Elizabethan period


Bacon's Essays: Of Masques and Triumphs

Masques were a very popular form of entertainment at court in the Jacobethan period (James + Elizabeth. Bacon pretends to think little of them, but he wrote several and must seen many. By our standards, they sound fairly static, pompous, heavy-handed on the morality front, although apparently often including half-naked noblewomen.

Wikipedia has a clear definition: “A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron.”

Great state and pleasure

Oceania, design by Inigo Jones, for Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness, 1605.

Bacon begins by apologizing for including such a trivial topic in his collection of essays, which are generally about weightier matters. “But yet, since princes will have such things, it is better they should be graced with elegancy, than daubed with cost.” If you must do it, do it right.

Then he seems to contradict himself, and I can’t resolve it. Whately’s no help here. First Bacon says, “Dancing to song, is a thing of great state and pleasure.” Then, after specifying some features, like singing in quire (chorus), he says, “Acting in song, especially in dialogues, hath an extreme good grace; I say acting, not dancing (for that is a mean and vulgar thing).”

So which is it, Frank? State and pleasure, or mean and vulgar? We’re standing here with our foot lifted, ready to trip it feetly.

A little farther on, he says, “Turning dances into figure, is a childish curiosity.” Here I think he means pantomime, a widely-shared opinion.

Bit of a digression: Inigo Jones, whose lovely designs for costumes have survived, was mostly an architect. He was appointed Surveyor-General of the King’s Works (King James I) in 1615. This was an age of tremendous building of fantastically lavish prestige houses, as they’re called — many of which you can go and visit today. Jones participated in the design of masques because everyone who could contribute, did so, to gain the favour of King and court. Francis Bacon was a philosopher and a great legal scholar, for pity’s sake, and he wrote the silly things.

Petty wonderment

That’s almost an oxymoron for me, but not for Bacon. I think he means things that are flashy or too obvious. “[T]hose things which I here set down, are such as do naturally take the sense”; not things that force your attention.

daughterofniger“Let the scenes abound with light, specially colored and varied.” I think masques were usually performed indoors, at night, so light would indeed be a part of the spectacle that could be designed. I don’t know for sure, but colored light can be produced by putting a candle or torch behind a piece of thin colored silk. “The colors that show best by candle-light are white, carnation, and a kind of sea-water-green; and oes, or spangs, as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory.” Os and spangs must be spangles – bits of reflective material.

“Let the gongs be loud and cheerful, and not chirpings or pulings. Let the music likewise be sharp and loud, and well placed.” We don’t want mealy-mouthed music. Let it ring out!

On the costume front: “As for rich embroidery, it is lost and not discerned.” That’s good cost-saving advice there. Don’t embellish to no effect! “Let the suits of the masquers be graceful, and such as become the person, when the vizors are off.” Vizor is a mask. Certainly your want your costumes to flatter the wearer, especially when the wearer is someone like Queen Anne.

He considers the olfactory sense as well – Jacobean sensurround. “Some sweet odors suddenly coming forth, without any drops falling, are, in such a company as there is steam and heat, things of great pleasure and refreshment.”

“But all is nothing except the room be kept clear and neat.” Yes, indeed.

The antimasque

An antimasque (also spelled antemasque) is a comic or grotesque dance presented before or Tempest-masque-1between the acts of a masque, a type of dramatic composition. It’s usually a spectacle of disorder, to contrast with the performance of divine order in the masque proper. You need to know that for Bacon’s advice to make sense.

“Let anti-masques not be long; they have been commonly of fools, satyrs, baboons, wild-men, antics, beasts, sprites, witches, Ethiops, pigmies, turquets, nymphs, rustics, Cupids, statuas moving, and the like. As for angels, it is not comical enough, to put them in anti-masques; and anything that is hideous, as devils, giants, is on the other side as unfit.”

Bacon was raised by a strict Calvinist, remember. He doesn’t approve of putting angels in a scene of discord.

A brief word about Triumphs

These are grand public displays, most likely processions of some kind. The Columbus Day Parade in New York is a sort of Triumph, with floats representing this organization or that tradition.

“For justs, and tourneys, and barriers; the glories of them are chiefly in the chariots, wherein the challengers make their entry; especially if they be drawn with strange beasts: as lions, bears, camels, and the like; or in the devices of their entrance; or in the bravery of their liveries; or in the goodly furniture of their horses and armor. But enough of these toys.”

This float with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is so Jacobean, it’s absolutely perfect. No strange beasts, but it’s big and colorful and an expression of the government’s military might.


An example

A tiny taste of the sort of thing that went on in a masque, from Ben Jonson’s 1605 The Masque of Beauty, found at Luminarium. They’re usually mythological in nature, and might have a moral — or not so much. They will usually include a fair amount of thinly-veiled flattery for the monarch, his queen, and any other major patrons who might be around.

