As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere progress through the darkest days of the year, we may perhaps find ourselves more affected by the power of poetry. Words resonate when we’re not so distracted by bright light and busy lives outside. And there’s long been a tradition for writers, scholars and mystics to seek inspiration in the middle of the night. The medieval mystical Kabbalistic texts compiled in the book known as the Zohar emphasise that at midnight, God enters the Garden of Eden, and at this point the trees sing, and the angels can be heard. Those seeking ‘a whisper from the school of knowledge’ should arise from their beds at midnight, to pray and study. (We have to assume that they went to bed a lot earlier than we tend to do nowadays!)
An ancient Irish poem is set in just this context, that of a monk writing and studying in the depths of night. It comes from the 9th century, and although the monk was Irish, he was at that time located in a monastery named Reichnau, in what is present-day Austria. At this period, the Irish, especially the monks and scholars, were great travellers, and also often had to move abroad to escape Viking raids in theire homeland.
As the fame of Irish scholarship grew, Irish teachers and thinkers were also invited to join centres of learning at schools established in royal and aristocratic courts and large monasteries, so that by the ninth century, the German monk and scholar, Walafrid Strabo remarked: ‘The Irish nation, with whom the custom of travelling into foreign parts has now become almost second nature’ Book of Kells ‘Future Learn’ course, Trinity College, Dublin
This monk’s notebook shows that he was working on a variety of classical and theological texts, but the poem itself is about his relationship with his cat, Pangur Ban. Both have particular tasks to perform at night; both find their ‘bliss’ in these, whether writing or catching mice. ‘Ban’ means ‘white, and ‘Pangur’ means ‘fuller’, in the sense of part of the process of making and cleaning cloth. So the best guess is that he had a cat with soft white fur. And indeed, a good number of the medieval illustrations of cats show ones which are white in colour.
There were also ginger cats, preferred by the Vikings, often taken on board ship; their descendants are still found around the Mediterranean, and DNA proves their Scandinavian origin. Spotted cats, tabbies, grey and black ones were also prevalent.
Pangur Ban is a touching, intimate poem that astonished me when I came across it a few years ago, and this small miracle still tugs at my heart strings. I’m guessing the anonymous monk would be astonished too, to see how much his verses are valued over a thousand years later. W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney have both produced striking translations from the Irish, and Samuel Barber has set it to music (see link below). But I prefer this simple, poignant version by Robin Flower.
The scholar and his cat, Pangur Bán
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
'Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
You can hear the first verse spoken in the ancient Irish in this recording.
And the Samuel Barber song, titled ‘The Monk and his Cat’, is performed beautifully here by Barbara Bonney.
Cats in ancient Ireland I first met Pangur Ban and became hooked on Old Irish Cats in a ‘Future Learn’ course on the Book of Kells, which is kept at Trinity College, Dublin. (You can read the relevant section and it’s free to join the rolling course.) . Here I learned that cats were valued in early medieval Ireland, not just as treasured companions, but as useful members of the household. They were accorded legal status: ‘Domestic cats were a high-status possession, owned principally by the elite. Such was their value, that there was an entire set of laws, the Catslechtae (‘cat-sections’) outlining the fines attached to the stealing, injuring or killing a person’s cat. Penalties differed according to the talents of the cat in question. For example, a cat was worth three cows if able to purr and keep its owner’s house, grain store and kiln free of mice, but only half that if was just good at purring.’
This is a description of some of the categories of cat enshrined in old Irish law: Ameone is ‘a mighty cat that mews’. Aicrúipnei is also a ‘mighty cat’. but ‘by virtue of its paw’. Ie, a good swiper of rodents. It is ‘a cat of barn and mill and drying-kiln, which is guarding all three’. Breonei is a female cat who purrs and protects – or may utter ‘an inarticulate cry’, and her value is greater if her purring is loud. Meone is ‘a pantry cat’, catching mice and rats which might steal the food. Her value seems high at two cows, if she’s good at her job. Otherwise, one cow. Abaircne is said to be ‘a cat for women’, ‘a strong one brought from the ship of Bresal Brecc in which are white-breasted black cats.’ Folum ‘is a cat who herds, who is kept with the cows in the enclosure.’ Last but not least, we have Rincne, ‘a children’s cat’, thus described because ‘it torments the small children, or the children torment it.’
Medieval Cats Cats were also appreciated in mainland Britain, and it’s known that a number of monks and ‘anchoresses’ (a type of female hermit) were sometimes permitted to have a cat as a companion. There were also stern warnings that they should not get too attached to the animal! (I am sure that this was ignored, even if an appearance of indifference was kept up.) Although there were some very cruel customs in earlier society involving cats, which I won’t go into here, it’s clear that in general, cats were not only useful members of the household in catching rats and mice, but provided companionship and solace to their human keepers.
Just occasionally, cats were paid a salary! In Exeter Cathedral today, one of the most popular features for visitors to spy is the medieval cat hole, as you can see below. This is in the door leading to the works of the famous astronomical clock; its ropes would have been greased, and the grease would have attracted vermin. Hence it was important that the Cathedral Cat should be able to hunt them down inside the clock chamber. Cathedral records show that from 1305 – 1467 the cat and its keeper received payment of around a penny a week, chiefly to provide good food for the cat.
Returning to the poem, and my theme of darkness in current posts, it’s definitely one for our midwinter nights. And it reveals that the writer and the hunter are not so far apart: In our arts we find our bliss, I have mine and he has his. So, Pangur Ban – and in my case Zaq and Cassie – we each have our tasks to perform, and I will try to accept the next live mouse that you deposit at my feet. As you can see, my cats take a lively interest in my work.
December 28th – A note to everyone:There’s been a marvellous response to this post – thank you all so much for reading this! Comments have been coming in, and are welcome, but please bear in mind that I have to read and ‘approve’ these first, if you are new to this site, so it can take a few hours.
Our quinces are now picked, and the quince cooking season begins!You’ll find a recipe section at the end of this blog, and just to keep things current, I’m adding in an extra recipe which I tried for the first time yesterday – a beef and quince tagine.
