The Abduction of Mary Max

A runaway bride at the age of 13

Gaile House, co. Tipperary today, where Mary Max was born

I first posted a version of this story on my author’s blog at in Dec 2019. Various other Phillips descendants got in touch as a result, so I’m delighted to have expanded the current family network! In autumn 2019, my husband and I had planned to visit Gaile House (the first time for me), staying in the house where Mary Max was born, and visiting the graveyard nearby where she is buried. We would have been joined too by one of my ‘new’ cousins who I’ve discovered through sharing her story. Sadly, the owners of Gaile House cancelled our booking due to a bereavement in their own family, so we’ve had to postpone our trip. At present, in late 2020, it’s impossible to say when we may be able to travel to Ireland again, but I hope that 2021 will bring better opportunities to use my new Irish passport, and that I can see for myself both where Mary Max lived, and where my own grandfather was born. My father who was a regular visitor there during his life, while his elderly cousin was still in residence, always had a dream of buying back Gaile and living there in his retirement, but as is so often the case, life got in the way. It was sold, and is now beautifully renovated and operating as a working stud and horse training centre, so it has certainly come into good hands.

Note to other Phillips descendants: if you are connected to this line, and would like to be put in touch with others researching the Phillips family, please contact me either via this website or my author’s site at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk. (use the Contact Form)

My great grandfather, Richard Augustus Phillips (1825-1894), standing on the steps at Gaile House with his son Samuel, my future great uncle.

Mary Max

This is the story of my 4 x Irish great grandmother, Mary Max, who was abducted and forced into marriage in1777, at the age of thirteen. She lived in the Max family home at Gaile House, County Tipperary, and was an heiress to a £40,000 estate, which was worth over £6,000,000 in today’s terms. Her father and brothers had all died in quick succession, so in 1777, as a young teenager, Mary was set to inherit the family fortune when she turned eighteen. Her only close relative was her mother and guardian, Joan Max.

At the time, abduction was rife in the heartlands of Ireland, and Mary was a tempting candidate. Bride-snatching had become almost acceptable as a way of securing a bride, and although it was a capital offence, the risk of conviction was low. The target was usually a girl who the prospective bridegroom thought would better his position, preferably with money or property, and of good social standing. He would then gather a band of supporters, often including friends and family members, and they would plot to seize her by force. Plans were audacious, with ambushes and even armed hold-ups. One episode on record involved locking the priest and the congregation in church while the raiding party singled out their chosen target from the worshippers!

Mary Max was abducted by Samuel Phillips of Kilkenny in August 1777. He was her first cousin-once-removed, who lived about forty miles away in the Phillips home of Foyle. The Phillips family had arrived in Ireland before 1600, possibly as Welsh immigrants, and as merchants they then rose through the ranks to produce a couple of Mayors of Kilkenny, marrying into moneyed or landed families such as the Despards along the way.

By the 18th century, the family had some land and money of their own, but not enough to satisfy them, it seems. And so a secret plan was made to grab the family fortune of the Maxes, their kinsmen, to add to their own. A raiding party was put together: Samuel Phillip, groom was then 21, and his supporters included his father Richard Phillips, who was a Magistrate and Justice of the Peace, his sister Frances, and, surprisingly, Dennis Meagher who was Mary’s uncle on her mother’s side.

Mary was snatched late one evening, as she was returning home from a ball. Samuel’s sister acted as the decoy, pretending to offer Mary a safe lift in her carriage back to her mother’s home. Instead, the coach sped away to Waterford, where the conspirators and prospective bridegroom were waiting. It sounds the stuff of a period drama movie, and it certainly caught the public attention at the time. Reports spread through the press like wildfire as the story unfolded.

The lands of Gaile, at the time when the estate still had hundreds of acres

One newspaper gossip column reported:

Letter from Dublin, dated Sept. 20: As I make no doubt but you will be curious to know in what manner Miss Max was carried off, I have collected such particulars as I could, and have sent them for your entertainment. Miss Max was at a ball, at which also was Mr. Philips, with whom she danced the evening. —The husband intended by her guardian was also one of the company; after the ball, Mr. Phillips’s sister walked with Miss Max towards the carriages, and prevailed her to accept of the use of theirs to set her down. All things having been previously concerted, Miss Max stepped into the post-chaise, and was drove directly to Waterford, where Philips, the young Lady, and assistants, embarked, and arrived safely in England, from whence they crossed over to France. Miss Max not being missed for above two hours, full time was given for eluding a search, which was afterwards made to no purpose. She is first cousin to her adventurous lover.

The current driveway to Gaile House, through what look like very old trees from the days of its estate

Newspapers around Britain went crazy for the story, and this particular ‘letter’ was republished in local papers from Kent to Newcastle.

From Waterford, the ‘wedding party’ went by boat to Wales, and then by road to Scotland. (All land transport was, of course, by horse and carriage in this era). A hue and cry was raised, and a magistrate’s militia was sent off in hot pursuit. At this point, the Phillips family’s first aim was to get Mary married off to Samuel, before the pursuers could intervene. Many such forced marriages were conducted in all sorts of shady ways, with little regard for the legitimacy of the priest. In Edinburgh, as we’re told by subsequent legal documents, Samuel procured a so-called clergyman, ‘a man of very indifferent character’. (In later years, he came to regret not finding a priest with better credentials, but only because he was worried that it might otherwise undermine his claim on Mary’s fortune!)

Mr and Mrs Phillips then hastened to travel south with their ‘wedding party’. But by then, there was a price on their heads: Mary’s mother offered a handsome reward for Mary’s safe return, and a bounty price to anyone who could hand over Samuel Phillips or his father to the law. Knowing little of the geography, Samuel’s troupe made a strenuous journey by side roads down to Brighton, at the time a small fishing village known as Brighthelmstone. En route, they stopped at Kingston, and asked if the sea was nearby! When they finally made it to Brighton, they then set sail for France. All but one of the party – Mary’s uncle- escaped across the Channel. He however was arrested and clapped in jail in Dublin. It was a close-run thing: according to one newspaper report the abduction party was chased right to the edge of the water.

Before the packet in which they sailed was lost out of sight, two of Sir John Fielding’s men arrived at Brighthelmstone, in pursuit of them, and offered any of the fishermen a large reward, that would give chase to the packet, and prevail on the Captain to steer back; but not one of them would attempt it.
(Hampshire Chronicle, 15 Sep 1777)

Print of Brighthelmstone in 1785, around the same time that Mary and Samuel sailed from here to France

It was reported that they made a successful landing at Dieppe and then headed for Paris. It was time to draw breath, perhaps. Within the space of a month, a thirteen-year-old girl had gone from living quietly with her widowed mother in rural Ireland, to being forcibly married to a cousin, and chased across four countries. But even in France they were not entirely out of reach of British law. As the Freeman’s Journal reported on Sep 25th 1777: ‘Application has been made by the English Ambassador at Paris to have the Phillipses who ran away with Miss Max delivered up if they could be found in the French dominions, and liberty given to have them transmitted to this kingdom to be tried for the felony.’

But before the law could finally catch up with them, Mary’s mother Joan made them an offer. She was desperate to get her daughter back, having lost her husband and both sons in quick succession. According to later legal reports, they stayed in Paris for some time, until the new year of 1778, when Samuel finally decided to bring his ‘bride’ home. On Dec 31st, 1777, Joan Max had formally withdrawn her offer of rewards for capturing the kidnappers. She withdrew her threat of prosecution too, and allowed Samuel to bring his under-age bride back to Gaile House, the Max family home.

Gaile House in 1913, which became the home of the Phillips family after Samuel married heiress Mary Max in 1777

Samuel Phillips now became head of the household in a dwelling that was most definitely superior to his father’s home at Foyle, Kilkenny, and he lost no time in using Mary’s money to make it even grander. He still however had to stand trial at Kilkenny Assizes for a hanging offence of abducting a minor, but as Joan Max refused to offer any evidence, he walked free. Though Samuel didn’t win hands down. Mary’s money and property was put in trust for her heirs, so he never had complete control of it. He did however secure Gaile house, which then became the Phillips’ family home for over 150 years after this. My grandfather, Richard Phillips, was born there, before emigrating to England, where my father was born. (Thanks to having an Irish-born grandparent, though, I have recently been able to obtain Irish citizenship and an Irish passport!)

The photos below, from my father’s colleciton, show the glory days of Gaile in the late 19th and early twentieth century – the hunt meeting, garden parties and bicycle races!

The hunt meeting at Gaile, 1885
Tea parties and what looks like a ‘doubles’ bicycle race on the lawn
My great grandfather, Richard Augustus Phillips, and his eldest son Samuel, standing on the steps at Gaile. Pets were popular, as we can see from this long lost Pet Cemetery in the grounds of the house.

Samuel Phillips and Mary Max, now Phillips, had three children: Richard, Joanna and Frances. (Richard and Samuel were names which were chosen in almost every Phillips generation). Then Mary died, aged only 26. Who knows what a toll the early marriage and childbirth had taken from her? She had her first child, Richard, when she was only sixteen years old.

The graveyard with view towards Gaile House, taken by my late cousin Robin Phillips, who also appears in the photo below on his ancestor-hunting journey in 2004, before the house was restored

But despite family papers and newspaper reports, we still don’t have the whole story. Was it a forced abduction, that ripped a young girl away from her mother, her only protector, and laid claim to Mary’s fortune? Or could it be that Mary and Samuel were indeed in love? Or, again, perhaps she was a headstrong young teenager with a thirst for an exciting adventure. The idea of running away might have seemed very romantic. They were not strangers; the families lived only forty miles apart and already knew each other well. At that period in history, thirteen was considered nearly ripe for marriage. But even for those times, she was still very young: although most Irish abductees were under the age of 21, very few indeed were as young as that. And it seems that Sam and Mary started sexual activity straightaway. One newspaper reports: ‘It appeared that when they left Ireland they sailed for and landed in Wales, that they crossed all England and made the best of their route to Scotland, where it is supposed young Phillips and Miss Max were married, as it also appeared they slept together at Kingston, and at Brighthelmstone.

As her direct descendant, I’d like to think that Mary and Samuel married for love. Or at least, that there was some romance, or sense of adventure on her side. Perhaps she was a catch in more ways than one – a couple of newspapers described Mary as ‘exceedingly beautiful’, though we have no surviving pictures of her to check this. One gossip column of the day suggested that the couple already had an ‘understanding’ and that when Mary’s relatives began to arrange a marriage for her to ‘a young Gentleman of a distinguished Family in Dublin’, Mary and Sam decided to secure their own marriage first. Nevertheless, would a thirteen-year old girl really understand what was in store for her?

More Phillips descendants visiting Gaile House, before it was renovated. Family lore has it that the Phillipses are tall and lean, that they love horses and are very untidy! My father always said that this fitted me very well.

My father was a keen genealogist, and he uncovered this story and pieced it together. I’ve added to it with the advantage of excellent internet tools now, and a rich trove of old newspaper reports available for searching online. And thus a tantalising, dramatic, but still mysterious story has unfolded, to which we will probably never have all the answers. One question is why Mary’s mother Joan dropped the prosecution, and accepted that her young daughter’s marriage? For that, there is a historical answer: studies from the period reveal that a girl was often regarded as ‘damaged goods’ once she had even been alone with a young man, let alone travelled abroad with him, and that she would henceforth be rejected as marriage material. Once a daughter had been abducted and married off, it was a fait accompli, and parents usually decided that a forced marriage was better than no marriage. And later reports do indicate that Mary and Sam did settle together quite happily, for the thirteen year period of their marriage.

The family lore which was passed down through the generations, doesn’t seem to include a strong sense of outrage or pity for Mary. My father, Ormonde Phillips, often talked to his ‘kinsman’ Jack Max, who still held some of the Max family papers about the legal side of the abduction, and he didn’t glean any indication from Jack that it was a blot on the family landscape. This isn’t conclusive, but does at least give a window of hope that Mary was not completely devastated by the event. The Max family, rather than the Phillipses, would surely be the ones to hold onto a grievance.

This Facebook video is a delightful sequence of a Connemara pony being put through its paces at Gaile today, which is now an equestrian centre for training and supplying sportshorses.

I’d like to honour my 4 x great grandmother by telling her story, and keeping its memory alive. Researching it has led me into a fascinating area of history, when the law in central Ireland was largely disregarded, and old clan ways still prevailed. I cannot help be somewhat uncomfortable, however, about the way my Phillips ancestors acquired their ‘forever’ home of Gaile House, Tipperary. Eventually, there was no one in the family suitable to take it on any more, and so it was sold. But from falling nearly derelict, it’s now under new ownership, and beautifully restored as an equestrian centre. The wheel of Fortune turns again.

Gaile House today

To the memories of Mary Max 17763-1789 and Samuel Phillips 1756-1816. I wish you could see how the family has grown today, and how splendid Gaile House looks once again!

Related Reading

The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland 1740-1840 – A. P. W. Malcomson (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2006)

Forcibly without Her Consent: Abductions in Ireland, 1700-1850 – Thomas P. Power (Universe, no date). My father contributed his Mary Max research to this book, which also contains a very good Bibliography

You may also be interested in other family history posts on Cherry’s Cache:

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

A Tale of Two Samplers

Relevant books by Cherry Gilchrist

The Soho Coffee Bar

Over the last few years, I’ve been looking into the history of the Soho coffee bar – a fascinating phenomenon in its own right. This post is adapted from one that I’ve written for Soho Tree, and here I’ve combined stories from two circles of people who frequented Soho at that time – the aspiring musicians, including the renowned folk singer Peggy Seeger, who I interviewed earlier this year, and the ‘seekers’ who became members of a Cabbala group, studying the mystical Tree of Life.

Soho in the Fifties
While most of Britain struggled through the dreary post-war years in the 1950s, Soho was a fermenting cauldron, a pageant of unusual characters, exotic food stores and exciting new art and music.

The fifties were a time of austerity, of punitive conventions, of a grey uniformity….Soho was the only area in London where the rules didn’t apply,’ (George Melly, critic and musician).

The cafes of the 1950s helped to define Soho itself. Tucked into the very heart of London, Soho had already been a melting pot of nationalities and cultures for a hundred years or more. But the arrival of the espresso bars there in the 1950s opened up a whole new phase of possibilities for meeting up, making music, and finding soulmates and allies.

Coffee itself had been in Soho for a long time – this company began in 1887 – but it was the Gaggia coffee machines, as above, which revolutionised how it was served up.

In keeping with various other Soho memoirs, I’m stretching the geographical boundaries a little. The café habitués of the time didn’t draw a hard line where Soho officially ended: people spilled across the Strand towards Charing Cross and up towards Covent Garden market when staking out their favourite haunts.

Music and Cabbala
Folksinger Peggy Seeger recalls fondly: ‘It was my playground. You could meet people there, get to know them in the street.’ In the 1950s, Peggy was a young woman who had recently arrived from America, a member of a prominent musical family – her brother was Pete Seeger – and was now in both a relationship and a performing duo with the Scottish folk singer Ewan McColl.

Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl, a song-writing and performing duo who were key figures in the British folk song revival, in the ’50s and ’60s

Peggy’s route through Soho took her mainly into the music clubs of the day, and the coffee bars which offered music. The Cabbala group, on the other hand, met primarily in cafes where you could focus on long discussions, while spinning out a cup of coffee. Although several members of this group were themselves musicians, and there was plenty of overlap between the two circles, you needed a somewhat quieter environment to tackle ‘the big questions’ of life. These were informal gatherings, the gateway to more intense, private group meetings for those who were interested in taking it further.

The 2 I’s was so-called because its original owners were brothers Freddy & Sammy Irani. Its tiny, 18″ stage was used by enthusiastic bands, and plenty of soon-to-be-famous musicians played there, including Cliff Richard and Joe Brown.

The Coffee revolution
Coffee was a prime mover in the Soho scene. Its influence began in the early ‘50s, when an Italian dentist came to the UK to sell revolutionary Gaggia coffee machines:

The coffee bar and espresso culture of the fifties…began in Soho, partly because of the large Italian community, and partly because Gaggia had their first British premises in Dean Street. Achille Gaggia invented the espresso machine…in Milan in 1946. Pino Riservato, an Italian dental technician, set up Riservato and Partners to import the machines to England, and in 1953 got Gina Lollobrigida to open the Moka Bar at 29 Frith Street, England’s first coffee bar, to show off his wares….’

Mr Gaggia’s shining machines transformed many traditional ‘caffs’ and Italian ‘greasy spoons’, which cut the grease and stodge from their menus and acquired a set of toughened glass cups and saucers (which not only looked modern, but also made sure that drinks soon got cold, discouraging those who wanted to linger all night over a single cup).

(Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London, Pip Granger)

This was probably the first taste of decent real coffee that anyone had enjoyed in the UK

Life in the Soho coffee bars – the first shot is ‘real’, the one below staged for the film ‘Beat Girl’. But in one sense, everyone visitng the cafes was ‘on stage’.

The Soho Crowd
For many, entering the Soho scene was primarily a chance to break free of stuffy rules and live on the wild side. Some had run away from home to be there, or it was their first taste of freedom after National Service, or an escape from a tedious job in a dull post-war town. It offered both the opportunity to seek out those who shared your interests, and also the chance to mix more widely with a fascinating variety of people, of all artistic, philosophical and sexual persuasions.

Soho was a wonderful mix of artists, writers, sculptors, many of whom had studios nearby,’ Peggy told me. ‘It was also sleazy – the prostitutes would stand in doorways, the phone booths were full of cards, which were often rather ‘poetic’ in their descriptions of what they offered. I would often go in and take the cards down!’ (Peggy was, and still is, a passionate feminist.)

Even when you had found your crowd, or your tribe, there was scope for making new friendships through a common interest in music; live rock and roll, skiffle, folk and blues were a key feature of many Soho coffee bars. Often a performing space was kept free for this, even though a band might have to squeeze in tightly!

How the film ‘Beat Girl’ portrayed the Soho cafe of the era

The Coffee Bar Scene
To set the scene for the Soho coffee bars, here is an extract from an internet memoir by ‘Goosey Anne’, (real name unknown):

I was living and working in London in the early 1950s and most of my leisure time was spent in the newly-opened coffee houses in and around Soho. These were the haunt of the bohemians – artists, writers, resting actors, musicians and characters closely followed by students, nurses and people like me who had a good day job but enjoyed their company in the evenings. It was a mainly harmless pursuit – we would meet at one given coffee bar and during the course of the evening make our way onto a couple of others. The new Gaggia coffee machines were installed in most of the places – huge, glistening chrome affairs that hissed steam into the air to mingle with the cigarette smoke, for nearly everyone smoked and the atmosphere was pretty fetid. Coffee cost 9d (old pence) and usually we would all make one cup each last all evening.

We would sit and talk and talk and talk – putting the world to rights. No drugs ever came my way and indeed had that happened I would have refused. I only knew two of the circle who took drugs – we actually felt sorry for them. Most evenings someone would bring a guitar along and another person bongo drums and a sing-song of mainly Folk Songs would begin. One particular coffee bar – The Gyre & Gimble had a resident guitarist – Dorian – who would play softly in the background and compose witty ditties about the customers which he would almost speak in his educated drawl as he played. In one place – Bunjies – one of our group composed a song which went something like this:

Sitting in Bunjies my heart began to throb – for one cappuccino would set me back a bob. And for a sandwich I’d have to sell my soul – for six weeks I’ve saved up to buy a sausage-roll‘.

The owner didn`t like that tune much and would threaten to throw us out. But it was mainly Folk Music with the odd Rugby song thrown in if the University students were about.’

It didn’t take long before the espresso bar began to find a place in popular culture

Why Coffee Bars?
One of the great advantages which coffee bars had over pubs – apart from serving good coffee!  – is that they could stay open later, as they weren’t subject to licensing laws. And anyone could go into a café, whereas there was a minimum age of 18 for drinking in pubs, and women often felt intimidated going into male-dominated pubs at the time. It also chimed in with the birth of the teenager, the time when this age group began to have opinions, fashions and music of its own. ‘The colourful informality of trattorias and the all-important coffee bars made Soho the Mecca of the newly discovered teenager.’ (Pip Granger)

The ‘50s coffee bars were not just a teenage haunt, however – members of the Cabbala Group were mostly in their mid to late twenties, for instance – and they appealed to a very wide cross-section of clientele, from shoppers and beatniks, to office workers and film crew.  Cinematographer Walter Lassally, for instance, whose story you can read here, found his way into this circle because he had to be in Soho on film business – most of the film companies had offices there.


No doubt the vices of Soho were feared by parents of teenage children, and by those who never dared to set foot in such a disreputable area. But, as Goosey-Anne says, drugs were not often on the agenda, and those who preferred strong drink chose the pubs instead. In fact, according to the film ‘Beat Girl’, the message among the teens themselves was that ‘drinking is for squares!’ (Beat Girl starred Adam Faith, the soon-to-be pop star, and its cinematographer was Walter Lassally.) The clip below features the theme tune by John Barry and shows the opening sequence, with a very young Oliver Reed jiving in a plaid shirt.

Nothing was really policed in Soho though – it wasn’t at all dangerous. And the prostitutes were cheerful – I had a lot of respect for them,’ Peggy told me. Keith Barnes, a ‘Group’ member, recollects that two of the ‘ladies of the streets’ once bought him a meal when he had no money to eat.

Despite the lurid posters, ‘Beat Girl’ is a rather charming film about the young cafe-goers of the day and mild encounters with strippers and gangsters.

Opening a Coffee Bar
Property was cheap to rent in Soho in the post-war period, so opening a coffee bar was a great little start-up business. In 1956, the humorous magazine Punch declared: ‘We have reached the stage where virtually the entire population of these islands goes in hourly danger of opening a coffee-bar.

Tony Hancock, one of Britain’s best-loved comedians, took this further. In one of his sketches, he and his mate cast around for a scheme which will make them a bit of money:

Hancocks Halfhour – The Espresso Bar (1956)
Tony: ‘When actors are not working, where do they hang around?…We are going to provide them with such a place! We are going to open an Espresso Coffee Bar!

Mate: ‘Oh no! We’re not the type

Tony: ‘No, but we can soon remedy that. Buy a couple of duffle coats, a pair of corduroys, rope sandals, grow our hair long – we’ll be a sensation!

Mate: ‘You don’t only get the layabouts in, you know. You get the youngsters, and the intellectual bohemians.

Tony: ‘Intellectual bohemians – I’ve watched ‘em. They’re all broke. They don’t buy anything.

Mate: ‘No, but the people who come in to look at them do!

So the coffee bar crowd not only drew the beatniks and the intellectuals, but also generated its own kind of tourist trade. Hancock goes on to envisage how the Guards officers would bring their debutante girlfriends to gawp and giggle, on a racy night out on the town!

Choosing the Image
Creating the right image for your coffee bar was of prime importance. A funky name went down well – perhaps something Italian or Spanish like Il Toro, or arty like The Picasso, or musical like Freight Train, or melodramatic like Heaven and Hell. (All these were successful Soho cafes.) Décor was important, but could be done cheaply. Popular finishes were murals (plenty of young hopeful artists to paint them for next to nothing), brick-patterned wallpaper– or just the real thing, bare bricks. Bamboo furniture and plastic tables were inexpensive, and imaginative recycled lighting helped to create atmosphere. Some cafes went further. As one blog comment put it: ‘At Le Macabre you could have your coffee on a coffin in a cobweb festooned house of horrors, wearing sunglasses at night whilst having earnest discussions about the difference between Jean Paul Sartre and Dizzy Gillespie.

Affirming your identity
Choosing your coffee bars went along with choosing your circle and affirming your identity. Keith Barnes, a core member of the early Cabbala Group, recalled that there were different circles in Soho. He was, as he put it, at the bottom in the beat circle, wearing his duffle coat and a sweater, and sporting a dirty beard. The musicians, he said, were a rung higher up the ladder as they were paid for what they did.

The Musicians of Soho
Keith himself played in the musicians’ cafes, and a number of his friends in the Cabbala Group did likewise – group leader Alan Bain busked with his piano accordion, and another group member called Fritz Felstone was in demand for his banjo playing, for instance. Because Soho overlapped with the theatres and cinemas of the Leicester Square area, there were plenty of queues outside these for the musicians to serenade. And the Musician’s Union had its offices nearby, where jobbing musicians could pick up work, perhaps in nightclubs or for session recordings. Soho was the nucleus of the music industry at the time, giving birth to British skiffle and rock and roll, and so it’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the prime musicians’ cafes was called the Nucleus, generally known as ‘the Nuke’. ‘The 2 Gs’, in John Adam Street was another, and a favourite of the Group. Its full name was the Gyre and Gimble, but according to Keith, ‘only the tourists called it that’.

Goosey Anne recounts: ‘Of course this music played in the coffee houses was the beginning of the Skiffle and later Rock `n Roll era which I just missed. Apparently Tommy Steele used to come into the Gyre & Gimble and play his guitar rather tunelessly and people would ask him to stop!

She is not the only one to refer to Tommy Steele’s first and rather awful efforts – one account witnesses somebody hitting Tommy to try and shut him up. But, like Tommy Steele (born Thomas Hicks – recently knighted as Sir Thomas Hicks!) a number of other musicians began their rise to fame from these early sessions in the clubs and cafes of the Soho area – Seeger and McColl, Diz Disley, Red Sullivan and Wiz Jones, for instance, along with members of the future Incredible String Band. A couple of years ago, when Rod Thorn (my co-author of Soho Tree) and I visited the Mexican basement café which once housed the 2 Gs, the waiter we encountered was astonished to learn that it had once been a famous café, where Tommy Steele had played!

Peggy Seeger’s musical relationship with Soho evolved too, and in the 1960s she and Ewan were principle members of The Ballad and Blues Club, near Soho Square. No doubt today’s Health and Safety would have clamped down: ‘It was an absolute fire trap,’ she told me. ‘The room was on the third floor with stairs so narrow that they had to have ‘going up’ times and ‘going down’ times. It was like climbing to the top of Notre Dame! And the room was only very small, and always crowded. The stage was next to the one tiny toilet.

Peggy Seeger, still performing today with a fresh array of new songs

The name you were known by
Nicknames were de rigeur, especially for musicians. Keith Barnes was known primarily as ‘Peanuts’, and Fritz was really called Brian. Alan Bain’s brother, Bob Bain, adds: ‘I recall Mum (desiring to speak with her “Bohemian” son) taking me to where he might be found which was probably Gyre and Gimble but when asking for Alan Bain there was seemingly a look of ‘Who?” followed by “Oh, you mean Max!“’

Did this habit have its roots in the jazz culture? A Wikipedia article takes it very seriously: ‘Nicknames are common among jazz musicians…Some of the most notable nicknames and stage names are listed here.’ There follows a list of well over one hundred names, including 16 musicians who chose to call themselves ‘Red’.

Jiving in Soho Square

Group Cafes
The gatherings of the Cabbala Group took place chiefly near Charing Cross, in the ‘2 Gs’ (Gyre and Gimble) in John Adam Street, the Cross, and the Florence in nearby Villiers St, with Lyons Corner House on the Strand playing a part too. It was possible to eat cheaply in some of them as well – getting a filling bowl of stew or pasta was essential. Few members were earning much, if anything. As member Lionel Bowen writes: ‘I spent a lot of time in the ‘Gyre and Gimble’ coffee house on John Adam Street close to Trafalgar Square. We drank espresso, played bad guitar and sang (poorly) folk songs. The elder members of the Group hung out there, I think, on the lookout for likely recruits.

A couple of members even lived on the premises – although rents were cheap at the time, it wasn’t always easy finding affordable accommodation, so keeping body and soul together took ingenuity. Group leader Alan Bain, who sold books, and member Norman Martin, a jeweller, rented an ‘office’ upstairs in the same building as the 2 Gs. However, they also used to sleep there; by day, the bedding was rolled away to hide the evidence of their overnight stays. But, Norman said, the landlord eventually twigged what was going on, and threw them out!

The building which once housed the Gyre & Gimble coffee bar,and the current restaurant in the basement space it occupied.

Micks All-Nighter
Another popular café was ‘Micks’ on Fleet Street. Although this wasn’t so much of a meeting place for the group, it was a welcome resource for all-night cheap eats, and was often frequented by Keith Barnes and Glyn Davies, another of the group’s leaders, after they’d put in long hours on menial jobs, such as washing up in hotels, in order to pay the rent. They weren’t the only ones earning a pound or two where they could. ‘You would often see quite famous musicians bombing along there in Ford vans driving at 70mph delivering newspapers – they took on these jobs because they couldn’t earn enough from their music.’

A former police officer, interviewed for ‘Spitalfields Life’, remembers it well from slightly later, in 1972:
Micks Cafe in Fleet St never had an apostrophe on the sign or acute accent on the ‘e.’ It was a cramped greasy spoon that opened twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. During the night and early morning it served print-workers, drunks returning from the West End and the occasional vagrant. Generally, we police did not use it. We might have been unwelcome because we would have stood out like a sore thumb. But I did observation in there in plain clothes sometimes. Micks Cafe was a place where virtually anything could be sourced, especially at night when nowhere else was open.’

Recollections of the café also pop up in Fleet Street memoirs:
Working through the night was thirsty work and John recalled how the ink-stained printers would rub shoulders with the ‘toffs’ on their way back from London nightlife, in a “Mick’s Café”, as part of the Fleet Street tradition.

Perhaps one of the few grainy images left of Mick’s Snack Bar, but most likely from a slightly later period. It looks as though an apostrophe has slipped in, in the meantime.

And for messenger boys, a special task awaited them at Micks: ‘First job at 8.00am was to go to Westminster Press and collect the day’s national papers, these were then checked for previous day’s publications, then came the most important job of the day, this was taking a large silver teapot down to Micks Cafe in Fleet Street and getting it filled with tea and also ordering toast for the Darkroom and Bench staff.A Day In The Life Of A Fleet Street Photo Press Agency -1960’s

Micks, though not strictly speaking part of the Soho scene, had the same mix of working people, musicians, eccentrics and high society. It also has a very special claim to fame as the all-night café featured in ‘The Streets of London’, by Ralph McTell. (This YouTube version has a fine set of photos and street scenes accompanying the song.)

The Mix
Other circles with esoteric interests met in the Soho coffee bars. As well as the Cabbala group I’ve come across mentions of a Mithraic order, Druids, and magical groups, and there was also a widespread interest in astrology. ‘Sun sign’ newspaper columns had appeared since the 1930s, and people were keen to know more about their horoscopes. Ernest Page, a homeless, eccentric and very accomplished astrologer, was usually to be found somewhere in Soho, where he read horoscopes for a modest sum, as well as generously instructing those who wanted to learn the art of astrology for themselves. He is recalled by various other Soho seekers of the era, as in this discussion forum:

I well remember Ernest, the elderly astrologer (well, I was early 20s) giving me a reading for the price of a coffee or two!

The astrologer was named Ernie Page an ex postman. Long grey hair, hunched shoulders and carrying a small suitcase with his astrology charts. He used to prefer Sam Widges’ Coffee bar to the 2Gs. He often kept company with a ladyboy prostitute called Angel.

Angel is featured in Pip Granger’s book Up West, as a transexual who braved the general intolerance of the times: ‘We were easygoing. We were an odd society of people, and when you say we were bohemians, in a way we were, and we were very broad-minded, so…Angel came down to my coffee bar a lot.’ (Interview with Soho dweller ‘Gary’.)

In the photo below, extracted from a short video on Soho Coffee Bars, Ernest discusses astrology with other key Cabbala group teachers Glyn Davies and Tony Potter. Their colleague Alan Bain acknowledges what an excellent teacher he was.

Ernest Page, centre, with Tony Potter on his left and Glyn Davies on his right. You can see the whole 8 mn film below, and the scene with the French cafe, Ironfoot Jack and then the astrologers is at around 5.10

By the mid-1960s, the Soho café culture was waning. I was keen to visit it as a teenager, however, on the rare occasions I was allowed to stay in London for a few days, as somehow its reputation had trickled through to Birmingham where I was at school. I remember seeking out ‘Les Cousins’, a famous café and music club. I was a keen folk singer and had brought my guitar, and sang a few songs to a very small cluster of people. Indeed, I wondered where the action was – but was quite glad there wasn’t more of an audience, as I forgot the words to one of my songs!

Soho in the 50s is a world I relish reading and hearing about – perhaps because it was the party that I just missed.

Early days, aged about 16 with guitar

References
The London Coffee Bar of the 1950s – Teenage occupation of an amateur space?, Dr Matthew Partington, (conference paper 2009, available to read or download on line)
Soho in the Fifties – Daniel Farson (Michael Joseph, 1987)
Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London– Pip Granger (Corgi, 2009)
The Surrender of Silence – The Memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, ed. Colin Stanley (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)
A complete and remastered version of ‘Beat Girl‘ (starring Adam Faith, filmed by Walter Lassally) can be found on Prime Video

Glimpses of the Tarot – 3

Temperance, Justice, and the Chariot (Line drawings by Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs)

With three Tarot cards in hand, it’s nearly always possible to see a dynamic between them. It’s possible to do a simple three-card reading, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs, because any combination of three Tarot symbols can be seen as a situation, formed by a triad of energies at work together. However, I did feel that this particular trio of cards, which turned up when I shuffled the pack, are especially close in their relationship: they are all to do with the balancing up of different forces, along with principles of fairness and even-handedness.

