Illustration by Karl James Mountford, from The Midnight Peacock
One of the first things most of us think of when we think of the Edwardians is the grand country house. It appears everywhere from Downton Abbey to The Go-Between, not to mention in dozens of mysteries, romances and ghost stories. The period from 1861 – 1914 is generally considered to have been the ‘golden age’ of the English country house – and the country house party in particular was a mainstay of upper-class Edwardian social life.
Entertaining was a mark of status for well-off Edwardians. For the Edwardian gentry, their country estate was a place to display their wealth, power and refined taste via their art collections and elegant furniture, their sumptuous grounds, their army of servants, and the lavish food and drink at their table. Hosting a country house party would allow them to showcase all this to their peers.
Sometimes lasting weeks at a time, but more often from Saturday until Monday (literally referred to as ‘Saturday-to-Monday’ – as we’ve learned from the Countess of Grantham, the word ‘weekend’ was considered rather vulgar) country house parties most often took place during August and September.
Up to 20 or 30 people would typically be invited, each of whom might bring their own servants with them (perhaps a maid or a valet, and possibly a chauffeur) as well as a large quantity of luggage. An Edwardian lady would not want to wear the same outfit twice during her stay, and with different clothes typically expected at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, a three-day visit could require as many as fifteen different ensembles!
Gentlemen of the party would spend their days shooting, while the ladies wrote letters, read, strolled in the gardens or perhaps took part in outdoor activities like riding, croquet or lawn tennis.
Food was of course a most important aspect of any Edwardian house party! The day would begin with a vast breakfast spread, featuring fruit, eggs, toast, muffins, rolls, bacon, ham, kidneys, pies, haddock, kedgeree, tea, coffee, cocoa and more – though the ladies of the party might well take their breakfast in bed. As well as a generous luncheon, there would be afternoon tea in the drawing room, and in the evening the party would gather for a sumptuous dinner.
After dinner the ladies would typically retire to the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen to enjoy their port and cigars before rejoining the ladies for an evening of music, dancing or card games like bridge or baccarat (the latter was actually illegal at the time, but like Leo’s brother Vincent in The Midnight Peacock, many people in Edwardian high society enjoyed scandalous gambling!)
As well as being an opportunity for socialising, country house parties could offer a chance for matches to be made. Young ladies who had not found a husband during the Season might have the opportunity to meet and get to know a suitable young man, often of their parents’ choosing. (That’s exactly what Veronica Whitley’s parents have in mind in The Midnight Peacock – but things don’t quite go to plan…)
In the world of the Sinclair’s Mysteries, we’ve already had a peep inside a grand Edwardian country house in The Painted Dragon – Leo’s family home, Winter Hall. In the final book, The Midnight Peacock, I wanted to take us back to Winter Hall, and allow Sophie and Lil to experience the world of a high society Edwardian house party, with all its complex rules and traditions. Here, it’s a Christmas house party, complete with ice-skating, snowy walks, and a Christmas party for the children of the estate. But amongst all the festivities, there’s a mystery afoot – and Sophie and Lil soon discover that Winter Hall is hiding a sinister and spooky secret…
Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries
Edwardian maids, 1907
In the Sinclair’s Mysteries I’ve enjoyed exploring what life was like in the Edwardian era for children and teenagers from different backgrounds. Unless they were from a wealthy family, most children in the 1900s would leave school when they were 13 or 14 years old, and would be expected to go out and work for a living. Many would take on apprenticeships; they might find work in a shop, like Sophie in The Clockwork Sparrow; or they might become a clerk, as Billy does in The Jewelled Moth. The less fortunate might end up working long hours in a factory, like the children Billy and Joe meet in The Midnight Peacock; or some, like Joe in The Clockwork Sparrow, might struggle to find work at all.
But one of the most common routes into employment at the time was to ‘go into service’ – in other words, to become a domestic servant. In 1911, 800,000 families in Britain employed their own domestic staff. For many of these, this would be a single servant (sometimes called ‘a maid of all work’) – often a girl in her early teens who dealt with all the domestic work single-handed. In the days before the labour-saving devices we take for granted today (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers… the list is endless) this often meant an incredible amount of work.
For very wealthy families living in grand houses, however, it was usual to employ a large staff, all of whom would live on the premises in the ‘servants’ quarters’. This could include kitchenmaids, a cook, housemaids, footmen, nursemaids to look after the children, lady’s maids, valets, chauffeurs, and of course the all-important butler and housekeeper – the most senior and important members of staff, who were responsible for the other servants. In very large houses the staff might also include more obscure positions such as: the ‘odd man’, who was responsible for tasks like carrying luggage; the ‘still room maids’ who worked in the still room making jam, preserves and soap or brewing beer; the ‘lamp-and-candle boy’ whose specific responsibility was filling lamps and tending to candles (at Longleat in 1915, where there was no electric light, a lamp boy had to collect, clean, trim and fill 400 lamps a day) or even the ‘gong man’ whose main duty was ringing the gong three times a day to signal mealtimes!
