The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci

16th October 2019

To most of us, Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as a renowned painter and sculptor and yet, in reality, his talents and interests went so much further: anatomy, war machinery, architecture, water engineering, aerodynamics and botany. It was interesting that our Study Day was led by a retired surgeon rather than an art specialist.

Leonardo da Vinci, an illegitimate child, was born in a small village between Pisa and Florence in 1452 and raised by his grandmother. He had no formal schooling and spent a lot of time in the countryside around his home, studying nature and drawing. He was never without a notebook and drew everything he saw with explicit notes alongside all executed in mirror writing. At the age of 17 he was apprenticed to Verrochio in Florence where it was apparent very early on that he had great talent. He came to the notice of the Medici family and received commissions. At the same time he became interested in the structure of the human body and attended dissections where he made copious anatomical drawings. Whilst there are around 15 – 20 oil paintings currently attributed to da Vinci, there are over 7,000 drawings in existence.

In 1480, he moved to Milan to work for the Sforza family promoting himself primarily as a war engineer, designing all manner of war machinery.

He did, however, continue painting and it was during this period that he painted ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ and ‘The Last Supper’.

For good measure, he also tried his hand at architectural designs, though none of these were ever constructed.

He returned to Florence in 1506 where he was appointed Water Engineer and was charged with making the river Arno navigable from Florence to the sea. Responding to the need to raise and lower boats, he invented the first lock, the design of which has barely altered in the last 500 years. His interests were inexhaustible: he studied flight by watching birds and designed a basic parachute and helicopter; he explored map making and marine architecture, designed machinery and created the first ‘exploding’ drawings for engineers.

It was here he painted the ‘Mona Lisa’ and his final painting, ‘Leda and the Swan’.

All the time he continued his anatomical drawings and so accurate are they that many of these are used by medical students today. In his later life, he was particularly interested in embryonic development and made many drawings of embryos at different stages of growth. The Church at the time was violently opposed to these drawings and he was reported to the pope where he fell from favour.

By this time, he was an old and frail man, and he was invited by the French king, Francois 1er, to come to Amboise in France where he died in May 1519.

By the end of the Study Day, we had learnt of the full range and talent of this incredible man: artist, sculptor, engineer and designer. Unquestionably, he certainly was a genius.



10TH April 2019

In a highly informative day, Dr Suzanne Fagence-Cooper brought a clear perspective to the way in which Morris and Burne-Jones, both in collaboration and separately, brought their approach to art to change the development of the decorative arts in the late nineteenth century.

To understand their achievements, it is necessary to consider the key contributors to nineteenth century art history and the atmosphere at the time. Above all was the influence of Ruskin and his views that the ‘teaching of art is the teaching of all things’ and the importance of collaboration: ‘no work of art is by a single man/woman’.

The lifelong friendship and collaboration between Morris and Burne-Jones existed despite them coming form very different backgrounds. Morris came from a wealthy family and had a private income, whereas Burne-Jones was more of a realist as a result of a working-class upbringing in Birmingham. When they met at Exeter College Oxford in 1853, they were destined for careers in the church, but they were subjected to many influences which drew them to art and the relationship between man and heaven. Burne-Jones felt that ‘heaven starts 6 inches above our heads’. Angels featured in many of his early works and in later commissions for churches. He considered them to be androgynous and was criticised for depicting them as too manly for a woman and too feminine for a man.

Early influences were Oxford and its cloisters and college chapels and Ruskin’s view which sought to establish the relationship between the actual world and the gothic. After a walking tour in northern France, Morris and Burne-Jones decided against the church and in 1855 decided to ‘dedicate ourselves to art’.

Morris was able to undertake further education in architectural studies, Burne-Jones, with no formal artistic training attended the Working Men’s College. There he met Ruskin and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, who were his tutors. This college was unique at the time, delivering lectures to women as well as men. There Burne-Jones learnt the value of looking back at the works of the past and was especially influenced by the asymmetry of the Ducal Palace in Venice and the paintings of Fra Angelico and Jan Van Eyck.

