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The vision of Ralph Vaughan Williams

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One of the most intriguing features of British social history of the later 19th century is the emergence of a cultivated, liberal upper-middle class whose roots lay in industry and craft as well as in the more traditional world of the “professions”: teaching, medicine, church and law. Often originating in the Midlands and the north of England, and with connections in the networks of dissenting (non-Church of England) religion, they built modest fortunes, sometimes allied themselves by marriage with more conventional establishment dynasties, and provided a seedbed for much of the radical and creative thinking of the late Victorian age and beyond.

Prominent in any catalogue of such families are the Wedgwoods and the Darwins; the Trevelyans, Sidgwicks and Bensons are among other names that come to mind. The narrowness of the English university system in the 19th century meant that gifted young men from these families were likely to meet as students – and, for whatever reason, Cambridge attracted more of them than Oxford. Their families intermarried, and created a huge spider’s web of cousinage across the cultural world of Victorian and Edwardian England.

The families never constituted a European-style intelligentsia, politically restless, pushing against bourgeois tyranny and philistinism; and they stood at a remove from the aristocratic and literary coteries of the age, although a certain amount of overlap developed in the early 20th century. But they were committed to progressive causes, liberal or mildly socialist in politics, intellectually unafraid, religiously agnostic or at least unorthodox, and sometimes idiosyncratic in behaviour (Gwen Raverat’s wonderful childhood memoir, Period Piece, is an unforgettable portrait of the Darwin family in all their majestic oddity). They nurtured some of the most serious scholars of the period, and at least one of the most justly and lastingly celebrated of English musicians – Ralph Vaughan Williams, the subject of a new biography by Eric Saylor, published on the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Seeing RVW – as he was regularly referred to in his lifetime – against this social background helps us understand why he was able to combine being (across several generations) an icon of national stability and cultural identity with a striking detachment from both the competitive anxieties and the rewards of the establishment (he refused a knighthood and only reluctantly accepted the Order of Merit). He approached “Englishness” out of a historical experience that was neither that of simple inherited power and entitlement, nor that of privation and struggle.

[See also: Philip Larkin is a love poet who doesn’t trust love]

Born in Gloucestershire in 1872, Vaughan Williams was the son of a prosperous clerical family that had married into the Darwin/Wedgwood clan, part of a social world which had to some extent rewarded hard work and inventiveness and which coped well with eccentric individualism. As Saylor, an American music professor, puts it, many in RVW’s family and immediate circle “occupied positions outside the usual class boundaries of British society, providing a certain latitude in their beliefs and behaviour”. Their sense of national and cultural identity was not mortgaged to imperial mythologies or to the defensive xenophobia of popular Victorian sentiment.

RVW was from an early age determined to be not only a composer but a particular kind of composer, one whose music would open doors for an entire national community and provide a shared language. He was as devoted as any Gareth Malone to communal music-making, from his early days as a (somewhat rebellious) church organist to his work with the Leith Hill Musical Festival, conducting amateur orchestras and choirs. But this deep commitment to the local and national was inseparable from his concern that the groups he worked with should be exposed to a challenging, innovative and international musical tradition. Writing for and working with an English public was for RVW a matter of affirming the distinctive features of a local musical genius within a rich diversity of musical cultures.

He grew up in a musical world where the prevailing orthodoxies were fixed by German models; serious music was firmly in the succession running from Beethoven to Mendelssohn. The prominent English composers of the day, figures such as Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford, produced stately, rich and often emotionally powerful work firmly within this style; it worked well as far as it went, but it could also be overpoweringly stodgy.

RVW began his studies in composition under Parry himself, but was intrigued by older and less familiar strands in musical practice, pre-modern and non-European. He experimented with melodies based on modes, which divide up the notes in an eight-note sequence in ways other than the familiar do-re-mi scale (try playing a succession of scales starting from different notes using the white notes of the piano only, and you have some idea). Such modal melodies are heard in folk songs and early Western music and (with some refinements) in plainsong. He explored the use of the pentatonic scale (this time, play only the black notes on the keyboard), which is common in Asian music. Parry, although a bit baffled by RVW’s enthusiasm, gave him generous encouragement; Stanford, with whom RVW also studied, was less tolerant.

But the really significant development was when RVW – already a Cambridge doctor of music and a seasoned choir director, with a few well-received compositions to his name – decided in 1907 to study in Paris with Maurice Ravel. RVW had already worked briefly in Germany, but felt the need to immerse himself in a completely different musical atmosphere. Ravel, the quintessentially Gallic musical voice of his time, was the true catalyst for RVW’s distinctive English style. He famously said that RVW was the only pupil of his “who does not write my music”; and it is true that what RVW took from Ravel was not a set of musical ideas but a new boldness and clarity in orchestration.

RVW came back from France with a new lightness of touch and a much enhanced imaginative flair in bringing out the contrasting voices of different instruments within an orchestral composition. Throughout his career as a composer, he knew exactly how to deploy a solo instrument or a small group of instruments to intensify transitions in a piece or to create a specific climate of feeling. The use of the solo trumpet in the Pastoral Symphony of 1922, of oboes in dialogue in the Fourth Symphony (1935), or of the solo violin in “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’” (1939) are just a few examples. Perhaps its supreme instance in his early work is the meditative ebb and flow of violin and full orchestra in “The Lark Ascending” (1920) – for many people, one of the most hauntingly lovely of all his works.

