Friday, February 12, 2010

Carved Wooden Heads and Cursed Pearls!


As the new season at Ashdown House approaches I'm reminded of all the reasons why I enjoy working there. One of the main ones is that I always learn fascinating historical facts from our visitors. We get such a huge variety of people through the doors; history buffs, people with a connection to the Craven family, people whose ancestors worked at the house, and experts who have come to see the portrait collection or who are knowledgeable about 17th century architecture, or gardens or both or many other things.

Here are three of the most interesting things that I have learned from Ashdown visitors:

1. That the rather idiosyncratic carved wooden heads on which the antlers are mounted were the accepted way to display hunting trophies in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The science of taxidermy had not progressed to the stage of allowing the preservation of the entire stag's head so the antlers were removed, a wooden stag's head was carved and painted and the antlers were attached to it. Each was done individually, by hand, which probably accounts for the difference in quality, the startled expressions and the lack of a resemblance to a real stag.

2. That the pearls which are worn by Elizabeth of Bohemia and her daughters in many of the portraits were part of a necklace of seven strings that belonged to Elizabeth and had originally been Medici pearls inherited by Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth would pawn the necklace when she was particularly short of money during her exile and then buy it back if she had a special state occasion to attend. On her death she left one strand to each of her daughters. In the nineteenth century there was a long-running dispute between the British Royal family and the house of Hanover over possession of the pearls. The English crown claimed the necklace but only six strands were reassembled. The seventh strand had been given to Elizabeth's daughter Princess Henrietta Maria. She had died only six months after her wedding to Prince Sigismond of Transylvania and was buried in her wedding dress - and the string of pearls. Her descendents declined to open the tomb to retrieve the necklace! The picture shows Elizabeth's eldest daughter, also called Elizabeth, wearing her strand. This Elizabeth was considered one of the greatest beauties of the age and was known as "The Star of the North." She was also a great philosopher. What a girl!

It is also said that the large drop pearl in some of the portraits is "The Bretheren" a famous pearl that brings bad luck to the wearer. Elizabeth of Bohemia was, arguably, a very unlucky Queen but it is easy to attribute this to her poor choice of jewellery with the benefit of hindsight!

3. That in 17th century architecture a huting lodge such as Ashdown was considered a "masculine" building and it therefore required a masculine style of garden. The simple box parterre and stone statuary was considered suitable. There were no flowers or feminine-type adornments! That said, there are those who link William, Earl of Craven and Ashdown house to the Rosicrucian belief system and suggests that the house was an astronomical observatory and the gardens and grounds laid out as they are as part of a wider design in the ancient landscape. Intriguing!
Cross-posted to the Passion For History Blog.

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