Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guess the phase of the moon from your cat's eyebrows...

‘Receit’ number XXXVII in John White’s A rich cabinet (1651, see my prior post), How to know both the Increase and Decrease of the Moone’.

White first tells us that, if you have one, you can look into a piece of Arabian selenite (‘within the bodie of this Stone the Moon sheweth her selfe’).

Or, more immediately available in the normal household:

“Our common house Cats also have this propertie by the subjection that the Moone hath over them; that their Eie-browes doe increase, or decrease each day, according to the course of the Moone and her aspects; which thing is dailie seene to him that pleaseth to note the experience thereof.”

While you run this fabulous assertion by your own range of experience with felines, my image is a composite one, showing some of the more feasible devices, tricks and gags described by the amiable Mr. White.

White is (rather winningly) interested in lying in bed but being able to know things: a small angled mirror in your window might, for instance, project a sun beam across your ceiling, where you have, by prior observation, drawn a dial of the hours. He thoroughly approved of the way King James (not everyone’s candidate to be quickly out of bed after a particularly heavy masque the night before) had a weathervane on the roof of Whitehall Palace, which connected by a shaft to a pointer that moved on a mariner’s compass rose painted on his royal bedroom ceiling.

The device top left explains itself really: you use a regular candle size and height as your night light, always set in the same place. The shadow it casts on your artful table of the hours up on the wall will give you a good idea of what time of the night it is, should you you wake up and want to know.

Below that, the confounding wonder of the cantilever, and a light lure for nocturnal fishing made with a candle in a floating urinal flask.

On the right hand, the chap in the top picture is able to read the cards he is holding above his hat brim because he has surreptitiously dropped a spot of drink on the table to act as a tiny mirror, and has the candle at the right angle. Than there’s a thermometer with coloured water and a suitably basic calibration of 12 different degrees (the higher up the tube, the colder it is), and a reading light like lace makers used.

A conjuring trick he mentions which you could try involves making the signature you have inked onto a piece of paper that is then burned to ashes reappear on your arm: sign your arm with a fresh pen inked with urine, let it dry, do the paper signing and burning, then rub the ashes on your arm to make the signature seem to reappear. More challenging to undertake is a stunt that involves washing your hands in boiling lead without any risk. Having anointed your hands with an ointment of quicksilver, bol armoniak, camphire and aqua vitae, you can, at the very least, dip your finger in, and no harm done…

There is some jolly early modern sport to be had in tormenting animals (top tricks to play on ducks here folks), and a splendid way to clean up your old oil paintings by bathing them in vinegar, then rubbing them hard with a pad of brick dust tied up in linen, finally leaving them outside in bright sunlight. Brings them up like new, apparently. Must recommend it to the curators of the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries projected for the V and A:

I was recently reading Roy Strong’s descriptions of portraits of Sir Walter Ralegh, where he considers none of the original paint surface to survive at all. No wonder, if this was how they scoured off old varnish.

No comments: