Thursday, 10 October 2019

Recreating Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatres: Shakespeare's Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Thursday 24 October)

The actor and director Sam Wanamaker (1919-1993) was a man with a particular vision. It was to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe theatre on or near its original site on the south bank of the River Thames.

The Globe had been built in 1599, destroyed by fire in 1613, rebuilt the following year and finally demolished in 1644. Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed there.

In 1970 Sam Wanamaker set up the Shakespeare Globe Trust, and the process of gathering support, addressing the technical complexities of the task and gaining the necessary official permissions began.

The site of the new Globe could not be the original one because of the buildings currently there. Indeed, the original site is now much further from the Thames than it was. The site found, chosen and approved is about 230 metres from where the original stood but close to the river.

The team tasked with building the theatre had to decide what to build. There was evidence to work with of both the 1599 and 1614 theatres. The twentieth-century theatre would have to be an approximation based on this evidence. Once the structure was agreed, there would be questions about the building materials and techniques to be used. And, of course, modern requirements concerning safety would have to be taken into account. Shakespeare's Globe today is able to accommodate less than half the number of spectators that would have thronged the building in Shakespeare's time.

The wish for authenticity was bound to conflict sometimes with practical considerations. Recreating Shakespeare's Globe would be as challenging in its way as attempting to play Bach on period instruments.

The new theatre opened triumphantly in 1997.

One of the team who recreated Shakespeare's Globe was Paul Simons, a restoration architect and our speaker at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution on 24 October. Paul has had a distinguished career in heritage and tourism. Among many other roles he is Secretary General of UNESCO's Great Spas of Europe project and in Bath chairs the Cleveland Pools Trust.

Sam Wanamaker did not live long enough to see the opening of the recreated Globe. When the decision was taken to add nearby an indoor Jacobean theatre illuminated by candles, it was decided also to name it the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It opened in 2014. Paul Simons was a member of the team that designed it and brought to completion.

Mike Short   

Friday, 30 August 2019

Researching William Beckford's Fonthill (Thursday 26 September)

One of the most extraordinary characters in the history of Bath is William Beckford (1760-1844). He was 10 years old when his father, who had been twice Lord Mayor of London, died and left him a fortune. This consisted of £1 million in cash, an estate, including a Palladian mansion, at Fonthill Gifford in Wiltshire, several sugar plantations in Jamaica, and a colossal annual income.

William Beckford could do whatever he liked. He was interested in art, music and literature. He wrote Vathek, a Gothic novel, in 1786 as well as criticism and vivid accounts of his travels in Europe. He was a knowledgable and also profligate collector of works of art and a generous patron of decorative art. He was MP for Wells (1784-1790) and Hindon in Wiltshire (1790-1795 and 1806-1820). And he built Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown (Beckford's) Tower. He was reputed to be the richest commoner in England.

In 1783 William Beckford married a daughter of the Earl of Aboyne. Soon afterwards a scandal alleging a homosexual relationship with a teenage boy - who later became the Earl of Devon - made the young couple choose exile on the continent. In 1786 Margaret Beckford died giving birth to their second daughter, Susan.

Beckford sought refuge and sanctuary at his estate at Fonthill Gifford. He engaged the architect James Wyatt to build a large Gothic revival country house to accommodate the complete library of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), which he had acquired at auction, and his own art collection. The house was Fonthill Abbey, begun in 1796 and completed by about 1810. The building's most striking feature was its 90-metre-high central tower, which collapsed several times. James Wyatt was unreliable and absent for long periods. Beckford himself then took on the role of supervisor of works.

By 1820 Beckford was finally short of money. He sold Fonthill Abbey for £330,000 and moved to Bath, where he bought 20 Lansdown Crescent - and later 18 and 19 also - and 1 Lansdown Place West. By 1827 Lansdown Tower - to us 'Beckford's Tower' - had been completed.

Back at Fonthill, on 21 December 1825, most of the Abbey collapsed as the tower crashed down on it again.

At his death in 1844 William Beckford left about £80,000.

Much is known about William Beckford and his great 'folly' Fonthill Abbey. Possibly nobody knows more than the Bath Preservation Trust's Dr Amy Frost, whom many of us will have known first as the curator of Beckford's Tower.

How is it possible to extend research into something that is already well-researched? When you know a lot, what makes it possible to know more? These are questions that Amy Frost has faced in her work on William Beckford and Fonthill. The many of us who know Amy know that she will enlighten, surprise and fascinate us as she addresses the subject Researching William Beckford's Fonthill at our first lecture of the new season on Thursday 26 September at our new venue, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16-18 Queen Square, beginning at 7.30 pm.