[See also: The infinite art of John Donne]

But RVW was also able to marshal larger instrumental forces with a new intelligence and power. The arresting opening to the song-cycle “On Wenlock Edge” (1909) and, most overwhelmingly, the colossal but fluid energy of the massed strings in the great 1910 “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” illustrate some of the ways in which Ravel’s teaching had released something distinctive in RVW’s voice.

RVW was undoubtedly one of the great songwriters of the era. It is startling to realise that he composed “Linden Lea”, a setting of a poem by the Dorset writer William Barnes and one of the best-known of his smaller vocal works, at the age of 29; and he was still setting poems literally up to the day of his death. His “Five Mystical Songs” (1911), using text by the 17th century poet George Herbert, is still a standard in the repertoire of any self-respecting baritone – even if (to express a heretical opinion) he doesn’t quite find the right register for the fifth of these (“Love Bade Me Welcome”), where the prosaic and austere words are swamped by an uncomfortably romantic choral backing.

And of course there is the enormous treasury of his settings of English folk song (the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society has recently been sponsoring a complete programme of recordings under the label of Albion Records); RVW was a major participant along with Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles in the rediscovery and cataloguing of traditional songs in the 1890s and 1900s, and maintained throughout his life an active concern with folk singing and traditional dance. It was part of his dedication to music as a genuinely democratic business (a conviction that he shared with Parry, though they found radically different ways of expressing it). Music for RVW was not – or not just – an affair of high art or solitary genius: it was something that came from the grass roots and was always nourished by them, something that needed to return to local and popular tradition to be revived.

In the same spirit, the composer was, among other things, a jobbing music-maker. RVW – rather like JS Bach – made a living as a teacher and conductor, as someone always willing to turn out a commissioned piece, whether for a coronation, a friend’s wedding or a local community celebration. Saylor’s book, which alternates strictly biographical chapters with brief but engaging surveys of the music of particular periods, provides a full and accessible catalogue of RVW’s works. A brief glance at this will show the variety of the output.

The undramatic, unselfish work of editing was something he undertook willingly: The English Hymnal of 1906, compiled in collaboration with an idiosyncratic Anglo-Catholic socialist priest, Percy Dearmer, and another jobbing composer, Martin Shaw, is a lasting monument to RVW’s belief that even rather dim and unadventurous Anglican congregations deserved the liveliest possible musical diet. He ransacked his folk-song collections as well as the spirited metrical psalms of the 16th century and a variety of European sources – German, French, Welsh and Russian – for tunes that had real musical quality, as opposed to the dutiful automatic-pilot productions of Victorian religiosity.

The English Hymnal – along with his Mass in G Minor, perhaps the best piece of liturgical music written in the 20th century – is an odd legacy for someone who had abandoned his family’s religious beliefs as a teenager; but RVW’s agnosticism was a complex affair. He retained a strong attachment to the sounds and spectacle of traditional worship, returned repeatedly to Christian texts and themes in his work, and was always hospitable to those dimensions of human experience that defied verbal analysis.

Saylor’s work is an attractive and readable introduction to this great figure. As he admits, it cannot replace the pair of seminal books from the 1960s, Michael Kennedy’s survey of Vaughan Williams’s music and the biography by RVW’s widow, Ursula, a work of great warmth and vividness. Saylor is refreshingly matter-of-fact in his treatment of the one major issue left unmentioned by Ursula Vaughan Williams – that she and RVW began a passionate affair well before the death of the composer’s first wife, Adeline, and Ursula’s first husband, and that RVW’s first wife (by that time physically disabled and seriously ill) almost certainly knew about this and probably encouraged it.

But Saylor is also clear, rather more so than Ursula in her biography, that Adeline continued to play a vital role of comment, criticism and encouragement in RVW’s creative work up to the end of her life; the marriage was a rock of stability for RVW, and Adeline’s death left him desolate. Ursula, 40 years younger and a talented poet, brought him new inspiration and security and they collaborated happily on several works. It is right, though, that Adeline’s musical intelligence receives due recognition here, with welcome quotations from her correspondence.

[See also: What Dostoevsky knew about evil]

When he died in 1958, English (and British) music had changed greatly, and even RVW’s brand of radicalism could look old-fashioned. It was tempting to view him as a musical equivalent of John Betjeman, a national treasure of the teddy-bear type (though anyone seeing it in those terms could not have read Betjeman very carefully). Saylor’s judicious, comprehensive study makes us look again at the novelty and the emotional and imaginative courage of the work. It illuminates, RVW’s organic blend of localism and internationalism, and the subtext of tragedy beneath the surface lyricism – as in the Pastoral Symphony, for example, which disturbingly pulls us away from the English idyll it begins by celebrating, and forces a new perspective on us, inflected by the horrors of the First World War. RVW had worked in the trenches with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and so had seen the worst; he did not forget the experience. The Sixth Symphony, on which he worked during and after the Second World War, paints a frighteningly desolate picture of a world of endemic conflict and ultimate dissolution.