Temperance from the Nicolas Convers pack of 1761

TEMPERANCE no. 14
This winged figure offers a rainbow spectrum of possible meanings, rather like a prism of light shining in the spray of the waters, which she pours endlessly. The waters do indeed seem to flow eternally, in both directions; one of her messages is that our resources will stay fresh and renew themselves if we use them moderately, but generously. Creating the right kind of flow is everything.

This image goes back far in history: Temperance’s action of pouring is similar to that of certain Assyrian deities, who were shown in winged form, pouring divine water into a receptacle. Although the Tarot card of Temperance is not likely to have a direct link with this mythology, it could link indirectly through the Renaissance use of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which followed on from Assyrian culture. The winged figure suggests grace, and a benign, angelic presence from another realm, so that this symbol can represent being touched by something higher.

Temperance in an 18th c. Tarot from Bologna

In terms of cultural history, this card of Temperance represents one of the four cardinal virtues, and could of course be taken as a stern warning against too much self-indulgence. But earlier associated meanings include ‘temperament’, as the blending of four elements to make up a person’s type. Temperance in a Tarot reading may raise the question of balance and flow; are the energies flowing well, and are they being channelled correctly in a particular situation?

Temperance from the so-called Charles VI Tarot, probably not French, but Italian from Ferrara, in the 15th century

Winged Temperance was also called ‘The Angel of Time’ (the words ‘time’ and ‘temperance’ are connected through their Latin roots), whose swift beating wings may announce the fleeting passage of time in human life. So perhaps the card could also signify that it’s important to make good use of the time available to us.

Winged Temperance, or the Angel of Time, from a reproduction of the traditional Marseilles Tarot
The Chariot, from the Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

THE CHARIOT no. 7
Here we have drive, energy and movement. The crowned and armed youth rides in a triumphal car, a classical Roman emblem of victory. As a Tarot emblem it can signify achievement, and the overcoming of obstacles. ‘Onwards! Forwards!’ is the cry here.

There is also an allegory of duality, embodied in the harnessing of the two horses who have to move forwards together, two energies which must work in harmony. Otherwise, if they go in different directions, disaster follows, the chariot is overturned, and all is lost. In psychological terms, this represents control over our own emotional power. Feelings such as anger, desire and excitement make terrible masters but excellent servants. The driver must be the one to balance these energies out, and to train his horses to pull together and respond to his touch. But, as is often the case in Tarot, this card also poses a question. The driver does not seem to have reins. How, then, does he manage to steer and restrain his horses without this direct control ? Something to ponder, perhaps?

From an Italian 15th c. pack often inaccurately referred to as the French Charles VI Tarot

Plato portrayed the charioteer as an allegory of the human struggle, where we try to control a pair of horses who want to go in different directions; one is of finer breed, and represents our noble urges and impulse towards truth, while the other is a brute beast, fixated on selfish appetites. This classical reference might well have been understood by Renaissance owners of Tarot packs, though it was probably not the only source for the image.

Small Triumphal Car c. 1518, Albrecht Durer (Burgundian Wedding) Wikimedia Commons

Historically, too, the image has similarities to the triumphal chariots that were still used in processions or as allegorical emblems in early Renaissance times. One early Marseilles-style pack, known as the Vieville Tarot, and dating from 1650, shows sphinxes drawing the chariot. This is the only traditional pack that I have seen with sphinxes, but the idea was certainly carried forward into the 19th century Oswald Wirth pack, and incorporated into the influential Rider-Waite pack a couple of decades later. Digging a little deeper, I find that Renaissance mythic triumphal chariots were often portrayed being drawn by strange creatures, especially sphinxes, which were portrayed as part human, part lion, and symbolised the duality of Wisdom and Ignorance. This fits in well with the idea of self-mastery and the need to control opposing forces that the symbol of the Chariot implies.

The Vieville Chariot, drawn by Sphinx-like figures

JUSTICE no. 8
The figure of Justice is familiar to most of us. She is Iustitia, or ‘Lady Justice’, the Roman goddess, with upright sword and scales. In the most common image we have of Justice today, she is blindfolded, but in the Tarot card she is shown with her eyes open. This affirms that Tarot originated at least as early as medieval times, as the general image of Justice was not depicted blindfold until the fifteenth century.

Open-eyed Justice from the Italain Visconti-Sforza pack of the 15th century (modern reproduction as The Golden Tarot)

Justice, like Temperance, is one of the four Cardinal Virtues, a schema originating in Platonic thought and taken up by the Christian Church. Possibly Strength may double for Fortitude, and, as suggested in my earlier post, the High Priestess could serve as Prudence. However, Tarot is an extraordinary mix of images and concepts, and can’t be pinned down to a single allegorical or religious set of meanings. So although Justice is one of the more ‘straightforward’ images in the pack, it is worthy of further scrutiny, to penetrate its deeper meanings, and perceive implications that might not immediately be obvious.

Justice now shown blindfolded as one of the four Cardinal Virtues, from the manuscript of Le Roman de la Rose (Bibliotheque Nationale)
Justice in the early 18th c. Madenié pack

Although the principle is universal, each culture devises its own system of justice. Both in a tribe or a large nation, a person is required to know its laws, and infringement brings a penalty, or a requirement for restitution. Thus the balance of the scales is set to rights. The ways and means are decided by those acting locally in service to justice, whether in the imposing Law Courts of capital cities, or by a group of tribal elders deciding how many cattle the miscreant should pay to compensate the man he has wronged. In families too, parents act as enforcers of ‘Justice’, handing out rewards and withdrawing privileges, often battling with the growing child’s own very particular sense of what is ‘fair’, and what is not. Justice is not perfect; many who begin legal proceedings for justice eventually come to wish they had never started. So the Tarot Triumph may warn us not to invoke the goddess of Justice unless we are willing to let her do her work, whatever the result may be.

‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ Justice points to the pattern of cause and effect, and invites us to learn its laws.

The Marseilles Tarot image of Justice

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in:

Glimpses of the Tarot (1)

Glimpses of the Tarot (2)

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Meeting the Shaman in Siberia

In August, I featured posts about Russia, based on my travels and studies there. Here, we are back to Russia, but in a very different way. This story is from an unforgettable trip which I made to Siberia in 2004, travelling to the regions of Tuva and Khakassia. One of the most fascinating encounters that I had was with a traditional Siberian shaman, Herel. This is a shortened version of the article I originally wrote forQuest: The Journal of the Theosophical Society in America(Winter 2017).

Evening ritual by Herel and his wife at our yurt camp near Kyzyl

The first beats of the shaman’s drum were resounding, starting slowly but quickly mounting in intensity. I was transported, in spirit at least, back to Siberia from my home in Devon. But then came the sudden roar of a helicopter overhead, completely obliterating the sound I was listening to on the recording. I clicked on the pause button, and peered out of the window. A large army helicopter was circling right above me, barely skimming the rooftops of the town. Its presence felt incongruous, and menacing. But was it? Had I perhaps inadvertently invoked a shamanic presence, as I played the recording of the ritual in my study? After all, it is said that shamans can fly.

This particular recording was of a ritual that took place in 2004, in the far-off province of Tuva, Siberia. It was a consultation I had there with Herel, a local shaman. In fact, this was the first time I had ever played back the recording. I couldn’t bring myself to do so earlier –it might have seemed artificial, and dilute the experience while the power of that occasion still burned bright in my mind. But now, twelve years later, the time was right, and I was ready to listen and reflect. When the helicopter finally departed, as quickly as it had come, I immersed myself again in the drum beats and chanting. I sensed that I was sliding into a different world, eerie and disorientating in one way, but a place where reflection and calmness were also possible. However, the visceral sound of helicopter remained imprinted on my senses, a reminder that this meeting with the shaman had been a powerful experience, and one that, perhaps, was not quite over yet.

The yurt camp where we stayed, which had its own ‘spirit of place’ shrine, as did most sites in the area, including mountains and rivers

My own spiritual path has led me deep into the heart of the Western hermetic tradition – in particular Tree of Life Kabbalah, alchemy, Tarot and astrology. At the time of my trip to Siberia, I was certainly interested in shamanism, but in a cautious, anthropologically-orientated way. I was wary of the contemporary enthusiasm for taking up shamanism. This provoked questions for me: is it possible to practice shamanism in a modern Western context? Does it require its own traditional culture, for authenticity and indeed safety? Many serious studies of shamanism emphasise what sacrifice is required from true shamans. Physical ordeals, renunciation of normal life and exhausting, risky encounters with the spirits, are part of the job description, in the efforts to help and heal others.

In a traditional context too, the shamanic path is not one that you can choose on a whim. Usually the shaman shows signs from childhood that this is his or her potential destiny. Having a parent or relative may pre-dispose one to be a shaman, but this is not guaranteed. Herel told me that although both he and his wife were shamans, only one out of their five children was possibly a shaman in the making. The signs were there at her birth, as the weather changed dramatically, from thunder and lightning to sunshine and then snow. The heavens were pointing a finger to her ability, which was now manifesting in later childhood through significant dreams, and encounters with spirits.

Pictured in Tuva at the purported Centre of Asia, looking very much the Englishwoman abroad!

I came to Siberia seeking answers to my questions about shamanism: can it be practised, or truly experienced by anyone not of that traditional culture? I had no doubts about its power, only whether it could survive in a modern world, without losing its identity as a genuine spiritual practice. By 2004, I had visited Russia nearly sixty times. I ran a Russian arts and crafts business; I had studied Russian traditional folk culture, learnt the language and mixed freely with people in cities and countryside. But I was keen to find an even older culture, to witness practices which go back thousands of years, and which may be the source from which much Russian folk tradition itself has evolved. Siberia has a living, truly ancient culture; the majority of its people are ethnically different from Russians, and its primary religions are shamanism, and Buddhism.

I travelled with writer friend Lyn Webster-Wilde, visiting the fabled lands of Tuva and Khakassia, along with the Sayani Mountains. Our trip was an organised journey of exploration with a small group of Russian travellers. We went in the warm summer months, when the forests were in full leaf and mountain pastures were studded with alpine flowers. We traversed landscapes that had remained largely untouched since the Bronze Age, including sweeping grasslands studded with standing stones and stone circles, like an airbrushed version of the Wiltshire plains. In Khakassia, we saw Bronze Age carvings and pictograms on rocks still relevant to the customs of local people today –of the magic elk, for instance, who they say leads souls to the underworld. Shrines set up to spirits of the land were abundant, and ancient ceremonies of purification and healing were still carried out at important ritual points in the landscape. This was the landscape of shamanism in southern Siberia, that as far its people are concerned, is still a spiritual, magical terrain.

A shrine on a sacred mountain, and a kind of temporary wigwam set up by shamans who visit this place regularly for gatherings. My companion, Lyn, investigates.

When we arrived in Kyzil, the capital of Tuva, we were put up at a nearby yurt camp, and then taken into the town itself. Here there is a monument that, allegedly, marks the Centre of Asia. It is also home to the shamans ‘clinic’. This is where approved and regulated shamans are allowed to practice. It might sound contrary to the spirit of shamanism, with its allegiance to nature, to fires and skies and a freedom of movement. However, Tuvan shamanism is in recovery after brutal suppression by the Soviet regime– many shamans throughout the whole of Siberia were murdered or dispossessed. In that era, some were even thrown out of aeroplanes with the cruel taunt: ‘You shamans say you can fly! Let’s see you do it, then.’ The tradition was severely depleted, but it was not lost, and is making a strong comeback. To a certain extent, though, it still has to work in co-operation with the authorities, hence the ‘clinic’ set-up. And these shamans certainly practice outdoors as well. They have special gatherings at sacred mountain sites, and as we shall see, our shaman Herel came to our yurt camp with his wife the following evening to perform a ceremony of blessing.

The entrance to the ‘clinic’ in Kyzyl. Note the figure of the eagle on the pile of stones. (Stones are often heaped up to form a cairn, with its own significance.)

The consultation
From listening to the recording, from my notes written at the time, and from the vivid recollections that I still carry, I now offer an account of the session with Herel, the Tuvan shaman.

So now our group sits in Herel’s consulting room, which is filled with feathers, ribbons, ropes, bones, plaques, a reindeer head, a horn and bells. They hang from his walls, a chaotic clutter of ritual paraphernalia, rather in the way that strips of cloth or leather hang from the traditional shamanic costume itself. He shows us some of the tools of his trade, and how they work. His is a hard calling, he admits. His own speciality is purification and divination, whereas his wife specialises in healing women’s ailments.

Herel, explaining his practice

At the end of the talk, he asks if anyone would like to have a personal session with him. I alone say yes. I’ll pay the price he asks – higher for visitors than for locals, I’m sure, but he has to make a living, and I don’t begrudge it. Later, Ira our young guide tells me that from all the groups she has brought to this place, I am the only person who has ever opted for a private consultation. This surprises me, but she adds that Herel is the very best of the shamans she has encountered, and a man of compassion; some seem aggressive, and the quality, she implies, is variable.

Lyn and Ira stay. Ira needs to translate for me. I speak good Russian, but Herel’s accent is thick and guttural, as it is probably his second language. Lyn makes a recording, her earlier BBC training coming in handy.

Preparing for the session

Herel dons an eagle headdress and tells me to sit on a bear skin in the centre of the room. ‘Raise your hands,’ he says, as he passes burning juniper around my body. ‘While appealing to the spirits, I’ll ask them to take your worries and bad feelings out of you, and I’ll ask them to make your future road happy.’ He tells me to shut my eyes, and bids me not to be afraid. Let the tears come, he says. Tears often fall during an encounter with the spirits. And indeed they do. I am moved, and emotionally exposed during this session, though I am neither afraid nor unhappy. Herel dances around me, drumming and chanting, creating a kind of beehive of sound and movement around me. I feel that I am in a magical chamber, in a different dimension of space and reality.

The ritual is constantly changing. I have the impression that his chants and cries are a dialogue with the spirits, as they shift in tone and intensity. Phases of the session peak, and then fall away into silence. A new one is heralded by the blow of a conch shell, or jangling of bells. Suddenly, he thumps my shoulder with a bear paw – it’s a shock. Later, he pulls back my Tshirt and spits down the back my neck. Curiously, I don’t mind this a bit. He even uses a whip on me several times, but it is never painful. I write down later that this is ‘stimulating and pleasant’, rather like using a switch of birch leaves to beat your body in a Russian bath. At the end of each section, he blows away the psychic ‘debris’ and sends it out of the door. I am in a different time zone, and have no sense of how long the treatment lasts, although Lyn tells me later that it is about 15 minutes

He mentioned at the start of the session that I have an obstruction in my left shoulder. ‘You are worrying about something. I’ll take it out of you.’ Curiously, at this point I have had several years of problems with my right shoulder, and already recognise that is probably stress-related. I can see now that if one side of the body is numb with some emotional weight or obstruction, then it’s the other side that may take the strain and display the symptoms. After the session, Herel says that he has succeeded in asking the spirits to relieve me of this. Next year, he tells me, will be more normal, and that I will start to be happy again, after going through a little more personal suffering first.

We conclude with three measures of advice. He tells me that I may come again next year, if I wish. But if I don’t, I can connect to him at a distance; he is able to sense people he has treated, and can help if needs be. He gives me a ‘spirit bag’, a little bundle of cloth tied up with cord, and tells me that I should feed it three times a week with oil or melted butter. It is my talisman, to connect me to the power of the session, and I should take it with me if I am travelling or am away on business. He also advises me to contact the spirits of place where I live – the spirits of the hills, trees and streams. After this session, he says, I will be able to do this. That’s if I have such spirits in my homeland. (The aftermath, of how I endeavoured to put this into practice, is omitted here for reasons of length.)

The next day, Herel and his wife arrive at our yurt camp to conduct a ceremony to promote the well-being of everyone there. They come as the light begins to fade, preparing the space carefully, setting the fire and arranging little balls of dough to mark out the territory for the ritual. Once the fire is blazing, they don full costume and invite everyone to sit in a large circle. I am still bathed in my impressions from the day before, and the difference between the two occasions strikes me strongly. This one is open to all comers; it has resonance and power but not, to my mind, the concentrated force that I experienced in my session.