I’ve had a love affair with the quince for the last fifteen years, ever since I began to pick the fruit from a neglected tree as I’ll describe shortly. I couldn’t let them go to waste! I knew nothing about quinces – where they came from, and what you could do with them – so I decided to find out.
Although it’s not common to see this golden fruit on sale very often, it was once highly prized. In the Middle Ages, quince trees were only planted by wealthy folk, and the dishes cooked with their fruit ranged from preserves and sweetmeats to savoury stews, where the quince provides a delicious sweet/sour background for the meat. Sometimes bowls of quinces were left out simply so that their delicate perfume could fragrance the air. We usually keep them in an old cherry-picker’s basket until I’m ready to cook them, and they do indeed have a lovely scent. Not many people in the UK cook quinces today, but there has been something of a revival in recent years, and I’ve collected various ‘quince supplements’ from magazines and newspapers.
Quinces originated in Mesopotamia, and it was the ancient Greeks who began to cultivate them, calling them ‘kydonia malon’, meaning ‘apple of Kydonia’. This corresponds to modern day Khania in Crete. Who knew that Quince means Khania? Historians also think that many early references to ‘apples’, such as Aphrodite’s ‘apple of love’, and the golden apples of the Hesperides, may in fact mean quinces. They were also used in the Middle East, then migrated to Europe, perhaps during the time of the Crusades.
You can’t eat a quince raw, but you can turn it into wonderful dishes – quince ‘cheese’, often known as membrillo, jelly, cakes and stews. I first started to experiment with quince recipes when I had an allotment in Bath; further down the plot was a neglected quince tree, on a strip of land which no one laid claim to. I watched these knobbly, pear-shaped fruit through the summer, and waited patiently until they’d started to ripen in mid-autumn. You need to hold back until they turn a deep yellow, but then pounce before they start to discolour. Friends visiting our garden as the quinces begin to ripen ask what those ‘furry pears’ are! Quinces have a thick down on them as the fruit grows, which is eventually shed when they reach picking stage.
When we moved to Gloucestershire, and I missed this quince bounty, we planted a dwarf Serbian quince tree in our rather exposed, terraced garden. It did well. Later still, when we moved to Exeter, I gained permission to go quince scrumping in an old medieval courtyard right in the city centre, by St Nicholas Mint. Here, in a walled garden, a beautiful quince has been planted, and every year those on the ‘quince interested list’ would be summoned to share the harvest. One year I only just managed to climb back on the bus home, laden with several carrier bags which weighed at least as much as a full suitcase.
And now, in Topsham, we have our second Serbian dwarf quince tree, the only variety of dwarf quince tree I’ve come across – essential if you haven’t the space for a big tree, as they can grow to the size of a tall pear tree. It’s four years since we planted it, and is doing very well. It gave about 25 quinces last year, which is enough to make all my favourite recipes, and over 40 this year.
If you can grow, beg or buy quinces – and some greengrocers and farm shops do stock them now – here follow some of my favourite recipes. Notes in brackets are usually my comments on the original instructions.
Membrillo is the best known quince recipe, and the resulting firm paste is sold in delicatessens at a very expensive price, and sometimes served with cheese plates at gourmet restaurants. The term ‘cheese’ means a fruit paste, and isn’t related to milk cheese. This recipe has been known in various forms since the medieval period.
Quince Cheese (also known as Membrillo or Quince Paste) 1 ¾ kg quinces – (you can make this with any weight, provided matched with the same weight for sugar) 300 ml water granulated sugar caster sugar.
Wash the quinces, but don’t peel or core them. Cut them into quarters and put them into a saucepan with water. Simmer until soft, then put them through a sieve. (Warning! This is hard work but needs to be done, to get the hard pieces out. A food processor won’t do the job.)
Weigh the pulp and put into a large pan with an equal weight of granulated sugar. Stir over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking, stirring continuously, until the mixture becomes so thick it is leaving the sides of the pan. (You may need to add more water – take care that it doesn’t burn.)
Turn into shallow tins lined with greaseproof paper. Leave to dry in a warm place, e.g. in airing cupboard, for 3 -4 days, or in an oven on its lowest setting for 12 hrs. (I found 3 hrs worked perfectly well.) This will make the paste easier to handle and also improve the texture, giving it a slight chewiness.
Cut into pieces, the size of a square of chocolate, and roll in caster sugar. (It’s not strictly necessary to add more sugar at this point.) Pack in airtight box with greaseproof paper between each layer. (from It’s Raining Plums, Xanthe Clay). You can freeze this successfully – I’m currently finishing off last year’s just before making a new batch. And it also makes a very good Christmas present!
Sticky quince and ginger cake Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall This makes a pretty, moist cake studded with poached quince and stem ginger. Save any leftover poaching syrup – it will solidify into a jelly and is delicious spread on toast, (slightly hot in flavour because of the ginger). Makes one 23cm cake.
150g butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing 2 large-ish quinces (about 600g) 160g caster or vanilla sugar 160g runny honey 1 small thumb fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced Juice of ½ lemon 250g plain flour 2 tsp ground ginger 1 tsp baking powder Good pinch of salt 180g caster or vanilla sugar 3 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk 100g creme fraiche 1 tsp vanilla extract 3 balls stem ginger in syrup, drained and chopped For the topping 3 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar 3 tbsp quince poaching liquid 2 tbsp granulated sugar Heat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Grease a 23cm x 5cm round, spring-form cake tin, line the base and sides with baking parchment, and butter the parchment.
Peel, quarter and core the quinces. Cut each quarter into 1cm slices. Put the quince into a large saucepan with 600ml water, the sugar, honey, ginger and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the quince is very tender and has turned a deep, rosy amber colour – about an hour and a half. (NB – in my experience, it’s often much quicker – even as little as 10 mns! I recommend not cutting the quince too small or you may end up with mush – usable, but not quite as nice as chunks. The quince may not always turn red either but that’s nothing to worry about.) Drain, reserving the liquor. Leave the quince to cool, and in a small pan reduce the liquor until thick and syrupy.