The first major collaboration between Burne-Jones and Morris was the debating chamber at the Oxford Union. They painted Arthurian legends, which have deteriorated badly due to their lack of knowledge of mural painting. Their inspiration came from the 13th century Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur.

Their other collaborations came from Jane Burden, an embroiderer (who later married Morris in 1859) and became their muse for Guinevere. She inspired Morris to write his poem ‘In Defence of Guinevere’. They had two daughters, one of whom worked with Janey to produce beautiful embroidered designs for Morris’s textiles. Burne-Jones also married and his wife Georgie made her own career in woodcuts.

The 1850’s and 1860’s saw an upsurge of industrial design, partly inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Morris perceived it as representing only functional design, but nevertheless it helped encourage wider opportunities for design in the home.  The newly married Morris moved out to Bexley Heath to avoid the widespread disease in London and there he and the architect Philip Webb created the Red House, with its asymmetrical design. It created a place for experimentation in home furnishing, including Morris’s designs for fabric, wallpaper and furniture, in which Janey collaborated. They formed Morris and Co and encourage other artists to design beautiful items for domestic use.

Their artistic circle continued, with Burne-Jones and Georgie joining Morris and Janey at the Red House and later at Kelmscott Manor. Rossetti also joined them and used Janey as his model for many of his works and they became lovers.  Morris meanwhile, was driven by his need to work and accepted the affair, which ended when Rossetti became addicted to opioids. Kelmscott became a place of retreat for artists and Janey remained there all her life, after Morris’s death in 1896.

Morris revived the art of stained glass and Burne-Jones turned much of his attention to creating some of the most beautiful and iconic piece of work in churches throughout England. In 1896, after several years work, the Kelmscott Chaucer was published, with illustrations by Burne-Jones, featuring asymmetrical borders. Their collaboration was so intense, that when Morris died in 1896, Burne-Jones said it was ‘like the halving of his life’. He only survived until 1898.

Thus Dr Fagence-Cooper ended our study day which had covered one of the most important periods of change for decorative arts, and all who attended gained from the extensive knowledge of such a distinguished art historian.

Keith Horncastle

Sir Christopher Wren and the City of London Churches

9th October 2018

Tony Tucker, who led our study day on Sir Christopher Wren, has worked in the City of London for 40 years and is a qualified City Guide and a Trustee of the Friends of the City Churches. Wren was described by his contemporaries as the most accomplished man of his day:

‘…there scarce ever met in one man, in so great a perfection…’


‘It was doubtful whether he was most to be commended for the divine felicity of his genius or the sweet humanity of his disposition…’

Wren was born into a Royalist family; his father became Dean of Windsor and his uncle, Bishop of Ely. He was educated at Westminster and at Wadham College, Oxford. Unusually for his time, he lived to the age of 90. He married twice but both his wives died young; of his four children, only one survived Wren’s own death. He was knighted in 1673.

The first lecture focused on Wren’s life and career as a medic, a scientist and the leading astronomer of his day. After completing his studies at Oxford he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London in 1657 at the age of 25. He was a founder member of the Royal Society and became its president in 1681. He was surrounded by a circle of gifted contemporaries in the sciences, arts and philosophy. He engaged in numerous scientific works and experiments including the first-recorded consideration of the problem of longitude.

Wren’s drawing for the dome of St Paul’s

We were also introduced to Wren’s architectural style. Wren’s first architectural project was the chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge which his uncle asked him to design in 1663. The second was the design of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford which was completed in 1668. In 1665 Wren made a trip to Paris, his only overseas visit in his lifetime, during which he studied the architecture there. He examined the drawings of Bernini, the Italian sculptor and architect, who was also visiting Paris at the same time. When Wren returned from Paris he made his first design for Old St Paul’s Cathedral, which was in a state of neglect. Shortly after submitting his design in 1666, the Great Fire of London broke out destroyed two thirds of the city including St Paul’s. In 1669, at the age of 37, Wren was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works giving him responsibility for all public buildings. The rebuilding of St Paul’s took 36 years and it was completed within Wren’s lifetime, including its spectacular dome, in 1711. The dome is based on a triple dome design of three nested domes; a hemispherical outer dome to dominate the skyline, a steeper inner dome more fitting with the internal dimensions of the Cathedral and a hidden middle dome. The middle dome was necessary to provide structural support to the outer dome and lantern. The Warrant Design for St Paul’s which King Charles II signed off included a clause which allowed the architect to make variations. The Cathedral that was eventually built bore little resemblance to the agreed design and was much grander in concept. It remains the building on which Wren reputation as a great architect was founded.

