Warmth in a cold snap

Britain is experiencing a cold snap and consequently there is talk of how to keep warm. This has made me look at old ways to keep out the cold.

.This is a detail of a tapestry  which hung in a hall in Medieval England. It was a barrier against the cold drafts which crept in through the walls.

It shows a summer hunting scene. Dogs are chasing a bear and a boar. At the same time, well dressed courtiers are chasing each other. The flowers and foliage, fine dress and warm cheerful colours are designed to make the onlookers think of the warm months. We are transported to summer for a moment.

The Guernsey sweater is a traditional woollen jumper which has been made since the 1400s.  It was knitted, with pride, in the Channel Islands and designed to be worn by the local fisherman. It is easy to move around in and has a tight knit and oily wool to resist sea spray and wind. The fisherman wore the sweater loose and next to the skin, so a layer of insulating warm air built up.

I noticed that the Inuit wear their parkas with the fur directly against bare skin when one of the characters in the film Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner peeled off his parka. The film, which gives a realistic picture of Inuit life, could be set at any time in the tribes’ history. People have lived in this area of Arctic Canada for 4000 years. This kind of clothing has ensured that they survived. The Inuit wear a second parka on top of the first, this time with fur facing outwards, so snow and ice can be shaken off.


>>Reference Library Blog
Parka from the BM

Three challenges

By chance, I had my squeamishness put to the test in three very different situations.

Having enjoyed Serial Mom and Hairspray, I watched This Filthy World, a one man show by the filmmaker John Waters. As he stood on the dimly lit grave yard stage set, his appearance reminded me of a Hammer horror character. He is creative,  funny and clever which made it all the more challenging when he began to paint gruesome images in our minds. He was like a 17th Century libertine who played at challenging boundaries of taste and prudishness.

I was at a museum in the West Country, designed to be fun and for all the family. Leaving the sunny lawn, we were lead by a guide in period costume into gloomy reconstruction of a barber surgeon’s workshop in the 17th Century. As the guide picked up instrument after instrument, he began to elaborate on the grisly cures that were applied to the suffering. Members of the audience were laid out the operating table to aid our imaginations. More gruesome images in my mind! (I wondered, are these horrors entertaining because they are safely in the distant past?)

Next, I was visiting an exhibition dedicated to Skin, at the Wellcome Collection, an authoritative modern museum with an up market cafe. As is the curatorial policy, art is interspersed with objects from the collection. I skirted around the exhibits catching glimpses of skin in various states and films of oozing and cutting. That was enough.

Image: A sign pointing towards a torture exhibit in Carcassone, France.

Airmail envelope

The lightweight, blue and red airmail envelope is hardly used anymore, replaced by the sending of emails which is quicker, cheaper and easier than posting a letter. It is set still more firmly in the past with it’s Woolworths branding and price tag.

For more on packaging, see categories >>

Medieval merman

We visited the coast of Suffolk and saw its wild seas and exposed coastline. This is a story the sea brought forth in the medieval era, when Orford was a major town.


The fishermen pulled in their nets from the sea and found they had caught a wild man.

‘He was naked and was like a man in all his members. He was covered in hair and had a long shaggy beard. The knight kept him in custody many days and nights, lest he should return to the sea. He eagerly ate whatever was brought to him, whether raw or cooked, but the raw he pressed between his hands until all the juice was expelled. Whether he would not or could not, he did not talk, although oft times hung up by his feet and harshly tortured. Brought into the church, he showed no signs of reverence or belief…. He sought his bed at sunset and always remained there until sunrise.
‘It happened that once they brought him to the harbour and suffered him to go into the sea, strongly guarding him with three lines of nets; but he dived under the nets out into the deep sea, and came up again and again as if in derision of the spectators on the shore. After thus playing about for a long while, he came back of his own free will. But later on, being negligently guarded, he secretly fled back to the sea and was never afterward seen.’

Sir Bartholomew de Glanville, Constable of the castle of Orford or Ralph of Coggeshall, a chronicler.

sea panorama
Nearby Suffolk coast.


The Polaroid is now a museum piece.


There is much pleasure in taking a polaroid. Each shot is treated as special, there is the mechanical sound and feel of the paper ejecting, the waiting and watching and the slow alchemical change on the surface of the paper. I wonder if someone will make a digital polaroid that can replace it?

Neanderthal cosmetics

50 000 year old make up has been discovered by archeaologists in South Eastern Spain. Most surprisingly, it is thought that the make up was used by Neanderthals. 

The team has uncovered a thorny oyster shell containing the remnants of pigments. The pigments, made of ground minerals and mixed or stored in the shell palettes, could have been used as foundation or body paint. The oyster shell pigment is made from haematite, pyrite, and charcoal, creating a dark reddish-black look with a  shimmery effect like today’s glitter powders.  Two  yellows are from ground goethite and natrojarosite; the latter was used as make up in Ancient Egypt.

Could the two sides of a an oyster shell have been fastened together to form the first compact?

The scientists also discovered cockle and scallop shells; the fact they all have holes and were painted suggests they were strung on a necklace. 

Until recently, the Neanderthals have been thought of as our less intelligent ancestor. But these finds indicate that they gathered the ingredients, prepared complex paints and used the colour for decoration. It seems that the Neanderthal people were more sophisticated than we previously thought.

>> Guardian arcticle

>> BBC article

>>>NT Times

English Drama

Ed Ruscha’s painting English Drama (left). A horizontally set gothic font has gravitas. When it is set at an uplifting angle, it is becomes an advert. It leaves behind religious text, formal documents and invitations. It is now a commercial item to be shown off  with an added air of entertainment.

A gothic font at an angle could be found on a cheap flyer, painted on a fish and chip placard or outside a tourist destination. Drama (written in the English language) is not enough. British drama is not enough, it must be English! I am already thinking of Stratford Upon Avon.


The world’s first dinosaur sculptures

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A few years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, a group of life size dinosaur models was commissioned by the Crystal Palace Company. They were to go on display in the pleasure park near the glassy Crystal Palace Exhibition hall. The sculptor, Hawkins, worked with paleontologist, Richard Owen, to visualise the dinosaurs and they based their ideas on fossil evidence at hand. The replicas stood on small islands or lay in the rising and falling tidal lagoons of the park.

However, within a few years the dinosaurs were discredited by the scientific community as inaccurate. A horn placed on the nose of the Iguanadon was proven false with a new discovery. The fossil bone it was based on turned out to be that of a thumb. The replicas were left untended and obscured by foliage until the 1950s when interest in them was revived, they were restored and repositioned.

These life-size dinosaur replicas are still impressive. Though they are inaccurate, they still provoke an emotional response in onlookers, perhaps because they give a sense of the bulk and presence of the creatures.