Herel’s wife, playing the traditional shamanic drum, wearing her cape of strips of cloth and what may be another eagle headdress

Herel and his wife are dealing with a big mix of people, from earnest Japanese tourists to young Australian surfers, since the camp is used by various travellers passing through the area. Some of them have never even heard of shamanism, and are nervous, or giggle loudly at this unfamiliar ritual. At one point, Herel passes around the backs of everyone in the circle, giving some of them a thump with his bear paw, though never as hard as he clouted me the day before. I wonder if they realise that they are actually being offered a precious nugget of healing, or blessing, or insight? I have a video of this ceremony though, and even viewing it ‘cold’, a long time later, it is compelling, and there is an unearthly quality to the chanting and singing of the shaman pair. I do not know exactly what the sounds mean, though it certainly sounds at times as though they are in conversation with spirits.

The ceremony under way

One study of shamanism mentions that Tuvan shamans simulate bird and animal calls to express particular emotions: that of a raven to curse an enemy, a cow to call up rain, a wolf or eagle to frighten people, a magpie to uncover a lie, a bull to demonstrate power, and a bear to convey rapture. (Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003) The horse has special properties in many branches of Siberian shamanism; it is a creature that can fly the shaman to the spirit world. The bear, hare and eagle are also particularly important in Tuvan shamanism.

I suspect that the eagle is Herel’s own spirit guide, although – understandably – he refuses to tell us what kind of creature it is. During my individual session with him, I ‘saw’ an eagle.
My notes say: ‘Just the head, neck and shoulders were visible. It was quite clear and communicating with me – intelligent.’

The eagle cloud appearing after the ceremony

When the ceremony ends, the mood is peaceful. The daylight has not quite gone and unexpectedly, the sky brightens and I look up to see a cloud in the shape of an eagle just overhead. Am I imagining it? No, it is there when I look on the video later. Curiously enough, this video will give me a lot of trouble; I discover that the original mini-tapes are jammed, and only after various professional companies refuse to try and repair them do I find one local man who is prepared to have a go. Luckily, he succeeds in transferring the whole recording to DVD. As I said at the beginning. strange things do happen when shamanic forces are in action.

On a lighter note, after the evening’s ceremony is over, I pick up some of the balls of dough used by the shamans, and take them back as souvenirs to the yurt that Lyn and I are sharing. I hang them in a cloth bag from the end of my bed, for want of anywhere better to put them. That night, I sleep peacefully. Lyn, however, is awake for hours, disturbed by the sound of a mouse that has detected the presence of tasty titbits and is trying all kinds of ways to reach the prize. Scuttlings, rustlings and chewings ruin her night’s sleep. The next morning, when we relate this light-hearedly, to one of our fellow Russian travellers, he takes it very seriously. ‘No, that was not a mouse!’ he pronounces solemnly. ‘That was a rival shaman come to steal the power of our shaman.’ A little far-fetched, perhaps? But there again, if I am claiming that an army helicopter might be a shaman in disguise, perhaps my ideas are no stranger than his.

Sunset at the Tuvan yurt camp

As is often the way, my initial questions about shamanism gave way to a different perspective on it. My trip to Siberia, rather than achieving solid answers, showed me that shamanism is a living tradition that cannot be completely pinned down. It is in essence a shape-shifter, and will ebb and flow, finding different forms in different cultures.

I have come to realise that such a development is more important than an anxiety about inappropriate use of shamanism in other cultures, or the blurring of boundaries and nomenclature in academic studies. As Tim Hodginkson, anthropologist and musician, and former student friend of mine at Cambridge, says in his excellent papers, (see link below and Related Reading, below) shamanism is itself improvisatory. It deals with the circumstances as they are; it responds to very particular configurations of place and time.

And each of us may discover something different within its practice. Meeting the shaman gave me not just insight into the tradition itself, but a very specific outcome: it invigorated three of my major passions: the power of music and sound, the power of nature, and the world of ancestry.

The shaman’s shelter at the sacred mountain

Related Reading
Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape, Cherry Gilchrist, Quest 2009 and e-book edition Lume 2019
Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats – Virlana Tkacz with Sayan Zhambalov and Wanda Phipps
Shamanic Voices: The Shaman as Seer, Poet and Healer, Joan Halifax E.P. Dutton, New York 1978
Shamanism: An Introduction, Margaret Stutley, Routledge, London 2003
Shamanism in Siberia, V. Dioszegi & M. Hoppal (editors), Akademiai Kiado, Budapest 1978
The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul, Piers Vitebsky, Duncan Baird, London 1995
Transcultural Collisions: Music and Shamanism in Siberia, Tim Hodgkinson. Paper given in 2007 at SOAS, London; available on Tim Hodgkinson’s website.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in ‘The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin’

Venetia, the Woman who Named Pluto

Pluto, photographed on the 2015 ‘flyby reconnaissance’ mission

How it began…

To: Professor Herbert Hall Turner, Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford

94 Banbury Road, Oxford
March 14th 1930

Dear Professor,
This new planet! As my older brother suggested the names of Deimos and Phobos for the Martian moons, I was set wondering about a name for the big obscure new baby at breakfast today. It is of course most dim and dark and gloomy. Blest if my little granddaughter Venetia Burney didn’t up and suggest a name which seems to me to be thoroughly suitable, PLUTO. I hope it hasn’t been bagged for an asteroid. He was king of the murky and mysterious nether kingdom. You see Odin was a bright god and far from appropriate; but Pluto is good. Don’t trouble to reply.
I am, sincerely yours
F. Madan

A visit to Epsom
On a chilly, dark evening in November 2005, I drove to Epsom in Surrey, to the house of Venetia Phair, nee Burney. A small and stocky lady opened the door, and greeted me with a warm smile. I proffered a bunch of purple irises, which she accepted with pleased surprise. Now 87 years old, and still sharp and alert, she was once the 11-year old who had suggested the name ‘Pluto’ for the newly-discovered planet in 1930.

I had been researching for an MA essay, on the topic of how planets and other astronomical bodies acquire their names. If I could find Venetia – if she was still alive – it would be a wonderful opportunity to hear a ‘naming’ story at first hand. After some investigation, I managed to track her down, and wrote to ask if I might visit.

Venetia on my visit in 2005, with her ‘Pluto’ album

‘This new planet!’
The discovery of the planet Pluto was a major event, as the furthest-known planet from the sun. There had been two ‘new planets’ in the previous 150 years – first, Sir William Herschel had identified Uranus in 1781, after millennia in which only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were known as fellow-planets in our solar system. This was followed by the discovery of Neptune in 1846. And then Pluto’s existence, already predicted from astronomical observations, was finally confirmed by Clyde Tompbaugh, at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona in 1930. Although all three discoveries were not single Eureka! moments, but the consequence of long periods of observations and analysis, nevertheless the actual moment of confirmation was hugely exciting to the world at large. In the case of Pluto, the race was now on to choose a name.

Instead of a suggestion from an august astronomer, it was, in fact, a little girl living in Oxford who named Pluto. What follows is extracted from Venetia’s own account of how it happened, as told to me that November evening. [square brackets are for my comments]

Venetia came from a family with close ties to education and academia. Her father had been much older than her mother. He was only in his fifties, though, when he died of complications following an operation, which came as a great shock to the family. Venetia was only six at the time of his death, and a few years later, at the time of Pluto’s discovery, she and her mother were living with her grandparents in Oxford.

Letters from Venetia’s grandfather, F. Madan, to Professor Henry Herbert Turner. Madan’s brother had named the Martian moons Deimos and Phobos, so there was already a family precedent.

Interview with Venetia

CG I’d love to hear from you, in your own words, what you remember of eventful day of March 14th 1930?

VP Yes of course. What happened was that the news of the discovery came out in the Times that morning, and I was at breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. We speculated, I suppose, and then I said, right off the top of my head, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’ And they thought it was quite a good idea.

Pluto, Roman god of the underworld, also known as Hades in Greek mythology, with his three-headed dog Cerberus

Her grandfather’s letters – preserved by Venetia in a special Pluto album – give a little more detail:

‘When I came down to breakfast as usual at 8am I saw the announcement in the Times and the Daily Mail of the discovery of a new planet beyond Neptune. My daughter Mrs (Ethel) Burney and her daughter Venetia, aged 11, were the only others at breakfast, and I at once said “What will be its name?” I thought of Odin, but did not like it. In a minute or two Venetia said, “It might be called Pluto.” The idea seemed good at once. She had learnt about the old Greek and Latin mythologies, and also the relative distances of the planets, at school.’

VP Anyway, I heard no more of it till about three months later.

CG Had you forgotten about it by then?

VP Oh, I think so! My grandfather [Falconer Madan] was a retired librarian from the Bodleian, and when he retired he had his special bay in the library, with all his interests, which were largely family history and Lewis Carroll. But he was a terrific person, really interested in everything. And he used to walk down to the Bodleian in the mornings and come home about teatime.

Bigland, Percy; Falconer Madan (1851-1935); Bodleian Libraries

Well, on the way to the Bodleian this time, he dropped a note in addressed to Professor Herbert Hall Turner. [He was director of the Director of the Radcliffe Observatory at Oxford ] But Professor Turner didn’t actually get it until the next day because he was up in London at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, trying to think of a name!

CG So they were debating it up there?

VP Oh, they were, yes. And anyway, the next day, my grandmother and grandfather told him they would pay for a telegram to the Lowell Observatory in America.

The telegram sent by Prof. Turner to the Lowell Observatory, Arizona

VP Professor Turner thought it was a good idea, and sent a telegram on our behalf. Of course, it was entirely the decision of Lowell Observatory what it was called. But there were some very fortunate things about the suggestion. I rather believe the name Pluto had been used for a comet which had failed to reappear when it should have. And they also liked the fact that Pl in Pluto tied in with P L for Percival Lowell [who had founded the Observatory specifically with the hope of discovering this planet]. So, the Observatory accepted the idea, and eventually said that as far as they knew, I was the first person to have suggested it.

CG Do you remember what prompted you to say Pluto?

VP Absolutely no idea! I suppose, knowing the names of the planets, and knowing a certain amount of mythology. We had in particular one rather good practical astronomy lesson [at school], which was to stand outside the university parks, and in the parks there is a wrought iron gate and it had a circle in it, which was roughly of a size that you could pretend was the sun, and we then took little bits of clay with us, and moulded them into shape, made them the appropriate size in relation to each other, and planted them out at the right relative distance for all the planets, at the right places. And by the time we got to Neptune we were at the other side of the parks, about a mile and a quarter away! So I do know roughly the relative size of the planets, even now.

It’s official! Pluto is named.

CG There have been some stories going round that there was some connection with the Walt Disney dog Pluto. When I looked up that on the Disney site it said the dog was named after the planet, not the other way round. Is that correct, do you think?

VP That is correct. Fortunately, yes. As far as the naming goes, though, most accounts are pretty idiotic. There’s a book called something like Brilliant Kids who made their Contribution to Science, and I am bracketed with people like Louis Braille, and the article is pure invention from start to finish.

CG Really?

VP Yes – they had the thesis that ‘you too might get to something if you work really hard.’ So I am portrayed as spending two or three days in the library…

CG Ah! So they didn’t want it to be a flash of intuition or inspiration?

VP Oh no, no! And then they said that I ‘went and told my father’, who’d been dead for five years! People tended to call me Plutonia after that!

CG Were you a bit of a local celebrity?

VP Hardly, I don’t think! My school enjoyed basking in it. And my grandfather handed me a five pound note, which was undreamed of wealth. He also gave the school a five pound note with which they bought a wind-up gramophone, and we had music appreciation lessons after that. But after Patrick Moore’s article, [he had written about Venetia in ‘The Naming of Pluto’, in the journal Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1984] the thing has slowly snowballed. The Americans got interested, and ever since, I’ve had interesting repercussions. There’s a school in Memphis, a private girls’ school, and one of their parents tracked me down. And I’ve got sixty-one letters from eight and nine year olds! Which were really great fun – they wanted to know my favourite colour, and did I like pets, and that sort of thing.

CG Are you still getting correspondence coming in now? Apart from people like me!

VP A certain amount. Have you been to the Leicester Space Centre? Because the chap who set it up was so interested in my having named Pluto, and tried to track me down. If he’d read the whole of Patrick Moore’s article, which he said he knew, he’d have found out that my [married] name was Phair and that I was living in Surrey. As it was, he started out from scratch, and he rang everybody he could find in the district of the name of Burney. There weren’t very many. And he then got into the local Oxford Mail. They had a big headline: ‘Venetia – Where are You?

The auditorium of the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium, at the Leicester Space Centre

Anyway, eventually he traced me, and after the Planetarium was opened, I was invited to see it, and it really was a royal visit. I know now just what it’s like to be the Queen! I was introduced to every single person of the staff, and photographed, and I had to sign autographs. And when it actually came to seeing the Planetarium show, all doors were shut so that nobody could come in, and they ushered us in at the back to choose our seats. Then they let everybody else in. And of course he had to announce that I was there –

CG And everyone turns and looks!

VP Yes. I had to stand up and wave. And finally, I was taken to the part devoted to Pluto, to see a life-size photograph of me, the usual photograph at the age of 11, on the wall, with various supporting photographs, and a description.

CG It’s also like being a pop star for a day.

VP Yes, it was quite shattering. And we returned with whole carrier bags full of souvenirs. It was quite fun.

Venetia’s contribution is picked up by Punch magazine

CG Going back to the time of naming Pluto, I read that one or two other astronomers who had also put in the suggestion of Pluto were a bit annoyed to be pipped to the post by a young girl. Did you hear anything about that yourself?

VP Well, I heard that two Cambridge undergraduates had suggested it the day after. And there was a little bit in Punch – ‘Cambridge young ladies must look to their laurels’.

CG The name of a planet is a really significant thing and affects our sense of the whole mythology of the planets. So some people say that the name of the planet which is chosen is actually the one acceptable to us at the time. [I have an interest in what might be called the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment.] Do you think in any way you were a spokesperson for a name that was ready to pop out?

VP I’m sure the name was ready to pop out. I could also say that I was very, very lucky. Being in the right place at the right time was what it came to, with the right relations. But I didn’t feel particularly a spokesperson. The name was just an idle suggestion. But the interest in it has gone up steadily.

Venetia in her home during my visit

CG I’d love to know just a little bit about your life since then. You were a teacher? Is that right?

VP Well, I started by training – it took me two goes to get into Cambridge. I went up to Newnham in 1938. I read Economics, actually, and then I took articles to become a chartered accountant, which I did during the war, in London. I passed the exams after three years, all quite fun because for the intermediate exam we were somewhere in the City, and we were going down under our desks at intervals [presumably because of air raid warnings]. I gave that up when I got married at the very end of 1947, and we came to live in Epsom. My husband taught at Epsom College, and when our son was at prep school, I got a chance of teaching at a small private school. History –swatted up the day before! I mean, I knew some history of course. I’d done my entrance exam in history to get into Newnham. Anyway, I did that until the school packed up, and then I saw a part-time job for an Economics teacher at Wallington Grammar School. Fortunately, economics hadn’t changed very much since I came down! So I did that until I retired in 1983, when I was 65.

CG Did you have a continuing interest in astronomy?

VP Well, only in the way that it is incredibly interesting to think of these enormous distances, and so on. And to go out and recognise a few constellations, that sort of thing. But the idea of learning spherical trigonometry or whatever…

CG One thing too many!

VP One thing too many, yes.

At the end of our talk, Venetia told me that although she’d been interviewed by journalists on many occasions, no one had ever brought her flowers before. We subsequently exchanged Christmas cards, and I was very sad when I heard a few years that she had died, in April 2009.

A painting of Irises by my husband, artist Robert Lee-Wade, similar to the bunch I offered to Venetia, which sealed our brief friendship

A space mission to Pluto was launched in 2006, and conducted a 6 month reconnaissance flyby in 2015. From the data and photos collected, much more information has come to light about the planet. I believe Venetia was invited to attend the launch, but at her advanced age it wasn’t a practical proposition.

A simple student guide to Pluto can be found on the NASA website here, and mentions Venetia in the account of its discovery.

But is Pluto still a planet?
Pluto’s status has been kicked around like a football over the last fifteen years or so, and is officially demoted to dwarf planet status. But some call it a ‘small planet’. In 2014: ‘The decision did not sit well with the public. Some amateur stargazers and some astronomers thought it rather arbitrary. As the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics put it in a press release, “a dwarf fruit tree is still a small fruit tree, and a dwarf hamster is still a small hamster.”’

