Search this Blog

Monday, June 26, 2017

Jane Austen and Her "Alton Apothy"

As we visited Regency Day in Alton last week, we made it a point to visit the Allen Gallery to view their small exhibition titled "Jane and Her Alton Apothecary". The highlight of the exhibition was a newly discovered portrait of William Curtis who was one of the last people to meet Jane Austen. Curtis treated her during the earlier stages of her illness before her condition deteriorated and she moved to Winchester in search of better treatment. 

According to the local historian, Jane Hurst, in 1800 Mr Curtis was described as ‘a man of thirty, of medium height, rather broad, with dark brown hair, small side whiskers, greyish eyes, a good, firm chin and a kindly expression.' Having been brought up in a Quaker family he dressed quietly and took life seriously.

Jane Austen called William Curtis her "Alton Apothy" in her letters, "apothy" being an abbreviation for apothecary. In Jane Austen's days, trained apothecaries were an important member of the community, not only dispensing medication but they also treated patients if there was no qualified doctor in the area. They were precursors to today's chemists and spent up to 7 years in training. However, they learned their trade through apprenticeship and were classed as tradesmen and were therefore below doctors on the social scale.

The Curtis family were notable in the area and they were apothecaries in five generations. William Curtis' father (also William) was a famous botanist, and his son (William Curtis) founded the Curtis Museum in Alton High Street and named it after his father. Curtis Museum is on the opposite side of the road from William Curtis' house. 

William Curtis' house is on the right. 

An apothecary in Jane Austen's days was not paid for treating patients but solely for the medication they sold. During their apprenticeship, they learnt to mix potions and make medicines, and they sold medicines, herbs, spices and even perfumes in their shops. 
There is a replica of an apothecary's shop at the Winchester Discovery Centre's exhibition "Jane's Winchester: Malady and Medicine" (below). 

On 6th April, 1817, Jane writes optimistically to her brother Charles, 
"I was so ill on Friday ... but either her [Cassandra’s] return .... or my having seen Mr Curtis or my disorders choosing to go away, have made me much better.

Unfortunately, Jane's improvement did not last long, and Mr Curtis was not able to do much to help Jane. On 22nd May, 1817, Jane writes in her last letter from Chawton to her dear friend, Anne Sharp, 

"in spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you, I have since been very ill cheif sufferings were from feverish nights, weakness & languor. This discharge was on me for above a week, & as our Alton Apothy did not pretend to be able to cope with it, better advice was called in. Our nearest very good is in Winchester...I am going to Winchester, instead, for some weeks to see what Mr Lyford can do farther towards re-establishing me in tolerable health. "

Mr Lyford was not able to do much to help Jane Austen, either, as her illness - mystery as it still is - was incurable at the time. Jane passed away in her dear sister, Cassandra's arms, on 18th July. She was buried in her beloved Winchester Cathedral. 


Jones, V. (ed.) (2004) Jane Austen - Selected Letters. Oxford University Press.  

Jane Austen's Regency Week 

You can read more about the role of the apothecary in Jane Austen's era on Jane Austen's World

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Celebrating Jane Austen's Bicentenary at Winchester

Winchester was the final abode of Jane Austen, the place where she was nursed by her dear sister, Cassandra, where she breathed her last and was finally buried at the grand location of Winchester Cathedral. What better place than Winchester to celebrate her bicentenary - 200 years since she passed away. 

Last year I wrote about the preview of "Jane Austen 200" in Basingstoke, and this has been a very exciting year indeed as there have been several exhibitions and events in different parts of southern England to commemorate Jane Austen. Last month I visited Winchester Discovery Centre for the "Mysterious Miss Austen" exhibition. Winchester library in itself is a beautiful, period building to explore, and a lovely venue for the exhibition. We were welcomed to the exhibition with a replica Georgian dress at the bottom of the staircase. 

Unfortunately, photography was not allowed at the actual exhibition as it housed several invaluable objects, for instance, Jane Austen's brown silk pelisse coat. I have taken a photo of its replica exhibited at the Allen Gallery in Alton, pictured below. There was also a lovely bead purse, said to have been made by Jane Austen, which amazed me as it was absolutely tiny. 

