Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter U

U is for urn (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

For this week’s letter I’ve turned my back on animals or flowers and found myself drawn to U for Urn which elegant classical form fits so satisfyingly within the swoop of the letter as to suggest they were made for each other. It then occurred to me that two memories come unbidden to mind whenever I think of the word urn, just like the word soporific instantly summons up a picture of Peter Rabbit (and lettuces) or the way my mental image of an MRI scanner is haloed about by ghostly letters spelling out a wobbly claustrophobia.  It’s the joy of writing a blog that these things come to mind at all and, to go one step further back, the embroidering of a different letter each week has been a wonderful catalyst to bringing to the surface things that swim around in your head but very rarely get presented for further consideration.

U is for urn (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

The first time urn came to arouse my curiosity was when I was working on the desk in Monmouth Public Library. I always enjoyed it when someone asked for something on the county’s catalogue, though not in our library – usually it was to work through a popular author’s entire oeuvre or to ask for some classic no longer deemed popular enough to be on open shelves (rather too many glorious titles), but one day during, I think, one of our evening  openings an elderly man, grizzled haired but spry came in to ask for “Urn Burial” by Sir Thomas Browne. Never heard of it ?- no, me neither ! How morbid, I thought. Well, in between the book coming in and being collected I had a little look – it is only 50 or so pages, followed up with a bit of an internet search and was surprised to find how influential this small book has been and what joy its contemplation has aroused.

Sketches of U for Urn

Published in 1658, its full title is “Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial or A Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk”. The English Civil War (1642-1651) was not long over and out of a population of  nearly 5 million, about 200,000 had lost their lives. The unearthing of some 50 Roman burial urns in almost perfect condition, along with reflections on those who had died during the war seems to have triggered Browne to write about that most unspoken state of the human condition – death and after  –  which ruminations he flavoured with a delicious but not overindulgent melancholy. Robert McCrum wonders,  “Is melancholy, following Freud, merely an unproductive form of mourning ? Or can it be an uplifting form of sadness that infuses consciousness with new possibilities?”  Oh let’s hope it ‘s the latter, we have a need to feel something positive will come out of our current crisis. Browne’s own melancholy over concerns of this world was held in check to some degree by the comfort he found in his Christian Faith, something many fewer feel they have to support them today. But, let’s leave Urn Burial with his cheering words on being human.  “Life is a pure flame; and we live by an invisible sun within us.”

Also, Browne was a great coiner of new words, about 800 are credited to him in the Oxford English Dictionary, the most surprising of which are probably computer and holocaust.

Urn Burial is No 93 on The Guardian’s 100 Best Non Fiction Books – do read Robert McCrum giving his support to the book here.

A page of urns from Dover’s Handbook of Ornaments by Franz Sales Meyer

The other urn story that comes to mind concerns a painting which I think I had described to me so vividly that I’ve convinced myself I’ve seen it but I’m not at all sure I can have done.

Years ago our family made friends with an American and his family when the father was doing a PhD in London. They, like me and my first husband, had a daughter called Allegra which excited my first husband to catch up with them one day after school and playfully remonstrate  that we hadn’t called our daughter Allegra in order to bump into another one. (I know there’s more around now). Of course, we have been firm friends ever since. Well, Patrick is a real polymath – linguist, including Latin and Greek, archaeologist, musician, etc. etc. and he has the sort of chutzpah we British can only gawp at in admiration without ever being able to emulate. One day he was sauntering down Bond Street, as you do, and came upon a painting in the window of The Fine Art Society. He stood in contemplation for a few minutes and then went into the gallery to ask whether they understood the iconography of the painting, which he proceeded to explain to them. Patrick reports polite, even enthusiastic listening and this he followed with a more full and finished version on paper which he then sent to them – as well as giving a copy to us, which I have somewhere but can’t yet find. The cynic in me wonders whether the gallery staff weren’t a bit miffed by this unexpected art appreciation lesson though the charm of the man may well have carried the day for him. Ah, yes the painting. It was a largish work showing Persephone (in gold – crocus yellow?) standing beside a red and black figured funerary urn and either holding poppies or surrounded by them. (Though I’m sure Patrick referred to them as Papaver somniferum which are a mauvey white to mauve not the red ones I ‘remember’  being in the painting.) I thought the painter was Theodore Roussel but internet searches reveal nothing even vaguely  similar – though there is no reason why it should if the picture’s in private hands. Did I make it up – no it’s far too vivid for my imagination? Did I go along to Bond Street to ogle at the said painting? I just can’t remember. Now I’ve written about it I realise I must sort this out, so I shall contact Patrick, who will undoubtedly pluck all the details out of his filing cabinet mind and I’ll report back here. Now I wish I’d scattered a few poppies around my own little embroidered urn – pity I’ve just washed and ironed it.

