Saturday, 31 May 2008

Van Bayeren, master of fish...

Here the oysters take a back seat to the untouched lobster. This is from the

It was while he was painting in The Hague, the happiest and most successful years of his career, that van Beyeren achieved that style for which he is best known today. The Hague, with its nearby fishing village of Scheveningen, favored those lavish displays of seafood, which exactly suited the dashing, almost impressionistic techniques of an artist who was unsurpassed in recreating the iridescent sheen of fish and other creatures of the sea. Van Beyeren's later work was concerned with sumptuous still lives of fine chinaware and choice foods set in warm translucent backgrounds. The modernism of his technique, with its use of bravura lighting, was not, however, always to the liking of a clientele of rich bourgeoisie, who regarded illusionist realism and linear exactitude as the supreme achievement in art.

Abraham van Beyeren

Abraham van Beyeren, was known for his rich still lives, was born in The Hague and worked successively in Leyden, The Hague, Goude and Ouerschie, where he died in 1690. In 1640, while in The Hague, he was one of the founders of that city's Painters Guild, and the following year he was admitted to the Delft Guild. Little is known of the personal details of van Beyeren's life. We do know that while in Leyden, van Beyeren was influenced by the still-life painter, de Heen, who painted in the Baroque style of still life with its compositions of fruit and precious vases...

Abraham van Beyeren

Abraham van Beyeren was quite sparing in his choice of objects, just an orange, a bread roll and a couple of oysters was enough for him...but in the next one the scene is filled out. Noticeably his oranges look like oranges.

De Heem, more background

A still life of a rummer garlanded with laurel and flowers on a stone slab half-covered by a gold-fringed, maroon velvet cloth; with oysters, blackberries, an orange and a half-peeled lemon and a chestnut on a pewter dish...again thanks to, although one might quibble with his point about the orange being a homage to the prince of...looks more like a lemon
...characteristic work of the artist of the late 1660s or early 1670s. Firm dating must remain somewhat speculative, since after 1655 de Heem himself inscribed very few paintings with a date, the only known exception being a work of 1675. As a result, it is much more difficult to establish a firm chronology for works from this period than for the first three decades of de Heem’s activity. Subsequent stylistic groups can be clearly distinguished for these last two decades, however – de Heem probably painted very little after the late 1670s.

The painting under discussion belongs to such a group of works, which includes, among others, a large luxury still life at Utrecht, a smaller still life in the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe, another in Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, and an example that was also with Richard Green Gallery, in 1999.[ii] Slightly earlier is a still life which was with Richard Green in 1993.[iii] The Richard Green example shown in 1999 and particularly the Utrecht still life are more sumptuous compositions, while the Melbourne and even more so the Karlsruhe still lifes are more modest compositions, like the present painting. Another still life that de Heem must have produced around the same time is a panel in the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, of almost the same measurements as this one and the Karlsruhe painting.[iv]

This group of still lifes was no doubt painted during de Heem’s Utrecht sojourn, circa 1665-1672, most likely around 1670. Not only are they clearly further removed from the artist’s firmly datable works of the 1650s, they also show an apparent stylistic relationship with several still lifes by Abraham Mignon (1640-1679). Mignon was strongly influenced by de Heem and both artists shared a studio in Utrecht, which Mignon eventually took over when de Heem returned to Antwerp. Also, the early work of Elias van den Broeck (1649/50-1708), who became de Heem's pupil in 1667, shows an apparent relationship with these still lifes by the master.

Characteristics of these still lifes by de Heem are a smooth, meticulous handling, which is less painterly than works from his previous Antwerp period. They generally have a fairly dark, grey/black background. The depicted objects themselves are strongly lit and rendered with a high degree of detail. In contrast with the tonality of the paintings from the late 1640s and 1650s, which involves various brown hues and warm yellow, in the colouring of these works strong, bright red, blue, green, and orange play an important role, next to significant areas of bright white.

The rummer encircled with a laurel wreath is a recurring motif in the majority of the still lifes from this group mentioned above. In about 1646, in a large still life now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (inv. no.75.3), de Heem adorned such a glass of with a branch – not yet a wreath – of laurel for the first time. During the following decade, he would regularly wind some vine around a glass of wine, and there are also examples where a wreath of ivy has been applied. The regular occurrence of laurel wreaths only seems to have come into his paintings after his move from Antwerp to Utrecht some time during the first half of the 1660s. The same motif can be found in paintings by Abraham Mignon. The laurel is doubtless depicted in its classical capacity of expressing praise – no doubt of the wine - while in combination with the modestly filled glass the motif might allude to temperance.[v]

The orange that occurs in most of de Heem’s still lifes from his second Utrecht period is most probably a direct reference to the house of Orange. De Heem must have been particularly sympathetic to the Orangist movement, in view of his lavish garland around a portrait of the young William III and his still life with a very prominent orange inscribed Vivat Orange.[vi]

Both oysters and lemons were favourite motifs in de Heem’s still lifes throughout his career. The artist kept on exploring their textures – hard shells with a soft, slick content, and during the 1660s he perhaps attained their most realistic representation.

Although, as hinted above, there is most probably a reference to temperance, and perhaps an expression of Orangist sympathies in these still lifes, their main aim is to amaze the viewer with their seeming realism and illusionism, an aim which Jan Davisdz. de Heem was qualified to attain like no other.

Information derived from a report by Fred G Meijer of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie in The Hague.

De Heem, oysters with grapes

This panel of about 1640 and light, signed top right. The grapes are almost sweating and the encrusted lemon peel like jewellery...double click on it and you can see the awesome level of detail.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem (or: Johannes de Heem) was born in Utrecht, where his father, a musician, had moved from Antwerp. In 1625 he moved to Leiden, where he married Aletta van der Weede from Utrecht in that same year, and where he is recorded until 1631. His teacher is unknown, but much of his earliest work (painted 1625-28) shows a strong influence of the Utrecht still-life painter Balthasar van der Ast (1593/4-1657). By 1635 de Heem had settled in Antwerp, becoming a member of the guild in early 1636. After the death of his first wife he married Anna Ruckers, a daughter of the well-known Antwerp harpsichord maker, in 1646. In 1665 he was living in Utrecht again, but it is very likely that he had already spent longer sojourns there during the previous years. He was not, however, recorded as a member of the Utrecht guild until 1669. Following the French invasion in 1672, he returned to Antwerp, where he died during the winter of 1683/84.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem was one of the most distinguished and influential still-life and flower painters of the seventeenth century. In the course of his career, more than any other still-life painter, he explored new areas and tried new styles and techniques, both emulating the work of others and developing new approaches, always in a highly individual manner. His success was enormous and attracted a large following, both in the northern and southern Netherlands, as well as abroad. Many works by pupils and followers were later supplied with a de Heem signature or incorrectly attributed to the master, which has created much confusion about the scope of his oeuvre.[i]

The present still life is a characteristic work of the artist of the late 1660s or early 1670s. Firm dating must remain somewhat speculative, since after 1655 de Heem himself inscribed very few paintings with a date, the only known exception being a work of 1675. As a result, it is much more difficult to establish a firm chronology for works from this period than for the first three decades of de Heem’s activity. Subsequent stylistic groups can be clearly distinguished for these last two decades, however – de Heem probably painted very little after the late 1670s

De Heem, oysters with fruit

De Heem's earliest paintings are precocious fruit pieces produced in his native Utrecht under the influence of Balthasar van der Ast. He moved to Leiden about 1626 and to Antwerp 10 years later.
He was born in 1606 and lived to 1683 or 84. His works betrays the influence of the Haarlem still-life artists Claesz. and Heda (see below) In 1636 he moved to Antwerp, became a citizen in 1637, and spent most of his very productive life there. The paintings he did in Flanders are the ones for which he is most renowned and are very different in spirit from his earlier works: splendid flower pieces and large compositions of exquisitely laid tables which breathe all the opulent exuberance of Flemish Baroque painting. His work formed a link between the Dutch and Flemish still-life traditions and he is claimed by both schools. He came from a large family of painters and his many followers in Flanders and Holland included his son Cornelis - 1631-95.

