treasured just s they should be, and was warmly thanked by the chairman for his revealing and intriguing talk.
Thursday 2nd January 2014
Fifty Years in Horticulture
Mary Payne (MBE, M. Hort. (RHS)) is a celebrated horticulturalist and lecturer from Stanton Drew in Somerset. A gardener of very many years’ experience, she was recently chosen to design the Daily Mail dream cottage garden and last year won a gold medal for her debut display at Hampton Court.
Mary’s long and patently successful career had a somewhat random start: her mother saw an article about horticulture in the hairdressers, tore it out and brought it home to show her daughter. Thus inspired, Mary promptly left her academic education behind her and joined a group in Oaklands, an all girls’ college in Hertfordshire where she was to learn the basic disciplines of horticulture. This meant up early for each long day’s work: covering and uncovering plants to control the speed of development, providing carbon dioxide with propane burners to encourage increased growth, pruning, weeding and digging all day. However, because they were a group of young ladies, when doing all this they were never allowed to show their bare knees!
This year was followed by two more, spent amongst other things learning both the Latin and English name of every plant, its peculiarities and country of provenance. Mary’s rapacious memory came into its own and as she absorbed this intimidating amount of knowledge her love of the subject grew proportionately. New / old theories were developing all the time she trained. There was the re-introduction of the traditional generation of heat with straw bales and in the sixties ‘ground cover’ was seen as a new concept. Then, as now, new varieties of plants were constantly being introduced which we come to take for granted in the garden centres and supermarkets.
Mary’s career prospered and she became a lecturer as well as a sought -after garden designer. Many of her students went on to make magnificent gardens – the Olympic Gardens in 2012 were amongst these. We saw images of wonderful gardens designed by Mary herself with the colours of banked flowers intermingling with sweeping area of ornamental grasses of differing heights. There might be alum or clematis, chrysanthemums and dahlias or autumnal fruits and coloured stems, but everything is always designed to come and go with the seasons so that at every point in the year there will be colour or texture to delight and excite the eye. “Gardens should be fun!” pronounced this most inspiring of gardeners, and showed photos of a dead tree painted blue and a scare crow made of plants.
The surprising fact was revealed that Mary herself lives in a small house with a minimal front and back garden. Apart from roses, of which she admitted a lifelong antipathy (made to prune the nasty prickly things too often as a child!) she has tried most things in these patches of earth. “Gardeners must be ruthless” she told us, and photographs showed the small areas developed and re-developed until they appeared like the corners of some huge and magic garden. They have the excitement of random planting and surprise except that we know that all the effects are made with great knowledge and forethought .
Mary is as happy working with teams of helpers for her major creations such as those for the Daily Mail Pavilion at Hampton Court or busy in her own small patch of land. Never intending to retire, she coins the phrase “Old gardeners never die, they merely spade away...!”
The chairman gave thanks for an inspirational talk and the audience progressed out into the wet and windy night full of enthusiasm and ideas for their gardens when spring comes again.
Thursday 6th February 2014
Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century
Professor Anthony Slinn is a painter who studied at the Slade with the great art historian Sir Ernest Gombrich. As well as painting, he now shares his enthusiasm for art and artists with an increasingly wide audience. Many members will remember his dramatic talk on Picasso’s Guernica.
Review to Follow Lecture
Thursday 6th March 2014
New York, New York - an Architectural Discovery
Andrew Davies is an author, broadcaster, lecturer for NADFAS and the National Trust, and Extra-Mural Tutor for London, Essex and the Open University. Bustling, noisy, vibrant...New York epitomizes the modern city at its best – and occasionally at its worst.
There was as full house on Thursday evening 6th March to hear the second last lecture of the Well Evening Society’s season 2013 – 2014. The talk by Andrew Davies was entitled New York New York and combined remarkable animation with wonderful images and considerable historical detail.
The evening began with a swift précis of the history of New York. Surrounded on all sides by water, the island was occupied 600 years ago by native inhabitants of North America known as the Algonquians. These people called their island Manhattan which meant Island of Hills. Over the centuries nearly all have been removed although a few hills remain in the region of Harlem.
Andrew delights in telling New York audiences that the first two arrivals from the old world met unfortunate ends. The first European to land on the island was the 16th century Florentine explorer Verrazzano who after a long an adventurous life was eventually eaten by cannibals “down to the finest bone.” The second arrival, Henry Hudson, landed on the shores in 1609. Later in his life Hudson was put to sea from his ship by mutineers and froze to death on the icy seas.
In 1624 Dutch sailors landed almost by mistake on Manhattan Island and remained to colonise it, naming it New Amsterdam. The Island did not remain under that name for long but was renamed New York in 1665 by Charles II in honor of his brother the Duke of York (later James II of England) after English forces seized control. It was fascinating to realise how history is echoed in the many names which are still in use. We find, to name but a few: Manhattan Island, Verrazzano and Henry Hudson Bridges, the Bronx (after Jonas Bronck a Dutch settler) and Harlem, named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands.
Little if anything physical remains from all this tide of history. The island with its beautiful location is surrounded by deep waters and lies sheltered from the sea’s storms. After the 18th century it began to develop rapidly; clapboard fisherman’s cottages were replaced by four storey brownstone buildings in Georgian style of which few now remain. In 1811 a grid pattern of roads was introduced and the modern city started to evolve. Avenues 100 feet wide ran north to south and streets 60 feet wide ran east to west and this pattern remains to the present day. Only one street runs eccentrically: the original Indian path crossed the island diagonally and still does so, known today as Broadway. The area on the island’s southern tip, known as Greenwich Village, was left with its original crooked street plan, and today can remind us of a Kentish harbour town.
Manhattan is a small island which measures only one and a half miles wide by twelve and a half miles long. Soon there were too many inhabitants to house them all in low buildings so from the 19th century onwards New York began to reach for the skies. The city is built on a bedrock of schist which is harder than granite and can readily contain deep foundations for very tall buildings. The two clusters of sky scrapers on Manhattan Island – the financial centre to the south and New Manhattan to the north - reflect the two main area of solid schist.
All this became clear when we were shown aerial photos of the island. As we looked from a bird’s eye view we understood both its geography and the grid system; we saw the port area and the towering buildings, the many bridges and the large green area which is Central Park. Surrounded by straight avenues and roads, this rectangular area of trees and grass replaced an original series of pig farms and was planned in the informal spirit of Capability Brown. Today it provides the necessary lungs of the heavily developed city.
With a wonderful mix of old postcards and original photographs we were lead through the development of the New York that exists today. Many iconic features were fleshed out for us. Andrew told us that face on the enormous Statue of Liberty was based on the French sculptor’s mother (although she never came to see it) The stark history of Ellis Island was made real by a touching early photo of a family of immigrants, both hopeful and fearful as they arrived in the land of their dreams.
Everything in New York is on a massive scale. The Public Library is the size of a football pitch; the enormously imposing Grand Central Station with its arching ceilings and baroque grandeur has no trains in sight because they run under the station. We saw the famous Plaza Hotel, built like an enormous French chateau, and the stock exchange, built like a Greek temple. The different museums and galleries range from the imposing 19th century gothic Metropolitan to Frank Lloyd Wright’s circular concrete structure the Guggenheim. Each one holds masterpieces from all over the world, paid for by the huge wealth of New Yorkers who gave with munificence to the nation.
In the mid 19th century the spire of Trinity church was the tallest feature on the city but now, when viewed from the top of nearby buildings, the church appears like a little footstool beneath the towers. With their different silhouettes rising ever higher up into the sky the sky scrapers must be the defining images of New York. The first modern tower was the so-called ‘flat iron’ on Broadway – a gigantic tower so thin that it seems to sway precariously over the city. We saw images of the pinnacled Chrysler building, the ‘stepped’ Art Deco silhouette of the Rockefeller tower and the iconic and always recognisable Empire State Building. Before that tragic day in September 2011 the twin towers rose majestically above all these.
Andrew obviously feels that the slab like recent buildings have less character than the stepped silhouettes of earlier times but who could fail to be excited by Manhattan’s unique mixture of slab and step, pinnacle and soaring tower? His infectious enthusiasm must have inspired many in the audience to book air tickets for New York the next day. The chairman thanked him warmly for an invigourating evening.
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Dr Mark Baldwin
Code breakers - Enigma, Bletchley Park and the Battle of the Atlantic
Dr Mark Baldwin, publisher, bookseller, and lecturer travels widely talking about the extraordinary achievements of the Allied Code breakers in WW2.
On Thursday April 3rd members of the Wells Evening Society were joined by a large number of visitors to hear a talk by Dr Mark Baldwin. In his talk entitled Code Breakers: Enigma, Bletchley Park and the Battle of the Atlantic, Mark introduced us to what has been called the world’s most famous cipher machine. During a fascinating evening he explained how the Enigma machine worked, why and how it came about and the necessity of the Allies learning how to break its massively complex codes.
In historical times, messages were sent around the world by courier, ship and land travel. This was a very slow process although it was possible if necessary to guarantee the secrecy of information sent in these ways. By the beginning of the twentieth century engineers had laced the world with cables over land and under seas and communication had speeded up dramatically. Marconi and his disciples extended the process with the invention and development of wireless and by 1915 there was a constant flow of messages across the globe. Madrid could contact Melbourne within the hour. Messages could be sent....but who was listening? Both for business and military purposes, the need for some system of scrambling messages became apparent.
In 1918 a German, Arthur Scherbius, took out a patent for a rotor cipher machine. Called from the first the Enigma, this machine was capable of mixing an apparently random series of letters to make messages which nevertheless could be speedily unscrambled by the recipient. The unstable political climate and the depression that racked Germany between the wars inhibited its development and it was never perfected. It was, however, in use in Germany during the thirties, and neighbouring Poland foresaw its power and the dangerous implications. A team of three brilliant Polish cryptographers worked out some of the system’s intricacies before, as war approached in 1939, passing on to Britain and France their invaluable information
Codes are by definition very difficult to understand and it helps a little to look at a very simple example: the so-called Caesar cipher. In its simplest form, each letter of the alphabet is substituted by another letter moved one place forwards: THE ALPHABETS
becomes UIF BMQIBCFUT
. The length of the words can give clues so in more sophisticated versions this might read UIFB MQIB CFUT
. Working on something of the same principles, the Enigma machine is of course infinitely more complicated in that it is designed to produce vast numbers of variations on the changes of letters. When the Enigma messages were transmitted by wireless, they were always broken into blocks of four or five letters to disguise the lengths of the original words.
The Enigma can essentially be seen as a complicated typewriter consisting of two sets of alphabets. A key is pressed in the first alphabet: the input. Another letter lights up in the second alphabet and this new letter represents the original and will become the coded letter: the output. Complexity is added by a series of rotors which turn as each letter is typed, arbitrarily changing which output letter is chosen each time: the complexity. Later, yet another complication was added: transposable plugs could be swapped apparently at random, thus creating what appeared to the Germans to be a totally impenetrable substitution cipher.
The bulk of complexity is in the wiring which joins the different components of the machine, so that the output letters are continually changing with a substitution letter rarely or never the same twice over. With the three (later four) rotors, Mark’s audience was bemused to hear that the Enigma machine offered many more cipher patterns than there are atoms in the observable universe.
It is a popular theme that we in Britain were unprepared for war in 1939. In fact, the need to intercept and de-code messages from an enemy had been foreseen and the Bletchley Park estate was acquired for this purpose in 1938. Buried in the countryside and far from any bombing of London, the campus was greatly extended over the next few years. Eventually 10,000 men and women were employed there, billeted all over the adjoining area and working in three eight-hour shifts. The whole proceedings had to take place in the utmost secrecy; it was many years after the war before the workings of this amazing institution became general knowledge.
Working day and night, messages were intercepted and work proceeded on the task of de-coding them. Enlightened by the information provided by the three Polish cryptographers, with a little inspired guesswork and by using Alan Turing's wonderfully ingenious machine, the 'Bombe' the code breakers were able to achieve the seemingly impossible.
The Enigma was used by the Germans in different fields of war but it was in the Battle of the Atlantic that the code breakers had perhaps their greatest success. The survival of our island depended on supplies shipped across the sea from America but during the first years of the war German U boats preyed on these merchant ships, picking them off one by one and causing death and devastation on a daily basis.
A booklet was issued each month to users of the Enigma machine with the next four weeks’ formula for use in sending and receiving messages. Since they were in constant communication with their headquarters in Germany, each U boat carried a copy of this. When the Allies managed to obtain a copy, it became possible to decode the messages and to plot the whereabouts of the enemy at sea. Suddenly, to the bafflement of German High Command, merchant ships were escaping and the U boats were being picked off one by one by Allied warships.
Shipping losses fell to a bare minimum until 1942, when the Germans added a fourth rotor to their U Boat Enigma machines, thus dramatically increasing the complexities of the codes. We were shown a graph which demonstrated how immediately our losses shot up, as the code breakers at Bletchley Park struggled with this new complication. Over a thousand ships were lost in the North Atlantic alone in 1942, but in October, documentation was seized from a captured U-boat. The code breakers were able once again to become masters of the code and the graph showed clearly that shipping losses fell almost immediately. It has been estimated that, had the code breakers not been able to crack the enemy’s codes, the war in Europe would have lasted at least two more years.
Mark answered a series of questions from the fascinated audience. Numbers were represented by inserting YY (rare in German) to precede the next letters. The British shared their information with the Americans, who in turn helped to crack the code produced by the four rotor machine. Recruitment for Bletchley Park had to be kept very low key and secret and was done largely using the Old Boy network, with personal recommendation from public schools and universities. Possibly about 30,000 to 40,000 Enigma machines (some say more) were produced by the Germans during the war, of which only about 300 are known still to exist.
Jane Lee the chairman thanked Dr Mark warmly for such a stimulating and informative lecture. Mark possesses one of the few Enigma machines in private hands and he had brought this along with him. After the lecture, the audience was invited to have a close look at this “portable typewriter in an oak case.” Several people had a go at coding letters, including the Mayor of Wells Theo Butt Phillip who had been invited to hear the lecture, the last in the present season.
LECTURE REVIEWS 2012-13
4th October 2012
A Dealer’s Story: dealing in the British Art Market
Nicholas Bagshawe trained initially with Sotheby’s and since the seventies he has been involved with every aspect of the commercial art world. Having specialised in 18th, 19th and early 20th century fine art and the intricacies of the British art market, Nicholas is in demand as a lecturer worldwide.
On Thursday 4th October the Wells Evening Society held its first meeting of the new 2012/2013 season. The speaker was Nicholas Bagshawe, a dealer in Fine Art, who was to give us an inside view of the British Art Market. This he certainly did: without notes he spoke animatedly and revealingly about the intricacies and excitements of this competitive and precarious world.
He was endearingly frank throughout his talk. He succinctly described the role of any dealer: someone who tries to flog something for more money than he paid for it. But how does anyone get into the specific and rarefied world of fine art dealing? Sothebys now backs a formal degree course for aspiring young people in this field and Nicholas often talks to groups from worldwide who pay a great deal to learn. First and foremost they must have a real knowledge for the periods in which they hope to specialise....to be able to recognise not just by intellect but by an almost intuitive feeling for the period, artist or provenance. They must learn to “smell that a piece is right.”
Almost equally important is the acquisition of some capital, because pictures and antiques are seriously expensive items. Nicholas took us through his own learning curve so we could understand the progress from naive young hopeful to his present position as Gallery owner and, although he was too modest to say so, renowned expert in his field. After a short course at Sothebys in the seventies, and whilst writing many unsuccessful applications to the big Auction Houses, his first job was general odd job man for a London Gallery. Restive with this life, he began with a friend from his course to buy prints - always cheaper than pictures - and to try to sell them. It was only when these two young hopefuls were given a particular client who wanted a particular image that they could move into the real dealing world. They scoured the auctions for the requested image of Sussex coast line, found one, sold it the next day for a reasonable profit, and were off! They had made their first real profit and had the very beginning of a client base.
A good list of clients is essential for a dealer’s success. Very successful people like to be able to delegate the responsibility of acquiring the painting they desire. Older paintings need cleaning and the frames may need mending or gilding, so the dealer builds up a coterie of skilled craftsmen on whom he can rely; this is also an essential part of his trade. As he progressed, Nicholas learned it is best to buy in auctions outside the London area, and to avoid becoming involved in any of the infamous “rings.”
He also realised that a permanent physical space for selling in the form of a gallery costs a lot of money, so for some years he and his partner sold at fairs. The term fair can cover everything from a table in a tent to a weekend at Grosvenor House to a very expensive whole week at Maastricht. Dealers become fair gypsies, moving from one venue to another with the same face reappearing again and again; they become friends as well as rivals, and learn trust each other. Networking with others extends each dealer’s field of knowledge: friend Aalbert in Amsterdam will look at an emailed image and help to identify an obscure 17th century Dutch painting. One dealer will borrow off another to show to a customer who wants a particular item; the profit is then split in two.
Nicholas finally got himself a permanent gallery in central London, and was able to leave the cheaper prints and watercolours to others and to concentrate on the 18th, 19th and early 20th century paintings which he loves and about which he knows most. Now he is established, what gives him the greatest buzz, why does he persist in what is still a challenging and precarious lifestyle? It is the “Rembrandt discovered in the car boot sale” syndrome. These startling finds do occur from time to time, and usually make the national press, but they become less and less likely as media exposure is everywhere and internet based knowledge spreads.
So after a list of clients, financial backing, technical expertise and selling space comes yet another essential part of the dealer’s vocabulary: careful research. It becomes necessary to know the story behind the portrait or painting because an unauthenticated work of no particular significance or value can be transformed by new knowledge into a piece of real value.
An anonymous painting can by detective work acquire great value by being positively ascribed to a known artist. Nicholas showed us an example : an unsigned 19th century painting in which a group of people watch a young man as he draws a child. Nicholas recently managed to identify the man as the young William Mulready. Mulready is an Irish genre painter of repute and what is effectively a self portrait is now worth much more than when first acquired. Careful restoration can reveal details lost for years, but careful research into the background can often reveal still more.
