Saturday, 5 November 2016

#FallBackInTime





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Have a great weekend, everyone, and Happy Reading!




Monday, 31 October 2016

ALL HALLOWS’ EVE


 


 


On the first of November, known as All Saints Day in the Christian calendar, the lives of the dead are honoured and celebrated by relatives and friends. All Hallows’ Eve is the night before, now better known as Hallowe’en. Hallow (or hallowed) means holy or sacred; ‘Hallowe’en’ is derived from the compression of All Hallows’ Even. It has now been further simplified into Halloween and has done wonders for the pumpkin industry!



 

The celebration originates more than 2000 years ago, when the Celtic druids occupied Great Britain and some parts of Europe. On the thirty-first of October, they celebrated the last day of the year in the Celtic calendar, a night when witches and warlocks mingled freely with ordinary folk. Now considered the pagan festival of Samhain, the revels associated with that night signified the end of summer and the onset of winter. In many minds, the dank, black chill of the grave and death itself very often had associations with dark and cold winter days.


It was believed that on the night of Samhain, the cloak between the spirit world and the living was but a thin veil, allowing the dead to rise up and come forth from their graves. Huge bonfires were lit to assist the fading sun god and the people would disguise themselves to avoid being recognized. Gradually, witches, vampires, demons, werewolves and fairies were also thought to emerge with the darkness of winter, to join the spirits of the dead in a night of rejoicing.


In order to claw back some semblance of control, All Saints’ Day was created by the Church in 835. Originally held on the thirteenth of May to commemorate all martyrs and saints without a special day, it was moved to November as an exercise in damage limitation and thus Hallowe’en replaced Samhain.


Prior to the late seventeen hundreds, Hallowe’en was considered a night of fear and dread. While malicious spirits, itinerant demons, other supernatural beings and wicked hobgoblins roamed the night, sensible men kept themselves and their families safe by the hearth. In those superstitious times, it was the custom for people wearing strange costumes and masks, known as guisers, to pass from house to house, protecting the occupants by dancing and singing or, alternatively, to represent goblins, ghosts and other spirits of darkness.





By the turn of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, All Hallows’ Eve was becoming a time for jollification for children and over the years, the superstitions surrounding this magical night evolved into lanterns, costumes and games. The now synonymous pumpkin lantern has its origins in a time when offerings of food were made to the spirits of the dead and the American custom of ‘Trick or Treat’ is the masquerade descendant of the guisers’ parade. It survives in other parts of the world, too, as a children’s festival.





A girl might place hazel nuts on a hot grate and giving each the name of a potential husband, recite, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.” In a variant, any cracked nuts indicated those suitors who were fickle.

Other games also have their origins in Hallowe’en rituals. Throwing the complete peel of an apple over a shoulder revealed the initial of a girl’s true love. In Scandinavia, she set her shoes in the form of a ‘T’ on Hallowe’en and recited the words, “Hoping this night my true love to see, I place my shoes in the form of a ‘T’,” to ensure she dreamed of her future love. (The ‘T’ was a strong talisman representing the hammer of Thor, the god of thunder, agriculture and the home). It was also on All Hallows’ Eve when a girl hoped to see in her mirror a candlelight reflection of her future husband.

A more sombre ritual was that of building a bonfire on a burial mound, since these were thought to be portals to the spirit world. Once it was blazing, the locals held hands and danced around it. Young boys vied to grab burning branches and run across the fields, waving them like torches. Then, when the flames had died down, the lads had a jumping contest over the glowing embers, all the children bobbed for apples and the adults danced until bedtime.

So, on a night of magic when the spirits of the dead awaken and supernatural beings dance to a pagan drum, if you prefer your vampires to be romantic rather than terrifying creatures of darkness, perhaps you would rather curl up with a glass of wine (red, of course) and read the tales of some honourable, eternal, gentlemen.


Vampires Don’t Drink Coffee and Other Stories

Out of the night steps a figure; mysterious and dangerous, sensual and otherworldly. An individual destined to spend eternity alone, forced to hide in the shadows, preying on the innocent to survive and yet nursing a deep need for love. Is this lost and troubled soul predator or protector? Callie is mugged when walking home with her daughter and rescued by a man who is the image of her dead husband. Melissa inherits a house with a vampire living in the basement. Sabrina, a healer at the time of the Civil War, is drained of blood and left for dead by an evil vampire, then saved by his twin. Condemned to death in the seventeenth century for being possessed by a demonic presence, Katalin shocks vicar Christopher when she turns up at his church claiming he is the reincarnation of her long-lost love… With both contemporary and historical settings, this tantalizing collection of stories is a romantic feast, full of humour, passion and love.