De Heem, oysters with grapes

Familar themes re-arranged but here these huge oysters gleam centre stage

De Heem, oysters with flowers

The oysters are just a side show in this one to a spectacular floral display

De Heem, oysters with pipe

The half eaten meal again, the lemon peeled, the bread broken, the oysters looking shrivelled, the pipe almost like the assemblage has been tidied up from a feast somewhere else, the colours survive radiantly. Notice the size of the oyster shells compared to the bread and lemon. This is soemtimes called the lobster pictuire but if you double click to see it larger you can see it is actually a small crayfish and the bulk of red is pomegranite

De Heem, oysters with pomegranite

Fabulous too is the work of Jan Davidz Heem who lived from 1609 to 1684. His Still Life With Fruit was painted in 1652. The oysters are perched like so much satin here in contrast to the opened pomegranite

Painting food to feed the artist

In the same discipline, known in Dutch as the almost unpronounceable ontbijt (breakfast piece) was William Claesz Heda whose Still Life with Oysters is more aristocratic in taste and in ingredients, usually ham, mince-meat pie, and oysters. Making pies for some of these painters seems to have been as artistic an activity as the painting itself. To paint food and wine was perhaps secondary payment for the starving artist.

Claesz, with cat again

Yet again the cat appears this time spoiling the fish which presumably have just arrived from market. But the oysters are open so perhaps the cook or the painter planned to eat them. The cat again supplies the sense that something is happening. Why is the cook called away?

Claesz in lavish mode

The same themes recur, the lemon peel, the half eaten tray of oysters, the strange turkey/capon still with feathers, the sense that something has happened here. People have eaten but not finished the feast but seemingly are unworried at leaving a table with food still on it or perhaps they had been called away to some emergency.

Peter Claesz

Pieter Claesz also liked to paint scenes in which it appeared that perhaps people had just left the table half way through eating, or maybe this again was an indolent throw away suggestion that these people were so rich they did not need to clear all the food from the table. He is known as one of the most important breakfast still life painters but in later life he assumed a lavish enthusiasm for huge banquet still life’s. So he moved from very simple depictions of oysters, a goblet and a half eaten loaf of bread on a table at the start of his career and ended it with the opulent banquet of Roast Capon with Oysters painted in 1647.

Clara Peters, fish and cat

The oyster depicted freshness obviously, possibly also with other foods, there was supper to be had here too in painting food for a hungry artist.

The still life school is usually categorised as one of three styles, banquet, kitchen or breakfast. They may have had some symbolism in the choice of items or maybe the settings were just deliberate manifestations of luxury and abundance. As women were closer to the food, some began to challenge the male trades, notably Clara Peeters.

Her tones are still rich, elegant, and domestically formal. She, like others, liked to introduce a cat as if it were about to steal the opened oysters or inviting the viewer to shoo it away. It was her meticulous visual descriptions that impressed, and still do. In her Still Life of Fish and Cat a reddish ceramic colander holds several fish, including an eel whose long, slender body forms a prominent loop that adds visual interest to the upper left-hand portion of the painting. You can see the textures plainly - slippery fish scales, thickly glazed clay, the cat's fur, and the contrast between the rough shell of the open oyster and the gleaming pewter dish on which it rests.
There are other hints too - the small fish on which the cat has firmly planted its front paws and some subtler details, like the two small gouges on the near edge of the wooden table, the cat’s ears are pointed back, alert to any potential interloper. Animals from cats to monkeys appear regularly in seventeenth-century Flemish still lifes, although cats were apparently not necessarily regarded as welcome pets at that time

De Heem's still life with glass

Some of this was due to the new found affluence of the middle class beneficiaries of trade from their ports. The mystery is why such painting should have been in Holland alone. Intriguing is also how strong a movement it was. Often farmers would buy up an artist’s work to enjoy as investments and sold them on at local markets. And because there were regular art markets, a painter could be inspired to work without a commission. As such women could paint freely and find an outlet for their talents.

These same Dutch hoarders had early in the same century developed another obsessive interest, this time in tulips, imported from Turkey and sold on and speculated over to the point that many went bust until the market had to be controlled. The painting of tulips was a second best activity to owning a few bulbs, but compensatory all the same. For some the oyster swam the same tide, although in this case with less catastrophic results. The strange thing is that although oysters would have been everyday and commonplace, they still attained the status of much treasured and ostentatious imports and featured among the most expensive and delicious of foods. It was a valuable and much employed symbol.

Invariably it would be displayed along with expensive fruits or game or labour intensive pastries, particular pieces of imported glass or pottery, or cloths from afar. For inland wealthy middle class Europeans, the oyster was seen as similarly precious and exotic. In some cases it was also an artistic device to depict freshness, or even time passing. A surprising number of the great European painters of this time have a visual debt to the oyster as having helped them establish their reputation. From the early 1600s, this school flourished like no other had before or since.

The rise of still-life painting in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands - mainly in the cities of Antwerp, Middelburg, Haarlem, Leiden, and Utrecht – is generally put down to the increasing urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society, which brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade, learning—all the aspects and diversions of everyday life. All such products that arrived at trading ports. Painters such Abraham van Beyeren, Floris van Schooten, Frans Snyders, Jan van Kessel, Osias Beert, Pieter Claesz, Jan Davidz de Heem, Clara Peeters' and others all used oysters to deliberate effect. Later they would be followed by the Frenchmen Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin and in turn Manet, all of whom contributed to this school.

The Dutch masters

For 1500 years or more painters dedicated themselves to religious iconography, then all of a sudden in one small northern European country they changed direction and devoted themselves to more secular things. What was the trigger? Who was it who was brave enough to commission the first non-religious painting? Or was it just an enthusiasm for setting the everyday household items alongside the riches that were suddenly being brought back from other parts of the globe? Perhaps it was that the Dutch as the first to profit from empire had suddenly become rich.

Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl painted in his later period probably in the 1660s was typical. The girl is probably his daughter, but she was no Virgin Mary, just an ordinary girl at first glance, but then why the gold Turkish turban on her head, why such a luminescent engrossed pearl, all luxurious trappings of the new movement asking why it might be that someone who looks so realistically like a farm girl could have such luxuries? She does not smile like the Mona Lisa but there is an engaging, knowingness to her and sophistication in her dressing.

The still life was safe territory to explore, but the first half of the 1600s was still a period of religious passions and a formative era in Christianity. For the first time we can also see women active in art. We see a society in which painting could be seen as a legitimate profession and not just an acolyte of worship and patronage. There was an artistic emancipation. And, of course, the oyster featured prominently in this movement.

Holland, Flanders, northern Germany and Belgium had oyster cultures of their own derived from the 500 miles along the Wadden Sea.

Pearls, currency of monarchy

For nearly a thousand years the entangled relationships with the Dutch ran like a seam through royal society and eventually was consummated when William 111 sailed to Torbay and seized the crown from the outmanoeuvred James 11.

The political marriage was embellished and enobled with the pearl as portraits of would-be brides where traded between families. Potential grooms could be flatted by rows of pearls in portraits.

There was a certain irony to this trade as far as the oyster was concerned. Where for the ordinary people the trade was in oysters as food, for nobility it was the pearls that travelled back and forth across the waters. One exception was the king’s sister. Despite a ban on all exports of oysters, a Dutchman Jaon Janson Steil was licensed to export oysters from Colchester to the Prince of Orange and his household, James 1’s daughter and Charles 1’s sister, the Queen of Bohemia. Judging from her portraits she glamorously showed off her royalty and appreciation, her russets were encircled with more pearls.

Charles 1’s wife, the curly haired and voluptuous Henrietta Maria of France - pictured - sailed extravagantly with her entourage to Holland, she took with her jewels and pearls to raise money for his army.

When William of Orange arrived in England in 1641 to meet his almost infant wife to be Mary he brought with him £23,000 in jewels and pearls in particular as a gift to the court.

Poor Mary. In official portraits she wore huge translucent pearls strung as necklaces around her neck and her bosom for her official portrait. But when she died (of the measles or smallpox or the bleeding that was supposed to be a cure for either or both) in 1694, Lady Stanhope took all her jewellery, linen and plate from her bedchamber while the Duchess of York was seen the next week wearing the same glorious pearls.

Strangely that same portrait illustrates another unusual closeness between England and Holland. It was by Pieter van der Faes, a Dutch portraitist who came to England and was patronised by both Charles 1 and Oliver Cromwell and then became court painter to Charles 11 and was knighted as Sir Peter Lely. His was a conventional historic portraitist role, but he was in another sense a part of the great Dutch masters of the time who illustrated much more vividly the way people lived at the time.

