20 September 2014

Royal Chelsea Hospital - an elegant retirement village for ex servicemen

King Charles II was the personal patron of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the architect who helped rebuild London after the 1666 Great Fire. Whatever one thinks of the later Stuarts, no-one can accuse Charles II of shirking his responsibilities as a builder of arguably the greatest city on earth.

By 1673 it was becoming increasingly apparent that some soldiers were no longer fit for service. Perhaps King Charles II was truly anxious about the lads who had served their nation and had come home badly wounded. Or perhaps he was humiliated that France had a wond­erful facility for ex-servicemen while Britain did not. Without a doubt when King Louis XIV commissioned Hôtel des Invalides in the 7th arrondissement of Paris in 1671, Les Invalides became the envy of royal families everywhere. By 1678, wounded French soldiers had a fine place to live.

The pensioners, in red uniforms, parade in front of the Royal Hospital Chelsea

Examine the dates. In 1681, King Charles II issued a Royal Warrant authorising the building of the Royal Hospital Chelsea to care for those broken by age or war. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and erect the building and Sir Stephen Fox was commissioned to secure the funds necessary to see the Chelsea Hospital through to completion. The huge site, adjacent to the River Thames in rural-ish Chelsea, was chosen because of its green landscape and healthy air. The new hospital was to stand on the site of an earlier building which had already been pulled down - Theological College, founded by King James I.

King Charles died in 1685 but the work continued under the next two rulers. 1692 saw the first Chelsea Pensioners admitted into residence and it did not take long before the full complement of 476 men had beds. An earlier bronze statue of Charles II, created by Grinling Gibbons in 1676, was placed in the central court of the complex in time to greet the new residents. This three sided courtyard, which to my eyes looked quite mon­astic and severe, was made from ordinary bricks.

Royal Hospital Chelsea Chapel
by Christopher Wren, consecrated in 1691

The four storey wings on both sides of the central court were designed as the Chelsea Pensioners' living quarters, called the long wards. The original berths, as designed by Wren, were tiny but the oak panelling was smart. Gas lighting was not installed in the long wards until 1854.

How ironic that the first intake were soldiers who survived the Battle of Sedgemoor which had occurred in July 1685 in Somerset. This was the final battle of the Monmouth Rebellion and followed a series of skirmishes around the SW provinces between the forces of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth and troops loyal to King James II. At least the old soldiers looked very smart, wearing a dis­tinctive red uniform and black hat. [Tod­ay the residents still wear uniforms, scarlet in summer, dark blue in winter, and ceremonial tricorn hats]. 

The Chelsea Hospital had to be a self-suffic­ient community, so it had res­idential facil­it­ies, dining rooms, veg­etable gardens and its own brew­ery. The chapel was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and consecrated in August 1691; services were held twice daily to which all the pensioners were warmly invited. Just as the King had a duty of care and honour to the ex-servicemen, so the ex-servicemen had a duty of care to God. Appropriately a fine version of the Resurrection appeared in the half dome of the chapel apse, painted by two Italian artists.

The Great Hall with its oak carving was also designed by Sir Christopher Wren, originally as a dining hall. Over the decades, the Chelsea pensioners started dining in the wards so the Great Hall began to be used for leisure time pursuits. Clearly Chelsea was a huge success. The proud Army ex-servicemen could remain in the complex until they died.

Royal Hospital Chelsea Great Hall
by Christopher Wren

But progress is never guaranteed. Wren's very special formal gard­ens, which provided a vista from the Royal Hospital to the River Th­ames and included gazebos and summer houses, were all dem­ol­ished when the Chelsea Embankment was constructed. The present Rane­lagh Gardens were laid out by John Gibson in c1860. Even the new Infirm­ary building, built by Sir John Soane in 1809 for 80 patients, was bombed by German planes and had to be pulled down. I suppose it is of some comfort that the site of the bombed-out Infirmary has now been re-purposed as the National Army Museum.

It is unfortunate that the Royal Hospital Chelsea is no longer owned by the government or by the army. The ex-servicemen are nearly back to where they were pre-1692 i.e dependent on their own army pensions and on charity from others. And until recently the pensioners still lived in the original carved oak berths off the same same oak long wards where ex-servicemen from the Jacobite Rising of 1715 once slept through the night. Wren made the original berths 6 x 6 ft and it was not until after WW2 that the berths were enlarged to 9 x 9 ft. But at last there is some progress. When the current renovations are complete, each pensioner will have his or her own small living-room and a toilet.

one of Christopher Wren's long wards
Doors on the left open into the individual berths for sleeping
Chairs and tables on the right provide reading and writing space for each resident.