Mike Short    

Monday, 1 July 2019

The 2019-20 lecture programme and a very special event for Christmas

Since the completion of last season's programme of lectures on 25 April three groups of HA Bath members have visited The Hall at Bradford-on-Avon on 23 May and 6 June and Hamswell House, just north of Bath, on 12 June.

Some members also attended the Historical Association Conference in Chester on 17 and 18 May.

The next scheduled event for members is the first of our lectures for the 2019-20 season. Details of the seven lectures were circulated at the branch's annual general meeting on 25 April. They will all take place at our new home, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution in Queen Square.

The first speaker of our new season will be local favourite Dr Amy Frost of Bath Preservation Trust whose subject will be Researching William Beckford's Fonthill. Amy will be followed by Paul Simons, also well-known in Bath, a restoration architect whose first-hand experience will enable him to explain the issues involved in recreating historic buildings. In November we will welcome Tracy Borman, renowned author and joint Chief Curator (with Lucy Worsley) of Historic Royal Palaces. In the new year a varied programme will be presented by speakers from Birkbeck University of London and the universities of Birmingham and Worcester.

This year's special event before Christmas will be very special indeed. It will begin with a talk, accompanied by a glass of wine, given by Stephen Bird, Head of Heritage Services for B&NES, in the Pump Room. This will be followed by a guided tour of the Roman Baths and Museum. We will finish with a buffet on the enclosed terrace overlooking the Great Bath, which will be illuminated with flaming torches. The date for this is Tuesday 3 December, the starting time 7 o'clock. Details and application forms will be sent to members during August.

This is the programme ...

26 September 2019
Researching William Beckford's Fonthill
Dr Amy Frost (Bath Preservation Trust)

24 October 2019
Recreating Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatres: Shakespeare's Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Paul Simons (Restoration architect)

21 November 2019
Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him
Dr Tracy Borman (Heritage Education Trust, Historic Royal Palaces)

3 December 2019
Members' Christmas Visit and Buffet at the Roman Baths and Pump Room, Bath

23 January 2020
International diplomacy between the wars: dead ends or new beginnings?
Dr Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck University of London)

27 February 2020
Who is the tramp? Vagrancy in Victorian and Edwardian Britain
Professor Nicholas Crowson (University of Birmingham)

26 March 2020
The search for women in the Viking Age
Dr Chris Callow (University of Birmingham)

23 April 2020
Royal attitudes to the Atlantic slave trade, 1785-1808
Professor Suzanne Schwarz (University of Worcester)

All lectures will take place on Thursday evenings at 7.30 at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16-18 Queen Square. I will introduce each lecture in this diary.

Mike Short       

Friday, 29 March 2019

Singing the News: Ballads in mid-Tudor England (Thursday 25 April)

For the first lecture at our new venue - Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution at 16-18 Queen Square - I am particularly pleased that the branch will welcome Dr Jenni Hyde. Jenni is an academic, working mainly at Lancaster University, secretary of the Bolton branch of the Historical Association, and deputy chair of the HA's Branches and Members Committee, of which I am the chairman. She is also a musician, and the confluence of history and music has been a focus of her research.

Today we are bombarded by news, on television and radio, in newspapers, online. In the sixteenth century news travelled slowly, most artisans and labourers and many others could not read, and censorship and spying in an era of cataclysmic change were rife. Yet people were curious, they wanted to know what was going on, they had opinions and no doubt prejudices, and they wanted to express them.

One way in which ideas could be expressed and information passed on was through singing and listening to popular songs. The vernacular words and memorable tunes of sixteenth-century ballads made them accessible to everyone. For us they are an important resource for understanding the views and attitudes of the common people as Henry VIII broke with Rome and divorced or beheaded his wives, as Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans vied for ascendancy or asserted freedom of conscience, as England faced the might of Spain. Rhyme and melody became keys for passing on news, stories and ideas.

In her lecture Jenni Hyde will use live musical examples to demonstrate how the singing of ballads enabled the people of mid-Tudor England to make their own contributions to debates about the issues of the day whatever the restrictions the powerful sought to impose on freedom of speech.

Jenni Hyde's lecture will be followed by a brief Annual General Meeting at which those attending will be presented with the branch's annual report and accounts and details of the programme for the 2019-20 season.

Mike Short 

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

New ways of 'reading' and contextualising the Lindisfarne Gospels (Thursday 28 March)

The British Library is one of our greatest cultural repositories. It houses more than 150 million books, manuscripts, newspapers, magazines, prints, drawings, maps and other items, adding 3 million more every year. Its recent major exhibitions have included Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (2015) and Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths (2017). From October 2018 until last month it presented Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. It was a superb exhibition of varied artefacts, many beautifully crafted in clay or metal or jewels or hide with ink and paint and demonstrating yet again how inappropriate the term 'Dark Ages' is when applied to the early medieval period.