He is a tougher, stranger composer than we might have thought – still a master of heartbreakingly beautiful melody, but a musician who has earned the right to lyrical pathos and intensity by his honest gaze at a world where (as in his great “Masque for Dancing” based on the Book of Job) the dance of the morning stars is always balanced by the Satanic energy that pushes us towards pain and despair. It was RVW’s conviction, secularist as he was, that something had to be done in the name of redemption and promise for individuals and for national communities alike. That was what his music was for, in all its profusion and variety.

Vaughan Williams
Eric Saylor
OUP, 336pp, £26.99

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Hilary Mantel knew how corrosive deference to monarchy can be – and why we must resist | Nesrine Malik

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Let us mark this year of royal death and accession by challenging the notion that a man with a crown is more important than everyone else

The sight of the Ka’bah, the black cube around which worshippers circle in pilgrimage, is overwhelming. The first time I visited Mecca, taken there by my parents as a teenager and expecting that the visit would be a chore to be sulked through, the sheer size of the site, from area to ceiling height, made it difficult to maintain a cool distance.

It wasn’t just the dimensions. The details all combined to make the scene hum with an otherworldly energy. The floors were a white, gleaming marble, cool to the touch of bare feet. The lights seemed to bathe the site from the very sky. The sound of prayer streamed through every corridor and corner as if the voices of the imams had a supernatural reach. I felt small.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

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Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, not Places - LOW-TECH MAGAZINE

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Illustration: People gathering around a tile stove. Die Bauern und die Zeitung, a painting by Albert Anker, 1867.

Most modern heating systems are primarily based on the heating of air. This seems an obvious choice, but there are far worthier alternatives. There are three types of (sensible) heat transfer: convection (the heating of air), conduction (heating through physical contact), and radiation (heating through electromagnetic waves).

The old way of warming was based upon radiation and conduction, which are more energy-efficient than convection. While convection implies the warming of each cubic centimetre of air in a space in order to keep people comfortable, radiation and conduction can directly transfer heat to people, making energy use independent of the size of a room or building.

Conduction, Convection, Radiation

First, let's have a look at the different methods of heat transfer in some more detail. Conduction and convection are closely related. Conduction concerns the transfer of energy due to the physical contact between two objects: heat will flow from the warmer to the cooler object. The speed at which this happens depends on the thermal resistance of the substance. For example, heat is transferred much faster through metal than through wood, because metal has a lower thermal resistance. This explains why, for instance, a cold metal object feels much colder than a cold wooden object, even though they both have the same temperature.

Thermal-plume-from-human-handConvective heat transfer from the body to the environment.

Conduction not only occurs between physical objects, but also between physical objects and gasses (like air), and between gasses mutually. Each physical object that is warmer than the air that surrounds it, heats up the air in the immediate vicinity through conduction. By itself, this effect is limited, because air has a high thermal resistance -- that's why it forms the basis of most thermal insulation materials. However, the air that is warmed by conduction expands and rises. Its place is taken by cold air, which is heated in turn, expands, rises, and so on. This plume of warm air that rises from every object that is warmer than the surrounding air, is called convection.

Radiation, the third form of sensible heat transfer, works in a very different way from conduction and convection. Radiant energy is transferred through electromagnetic waves, similar to light or sound. More precisely, it concerns the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that's called infrared radiation. Radiation doesn't need a medium (like air or water) for heat transfer. It also works in a vacuum and it's the most important form of heat transfer in outer space. The primary source of radiant energy is the sun, but every object on earth radiates infared energy as long as it has mass and a temperature above absolute zero. This energy can be absorbed by other objects with a lower temperature. Radiant energy doesn't have a temperature. Only when it hits the surface of an object with mass, the energy can be absorbed and converted into heat.

Thermal Comfort at Low Air Temperatures

Because of the general use of central air heating (and cooling) systems, we have come to believe that our indoor thermal comfort depends mainly on air temperature. However, the human body exchanges heat with its environment through convection, radiation, conduction and evaporation (a form of "latent" heat transfer). Convection relates to the heat exchange between the skin and the surrounding air, radiation is the heat exchange between the skin and the surrounding surfaces, evaporation concerns the moisture loss from the skin, and conduction relates to the heat exchange between a part of the human body and another object that it's in contact with.


If the share of radiation or conduction in the total heat transfer increases, people can be perfectly comfortable at a lower air temperature during the heating season


In winter we can remain comfortable in lower air temperatures by increasing the share of radiation or conduction in the total heat transfer of a space. The opposite is also true: conduction and radiation can make people feel uncomfortable in spite of a high air temperature. For example, a person standing on a cold floor with bare feet will feel cold, even if the air temperature is a comfortable 21ºC (70ºF). This is because the body loses heat to the floor through conduction. A hot cup of soup in the hand, floor heating, or a heated bench have the opposite effect, because heat is transferred from the warm object to the body through conduction.

