Monday, 25 November 2013

A visit to: GEORGIANS REVEALED at The British Library

This new exhibition at The British Library, “Georgians Revealed,” lasts from the 8th November 2013 until 11th March 2014.It has been curated by Moira Goff, head of British Collections (1501 to 1800) at The British Library.

The Exhibition Guide
  I have just returned from seeing this exhibition.  It comprises an amazing collection of artefacts and documents, providing evidence of Georgian life. Arriving at the library in the Euston Road, the red brick structure that comprises the British Library is in such a location it  competes with the Victorian marvel that is St Pancras Station next door and the more simplistic, Italianate Villa style that is Kings Cross Station. In some ways the library building includes aspects of both these iconic railway stations, icons of Victorian design and technology. The Victorians were the immediate inheritors of the Georgian world which they continued to develop, the style, architecture, technology, science, literature, art and societies mores. In front of the library is the massive bronze statue depicting William Blake’s, Newton, naked, seated, bent forward, his concentration entirely focussed on the pair of compasses in his hand drawing perfect angles and lines; using logic.An embodiment of the Enlightenment. The exhibition inside provides many more aspects of the Enlightenment period. It is an overview of  man’s creativity in science, art, and of society in all its forms.

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan's Georgian Garden

The exhibition spills beyond the limits of the exhibition space. Before we even get inside there is a Georgian style, formal garden of perfectly symmetrical arched hedges which you can walk through and around, placed on a smooth lawn located on the piazza in front of the library entrance. Landscape designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan has created a Georgian garden entitled, “George Obelisk,” and which is loosely based on a design by Sir John Vanbrugh’s unexecuted entrance gate to the forecourt at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. The grass and the hedges are artificial but they create a Georgian ideal of the formal symbolic garden. As a centre piece to this garden is a tall pediment extending high in the air above the garden. On top of this thin, tall structure is positioned the head of George Ist. My first reaction was, what a strange thing to do. It immediately reminded me of those old prints depicting the Tudor and medieval London Bridge showing the severed heads of traitors stuck up on poles over the entrance to the Southwark side of London Bridge.

George Ist examining a miniature portrait of Oliver Cromwell.

 Once I had entered the exhibition proper the first item I came across were a series of portraits depicting the four Georges who spanned the Georgian era, 1714 to 1830. The very first picture, a cartoon by James Gillray, depicts George Ist, in profile, holding up a small miniature portrait of Oliver Cromwell in front of his eyes for perusal. He has a stoic expression but the message is obvious. Overthrow, civil war, revolution and perhaps execution is the message. All this was a possibility in turbulent times.  So the tall pediment with George Ist’s head surmounting it outside the libraries entrance contains some poignant messages. Those who guillotined the French aristocracy often held the severed heads up for display too.
The Georgian period was marked by revolution and upheaval; The Jacobite Rising in Scotland 1746,
The American War of independence 1775 to 1782, The French Revolution 1787 to 1799,
The Napoleonic Wars 1799 to 1815, The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819, The Industrial Revolution, roughly between 1720 and 1830, and an Agricultural Revolution was continuing throughout the Georgian period. George Ist may well ponder the possibilities as portrayed in this opening picture.

A great glass cuboid, basement to roof ,containing, The Kings Library.

 The British Library was founded on the book collection of King George III, who reigned from 1760-1820. As you walk into the library you are presented with a massive glass cuboid  column that plummets to the basement below and reaches up through all the floors of the building to the top. It encases The King's Library created for George III.  It is a soaring column of 18th century books, containing the knowledge of the world as understood when the library was created. The collection covers a vast range of subjects, from early printing and philosophy to architecture, topography and painting; from astrology and biology to agriculture and ancient languages. It included books by Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants. It made me think of a sort of glass Tardis a time travelling brain or perhaps a type of Egyptian obelisk, or even a cenotaph, although this is no empty tomb. It is filled solidly with knowledge and understanding. It encapsulates the Georgian mind. The, “Georgian’s Revealed,” exhibition is a mere few metres from this extraordinary column of books. It is as though the exhibition has been created next to this monstrous Georgian ,”brain,” its power and influence overshadowing what is being done in its name.
The first thing I was handed when I presented my ticket at the entrance to the exhibition, which I had bought on the internet and printed off at home, was a copy of the exhibition guide. On the front is a scene from the ballroom at Brighton Pavilion, the Prince Regents south coast retreat from the attention of London society, overlaid by a William Hogarth sketch from the, “The Analysis of Beauty.” I unfolded the guide into one large A3 sized sheet. The front shows a diagram of the exhibition layout and a description of each part of the exhibition. The reverse side is covered by Thomas Tegg’s map of new London printed in 1830. The map picks out seven places, the site of the present British Library is number 1, Coram Fields is number 2 The Foundling Museum is number 3, Lincolns Inn fields is number 4, Sir John Soanes Museum number 5, The Hunterian Museum is 6 and  Woburn Walk, finally is 7. It as though the exhibition is already telling you to get out into the streets of London and see the Georgian world there.  Many Georgian houses and terraces survive. Sir John Soanes Museum is the home of the most prominent Georgian architect, the Foundling museum next to Corum Fields is where the poor children of London were taken  and cared for, Lincolns Inn Fields was one of London’s finest Georgian squares, the Hunterian, was where John and William Hunter changed the face of medicine in the Georgian period and Woburn Walk was London’s first pedestrianised shopping street. Jane Austen was most definitely a shopper. She wrote to Cassandra from London in 1811, “I am getting very extravagant and spending all my money.” The temptation arose to proceed no further into the exhibition and turn tail and get out and follow this enticing map. However that was to be for later. The exhibition really did beckon.

The entrance to Georgians Revealed.

When you walk into the exhibition the visitor is presented with a room introducing us to the four Georgian Kings. Their portraits are prominently displayed. Above your heads are a myriad of posters suspended from the ceiling on wires. Each poster depicts a scene from Georgian life. All subjects, themes and situations are massed above. It gives the impression straight away that there is so much, so many complex facets of the Georgian world to discover. Then there is a short wide stone staircase to the floor below where the exhibition starts.
It is interesting to note that the exhibition is designed on a simple square divided by partitions crossing the square from corner to corner like a Saint Andrews cross. Each triangular section displays one of the main themes of the exhibition, Section 1, Public places, private spaces, Section 2 Buying luxury, acquiring style, and finally section 3 Pleasures of society, virtues of culture. There is also a small room to one side that has its floor covered by an enlarged facsimile of Thomas Tegg’s new plan of London created in 1830. It occurs that this design is no whim. When you visit the Pleasures of society, section there are various types of dancing plans displayed.  Examples are displayed from the book, “For the further Improvement of dancing,” by John Essex, a celebrated dancing master during the early 1700s.  The simple pen and ink drawn dance designs  are reflected in the simple drawn plan of the exhibition.

A stylised ballet.

The first section is titled Public places, private spaces. It is about the homes and gardens of the Georgians. Some of the most exceptional items on display are the architectural pocket guides of William Paine (1730-1794) that include simple to follow floor plans and beautiful front, side and back elevation drawings. They were sold all over Europe and North America. There are examples of Sir John Soanes work and the work of Humphrey Repton, John Nash, and the designs for Stowe by Charles Bridgeman and later William Kent. This part of the exhibition continues, from the structures and designs of houses to what was put inside them. Drawings of Chippendale furniture, Wedgewood pottery, trade cards for wall paper hangings, cabinet maker’s book prices and reading materials including a 3rd edition of Fanny Burneys, Cecilia and a 1785 issue of The Lady’s magazine.

William Kent's illustrations for a feature at Stowe.

