About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Thursday, 31 May 2012

To get your morphew dealt with, go to the Gentlewoman at the Red Balcony

I’ve often puzzled over the female fashions of high society around the year 1700. This was the time when women wore enormous extensions on their heads, with ships, landscapes and other fancies, surely at the cost of some pain. Their faces were often whitened with lead, and this too evidently caused problems, as people set out specifically to treat these. I’ve used the word ‘people’ rather than ‘quacks’ since, while no doubt there were unscrupulous individuals who lived off gullibility – and no doubt there are proportionately as many now – I suspect that many practitioners saw themselves as healers with as good a success-rate as the official physicians who tried to exclude them from medical practice.

While looking at medical flyers from around 1700 I noticed a number of similarities between then and now; for example, at the base of a text – NO CURE   NO MONEY. Now the formula is more commonly used by ‘No win, no fee’ lawyers. A more cynical turn is shown by the distributors of a consignment of Peruvian bark (chinchona) – 'The Poor may have Advice (that is, Nothing) for Nothing'.

Doctor James Tilborgh is shown fashionably dressed, and holding a forceps at least a foot long with a startlingly large stone in its grips. Spare a thought for the patient from whom it was removed. Primarily he advertises his services for curing the French Pox, but he clearly promoted some therapeutic treatments, helping ‘them that have lost their Manly Nature, and Cherishes up the sadned spirits of a maryed Man and Woman, by what occasion soever they have lost it; and does quicken it again, as a Rose that hath received the Summers dew.’

Not all of the practitioners were that easy to find. Given that street numbers were not in use at this time, addresses are usually supposed to have been ‘at the sign of the Blue Boar’, for example; but there might be up to fifty people living at the sign of the Blue Boar, in perhaps thirty separate dwellings. More detail would be necessary, but it might be difficult to locate this particular practitioner: ‘In great Suffolk Street, near the Hay Market, at a Jeweler’s House, with a Red Balcony, lives a Gentlewoman who by much Travelling and Many years Study, Practice and Experience has attained the most rare Secrets in the World for Beautifying the Face.’ Evidently she felt she was worth the search.

She was clearly a shrewd operator, who had spotted a niche and knew her patients' problems: they had ‘had their Teeth and Faces utterly ruined by Poisonous Washes, so that the Skin had been reduced into a perfect Wanscot Colour, and full of Wrinkles’. But after purchasing her ‘cordialls’ her happy clients sported ‘Teeth which were black and rotten, ... now become white and sound, their lost Hair restor’d, and the most old and Wrinkled Face made appear young and beautiful.’

All this is fairly creditable, but she also claims to be able to provide a cure which deals with ‘all sorts of Red faces, kills the black & white worms, … takes away Morphew, Freckles, or any Accident relating to the Face.’ More plausibly 'she has also all sorts of delicate Pomatums, white-pots not to be compared with, Fore-head pieces exactly prepared’. These last seem to be a kind of preparation to resolve skin problems caused by disease rather than over-enthusiastic cosmetic applications; another ‘Gentlewoman’ offers ‘most curious Masks and Fore-head Cloths which take out all Spots, Pits or Scars caused by the Small-pox and also all Wrinkles in the Fore-head’. Perhaps viewing from the present we may feel more likely to dismiss panaceas that can deal with black & white worms, while we have been bludgeoned into accepting the worth of anti-wrinkle cream.

The preparations of our lady on the red balcony did not come cheap, but at least you knew that there was some honesty in the pricing: ‘the Waters for the face, you may have from Half a Crown to Five pounds the Bottle, according to the goodness and quantity, or as the Face shall require’. In other words, you got what you paid for.

A morphew, by the way, is, or was, a localised or generalised discoloration of the skin caused by disease.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


Because there has been some difficulty in accessing JWalkerwords (1) I am reposting some images of recent work:  

As If, at Nymans, photograph by Sussie Ahlburg.

Undoing previous work on an antique antimacassar prior to applying new embroidery.

I Don't Want To Lose You in place at Nymans


Some new interventionist embroidery

Sunday, 27 May 2012

New work

An image of some new work here, Little Boys Blue. Each skull is carved from an erectile dysfunction tablet.

The work is on show at Sex and Death, 20 Earlham Street, London (near Seven Dials), until 5th June

Friday, 25 May 2012

That stuff that happens

More in sadness than anger I am reflecting on the week's events, having received a phone message two days ago to say that my email had been hacked. There is naturally a bit of anger, and a bit of sadness because the email provider I have moved to doesn't use a very clear design layout. But, after many years' worry about what happens when email collapses, I have found that it isn't so bad. I may, of course, be the unwitting victim of having my identity stolen and tossed round cyberspace like litter in the wind, in which case expect in the near future notices of outrage more than anger.

In the meantime, here's a choice morsel from Gideon Harvey's The Family Physician and the House Apothecary (1676), with my sentiments towards the perpetrators of cybercrime everywhere:

‘Take a Beet root, or a Cabbage root, cut it according to the length and shape of your fore-finger, that is, Taper; only a little pointed at one end; dust it about with a little Salt powdered fine, and put it up your Fundament.’


New Blog

Following a hacking attack on my email I am no longer able to access JWalkerwords. So welcome to, and from, JWalkerwords2.

I will shortly post some choice morsels from JWalkerwords (1) here, so that they are accessible for reference and comment.