Sift the flour, ground ginger, baking powder and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs and yolk one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in a few tablespoons of the flour, the creme fraiche and vanilla, fold in the rest of the flour, then the poached quince and chopped ginger. Spoon into the prepared tin and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for about an hour and a quarter (check after an hour – if the cake is browning too quickly, cover with foil), until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
While the cake is cooking, whisk together the ginger syrup and poaching syrup to make a glaze. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, pierce the top a few times with a skewer and brush on the glaze, letting it trickle into the holes. Sprinkle over the sugar and leave to cool in the tin for 20 minutes. Remove from the tin and leave on a wire rack to cool completely. Notes: Freezes very well. And you get half a small jar of jelly out of it – just save the left over liquid and let it set. It has an intense and sweet flavour.
Lamb Shanks and Quince Tagine ½ tsp cumin seeds ½ tsp coriander seeds 100gm unsalted butter 4 Lamb shanks 1 tsp ground ginger ½ tsp cayenne pepper 3 garlic cloves, crushed 2 large onions, roughly chopped 400ml lamb stock ½ cinnamon stick 4 tbsp clear honey 20g fresh coriander leaves, coarsely chopped 1 quince, peeled, quartered and cored 1 lemon, juice & 2 strips of rind ½ tsp saffron, dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water
Grind the cumin and coriander together. Heat 75gm butter in a large casserole and brown the lamb on all sides. Remove the meat and set aside. Add all the spices (except the saffron), and the garlic and onions; cook for 2 minutes. Season and add the stock. Add 2tbsp honey and about a third of the coriander. Bring to the boil, return the lamb to the casserole, then turn down to a simmer. Cover and cook over a low heat for 1 ½ hrs until meltingly tender.
Meanwhile, put the quince in a small saucepan and cover with water. Add the lemon rind, juice and the remaining honey. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 15-20 mns until tender.
When the lamb is cooked, remove the shanks and cinnamon stick and keep warm. Add about 4tbsp of the quince poaching liquid, the saffron and its water. Bring to the boil and reduce to a thickish sauce. Taste and season.
Slice the quince and heat the remaining butter in a frying pan. Sauté the quince slices until golden. Return the lamb to the casserole and heat everything through. Gently stir in the remaining coriander and add the quince. Serve immediately with couscous or bread.
Quince Stew Fry 2 large oinions.
Add 2lb shoulder of lamb, beef or veal, cut into 1 inch cubes, brown the meat. Add 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon, ¼ tsp grated nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Cover with water and simmer for 1 hr. Then add 2 ripe quinces, peeled, cored & cut into similar chunks, plus 4 oz soaked yellow split peas. Simmer for 15 mns, then add 4 tbsp lemon juice and 1 – 2 tbsp of sugar. Simer a further 15 mns or until ready.
(Found on a forum, said to be from Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I’ve used lamb shoulder, and I soaked the split peas for 2hrs, and parboiled them too to be on the safe side.)
Quince, prunes or dried apricots were commonly used in lamb and beef stews. Quince is an ancient fruit that grows across Turkey. It’s not an easy fruit to eat when raw. It also has an extremely tough flesh, which is difficult to cut up and swallow. But If you leave a quince on a sunny windowsill it will slowly release its delicate fragrances of vanilla, citrus, and apple all over your house. And if you cook it, those scents blossom into a magnificent perfume in your dishes whether its a stew or a dessert. The fruit turns its colour from yellow white to a light rose when its cooked. Such a magical fruit. (I agree!)
Ingredients 2kg Quality beef chuck or rump, cut into 6cm pieces 3 quinces 4 medium onions 4 cloves garlic 1/2 cup sultanas 2 tbs tomato puree 3-4 green peppers (a mix of red, yellow, green and orange is fine) 1-2 red peppers 3 tbs olive oil 1.5 glass red wine 1 cinnamon stick 1 teaspoon allspice 1 teaspoon turmeric 2 bay leaf Salt&pepper Water
Directions: Peel and chop the onions, then peel and slice the garlic. Peel, core and slice the quinces in cubes. Put them in a bowl of cold water with lemon juice.
Heat 3 tablespoons of oil over a medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, then add the beef and sauté for 5 minutes until all sides are seared add sultanas and the quince & stir for 5 minutes. Return the onions and garlic .Deglaze with red wine.
Add the tomato purée, peppers (cut into chunks or broad strips), cinnamon, bay leaf, allspice, turmeric and enough water to cover (+1 cm)
Season and stir well, bring to the boil then simmer for at least 45 min -1 hour.
Serve with Pilav or mashed potatoes.
Cherry’s notes: Delicious! I made about a third of this quantity, and scaled down the ingredients proportionately, although I still kept to three quinces. Two would have been better, as they need to balance out the meat. I also added 2 or 3 tbsps of runny honey to counteract the tartness – this gave a good sweet-sour flavour. I didn’t have allspice so I used 2 star anise instead, which worked very well. Judging by other similar recipes, the spices can easily be adjusted according to taste or availability.
I plan to drop a few posts into Cherry’s Cache about my work as a writer, which has now spanned more than half a century. This first one is about what happens, or can happen, at the end of a book run. The next one will be about how I began writing for magazines – in this case the teenage magazine ‘Jackie’ in company with two schoolfriends. Then, if all goes according to plan (which a writer’s life never does) I’ll bring in early poetry outcomes. Hang on in there, all of them are more entertaining than they might sound!
The End of The Line
The background to this story is my interesting relationship with waste and recycling. In my teens, I haunted some of the very first charity clothes shops. There was a 1930s silk yarn crocheted top which I wore for years after I pounced on it in an early Oxfam shop. Then, as a college student, I volunteered eagerly to go to the town rubbish dump to pick up props for a play. I think we were after wooden beer barrels, and having made a deal on a couple of these, I was invited by the aged site caretaker to view the ‘special rubbish’ in his shed. (And yes, it was a genuine offer. I found some exciting items, as I recall.)