As a teacher it was interesting to see examples of books written for children. Some of them miniatures. These covered such erudite topics as wholesome sayings, and exhortations to work hard and practice minuets. It was evident that there was a debate in Georgian times as to how children learn; was it through play or reading? Often a mixture of the two was achieved. It just shows that the way we learn doesn’t change.
The superb collection of flower prints captivated me. Explorers in the 18th century brought back seeds to be sold to the gentry. The wealthy wanted to develop the gardens on their grand estates and provide exotic vistas often designed to create moods. They also wanted beautiful sketches of these exotic flora. Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) tried to gain subscriptions for an ambitious project he had which was to produce artist quality prints of plants. An example in this exhibition is The Blue Egyptian water Lilly. Each print was to cost one guinea. Thornton financed the project himself. When he fell into difficulties he was able to get an act of Parliament to hold a lottery to raise finances. The Royal Botanical lottery was instigated. However it failed to raise the financial backing Thornton needed and he went bankrupt. His collection of drawings is still regarded as one of the most celebrated botanical books ever published.

One of John Thornton's excellent plant illustrations.

There is a whole section on Georgian shops. It was surprising to find that the Georgians had large department stores. Wedgewood’s Rooms and Harding, Howell &Co were vast shops if the illustrations of their interiors have anything to go by. There are examples of everything connected to shopping and much we would recognise today. There are hand bills advertising goods and shops, much larger advertising posters and numerous examples of sample cards. One particular salesman’s card I looked at had examples of his company’s lace products. Other sample cards had various pieces of silk, muslin and cotton swatches showing depicting the colours and designs a lady could buy.
There is a magnificent drawing showing the length of Kensington High Street with each individual shop illustrated in detail. An aerial view is drawn below. A pair of drawings particularly took my attention. One showed Smithfield Market, that is located just to the north west corner of the old city near the Barbican. It is an aerial view, perhaps drawn from a rooftop nearby but more probably from the artists imagination. It shows a crowded area full of penned cattle. However it was the Covent Garden market scene that really captured my attention. It shows Inigo Jones elegant market place dominated by St Paul’s church. The scene looks chaotic, stalls, people and fruit and vegetables, carts and horses. You can imagine the noise of shouting, calling, the clatter of horses and also the smells, human, animal and vegetable, which must have been pungent and sharp on the nose.

Inigo Jones's Covent Garden. Henrietta Street is on the left towards the back.

 And then I focussed my look to the left of the print and towards the rear of the picture and there indeed, to one side of this mass of commercial activity is Henrietta Street and number 10, where Henry Austen lived and had his bank and where Jane, his sister stayed. Sometimes we forget that Jane Austen, when she stayed in London was in amongst mayhem, the dregs of humanity, prostitutes, hauliers, servants out shopping for their masters, horses and the ordure lying in the streets and smells that she must have smelled and the noise she must have had to endure. She only mentions in her letters the genteel friends who visited her and Henry in Henrietta Street, going to the theatre and buying tea at Twinings in the Strand .  However she joke about London having an adverse effect on her, in a bawdy turn of mind, writing to Cassandra..
Cork Street Tuesday 23rd August 1796

“My dear Cassandra, Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted_”

 Looking at the picture of Covent Garden and knowing where Henry’s bank was situated,it begins to become evident who might have banked at Henry’s bank. All of humanity is there, seething about like some human cauldron. Jane could well have eaten food purchased from the interest on investments from prostitution. 
The clothing fashion plates on display are wonderful but my favourite part of this section depicting Georgian fashion were a man’s red shoes. A pair of bright red shoes with cream coloured laces and silk lined interiors, tapered towards the toes that nearly reach a point. They stand out vividly from the glass case they are displayed in. They look soft in texture and were probably comfortable but perhaps not the best design for toes.

A pair of red Georgian gentleman's shoes.