A collection of fourteen tales bringing together irresistible heroes and memorable heroines who battle against demons, muggers, lost loves, loneliness and unholy thirst to find their true loves.






© Heather King

 



 



 

 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Vampires Don't Drink Coffee...




To celebrate Hallowe'en, I am sharing one of the stories in my Vampire Romance anthology, Vampires Don't Drink Coffee and Other Stories


Blood Transfusion


I expect you consider vampires to be either the stuff of myth or blood-sucking monsters – if you think of them at all, that is. Believe me, they are real – and contrary to popular belief, most just wish to be left alone. Of course there have been occasions when blood-lust and power have turned a vampire evil, but then that can happen with humans too. As is the case with mortals, there are some undead souls who yet belong with the angels – and I mean those of the Heavenly persuasion, not the Fallen.

I know such a vampire. His name is Dimitri Nikolaides and he must surely be descended from the gods of Mount Olympus! Tall and leanly muscled, he is incredibly good-looking, the sculpted planes of his pale, angular face accentuated by his long black hair and vibrant blue eyes. I met him at a fund-raiser for leukaemia, which I had organized following my own life-shattering diagnosis with the disease. The event had helped me to feel that I was fighting back, but one thing is for sure – if I had not met Dimitri that night, I would have died.

My name is Tessa Brandon and I used to be a children’s nurse. I loved my job and I lived life to the full. Being a self-confessed, fun-loving party animal, I had a different boyfriend nearly every week. I told myself variety was the spice of life, but the truth was I had always shied away from commitment because my parents had broken up when I was small. I had never considered any of my relationships to be worth that pain. Then the disease struck. Knowing I was going to die without anyone special to care about me turned the once-colourful palette of my existence to a drab, soulless grey.

It is probable that I contracted the disease through radiation build-up whilst working on the terminal ward. It is a low risk, but nevertheless one of the hazards of the job. At first, when I was diagnosed, I went to pieces. It is one of those things you think is never going to happen to you, then when it does it is utterly devastating, but the dignity and courage displayed by all the wonderful children I had nursed inspired me not to give in and crumble. Hence the fund-raising.

This particular function was a dinner and auction of promises. As organizer I was expected to be there, but I planned to keep a low profile. It was being held in the glittering ballroom of a plush hotel, where floor-to-ceiling mirrors along one wall reflected back scores of candle-effect lights from a dozen chandeliers. Wine-red velvet curtains showcased hundreds of richly dressed socialites.

Diamonds winked in the ears and around the throats of sex-kittens and divas, while gold and platinum adorned the wrists of playboys and magnates. This was no place for catalogue bargains or polyester. The local ‘haves’ were shamelessly displaying their worth, salving their collective consciences by giving generously to the ‘have-nots’. The promises on offer ranged from balloon rides and slaves-for-a-day to a supermarket grab-it and a day-share in a racehorse. Since the tickets cost fifty pounds each, the number of ordinary folk likely to be present was limited, but the object was to make money and lots of it. Those in attendance were, in slang parlance, rolling in it.

I had felt reasonably happy with my appearance when I left the ladies’ rest room. Having been at the hotel all day, to ensure that everything was in place for this multi-faceted jewel in the charity’s money-raising crown, it had seemed ridiculous to go all the way home to my tiny flat just to change. Faced with all the glamour in the ballroom, however, my confidence was rapidly fading, along with my energy.

A stage had been erected at one end of the function hall, in front of a cream-painted wall on which coloured lights could be trained to create special effects appropriate to the event in progress. Tonight, photographic slides were being projected on to the wall to ‘advertise’ each promise. Currently, a super-size black thoroughbred racehorse was in full gallop across a long strip of verdant green turf, a tiny blob of a human clinging like a monkey to its huge back. In the background, the strains of the theme to the television series ‘Black Beauty’, which I used to watch as a child, were playing over the speakers. ‘Galloping Home’ it was called, I remembered, smiling to myself at the lack of originality. Most of the crowd were probably too merry to notice, anyway.

On the stage, the horse’s owner or trainer was talking up the ability of the nag and the races it had already contested. It did seem to have done quite well, but apart from the Grand National, I don’t know one race from another, and I don’t suppose the rest of the moneyed throng did either, so they could have been flogging a real dud for all I knew.

Nevertheless, the bidding was brisk, especially from one corner of the ballroom, where a group of businessmen were egging each other on with noisy enthusiasm. Evidently already three sheets to the wind, they managed to outbid each other – and everyone else interested – to the tune of five thousand pounds. Brian Gibbs, one-time colleague, old friend and tonight’s Master of Ceremonies was nearly apoplectic with delight and almost screamed his encouragement down the microphone. It was a lot of money, but rather cynically, I could not help thinking to myself that if the horse was as good as the owner/trainer had implied, then the red-faced gent in the tight-fitting white dinner jacket who had had the final bid was likely to win an awful lot more than that.

