Thursday, December 23, 2010

The House of Gingerbread

With the holiday season comes the practice for some of creating a gingerbread house, an architectural feat that can be as amazing to view as it would be to eat the goodies that are used as construction materials.

The Sugar Castle, a gingerbread house, at the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco

Germany has a long and strong tradition of creating flat and shaped gingerbreads. The strong and flat gingerbread, Lebkuchen, are used to make gingerbread houses - also called Hexenhaeusle, which means "witches' houses," from the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, or Lebkuchenhaeusel and Knusperhaeuschen, which means "houses for nibbling at".

Nuremberg,  the "gingerbread capital" of the world, hosted Christkindlmarkt in December,  a fair where Christmas decorations and seasonal foods were purchased. Gingerbread was not baked in homes but by a special guild of master bakers known as the Lebkuchler. Gingerbread bakers collaborated with sculptors, painters, and woodcarvers to create intricately designed and beautifully decorated gingerbread cakes.  With these partnerships, it is easy to imagine how gingerbread houses were soon created.

During the nineteenth century, gingerbread was both modernised and romanticised. The practice of making gingerbread houses was brought by German immigrants to America where the practice grew and resulted in extraordinary creations. Elaborate Victorian houses and tiny one-room cottages were heavily decorated with candies and sugary creations and thus the tradition took off. 

For inspiration in designing your own gingerbread house, here is more information on the Sugar Castle pictured above by chef Jean-Francois Houdre.

Source: Gingerbread House

Monday, November 15, 2010

Victoria's Namesake

To continue with the Victorian theme that TAJ has taken lately...

I recently traveled to Victoria, British Columbia and was amazed by how devoted this city was to Queen Victoria and nineteenth-century Britain. In many ways, I felt more like I was visiting Great Britain than British Columbia. Though in a Commonwealth country and almost on the other side of the world from Britain, I was struck by how this city has retained a British sensibility. 

Founded in 1843, during Queen Victoria's reign, Victoria became the capital of British Columbia, Canada in 1866 when Vancouver Island united with the mainland. A statue of Queen  Victoria stands in front of the Provincial Legislature Building, called "Parliament."

Statue of Queen Victoria in front of Parliament at night. (RS)
Scottish and English colonists ventured far from their homeland, bringing with them not just their hopes and dreams for a new life in a new world, but also their British customs and a domesticating Old World awareness to this new corner of the Empire.  

When Vancouver across the Salish Sea began to draw business away from Victoria in the 1920s, British patriotism and customs could have followed, which would have resulted a very different Victoria than what I saw. Instead, an American by the name of George Warren, in the Victoria Publicity Bureau, devised a marketing campaign to publicize Victoria using the theme of "Olde England" to sell Victoria as more akin to the Old World. 

While Vancouver leveled its downtown to make room for a modern city-scape, Victoria preserved its heritage buildings and added gardens and city parks. This urban plan to nurture the city as it was enabled a lively, walkable historic city center to be maintained.

Though modern buildings were to be erected:

View of Victoria (RS)
downtown Victoria to this day has more of a European feel than a North American. The walking pace in downtown is comfortable and many streets are pedestrian only. And most importantly, the gorgeous architecture reminds you of Grand Victorian England:

The Empress Hotel and harbor at night (RS)

Just as enjoyable as walking the city and viewing its beauty is another British custom that has been preserved - High-Tea. Considered a delicacy, it is offered in many locations for the weary tourist to indulge in.  And indulge I did.

Wikipedia: Victoria, British Columbia -

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tour of Deathly Repose: Part 2

As a follow up to my first blog post on death, regarding Highgate Cemetary in London, I'd like to take a step back and think about death through the Victorian frame of mind. The Victorians "reveled in the trappings of death," as A.N. Wilson eloquently describes in his book, The Victorians, which was best demonstrated by funerals and the habits of mourning.

Funerals were elaborate ceremonies whether they were for a head of state, a doctor, or a local businessman. Wilson paints a vivid description of a typical funeral: 
The hearse would be a glass coach groaning with flowers, but smothered in sable and crepe. Four or six horses nodding with black plumes would lead the cortege, preceded by paid mutes who, swathed in black shawls and with drapes over their tall silk hats...Behind the coffin in their carriages would follow the mourners, in new-bought black clothes, bombazine and crepe and tall silk hats and black gloves and bonnets.
An article published in Harper's Bazaar in April 1886 on "Mourning and Funeral Usages," described the rules, as it were, and answered many a pertinent question pertaining to the "correct" manner in which one was to go about their mourning habits. Funereal etiquette was to be strictly adhered to as funerals became a social status symbol and tribute to how far a family had climbed in the class-system. Rules were followed as to how to dress a house for mourning, the number of pall-bearers to have and who should be one, the fashion of mourning clothing, and the length of time in which to be in mourning. 