Radiant heat can make people comfortable at a lower air temperature, too. The obvious example is direct sunlight. In spring or autumn, we can sit comfortably outside in the sun wearing only a T-shirt, even if the air temperature is relatively low. A metre away, in the shade, it can be cold enough to need a jacket, although the air temperature is more or less the same. In summer, we prefer the shade. The difference is explained by the radiant energy of the sun, which heats the body directly when it is exposed to sunlight. This higher "radiant temperature", which can be measured with a black-globe thermometer, allows thermal comfort at a colder air temperature in winter.

Straling versus convectie

Radiant heating systems compensate a lower air temperature with a higher radiant temperature, while air heating systems compensate a lower radiant temperature with a higher air temperature. The operative temperature -- a weighted average of both -- can be the same. Source: Radiant Heating & Cooling Handbook, Richard Watson, 2008.

It should be noted that on earth, radiation always goes hand in hand with convection. Because air has little mass, the radiant energy of the sun doesn't heat the air directly. However, it does so indirectly. The radiant energy of the sun is absorbed by the earth's surface, where it is converted to heat. The warmer earth's surface then slowly releases this heat to the air through the earlier described mechanisms of conduction and convection. In other words, it's not the sun but the earth's surface that heats the air on our planet.

The radiant temperature is equally important when heating a building, no matter which heating system is used. Indoors, the radiant temperature represents the total infrared radiation that is exchanged between all surfaces in a room. Radiant heating systems, which we will discuss later on, work in a similar manner as the sun: they don't heat the air but the surfaces in a space, including human skin, raising the radiant temperature and providing thermal comfort at a colder air temperature. The use of radiant heating is more practical indoors, where environmental factors are under control. If a wind picks up outside, for example, the warming effect of the sun quickly disappears.


It's not the sun but the earth's surface that heats the air on our planet


A 100% radiant heating system doesn't exist, because both the radiant heating surface and the irradiated surfaces make contact with the air and warm it by conduction and convection. However, this heating of the air has a delayed onset and is more limited than in the case of a direct air heating system. Likewise, an air heating system will also raise the radiant temperature in a space, because the hot air warms the building's surfaces through conduction. But again, the increase of the radiant temperature is slow and limited in comparison to a radiant heating system.

As with conduction, radiation can also make people uncomfortable in spite of warm air temperature. If we are seated next to a cold window, our body will radiate heat to this cold surface, making us feel cold even when the air temperature is a comfortable 21ºC (70ºF). In short, neither a high air temperature nor a high radiant temperature are a guarantee of thermal comfort. The best understanding of the thermal environment in a space is given by the "operative temperature", which is a weighted average of both.

The Old Way of Warming

Before the arrival of central air heating systems in the twentieth century, buildings were mainly heated by a central radiant heat source, such as a fireplace or a wood, coal or gas stove. Usually, only one of the rooms in a building was heated. But even within this room, there were large differences in comfort depending on your exact location in the space. While air heating distributes warmth relatively evenly throughout an area, a radiant heating source creates a local microclimate that can be radically different from the rest of the room.

This is because the energy potential of a radiant heat source decreases with distance. It's not that the infrared waves become weaker, but that they become more dispersed as they are fanning out from a specific source. This is shown in the two illustrations below, which appear in Richard Watson's "Radiant Heating and Cooling Handbook". The drawing on the left shows the radiant heat distribution (or "radiant landscape") in a room, seen from above, which is warmed by a forced-air heating system. The average radiant temperature in the space is 20ºC (68ºF). Except for the influence of a cold window surface (at the top of the illustration), the radiant temperature is relatively constant throughout the room.

Contour plot of MRT gradients for forced-air heating system with average room MRT of 20 degreesContour plot of MRT gradients for radiant heating system with average room MRT of 20 degrees

Source: Radiant Heating and Cooling Handbook. Richard Watson, 2008

The illustration on the right shows the same room, again with a mean radiant temperature of 20ºC (68ºF), but now heated with a radiant heat source which is located at the centre of the ceiling. It concerns an electric longwave infrared panel, a new technology that we will explain in the second part of this article, but a fireplace in the middle of the room would give a similar result. The radiant landscape is now very different. The highest radiant temperature is measured in the middle of the room, right below the heating panel. The radiant temperature then decreases rapidly in concentric circles towards the sides of the room. The difference between minimum and maximum radiant temperature is much larger than in the case of an air heating system.


In an air-heated room, it doesn't matter much where you are. In a room heated by a radiant heating source, location is everything.


Of course, a different location of the radiant heating surface, or a combination of two or more radiant heating surfaces, would again present a very different radiant landscape. Furthermore, as with solar radiation, other objects can throw shadows, which means that even the location of the furniture can have an effect on the heat distribution in a room. Also note that the heterogeneous distribution of the radiant temperature will be somewhat tempered by the homogeneous character of the air temperature, no matter which heating system is being used.


In an air-heated room, it doesn't matter much where you are. In a room heated by a central radiant heating source, location is everything. The mean radiant temperature can be optimal, but the radiant temperature in parts of the space may be too low. But the opposite is also possible: the mean radiant temperature can be too low, while at certain locations the room is perfectly comfortable. This is the ancient principle of spot or zone heating, which is impossible to realize with an air heating system. Instead of heating the entire space, our forefathers only heated the occupied parts of a building.