The next lot was the services of a limousine and driver for the day. On the display behind the dais was a picture of a gleaming Lady Penelope-type pink Rolls Royce, whilst on to the stage tottered (I cannot say walked, for her heels were too high) the leggy blonde chauffeuse… in tight baby pink jacket which revealed a quantity of cleavage – no blouse, needless to say – and a matching pink mini skirt which barely covered her… assets. Of course all the men in the room, including the balding, bespectacled auctioneer, were virtually drooling at the mouth. I noticed more than one wife or girlfriend poke an errant ‘other half’ back to a semblance of twenty-first century, rather than Neolithic, behaviour.

Even so, the ballroom was in an uproar as bids flew in from all sides.

“Fifty quid,” shouted one bright spark from the back of the room.

“One hundred,” roared another.

“Gentlemen, please!” entreated Wallis, the auctioneer. “I cannot accept an opening bid of less than five hundred pounds. And please remember that only Miss Pinkerton’s driving skills are being auctioned.”

A loud groan echoed around the room followed by a burst of laughter. I wondered wearily if some of them would stay sober long enough to view all the lots. In spite of evident female disapproval, however, competition was fierce and Miss Pinkerton was finally knocked under the gavel for three thousand, five hundred pounds. I almost laughed out loud when I saw that the winning bid had been made by the diamond necklace and tiara-wearing wife of a local bank manager. I had a strong suspicion that she would be enjoying the services of the chauffeuse while spending large quantities of her husband’s money on a shopping spree. That would teach him, I thought with a certain amount of glee.

It was beginning to feel very stuffy in the crowded hall and as the next lot was introduced, a straightforward balloon ride, I started to think longingly of floating away myself. My attention began to wander and it was then that I caught sight of my reflection in one of the mirrors. I could not help but cringe.

My face was the colour of whey and the cerise lam̩ turban which I had bought from a charity shop to hide my absent ash-blonde curls had clearly been made for someone with a rounder head than I. In the cloakroom mirror, it had seemed content to stay where I put it; in the warmth of the function hall, it had slipped drunkenly sideways. Unfortunately Рor perhaps fortunately, given the way matters turned out Рnone of this seemed to bother Brian.

Two lots later, as proceedings were drawing to a close, he swooped down on me before I had a chance to engineer my escape. Ignoring my wan face and badly-fitting headdress, he dismissed my pathetically garbled veto with a wave of his hand and dragged me up the three steps on to the stage. It was at that moment that I saw Dimitri for the first time.

I suppose I noticed him because he was standing on his own to the other side of the dais, with his attention on the merry gathering rather than the ‘merchandise’ and a glass of red wine instead of the customary champagne in his hand. His gaze held mine and for several seconds I had the oddest sensation we were the only people in the room. Slowly, almost insolently, he then allowed his eyes to travel over the spangled black party frock I had hired for the occasion. He raised an eyebrow and instantly I had a strange notion that he understood how much I hated the limelight. Something new and unheralded uncurled in my stomach and came to life beneath his scrutiny. My lips opened on a breath and my heart beat a rapid tattoo against my ribs.

I began to feel light-headed as Brian pressed me to make a speech. The bright lights of the crystal chandeliers seemed to spin before my eyes. All colours of the rainbow – pink, red, blue, green – swirled around me like a shoal of exotic fish in a turquoise ocean. Oddly, the events which followed seemed to take place in slow motion and yet at the same time, while I remember each moment with perfect clarity, they were over in a flash.

I turned from Dimitri to make my excuses to Brian. Somehow as I turned, I lost my balance in my borrowed heels. My spangled dress had a narrow, figure-hugging skirt and as I took an unwary step to save myself, the fabric snagged around my thigh, blocking my movement. I heard the crowd gasp as I teetered precariously and then made an undignified swan dive off the stage. Before I hit the parquet floor and without apparently moving, Dimitri was there, cradling me…

I fainted into oblivion.

I awoke in a high, narrow hospital bed with monitors bleeping and various wires attaching me to them. Dimitri was gone. Brian and his wife Beryl, my second-in-command, were arguing, sotto voce, in the corner of the soulless private room. It was like a thousand other such rooms in hospitals the length and breadth of the British Isles. Painted a utilitarian and dispiriting grey, there were drab grey-green curtains at the one small window, a hard, similarly-coloured faux leather chair beside the bed and a marginally more comfortable-looking armchair against the opposite wall. On a trolley table at the end of the bed was an ancient television. I tried not to, but could not help listening to the heated conversation.