Theatre and celebrity culture is thoroughly provided for. Drawings and paintings of theatres, portraits of actors   and actresses such as Sarah Siddons and Dorothy Jordan, theatre bills and posters, catalogues, theatre inventories and music sheets. Highway  robbers, such as Jack Shepherd and James MaCleane and courtesans like Fanny Murray became celebrities too. This material provides evidence for a good debate about celebrity culture and has it changed much since Georgian times.

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Museums and galleries were becoming accessible to the public. Leisure and pleasure was important to the middle classes who could afford these sorts of things now. The pleasure gardens at Vauxhall are mentioned and Ranelagh, which was seen as a more upmarket version pleasure gorunds. The one that caught my attention was Bagnigge Wells Gardens. Bagnigge was located near the site of The British Library  and I think because of this it got more attention in this exhibition than the other perhaps more famous gardens. There were many posters and drawings of the pleasures on offer there. The point that was got across was that these gardens provided for the general public an experience that only the gentry and the rich could have experienced in the past within the confines of their own landscaped estates. All the world could meet in these places, the beggar, the prostitute, the shopkeeper , wealthy merchants,  the gentry, the aristocracy and in the case of Vauxhall Gardens, even the monarchy. These new pleasure gardens were a leveller of society. They were places to see and be seen. Gossip would start, people would talk about who they had seen and with whom and this news might get into broad sheets sold on the streets. People could make a name for themselves in these pleasure gardens. Assembly Rooms were also being built in most towns where the local residents could attend balls and meet others, strangers included.

Bagnigge Wells Gardens

The coffee houses of London and their importance to the development of the Georgian world of science, literature, banking and insurance is dealt with. Sports were developed along more organised principles in Georgian times. The rules for playing skittles and the rules for cricket are displayed. A hand bill showing the from Nottingham races during the month of August 1781 lists the horses. Cock fighting and pugilism, stagecoach travel and tourism, spa towns and seaside resorts, European travel and travel to the wild and beautiful places of Britain, The Highlands of Scotland, the Lakes and the Welsh mountains; the Georgian period did indeed see the development of things that are now part of our own world and society.
Amanda Vickery writing in the Guardian on the 25th October explains,

“The Georgians revealed by the exhibition are elite and middling. The culture and consumerism of the polite predominates, while royalty, religion and the history of ideas, politics and protest, work and industrialisation are underplayed as themes. Nevertheless, that still leaves plenty of meat on which to chew.”

It is true that the exhibition does not obviously portray the lives of the poor and the working class in industrial towns. These are more alluded to than shown. Shops must have had shop assistants, and the lace shops must have had workers working their looms. The working classes would have attended the rougher entertainments, boxing and pantomime.  Amanda Vickery is absolutely right, this exhibition is aimed at the middle classes who were becoming wealthier during the Georgian times.
She goes on to write,

“The exhibition wants to recommend the Georgians to a new public by stressing the recognisability of the age, from its coffee shops to its celebrity news. But make no mistake, the printing press is the real star of the show.”

This exhibition is situated in the British Library whose reason for existing is the written word. 
 I  imagine an Industrial Museum in Preston would have an entirely different set of artefacts to tell another aspect of Georgian life..
Finally, there is a small part of the exhibition which is to one side of the four main themed areas. The floor of this cramped area is covered by an enlarged version of Thomas Tregg’s map of London printed in 1830. When I walked in I was met with the sight of a sober looking gentleman, middle aged, walking steadily and slowly along the winding course of the Thames. I smiled and looked nonchalantly at some of the prints on the walls depicting Georgian London Streets. The gentlemen reminded me immediately of children I have watched, in various schools I have taught in, following the sinuous twisting of a painted snake on the school playground or playing hop scotch. I hope he was getting as much fun walking the Thames as the children did walking the snake.

Thomas Tegg's map of London.