British History Online has very detailed information about the hospital's history, architecture and art collections in "Survey of London: volume 11 - Chelsea, part IV: The Royal Hospital", written in 1927.

16 September 2014

Totally rewriting art history!! Dura Europos

Everyone knows that historical learning increases incrementally!

So imagine an accidental discovery of documents or art objects that utterly change the way we understand a piece of history. One example will show what I mean. Florence Nightingale arrived in Scutari in November 1854 with her nurses. Her team found that poor care for wounded soldiers was being delivered by over-worked staff. Medicine was limited, hygiene was poor, infect­ions raced through the wards and cooking facilities were inadequate. It was believed by everyone on the planet that The Lady With the Lamp and her saintly team reduced the wounded soldiers’ death rate from 42% to 2%. She was close to sainthood.

But as later evidence emerged, death rates in her hospital were actually the highest of all regional hosp­itals. Ten times more soldiers died from infect­ious diseases like cholera than from being blown up by enemy guns. Nightingale clearly did not recognise hygiene as the predominant cause of death in Crimea. Did scholars rewrite their PhD theses to account for the new information? Were books taken back to publishing houses for re-editing or pulping?

Now examine the discovery of Dura Europos in Syria. This fortified city along the Euphrates River was discovered by young British soldiers digging trenches into the sand after WW1. Fortunately they told their senior officers of their find and proper archaeological excavations began in 1928. A ancient city of many peoples and religions emerged. Apart from the fine panorama of the walls form­ing the western edge of the city, the ar­ch­ae­ol­ogists found Greek and Roman temples, and a very early Christian church. The church murals were painted in 232-56 AD, decades before Emperor Constant­ine (reigned 306–337) recognised Christianity.

It was the discovery of the synagogue, tucked away in a pri­v­ate house against the west wall close to the church, that made art historians' hearts beat faster. The walls of the 3rd century synagogue were brightly painted with all the famous scenes in the Old Testament!! 

Western wall of the Dura Europos synagogue in Syria
Completed by 244 AD
Note the alcove where the scrolls of the law were held.

The importance of the murals on the walls of Dura Eur­o­pos synag­ogue did not lay in their brilliant techniques or icon­ography, al­though both of those things have become important. No. The key thing was that until Dura Europos was uncover­ed in 1920, it had always been assumed that monu­men­tal Jewish art was forbidden. Totally!! Even when Jewish art did begin to emerge in Spain and the Rhinelands in the 14th and C15th, the images were small, restricted in subject matter and semi-hidden. Sculpture in the round would have been unthinkable.

Each of the four walls of the synagogue room in Dura was covered with floor-to-ceiling pain­t­ings of Old Testament scenes. How was it preserved so remark­ably? It was the Persians who dest­roy­ed the city of Dura Europos and its new synagogue in 256 AD. The desert and mud closed over the city and it literally disappeared underground for more than 1,600 years. Unintentionally the destruction of the city preserved the beaut­iful wall paint­ings for posterity, by protecting them from rain and sun. 

The presence of Jewish th­em­es in the wall paint­ings and the Torah shrine identified the building as a synagogue, with benches that could seat 65 men. But what sort of Jewish community would decorate its place of worship in this manner? And what can it tell us about the community's theol­og­ical doctrine, its self-view and its relations with Dura’s non-Jewish popul­ation?

The Macedonians built Dura as a frontier town to con­trol the river trade. Silks, spices and precious stones were brought from the east and transferred onto camels for the desert leg of the journey, via Palmyra, to the Mediterranean. Dura clearly had a steady stream of merchants, soldiers and officials, as well as civilians on their travels. Because of its geography and population, then, Dura enjoyed an urban and religiously complex culture. The citizens of Dura mixed freely together, and possibly learned from each other.

An Aramaic inscription at Dura Europos helped date the synagogue to 244 AD, which may go some way towards explaining the art. It was during the C3rd that Christians, many of them breakaway Jews, were buil­d­ing their own highly decorated churches. Only in Dura, it would seem, the church and syn­ag­ogue were decorated at the same time.

The synagogue consisted of a forecourt and prayer space meas­uring 14 x 9m. The Torah shrine, in the western wall facing Jeru­s­al­em, was critic­al. In a pagan temple, the space occupied by the Torah shrine would have contained the cult statue of a god. In a later Christian church, it would have contained the baptismal font. In Dura-Europos synagogue, the niche became the reposit­ory of the Law, the most rev­ered space in any synagogue. Immed­iately ab­ove the conch on the western wall there was a temple facade, with a 7-branch candelabra and the two symbols of the Feast of Tabern­acles. Thus the holy objects were re­p­res­en­ted here as they had been in the Te­m­ple of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans c200 years prev­ious­ly.

The Syrians transported the synagogue, its panels and gorgeous roof of baked-brick tiles across the desert 480 ks away to Damascus. There it became the centrepiece of the country’s national museum built in 1934. The Dura Europos church was dismantled and re-constructed in Yale in the early 1930s.


After WW2, archaeological expeditions to Turkey’s Sardis synagogue unearthed another impressive synagogue from antiquity ( late 3rd century) , showing mosaic floor art, elegant columns and Greek and Hebrew inscriptions. The sculpture on each end of the bimah table, used for reading the Torah scroll, featured Roman imperial imag­ery. Like Dura Europos, Sardis seemed to be a great example of ad­ap­tation of secular art forms for Jewish purposes.

Sardis synagogue, Turkey
late 3rd century
original wall to wall mosaic floor art
Was the altar sculpture taken from another site?

When Dura Europos was first discovered, art historians had to rethink their certainty that Jewish art had been totally forbidden. By the time Sardis was discovered, there were few shocks left. Historians noted that even if the Sardis sculpture had been taken from an older, pagan building and had been re-purposed, it was still proudly used on the second most important piece of religious furniture in the synagogue - the reading desk for the Torah scrolls.

Sardis scholars concluded that the synagogue in Diaspora communities emphasised and decorated the inside space in its ar­c­hitect­ure. In almost all synag­ogues, they said, the interior dec­or­ations were modelled the local, non-Jewish art form, in style if not in function or religious content. What an about-face change in art historical thinking!

Many thanks to
1] Gabrielle Sed Rajna for Ancient Jewish Art, Chartwell Books, 1985 and
2] Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert Kessler for Fres­coes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art, Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 1990.

13 September 2014

Scotland's first disastrous overseas colony ....in Panama 1698

Difficult European projects in Central and South America, of interest at least to historians, are not new to this blog. Consider for example the French scandal in building the Panama Canal and the ultimate failure of the Australian socialist utopia in Paraguay. But the story of Scotland’s brave overseas colony in Panama is suddenly very relevant to everyone, given Scotland’s upcoming vote on independence.

Scotland at the end of the C17th was not a happy nation. Decades of warfare and poor agricultural returns caused Scottish citizens to leave the land and to struggle in the cities. Scotland's trade had been crippled by England's continual wars against continental Europe, and its home-grown industries were not doing well. So a peculiar form of Scottish colonialism had evolved. The first documented Scottish settlement in the Americas was of Nova Scotia in 1629.  The colony's legal charter made Nova Scotia a part of mainland Scotland.

Later other colonies mainly inhabited by Scottish settlers had been established in New Jersey (1683) and in South Carolina (1684) . Scottish merchants were also key players in trade with the Americas. There was a concerted effort at Scottish economic expansion into the New World.

Minute book of the Company of Scotland, 1696
The coat of arms reflected the company's broad ambitions and international horizons.
Photo credit: National Library of Scotland

A solution was to be found in The Darién Project. The dream was articulated by William Paterson, a Scottish founder of the Bank of England. Paterson described the Darién colony, situated on the isth­mus of Panama, as a free trade heaven for merchants of all lands.

Scotland would become the major broker of trade across the Pacific Ocean. Dangerous trips around Cape Horn would become unnecessary; goods could be ferried from the Pacific across Panama and loaded onto ships in the Atlantic from there. And the Scottish Company directors would make money from the traffic.