Nicholas finished his fascinating and revealing talk by showing us a painting of several men in heated discussion around a table. He can tell the painting is from France and that the date is about 1832. Two of the men are in night attire and the rest in day clothes, but who are they? Does this group tie in with some famous meeting of revolutionaries in those politically turbulent times? He is still on the hunt for further information, with the tantalising knowledge that if he doesn’t find out about it he might sell it on to someone who does and it will be they who reap the financial prize.
We were left realising that the life of a fine art dealer can be full of worry and frustration but also great excitement and satisfaction. The chairman thanked Nicholas warmly for the humourous and animated insights he had given us into his particular world.
1st November 2012
Journey of the River
Lexa is an artist whose practice combines both sculpture and performance. Her lectures aim to open peoples’ eyes to the language of art in an imaginative and practical way. She examines a wide variety of art, including examples of her own work from an artist’s point of view and from many different periods.
On November 1st the Wells Evening Society heard artist Lexa Drysdale talking about how artists over the centuries have perceived and painted the river. These artists ranged from Renaissance artist Veronese with his representational painting of the Baptism of Christ to those of contemporary painters where water can be depicted convincingly and excitingly by paint flowing and dribbling down the canvas.
Lexa, herself an artist, perceives the journey of a river from source to the sea as reflecting a man’s journey through life. It was revelating to hear her explain the thoughts and structure behind the many paintings that she showed us. A member of the audience said afterward “To see all those paintings in one evening, from so many galleries, without having to travel away from this room....!”
The evening began with a painting by Michael Andrews (1928 – 1995) who painted water in a number of contexts. His Source of the Thames shows the early life of that great river; his freely applied and scratched off paint subtly indicating the water as it first emerges from the ground. The Estuary shows the Thames as it merges into the sea...deceptively simple shapes with soft tones and textures are created by the worried surface of the paint, shadowy human figures dwarfed by the majestic sweep of the sea. A painting of the artist with his young daughter swimming in a deep dark pool gives a totally different feel for water. Their white limbs melt into the dark shadows and all this in just paint!
Australian artists Arthur Boyd and Sydney Nolan freely translated their particular thoughts onto huge canvasses. Boyd wanted to make a wry commentary about lobster red sunbathers and speed boats despoiling the calm aesthetics of water in its natural environment, whilst Nolan on the other hand dribbled and scratched away to show the sketchy and lonely figure of a convict alone in a swamp, his shadowy body pathetic and insignificant amongst the mango trees.
The many and very various paintings tumbled across the screen, all united by their watery theme. We saw paintings and sketches by Constable and Turner...both in their different ways fascinated by water with its play of light and colours.
James McNeill Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist who captured a misty morning on the Thames at Chelsea. The deceptively simple painting shows us in shades of grey the very essence of damp fog and open white water, pointed up by the single dark shadow of a boatman. John Singer Sargent was a successful Edwardian portrait painter who painted water with a very different approach. He painted the tumbling water with broad brush strokes, but perceived the river as more as a backdrop for his powerful foreground figures.
We saw a splendid 19th century American painting of the Niagara Falls in which we could almost hear the fury of the roaring waters. This was in dramatic contrast to a topographical Dutch painting of the static frozen Thames of 1740 or of Canaletto’s careful representation of the Opening of Westminster Bridge. With its flotilla of boats and barges this was reminiscent of the Queen’s Jubilee ride down the Thames.
We were reminded that Lexa is herself a practicing painter as she analysed the composition as well as the mind-set of the various artists. She was able to take us through the thoughts behind the very different paintings and covered a wide range of emotions and techniques, skilfully weaving them all together with the continuing theme of the river.
The audience went out into the cold wet November evening enlivened and informed by an unusual and fascinating lecture.
6th December 2012
Dr David Bostwick
Deck the Hall - Yuletide Customs and Traditions
Former Keeper of the Social History Collections at Sheffield History Museums, David lectures to NADFAS, the National Trust, and Antiques and Garden Societies. He writes for specialist magazines and is a tour leader, specialising in the cultural history of the Mediaeval, Tudor and Stuart periods. He is presently a consultant on historic buildings to The National Trust, English Heritage and Historic Scotland.
The talk on December 6th – St Nicholas Night – gave the Wells Evening Society an animated beginning to the festive season. In a very interesting and often very humourous lecture, Dr David Bootlick talked about the history of Christmas and thus the derivation of many of the customs that we take for granted. The departure from day-today life with feasting and jollity and the traditional images associated with the nativity all have a history which goes back much further than the month that Jesus was born, according to modern research in July 4 BC.
Early Christian images of Mary nursing Jesus are clearly based on Ancient Egyptian representations of the goddess Isis and her child Horus. Hundreds of years before Christ, angels appeared as winged beings holding musical instruments. The dates of the early Church’s calendar was firmly based on existing festivals: the Feast of the Annunciation – Lady Day – is on March 25th, over the Feast of Minerva....and Christmas nine months later with its revels and topsy turvy festivities grew from the mid-winter Feast of Mithras. As in the Roman Saturnalia, celebrated on the shortest day, the world was turned temporally upside down. The Lord of Misrule became king....choristers were designated Boy Bishops ....Henry VIII changed places with his fool and there was much cross dressing, reflected to this day in pantomime. For the twelve days when the sun apparently disappears, the revelry continued, with bonfires lit to encourage the sun’s return...reflected in the Yule Log of today.
After the cold and austere months of Advent, with its darkening evenings and no flesh except fish on Fridays, a celebration of the Winter solstice with feasting was a happy event. The Christian Church embraced the idea with enthusiasm and it was an unhappy patch when in the 17th century the Puritans frowned on such light hearted revelries and banned all Christmas celebrations. Luckily this lasted only during the short time of the Commonwealth and it was back to normal with the Restoration in 1660. We were shown many animated and often humourous pictures of feasts, often in spaces decorated with twisted greenery. Christians adopted the sacred holly with its symbolism of blood red berries and thorn-like leaves representing Christ’s suffering and mistletoe and ivy have an ancient tradition of friendship and love reaching far back in time.
St Nicholas - Santa Claus, patron of children who visited on 6th December with gifts, arrived in America with the Dutch and German settlers. With the Scandinavian settlers came Wodin, who drives on his sleigh with reindeer through the sky. These two became fused together in the 19th century...so Father Christmas is a hybrid! In Victorian and Tudor times he is seen in a bright green suit but is now universally appears in red.
Many of us knew that Boxing Day was originally the day when apprentices collected their Christmas boxes. Like Dr Bostwick’s mother, we remember out parents saving “boxes” for the local postman, refuse men and delivery boys. Many of us entertain neighbours and extended family on Christmas day, reflecting the spirit of sharing with other - often the less fortunate - which became associated with the festive season. Many of us put wreaths on our doors, echoing the traditional evergreen Advent wreath which was seen as representing everlasting life. Many of us have a Christmas tree, which has been a firm tradition of Christmas since the early 19th Century. Dr Bostwick disabused us of the widely held belief that the Christmas tree was introduced by Prince Albert: in 1855 an article appeared in a journal suggesting that Christmas trees were ’passé’ and suggesting a palm tree might be a more stylish innovation!
The lecture was accompanied by many humourous anecdotes and illustrated with unusual and attractive images. The audience gave a prolonged clap at the end of a particularly animated evening – an excellent beginning to the Festive Season.Review to follow Lecture.
3rd January 2013
Dr Adrian Tinniswood
Pirates of Barbary
Adrian Tinniswood is an historian, broadcaster and the author of fourteen books on social and architectural history. He is chair of Bristol Museums Development Trust, a member of the National Trust Council and serves on the boards of several heritage organisations, including the Bishop’s Palace in Wells
On January 3rd Wells Evening Society got the New Year off to a good start with a glass of mulled wine and an exciting lecture by local author and lecturer Dr Adrian Tinniswood. His subject was the Pirates of Barbary, which lead us into the frightening world of life at sea in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The screen was filled with an image of an open sea and we were asked to imagine that we were in a sailing ship, heading home at a steady pace loaded with wine and oil and currants - very popular back in England in the16th century. It was into this calm scene that suddenly a galley might appear. It would have been powered mainly by up to 144 slave oarsmen and carried 200 long haired janissaries, all waving their pistols and scimitars.
Their flag was no skull and crossbones, but one which simulated the flag of our target merchant ship. The attacking galley was fast and manoeuvrable; it could even be rowed backwards. It contained a number of bow mounted cannon and had a pointed harpoon-like prow capable of piercing, and remaining attached to, the side of a wooden galleon. Having rammed its prey, a torrent of pirates would pour out onto the deck. The booty would be taken and the helpless mariners bound and lead into captivity as slaves. All this was a very far call from romantic visions of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp as they sail the Caribbean under a fluttering ‘Jolly Roger.’ These were the pirates of the Barbary Coast in action.
We were told that their story started in the early 16th century with one Barbarossa, who began life as a potter on the Isle of Lesbos using ships to distribute his wares around the Mediterranean. It was in reaction to the Knights of St John from Malta attacking his vessels that he and his sons began in turn to attack Christian ships. They called themselves Mujahedeen and these attacks at sea became in due course a proxy war between Christendom and Islam. The pirates established bases along the Barbary Coast , centred in Algeria but covering 2000 miles of coast along the top of Africa from Morocco to modern day Tunisia and Libya. Their galleys had low keels and could pass through shallow water: they travelled up rivers and attacked coastal towns.
Ranging further afield than the Mediterranean, the pirates are recorded as having reached Iceland where they took a whole township into slavery. Great Britain may have felt safe, but was not. On June 20th, 1631 the village of Baltimore on the west coast of Ireland suffered the biggest single attack by the Barbary pirates on our islands. The unsuspecting village was put to the torch and the inhabitants taken into slavery. From over a hundred men, women and children, only three were ever to return to their native shore.
The attack was led by a Dutch captain turned pirate, Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, also known as Murad Reis the Younger. Jan Janszoon was not alone in “turning Turk” and it is recorded that hundreds of adventurous young men from northern Europe joined the pirates of Barbary. With the introduction of sailing ships and the knowledge of these Frankish (Christian) mariners, the pirates were able to range further and further afield, inhibiting the use of normal shipping routes and creating terror wherever they struck.
We were told various stories of individuals who were caught up in those turbulent times. Sir Francis Verney from Gloucestershire, a nobleman by birth, left England after quarrelling with his family. He joined the pirates, converted to Islam and became one of the most successful captains to operate on the Barbary Coast during the early 17th century. The Barbary pirates gained much from selling their captives into slavery and many northern Europeans worked out their days as galley slaves or worse. There are vivid accounts of these peoples’ lives in captivity. A few escaped: we heard d how in 1644 William Oakley and four companions escaped from slavery in Algiers in a secretly constructed canvas boat and became instantly famous on arrival home in England.
As we enjoy hearing about the romance and excitement of past centuries, it is chastening to realize that piracy continues to this day. We were shown graphic images of Somalian pirates in action in our own times. Small boats still lunge out of the sea to terrorize great merchant vessels, although rather than carrying oil, wine and currants these are now more likely to be oil tankers or container ships. We heard how countries of the EU have combined forces to form Operation Atlanta which is countering the threat of the modern pirates. With worldwide cooperation there is hope that pirates will once again cease to terrorize the seas.
Dr Tinniswood was warmly applauded and thanked for a stimulating evening.
Henry Purcell – England’s greatest Composer
Colin Booth not only plays but makes harpsichords. After an initial training as a pianist and organist, he studied with Colin Tilney, one of the greatest harpsichord players. Since then, he has made more than 300 instruments and played in countries from Denmark to South Africa, as soloist, continuo-player, and director. He also teaches in his own area of South-West England and is a regular contributor to the Dartington International Summer School.
On Thursday February 7th, the Wells Evening Society had a rather different kind of lecture. The speaker was local musician Colin Booth, who is well known for both his making and his playing of harpsichords. Accompanied by a selection of beautiful recorded music and playing a spinet, Colin introduced us to the world of 17th century composer Henry Purcell.
Colin told us that he hoped to show us that Henry Purcell was the greatest composer that England has ever produced. He gave us a concise and revealing feeling for the turbulent years of the 17th century so that we could understand Purcell in the context of his age. He was born in London in 1659, the very last year of the repressive Puritan Commonwealth. Charles II returned to England in 1660 and Henry’s childhood, with the animated artistic revival of the Restoration period, saw a fast changing world. He was six when the Great Plague swept the country and seven when the Great Fire demolished swathes of London. Luckily for the Purcell family, they lived in Westminster which at that time was just outside the city.
Henry’s was a musical family, his father being associated with the Chapel Royal. A precocious musician, his first piece of music was published when was eight. He became a chorister in the Chapel Royal at ten and at fourteen his first job was Assistant to the Royal Musical Instrument Repairer. By seventeen, he had moved from choir by to keyboard student to assistant organist at Westminster. Such was his talent and reputation that when only nineteen, the illustrious Cathedral Organist Dr John Blow requested that Henry should replace him in his post as Court Harpsichordist and Composer. He married at 20 and remained with his wife Francis in Westminster until his premature death sixteen years later. Together they had six children, four of whom died in childhood.
In the court of Charles II there was plenty of opportunity to write music for Royal occasions. We heard a recording of the surging notes of Purcell’s triumphant royal WELCOME! written for the new king as well as an example of the many celebratory anthems written for his court. Violins and harpsichord, singers and bass notes all wove together in rich baroque sound as we sat in the Town Hall imagining 17th century courtiers in their splendid surroundings. We needed no visual images.... with the music sweeping around us we could imagine that we were there.
Purcell explored the full range of Elizabethan and Jacobean musical tradition and, although influenced by both French and Italian composers of the period, he was innovative and original in his approach to composition. He often used daring harmonies, writing for the human voice, keyboards, and viols. The viols would have ranged from a miniature size violin not seen today through to full size cello and bass.
Although committed to composition for the King and his Court, Purcell’s first love throughout his life was for opera. In fact these productions can better be described as theatrical productions with music; we heard wonderful strains sung from his famous ‘Dido and Aeneas’, and also from the less well known ‘King Arthur’. His compositions were not the formal and structured sounds that can be associated with baroque music but always inventive, lively and various.
Charles II died and was succeeded by James for whom Purcell wrote the coronation anthem. The turbulent times continued with the unpopular James trying to re-introduce Catholicism; protestant William and Mary arrived from Holland in 1689 having been offered the throne by Parliament. Throughout these seismic changes, Purcell remained in his role of Court Composer, developing in turn a particularly good relationship with Queen Mary.
Mary died in 1695, and Purcell was commissioned to write the funeral march. As Colin described the solemn procession in Westminster Abbey - the stately cortege all wearing black processing down the nave - we heard the simple but sublimely serene notes of sackbut, drums and strings echoing around the Town Hall.
Purcell died at the tragically young age of thirty six. We heard a magnificent evening hymn with a soaring treble voice and Colin let us imagine the composer’s friends gathering around the bed as he lay dying , perhaps singing together this last triumphant song of praise. The music that he had earlier composed for Queen Mary's funeral was performed only a few months later at his own.
Purcell’s music has influenced many down the centuries, including such diverse contemporary composers as Benjamin Britten and Pete Townshend of The Who. The talk was illustrated throughout by a series of carefully chosen pieces of music as well as by intriguing and beautiful examples played by Colin on the spinet. These, together with the lucid explanation of his life in the context of his times, meant that we left the Hall well understanding how Henry Purcell can indeed be described as England’s greatest composer.
7th March 2013
Our Energy Future
David Edwards graduated at Edinburgh University with honours in geology, worked as an expedition science leader in Botswana and the Yukon and for the Royal Geographic Society as their Universities Expeditions Advisor. He was Director of Studies for Edinburgh University’s Global Environmental International summer school and was for many years a lecturer in environmental sustainability for the University of Glasgow. He writes on travel and combines this with freelance public speaking and lecturing around the world.
On Thursday March 7th the Wells Evening Society heard a thought provoking and enlightening talk entitled Our Energy Future. If there were members nervous that this might be preachy and full of jargon, they were in for a happy surprise. David Edwards is an accomplished and entertaining speaker who gave us a clear and coherent account of the facts behind the global energy crisis.
Using some beautiful images and clear diagrams, David explained the problem. He told us that there is an exact parallel between availability of energy and quality of living: countries with high energy use have high rates of literacy, low rates of infant mortality and long life expectancy. Precisely the reverse is true for countries deprived of electricity: poor rates of literacy, high rates of infant mortality and short life expectancy. In many cases these are the very countries that are being exploited for the oil and minerals necessary to satisfy our insatiable use of energy.
Fuel for transport and electricity has become so essential to the developed world that any failure in supplies can lead to social and political instability. During the oil crisis in 1972, the USA suffered many power cuts. Jimmy Carter told his fellow countrymen that they should turn down their thermostats, as he was doing in the White House; he subsequently failed to be re-elected. Over here in the UK, there was huge disruption and a subsequent change of government following Edward Heath’s three day week. We must realise that having oil and electricity on constant tap has become an addiction.
A relentlessly increasing world population and the rising use of power in emerging economies constantly increases our demands for energy, meaning that our lifestyles are having a profound impact on the Earth's ecosystems. How much of nature are we prepared to sacrifice to sustain this way of life? The stark fact before us is that, whilst projected global reserves of oil and gas may be revised upwards as the cost of energy rises, the eventual supplies are limited.
There are also human rights and foreign policy considerations: how can we maintain the security of our energy supplies in politically unstable oil and gas producing nations? Perhaps most importantly for the future: with our constant burning of fossil fuels, how can we avoid polluting the environment irretrievably? It has been said that discussing energy without mentioning climate change is like discussing smoking without mentioning cancer.
We can and must learn to be more economical in our uses of all fuels, but with demands for energy outstripping population growth conservation alone will not work. Remembering that in the case of electricity supply there is the need for capacity to meet power surges as well as the underlying base load, David enumerated the alternative sources of energy which are currently available.
There is nuclear power, which when first introduced was thought to be such a cheap form of energy that “there would be no need to meter it”! We now know that as well as being fraught with danger nuclear power has enormous financial implications, as there are massive long term environmental costs and dangers when disposing of radioactive material. However seductive nuclear power might seem we must find other sources less fraught with long term cost.