Church heating

Air heating (left) versus radiant heating (right) in a church building. Source: Fabric-friendly heating, Dario Camuffo.

A similar thing happens on the vertical plane. Warm air rises, so that most heat ends up under the ceiling, where it is of little use. With radiant heating, it's perfectly possible to only heat the lower part of a space, no matter how high the ceiling is. Radiant heat doesn't rise, unless the radiant heating surface is aimed upwards. In conclusion, instead of heating the entire volume of air in a space, a radiant heating system can heat only that part of a space which is occupied, which is of course much more energy efficient.

Unless the room is very small or very crowded, only a very small part of the energy used by an air heating system benefits people. On the other hand, almost all the energy used by a radiant heating system is effectively heating humans.

Local Insulation

A problem with the heterogeneous indoor climate of old times was radiant assymetry -- the difference in radiant temperature between distinct parts of the body. A person sitting in front of an open fire will receive sufficient radiant heat on one side of their body, while the other side loses heat to the cold air and surfaces at the opposite half of the room. The body can be in thermal balance -- the heat loss on one side equals the heat gain on the other -- but if the temperature differences are too large, thermal comfort will not be obtained.

Radiant assymetry

A bench with adjustable backrest. Source: Dictionnaire de l'ameublement et de la décoration depuis le XIII siècle, 1887-1890

The problem is illustrated on the engraving above. The back of the bench could be switched from side to side. By regularly turning the body to the fire and then away from it, both the front and the back of the body could be heated alternately. Although radiant assymetry can be an issue with forced-air heating systems, it's much more likely to appear in spaces that are warmed by a a radiant heat source. In historical buildings, the difference in surface temperatures was aggravated by the fact that building surfaces were not insulated. Drafts, another cause of local thermal discomfort, were also a problem in old buildings, because they were anything but air-tight.


To create a comfortable microclimate without radiant assymetry or draft, our forefathers supplemented local heating with local insulation


To create a comfortable microclimate without radiant assymetry or drafts, our ancestors supplemented local heating with local insulation. One example was the hooded chair. This chair, which could be upholstered or covered with leather or wool blankets, fully exposed people to a radiant heat source, while protecting their back from the drafts and the low surface temperatures behind them.

At the same time, the shape of the furniture ensured that a greater share of the radiant heat emitted by the fire was effectively used: the chair was heated directly by the fire through radiation, and this heat was transferred to the person sitting in it. Recent research has shown that the insulation value of these types of chair amounted to at least 0.4 clo, which corresponds to the insulation value of a heavy pullover or coat. Some hooded chairs could host more than one person.

Hooded chairs


Above: Hooded chairs from the nineteenth century. Sources: Period Oak Antiques (left) and Polyvore (right). Below: A folding screen for winter use. Source: Alain Truong.

An additional solution, which could also be used alone, was the folding screen. The folding screens used as winter furniture were insulated with fabrics or built with heavy wood panels. They could be placed behind an insulated chair, or behind a table, for instance. Like the hooded chair, the folding screen protected the back of a person against drafts and cold temperatures, creating a comfortable microclimate.

Bench in fireplace Four_Poster_Bed_350b

Above: A sitting area close to the fireplace (Source: The English Fireplace). Below: A four-poster bed (Source: Wikipedia Commons).

A third example of local insulation were special sitting areas close to the fireplace. These could be benches placed between the fire and the side walls of the fireplace, or a niche in the wall with a built-in seat. In both cases, a person would lean against a wall that was warmed by the fire and protected from drafts. In some cases, the fireplace itself was placed in a room-inside-a-room. In the bedroom, which often remained unheated, yet another piece of furniture was aimed at providing a microclimate: the four poster bed, which had a canopy and thick curtains. When the curtains were closed, drafts were eliminated and body heat was trapped inside.

Portable Heating Systems

The apparent downside of spot heating is that you have to be in a specific location in order to be comfortable. In earlier times, the family gathered around the fireplace or the stove when no physical work had to be done, or when the body had to be warmed up after a long stay in a cold environment. Other locations in the room, as well as unheated rooms, were better suited for activities which required a higher metabolism. People were "migrating" throughout the room and throughout the house in search of the climate that suited their needs best.


Familienszene in einem Interieur, a painting by Albert Anker, 1910

However, the use of radiant heat sources and local insulation were also complemented by portable heating sources which transferred heat through radiation, convection and/or conduction. These could be used to further increase thermal comfort in the presence of a central heat source, and were also helpful in bringing warmth to other locations. Portable heating systems were designed especially to heat the feet or the hands: the parts of the body that are most sensitive to cold.


Personal heating sources allowed people to enjoy the heat from the central fireplace in unheated rooms, or even outside the house


An example is the foot stove, a box with one or more perforated partitions, which contained a metal or earthenware bowl or pan filled with embers from the fireplace. The feet were placed on top of the stove and the often long garments worn in those days increased the effect of the small heating device: the warmth was guided through a skirt or a chamber coat along the legs to the upper body. The upper part of the stove was made of wood or stone, as these materials have low thermal conductivity to avoid burns.