Goyinges down the river...

For the men, traders and freemasons of the middle ages drinking and banqueting together must have been a much looked forward to activity. The oyster acquired a kind of social status. In Colchester, the town accounts had to be carefully doctored to make sure that just how much eating and drinking was done at public expense did not show up in the books.

The local historian Gurney Burnham trawled the old books and receipts and wrote in 1893: “The sagacious town clerks of the past so compiled the records of Corporation proceedings that one would hardly suspect that nearly all the twon’s revenues were spent eating and drinking”.

The town had a fair on October 9 for Saint Denys from as far back as 1318. The Colchester Oyster fair still carries on today. Poetically, Denys, is the patron saint of Paris. He was sent by the Pope to convert third century France but was beheaded at Montmartre, the hill of martyrs, and then reputedly picked up his head and walked off still preaching a sermon, so the choice of name was a symbolic recognition of events on the other side of the water.

This however was far from being the only feast day. There were to be meals at public expense on the annual election of the bailiff and mayor in August, and then the new mayor had to have a celebration dinner at the end of September. And there were dinners for quarter sessions, for the magistrates, for the audit (twice a year) for the opening of the fisheries and the closing. And another for the venison feast, and for the subsidy dinner, and on public and royal holidays and the quarterly allowance day which was when the rents were paid. By 1520 there were so many dinners and banquets for the oyster traders and freemen of Colchester that nearly all the proceeds of the oyster company were being spent on eating and drinking. In 1563 the mayor tried to put a brake on the flow of funds and ordered that no future election dinner should cost more than 40/1, no law dinner more than 20/- and no allowance dinner more than 10/-, although how much notice anyone paid is anyone’s guess

Lavish menus survive in the accounts, or at least what was paid for the ingredients, which presumably were often supplied by the freemen themselves anyway. In 1617, the freemen bought

Six sirloins of beef 20/1
Five fat pigs 3/6
Six coople of rabbits 6/-
Four barrels of beer 32/-

In 1648 they spent 12/- on oysters for 195 guests and ended up with plum tarts, pear pies and paid the cookes £1 and spent a whopping £3/19/10 on pipes, tobacco and wine.

Sometimes the oyster purchases were discreetly disguised in the books as “two goyinges down the river”. Carriage was “always costly” although it may have been creative accountancy because on one occasion sending a man and a horse to Brightlingsea for oysters was charged at 4/- and another to pick up the same amount of oysters it was charged at 60/-.

Another odd one, because oyster knives don’t have to be sharp, is

“Grindinge ye oyster knife 6d

At another dinner in 1645 they purchased

Boiled fishe 3/-
Green oysters 6/-
Stewed oysters 4/-
Oyster pies 5/-

The Corporation was never ungenerous and through the millennia, notes of its gifts, invariably oysters, to the court houses and to kings and prime ministers are plenty. The assizes only had to sit at Chelmsford and the judges were assured of basket or two. Henry VIII took some to his meeting in Calais with Emperor Charles V. Later Elizabeth I’s ministers were solicited for favours with nipperkins of oysters. Centuries on and Disreali, as prime minister, even received the gift but had the grace to write to say thank you: “Your oysters are worthy of Roman emperors…I am ashamed to add, I devoured most of them myself”.

The mystery of Wellfleet

Vagueness affected one of Essex’s best known oysters, the Wellfleet. There is no town called Wellfleet at all. It was an area of water which produced a green tinged oyster, reputedly the best in the area and commanded premiums at the London markets even if no one was too sure where it came from. John Gay, better known as author of the original Beggars Opera, mentions them in a poem written at the start of the 18th century

Be sure observe where brown ostrea stands,
Who boasts her shelly ware from Wellfleet Sands

But writing in 1594 John Norden, an Essex historian reported:

“Some part of the sea shore of Essex yealdeth the beste oysters in England, which are called Walflete oysters: so called of a place in the sea; but of which place in the sea it is, hath been some disputation. And by the circumstances that I have observed thereof in my travail, I take it to be the shore which lieth betwene St. Peter's chappell and Crowch the bredthe onlie of Denge hundred, through which upon the verie shore, was erected a wall for the preservation of the lande. And thereof St. Peter's on the wall. And all the sea shore which beateth on the wall is called Walfleet. And upon that shore on, and not elswher, but up in Crouche creeke, at the ende of the wall, wher also is an ilande called commonlie and corruptlie Walled (but I take it more trulie Wallflete) Island, wher and about which ilande thys kinde of oyster abonndeth. Ther is greate difference betwene theis oysters and others which lie ypon other shores, for this oyster, that in London and els wher carieth the name of Walflete is a little full oyster with a verie greene finn. And like vnto theis in quantetie and qualitie are none in this lande, thowgh farr bigger, and for some mens diettes better.”

Doubtless the oystermen knew exactly where the Wellfleet beds were, but were too canny to let on. Dengie 100 is a peninsula to the east of modern day Chelmsford bounded by the North Sea to the east, The River Crouch to the south and the River Blackwater to the north. It is recognised in the Domesday Book and has been settled since the Iron Age.

Ownership of land, however bloodily fought over has eventually proved decisive, but a few feet, even a few inches of water is enough to leave any tenure apparently open to perpetual dispute. The motives, good and bad, of the land based legislators evaporate on the water and where in the short term that has usually meant profit, in the longer term it is the beds themselves that have suffered. The Wellfleet vanished centuries ago.

On the nature of westness

In Essex much litigation revolved around the definition of the indeterminate definition of “westness” to define the boundary of the fishing, a term which was continually attacked by successive landlords around the estuary who also coveted the fishing rights. Oysters it seems inconveniently did not always flourish most where the boundary makers might have hoped they would, so there was always new cause for agitation and profit. Claim and counter claim, petition followed by petition continued until 1758 when finally everyone agreed to an Act of Parliament but even that was hardly binding on the waters, especially at night, or not at all to a boat from France or Holland.
The list of misdemeanours was long. Fishermen were accused of summer dredging, using a smack sail instead of a row boat, staking off exclusive beds in creeks, selling oyster spat to foreign traders, exporting oysters especially to Flanders; threatening the bailiffs and even the mayor. But the oyster poachers had a reliable defence declaring simply to the East Mersea magistrates that any offences were committed outside the court’s jurisdiction… and they walked free

Laws dissolve in estuarine waters

Ownership and administration of the waters and their harvest was complex, vexed and various and in a thousand years has never been wholly resolved.

A tangle of legalities governed the ‘ownership’ of the waters, estuaries, sea shores and submerged territories. Essex boats thought nothing of using their superior boat building to raid other estuaries in summer looking for spat, but they demanded protection for their own creeks from marauding Kentish men, French and Dutch boats.

Even in law, the oyster was different. Unlike other fish, it could not swim away, so when a new bank was discovered it might swiftly attract outsiders looking for a bonanza. But equally oysters do not always grow where they are expected so a landlord who had bought a land site productive in oysters at the time could find in a few years time that they had died out and moved down the river.

The slight adjustments to the laws over the centuries as vested interests fought for the harvest become increasingly farcical as lawyers wrestled with problems they did not understand. One decision said that a man could not steal an oyster unless it was labelled, so that he could be seen to know he was stealing. Another decree held up in court was stealing an oyster was not theft because the oyster was not harmed and was going to a better home. Even if the Crown or Parliament could prove exclusive domaine over the shores, it could hardly override the historic claims of fishermen on a particular stretch of water, who might in perpetuity have been awarded such rights by some long lost agreement. The sea was common ground in common law and so fishing was enshrined in law by Magna Carta. It was open to all. Eventually, many centuries later, a Royal Commission was set up in 1886 to consider the question of ownership of oyster spat that might drift out to sea and beyond the territory of the owners….Canute was proved right, his kingdom really stopped at the water’s edge and he could not, nor could his successors, control such a legal tide.

The situation is the same fudge today as is neatly summed up by this advice from the Crown estate – not regarding the oysterages but more prosaically the rights to moor a boat:

“Harbour legislation is therefore one factor complicating the legal position on mooring. The other is the issue of long usage. It is a broad principle of property law that, if something has gone on for a long time without objection, whether it be using a right of way or occupying land to which one has no title, the law will eventually recognise the fact and give the person doing it the legal right to continue. Unfortunately, it is very unclear how this principle would be applied by the courts in relation to moorings – the case law is hazy and sometimes contradictory.”