The map reminded me of my first thoughts when I was handed the exhibition guide.  It occurred to me that I really must begin on the, “Georgians Revealed walking tour,” delineated in the guide. And so I did. I had to get back to Waterloo Station for the local train to Wimbledon so I decided to stop by the seven places highlighted on Tregg’s map. The only place I had not visited before was the Foundling Museum.

Corum Fields where the Foundling Hospital was originally situated.

 I have walked past Coram Fields on occasions to get to Russell Square but never stopped to explore the park or the Foundling Museum. I have been to Sir John Soanes Museum a few times so I knew that well.  I walked along Burton Crescent which is next to Woburn Walk and enjoyed the Georgian terraced crescent which is a little like a smaller version of The Royal Crescent in Bath. Georgian terrace houses are easy to recognise when you are used to them. Their structure is dictated by the social hierarchy and designed to create a safe environment in the society of the day.This exhibition is rich and complex and full of wonderful things. I could easily pay another visit there. I might do that after Christmas, before it ends.

Burton Crescent near Woburn Place. Examples of fine Georgian town houses.

Friday, 8 November 2013

EDINBURGH LOG (How do you find anything out?) (Part 3)

A piper.

As the Easyjet airliner came down low on its approach to Edinburgh Airport I felt quite excited. I had never been to anywhere in Scotland before. I feel that Scotland is part of my spiritual home. The British Isles over the centuries has seen a cross migration and integration of people. This is a separate issue to immigrants coming into Britain from further afield. The Irish have come to England in search of work and polarised around the big conurbations because of the building skills they have predominantly brought to the mainland. They have also come with their poetry, their Guinness and their airlines. The Scots have infiltrated England through banking services, whisky, salmon and of course the world’s best football managers. The Welsh have provided coal, the power source of our industrial growth, fantastic singers and beautiful poetry. The United Kingdom has been for centuries a close and perhaps, not always,seamless joining of these four nations. I am an example of this cross pollination. I have a lot of Irish blood a little Anglo Saxon blood from my mother, my wife is Welsh but more noticeably, my surname, being Grant, I have some Scottish ancestry through my father’s father. Hence the partial spiritual connection to Scotland. I feel that part of me comes from Scotland. However, my recent visit to Edinburgh was my first crossing of the boarder. My first touch of Scottish bedrock.

The Forth Rail Bridge opened in 1890.

As the jet reduced its altitude and the very substance of Scotland came closer I got a clear view of The Firth of Forth and then the magnificent Forth Bridge, the looped railway viaduct designed and built by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker and opened on the 4th march 1890. There it stretched across the width of The Forth all 2,528.7 metres of it like sound waves on an audio monitor. Just behind it arched the great Forth Road Suspension Bridge. All around  and off into the horizon were the humped and rolling Pentland Hills. I had never imagined Edinburgh’s surrounds. I have seen pictures of Edinburgh’s iconic buildings and places over the years but I had never tried to imagine its location and setting. Perhaps I had never seen or been provided with that sort of information. Nobody I know, knows Edinburgh, so nobody had described it to me.

Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat

Maps, books and photographs and TV documentaries have been my only contact. The maps and atlases have given me a sense of Edinburgh’s location in relation to Scotland as a whole, what is near it and what is further away. Its landscape has been only brown and green patches on a map and perhaps the backdrop to the film Thirty Nine Steps adapted from John Buchans novel. Its communication network have appeared to me as spidery lines, blue, yellow and black on a map. Atlases have shown me Scotland and Edinburgh’s  relationship to what I already know and have experienced of England and also its far distance from my birthplace, Southampton, on the south coast. All these things have informed me about Scotland in the past. I also know facts about its history and facts about its industries, its landscapes, its sports, its language and its myths and legends. All this was garnered from books and a variety of other secondary sources. These are very important sources of information when you are engaging with a place but to actually go there, look at it personally, talk to people, to just be physically present is another level of learning about a place altogether.