A grand country house like Winter Hall could have a huge number of servants: at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, the Duke of Portland maintained an entourage of 90 indoor servants. Even when there were a smaller number of staff, guests arriving for a country house party might well bring their own servants with them, such as a lady’s maid, valet or chauffeur. The Duke of Devonshire found 200 servants the bare minimum to look after a house party of 50.
©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel
It sounds extraordinary now, but the Edwardian upper classes were so used to being looked after by their servants that they were sometimes incapable of doing quite simple tasks for themselves. They might ring the bell for a footman to do something as straightforward as poking a fire. Famously Lord Curzon was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window in the bedroom of the country house in which he was staying (no servants being available late at night) that he smashed the glass!
Traditionally servants at a big house would start young, at about 13 years old. Life in a country house could be tough: these young servants worked long hours doing hard physical work, and (like Sarah the scullery maid in in The Midnight Peacock) they would often feel homesick at first, living away from family and friends. But being in service was considered a good, secure job, offering the opportunity to climb the ladder. Starting out as a footman or housemaid, a young servant might aspire to one day achieve a prestigious position as a butler or housekeeper, where they would be afforded special privileges such as having their own private sitting-rooms, and might even be waited on themselves by the more junior servants.
In The Midnight Peacock we meet Tilly, a young under-housemaid at grand country house Winter Hall, (which readers of The Painted Dragon may remember is Leo Fitzgerald’s family home). Tilly has grown up ‘below stairs’ at Winter Hall, and the servants’ quarters are her home. Cook, who has brought her up, hopes that she will one day rise to the important position of lady’s maid – but Tilly herself has very different dreams. In this way, Tilly anticipates the changes that were already on the horizon at the end of the Edwardian era. The First World War would bring about disruption to traditions, and the old ‘upstairs, downstairs’ world would soon be gone for good…
If you’re interested in reading more about the life of servants during the Edwardian era and beyond, I’d heartily recommend Lucy Lethbridge’s fascinating book Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th Century Britain. There are also lots of children’s books featuring servants in the 19th and early 20th centuries: try The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson, Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfeild, Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee, Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett to name just a few.
The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of the Edwardian era.
Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries
And then there were four! The Midnight Peacock is out today!
I celebrated the grand finale to the Sinclair’s Mysteries with a lovely breakfast with my editor Ali and agent Louise on Jermyn Street, just behind Piccadilly. It couldn’t have been a more perfect place to celebrate the final book, as we were just a stone’s throw from the location of Sinclair’s in the stories – and from Piccadilly Circus, which has a very important part to play in the final book.
Ali and the Egmont team also bought me the perfect present to celebrate publication day – a bottle of Penhaligon’s bluebell bath oil. (Sharp-eyed readers might notice that a scent that smells like bluebells is one of the things you can buy at Sinclair’s in the first book, The Clockwork Sparrow!)
Publication day treats!
After breakfast I popped into classic London department store Fortnum & Mason for some more Sinclair’s vibes, and to pick up some delicious macarons as a publication day treat. Then it was time to visit Waterstones Piccadilly to see The Midnight Peacock in the children’s section (signed copies of The Midnight Peacock and the other Sinclair’s Mysteries books are now available there for any London-based readers who would like one!)
Meanwhile it’s been lovely to have lots of tweets, messages and Instagram posts from readers about the new book. I’ve already spotted some great reviews, including this one from The Bookbag, and this one from blogger Booklover Jo. I’m so excited that the final book in the series is now out in the world: here’s a bit more information about The Midnight Peacock:
You are cordially invited to Mr Sinclair’s Midnight Peacock Ball!
The festive season has come to Sinclair’s and Sophie and Lil are spending the holidays at snowy Winter Hall. But it turns out that this is no ordinary house party . . .
As SINISTER SECRETS come to light, our INTREPID HEROINES find themselves faced with a more BAFFLING MYSTERY than ever before!
With the help of their friends, can they uncover the truth in time to foil a truly DIABOLICAL PLOT? Or will Mr Sinclair’s New Year’s Eve Midnight Peacock Ball spell DISASTER for the dauntless young detectives?
Prepare for shocks and surprises in the thrilling conclusion to the Sinclair’s Mysteries!
Find out more about The Midnight Peacock
Buy now from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon
Add it on Goodreads
I went on a Most Exciting Outing this week! Together with my agent Louise and Amy from the editorial team at my publisher Egmont, I headed to Chatham to visit printer CPI and see my latest book in The Midnight Peacock come hot off the press.
