Friday, 13 April 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 7 - "The Marlowe Papers," by Ros Barber

It has sometimes been said that England, in contrast to Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, never really had a "Renaissance." To the extent that this is true at all (questionable in itself), it applies only to the visual arts, and most particularly not to literature, drama, or philosophy. In fact, it can be argued that the institution of the commercial theatre, which, in the Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries, was almost uniquely English, and, more specifically, London-based, brought some of the key themes of the Renaissance to a far wider audience than had been the case in most of the countries of continental Europe. If it is true that there was never an English Leonardo or Michelangelo, then it is equally true that Italy (at least, not in this time period) never produced an equivalent to Christopher Marlowe or William Shakespeare.

Portrait, believed to be of Christopher Marlowe, Corpus Christi College Cambridge (image is in the Public Domain).

Even in terms of the visual arts, the aesthetics of the European Renaissance were brought to London by continental artists, such as the Florentine sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano, and the German painter, Hans Holbein. Printed texts circulated widely, if not always freely, and these included original works in Italian, French, and German; as well as the Latin classics; and Latin translations of ancient Greek texts (in England, as elsewhere in Europe, many more people could read Latin than Greek). With no effective copyright laws in operation, anyone was free to translate these works into English, and Saint Paul's Churchyard was the place where most London booksellers kept their stalls. It was here that the dramatists of the day found much of the inspiration for their stories.

London's first commercial theatre was established by James Burbage in Shoreditch in 1576, and, in the decades that followed, many more were established around the outskirts of The City, including The Globe, The Rose, and The Swan, on Southwark's Bankside.

James Burbage's Theatre in Shoreditch (image is in the Public Domain).

London's early play-houses (image is in the Public Domain).

Excavation of The Rose Theatre, Southwark, where many of Marlowe's plays were performed. 

Despite his humble background (his father was a shoemaker in Canterbury), the poet and dramatist, Christopher Marlowe, had taken a degree at Cambridge, and, unlike his broad contemporaries, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, was probably literate in Greek, as well as Latin (Greek plays were performed in the original in Cambridge colleges, and Marlowe may well have acted in these). His apparently short life (1564-93) is shrouded in mysteries: including his possible involvement in espionage; and the circumstances of his violent death.

Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers is a novel in verse, exploring the possibility that his life did not end with a "great reckoning in a little room," in Deptford in 1593, but that his death was, rather, staged, and that he subsequently escaped into exile on the continent (this suggestion has been made many times over the years, and there are documented examples of fugitives escaping under similar circumstances). As such, the novel not only takes the reader into the heart of London's first theatre-land; and into the dangerous world of late Tudor England, with all of its religious and political tensions; but also into the soul of a troubled man, facing permanent separation from the world that he loves, and even the loss of his identity itself. 

"Church-dead. And not a headstone in my name.
no brassy plaque, no monument, no tomb,
no whittled initials on a makeshift cross,
no pile of stones upon a mountain top.
The plague is the excuse; the age's curse
that swells to life as spring gives way to summer,
to sun, unconscious kisser of a warmth
that wakens canker as it wakens bloom.

Now fear infects the wind, and every breath
that neighbour breathes on neighbour in the street
brings death so close you smell it on the stairs.
Rats multiply, as God would have them do.
And fear infects like mould; like fungus, spreads -
Folks catch it from the chopped-off ears and thumbs,
the burning heretics and eyeless heads
that slow-revolve the poles on London Bridge ... "

" ... This banished man is writing you a poem,
the only code I know that tells the truth,
though truth was both my glory, and my ruin,
the laurel, and the handcuff, of my youth.

London seduced me. Beckoned me her way
and spread herself beneath me, for a play."

Edward Alleyn was one of the greatest actors on the London stage, and made many of Marlowe's theatrical roles his own (c 1626, image is in the Public Domain).

"'They've never seen the like before.' Applause
a clapping swell like starlings after grain
and Edward Alleyn's striding off the stage
dressed as the thunderous Tamburlaine. 'Some beer!'
He claps me on the back. 'Look what you've made.
It seems they love a monster. As do I.'"

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Vauxhall - Pleasure Gardens and Glass Works

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and, having viewed the Garden Museum, can continue southwards along the Albert Embankment towards Vauxhall Bridge. The current bridge was opened in 1906, replacing an earlier one (originally called Regent Bridge), built between 1809 and 1816. At low tide (the Thames is tidal as far as Richmond), rows of wooden posts can be seen on either side of the modern bridge: those downstream of the bridge have been dated by archaeologists to the late Mesolithic or early Neolithic period (c 4500 BC); those upstream to the Bronze Age (c 1500 BC). It is unclear whether these represent early bridges, or ritual features/symbolic boundaries such as those discovered at Flag Fen, near Peterborough. Further information can be found here.

Old Vauxhall Bridge in 1816 (Image is in the Public Domain). Part of the Millbank Penitentiary can be seen, under construction, on the right.

New Vauxhall Bridge. Photo: Marxville (licensed under CCA).

The Vauxhall riverside is today dominated by the headquarters of the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), designed by the architect, Terry Farrell, but throughout much of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries, it was a place of leisure and industry. 

The less-than-secret headquarters of MI6 at Vauxhall Cross. Photo: Laurie Nevey (licensed under CCA).

Vauxhall and Westminster in 1746, by John Rocque (image is in the Public Domain): ferries, rather than bridges, provide crossing points.

There are gardens to the east of the building today, but they are a pale reflection of those to be found on the riverside from the Seventeenth until the mid-Nineteenth Century. Samuel Pepys visited in June, 1665:

" ... I took boat, and to Fox Hall, where we spent two or three hours talking of several matters very soberly and contentfully to me, which, with the ayre and pleasure of the garden, was a great refreshment to me, and, methinks, that which we ought to enjoy ourselves in." 

Another diarist, John Aubrey, tells us that:

"Sir Samuel Morland built a fine room, anno 1667, the inside all of looking glass, and fountains very pleasant to behold, which is much visited by strangers: it stands in the middle of the garden, covered with Cornish slate, on the point of which he placed a Punchinello, very well carved, which held a dial, but the winds have demolished it."

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1751, by Samuel Wale (image is in the Public Domain).

The entrance to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, c 1790, by Thomas Rowlandson (image is in the Public Domain.

Later attractions included a "Turkish Tent," "Chinese Pavilion," bandstand, ruins, and arches. In 1749, a rehearsal of Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" attracted an audience of twelve thousand. In the Nineteenth Century, the gardens were lit by fifteen thousand glass lamps, and visitors could ascend in a hot-air balloon to take in the view. Yet, as the Victorian age rolled on, the gardens became less fashionable: catering was notoriously expensive, and poor value (sandwiches reputedly made with ham cut so thin as to be transparent); and the shrubbery provided hiding places both for prostitutes and their clients, and for pick-pockets. Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens closed in 1859.

Plan of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1826 (image is in the Public Domain).

Industry co-existed with the pleasure gardens, and continued in the area after they had closed. Sir Edward Zouche established a glass-works in 1612. This later passed into the hands of the second Duke of Buckingham, described by Dryden as a "chymist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon," who employed Venetian glass-workers in an attempt to manufacture plate glass for windows. This factory continued to operate until the 1780s.

Vauxhall Glass Works in 1746 (image is in the Public Domain).

Archaeological research, in advance of the construction of the MI6 building, revealed the remains of a second glass-works, established by John Baker in the Seventeenth Century, and which produced wine bottles among other products. Charles Kempton and Sons continued making glass in Vauxhall until 1928, when they transferred their operations outside of London.

Catalogue of glassware from Charles Kempton and Sons (image is in the Public Domain).

Nor was glass-making the only industrial activity taking place in Vauxhall. The Vauxhall Iron Works were established in 1897, and, in 1903, they branched out to encompass the new technology of the automobile age. The Vauxhall Motor Company produced cars here from 1903 to 1906, when operations moved to Luton.

An early Vauxhall car, in a German motor rally of 1931. Photo: German Federal Archives, Bild 102-12207 (licensed under CCA - CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Industrial Vauxhall way badly damaged by bombing during the Second World War, and, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, the district took on the largely residential character that it retain to this day.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.