In the 1970s, when I was in my mid-twenties, I opened a first-wave vintage clothes shop in Cambridge, called ‘Tigerlily’. The word ‘vintage’ hadn’t been coined then, so we referred to our stock as ‘period clothing’. As I’ll be writing more about that in a later blog, it will suffice to say here that I used to drive up to the rag mills of Yorkshire to find treasures for my keen customers, hidden among the vast malodorous bales of old clothes.
The term ‘recycling’ was not in common use at the time either, but it was certainly practised in the rag mills. I was astonished and delighted to see how everything except suiting material could be sorted and put to good use. Headscarves were saved for export to Nigeria, crimplene dresses for British market stalls, gentleman’s waistcoats for Pakistan. Wool was to be re-spun, sorted by colour into vibrant piles on the decaying wooden floors of the old mill. And most important of all, as far as I was concerned, the ‘hippy stuff’ – Victorian petticoats, 1940s crepe dresses and the like – were put aside for people like me. But as for the suits and tweeds, they could only be pulped for cardboard.
After I finished my vintage enterprise, I thought I was done with the commercial face of recycling forever. But then, one day, it came my way again.
The article which follows was published in the ‘Author’ magazine in 2007. This journal of the Society of Authors covers many subjects, but I don’t think they’d ever had one on the problems of disposing old books before. Acceptance came the same morning! The fee helped to restore my costs, and soothe my wounded pride.
The End of the Line
‘That’ll be £7.36,’ he told me.
£7.36 for a thousand copies of my priceless book. Oh, and he wasn’t paying me – I was paying him, to get rid of them.
We were at the local tip in the city of Bath on a chilly autumn morning, amidst a cheerful crowd of householders disposing of their assorted rubbish. I’d been clearing out the attic before moving house, and had decided that I couldn’t take all these books with me. I’d had 4000 copies printed of my guide to Russian Lacquer Miniatures, which sold well enough through the gallery I had at the time. But would I ever sell the last 1800? I doubted it.
I also had several hundred remaindered books, other titles that I had bought up cheaply from my publishers, and some of their pages were looking distinctly yellow by now. So I ruminated on what I might do with them all.
Some of the books ofwhich I had too many copies
My ex-brother-in-law, if one can have such a relation, worked for the Oxfam Books team. I emailed him: would he, on behalf of Oxfam, like copious quantities of books which I – ahem – couldn’t sell off? He replied, saying they would be glad to take my ‘back list’, and how many boxes did I have? Ah, back list! I knew there had to be a word for it, and back list sounds so much more reassuring, so professional and a part of the everyday ebb and flow of publishing. He arranged for the local van driver to come round and pick up a large pile.
But all the Oxfam bookshops in Britain, even if they each had an organised publicity campaign, couldn’t shift more than a thousand books on an obscure, if beautiful, Russian art form. Besides which, I still planned to sell some, and if my title swamped the market with 50p offers, or even a penny plus postage on eBay, what chance did I have to flog it at the usual £10? No, some would have to go to the dump; there was nothing else for it.
I cajoled my husband Robert into loading the books into the car; only authors who have had remaindered books will understand just how heavy the printed word weighs. This was all about the world of materiality, not of high ideas and fabulous prose. We drove to the refuse disposal site, as it is officially called, and tried to decide where to tip them. As you will doubtless know, each type of rubbish has its own marked bay. There are bays for cardboard and for paper, separate bins for bottles, clothes and shoes, a shed for electronics and TVs, and – oh yes – a skip for books. ‘Charities and schools will benefit from your donation’, it read reproachfully as we began hurling the book boxes into the Landfill Only bay. An attendant had already stopped us classifying them as paper, or as cardboard. And why wouldn’t we give them to the book skip, he asked?
‘Oh, copyright reasons,’ I told him loftily. ‘They must be pulped, you see.’
His supervisor loomed over us. ‘You can’t chuck those there,’ he said. ‘Those will take 200 years to decay. And what’s more, it’s commercial waste.’
‘No, no, it’s not!’ I said hastily. ‘They’re my books.’
‘So, do they form a part of earning your living?’
‘Yes,’ answered Robert, just as I said, ‘No.’
I was about to cite the Society of Authors survey on the low income of authors, and the plight of following one’s literary calling in this day and age. But my case was already lost.
‘You’ll have to go to the weighbridge,’ he said testily. ‘Ask for Glyn. You’ve got to pay for it, same as any builder’s rubble.’
I hope other authors reading this will be wincing at the prospect of our works being categorised along with bits of cement and broken bricks, with old posts and twisted metal railings, with bags of plaster and unspeakable filth from beneath the floor boards. The elegant sentences that you turn, dear fellow author, will become printed ink on the page, a page that is printed thousands of times, and will become ultimately, as far as worms, mother nature, and refuse supervisors are concerned, merely a chunk of matter that clogs up landfill and has no useful purpose to fulfil in the ongoing earthly cycle of regeneration.
We approached the weighbridge and the taciturn occupant of its hut.
‘Are you Glyn?’
The corpulent individual lounging against the doorway nodded.
‘What you got there?’
‘Books. My books!’ I said, hoping for a last minute reprieve.
‘Oh yes! A brilliant book. Would you like a copy?’
He thumbed it, wrinkling his nose. ‘Nah. Not interested.’
‘OK then, how much is it going to cost us to dump these?’
‘That depends on how much they weigh. You gotta weigh them in the car first.’
We were wondering where the weighing actually took place – Robert last remembered seeing a weighbridge by the M4, 12 miles away – when it dawned on us that we were already standing on the weighbridge itself, being counted along with the car and the books.
Then we were given permission to go back down to the bays.
The original supervisor had marched up to the weighbridge and back with us, to check our conduct. ‘Chuck it in with the cardboard,’ he said tersely.
My fabulous colour photographs, illustrating the book, were quantified as cardboard. But there was now a ray of hope for their evolutionary progress. At least they might turn up in a baked beans packing case somewhere, or perhaps be turned into boxes to house books of the future.
We threw our book boxes in, with satisfying thuds as they hit bottom, and returned to the office pay our dues. Then we realised that he was calculating the cost without us on the weighbridge, this time round.
‘Stop! We’re not on it!’ Robert called out.
‘Don’t make no difference.’