The Pluto flyby reconnaissance, which took place over six months in 2015, after being launched in 2006

And recently, this Center held a debate and let the audience vote. ‘The result: “Pluto IS a planet.”’ . However, it seems the argument is still unresolved, with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine coming out strongly in favour of Pluto’s planethood. For astrologers, Pluto is most definitely a planet with its own symbolic meaning in our solar system, so I shall continue to credit Pluto with this status.

The Christmas card I received from Venetia. The large, well-proportioned but cosy family home, set against the vastness of the sky, seems to encapsulate her Oxford childhood home, and her place in the history of astronomy.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Glimpses of the Tarot – 2

An occasional series exploring images of the Tarot cards

This was actually the first trio of cards which I drew, but I decided it was a tough one to start with. So I’ll make it the second of my series on Tarot cards, and their imagery, history and meaning. The cards are the Star, the Hanged Man, and Death. And before you flinch at the mention of the last two, I have to say that this trio is one of the strongest grouping there can be in the Tarot to signify hope and new beginnings. The Star is indeed sometimes called ‘The Star of Hope’, the Hanged Man may in fact be choosing to turn his world upsidedown, and on the Death card there are signs of new beginnings as the old order breaks down and a new one simultaneously begins to grow. It’s a message we could all embrace.

The Star – from the Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

THE STAR (no. 17)
The Star is akin to Temperance, in that an angel in one and a naked girl in the other pour water from two jugs. But here the water is poured out, one jug pouring into the waters of what could be a river or lake, the other onto the ground. This is a card where nothing is kept back. Nakedness, openness, and giving forth characterise the figure of the Star. She can be interpreted as hope, generosity and healing. In addition, stars were often believed to be souls which had migrated from human life to the heavens, and the bird on the tree usually symbolises a messenger from the world of souls.

Tarot from Bologna, 18th c, reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan

It’s possible that this card could also be a sign of initiation, or an inner journey in the context of myth and tradition. The collection of myths surrounding the related goddesses Ishtar and Anahita from Babylonia and Iran carry a startling likeness to ‘The Star’. Ishtar is known as “The Star of Lamentation”; Anahita is the goddess of the heavenly waters that flow from the region of Venus among the stars. In one of the key myths, Ishtar travels to the centre of the underworld to fetch the water of life to restore her dead lover, Tammuz. She passes through seven gateways, leaving behind one jewel at each portal, until she arrives naked at the sacred pool. And in this underworld, the souls of the dead are represented by birds. Although it may be hard to find a direct historical link, such myths can have a resonance which finds its way into another form.

Other images of the Star may show an astronomer, or simply a maiden carrying a star symbol. These are on the left from the Jacques Vieville, pack, Paris 1650, a very early ‘Marseilles’ Tarot, and on the right, from a modern reproduction of the 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack.

Swiss Tarot pack, probably early 19th c.

The Star can thus symbolise the heart of the matter, where there is no further secrecy or pretence. Here, there is giving and receiving through the outpouring of living water. The Star gives all she has, without stinting. It may indeed be a hard journey to reach this point, but this is where hope is renewed.

Marseilles Tarot

DEATH (no. 13)
In many early Tarot packs, Death was not named. The act of naming might invoke his fearful presence, so it was safer to include him only as an image, along with his number, the so-called ‘unlucky’ thirteen. People were all too aware that the ‘grim reaper’ with his scythe could strike suddenly, and that he had no pity on those from any station in life. In the Middle Ages, images of Death were often shown as slaughtering the Pope or Emperor first, to make a point that those at the top of society were no more protected from his blow than the poor and humble. However, there was also entertainment value in Death; then as now, people liked to frighten themselves with the macabre, and the ‘Triumph of Death’ as a spectacle on the streets was a surprisingly popular part of street carnival celebrations.

An early Tarot emblem of ‘Death’ from the so-called French Charles VI Tarot, which is now designated as Italian, probably from the 15th c.

Death as a Tarot Trump has gained a bad reputation, unsurprisingly. But if we look more closely, we can see that in nearly all the different Tarot packs, the image shows new life springing from the earth around: heads, hands and plants poke up from the ground. Death promotes fertility, as withered plants and old bones break down and form compost. Nothing is lost, only transformed. We can hope for new growth in the future, even when matters seem bleak.

Tarot of Pierre Madenié, Dijon, 1709-1740

Death in a Tarot reading is very rarely an indication of physical human death. In the Fool’s Mirror layout which I describe in my book, all 22 Tarot Trumps are used – the situation they reveal depends upon their ordering and their relationship to each other. Plainly, Death could not mean literal death on every occasion, as it will always be there in the reading! It does imply change though, and bidding farewell to the familiar can be painful. But from this comes new growth.

A balanced and watchful Hanged Man – Le Pendu – from Nicolas Convers, Marseilles 1761

THE HANGED MAN (no 12)

The Hanged Man is not what he might at first appear to be – a criminal hanged, or a traitor suspended by his feet, according to the Italian custom. In nearly every Tarot version, he looks calm and happy, a man who is in control of what he’s doing.

There are historical accounts of acrobats and gymnasts who did tricks very like this, suspended from a rope or a pole. Sometimes they performed high up on the rooftops to entertain visiting dignitaries in Paris or London, astounding them with feats of balance and upside-down contortions. In modern times, an itinerant acrobat in France was spotted holding himself in just the same position as the Hanged Man of the Tarot.

A tiny image of male and female acrobats practising, one balancing upsidedown on a rope. From Comenius’ ‘Orbis Pictus’ 1658

And the ‘Tarlà’ Festival of Girona, still current in north eastern Spain, involves hanging a life-sized dummy dressed as a jester from a pole placed high across the street. He is said to commemorate the time of the Black Death, when citizens were confined to their quarters to sit out the plague. To relieve the fear and the tedium, a young acrobat, Tarlà, entertained them with displays of swinging and hanging from these poles.

The early ‘Charles VI’ Tarot (prob. 15th c.) card of the Hanged Man shows what is clearly an acrobat, using weights

So the Hanged Man may be someone who chooses to be upside-down, and has trained himself to do so. In this light, the main meaning of the card is skill and balance, and indicates a willingness to enter the world of topsy-turvy. The Hanged Man frees himself from conventions. He is also similar to a shaman on a vision quest, relinquishing normality to receive gifts of prophecy and healing, just as the Norse god Odin hung upside-down from the sacred world tree for nine days and nights, in order to acquire divine knowledge. Ideas of acrobat and shaman do combine well here, for both are entrusting themselves to a reversal. The acrobat must trust his training and the strength of the rope. The shaman goes willingly into the unknown, ready to be shaped by what he encounters there.

Jean Dodal, Lyon, early 18th c.

Tarot Triumphs – In 2016, my book Tarot Triumphs was published by Weiser, USA. This marked a very special moment in my life, as I first became interested in Tarot as a young student, way back in 1968. I spent time in the early ’70s researching its history, looking at historic packs held by the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and reading whatever I could lay my hands on. Over the years, I learned more about Tarot symbolism, and using it for divination, and became heir to an unusual system of reading the cards known now as ‘The Fool’s Mirror’. The chance to write this book was also an opportunity to explain this, and reveal my findings during what is now nearly a lifetime’s interest in these enigmatic and intriguing cards.

You may also be interested in: ‘Glimpses of the Tarot’ (part 1) and ‘The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Kabbalah: The Tree of Life Oracle is due for re-issue October 2020, so may be on sale shortly after this blog appears.

Hidden Topsham – Part Four

A glimpse of the town from the higher part of the River Exe

Upriver – the other end of town

To round off my current series of blogs about Topsham, I’d like to take you on a wander heading out of town up the river Exe, towards Exeter.

Sir Alex’s Walk
This riverside path is far less popular than the Goat Walk at the other end of Topsham. Perhaps the warning sign gives a clue as to why this should be.

Apparently, this wasn’t always the case. Even as late as 1968, D.M.Bradbeer wrote, ‘This pretty riverside walk is much frequented on fine summer evenings, when it is pleasant to loiter on the bank and watch the fishermen at work with their nets, and the sailing boats criss-crossing on the tide’.

The vista from the path today, however, is slashed by the M5 motorway bridge, and the fishermen are gone. Seine net fishing (stretching a net across the river) is now illegal, and in any case the practice had dwindled to a final few licensed boats as the salmon stocks had all but disappeared in the last twenty years. But the river bends, beds of rushes, overgrown landing stages, muddy creeks and boats in all stages of repair give this stretch of water an eerie charm. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how so many strollers ever did manage to walk along this narrow path, as it’s like navigating a narrow Devon lane where you need to keep an eye out for passing places.

Rats, robberies and the scenic route

Before we get to the path though, the walk first takes us down Ferry Road, passing the Recreation Ground on the left hand-side. With its children’s playground and open grassy spaces, the ‘Rec’ is well-used in a town which doesn’t have all that much public land for community use, apart from the Goat Walk fields which I described earlier. The Rec might look rather flat and featureless, and that’s because it is largely an artificial plot, created on land reclaimed from the marshes. This happened over the years by very pragmatic means, since the site was used as the town rubbish tip.

In his memoir, John Willings (b.1923) recalls how in his boyhood the site was still evolving and was certainly what we’d consider hazardous today. At one end there were the Lime Kilns where ‘children used to play in and out of the caves which, even when empty, had plenty of lime dust on the walls and floor’.

Lime kilns on Ferry Road, opposite what was Heywood’s Dock. These may be the ones that John Willing refers to. From ‘Topsham: The Historic Port of Exeter’, Peter D. Thomas (Topsham Museum)
‘The Old Lime Kilns near Topsham on the Exe’, painted by John White Abbott 1808 . One of the sets of kilns around the town, suitable for an artist’s choice of backdrop.
Below is another similar type of work, ‘The Lime Kilns near Topsham on the Exe, Lympstone and Exmouth in the Distance’ by William Traies (1789–1872)

I searched for more information about Topsham Lime Kilns, and lime kilns in general. There were several sets of kilns around the town, where limestone was calcinated at high temperatures to produce quick lime. This was used for making cement, and as a soil improver in agriculture. Stone-built kilns left to fade into gentle ruins appealed to artists of the 19th century, as a romantic backdrop, as these paintings show.

But they could also be the scene of high drama. On Nov 27 1908, The Western Times reported that a daring robbery had taken place at the Topsham lime kilns situated near the River Clyst. A young man, named Leonard Johns, who was employed at the Odam’s Manure Works nearby, had just been to the bank, and was walking back with a bag containing £35 for the payment of the company’s weekly wages. ‘His assailant sprang upon him suddenly from tunnel in the old kilns, and, throwing a sack over his head, stole the bag and made off on a cycle towards St Mary. Our picture shows the boy Johns with the bag, and a well-known amateur actor who, to enable the scene to be reconstructed, impersonated the character. The masked robber is still at large.’ Does this grainy photo perhaps show one of the earliest ‘Crimewatch’ re-constructions? Later, the empty bag was found under the bridge at Winslade Park.

A photo from the article of 1908 in the Western Times, perhaps rather daring for its day, in asking an actor to play the part of the wicked thief. (Retrieved from the British Newspaper Archive)

Returning to the lime kilns at Ferry Road, these would certainly have been a potential health and safety hazard for the children who played in them, both because of any residual heat and the very real possibility of the lime dust irritating or even burning the skin. The Wikipedia article which cites this risk also contains the surprising information that we may be eating it in our bread and cakes: ‘It is known as a food additive…as an acidity regulator, a flour treatment agent and as a leavener. It has E number E529.’

If Topsham children of the 1920s and 30s survived their encounter with the lime kilns, they could skip a little further along a rough track, (now the continuation of Ferry Road) to watch Mr. Punch Miller driving his horse and cart full of rubbish down to the tip several times a day, fulfilling his role as town dustman, and little by little building up the land which would become the playground of their future grandchildren.

In John Willing’s day, it was still very much a work in progress. Sport and rodents flourished together: ‘Enough of the wasteland at the “Rec” had been recovered, levelled and laid with turfs to provide a football pitch, which became waterlogged after every spring tide – and a part for swings and see-saws. Most of the area was still an ‘open’ dump where flocks of screeching gulls would pick at garbage and dozens of rats would scurry among the rusting tins and decaying waste. At one time the rats became so numerous that a hunt was organised which turned out to be a great sporting event for the town. The local fire brigade had been called in to pump water down the rat holes and flush out the rats who were than chased by packs of dogs and men and children armed with heavy sticks. Over 300 rats were killed…’

The path running along the river’s edge on the reclaimed land of the Recreation Ground today

At the end of the Rec and beyond what is now known as ‘the dog walking field’, Sir Alex’s Walk begins in earnest, winding its way past the gardens of the houses built on higher land in Riverside Road. This is where D. M. Bradbeer’s vision of a ‘pretty riverside walk’ begins to hold good.

The houses of Riverside Road, with an enviable view across the river

Again, John Willing lights up the less pretty realities when he recounts his cycle ride along the highest and narrowest section of the path. His father had given him a hand-me-down, heavy old bike, and John was determined to take it out on what was probably the most unsuitable track in the town for a trial run: ‘Being rather unsteady on my new acquisition I accidentally rode right over the edge and landed in the thick oozy mud – bike and all! I had to wade along the mud dragging my bike until the bank became low enough for me to clamber out. Covered from head to foot in the black stinking mud I dare not go back along the path where lots of people were taking their Sunday evening stroll…So I went on to the Newport fields and hid there until it became dark!’

The prevalence of mud, especially at low tide
Looking back towards the Lock Keeper’s Cottage, on the right. The river and the canal run in parallel down to Turf Locks about a mile further down

On the right Retreat House comes into view, a much more beautiful landmark than the motorway bridge which is now alarmingly close by. Retreat House is a grand mansion re-modelled in the early 1790s by Sir Alexander Hamilton, merchant and High Sheriff of Devon. Earlier in the 18th century, it had housed French prisoners taken in the Napoleonic Wars As you may guess, Sir Alex also gave his name to the walk. The name has been modified in popular use, and sometimes still appears on maps as ‘Serrallick’s Walk’. Sir Alex was apparently knighted simply for congratulating King George III on surviving an attack by a madwoman who tried to stab him.

The view of Retreat House from Sir Alex’s Walk. Apparently, it was intended that members of the public should be able to admire it as they passed.
The front facade, invisible from the riverside. (Estate Agency photograph)

Beyond here, it looks at one point as though the path ends in a sharp drop, but when you get closer, if the tide is low enough, you see a set of steep, muddy steps leading down to a concrete path which continues forward, skirting the Retreat Boatyard. This is a fully working yard with expert boatbuilders.

And this is as far as I’m going up the river today, although you can continue beyond the bridge, skirting the Newport Homes site and heading…well I don’t know how much further! One day I will find out.

From the Facebook page of Retreat Boatyard

Names of the River

I’d like to end though with a mention of the old names for parts of the river, which have their own mystique. These were used not so long ago by the seine-net fishermen, as useful markers, guides to the spots to be fished: Clock, Black Oar Hard, The Drain, Cupboard, and Ting Tong, for instance, refer to places further downstream, but perhaps there are corresponding names for this upper stretch of river too? Please do leave a comment if you know of any!

I’d particularly love to know where the name ‘Ting Tong’ comes from. There are Inner and Outer Ting Tong Lanes a few miles away in Budleigh Salterton, but I’ve found little clue about their origin, apart from the fact that Ting Tong means ‘a little crazy’ in Thai. Wikipedia suggests: Possibly related to Thing (assembly)#Viking_and_medieval_society’. I can’t see an assembly being held in or on the far side of River Exe, but who knows? My Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (excellent for Call My Bluff party games!) is silent on ‘Ting Tong’, but does have ‘Ting Tang’ as meaning ‘the saints-bell’. The ferry from Topsham across the Exe used to carry monks heading from Sherbourne Abbey to Buckfast Abbey and points west in medieval times. Ting Tong lies on the opposite side of the river from Topsham, not too far from the present ferry dock, so perhaps the monastic travellers would ring the bell to alert the ferryman when they needed a return ride?

Looking south across the river from the present ferry crossing point

References

A History Little Known: A Topsham Childhood of Yesteryear John Willing (1984)

For details of Retreat House: Topsham: An Account of its Streets and Buildings, Caroline Obussier & contributors (The Topsham Society, revised edition 1986)

River names and map in Talking About Topsham, Stories of the Town Recorded by Sarah Vernon (2007)

Topsham Museum is closed until Spring 2021, but offers an excellent ‘Walking Trail’ map, which you can download here. The Museum is staffed by knowledgeable volunteers who may be able to help with individual enquiries too, about the history of the town and its families.