There were variations to these mourning practices depending on who had died: Widows should mourn for about eighteen months; a parent should be mourned for a year; a sibling also for a year; and a child for 9 months. And as to what one should wear when in mourning: 
For the first six months the dress should be of crape cloth, or Henrietta cloth covered entirely with crape, collar and cuffs of white crape, a crape bonnet with a long crape veil, and a widow's cap of white crape if preferred.... After six months' mourning the crape can be removed, and grenadine, copeau fringe, and dead trimmings used, if the smell of crape is offensive, as it is to some people. After twelve months the widow's cap is left off, and the heavy veil is exchanged for a lighter one, and the dress can be of silk grenadine, plain black gros grain, or crape-trimmed cashmere with jet trimmings, and crepe lisse about the neck and sleeves.
As can be gathered from the length of this article and popularity of the magazine, it was important for Victorians to have a guide to follow in all manner of funereal topics to ensure that what was done was done so properly.

What is interesting is the purpose behind establishing uniformity and a mantle of etiquette around funerals and mourning, as if to manage the emotional experience of death into a systematic process of "dos" and "don'ts." Perhaps the need for conformity was to help cope with the death of a loved one? Perhaps it truly was to set a norm for what is to be done in the midst of chaos when a tragedy occurs? If we closely examine how these customs reflect Victorian society and culture, what does it say about the people who practiced them? And what about ourselves as the descendants of this culture and these funereal practices? ...Weighty questions to ponder and return to at another time...


"The House in Mourning" from Victoriana Magazine -
"Mourning and Funeral Usages," Harper's Bazaar: April 17, 1886; via Victoriana Magazine -

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tour of Deathly Repose: Part 1

Some may think it morbid, but I find cemeteries peaceful, picturesque, and inspiring. Rolling hills of soft grassy knolls dotted with historical reminders of those who came before. Some of these markers display recognizable names of people who have achieved greatness and who are remembered. And some with names of the every day wives, husbands, and children who have lived and gone. Their existence left for us by the etched cement above their graves.
A statue of a sleeping angel in Highgate Cemetery
A particularly famous memorial site is Highgate Cemetery in London, which is a registered park and garden of specific historic interest by English Heritage. Parliament passed an act creating new private cemeteries, Highgate Cemetery being one which opened in 1839. Previously, people were buried in churchyards or on church-owned burial grounds. It was the custom to pay the parish clergy a funeral fee, which would have been paid had the burial occurred on consecrated ground. However, there just was not any additional room available in the old burial grounds and therefore these new cemeteries were able to provide interment for those who owed no loyalty to the established Church.
A large gravestone for the family grave of William Tait with the gravestone of Henry Nathaniel Belchier (d. 1850) in the foreground.
Seventeen acres of land that had been the grounds of Ashurst Estate, down the hillside from Highgate Village, was purchased for the founding of Highgate Cemetery. When the cemetery was dedicated in 1839, 15 acres were consecrated for use by the Church of England and 2 acres for "Dissenters". By 1854, the cemetery was extended by an additional 20 acres on the other side of its Swains Lane site. This new ground, named the East Cemetery, opened in 1856 and was accessible from the now West Cemetery by a tunnel beneath Swains Lane.
An anchor carved into the rustic pedestal of the Johnson family grave in the East Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery became a popular cemetery and one of London's most fashionable as it attracted a variety of residents. Among the actors, writers, scientists, and a swarth of everyday Victorians, some of the famous people interred in Highgate Cemetery include Karl Marx, Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, and the model for many pre-Raphelite artists Elizabeth Siddal.

The double paneled and arcade shaped gravestone of the Cassels family in the West Cemetery, seen through a gap between two gravestones in the foreground
Though a memento mori to the passing of time and our mortality, large cemeteries such as Highgate Cemetery, are architectural tributes, as any cathedral or temple, to our history and our ancestors. Perhaps in addition to being a reminder of death, they can also be a reminder to live and "gather ye rosebuds while ye may."
The moss covered sculpture of an open book on a tomb carved with trefoil arches in the West Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery Website -
The Victorians by A.N. Wilson
English Heritage Website -
English Heritage: National Monuments Records Website -

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Impressions Upon Maternal Impression

There had been a farmer’s boy in our village who’d had a crimson stain across his brow and down one side of his face. The marked skin was raised and rough, its surface studded all over with little yellow pimples. His ear on that side was always scarlet, as though mortified to be appended to so unsightly a blemish. We had tormented him and called him names, but my mother had always been kind to him. “Its hardly the poor child’s fault,” she said and sighed, shaking her head. “The mother of his, she’s been a greedy lass her whole life. Longing for strawberries in February? She must have known it would mark the boy.” A responsible mother, she told me firmly, controlled her appetites or if she could not, made sure to satisfy them. Otherwise, they grew so powerful that they took her over, burning themselves into the flesh of her unborn child.

A large portion of this novel The Nature of Monsters, by Clare Clark, includes the superstitious beliefs about the nature of humanity, and in particularly the origin of disfigurements.  The passage above touches upon maternal impressions, which was a a reigning belief of the day. This theory centered on the emotional stimulation experienced by a pregnant woman could influence the development of the fetus, thus resulting in birth defects and congenital disorders. 

Lists of the perils of the maternal imagination taught to me in childhood. If an expectant mother urinated in a churchyard or crossed  water-filled ditch, her child would be a bed-wetter; if she peeped through a key-hole, he would squint; if she helped to shroud a corpse, he would be pale and sickly; if she spilled beer on her clothing, he would turn out a drunkard; if she ate speckled bird eggs, his skin would be thickly freckled.

As exemplified in the passage above, dangers were ever present for a pregnant woman and she had to be vigilant to avoid anything that could harm the child she carried. If she were to encounter any of these innumerable elements, there were a variety of remedies for her to turn to: 

Lists of remedies for the cures of the mother’s imagination: If a hare should cross your path, tear your dress; think upon gods and heroes; baptise the unborn child with holy water. Avert your eyes from cripples and felons hanging from the neck. 

What is also significant of this theory is that a mother's imagination in addition to her behavior could also harm the developing child. The mother is seen as responsible for the physical and psychological development of the child. Her cravings and needs are impressed upon the unborn child, thus causing the child when it is born to either look, behavior, feel, or think in a particular way that was a direct result of the mother's actions, feelings, and thoughts. 

Maternal impressions is explored in the study of teratology, which is the scientific study of congenital abnormalities and formations. Though not directly mentioned in Nature of Monsters, this area of study is a driving force for one of the main characters. This area of study has a long history, dating back to the Egyptians and Greeks, as method to explore and understand the nature of this area of human development. 

In my online research for this post, I found two fascinating sources: 
  1. Maternal Impressions: The History of Teratology - I encourage you to explore this entire page as it is quite a fascination overview of many different historical theories. 
  2. A passage on maternal impressions from the journal of English philology, Anglia, which was founded in 1878 and is the oldest journal of English studies. (Anglia - Zeitschrift für englische Philologie. Volume 1926, Issue 50, Pages 287–290, ISSN (Online) 1865-8938, ISSN (Print) 0340-5222, //1926)

Monday, July 26, 2010

St. Paul’s Cathedral: A Search for Inspiration

For there, above my head, rising with glorious disregard from a low jumble of roofs and smoking chimneys, was the dome I had seen from Hampstead, only now it soared before me, its vaulting magnificence held by a vast coronet of pillars. The columned lantern at its summit reached upwards into the smoke-bruised sky…There was nothing of supplication in its appeal to Heaven, nothing of the humility before God so beloved of the Bible…It rose from the mud as a magnificent testament to the boundless ambitions of men, realized in all their inexorable glory.

This passage from the Nature of Monsters, by Clare Clark, is a description by Eliza, the protagonist, of her first viewing of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. In 1718, Eliza arrives in London as the maid to an apothecary. The position had been arranged for her by her mother and the family of the father of her unborn child, a wealthy merchant’s son, to smooth over the scandal of their attachment. Eliza finds herself in the clamor and chaos of eighteenth-century London struggling to free herself and to survive, with a view of the dome of St. Paul’s as a source of salvation.

After the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed most of Central London, Christopher Wren (1632-1723) dominated the rebuilding of the city, and English architecture, for the rest of the century. His major and most famous project was rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the city.

Eight years after the Great Fire, the ruins of St. Paul’s original structure had not been replaced or restored. Attempts to salvage the burned-out medieval church failed. Wren began demolishing the old building to make room for the new. The first stones were laid in the summer of 1675 and the last 35 years later.

For a faith with a profound distrust of Catholicism, Wren drew upon monumental Catholic examples in his design for St. Paul’s as the cathedral of the Diocese of London. As similar to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Paul’s has a long nave, short transepts with semicircular ends, and a domed crossing. Commanding the city’s skyline, the dome for St. Paul’s has an interior masonry vault with an exterior sheathing of lead-covered wood, similar to the dome of the Florence Cathedral, and crowned by a lantern. Paired Corinthian columns line the main west front. The tremendous size of the Cathedral, complexity of form, and triumphant verticality make it a major monument of the English Baroque period.

Wren returned to England after travels in France in the 1660s and brought with him architectural books, drawings, engravings, and a great admiration of French classical Baroque design. St. Paul’s was to be the central point of Wren’s visionary redesign of London, where streets were to be extended from it. His artistic vision was to crown London’s skyline with a great domed church like the great European cities. Wren envisioned a modern European city with a series of intersecting avenues. But it was not to be had and the city remained along its ancient topographical lines.

The sheer enormity of St. Paul’s must have struck the everyday eighteenth-century Londoner with such awe at the ability and modern power to create such a building. In a time when life was dangerous, poverty was rampant, and destitution was a reality, the solidity of St. Paul’s Cathedral hopefully provided inspiration and hope as “as a magnificent testament to the boundless ambitions of men” to many, as it did for Eliza.

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
Art History by Marilyn Stokstad

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Obviously it has been awhile since I've last blogged here. I have plans to blog more often on whims that strike my fancy. In the interim, I've been concentrating my efforts on Twitter. You can find me at