The airport is not inspiring. A collection of glass cubes and girder boxes. I caught the airport bus into Edinburgh. The stops were displayed on a computer screen as we drove along. Edinburgh ZOO appeared on the left and Murrayfield Stadium, the home of Scottish rugby, came up on the right. Many houses made from stone and corner shops selling familiar products passed and Edinburgh itself began to appear. The bus driver announced that we would not be driving down Princes Street; we would travel parallel to Princes Street along Queen Street. We rode through the elegant Georgian town houses of the New Town. This was my first realisation that there are two parts to Edinburgh. There is the New Town, designed by James Craig in 1766 and built between 1766 and 1850 and then there is the old town on the other side of the N’Or Loch high up on the escarpment ridge that slopes eastward from the massive volcanic plug on which Edinburgh Castle is situated.

Edinburgh Castle with Princes Gardens in the foreground.

I felt excited at my first site of Edinburgh Castle high above me, dominating the whole city, the angular lines and points of its rugged buildings, sharp in silhouette with the sun behind its massive bulk. I had a Berlitz pocket guide to Edinburgh in my pocket and I had my i-phone with its satellite navigation. The bus stopped at Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s main railway station, deep down in the N’Or Loch which extends eastwards from Princes Gardens. I had worked out by using Bing Maps where the guest house I was going to stay in was located in the Priestfield area, south east of the centre of Edinburgh right next to Holyrood Park with Arthur’s seat behind it. However standing next to Waverley Station I could not see Arthurs Seat and I felt a little disorientated. I set the satellite navigation on my i-phone to locate the guest house I was going to stay at. I put in the post code. It placed a blinking marker for me on the screen. I could see a flashing point showing where I was standing too. However I didn’t know which way to turn. The surroundings didn’t at first fit the map on my screen. I couldn’t work it out straight away. I tried walking up towards the castle and it showed me on the the screen that I was walking in the wrong direction. I then stopped a little old lady and asked directions and in her lilting Edinburgh accent she was able to give me directions to Nicholson Street and Dalkeith Road. Once she pointed me in the right direction then the satellite navigation was fine. I walked and walked and began to discover Edinburgh. I was carrying a small back pack and my Samsung SLR camera around my neck so walking wasn’t a problem. It was a brisk walk of about a mile and half. The last part was downhill, sloping away from the centre of the city.

The Mercat Cross

I took three tours whilst I was in Edinburgh. I had seen in The Royal Mile, next to the city cross called The Mercat Cross, just behind St Giles Cathedral, stalls and signs advertising Edinburgh walks. Gentlemen in black top hats and ladies in long black capes hand out leaflets and tell you about their tours if asked. It is the traditional place where the people of Edinburgh receive news of great events. It is still used to make pronouncements of historic importance. You can choose a night time ghost walk, a walk through Edinburgh’s hidden underground chambers or perhaps you might choose a walk around Edinburgh’s historic sites. At the entrance to one of the Closes, named Mary Kings Close, another walk was advertised to the hidden underground streets of Edinburgh. A visit to Edinburgh Castle is lead by guides too. Each guide has a different approach.

Auld Reekie Tours

First of all  I took the  Mercat Tour. Mercat being a Scottish form of the word, Market. The guide began her talk and walk next to the Mercat Cross. She announced to us, standing up on the steps to the cross, some of the gruesome Medieval and Stuart period practices of retribution and punishment that the cross was witness to. Interesting facts delivered with emphasise and relish. How much was she exaggerating? I am sure an unfortunate person being punished or executed at that time would agree with the powerful sentiments of the guide. A good guiding technique and trick to keep the facts vividly remembered by the people on the tour is to assault their imaginations and senses and put ,"the fear of God into them." The lady leading the Mercat tour took us to the Blair Street underground vaults. These were chambers created under the foundations of the South Bridge which was built in the 1780’s. Business men used the vaults for storage and they were also used as workshops for craftsmen. Taverns often created oyster cellars in these chambers. They were used for illicit whisky distilling and finally for criminals and squatters to hide in.Prostitution was also known to occur in these dark vaults. As with all deep dark damp vaults, ghost stories are bound to emerge,stories of strange sounds, lights and whisperings. The guide did not dwell too much on ghost stories, she probably wanted to keep her tour group from running away. She told stories of actual goings on in these cellars. A room displayed artefacts found in the vaults from various periods which we could view and some we could handle. She was very good at explaining the research and archaeology that had taken place and that was continuing, and which was uncovering the story  of the vaults and of course we were all asking questions.