For boats and moorings today, read oysters for a thousand years and more. Laws, it seems, invariably dissolve in estuarine waters.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Royal patronage

Such was their value that these towns attracted royal patronage and licence. Later, in the civil war, the royalist flag was flown over nearly all the Thames side oyster towns, a loyalty they had earned over many years.

In the 12th century Henry 11 gave Maldon the rights not just to its own creek but round the head as far as Southend, Leigh and even west as far as Hadleigh where oysters were still laid at the start of the 20th century although it is now opposite the oil refinery of Canvey Island.

These gifts seemed quite arbitrary. West Mersea claims the oldest charter from Edward the Confessor which dated to 1046, but for reasons which no longer seem to be comprehensible much later Charles 11 decided to issue a second charter in 1687, this time giving the beds to Charterhouse hospital in London which also owns the public school in Surrey, a legal point which was contested by the incumbent landlord as recently as 1967.

King Stephen - pictured - is buried at the abbey at Faversham to whom he granted a charter in 1147. The charter included the oyster fishing but earlier than that Athelstan held a council at the town in 930 so it must have been regarded as somewhere of import even at that stage. Alongside oysters, it was known for its metal work, especially for shipbuilding. They were called Peter boats, after St Peter of course, but in design and construction were also informed by Viking long boats suggesting the Scandinavian contacts were already well ingrained that far south.

Going back further, the town name derives from the Roman faber (smith) and Germanic ham (homestead) where the Romans had called it Durovelum, the stronghold by the clear stream, so it was important enough to christen in both eras and to both invaders. The town history has it the Jutes and Saxons came as defenders and mercenaries to protect them, but liked it so much they stayed.

Its creek was strategic. It supplied shelter from the Channel storms and deep wells offered fresh pure water. As early as the 8th century the Dutch were coming to seek shelter, trade, to settle, to buy, to raid, to smuggle, just as the Romans similarly would have settled five hundred years before that.

Further west, Abbotsbury oysterage on the Fleet Lagoon in Dorset can only be traced back to the 11th century AD when the lagoon was given by King Canute to one of his servants Orc who noted:

"....there is little fish in the Flete except eels, flounders, and grey mullet, but is noted for its oyster beds".

But we know from the shells excavated from the Chesil Bank and nearby that this must have an historic oyster site dating back as far as anywhere probably in Britain or Europe.

Orc, in turn passed the ownership to his wife Tula, who bequeathed it to the local abbey. By 1427 the Abbott was demanding taxes on the fish caught in his waters – two pence for 200 oysters but sixpence for a salmon. In 1543 Henry VIII dissolved the monastery and allowed one his knights Sir Giles Strangeways to buy this part of Dorset for £1000 and his descendants are still there.

Back on the other side of the Thames, the Colne was controlled by the nearby Colchester Corporation in a charter given to the town by Richard 1 in 1189 but which mentions his grandfather Henry so the town may have been ennobled even 100 years earlier. The Corporation has used this charter to defend its interests, not least from its own fishermen. Despite Colchester oysters being known worldwide, the actual beds are further south off the flatlands at Wivenhoe, Brightlingsea and West Mersea. But it was not a right the town was going to forsake. It had its crane.

Colchester demanded that all oysters had to be sold at the quayside market at Hythe. Anyone selling oysters anywhere else, or to anyone else, even in their own village was liable to imprisonment and to have their boats seized.

As early as 1200, court cases were brought against boats for illicitly carrying wool or other contraband that was not offered for sale to the town freemen first.

But these men were far sighted in their administration. They seem to have been both conservation minded and also philanthropic. They set a closed season for fishing from Easter to Holy Rood Day (September 14); licensed and registered anyone fishing for oysters and demanded that no oysters would be sold on to London unless there was enough to feed the Colchester market first, by “which by that provision were chiefly relieved”.

Over time they went further to preserve the fisheries. No boat was to carry more than two persons or tow more than one dredge of the existing standard size. Summer dredgers could only go one in a boat, with a mast and sail not more than seven feet high. Fishermen were to sort the contents of their dredges at sea and put back all brood and immature oysters. Licences demanded that beds be kept free of predatory starfish and tingles, so if there was not full scale aquaculture there is plenty of early evidence at the very least of an advanced husbandry.

We see the same concerns to keep oysters as a cheap local source of food in an edict from the mayor of London in 1418 who bid to keep the price of a bushel of oysters set at 4d, which seemed to hold good for the best part of two centuries.

Poor harvests and scarcity were met with outrage in London. Sir Samuel Tuke declared indignantly in 1667 :“Although the British oysters have been famous in the World ever since this island was discovered, yet the skill how to order them aright has been so little considered among ourselves that we see at this day it is confined to some few narrow creeks of one single county.”

Early cultivation

It is often assumed that oysters were not cultivated before the 11th century. Fishermen were just taking abundant oysters from the wild and moving on to new reefs as they exhausted one site. This may or may not be true. The Romans could have shown them how, if needed be, and the presumption smacks of city patrimony.

The very nature of these estuaries also discredits the idea. The largest and most famous native English oyster beds are around the mouth of the Thames, along the north Kent coast around Whitstable and Faversham and across the water in creeks at Colne, Crouch, Maldon, Blackwater and Roach along the coast of Essex.

But Essex was rarely self sufficient in oysters, or never had enough to meet demand. Its tidal creeks opened on to the Thames which would wash away the spat. Except at Paglesham on the Roach where the twin tides around Foulness Island keep the spat inland and made it the natural hatchery. But the other creeks would take in oysters from Kent and further afield to fatten them off for market. Quite when this started is not clear, but it was certainly ancient and logical and not always amicable.

These towns enjoyed two advantages over other fisheries. Billingsgate market for London was up river via the Thames, which may be why the East Anglian creeks, being that much further north, which although they could be used for raising oysters, and still are at Orford, were often turned over to mussels instead which were thought to be an easier sale. But these harbours were also a front door for the French and Dutch boats to trade and smuggle unseen. And a backdrop to an invisible international royal politic.

Oysters with stout

Writing about oyster stouts several years ago, Michael Jackson made it clear (”Heaven sent - downing oysters by the pint“) there is a balance to be struck, be it stouts with oysters included or in finding the right stout to go with oysters.

"A stout must lean to the dry side if it’s to accompany oysters. Despite its fullness of body, Guinness’s Dublin-brewed, strong (7.5 per cent) and quaintly named Foreign Extra Stout does the trick. especially if it is lightly chilled. The regular bottled or canned stuff is arguably too sweet and the jury is out on the draught version.
Murphy’s and Beamish are barely dry enough, but there is a case for the peppery, spicy Cain’s Superior Stout, from Liverpool. I have long loved the toasty, faintly anise-like porter from Harvey’s of Lewes, East Sussex.

"The earthy intensity of stout is a perfect foil for the gamey brineyness of oysters. Disraeli once wrote of an election celebration: "I dined at the Carkon, on oysters, Guinness and boiled bone...In the early Victorian period, porters and stouts were everyday beers, and oysters a bar snack as commonplace as peanuts today. Porter dates from the early to mid-1700s, and is characterised by the use of highly kilned malts.."

Medieval customs

Oysters occupied a different position in the trading hierarchy to other goods. This is a medieval edict from Ipswich.

Concerning oysters and mussels brought by boat to the town quay, for selling, it is ordained for common benefit (of poor men as well of rich men) that such shellfish be sold by the same men who brought them. No one in the town is to meddle with such merchandise contrary to this ordinance, upon pain of its confiscation and 40d.

Later, this time in 1578, but showing the same spirit was still afoot

“The bailiff may licence any impotent or lame person to dredge oysters…provided there be but one person in the boat.”

Such pronouncements not only ensured the money went to local boats, but also kept the price down to feed the local poor. When oysters were scarce, the local burghers would always make sure they had enough for themselves and the town before any were sent away to market. Oysters were not really seen as a trading commodity.

Ipswich had other lively local bylaws to do with food too – cooks could be put in the pillory if their cooking was not good enough; so too bakers if they adulterated their bread or cooked anything for which they did not have a licence. The town bailiffs visited the inns and taverns each year to taste the wines and make sure old wines had not gone off, being adulterated or mixed with the new.

