Monday, 14 November 2011

Botany - a lifelong passion

As a recent graduate of archaeology, I was slightly worried when I started my botany internship at LMDC that I simply wouldn’t know enough about plants and would, as a result, lose interest in the collection I was working on. I needn’t have worried, the botanist whose collection I was sifting through left many little clues and notes in his work which allowed me not only to better understand the fascinating world of botany, but also how he lived his life and his story.

I knew from his obituary already that William Arthur Sledge was born in 1904 and died in 1991. He was a pupil at Leeds Grammar School, then at the Department of Botany at Leeds University where he later became a Senior Lecturer. He was associated with the university for 69 years, and was clearly a well respected member of the botanical community. However, it is the letters from fellow botanists, his little notes and hidden away photographs and newspaper cuttings that give a more personal view.

The first I came across was a letter from a Mr A J Willmott of the British Museum in 1940. From the looks of things, Mr Wilmott was rather forgetful (as later letters also reveal), and Sledge had to write to him in order to get some of his precious specimens returned. Wilmott talks of the confusion at the BM, presumably from the bombing which damaged the museum and surrounding areas, and apologises for the late response. He writes again in 1942, thanking Sledge for another loan of specimens, then again in 1944 apologising profusely for another lapse in memory and for keeping his collection of Rhinanthus for so long. Wilmott was a forgetful soul, whereas Sledge clearly never forgot anything to do with his beloved collection. It is a shame we don’t have Sledge’s letter to Wilmott, but this one side of correspondence shows a fair deal about both men’s character.

There are many other letters and notes sent from other botanists, and I know through another intern's work that he sent out letters himself clarifying identifications and so on. For his studies he travelled all over the world, to New Zealand and to Ceylon and Samoa, his knowledge of the flora of these countries was highly respected and sought after by many in his field.

However, the most personal thing I have so far discovered is a couple of his old books, dated in his own hand, to 1918. We discovered a book in the library here called ‘Illustrations of the British Flora: A series of wood engravings, with dissections, of British plants’, which was presented to Sledge by the Master of his Grammar School as a prize from the Midsummer Examination of 1918, for ‘proficiency in botany (senior prize)’. This book is clearly something he cherished throughout his life, its pages are filled with photographs, dried cuttings and newspaper clippings dating right up to the 1950’s, many of them with no date are possibly later then that. It has been well used, its spine falling apart and its pages very well thumbed.

In a world before Google to help identify species (it’s been a life-saver for me during my time here!) and without email to request the return of loaned out plants or to help others, books, letters and newspaper articles were essential in the life of a botanist. And they give us a wonderful insight into the man behind the collections. His obituary calls him ‘The botany man’, and he truly was just that, from his childhood right up until his death, he was a botanist through and through.

Posted by Clare but written and researched by Hana Makin who worked diligently on the wonderful plant collections at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre over summer 2011.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Full Monty

Less about taking your clothes off, as actually putting them on!

There are various origins of the famous phrase ‘The Full Monty’, but one version is that it came from the ‘demob suits’ given for free to all demobilised servicemen after WWII. These were full three-piece suits (a jacket, waistcoat and trousers) – in comparison to the standard two-piece suit, and they were provided by a Leeds based firm called Burtons. As an intern at Leeds Discovery Centre I have been privileged enough to work with their vast collection of suits, including those from Burtons own collection and I was particularly fascinated by the demob suits I came across.

Burtons was first established in 1903 by a Lithuanian immigrant Jew, ‘the tailor of taste’, Montague Burton (the name taken after the former Meshe David Osinsky spent a pleasant afternoon at Burton-on-Trent railway station). Hence why the demob suits obtained the nickname – ‘The Full Monty’!

Burtons was not only hugely important in the war effort, during and after, but estimates also suggest that at one point Burton was clothing a fifth of British men, with ready-made or made-to-measure suits. He was even knighted for his efforts. Burtons was also hugely important for Leeds itself and will forever be part of its history – many families in Leeds can still today recall at least one family member, if not more, who once worked for the Burtons corporation.

Demob suits were generally known for being of a high quality, made of good materials with such merits as turn-ups on the trousers and their owners were proud of them. For many of the owners it was their first ever suit and they were very pleased with them. However, due to issues like rationing from the early 1940s to the 1950s we saw the introduction of utility cloth which led to some demob suits being made in utility style. These suits were ill-fitting and shapeless, with none of the luxuries such as back pockets, shoulder padding or even turn-ups on the trouser legs.

