Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Hastings and Brightling

One of the founders of the campaign for women's suffrage, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, lived most of her life in or near Hastings, and sadly, is little known or celebrated in her home town. I'm doing a Centenary Timeline for our WI Facebook Page, posting about every year from 1915 to 2015 - 100 years of the WI. I've got to 1928 now, when every woman in the UK over 21 got the vote - it felt appropriate to write about Barbara.
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, painted by Mary Osborne
    She was born in 1827 in Whatlington, and was brought up at 9, Pelham Crescent in Hastings, the illegitimate daughter of an MP, Benjamin Smith.
Pelham Crescent in the 1830s
    It is possible that her illegitimacy led to Barbara's achievements being played down, both during her life, and after her death. However, she was one of the earliest and most significant campaigners for women's rights, initially concentrating on the legal position of married women. The work she undertook, with a small group of like-minded women, was the first organised feminist action in the UK. It eventually resulted in changes in the law allowing married women the right to their own property and earnings.
    In 1866 Barbara formed the first ever Women's Suffrage Committee, and their suffrage petition was presented to the House of Commons on the women's behalf by John Stuart Mill in 1866.  The motion to amend the Reform Act to include votes for women was defeated by 196 votes to 73.
Mill accepts the first suffrage petition, 1866
    Barbara wrote and published a series of pamphlets on the subject of women's rights, and toured the country, holding meetings on the subject of women's suffrage. Her speeches converted many women to the cause, including the future leaders of the movement, Emily Davies and Lydia Becker, who would in turn recruit Emmeline Pankhurst. However, women would not be fully enfranchised on the same terms as men until 1928.
     Barbara was also passionate about improving women's education, and in particular, opportunities for university education. With Emily Davies, Barbara raised funds for, and founded, the first women's college in Cambridge. Girton College was opened in 1873 but no women students were admitted to full membership of the University of Cambridge until April 1948.
    As well as being a strong-minded and charismatic political activist, Barbara was a gifted artist. She studied with the painters William Henry Hunt who lived during the winter in a small house at the foot of the East Cliff, and William Collingwood Smith.  Barbara's work was exhibited at the Royal Academy and examples can be seen in Hastings Museum and Art Gallery.
    In 1855 Barbara stayed at Clive Vale Farm with her friend, fellow painter Anna Mary Howitt. The two women clearly found the place to be of particular interest because three years earlier, the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt had lodged and painted at the farm, producing, amongst other works, 'Our English Coasts'. Sheep in the farmyard served as models for the 'strayed' sheep in that painting.
   Battleaxe also finds this of particular interest. Our house is built on the site of Clive Vale Farm. The extract below is from a book of reminiscences by another of Barbara's friends, Bessie Rayner Parkes, 'In a Walled Garden' (1895). Sitting at her computer writing this blog post, Battleaxe shares the same view. The sun is indeed streaming in, and the sea is just as vast, but of course the 'undulating green hills' are now partly covered in housing.

    Barbara's paintings from Clive Vale Farm were widely exhibited, and her picture of the cornfield  'with all the shocks tossed over by a gale' was singled out for particular praise by Ruskin. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of these paintings are now unknown.
Barbara Bodichon, Ventnor, 1856
    In 1857, Barbara married a French doctor living in Algiers, Dr Eugene Bodichon. Although she wintered in Algiers she spent her summers in Hastings, or at a new family home, Scalands, near Robertsbridge, where she died in 1891.
    She was buried in Brightling Churchyard. Yesterday I persuaded Philosopher to come on an expedition to find her grave.
    Dating from Norman times, Brightling Church is very old, and very beautiful. It has an impressive history. William of Wykeham, eventual founder of Winchester College and New College Oxford, was Rector in 1362.
    The peaceful churchyard, overgrown, muddy and full of mole-hills, is dominated by a large pyramid, the grave of 'Mad Jack' Fuller (1757 - 1834), who lived next door. Fuller, a larger-than-life figure who derived his money from Wealden iron-works, could be the subject of a blog post all his own. He was an MP, a philanthropist, a builder of follies, a patron of the arts and sciences, a notorious drunkard - and a supporter of slavery.

Brightling Church

Fuller's Pyramid
    We found Barbara's grave, apparently it was restored by the village after a campaign by feminist academics in 2007, following many years of overgrown disrepair. Strangely, her name is not even mentioned in the church guidebook.
Barbara's grave

    Helena Wojtczak, who was responsible for getting a blue plaque put on 9 Pelham Crescent in 2000, has written a good account of Barbara's life, and Battleaxe would recommend this biography: Hirsch, Pamela (1998). Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist, Artist and Rebel.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Bodiam Castle to Beachy Head. Granny Battleaxe on parade!