A town freeman could buy
any other cargo that was brought for sale to the port. Merchants negotiated a price for their goods with the town bailiff and then posted an announcement in the town hall or market square, after which the locals had first refusal to buy. This trade was a communal activity. If a freeman failed to pay up, the whole town became liable.

On this basis began the Essex and East Anglian trade in wool and cloth. The erection of a crane at Hythe, in old English literally a place where goods are landed, in this case about a mile from Colchester fort, made the area important. Much of the commercial activity centred on the passage of boats, both local bringing essential goods, but also from Holland, France and even as far as Italy. Some trades, usually essentials like coal, could only be carried on by freemen, but others like brewing and baking could be done by outsiders, but only by licence. Herrings were listed as items of trade, but oysters seem to have been regarded as essential to the parish and as such left apart.

The Cinque ports (well 23 actually)

The oyster towns enjoyed privileges and trade beyond other counties because of this closeness to Europe. They assumed an intimacy with the affairs of state that other parts of Britain could never achieve, not until the industrial revolution and the opening of the colonies opened up the west coast ports.

English history, in a European sense was conducted across the Channel between the Thames and the northern coastal towns of the headland. The oyster folk were their boatmen and envoys.

From an early point, the emerging English monarchy encouraged the Kent ports to form the Cinque Ports, from the French for five (but pronounced sank) originally five but later spread out around 23 towns and creek and extended to include Brightlingsea in Essex. The origins are not precise but Edward the Confessor - 1042-1066 - offered the ports the power to raise taxes and make laws in return for protecting the trading routes with Normandy. As a defence against lawless Saxon fleets on the Channel. Edward demanded in return 57 ships, each with a crew of 21 men and a boy, for 15 days every year, should he need them...all of which would certainly have been built “by nearby coastal and creek-side” oyster towns. That oyster towns were not directly named suggests that they probably had other more important business to be tending to. As such the charters for the ports were to be administered by the Admiralty.
The flag though was an early political institution of heraldry

Early trade, early invasions

One senses a society that was emancipated with emancipated sources of income. Before Ceasar there are continual reference to the tribes of East Anglia and Essex having close ties with others in northern France and what is now Holland and Belgium. Colchester was known to have been a significant settlement as far back as seventh century BC. If it was not a political alliance, it most certainly seems to have been a trading one. Possibly it was this unrecorded seaborne activity that sustained the English east coast through the Middle and Dark Ages and beyond. The Vikings might have been just one violent manifestation of this traffic. The Danes too “invaded” England. In the 9th century solders from Surrey, Kent as well as Essex had to march on Colchester and reclaim it from the foreigners. But only 100 years later the same city was wealthy enough to have its own mint.

By the 17th century Colchester – presumably like the cities in Holland - was notably prosperous. A travel writer Celia Fiennes described it respectfully at the time.

“It is a large town. You enter the town by a gate. There are four in all. There is a large street which runs a great length down to the bridge, its nearly a mile long. Through the middle of it runs another broad street nearly the same length in which is the Market Cross and Town Hall and a long building, like stalls, on which they lay their bays, exposed for sale. Great quantities are made here and sent in bales to London. The whole town is employed in spinning, weaving, washing, drying and dressing their bays in which they seem very industrious. The town looks a thriving place judging by the substantial houses. It has well paved streets, which are broad enough for 2 coaches to go abreast'.

Maldon also had mysterious sources of wealth. It seemingly had more land owning merchants with no apparently obviously land based business to go with them. Further north Ipswich which had Felixstowe and Harwich as it harbours and is rich in recorded by laws that denote how merchants should behave and be treated. Horsey Island, now a bird sanctuary was well known as a safe haunt for Thames barges to hide smuggled booty away from the customs. Between the better known Clacton and Frinton lies Holland-on-Sea, just south of Great Holland. If a small town like Colchester could flourish, by comparison a capital city like Amsterdam could boom.

Periodically there are references to Dutch and Belgian raiders coming for Essex and Kent oysters. Equally the low countries in the 1500s had their own abundant resources of oysters and similar references are found of English and Scottish boats plundering. Whether this was part of a general trade, piracy and pillaging or a sub text of pre-arranged trade is not clear, but obviously the ports along these stretches of coast were of significance. The wine trade to Ipswich also illustrates that boats would have been coming from France, Spain and Portugal. Herring was important to all these coastal towns. So too probably cod and other fish. Grain might have been an export. Certainly the main business was wool and both sides of the water shared a long history of weaving and cloth making.

Links to Europe

Trade with mainland Europe collapsed along with the Roman Empire. Britain, apparently, became an island again.

It was another oyster island that would became culturally and spiritually important in the era. While the barbarian hordes swept across Europe, Ireland became a centre of learning and a haven for Christendom from the 5th century. Here the embers of literacy and academia glowed in the monasteries until the renaissance. Irish is now thought to be one of the oldest languages of Europe. The scribes and scholars built up huge libraries, which they scrupulously copied in Greek and Roman. They sent them out with their monks as missionaries of the faith. The use of the harp and the lyre is another tantalising connection between Celtic cultures and the Egyptians of pre-history too.

In England, the chaos also saw large numbers fleeing Cornwall and taking refuge in Brittany, which for three centuries came to be known as Little Britain, a migration that underlines the close seafaring ties in the west between oyster ports, although very little seems to survive by way of what actually passed except tantalising glimpses of what may have been.

The recorded wealth of middle Saxon England around 700 BC was built largely on the undefended seafaring from three ports, London at Aldwych, Ipswich in Suffolk and Southampton, all of which claim clear lineage to their oyster beds and thence shipbuilding.

By the 8th century, and certainly before the Normans, oysters were being sent up from the coasts. The church insisted on fish days, not just in Lent, but Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes Wednesdays too. Studies of the diets of the time show that oysters were commonly eaten across rural areas. Fish days were strictly enforced for a thousand years and it was only later, possibly as a reaction, that the singularly English tactic of pairing oysters with meats - with mutton, with steak and kidneys in a pie, as a stuffing for chicken, turkey or even duck or made into sausages with pork - came to the fore, around the 17th century.

Much early trade with Europe at this time seems to have been more about informal trading on the waters which might have attracted a judicial interest with hindsight or when a profit was to be gleaned. These secretive links could probably go back in some form or other to pre-Roman times and provided a governance and politic of their own which were only really disturbed in the 1550s when the Dutch started to bring rich cargoes of treasures from the newly discovered colonies up the Channel.

Monday, 26 May 2008

The Thames

“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have you will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives, as they are properly known, the largest and the juiciest, the savouriest, yet the subtlest oysters in the whole of England”
Sara Waters, Tipping the Velvet

Oyster gardening

Ecologists are so enthused by the role of the oyster, that a series of oyster gardening programmes have been devised for hobby farmers with access to the water to grow on their own spat and help restock the reefs. The Maryland programme alone has more than 1000 volunteers. It is not as difficult as it might seem.

The spat are reared in hatcheries and given to the volunteers to grow on in either wire cages dropped by the side of a pontoon or in floating baths which have the advantage of keeping the oysters 24/7 in the richer diet of plankton near the surface. To be a good oyster gardener you have to keep watch that your float or cage does not bang against the sides or the noise frightens the oysters and causes them to close up. You also have to be diligent in winter to make sure they are always under the water because although an oyster can tolerate sub zero temperatures in the water, a frost in the air will kill them if they are exposed.

Instead of digging, an oyster gardener will have to lift their garden out of the water once or twice a week to desiccate the garden, to allow the sunlight and the dryness to kill off invading algae. They also need a good shake each day to make sure any dirt or debris falls away and does not clog up the garden, and once a week a good watering with a hose pipe to keep them clean. Plus the good oyster gardener has to keep a canny watch for oyster predators, especially worms.

In estuarine ecology oyster reefs have particular attractions. They make use of local materials, they are self sustaining, they have a dramatic impact on the marine environment, they protect the banks from erosion, all of which represent a low cost, low energy natural resource to stabilise the rivers.

The plankton cocktail

In the Chesapeake, vast underwater fields of eelgrass, widgeon grass, coontail and many other species flourished and protected sediments from being resuspended and coastlines from eroding. Leaves swaying in the water dissipated wave energy and slowed water currents. Plant seeds go into the plankton cocktail. Losing these submerged grasses, as has happened in Chesapeake, has meant they can no longer act as protector against wave and current damage that tears up smaller seedlings.

