Friday, July 28, 2023

The Branwell family to the Brontës... from Penzance to Haworth

Unlike the granite-faced buildings that surround it, the Branwell home stands out, a little austere and rather enigmatic with its distinctive redbrick facade and imposing door. Such brickwork was indeed a sign of means and status in late 18th century Penzance, with these 'Rotterdam' bricks having been procured from the Dutch by local privateers.
Situated towards the end of Chapel Street, with a view over Penzance quay and Mount's Bay, and later to be overshadowed by St Mary's church built in 1835, the house would have witnessed great day-to-day activity and perhaps a number or illicit or illegal affairs such as smuggling. The house, however, reveals few secrets itself. It does not offer the same quaint charm or meet any of our modern-day notions of cosiness as the other houses here do, but that makes it all the more intriguing.
Set a little higher on the pavement, with steps leading up to the front door, it is impossible to peer inside, try as I might. Yet the plaque on the facade opened a door to a world of ideas and imagination from the moment I read Wuthering Heights as a young teenager. For here was the home of the Branwell family, notably Maria and Elizabeth who were to be mother and aunt respectively of Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell Brontë. From this house would spring the future monumental works of English literature, in northern regions far away from south-west. What would have happened if Maria and her future husband, Patrick Brontë,had settled in Penzance and their children had taken to roaming its magnificent landscape and breathtaking coast instead of exploring the dramatic Yorkshire moorland around Haworth?
One thing is almost certain, without the nurturing administrations of Elizabeth - 'Aunt Branwell' - the publication of the literary works of the Brontë sisters would have been severely thwarted or perhaps never have taken place at all. Alongside the care and love she provided throughout their childhood years and beyond as 'second mother' to the orphaned children, Elizabeth Branwell offered financial support at a key moment, when none was to be found elsewhere.
In fact, much of the information concerning 'Aunt Branwell' comes from the book above that I found in Penzance this summer, and which enabled me to track down the other homes and sites linked to the Cornish relatives of the Brontës around the town. Although I was, of course, fully acquainted with many of these places as part and parcel of Penzance such as I have always known it, the notion that this was the case for the Branwells too is quite strange.
As popular pubs, my teenage memories of The Union Hotel, The Turk's Head Inn and The Admiral Benbow in Chapel Street surely differ greatly to those of Elizabeth Branwell, who would never have frequented such places in that capacity! However, their pasts are linked to historic moments such as the announcement of Nelson's death in 1805 for The Union and The Turk's and then a wild and racy role in smuggling in the case of The Benbow. The latter is even said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson in his writing of Treasure Island...
Born in 1776, Elizabeth grew up in certain comfort within a relatively prosperous merchant family that owned property. In the century prior to her birth, the fortune of Penzance had grown as had its population, largely due to its status as coinage town from the 1660s, thus playing a vital role in the copper and tin industry. Fishing and farming continued to flourish but it was the Industrial Revolution that would fuel the town's ascension. Sir Humphry Davy, Penzance chemist and inventor of the miners' safety lamp was born in the same period as Elizabeth and his experiments opened the way for the advances in chemistry and physics that would transform science. He attended the grammar school in the town, and I went to Humphry Davy Grammar School some two centuries later!
Socially aware of the lack of education and thus the means for moral and social betterment, Thomas Branwell, father to Elizabeth, set up a school room at the back of the family home in Chapel Street as a philanthropic act. Referred to as The Penny School due to its cheap rate, it offered local children education, alongside the Branwell children, several of whom would later teach there. Unfortunately the school was destroyed by a bomb in WW2...
Despite economic growth, no family was safe from hardship or loss and the Branwells were no exception, with the majority of their twelve children failing to survive their infant years. Thus the parish church of St Maddern in Madron was witness to a succession of christenings and subsequent deaths. Yet Jane, Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, born in 1773, 1776 and 1783 respectively, would go on to change literature indirectly by their fates, whilst the eldest daughter, Jane, would be the only Branwell offspring to perpetuate the family name.
Despite attending the church at Madron, the Branwells turned towards the Methodist Movement for prayer and not only were they involved in the establishment of the Wesleyan Methodist chapel in Chapel Street, but it was the family's Methodist faith that was instrumental in bringing Maria and Patrick Brontë together in Yorkshire. Incidently, the Girls Grammar School used to hold Speech Day at the chapel each year until the 1980s...
Following the marriage of Maria to Patrick in 1812, Elizabeth visited the couple in happy times that would prove to be relatively short-lived. Having borne six children between 1814 and 1820, Maria fell ill after the birth of the last child in 1820, Anne, and died of suspected uterine infection. And so it was that Elizabeth's stay at Haworth extended indefinitely so that she never returned to Penzance again. And yet her vital role in the development of her charges, with her far-reaching, albeit discreet influence, ensured that she lived on through the writings of her nieces with references to events, deeds and thoughts that found their source in 'Aunt Branwell'.
As for the elder sister of Elizabeth and Maria - Jane Branwell - following a failed marriage to a disgraced Methodist missionary, reverend John Kingston, she was obliged to flee to Penzance, living in Morrab Place with one of their children. Her husband remained in America with the other offspring who would prove to be the last remaining strains of the Branwell family.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Cast Creatures - Medieval Footrests at the V & A...