Canaletto’s painting of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich

During the 1670s onwards, Wren received numerous secular commissions including the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the Wren Library at Trinity College Cambridge, the royal hospitals in Chelsea and Greenwich, and the royal palaces at Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and elsewhere. This painting by Canaletto shows the riverfront at Greenwich with the Royal Naval Hospital, and the Queen’s House in the centre beyond. The hospital building and the Royal Observatory were both designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

The second lecture concentrated on Wren’s city churches. The Great Fire of London destroyed four fifths of the 107 churches in the area known as the square mile. 86 parish churches were either burnt down or irreparably damaged. Wren was responsible for designing and building 51 new churches. His towers, domes and steeples for these churches, every one of them different from all the others, were designed with the deliberate intention of giving London a panoramic skyline of elegant steeples surrounding the great dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. In the 17th century painting by Canaletto of St Paul’s and the London skyline, every one of the steeples in the painting was designed by Wren.

Canaletto’s painting of the Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day

These steeples were often added several years after the main body of the churches had been rebuilt, as Wren prioritised the need to provide the communities with a place to worship as quickly as possible.

The third lecture focused on the variety of the interiors of Wren’s City churches. Only 23 of Wren’s 51 original redesigned churches remain. His church interiors are often flooded with light as Wren didn’t like stained glass. We were introduced to the work of the many craftsmen who worked with Wren, stonemasons, plasterers and woodcarvers. We examined a number of church interiors; two stood out in particular: St Mary Abchurch which has remained almost entirely unaltered and which includes a large reredos by Grinling Gibbons, a beautiful lime wood carving of fruit and flowers; and, St Stephen Walbrook which Nicholas Pevsner cites as one of the ten most important buildings in England, having a perfectly proportioned interior including with twelve Corinthian columns covered by a huge dome.

Michèle Bicket


10th April 2018

The Study Day was held at the Whitworth Centre in Darley Dale.  The Centre originally opened in 1890 and was one of the legacies left by Sir Joseph Whitworth of Stancliffe Hall, Darley Dale.  This wealthy Victorian industrial magnate bequeathed much of his fortune for the people of Manchester including the Whitworth Art Gallery and Christie Hospital.  He is buried at St Helen’s Church, Darley Dale.

We gathered on a damp and murky morning and were transported to the hotter and drier climate of Iran in three excellent lectures given by John Osborne who knows Iran well.  He worked there for the British Council and in recent years has led tour groups to Iran with his wife.

In his first lecture he introduced us to the geographical, political and religious background of this large and complex country.  We learned that Iran is a roughly four times the size of France with a population of around 81 million.  Persian, known as Farsi, is the official language and spoken by about 53% of the population of this multilingual country. Many other languages are spoken of which the largest groups include Azerbaijani and Kurdish.

Iran is a mountainous country whose mountains enclose several broad basins where major agricultural and urban settlements are located.  There are no major river systems and historically transportation was by means of caravans following routes through gaps and passes in the mountains.  We were introduced to Iran’s recent political history from the exile of the Shah and his family in 1978 to the return from France of Ayatollah Khomeini.  John explained how the Shia form of Islam originated and distinguished it from the Sunni, pointing out that Shias are in the majority in Iran but are a minority worldwide.

We were impressed by large ancient settlements built from mud bricks. Buildings included large forts and caravanserai along the ancient Silk Route as well as houses and food stores. Made from locally sourced clay and baked in the sun such bricks still provide a sustainable resource for new builds and repairs to old ones. We learned the importance of conserving water and the construction of 60-kilometre underground aqueducts which carry water from the mountains to the plains in order to reduce evaporation as much as possible.  We were shown the construction of wind towers that capture the breeze and draw it down to the basement level of homes to cool them.  The function of ice houses was mentioned where ice is stored and remains frozen through the hot summer months.  We were also shown how homes were traditionally built round courtyards and gardens creating a private place for the families within and reflecting the difference between the public face and the hidden private lives of Iranians.

