Monday 31 October 2016

Bran Tub # 6: King Vulture … and tentatively Halloween, with a nod to the Mayan civilisation for its glyphs … then there’s an anaconda thrown in for good measure …

This chap seemed to match so many things … Autumn colours, being eye-balled, a bird I needed to find out about … and it’s Halloween – one of those putting their head over the hedge would trick a few …

King Vulture - Wiki's photo of the day
on Friday 28th October 2016

Isn’t he magnificent … just stunning – nature is so incredible … these guys live in the tropical lowland forests stretching from southern Mexico to northern Argentina.

An adult
Its ruff, flight and tail feathers are grey to black, while their heads and necks are bald with varying skin colour.

King of the Dead … this king has the perfect tools for feasting on bodies … the thick curved beak is strong enough to tear open even the armoured skin of alligators …

I bet that pumpkin didn't last long ... 

… the beak’s edges are as sharp as scissors and can slice away strips of meat.  Its claws are too weak to tear flesh, but … they are large and give the scavenger perfect balance when it tears into bodies, even those floating in water.

The King Vulture is the world’s largest vulture … its colours scare away smaller scavengers … so it gets the tastiest flesh … the rest will fight for the scrag ends …

An anaconda .... it could have eaten a cow:
I think it will be satiated for a while?!  Yugh!

Horror of horror … the Anaconda … can reach over 37 feet in length … they live on a variety of animals or in this case – your sleepless night is as good as mine!

Slightly enhanced image of a tropical forest

Tropical Rainforest … this is rather an idyllic view … but some of those pictures above sent me into horror Halloween mode …

However these Kingly vultures are a species of ‘least concern’ … with as many as 10,000 to 100,000 wild individuals …. there is a decline primarily due to habitat destruction and poaching.

from the Codex

The archaeological glyph is easily distinguishable today by the knob on the bird’s head, and by the concentric circles that make up the bird’s eyes. 

'Signo Quiahuitl' -
in the Codex Laud at the Bodleian
Library Oxford

It is one of the most common species of birds represented in the Maya codices … a codex is a folding book from pre-Columbian Mayan civilisation (2,000BC to Columbus’ voyages of 1492), written in Mayan hieroglyphic script.

I'm eye-balling you!

So we have a Halloween aversion and abhorrence to the Anaconda with its abomination of a greedy guts … to some history on the glyph … archaeological version …

… leading us back to that magnificent bird the King Vulture … he is extraordinary … and I had never seen one before – hence he’s here in all his autumnal Halloween glory … 

Happy Halloween to one and all … that anaconda and I do not get on!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Oak Galls and Theophilus Presbyter ...

Falling leaves, trees shedding their fruits and nuts, change of seasons … brought me to remember the method of early ink … the crushed gall of an oak mixed with rainwater to start with …

Oak trees turning to autumnal gold

Thank goodness the human has always wanted to write about items of interest … even in the very early civilisations … Greek, Egyptian, Roman, the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages …

Jean Mielot (d 1472) writing in
a Scriptorium

Theophilus Presbyter (c 1070 – 1125 AD), is probably the pseudonym of Roger of Helmarshausen, a German Monk … who it is thought compiled detailed descriptions of various medieval craft arts …

… one of his works is divided into three books:

  • ·       Painting techniques, paints, and inks, especially for the illumination of texts and paintings of walls;
  • ·       Production of stained glass and techniques of glass painting;
  • ·       Techniques of gold-smithing and metalwork.

Theophilus and the other Benedictine monks would have worked in a Scriptorium (“a place for writing”), a necessary adjunct to a library.

Oak Apple Gall
It appears to have been Theophilus who recorded the ‘recipe’ for Iron Gall ink, which became the prescribed ink for all governmental records – in England the Exchequer finances, royal income, sheriffs’ accounts, chancery rolls – administrative accounts … all recorded and held as pipe rolls.

Example of a Pipe Roll by
the Ticknor Organisation

Pipe rolls are named after the “pipe” shaped formed by rolled up parchments on which records were normally written.

Oak Apples or Oak Galls are the common name for the large, round, vaguely apple-like gall commonly found on many species of oak.

From De Materia Medica

It may surprise you that the oak apple gall ink was the main medium used in writing in the Western World from the 5th century to the 19th century, and was still being used in the last century:

  • ·       Da Vinci doodled with it …
  • ·       Bach used it for his compositions …
  • ·       the Constitution of the United States was drafted in it …
  • ·       and the Domesday Survey (1086 AD), William the Conqueror’s historical record of his lands, property etc in England after he conquered in 1066 AD.