“You fool!” Beryl was saying. “Couldn’t you see how pale she was? She’s run herself ragged putting this together. Throwing the spotlight on her like that, when you know how much she hates being ‘gawped at’ as she puts it… Well, it might have been the last straw. This might be… the end.”

Her voice lowered to a whisper, but I heard the emotion there. We had been working for months on various fund-raising events and were a good team, complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We had become close friends in the process. I was aware of being weaker than I could ever remember, but it was too much effort to process what that meant. I felt numb. I wondered if this was how it was, at the end, this fog-like calm acceptance. My eyes scanned the unlit corners of the sterile, impersonal room; only dimly did I realize I was seeking the wraith of Death.

A nurse wearing lilac scrubs and a plastic apron came in, her grim expression swiftly changing to a cheery smile when she saw I was awake. As she checked my vital signs, she murmured words of encouragement, but I was not about to be fooled and neither was Beryl. I distinctly heard her sob. I wanted to reassure her that I was ready to go, but my brain would not cooperate. With a sigh I closed my eyes…

The hospital clock showed two a.m. when I next opened them. All was quiet, apart from the bleeps of the equipment and a low humming similar to that a refrigerator makes. A spicy aroma vied with the integral, sanitized antiseptic smell as the atmosphere in the room distinctly cooled. By the door the shadows seemed to shift… I blinked and Dimitri stepped forward to the bed. In the low-wattage overhead light I could see he was wearing navy chinos and a matching silk shirt. A heavy gold ring encircled the middle finger of his left hand. He took hold of mine, a white wisp against his olive-toned strength, and blood rushed to my nerve endings, making them tingle in the manner of feeling returning to a cramped limb.

“Fear not, pethi mou,” he murmured. His voice was deep and soothing, yet stirred my senses. “I can help you. Drink, now.”

My mind fuddled with drugs, I obeyed as he pressed something to my mouth. The liquid was warm and slightly salty, with a metallic taste. I grimaced, turning my head aside to avoid whatever it was he was giving me, but he spoke again – softly, compellingly – and I followed his bidding without another thought.

When I woke the next morning, I believed Dimitri’s visit must have been a dream, a side-effect of all the medication I had been given. However, I astounded everyone – including myself – by sitting up and swallowing some chicken soup for dinner. That night I slept more deeply than in a very long time and I dreamed of him again, though this time my overwrought hormones had his muscular body enhanced by a figure-hugging black T-shirt and black jeans. I woke up short of breath, as if I had been running, my nostrils full of cinnamon and nutmeg and a coppery tang lingering on my lips. Rubbing my rough scalp, I gulped a mouthful of water from the glass by my bed. I had never had such a sensuous and powerful dream. It disturbed me and yet I felt… more alive, more vital, than I had in months.

All week he came and each day I embellished the sweet fantasy, even though I knew that it could not happen. The handsome hero could not save me. Nothing and no-one could save me. Nevertheless, my condition continued to improve dramatically. The doctors were dumbstruck. I was tempted to tell them of my nocturnal visitor, but I knew they would somehow prevent him coming. I did tell my best friend Julie when she came to visit, but with sublime disregard for our long-standing relationship, she leaned back in the armchair, chuckled throatily and blamed the drugs. Being a mature, responsible adult, I threw my pillow at her.

Determined to prove I wasn’t hallucinating, that night I refused the medication the nurse brought me. Of course there was a mighty fuss at this. The ward sister was sent for – a frosty creature in a starched mauve uniform – and she summoned the on-call doctor, who considered me gravely and advised against such a course in a strained, over-worked tone, but finally I convinced them I was adamant. When the furore had eventually died down and I was once more alone, I set my watch alarm for midnight. Dimitri arrived soon after, dressed in charcoal trousers, short-sleeved white shirt and a black leather jacket. His hair, dark as a raven’s wing, flopped sexily over his brow. My hormones sat up and took notice.

“Who are you?” I asked as he soundlessly approached the bed. He seemed to glide across the two-tone grey tile-effect floor. “Some sort of Guardian Angel?!”

He said nothing at first, as if considering. “Once I was a doctor. I help where I can.” His voice was low-pitched and gravelly. It sent shock-waves of sensation to my stomach.

“You made me drink. Made me better.” It was a statement, not a question. “What did you give me?”

“It is best you do not know.”
He turned away, his movement smooth and assured. Suddenly I was afraid I would never see him again.
“Don’t leave. Tell me… Please.”