The second lecture focussed on the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BCE.  Cyrus pursued a policy of generosity instead of repression and promised not to force any person to change their religion and faith, guaranteeing freedom for all. We were introduced to the wonderful relief sculptures at Persepolis – the City of the Persians – created by Cyrus but whose terraces and palaces were constructed by Darius his son-in-law.  The formality of the sculptures reflected the political life of the time and it was pointed out how they provided an interesting contrast to the freer style of the contemporaneous Classical Greek Elgin Marbles.  Persepolis was never completed and parts of it were probably destroyed by Alexander the Great.  In this second lecture we also looked at the construction of Persian Gardens under Shah Abbas in the 16th and early 17th centuries, in particular the Garden of Fin and the use of water channels to provide irrigation for the trees and plants that grew there.

In the final lecture we were introduced to the development of architecture in the mosques and palaces of Iran with their beautiful tile work.  The tiles were individually cut and glazed and then slotted into place like an elaborate jigsaw.  John pointed out the different hues of blue that were introduced into the designs.  He also showed us the clever and intricate way tile work was used to incorporate the squinches which formed the base of a square construction to receive an octagonal or spherical dome.  We looked in detail at Shah Abbas’ early 17th century Isfahan and examined the tile work that had been completed before his death.  The tile workers had created square tiles in order to accelerate the decoration of the building but in doing so different colours were baked together resulting in colours not being baked at the right heat to preserve the best colour.  This final lecture included much more, covering glass, silver and mirror work, beautiful woven carpets, manuscripts, music and poetry.

There were questions from the audience throughout demonstrating the interest in this complex and fascinating country.  Our thanks go to John Osborne for three wonderful and entertaining lectures delivered with a lightness of touch which helped us to assimilate so much of the detail.

Michèle Bicket and Joan Knox

Double Dutch Symbols, Emblems and ‘Double-entendre’ in Dutch Painting

18 October 2017

The 17th century Dutch middle class chose paintings as one of the ways of displaying their new wealth. There was a conflict in their desire to exhibit their success in this world and their Calvinistic principles and beliefs about the next one. Lynne Gibson’s Double Dutch study day guided members through the fascinating maze of double entendre and symbolism constructed by the skilled artists to deal with this problem. Her talk was well evidenced with more than 20 excellent slides of Dutch artistic masterpieces highlighted with close-ups of important elements in them.

The secular paintings developed along two main lines described as Vanitas and Genre. Vanitas from the word vanity were represented by still life pictures – fruit, flowers, food, ornaments and Genre more general depictions of people in various household and daily situations.

Vanitas demonstrated wealth but included emblems of mortality, like a human skull, or the transient nature of life with pictures of well-thumbed books or lamps which had just been extinguished. Or dice or playing cards suggesting fate can take a hand. Armour and swords suggest masculinity or power; lyres or round bodied pitchers suggested femininity.

Other symbols used include globes and maps for worldliness. Something with three elements like the flowers of a pansy represent Trinity. Cut flowers demonstrated wealth and bowls of flowers were a mixture of blooms from different seasons as each flower had its own meaning.

The Genre paintings were focused on people rather than inanimate objects and symbolism and double entendre was of a suggestive or sexual nature. This was easily recognised and enabled people to hang innocent looking pictures quite openly while enjoying their hidden implications. Here are some examples. Red cloth was very expensive and worn by wealthy women but prostitutes had their castoffs and so pictures of women in red could be construed as ladies of easy virtue. Women were well covered so one with sleeves rolled up unless it was a servant at her work might have a hidden meaning. Pictures of unmade beds or ruffled sheets speak for themselves. Foot warmers used by women in cold weather hidden under their long dresses gave rise to ribald comment. Cats with chickens, birds in cages or flown from cages were significant pointers and tables laden with fish and meat showed that pleasures of the flesh were enjoyed.

The message we took away I am sure is that pictures must be looked at slowly and carefully to ensure that nothing is missed and that all is not what it seems at first sight.

Roger Viner

The Houses of Parliament Study Day

11 April 2017

The Study Day was held at the Whitworth Institution in Darley Dale and we were treated to three excellent lectures on the Houses of Parliament by Dr Caroline Shenton, the former Director of the Parliamentary Archives in London.  The first lecture, based on her book ‘The Day Parliament Burned Down’, reconstructed in fine detail the events that led to the Great Fire on the 16th October 1834 when the 800 year old Parliament and most of its contents were destroyed to the horror of all who witnessed it.

Dr Shenton recounted a series of missed opportunities that might have prevented the catastrophe; from the unsupervised workmen instructed to burn two roomfuls of tally sticks (a then obsolete form of receipt) which now needed to be disposed of in order to release the rooms for other uses; to the Housekeeper’s mother-in-law, temporarily standing in, who was showing tourists the huge Armada tapestries in the House of Lords Chamber but who ignored the tell-tale signs of smoke rising up from below.  A chimney fire had started because the flues had not been cleaned since Parliament had passed the Chimney Sweepers Act earlier that same year.  The fire soon got out of control and in the early evening a huge ball of fire exploded through the roof of the Houses of Parliament creating a blaze so enormous that it could be seen from miles around.  Fire-fighters were called but it took time for them to arrive and hard choices had to be made over what could and could not be saved.  ‘Damn the House of Commons – but save, oh save the hall,’ went up the cry; the hall being Westminster Hall built by William Rufus between 1097 and 1099, and its roof reconstructed by King Richard II in 1394 into an attractive hammer beam structure with a span of 68 ft making it the largest medieval timber roof in northern Europe.

Turner observing the fire from a boat on the Thames captured the scene of terrifying force and drama in two major oil paintings both now in American public collections in Cleveland and Philadelphia.  Watching at the same time the brilliant classical architect Charles Barry exclaimed ‘What a chance for an architect,’ as the old Palace of Westminster blazed before his eyes.  He went on to win the competition to design the new Houses of Parliament and thought it was the chance of a lifetime.

In Dr Shenton’s second lecture, based on her second book, she told the story of the creation of one of the most famous buildings in the world, a masterpiece of Victorian architecture.  Her book is aptly titled ‘Mr Barry’s War’ and in her lecture she described the nightmarish building programme involving feats of building technology and civil engineering in the face of practical and political odds.

Charles Barry worked with Augustus Pugin, a young fellow architect, designer and artist to submit the winning design.  He toured Belgium, Louvain, Ypres, and Brussels to find inspiration for a civic model which would meet the commission’s requirements of a building that was Gothic or Elizabethan in style.  Ninety-seven entries were submitted and Barry’s entry was number sixty-four.  He adopted the symbol of the portcullis for his identifying mark and it is to be found throughout the Houses of Parliament carved in stone and wood, stamped on leatherwork, in books, in curtains and wallpaper.

The original estimates for rebuilding were costed at £750,000 over a period of six years.  By the end, the cost rose to £2.4 million and the building was eventually completed thirty years later.

Site clearance commenced in 1836. The foundations were built on acres of unstable quicksand and took 18 months to complete; the stone was chosen in 1838 and by 1840 the first stone was laid with every expectation that the building would be completed within the next four years.  But difficulties started to emerge.  There was a damaging strike and problems were compounded by the appointment of Dr David Boswell Reid, a ventilation expert, who made increasing demands that affected the building’s design leading to delays in construction.  In 1844 Barry called again on Pugin and relied entirely on him for the building’s Gothic interiors, wallpaper and furnishings and for the detailed design of the Palace clock tower known as Big Ben.  It was to be Pugin’s last design before he descended into madness and died at the age of 40.

In her final lecture Caroline Shenton brought us up to date with plans to restore the Houses of Parliament and pointed us to more information about this at   During the Second World War further damage was sustained by a series of bombs resulting in a second fire on 10 May 1941.  Once again the question of whether to save the House of Commons Chamber or Westminster Hall arose, and, as before, the hall was chosen.  The House of Commons Chamber was rebuilt after 1945 by Sir Charles Gilbert Scott at a cost of £2 million.  Currently the building needs urgent extensive restoration.  There is a Select Committee Report which recommends to MPs three possible courses of action but no decision has been taken so far.