‘Oh yes it does,’ we said in one breath and leaped onto it to stand beside the car. It was bad enough to have to pay for the books, let alone be charged for our own weight as well.
Glyn announced the sum of money owing. £7.36. I had come without my purse, Robert had a fiver on him, and by scraping out the little film canisters where I keep change for parking, we paid our dues.
The receipt says, ‘Do call again.’ I don’t think I will – not unless I have to.
Editions of my other book on Russia, which thankfully I haven’t had to dispose of in the same way. Paperback and E-book versions.
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 note – It’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am always curious about people’s lives from earlier times. While other people buy vintage postcards for their pictures, I buy them to read what’s written on the back. And if I come across old books or objects which have names or clues attached to them, I’m tempted to follow the lead further, since with a little research and a dose of luck, it may be possible to bring their stories back to life. When I was writing my book Growing Your Family Tree, I decided I’d like to test this out by taking on a project to illustrate the way that these kinds of inanimate objects can connect us with past lives. I chose two items which I’ve had for years, but which never investigated before.
My mother passed on to me two antique needlework samplers, made by little girls of eight and nine years old. Previously, I had simply admired their neat stitching – the letters of the alphabet, flowers, birds and trees set out in tidy symmetry. But now, perhaps I could learn more: who were these children? What kind of a life did they lead?
The account that follows here is a version of what I included in my book (Chapter Eight – Other Lives, Other Stories) but re-written for Cherry’s Cache, with a little extra research added, and of course the chance to add images.
The background to the samplers
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, very young girls often created decorative samplers as a way of practising their stitching and embroidery. These were usually cloth panels sewn in silks or wools, often with a mixture of flowers and birds, letters and numbers, and even houses and human figures. Sometimes poems, proverbs and prayers were embroidered too, and the girl’s name and age stitched too, along with a date and place. Sewing this type of sampler, with personal details included, was practised mainly in Britain and America. The samplers were often made at school, as part of the curriculum. They were mostly colourful, but those stitched in orphanages, or by Quakers, for instance, tend to be more sober in appearance.
My first sampler was stitched by Rebecca Wensor, aged eight years, in 1828. To show how I went about tracing her, I’ll include here a few details of the path that I took. Rebecca was born before the start of official registration of births in 1837, but as she would only have been twenty-one at the time of the first census record available (1841), I thought that there would be a good chance that she was still unmarried, and that I might catch her under the same surname. Wensor is an unusual name, which could have given me a head start. But I quickly realised that it could be an alternate spelling of Winsor, a more common name. However, I reckoned that the little girl would most likely have spelled her name in the sampler in the way that the family usually did, as opposed to the census enumerator who might have simply jotted it down as he heard it. A child who spent months labouring over a sampler would want it to be her best work, and would take care to get her name right. But neither version of her surname – Wensor or Winsor – came up with viable results to start with.
However, by checking the name Wensor on its own, I found a few entries for Lincolnshire, including the Bourne area. My parents had lived for a while in the little town of Bourne after they got married, and that my mother had told me that this was where she had bought the sampler. So, with a sense of the path opening up in front of me, I pursued the Wensors of Lincolnshire. One couple, Samuel and Mary Wensor, farmers of Deeping Fen, looked about the right age to be Rebecca’s parents. Although farmers were not necessarily wealthy in those days, it struck me that a farmer’s daughter might be sent to a modest kind of school, where she would learn her letters and arithmetic, and embroider a sampler. Indeed, in nearby New Sleaford in 1841, a pupil called Eliza Wensor is listed as boarding at a little school run by one Mary Smith; at age twelve, she could perhaps have been a younger sister or cousin of Rebecca.
But then came an unwelcome discovery. I couldn’t find any records in the official registry for the marriage or a death of a Rebecca Wensor or Winsor, born around 1820. But in a collection of parish records posted on the internet, I did find the death of a Rebecca Winsor, aged 11 in 1831. She was buried at Deeping St James in Lincolnshire.
The age and the location fitted, and judging by the scarcity of anyone else bearing the same name, I think my little embroiderer probably died three years after sewing her sampler. So although the trail didn’t lead far, I now surmise that Rebecca was most probably the daughter of a Lincolnshire farming family, living in the flat fenland country, and that she received some sort of basic education. I have also found a Wensor Farm on the map, (listed too as Wensor Castle Farm) close to Deeping St James, which could well be that of her family or her relatives. This is a poignant conclusion to her story, but she is not forgotten, and her sampler is still treasured nearly two hundred years later.
My second sampler announces proudly that it was stitched by Amey Ross, Boston, aged nine years, in 1833. Amey made her sampler square and bold, with two handsome trees flanking flowers and baskets of fruit, setting out her letters and numbers at the top, and her name carefully stitched in a slightly wobbly octagonal frame at the bottom. It’s fortunate for my search that she left such a valuable clue by including the name of the place in which she lived. Boston, Lincolnshire is also within the area where my mother bought some of her first antiques, so probably both samplers found their way on to the local market stalls after house clearances.
Amey was born a little later than Rebecca, in 1824, and the closer dates creep towards 1837 and the first official BMD records, and towards 1841 for the first full census, the more likely we are to find results. Again, it might have seemed at first that she didn’t know how to spell the name Amy correctly but, for the same reasons that I researched Wensor rather than Winsor, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Although neither the 1841 nor the 1851census gave any sign of an Amey or an Amy Ross of the right age, both showed an Amey Ross who was born in about 1801. Obviously, this was not Amey herself, but the unusual spelling suggested that it could be a family name, perhaps Amey’s mother or aunt. And this Amey, a widow, is recorded as living in Skirbeck with her daughter Hannah in the Boston area of Lincolnshire, which is the right location for ‘my’ Amey. In 1851, she is described as a laundress, and her birthplace as Ely in Cambridgeshire.
As for young Amey in 1841, the most likely entry which I found, was for an Anne or Anna Ross, working as a servant in the rectory at Wyberton, close to Boston. But in 1848 there was a fully accurate name for the marriage record of an Amey Ross in Boston. I sent off for it and waited eagerly to see what it would say.