I climbed from the bed, reaching for him. As I clutched at his arm, my mind at once filled with images: star-filled skies; barren moonlit landscapes; a figure tramping dark, empty streets. I saw his loneliness and felt his sorrow, his need to hold and be held. Was this his life I was seeing? How could that be? I had never before had any kind of spiritual experience. In fact I had always had so much trouble deciding what to buy close friends and family for Christmas, knowing what they were thinking would have been a huge help.

His skin twitched beneath my fingers, as if his body was healing, coming back to life the same as mine was. What a bizarre thought! His brilliant sapphire eyes captured mine; their pupils contracted, the colour intensifying… and I felt oddly as though I were drowning in their depths. Raising my hand, he pressed a kiss to my palm. I trembled deliciously, my lips burning in anticipation under his heated perusal.

Without being aware that I did so, I reached upwards. His lips were cool and sweet, his kiss gentle and coaxing. I pressed closer to his hard, toned body and put my arms around his neck, pulling him down to me; shamelessly seeking more. His tongue sought entry to my mouth as he deepened the kiss. It was glorious and quite unlike any kiss I had ever had in my life. With each stroke against the sensitive skin inside my mouth, a charge of electricity shot to my toes. As I followed his lead, I heard a growl and then something pricked my tongue. I tasted blood – and then I knew what he was, how he had been able to save me. We stood transfixed, breathing heavily. My mind screamed denial, but my soul believed.

I should have been alarmed. Any sane, sensible person would have run from the room as fast as her feet could carry her… although if the myths were to be believed, he could be at the door almost before I had thought to move. However, my heart was soaring, already lost. I watched as Dimitri slowly brought his wrist to his mouth and allowed his fangs to descend. I knew no fear as he bit into the vein, only an all-consuming relief that I no longer fought this thing alone. He offered his bleeding wrist, one eyebrow quirked upwards.

“Will it make me what you are?” My voice was scratchy and infuriatingly weak.

“No. Drink and be well.”

Hesitantly and with a sense of unreality, I took what he offered. Expecting to feel revulsion, I was surprised to find the reverse was true. He tasted of wine and dark chocolate, a heady flavour which I found intoxicating. Desire raged through me like a forest fire. His. Mine. He smelt of spice and a musk which was uniquely him. My body trembled and I felt giddy, as if he had taken my blood.


He wanted me. I wanted him.

Dragging his shirt free of his trousers, I ran my hands feverishly over the smooth flesh of his back without breaking my hold on his vein. His muscles were taut and sculpted, like a centrefold model. With a groan I rubbed against him in the manner of a well-fed cat which has just lapped a saucer of cream.

Gently Dimitri withdrew his wrist. Sealing the wound with a swipe of his tongue, he gave me a kiss which was long, slow and full of promise. Patience, beloved, he spoke to my mind. Not yet. When you are stronger

The fire in my veins abruptly died. Lifting my unresisting body into his arms, he carried me to the bed, where he lowered me to the mattress as if I was a porcelain doll and tenderly tucked me in.

“Sleep,” he whispered, brushing his lips over mine. “You must get well. Then I will make you mine own, sweet beloved.”

I sighed, the mists of slumber already claiming me. I dreamed of exotic lands, beautiful treasures and magical creatures. I dreamed of angels dancing on pink-edged clouds and I dreamed of Dimitri, my very own dark angel, whose touch promised me both heaven and earth.


To read more of the stories, visit Amazon US  Barnes & Noble


© Heather King
 

Enjoy! Happy Hallowe'en!


Monday, 10 October 2016

THE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE ~ The Entrance Hall



The carriage draws up in front of the Country House and the visitor alights. The butler opens the door or doors to admit the new arrivals and the first impression of the interior they receive is within the Entrance Hall.
 

From the Great Halls of medieval times to the formal grandeur of the Georgian mansions, the role of the hall was to welcome the visitor and at the same time be a flag-bearer for the owner’s social standing. The medieval hall had to be large enough to house the lord’s hearth knights, courts of justice, huge gatherings for feast days and bands of travelling minstrels or players. It also had to be lofty enough for the central hearth to give no fear of setting the roof alight. It is from the medieval Great Hall that so many old houses – such as the Elizabethan Hardwick Hall and Palladian Holkham Hall – are thus titled, rather than House or Castle.


Entrance Hall, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Robert Smythson, completed 1597

Christmas Garland, Entrance Hall, Cotehele
Attribution: Adrian Platt


 






















On a far smaller scale, built in 1709, the Entrance Hall of Hanbury Hall shows a similar style to Hardwick, with the awe-inspiring addition of James Thornhill paintings on the staircase.