800px-Voetenstoof Young_woman_warming_her_hands._Caesar_van_Everdingen

Left: A Dutch foot stove (Wikipedia Commons). Right: "Young woman warming her hands", a painting by Caesar van Everdingen.

In many cultures worldwide, similar heat sources were used for warming the hands. They were made from metal or ceramics and were filled with embers from the fireplace, or with coal or peat. These personal heating sources also allowed people to enjoy the heat from the central fireplace or stove outside the house. They were taken in unheated coaches and railcars, or to Sunday Mass. Poor people made use of heated stones or bricks, or even heated potatoes put in coat pockets.

For heating the bed, people made use of brass bedpans with a long handle which were shoved underneath the mattress. Some beds had a bed wagon: a large, wooden frame designed to hold a pot of glowing fuel in the centre of the bed. In the 19th century, following the arrival of the public water supply, the use of ceramic hot water bottles became common -- water is a much safer heat medium than smouldering fire. These devices, which were often protected by a fabric cover, were used as foot warmers, hand warmers, or bed warmers.


An Afghan "Korsi". Source unknown.

Some peoples took the concept of the foot stove one level higher. The Japanese had their "kotatsu", a movable low table with a charcoal heater underneath. A thick cloth or quilt was placed over the table to trap the heat and the whole family slid their legs under the table, sitting on the floor. As with the European and American foot stoves, contemporary clothing increased the effect of the device. The heat of the charcoal burner was transferred through the traditional Japanese kimono, warming the whole body. Similar heating devices were used in Afghanistan (such as the "korsi"), as well as Iran, Spain and Portugal.

Conductive Heating Systems

Some historical radiant heating systems also transferred heat through conduction, further improving efficiency and comfort. More than 3,000 years ago, the Chinese and the Koreans built heating systems which were based on trapping smoke gases in a thermal mass. The northern Chinese "kang" ("heated bed") was a raised platform made from stone, masonry or adobe, which occupied about half of the room. As the name indicates, the kang was in the first place a heated bed, but the platform was also used during the day as a heated work and living space. The "dikang" ("warmed floor"), which was typical in North-Eastern China, worked in the same way as the kang, but had a larger floor area.

Chinese kang

Above: a Chinese Kang, photographed in the 1920s. Source: Wandering in Northern China, Harry A. Franck.

The Koreans used the "ondol" ("heated stone"), which was a wall-to-wall platform. A similar heating system in Afghanistan, the "tawakhaneh" ("hot room") is possibly the oldest of these systems: its use may date back 4,000 years. In all these systems, the heat of an open fire was led underneath the platform to a chimney at the other side of the room. Both the fireplace and the chimney could be in the room or in adjacent rooms. The heat of the hot smoke gases was transferred to the thermal mass of the platform, which slowly released the warmth to the space. Conduction was as important as radiation and convection in the total heat transfer.



Above: Blick in eine Schwarzwaldstube mit kleinem Mädchen auf der Ofenbank, a painting by Georg Saal, 1861. Below: Auf dem Ofen, a painting by Albert Anker, 1895

These ancient Eastern heating systems are somewhat reminiscent of the European tile stoves that appeared in the middle ages. Tile stoves (or "masonry heaters" as they are known in the USA) are heat accumulating wood stoves that make use of a high thermal mass to burn wood at very high temperatures, which is cleaner and more efficient. The smoke gases are trapped in a labyrinth of smoke channels, transferring most of the heat to the masonry structure before leaving the chimney.

Tile stoves produce a large share of radiant heat, but on top of this they allow heat transfer through conduction, as many tile stoves had built-in platforms to sit or sleep on. Even if these platforms were not there, wooden benches were placed next to the stove so that one could lean against the warm (but not too hot) surface.

Why We Also Need Modern Technology

In conclusion, all historic heating systems used radiation and/or conduction as the primary modes of heat transfer, while convection was merely a by-product. It makes good sense to return to this concept of heating, but that doesn't mean that we have to go back to using fireplaces and carrying burning embers around the house. While the old concept of heating is more energy-efficient, the same cannot be said of most of the old heating devices.


 While the old concept of heating is more energy efficient, the same cannot be said of most of the old heating devices.


Fireplaces, for one thing, are hugely inefficient, because most of the heat escapes through the chimney. They also suck in large amounts of cold air through cracks and gaps in the building envelope, which cools the air indoors and introduces strong drafts. Owing to this, fireplaces can even have negative efficiency as far as the air temperature is concerned: they can make the room colder instead of warmer. Stoves do better, but they remain relatively inefficient and have to be fired regularly, just like a fireplace. And for both options, air pollution can be substantial.

The (improved) tile stove is the only ancient heating system that can still be recommended, but we have far more options now, such as electric and hydronic radiant and conductive heating systems. These are more efficient, more practical, and safer than the heating sources of yesteryear. In the next two articles, we investigate how the old way of warming can be improved upon by modern technology, and how much energy could be saved.