The search was at a crossroads; without travelling to Lincolnshire to look at old parish registers for myself, which weren’t at that time on line, it would have been difficult to go further.
But the certificate arrived, and the information it contained launched my little embroiderer into the next stage of her life. On 9 November 1848, Amey Ross married Allen Reynolds in the parish church of Skirbeck, Lincolnshire. Witnesses were Hannah Ross and Daniel Lote, thus making it even more likely that the Hannah from the census is Amey’s sister. Amey’s father was cited as William Ross, a gardener. Allen’s father was named as Charles Reynolds, farmer.
This made things a little spooky: Charles Reynolds was also the name of my 2 x great-grandfather who came from East Yorkshire, just across the mouth of the Humber from Lincolnshire. I experienced a strange sense of connection, though logically I knew it was very unlikely that they were one and the same. Better, I decided, not to get too side-tracked by the Reynolds issue.
Allen Reynolds was born about 1820 in Frithville, Lincolnshire, and his occupation was that of a miller. He and Amey set up home in Spalding, where they lived for the whole of their married life. I traced them through the census from 1851 to 1881, as they moved only from Deeping Road to Holbeach Road. Spalding is known as ‘the Heart of the Fens’, and is in the South Holland district which is famous for its flowers and produce, grown in its flat, silty soil. There were also plenty of windmills, which would have provided the power to grind the grain, as was Allen’s trade.
Over time, Allen became a master baker too, and took on apprentices. In 1871, Amey’s mother, the older Amey Ross, came to live with them, but had almost certainly died by 1881, by which time there was a niece called Amy Rogers (no ‘e’ in her name) living with them as ‘servant to uncle’! What is significant is that there are no signs on any of the census records of children born to Amey and Allen.
Then came one of those extraordinary moments when the view shifts from official listings to a first-hand, eye-witness account of the Reynolds couple. Through an internet search I found an extract taken from a nineteenth-century memoir called The Jottings of Isaac Elsom, which says:
On July, 1856, death first entered the family of the Elsoms of Spalding, for on that day, Eliza, the eldest child, who was eighteen days short of eight years of age, passed into the Spirit World like a ripe old Christian! Her body was carried in its coffin to the cemetery in the spring cart of Mr. Allen Reynolds, miller and baker of Holbeach Road, Spalding, a dear friend of the family; in whose cart, one time or another, all the members of the Elsom family had many a happy ride! Mr. & Mrs. Reynolds had no children of their own, but seemed to find pleasure in numerous and various acts to members of our family, as long as they lived. The writer has much satisfaction in recording this fact.
This caused my heart to leap! Here is Amey Reynolds as a real person, as a neighbourly woman, friendly to children, and happy to offer them rides in her husband’s delivery cart. Perhaps she loved children all the more, having none of her own. And we can imagine her grief at seeing the cart take away the sad little coffin holding the almost eight-year-old Eliza, whom she may have known since birth. A family history website adds the detail about Eliza that ‘Her mother believed that her death was hastened by having been allowed to walk home from Surfleet during a downpour of rain.’
Allen died in 1886, aged sixty-six, and Amey in 1890, at the same age. I wonder if she had kept her childhood sampler, or if it had already strayed into someone else’s possession? At any rate, I will pass on her story to my own children and grandchildren, and hope that they will keep it with her sampler.
I did my research in 2010, a little ahead of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which in 2017 put on a special exhibition of ‘Sampled Lives’, showing samplers and the history of the girls who made them.
‘Showcasing over 100 samplers from the Museum’s excellent but often unseen collection, this display highlights the importance of samplers as documentary evidence of past lives (and)…the individuality of each sampler, which in some cases is the only surviving document to record the existence of an ordinary young woman.’
Other objects awaiting the same story-telling are my christening mugs, a collection I picked up cheaply at an auction house, plus one that has come down through my father’s family. I’ve discovered a fair amount already – one little boy became a highly respectable, philanthropic brewer – but there’s work still to be done, finding out who they were.
An update on March 12th, 2022: I’m delighted to see that this post has received a bit surge of visitors in the last few weeks. I’d be very interested to know what’s prompted this, and would love it if someone could contact me and let me know? You can either submit a comment, which will come directly to me first for moderation, or send me an email via the contact form. I’m glad that the Zinkeisen sisters are receiving more of the attention they deserve!
Many years ago, I bought a calendar at a jumble sale: the Whitbread Zodiac Calendar for 1957. It was already well out of date by some twenty years, so no use in the conventional sense. But it chimed in with my interest in astrology, and I could see that it was a little work of art in its own right. On every page there was a rich, complex painting representing a zodiac sign, prefaced by a printed tissue leaf detailing the characteristics of the sign in question. I hung it on our wall at home, and enjoyed turning over a page per month, ignoring the discrepancy between dates and days of the week.
But I thought no more about the calendar’s origins until I studied an MA course on ‘Cultural Astronomy and Astrology’ in the early 2000s. I needed a research project for one of the modules, and it suddenly dawned on me that the calendar would be ideal. But where was it? Had it survived several house moves? Eventually, I discovered it safely stowed away in a box of papers in the attic. Apart from the tissue page description for Scorpio, now missing, it was intact.
Using the listings on the frontispiece, I began by checking out the artist, Anna Zinkeisen, followed by the author of the commentary, Peter Fleming, and ‘adviser’ Jacintha Buddicom. Soon I was uncovering the fascinating story of this remarkable artist, and the role she and her sister Doris had played in war-time, along with tantalising titbits for the other two individuals. My findings served the project well, but now, researching for this post, still more has come to light. I can now put all these pieces together.
The Whitbread Calendars First, some background to the calendar itself, published in 1957. The twelve zodiac images it contains are reproduced from specially commissioned large-scale oil paintings. At that time, Whitbread was a leading brewery (it’s now a large hospitality company), which had a tradition of both philanthropy and patronage of the arts. In 1935 they took rather bold step of commissioning four paintings by well-known artists, including Stanhope Forbes and Alfred Munnings. After exhibiting the works in the Royal Academy and the Burlington Galleries, prints of these appealing scenes – of hop picking, oast houses, brewing and an old Inn – were hung on the walls of Whitbread’s own pubs. This is said to have been the first time that licensed premises showed works of art! Whitbread also made its mark on literature, offering prizes now known as the Costa Book Awards (Costa being one of their subsidiaries).