The fact that on the conclusion of world wars, all fighting men were rewarded with a suit tells us that they had a special meaning in twentieth-century society. The now universal nature of suit-wearing of the nineteenth century was both a reflection of social and cultural change and an outcome of innovation in retailing. Therefore, demob suits were in fact, a clever marketing strategy as suits had become a powerful way of acquiring ones sense of place in modern society.

By Rebecca Jenkins

Catwalk Cape-ers

Type ‘capes’ into a search engine today and the results will probably show an array of highstreet and luxury brand names offering to sell you ‘this season’s most fashionable cover-up’… ‘the chicest alternative to a classic coat’. Touted by Stella McCartney as ‘the new season silhouette’ and spotted on the catwalk at Lanvin and Yves Saint Laurent, to name just a few, the cape is currently having quite the fashion moment.

As an intern at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, I have been working with the vast collection of capes, which contains everything from mourning capes to christening capes – even emergency rain capes! Common in Medieval Europe, the cape is a sleeveless outer garment, fastening at the neck and falling loosely over the shoulders, generally no longer than waist length. The cape reached its most fashionable in Victorian Britain, as a part of both day and evening wear for women of all social classes.

These 19th Century capes were usually made from velvet or silk. As etiquette dictated that the period of mourning for a husband was up to four years, many were also produced in black. Most famously, Queen Victoria entered a permanent state of mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, and wore only black for the remainder of her life. Nevertheless, mourning capes were beautifully embellished with jet beading, lace, appliqué and fringing - rather than choosing one form of decoration, the Victorians opted to use them all!

You can see examples of just some of these fantastic mourning capes at Abbey House Museum, but as ‘all occasion wear’, capes were certainly not restricted to mourning! They were produced in a multitude of fabrics and colours, with bold, decorative linings and elaborate trimmings such as gold braid and feathers. The cape style became so popular that short capes were even being added to coats and jackets towards the end of the century.

Current fashion trends might dictate that the wearer picks up a cape with a faux-fur trim, with military style embellishments, or even a patent leather-trimmed, transparent cape as seen on the models at Burberry Prorsum! Although the modern-day cape may seem far removed from it’s earlier origins, it is clear that its legacy as a fashionable garment in Victorian culture has stood the test of time!

By Shauni Sanderson

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Souvenir Roses

Over the course of my internship at Abbey House, I've worked with a wide range of objects, from antique chocolate box labels and Punch and Judy puppets to 1980s newspapers and World War One propaganda. Among the most intriguing and unique items I've found have been the souvenir roses produced by Joseph, Myers and Co. around the middle of the nineteenth century. These were delicate paper items, cut into the shape of a rose when folded and then opened out several times to form a roughly circular shape, decorated on both sides with intricate engravings depicting a number of scenes from a particular location.

These roses were sold in envelopes that were also decorated with similar pictures:

Our collection contains twelve of these roses, from London, Paris, Edinburgh, Crystal Palace, Leicester, Manchester (two examples), Brighton, Southampton & Portsmouth (on a single rose), Hastings and St. Leonard's (on a single rose, two examples), and Switzerland, which is depicted on a posy rather than a rose.

We also have a set of leaflets advertising these roses and giving details of the whole range, which included 42 roses in total at the time of publication, with another six designs on their way. These included a great number of German scenes, as well as the "Winter's Tale Rose", which was advertised as containing "all the scenes in Shakespeare's play of the 'Winter's Tale". It was accompanied by a short description of the play itself, and the envelope it came in had a picture of the Princess' Theatre, where the play had recently been performed.

Most date from the 1850s and 1860s.

Posted by Kitty Ross on behalf of Sam Ross, who worked diligently as an intern working on the social history ephemera collections during the summer of 2011.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Flog It! filming at Temple Newsam House

BBC programme Flog It! has been filming content at Temple Newsam House for two episodes to be broadcast in 2012, showcasing the curatorial, conservation, and education expertise, collections and history that has made Temple Newsam House one of the greatest decorative arts museums in the United Kingdom: "a beacon of hope", to quote Sir Nicholas Goodison, author of the Goodison Review.

Posted by Ian Fraser