Sunday, March 11, 2007

Several Ingenious Engines

John Aubrey: what a blogger the world lost through the accident of his being born in the seventeenth century! Interested in everything, addicted to hearsay, fecklessly discontinuous. He’s a writer who is always saying in effect, ‘I know this much, can anyone fill in the rest for me?’, so he’d have loved the Wikipedia.

But he was 17th century, and until we can time-warp a quantum computer back to him with instructions as to how to get on with it, we have to be content with works like Miscellanies upon the following subjects collected by J. Aubrey, Esq., (1696), which is essentially a proto-blog in print: bits contributed by others, bits he can throw together, and bits that remain no more than bits.

Still here’s one of the interesting pieces of curious information:

“Mr. Winstanly (Surveyor of the King's Works) hath built a handsome House at Littlebury in Cambridgshire near Audely-Inn where are to be seen several Ingenious Machines; one whereof is thus: A Wooden Slipper finely Carved lieth on the Floor of a Chamber about a Yard and an half within the Door, which the Stranger is to take up (it comes up pretty stiff) and up starts a Skeleton.”

I have read about the trick machines out in Renaissance gardens, especially fountains, but I don’t recall coming across such an indoor device to disconcert your guests. The trap is subtle: I assume that the slipper would be painted, a trompe d’oeil. You come across it, and naturally think to move it out of the way: but strangely it won’t budge: then the surprise. I imagine a woman’s shoe being counterfeited, something a touch intimate, even faintly sexy, but instead of anything so agreeable, up pops death.

It was clearly startling enough to give people a (and here’s a quintessential English litotes) funny turn. For Aubrey continues with those who’d had it prey on their minds, so that they revisited the moment in their dreams:

I. H. Esq had been there: And being at West-Lavington with the Earl of Abbington, dream’d December the 9th, that he was at Mr. Winstanly’s House, and took up the Slipper, and up rose his Mother in Mourning: And anon the Queen appeared in Mourning. He told his Dream the next Morning to my Lord, and his Lordship imparted it to me (then there). Tuesday Dec. 11. in the Evening, came a Messenger Post from London to acquaint Mr. H. that his Mother was dangerously Ill: He went to London the next Day: his Mother lived but about 8 Days longer. On Saturday Dec. 15. the Queen was taken Ill, which turned to the Small-Pox, of which she died Decem. 28 about two a Clock in the Morning.”

That would be Queen Mary II, of ‘William and Mary’ fame, who died in 1694. This was, I think, an early version of the ‘Jack-in-a-box’, a term not certainly recorded when applied to a toy before 1702, but looking at the OED quotations, probably used earlier (there’s a startling application of the phase to the consecrated host in its pyx in Fox’s Book of Martyrs.)

The scholar who might know about such domestic traps for the unwary guest would be Matt Kavaler, the architectural historian, who seems to be interested in such hoaxes.

These are links to a sample of the Renaissance trick fountains,

while my image is from Robert Plot’ s The natural history of Oxford-shire (1677), showing Edward Henry, Earl of Lichfield’s fountain of 1674 at Enston. You can get a sense of how the unwary were lured into the fenced enclosure, and then once they were corralled up, the device could set about soaking them. John Evelyn described the Duke of Richlieu’s Dragon Fountain, a more spectacular version of the same thing.

Henry Winstanley, who owned the house with the tricks and devices built into it, would end up the victim of his own ingenuity, for his reputation for cleverness rose so high that he was be given the task of designing the first lighthouse at the Eddystone rock, and he died there when it was swept away (in 1703). Here’s a useful brief account:

The ODNB says that after his unlucky demise, the house at Littlebury and something called ‘The Water Theatre’ in Piccadilly carried on being run as places of entertainment. It cost you a shilling to go and be frightened at the Oxfordshire house.

Yes, I was channeling the spirit of Aubrey when I wrote this one.

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