All photos except illustrations, or where stated, are by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested to read:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham, Part One

Hidden Topsham, Part Two

Hidden Topsham, Part Three

Hidden Topsham – Part Three

This time, I’m going take us to some Topsham hot spots of hidden stories and unsolved puzzles, between the church and the riverside at Ferry Road. We’ll also meet two female saints who came to an unfortunate end, view some railings, and encounter some Topsham Cats.

Beast or Dragon?

The parish church of St Margaret’s set up high above the river’s edge has one of the best views in town, looking across the river to the Haldon Hills. It is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, which could indicate that the original donor had taken part in the Crusades, according to an archaeologist friend. The old Norman church was, however, largely demolished and rebuilt in the 1870s. A pamphlet circulated at the time offers compelling reasons in favour of this renovation, including: ‘Because it may improve the voice and lungs of the Vicar, and induce him to remain more at home and attend to the duties required of a Clergyman.’

The Font at St Margaret’s Church, Topsham, thought to be Norman, but could it be earlier?

But there is still one treasure inside the Church dating from early times – the ancient font. This has a mystery of its own: what are the symbols carved on it? Some say that they are a dragon and a moon, but ‘Historic England’ begs to differ slightly: ‘The Norman font has a circular bowl with big conical flutes, and on one side a large standing beast or dragon holding an apple (?) in its mouth.’ The question mark is theirs, not mine.

I put the question to the British Medieval History Facebook group, in 2018, along with a photo, and here are some highlights from the discussion that followed:

Debbie Worden
St Margaret of Antioch was supposed to have been swallowed by the devil in the shape of a dragon, wasn’t she? Thanks for the fab photo!

Cherry Gilchrist
Yes, you’re right – maybe it has something to do with Margaret’s ordeal by dragon-swallowing. Some nice images of her here.

Sara Bicknell
All of the images of St Margaret I can find show her coming out of the dragon, not going in. Unless, thinking on my feet, this is a lion….It’s got a mane…

Marcella Normanno
Poor dragon, he may not be the scariest or the most powerful, but fat… and a round object? Some people have no imagination.

Colin Torode put up a photo of the Topsham church seal, from the RAMM collection

The seal of St Margaret of Antioch, held at ‘RAMM’ Museum, Exeter


Colin wrote: ‘The seal of Topsham Church (in Exeter Museum) shows St Margaret of Antioch emerging from the Dragon. The dragon on the font is slightly strange, but it’s not that unusual to find dragons and other beasts on fonts – especially on early fonts. They could be telling a story or they might have an apotropaic function. It’s been noted that the area around fonts is often high in apotropaic marks, put there to ward off evil spirits. Fonts tended to be placed to the north of the church, near to the “devil’s door”, so it would be natural to decorate them with protective imagery.’

Susan Morrish
It looks slightly Viking influenced

Sara Bicknell
Further research dates the original church to Saxon times, I’m wondering if the carving might be preserved from even earlier. See, I looked up Norman lions (and dragons, I’m open minded) and it looks nothing like but it does have a chunky, late Saxon/Viking look about it, as I say. Please excuse my tenacity but I was an Anglo Saxon archaeological specialist in a previous existence.

Perhaps you might have something to add? Please submit your comments!

Samoa Terrace

Here’s an unassuming little plaque, placed almost out of view, high on a terrace of red-brick houses on Topsham’s High Street.

So how did this idyllic island, far away in the Pacific Ocean, give its name to a street in Topsham? The answer lies in guano, better known as bird poo! The terrace was built by John Potbury Cridland (1849-1930), who made his money by shipping tons of the ‘product’ from Samoa back to Britain.

Image of Samoa – where anthropologist Margaret Mead made a famous study of the love-life of the islanders, living in what seemed to be a peaceful and ideal community.

David Bewes, whose wife is a descendant of the Topsham Cridlands, tells the story of this man who had an unusual career:
John Potbury Cridland, (1849-1930) was born in Topsham. He started out as a mason, but then became a shipwright. However, in the 1871 census, he is listed as a ‘light keeper’ at Dungeness lighthouse in Kent, and is believed to have worked on a number of lighthouses before heading off to the islands of Samoa in the Pacific Ocean. Here he ran a guano business for some years, and also founded a Masonic Lodge. When he returned home, he started to build “Samoa Terrace” in Topsham. He had to stop building, though, when he ran out of money, so he returned to Samoa to generate more funds before returning to Topsham and finishing the terrace of about six houses.
(Email correspondence with Cherry Gilchrist)

Samoa Terrace, Topsham. The plaque naming the terrace is rarely spotted by passers-by

This article gives you the low-down on the properties of guano as a fertiliser, which was so prized that it went by the name “white gold.” In 1856, America even passed a law permitting itself to take over any unclaimed guano territory anywhere in the world. Who would have thought such a far away saga could have had a direct influence on the town of Topsham? Imports of guano were sometimes stored in warehouses in Topsham, which must have been a smelly business.

‘Johnny’ Cridland and the Goat Walk

John Potbury Cridland also wanted to re-shape the river foreshore at what is now the Goat Walk end of town. (Mentioned in Hidden Topsham Part Two.) ‘Mr Cridland’s Plan’ was for a four and a half acre recreational area, and he despised the alternative version of the raised river path, which we have today. He wrote indignantly to the Board of Trade in 1909:

‘The Shipbuilding trade having been destroyed here and there being no other works of any kind carried-on, the inhabitants are now trying to improve the town in order to attract visitors and to make it a residential centre.’ The plan for the path, he told, was absurd: ‘As a Freeholder and an inhabitant of Topsham I strongly object to this path being made. It would be an unsightly encumbrance on the foreshore and a laughing stock for all visitors to this town.’ (Letter in possession of David Bewes)

We can catch a glimpse of this plan in a photo from 1909, as a poster stuck up in a shop window. On it is written:
Mr Cridland’s Plan – The Improvement of Topsham – The rents of the Bowling Green Marshes will pay (for the) Improvement.

John Potbury Cridland is buried in Topsham Cemetery with other members of his family.

The Cridlands

John Potbury Cridland’s family has had a history of entrepreneurial development. When we moved into our house in Fore Street, we found this plaque propped against the ivy-covered garden wall, inscribed: ‘This part of Great Paradise rebuilt A. D. 1845 Richard Cridland’.

Richard Hunt Cridland (1788-1855) was John Potbury’s grandfather. He was born in Topsham as the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Cridland and (probably) Daniel Hunt. He was a mason, carpenter, joiner and also the parish sexton. He married Mary Wills and his own son Richard (one of their 11 children) became the father of John Potbury Cridland, of guano fame. Richard junior (John Potbury’s father) was also a stone mason and he became sexton in his turn, although there was a mild scandal when he took over the post:

Some excitement exists in our parish in consequence of the irregular appointment of the current sexton. It appears that Richard Cridland the elder vacated the office of sexton in 1838 and the church wardens and minister nominated and presented Richard Cridland the younger at the visitation – the appointment being vested in the parishioners by immemorial usage. This innovation having been discovered, the appointment has been set aside, and the election of sexton is fixed for Monday next, at 11 o’clock, there being two candidates for the office.
Western Times – Saturday 09 October 1841

However, to return to ‘Great Paradise’, Richard Hunt Cridland also built and bought up properties. Our house on Fore Street was one of them. It was originally a medieval cross-passage house, added to over the centuries and standing as one major dwelling until Cridland divided it up into three in 1845. They shaved off part of the magnificent Beer Stone fireplace (now in our sitting room) in order to squeeze in a central, tiny front door, which we’re tempted to nickname ‘The Needle’s Eye’. The name ‘Great Paradise’ (paradise originally means ‘garden’) may signify that the land was once held by an abbey, but we’ve yet to find any historical record of this.

Richard Hunt Cridland left a detailed and complex will in 1855, dividing up his property and cottages among family members. He also built workers’ cottages in Follett Road, then called Higher Passage.

‘A costly nest of vice’

Follett Road is our next stop. As our previous stroll down White Street showed, innocent exteriors may conceal notorius pasts. Here, the respectable white facades of Clara Place were intended to obliterate the traces of a far more disreputable building which once stood her. This was the town workhouse, institutions known mainly for their harsh treatment of paupers, but was condemned for immorality when its female inhabitants began to offer special services to to supplement their meagre means. It was described as ‘a costly nest of vice and dissipation’ by Robert Davy (Topsham: An Account of its Streets and Buildings). A local developer, William Clapp (an unfortunate name in the circumstances) finally pulled it down and rebuilt it, naming it ‘Clara Place’ after his most virtuous wife. Now it’s divided up, with charming cottages, with a central garden.

Jubilee Pier

Follow Follett Road down to Ferry Road, and turn left towards the Passage Inn and the Underway, where fishermen not so long ago hung their nets on the steep walls there to dry and be mended. The Underway today is a popular spot for people to sun themselves on the benches, picnic and even play chess.

Chess and a glass of wine on the Underway. Permission was kindly given by this couple for me to upload their photograph.

But there is also a small, sad feature which is partially hidden today. At low tide, stone footings are revealed in the mud.These are the remains of Jubilee Pier, a white painted wooden structure which was built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. However, its upkeep was neglected, and 1917 Tom Pym, a boy of 8, fell through some rotten boards and was drowned. The pier was pulled down shortly afterwards and never replaced.

Photos of Jubilee Pier, now completely destroyed

St Sidwell’s Railings

Back by the Passage Inn, near the ferry, you will see some handsome light blue iron railings, acting as the boundary of a riverside garden. For years, no one knew where these had come from. Now they’ve been traced St Sidwell’s Church in central Exeter, which was bombed into ruin in World War 2. According to Chips Barber, in Topsham Past and Present, these were ‘salvaged from the tip for a mere twenty pounds.’ You can see Sidwell’s initials ‘SS’ and a scythe pattern in the ironwork, shortly to be explained.

I knew nothing about Saint Sidwell(a), so I went into Exeter to find out more. Gary, a helpful manager at the St Sidwell’s café took me into the new Chapel, part of the modern St Sidwell’s Church and Community Centre. Here I marvelled at the bold modern window celebrating her life, and the two Victorian windows rescued from the bombing and beautifully restored. But who was Sidwell herself?

St Sidwell’s Church, Exeter: Victorian stained glass windows of St Sidwella, and the modern, large-scale chapel window celebrating her life

Sidwella (or Sativola) is Exeter’s very own saint. She too was beheaded like Margaret of Antioch who we met earlier. (Although Margaret came out of the dragon unharmed, her Roman captors still chopped her head off because she wouldn’t renounce her faith.) According to tradition, Sidwella was either Saxon or Celtic, living in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ after the Romans had left Britain. The story goes that she was the daughter of a rich local landowner, with a jealous stepmother who was determined to prevent Sidwella inheriting the wealth which she planned would come to her own children. The stepmother bribed a reaper in the hayfield to behead the innocent girl, which he did with his scythe (hence the symbol in the railings). Immediately, a spring of pure water bubbled up where her head fell. The water was discovered to have healing properties, and the well built around it was considered sacred. A cult of St Sidwell thus emerged in Exeter, around the site of the current church and the well itself, as people came on pilgrimage from far and wide for healing and worship.

So where is the well? After a couple of false starts, my trail led to the Pura Vida Café in – yes, I should have guessed it! – Well Street, close to Sidwell Street itself. Clare, the mother of the young proprietor, explained that they have had to board the well over as it was making the room too damp, but showed me photos of how it had looked. It’s still preserved under the black and white chequered flooring.

Photos shown to me at Pura Vida Cafe of stages of uncovering and recovering the sacred well

And, as it turned out, Clare is a Topsham lady who used to run Pebble House Nursery where my granddaughter spent many happy hours, so we had plenty more to talk about! Maybe all such trails, even outside the town, lead back to Topsham?

The Civil War

Across the road from St Sidwell’s railings, there is a steep bluff, and the land above this is thought to have been the site for the garrison camp during the Civil War. Exeter was under siege, and fighting was fierce at times in Topsham, with canons and guns in use. Topsham was defended by the Royalists, but a couple of years later, Cromwell’s army placed garrisons in the neighbourhood, and its leader Sir Thomas Fairfax stayed for two weeks in Topsham. The site itself had probably been a look-out since at least as early as Roman times – the current owners of Eleanor’s Bower where it’s situated have found many shards of Roman pottery there.

View from the Civil War garrison and look-out post, now part of Eleanor’s Bower garden (private)
Where a quiet cup of coffee is now enjoyed , anxious military commanders once kept watch and even fired at the enemy. (Eleanor’s Bower, private garden)

Topsham Cats

I’ve ended previous Hidden Topsham posts with ‘Topsham Fancies’; now it’s the turn of ‘Topsham Cats’. Cats, after all, do hide away for much of the time when there are strangers around. Here are three associated with Follett and Ferry Road.

The black and white cat near ‘Furlong’ paused only long enough on the railings for me to take a photograph.

The grey cat in Clara Place, also hoping that the railings would act like stems of long grass to hide her, was especially shy. I photographed her because someone in Topsham was missing a grey cat, and I hoped to reunite them, but this cat turned out to be a legitimate resident of Clara Place.

Finally, there is Cosmo. Cosmo is a cat of character and might well be related to ‘Six Dinner Sid’ of picture book fame. Rumour has it that he was originally abandoned when someone moved house on the Strand. He is well-known for loitering around the Strand and Monmouth Street, where he has been kept in food by various kind people over the years. (He was occupying a seat in the Museum Garden the other evening.)

However, he has also been taken in by two separate households on Follett Road, after presenting himself as starving and homeless at their back doors. Each household in turn fed him, made him comfortable, and offered him a forever home. However, after a week or two, Cosmo tired of life at the northern end of town, and returned to loitering back down south again. While I was taking this photo in Monmouth St a couple of months ago, a gentleman opened the door, and I explained that I already knew a little about Cosmo. His benefactor rolled his eyes, and said, ‘Yes, he certainly knows where to come.’

Cosmo recognises me now and if he’s feeling sociable, he’ll graciously allow me to stroke him a little, before re-asserting his independence. How do you tell him from another black cat? You’ll know if it’s Cosmo once he raises his chin, and reveals the tell-tale little splash of white on his chest. He’s old and bony now, but is still able to dash into the bushes when he hears a bird flutter there.

Arch rivals in the back gardens of Fore Street and Follett Road – our own black cat Zaq in a stand-off with Spot (who has now moved to Sweden, I’ve been told).

This has been the longest of my Hidden Topsham posts, and to ease the length of these narratives back again, the next will be a shortish stroll upriver to Retreat House.

You might also be interested in these earlier blogs about Topsham – just click on the link to open them:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home


This post is adapted from ‘The Russian House and the Craft of Living’ – Chapter Three in my book Russian Magic (first published as The Soul of Russia). It’s the last of the current series of posts about my travels to Russia and the culture that I became immersed in.

A house in the village of Kholui

The House as Microcosm
The traditional wooden Russian house (known as an izba) is a model of the universe, and a microcosm in its own right. Although the izba may look as though it only has a ground floor, closer investigation usually reveals a trapdoor in the ground floor leading to an underground cellar, and very often a ladder rising to an unheated attic room above. This symbolically embodies the three worlds of underworld, a human or middle world, and an upper world connecting it to the sky. The decoration use and lore of the Russian home is redolent with this symbolism, connecting it to Slavic myth, and the three vertical worlds represented in the ancient Russian Tree of Life.

The house, where many generations of a peasant family lived and died, was associated by its inhabitants with a small universe, connected innately with the world of nature and the Cosmos. Peace and harmony should be reigning in this well ordered world – once and forever.’ (Krasunov, p.12)

Everything in the traditional Russian house is charged with meaning. It is a vital living space laid out according to the rules of the cosmos, and in which certain rites should be carefully observed to keep it in good health as a home, and beneficial for the humans who live there.

My own house in the village of Khouli

The Human World of the Izba
As you enter the Russian home, you may have to stoop low as you pass through the doorway. This is deliberately done, so that anyone entering must show respect for the house, and in particular for the Red Corner, the sacred area of the home where the family icon is kept. Traditionally, the icon stands on a high wooden corner shelf, draped with an embroidered linen towel, and lit by a small votive lamp. In Orthodox culture, icons are not just religious images, but are considered to be holy objects, empowered in their own right as a gateway to the divine. The icon is also a charged symbol that represents the welfare of the family itself. In a TV interview, at the time of the Kursk submarine disaster in the year 2000, an old woman sobbed bitterly as she talked about her grandson, who was trapped at the bottom of the ocean: ‘The icon fell off the wall a few days ago,’ she sobbed. ‘That is a bad, bad sign.’