Although the three demands are virtually irreconcilable, we need supplies of energy which are 1) secure, 2) clean and 3) affordable. We can and do extract power from the sun, the wind, from waves and tides, from burning biomass and from hydro-electric sources. All these have their advantages and disadvantages, their advocates and their enemies. The pylons necessary to transport electricity around the country, solar panels, power stations and wind turbines can all be seen to form a blot on the landscape. We know the acronym NIMBY: Not in My Back Yard. David raised a laugh with the new acronym BANANA....Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone! Encouragingly, the overall rejection of such items is not quite clear-cut. A survey has shown that whereas most people of 60+ object to wind turbines, 16-24 year olds do not necessarily do so.
With so many questions and so many different difficult solutions, where does it all leave us? Certainly with the realisation that, as the developed world complacently continues to use such a disproportionate amount of the world’s fast diminishing resources, it cannot continue to exploit the poorer nations. With such energy and social inequality, we are living in a kind of energy apartheid and are in danger of building up a time-bomb of resentment. The time to act is now: the world must learn to co-operate in its search for renewable resources.
There was a question from the audience about the potential of solar power and we heard that it is being suggested that solar panels in the Sahara would be able export abundant electricity to Europe. Another question was asked about the potential value and resulting problems of a Severn Barrage. David told us that the use of lagoons is now being considered; these would fill up and release water at each tide, producing a form of hydro electric power that could avoid much environmental damage.
The chairman had to call time on questions and the audience showed their appreciation with enthusiastic and prolonged applause. David had taken a serious subject and with well researched and coherent images had given us a real insight into our fraught but just possibly hopeful energy future.
4th April, 2013
The drama behind the Taj Mahal: the life and times of the Indian Emperor Shah Jahan
Oliver Everett CVO was educated at Cambridge University, did post graduate work at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in America and at the London School of Economics. Following service in the Foreign Office, including postings in India and Spain, he was Assistant Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales, 1978-80; and Private Secretary to Diana, Princess of Wales, 1981-83. He was Librarian in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, 1984-2002. Since his retirement in 2002 he has been Librarian Emeritus at the Castle. He lectures widely in Britain and abroad.
During this season Wells Evening Society has heard talks on a wide variety of subjects: from art in many forms to our fragile environment and from Barbary pirates to Purcell. The last lecture of the season was on Thursday April 4th when a popular speaker, Oliver Everett CVO, returned to talk about the life and times of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.
Shah Jahan was born in the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and died in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. Considered to be one of the greatest of all Mughals, with a vast empire covering huge swathes of central India, he was emperor during one of the most prosperous ages of Indian civilization. The title Shah Jahan comes from the Persian meaning ‘Ruler of World’, and he well justified this title. Not only was he a great patron of the arts, with refined tastes in both art and architecture, but he was also a great warrior. When rebellion stirred he moved around the country with his court and army, and wherever he and his great entourage made their base he organised the building of palaces and forts.
By genealogy Shah Jahan was three quarters Hindu, but he was a practicing Muslim and, as was the custom, had several wives. By far his favourite wife was Mumtaz Mahal. He married when young and he was devoted to her for all her sadly short life. When she died aged 38, giving birth to her 14th child, Shah Jahan was broken hearted and the very next year set about commissioning the most famous of his buildings - the Taj Mahal at Agra, in memory his beloved wife.
All this could have been something of a dry history lesson were it not for the marvellous images which flowed across the screen. Throughout his reign, Shah Jahan encouraged the arts and a school of painters moved with his entourage recording the life and times of his court. A particularly fine collection of 44 of these is known as the Padshahnama – the chronicle of the King of the World. In beautifully graphic detail we can see the politicians and the courtiers, their ceremonies and entertainments and the famous battles fought and won. We can even see some of the gruesome punishment inflicted on the losing side.
By happy chance, this beautiful book was presented to the Governor General of India in the late eighteenth century and eventually made its way back to King George III and the Royal Library in Windsor Castle. Oliver Everett, as Librarian Emeritus at Windsor Castle, has good reason to know the rich and intricate paintings well and he told us that it is thought that they are the best examples of Mughal paintings in the world.
Each double page spread has a richly patterned border, containing a descriptive text on the left side and an illustration on the right. Each picture would have taken up to two years to finish. The several artists involved painted with fine squirrel brushes using watercolours and gold leaf on vellum. Sometimes we can identify the artists who depicted themselves, carrying a folder, standing in the crowd around the emperor’s throne.
The paintings are exquisite and the detail is quite extraordinary. The pages are about A 4 size and the heads on the figures are no bigger than a little finger nail. Amazingly, when details were enlarged onto the Society’s twelve foot square screen, the images were as intricate as if they had been originally painted at that great scale.
Each individual personage has its character, each gesture is observed. We can identify many individuals, recognising them as they reappear at the various ceremonies: the prime minister, the finance minister, the Persian ambassador, and of course Shah Jahan himself with his four sons. We saw the courtiers in rich detail, with their delicious fabrics and sparkling pearls and jewels. Oliver pointed out a tiny miniature locket which can be identified as showing the English King James I, presented to Shah Jahan by Sir Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to his court,. Conspicuously absent are any important women. We did see a little painting of the loved wife Mumtaz Mahal, but she is not shown as part of court rituals. We saw young girls only as entertainers along with the ceremonial elephants and gentlemen of the court.
Recognisable buildings appear in the background....elephants are shown with elaborate trappings.... diaphanous garments clothe the dancing girls. The paintings are all done in the Mughal manner, dominated by formal pattern and traditions; for instance important persons are always depicted with their heads in strict silhouette. There are however signs of influence from Europe and the painters adopted several aspects of Western art, including some elementary perspective. They could depict the smoke and confusion of battles and the excitement as a rogue elephant charged the crowd and was bravely speared by Shah Jahan’s son, the young prince Aurangzeb. Shah Jahan enjoyed the concept of a halo and to emphasise his magnificence he appears in most of the images with a rich golden glow around his turbaned emperor’s head.
We felt that we had been carried away into a strange and exotic world and the chairman Jane Lee thanked Oliver for a fascinating evening which was a fitting climax to the year’s lectures.
LECTURE REVIEWS 2011-12
6th October 2011
'Smoke, Grime & Little Sooties': Boy chimney sweeps in 19th century Britain
David Eveleigh is Director of Collections, Learning and Research at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley, West Midlands. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Museums Association and has published over twenty articles and books on aspects of social and domestic history.
On Thursday 6th October the Wells Evening Society had the first talk of their new season. This was on the unusual and extraordinary story of child chimney sweeps. The speaker was David Eveleigh, until recently curator of Blaise Castle Museum but now Director of Collections and Learning at the Black Country Living Museum in the Midlands.
Using dramatic images and animated stories David gave us a vivid description of the rigours of life for the unfortunate little sooties. Most of us could remember Tom the little sweep in Charles Kingsley's famous romantic book the Water Babies and can easily recognise the merry image of Mr Soot the Sweep in the card game Happy Families. But if you live in a seventeenth, eighteenth or early nineteenth century house, it is salutary to realise that your house – indeed any building built before 1840 - would have had its chimneys swept by a small boy climbing up the flues.
Coal had come in as a universal fuel for domestic use and the resulting soot, if not cleared, caused many fires. Clearing away the accrued soot was essential but it was a hard and cruel world that forced small children from as young as seven years to climb and scrabble and ferret their way up and through the “secret tunnels” of the flues. The trade needed a constant supple of small “apprentices.” Encouraged by cuffs and worse the boys would swiftly learn to ignore the scabs and scars on their joints and to master the art of shimmying up the chimney to waive a brush from the very top. We saw cross sections of houses and their complex flue systems, and heard how many children died through getting stuck, smothered with soot, or falling from the top. There was a “great repugnance “for this dangerous work. Caring families were reluctant to let their son take part and a master sweep would often acquire his young sooties from orphanages; Dickens describes how Oliver Twist narrowly escaped this fate. Sadly, little boys were sometimes “sold” to the master sweep by impoverished parents.
Chimneys were cleaned early in the morning and after their work was done the children were free to wander the streets, at once recognisable by their black faces and grimy clothes. This meant that, unlike the children who suffered equal exploitation and cruelty down mines and in mills, the sooties were there for all to see. In early nineteenth century, at about the same time as the anti-slavery movement gathered momentum, there were moves to stop the barbarous use of children for such dangerous work. A Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing Boys was formed. This was vigourously countered by the chimney sweeps, who distributed pamphlets justifying their trade. “Only an arm of flesh can reach the cavities.”
Parliamentary committees sat and heard evidence and Acts of Parliament were passed which raised the age at which children could be sent up the chimneys. The Act of 1834 forbade the use of boys under ten years old, and the act of 1840 the use of boys under sixteen. It was, however, the invention in 1828 of the modem extending brushes which began the industry’s slow decline. The last recorded death of a small sooty was in 1879. - a little boy in Cambridgeshire called George.
It was a very sad subject but a real world accepted by our ancestors. They were all real people with real lives of which David gave us such a vivid picture. The audience showed their appreciation for a revealing and fascinating evening.
3rd November 2011
Dr Anne Anderson
A Victorian Idyll: 'Cottage gardens' from Allingham to Lutyens
Dr Anne Anderson is a member of the Society of Antiquaries. She researches into Fine Arts Valuation and lectures all over the world on various aspects of the history of art and design.
On Thursday 3rd November the Wells Evening Society heard a lively talk on the development of English taste in gardens in the 19th century. Dr Anne Anderson is a renowned speaker and travels the world lecturing on design and the history behind it. The talk was full of illustrations, both of gardens and of the romantic watercolours of rural life which were in vogue with our Victorian ancestors.
During the first half of the 19th century carefully structured gardens, reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance, were still in fashion. These were highly organised spaces full of the parterres and classical statues that had been admired on grand tours of Europe during the 18th century. In the middle of the 19th century and in reaction to this William Morris and his followers led a definite move away from such formality. A more vernacular approach to buildings became fashionable and “roughness and variety” were introduced into the surrounding gardens. Trellises, ivy, creepers and richly filled flower borders created a picturesque style which appealed to the aesthetic sensibilities of the emerging middle classes.
This taste for romantic “naturalism” encouraged artists to paint poetic images of idealised country scenes at the very time that agriculture was in depression; people were moving into towns for work and traditional rural life was fast disappearing. In the popular watercolours of the time attractively dilapidated cottages stand in colourful gardens as charming children play, very often accompanied by a sweet furry animal (mostly kittens.) Some artists managed to produce watercolours of quality; Miles Birkett Foster and Helen Allingham were very successful painters in this genre, conscious that they were recording a fast changing world and commanding high prices for their work. In the hands of others, the paintings tended to become formulaic. When we remember the harsh conditions of rural life at that time they may now appear sugary, however prettily painted
Architects were also inspired by these romantic so called vernacular ideas. Blaise Hamlet near Bristol with latticed windows and thatched roofs was designed by John Nash as homes for a few lucky retired agricultural workers and Philip Webb designed William Morris’s Red House in Surrey in the vernacular style as a revolt against formality. This house had the first deliberately “cottage garden.” It was a forerunner of many that were to be designed over the next century for the new middle classes, in the new suburbia as well as in the countryside.
Surrey was “discovered” by the artistic coterie and it is from this county that the buildings are immortalised by the work of Allingham and her contemporaries. In these paintings billowing flowers in colourful gardens surround quaintly charming tile hung cottages, with lattice windows and lichen covered thatch. It was interesting to see photographs of these buildings today. Some of them still exist and are recognisable - no longer the homes of agricultural labourers but inhabited by rich industrialists and in at least one case by a Minister of Parliament.
The talk moved on to discuss how the concept of the cottage garden changed as the Arts and Crafts movement developed towards the end of the century. Flower beds still figure, but there is once more a designed feel about these gardens. We saw images of wisteria-clad pergolas and contrived “walks” together with many examples of the elaborate and sometimes eccentric topiary which became fashionable at this time. The most influential garden designer was Gertrude Jekyll who, like the painter Helen Allingham and her colleagues, spent most of her life in Surrey. She often worked with Sir Edwin Lutyens the architect and typically their designs included brick paths dividing natural shrubs and herbaceous borders. Their work reached well into the twentieth century and together they created a new "natural" style which still influences garden design today.
Dr Anderson finished the evening by reflecting that when we as a nation struggle to define ourselves we should remember that the English country garden is unique. Certainly our gardens - whether formal or informal, arts and crafts inspired or simple cottage plots - are admired all over the world. She was warmly applauded and thanked for a stimulating and animated evening.
1st December 2011
‘All the World's a Stage’ -- The history of theatre from Greek and Roman Times to the present day
Jane Tapley is Theatre Events Organiser at the Theatre Royal, Bath and lectures in theatre history.
On 1st December the members of Wells Evening Society were given a talk by a local speaker. Jane Tapley, who is in charge of special events at Bath’s Theatre Royal, took us on an informative journey through the history of English theatre.
English theatre has been defined as the DNA of theatre but Jane had to travel to classical Greece and Rome for the roots from which it grew. Amphitheatres (Greek word - theatron) were scooped out of hill sides far away from town centres. These held huge audiences: 30,000 people could sit in the tiered stone seating at Epidaurus. Actors wore stylised masks and plays consisted of chanting and chorus but the amazing acoustics encouraged the playwright Thespis to introduce dialogue (hence thespian, a word still used today.) The Romans built their theatres as the original multiplexes, with gladiatorial battles and the slaying of wild animals alternating with theatrical events. The coliseum in Rome could hold 50,000 as they watched, on one occasion, two thousand leopards slaughtered on one day, or a masked drama with different colours of costume identifying the various actors’ roles.
Theatre reached Britain with the Romans and sites have been identified at many towns of the period. Curved seating has been found beneath Stall Street in Bath, which surely must have an amphitheatre buried beneath the Georgian city. After the Romans left, many centuries passed without any buildings made especially for the purpose of theatrical performances. In later mediaeval times, mummers played in great houses and mystery plays took place in the street. Community plays were acted out on village greens and in front of churches and cathedrals as here in Wells. Performances must have taken place in inn courtyards, because the first purpose built theatres developed from inn yards such as that of the George at Norton St Philip.
The building known simply as “the Theatre” stood on the site of present day St Pauls Cathedral in London but, with theatricals being regarded as a public enemy of religion, theatres were mostly sited outside the city walls. The Rose, the Swan and the original Globe were built on the far side of the Thames in Southwark. Shakespeare wrote and performed plays for the Globe Theatre; the performances would have been in contemporary dress with doublet and hose and the text setting the scene so that no scenery was needed. We saw images of the new Globe theatre which now stands on the original site by the Thames - a near replica of the original of Shakespeare’s day. This was conceived, funded and built by American Sam Wannamaker who was distressed that we had no tangible memorial to our greatest playwright.
Dark and gloomy days for theatre came during the Commonwealth when the Puritans banished such frivolities from the land. But it returned with Charles II and the plays that followed were often light hearted comedies, full of mistaken identity and sexual innuendo. Theatres such as Drury Lane and Covent Garden were rectangular in shape and only the boxes could be reserved (hence the term “box office.”) Actresses became a magnet for the young jades of the day and Queen Anne banned visits behind stage in an attempt to stop such bawdy goings on.
Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, loved theatre and it was an important part of Regency Bath. A performance of Shakespeare with “modern” dress and dialogue could last from 6-00pm till 1-00am, although the last hour or so would be filled with a light hearted pantomime to cheer the audience after the tensions of all that tragedy. Shakespeare’s tragedies were often treated in melodramatic fashion; apparently Garrick had a special wig on which the hair rose upright when he saw Hamlet’s ghost!
Queen Victoria was also an ardent theatre goer, attending three times a week when a young woman. She introduced the custom of knighting successful actors and Sir Henry Irving was the typical actor manager of the time, both managing the Lyceum Theatre and playing the leading roles for season after season. He took Ellen Terry into partnership with him as Ophelia to his Hamlet and together they played all the leading Shakespearian characters.
We moved swiftly through Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw to Noel Coward and eventually Alan Ayckbourn, all of whom have added their personal contribution to the rich tradition of English theatre. The often humourous lecture was illustrated with a series of pertinent images and the audience reacted warmly to an illuminating evening.
5th January 2012
'Wonder Workers and the Art of Illusion' A history of magic and illusion
Bertie Pierce is a highly versatile performer and creator of illusions who has appeared all over the world and is at home in front of all types of audience.
Wells Evening Society enjoyed a truly amazing and entertaining evening with Bertie Pearce – conjurer ,illusionist and historian. Using a fascinating series of images, Bertie traced the history of magic for us from its very beginnings.
Sorcerer Priests are known to have used scientific principles from as long ago as 3000 years to create illusions for the edification of worship and to give them power over the masses. Where there was power there was magic. In medieval times to be known as a magician was tantamount to being in league with the Devil. Magicians were known as ‘Jongleurs’ lest they by sentenced to death for ‘witchraft and conjuration’ under the edicts of Henry V111. The less dangerous profession of Jongleur was beautifully illustrated by the painter Hieronymus Bosch (c 1460-1516).
After mediaeval times, conjuring and sleight of hand became more respectable. Isaac Fawkes (1675?-1732) performed for George 2nd and other members of fashionable society, earning huge sums of money. The 19th century brought the emergence of Music Hall; magic gained a much larger audience and some illusions found their way into the theatre. John Henry Pepper’s “Ghost Illusion” using mirrors and light in the 1860s was particularly useful for melodramas and was seen by Lewis Carroll whose imagination took off in the direction of Alice Through the Looking Glass. It seems that even in the 21st century, in our super technical age, we are still fascinated by illusionists - a craft Bertie emphasised should be viewed live. The Magic Circle is a thriving institution with 1449 members from 38 different countries but only 40 women – the balance needs to be redressed!
Bertie’s historical knowledge and presentation of the illustrations was superb as was his performance of classic illusions such as The 3 Cups Trick, willing audience participation included. Bertie Pearce, Wonder Worker, will be remembered by us all with great pleasure and admiration.
2nd February 2012
‘A Living Tradition’ – the art of stained glass-work
Sally Pollitzer is an artist working in the field of architectural glass - traditionally known as stained glass - from her studio in Somerset. Her work covers commercial and domestic pieces as well as glass for religious buildings. Commissioned pieces include glass for the House of Lords and screens for Lloyds TSB Headquarters.
On Thursday February 2nd the Wells Evening Society heard a talk from local artist Sally Pollitzer. Sally works from her studio in Batcombe in the field of architectural glass, traditionally known as stained glass.
Sally began her life as a painter but found that it was the translucent qualities of thin oil paint and water colours which fascinated her. This led her to working with stained glass, for this is a medium which changes with the light: as the light changes so do the colours in the glass. She showed us glorious mediaeval windows in Sainte Chappelle in Paris and explained that stained glass has abstract qualities which can seem to give it a spiritual dimension.
We heard of the many different types of glass that can be used to make a stained glass window: float, rolled, mouth blown, muff, slab, pot metal, reamy, streaky, opalescent, flashed, fusible. Not all of them are still available today. Mediaeval glass would have originally been mouth blown, cut in strips from a blown cylinder and re-heated to make – always very slightly curving - sheets of glass. Flashed glass has the colour applied to one side only whilst streaky and opalescent describe themselves. Some glass colours have stories attached to them; the yellows of mediaeval glass were in legend discovered accidentally by an apprentice’s silver button falling onto a piece of glass as it went into the furnace. Out came a beautiful rich golden piece of glass!
Individual pieces of glass can be etched with acid, or stained and painted with ground up glass to make surface texture and to add further colour and tone. Sally described two very different ways of working. In one way the pieces are bonded to a large backing piece of glass to make the panel and she uses this for indoor, domestic work. The other, more traditional, way is weather proof and in this strips of lead - leading - join the pieces of glass to each other. ‘Saddle bars’ are the horizontal strips of metal that hold a long window in place, often integrated into the design and sometimes only just apparent. The Jesse window of Wells Cathedral dates from about 1340 and, considering its age, it is still remarkably intact. It is presently being restored and has areas of glass which may not have been touched for a hundred and fifty years.
Sally likes to design her panels at full size, reducing them down to a smaller scale only to submit them to clients. Much of her work is abstract; sometimes it has swirling sinuous shapes and sometimes geometric angular patterns, but it always sings with glowing colours. Over the years she has done a large body of work, much of it for corporate bodies and her commissioned pieces include glass for the House of Lords and screens for Lloyds TSB Headquarters. She does many private commissions and is currently doing a lot of work in churches, showing that although the craft has a history extending from mediaeval times there continues to be a use for her beautiful yet complex medium.
Throughout the evening, we saw images of many lovely pieces of Sally’s work. The audience asked several interested questions and she was warmly thanked for a fascinating evening.
1st March 2012
‘An Ethiopian Journey through landscape and time’
Louise Schofield was Curator of Greek Bronze Age and geometric Antiquities at the British Museum from 1987 to 2000. She now writes books and runs archaeological projects in Turkey, Greece and Ethiopia. Her latest book, 'Myceneans', was published by the BM in 2007.
On Thursday March 1st the Wells Evening Society had an intriguing evening hearing about a particularly inspiring archaeological project. Louise Schofield, former Curator of Greek Bronze Age and Geometric Antiquities at the British Museum, is no ordinary archaeologist. She fascinated the audience with an animated account of her daring and inventive approach to all she does as we heard about the delights and perils of her work in Ethiopia.
Way back in 2006 Louise fell in love with the country and its generous, friendly people. She showed images which gave us a vivid impression of the barren although often dramatically beautiful landscape. There is the blasted heat of the Danakil Desert and the dense green of the Omo Valley with baboons and wonderful bird life. Ibex roam high windswept mountain ranges and a great waterfall forms the source of the Blue Nile. It can however often be an unforgiving landscape and we saw pictures of black thundery skies which last for months with never a drop of rain. Water has to be carried for miles for the subsistence farming on tiny plots of land and the rotating crops frequently fail.
Together with two fellow archaeologists Louise conceived and founded the Tigray Trust. Backed by a generous venture capitalist, she was able to set up an ambitious project to make life sustainable for a group of villagers who were living on the verge of starvation. By involving one particular village community in every aspect of her archaeological work she has dramatically improved the lives of 2800 people.
For this first project she chose a dried-up river valley in the highlands of Tigray, where early Christians, avoiding invading Arabs of a different faith, carved hidden buildings out of the solid sandstone. For three years she returned each summer, and spent six months camping in a tent with vultures hanging hopefully overhead and hyenas howling in the night. The hyenas could be very aggressive and Louise felt happier when she had acquired a Kalashnikov rifle and learned how to use it. She and her colleagues organised the local population to work in a long strung out line, collecting pebbles and clearing the land. The villagers learned again how to build traditional round stone houses, terrace the valley, plant fruit trees and make roads for access.
The extraordinary churches sculpted out of rock had to be de-sanctified before archaeological excavations could take place. As well as being amazingly well preserved, these buildings contain primitive wall paintings of saints and devils which bear little resemblance to those in mainland Europe. Much was uncovered for tourists to see and the villagers, together with Louise and her small team of British, Irish and Ethiopian archaeologists, have in three years transformed the valley into an archaeological and environmental park.
Louise moved on and has now involved the Tigray Trust with another project – this time on the high Gheralta plateau in the north of the country. Having been tipped off that there was an ancient gold mine in the area; she set about excavations which have exciting implications. Near the as yet un-excavated goldmine, Louise has unearthed steles (stones) with inscriptions carved in Sabaean, the language spoken in the ancient land of Sheba.
In biblical times the country of Sheba spread over modern day Yemen, Ethiopia and adjacent Eritrea: the wealth of the country was legendary. We read in the Old Testament that when the Queen of Sheba heard of the great wisdom of King Solomon she journeyed to meet him with gifts of spices, precious stones and gold. Last month, Louise made headlines in the Observer talking about her discovery.... suppose the now exhausted ancient gold mine is the very one which three thousand years ago supplied that gold?
With the great interest these ideas are causing there should be no trouble obtaining funding and Louise is setting about working on the same kind of scheme all over again. Local people are again being encouraged to build stone round houses using traditional methods, to help with excavation, plant trees, dig wells, and make roads. The work has already started and this time 10,000 villagers are involved. Tourists will again be able to visit exciting new sites and another community will be enabled to escape from its cycle of poverty, drought and famine.
It was one of the most invigorating lectures the Society has heard. Members were given the opportunity to contribute toward the Tigray Trust and they did this very generously: a total of over £300-00 was showered into buckets as they left the Hall. This was a testament to the admiration we all felt for Louise’s imaginative and effective approach and we hope to get her back in two years time to hear how this fascinating project has developed.
29th March 2012
Dr Kristian Harder
The Large Hadron Collider: Big science, big bangs and black holes'
Kristian Harder is a particle physicist working for the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, one of the institutions that built and is now operating the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. He has spent the last 15 years participating in experiments at CERN, DESY in Hamburg and Fermilab near Chicago, trying to find answers to some of the most fundamental questions about the universe.
On Thursday March 29th, a particle physicist from The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford gave a talk to the Wells Evening Society. The title was The Large Hadron Collider: Big Science, Big Bangs and Black Holes. This was described by one of the large audience as “the best scientific lecture I have ever heard”
The speaker, Dr Kristian Harder, works at one of the many institutions that contribute to the vast project which is the Hadron Collider. Before the talk, most of us understood little about this except that it is in Switzerland, very big and very complex. Kristian explained that the Hadron Collider is not only a massive scientific undertaking, but also a mammoth feat of engineering in which one hundred and twenty countries of the world are involved in some way or another in the research, analysis and production. Scientists divided by distance, political attitudes and custom are united in this search for the answers to some of life’s most fundamental questions.
In a series of clear PowerPoint images, Dr Kristian took us through an introduction to the building blocks of matter and the elements of the Quantum theory. In particle physics, however, nothing is simple and with each positive assumption comes a negative opposite. This leads to a series of questions which sound rhetorical, but which are the reason for the whole giant project. What is space? What is time? Indeed, what is matter?
For some time we have known that atoms are the not smallest units, since each atom consists of a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, each of which can be subdivided into quarks. It is these protons which are sent on their journey in opposite directions around the Hadron Collider at a velocity that defies imagination: the speed of light. When particles collide, new particles are created and this could....should...simulate a tiny version of the original “big bang” which we think set off the whole universe.
The Hadron Collider itself consists basically of a tunnel four metres in diameter, which is buried 100 metres beneath rocky ground. Contrary to most peoples’ perception, it is sited not only in Switzerland: its 27 kilometre circumference also passes through France. The beam pipes inside the tunnel form a vacuum and contain enormous magnets of extraordinary force; the huge circle with its almost imperceptible curve is necessary to allow the particles to accelerate repeatedly until they reach the speed of light. Maintaining six thousand tonnes of heavy machinery at 271 degrees beneath zero, the Collider can be described as the largest fridge on the planet.
In very simple terms, the protons hurtling towards each other will collide 40 million times a second. To bring the concept clearly home to us, we were shown a vivid image of two cars smashing into each other. But we were told that “interesting” results are only likely to happen once in a billion – or trillion – times! The statistics defy imagination. So-called detectors record each stage of the process like cameras and the results are electronically digitised to produce 100 million readouts for each collision. The information is sent out worldwide for analysis: it is this vast amount of information that requires such a vast number of scientists to be involved.
And why? This question is unanswerable and perhaps irrelevant. No one can exactly foretell the spin-offs that will come with these leaps forward in our knowledge. As mankind struggles to understand the known universe with its 30,000 billion billion suns, even the massive logistics of the Hadron Collider can seem puny. Niels Bohr, the leading Danish physicist said in the first half of the last century 'Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it'.
Dr Kristian talked us through some of mysteries of particle physics, but the audience was particularly riveted by his clear explanations of the workings of the Hadron Collider. His concise but often humourous approach helped even the least scientifically minded amongst us to be enlightened and excited and the queue of people wanting to talk to him as the talk finished reflected this. He was warmly thanked for a brilliant lecture.
19th April 2012
Dr Frank Dick
'Winning Matters' – Winning is being better today than yesterday – every day
Frank Dick is, among other roles, current Chair of Scottish Athletics, President of the European Athletics Coaches and Member of the IAAF Coaches Commission. He is renowned as an inspiring motivational speaker.
Dr Frank Dick OBE is a leading sports coach and has trained many famously successful sportsmen and women as well as coaching coaches at home and overseas. Turning his experience with inspiring others to excel and to “consider no risk of losing” Dr Frank is now one of the country’s leading motivational speakers, both to industry and to groups such as the one which met in Wells Town Hall on Thursday 19th April. This was the last lecture in the Wells Evening Society’s current season, inspired by the forthcoming Olympic Games.
In this always competitive world Dr Frank invited us to consider if we want to be Valley People or Mountain People. He told us that to be a Mountain Person is to change our attitude so we have control and are prepared to take the risk of winning. It is to see the horizon as not the end of what we can see, but as the beginning of what we can achieve.
Perhaps some of our audience was a little startled by these revelations but as Dr. Frank proceeded we could start to apply his inspiring ideas to our own lives and experiences. We were shown a series of exciting film clips of different athletes at points of greatest stress, before they went on to break records and win. Sometimes this is by carefully prepared tactics. Sometimes winning is by team work (“we need to be the wind beneath each other’s wings”) and sometimes even by a lucky break seized (“prepare to turn uncertainty to advantage”.) We saw examples of athletes in all these different situations.
Frank was very sure that we can only change the world by making those who follow after better than us. He was scathing about our risk averse society with its dangers of too much protection. Like a parent or grandparent with a small child, coaches must inspire and encourage, but must also withdraw - because learning comes through challenge and not through constant support. We can tell our children “you are the best in the world at being who you are – don’t try to be anyone else.” Both we and they can achieve self fulfillment by learning not to doubt ourselves for a moment.
Amongst the various exciting film clips we saw the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt establishing his world record over 200 metres. The athletes sped past so fast that we had to see the clip through twice to realize that, towards the end, Bolt was far enough ahead of the other competitors to realize that he had already “won.” Over the last few metres he was continuing to stretch himself to the limit of endurance because by then he was competing with himself. This is what makes champions….the step beyond comfort, the belief that they can and will win, over others or as in this case themselves.
Questions at the end of the lecture produced some fascinating answers. Dr Frank was asked about his thoughts on the demise of the English Rugby team under Martin Johnson; he feels that this particular coach has not the right qualifications to be a coach, nor was he provided with the support to obtain them. He was asked if Andy Murray will ever win a major championship; he hoped so but wonders if so many changes of coach could mean Murray isn’t yet ready to take sufficient responsibility for his own game. He was asked what he felt about drugs in the world of sport and replied that he thinks that at the moment things are more under control although as long as there are rules, there will always be someone or something found to defy them. He feels strongly that the Olympic movement is right to have their draconian attitude towards the use of drugs.
The animated evening was full of surprises but ended on a happily predictable note. Dr Frank thinks, as obviously did the entire audience, that footballers are ridiculously over paid and that this distorts the game. The chairman had to call a halt to the flow of questions because the evening was running late. She thanked the speaker warmly.
Dr Frank had most generously asked that his fee should be donated to a charity and the lecture made a satisfying and unusual end to the Wells Evening Society’s 2011 / 2012 season.
LECTURE REVIEWS 2010-11
7th October 7.30 p.m. 2010
The Green Man in Art and Myth
Dr David Bostwick
David Bostwick is a lecturer and consultant in the cultural history of the Medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods. Former keeper of the social History Collections at Sheffield City Museum, consultant to the National Trust, English Heritage and Historic Scotland and visiting lecturer at the University of Glasgow.
On 7th October, the Wells Evening Society held its inaugural meeting of the new season. The lecturer was Dr David Bostwick, author and lecturer on Mediaeval, Tudor and Stuart history. The subject was the Green man in Art and Myth.
In times past as now, carvings and sculptures cost money, and were not lightly commissioned. So why do so many green men appear carved into the fabric of our churches? A fascinated audience heard that far from being symbols of rejuvenation and growth, green men were full of rich and sinister implications. The trails of leaves which emerge from the mouths (and nostrils, and moustaches and beards and cheeks) can be seen to symbolise the evils which erring mankind spews out when uncleansed by the Church and its teaching. The term 'green man' - first coined only in the 20th century - also covers the leaf covered men who dance on May Day, appear with Morris dancers, figure in Arthurian legend and lie behind the tales of Robin Hood. The lecture was illustrated throughout with a series of exciting if sinister images. These were shown on the Society’s new twelve foot square screen, purchased during the summer and now in use for the first time.
4th November 7.30 p.m. 2010
Guernica – The greatest painting of the 20th Century
Prof Anthony Slinn
Anthony Slinn is a professional artist who has over the years developed a series of lectures to share his enthusiasm for painting. Years of meticulous research involving travel to Europe and North America have made possible his unique presentations on the lives and works of famous artists.
On Thursday 4th November, the Wells Evening Society held its second meeting of the new season. The lecturer was Professor Anthony Slinn, an artist and lecturer justly renowned for his animated and informative lectures. He spoke about just one painting: Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica.
As Spain’s most renowned painter Picasso was commissioned to paint a giant mural for the Republican Building at the International Fair in Paris in 1937. Instead of taking some anodyne theme Picasso chose to react violently to the very recent bombing of the small northern Spanish town of Guernica. Invited by General Franco to do so, the Germans had ‘practiced’ Blitzkrieg on the innocent community, with waves of bombers passing again and again - for four and a half hours - over the small market town. Particularly women and children were murdered that autumn Monday in 1937, chosen especially because it was market day.
In not much more than a month, Picasso hurled onto the canvas a series of black and white images which still can excite and shock us today. He used symbols from bull fighting to represent the outrage: a roaring bull to represent the aggression, and a dying horse to show the helpless agony of the people. Women with babies are shown shrieking helplessly, running away and devoured by flames : a shattered war memorial lies fallen at the base of the picture. In protest at the horror inflicted to his homeland, Picasso neither signed nor dated the work.
Luckily for posterity, Picasso’s mistress Dora Marr took photographs of the painting as it emerged from his hand. He used only black and white household emulsion paints so the surface has deteriorated over the years and the work is now often seen in tapestry form. After the war Guernica toured Europe and Great Britain, finally ending up in New York. Here our lecturer visited it and photos of him in the 1970s show the huge scale of the painting. Anthony, then a bearded young artist in flared trousers, was pictured beside the monolithic figures. Picasso said that Guernica could only stay in America until Spain was once more a democracy, so the painting was returned to its homeland on the death of General Franco in 1981. The whole lecture was given with huge animation, with Professor Slinn constantly moving about in front of the screen on which were shown the many dramatic images. The talk ended with some fascinating questions and Anthony’s revealing answers. Amongst other raised points: yes, this painting would be as relevant today displayed in Iraq as in the Guernica of 1937.
2nd December 7.30 p.m. 2010
'I told you I was sick'
Nigel Rees is an author and presenter who was at 32 was the youngest ever regular presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme. He has been involved in broadcasting all his working life but is perhaps best known for devising and hosting the long running (since 1976) Radio 4 panel game Quote... Unquote. He is the author of more than fifty books of reference, humour and fiction.
Lecture cancelled due to bad weather and re-booked for 17th February.
6th January 7.30 p.m. 2011
The Making of the Antiques Road Show
Christopher Lewis joined the BBC as a researcher in 1968 and during his 35 years career in broadcasting he directed and produced a wide variety of programmes: from news and current affairs to documentaries, arts programmes and quizzes - including Animal Magic with Johnny Morris. Until he retired in 2003, he was the long-serving executive producer of the BBC's flagship programme Antiques Roadshow and oversaw its expansion to be one of the UK’s favourite television shows.
On Thursday 6th January - twelfth night - the Wells Evening Society began their meeting with a post-festive glass of mulled wine. The lecturer was Christopher Lewis who, until he retired in 2003, was the long-serving executive producer of the BBC's flagship programme Antiques Roadshow. Christopher oversaw the programme as it developed from mild beginning and grew into the much loved programme of today.
Listening to his fascinating talk we began to understand the many complications of making the programme. There is a pool of 70-80 experts in the field of antiques from which twenty or so are chosen for any one session. The chosen area is advised that Antiques Roadshow is coming to town and scouts visit houses to view items too large for easy transport. Advance publicity always generates huge local interest and one of the skills in running the programme is how to organise and control the crowds. Up to 2000 people wait patiently to hear an expert opinion and a special badge can be bought “I queued at the Antiques Roadshow!”
The programme must cope with and inform these many people about their sometimes strange, often beautiful and occasionally valuable objects. But it has two challenges: it must also delight and entertain the vast watching audiences. Nearly seven million regularly view the programme; at times over fifteen million people tune in and world – wide the audience can be counted in tens of millions. The producer and his team must reflect the character of the various settings. These have to be large buildings and often gardens are used as on two occasions at our own Bishop’s Palace. The programme needs to capture the atmosphere and to allow time to look at and learn about the different pieces. Importantly, it must film the dramatic moments.
All this requires meticulous planning. There is a need for ground plans of the hall or tent – local stewards to be briefed – reception desks to be arranged as well as lighting, security and cover from rain if out of doors. There are camera men and their crews with their high definition cameras at the ready, first aiders and police on the lookout for suspicious activity. All this has to be organised for any one programme.
We were shown some clips from finished programmes. We saw startled and delighted people who had just been told of their item’s potential worth. We saw a clip of a rare occasion when an expert made a “mistake” (and seamlessly recovered himself at his second attempt!) We saw the inimitable Arthur Neagus, the first presenter, talking in his affable, discursive fashion about pieces that reminded him of his early days in the trade. We saw in action Michael Aspel, a long term presenter, and Fiona Bruce who now fronts the programme. It was a perfect collage of the Antiques Roadshow, and the large audience obviously appreciated every detail. As someone said” It’s a much bigger operation than the programme leads you to believe.” In the next series – the 34th - we will watch in the programme with enlightened interest.
3rd February 7.30 p.m.
'Appointed to direct the Art of the Country': Henry Cole, Victorian cultural impresario.
Anthony Burton has been for most of his working life employed by the Victoria and Albert Museum. During this time, he has been Assistant Keeper of the library and Head of the V & A’s branch museum- the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. He is a trustee of the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury and the author of several books including one about the V & A’s founding director: Henry Cole.
On Thursday 3rd February the Wells Evening Society had a lecture about a very effective and distinguished Victorian civil servant. Many of us in the audience knew little or nothing about Henry Cole but after the talk from our speaker Anthony Burton we were all intrigued and impressed – you could say stunned! - by just what one man could achieve in his life time.
Henry Cole left school at 15. Where “all my time had been wasted and I had learned worse than nothing.” He went straight into the Public Records Office. You could say it was the first and last thing he did “straight” because thereafter he wove his way between the disciplines of record keeping, design, marketing, campaigning, reforming, writing and publishing .Finally in 1857 he was involved in the founding of the South Kensington Museum, or as we know it today the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Anthony Burton has been a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum for thirty years and became fascinated by Henry Cole. He aptly described him as a ‘cultural impresario’ and managed to give the audience an excellent flavour of the man and his achievements.
When you hear that someone was the brain and promoting power behind the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was also involved with Rowland Hill and the first universal Penny Post, you are surprised to learn that the same man had time to design a tea service and get it into production and to conceive and send the first ever Christmas card. When you hear that the same man reformed the government’s approach to art education , started (the first ever) Journal of Design, was involved with a process of turning sewage into cement and under the pseudonym of Felix Summerly wrote a series of books for children, you begin to suspend belief.
The whole lecture was illustrated with a series of fascinating images: Cole at different stages of his life (looking a little grumpy by the end)..... the (dead) rat that had been eating the papers in the Public Record Office when he first worked there.... Cole’s own drawings and paintings - he was a self taught artist. There were paintings of and by his influential group of intellectual reforming friends and prints of great Victorian colleges built to house his Schools of Design. There were contemporary drawings of his many influential contacts and intriguing prints of the Great Exhibition. He had a large family and we saw a touching painting of his many children at home – Henry himself rather a-typically a shadowy image in the background. Anthony suggested that perhaps he hadn’t had the time to pose for the painting!
Nobody can achieve this much without his huge energy ruffling a few feathers and Henry Cole certainly did this. He was dismissed from various posts although later re-instated; he annoyed the powers that be on many occasions and often fell out with colleagues.
But Henry Cole’s greatest achievement was founding - together with curator John Robinson - the Victoria and Albert Museum. Developed in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition on land acquired with the profits thereof, the first buildings looked like a glorified Nissan hut. Cole’s interest had always been in the modern, but at first the V and A concentrated mostly on historical applied arts. It filled and still fills the gap between the British Museum and the National Gallery. The museum became the inspiration behind others all over Europe; it grew and grew and is today unique in its position and highly regarded worldwide. Henry Cole’s memorial - an elaborate ceramic cartouche – can be seen in its baroque glory at the bottom of the Museum’s ceramic staircase. This highly decorated staircase was intended to be an example of the good design and manufacture that the Museum wished to promote.
Not for nothing was Henry Cole known as”King Cole of South Kensington.”
17th February 7.30 p.m. 2011
'I told you I was sick'
Nigel Rees is an author and presenter who was at 32 was the youngest ever regular presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme. He has been involved in broadcasting all his working life but is perhaps best known for devising and hosting the long running (since 1976) Radio 4 panel game Quote... Unquote. He is the author of more than fifty books of reference, humour and fiction.
On Thursday February 17th, the Wells Evening Society heard a talk form the well known broadcaster Nigel Rees. Probably best known for his many appearances chairing Radio 4’s long running programme “Quote Unquote,” he was on this occasion talking about quotations of a very permanent nature. The theme of the talk was epitaphs.
Nigel has obviously spent many an hour “Grubbing around in graveyards” (as the 17th century antiquarian John Aubrey put it) and the talk was illustrated throughout with a series of photographs taken by him over many years. He began the evening by ruminating out loud as to the lack of interesting information on many gravestones. The words “Dad” or “Gone but not forgotten” do not tell us much about the person who lies beneath the stone. The years can wear away the text so that it becomes illegible and many a person has obviously wished to be remembered only by a simple name and date. Sometimes – as on many first world war graves, the anonymity is poignant....”Known unto God”
Years after the person has died, we often crave to know more. Anthony Trollope is remembered by “Loving Father, Husband and Friend.” What about his terrific work as a novelist? Thomas Jefferson apparently wished to be remembered as the Author of the Declaration of Independence, not as a founding father and third president of the United States. There were many more examples of these modest memorials. Perhaps wisely, Captain Bligh’s headstone mentions his many meritorious qualities and achievements, but not that he was the direct cause of the Mutiny on the Bounty!
We were also shown stones with a more descriptive approach. For Francis Kilvert, the famous 19th century clergyman and diarist: “He being dead yet speaketh.” For a humble trumpeter “He sounded the charge of the Light Brigade.” For a young woman killed in a riding accident “She died doing what she loved best.”
Some epitaphs are almost as well known as the remembered person. Christopher Wren famously wished his memorial in St Pauls to say “If you want to see my monument, look around you!” A lady named Eleanor Rigby (apparently happily married) lies in a Liverpool churchyard where John and Paul once met at a church fete. And indeed her name lives on....
Throughout the evening we saw a fascinating collection of headstones and memorials from all over the UK – and several from overseas. The final image was of the stone which gave the talk its title. “I told you I was sick!” Apparently these words had been used at least twice before in America, but the more formal English Church was unhappy at the apparent flippancy. This is why the words on Spike Milligan’s headstone are written in Gaelic, the words disguised to suit the sensibilities of the Diocese of Chichester.
Sometimes long-winded and flowery headstones continue at such length about the wonderful qualities of the dead person that we are perhaps told more than we need to know – or even believe. This prompted one member of the audience to ask “Were women much more virtuous and pure in days gone by?” Very possibly.
Many of us were fired up to look more closely at the inscriptions on headstones next time we have the opportunity. Nigel was thanked for his very informative and entertaining talk.
3rd March 7.30 p.m. 2011
The Moderne Movement: Art Deco and Avant-Garde Homes of the 20s and 30s
Dr Adrian Tinniswood
Adrian Tinniswood lives locally. He has been a lecturer at several universities in both the UK and the USA, including the University of Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley. He has acted for many years as a consultant to the National Trust, and with the Heritage Lottery Fund. He is the author of fourteen books on social and architectural history, including The Art Deco House.
Review to Follow Lecture
On Thursday 3rd March the Wells Evening Society held their Annual General Meeting in Wells Town Hall. The chairman and treasurer gave formal reports on a successful year. The Society continues to offer members a series of lectures on a wide variety of topics, together with day outings and a weekend trip away. There are now 230 members and it was announced that the price of membership will remain at £30-00 a year, the same as six years ago when the Society first started.
The AGM was immediately followed by a fascinating lecture on the style now known as Art Deco. This theatrical, inventive and sometimes eccentric approach to design developed in the western world between the two world wars. Local author and lecturer Adrian Tinniswood gripped his large audience with an animated description of how and why the style came to be.
The elaborate and often nostalgic approach to design that was the Arts and Crafts movement led after the first world war to a sharp reaction: to the functional simplicities of Bauhaus movement and its followers. But this was the turbulent twenties and thirties, and designers from Europe’s great mixture of cultures - émigré French, German, Scandinavian, and East Europeans - began to introduce a deliberately anarchic approach to such stark simplicity. When this new approach arrived in the USA, with its Hollywood inspired sunshine architecture, with its luxurious materials, its curves and extravagances; then Art Deco erupted. The new style exploded into being in 1925, with the exhibition in Paris “Exposition des Artes Decoratifs.”
Adrian explained that the title Art Deco was coined only in the 1960s; it was derived by shortening the words Arts Décoratifs in the title of the Paris exhibition. Previously the style had been known as “moderne” “ zigzag” -“jazz” or “liner” style; these various titles all giving us a flavour of its flashy vigour and opulence.
Many of us have enjoyed looking at the bold and swooping concrete buildings which act as a back-drop to the Poirot series on television. The flat rooves, curved cement walls and metal windows of the style contrast dramatically with what can seem the fussiness of much early 20th century architecture. Adrian showed us marvellous examples of the best Art Deco design. It was a style unashamedly for the wealthy; the angles, colours and rich materials sucked up styles from all over the world. It could be inspired by Aztec, Egyptian or North African designs and the interior designers used sumptuous materials: polished steel, glass, chrome, cellulose, marble, agate, animal skins.... The curves and angles filled Hollywood film sets as well as ocean liners, hotels and the homes of the wealthy and famous. Cedric Gibbons, the renowned Hollywood set designer, designed stunning interiors for his own house which caused us to gasp with amazement. (Incidentally, Gibbons was responsible for designing an Art Deco icon: the original Oscar Statuette.)
The British came only slowly to accept this new aesthetic. “The shock of the new” affronted the stolid sensibilities of our traditionalists. Art Deco appeared outrageous with its flagrantly opulent and perceivably impractical approach to design and it was witheringly described as “photogenic rather than functional”. It says something that in these islands it was not accepted as serious architecture so some of the first commissioned buildings were seaside lidos and the penguin pool at London Zoo.
For many years the Art Deco style was regarded as an aberration and rejected. Many of the protagonists migrated to America, where the style was more readily accepted. Many British buildings were sadly neglected and fine examples have often been demolished. Possibly the style has become more acceptable to our taste - more “in fashion” - only since we came into the new millennium and it can be seen as a distinct design movement in its own right.
In his informative and humourous talk Adrian whisked us through the many stories and passions behind this most outrageous and eccentric period of design. As we saw the dramatic images and heard his enthusiasm, many of us began to understand that, far from being a passing aberration, Art Deco produced some of the most challenging and exciting architecture ever seen.
7th April 7.30 p.m.
Windsor Castle, its History and Royal Occupants
Oliver Everett worked for the Foreign Office in India and Spain before becoming in turn private secretary to the Prince of Wales and Diana Princess of Wales. Subsequently he was Librarian in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle and Assistant Keeper of the Royal Archives. Following his retirement in 2002 he is now Librarian Emeritus. He wrote the official guidebook and audio tour on Windsor Castle, and lectures widely in Britain and abroad.
Review to Follow Lecture
28th April 7.30 p.m. 2011
The Fifth Kingdom – Fungi Friend or Foe?
Dr Elizabeth Johnson
Dr Elizabeth Johnson is Director of the Health Protection Agency Mycology Reference Laboratory in Bristol and past President of the British Society for Medical Mycology. She is the author and co-author of several books and a frequent speaker both in the UK and overseas on issues involving the effects of fungal infections on human health.
The Wells Evening Society held its last meeting of the current season on Thursday 28th April. The society wants to widen the breadth of its lectures’ topics and this was a talk with a more scientific slant. The title of the lecture was “The Fifth Kingdom: Fungi, Friend or Foe?”
Dr Elizabeth Johnson is director of the Health Protection Agency Mycology Reference Laboratory in Bristol and past president of the British Society for Medical Mycology. We were shown a family photograph of her aged five, happily destroying a large puff ball. She suggested that possibly it was this satisfying experience which led to her life-long interest in mycology – the study of fungi!
Elizabeth began by introducing us to this fifth kingdom. Fungi do not create chlorophyll as do plants. They have been described as the oldest species: one fungal colony growing in a wood in the USA may be 1500 – 10,000 years old. And also the largest: a living organism can have an underground spread covering up to 30 acres.
Answering the lecture’s question, we need fungi - so they are very much our friends. The spores are brilliantly engineered by different clever methods to travel through the air, spreading far and wide to cause the subsequent growth of further fungi. This causes the decomposition of the dead matter which would otherwise overcome us all. Fungi take many forms. The vegetarian’s favourite food Quorn is in fact a form of fungus; Penicillium is introduced into cheeses to add the blue streaky character; yeasts are an essential part of baking, brewing and making chocolate; ‘stone-washed’ jeans have been processed with a fungal process. We all buy mushrooms for cooking. These are grown, as most fungi flourish, in damp warm dark conditions. And of course there is penicillin, famously discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming in a decaying Petri dish left accidentally open.
This serendipitous discovery was developed by others and by the time of the Second World War we were able to use it on wounded soldiers, to their great benefit. The enemy wanted the secret recipe and this was among many animated stories that we were told. Napoleon thought he was being poisoned by the British as he languished on St Helena; it is now thought that he may well have been so, but accidentally. It is believed that the arsenic in his bedroom’s green wall paper could have been infected with a fungi that released arsine, a poisonous gas. as he slept. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle formed a theory that the death of early archaeologists exploring Tutankhamen’s tomb was not the result of a fatal curse but of toxic spores. Bats and starlings excrete guano, on which fungi grow; these then give off poisonous spores. Bob Dylan is thought to have inhaled these, causing his ill health in his later years - so it is ironic that he wrote a song with the refrain “Blowing in the Wind”.
So fungi can be a foe as well as a friend, and we had a series of examples of this. The tulip blight recently high-lighted in Radio 4’s Archers’ Gardeners' Question time is caused by a fungal blight. Toxins in peanuts have to be removed because they can be deadly (“Beware untreated Bird Nuts.”) Various fungi make different attacks on the human body, ranging from the very common Athlete’s Foot to a series of horrific skin conditions – photos of which made the audience wince. These conditions are caused by the inhalation of spores, and Elizabeth’s work in Bristol consists of isolating these and preserving them so that a bank is built up for research into future cures. After these alarming images it was reassuring to learn that we mostly build up immunity to the attacks of these floating enemies.
The lecture was illustrated throughout with clear graphics and by a fascinating series of images. The audience had to be stopped asking their many questions so that Elizabeth could be warmly thanked for her unusual but very informative talk.
LECTURE REVIEWS 2009-10
1st October 7.30 pm 2009
Inn Signia: The artwork and stories behind peculiar pub names.
Mr John Ericson
Mr. Ericson has had a wide ranging career in education and training that has given him the opportunity to lecture as well as make presentations at conferences all over the world.
John Ericson gave the first lecture of the autumn session on the stories behind inn signs.
These can be a local history lesson in themselves and hang in front of the premises, made' of wrought iron and wood with fine painting and art work. In 2003 pubs and inns in the UK numbered 60,000 or so but, since then and especially as this recession bites deeper - large numbers of them are closing down at a rate of more than 27 a week. Usually they are sold and converted into housing and we often do not realise a part of our heritage is lost until it is too late.
In Roman days the inn signs were often of vine leaves, bushes and simple symbols, like the sun, the stars or a bell. Bird names such as The Pheasant or The Cock, or animal names such as The Bull, were popular. Then, in an age of heraldry, we get the royal coat of arms in names such as The Crown and The King's Arms. John of Gaunt's symbol was a red lion and this too became a popular name, as did other local family crests such as The Devon-shire Arms, or those of the Waldegraves as we have in Chewton Mendip. An early Christian symbol was the Lamb and Flag representing the Lord and St John. Then, with the rise of the common man, the trades and guilds took over and we get the arms of the crafts, with names such as The Wheelwrights, The Miners, The Limeburners, The Brewers, The Brickmakers, The Cordwainers and even, in Cornwall, The Smugglers.
Historical events added to the variety and at the Restoration of Charles II - we get The- Rose Revived. Later historical events and figures are commemorated, such as The Trafalgar and The Lord Nelson, The Duke of Wellington and The Admiral Benbow.
The Trip To Jerusalem in Notting-ham dates from the 12th century but we have lost The Adam And Eve In Paradise, which once stood in the parish of Paradise, in Gloucestershire. The exotically named Elephant and Castle, as we all know, derives from the inability of the Londoner to pronounce its derivation which was La Infanta da Castille, and The Bag of Nails probably began life as The Baccanale.
Among the 10 most popular names are The Crown, The Swan and The White Hart, all of which are prominent in Wells.
Later it became the fashion to have fanciful names with odd pairings such as The Goat And Compasses or The Hole In The Wall, or satirical ones such as The Silent Woman.
Mr Ericson had a splendid selection of photographs of inns all over the country, some of which are well up together but others are deteriorating and are badly in need of repainting. Not long ago all the major breweries had their own sign painters, but not now, and it would be a great pity if we lost these fascinating records of the past.
5th November 7.30 pm 2009
Gods, Heroes and Mortals: The Greek Myths in ancient art.
Dr Neil Faulkner FSA
Dr Faulkner is a writer, lecturer, excavator, occasional broadcaster and has appeared on Channel 4's Time Team and BBC2's Timewatch. He is Features Editor of Current Archaeology, Hon. Research Fellow, Bristol University, Hon. Lecturer at UCL and Director of numerous Archaeological sites in the Mediterranean
Dr Neil Faulkner FSA gave a most interesting talk on "Gods, Heroes and Mortals - The Greek Myths in ancient art". A writer, lecturer and excavator, he was well primed in his subject.
The earliest Greek and Minoan art we have is of women deities. Primitive civilisations depended hugely on their crops and we have figures of Ceres, the corn goddess and Hera, the marriage goddess, both of whom were earth mothers and represented fertility. However as food became more abundant and could be bought and sold and commerce came into play, the ever present battle between Matriarchy and Patriarchy reared itself and the main gods became male with Cronus and his son, Zeus, the King of the Gods and his brother Poseidon, the Sea God. Whereas in the earliest times women and men were more or less equal, now the role of women became limited to home and hearth and their role to become good wives and mothers.
There was also conflict between religious thought and reason. The Gods were believed to influence mankind for both good and ill, and some were on the side of human beings - such as Prometheus who stole Fire from Heaven for mankind.
Some mortals were to become Heroes and do mighty deeds which became the subject of the poems and plays of Greek literature. These were depicted on ceramic pots and glasswear as well as in figurines and sculptures. Dr Faulkner's slides showed us a variety of examples where the stood out as remarkably fine and lifelike whereas the ceramics were much more stylised. He explained that this was because the method of ornamenting the pots was to put slip on top and when it dried to scratch out the figures and detail, and this could only be done in a rather stiff way whereas the sculptor had mastered the technique of representing bodies with bones , muscles and movement. These artists were obviously highly respected in their day and we know the names of them, whereas later on the name of the donor of the work was more importnat.
Because woment had become housebound it became common to depict them in plae colours whereas the male God had a dark skin as he caught the sun. The figures too are nearly always stark nude which showed that sexual intercourse betwen the godss and goddess was imminent. It was interesting to learn that it was common to depict Gods and Heroes with a particular object - a helmet for Heracles, a trident for Poseidon, just as later on afterthe Rennaisance in Europe the Saints have their own particular symbol for being recognised - St Peter, the Keys; St Mark, the Lion.
3rd December 7.30 pm 2009
Bach: Christmas in Leipzig.
Mr Colin Booth
Colin Booth, who lives locally, specializes in both making and playing early keyboard instruments. His lecture about Bach's life and work will use musical examples, both recorded and played live.
On Thursday, December 3rd a full audience heard a lecture given by Colin Booth on "JS Bach: Christmas at Leipzig" . Mr Booth has combined a career of harpsichord playing and making for the last 25 years and brought along one of his instruments on which he played us examples of Bach's chamber music.
In 1704, after a year at the court of Weimar, young Bach was appointed organist at Arnstadtwhere he wrote many of his 300 or so church cantatas. in 1707 at the age of 22, he married his cousin Maria Bach, and a year later they moved to the ducal court at Weimar where he was tostay for 9 years. But it seems that he was not appreciated by the Duke, who gave the senior post of Kapelmeister whenit became free to an inferior muscian. So Bach moved his family to Anhalt Cothen where he became Kapelmeister to Price Leopold. This was to be a very happy appountment as the Price was keenly iterested in music. Unfortunately things were to change when he married and his bride was not a music lover and so Bach had to find new emplyment.
Bach was a great family man, which was fortunate because with Maria he had seven children, of whom four survived. When she died in 1720 he badly needed a mother for the family and so in 1722, the same year as he wrote "The well tempered clavier" he married his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilken, who was a gifted soprano probably earning more money than he did. She was to give up her career to devote herself to bringing up his children and to give him 13 more as well!!
Bach applied for the job of Kapelmeister at St Thomas Church, Leipzig. Altough he got the job he was made aware that he was nowhere near their first choice, "Since the best man cannot be obtained a mediocre one must suffice", and it would appear that right from the start relationships were not easy.
He was expected to look after the music of the town, and of the four churches, to write cantatas (what we would call anthems) for each Sunday, and to teach the boys in the choir school Latin and French - and he was not qualified to teach languages so he had to hire someone to do it for him and pay out of his own pocket. Leipzig had its own university and as he had never been to university he did not fit in with university life. A new rector soon arrived at St Thomas who was very Puritan in outlook and they did not get on, There were frequent skirmishes and in church circles he was felt to be difficult.
However there was a thriving coffee house in the town where there was a great deal of conviviality and Bach was to skimp some of his church work as he enjoyed the singing and dancing at Zimmerman's.
Even in his own lifetime Bach's music was considered a liitle old fashioned with his liking for tocccatas and fugues. His three sons were much more famous than he was. The eldest, Wilhem Friedemann, became known as Dresden Bach, Johann Christian (his 9th son) Beckeburg Bach and Carl Philip Emmanuel (his 11th son) Berlin Bach.
In his later life his house next to the church of St Thomas became a place of pilgrimage for many budding musicians. He became known for his art of polyphony and the development of the fugue as well as his many pieces for violins and harpsichord. Amongst his finest works are the two Passions - St John's and St Matthews which date from this period and the B minor Mass. He was to lose his sight, probably due to the many hours he had spent writing out scores of his cantatas by candlelight so that they could be sung on the morrow by the church choir. It was only after his death that he obtained the fame that he has today as oneof the finest and most spiritual composers. Throughout his talk Colin gave illustrations of excerpts of music from CDs or from his own playing at the harpsichord. It was all highly enjoyable.
7th January 7.30 pm 2010
From the land of the Golden Fleece: Scythian Gold.
Ms Louise Schofield
LECTURE RE-SCHEDULED FOR 15TH APRIL DUE TO BAD WEATHER
4th February 7.30 pm 2010
The historic gardens of Somerset.
Professor Timothy Mowl.
Professor Mowl is a member of Bristol University's Dept. of Archaeology and Anthropology. He has seen a need for a country-wide analysis of historic gardens and landscapes and has, over the last 6 years, visited more than 540 gardens all over the West country. Dr Mowl has already published books on eight counties. He is currently researching and writing the next volume in his series on Somerset, to be published in May 2010.
The lecture on February 4th in the Town Hall was given by Professor Timothy Mowl on "The Historic Gardens of Somerset". These lectures are always well supported, but on this occasion we were joined by a group from the Somerset Gardens Trust and also 10 students from his course on "Garden History and Heritage Horticulture" from Yeovil University.
Professor Mowl is essentially an architect, but his field is now based on Garden History and Layout from the past to the present day. He was much influenced by John Betjeman and Pevsner, whose books on architecture concentrated on buildings in each area of England. However Pevsner’s earlier books were very academic and dry, concentrating only on the buildings whereas Timothy plans a series of books treating his subject in a wider fashion, speaking of the people who owned the properties and employed the designers to carry out their wishes. Not all the meticulous plans were successful in being completed, and today some of these beautiful designs and drawings are all we have left of building which have been allowed to fall into ruin, Old photographs exist and can be compared with the slides he has taken on his travels.
We were carried along by Timothy's enthusiasm for his subject and his plans to produce books on all the counties. Most of the houses are privately owned and we shall have to wait for his book to be published before we know whether and when we can visit them. He himself was not averse to doing a bit of trespassing in the course of duty which perhaps we might feel chary of doing ourselves!
Somerset is blest with a wealth of houses and gardens some, like Clevedon Court, Fyne Court, Montacute and Tyntesfield are owned by the National Trust and are easy to visit. Clevedon Court, a medieval house, has terrace gardens and also a wilderness garden laid out adjacent to the house which not everybody sees. Landscape pictures of Montacute showed the house with its banqueting houses standing proud in front of it without the wall that now encloses the lawn and flower beds, and Timothy pointed out that although there are two floors, the upper one having such a fine view of the deer park, there seems no evidence of a staircase leading up to it which seems very odd.
Round the Mells area are fine houses at Mells Park and Mells Manor, Ammerdale , Barley Wood, home of the Wills family, and especially Barrow Court which Timothy believes to be the finest garden in Somerset, is owned by the Gibbs Family. The Bishop of Bath and Wells used to have a holiday retreat at Banwell which had fashionable caves. Caves, follys and grottos studded with seashells were to became all the rage.
Timothy names the famous designers that contributed so much to garden design, Richard Phelps, Thomas Wright and Lutyens who have left their original plans, drawings and finished works for us still to see.
It was fascinating to learn how such an enthusiast worked; visiting the properties and exploring in the undergrowth to find behind nettles and brambles the remains of ancient buildings and statues. He found the Edwardian gardens the most satisfying and yet the saddest - because of their confidence in themselves and their lives, which was to be so rudely shattered by the First World War.
People in Wells are fortunate that there are two private local garden that are a delight to visit: Milton Lodge which is a mature garden built on terraces with mature trees and shrubs, and Stoberry which is a recently designed garden with imaginative planting round modern statuary.
Naturally, with his interest so much geared to architecture this was not a plantsman's lecture but it was well received and Timothy was warmly applauded at the end.
4th March 7.30 pm 2010 [AGM at 8.50 pm]
Did Marco Polo go to China? Tea, spaghetti and manuscripts.
Dr Frances Wood
Frances Wood is curator of the Chinese collections in the British Library, author of a number of books on China. Notable amongst these is 'Hand Grenade Practice in Peking', recounting her experiences when a student in Peking during the mid-seventies.
We were then entertained by a fascinating talk entitled “Did Marco Polo go to China? Tea, spaghetti and manuscripts” by Dr. Frances Wood, who is curator of the Chinese collection at the British Museum. She was a student in Peking during the mid-seventies and has a written a book about her experiences and is an authority on Marco Polo.
However there is very little concrete knowledge about Marco Polo. A Venetian merchant, traveller and writer, he is credited with going to China with his father and uncle in 1271 when he was seventeen. They arrived at the court of Kublai Khan in 1275 having travelled through Central Asia and the Ghobi Desert. Kublai Khan was impressed with the boy so that he sent him out as an envoy through Burma to Cochin China and southern India.
For three years Marco served as Governor of Yang Chow and subdued an uprising. But eventually he was able to leave and return home to Venice bringing back the great wealth that he had accumulated. He began to write down his experiences of foreign travel when for a year he was a prisoner in Genoa. He probably intended them as a merchants` guide book, but bit by bit other stories came into it and illustrations too, done by artists who had never seen the places they were depicting. It was printed in 1517 and more likely than not was not taken too seriously but people were fascinated by the fabulous East and eventually other stories were copied in and translated into other languages. Frampton`s first English edition appeared in 1597 as by the 16th century Polo`s name had become famous for foreign travel. By 1938 there were over 250 versions of Marco Polo`s story.
Much of Marco Polo`s early account is rather dry and repetitative. Everywhere he went he described the people as Idolaters and the same descriptions crop up: every town had a big market for instance. But strangely enough he never mentioned things you would have expected him to have noticed, like tea drinking, the use of chop sticks, or indeed the Great Wall of China. Every now and then he shatters you with the words “I Marco Polo was there!” and it must have made a huge impact on his contemporaries.
On his return to Venice it appeared he settled down and did not travel again. But Venice seems not to have honoured him in any way and there is little mention of him in the city archives apart from his Will, the silk and a Tartare slave which he brought back showing his contact with Mongol realms. Another thing he brought home with him was rhubarb, an unknown fruit before then in Europe, which was to be prized for its medicinal uses in constipation and other stomach troubles.
8th April 7.30 pm 2010
How composers compose – musical innovation, inspiration and industry: a composers perspective.
Ms Liz Lane
Liz Lane is a professional composer and arranger who started writing music at the age of six. With the help of musical excerpts, she describes the process of creating music – from developing an embryonic musical idea to editing for a performance. She is currently completing a PhD in Composition
On Thursday, April 1st Dr. Liz Lane gave us a talk on 'How Composers Compose - Musical Innovation, Inspiration and Industry: A Composer`s Perspective'. This she illustrated with excerpts from her work.
Liz was a local girl who went to Wells Cathedral School where she studied piano, horn and percussion. But she early on showed an aptitude for composition and started writing music at the of six receiving widespread media coverage as a child composer. She took her undergraduate degree at Cardiff University and received a postgraduate diploma in composition from the Royal College of Music before pursuing a varied musical career which combines teaching, lecturing , arranging and composing as well as performing on the horn and percussion. In 2009 Cardiff University awarded her PhD in Composition, where she is currently Associate Lecturer, as she is with the Open University as well as lecturing at the West of England University. She is a very busy lady.
It was fascinating to learn how she seeks inspiration for her work which has been described as 'spellbinding - touching the very core of the heart'. She is a practical person and is motivated by the commissions she receives - writing for a reason - which fire her imagination. She has written for Childrens` Dance - 'Why cats sit on doorsteps in the sun' Another for her friend`s, Steve and Jane`s wedding anniversary, another entitled Jaleo which was inspired by flamenco which was recently performed in Cardiff. Inspiration also came from music written by women, especially by the famous Hildegarde of Bingham, and a children`s ballet entitled 'Mrs Harris goes to Paris'. Recently Liz tried her hand at composing for the harpsichord which was a novel experience.
When ideas come to her she has to get them down on paper as soon as possible and although she often writes the music by hand she also makes use of the computer to help her. She comes back again and again to her work and edits it, stressing than industry is even more important to a composer than inspiration.
Liz has many good friends in the music industry and works often with David Fanshawe, a composer and explorer, with him producing a brass band arrangement of the Lord`s Prayer from his African Sanctus. The singer Jennifer Henderson and the horn player. Marlene Ford. Her music has been played in many places from the Colston Hall, Bristol, the Royal Albert Hall, Wells Cathedral, the Fairfield Hall, Croydon to Barcelona and Seattle.
It was interesting too to learn how much care she takes on the titles of her work. She is meticulous in all she does and can produce works of fine lyrical quality.
15th April 7.30 pm 2010
From the land of the Golden Fleece: Scythian Gold.
Ms Louise Schofield
Ms Schofield was curator of Greek Bronze Age and geometric Antiquities in the British Museum from 1987 – 2000. She now writes books and runs archaeological projects in Turkey, Greece and Ethiopia. Her latest book, 'Mycenaeans', was published by the BM in 2007.
The last lecture of the winter season was given by Louise Schofield on Thursday, April 15th at the Town Hall when she spoke on “From the Land of the Golden Fleece, Scythian Gold” which we should have heard in January but was postponed because of the snow.
Louise was Curator of Greek Bronze Age and geometric Antiquities in the British Museum from 1987 - 2000 and has been on excavations in Albania, Turkey, Greece and Ethiopia. She now writes and runs archaeological projects in these countries. So she was well able to show slides and speak about the wonderful finds that have been made of artefacts from the 11th - 7th centuries BC.
We learn of the Scythians from Jason `s exploits in search of the Golden Fleece. In the Argo he sailed through the Hellespont into the Black Sea to discover these nomadic people. This land now is part of the Ukraine. Greek pottery from the period shows Jason capturing the fleece with the help of Medea, and dragons disgorging Jason who had an alarming time of it. We also see exotic animals such as griffins, all portrayed in red and black on a variety of pot shapes. We also know something of the Scythians and their way of life from the writings of Herodotus. They were prone to drink to excess and they were great warriors, even their women fought and were likely to be the original Amazon women who cut off a breast so that they could shoot their arrows straighter. Being nomadic they did not build as the Greeks did. All their wealth they put into portable things including jewellery and swords which were buried with them deep in the ground or under burial mounds.
In the 17th century AD excavations began in earnest and underground tombs were found far to the north with their contents frozen solid. This has preserved not only bodies but textiles: such as a wonderful 5th Century carpet which was beautifully knotted and decorated with animals in bright colours which appear as bright now as the day it was laid in the tomb. There is still much to be found and excavations are continuing.
Gold items were in abundance as, unlike in Greece, there was plenty of gold to be found in the area, and the workmanship was particularly fine. From this art we are able to appreciate the truth of what Herodotus had written so long ago about their wealth and talents, and which had not been taken seriously. It is now being regarded in a new light.
LECTURE REVIEWS 2008-09
2nd October 7.30 pm 2008
Various Aspects of the St Ives Society of Artists
Mr David Tovey.
Gave up a career as a lawyer to study the History of Art at Warwick University. Subsequently becoming an author and much sought after exhibition curator in all aspects of Cornish art.
The opening of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Royal Albert or Saltash bridge in 1859, carrying railway passengers to Cornwall for the first time, proved a landmark event for artists. The link forged to St Ives brought a crowd of international painters to enjoy what they found there.
Namely the light. In the opening lecture for the new term of Wells Evening Society’s held at Wells Town Hall on Thursday, art historian David Tovey spoke of this 19th-century ‘dirty, stinking, industrial town, based on the pilchard industry’, as having a unique quality.
It faced north, so the water and its four sand beaches were lit from the land and the Atlantic Ocean blended with vast skyscapes for artists to exercise their talents.
They ranged from Turner, who visited the little Cornish town in 1811, all the way through Henry Harewood Robinson and his wife to those who arrived before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Some came from America, some from Scandinavia. All were seduced by the challenge of painting the vast landscapes and Cornish fisherfolk, as well as the local countryside.
Artists such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arthur Meade and the lecturer’s great-grandfather, William Titcomb flourished. By exhibiting in London and – more importantly – in Paris and as far away as Chicago and Pittsburg, they all contributed to the Cornish village’s international reputation as a centre for fine art.
The lecture was attended by some 130 members. In her introduction to the evening’s proceedings, chairman Sara Whitehouse said that membership of Wells Evening Society is holding up well, but new recruits are always welcome.
6th November 7.30 pm 2008
The Story of Posters
Mr Paul Atterbury
Trained as a graphic designer before studying art history and working for Sotherby Publications, as a historical adviser to Royal Doulton and then editor of Connoisseur magazine. He has written or edited over 30 books, mostly on ceramics but also on canals and railways. For the past 16 years a member of the BBC Antiques Road Show team.
‘The poster is our history’: the concluding words of a lecture given by Paul Atterbury of BBC Television’s Antiques Roadshow to Wells Evening Society on November 6.
Entitled ‘The Power of the Poster’, his lecture was illustrated with a remarkable series of images collected from the mid-19th century to the present day.
By the end of it, his claim was entirely creditable because he had shown the links between milestones in social and political history and how they were made known to the public or advertised through the medium of posters. His lecture also recorded patterns in art history over the past 200-odd years, since the invention of lithography in the 1790s.
