Monday, 22 April 2013

Mr White Watson of Bakewell

Once upon a time, back in 1795 or so, lived a man who was always asking questions.  The kind of questions like, "Why is glass transparent?" or "Why do fruit trees grow better in that place than in this place?" or "What does the earth look like underneath the surface?"  This last question was one that he was particularly interested in, and he went so far as to work out what the rock layers looked like where he lived, and draw little pictures of them.  Now he was a marble sculptor by trade (as well as fossil hunter, mineral seller, and a few other things) so he thought it would be even better to make his little pictures in stone.  That way he could represent the layers using the actual rocks they were composed of.  Over the course of his lifetime he made almost 100 of these tablets, as he called them.

Then he died.  And no one else was quite as interested in all those rocks and minerals as he was.  His collection was sold off, bit by bit, and the tablets were scattered like so much marble confetti - a few here, a few there.  Propped on mantelpieces as curiosities, or gathering dust in someone's attic.

A few made their way to museums.  Derby Museum acquired a handful.  They were displayed and stored and photographed and flooded - and still survived.

Over two hundred years later, lived a lady who went to the library.  And picked up a card.  And the card said: 1001 Words Writing Competition.  So she went to Derby Museum to look at 1001 objects, and one of those objects caught her eye.  The caption was: Tablet of Ecton Hill, by White Watson.



Thus Martha White was introduced to White Watson, 18th century geologist, botanist, silhouette artist, and maker of marble tablets.  Quite apart from his first name (which turned out to be his mother's maiden name), he sounded like an all-round interesting guy.  Well worth writing 1001 words about.


To do so entailed my first foray into any kind of historical research.  Even on such a limited level I quickly realised that it's much like trying to do several of those back-to-front jigsaw puzzles all mixed together.  Wikipedia categorically stated that Watson's mother's name was Martha White - what an exciting coincidence!  Except that when I went to Bakewell library to look at some other documents, one part suggested that she was actually called Deborah, while another mentioned that her maiden name was White without bothering to mention her first name at all.  Furthermore, both of Watson's parents appeared to have been married at least twice, so he had half-siblings in all directions... and I'm confused already!

Fortunately the man himself kept fairly extensive diaries and notebooks, and some kind person had transcribed portions into a booklet, to give a fascinating insight into the trivia of his life.  I may not have discovered what White Watson's mother was called, but I could find out how much he paid for a new pair of shoes, what he planted in his garden in spring 1798, or whose birthday party he got invited to.



Not only that, but his snappily titled book, A Delineation of the Strata of Derbyshire, forming the surface from Bolsover in the East to Buxton in the West, by a plate designed from a Tablet composed of specimens of each stratum within the above line with an explanatory account of the same, together with a description of the fossils found in these strata and also of the nature and quality of the respective soils, (did you get all that?) is still available through Amazon for a modest fee; and reveals Watson to be a great fan of random Capital Letters, and semi-colons.



Pulling all these strands together, I crafted a letter written by Watson to his nephew William, to whom he had sent £1 (as recorded in his cash book) and the aforementioned tablet of Ecton Hill (as imagined by me).  The hardest part was getting a flavour of 17th-century style without over-spicing it to the extent of sounding 21st-century illiterate.  Most of the events referenced were real, which is far easier than having to make stuff up!  Whether it appeals to the competition judges remains to be seen, but either way I enjoyed dropping into White Watson's life for a while.

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