These grasses are also home to microscopic plants and animals which if they are not grazed by small fish build up in layers on the surface and starve the grasses of sunlight.

The combined effects of more sediment in the water and the plants encrusted with micro plants is literally to muddy the waters and stop the oxygen from getting through to the estuary floor thereby breaking the cycle of life.

Photosynthesis in an acre of Chesapeake Bay salt marsh can surpass the productivity of the most fertile land farm. These decaying grasses are a food source for the tiny zooplanton in the water that we can only see with a microscope.

This is the organic material at the base of the detritus food pyramid. The marsh grasses and the underwater grasses, usually abbreviated to SAV from the cumbersome Submerged Aquatic Vegetation, are essential to the health of the bay. The submerged grasses create especially valuable habitat for snails, small fish, birds, and larger fish that feed on each other in a hierarchy of life and death.

There was natural band of SAV surrounding the points of land and islands, but little SAV on the bottom of most of the Bay. The depths at which submerged grasses will grow in the tidal waters of Virginia and Maryland is limited by wave action in the shallow end - the roots can't hold the plants in one place where the water is sloshing around - and by light penetration in the deep end. Light can only go through several feet of water naturally before being absorbed. The loss of the oyster reefs has taken away the wave breaks. Pollution has meanwhile poured piles of darkening algae in to the bay where there are now too few oysters left to digest them.

To encourage the plants again, the water has to be cleaned. Enter the oyster, again.

The sway of the evidence has suddenly found ecologists demanding new oyster reefs not for harvesting for food, or to save the local fishing industry, but just for the benign effect the oyster creates for other species. Scientists are not asking for small sanctuaries either, but reefs at least half the depth of the water and demanding that the natural cycle be left untouched by fishermen to allow the estuary to revive. In Barnstaple one third of all the new cultivation paid for out of public money is currently prohibited to fishermen.

Why oyster reefs are good for estuaries

Oysters are good for estuaries. They improve the quality of the water. Healthy oyster beds attract new predators looking to feed on the oysters themselves, but that is just the headline ecology. An oyster will filter as much as 30 gallons of water a day. The benefits are welcomed by the tiny plankton that live both above and below it. If the oysters are not doing their job, then the balance between zoo and plant plankton shifts with the resulting blooms that will darken and snuff out marine life.

An oyster passes two different kinds of faeces, one a nutrient rich excreta which other algae will feed on, and also a psuedofaeces, the material it does not want to eat, like silt, which it has nevertheless helpfully broken down in the sorting.

Much of the richness of the estuary is born just below the surface where the sun can reach the plankton. An oyster kept on a floating reef at this level will fatten almost twice as fast as one moored on the bed.

The reefs are an important artery in the estuarine food chain and a gauge of the health of the habitat for many other life forms. It is not only the oyster spat that will seek to attach to a reef, but so will mussels, barnacles and other small sessile attachers like tiny tunicates and coral like bryozoans that also filter the waters incessantly. They do not seem to compete with each other for food because each prefers a different kind of plankton. Crabs will use the reefs for shelter. Sea anemones for attachment.

This activity encourages the growth of marine fauna. On one north Carolina oyster reef more than 300 types of plantlife were recorded. The critical salt levels that oysters need, also produce the right conditions for a suite of other desirable estuarine organisms.

Projections in the Chesapeake Bay have shown that building up an estuary oyster population again times 25 would result in a 21 percent increase in bay grasses and remove 11 million pounds of nitrogen.

In Maryland they have been videoing the returning oyster reef and recognising the seemingly obvious point that oysters will flourish more in vertical reefs, than on simple river beds or the flat remnants of an old bed. In trials here, the oysters are growing vertically, not horizontally and quickly creating dynamic and vibrant aquaculture around them.

The reason early settlers in America commented again and again at different bays on the abundance of the fishing was the same reason they cursed the dangers of what the oyster reefs might do to the undersides of their boats. They found a natural ready made resource of easy to catch, abundant fish tempted into the shore by the clean waters and the habitat fostered by and around the oyster. No wonder these colonies managed to get a firm grasp so quickly. Without the oyster the tenuous hold those first settlers had on the continent could have been so much more easily dislodged. One might speculate that uncovering America might have taken decades, even centuries longer, as was the case on the west coast.

For ecologists, the oyster is a keystone species and one much valued because of its influence on the larger eco system around it. Across the marshlands of Mississippi and the glades of Florida, the health of the local oyster has been an early warning system that the local ecology is under threat or unbalanced.

By changing the water flows, even quite badly damaged estuaries can be revived relatively quickly. In the beautifully named Caloosahatchee Estuary (christened after the local Caloosa Indians) in Florida, one reclaiming project was hoping to develop 18 acres of oyster beds into 100 acres in 10-15 years, and exponentially beyond that. So encouraged by the potential are different states, that Virginia alone has invested $40 million trying to develop new reef projects.

The reefs themselves provide important protection from erosion for the estuary banks and also for the reeds, grasses and other vegetation that contribute to the nutrient levels in the waters. These grasses were originally valuable to settlers to feed their newly arrived animals, and also as insulation in their new homes and even now are picked as high grade garden mulch. Studies on marshland grasses have shown up the oyster’s true role in the estuary.


Oysters are sensitive. In case of danger, it closes its shell. It reacts to light, to levels of salt in the water, to temperature, to shadow and sound. They have much more complex responses to changes in the environment.

Walk along the beach at low tide near an oyster cove and you can hear a series of short sharp spitting sounds as the oysters react and close their shells, even from quite long distances away.

They are also amazingly powerful. Trials have shown that it would take a pull of more than 9kg to open up a 10 cm mature oyster that has clamped its shell shut.

Its anatomy is encase in the mantle which has three folds or ridges, each of which has a particular function.

The outer ridge secretes the calcareous material to build and repair the shell. In the centre ridge are two rows of fine, dark tentacles or feelers which are the sensors. Any disturbing change in the water or even just a passing shadow stimulates the nerves of the mantle and causes the adductor muscle to close the shell. The inner ridge, the largest of the three, is muscular and mobile. It pumps water in and out of the shell, washing the body and keeping it constantly bathed. So long as the shell stays shut and retains this liquid, it can ignore most predators and survive in polluted waters or exposure at low tide and being transported.

The mouth is by the hinge, the lips surrounded by gills, sometimes called the beard. These are used to breathe and to collect and sort food. They are covered with more tiny, lashing hairs which create an incoming current of water from which food particles are filtered and oxygen absorbed.

They breathe like fish, using both the gills and the mantle. A small, three-chambered heart, lies under the adductor muscle, and pumps colourless blood, with its supply of oxygen, through the body. Also it has two kidneys to purify the blood.

The food is sorted by the lips and passed into its digestive system and then through a coiled intestine to be expelled through the rectal chamber.

They continue to grow through their life, although more slowly as they get older. Some, as can easily be seen in early still lifes can grow to nearly 40cms long and weigh nearly one and half kilos.

Still life and landscape

Paintings depicting aspects of the natural world were so characteristic of the Netherlands that, during the seventeenth century, the Dutch words stilleven and landschap were adopted into English as "still life" and "landscape -
This one is By Pieter Claesz, Dutch painter, 1597-1660 entitled Still Life with Roemer and Oysters, probably 1642 currently in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It is actually very small only 13x19 inches

Oysters with lemon peel,

A Roemer - a Peeled Half Lemon on a Pewter Plate, Oysters, Cherries and an Orange on a Draped Table. Strangely uncredited, Roemer is a big glass, not the painter. You can buy digital reproductions at

The English pearl

There is a curious aside to the story of the pearl in England. In one sense Caesar was proved right. Pearls were found in Britain from before Roman times.

But these, like those found in other fast running streams across northern Europe were not from oysters, but from mussels. These may well have been the ones used in the crowns of early kings.

The Venerable Bede (673-735 AD) lists the things for which Britain was known and writes…“many sorts of shellfish among them mussels in which are often found excellent pearls of all colours; red, purple, violet and green but mostly white”.

The Bishop of Rennes writing in 1070 declared British pearls as the equal of the orient. By the 12th century there was a market in Europe for Scottish pearls, although they did not fetch the same prices as those of the east. By 1355 John II forbade the jewellers from mounting Scottish and oriental pearls together, except for the ecclesiastical ornaments.