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Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter T

T is for tortoise (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

T for tortoise. What is the attraction of this most uncuddly of animals? Perhaps it’s the nearest you can get to a pet dinosaur or perhaps it’s the idea of a domesticated reptile. The again, perhaps it’s simply that we can’t help but be moved by a creature that turns a slow steady gaze on our contrary world and moves on not a bit impressed. Daughter No 1 nearly gave home to a couple of tortoises after going on a night raid with a police inspector and his team in Birmingham (reporting on county lines for ITN). In between catching criminals (which they did) talk turned to to other things, like tortoises of which the inspector said he had a couple ready for new homes. Daughter No 1 was tempted but not being scheduled to go Birminghamwards in the near future nothing came of it … and then they got kittens.

T is for tortoise (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

One of the remarkable things about tortoises is their longevity. You can’t just take a tortoise on and think it’ll be nice for the children because the tortoise is very likely to outlive not only you and your children, your children’s children but their children too and it’s one heck of a responsibility to consider the need for ensuring a home for your pet 100 plus years down the line.  Of course, the fortunate tortoise finds itself in the right place at the right time so it can just jump ship from one life and disembark into the next – sometimes literally. Powderham Castle’s famous tortoise died in 2004 at, it is thought, 160 years of age. Probably born in Turkey he is documented as being found on board a Portuguese privateer  in 1854 by Capt. John Guy Courtenay-Everard of the Royal Navy. A stint as mascot to a number of navy vessels followed, including HMS Queen during the first bombardment of the besieged Sevastopol in the Crimean War (of which war he was the last survivor).

Detail of T is for tortoise (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Kind hands retired him to Powderham Castle, the home of the Earls of Devon where he lived out his days in the walled rose garden, a particular friend of the daughter of the 16th earl who said he recognised voices and would come to her – especially if offered a strawberry. Mating was attempted in 1926 and that was when he was discovered to be female. The name Timothy remained. During the war, she dug out her own air raid shelter under the terrace steps. Etched on her underside was the family motto “ubi lapsus, quid feci” (where have I fallen, what have I done) and from 1993 this was augmented by a less elegant though more useful label, “My name is Timothy. I am very old. Please do not pick me up.”

Sketches of T is for Tortoise

Timothy seems to be the go to name for tortoises after Gilbert White’s famous reptilian friend. Quentin Letts (now the Political Sketch writer in The Times) has a tortoise rather grandly called Tithonus (a prince of Troy and lover of the Goddess Eos, Goddess of Dawn). In his piece of April 16, in the early days of lockdown when news was a little thin,  Letts reported Tithonus’s attempt to do runner. Family scattered out of the garden, relieved to find Tithonus 50 yards away, near the road obviously trying to claw a lift into Hereford – maybe to get away from his name?

sketches of T is for Tortoise

Gilbert White’s Tiomothy was bequeathed to him by his much loved aunt when she died. He had known it well and had often observed its behaviour, being particularly interested in its preparation for hibernation and wondering whether birds did something similar (he never quite decided whether swallows migrated or hibernated). Ten days after his aunt’s death White dug Timothy out of his ‘hibernaculum’ in the flower border – Timothy resented the insult by hissing – packed him in earth and carted him back to Selbourne in a post chaise. On arrival, thoroughly awake, Timothy paced up and down the lawn a couple of times to familiarise himself with his new home and by evening he had found a new hibernaculum in another flower bed. To begin with White was inclined to think these inscrutable reptiles squandered all the many days God had granted to them and filled them with even less joy, but gradually he came to see Timothy as an individual. As Richard Mabey writes in his book about Gilbert White, White wasn’t great about individuating people. ” The humans in Gilbert White’s writings … sometimes seem a little like botanical specimens. Yet equally there are creatures who became known so intimately that they were looked on as humans, or at least as honorary parishioners.” Like Powderham’s  Timothy, Gilbert White’s tortoise turned out to be a girl.

Several Oxford colleges have tortoises. Oriel’s first tortoise (1896) became so familiar it was elected honorary vice president of a college society. It was replaced by two tortoises  whose shells bore the college arms, then in 1938 another one appeared, Testudo – the only tortoise whose birth was announced in The Times. Elizabeth Windsor’s first official visit to Oxford in May 1948 was marked by a surprise encounter with Testudo, as recorded by a photograph in the Oxford Mail.

Tortoise racing may fail to set the world alight but for one brief day a year in Oxford there are attempts to make something more of this fledgling sport. Rivalry is fierce and as the protagonists are anything but fierce, cheating is rampant. (The death of Corpus Christie’s own animal was concealed for years as borrowed animals were brought in for the event.) The race starts with tortoises being placed in the middle of a circle of lettuces (8m diameter). The first one to a lettuce wins. As male tortoises prefer sex to food, the thing to do is to field a female who likes her food and the males will follow … behind.  However, as we have seen, sexing tortoises is a bit of  lottery in itself, so it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Rosa Luxembourg had many successes for Balliol during her 42 years in college until one day she disappeared (probably hitched a lift to Hereford). In 2007 Chris Skidmore MP  a Christ Church graduate donated 2 tortoises, 1 to Christ Church and one to Balliol where he had attended an Open Day in 1999. Sadly, Balliol’s Matilda died in 2009. I think the event has become a bit too silly in recent years with reports of people in tortoise suits. The charm may have diminished accordingly.

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