Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant – A Review

“I was 17 from a fishin’ family, a family that was starving.  I was always a bit wild.  I should have listened to my father.  I should have listened to my mother.  But I didn’t.”

And so begins The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant, the tale of a provincial young woman who is shipped off to Botany Bay after being convicted of stealing food.  From the beginning, it has the makings of a tawdry novel: a heroine with child; a love triangle—a handsome fellow prisoner or the powerful lieutenant; schemes and necessary betrayals.  But before you imagine yourself watching a bodice ripper, know that the setup is merely the enticement.

Despite historical inaccuracies that make the film tragically romantic, The Incredible Journey is a miserable movie mostly because it’s a miserable story.  People starve, women are raped, children die and what’s worse, it’s based on actual events.   There is, however, something inspiring going on about all the stench and despair and that’s Mary.  She’s a quick study with a surprising sense of loyalty and a fighting spirit.

After surviving both a punishing voyage and the violent convict uprisings , she calls Botany Bay a paradise.  Determined to claim her piece of happiness, she convinces Will Bryant to marry her because married couples are allowed to build houses (it doesn’t hurt that he’s an Alex O’Loughlin).  The clever girl then secures a fishing job for her husband along with a percentage of the catch.  All’s well and good until the English crops, failing in the arid soil, convince her that she can’t feed her children if she stays put.  In the “real” story, by all accounts Will got 100 lashings for selling fish without the governor’s approval, but onward with the drama.

Faced with the impending gloom of starvation–which Mary has suffered from before–Mary eats her fear.  This is where her story gets incredible.  Impossible though it seems, she plans to escape the penal colony which just so happens to be in the middle of the Australian nowhere.  Along with her children and a seven man crew, she sets to sea on the governor’s stolen boat and navigates the uncharted Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Straits—a feat for any seaman, much less a motley crew.  66 days and 5,000 miles later, she and her companions land on the Dutch island of Timor.  Styled as merchant class shipwreck survivors and afforded the luxuries that come from well-fashioned lies, Mary and her fellows live a life of ease until a chance encounter with her lovesick lieutenant, whom she has seduced and abandoned during her scheme to escape, ends in tragedy.

I won’t tell you the rest, as it ruins the suspense.  As an historical curiosity, however, it should be known that Mary was rumored to have an affair with the famous 18th century man of letters and biographer, James Boswell.  As he did her a kindness, resulting in the eventual betterment of her life, who knows the truth of their relationship given Boswell’s reputation for tendres with lower class women?  Either way, she’s a fascinating woman who defied the odds and made history by doing what she was told was impossible.

The Bones of Holkham Hall


Holkham Hall is the ancestral seat of  Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, and his descendants.  As one of the most notable examples of 18th century Palladian revival, which celebrated the symmetrical style of ancient Greece and Rome, its construction lasted a total of 30 years, between 1734 when its foundation was laid and 1764 when the great house was finally completed.

This early blueprint is based on the principal plan of the piano nobile, or first floor, drawn by Matthew Brettingham in 1761.  For purposes of understanding what an 18th century country estate might look like to the bones, it’s fantastic.  The reception rooms are situated around two courtyards.  Wings extend from the heart, comprising the bedchambers and the family’s various private rooms.

Upon close review, Holkham Hall might look familiar to you.  The 2008 film, The Duchess, was set on location here.  The Great Hall in particular was the setting for many of Georgina’s emotional interludes, including her  argument with Charles Grey after she’s returned from their love affair in Bath.

The Library

The Chapel

The Salon or Saloon

For more information, see:

360 degree view of Holkham Hall

Visit Holkham Hall

More pictures

Marie Antoinette in Anime

I am not a fan of anime, or rather I should say, I have not been exposed to anime enough to consider myself a fan, but count me in!  Just when I thought I had exhausted stories regarding Marie Antoinette, here I find she’s been romping around as a cartoon character since 1973.  It’s too lovely to describe.

The plot of The Rose of Versailles follows the sword-wielding Lady Oscar who happens to be the daughter of General Jarjayes (an actual historical figure).  Disappointed with his lack of sons, Jarjayes trains Oscar in the martial arts.  She eventually becomes Commander of the Palace Guard.  Tasked with protecting the royal family, she has an insider’s view into court scandals, including the queen’s supposed affair with Count Axel Fersen, the Affair of the Necklace, and Antoinette’s friendship with Madame de Polignac.

Fortunately for us Antoinette fanatics, The Rose of Versailles has been so wildly successful as manga that it’s been adapted into the French movie “Lady Oscar,” musicals, and a television series. Plenty of options to explore!

Watch the English subtitled television episodes here.

If you want to watch the movie, it’s hard to find.  The quality is not great, but youtube does have it.

Portrait of a Jacobite Lady

Portrait of a Jacobite Lady, 1740-1750, Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772)

Edinburgh, The Drambuie Collection

It’s the weekend which means I’m in the mood for a bit of fun and what, I ask you, is more fun than a Jacobite lady donning both tartan and military garb?  It’s a winsome look because it’s absolutely steeped in pride: for country, cause, and cheek.  The unidentified lady–who based on careful examination of the tartan is possibly Jenny Cameron, alleged mistress of Bonnie Prince Charlie–wears a riding jacket.  The front of the jacket resembles a waistcoat with gold braiding, but on close study appears to be a vest-shaped piece of ornamentation pinned on top of the riding jacket (or perhaps is part of the jacket itself?)  Either way, women didn’t wear military uniforms so the margins for creative license were rather wide.   As a very abbreviated frame of reference, 18th century regimental dress consisted of standard civilian dress, i.e. a tricorne hat, long-skirted coat, waistcoat, and breeches.  Distinctions between regiments and hierarchy were made with colors and facings.

Back to the portrait . . .

Given the lady’s anonymous nature, how do we know she’s a Jacobite?  The most obvious indication comes from what she holds in her right hand: the white rose of York.  This symbol first gained political relevance in the War of the Roses where it distinguished the York supporters from the Lancasters who flaunted their red rose.  The white cockade, as shown below on Bonnie Prince Charles, was worn by Jacobite supporters along with their ubiquitous blue bonnet.  The British, on the other hand, sported black cockades.

Besides the not-so-secret white rose, the Jacobite lady includes another symbol in her portrait, that of the rose and rose bud paired together.  The rose is said to have symbolized the exiled King James with the buds being his heirs, Charles and Henry.  I only see one bud here.  Maybe a bit of favoritism on the lady’s part?

Jacobite symbols were often nested in a badge or crest–usually a sprig of a plant that identifies allegiance to a clan.  As such, the Scots were supposedly able to distinguish frenemies from fellow brothers in arms.  The question is, how does one acquire heather or whatnot during the middle of winter?  Tartans, I assume, were easier to come by and would fairly shout the clan name whoever beheld it.  That niggling little notion aside, the Jacobites, being part of a renegade cause, had plenty of ways to show their true colors. Telling symbols included the butterfly, oak leaf and acorns, the sunflower, scraps of rue and thyme, and Medusa’s head.   For a short explanation concerning some of these, see here.

Evolution in a Boy’s Dress

This little boy, from a Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) still, is dressed in a minature version of what his upper middle class father would wear: three piece suit and cravat.  A stiff and formal look to our modern eyes to say the least.  Notions of childhood as a distinct period of human development with unique needs and requirements didn’t exist until John Locke published Some Thoughts Concering Education in 1693.  Along with the nature of how to faciliate a child’s education, Locke argued for less restrictive dress which would in turn better enable the child’s mental and physical wellness.  It was doubtless an enlightened idea, but garnered few influential supporters, namely high-born ladies who controlled their children’s dress,   In reality, Locke’s theory took 69 years to take root and required the later success of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile in 1762 for changes in the everyday dress of children to be effected. 

Aha!  The Reason Why a Young Child’s Sex is Indistinguishable in Period Paintings

Until around age 4 to 7, boys and girls were dressed alike in back-laced frocks.  After that, boys entered a period where they were “breeched.”   This is where the three piece suit of knee breeches, a waistcoat, and a coat would have been assumed.  It’s hard to believe, but the suit was actually less constrictive than what was worn in previous centuries due to the continuous streamlining taking place in fashion.  No more cumbersome doublets or full-skirted frock coats of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Hurrah! 