Staircase, Hanbuty Hall

The early Great Halls were usually built with two rows of pillars or posts to support the roof, with an aisle down the centre. Over time these evolved into wide span roofs, braced initially by arches and later by hammerbeam, which projected from the wall below a main rafter. There was a dais at one end, for the lord’s table and doors at the other, leading, via a long corridor to the kitchen, and also to the pantry and buttery. These huge rooms were decorated with tapestries, to help retain heat where wealth permitted, and hung with armaments, coats-of-arms and martial trophies.
 

By the sixteen hundreds, the upper servants had followed the family’s desertion of the great hall and begun to eat in a separate parlour. The 1st Earl of Dorset commissioned the King’s plasterer, Richard Dungan, to create a flat, decorated ceiling below the timbers of the medieval roof at Knowle. Economic need then brought about more compact houses for the gentry, with the kitchen and a servants’ hall hidden ‘below stairs’. Slowly the entrance hall was changing towards a more Continental usage, as a reception room for visitors awaiting an interview. Built in 1692, the Marble Hall at Petworth (seat of the Duke of Somerset) is an example of this, boasting huge mouldings, elaborate door and window surrounds, and a view through several doors to a classical bust on a plinth in the North Gallery. This ‘axial vista’ was a popular feature during the Baroque period and can also be witnessed at Chatsworth House. Of the same timescale as Petworth, the Painted Hall at Chatsworth (also in Derbyshire) was created for the 1st Duke of Devonshire by William Talman. There were originally two flights of curving stairs where today there is just the one, straight staircase, but with the gallery adjoining it, the hall is possibly even more imposing. Scenes from the life of Julius Caesar by Louis Laguerre adorn the walls above the fireplace facing the entrance and an assembly of the gods, by the same artist, appropriately decorates the ceiling.
 

Kedleston Hall, also in Derbyshire, boasts a Marble Hall designed by Robert Adam on the lines of a Roman atrium, with columns and classical statuary so it resembles an open courtyard.

Marble Hall, Kedleston Hall


 





















Cross-section of the hall and saloon…


 





…and Kedleston Hall from the outside. You can see the pediment above the domed ceiling of the hall in the picture above.

Attribution: Glen Bowman from Newcastle, England


At Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, an enormous, church-like lantern was erected sixty-seven feet above the hall, its ceiling showing a painting of Marlborough’s battle victory by Sir James Thornhill, completed before he fell foul of the Duchess and was dismissed for suspected sharp practice over his charges. There is a similar, if less grand, arrangement at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, designed by Henry Holland. Nevertheless, the lantern in the Staircase Hall still takes the visitor’s breath away when first they see it.


Staircase Hall, Berrington Hall


Skylight, Staircase Hall, Berrington Hall


 

Marble Hall, Berrington Hall


 

At Berrington, the French-influenced Marble Hall leads into the Staircase Hall, as shown by this view through the house.




Through Staircase Hall, Berrington Hall




 

 



 

There are tapestries on the walls, but they date only from 1902. This was a country gentleman’s seat and therefore more modest. Some of the grandest houses of the Georgian era have rococo plaster mouldings in elaborate panels, often in the classical designs of urns, wreaths and garlands. This is a picture of some of the plasterwork at Berrington.




Wall detail, Marble Hall
Berrington Hall

 

By contrast, this is the entrance hall of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire.


Entrance Hall, Sutton Scarsdale Hall


Originally, the Hall was part of a Saxon estate mentioned in the Domesday Book as belonging to Roger de Poitou. Knighted by Henry VIII, John Leke passed the property to his son Francis, who was created a baronet by James I in 1611. He further advanced to the peerage when made Earl of Scarsdale in 1640 by Charles I. The 4th Earl, Nicholas Leke, commissioned Francis Smith to build a Georgian mansion surrounded by gardens, incorporating some of the existing house. Oak panelling and a mahogany staircase were installed; elaborate plasterwork was designed by Italian Francesco Vassalli, and fireplaces were carved in the style of Adam by brothers Adalberto and Guiseppe Artari. When the Earl died, the Hall was sold in 1740, becoming the property of the Marquis of Ormonde through marriage. In 1824, Richard Arkwright Junior, son of Sir Richard, the inventor of the water frame which revolutionized the cotton industry, acquired the estate. In 1805, Robert Arkwright married Frances Crawford Kemble, not only a member of the celebrated acting family but also the niece of Sarah Siddons.


Sutton Scarsdale House
 



 

Engraving of Sutton Scarsdale Hall, c. 1820






Sadly, as is the case with Witley Court in Worcestershire, the Hall is now a picturesque ruin.





Scarsdale House
Attribution: Stephen G Taylor



 



 













The Entrance Hall at Witley Court looked like this in 1882. The entrance doors are to the right of the photo.