One of the many wonderful artefacts displayed in the British Library exhibition was the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced around 715-720 in the monastery at Lindisfarne and arguably the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England.

We know that the scribe and artist of the Gospels and the texts that accompany them (eg the letters of St Jerome) was Eadfrith, 'bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne' from 698 to 722. He did this 'for God and St Cuthbert'. The work was bound and given its cover by Ethilwald, 'bishop of the Lindisfarne-islanders'. Billfrith 'the anchorite' added rich decoration to both the cover and the text, creating a case or binding of jewels and precious metals. These latter have gone, probably taken during the Viking raids on Holy Island.

We know about the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels from an inscription written by Aldred, a monk of the late tenth century who was based at Chester-le-Street, near Durham. Aldred also added, in Old English, some annotations and a word-by-word 'translation' of the Latin text - the earliest such rendering of the Gospels in English.

The Lindisfarne Gospels fulfil an exceptional role in our cultural heritage: as a treasure for historians, theologians and anyone who appreciates beautiful things produced with consummate skill and craftsmanship. But how are we to understand the circumstances in which they were created 1,300 years ago, the motivations of Eadfrith and his colleagues and Aldred, the audience for which they were intended, the reasons why they have survived for us to study, wonder at and treasure? Our guide for this month's lecture on the Lindisfarne Gospels in Michelle Brown, Professor Emerita of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Professor Brown summarises her research interests and expertise as 'The role of the book as a cultural medium. The palaeography, codicology, art history and socio-historical context of medieval manuscripts. Late antique and early medieval history, archaeology and the material culture of Europe and the Levant. Art and spirituality, historic and contemporary'. It is our good fortune that she is coming to share with us some of her insights into an early medieval cultural landmark that continues to intrigue, fascinate and delight.

Mike Short

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Modernising Calcutta: Technology, the Spectacular and the Unexpected (Thursday 28 February)

Calcutta - the official name of Kolkata until 2001 - is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. It is the principal commercial, cultural and educational centre of East India and India's oldest operating port. During the eighteenth century the British East India Company traded there, developed a fortified trading post and eventually assumed full sovereignty of the region.

Under East India Company rule and, from 1858, the British Raj Calcutta served as the capital of British-held territories in India.

Professor Anindita Ghosh's background, career and current activities are summarised on the home page of this website. Her recent work, funded by a major grant from the British Academy, examined the city of Calcutta during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the late nineteenth century Calcutta was a melting pot of migrant workers, artisans, servants, boatmen, labourers, petty traders and shopkeepers and an army of clerks, apart from the educated Bengali classes who served in the various colonial and mercantile establishments in the city. As the administrative and commercial capital of British India, Calcutta was the quintessential harbinger of modernity in the subcontinent. And yet we know rather little of the responses of its inhabitants to these tumultuous developments.

Professor Ghosh's lecture will explore urban experiences in the colonial metropolis as articulated in its street songs, newspapers, memoirs and images. It will examine how print and performance in Calcutta in the late nineteenth century animated the urban domain with widely shared discourses on the city, on material changes and shifting conceptions of space and technology, giving insight into the experience of a recently urbanised world.

Mike Short 

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Reformation: how Bath Abbey survived it (Thursday 24 January)

Bath Abbey as we know it is the third church to stand on its current site. Begun by Bishop Oliver King in 1499, it was not complete when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.

The monks were forced to leave, and the building was offered to the city authorities at a very low price. So far had the abbey's prestige declined that the offer was refused. The church's valuables, including stained glass windows and lead from the roof, were removed. In 1542 the empty shell and the monastery were sold to Humphrey Colles. Colles then sold them to Matthew Colthurst.

In 1572 Colthurst's son Edmund gave what remained of the church to the mayor and citizens of Bath for use as a parish church. Restoration work began, supported by Queen Elizabeth I. Thomas Bellot, one of the wealthy citizens who contributed to the work, had been steward to Lord Burghley (William Cecil). Bellot used his bequest from Burghley as well as his own money to give generous support to the restoration. The appointment of James Montagu as Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1608 added further impetus. By 1616 Bath Abbey was repaired and in use.

Jeremy Key-Pugh describes himself on social media as 'retired teacher, grandfather to Sam and Leo, keen historian and churchwarden'. His association with Bath Abbey is longstanding. In his lecture The Reformation: how Bath Abbey survived it Jeremy will take us through the turbulent events of the sixteenth century and explain how Oliver King's great church came through the tumult to begin the path that would lead to today's splendour.

Mike Short