The Children of the Duc de Bouillon, 1647 by Pierre Mignard

The 1770s further liberated boys’ dress by swapping tight breeches for loose sailor-like trousers.  With an unstarched collared shirt in lieu of a lawnshirt and cravat, the waistcoat discarded in favor of a simple short jacket, the “skeleton suit” was thus born.   This buttoned-up look became the standard dress for boys from 1780 to 1820. 

Skeleton Suit, The Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site


Singerie a.k.a The Monkey Craze

The monkey craze was born out of orientalism, a close relation to chinoiserie, the other craze of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Like many aesthetic obsessions of the time, it manifested from western Europe’s fervor for all things exotic and first cemented its mark in France.  Today we can thank Claude III Audran, a designer working at the Chateau de Marly, for entertaining us with his notion that monkeys can and should sit around a table just like us humans.  Or at least, they should in paintings.  This idea of Audran’s was most likely inspired by 17th century aristocrats’ penchant for dressing their pet monkeys in outfits where the monkeys would then perform tricks for the amusement of courtiers at Versailles.

Unfortunately Audran’s designs have gone the way of the chateau, but we can the work of his successors.  Jean Berain, the Elder, a rococo artist who painted arabesque wall decorations f0r the Sun King renewed enthusiasm for the style when he added monkeys to his engravings in 1711.  I’ll leave it up to you to decipher what business the monkey is up to here.

The artist Jean Baptiste Siméon  Chardin is a also notable contributor with his singe paintings, the most famous being Le Singe Peintre (below) but many influential artists of the time dabbled in the style, including Antoine Watteau and Nicolas Lancret.

In art, as well as textiles and home furnishings, singerie eventually became the term for the humorous depiction of monkeys imitating human behavior.  Often, these simians were fashionably dressed in oriental attire and were depicted engaging in playful pursuits.  In fact, that’s where singerie comes from.  In French, it translates as “monkey trick.”   


The greatest surviving example of a room decorated in the singerie style is located in the Chateau de Chantilly.  From 1643 to 1830, it was owned by the Bourbon Condé family, cousins to Louis XIV.  For an up close look, visit Le Grand Singerie.  The images above are part of the wall paneling.  The whole of the room, formerly believed to have been painted by Watteau, is now credited to Christophe Huet.  He also painted Le Petit Singerie which functioned as a small room between the apartments of the Duc and Duchesse of Bourbon. 

For further information on singerie, see:  NY Times’ Chateau’s Monkey Room is Lovingly Restored

Liked the post?  Check out 18th Century Chinoiserie


18th Century Costume Archives: Embroidered Dutch Wedding Gown

Excepting the Rijksmuseum’s inelegant head covering, which frankly detracts from the presentation, this example of a Dutch wedding gown is a masterpiece of embroidery.  The motif, relieved by a restrained bodice and plain sleeves, summons the look of a sartorial garden wherein 17th century fabric–ribbonesque mustard scrollwork, flowers ranging from carmine to blush to blue, all on a backdrop of the lightest blue silk–meets 18th century style.

What’s interesting here is that the large patterned embroidery is actually a throwback to the 1600s while the gown’s silhouette seems distinctly middle 18th century.   There is, however, a confusing element involved when dating this gown.  Exaggerated panniers, which widened a woman’s hips to staggering proportions, originated in the 17th century Spanish court.  From there, the style spread to the French, then was later adopted by Europe’s remaining fashionable courts around 1718-1719.  

Since this particular gown was worn by Helena Slicher, a Dutch woman, the creation date of 1759 seems reasonable as trends typically spread outward from France and lingered long after they were au dernier gout back in Paris.  But, it could also be an example of a gown worn by Slicher’s mother and recycled due to fashion’s cyclical tendencies.  Either way, it’s a colorful example of an 18th century wedding gown when the majority tended toward silks of pastel blue, silver, or taupe.

18th Century Costume Archives: Red Silk 1760s Robe a l’Anglais

This gown, from the Victoria and Albert Museum, illustrates the necessity of ladies remaking their wardrobes due to the dear expense of fabric.  The fabric used here, gros de tours, was a type of grosgrain dating to the 1740s, typically made from a combination of silk and wool and as such, heavier than its pure silk counterparts.  You’ll notice the red gown is richly hued, but lacks luster.  This is due to the studiness of the fabric, which is ribbed and  interlaced with organzine and tram filling.  It’s the perfect fabric to withstand restyling.  As a side note, gros de tours was often used for black mourning gowns because it could be infinitely redone.

Examine the details closely and you’ll notice a few things.  Number one: the upper back is cut in the robe à l’anglaise style but appears to retain the gatherings of a robe à la français.  The strips down the center of the back are uncommon.  Look at the two gowns below, the first English, the second French, and it’s easy to imagine how the sack back pleats were gathered to attain the trimmer robe à l’anglaise style. 

Robe à la française, 1760-70. Robe à l’anglaise, 1770-75. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail number two: notice the reserved sleeves.  Drastic changes would have been made for the update, snipping the fabric shorter, cutting away the long, thick trails of flounce.  In the française style, sleeves were still three-quarter length but dripping with embellishments of lace, ribbons, and trim.  English gowns tended toward simplicity.  This 1760s red gown features sleeves with a single ruffle and scalloped edges.  Pay attention to the weight of the fabric in the closeup.  No flimsy silk here.  This was a gown made to last and in the 1740s, at 6-12 shillings a yard for gros de tours, it had better.



How a Yank Doodles his Dandy, or London’s Macaroni Clubs

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni

When I was a little girl, I always thought this song sort of silly.  Yankee Doodle.  First of all, ridiculous name.  Split it into a noun and a verb and it becomes positively mystifying.  Yank was how my Georgia-born grandfather referred to me when I asked him about the “aggressor” in the American Civil War and doodle was what I did when I absolutely, for the dozenth time, feigned total lack of spelling comprehension so I wouldn’t have to partake in the spelling bee.   

Then there’s the “A-riding on a pony” part which is just as confusing as the first bit.  I mean, come on!  What man in his right mind a-rides on a pony without losing all sense of dignity?   Exactly my point.  And feathers?  Mortifying.  Feathers belonged not to a hat but to boa wrappers and old ladies who wore magenta lipstick that smeared on their teeth when they smiled.  Calling “it” macaroni (whatever “it” was) merely exacted the mortal blow that prevented me from singing this ditty.  After all, a little girl who likes to roll unfamiliar words off her tongue can only be so careless before she’s kicking her heels against the naughty chair in detention.

But back to how Yankee Doodle gets equated with macaroni.  Late in the 18th century, an establishment called the Macaroni Club was formed wherein a London dandy could nosh on pasta, strut his affected airs, and in general, be fabulous.  Card carrying members (okay, I don’t really think there was a card) consisted of gentlemen who had gone on a continental Grand Tour and returned with a passion for all things Italian. 

Given their outrageous sartorial choices including the much caricatured club wigs with shruken Nivernois hats, the French-style red heels and striped stockings, not to mention the occasional thrown in parasol and sword garlanded with ribbons, “macaroni” quickly became a choice insult for unmanly behavior.  Homoerotic connotations abounded and gender boundaries blurred.  If a fellow was proclaimed a Macaroni, he was not only a peacock of fashion, but weak, effeminate, and altogether contrary to stereotypical masculine authority.  Perhaps worst of all, in the insular minds of proper Georgian Englishmen, he was a xenophile.  

At a time when France and Spain were aggressively encroaching on British territory and the American colonials were stirring in their breeches, possessing continental sympathies was akin to being unpatriotic. Britain didn’t become an empire by imitating Italy.  Well, actually they did.  It’s called the Roman Empire, but that’s ancient history, long forgotten, rubbish, rubbish.  Point is, stiff upper lips shuddered at what these fancy poodles were doing to their country’s reputation.

Fortunately, a solution soon arrived where dandified Londoners weren’t the lone targets of mockery.  Enter the Americans. During the Revolutionary War, British soliders ridiculed the unkempt colonials who thought it the height of fashion to stick feathers in their hats and how better to unman the enemy, I ask, than by breaking out into song? 

Yankee Doodle keep it up

Yankee Doodle dandy

Mind the music and the step

And with the girls be handy


P.S. Still wondering how a Yank doodles his dandy? Doodle, as used in the ditty, refers to a fool or simpleton. In the early 18th century, however, doodle was also a verb, as in “to swindle or make a fool of”. A derivation of the German word, dudeln, it is possibly the root for the modern American “dude”.