Busy Busy. Last weekend I couldn't help with the WI Cardi Gras event (part of Fat Tuesday) because we went to a neighbour's wedding. Wedding was at the Durbar Hall in the Museum - what a lovely place for it. Cardi Gras went well too - they raised plenty of money. 
   On Monday we took grand daughter Eve to Bodiam Castle. Philosopher and I had never been properly. We visited briefly back in 2008 when we made our first exploratory visit to Hastings. We stayed in the lovely Swan House in the Old Town, and I remember we got thoroughly lost trying to find Bodiam, goodness knows how, driving up and down what seemed endless narrow tunnel-like lanes with trees arching over from high banks. We were surprised that the countryside inland from Hastings was so pretty, wooded and undeveloped.
    I think we had fallen into the way of thinking shared by many of our Brummie friends, that the South-East is covered in new-build estates of executive homes interspersed with shiny hi-tech business parks and out-of-town retail emporia. (Sounds like the current HBC vision for Hastings and St Leonard's, methinks. Well, dream on.)
Bodiam Castle
    On that earlier visit we just walked round the outside of the castle, but on Monday we did the full thing.
    There were folk in medieval get-up offering meaningfully educational activities. I think a couple of them came to the WI and did a hilarious talk on medieval women's undergarments. Is that right, or am I getting muddled? 
    However, Eve has the attention-span of a flea so we just hurtled round the place at break-neck speed. There were lots of little rooms and nooks and crannies for her to rush in and out of, and a lung-bursting climb up a steep spiral staircase to the top of one of the towers.
Fine view from the tower
Eve pauses to try a medieval 'bed'
     Bodiam is everyone's idea of a classic romantic castle, standing in the middle of its moat. It seems pretty intact from the outside, but of course inside it is mostly ruins. Historically, it is not actually that interesting. It was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, ostensibly to defend the area against French invasion, but actually it was a medieval vanity project for its wealthy builder, and its authentic-looking but ornamental fortifications were never used. Partially dismantled after the Civil War, the castle spent most of its life as an ivy-clad  'picturesque ruin', before being bought and partially restored by Lord Curzon in 1916, and then given to the National Trust in 1925.
Bodiam as picturesque ruin, painting from 1906

Arty view from an arrow slit

    Tuesday was a glorious sunny day, so we went up to Beachy Head. Eve always enjoys that, and it is also one of our favourite places. I wrote in a previous blog post about supernatural stuff that the atmosphere up there, and the wide open space, has a strangely calming effect.  The sky was blue and clear, the sea was blue and calm. We even heard skylarks. Eve likes being able to see both Brighton, where she was born, and Hastings, where we had come from.
    After a walk, we went for lunch at the Beachy Head pub. I had a 25% off voucher from the WI - whoo hoo! I've said before that the place is well run. Yesterday was another good example. I ordered food and the guy at the bar said it would be a wait of at least 30 minutes. I reported this, groaning inwardly, to Philosopher and Eve. Eve doesn't do waiting. However, well before she had finished looking through all the photos on my iphone, the food arrived - in less than 20 minutes. Customer delight factor? Check. Most places would have said the food would come in 20 minutes and then it would take 35.

Glorious sun - and space
Bit near the edge there, dear...

Good view of the lighthouse, and a reminder that for some, Beachy Head is not the place for a nice day out.....

Heading to the pub for lunch
     Wednesday was even more warm and sunny. Grandpa went to do his stint at the Jerwood Gallery so me and Eve did hairdressers and clothes shopping. Much hanging about in the sweaty depths of H&M and New Look when I wanted to be out in the sun. I see two new shoe shops are opening in Priory Meadow. I hope this is not overkill. Still, when all the shops in Priory Meadow are occupied, only then will I start to believe hyped-up Tory blather that recovery is on the way. Hastings has a very long way to go.
      Then we had an actual picnic on the beach. Lots of people were sitting around in tee-shirts, but I couldn't see anyone actually take to the water. I do still half-wish Battleaxe was one of those intrepid, lean and leathery women who would strip to their cozzies in front of the astonished crowd, stride briskly into the sea and then knife out through the waves with a perfect crawl. Paff.
      It's Thursday today, so we are driving up to Birmingham to take Eve back, and then staying a couple of nights.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Ladykillers at the Stables - and a striking textile exhibition

A quick update.  Went to the Stables last night to see The Ladykillers - it was excellent, one of the best Stables plays I have seen. Unfortunately it ends on 14 February, but there is also an excellent textile exhibition at the theatre gallery which continues until the end of March.
     It was a full house. My WI gang had been the night before. I had not joined them because firstly it was my Stanza poetry group that night, and secondly Philosopher had already bought our tickets.