Two of the paintings commissioned by Whitbread’s Brewery: On the left is Woolpack InnbyStanhope Forbes’, and on the right what is believed to be ‘Hop Picking’ by T. C. Dugdale,
The first Whitbread Calendar followed in 1938, with four paintings of scenes from the company’s history by the Belgian artist, Mark Severin. (A quick look-up for this artist shows that his speciality was producing erotic book plates! I will leave readers to do their own research.) Gradually more calendars followed, especially after the war when the brewery published a series of calendars on different themes, such as, ‘Little Ships’, ‘The Brewer’s Art’, and the ‘Calendar of Flowers’, all with original artwork by different living artists. These calendars are now collectors’ items, and the Zodiac calendar rarely comes up for sale.
The Zinkeisen family But who was Anna Zinkeisen? I quickly discovered that there were two sisters from the Zinkeisen family working as artists – sisters Anna and Doris. They were brought up in Scotland, but the family on her father’s side was a mix of Eastern European, Prussian and Russian ancestry. Anna, the younger of the two, was born in 1901, and lived until 1976. She and Doris attended Harrow Art School, and both then won scholarships to the Royal Academy. In those days, it was much harder for women to get into the Academy , and when they began to exhibit, some newspapers railed at them for being female upstarts. However, this blew over, since Anna had significant all-round talent as an artist, not just as a painter of note, but as a ceramicist, sculptor, and graphic artist. Commissions began to come in, and as well as the Whitbread Calendar she painted murals for the Queen Mary cruise liner, and posters for the London Underground. Her illustrations for children’s books can be seen in works by Noel Streitfeild and Enid Blyton. She was also a very fine portrait painter, completing over one hundred portraits in her lifetime. Probably her most illustrious commission was to paint the the Duke of Edinburgh in his flying kit, in 1955, surrounded by much royal protocol. ‘I think it is a simply splendid picture of the Duke,’ wrote the Air Chief Marshall in a letter of thanks. Anna’s self-portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
War artists Perhaps her most challenging brief came during the war. In the mornings she worked as a volunteer nurse on the wards of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington , and in the afternoons as their official war artist, drawing and painting what she saw in the operating theatre. Her sister Doris, equally accomplished as a portrait artist and best-known as a theatre designer, had an even more gruelling wartime commission: she was sent to the concentration camp of Belsen just after it was liberated, to record the scenes there. Apparently, Doris never completely recovered from the experience, and had nightmares for the rest of her life.
A female line of artists The Zinkeisens are a stunningly talented family, mostly it seems through the female line. I spoke to Julia Heseltine, Anna’s daughter, who is also a professional illustrator, and she told me that her female cousins, Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, the daughters of Doris Zinkeisen, are illustrators too. Julia also helped to shed light on some of the other details about the Whitbread Calendar.
Astrology Was Anna herself an astrologer? I asked her. Not exactly, she answered; Anna was interested in astrology, but wasn’t knowledgeable about it. Jacintha (also known as Jacinthe) Buddicom was the specialist, brought in to verify the astrological information, and in the process, she also drew up Anna’s horoscope for her, startling Anna with its accuracy.
The calendar is based on a Zodiac sign for each month, also known as ‘birth signs’ or ‘sun signs’. Sun signs do not exactly overlap with each calendar month, so there’s compromise in lining them up this way. However, the write-up for each sign does make it clear that, for instance, Aries runs between 21st March and 21st April (though even this can vary slightly from year to year).
Capricorn leading in the Whitbread Calendar for January 1957; Aries is the usual start of the zodiac at the Spring Equinox
‘Sun sign’ astrology I’m going to briefly explain the difference between ‘sun sign’ astrology, as on the Whitbread Calendar, and the tradition of the astrological horoscope. This means compressing 2500 years of astrological history into a small nutshell, so I hope I’ll be able to give some clarity. If you’re already familiar with this, or want to focus on the calendar itself, just skip to the next section.
Sun sign astrology became popular in magazines and newspapers during the second half of the 20th century, precisely because you can identify your sign out of the twelve, simply by your date of birth, without any complicated calculations. Editors soon realised that an astrology column was good for readership, and began to hire astrologers to produce a popularised version of this old and complex art.
The twelve sun signs may indeed have validity in the way that they are characterised, but in a full horoscope, the position of the sun is just one factor in what constitutes a unique ‘map’ for each individual. The complete astrological chart depicts the positions of the whole solar system – sun, moon and planets – according to the signs they were in and the precise relationship between them for that exact moment and place of birth. This is precise astronomically too, the difference being that astrology interprets this chart through an ancient system of symbolic correspondences. Each person is thus considered as a kind of imprint of the universe for that unique combination of time and place, and their nature can be deciphered through the language of astrology. And using this system, that imprint can be ‘read’ in considerable depth in terms of character and circumstances. Atrology was only divorced from astronomy in the 18th century, and to anyone who finds its premise strange, I’d suggest asking a reputable astrologer to draw up your chart, and then decide by the results. It is not a religion, and no one has to ‘believe’ in it, but it is a remarkable tool for understanding ourselves and our place in the universe.
Jacintha Buddicom Jacintha was ‘a tiny person’ living in a ‘tiny house’ in Pond Place, London, according to Julia, Anna’s daughter. Other sources reveal that she was one of a pair of spinster sisters, a childhood friend of George Orwell, and an astrological assistant to Margaret Hone in adult life. Hone wrote practical and much-acclaimed manuals of astrology, which helped to pave the way for those who wanted to learn astrology during its 20th century revival.
On a tangent – because this calendar has several fascinating side tracks! – Jacintha also wrote rather touching poems about cats. ‘Angel Cat’ is still a popular choice for people to post as a tribute after the loss of their own beloved feline. We know a little more about Jacintha’s own cats too: writer Kathryn Hughes had personal encounters as a child with the Buddicom sisters. Each summer, she and her family camped in close proximity to them. She recalls how the sisters ‘shared their temporary home with two cats which were able to come and go as they pleased thanks to a special step-ladder with tiny paw-sized rungs propped against the open window of their caravan’s cab.’
