One of the delights of designing fabric is seeing what kind of life it has once it’s left the confines of the studio. Today I received a message from the brilliant designer Luke Edward Hall who sent me this picture of a shirt he made using my Lionheart fabric for the musician Patrick Wolf for his tour last year. The funny thing is I saw Patrick perform in Brighton last December. His soulful and beautifully wrought songs really hit the spot and since then he’s become a firm favourite to listen to in the studio.
On my walk to the studio this morning I came across this beautiful Victorian painted shop sign which had been uncovered by a painter and decorator working on the facade of a new coffee shop. He kindly allowed me to scale the scaffolding to photograph it before he covered it up again with a new sign. I’d love to know who R C Hallett was and what exactly it was they sold at 13 Lewes Road. A brief internet search revealed that an R C HaIlett now sells bicycles in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I wonder whether there’s a more interesting story to tell behind this sign?
On June the 16th, 1663 lightening struck the tower of St Michael and All Angels at Withyham, West Sussex. Fire swept through the church, melting the bells in the steeple and incinerating the many ancient monuments to the Earls and Dukes of Dorset and their descendants in the Sackville chapel. Since the 14th century generations of Sackvilles had been brought here from wherever they had died to rest among their kin. The church steward lamented to see ‘such fine and stately monuments so suddenly turned to lime and ashes’. Following the fire funds were eventually raised to rebuild the church and family chapel. The new work was completed between 1672 and 1680.
It was in the midst of the rebuilding that tragedy struck. In 1675 whilst in Samur, France, Thomas Sackville the youngest son of the fifth Earl, died aged thirteen. Lord Dorset wrote in a letter to Sir John Bennett of the loss of ‘my dear jewell here on earth and now a blessed angel and saint in heaven’. It had been his intention to erect a monument to his late son. Tragically he too would be dead in less that two years. It was left to Lady Dorset to commission a fitting memorial to her late husband and her dead children who numbered thirteen in total.
The Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630-1700) was chosen to create the monument. Cibber had learned his craft in Italy and the Low Countries, eventually arriving in England in 1655. He is best known for his relief panel at the base of the Monument commemorating the Great Fire of London in 1666. The commission at Withyham was also to raise a striking memorial in the wake of fire. For a fee of £350 he was requested to create a work that was to be ‘substantially rare and artificially performed’ within the space of 10 months. Quite astonishingly he met the deadline of the demanding brief. He also succeeded in creating a masterpiece of late 17th century memorial sculpture.
Behind a low wrought iron screen the Duke and Duchess kneel, in silent and eternal grief at either side of the tomb of their son Thomas who lies with a skull in his hand - a symbol of premature death. Around the base of the raised tomb are representations of their twelve other children who also died in youth. The masterful rendering of the figures is astonishing and the effect theatrical and yet it is essentially a representation of private grief. The gazes of the Duke and Duchess are fixed inwards on their lost son who looks up towards the heavens. The chapel in which the monument sits is lofty with a large window yet it seems to be cloaked in darkness even on a bright day. The modern visitor to the church has to locate a light switch in order to illuminate the melancholy tableau - an act which seems to break the profound sense of sanctity surrounding this extraordinary monument.
Photographs by Ed Kluz
Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire must surely rank as one of the most enigmatic and eccentric lost buildings of Britain. Between the years 1796 - 1822 it was the obsession and product of one man and his pursuit of splendid isolation.
William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844) son of the Alderman and twice Lord Mayor of London, William Beckford, was born into a vast fortune generated by plantations in Jamaica. At the age of 10 he inherited the estate. As a child he displayed precocious abilities in the arts which were further nurtured by his drawing master Alexander Cozens and reputedly Mozart. As he matured this developed into a highly refined taste in painting, architecture and objet d’art.
In 1783 he married Lady Margaret Gordon with whom he had two daughters. In 1784, shortly before he was due to be elevated to the peerage, Beckford met the young William ‘Kitty’ Courtenay (future Viscount and Earl of Devon) at Powderham Castle, Devon. It was here that they were reputedly found in bed together. Following the discovery Courtenay’s vindictive uncle, Lord Loughborough, published the scandal in the national newspapers. Consequently Beckford suffered public disgrace and his application to be elevated to the peerage was revoked. He chose to retreat from public life with his wife to his house at Fonthill. In 1786 Margaret tragically died during the birth of their second child. This triggered a deeper retreat into seclusion.
In 1796 on a wooded hill overlooking the old Fonthill Splendens, work began on William’s new house. Fonthill Abbey was to be a gothic fantasy on a monumental scale. James Wyatt was employed to oversee the design and construction of the house, however he was often absent and reputedly favoured the drinking establishments of London rather than the site at Fonthill. As a result Beckford supervised much of the work himself. At the height of the construction 500 men were working night and day on the great shell of the Abbey. Such was Beckford’s mania to progress with the work at speed that 450 extra workers were bribed and drafted in from the renovations at the Royal apartments at Windsor Castle.
The earliest form of the Abbey resembled a medieval monastery with flanking wings and a short buttressed spire - as shown in the painting by Turner in 1799. It is reported that due to its poor and hasty construction the central spire collapsed. 6 years later work on a vast new tower measuring 300ft in height was complete. This too collapsed and was finally replaced in stone 7 years later. The shape of the Abbey was altered and added to by increments over the course of Beckford’s occupation, resulting in an enormous rambling building almost as tall as it was wide.
Walking through the 35ft high central doors (often opened by Beckford’s dwarf man servant to achieve the full dramatic effect) the visitor to Fonthill would have walked through a lofty entrance hall up a large flight of stairs and into the dizzying cavern of the central octagon hall beneath the central tower. From here three passages led off - the great dining room directly ahead and on the first floor King Edward’s Gallery to the left and St Michael’s Gallery to the right, both of which extended almost half the width of the building. The interior was richly decorated in red, purple, gold and silver with fine panelling, stained glass, plaster work and fabrics.
Beckford’s extravagant and refined tastes extended to an exceptional collection of paintings, furniture and objet d’art. Many pieces which previously graced the rooms at Fonthill can now be found in public collections across the world. These include ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ by Raphael (National Gallery, London) and ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ by Claude Lorrain (Frick Collection, New York).
In 1822, due to the loss of two of his most profitable Jamaican plantations, Beckford was forced to sell Fonthill and the majority of his collection. He spent his final years in a house on Lansdown Crescent, Bath where he constructed yet another solitary tower on a hill behind the house.
The spire of Fonthill collapsed for the final time in 1825. The house was demolished and its fabric sold as building material. Windows, doors and decorative stonework can still be found in the surrounding villages and towns. What remains of Beckford’s Fonthill today is a tiny portion, in a large clearing at the centre of a large wood at the end of a long drive. It is somehow fitting that such a fantastical building should be reduced to a memory preserved in folklore and a poignant fragment hiding among the trees.
I’m always on the look out for interesting objects to take back to the studio. Carboot sales, flea markets and junk shops are a weakness of mine. A few months ago I spied this old cigar box in a shop in Brighton. Little did I know until opening the lid that it contained a collection of fragile mid 19th century embossed and gilded haberdashery labels. They have now joined my embryonic collection of Victorian ephemera.
I nearly went swimming in the sea tonight - looking out of the window of my flat the sea at Brighton looked very inviting - but I got hungry, and it got late. Instead I’m posting this wonderful photograph of Brighton Swimming Club in 1863 by Benjamin Botham. I love the top hat swimming trunk combo. Now there’s a look for tomorrow night….