The Blair Street Vaults

The young lady who took myself and a group around the Mary Kings Close was dressed for the part in 18th century maid’s costume. She played her part and used her actors skills. Mary King Close is situated in a different part of the Royal Mile from the Blair Street vaults. These underground rooms were created in the late 1750’s when the old town of Edinburgh was dilapidated and disease ridden. The new town across the other side of The N’Or Loch designed by James Craig was now the place to live. It was suggested that a new Royal Exchange be built on the site of some of the ruinous tenements that branched off the Royal Mile. They cut the buildings down in height by half to make a level area for the foundations of the new building , which was designed by James Craig the designer of the first phase of the new town. The fine new exchange dominated the Royal Mile next to St Giles but the old streets including Mary Kings close still existed, reduced in height, under the new building. The chambers and streets were abandoned and people were not allowed to live there underground. These chambers, as in the Blair Street Vaults, could be used for storage and in some, craftsmen's workshops were located. Our actress guide, in her flowing 18th century maids attire acted the part of an actual historical person, Mary King, who had been the maid to a wealthy family when the Close was an open Edinburgh street.We know about her through law court records because her master was murdered in the house by his mother in-law over a debt and so Mary King’s name appears in the court papers as a witness. We therefore have written proof she lived in the close. It is interesting to see the remnants of rooms in the truncated houses from this hidden and once forgotten underworld. In one room the remains of plastered walls made from wattle and daub are still there with their 18th century patterns and designs. You can see fireplaces, and doorways. There are some artefacts to examine. The guide dramatizes the story superbly and with passion. We hear about the  plague in Edinburgh both the Bubonic plague and the Pneumonic plague. We learned which of the two plagues it was preferable to get. Apparently it was preferable to get the Bubonic Plague.There was a gruesome, painful cure. The buboes could be lanced and the wounds cauterised with a branding iron. You had no hope with pneumonic plague. We learned about people being prone to arthritis, rheumatism, tuberculosis and lung conditions and both  wealth and poverty existing in the closes of Edinburgh cheek by jowl; the rich and poor, the criminal and the priest, side by side. One particular set of facts all guides loved to emphasise, to horrify and fascinate us in equal measure, were the sanitation problems of old Edinburgh. All those on the tour, came away with thoughts of the streets as foul smelling open sewers with piss pots being emptied from windows out onto the closes and wynds below with the shout, “Gardyloo,” which derives from the French ,”prenez garde a l’eau (mind the water), to warn passers-by. So lots of vivid descriptions and enthralling stories and a sense of humour is always needed.

 The guide at Edinburgh Castle added another approach. She told us the stories about the castle, its development, its uses and its present use but she also asked, us, questions. How many gates had we passed on our way into the inner ward of the castle? Which building did we think looked the oldest? She encouraged us us to observe and question. She also set the scene very nicely. She spoke with a French accent and was obviously French. She related how she was married to a Scotsman and now lived in Edinburgh but also pointed out that Mary Queen of Scots was brought up in France, spoke French and had a French accent just like hers. This guide used her attributes well.

The oldest part of Edinburgh Castle. St Margaret's Chapel.