Kris De Decker (proofread by Jenna Collett)


Sources (in order of importance):

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6 days ago
Aberdare, UK
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Jean-Luc Godard: a genius who tore up rule book without troubling to read it

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The last great 20th-century modernist is dead. At the last, Jean-Luc Godard had become like a charismatic but remote cult leader; it was as if Che Guevara had evaded assassination and grown old hiding out in the Bolivian jungle: less visible, less important, but still capable of masterminding from afar those bank-heists and spectacular acts of armed resistance which reminded people of his revolutionary vocation. Godard was at first hero-worshipped and adored and then shrugged at and yawned at: as unthinkingly mocked and jeered at as he was once unthinkingly swooned over. He was influential in the sense that the French New Wave shook up Hollywood and all film-makers; his own rarefied experimental procedures have nowadays migrated to video art.

Godard exploded on to world cinema with À Bout de Souffle, or Breathless, in 1960, from a treatment by François Truffaut, the story of a young American girl in Paris, played by Hollywood star Jean Seberg, and her doomed affair with a sexy tough guy on the run, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Godard tore up the rule book without troubling to read it: his wild digressions, offbeat dialogue scenes, vérité location work, non-narrative excursions and “jump-cuts” – the inspired, semi-deliberate wrong editing created by an intuitive, untutored auteur.

The 1960s were his glorious period, when images and slogans could change the world; he was making films with breathtaking fluency and speed. Godard was garrulous, effortlessly fashionable, the epitome of continental cool. That picture of him holding up a roll of film and inspecting it is pretty well iconic – but grumpy unconvinced types wondered if he mightn’t be able to look at it better if he took off the dark glasses. Sexual morality and the agonising impossibility of intimacy and love were his themes, combined with cerebral discussions of politics. Bande à Part (1964) and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) have a wonderful energy and style: they jump for joy and defy gravity on the way down.

But my favourite Godard movie of that period, actually favourite Godard movie ever, is his Une Femme Mariée (1964), a mature yet approachable masterpiece, comparable to Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7. Macha Méril is the stunningly beautiful Charlotte, a young married woman conducting an affair with a handsome actor. It is intensely erotic, with a pure freewheeling brilliance; it’s a digressive cine-essay and a movie-flaneur’s wander through Paris – where else? It has a Warholian interest in magazine interviews and the iconography of advertising, a fetishistic rapture for underwear. Godard also uses subtitles for what Charlotte is thinking as she eavesdrops on two women talking about sex: prefiguring Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. It is one of the sexiest, strangest films ever made and I prefer it to the more self-importantly cinephile film Le Mépris, or Contempt (1963) with Brigitte Bardot.

Often a Godard film like Pierrot le Fou (1965) would be bafflingly wild, almost incoherent, absorbing into itself some of the disputatious disorder of the shoot itself: action would be frenetic, almost farcical – a satiric comment on the childishness of Hollywood melodrama – and yet there was always time for long intellectual debates. Godard would always return to militarism and imperialism, to French guilt and shame about the war, to the horrible shadow of the death camps, and of course Vietnam, that key 60s issue which sent Godard into a conceptual thicket of radical Maoism and leftism from which he never entirely emerged.

Uniquely among film-makers, he was the director who was also theorist, critic, maître à penser, experimentalist: a radical who was the first film-maker in the medium’s short history seriously to think about what cinema was and what it meant. But bafflingly, Godard would not celebrate cinema as an art form in its thrilling infancy but behave as if it was all over. The final credits for Weekend (1967) read: “End of story – End of cinema.” He was a little like the literary critic George Steiner in this regard, who controversially declared that tragedy was dead, or the German language was dead. Godard provocatively and exasperatingly liked to declare that cinema was dead – a haughty après moi, le déluge affectation, which never stopped his own rampant productivity. Godard became the mysterious, exasperating magus who wanted to make, not films, but “cinema”, somehow to liberate the sound and image from the four boundary-walls of the screen. He was crucially inspired by the great critic André Bazin of Cahiers du Cinéma, beginning his own career as a critic in that remarkable journal, a founder of the New Wave movement, when to criticise was to intervene decisively in cinema, and to make films was to intervene in life itself. Cinema was a seizing of reality.

Comparisons are irresistible. Godard was cinema’s sternly judging Robespierre, or he was a John Lennon – Paul McCartney being François Truffaut, that more emollient and commercially-minded New Wave comrade with whom Godard was to fall out. Or maybe Godard was the medium’s Socrates, believing that an unexamined cinema was not worth having.

Godard’s savant gift for divining the zeitgeist never quite deserted him. His movie Goodbye to Language, gnomically discursive and enigmatic as ever but playfully enlivened with 3D, was thought of by American critics to be the best film of 2014. His Film Socialisme (2010) was an another collage of images and ideas, showing people on holiday: stateless, alienated. Much of the film took place on a cruise ship. What was Godard saying about socialism, we wondered? Then history itself took a hand. The cruise ship on which Godard was filming was in fact the notorious Costa Concordia, which capsized in a spectacular disaster in 2012; many commentators argued that the tall design, to accommodate more and more paying customers, makes pleasure craft of this sort top-heavy. For me, in these later movies, Godard’s camera lens is almost like an impossibly powerful telescope. It is as if he is looking at human beings from a long way away, maybe from another planet.

