Jacob’s cross in Lavenham

HAD IT NOT BEEN FILLED WITH parked cars, Market Square in Lavenham (Suffolk in East Anglia) would probably be recognisable to those who lived in the town several hundred years ago. The square is surrounded by old buildings, many of which are half-timbered. The most impressive of these is the Guildhall that was built in 1529. This large building attests the former wealth of the town, when it was an important centre of the wool trade in East Anglia. In its heyday, cloth from Lavenham was sent all over Britain and exported to Holland and Spain via the port of Ipswich. During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), Lavenham was the fourteenth richest town in England.

Lavenham boasts a 16th century market cross. Market crosses were erected to indicate that an area had been designated as being a market square by a bishop, or a baron, or the monarch. Lavenham’s market cross is made of stone. A three stepped pyramid supports a slender column surmounted by a stone sphere. A metal plate informs the visitor that:

“The market cross was erected in 1501in accordance with the will of William Jacob”.

So, who was William Jacob?

Jacob was one of Lavenham’s wealthy clothiers, involved in the wool textile trade. Despite his surname, it was highly unlikely that he was Jewish because most Jews had been expelled from England in the 13th century (and it was not until the mid-17th century that Jewish people began returning).  According to text on the website deverehouse.co.uk:

“William Jacob was the tenth wealthiest clothier and businessman in England, making an annual profit of 67 marks and with a gross turnover of 223 whole cloths (a gross turnover of £12m in today’s money, around 400 marks).  On his death he paid for the erection of the market cross that is still there 520 years later.  He did not branch into “straites” or “narrow cloths” and within 25 years of his death the cheaper narrow cloth was dominating the market and Jacob’s family were seeking other work.”

In his will, dated 1500, he wrote:

“I will have a cross made of my perpetual cost that shall be set upon the market hill in the village of Lavenham.”

The cross that was erected in Lavenham in 1501 was a copy of the market cross already present in the city of Cambridge. The Cambridge market cross has long-since disappeared. The stepped base is all that remains of the cross paid for by Jacob’s estate. The slender shaft that now stands on it was put up in 1725. It is interesting to note that far away in Florence (Italy) Michelangelo was beginning work on his famous statue of David in 1501. That sculpture was completed in 1504. Although many visitors come to Lavenham, many more visit Florence.

Suffolk was the most important clothmaking county in 15th/16th century England. William Jacob was one of the county’s 100 clothiers in business between 1480 and 1500. Other counties had far fewer members of this trade. Although William Jacob was the tenth most wealthy, the wealthiest was Thomas Spring III (c1474-1523) of Lavenham. By 1500, Suffolk was the most industrialised and urbanised county in Britain, but by 1700, the county had become a rural backwater. Suffolk and much of the rest of East Anglia might be regarded as a bit of a backwater nowadays, but it is a largely picturesque one with wonderful landscapes and a great architectural legacy due to its past prosperity during the golden age of the wool trade.

A royal palace

IT IS COSTLY PAYING A VISIT to the Faluknuma Palace in Hyderabad, but is it worth the expense?

The Faluknuma Palace, which is located on a hill, is high above the rest of Hyderabad. It was built in a neo Palladian style to the designs of an Italian architect between 1884 and 1890 as a residence for Sir Viqar al Umra, a Prime Minister of Hyderabad. To settle a debt, in 1897 Viqar handed his palace to his creditor, the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad.

The palace is now used as a luxury hotel. One night at this place will set you back by at least £440 excluding taxes. The most economical way to see the palace is by booking afternoon tea, which is not at all cheap. However, such a booking includes a guided tour around the palace. After much difficulty and numerous telephone calls to the hotel, we managed to book a couple of places for the afternoon tea experience.

The guided tour was fairly uninformative but gave us a chance to see several rooms that were used by the former Nizams and their guests.
Unfortunately, the guide was uninspired and his English was poor. It would have been better if the guide had been better informed as well as more interested in history and culture.

One thing the guide told us impressed me. He said that the palace was wired up for telephony and was supplied with electricity in the 1890s whilst the Nizam’s subjects lived without electricity until the late 1930s.