Entrance Hall, Witley Court 1882


 



 









Now it looks like this, but the scale and grandeur of the house are still evident. This shot is also taken towards the grand staircase with the entrance doors behind the camera on the right. The support beams beneath the arches on the right show where the gallery was.



Entrance Hall towards grand staircase



 



This view shows the Entrance Hall in the other direction and the arched windows of the dining room. A ruin it may be, but Witley Court is an awe-inspiring and inspirational place to visit.






Entrance Hall towards Dining Room
Witley Court


 



 


















If I have whetted your appetite to visit one of our wonderful stately homes, then I have achieved my aim. The National Trust and English Heritage do a wonderful job of caring for these properties, so if you can, please support them.


Unless otherwise stated, all photographs © Heather King and Public Domain images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.









Monday, 12 September 2016

HORSES IN ART ~ FROLIC IN THE FOREST


 

 

HORSEWOMAN IN THE BOIS DE BOULOGNE

 

In this, the tenth in my series on equestrian art, I look at another painting I love. It will be familiar to many, since it was painted by no lesser personage than Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). An oil on canvas, it measures 89” x 102¼” (7’5” x 8’6¼”) or 226 x 261 cm and hangs in the Kuntshalle in Hamburg, Germany.
 

The portrait, of Renoir’s patron, Madame Darras, was painted in 1873. Madame, a picture of Victorian equestrian gentility in sober-hued riding habit, shirt and tie, is looking somewhat stern as she glances down at her companion, Joseph LeCoeur, on a lively pony. She carries a long whip to replace the absence of the leg on the offside of the horse. I also suspect she may give the pony a tap on the shoulder to remind him of his manners should he attempt to barge in front of her own mount. It is said that when the painting was presented to the Salon jury of 1873, they threw up their hands in horror (perhaps not literally) and refused to accept it. The story goes that Monsieur Darras had foreseen this, saying to Renoir:
 

“Blue horses! Whoever heard of such a thing?”


Horsewoman in the Bois de Boulogne, Renoir
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
 

This was before the Impressionist Age had truly begun and before that appellation had even been coined. Renoir and Monet were still experimenting with light and colour; this style of painting was quite a shock to the establishment, so it is hardly surprising the picture met with derision.
 

However, viewing it with a modern eye and loving horses as I do, I can appreciate the skill which has captured the very real blueness that a grey horse’s coat can assume in certain light conditions and from particular angles as well. A grey horse is born dark, sometimes close to black, and the skin is very dark beneath the coat. As the animal ages, the darker hairs (whether ‘dapples’ or merely flecks) lighten until in extreme age the horse becomes white. The pony is a fine example of a dapple-grey, while the horse would appear to be a roan (darker hairs intermingled with the white), although with the tinge of brown on nose and body, it is possible it is a bay that has been clipped out (had the hair removed from its coat to prevent excess sweating). Clipped bays can sometimes appear greyish. Frequently, a dapple-grey will retain his markings on his lower limbs until well into his teens.
 

One thing I love about the painting is the sheer joy exhibited by both equines. The pony, in particular, is raring to go. His ears are pricked, his head is up and his eyes are bright. He is taking a strong hold on his kind Fulmer snaffle bit, yet his rider is unperturbed by his eagerness and clearly has just checked him back. The boy sits well and is eyeing Madame as if to say, “I’m all right. May we gallop, now?”

 
By contrast, Madame Darras’ horse is the picture of manners and elegance. The head carriage would not look out of place in a modern dressage arena, while Madame’s hand on the rein is light. The reins of her double bridle loop; there is no tension between the pair. The horse also has its ears pricked and is bounding forward in a springy, willing rhythm. The light catches the gleam of its well-groomed coat and it is evidently a quality animal which receives the best of care. Madame sits proudly on her steed, but if the impression she gives is one of aloofness, bear this in mind. When riding side-saddle, both legs are on the left hand side of the horse. It is therefore essential that the rider sits centrally and erect in the saddle or she will lose her balance. Posture is not just preferable, it is a core requirement of the activity and far more necessary than when riding astride. Madame is the image of a well turned out, skilled equestrienne.
 

This portrait encapsulates the pleasure of riding for its own sake, the enjoyment derived by both horse and rider when hacking in the countryside. It not only demonstrates the bond between a horseman (or woman) and their steed, it shows how the role of the horse was changing. These two beautiful animals (and mistake me not, little ponies have their own infinite charm!) are not being used for transport, nor for the chase; they are early examples of the horse as a leisure animal, more of a pet than a working beast, and as such, social history at its finest.



Saturday, 27 August 2016

The English Country House...