It was an amazing experience to see the books being printed – rather like going into a book equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In spite of having been involved in publishing for over 10 years (eek) I have to admit that I’d never given a great deal of thought to the process of how books are actually produced. It was fascinating to see each step of the process – from the giant rolls of paper for printing the pages, right through to the finished books shrink-wrapped and ready to go. Oh yes – and of course we got to wear some stylish hi-vis!
With Louise and Amy posing with some books in progress
Of course the most exciting thing of all was seeing the very first finished copies of Midnight Peacock come off the press. I’ve talked at length about how much I love the cover of the fourth in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series, but it looks even more beautiful in real life. The purple is so sumptuous and I love the icy blue foil – and Karl James Mountford’s stunning illustrations look absolutely incredible.
It’s always exciting when the first copy of a new book is in your hand but it was even more exciting to go home with copies fresh from the printing press! Thank you so much CPI for a very special and memorable visit.
The finished books
I am so thrilled to share with you the cover of the fourth book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series! Behold the loveliness that is The Midnight Peacock:
As with The Painted Dragon, the cover art is the work of the super-talented Karl James Mountford who has also created the fabulous interior illustrations for the book. Karl worked with Egmont’s senior fiction designer Laura Bird on the book’s artwork.
I think I’ve probably said this for each new book in the series, but I really think this is my favourite cover yet. The combination of rich purple and silver foiling is so sumptuous, and it’s lovely to see Sinclair’s itself on the cover for the final book in the series, and to peep inside its windows once again!
What’s more, the cover perfectly captures the atmosphere of The Midnight Peacock, which is set at Christmas and is a wintery mystery – I love the silvery icicles, the swirling frost, and the hints of festive decorations we can glimpse in the windows. It also conveys all the opulent splendour of Mr Sinclair’s magnficent New Year’s Eve Ball, which has such an important part to play in this story.
You can find out a bit more about the book (as well as enjoying some more of Karl’s wonderful illustrations) on the back cover:
I’m really fascinated by Karl’s creative process as an illustrator, and wanted to know more about how he creates artworks like those for Midnight Peacock – not to mention other books like The Uncommoners by Jennifer Bell, his peep-inside fairytale books or picture book The Curious Case of the Missing Mammoth.
With this in mind, I asked Karl if I could interview him about his work, and about illustrating Midnight Peacock in particular. He was kind enough to agree and also to share some of his work-in-progress. Here’s what we talked about…
KW: Can you tell me a bit about your creative process when illustrating a book? Where do you start? How do you go about creating a book cover, and what are the key things to think about?
KJM: It starts with the brief from the art director/designer from the publishing house. I tend to get a proof of the manuscript with chapters or text highlighted for reference and study. But the first thing I do is make my own list of all the illustrations needed for the project and make really rough tiny sketches before even researching. Book covers are my favourite type of illustration work, so I automatically want to do best by the author’s imagination. With the Sinclair’s Mysteries, I get sent a template of the design and I doodle on that to get the ball rolling. The key thing is to read, whether it’s the full story or character description and the brief. ‘The more you know’ as they say!
Can you talk about what tools you use – do you work digitally, or with paints etc?
I draw/sketch everything in my sketch books or loose paper to figure things out; once the design/illustrations have been given the ok, I then scan them into the computer and use photoshop to colour them up and fine-tune. I use a lot of textures like paint marks or scrap paper to make digital brushes.
What’s your workspace like?
At the minute, it’s a bit of a mess (I’m moving studios).
Who are your favourite children’s book illustrators?
Shaun Tan is without a doubt the best in my opinion. Maurice Sendak also, not just for his artwork but because he was honest in his storytelling for kids – it all gets a bit safe these days. And there is a huge number of current illustrators who are also incredible of course, but those two are my personal heroes.
Is there a children’s book you’d especially love to illustrate?
I’d love to illustrate His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, like a special edition type of deal, they are some of my favourite books. I’ve thought about this before – I’d make screen print covers with limited colour palettes.
What advice would you give someone interested in getting into book illustration?
Erm… it’s tough getting into book illustration, not an overnight thing for sure, so don’t worry about rejection – it’s just something that happens. I’d suggest you make work you love because you love it so. Start with your favourite books, redesign the cover, illustrate chapters etc, but do it because it interests you. And be a little tough on yourself, ask yourself ‘Does this look like something I want to pick up off the shelf?’ and above all – stick at it.
Let’s talk a bit about The Midnight Peacock! The book is set in winter: how did you get the wintry effects on the cover? I’ve heard that snow is particularly tricky in illustration – did you find this?