The highlight of the exhibition, however, were the six known portraits of Jane Austen, which were for the first time housed under one roof. I have previously analysed her portraits in this article. Only two of them have been authenticated, namely the pencil sketches made by her sister, Cassandra, one showing her face (the famous one) and another showing her from behind, sitting outdoors (my icon). This explains why the portraits were absent from the 19th Century Gallery at the National Gallery, which disappointed me as I visited there earlier in May! In addition to the Victorian remake, engraved of Jane Austen's portrait, there was also a childhood portrait referred to as the "Rice Portrait", the disputed portrait owned by Paula Byrne, the mysterical silhouette, 'L'aimable Jane", from the National Portrait Gallery, and the sketch from James Stanier Clarke's scrapbook. I was especially fascinated to see Stanier Clarke's sketch, which was surprisingly tiny as well. I always thought it must be an authentic sketch of Jane Austen, showing her off in her best fashions, confident and self-assured, displaying those familiar features at a more mature age although the tiny face does not reveal much. 

Downstairs in the same building there is another interesting exhibition called "Jane's Winchester: Malady and Medicine", which tells you more about life in Winchester at the time of Jane Austen. 

Household items.  

An ad, coins, seals, and other everyday objects from the era.  

A gentleman's magazine. 

The exhibition has a special focus on illness and how it was treated at the time, displaying apothecaries' instruments and an apothecary's shop (below). 

The highlight for me was a rare survival of a sedan chair (below), similar to ones in which Jane Austen would travel around town as an invalid.  

After visiting the exhibition, we headed to Winchester Cathedral to see their small Jane Austen exhibition.

Of course, there is the permanent display, which has been there since 2010, telling the story of Jane Austen in Winchester, but there were also some interesting fresh items, such as early editions of her books, letters and particularly the handwritten note for the text written by Henry Austen for Jane Austen's grave. 

An edition of Emma, printed by John Murray, from 1816. 

The church register recording Jane Austen's death. 

The grave 

And the manuscript for the text on the memorial stone by Henry Austen 

There was also a silhouette, said to be a self-portrait of Jane Austen, but its story is yet unknown. It has been criticised for looking to Victorian to be authentic, but the origin of the portrait remains a mystery. 

No trip to Winchester is complete without a pilgrimage to Jane Austen's final abode at 8, College Street. 

The place was, as usual, flocking with tourists, but there was something entirely new: in the garden opposite her house, there was a beautiful memorial plaque covered by creepers with a lovely quote from Jane Austen: 
"Know your own happiness and call it hope". The plaque has been erected in celebration of her bicentenary. 

The garden offered a lovely place for a moment of rest and reflection. What a wonderful way to end this trip. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Glimpses of a Sunny and Jolly Regency Day in Alton

Today I travelled to Alton with a friend of mine and our children to participate in the Regency Day celebrations. The event takes place as part of the annual Regency Week, and this is the first time that I have attended this part of the event. 

It was a lovely, sunny day, and the high street bustled with activity but was thankfully devoid of huge crowds. Stalls of Regency style clothes and accessories, samples of local history books and antiques lined up Alton High Street. Morris dancers and brass bands added to the period feel of the event, and it was wonderful to see so many people in costume. 

How I wished I'd had a parasol like that!

The highlight for us has to have been our horse carriage ride around Alton, pulled by two beautiful shire horses and driven by coachmen in tailcoats and top hats. 

Lydia and Kitty would have approved of this man in his regimentals!

An outfit like Mr Wentworth would have worn, complete with genuine gilded buttons. An outfit like this would now cost around £3500. 

There were three different naval uniforms on display. The one on the right was a replica of the one that Nelson wore on board HMS Victory. 

We also tried on some antique hats. The velvety black top hat in the photo was from the 1890's, how interesting to hold it and try it on!

I thoroughly enjoyed the friendly, jolly atmosphere of the event and applaud the helpful re-enactors who were so willing to have their photos taken and to share stories about their outfits.

We also visited the small Jane Austen exhibition, "Jane and her Alton Apothecary" at the Allen Gallery but I shall describe that in another post.

You can read more about Alton in my previous post here.