Our thanks go to Dr Shenton for a lively and interesting day; and also to our Chairman Peter Stubbs for organising the event.

Michèle Bicket

Heraldry Study Day

18th October 2016

We had the benefit of learning from a delightful expert, Chloe Cockerill, who is a leading authority on Heraldry, and who very easily fielded all our questions, no matter how obscure. Our Chairman, Peter Stubbs, summed it up in saying that Heraldry is definitely a science, not an art!

Our lips are sealed on any further incorrect use of the word “Family Crest” which is only a part of a “Coat of Arms”. Those of us who had brought along our own family ‘Crests’ were quickly corrected.

We covered–raced-through many aspects of heraldry such as those of ‘Corporate bodies’ ( ranging from those of the twelve Livery Companies to modern horrors such as those of Tesco-ugh- and Derbyshire University ) ; ‘Marriages and Marquises’; Church Hatchments;

’Wives and Daughters’; and even ‘Heraldic Beasts’!!

Now we should all be able to ’read’ a Coat of Arms more easily and interpret the significance of such items as Chevron, Bend, Bend Sinister ,the Pile. We can now try to interpret the information all hidden on a Sheild’s ‘quarters’ (can be up to 100 on a single shield!). We can read them like a Balance Sheet (here speaks an accountant) and understand family backgrounds, regions, level of nobility, family links. We can read of personal preferences in terms of animals, birds, hobbies, skills etc.

If any members wish to create their own Coat of Arms, and have £5,000 to hand, then one of 15 Heralds at the College of Arms will interview them and discuss their background , personal preferences and a host of other aspects of their life, before proceeding.

If one wish one’s nearest and dearest to be included and is of a noble line, then she can be included, in perpetuity, as a Heraldic Heiress. If not, then her inclusion disappears when she passes on.

So here are a few interesting snippets that we learnt;

  • The Shakespeare Shield shows an item looking just like a pen and nib. In fact it is a spear– Shake Spear!!
  • The Grosvenor Shield includes a ‘Bender Grosvenor’ which is linked to a famous horse called Bender which once won the Grand National.
  • The origin of the word Garter-around which are many myths as to its origin-is still somewhat obscure. It is the highest order that the Queen can bestow. There are 24 Knights of the Garter. But lesser known is that there are ‘Extra Knights’ and ‘Stronger Knights’-of which Prince Edward is one.
  • The Spencer Churchill shield has a rather interesting motto which reads “Faithful but unfortunate” !!
  • Hatchments -quite a few can be seen in Gt Longstone Church
  • Lady Thatcher’s shield has two ‘supporters’ at the side, one being a naval officer (ie Falklands) and the other side the profile of Sir Isaac Newton. You might think that is because she was a Chemist by training. Wrong! He is there because he came from her home town of Grantham!
  • Some shields show a Wyven-a symbol of power and strength and which is a legendary creature with a dragon’s head and wings, a reptilian body, two legs and a tail!!
  • Some shields show a Griffin-another legendary creature with the body, tail and back legs of a lion, and the head and wings of an eagle. This is mainly seen on the Coats of Arms of descendants of Welsh settlers from Eire in the 17th Century.
  • Many shields show an eagle. Very few a cat. Reason; because cats were always associated with witchcraft!!
  • We learnt of six types of Coronets (on the tops of Shields), and which are used by nobles and by princes and princesses rather than by monarchs.

If I really wish to stir up-which I’m about to-then compare the Coats of Arms of Cambridge University and Oxford University: Cambridge shows a closed book at the centre (Chloe went to Cambridge!); Oxford shows an open book ie still got a lot to learn!!

One outstanding fact-again quoting Peter- is that in medieval times, they were very good at designing Coats of Arms, whereas many of today’s are anything but inspiring.

This Study Day proved just how much one can learn in a single day from a real expert. Our thanks go to Chairman Peter Stubbs for organising the event so expertly.

Jonathan Wicksteed