Hair-raising 18th-Century Wig Designs

Charting the rise of France as the arbiter of luxury and fine taste, over 1100 objects from the V&A’s collection of 17th and 18th century art and design are on display in the newly reinterpreted Europe galleries. If you havn’t had chance to visit since the 1600-1815 galleries reopened, you can preview the suite of seven rooms online and even try your hand at hairdressing – 18th century style…

V&A Wig

The V&A’s design a wig game lets you recreate the extravagant designs popularised by Marie Antoinette, which can be adorned with everything from fans and feathers to flags and flowers – or even a battleship should that take your fancy! My pink-powdered coiffeur (pictured above) is actually quite restrained – I could probably have piled the hair higher and still retained historical accuracy given that it wasn’t unknown for ladies to be forced to kneel on the carriage floor to avoid crushing their enormous wigs. With some styles towering up to 4ft high, a metal framework was required to support the stacks of horsehair cushions. Observers began to note the strange appearance of women with hair as high again as they were tall, so that the face looked like the centre of the body. Unsurprisingly, satirical prints from the period mock the absurdity of it all.

Marie-Antoinette-CartoonAs the hair grew higher, so did the risks; add candles into the mix and many a wig must have toppled and gone up in flames. Marie Antoinette and her hairdresser, Leonard Autie came up with  styles to suit every occasion – progressing from plumes of feathers to pastoral scenes, complete with stuffed birds. Meanwhile, across the channel the Duchess of Devonshire set the craze for sporting increasingly long ostrich feathers when Lord Stormont presented her with a 4ft specimen in 1775. However, Georgiana also saw the funny side of being a fashion icon. In her anonymously published novel The Sylph (1779), Julia, the provincial heroine,  is primped and preened beyond recognition by none other than the Duchess of Devonshire’s own French hairdresser so that she’ll be accepted into London society. Julia rejects the ridiculous style in favour of her natural appearance, but the sneaky mention of the Duchess hints both at Georgiana’s authorship and her self-awareness regarding the fickle fads and fashions of the Bon Ton.

I could play around with the V&A’s game for hours adding ever more horsehair cushions to pad-out the styles Marie Antoinette and the Duchess of Devonshire were renowned for – but let’s not forget the boys! It’s hard to imagine the likes of Charles James Fox dressed to impress in his finest Maccaroni garb when he’s remembered for his rather dishevelled appearance in later life, but in his youth he had quite a penchant for blue powdered wigs!



The Cavendish Crypt

It doesn’t ever quite seem like Christmas until I’ve been to the Christmas Eve Carol service at Derby Cathedral, but until this year I’d never taken the time explore St. Katherine’s Chapel.

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The outer part of the Cavendish burial vault was converted into this tranquil space for private prayer and quiet contemplation in the 1970s, but it is down here that the fascinating trio of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, his wife, Georgiana, and mistress, Bess Foster, are interred alongside generations of the Cavendish family. Visiting in 1811, five years after Georgiana’s death in 1806, the prolific diarist Nathaniel Wraxall was told how Lady Bessborough had been too distraught to enter her beloved sister’s final resting place:

‘As I stood contemplating the coffin which contained the ashes of that admired female, the woman who accompanied me pointed out the relics of a bouquet which lay upon the lid, nearly collapsed into dust. ‘That nosegay’, said she, ‘was brought here by the Countess of Bessborough, who had designed to place it with her own hands on her sister’s coffin; but, overcome by emotion on approaching the spot, she found herself unable to descend the steps conducting to the vault. In an agony of grief, she knelt down on the stones, as nearly over the place occupied by the corpse as I could direct, and there deposited the flowers, enjoining me the performance of an office to which she was unequal. I fulfilled her wishes.”*

Even the cold reserve of the 5th Duke was shaken by his wife’s untimely demise, and is said to have been ‘hysterical’ when he usually found it utterly impossible to show his feelings. Georgiana had died from an abscess on her liver, but the years of worry over her ever-mounting gambling debts had also taken their toll. Three years after her death the 5th Duke married his mistress, but their time as man and wife was to be short. He died in 1811, to be followed by Bess in 1824. In accordance with Bess’s wishes, and in spite of their often strained relationship, Georgiana’s son Hart – now the 6th Duke of Devonshire – arranged for his stepmother to be interred in the family vault with his parents. Whatever Bess’s faults, it seems apt that three people who were inseparable in life should remain side by side for eternity.

cavendishhenryToday the brass coffin plates of various members of the Cavendish family line the Cathedral walls – with names of note including the eminent scientist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810). There is also a grand memorial to Bess of Hardwick (c. 1527-1608), the matriarch who rose from relative obscurity to found a dynasty. Bess was responsible for the great building projects at Hardwick and Chatsworth – but it was only with the 6th Duke of Devonshire that members of the family came be buried in Edensor churchyard on the Chatsworth estate. His ancestors  are all here – and an information board notifies you that as you stand reading the brass memorials, the people themselves lie directly beneath your feet. Now, standing on a dead Duke sounds more than a little disrespectful and makes a rather macabre thought! However, descending the steep flight of stone stairs to enter the crypt is far from creepy. St. Katherine’s chapel is an enclosed oasis of calm – the perfect spot to escape the hoards of Christmas shoppers crowding the city streets outside!