Many Scots subscribed to the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, founded in June 1695; but it was not going to be easy. Firstly the Spanish felt threatened by the new Company. Secondly the English East India Company, fearing the loss of its monopoly on British trade to the Indies, successfully lobbied the English Parliament. The result was a proclamation, in January 1699, from the English Governor of Jamaica: "His Majesty's subjects are not to hold any correspond­ence with the Scots, nor to give them any assistance of arms, ammunition, provis­ions or any other necessaries." This in turn forced its English investors to withdraw from the new Scottish Company. 

Darién was a hot, humid tropical rain forest, situated to the west of the river Darién in eastern Panama. Nonetheless Scottish families were keen to emigrate.  And the promise of 50 acres of land per man had attracted many potential colonists. Public subscriptions had raised a huge amount of money, enough to fit out five ships which were quickly filled with ex-soldiers, merchants, clerics, sailors, dissatisfied Highlanders and the unlanded sons of the landed gentry.

In July 1698, the fleet set sail from Leith's port and “the hopes of all Scotland sailed with it”. They were carrying 1,200 settlers embarking on a new adventure. When they made arrived at Darién 4 months later, the settlers christened their new home New Caledonia. Sadly the exp­ed­ition met with nothing but chaos. How did they not know about Panama’s heat and intense rain? How did they not underst­and that European-style farming was impos­s­ible in the tropics? Trade was doomed because no supply lines had been established for the colony. And worse, the rations were totally inadequate.

Disease and starvation soon took over. The ships sent out to trade for food returned with news that all English ships and colonies were forbidden to trade with the Scots, by order of the King. Of the 1,200 colonists, a third succumbed to yellow fever and malaria, including William Paterson's household. In June 1699, a little over six months after their arrival, the surviving settlers abandoned Darién and boarded their ships for home. Only one of the fleet completed the voyage.

Back in Scotland little news had been received of the colony, so two relief ships set out in May 1699 with 300 new settlers. By the time the new ships arrived that July, half of the second lot of settlers were already dead of fever and the remainder found Darién deserted. After a hopeless attempt to rebuild the settlement, they set sail for the nearest English colony, Jamaica, and died there of disease. NB that Darién was still cut adrift by England; no supplies could be given to the Scots by English colonies in the West Indies.

Isthmus of Darian and Bay of Panama
in Central America

A third and final expedition sailed in Sept 1699. The largest of the three, with four ships and 1,300 settlers and supplies, the colonists found the site abandoned and some elected to resettle it. Some preferred to cut their losses and set sail for Jamaica. The return voyage of the third fleet was disastrous. The Rising Sun and Duke of Hamilton lost their passengers to disease and then to ship wreck off Jamaica. The Hope was lost with all hands off Cuba and the Hope of Bo'ness was sold as scrap to the Spanish. Only 300 settlers survived. Scotland's colony, on which the hopes of the nation had rested, was a total catastrophe. It had cost the lives of some 2,000 Scots and wasted all the funds invested. Of the 11 ships that left Scotland, only one ever returned home.

A massive Spanish fleet and army besieged Fort St Andrew, which finally surrendered in March 1700. The surviving colonists, the last stragglers, were permitted to vacate the fort on board their remaining ships. Only a handful ever made it back to Scotland. Darién reverted to Spanish rule that same year (in 1700).

Despite poor financial planning in Scotland, administrative incompetence in Panama and Spanish hostility everywhere, the principal cause of the Panama disaster was seen in Scottish minds to be English opposition. There was widespread anti-English rioting in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Yet … yet … Scotland's nobles were almost bankrupted by the Darien fiasco and Scotland was finally incapable of surviving independently. So it is ironic that the Darién Project ultim­ate­ly sped up the eventual union of the two countries. In England the possible consequences of Scotland's continued independence would have been intolerable. For the Scots, they knew that to prosper as a nation, they had to gain access to England's greater trade and capital. Just 7 years after Darien, Scotland was forced to concede to the Act of Union, joining with England as the junior partner in 1707. England paid off Scotland's debts!

And there was another irony. No amount of money could make up for the nation's sense of betrayal, and many Scots continued to believe that their chance of trading success and independence had been deliberate­ly sabotaged by the English. Historians have suggested that the resentment this fostered played no small part in the Jacobite rebellions which were soon to plague the Union (1715 and 1745).

Darien: The Scottish Dream of Empire by John Prebble was published by Birlinn in 2000.