As a form of commercial art, posters have reflected the leading trends of the days. So the earliest of them were formed from simple wood blocks and fly-posted to walls, In Atterbury’s words, ‘word upon word, text upon text, image upon image’.
Colours were introduced in the 1840s and a further breakthrough came in the 1860s when Japanese printed blocks became collectable items in the west. In the 1870s artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec began to use the medium.
So modernism gave way to art-nouveau, to art déco and eventually to abstraction as posters, ‘the decorative language of the street’ found a place in our emotional landscape. For products such as soap, cigarettes, tea and tobacco each found a distinctive ‘label’; meat spread became Bovril and mustard became Colman’s; and always with the teasing promise that ‘Players please’.
Travel and tourism featured heavily in this visual world, with posters featuring the delights of railway and ocean liner, or the advantages of a run in the motor - provided it had a full tank of Shell. Interestingly government propaganda posters followed the same trends as fierce pride was induced in fortress Britain, with its long and varied coastline, a place where ‘careless talk costs lives’.
And all this despite the fact that, as Paul Atterbury said, ‘The appeal of the poster is that you are dealing with something ephemeral, designed to be thrown away.’
Those that remain are now highly sought after and valuable collectors’ items, to be treasured by afficianados of programmes such as the Antiques Roadshow.
4th December 7.30 pm 2008
The Current Renaissance in Contemporary Silver
Mrs Phillipa Glanville
A Liveryman of the Goldsmiths Company, her work has ranged across the decorative arts and social history having been Tudor and Stuart Curator at the Museum of London and Keeper of Metalwork at the V & A. Subsequently Academic Director of Waddesdon Manor.
Almost everyone has silver jewellery in their lives, but larger silver pieces have been traditionally seen as for the rich – or as presentation pieces. Roy Strong has used the phrase college plate to sum up these perceptions.
Last Thursday, in a vivid and animated lecture, Philippa Glanville told the Wells Evening Society how all this has changed over the last twenty five years. In her lecture “The Current Renaissance in Contemporary Silver”, she explained how in the early 1990s, during her time as Keeper of Metalwork at the Victoria & Albert Museum, she introduced contemporary silver pieces to complement the famous collection of antique silver. Since then, a whole new generation of silversmiths has emerged, producing exciting pieces, both functional and sculptural.
Contemporary work can be both formal and intimate, and often be commissioned for surprisingly small sums. The Internet has facilitated direct contact between makers and the public, but to absorb the excitement of these gleaming sculptural shapes, direct physical exposure is still essential. Goldsmiths’ Silver Fair, runs in London’s Goldsmiths Hall each autumn, and has ninety artists showing their skills. There are few exhibition spaces in the south west, but Sheffield, home to tableware (‘flatware’) is the sponsor of their Millennium Gallery. The Harley Gallery in Worksop and the Shipley Gallery in Gateshead all show specialist collections of recently-designed silver. Saatchi, that great patron of British innovation, is about to open a new Gallery to promote crafts, which will of course include pieces made in silver.
So contemporary silver is now established but it needs a constant flow of new young designers and makers. Philippa Glanville is actively involved with the Bishopsland Trust in Oxfordshire which is a bridge between college and the realities of the gallery world. It offers young makers the opportunity to work alongside established silversmiths, learning techniques as well as how to meet deadlines, to price their work and to meet and satisfy clients as well as taking part in regular exhibitions.
On the Evening Society’s 12-foot square screen members saw magnificent examples of contemporary silverware. Downing Street has a striking and innovative collection of tableware representing the work of many different silversmiths. Silver tankards inventively used the handles of a motorbike for Ewan McGregor, and a simple oval teapot – insulated - for Lulu which she can cup in her hands showed the inventive approach of today’s makers. A particularly magnificent sculptural candle centre piece drew an audible gasp from the audience, and it is good to hear that these examples of British design have drawn crowds in Beijing and Tokyo as well as London.
Questions at the end of the lecture reflected the audience’s lively interest. They covered the making process (the terms raising and chasing were defined and the techniques described) and how to keep silver clean. (Keep it in use, but don’t store it near the Aga!) A description of Roman silver hordes found all over Britain reminded us that working in silver is an ancient as well as one of the most excitingly contemporary art forms.
On a cold and rainy night, the lecture was attended by 110 members and seven visitors. The next lecture in the Evening Society’s winter programme will be held in the Town Hall on Thursday January 8. This will be on ‘The Silk Road’ and given by Jonathan Tucker. The Society encourages visitors to come along and get a ‘taster’ of the lectures. There is a fee of £6.00 at the door, with reduced membership if joining for the rest of the season.
8th January 7.30 pm 2009
The Silk Road
Mr Jonathan Tucker
Educated at the University of Wales and the School of Oriental and African Studies, he served as an RAF pilot and Police Detective in Hong Kong, He worked for Spink and Son as an Associate Director in the Indian and S.E. Asia Department and now operates a gallery with his wife in St James's. Consultant and author of a number of books on, and a map of, the Silk Road
Although entitled The Silk Road, the lecture enjoyed by the Wells Evening Society pm on Thursday , January 8 could more properly have been entitled the ‘Silk Roads’. Jonathan Tucker showed three slides on two screens simultaneously. One of these featured a map with all the routes from the Mediterranean across Syria, Iran, Arabia, the Stans and India all the way to China; the other his slides. Many routes, many roads and a two-way traffic of ideas, culture, religious beliefs and ultimately disease – with the spread of the Bubonic plague - as well, of course, as silk.
From east to west came ceramics, tea, dyes, jade and cosmetics too. From west to east went gold, silver, amber, gems and, when they were the height of fashion and almost a currency in their own right, tulip bulbs as well. The earliest trade routes had opened up to deal in horses, Arab blood stock being at a premium and highly considered by the Chinese. These early ‘roads’ had regular fortresses and beacons which burnt tamarisk branches and wolf dung – the latter giving off a pungent black smoke to alert would-be trouble-makers.
Jonathan Tucker, author of Treasures From The Silk Road: Devotion, Conquest and Trade Along Ancient Highways, explained that the original name for these trade routes was given by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. His own engagement came from trips regularly undertaken over a ten-year period in the 1990s. So his lecture was littered with personal anecdotes as when, for example, suffering extreme cold in the evening, his native guides would put the embers from their fire into a shallow pit covered with sand and then place their beds on top of it to ensure a comfortable night under the stars.
The eventual demise of the Silk Roads came when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Subsequent maritime exploration meant that sea traffic took over from the routes across deserts and mountains and the safety of overland travellers could no longer be secured.
5th February 7.30 pm 2009
The Great East India Company Adventure
Mr Gerald Davison
Author, art dealer and lecturer (in Asia and UK), whose books on Chinese ceramics are among the standard works on the subject.
More than 100 stalwarts braved the elements on Thursday evening to attend the Wells Evening Society’s lecture on the history of the Great East India Company. Given by Gerald Davison, it ably demonstrated how a project that began with trade and – as he put it – ‘bravery, public service and compassion’ gradually changed over the 250 years of its active life and became embroiled in territorial conquest.
The Royal Charter that set up the Company was signed by Queen Elizabeth 1 on December 31, 1600. The project was a simple one: to secure trade for the English in a theatre largely dominated by the Spanish and Portuguese. The Brits went in on the tails of the Dutch, who were also concerned to get a slice of the giant cake represented by trade with India and, increasingly, with China. The east had spices, ebony and ivory, jade and rose quartz; the west had silver and cloth. China in particular had tea as well as rare woods and porcelain, in which to store and then to serve it. To make his point, Mr Davison held out a humble nutmeg to his audience, reminding them that once this spice was literally worth its weight in gold.
For the first hundred years the British lagged behind the Dutch but during this period theirs was a benign presence where they traded, as they often intermarried with the native population. But gradually the desire for luxury goods back home generated greed and corruption. Bases or factories at the trading stations had to be defended, so a military element and eventually an army became inevitable. The Church of England too became an ingredient of the recipe as garrisons developed churches and a social infrastructure. No wonder that when the Company’s influence declined, it had already transmogrified into the British Empire and the Raj.
In its heyday, however, the luminaries, such as Sir Thomas Smith, buccaneer John Dee of the Sussex, Clive of India, Warren Hastings, General Cornwallis and Sir Stanford Raffles all carved out reputations for themselves. The most ingenious traders bought and sold in bulk on behalf of the government backers or syndicates who sponsored their travels but also knew how to acquire that unique bedspread or dagger or a watering ewer made of jade. Exquisite artefacts from the Far East made their way over to Europe and, as Mr Davison reminded his audience, are still to be seen in English stately homes or National Trust properties.
5th March 7.30 pm 2009 [AGM at 8.55 pm]
Scottish Arts and Crafts
Dr Elizabeth Cumming
For many years involved in art history. She ran the Edinburgh City Art Gallery and taught at the City College of Art. Now involved in running exhibitions, particularly on the Scottish Arts and Crafts Movement. She is the author of a book on Phoebe Traquair.
At the meeting of the Wells Evening Society held on March 5, a gathering of 126 members heard Dr Elizabeth Cumming lecture on the Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland. She ran the Edinburgh City Art Gallery, taught at the City College of Arts and has written extensively on her subject matter. This familiarity with the topic and superior quality of her photos made this an exceptionally informative evening.
When she was indexing the book she wrote on the Movement she found she needed 1,300 cards to carry the detailed lists of names and places and crafts she had written about. During her lecture these tripped so fluently off her tongue that her audience were drawn in to appreciate the marvels of work by the great artists such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Robert Lorimer and Phoebe Traquair and to understand how a variety of less well-known craftsmen came to create a distinctive Scottish idiom. Their ‘delight in materials and working hands’ ensured a future for Pictish art.
At first though, the Scottish Movement lent on William Morris and his colleagues for its English inspiration. Indeed its 1893 journal, The Studio carried the letters NB, standing for Northern Britain on the cover. Then the work diversified as the Scottish tradition was modernised and found expression in the interior design of homes, castles, churches and cathedrals. To bring on a new generation of artists, training colleges and workshops were set up in Edinburgh and Glasgow to forge links with industry and so improve all commercial design. Furniture, wrought iron metal, leaded glass, embroidery, stencilling, radiators, pottery, electric fittings, panels and friezes, as well as external design were all simplified and modernized and Scottish myth and allegory fed in a variety of designs. The thistle and Scottie dog featured along with other heraldic motifs, cropping up in sites as exalted as the Thistle Chapel at St Giles’ Cathedral and in simple boot scrapers to adorn an ordinary doorway.
In both its formal and vernacular contexts the Movement reached its apogee in Edinburgh’s Scottish National War Memorial of 1927, commemorating the 150,000 Scots men and women who died in World War I.
2nd April 7.30 pm 2009
Art, Architecture and Music at the Court of James I
Mr Peter Leech
A distinguished musician and Scholar. Since arriving from Australia in 1996 he has held a number of prestigious positions and is perhaps best known locally as Musical Director of the highly successful Bristol Bach Choir.
The Society met on April 2nd for a lecture by Dr. Peter Leech on "Art, Architecture and Music at the Court of James I1". given to a full audience. Dr. Leech, originally from Australia has held a number of prestigious positions,in this country and for ten years was known locally as the Musical Director of the Bristol Bach Choir.
James'reign only lasted for a little over three years but it was a period when the Arts flourished and we were welcomed back into Catholic Europe. The King brought in musicians, artists and engravers from Italy and the Dutch Netherlands. Like his brother Charles II he had been brought up a Roman Catholic by his mother, Henrietta Maria. She was allowed to do this as long as the boys adopted the Anglican tradition when they reached twelve years old. Charles II did this, but James was a devout Catholic all his life.
This meant there were many difficulties at his Coronation when he refused to take the Sacrament and he was always uncertain in his own mind that he had been properly consecrated by the Oil which had been blessed at an Anglican altar. In all events the Coronation itself was a magnificent affair and we are indebted to some wonderfully detailed engravings as to what the principal characters looked like and what they wore. We were shown an original music score that was written for the service, and views of the musicians with their instruments. Dr. Leech also played excerpts from some of Purcell's music which evoked the spirit of the age.
James was to build his own .chapel in Whitehall and commissioned an Italian artist to paint the altar piece as had been done for the Queen' s Chapel that his mother had used. He also had Prayers Books printed, bringing over Jesuit scholars. Unfortunately this chapel burnt down some years after his departure and the court library with music scores and manuscripts were lost.
Perhaps the most intrigueing pictures were those of sugar sculptures which were made to grace a fine banqueting table and which were incredibly intricate. We have lost the art of this form of sculpture and have no idea what preparations were used on the sugar and could only marvel at so much art and industry being expended on such an ethereal subject.
Dr.Leech thought that, had James I1 kept out of the politics of the day he might have kept his throne, but as History has revealed he could not do this and the brief but brilliant reign came to an abrupt end.
23rd April 7.30 pm 2009
Computers and the future of Mankind
Thursday 23rd April was the last Presentation for the Season of Wells Evening Society. Gordon Mills gave a Lecture Presentation in Wells Town Hall on the subject “Computers, the nature of man and the future of mankind”.
Gordon is a committee member and has been involved with the Society from its early days. He began by dedicating this presentation to retiring Chairman Sara Whitehouse and colleague Chris Hann, who five years ago decided to form Wells Evening Society. Since the early days, these pioneers have overseen the Society grow and extend its activities. With a very stimulating audio-visual digital demonstration on mans’ progress in the field of ‘Cybernetics, ’ this presentation demonstrated brilliantly the Society’s leading hardware and software technology .
For those who are technically minded, the Society provided ‘high definition’ imagery via the Societies Blue Ray enabled computer and a 5000 watt cinema digital projector. The software was a very enhanced PowerPoint presentation, superimposed by inserting digitally edited moving film.
The presentation began with outstanding beautiful pictures and music entitled ‘The Beauty of Nature’. Gordon explained that this presentation of Cybernetics was a combination of progress in the fields of computers, the brain and psychology. He showed us studies developed from the philosophy of Plato through to the present work in Physics on quantum sub atomic circuitry. At the same time we were being warned of ‘the thought provoking and disturbing nature of leading scientists work on Cybernetics.’
Gordon personalised his presentation with incidents relating to the nature of man. He presented the different fields of psychology and questioned to what extent man was a conditioned machine. He suggested that the human brain could be seen as a ‘basic’ computer, and then looked at the development of thinking, creative, intelligent human-like robots. Then we were shown contemporary work on computers that were much more advanced than robots.
Although mankind now owes so much to computers, the world’s leading cybernetic scientists show deep concern and predict that in the next 20 years computer intelligence and power will be billions more powerful than the human brain.
The ‘nature of being human’ was analysed and found to be a precarious balance of body, mind and emotion. Any unbalance causes stress, aggression and even paranoid destructive behaviour and mankind seems constantly to seek selfish self fulfilment. Although computers don’t suffer from such problems, Gordon suggested that we may well be in danger of global wars from the ‘human’ programming of our military computers.
The lecture ended with Gordon reminding us that it was St George’s day. George’s Likening the machine to a Dragon, Gordon asked - “Is it possible that mankind could have a St George Saviour?”
LECTURE REVIEWS 2007-08
4th October 7.30 pm 2007
The Life and Works of Oscar Nemon – The Sculptor, My Father
Lady Aurelia Young.
Politician and daughter of the famous sculptor Oscar Nemon (1906-1985).
Lady Aurelia Young's talk was the first to be made with the assistance of our new high powered digital projection system and also the first to use our new radio microphones and powerful surround sound system.
Lady Young gave us an informative talk on the life of her father, the extraordinary sculptor Oscar Nemon, who was born in Croatia in 1906. We were told how Nemon, a sculptor whose works were often experimental or radical, spent his early professional life in Vienna before leaving in the early twenties for Paris and eventually Belgium and that his first Royal Commission was that of King Albert I of Belgium. After an abortive first meeting, Nemon became good friends with Freud, one of the many famous people who were to become his subjects and who make up a veritable Who's Who of twentieth century history.
Nemon was driven to escape the Nazi encroachment on Europe and fled to England in 1938 but his direct family in Croatia were killed in the Holocaust.
Nemon's busts and statues are numerous and include those of: The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Harold McMillan, Montgomery, President Eisenhower, and Margaret Thatcher, to mention a few
In 1985 he was commissioned to sculpt Diana the Princess of Wales, unfortunately, he died before he could carry it out.
Lady Young said that she was still receiving information and was constantly surprised with her ongoing research into her father's life and she finished by saying that it was reported that the Queen had said, on one occasion, that Nemon was "the only person to get Churchill to do what he was told".
People wishing to find more information on Oscar Nemon should try this site: - Click Here Wikipedia - Oscar Nemon
1st November 7.30 p.m 2007
Something Old, Something New – Treasures Saved by The Art Fund for our Museums and Galleries
Mr Anthony Pugh-Thomas.
Solicitor, consultant legal mediator and committee member of the Somerset branch of the Arts Fund (formerly the National Art Collections Fund).
Mr Anthony Pugh-Thomas outlined the aims of The Art Fund. These were, enriching and enhancing Museums and Galleries, campaigning for the widest possible access to art and, through its 80,000 strong membership, promoting the enjoyment of art.
In regard to the founding of The Fund in 1903, Mr Pugh-Thomas said that John Ruskin had said that "There is a need for a national charity to ensure great works of art are not dissipated".
We were told that The Fund does not specialise in what it supports, covering the broad spectrum of the Arts, including statues, paintings and other works of merit and that, amongst other things, The Fund had campaigned for no tax on art donated to the Government and free entry to museums. They often contributed, and would continue to contribute, if not wholly on their own, by means of a grant, whenever an important work of art appeared on the market. Thereby saving valuable art for the nation.
The lecture was illustrated by many examples of The Fund's acquisitions, including items of local interest: a Turner watercolour of Pembroke Castle presently located in a Bath museum, a watercolour by George Arnold of Glastonbury Abbey and the Shapwick Hoard of 9,238 Roman coins which alongside the Priddy Hoard of Bronze Age gold are both housed in the Somerset County Museum at Taunton.
People wishing to find more information on The Art Fund should try this site: - Click Here The Art Fund
6th December 7.30 pm 2007
The Treasures and Palaces of St Petersburg
Mr Edward Saunders.