Peter Fleming, author and adventurer, seen on the right in Brazil, 1932
Peter Fleming What about Peter Fleming? He had the distinction of being the brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. He too was a writer, best known for News from Tartary, a study of Central Asia. Less well-known is that both he and Ian were interested in the occult – Ian was drawn to astrology, and Peter to spirit communication. Ian and Peter worked together on special missions during the war. There may be more to this than meets the eye, since it’s known that Ian was tasked with trying to lure Rudolf Hess to Britain on the basis of astrological predictions.
It’s not clear exactly what his connection was to Anna Zinkeisen, but Julia Heseltine thinks the two may have met at a friend’s house. Or through the famous Whitbread family, to which both the Flemings and the Zinkeisens had a connection. Indeed, Doris Zinkeisen painted a traditional-style family portrait of the Whitbreads, taking tea at their home in Southill Park, Biggleswade. For Peter, writing and editing the Whitbread Calendar may have been a way of earning much-needed cash, as it’s known that he also worked on a Midland Bank calendar during the same period for the sake of his finances. It sounds as though he was hired to jazz up Jacintha’s solid, cautious textbook astrology into something more flamboyant for the Whitbread Calendar. As a ‘British adventurer, journalist, soldier and travel writer’, he could do the job.
Whitbread Astrology How valid is the astrology in the Zodiac Calendar, in terms of accepted astrological principles? Well, I would say – it’s not bad! Although it does contain some rather odd and over-precise attributions, such as: ‘One of your habits, unfortunately, is that of catching colds’ for Pisces, or ‘You have a musical but sometimes rather listless voice’ for Libra. Though I cannot deny, for my sign Aquarius: ‘Your handwriting has an untamed, individual air and is not distinguished for its legibility or grace.’ There’s also a surprising reliance on classical mythology to delineate the signs, which doesn’t chime in with the usual astrological tradition. ‘Cancer is the crab. It owes its position in the Zodiac to Juno, who persuaded Jupiter to put it there.’ Really? But in general, the temperaments of each sign are well captured. Here are some of the salient points from the calendar which do accord with traditional astrological teaching. They’re listed in the order found on the calendar, which is the prescribed Roman view of the year, starting in January, rather than the Zodiac sequence which begins with Aries at the spring equinox.
The Twelve Signs Capricorn is serious-minded, organising and reliable, with occasional fits of recklessness Aquarius is detached, sensitive, secretive and humanitarian Pisces is imaginative, patient, intuitive and can be sentimental. Aries is ardent, shows leadership, ambitious but also explosive Taurus is constructive, stubborn, and practical, with an artistic flair Gemini is quick-witted, wide-ranging, alert and restless Cancer is shy, self-contained and protective, and something of a gambler Leo is bold, frank, cheerful and loyal, but unsubtle Virgo is an intellectual, capable, good at detail, but a worrier Libra is fair-minded, considerate and affectionate, but tends to be indecisive. Scorpio is secretive…. which is why my sheet for Scorpio must have gone missing! Sagittarius is liberal-minded, cheerful and tolerant, if boastful.
Hart-Davis, Duff, Peter Fleming: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape 1974)
McCormick, Donald, The Life of Ian Fleming (London: Peter Owen, 1993)
Julia Heseltine (personal communication)
Nicholas Barritt Redman, Company Archivist The Story of Whitbread plc – 1742-1990 – Uplodaded as PDFby the University of Glasgow
At the time of my initial research in the early 2000s, there was surprisingly little information about these talented artists. In 2008, however, Highly Desirable: The Zinkeisen sisters and their Legacy by Philip Kelleway was published, which helped to establish their reputation as painters of note. There was also an earlier tribute to Anna Zinkeisen published after her death: Anna: Memorial Tribute to Anna Zinkeisen, by Josephine Walpole (1978)
You can also read about Anna Zinkeisen’s war work and association with the Order of St John (better known as St John’s Ambulance Service), for whom she painted recruitment posters and portraits.
On this website, you’ll see decorative images acting as headers for the pages, which change as you revisit the site. What are they? Take a closer look, and you’ll see that they are embroideries. They are taken from a group of textiles known as ‘suzani’, mostly made in and around Uzbekistan.
Suzani were originally embroidered by nomads from countries in and around Uzbekistan, and used as bed covers, wrapping cloths and even as prayer mats. All their textiles and soft furnishings had to be easy to roll up and transport, which didn’t deter the nomads of Central Asia from making them as beautiful as possible, whether as weavings, felt applique or embroideries, as we have here. The word ‘suzan’ comes from the Persian, meaning ‘needle’.
In more settled modern communities, suzani are made now as hangings or bedspreads, as part of the bride’s dowry. Museums and palaces in Uzbekistan have beautiful examples of these, and you can buy a newly-made one if you’re lucky, as I was, though maybe not as exquisite as the antique pieces. (My cat Cassie believes it was brought back especially for her.)
Most suzani are made out of cotton, which is a major crop in Uzbekistan. The motifs are mostly stars, fruits, leaves and flowers, and each has its own symbolic meaning, such as fertility, happiness and wealth. Even a snake can bring good fortune to the newly-married couple as a protector, the guide at Tashkent Museum told us. Solar images may be symbols passed down from the ancient Zoroastrian religion, where the sun stands for truth and wisdom.
On my journeys down the Silk Road, I caught wonderful glimpses of crafts like these, which whetted my curiosity to learn more about them and their history. And also the temptation to buy – my luggage was bulging after each trip! I plan to write about a few more of these Silk Road treasures as the blog develops.
And in the meantime, you can read an excellent short article on Suzani on the art dealers Christie’s website here .
If you enjoy seeing cats on coverlets, I recommend reading about the Gentle Author’s cats at the renowned Spitalfields Life website – see blogs about the inimitable Mr Pussy and his successor Shrodinger.