Discovering orreries with Cassie Herschel-Shorland

Cassie carefully lays out objects from the box.

It’s inevitable that, by having so many different projects going on, one will simmer on the back burner for a long time while I focus on others. This has happened with my historical novel, Double the Stars, which is in a fourth draft, and under consideration by three parties – but, having had a bit of time to learn the world of agents and publishers – may not get beyond that stage in this round (though I hope, of course, that it does). However, life is breathed into the project thanks to Cassie Herschel-Shorland.

Cassie and I met because I co-planned/hosted a ‘Herschel Evening’ at the Whipple Museum in 2010, where I read far too much of a far too early draft of the novel (a good learning experience; a long-suffering audience of about 50 people)! Cassie wasn’t at the Herschel Evening, but her father, John Herschel, and her brother, William, and sister, Amanda, were. They are a delightful family: generous and enthusiastic; all one could want in a subject of research – and in a neighbour.

It turned out that Cassie lived only a short walk down the road from me in the Greenwich area of London. She opened her doors to me and shared a great deal of material for which she’s responsible – mostly, textiles, including a dress that used to belong to Caroline Herschel, the heroine of my novel and Cassie’s great (great great) Aunt.

Wax seal of the Herschel family, in a carved wooden box that was so well-turned the seam didn’t show when it was sealed (perhaps Alexander made it?) – the box was tucked inside a beautifully crocheted green bag: all very small and delicate.

Along with being a Museum Access & Design Consultant, with a fine knowledge of conservation, preservation, and reconstruction, Cassie is completing an MA. Because of our growing friendship and her generosity in sharing her family (and family history) with me (a trip to visit her parents and see many Herschel objects first-hand, and a day trip to Bath with her and her father being some of the highlights,) Cassie was inspired to use Caroline Herschel as the subject for her MA Thesis – to work up an historical reconstruction, an image that is as accurate as it can be, of what Caroline might have looked like around the age at which she appears in my novel. It would be ideal, we agreed, if this could be incorporated into the novel.

As an artist and painter, Cassie has also talked with me about my modelling, and she asked me some time ago if I’d be interested in sitting in period dress. I hadn’t made the connection that she was interested in having me ‘sit’ as Caroline! This past Saturday, I did sit as Cassie made some preliminary sketches. We both know I’m not the right ‘model’ for Caroline, who was absolutely tiny, not curvy at all, and in fact, slightly disfigured by smallpox and typhus. But it’s good exercise for Cassie to think of poses: seated, holding a teacup, holding a book, holding nothing? Turned towards the window, turned towards the viewer?

The charming paper orrery.

We also got to go through a treasure-box of miscellaneous items from one of Cassie’s ancestors (also, I think, a great-aunt,) which was full of bobbins, thread, bits and pieces; tiny sketch-books half-full of intricate drawings, gorgeous fluid handwriting copying extracts of poetry, calling-card cases and crumbling fans made of ivory.

By far my favourite object was a tiny paper globe with two pull-tabs (which Cassie gingerly moved around) – the globe lifts the lid and there are a few layers underneath. The writing is in German, so I’ll have to nudge one friend or another to translate (Meghan!) but I was tickled, because it is precisely the kind of thing we’ve got at the Whipple Museum, and this is precisely where the Whipple obtains wonderful objects like this. Cassie’s partner David discerned ‘the heavens and Earth’ from part of the script, and it is definitely a paper orrery of some kind.

So, the Herschel project continues, but it’s become a part of life, of friendship, of discovery, and I’m so grateful. I would, of course, like Double the Stars to be published eventually, but it’s got to find the right home, and the right set of circumstances, to support this evolving endeavour. It isn’t just a book, and whatever book comes of it must be sensitive to that.

A lock of John Frederick William Herschel’s hair.

Atlantic to be published by Cinnamon Press

Whaleship Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where I spent many summers, and graduated from the Munson Institute for Maritime Studies in 2007.

Exactly one week ago, I received an email from Cinnamon Press offering publication on my second collection of poetry, Atlantic. The book is on the list to be published in May 2014.