In 1521 the Privy Council appointed Pearl Conservators for Aberdeen, Ross and Sutherland to oversee the fishing in July and August, when it was supposedly the best, and ensure the finest examples were secured for the Crown. Paisley in Scotland and Irton in Cumberland were noted pearling places. The Tay, the Teith, the Eran were as well known in Victorian times for pearl fishing as for salmon

Writing in 1908 the jeweller George Frederick Kunz said:

“The summer of 1862 was most famous for pearling owing to the dryness of the season and the low water, and unusually large quantities of pearls were found, the prices ranging ordinarily from 10/- to £2 6s. Queen Victoria is said to have purchased one for 40 guineas…a necklace was purchased for £35 in 1863. The value of the whole catch in Scotland in 1864 was estimated at £12,000 to the fishermen.”

Much more of course to the jewellers and traders.

They may still be found in fast running streams, but it seems they were usually found in older wizened mussels and the agitation in the fast running waters might have started the growth and they needed time to mature. As the mussel industry moved to coastal waters, the English pearl seems to have disappeared.

Vanity to veneration

Even in its collapse the Roman empire has left us with its enthusiasm for the oysters. The trade in edible oysters may have collapsed, but the caches of pearls that the royal houses of Rome had assembled were ransacked and carried away by conquering Goths and scattered among the territorial lords of northern and western Europe bringing with them always their sense of value, treasure and importance.

From here, in the dark ages, the pearl found another expression, this time more pious as part of the religious jewellery of the first missals and manuscripts, adorning the covers of sacred bibles and texts …the pearl had passed from an item of vanity to veneration and became a symbol of all that was great in religion and could be found increasingly on altars, in sacred vessels, and as part of priestly sacraments.

For the ancient and more recent worlds the pearl had a singular value. It was natural and it was traded without artifice. Although diamonds would be known from the 8th century it was only after 1450 AD that jewellers understood how to cut and craft it and other gems and started to make them popular. Before that the pearl reigned without competition as an equal, even possibly of greater value than gold or silver.

Rutupians from Reculver

Before the Romans it seems that the oyster was not regarded as anything special in England especially if there was meat about or other foods, although one could say also that so little evidence remains of that period that there are very few examples of anything being perceived as being special. But to the Romans, the British oyster, especially the Colchester oyster, known as the Rutupian oyster, which came out of the port of Richborough, Kent , was a fabled delicacy. At a Roman camp at Silchester, near modern day Basingstoke, a million shells have been unearthed. Shells have been found as far north as Hadrian’s Wall. Both oysters from around Brittany and from England found their way to Rome in what appears to have been a regular and well known trade.

It was Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman governor from AD 78-85 who first sent back quantities of oysters from Reculver to Rome, packed in snow. The Romans already had cellars built beneath their villas to store them.

The Romans moved on Cornwall to secure the trade in oysters and tin for themselves. They garrisoned Bodmin. They secured Caernarfon, Swansea, Cardiff and Newport. They made Colchester their base. They set up forts in Dorchester, Chichester, Reculver and round the Thames estuary. These were not the only settlements, far from it, but nor did the Romans seem to overlook any productive oyster bearing regions for their settlements and villas either.

800 ships, five legions amd 2,000 horses

Much of the vision of early Britain as a nation of cave dwelling, loin cloth, blue dyed savages stems from Ceasar’s own chronicles. Where he had the advantage of being a first hand reporter, he was also biased as a soldier and conqueror. The Celtic vision of pre Roman Britain being wealthy in trade, sophisticated in its crafts of pottery and metalwork; trading its cloth as far as Rome and as a largely settled agrarian string of communities would have been a more rational reason for Caesar to invade.

And Caesar’s invasion was a serious business. His first essays in 55BC involved 98 transport ships and 10,000 men. This was repulsed. He retreated to France but the next year returned with no less than 800 ships, five legions and 2,000 cavalry. Obviously the resource to find 800 ships was an indicator that shipbuilding itself and the timber to support it was readily available which is hardly a primitive achievement and presumably much of it would have been requisitioned from the Gauls.

Much of our historical inferiority complex stems from Ceasar’s opinions. Carbon dating shows us that megalithic Britain was a more sophisticated society from much earlier although some of this evidence is quite new. The archeologist Dr Francis Pryor records first his disbelief and then wonder at discovering an ancient pot at Flag Fen in East Anglia which added an extra 1500 years to British history in the area :

“In his hand was something I had not wished to see. It was a large piece of hand made pottery, hard and well finished, with a fine almost lustrous outer surface. I snapped a bit off the corner and looked closely at the broken face. The potter had crushed up sea shells, or fossil shells, and added them to the clay…The hardness, the finish and the thorough mixing together of the clay and shell temper led me to believe this sherd was more likely to be Middle Iron Age…

“The digger took another shallow scoop and Eb held the bucket in front of me, at eye level. My heart fell. There about three inches from my nose, were two freshly broken pieces of pottery, with their white shell temper shining like so many smiling teeth. One piece of Iron Age pottery could be discounted, but three…

“And then the truth hit me. The top of the rim had been decorated with a series of shallow diagonal grooves. This decoration and the heavily thickened rim could only belong to one pre-historic style, known as Mildenhall Ware. Mildenhall pottery belongs to the middle Neolihtic.”

The Veneti

Caesar also feared the sea-based might of the Brittany oystermen; coveted the Cornish tin trade and was anxious to stop eastern England offering refuge and sanctuary to kindred tribes he thought he had subjected in north west France and Belgium. Caesar may well have had better intelligence as to the emergence of the westerly countries than we do

The defeat of the Veneti proved decisive in the fall of Britain. Much of the westerly European trade and culture would seem to have been invested in the main seafaring race of Gaul, The Veneti, or the men of Vannes, who lived in Brittany off the Morbihan coast but had intimate dealings with Cornwall and Devon. Without their submission, Caesar faced a sea battle to control the English Channel. That he chose this as his primary military task is a further pointer to the importance of a westerly European seaborne power axis.

The Veneti had developed their own kind of ship. Where the English built light curraghs that could skip across the Channel waves and were flexible enough to bend in stormy seas, the Veneti ships were huge, built out of oak with timbers as much as a foot thick and bolted together with iron pins “as thick as a man’s thumb”. In place of sails they used thin skins from untanned hides. Everything was built for strength. Instead of hemp cables, they had iron chains for their anchors, something that would not be seen again until the 19th century. These ships were obviously built to travel long distances and to handle the mighty swells of the open Atlantic. They had broad beams and also shallow keels so they could also nip more easily into tidal inlets.

With these ships, they had tapped the tin trade at source and established trading posts at Falmouth, Plymouth, and Exmouth. From there they sailed by the inland route with their freight to the Seine, the Loire, and even the Garonne. Devon and Cornwall were in close alliance and seem to have sent auxiliaries to fight against the Romans. There is even conjecture that the Veneti were linked up to a much wider geographical spread of support from the relics of prehistoric boats found in the silt at Glasgow which may have shared similar designs.

Caesar describes his struggle with the Veneti and their British allies as one of the most arduous in his Gallic campaigns. At first the Veneti were content to let the legions march into their countryside. They withdrew to their coastal strongholds and if a Roman army appeared, they would move everyone by boat along the coast.

The Roman war galleys depended largely on ramming to win their sea battles. On a first sail past, they would pass close by and smash the oars and then come back to board the stranded enemy. The Veneti ships were so solidly built that such attacks were useless. The lofty prows and sterns allowed the Veneti to tower over enemy boats and shoot arrows and drop firey cauldrons on to assailants that got too close.

After several unsuccessful skirmishes, Caesar came up with a new plan. He armed his boats with billhooks and instructed his captains to sail past the Veneti boats, ripping the huge leathern mainsails down from the masts so they swamped the boats and allowed the legionnaires time to board. He faced a Veneti fleet 220 strong. This was 56 BC.

The Veneti were defeated at the battle off Quiberon. The mainsails were slashed “covering the ship as with a pall”, hopelessly crippling the vessel, whether for sailing or rowing. The whole Venetian fleet fell into Roman hands. In Celtic versions of this battle there are variations. The fleet was becalmed and the men chose to drown themselves rather than be captured. In legend they fled south and colonised another lagoon and came to be known as the Venetians. Either way, the strongholds on the coast were then stormed, and entire populations either slaughtered or sold into slavery, as a lesson to the rest of the confederacy of the fate in store for those who dared to stand out against the genius of Rome. The slave dealers typically were Levantine Jews or Syrians.