A Grand Prospect

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, medieval castles and sprawling manor houses evolved into a more formal residence where gardens were laid out in geometric patterns involving strictly linear paths and clipped hedges. Knot gardens and parterres often fronted the large residence, such as at Wilton House in Wiltshire, which was planned to entertain royalty. At Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, built at the time of Queen Anne, in 1701, the parterre to the side of the house is still immaculately maintained.

Hanbury Hall, Parterre

By the extended Regency period, however, the visitor was likely to approach a country house via a long drive, passing between wrought-iron gates guarded by a lodge, where, no doubt, a lodge-keeper would be on hand to proffer a courteous greeting. The equipage, whether travelling coach or chariot, sporting phaeton or curricle, leisurely barouche or landau, or, indeed, the doctor’s homely gig, would then proceed at a brisk trot through an expansive vista of rolling parkland dotted with ancient oak, horse chestnut and beech trees. Between the gnarled branches covered in lichen, a view of a sparkling lake was almost de rigueur, while various follies and perhaps an ice-house would also be glimpsed in secluded positions around the estate. The periphery of this acreage might be enclosed by carefully crafted iron railings, a high brick wall or even a sweeping stone boundary softened by ribbons of ivy and, in shady spots, the feathery touch of mosses.

At Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, the carriageway (now a tarmac drive) for 'guests from London' snakes across the park to a ‘Triumphal Arch’ or gatehouse, whereby the traveller enters the more formal surroundings of neatly tended shrubs and paths.










On the other hand, at Witley Court in Worcestershire, the now long-gone approach, built by Lord Foley in the seventeenth century, was an ambitious causeway across the lake (the Front Pool), to bring the visitor to the imposing North Front. A painting by Edward Dayes (1763 – 1804) is possibly the only surviving image of this approach, as represented here by a print produced by William Angus (1752 – 1821) in 1810.


Witley Court in Worcestershire, the Seat of Lord Foley
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

This is how the Front Pool looks today. A path follows the dam, to the left of this picture, allowing visitors to walk up to the North Front. What an imposing sight it must have been for those long-ago guests of Lord Foley, to ride in a carriage to this huge mansion!









The church, seen in the upper photo, adjoins the North Front and West Wing, to the right of the lower picture.

In some of the grander establishments, such as at Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, the main carriage drive passes over a humpback bridge, then to afford the visitor a grand vista across the parkland to the even grander house.



Oxford Bridge, Stowe
Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike Licence 2.0
Attribution: Nigel Cox

In all probability, the coachman slowed his horses within sight of this imposing residence, where often the sweeping road forked, one arm leading to a gravelled forecourt in front of the house…






 …while the other arm continued to the sumptuous, pedimented stable block where my lord’s hunters and carriage horses were cared for in palatial stalls by a dozen or more dedicated grooms.







Carriages no longer draw through the gates of the Berrington Hall gatehouse, but the approach to the house is still a pleasing prospect.



 


Meanwhile, at Brockhampton House in Herefordshire, the drive is a long, gentle curve to the red-brick Georgian mansion…






…and the path to the fifteenth century Manor House at Lower Brockhampton passes beneath a timber-framed gatehouse over a moat.






At Hanbury Hall, you can see where the formal approach once stretched across the park, between an avenue of Cedar trees.






Many large houses had the parkland landscaped in the current vogue, epitomized by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Sir Humphrey Repton, to name but two, in order to provide a grand prospect, both for the visitor on arrival and my lord’s appreciation of his estate. At Brockhampton House, the mansion stands on the top of the hill, overlooking 1,700 acres of parkland, including the ‘Lawn Pool’, an ornamental lake created as a landscape feature and for the family’s recreation, now being carefully managed by the National Trust. It is a very fine prospect indeed.






The landscaper’s intention was to take the eye across sweeping parkland dotted with ‘natural’ groupings of trees to some imposing vista or focal point, such as a monument, folly, pavilion or gothic temple. This Wall Pavilion is at Witley Court, although it wasn’t added until the gardens were redesigned by William Nesfield for the Earl of Dudley between 1854 and 1860.





Below is a ruined ‘temple’ on the Stanford Park estate in Worcestershire.






I hope you have enjoyed this little taste of how the Georgian gentry and nobility instilled an air of majesty into their parks and a sense of awe into their guests. Over the coming months I plan to lead you on a tour of the magnificent buildings their aristocratic owners thus displayed ~ a legacy we are so fortunate to have and should enjoy and appreciate in equal measure.

A rip-roaring hip-hip-hoorah for the National Trust, English Heritage and the other wonderful institutions which do such sterling work in preserving these houses for this and future generations!


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