There are two types of ink … carbon ink, made of charcoal or lamp-black mixed with a gum … this was used in the ancient and eastern worlds … with recipes for the ink occurring until the 12th century.

Jean Mielot - held in Brussels Royal
Library (by unknown miniaturist)
The second is this metal-gall ink, usually iron gall, made by mixing a solution of tannic acids with ferrous sulphate (copperas); it too requires added gum as a thickener, rather than an adhesive.  After the 12th century … this was the ink used by the craftsmen in later medieval manuscripts.

Gall inks were to be found in the third century, but there was no literary tradition of explaining them until the early 12th century, confirmed by Theophilus.  

Quill with some ancient letters
The scribe needed to work quickly … it was a two-handed operation … the left hand held a knife for sharpening the quill and for erasing mistakes … before the ink had really soaked in to the vellum.

Here it is shown that gall-ink
is destroying paper

Gall-ink could not be used with paper as it is too acidic eating through the paper, but in the days of calfskin vellum, the tannic acid ink bit into the page making the lettering indelible.

A facsimile of De Materia Medica with vellum cover
It is thought that Theophilus put a ‘recipe’ down for iron-gall ink into his book on crafts … and thus the scribes in the Middle Ages started to use that ink … giving us the many basic dark black/brown ink inscribed words we find in our ancient manuscripts today – throughout the early western world.

Male Gall Wasp
Galls are caused by wasps laying their eggs in developing leaf buds … there are a variety of galls … our oak apple gall, the oak marble gall, oak artichoke gall and the acorn cup gall to name a few of these distinctive forms.

So we have wasps to thank that we have records which can be read today … but also the ingenuity of our forebears … crushing galls with rainwater, and realising that a stronger ink was possible when different earths were used.

Home made oak gall inks

Iron gall ink is tannic acid … which occurs naturally in plants, fruits and other life.  It has been extracted and utilised by civilisations for thousands of years.

Look out for the oak galls as you walk the woods this autumn … and think where these blogs originated from millennia ago … a funny old world!

Three quills in different stages
of preparation
Should you be able to find some fresh felled oak ... it often displays blue-black stains caused by a reaction between the iron from the axe, and the tannin of the wood to produce a substance identical to old-fashioned writing ink; check too for brass screws to secure newly seasoned timber, because the acid in the oak will badly corrode steel screws.  (I couldn't!)

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday 20 October 2016

Herbs, Spices and Herbalists - part 4: Vanilla ...

My mother for some reason hated vanilla … and never used it in cooking … now of course I’d like to know why – but that will have to wait til I’m in those higher regions of life beyond.

Vanilla Slice

Once I’d tasted a vanilla slice, or mille feuille, as a ‘greedy’ growing teenager – any chance for another piece was always taken up … or searched for.

The climbing vanilla orchid

I knew nothing about its history, or growth, or for that matter how to use it – as I’ve never been bothered … I can get my fix easily enough at the patisserie or here, more likely, the bakery.

Vanilla apparently is the second-most expensive spice after saffron … because growing the seed pods is labour intensive.  It has plenty of uses … in baking, perfume manufacture and aromatherapy.

It is another of those plants, a climbing orchid, originating in the humid forests of tropical America which was brought over by the Spanish after they had seen the Incas use it as flavouring in chocolate.

Vanilla mentioned in the Florentine Codex (c 1580)

Attempts to cultivate vanilla outside Central America proved futile because of the symbiotic relationship between the vanilla orchid and its natural pollinator, the local species of Melipona bee, was unknown.

The Melipone Bee

But, there’s always a ‘but’, in 1836, botanist Charles Francois Antoine Morren was drinking coffee on a patio in Veracruz, Mexico and noticed black bees flying around the vanilla flowers next to his table:  these were the social and stingless Melipone bees.

He watched as they would land and work their way under the flap inside the flower, transferring pollen in the process.  This Belgian botanist started hand pollination ... but it was a time consuming job … although its discovery showed that artificial pollination was possible …

Charles Morren
… to make matters somewhat more difficult the vanilla flower only lasts about one day, sometimes less, so growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labour intensive task.

The ‘poor old’ Melipona bee is now only known for the honey it produces … the fact it was a symbiotic necessity to grow vanilla has, in Wikipedia, largely gone unnoticed …

Edmond Albius

Five years later, in 1841, Edmond Albius (1829 – 1880), a slave who lived on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, discovered, at the age of 12, a quicker way to pollinate the plant using a thin stick or blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture … leading to global cultivation.

Albius’ manual technique is still in use today … France, in 1848, outlawed slavery in its colonies … Albius became a domestic servant … with a sorry life ahead, dying in poverty.  He has at least been remembered though …

Unripe pods

The long yellow pods are picked unripe, fresh pods have no vanilla flavour … this develops only as a result of internal chemical activity (by enzymes) during a curing process.

Vainilla, or “little pod” as it was described only entered the English language in 1754, when the botanist Philip Miller (1691 – 1771) wrote about the genus in his Gardener’s Dictionary – he was chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Prior to that Hugh Morgan (1530 – 1613) is credited with the introduction of vanilla to England … Morgan was apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I.

Vanilla flower with its parts ...
see Wikipedia 
Formerly, vanilla was used in medicine, as a nerve stimulant and along with other spices had a reputation as an aphrodisiac.  It was also used for scenting tobacco.

Natural vanilla is expensive, reflecting the labour intensive production, while the synthetic form is widely used.  Make sure you’re getting the type you want and need …

Cornish Cream
Ice Cream cone

Now we know it as a flavouring … essential for ice-cream, vital in chocolate manufacture … an increasingly popular addition to savoury dishes, but is most lovingly used as a background flavour in desserts and liqueurs.

In 1874 it was one of the first flavours to be synthesised, using material from coniferous trees … today vanillin is extracted from many sources … and is used in a range of extracts and essences.  

Illustration of vanilla planifolia by
Matilda Smith (1854 - 1926)
from Curtis' Botanical magazine via Kew
Originally vanilla was purely used as an additional flavouring – now we know it is widely used in many processes – natural and artificial … and can be detected in sponges, custards … but remember check your source … vanillin can be produced synthetically from lignin, a natural polymer found in wood … and most synthetic vanillin is a by-product from the pulp used in papermaking …  

Want to eat less? … apparently if you smell a delicious whiff of rich vanilla extract before eating your meal … you might not eat so much … worth a try, I guess.

c/o Vanilla pods in various stages of curing in alcohol
So vanilla – that ubiquitous of aromas … has many applications … from tobacco to possibly quelling your appetite – with an interesting history … from its early unique start in Central America to its total global dominance in some form today.

The best vanilla essence is made by extracting crushed vanilla pods with alcohol … but cured vanilla pods may be used over and over again … even after flavouring custard … just wash and re-dry.  The easiest way though is to have vanilla sugar on hand … a pod left in some sugar …

Vanilla Victoria Sponge ... 

Some suggested recipes … apple crumble or pie with vanilla ice-cream or custard, vanilla with other fruits … bananas, cherries, berry fruits ... or as a baking spice: vanilla with clove … and I’m sure you have some others …

That is the second most expensive spice … but one we can’t seem to do without … now when do I get my next custard slice?

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday 15 October 2016

Bran Tub # 5: Difficult Words ...

Life Sciences … our (University of the Third Age) Geology Group has morphed into Life Sciences … and with it, as you would expect, the course will be looooong … so the words in use will be of extended length too … no doubt with many worryingly challenging ideas.

The Use of Difficult Words

I eschew arcane, esoteric and recondite exemplifications of

Notwithstanding, in erudite and sedulous graphomania, 

oftentimes and habitually replete with ephemera,

this be not customarily so felicitious,

where it behoves one to be veritable, manifest and unequivocal.

To translate ….

I avoid obscure, mysterious and difficult examples of

the use of words containing many syllables;

However, in academic and complex writing,

frequently and regularly full of seldom-used material,

this is not always so easy

where it is necessary to be true, clear and explicit.

Our friend and class-taker … not good English - sorry! … advised:

I will do my best to avoid


but in scientific discussion,

with many detailed definitions,

it is not easy

where detail is important.

As a by - note ... the above will be arduous and laborious to adhere to ....

Environmental Life Sciences

Then he goes into definitions … one of which is magnificently worth letting you know about … I just feel your school might not have advised you about this ….

A Definition of Life:

“A sexually-transmitted, terminal disease”

… I’ll add – while you’re still alive – enjoy it!

c/o Despicable Minions

Some members did leave somewhat bewildered ... me I was taking notes for my blog! and thankfully I did comprehend most of it ... 

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday 7 October 2016

Ellen Terry and her Iridescent Beetlewing Dress ...

I had already come across the ‘beetlewing costume’ via posts I had written about closing up Kipling’s home – Batemans – particularly the conservation of its contents.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth -
painting by John Singer Sargent

I knew Ellen Terry’s name (1847 – 1928) … but really nothing about her life or the magnificent glistening dress she wore when performing Lady Macbeth.

So when hearing a talk on Ellen at our Social History group … I was enchanted to learn more. 

Terry came from an acting family … and began performing in her childhood … she was one of 11 children … at least five became actors – Kate, her elder sister, was the grandmother of Sir John Gielgud, who along with Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson were the trinity of actors dominating the British stage for much of the 20th century …

'Choosing' - portrait of Ellen
Terry, by George Watts c. 1864
The Terry family gave performances around the country … with Ellen taking parts from the early age of 9 … it seems she never stopped.

An eminent artist, George Watts, painted the two sister’s portraits … and then despite the age difference (46 – 17) – Watts and Terry married: it didn’t last, but the time allowed Terry to meet various luminaries of the time: Browning, Tennyson, Gladstone and Disraeli … which opened new doors and gained her more admirers.

Julia Margaret Cameron's photo of
Ellen Terry, aged 16

While the portraits painted by Watts and the early photographs by the renowned photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, ensured she became a cult figure for the poets and painters of the later Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements, including Oscar Wilde.

Terry lived life to the full … beginning a relationship with a progressive architect-designer, by whom she had two children, Edward William Godwin (1833 – 1886).  Godwin had a particular interest in medieval costume … which led him to design theatrical costumes and scenery for Terry and her performances, even after their affair cooled.

Northampton Guildhall - designed in the
Ruskinian-Gothic style by Godwin

Terry had two further marriages, and other liaisons over her long life … one where she married an American, James Carew, who was 30 years her junior … that lasted only two years.

Two other partnerships developed – not of the romantic kind – for a short while with George Bernard Shaw – they had struck up a friendship and conducted a famous correspondence …. they weren’t so keen when they met!

Henry Irving (1838 - 1905)
The other was with Henry Irving who had worked hard to become a successful actor-manager-theatre director … particularly after his association and subsequent partnership with Ellen.

She remained popular regardless of how much and how often her behaviour defied the strict morality expected by her Victorian audiences … it is unknown whether Terry had a romantic relationship with Irving – who was considered the doyen of English classical theatre, even, in 1895, being the first actor to be knighted.

Much of Ellen Terry’s life has been recorded in art and photography … often wearing gowns designed by Godwin.  The most spectacular, and one which was worn and worn over the years – here and in America – is the Iridescent Beetle Wing costume she wore as Lady Macbeth.

The costume in dire need of repair ... 

The gown was made in crochet using a soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn from Bohemia to create an effect similar to chain mail.

Part of the portrait by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent on seeing Terry in her performance in 1888 was compelled to paint her portrait, hence we have a detailed image to refer to.  It is in the Tate Gallery – where it had been donated in 1906; there is a contemporaneous photograph of Ellen Terry wearing the dress in the National Portrait Gallery.

Beetle wings

The costume was embroidered with gold and decorated with over a thousand of those sparkly wings from the green jewel beetle.  By the way the beetles shed their wings naturally – thank goodness for that clarification!

The Bejewlled Beetle

I found that the Victoria and Albert Museum have an article on Ellen Terry, the actress, her designer and her costumes … well worth a read.

Henry Irving watching a rehearsal -
illustration c. 1893

Irving died in 1905 leaving Terry distraught however she returned to the theatre in 1906.  She continued to perform, appeared in her first film in 1916, travelled back and forth to America, toured Australasia … while also lecturing on the Shakespearean heroines. 

She continued to participate in the theatrical world, though after WW1 withdrew more and more … she was recognised by society and appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire – only the second actress to be so honoured.

Smallhythe Place

Terry, in 1899, had bought Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden on the Kent/Sussex border – which she first saw with Henry Irving.  Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, opened the house in 1929 as a memorial to her mother. 

A walk through the gardens at Smallhythe
It is now owned by the National Trust who maintain the many personal and theatrical mementos, the house, garden and the Barn Theatre in the grounds … where the tradition of putting on a Shakespearean play every year on the anniversary of Ellen Terry’s death (21 July) has been maintained.

The Barn Theatre
That costume, transforming the beautiful red-haired actress into a cross between a jewelled serpent and a medieval knight, was the talk of the town in 1888 after the first night … and was, after one hundred years (with all the wear and tear of tours, behind the scenes change of costumes, and packing crates), desperately in need of a touch of conservation.

Ellen Terry c 1880 - aged 33

This Guardian article explains that the repairs proved as muchcostume archaeology as needlework … it was restored to its present glory by a specialist textile conservator, Zenzie Tinker – whom I had across as the expert used by Batemans, in Rudyard Kipling’s, home.

I so enjoyed learning about Ellen Terry, which led me to look at theatre in the 1800s, actors and actresses, society, art and literary works, epistolary collections, textile conservation … and then the history of it all, ending with Smallhythe Place – which I have never visited … definitely something I need to correct.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories