Shadowbox: Men of Steam

At the time I set SHADOWBOX, the lines between science, industry and other disciplines were less rigid than now.George Stephenson, father of the railway

Perhaps because the people whose names have come down through history attached to new discoveries came from a limited set of the population, it seems that specialisation back then was uncommon.

Probably a wrong assumption on my part.

My school education (this being in Scotland) focused heavily on the great men of the Industrial Revolution, such as:

Robert Stephenson Trust - an early railway train

  • and, most peculiarly to my upbringing, Henry Bell (who built the first steam-boat and also designed the town nearest my childhood home  – you can’t walk along the sea front without passing the Henry Bell monument, a conceit based on Cleopatra’s Needle).

But the 19th century had a whiff of change in the air which was nothing to do with factories and steam engines.

Charles Lyell, in real life rather than the character I borrow for my novel, was deeply involved with geology. He never wavered to other pursuits, unlike his good friend Roderick Impey Murchison, who only took up geology on the instigation of the aforementioned Humphry Davy.

Lyell’s geology, like that of Murchison and James Hutton, began to provide hard evidence that the planet was far, far older than Biblical suggestions. In 1832 there was yet no outright declaration, but the idea of evolution was on its way.

HMS Beagle, plans thereof. Links to the HMS Beagle project, raising funds to build a replica of Darwin's HMS BeagleHis great On The Origins Of Species a mere spark in his imagination, the young Charles Darwin set off on HMS Beagle with a copy of Lyell’s treatise in his hand luggage (and made copious notes in the text during his voyage).

In 1832, the main proponent of natural selection was a dead Frenchman: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His Histoire naturelle had broken the ground that Darwin so thoroughly exploited.Lamarck's collection - Liasse n°6 CISTINEAE - VIOLACEAE - CANELLACEAE - BIXACEAE

This defloration of Old Testament dogma didn’t go unchallenged. Men of the cloth explored their parish artefacts with vigour, discovering to their dismay that their little corner of Christendom had been the home of many prehistoric Europeans.

Avebury, Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and every other prehistoric bump in the grass had its bones dug up and examined. Aubrey Burl and William Stukely had already seen to that.

The menhirs of France had long been Christianised, and in Brittany where the serried ranks of Carnac stretch over the boggy hills you can pray in the church built over the stones. (You can also kip in the long barrow if you can find it in the dark – but it’s near the road, and a bit noisy, and the roof leaks. [Yes, I did.])

St Just menhirs, Brittany, France - at Megalithia.comFuelling this desire to explore the past and explain both sides of the evolution argument was a new freedom: travel.

Giovanni Belzoni headed for Egypt and the banks of the Nile, while Mungo Park roamed south to seek the source of the Niger.

Garibaldi, who makes a brief and unhistoric appearance in my novel, captained a ship trading at Taganrog on the Black Sea by the mouth of the Volga.

St Mikhail Church, Taganrog. A handsome-looking city. No, I've never been.Men sought the source of the Nile; the course of the Mississippi; the ghost rivers of the Australian interior, such as the Todd River, which flow into nothingness and die.

Other men sought the mystical truth about great rivers, not just their geological basis, sparring in the spiritual struggle for the soul of the 19th century.

And in SHADOWBOX, one of those men is Louis Beauregard.


Next post in the series: Anubis Awaits.

Because this journey draws near to its end…

Published in: on June 27, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Men of Steam  
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Shadowbox: Luxury

Luxury. As necessary in 1832 as it is today.

Some of the items treasured back then have remained the same, while others were yet to be invented. When we think of luxury consumer goods today the usual suspects arise, glittering in the mind’s eye:

  • The Aston Martin;
  • The Cartier;

So far beyond the pocket of any ordinary person they might as well be made of magic.

Aston Martin Vanquish. 'nuff said.

Those of us who are mere mortals make do with lesser treasures: Belgian chocolates, French wine, a first-class rail ticket for a day trip, even an added shot of syrup in our once-a-week latte. Many moons ago I used to treat myself to a fresh melon once a fortnight. Bliss.