The Red Corner – typically, an icon placed opposite the entrance to the room, draped with an embroidered towel. Such towels were said to have the power to heal a sick person if used to wipe their face

The Red Corner, krasni ugol, is thus called because the colour red means ‘beautiful’ in Russian culture. The word krasni for red comes from the same root as the word for beautiful, krassivi. This is a pre-Christian Slavic tradition, and the ceremonial linen towels are embroidered in red as the colour is considered sacred, and represents not only beauty, but the force of life itself. Russia is known as the ‘country of two faiths’, and it is plain that there are few boundaries between the Christian and the indigenous Slavic symbolism in Russia. The same towel that may be embroidered with figures of the Mother Goddess, the tree of life, and sky spirits in the form of horses, is used to drape the family icon in the mark of deepest respect.

An old embroidered towel in my possession. The peackock symbolises the sky, as do the horses. The figure on the house is likely to be the old Mother Goddess
An icon of St Paraskeva, otherwise known as ‘Mother-Friday’, and associated with spinning and marriages. Her role resembles that of the old Slavic spinning goddesses, and she protects women but will punish them if they do not honour her festivals
Elijah the Prophet was also a suitable subject for a domestic icon, as he was closely linked to Perun, the old god of thunder and lightning, and it was best to keep on the right side of him

The Stove

The polarity of Christian and native religion also reveals itself in the layout of the room. Diagonally across from the Red Corner, is the place where the stove often stands, the pechka that is also known as ‘the Little Mother’. While the Orthodox icon guarantees a link with the heavenly rites of Byzantium, the stove is the elemental crucible of life itself. A Russian proverb, which literally translates as, ‘To dance from the stove’, means ‘To begin at the beginning’: the stove is the origin and the perpetuator of life. Without pechka, there is no life in the home; she is the source of warmth and comfort that may actually keep the family alive during the long Russian winters. The pechka is multi-purpose – not only is it used for heating the home and for cooking, but traditionally it was also the place for sleeping. The classic construction of the stove is as a large box shape, constructed out of brick with a plaster finish; its flat top, six feet or so below the ceiling, provides an excellent sleeping platform.

An old Russian house stove or ‘pechka’. This one is probably in a house set out now as a museum (Wikipedia creative commons)

The stove requires skill and patience to manage. In the village house that I owned in the same village of Kholui, I knew that I had to listen carefully when I was given instructions on how to light it, or my stays there in winter would be icy. The critical stage of the operation was to wait observantly for the time when the logs had burnt down, and the tiny, residual blue flames had been replaced by an orange glow. Only then was it safe to close the dampers, which would keep the heat in for another eight hours or so, the brick casing acting as a giant storage heater. Otherwise, deadly carbon monoxide can seep into the home, causing acute headaches or worse. I never did master the skills of drying mushrooms or making porridge overnight in the cooler ovens of the stove, but I learnt to respect the life and death powers of the ‘Little Mother’, and to love her gentle, penetrating warmth.

A village wedding: the scene is set in a traditional home with the table in front of the Red Corner, and the stove nearby (Fedoskino lacquer miniature)

Food and hospitality

The other key feature of the traditional living room is the dining table, and to sit there is to be ‘in the palm of God’, as the old saying expressively puts it. By tradition, it would be set under the Red Corner, and much of family life would be lived around this table. Food and hospitality is a crucial part of Russian culture, both rural and urban.

An antique samovar, one of a number which I collected and brought back to the UK

The samovar, or ‘self-boiler’ as the word translates, is also a key part of Russian hospitality. It is sometimes seen as another symbol of the mother, along with the pechka and the Matrioshka doll. Its comforting curves, its decorative and gleaming brass, nickel or silver finish, and its near-boundless supply of hot water, make it a natural centrepiece for the tea table. Traditional samovars, as opposed to modern electrical ones, are heated by means of lighting a bundle sticks or some charcoal in the central funnel, which then in turn heats up the water in the large outer chamber. The tea itself is made separately, in extra-strong quantities in a small teapot, which is then topped up with hot water from the samovar itself. Samovars are still popular, and large versions are often used in hotels and offices as well as at home. But as a friend told me:
The best kind of samovar is the kind that you light with charcoal and twigs, and add herbs to as well. You can sit outside in the garden, breathing in the fragrant steam and having a cup of tea every now and then; it is happiness that lasts for hours.’

The ceremony of ‘Bread and Salt’, on this occasion to welcome visitors arriving by boat

The best known ritual of hospitality in Russia is the welcoming ceremony known as ‘Bread and Salt’, khlebsol. A round loaf is used, in which a little hollow has been scooped out to hold a mound of salt; the loaf is placed on one of the long, embroidered linen towels, and offered to guests on arrival. Although the custom of Bread and Salt doesn’t take place on a regular basis these days, it is still often carried out at weddings, when the new bride enters the home of her mother-in-law.

Khokhloma wooden table ware and decorative panels is still popular in Russian homes today. The principal red, black and gold colours are said to relate to life, compassion and eternity.

The Underworld
After the bustling life on the ground floor of the house, the middle world, the descent into the cellar may seem dark and eerie. The cellar, or podpol, is a small room under the floor of the home, generally used as a place of storage, where root vegetables can be kept in a cool but even temperature through the winter, or jars of marinated salad and home-made apple juice left until they are needed. But in terms of traditional belief, it is known as the place of the ancestors, and the residence of the domavoi, or house spirit.

Domavoi, in one of his typical guises

Domavoi’s name comes from dom, the Russian word for house, and he is one of the tribe of Russian ‘nature spirits’. These characters are temperamental, elusive, and tricky to deal with. They are akin in many ways to the mischievous ‘elementals’ of the Western magical tradition, or to the pixies and sprites of Western folklore. A domavoi is actually associated with a family rather than a house, and any family that moves house may have a difficult time ahead if they do not persuade their domavoi to come with them. One tried and tested method is to coax him into a sack, carry the sack to the new abode and then quickly offer domavoi a plate of porridge to help him settle down. Another is to cut a thick slice of bread and place it under the stove in the new dwelling. It is important to invite domavoi to come with you; even if he is capricious, the family needs him to be there.

Although domavoi is commonly associated with the ancestors, and the cellar of the home, he also likes to sit in the stove, and sometimes in the attic. In general, it is considered unlucky to see domavoi, for this can presage a death in the household. If you do see him, he should not be addressed as domavoi, but more often as ‘master’ or ‘grandfather’.( In various traditions it is common to avoid calling a magical creature by its real name; in Russia the bear is often referred to as Mishka, an affectionate nickname, rather than by its proper name of Medved, or ‘honey knower’.) You need to know how to recognise domavoi too, as like most nature spirits, he can appear in various forms. He might appear in the shape of a tiny, wizened old man, covered in downy hair, or as a tall figure ‘black as coal’, or even as an animal or a bundle of hay.

Mishka the bear, for whom there is a mixture of respect and affection in Russian tradition. Here he is a bee hive, so that honey, which he loves, can be made inside him.

Is the belief in domavoi obsolete? Some Russians may well regard it as a quaint old folk belief, but to others the presence of spirits in the home and landscape is very real. On the island of Kiji, in the far north of Russia, I asked a woman from the regional city of Petrozavodsk what she thought about the domavoi. She answered me with great seriousness:

‘Every summer I come to work with tourists here, and I live alone in one of the old wooden houses. Oh yes, domavoi certainly exists. When I sit in this dark house at night, I sometimes hear a knocking, or I hear someone singing a melody. And even when I know the house is empty, I sense that there is someone upstairs. This is undoubtedly the domavoi.’

And a small post-script: I had just sat down to breakfast with my husband after writing this, when we were both startled to hear a loud knock come from the cupboard under the stairs. Thinking that one of the cats had got trapped in there, I opened the door to investigate. There was nothing to be seen. Except, perhaps, domavoi?

Here, Domavoi seems to be on good terms with the household cat. Cats are much liked as pets in Russia, and are considered to have magical powers themselves
A Russian woman demonstrating the art of spinning, in a folk museum

The Attic and The Upper World
Many Russian houses have an unheated attic room, used mostly in summer. It is often known as svetelka, a word associated with sunlight, and with the sun itself, which is considered to be the protector of the home. Its lofty position was said to be beneficial for young girls, and would help to guard their innocence. However, although unmarried sisters and their girlfriends might officially sit up here together to sew or spin, it was also the place for divination, especially in matters of love. Here they might unbraid their hair, an action which would loosen the bonds of the everyday world, and invite the powers of magic in. While their mothers believed them to be safely occupied with spinning and needlework, they would gaze into a mirror to see the faces of their future husbands, or tell fortunes by interpreting the shapes of melted wax dropped into a bowl of water.

Divination in a mirror, which was often carried out on the eve of special festivals
Girls telling their fortunes from floating candles. This scene is set in a living room rather than an attic. They have loosened their hair to release the spirits of the otherworld

Within living memory, the women’s tasks of spinning and weaving were key activities in country life, and discarded spindles, distaffs and spinning wheels can still readily be bought at flea markets. It was not only a practical occupation, but also symbolised the bringing of order and civilisation to the community.

The Spinner – an etching by B. Zabirokhim in my collection

Mokosh the old Slavic mother goddess played a particular role in relation to spinning, and another female household spirit called Kikimora presided over distaff and loom. Kikimora was quick to punish any women who did not put their spinning and needlework away tidily at the end of the day! She might, however, help out the diligent housewife by taking on some of her work at night.

Cantankerous Kikimora, the spirit of spinning

Distaffs were often highly decorated, painted in lively colours with human figures, animals, and geometric motifs.

A museum collection of distaffs (Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

The attic, therefore, could be a place both of light and innocence, and of magic. The sky world is related to the top part of the house, which is often decorated externally to reflect this. In the Volga region especially, the protruding end of the ridgepole is frequently fashioned into a form of a horse, known in Russian mythology as a sky creature. Symbols of the sun, such as cockerels or circles with rays around them, and those which signify heaven, like peacocks and bunches of grapes, are commonly found carved into the upper part of the house façade, and boards covering the ends of the roof beams are commonly known as ‘wings’.

Roof carving of peacocks and grapes preserved in a museum collection
The bathhouse, standing well away from the main house so as to prevent fire

The Bathhouse
The bathhouse has been an important part of Russian life since time immemorial, and the custom of weekly steam bathing in an extreme temperature was noted with surprise by early travellers to Russia, one of whom described it as ‘a veritable torment.’ Saturday night is the traditional Russian day for bathing, said to be a choice of day originated by the Vikings.

The bathhouse is a house in miniature, built out of wood with a pitched roof and its own small chimney. It usually stands apart from the izba to avoid the risk of fire. Water is heated in a copper in the lighted stove, and the art of bathing involves the skilful creation of steam to the required degree. There are various stages in the ritual, such as rinsing oneself with warm water and then lying on one of the wooden benches before engaging in the more intense process of steaming. Switches of birch twigs (venniki) are used for one person to flick or whip another with; the sensation is light and stimulating, and far from painful! There is a tradition that the birch should be cut in early summer, when at its most potent. The family whose bathhouse I used told me that they try to gather them around June 24th, the old Russian midsummer festival.

Here birches are also treated as ‘wishing trees’ – ribbons tied on to affirm a prayer or a wish. Birch branches are cut at midsummer to dry for use in the bathhouse.

The bathhouse is inextricably bound up with magic and divination. Any spell or charm is most potent when cast at midnight in the bathhouse. The role of the bathhouse is considered by some authorities to be that of a pagan temple relegated to this warm and steamy place after the old religion was displaced by the coming of Christianity. The rituals once carried out on the bride’s wedding eve were always conducted in the bathhouse. This was an occasion for women only, usually with just the bride’s girlfriends present, though sometimes with the male village sorcerer in attendance too. Girls hoping to marry would take away some of the bathing water to ensure their future luck.

The special properties of the birch are also reflected in the custom of decorating the church with branches or – as here – small birch trees around the time of the Trinity (Whitsun) festival

Playful versions of divination in the bathhouse for love still take place today. Girls set up a deliciously scary ritual, in which they go into the bathhouse one by one, into an atmosphere thick with steam, and feel around until they touch someone’s hand. The type of touch they encounter tells them what kind of husband they will marry– if it’s a hairy hand, he will be rich, if smooth then he will be poor, and if wet, he will certainly be a drunkard! In practice the game is often aided and abetted by the local boys, who enjoy taking a turn to hide in the bathhouse and frightening each of the girls in turn.

Bannik – another mischievous household spirit

The Bannik
The spirit of the bathhouse is known as the bannik. Like most Russian domestic spirits and nature spirits, he is a shape-shifter, who can change his appearance at will. For much of the time, he is not seen at all, since he owns a cap of invisibility, but he might appear in the form of a large black cat, or perhaps as an old man with a green beard. Bannik can also manifest as a heavy stone or a burning coal, so potentially he could be around in the bathhouse at any time, making it a place of menace, as he is bad-tempered, and brooks no breach of etiquette. Students working on Kiji Island (in the far north of Russia) during their summer break told me that they always treated bannik with great respect. One of their number, an intellectual young man who thought he knew better, refused to ask bannik’s permission to enter the bathhouse as required, and neglected to leave a little offering of soap or a fir twig for the bath spirit as is the accepted custom. The next time he entered the bathhouse, he tripped over, dropped his glasses, and trod on them by mistake. Stooping down to retrieve the now broken glasses, he stood up too abruptly and cracked his head on a low beam. Since then, his friends reported, he has always shown the proper respect to the spirit of the bathhouse.

Potent, risky, pagan, but also a great source of pleasure to almost every Russian today, the bathhouse retains its position in the heritage of Russian traditional culture and magic.

Another representation of Bannik, partly disguised by the birch leaf switches

Decoration of the House
There is an intense love of colour and decoration in Russia, and the country is rich in arts and crafts. Houses are often decorated on the outside with wooden carvings, and home owners compete with each other to create the finest of these. As well as symbols representing the sun or sky in the upper parts, there may be carvings of lions or mermaids to protect the home, birds to symbolise happiness, and beautiful descending panels of fretwork on the front wall, imitating the embroideries on the ceremonial linen towels.

The most prominent and typical decorative feature of the izba is the carving around the window: lacy fretwork window frames known as nalichniki, which incorporate a variety of motifs, often rosettes or floral designs, and sometimes even the Communist five-pointed star. As for the origin of this custom, one suggestion is that it is a way of protecting the home, by guarding the windows against the entry of evil spirits. The other is that it provided a beautiful framework for an unmarried daughter as she sat sewing at the window, ready to catch the eye of any eligible young man strolling by.

Girls wearing another form of decoration, garlands of autumn leaves, perhaps also to catch the eye of young men walking by. (St Petersburg)

Text and photographs © Cherry Gilchrist 2020

Related Reading

Gerhart, Genevra (1994) The Russian’s World, Holt, (Rhinehart & Winston, USA)
Fraser, Eugenie (1984) The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood (Corgi, UK)
Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia, (Indiana University Press)
Milner-Gulland, R. (1997) The Russians, (Blackwell, USA)
Billington, James H. (1970) The Icon and the Axe, (Vintage Books: Random House, New York)
Gaynor, Elizabeth & et al. Russian Houses, (Benedikt Taschen Verlag – no date).
Hilton, Alison (1995) Russian Folk Art (Indiana University Press)
Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc.)
Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod)
Rozhnova, P. (1992) A Russian Folk Calendar, (Novosti, Moscow)
Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight (Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)

Russian Magic – You will find much more detail about the Russian izba and traditional way of life, with folk customs, fairy tales and Slavic mythology, in my book Russian Magic, which is available in printed and electronic form .

The Legendary Art of the Russian Lacquer Miniature

The Story of the Golden Fish – Lacquer miniature from Kholui

This article was first published in the American magazine ‘Russian Life’in Nov/Dec 2001. It was based, at that point, on my nine years of travelling to and from Russia, investigating the art form, staying in the village of Kholui, and running Firebird Russian Arts in the UK. (A busy time!) Now, nineteen years later, of course much has changed. The Western market for buying lacquer miniatures has almost dried up, and many artists have switched to painting icons and commemorative panels, as this article in the New York Times illustrates. (NB – this otherwise excellent article is not always accurate on history or painting techniques!)

Everything about the history and style of the art form still stands, however. I hope that in time, the lacquer art painters will profit better from their creations, and find a market for the traditional boxes once again. One issue is the sheer time-consuming nature of creating them; as the Russian cost of living rises, and the differential between this and the West diminishes, it’s almost impossible for buyers to compensate the artists adequately for their skill and work. Money for commissioning icons, however, can be found more readily.