Yeah, snow can be tricky, especially when the colour palette is singular. I used light purples against darker ones with a textured ‘speckled’ brush, I went for a frosty look/feel on The Midnight Peacock because the typical trick for snow is to add it on the sills of windows but with this series the windows are key to front of the book and I didn’t want to lose the details of the action in the windows, covered by snow.
Final character designs for The Midnight Peacock
I love the way each window has its own cast of characters, and tells a story of its own – which window would you most like to eavesdrop beside?
I think the top left, the one with Lil on the moon. I’d have a few drinks and enjoy the party.
What was the most difficult aspect of this cover to get right? How do you test the effects of foiling?
The most difficult aspect of this cover was the design of the Sinclair’s building, since book one already featured the front of the department store (by illustrator extraordinaire Júlia Sardà). I didn’t want to just copy the existing design, so I used it as a template and changed a few details so it feels respectful to the original but it’s got my own stamp on it. I don’t actually test the foiling, the good folks at Egmont and Art Director/Designer Laura Bird are in charge of that. I do have to keep all the ‘foiled’ aspects on separate layers when illustrating the covers though.
Roughs of The Midnight Peacock cover plus colour test
How much did the design change from your roughs to the final artwork?
Not much really, a few details and positioning of characters. I think the biggest change was on the back, as I’d drawn chimneys and windows in the bottom left-hand corner, but with the barcode added on, it would have looked a little off. So we replaced it with a brick wall to frame the existing covers.
How do you choose which scene to depict on a cover (front and back)?
With the Sinclair’s books, the team at Egmont send me a really detailed brief of what they think will work best for the overall cover.
Final book designs for The Midnight Peacock
I love the incidental details – the poster for water on the wall of the building the gang are scaling, the lamppost, the trays of tiny canapés, the brooches and hatpins. How did you research the visual look of 1909 – are there any period sources you found particularly helpful for those details?
I used the brief’s details to research items of the time. I went to the library and got a few books out on ladies’ fashions of the 1900s; and some of the stuff I just googled, particularly the invitations and newspapers of the era.
At the end of The Painted Dragon, we see an illustration of Sophie and Lil for the first time, and in this book we see the whole gang – is it challenging depicting the main characters in a book? I love how the physical stance of each figure in that final image is so true to their character!
It can be difficult, as you want to do justice to the author’s imagination. But you can’t really pick the brain of the author in this type of work, which is a shame. I do get sent the manuscript of the books so I can research and read the story – it helps massively to read the book as you can really build an idea of the characters. Although I avoided the manuscript as much as possible this time, because I’m invested in the story and want to find out how it all ends as its reader rather than illustrator!
Development of characters
It was a thrill to spot ‘KW’ on the spine of the books in the library – are there any other hidden details you could tell us about – or at least give us a clue as to what we might look for?
Yeah, in that one particular illustration, some of the books have spines with titles of the previous books’ creatures on them: a bird, moth and dragon. There is also an open sketch book with a drawing of the main character Sophie in it. I leave sentimental rubbish in all my work sometimes – for instance, the date on one of the newspapers is my Dad’s birthday. Just daft things like that.
Details on small illustrations
I also love the Indian pattern at the bottom of Miss Pennyfeather’s letter – it feels like just the kind of stationery a colonial lady would use. Was it based on a real-life artefact?
It was a last-minute decision on my part – the decorative part of the letter was already in place, but we had to rejig the lettering so it read in a certain way. I was flicking through the text-heavy illustrations and just thought it would be nice to add the elephant motif so it keeps your eyes interested. I researched ‘decorative writing paper’ – a lot of it back then was heavily decorated, especially if you were ‘well to do’.
These books involve lots of letters in different hand-writing, flyers and business cards – do you enjoy working out different typographical effects? Again, I love how each is done so exactly in the character of the letter’s author.
It’s one of my favourite things about this job, I’m not just illustrating it but designing things too. I actually hand-wrote a lot of the letters with a fountain pen/ calligraphy set…it took forever but I think/hope it adds an authencity to it. It’s pretty hard to write out of your regular handwriting style continuously, so for some of the letters I used a font.
Lettering and design
What have you enjoyed most about illustrating the Sinclair’s Mysteries? Do you have a favourite character to illustrate or a favourite illustration?
I’ve enjoyed reading the stories a lot, it makes it really special to illustrate once you’ve read it. I think I enjoyed the mix of illustrating and designing. My favourite character…I think it might be Billy…or Lil.
Finally, thank you for your illustration of quite the most lavish teatime spread – which cake is your favourite, and shall we split one?
Oh, I think we should! It’s gonna sound lame but I really like carrot cake at the minute.
Thank you so much Karl for a totally fascinating insight into the process of creating your amazing artwork! Find out lots more about Karl and his work on his website here.
The Midnight Peacock is published on 5 October and you can pre-order a copy now from Waterstones, The Hive or Amazon.