Back in 1832 there was a similar disparity in luxury.

For the wealthy, this meant racehorses, vineyards, sugar plantations in the Caribbean and slaves to work them, mansions and country estates such as Highclere Castle, hounds with which to hunt foxes thereupon, servants to run those households, silks and perfumes and jewelled music-boxes and kaleidoscopes.

The ornately gilded coaches used by the Royal Family for state occasions fall into this category.

Scottish State Coach. Not Stage Coach. That's a bus company.

Those of us at the broader end of the social scale had sugar, cakes and sweets and jam. We had gin and ribbons. Fine china in small quantities, linen and glassware and perhaps a horse or a stout pair of boots for transport.

Destitution was, according to Dickens and Zola, close on the heels of many. Luxury for those was a dry bed and a hot meal.

And the luxury of freedom, of democracy, of self-determination, was denied to many more who contributed their labour to the fortunes of the wealthy.

More fragile items have not lasted these past 200 years. Few copies exist of the handbooks Giovanni Belzoni distributed at the exhibition of his replica of the tomb of Seti I, for all the hundreds he had printed. (I have actually held one of those copies. The archaeologist in me was thrilled!)

Wooden dollies, cheap toys, tinderboxes and lace-trimmed bonnets – rust and mildew take the poor woman’s treasures faster than those of the rich.

But even perfumes evaporate, over time, or go rancid. The recipes used by perfumers in 1832 make use of natural products no longer available, such as musk. The synthetic scent used today cannot match the power and complexity of the raw odour.

Likewise ivory, once used in copious quantites for piano keys, billiard balls, the inlaid panels on firearms. Whale oil, cleanest fuel for lamps, and ambergris – another perfume ingredient from the past. Cochineal and Tyrian purple.

Tyrian purple in action.

Plastics and synthetics – chemicals – take the place of these natural items nowadays. Luxury has moved on.

And chemicals are another element of the story in SHADOWBOX which overshadows the characters, starting with the medication Louis Beauregard relies on.


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: No Sleep Till Medtime.

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Published in: on June 18, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Luxury  
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Shadowbox: Camera Obscura

A small element within the storyline of SHADOWBOX is a fascinating piece of equipment: the camera obscura.

An ingenious device for capturing images using a simple set of mirrors and the refractive qualities of light, the camera obscura

is used in drawing and for entertainment, and was one of the inventions that led to photography and the cameraWikipedia

Most of the time it was used to paint landscapes. Around the time that Giovanni Belzoni was making his fabulous facsimile of the tomb of Seti I, landscape artists were using a camera obscura to map out Greece, then under Ottoman rule.

Artists such as Vermeer are suspected of using one, and we know that Leonardo Da Vinci was familiar with the tool.

An… important advantage of the camera obscura is that it narrows the hopelessly wide range of brightness found in nature to a more limited number of tonal values reproducible by the painter’s pigments – EssentialVermeer.com

In other words, using a camera obscura makes painting easier because it limits the number of colours the eye can make out. Useful if, like my character, you have next to no artistic training.

But there’s more to the camera obscura than just painting. It can be used for entertainment too, and a rather saucy depiction of this is used in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1968) in a scene that presages how Richard Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky and his new wife (played by Glenda Jackson) really aren’t suited for one another.

Modern day photographers use the camera obscura to take photographs, while others design and install public artworks of the type. Here’s one at the top of Cairngorm, in Scotland (note: weather and clear view not normal):

Camera Obscura in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Still in use today, the artists who sketched the landscapes of Greece and Italy on the Grand Tour used a camera obscura to help them capture the details. One of these artists, Simone Pomardi, hires my character Louis Beauregard as a trainee draughtsman in the course of my novel, SHADOWBOX.

Is Louis any good, though?


Next in the SHADOWBOX series: The Magic Lantern Picture Show.

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