Freelance lecturer on the history of art and architecture for such organisations as the V & A, London University, the Wallace Collection & National Trust.
Mr Edward Saunders gave an illustrated talk on a beautiful city of statues, churches, buildings and palaces, St Petersburg, one time capital of Russia. St Petersburg remains today, despite the ravages of 70 years of Communism, one of the grandest and most impressive cities of Europe. Famous for the magnificent collections of The Hermitage Museum, the city also boasts some of the finest works of architecture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the beauty of the Summer Palaces outside the city.
He said that the city, which was built by an army of slaves, was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, who built a fortress there in his ongoing war with Sweden. It was an ideal base for the Russian Fleet and commercial shipping, with access to the Baltic and beyond, making it a means of opening Russia up to the West.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral, the earliest building in the City, was built in 1704 inside the fortress and became Peter the Great's burial place and that of the other Tsars.
We were told that Peter had a great love of technology and was impressed by Versailles and French architecture and that, affected by these tastes, the city developed rapidly, including his own palace and gardens, the Peterhof.
We were shown slides of the Winter and Summer Palaces, the Stroganov Palace and of the Capital Palace, which at a third of a mile long is one of the longest buildings in the world.
Mr Saunders said that Catherine the Great had added a small dining room extension to her Palace and called it “my hermitage” and that the whole Palace had become known by this name.
Catherine bought thousands of paintings and other works of art, mainly as whole collections, from countries throughout western Europe. These included works by Raphael, a self portrait by Van Dyke and Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son. She also commissioned works and corresponded with Voltaire. The collection is the basis of the treasures of The Hermitage Museum [In fact her collection is so large that only a small portion is ever on show.]
Catherine, was succeeded by a number of Tsars, ending with the Revolution of October 1917 and the assassination of Nicolas II in 1918, after which the capital was moved to Moscow.
In 1944, after the 900-day siege and bombardment by the German invaders, much of Leningrad, as it was then called, was in ruins and virtually all the palaces in the surrounding countryside, were looted and largely destroyed. The famous Amber Room in the Charlottenburg Palace was almost obliterated. After the war ended Stalin ordered the restoration of the city and its treasured palaces, much of it being carried out voluntarily by ordinary Russian citizens.
Mr Saunders said that "the Winter Palace stands a silent witness to extraordinary historical events".
People wishing to find more information should try these sites: - Click Here The Hermitage Wikipedia - St Petersburg
3rd January 7.30 pm 2008
The Pinnacle of Chinese Ceramic Art (AD 1662 - 1795)
Mr Gerald Davison.
Author, art dealer and lecturer (in Asia and UK), whose books on Chinese ceramics are among the standard works on the subject.
Mr Gerald Davison’s talk concentrated on Chinese ceramics of the early Qing (Ching or “Pure”) Dynasty 1662 -1795, which covered the reigns of the Manchu Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng (Yung-Cheng) and Qianlong (Ch’ien-Lung).
These Emperors, who were believed to be Living Gods, pursued a frugal life and continued the long held Chinese tradition of combining military prowess and scholarship with a passion for the arts. Their patronage resulted in the productive output and skills of the Chinese potter reaching an absolute pinnacle of technological innovation, creative flair and quality.
Several million pieces of ceramics were ordered each year to complement the furniture, carvings and silks of the ornate Imperial Palaces as well as the homes of officials, scholars, the prosperous merchant class and also for the growing export markets with increasingly westernised designs. However, only the best and flawless items made their way into the hands of the Imperial Family.
We were told that the kiln failure rate was very high and that production was a large scale "Cottage Industry" with skills which had developed over hundreds of years and, at that time, involved tens of thousands of kilns with an individual item passing, in an industrial production line technique, through up to seventy pairs of hands before being finished.
Mr Davison said that Cobalt Blue was the only colour which could survive the extreme temperatures of the initial glazing. Other colours were applied with enamels as an over-glaze and then re-fired. Amongst the colours produced was Imperial Yellow which was reserved exclusively for the Emperor and his sons. To obtain a different texture lead base enamels were applied to biscuit ceramics.
Together with their incredible technological achievements with enamels and firing, the Chinese liked to play on words and that they produced ceramics which were not just decorative but could be read as well.
Examples of this symbolism are;
Clouds represented tranquillity. Two butterflies: Marital bliss. Peaches: Immortality. Bats: Happiness. Children: Good luck or Happiness. A Quail : Tranquillity. A Cockerel: an Official.
We were shown, amongst others, slides of figurines, plates, tea pots, wine pots, dogs, vases, lanterns, flasks and "Egg Shell" ceramics, some of which with flambé, coral red, bronze and gold enamels, as well as some of the intricate and sophisticated ceramics of the later period.
Mr Davison concluded by saying that the end of this period was the pinnacle of Chinese Ceramic Art and that it has never been equalled.
7th February 7.30 pm 2008
Letter-carving in Britain Today
Mr Richard Kindersley.
One of the foremost practicing letter-carvers in Britain today who has run an active studio in London since 1966 with many significant national commissions (including at St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey).
Mr Richard Kindersley, one of the UK's foremost exponents of the art of letter cutting, gave us a talk which covered the development of letter cutting from the Roman Republican period, 100 BC, through to the flowering of the greatest period of letter carving during the Imperial period in about AD100. He discussed the Renaissance revival of lettering and gave a brief history of letter-carving in the British Isles ending up with contemporary work which show why lettering in stone is now a thriving craft.
He described the transition from the Greek and Roman styles and explained that the Law Stones of the Roman Republican era were an important use of letter carving at the time.
We were shown slides of what he considered to be the finest remaining inscriptions in Rome as well as inscriptions from along the Apian Way which were impressive in both their perspective and symmetry. We were shown Pompeian inscriptions which were carved with thin letters but which still had power and elegance and we were told that pollution, acid rain and cleaning with acid has rapidly worsened their condition.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire, high quality letter cutting virtually disappeared and a resurgence did not occur until the Renaissance period. However, calligraphy continued within religious iconography and works such as the Book of Kells (c800 AD), with its beautiful illustrations and superb lettering, helped to maintain some of the earlier traditions.
We were shown slides of interesting inscriptions with different styles involved, including: the English Style, the Egyptian Style and the Grotesque Style to mention a few. The different mediums available to the letter carver were discussed, together with their varying degrees of difficulty, as well as the skills involved in manual cutting, compared with the modern methods of machine cut or sandblasted carving.
Mr Kindersley spoke of his own work and the reasons behind his inscriptions. He said that the Standing Stones which he had carved were his favourites and reminded us that, apart from being tungsten tipped, the tools used by hand letter carvers today are essentially the same as those used thousands of years ago.
People wishing to see examples of Mr Kindersley's work should try this site: - Click Here Richard Kindersley Studios
6th March 7.30 pm 2008 [AGM at 8.55 pm]
Banqueting Houses and the Banquet, 1550-1700
Dr David Bostwick.
Lecturer in cultural history, writer and consultant on historic buildings, interiors and furnishings of the 16th and 17th centuries. Keeper of the Social History Collections, Sheffield City Museum, 1977-91, and consultant to the National Trust, English Heritage and Historic Scotland.
Dr David Bostwick gave us a lecture which covered banqueting throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods from 1550 to 1770. A feast was for savoury foods and a banquet was for sweetmeats. Thus one deserted the feast table and moved to the banquet, hence the term 'dessert'. Throughout this period sugar was very expensive and such foods could only be afforded by the very rich.
These banquets, with musicians and entertainers, were often held in structures located on the roofs of the houses and palaces. The diners could enjoy the food and the views looking out over gardens and parkland, sometimes watching such spectacles as deer hunting.
We were shown slides of many of the pavilions and summerhouses, which were built to accommodate these banquets including the Banqueting House in Whitehall designed by Indigo Jones, Chatsworth House, Montecute, Sheffield Manor Lodge and also the triangular lodge of Sir Thomas Tresham in Northhamptonshire with its enigmatic inscriptions, together with Wollaston Hall Nottingham, Lodge Park Cirencester and Longleat with their banqueting houses on roofs.
We were told of the progression of place settings from gold and silver to Venetian glass and of the post Grand Tour Italian influences which occurred with small banqueting houses being built in gardens, on islands in lakes and other aesthetic locations.
Particularly in the early part of the period, etiquette at feasts was fastidious and people sat at one side of the table only. Table carpets (woven tablecloths) with their intricate designs were draped over the tables and cutlery made of glass as well as glasses made of sugar were often used. There were ten courses or more but people didn’t gorge on a vast quantity but a ‘little of this’ and a ‘little of that’. The banqueting chambers were often classically decorated with the likes of Bacchus, Diana, Jupiter and Juno and they dined on: fine wines, iced cakes, sugar plate (a fondant icing), spices, creams, jellies, melon, peaches, grapes, plums, figs, apricots, greengages, candid angelica, pears covered in sugar crystal, biscuits, macaroons, quince marmalade, raspberry and strawberry jams, crème brûlée, candied fruits, gingerbread, sweet chestnuts, pomegranates, sticky plums in syrup, various syllabubs, and best of all, marzipan.
3rd April 7.30 pm 2008
Music on the Grand Tour
Mr Peter Medhurst.
Studied singing and early keyboard instruments at the RCM and at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Appears in the UK and abroad as a musician and scholar giving recitals and illustrated lectures on music and the arts.
Mr Peter Mehurst painted a fascinating and beautiful musical and visual picture of the Grand Tour in the 17th and 18th centuries. For the well-to-do who could afford to leave this country to travel to the great cities of Europe, this was indeed the 'age of enlightenment'. However Italy, with its unrivalled cultural background and climatic advantages, acted as a magnet and those who could travel to extend their education tended to gravitate there to see the works of the great painters and sculptors and also for the music. Many had their portraits painted with Roman remains in the background to show where they had been. Often these travellers returned with great collections of Italian furniture, musical instruments, paintings and other beautiful objects. In music Arcangelo Correlli (1653 – 1713) stood out as the greatest composer of the early baroque period, setting a style that was to pervade most of Europe for the ensuing 100 years. Many great musicians, including G. F. Handel from Halle, J. C. Bach from Leipzig and later W.A. Mozart from Salzburg spent much time in the country and absorbed a great deal of the flowing 'Italian style', both in orchestral and choral music. At this time the art of opera was evolving. When Handel subsequently travelled to London he recognised that a great opportunity existed to fill 'a gap in the market' for Italian opera, and thus became our greatest musical import! Another visitor was Thomas Linley II who studied violin playing under Nardini in Florence and, whilst there, became a close friend of Mozart who regarded him very highly. Sadly, this English musical prodigy (1756 – 1778) died in a boating accident on a lake in Lincolnshire. Some authorities believed that, had he lived, he could have become an 'English Mozart'.
Using a Power-Point presentation, Peter Medhurst showed us paintings of a number of those who took part in the Grand Tour, but added enormously to our enjoyment by playing and singing, in his fine tenor voice, some of the great music of the period, including compositions by Byrd, Correlli (a piece, the score for which was part illustrated in one of the pictures he showed) and Linley – altogether a splendid presentation.
Wells Evening Society wishes to express its appreciation to Bridgewater College for the loan of the Clavinova played during the evening.
24th April 7.30 pm 2008
Ancient Landscapes: Artists in Search of Britain’s Past
Dr Anne Anderson. Senior lecturer at the Southampton Institute teaching and researching in Fine Arts Valuation, and specialising in Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau. This lecture recalls Anne’s previous career as an archaeologist and coincides with the 2008 Royal Academy exhibition celebrating 300 years of the Society of Antiquaries.
To be Added
LECTURE REVIEWS 2006-07
12th October 2006 7.30 pm
My favourite things -Antiques
A famous face from BBC1's Antiques Roadshow paid a visit to Wells on Thursday to talk at the inaugural meeting of a new social group.
The Wells Evening Society launched its first season of monthly lectures by welcoming David Battie, an antiques expert well-known for his appearances on the popular TV show, as its first lecturer.
His talk at a packed Wells Town Hall was entitled My Favourite Things - Antiques.
Society Chairman Sara Whitehouse said that those who had been involved in the planning of the society had been greatly heartened by the enthusiastic response from the people of Wells and the surrounding area.
She was also delighted that so many people had attended the Wells Evening Society's first event.
The Society has invested in a 12ft Screen for use in the lectures, and has taken great care with the audio system to enable everyone in the hall to see and hear with ease.
14th November 2006 7.30 m
Vermeer and the Dutch Interior
A professional artist as well as art historian, Brian Cairns gave us a beautifully illustrated lecture making full use of the 12 foot square screen purchased by the society. He provided the audience with the historic background to the emergence of Vermeer as a superb exponent of human character, with his figures set in fine perspective and showing the Dutch interiors that are so much loved. Our speaker also drew attention to the many subtleties often embodied in pictures of this period. These set the social context by, for example in group portraits, providing clues as to whether relationships between the sexes were honourable or otherwise. Although recognised as probably the greatest artist of his time, the fact that Vermeer was so interested in character and did not strive after rich patrons, or when he painted them did not always flatter them in ways they might have wished, was among the reasons for his suffering financial hardship during much of his life.
People wishing to find more information on Vermeer should try this site: The Essential Vermeer
7th December 2006 7.30pm
'The Valley of the Kings
Martin Davies. Has lectured extensively on Ancient Egypt. For many years, committee member the Egyptian Exploration Society and Sudan Archaeological Society.
We were treated to an excellent lecture by Mr Martin Davies on the Tombs of the Pharaonic period of the New Kingdom . This was a period when the Pharaohs of Egypt had given up building large and ostentatious tombs, such as the Pyramids, and had turned to covert burial in the Valley of the Kings.
Together with the talk, we were shown an excellent presentation of slides, amongst which were photographs of some of the most remarkably preserved mummies of the period, slides of hieroglyphic inscriptions, sarcophagi and maps. This lecture gave us an insight into the period and included a look at the everyday life of the Tomb Builders.
At the end of his lecture Mr Davies suggested that anyone interested in finding out more about this period and the tombs in The Valley of the Kings should try the following Web Site: The Theban Mapping Project
With particular reference to KV5 the tomb of the Sons of Rameses II, and another site has pages on KV63 the latest discovery in The Valley.
A summary of a lecture on KV63 by Otto Schaden can be read by clicking here.
4th January 2007
Edward Elgar - A Man of Contradictions
Digby Hague-Holmes is an active member of the Elgar and Puccini Societies and is employed by the Duke of Wellington at Stratfield Saye.
Mr Digby Hague-Holmes explained why the Edward Elgar has become a part of the National Heritage but that his image has been distorted today by so many myths. He explained that Elgar's music was 'thinking with sounds', and that his persona was not quite the conventional image of a composer of his day. However, Elgar had a rapier like mind, quick ready wit, and 'punkish' sense of fun.
Mr Hague-Holmes briefly mentioned Elgar's wife Alice who was 9 years his senior and suffered his inferiority complex, bouts of depression and the rudeness that ruled his life. However, it was this dark side of his character with its everyday distortions which shaped his musical inspiration.
His versatility confirmed his position as a, if not the, composer for the common man of the day, when his music became whistled and hummed by the ordinary man in the street.
People wishing to find more information on Elgar should visit the Elgar Society page - Click Here
1st February 2007
Janet Cutler was formerly a lecturer in the history of science at Sheffield Hallam and the Open Universities and she has lectured to the National Trust and many Civic and Historical Societies.
Janet Cutler explained how the railway network was built by muscle power and that this power was provided by migrant workers called ‘Navvies’ who worked for poor pay in appalling conditions and were often attacked by Landowners. There was a heavy cost of life, thousands died. The Navvies were always paid on Saturdays and spent their money the same night on alcohol, or so it is said.
Classical architecture in railway construction was used to re-assure people that the Railway Companies were not a ‘fly by night’ operation, but solid Companies. This resulted in ‘Castellated’ bridges and entrances to tunnels, in order to to re-assure the people who were worried about this new mode of transport.
The Forth Bridge was, if anything, we were told, over-engineered mainly because of the Tay Bridge disaster. Tavistock Viaduct opened in 1908 was built of concrete shaped like stone. Other bridges were metal girder viaducts. Of the bridges, only one wooden bridge survives. Many of these structures still carry today's traffic.
The stations were solidly built with iron work, columns and filigree panels. Many are Grade Listed. Kings Cross which was built in 1852 the oldest terminal in London and St Pancreas built as Terminal for the Midland line in 1868 together with Curzon Street in Birmingham are all Grade 1 Listed.
Janet finished by saying how disappointed she was at the disappearance of much of the infrastructure, particularly the old Signal Boxes.
1st March 2007
Masterpieces of Classical Art
Ann Birchall is an internationally recognized land and underwater archaeologist. She was formerly Assistant Keeper at the British Museum and has extensive world-wide lecturing experience. She was guest speaker at the Woman of the Year Luncheon.
Ann Birchall’s lecture covered the period from the pre-classical Cycladic period of the Aegean Bronze Age 4000-5,000 yrs ago to the early years of the Imperial Roman Empire.
We were shown figurines from the Cycladic Islands which were very beautiful primitive art but can be seen as almost modernistic ‘À la Henry Moore’. One of the high points of this Civilisation occurred around 2000BC with the Minoans. We were shown a slide of a vase of this era from Knossos in Crete which featured the famous Bull Leapers and Ann voiced conjecture on whether perhaps the leaper could be a girl.
Moving on we were told of vases from c.730BC in the British Museum whose subjects are mythological figures. Slides were shown of the panels, known as the Elgin Marbles, from the Parthenon in Athens and slides of the Erectheion on the Acropolis with its Caryatids, one of which is part of Elgin's collection in the British Museum.
We were informed of Attic pottery in the black figurine technique, which was developed in Corinth and taken up by Athenian potters in the 6th - 5th Century BC and also of 4th Century BC red figurine vases which had transposed the colours of the black figurine technique.
We were shown a slide of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey with its solitary rebuilt column. This Temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The lecture wound up with a look at the most famous cameo-glass vessel from antiquity, the Portland Vase, which was made in Rome in the early part of the 1st Century AD and is applied with mythological scenes.
People wishing to find more information on Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean or Greek classical art should try this site: - Click Here