Each of the rooms and hallways of the palace look spectacular at first sight. However, after closer examination they are not so impressive. The rooms which were designed to amaze are actually rather dowdy and unrefined. The interior has a Victorian heaviness. In contrast, the Marble Palace in Calcutta, also built to mimic European tastes, is spectacular both macroscopically and in minute detail. Unlike the Faluknuma, the Marble Palace is an example of exquisite taste.

I find it sad that Indians such as the builders of the Faluknuma (and the Marble Palace) found it necessary to mimic, not always successfully, the styles favoured by their imperialist rulers rather than building in styles that have evolved from the rich legacy of pre-colonial architecture. One palace that I have visited, that at Bhavnagar, The Neelambagh, was designed by a European architect who paid tribute to India’s rich cultural heritage by successfully incorporating elements of India’s historical architectural styles. The so-called Indo-Saracenic style sometimes melds European and Indian elements successfully.

The afternoon tea was elegantly presented. The serving staff outnumbered the guests. There was a great deal of bustling about, but our requests were eventually fulfilled. Every member of staff we encountered at the palace was kind and caring. I felt that everyone wanted us to enjoy our visit, which we did.

Was our visit worth what we paid? I would say ‘yes’ cautiously, but I would have preferred to have been charged a little less. It would have been really good value at two thirds of the price. Is the palace worth seeing? I would recommend it not because it is either an aesthetic gem or an architectural marvel, but it is a great example of how the wealthy and powerful spent their money to impress their subjects and the British Colonial Officials, who guaranteed the continuing existence of their vassals, the rulers of the Princely States, of which Hyderabad was the largest, richest, and most powerful.

While we were sitting waiting for our taxi to take us away from the palace, we watched horse drawn cartiages passing by. They carry guests up the long winding drive to the hotel. We also saw staff feeding some of the more than one hundred peacocks which live in the extensive grounds of the palace, which provide a peaceful refuge from the city that sprawls all around the Faluknuma.

MARBLE PALACE

THINK OF ANY MAJOR CITY and its most famous land mark will spring to mind: Big Ben in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Coliseum in Rome, the Golden Gate in San Francisco, and so on. Calcutta evokes thoughts of the Victoria Memorial and, maybe, the Howrah Bridge.

Yet, Calcutta contains something far more remarkable: The Marble Palace. It was built in 1835 in a European neoclassical style to the plans of an architect from Italy for a prosperous Bengali merchant Raja Ragendra Mullick Bahadur. Set in extensive gardens filled with marble statues mostly imported from Europe, the palace alone is remarkable to look at.

However, step inside and a treasure house awaits you. Mullick and his descendants are avid collectors of artworks. Mullick, who had the house constructed, never visited Europe but employed agents to buy precious works of art for him. The collection of paintings in the Marble Palace make it the first ever art gallery in India. Treasures amongst the large numbers of canvases include paintings by Rubens, Murillo, Reynolds, and Ravi Varma.

Rooms on the palace are filled with antique furniture, marble and other statuary, valuable ancient Chinese porcelain, and much else.

The elaborate wooden ceilings differ in design from room to room. Looking downwards, the floors are made of marble of varying colour arranged in patterns typically found in Italian renaissance buildings. They were created by Indian workers using Italian marble and designed by Italian artists.

There is a large open coutyard in the middle of the palace. One end is occupied by a covered stage-like podium, where Hindu ceremonies are performed for the Mullick family, many of whom still live in the palace. The courtyard is filled with interesting bird calls because at one end of it, facing the podium, there are several large cages each containg a large parrot.

There is a small zoo or menagerie on one side of the gardens. Apparently, it is one of the oldest zoos in India. When we visited it, we saw various types of deer and some waterfowl.

If you do no other sight seeing in Calcutta, the Marble Palace, but not the Victoria Memorial, is a ‘must’.

Note: photography is forbidden in the palace but a small book in Bengali is available for 100 Rupees and it contains a few photos.