Before I embarked on this adventure in Edinburgh I went into Wimbledon Town one day and went into Waterstones to find a guide book about Edinburgh. There were various ones but I chose the Berltiz pocket guide, partly because it was a pocket guide and was small enough to fit into my trouser pocket. But mostly, however, because it had two clear maps of the centre of Edinburgh and it laid out its sections in an easy to follow  format. The photographs were good, illustrating the various articles about, festivals, history, the act of Union, the old town, the new town, The Royal Mile, Holyrood, entertainment, sports, where to eat, galleries and museums. It was all there, described succinctly. And although I did not go into the restaurants illustrated in the guide book, it gave me a good,"flavour," of what to expect. It allowed me to explore for myself. Apart from using the maps, to begin with, I did not actually use the guide book while I was in Edinburgh but it has been a valuable tool to find answers to some of my questions since being there and has given me a deeper knowledge of Edinburgh since I have come back. It has helped and informed me in retrospect. The front cover of the guide book shows a picture of Edinburgh from Calton Hill and in the foreground is the Dugald Stewart monument, like a small round Greek temple. I went up onto Calton Hill, took out the guide book and tried to replicate the same picture. I got close, but it is almost impossible to replicate a picture exactly. You need the same lens, camera, lighting, time of day and weather conditions, but I did get close.

The Dugald Stewart Monument roughly the same view as on the front of my Berlitz Guide Book.

I love taking pictures. I have had a number of digital cameras over the years, some small pocket ones and two much larger single reflex cameras. I feel the need to take pictures wherever I go,   and definitely out on the street. I took a few hundred pictures in Edinburgh. Taking photographs makes me look carefully. I compose the picture in the view finder. I think about what the information is I am capturing. My eyes and thoughts  begin to focus on something carefully. Looking teaches  so much. We learn from looking. I certainly have. I find myself beginning to create stories and observations when I’m looking through a lens and I certainly did about Edinburgh.

Tweed suits!!

Walking about, looking and sometimes randomly taking a chance in the direction or the street I turn down always provides a learning experience. I want to be surprised and find the unexpected. I use past experience to  age buildings.  “This one is modern with its steel and glass construction. Those are 18th century town houses with their vertical social structure. Over there is a Victorian intrusion, copying neatly, Tudor features. What is a Scottish architectural style? And then of course there are the plaques and labels on things “ John Knox House, Enter Here,”  “Tweedle Court,” “Architectural Design Centre,” (this way arrow sign), “Welcome to the Scottish Parliament,” ”Abbey Strand,” “Horse Wynd,” ”Welcome to Holyrood Park,” “Highland Tour Departures,” “Greyfriars Bobby,” “Jenners,” “Coppers Coffee Bar,” “The University of Edinburgh Old College,” “North Bridge,” “The Royal Mile,” “Auld Reekie Tours,” “ “NEW ASSEMBLY CLOSE, Mansion of Murray of Blackbarony c1580 Ancestor of the Lords Elibank  In courtyard were dancing assemblies hall 1766-1784, commercial bank of Scotland and later children refuge, ” ”Riddles Close, “ House of Cashmere,” “Gladstones Land 1617,” “In a house on the east side of this close, Robert Burns lived during his first visit to Edinburgh 1766.” “The Scott Monument erected 1840-44 Sir Walter Scott bart 1771- 1832” Labels and signs are found everywhere, down every nook and cranny of the city,  increasing your interest, your knowledge, your curiosity. It’s just lovely to say the words on the signs. There is a sort of lyricism, a sort of musicality to them.

Museums and galleries are a rich source of artefacts often displayed in a time line which portrays the story that the locals want to hear. Each artefact , every painting has its own intricate story. They provide a source for interpretation that can continue forever and these collections develop over time and into the future.
I walked around The Scottish National Gallery and came across a beautiful painting of a young girl which struck me forcefully reminding me vividly of Abigail my youngest daughter. It provided a personal moment for me.

The young Scottish girl that reminded me of Abigail.

Learning about Edinburgh or any place occurs in so many ways. Some we are aware of, some we might not be aware of, unless we stop to think.