Recently wandering around the marvelous 19th century Cast Courts at the V & A, I saw more examples of footrests on sculpted Medieval tomb monuments, from the original pieces copied around Europe.
The gisant figures of the departed lie fully clothed in all their worldly or spiritual finery, with apparel that reflects their rank, religion, wealth and worth.
On the voluminous folds of their clothing rest both hands, joined in prayer on the chest or clutching some spiritual, social, chivalric artifact, or simply crossed on the body.
These notable beings appear to sleep peacefully and in great dignity. Noble husbands and wives repose next to each other yet apart; religious individuals lie alone, clasping a holy script or ecclesiastical object. Knights proudly grasp their sword and shield, their bodies twisted as if ready to spring to action.
Some figures are shown lying on crib-like structures that are richly decorated with sculpted draped cloth, and several are represented in the bright colours that were wildly employed on the stonework of churches and cathedrals alike.
With the exception of a few figures, the majority of the departed are accompanied by a beast, symbolic of their standing; be it a lion, bear, dragon, dog, or unicorn.
Rare are the individuals who have no creature crouched or nestled at their feet or nothing on which to rest their often impressive footwear.
It is more customary to see one or two creatures that look up to their masters with devotion and obedience either from a high-relief sculpted plaque or a 3-dimensional sculptured piece.
The lion, symbol of power and pride, frequently appears next to venerable male figures although not always gazing at the gisant or postioned at foot level.
The king of the beasts is not exclusively reserved for men-folk as women too could be accompanied by the regal lion although in that case the ferocity appears somewhat toned down to the point of docility!
Likewise the dog – representing loyalty – could be shown lovingly guarding over his mistress...
... Or fiercely watching over his master...
In the case of a married couple, both lion and dog would be appear together.
Sometimes the interaction between the beasts is one of domination but at other moments is rather comic...
... Or quite strange...
And finally you have some departed who simply refuse to lie down and sleep, with or without an accompanying animal!

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

A Place of Peace... Madron Church.

Set against one of the walls in picturesque Madron Church, itself set in spectacular Cornish countryside with sweeping views over Mount's Bay, is this beautiful tombstone, dating back to the early 17th century.
Gazing at the quaint couple who kneel in devotion, you cannot help but feel a sense of peace and calm, along with the notion that their God-fearing existence in this breathtaking setting must surely have been one of tranquil simplicity, without the frenzied tech-led lifestyles we have opted for in the 21st century.
I wonder what kind of life this gentleman led until his demise in 1621, some 400 years ago? His fine Cornish surname - Maddern - has crossed the centuries, as have indeed many of the other names on the tombstones here, just as in other cemeteries around Cornwall.
Tonkin, Eddy, Rowe, Trembath, Hoskin, Penrose, Nichols, Trelawny, Cargeeg, Nankervis... So familiar are such family names that they remind me of the daily roll call from my schooldays, down the road from Madron, in Penzance!
The graveyard around the church here is well maintained yet naturally inhabited and sometimes invaded by the usual wild plants, bushes and lichen typical of the rather mild climate of Cornwall to preserve a timeless, organic essence...
Some of the greenery seems vibrant and exotic, while other forms appear old, wizened and commonplace...
Many of the gravestones, lean and lilt, as if huddling together to brave the frequent winds that sculpt trees and hedgerows alike into odd, hunched silhouettes on the skyline...
Others appear partially obscured from view, hidden under bows, bushes and shadows...
Celtic forms are visible, carved into the granite in stark designs...
Some of which assume an almost pagan aspect, leading back to the ancient Celtic origins of the land itself and those who inhabited it...
The lands of Landithy - with lan signifying 'sacred enclosure' and dithy referring to a 'celtic holy man' - were given to the Knights Hospitallers in the 12th century. The estate bore an early church which finally lead to what is now known as the Church of Saint Maddern, consecrated in 1336.
The stout tower and squat, sturdy walls of the building before us today date back to the 15th century and are a world away from the soaring heights and architectural feats that were characteristic of the Gothic churches some two hundred years earlier.
Despite the drastic changes in architectural styles over time, the number of relatively early deaths commemorated here make it clear that lives were still brutish and short for a significant proportion of the population and it is hardly surprising that religion provided support when there was precious little else.
The idyllic Cornish landscapes and promoted picture-perfect lifestyles to go with these today lead most of us to assume that lives in centuries past must somehow have been healthy and hearty in these rural settings, far-removed from the hardships associated with the dark, satanic mills of industrial England. And yet the mining and fishing industries offered little but a dangerous, dirty and dismal existence, whilst farming was hardly better.
Coastal existence bore its own challenges, with the treachery of the seas bringing in tow shipwrecks, drowning and flooding - most dramatically perhaps in the latter case with a tsunami recorded in Penzance in 1855 in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake. The sea also enabled marauding of all sorts, with pirates, smugglars and even Spanish invaders at the end of the 16th century. I wonder if our Gentleman John Maddern, as mentioned above, experienced that invasion?
Several artifacts in the church predate our gentleman - notably some of the carved wooden benchends. Did he ever sit on these very benches in prayer?
If so, what did he think as he sat there? Was he accompanied by his wife?
The vaulted barrel ceiling above the nave is decorated with ribs and purloins which creates a spectacular view leading towards the altar, behind the wooden rood screen.
The original rood screen was taken down in the 18th century but was restored in 1880 to dramatic effect - so intricate and yet not overbearing.
Around the church are Tudor roses to demonstrate allegiance to Henry VII following a revolt that led the vicar of the church to feel a certain eagerness to express his loyalty.
Alabaster angels are grouped together in one sculpted work...
Whilst solitary wood-carved greenmen stand guard at the end of benches in the chapel...
Large plaques with their Latin inscriptions look down on the nave passage below, making me regret I can't read their message...
Also on display are the plaques devoted to Lord Nelson whose death in 1808 was heralded by the bells at Madron church, making Penzance the first town in England to learn of his demise. I was more interested in finding traces of the Branwell family (of the Brontës) but more about that another day... In the meantime, here's the view from my walk back home to Penzance!