     What struck me most was the set design and the staging. Clever lighting, sound effects and projections set the period (mid-fifties) and brought essential railway goings-on to life, especially when the Professor was run over by a train! The stage design was an ambitious (for the Stables) two level set up, showing the ground floor of the old house but also the bedroom.
      The acting was also excellent, particularly Rob Hustwayte as the Professor. Mrs Wilberforce could perhaps have hammed it up a bit more, but that was only a small point.
       In the interval, as usual, we went down and viewed the art exhibition in the theatre gallery. This time it was textiles from two local artists, Tricia Neve and Christine M'baye. Tricia produces more delicate work, painting on silk, which is then then embellished with embroidery and beads. Christine does brightly coloured patchwork and applique pieces, and 3D effect felt and fabric wall-hangings. There were local landscapes, jungle scenes and sea scenes.   I very much liked Christine's work - very colourful and vibrant, but unfortunately can't find many photographs to put on here.
Christine M'Baye

Christine M'Baye

Tricia Neve
       The exhibition caught my attention because next month at WI we are starting work on our Centenary Quilt, and this exhibition would provide excellent inspiration.
       Each member, no matter how butterfingersy and hopeless we are at crafty stuff, will be expected to produce a square. Those who can't sew a stitch can use felt, iron-on patches or fabric paint, but of course the traditional way to make a quilt is patchwork.
       Battleaxe would put herself  in the very bottom ability group as far as womanly crafts are concerned, but I usually go along to the WI Craft Group meeting for a cuppa and a piece of cake. It is a good opportunity to talk to other members in a less frantic environment than the main meetings.
       Would you believe, at the last meeting I learned to crochet? Friend and fellow committee member Jan gave some of us a lesson, and I borrowed a crochet hook and the Ladybird Book of Crochet from her. The Ladybird book, dating from the 70s,  is excellent, although I can't see myself making a poncho for my dolly. Not to be defeated, I practiced at home, and to date I have produced a wobbly-edged square, a little round mat thing and what looks like an egg cosy. It is actually remarkably relaxing, and my next task is to try and follow a pattern. Crochet feels to me potentially a bit more rewarding than knitting - the way you can create almost any shape by increasing or decreasing stitches as you go along.
      I must be going womanly in the head - this morning I saw an excellent sewing-machine in the weekly bargains section in Aldi, and felt unaccountably drawn to it.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Chantal Joffe at the Jerwood. Get that poor man some ointment!

Oh, that lovely week in Madeira seems ages ago already. It was a shock landing at Gatwick into grey, sleety gloom, but fortunately the weather has now improved - almost springlike.
     On Sunday we called at the Jerwood to view the latest exhibition, 'Beside the Seaside'. According to the blurb on the gallery wall, Chantal Joffe is known for her powerful pictures of women. Well, the paintings were certainly large... but does large mean powerful? Apparently, these pictures are of people in Hastings.
     The first thing that hits you between the eyes when you enter the first gallery isn't a woman at all, but an enormous canvas of a naked bloke (her husband, I gather). Next thing, your eyes are drawn straight to his testicles, which are alarmingly bright red. Poor chap, what on earth is the matter with him? I hope Chantal ran down the chemist and got him some soothing ointment as soon as she had finished the painting.  Of course, you are not allowed to take photos in the gallery and I wouldn't put Mr Redwotsits on here anyway, but here are a few gleaned from the interweb.
Big paintings, acres of space....

Chantal Joffe
     The pictures were OK, but I couldn't get a lot of meaning out of studying them. She's clearly quite into fashion... The women and girls often looked very cold, in a condition of extreme social/economic deprivation, addicted to heroin, or in some cases, all three. As so often with the Jerwood, the thing was over very quickly - large paintings, acres of white wall. The picture I liked best was the smallest, of a little dog, probably a chihuahua, looking very sparky and combative. I can't find an image, unfortunately. It was only A4 size, and showed me that the painter does not have to go enormous to make a memorable image.
      The next room prompted rattling of teeth from Battleaxe because it contains work by one of my least favourite artists, Rose Wylie, who co-curated the Joffe exhibition. I still think the Jerwood did itself a massive disservice by having Wylie as the gallery's opening artist. Many locals must have come down and peered into the gallery out of curiosity and reeled away in shock, their worst fears confirmed.
     Upstairs, they have changed the hanging of the permanent exhibition around, but still not brought out that many new pictures. However, it was interesting to see some of my favourites in their new positions. For example, Mark Gertler's 'The Irish Yew' was in a dark corridor, now it looks much less frightening in a sunny room.
     We had lunch in the Jerwood cafe - new menu, nice.
     I read that the Jerwood is planning to have more frequent exhibition turn-rounds in the future. This is good. As a member, I find it interesting to visit exhibitions like Chantal Joffe once, but I am not going to return again and again - I want something different. I would also like to see the full range of the permanent collection - there must still be paintings that have never come out of store. Also, they are planning to stay open during gallery turnarounds, excellent, better still. The current long periods of closure is one of the things Battleaxe has ranted about since the gallery opened. Finally, they are planning to have gallery talks, using the volunteers - go Philosopher. He'll be so good at it.
     Talking about Battleaxe ranting, well, listen to this. Of course, these big corporate bodies are not remotely interested in the random ramblings of a woman from Hastings, but clearly my comments coincided with areas they recognised as a problem. Firstly, Cafe Nero in the town centre. In an earlier post about best coffee spots in Hastings, Battleaxe suggested getting some blinds at the windows, as it was too sunny in there. What have they now got? Blinds. Admittedly, I would have preferred awnings over the outside tables, but you can't have everything.
     Secondly, Marks and Spencer. I only ranted about them a few weeks ago. Battleaxe suggested introducing an 'Essential Basics' range. What did I find when I walked through the Hastings branch? A new Basics section. Just tee-shirts in there so far, but it is a start. Battleaxe also suggested beefing-up the Indigo collection. So, what have they just done? Relegated Per Una to the back and enlarged the Indigo section, now at the front of the store.
     Finally, a mention of a piece by my WI friend and fellow blogger, ScrappyJacky. Battleaxe and Philosopher are always visiting little independent shops and galleries. The campaign to support them by buying 'Just a Card' really strikes a chord with me.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Madeira - just as good as last time!

Hard to believe we last came three years ago. 
     Funchal is an attractive, relaxed city, easy to feel at home in, and we have been lucky with the weather - dry, lots of sun.
     We are at a different hotel this time, a complete contrast from the lovely old Quintinha Sao Joao where we stayed before.  This one, The Vine, is modern boutique-style, on the upper floors of an up-market shopping mall right in the centre of Funchal. Sounds strange but in fact it is quiet and very convenient for shops, restaurants, bus stops etc.
     It has lots of positives, the breakfasts are excellent - limitless fresh orange juice, fresh fruit, nuts, seeds and other healthy stuff, complete fry-up range, smoked salmon, cake etc. They do a mean dry martini in the bar, there is a roof-top infinity pool and so on. 

      However, like our hotel in Turkey in the summer, this place has tricks up its sleeve for the unwary guest. It has won many awards and appears in glossy design books, but clearly, international design awards do not always take into account the actual needs of the customer.
     Our room is very spacious, with areas for sleeping, sitting, bathing, separate loo and shower etc. 
     The lighting, air-con, window blinds etc. are controlled by pads on the wall and beside the bed. It has taken us several days to master these. An automatic under-bed light flashes on when you put a foot on the floor, which sounds good, except if one person gets up to go to the loo in the night, the other one also wakes up. Also, the light does not stay on quite long enough. Unless you take a torch with you, you end up in the loo in absolute pitch darkness, and unable to see the wall panel to switch a light on.... 
      Water trickles out under the door of the walk-in shower room. The door sweeps the (wet) bath-mat away as you open it, so you step out onto a slippery wet floor.  
     The lighting above the basin is so dim you can scarcely see your face.  The basin itself is a long shallow black marble trough, with the tap like a sort of waterfall. It is perfectly functional, just a bit silly. Oh, enough about that.

        We went up to the Monte gardens - not quite as many flowers this time, but made up for by an abundance of water flowing from every cascade, fountain, trickling down grotto walls etc. Very pretty.


       Yesterday, we revisited the Palheiro gardens - lots of beautiful camellias, and this lovely purple tibouchina.

        We have only done one levada walking day. Unlike last time, the route was lined with beautiful wild flowers.  The mimosa trees were in bloom, and the eucalyptus trees smelt wonderful.

        We made our first visit to the north of the island - I had known it was mountainous, but hadn't realised it is one long precipice, with waterfalls cascading down to the sea, and occasional villages perched on tiny flat outcrops.

         Communications round the island are good, because the mountains are punched through with many expensively Euro-funded tunnels, like a huge piece of Swiss cheese.  Funchal is girdled by amazing motorways that swoop over huge bridges and then plunge into tunnels - all for a total island population of 250,000.  However, a few miles further is uninhabited wilderness. We do a lot of travelling on rackety local buses driven at hair-raising speeds up and down steep and narrow back roads.
          Today we had a day just prowling round Funchal, peering into doorways, churches and up alleyways, our favourite occupation in foreign cities.  Our end of town has some nice old dilapidated bits as well as grand buildings and fancy shops.

           Down the other end, the old town area has been regenerated as a cultural tourist area - Philosopher summed it up as 'overpriced restaurants and hippy-dippy nonsense'. However, I quite like the painted doors.