One of the smaller, but perhaps not insignificant, pleasures of visiting historic places, is the wide array of postcards and cards now available in the shops which have been made from old prints or engravings.
I love them. For so many reasons.
But the main one is research. Or correction, perhaps I should say.
Because these old engravings–their version of photographs and holiday snaps–show us the world our antecedents knew, the world they saw. Yes, it’s slightly idealised in some cases. But often, not at all.
And what I especially love is when it smacks me in the face with something I never imagined.
I mean, we think we know so much. And often, we’re right on several fronts, and we think we’ve got it absolutely right. But of course, we haven’t.
And so dominated are we by the latter twentieth century, that we cannot even imagine how we could have missed a trick.
Take this card I found in Bath recently of the Royal Crescent. Yes, that’s right, the Royal Crescent–that sweeping row of Bath stone neo-classical townhouses which is one of the most beautiful architectural sights in all the world.
The refinement of proportion, the colour of the stone, the balance and harmony of the curving buildings…it’s breathtaking–and provides such a sense of place, such a sense of atmosphere, that it’s included in every film version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion…often with Miss Anne Elliot in the carriage with her dear friend, Lady Russell.
It’s a film-maker’s dream location.
It’s a splendid place, a paradigm of Bath’s elegance and refined architectural sensibility.
And yet, in our modern filmic versions, as I have learned from this engraving, there is something missing.
Yes, that right. Cows.
Right in the centre of Bath. Two hundred years ago, there on the expanse of green at the centre of that most elegant of addresses, the Royal Crescent, there would have been cows.
Which, I must confess, took me aback just a bit.
Of course, there might be several very good reasons for cows grazing there.
I mean, among other things, they could act as natural grass-mowers in a period when the only other alternative was scything.
They might–like the herd of cows kept in St. James’s Park in London at the same period–provide fresh milk for those who lived on the Royal Crescent.
But I’ll be honest, it’s not quite as I have imagined the Royal Crescent, when I’ve thought about it, during my readings of Austen.
But this picture also alerted me to another fact. And that’s that our notions of rural and urban didn’t yet exist. There wasn’t really the separation of the two in people’s minds yet.
The great urban manufacturing centres of the north didn’t yet exist. Cities existed, yes. But they still contained horses, cows (as I’ve just found), chickens…Livestock wasn’t something that just lived in the country while the city was all mechanised and lacking in ordure, as it were.
And I think that’s just a wonderful thing to know.
The boundaries we have imposed between city and countryside didn’t exist to them. And it just conjures up so many marvellous images wherein our modern notions of what life was like 200 years ago give way to something much closer to what they actually knew and saw (and smelled…)