I’m absolutely delighted by the news. I’m indebted to my Greenwich-based ‘Nevada Street Poets,’ the group of writers I’ve been sharing wine and critiques with over the past…goodness, I think it’s almost four years now. The six of us are poets Mick Delap, Lorraine Mariner, Sarah Westcott, Malene Engelund, and Dominic McLaughlin. They’ve become close friends and confidantes, and they are what every poet dreams of: trustworthy critics who will challenge and encourage. Most of the poems in Atlantic have been through the wringer with Nevada Street (named after the street where we first held our workshops,) and I’m certain that our meetings, plus an added filter of invaluable critiques from friend, poet and writer Richard Barnett, helped me send a convincing manuscript to Cinnamon Press.

If you’re familiar with my blog, you’ll know that my first book of poetry, Darwin’s Microscope, was published in 2009 by Flambard Press, and re-printed in 2010. You’ll know how wonderfully supportive Flambard was for me as a new poet, and how, despite their interest in my other work, I had to seek a new home for my poetry when the Arts Council cruelly cut Flambard along with other small presses last year. After 20 years of successful publishing, Flambard had to close. I’ll be forever grateful to Peter, Margaret, and Will at Flambard for including me in their list, and for giving a freshly-planted New Englander the credibility to establish herself in the UK poetry scene.

Atlantic explores the ebb and flow of contrasts. Shifting between Old England and New England, death and life, grief and lust, it reflects the eddies of emotion I’ve experienced over the past few years, working to establish myself in London while spending a great deal of time in Rhode Island, helping my grandparents at the end of their lives. Atlantic considers my heritage, questions of travel, and questions of home. I’m most pleased that it will be published by an international press: Cinnamon Press.

Pastels and ukulele sing-alongs

pastel portrait demo by Rob Wareing, 2012

Saturday was a full day. I was collected at 9am to head over to the Chislehurst Arts group, where Rob Wareing was hosting his annual visit from South Africa portrait painting workshop. Rob focused on pastels, and spent about an hour doing a demo: me up on a high stool, sitting in my 1940s pink dress, with an intensely bright, hot light in my face.

I’d brought along my ukulele because after the day of modelling, I was heading over to my friend Rachael Black’s daughter’s 3rd birthday party, and I’d offered to do a little sing-along. (A fun side note: I met Rachael modelling for this portrait class two years ago, and we’ve been close friends ever since.)

The uke case (which people frequently mistake for a small violin) drew some amused attention, so Rob suggested I hold the instrument while he drew me. Much like my pose at the Atelier in Bruges, he actually ended up only sketching my face, so it didn’t matter what I was doing with my hands. (In Bruges, I started off carefully clasping my pink silk robe; two weeks in and my hands were in my lap, where I could move and stretch, because no one was painting them.)

When Ilaria del Turco painted me last autumn in Chelsea, and later heard that I played ukulele, she excitedly suggested we do a portrait of me with it – conjuring, for me, 1920s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ style nude/uke louche yet elegant poses. We’ve yet to do that, but it would be fun – and I’d love for gibson to be immortalised.

Holding gibson while Rob gave the demo was fascinating: usually my mind wanders in all kinds of directions when I pose, but because I only ever hold the uke to play it, holding it then meant all of the songs I know (about 20) floated up in my mind, and I was effectively playing without playing. Also, as Rob spoke, when his voice hit certain low notes, they thrummed through gibson, and it was a great challenge not to give her a strum.

pastel portrait by Joel Wareing, 2012

Rob’s son Joel, who teaches art classes as well, and is currently doing a Masters in painting, joined us for the day, and he was very pleased to get to work in pastels – he explained to me that his course is very technical and research-based, so he hasn’t had the chance to paint for awhile.

The room was comfortably full, with 16 people: 8 painted me, and 8 worked with Peter, a very cheerful fellow with an excellent tan, a bald head, and a prominent nose – offering a lovely contrast, for people to choose between me and him.

Later, at the birthday party, we sang ‘Wimoweh,’ ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ ‘With a Little Help from my Friends,’ and ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’. I must say that I had brilliant vocal back-up; there was some real harmonising going on! (Despite the fact that I have the worst timing one could have with a musical instrument and still function.) So all in all, a great success.

The only tricky bit was that some of the sweet 3-year-olds at the party (including the birthday girl,) understandably wanted to have a go on the child-sized instrument, so I had to pack gibson quickly away and explain that next time, when I’ve got it back from France, they can bash on my Mahalo uke all they want.