Merry Christmas!

*Wraxall, Vol. III, p.343

Christmas at Kedleston

Just when you thought all your favourite National Trust properties had closed for the winter, some of Derbyshire’s finest country houses, including Kedleston Hall, Sudbury Hall and Hardwick Hall, have re-opened their doors for the festive season.


In the case of Kedleston, the chance to view the house by candlelight is not to be missed. It’s so atmospheric with the flickering rays playing on the heavily-gilded eighteenth-century furnishings. Before you panic I should add that the candles are fake, but the effect is stunning none the less and makes what can seem like cold, expansive spaces appear a lot more homely.


The Eastern Museum remains closed, but during weekends in December  the state rooms are open and suitably decorated for a country house Christmas. Each room is dressed to make you feel like the family have just popped out – so in the drawing room you’ll find there is an abandoned pack of playing cards, but someone’s been cheating and secreted a stray card under their cushion. There’s even  a selection of empty drinks glasses which the room steward assured me did not belong to him! Meanwhile, In the saloon the Voices choir were singing Carols around the Christmas tree – the addition of music really brings the place to life and made my visit really quite magical.

Tea, Sympathy & Little G

During the dark, cold days of winter it’s all too easy to feel down in the dumps – but a letter from the writer and clergyman Sydney Smith (1771-1845) to Lady Georgiana Morpeth (1783-1858) dated February 16th, 1820 has plenty of advice for raising ‘low spirits’. To be precise, Smith has a 20 point plan to happiness to rival anything a modern-day self help book or life coach could possibly have to offer:

Lady Georgiana Morpeth

Lady Georgiana Morpeth


Dear Lady Georgiana,– Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th.Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,

Sydney Smith

Sydney Smith


Very truly yours,
Sydney Smith

Georgiana, affectionately known as Little G amongst her family, was the eldest child of the 5th Duke of Devonshire and his much celebrated wife Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. In 1801 Little G married Viscount Morpeth, heir to the 5th Earl of Carlisle, and their happy marriage produced no less than 12 children. We don’t know precisely why Little G was feeling particularly low at this time, but it’s letters like this that really bring the past to life, showing the very real human emotions and motivations behind historical figures. The best part of 200 years may have passed, but we can all feel like Little G from time to time. Now, I have to say that a cold bath is not something I’d want to endure, but there’s definitely something to be said for the benefits of a cup of tea and a good book! Of course, as Smith emphasises only certain types of books possess the power to cheer one up. Unlike her brother (the 6th Duke of Devonshire), Little G did not appreciate the harsh social realities depicted by Charles Dickens, writing in 1838: ‘I know there are such unfortunate beings as pickpockets and streetwalkers. I am very sorry for it and am very much shocked at their mode of life, but I own I do not much wish to hear what they say to one another.’ Following Smith’s advice, Georgiana evidently retained a taste for books that merely amused, avoiding anything that could stir up melancholy emotion.

Hogarth Gets the Dr. Martens Treatment

It was 1735 when William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’ was engraved and first published in print form, now 280 years on the sorry story of the spendthrift Tom Rakewell has been brought to the masses via a very different medium…

Hogarth Dr Martens

Dr. Martens have collaborated with Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, where the original paintings of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (1733) are on permanent display, to produce a collection which sees one of Hogarth’s most famous works of social commentary transformed into shoes (£115), boots (£125) and a satchel (£140).

The eight plates of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ follow Tom Rakewell, the rake of the piece, as he squanders away his inheritance. He’s fitted for expensive clothes and parties with prostitutes, but  in the end even marriage to a rich but ugly old maid isn’t enough to fund his favourite pastimes of whoring and gambling. Tom is eventually arrested and taken to the Fleet debtors’ prison, where he descends into madness before finally ending his days in London’s notorious Bedlam asylum.


Today marks the 251st anniversary of Hogarth’s death, and you have to wonder what the man himself would have thought of his work gracing the feet of his admiring public. All publicity is good publicity, no doubt! Proceeds will help support the work of the Sir John Soane Museum, so this collaboration is doing great things for eighteenth-century art. I’ve got my eye on that satchel…

Kedleston Hall Revisited

Growing up with a stately pile like Kedleston Hall just up the road, it’s no surprise that I developed a love of eighteenth-century country house art and architecture. Designed by Robert Adam for Sir Nathaniel Curzon, this Palladian palace was not built as a family home, but with the intention of being a ‘temple of the arts’ to showcase an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures and furniture – and visitors were welcome to view the spectacle as soon as the house was completed in 1765.

kedleston hall

On 19th September 1777 Samuel Johnson was one such visitor, but he was far from impressed with what he saw – as recalled by his friend and biographer, James Boswell:

‘Dr Johnson thought better of it today than when he saw it before; for he had attacked it violently, saying, ‘It would do excellently for a town hall. The large room with the pillars (said he,) would do for the Judges to sit in at the assizes; the circular room for a jury-chamber; and the rooms above for prisoners.’ Still he thought the large room ill lighted, and of no use but for dancing in; and the bedchambers but indifferent rooms; and the immense sum which it cost was injudiciously laid out.’

Boswell was himself more inclined to admire what he saw and describes being ‘struck with the magnificence of the building.’ However, his observation that ‘the proprietor of all this must be happy’ was met with the retort ‘Nay, Sir, all this excludes but one evil – poverty’ from Dr Johnson.*

There’s no getting away from the fact that Kedleston is opulent but it was the right mix of ‘eighteenth-century bling’ that caught director Saul Dibb’s eye when it came down to selecting filming locations for The Duchess (2008). Interior and exterior shots of the Hall stand in for Althorp, Devonshire House and Bath – which can become a little confusing when you’re so familiar with the setting!

d87bc58ff4b5f3b45dc670fe3d396401Today Kedleston is owned by the National Trust, but the Curzon family still inhabit the private east wing of the property, with the servants’ quarters and kitchen of the west wing now converted into offices and a restaurant. The main visitor route largely comprises the State Floor (the middle level of the central block).  This opulent suite of rooms was never intended to be lived in, and so, alas, the  State Bedroom has never been graced by a royal guest – but you can daydream about what it would be like to wake up in such resplendent surroundings by trying out the ‘Ked Bed’ installation which currently fills the void left whilst the heavily gilded State Bed (pictured above) undergoes restoration.  The impossibly high frame makes a step ladder a necessity for climbing into bed, but once perched on top you’ll feel like the Princess and the pea. Just lie back and survey your kingdom – but maybe avoid falling asleep or starting a pillow fight!

Kedleston Hall is located 4 miles north-west of Derby and despite what Dr Johnson said it is well worth a visit. Check the National Trust website for opening times and admission prices.

*James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson ed. John Canning (London: Methuen, 1996) pg. 204.

The Grand Tour

After spending the past three months writing a 15,000 word dissertation on the representation of architecture in eighteenth-century literature, you would think that I’d be ready for a break from all that – but no, I’ve sent my work off to be bound and I’m filling the void left behind with my very own Grand Tour of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Not quite Venice or Rome, but there are plenty  of cultural delights right here on my doorstep – and Chatsworth, Nottingham Contemporary, Derby Museums and The Harley Gallery have joined forces to prove just that.

During the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries a Grand Tour around Europe was a formative cultural experience for any young man who could afford it, and provided the perfect  opportunity to further their education under the guidance of a tutor. Of course, the grand tourists could also revel in their new-found freedom and indulge their whims and fancies. The connoisseurs and antiquarians amongst them returned home with much more than VD – and as a consequence our country houses, museums and art galleries are packed with treasures acquired on the continent. Conceived as a means of boosting tourism in the area, this modern day ‘Grand Tour’ of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire aims to showcase such treasures alongside contemporary works of art they’ve inspired.

At Nottingham Contemporary (pictured above), Pablo Bronstein’s architectural drawings  are on display amongst a curated selection of over 60 pieces from Chatsworth. This is in fact the largest UK loan from Chatsworth in 30 years. Displaced from their usual country house context you see a different side to the items – quite literally! With a centralised  arrangement of furniture, akin to that of a hotel lobby, you see the unadorned backs of otherwise ornate chairs and cabinets. The wear and tear to William IV and Queen Adelaide’s thrones (claimed by the 6th Duke of Devonshire after the coronation – as is the right of the Lord Chamberlain) is also more noticeable in a well-lit gallery space, but so is their sheer size and the intricacy of the carved designs. Meanwhile, Bronstein’s playful reimagining of Rome’s ruined Via Appia lines the gallery walls. His work is heavily influenced by 18th century architectural drawings, such as the architectural fantasies, or capriccio, of Piranesi. Look closely and you see whimsical attention to detail and a willingness to play with proportions. More of his work can be seen in a parallel exhibition at Chatsworth.

The exhibitions run through into September, but the Grand Tour will return for a second season in the Spring of 2016.