Many simply gave up on Godard, or were embarrassed at their extravagant former hero worship of a 60s figure, who declined to sell out, or grow up, or make commercial movies, or drift to the right, but carried on in the same old severe way: although his sexual politics started to look troglodytic and his loathing of Israel appeared sometimes to cross the line into antisemitism. For many, his mature masterpiece after Breathless was the epic eight-part video documentary project Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998) – a staggeringly ambitious textual collage of quotation, a quilt of clips with which Godard creates a personal landscape of cinema, a labour of passionate cinephile love. Before this, I myself had never found much that was moving, exactly, in Godard – though plenty that was formally brilliant and intriguing and exciting. Yet there is something mysterious and moving in the Histoire(s) du Cinéma. There is, and was, no one like Godard, and his loss makes this a sombre day. It’s a day to watch Une Femme Mariée to be reminded of how exciting and sexy his films were.

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16 days ago
Aberdare, UK
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There’s more to spritz than Aperol

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The Aperol spritz is one of the most successful marketing phenomena of modern times. Given a huge publicity push only six years ago, it’s now one of the world’s most popular cocktails, instantly recognisable by its look-at-me-look-at-me, neon-orange colour (ideal for the Instagram age, don’t you know). It’s found on almost every drinks list, from the swankiest of hotel bars to the grubbiest of backstreet boozers.

It’s an easy drink to like, too, especially in the sunshine. Refreshing and with a gentle, appetising bitterness, it’s also very simple to make – the classic recipe is a memorable 3:2:1 (three parts prosecco to two of Aperol and one of soda), and served over ice in a wine glass or tumbler. But Aperol is not the only base for a spritz, and some (myself included) think many of the alternatives make a better, more sophisticated choice to toast the tail end of summer.

Aperol is an amaro, a family of spirit-based, bitter drinks that includes Campari, Select and Cynar, all of which I prefer to Aperol in a spritz, because they are more bitter and less sweet, and, to my middle-aged eye at least, have a much more appealing colour.

The spritz itself has its roots in northern Italy, going back more than a century, when soldiers from the occupying Austro-Hungarian empire liked to add water to the local wine, and it is still the signature aperitivo of Venice. Away from the tourist traps there, it is most often made with Select, and in the most authentic bacari you will be asked if you want it internationale (that is, made with prosecco) or Veneziano (made with with local still white wine, as is more traditional).

The basic spritz formula can be adapted almost endlessly by substituting the amaro with other things. Sweet vermouth works well, whether it’s a cheap-and-cheerful, trusted brand such as Martini Rosso, or one of the more serious vermouths now on the market – try Vault’s Forest Red (£28 for 70cl, 16.6%) or Lustau’s Vermut Blanco (£13.49 for 50cl, Waitrose), an off-dry white vermouth made with a sherry base.

You can even experiment with those bottles of random liqueurs gathering dust on your shelves. A Capri spritz, using limoncello, has a certain on-holiday charm, while more outlandish possibilities include triple sec, amaretto, cherry brandy and hazelnut liqueur. Play around with the proportions to get the right balance (I tend to be heavy-handed with the base drink) and garnish with whatever feels right: a slice of orange is the most usual, but I prefer the sapidity of a green olive.

Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto £30 (70cl) Waitrose, 20%. A revived recipe from the 18th century, scented with bergamot, lemon, camomile, lavender and rose petals.

Select £17 (70cl) Ocado, 17.5%. The spritz amaro of choice for Venetians, traditionally garnished with a green olive to give it a saline twang.

Venice Aperitivo £20 (75cl) The Aperitivo Co, 16%. A brand-new, grown-up homage to Aperol, with lovely layers of passionfruit, grapefruit, hibiscus and bitter orange.

St Germain Elderflower Liqueur £22 (50cl) Majestic, and widely available elsewhere, 20%. Garnish your St Germain spritz with mint leaves and a wedge of lime to make what’s known as a Hugo cocktail.

  • Kate Hawkings’ latest book, The Little Book of Aperitifs, is published in October by Quadrille at £10. To order a copy for £9.30, go to guardianbookshop.com

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17 days ago
Aberdare, UK
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Exposed by Caroline Vout review – the real Greek and Roman body

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Forget the chilly perfection of marble sculpture – a Cambridge classicist presents ancient bodies in all their fleshy fallibility

Think of the Greek or Roman body, and what might come to mind is the chilly perfection of a marble sculpture. The Apollo Belvedere, for example: a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, rediscovered in the Renaissance, installed in the Vatican by Julius II, regarded as “the miracle of art” by 18th-century German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

In Exposed, Cambridge classicist Caroline Vout takes a very different approach. The bodies she considers are fallible and fleshy; they are sticky, malodorous and unpredictable. Some are disabled. Some are enslaved, abused or exploited. (There is a particularly sobering passage on the law code of Gortyn in Crete which, in the fifth century BC, recorded that if a free man raped a free woman he was fined 1,200 obols. For the rape of an enslaved woman the fine was 1 obol – or 24 if she was a virgin.)

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21 days ago
Aberdare, UK
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