Celtic historians point to the sophistication of the Veneti as evidence of long standing civilisation. They had soap and bathed regularly. They dressed smartly and their clothes were admired, adopted and traded by the Romans. All of which underlines the point that before Caesar butchered and enslaved them, there was an active cultural and commercial activity between Brittany and Rome. The Veneti, especially, had respect for beauty of the human body. Obese men, or those unfit to fight, might be fined.

The women too were sexually liberated. The 4th century AD historian Sulpicius Severus reproached the wife of an aristocratic Celt for the wantonness of Celtic women, but the Celtic woman replied cuttingly: "We fulfil the demands of Nature in a much better way than do your Roman women: for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest." By that time, the decadence of Rome was rampant, much of the wealth had been acquired by money lenders, so the proud Celt may have chosen her words well.

It used to be argued but archaeology has now proved, that the Celts had developed a productive level of agriculture. Possibly it was these crops that the Romans were anxious to secure for themselves. Farming seems to have been common in Wales as far back as 4,000BC.

One cruet of sharpe vinegar

The Roman enthusiasm for eating oysters did not stop them from equally appreciating the pearl though this may have had to wait for its full fanfare for Pompeys conquests towards the turn of the millennia. For one victory march Pompey himself brought back 33 crowns of pearls. For newly empowered Rome, the pearl or what the poet Manus called “the gems of the sea, which resembled milk and snow” became the first emblem of power and status. The aristocracy flaunted it. They wore it on their clothes, had it embroidered into their couches; Caligula had a pearl necklace for his horse; Nero made the actors in his theatre carry pearl encrusted masks.

The sense of envy or even cynical disgust at this excess survives with us even if the artefacts themselves have mostly perished. There is an undertone to the writings of the time. Horace sarcastically remarked that a woman “loved her pearls more than her son”. Seneca wondered that earlobes could carry so many pearls at all. And possibly there is a political overtone to the much quoted line that Caesar wanted to invade Britain to find pearls at a time when other generals and campaigns were doing just that to the south and east.

Notwithstanding the excess, the value in the pearl was maintained. It remained a symbol of rank and prestige. Caesar banned women of lesser rank from wearing them at all, which was an edict that would be repeated many times in the ensuing 1500 years.

Pearls became so expensive that it was said general Vitellius raised the money to pay for a whole military campaign by selling one of his mother’s pearl earrings.

The legendary tale of Cleopatra betting Anthony she would spend more than 10 million sesteri on a dinner for him enshrined the myth.

“The servitors set before her only one cruet of sharpe vinegar…now she had at her ears hanging these two most precious pearls…as Anthony looked wistly upon her, she took one from her ear, steeped it in the vinegar, and soon as it was liquefied, drank it off…”

Whether the pearls would have dissolved in vinegar we can probably put down to artistic licence, but she could as easily have just swallowed it in wine.

These pearls would have come from Rome’s south eastern borders, the Persian Gulf, The Red Sea and even perhaps as far as Ceylon. For eating, consignments were delivered from further north. Much is made of how many oysters were consumed at banquets. The emperor Aulus Vittellius reportedly ate 1200 oysters at one go, but presumably these might have been shared among his guests and also it would have been a mark of high status that such abundance could be put before his guests. Or the writer was just flattering him. There would also have been the practical, obvious, culinary constraints. The boats arrived with their cargo and there was a need to eat them fresh on the shell. Even American settlers in Baltimore would buy by the gross – 144 at a time, for similar reasons. The rest would have been sent to the kitchen for cooking or preserving. Even with cold rooms that were constructed underneath some villas, the oysters would not have lasted indefinitely.

The enthusiasm pushed the occupation of France and Britain and in a trading sense underline the idea that such supplies would likely have come from the Atlantic. It is hard to tell how much of a factor they might have been, but Suetoneous, the Roman biographer, says Ceasar was looking for “pearls”, and given the trade that was to develop later it could well have been a factor.

Valeria Messalina and the harbour of vice

This early cultivation around Baiae has lent the oyster two of its more mythical reputations. First its repeated and continued association with the underworld and ancients. The neighbouring semi circular lake Fusaro (which was also to become important in oystering) was described by the Greek writer Lycophron in 28 BC as a "billowing and tempestuous lagoon", and later by Strabo as a "muddy expanse of sea". Mythology and poetry going back much further, place it in the centre of hell, in the area of Tartarus, "where kings were punished and the righteous passed through on their way to the Elysian Fields". Righteous or not it became a fertile and eventually historic oyster lagoon.

Baiae, by association, gave the oyster its reputation for licentiousness. It was a fashionable, decadent seaside town where rich Romans went to take the waters and misbehave. There are many references to debauchery.

The prominent socialite Marcus Caelius Rufus in 60 BC was accused of living the life of a harlot in Rome and in the “crowded resort of Baiae”, indulging in beach parties and drinking sessions.

Seneca the Younger, who died 65 BC, wrote a moral epistle on Baiae and Vice, describing the spa town as being a "vortex of luxury" and a "harbour of vice".

Things had obviously not changed much when Sextus Propertius, who died 15 BC, described the town as a “den of licentiousness and vice”.

It was here also that Caligula ordered a two mile bridge of pontoons be set across the bay for a stunt so he could ride his horse across the water in defiance of an astrologer’s prediction that he had “no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the Baiae”.

It was here that Emperor Claudius built a grand villa for his third wife, Messalina, who spent her days and nights revelling in debauchery and plotting to have her husband replaced by her lover, a thought for which she was eventually beheaded.

Messalina alone might single handedly have been responsible for both Rome and the oyster’s reputation for lascivious debauchery, although her promiscuity and intriguing must have been embellished over time. Married at 15, on the orders of Caligula to the 50 year old Claudius, Valeria Messalina was reputedly as beautiful as she was politically scheming as she was sexually voracious taking lovers seemingly as she pleased including one time, so the story goes, challenging the champion prostitute Scylla as to who could satisfy more men in one night. Scylla apparently retired before dawn after 25 men, but Messalina carried on through the morning. According to Juvenal she was “tired but never satisfied”. Anyone who spurned Messalina’s advances ran the risk of execution. She slept with the handsomest, the most powerful and even on occasion the ugliest men in Rome for her own diversion or for political and financial gain. Apologists suggest a variation where she was the victim of the intrigue, that her children were fathered by Caligula and that he then foistered her on to a marriage with the elderly Claudius to save his own reputation. Eventually she fell in love with the consul Caius Silius and was determined to marry him, even bigamously. Possibly this may have been a part of a wider failed coup attempt, and that her real motive was self protection in a post Claudius order. Claudius, who while thought of as a dumb but benign dictator, seems to have been genuinely been fond of her at the start of their union, was coerced into sending soldiers to the bigamous wedding feast to kill her. She was 23.

Worse, for Claudius, it was at Baiae where he would be poisoned by his last wife, Agrippina, the controlling mother of Nero who wanted to put her son on the throne.

Baiae was just the sort of place, you might think, for a respectable oyster to lodge and find a reputation. The town even had its own well know stew named after it which is almost as rich and spicy as its own legends – a casserole of oysters, mussels, jellyfish, pine nuts, rue, celery pepper coriander, cumin, wine garum, date and oil.

The Romans demonstrably liked oysters. They baked a special bread to be served with them, a forerunner of the American enthusiasm for oyster crackers and oyster loaves.

Orgies or not, dinner was an important occasion to look forward to for the elite as this beguiling invitation from Martial suggests:

"You will dine well, Julius Cerialis, at my house...The first course will be a lettuce (a useful digestive aid), and tender shoots cut from leek plants, and then a pickled young tuna which is larger than a small lizard fish and will be garnished with eggs and rue leaves. And there will be more eggs, those cooked over a low flame, and cheese from Velabrum Street, and olives which have felt the Picene cold. That's enough for the appetizers...You want to know what else we are having? Fish, oysters, sow's udder, stuffed wild fowl and barnyard hens..."

Typically oysters were served on the shell with a famous dressing quoted by everyone writing of the time as of pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, liquamen (the salty sauce made from fermented fish), olive oil and wine.