B O R E A S.


 Hich, among these is AlbionNeptunes Sonne? 
  I A N V A R I V S.


 Hat ignorance dares make that question? 
Would any aske, who Mars were in the wars? 
Or, which is Hesperus, among the starres? 
Of the bright Planets, which is Sol? Or can 
A doubt arise, ‘mong creatures, which is man? 
Behold, whose eyes do dart Promethian fire 
Throughout this all; whose precepts do inspire 
The rest with duty; yet commanding, cheare: 
And are obeyed, more with loue, then feare.

Pix & notes: South Kensington

My Professor and Mrs. Moriarty live in an end terrace in South Kensington, on a street I invented: Bellenden Crescent. It’s roughly in the location of the real world Pelham Crescent. 


I spent a lot of time walking around in that neighborhood on my last trip to London, partly because I got a little lost, but also because I get into these moods where I can’t stop walking. One more block, I say to myself; I’ll just walk up to that corner and then I’ll stop for a coffee. But no, I walk on by. I don’t know what that’s about.


A very Victorian view, if you mentally change the cars to horse-drawn cabs.

I tend to think of the whole stretch between Hyde Park and the Thames as South Kensington, but that’s not really right. London is more finely-grained than that. Google Maps says “South Kensington is an affluent district of West London in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is the most expensive district in London and one of the most expensive districts in the world.” No wonder it’s so clean and quiet! Rich people don’t hang out in public.

It looks like I cheerfully absorb Chelsea into my notion of Kensington. There’s no apparent seam; it’s not like you cross a street and find yourself in a less deliriously affluent neighborhood. I don’t have characters in Chelsea or much interest in the place, apart from the delightful Chelsea Physic Garden which I’ve blogged about and which you must try to visit if you ever can.

Looks like the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea runs from the Chelsea Physic Garden on the Thames in the southeast, north to Hyde Park and the big museum area, on along the south side of the park and then loop up to snag Notting Hill and then straight back down to the river roughly along the A3220.

Begin at the beginning

Arden farm
Affluent Kensington cow

British History Online tells us “In Doomsday-book this place is called Chenisitun; in other ancient records, Kenesitune and Kensintune. Chenesi was a proper name; a person of that name held the manor of Huish in Somersetshire, in the reign of Edward the Confessor.”

Back in William the Conqueror’s day, the manor of Kensington was taxed at 10 hides. “on the demesnes are four ploughs, the villans have five, and might employ six. There are 12 villans, holding each a virgate, and six who hold three virgates jointly. The priest has half a virgate, and there are seven slaves; meadow equal to two plough-lands; pasture for the cattle of the town; pannage for 200 hogs, and three acres of vineyards”

This was still farmland in Francis Bacon’s time. With the expansion of titled courtiers in the London metro area under James I, a prestige house was built in 1607 by the father-in-law of Henry Rich, Earl of Holland. Baron Rich got himself earlified in 1624, by Charles I, then. He’s the son of Bacon’s contemporaries, Penelope Rich (sister of the Earl of Essex) and Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick.

Holland House, from British History Online


Building booms

Although less than half of the Kensington area was under cultivation by 1840s, it was still mostly green: parks and paddocks and that sort of thing. But by mid-century, the Victorian building boom had spread into that district and the landscape changed rapidly. “Despite a severe hiccup following a financial crisis in April 1847, the transformation of a rural parish into a city suburb was well under way before the siting of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park…” (British History Online.)

“…throughout the years 1862–78 over 200 new buildings (the vast majority of them dwelling houses) were erected each year in southern Kensington…”

Professor Moriarty’s Bellenden Crescent
Mark Twain lived here 1896-7


One of the major attractions of the area from the mid-Victorian period are the amazing enormous museums and exhibition halls. My Prof. Moriarty and Angelina meet at the International Exhibition Hall here in Moriarty Meets His Match. That’s gone, but the Victoria & Albert Museum, a place you can never get tired of, was established in Exhibition Road in 1852. Enormous, endlessly fascinating, and with possibly the most amazing museum cafeteria in the world. When you go there, have lunch!


Who lived here, back in the day?

I’ve mentioned London’s Blue Plaques before, right? They’re granted by English Heritage to identify buildings of note, meaning buildings in which a notable person spent some time. Kensington and Chelsea are thick with them, since the borough was favored by the creative class: theater people, like my Angelina Moriarty; scientists who might have worked at one of the big museums; writers galore.

Go here to see the full list of blue plaques for the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

I choose neighborhoods – and sometimes houses – for my Victorian characters from this list. They tend to be a bit far from the sidewalk to photograph well, alas. Not all the plaques you see in London are official English Heritage blue plaques, although I’ve never seen one that might qualify as a form of sedate fake news. Many entities issue plaques, most notably borough governments.

Sir Nigel Playfair wrote plays you’ve never heard of. Great name, though.