Please noteIt’s extremely hard to photograph Russian Lacquer Miniatures well, since they are tiny, shiny and convex! Any gleams on the photograph are from where the light is catching the lacquer polish.

Snowmaiden – the beautiful girl whose arrival heralds the winter snow, and who melts away at the first sign of spring. An older miniature from Kholui.

The article begins with an account of the scene that I described in my earlier post, ‘The Russian Diaries’.

The road to Kholui passes through stretches of open meadowland, brushing the edge of the forest, and traversing marshy tracts until it swings around the last sharp bend and meets the broad River Teza. This is the end of the road. The silver sign of the Firebird welcomes the occasional visitor. The fine, but crumbling, church singles the place out as one of historical importance. Substantial brick-built houses along the riverbank indicate that once rich merchants lived and traded here. The other houses in the village are traditional brightly-painted wooden izbas, with carved fretwork around the windows and eaves.

But this is no typical Russian village: of its 1800 inhabitants, 300 are artists. Kholui’s roots as an artistic community stretch back to the thirteenth century. For hundreds of years, it was also an important trading centre. And, along with three other villages – Palekh, Mstiora and Fedoskino, it is now home to a unique art form, the Russian Lacquer Miniature.

The quality of the Russian Lacquer Miniature is widely-known around the world, but even the average Russian knows very little about the art form. In Russian cities, cheaply-painted boxes are sold to tourists for a few dollars as ‘Lacquer Miniatures’, and in the States, many people erroneously call them ‘Palekh boxes’. Anyone can admire and enjoy a genuine lacquer miniature, but when you understand more about its history and the work that goes into it, then you truly begin to value it.

The history of the Russian Lacquer Miniature can be traced back to Russia’s ancient past, yet it is a comparably young art form. It looks timeless, but was only fully established as a genre in the 1920s and 30s. There are two distinct chapters in the history of lacquer miniatures.

In the 13th century, the village of Kholui, and its neighbours, Palekh and Mstiora, were icon-painting centres, founded by monks who fled the Suzdal area to escape the Tartar-Mongol invasion. They made their way into remote forested regions about a hundred miles to the east, where they established three separate settlements. Over the course of the centuries, these three villages trained generations of icon-painters. The names Palekh, Kholui and Mstiora became synonymous with schools of icon-painting, and their icons can often be found in museums and auctions today.

A Fedoskino box, with its lavish use of gold leaf paint: a scene from Ruslan and Ludmilla, the tale in verse by the poet Pushkin

The icon-trading attracted commerce and fairs and markets arose. Kholui, now the quietest of the lacquer miniature villages, was once the liveliest and probably the wealthiest. Major fairs were held there at least five times a year, with buyers and sellers arriving not only from far-flung corners of Russia, but from abroad. Cloth, furs, fish, ‘lubok’ prints and anything and everything was sold here, along with the icons. Drunkenness, merry-making and quarrels abounded. One deep pool on the edge of the village is still known as ‘Turk’s Lake’, into which, it is said, a Turkish trader was hastily tipped after one quarrel too many. Old coins are regularly dug up in Kholui gardens, and the fair still just about lives on in the memory of old folk, though it was suppressed in the 1930s.

An incredibly detailed miniature of Kholui Fair as it used to be in days of old, with all kinds of entertainment going on, and peddling of wares. Traders arrive by boat. Artist Viktor Malkov

The trade in icons fell into sharp decline at the end of the nineteenth century, partly because mass-produced printed icons were cheap and widely available. After 1917, religious painting was discouraged, putting the remaining icon-painters out of a job. Officially, icon-painting was now defunct. Unofficially, the tradition was carried on secretly; the former director of the Kholui lacquer miniature workshop said he used to tip off the artists when official visitors were coming, so that they could hide any icons in progress.

The second chapter in the evolution of the lacquer miniatures as an art form came after the Bolshevik Revolution. Dedicated artists who remained cast around for something into which to channel their talents. They tried painting carpets and china, without great success. Then, in Palekh, an artist called Ivan Golikov began to create the first lacquer miniatures. The miniature form actually sprang out of the icon tradition, since icons often contained a border of miniature paintings around a central subject.

Icon from Yaroslavl, with miniatures surrounding the subject, and a richly-ornamented, colourful style which was adopted by the Russian lacquer miniatures artists. This is St Paraskeva-Friday, a protectress of women and guardian of spinning and weaving traditions.

But now, instead of sacred themes, Golikov took the age-old legends and fairy tales of Russia for his subjects. He retained the use tempera, egg-based paints, and much of the icon style. In particular, the richly-coloured, gold-ornamented icons of Yaroslavl served as inspiration, their horses and chariots, robes and palaces already almost suggestive of fairy tales rather than religious themes. But, significantly, Golikov changed from using wood to lacquered papier mache as a base.

A classic Palekh image, with strong colours, a black bacground and fine gold leaf ornament. The heart-shaped box though is more unusual.

This is where Fedoskino, the fourth village comes into our story. Fedoskino artists argue that they were the first school of Russian lacquer miniature painting, since their workshop was originally set up in 1798. It was the brainchild of a merchant called Korobov, who realised that he could sell vast quantities of snuff boxes if he could make them both cheap and attractive. Many people could not afford the snuff boxes made of ivory, jade or other precious materials which were in vogue at the time. Using a process which he discovered in Germany, Korobov began to produce little boxes of papier mache. He employed artists to decorate them, and he finished them in lacquer to produce a very durable and attractive finish. Over the course of time, many other beautiful but functional types of boxes were produced, as tea caddies, card cases and so on. And, since Fedoskino lay just north of Moscow, it was well-placed to serve the fashion-conscious clientele of the city.

The Fedoskino artists painted in oils from the start, and took their style from mainstream art, which at that time in Russia was very similar to Western art. They did begin to introduce a distinctly Russian flavour however, painting troikas and village scenes, and girls in national costume. They also began to concentrate more and more on the quality of the painting itself; it was no longer enough just to decorate a box. The workshop, a highly successful venture, subsequently passed into the hands of the Lukutin family, and remained as such until it became a co-operative in 1910. It has always retained its distinctive style, which is also now often characterised by an underlay of mother of pearl, or gold leaf. This gives the miniature an iridescent sheen, and an inner glow, and is particularly effective for bringing to life snow scenes, sunlight, and silken draperies.

Fedoskino artists, because they use oil paints, can achieve high standards of portrait painting. An older Fedoskino miniature.
A mother of pearl underlay is created ahead of painting most of the miniature itself. The story of ‘The Flying Carpet’ – eventually, a Firebird will be painted in the cage the prince is carrying.

Back in Palekh in the 1920s, Golikov gathered a small group of artists around him, and this founding group set the Palekh style securely in place for succeeding generations. It is, not surprisingly, very iconic, with beautifully detailed faces, and elongated figures poised in dignified stances. It consists of vivid colours, often including brilliant reds or blues, but always used with restraint on a background of black lacquer.

All the lacquer miniature schools generally use black for the outside of the box, and red for the inside, though they paint over the black to a far greater degree than the Palekh artists. Red equals life and beauty in Russian colour symbolism, and the black expresses both the mystery and the sorrows of life. The black background helps the vivid miniature scenes appear as if they are floating in another dimension of time and space, drawing us into the intense world that they create. The gold of the delicate ornament, used to highlight detail and provide a decorative border, is a symbol of eternity. This trio of colours – red, black and gold – also forms the basis of colour in other Russian folk art too, especially in the lacquered wooden ware of Khokhloma.

Kholui and Mstiora followed Palekh into the painting of lacquer miniatures in the 1930s. There was some rivalry between the villages, as each was eager to define its own status, and over the course of the years all three villages have developed very distinctive styles and outlooks. Kholui is dynamic, colourful, relying on contrast and a depth of perspective, and it often contains superb natural detail. Kholui artists today show remarkable creativity, especially the talented 26 or so members of the Kholui Union of Artists. Mstiora style is dreamy, with delicate, carefully-graded colours, and usually all of the background is painted over. Mstiora style needs a different eye; there is often less detail than in Palekh or Kholui painting, but the overall effect is wonderfully harmonious.

An example of Mistora work, with fine architecture and muted colours
Mstiora artists also sometimes use a kind of celestial blue in their creations, based on the colouring of some of the old icons from the area.

So despite the early start in Fedoskino, the genre of the Russian lacquer miniature with its four schools only really came to birth in the middle of the twentieth century. It remains a very Russian art form at its heart, with subjects drawn from fairy tales, historical legends, Russian landscapes and architecture, and festivals and scenes from old village life. The artists meticulously research their themes, if they are not within living memory. Sometimes flowers, animals, portraits, and non-Russian themes are painted, often with stunning results – but stray too far or too often from the Russian flavour, and the art weakens.

The artists of this genre go through a thorough training lasting five years. Each of the four villages has its own art school, and outsiders are welcomed as well as children born and bred in the village. There is healthy competition for spaces, with about four or five applicants vying for each slot. In general, students do not pay tuition, though schools are beginning to offer a proportion of fee-paying places simply to survive. Students must show not only a talent for art, but also must also have excellent eyesight and good general health.

Artists at work: preparing tempera paint, painting, and completing fine gold ornament

Contrary to popular belief, the lacquer miniature artists’ eyesight does not typically deteriorate more than other adults, despite the fact that they carry out such incredibly detailed work. (Painting fine gold ornament is especially taxing and is done with the finest of brushes.) They are taught so well that they work more with mind and hand than with the eye .In fact, lacquer miniature artists prefer not to work with magnifying glasses, as they like to see the whole of their composition at once. But students don’t spend all their time in such concentrated work; they are also encouraged to work in charcoal, oils and watercolours, to draw from life, and to study the history of art as well. Much of their miniature training is acquired by copying from examples, so that they learn in a very disciplined and structured way. For their diploma, however, they must produce a completely original composition.

It is important to understand that lacquer art does not depend entirely upon original compositions. The word ‘copy’ often has negative connotations in Western minds. But this does not mean something slavish and mechanical; it is rather the chance to re-create the work of a master. This approach is common in Eastern art as well as in icon-painting, where the artist does not have to strive to be original. Some artists at the pinnacle of the profession only paint originals or ‘author’s works’ as they are described in Russian. Others will only ever paint existing subjects, drawing from a range of designs and repertoire. Altogether, this forms the body of the art, which has a life of its own and a strongly collective element. Even the most ‘original’ artists usually meet in council in their union or co-operative to discuss their works – and criticisms are certainly made, especially if other artists feel that new compositions are spoiling or weakening the tradition. Artists who leave and settle elsewhere are rarely able to keep up the quality of work; the members of the collective rely on each other, the spirit of the art, and indeed the ‘spirit of place’ of their village.

The Russian belief in nature spirits, or respect for the elements of nature, is strong. This is ‘Leshi’, the forest master, said to protect all the beasts and birds of the forest. Miniature by Pyotr Mityashin, Kholui
‘Vodayanoy’, the Lord of the Waters. Each river is said to have its own Vodyanoy. A miniature from Palekh

Some years ago, the Soviet government tried to artificially create a fifth centre of folk art in the industrial city of Lipetsk. Artists were tempted to re-settle there with promises of modern flats, bathrooms and running water (luxuries not available in the ‘izba’). Sadly, the experiment was a failure; nothing new or creative has emerged from Lipetsk, and it now turns out low quality miniatures for the tourist market. The artists who moved there could never return, and gradually they lost both their individual creativity and the vital link into the main body of the art.

The four lacquer miniature villages are all quite individual, set in beautiful countryside which is a source of inspiration to the artists. Intense sunsets, deep forests, spring floods, fall harvests and winter snows all fuel their imagination. The artists are rooted in the traditional life of the Russian countryside, with seasons for potato-planting and mushroom-gathering, berry picking and fishing. And, like most rural Russians, they have to make do for themselves, mending their homes and tending the vegetable plots. Women and men are both in the ranks of artists, sometimes even working as a husband and wife team, taking turns minding the children while the other one paints.

The Firebird – a popular subject for miniatures and in fairy stories. Above is an example from Kholui, and below is one from Palekh

Meanwhile, more than ten years after the lifting of state controls, lacquer miniature artists find the situation for selling their art to be quite fluid. Though some regret that they are no longer as financially secure as they were, most prefer the creative freedom: they are no longer tied to a production quota, and can work as and when they please.

The four original state-run studios, one for each village, still function in various disorganised stages of privatisation. Some artists work there on salary, while others are members of co-operatives or unions. Still others go it alone. Much depends upon their contacts, and the selling network that they find their way into. Thus, it is not always the best artists who are the richest.

The domestic market for this art form is weak, although recently record prices for lacquer miniatures have been extracted from tourists in St Petersburg. The plain fact is that most miniatures find their way West; in Russia, only corporate customers such as banks regularly buy them. Once, museums were queuing up to buy the best lacquer miniatures, and none of the real masterpieces ever left the country. Now the museums do not have the funds for such purposes, and Russians with money would rather buy consumer goods rather than art.

‘The Bell’s Story’ from Palekh
‘The Magic Flying Stove’ from Fedoskino

This dissolution of control over production brought other challenges as well. In Fedoskino and Palekh especially, artists have split into many groups, some of them now in a difficult relationship with one another. But on the whole, genuine aspiration and honesty is still at the heart of the tradition, and the studios still work with dogged persistence in extremely difficult market conditions. Each village has its own stupendously good museum, and exhibitions, celebrations and jubilees are common excuses to get together with artists and colleagues from the other lacquer centres and party at great length once the official speeches are over.

Young newly-qualified artists celebrating one of the anniversaries of Kholui as a lacquer miniature painting centre. The Firebird remains the main symbol of the village

It is worth noting that the making of the papier-maché and the lacquering and polishing of finished work is actually not done by the individual artists. Rather, it is done by another team of craftsmen, who are skilled, but who do not enjoy the status level of the artists. It is an interesting process in its own right, involving just the right type of cardboard, from which the papier-maché is made, the ‘slow-cooking’ of the papier-maché for two or three months, and painstaking lacquering and polishing. Three or four coats of lacquer are applied before the artist begins painting the miniature. Afterwards, between seven and twelve coats must be applied, and each one dried and polished to achieve the right finish. The lacquer has to be made to just the right formula; untrained city artists producing ‘souvenir’ boxes often slap on a couple of coats of floor varnish, and hope for the best. This will usually crack up within a couple of years, whereas properly lacquered works will survive, with only a little dulling, for centuries.

Above: making and lacquering the papier-mache boxes

No genuine lacquer miniature is complete in less than three months from start to finish, and many will take a year or more. The simplest design will take the artist several days to paint; the most complex more than twelve months.

Polishing the finished box on a velvet-covered electric wheel. Great care must be taken, as the artist’s painting is already on the lid of the box!

As the basis for the lacquer miniature, the traditional form of the box is still the most popular. Yet, as the art became finer and finer, so the utility of the box was largely forgotten, and the miniatures became collectors’ items in their own right. Although the art of the miniature is the main focus, a miniature on a box is still evocative, like an exquisite treasure chest. Some of the old functional shapes have been retained, such as the ‘inkwell’ and ‘cigarette case’, but for decorative interest only. Artists often paint plaques and panels as well, and brooches have gained in popularity in recent years. They also occasionally paint wall panels and frescoes – on a completely different scale of course – and lovely examples of these can be seen in the restaurant in Palekh, and in the children’s home in Mstiora.

Artists sometimes paint murals and panels too. This is an example from the children’s home in Mstiora

It is often asked whether there is a Persian or Moghul influence in the miniatures. The artists themselves deny this, and it is more likely that there is a slight similarity of style, simply because of painting lively scenes on a small scale in vivid colours. Once at a British art exhibition, Uzbeki miniaturists were painting in the next tent to Russian lacquer miniature artists. A British interpreter was getting very heated as she defended her Uzbeki artists against the supposed crimes of their ‘thieving’ former overlords, claiming that those Russians next door had ‘stolen’ the tradition from the Uzbeks. The Uzbeki Minister of Culture, who happened to be present, gently put her right. He noted that they had actually sent some of their own Uzbeki artists to Palekh to train in miniature painting and production, having lost their own indigenous tradition some time back. With the help of this input from Russian artists, they are now trying to re-create their own style using Russian technique as a basis.

The creative potential of the Russian Lacquer Miniature can be tapped in unexpected ways. But at its heart, it remains a uniquely Russian art form, its little boxes dispatched across the globe as messengers from the soul of Russia, carriers of her magical tales and traditions.

‘On the Riverbank’ from Palekh

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist