Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter A and Spring in Kent

A whitework alphabet: letter A (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

A pre-Easter week of visiting family coincided with the best sort of weather for getting out and about. With David’s son and four year old granddaughter (sadly mum had to work) we went by car deeper into real Kent to Penshurst Place via country lanes laced with blossom and young greenery and through pretty little towns and villages lined with buildings just right for their setting. I say just right for their setting as the geology of the British Isles and South East England in particular is very complicated and varies greatly over even short distances. The underlying structure of Kent is like half an ice cream bomb whose curved top has been sliced off and the inner layers have been mined by spoons seeking hidden deliciousness. Weak rocks revealed in this way have been eroded over time while their more resistant neighbours are visible as ridges. Traditionally people used local materials for building stone, and on even a short journey like ours you can play a game guessing at the underlying geology by noting the buildings you pass – sudden pockets of knapped flint houses (on chalk) and brick and tile hung facades (clay) contrast with half timbered, stone based buildings, though stone is so varied round here you’d need a reference book to hand to nail exactly which stone.

Sketches of various As found online

Discerning local geology being too taxing for a 4 year old, we focused on wild flowers instead, aided by The i-Spy Book of Wild Flowers found in Penshurst Place’s shop. I used to ruin masses of these small hand-sized books when I was little – scrawling all over them, scrumpling them up into a pocket or bike basket and then, disappointed, finding lemonade or chocolate had leaked all over them and stuck the pages together. I thought that, along with Ladybird Books (proper ones, not the horrible new sort, with titles like The Midlife Crisis, The Hangover or Brexit) they had disappeared, and I now find they had (for 7 years) until Michelin, appreciating their charm and potential for making money, relaunched them in 2009. (I resisted buying half a dozen different titles.) Armed with grandad’s pen we meandered round the gardens, occasionally calling the little one to heel so that she could view, admire, name and tick off some of the commonest of our wildflowers. I think we managed 7 0r 8 ticks which was good going considering the gardens were seriously cared for and very few flowers of any sort, wild or cultivated, were out anyway. Strangely, there was no entry for forget-me-nots, which we did see in plenty! There are, however, few better ways to tire a young child out than having them run up to every yellow flower just to check if it’s the celandine grandad feels sure he saw somewhere. (No celandines – land not wet enough, I suspect.)

Sketches of various As found online

David and I nipped into the house while others went to the adventure playground. The Great Hall still had a huge central open hearth and piles of ashes suggested fire had recently burned here. I was much taken with a small room completely lined with plate racks and narrow shelves and thought how nice it would be to sit at embroidery or knitting in somewhere like that. With windows out on to the garden you could look up from your needle and admire nature or glance round the room and enjoy focusing on your favourite plates or tiny teapots which dated from a time tea was so expensive that you drank it out of egg cups. In other rooms, kindly stewards told the stories depicted in the tapestry hangings and, when asked, checked up on what dye had been used for the yellow which had faded badly. (Onion skins or saffron; the madder red was still luminously rosy and gorgeous.)  BBC’s recent adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall used many rooms in the film, most notably the end of the Long Gallery where you might remember seeing Anne Boleyn embroidering surrounded by her ladies in waiting and musicians. Three costumes used in the filming were on display somewhat unimaginatively, though at least you could get quite close to them and see how the brocade of a skirt was stencilled on and how on a man’s shirt, little puffs of fabric were trapped between seams to suggest a billowy undershirt pulled through slashes in an overgarment. Overall it was very historical and grand but not somewhere I would have liked to live in (with the exception of the crockery cupboard).

A whitework alphabet: letter A (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

As it’s not worth having a grandad who’s also an art historian unless he educates you just a little about art, we also went to Dulwich Picture Gallery. Ticking off a few more flowers in our iSpy book en route, and having enjoyed a light lunch outdoors in the museum cafe, we made direct for the museum shop and chose our 2 postcards. (See this post for why.)  Great ideas often fail tripped up by unconsidered practicalities. There were not many postcards. Of the two paintings chosen, one was in store (one of the stewards said he had never seen it on display – but he was quite young) and the other picture was a bit too high up to be clearly viewed. Undeterred we bought another postcard (of a painting we knew to be there!) and spent as long as we could avoiding its location while seemingly searching for it!! Once found there was the complicated matter of explaining why Armida had a dagger in her hand as she gazed on the sleeping body of Rinaldo. As Poussin’s painting, Rinaldo and Armida doesn’t show the moment Armida actually kills Rinaldo, we were able to focus on the restraining influence of  the urgent Cupid tugging energetically on Armida’s dagger wielding arm. En route we did discover a tiny portrait of Queen Victoria as a four year old princess which we all liked – but of course, there was no postcard of it! In all we had been in the gallery for about 40 minutes. Dulwich Picture Gallery is a private gallery but children are free and David and I got in free as we subscribe to The National Art Collections Fund. Whether a forty minute visit is worth paying £18 for (two full priced adults) is another matter. (Most British art galleries are free.)

Sketch for whitework letter

Geology guided our lives yet once more as we took the train from Beckenham to Hastings via Orpington. The line cuts across the undulating terrain of the High Weald necessitating 8 tunnels, two of which are almost half a mile in length. The last tunnel but one is known as Bopeep Tunnel – nothing to do with the nursery rhyme but a reminder that Customs and Excisemen were never far away. As with lots of English seaside resorts the newer part of the town is a sad mess but the Old Town, with narrow winding roads, still has the feeling of somewhere like Rye, another of the Cinque ports. The Jerwood Gallery (soon to be renamed we learned) was small but beautifully designed and had a suitably small but enjoyable art collection. From the café on the first floor, fishing boats and fishermen’ s huts suggested a time when the sea was more important to the town that just being a splendid backdrop. We never got up the cliffs to the more sedate Victorian/Edwardian part of the town but saw enough to be happy to go back again sometime. Foyle’s War always makes the town look wonderful.

Twice last week we crossed London from Paddington to Victoria stations and through the clever routing of our taxi drivers managed to avoid the disruption climate change protesters. We might otherwise have gone by bus.

Here begins my second embroidered alphabet, this one to be all in whitework and so a bit more ornate than the last.

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Baby cardigan with Fair Isle Yoke and American Eden by Victoria Johnson


Fair isle cardigan 3-6 months (pattern Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino, 2002)

Another new baby provides the perfect excuse for just the right sort of knitting – a bit of Fair Isle, not to much plain knitting and no lengthy seams. I did agonise a bit about the Fair Isle design, not wanting to overwhelm a tiny person with the sort of big bold pattern I have my sights set on at the moment so the resulting cobbled together design for the yoke is a bit underwhelming, but I think it has a certain charm.

Fair isle cardigan 3-6 (pattern Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino, 2002

Pink buds of apple blossom are waving gently outside my window and I’m determined to enjoy this bit of the ancient tree’s largesse before those little twists of pink loveliness give way to the apple grenades that bombarded us so ferociously last August. Plants and plantsmen have been much on my mind since Christmas when I received the happy gift of Victoria Johnson’s book American Eden about the almost completely forgotten Dr David Hosack, who set up New York’s first public, non commercial botanic garden and who, until this book came out was probably better known for his brief appearance in Jon Lin Manuel Miranda’s rap musical Hamilton. Good friend of both Hamilton and Burr, he attended the 1804 duel in his medical capacity, cared for the grievously wounded Hamilton until he died the next day but carried on a lengthy correspondence with Burr during his self imposed exile abroad in 1808 after the latter’s subsequent acquittal in a treason trial.  Some of my family have been to see the musical and enjoyed it greatly. Not a fan of rap, I’ve watched what’s available on YouTube and been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it too, but then again, Miranda did co-write songs for Disney’s Moana, so he’s not a man with a tin ear! Hosack, a man with a medical bag, is given no words in the musical but just before the duel takes place is referenced in the following lines:

“Hamilton: You pay him in advance, you treat him with civility.

Burr: You have him turn around so he can have deniability.”

Fair isle cardigan 3-6 months (pattern Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino, 2002

An Enlightenment man in the European mould Hosack sailed to Europe in 1792 to complete his medical studies. In Edinburgh he realised how limited was his knowledge of medicinal botany, so he moved to London (the capital of both botany and anatomy) where he attended a private medical school in parallel with learning from the botanist William Curtis at work first in his Brompton Botanic Garden and then in the garden we have come to know as the Chelsea Physic Garden, spending as much time in the garden and greenhouse as in the lecture theatre. Curtis cultivated American species in ever greater numbers and Hosack began consider the potential botanical richness of the vast American wilderness beyond the East Coast settlements. In 1796 he returned to America where he established himself as a doctor and devoted family man.

Fair isle cardigan 3-6 months (pattern Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino, 2002


Botanical interest never lapsed. He set up and was the first president of the New York Horticultural  Society with Adams, Jefferson and Madison as founding members. This was not enough for a man of vision and prodigious energy and in 1801 he bought land beyond the city for a botanic garden to be devoted to the study of indigenous plants. 4 miles from his Broadway home, getting to the land with men and equipment was a major expedition but he persevered, irrigated the site, brought it to productivity and built huge glass houses for the study of plants of tropical temperament from hotter parts of the country.  For too few years medical students studied alongside botanical researchers, observing, classifying and trialling. But such an enormous endeavour could only gorge on money and Hosack’s own purse was nearing empty. Promised funding from public bodies materialised too late and was anyway too little – considerably less than Hosack had paid for the land, with no consideration for value added from cultivation, building and the stock of plants. New York State bought the land in 1810. In 1812 marble slabs were placed along the Middle Road  – the beginnings of the grid system later to characterise New York’s street plan.  The Middle Road became Fifth Avenue. The land was made over to Columbia College in 1814 and garden and buildings fell into decay and dilapidation as the university had no interest in such botanical pursuits. In the 1920s the land was leased to John D. Rockefeller Jr. Today it is the site of the Rockefeller Center, so when you go for a winter skate on the ice rink there, try to imagine being out in the country with no skyscrapers just a few greenhouses and greenery as far as the eye can see.  Radio City Music Hall was built over the footprint of Hosack’s conservatory. On a low wall in Channel Gardens hangs a plaque in memory of Hosack and his garden. sic transit gloria mundi – again (or rursus in Latin).

Pioneering American gardening: Andrea Wulf, The brother Gardeners 2008; Andrea Wulf, The Founding Gardeners, 2011; Vicoria Johnson: American Eden, David Hosack, Botany and Medicine in the garden of the Early Republic, 2018

In 1816 Hosack was made an FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) – a fully fledged fellow and not just a foreign member – a rare accolade. Two wives and two children pre-deceased him but he found happiness – and wealth! – with his third wife. With her he bought a Hudson River Estate and established his second botanical garden which gave meaning to his final years.

Andrea Wulf’s two excellent books on American gardeners The Founding Gardeners and The Brother Gardeners are remarkable for containing no mention of Hosack. Wulf herself has praised Victoria Johnson’s book and her research into this forgotten man, which just goes to show how easy it is to slip between the cracks in the floorboards of history. I’ve blogged about Wulf’s books here and, loved them –  having read them twice, I know I will read them again, as I shall with Victoria Johnson’s American Eden, and I shall do it with a great vernal sigh of pleasure.

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