Lucian Freud and Sue Tilley: The story of an unlikely muse

One of Lucian Freud’s more famous paintings depicts a fertility goddess having a nap on her sofa. She is naked and seems to be deep in unguarded sleep (her face is partly squished and she looks like she might be drooling). Despite this, she is majestic; she has curves on her curves, and they phosphoresce gently in shades of brown, pink, and white. How did the artist sneak up on her? Will he survive her wrath when she wakes up?

(Credit: Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images)

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) broke records when it was sold to Roman Abramovich in 2008 for £17 million ($33.6 million) (Credit: Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images)

No need to worry. For one thing, the goddess isn’t actually asleep: Freud painted her in that pose in sessions spread over many months – he liked to paint from life, and he was fussy, layering and working oil paint until it looks like slathered mud. But for another, the goddess isn’t actually a goddess: she is Sue Tilley, at the time working as a supervisor in a government Jobcentre in London (the title of the painting is Benefits Supervisor Sleeping), and she is as generous on the inside as she is on the outside.


In person, Tilley has a lot of presence, and you realise that Freud’s paintings tap into this. She was in her 30s in the paintings; she is 60 now. She is very kind, dead honest, quick to smile. She has the startling sophistication of someone who has been around the block a few times. And what a block.

(Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley was close friends with the Australian performance artist and club promoter Leigh Bowery – here photographed with his parents Evelyn and Thomas, 1984 (Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley led a Technicolor life long before she met Freud: she was close friends with the ‘total’ artist Leigh Bowery and when she wasn’t at her desk in the office she was part of the anarchic clubbing set in London in the 1980s, centring on notorious nights with names like Blitz and Kinky Gerlinky, but especially Bowery’s own creation, Taboo. The latter was one of the wilder and glitzier moments in a decade of egregious moments (polysexual, polysocial, polyeverything), and one of those avant-garde detonations whose effects can still be felt far away in the mainstream.

Wild nights

There is a large literature on the visual genius of Bowery. His exquisitely executed alter egos were nightmarish (in the fecund sense), often powerfully sexualised, sometimes purely beautiful, always resonant. Bowery ignored the boundaries of taste. He was a prodigy in all senses, but perhaps particularly in the old sense of an omen, a shooting star streaking across the night sky. Like so many of the remarkable gay men of that period, he was erased by Aids.

(Credit: Sue Tilley)

Bowery was also a muse for Lucian Freud; Tilley photographed him (pictured right) with the artist David Holah at her flat in Camden (Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley’s Instagram account offers a mood board that includes her 80s adventures: she says she didn’t consider it a good night unless she’d got drunk enough to fall over at some point. Although Tilley was Dorothy in this Land of Oz, her place in posterity really is guaranteed by a series of four nude portraits which Freud did of her in the late phase of his career. All are likely to remain of art-historical significance.

(Credit: Alamy)

Freud paid Tilley a small daily fee but she didn’t receive any money from the sale of paintings she modelled for (Credit: Alamy)

Of those, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) is probably, and deservedly, the most famous. Evening in the Studio (1993), the first of the series, has her sprawled on the floor with a seated girl apparently disinterested and reading a book in the background. The composition is an odd combination of domestic scene and crime scene. (Tilley says she was relieved when Freud bought the sofa because it was painful to lie on the floor for hours.)

All of these paintings are in the hands of extremely rich men, capable of paying tens of millions of dollars for the privilege of gazing on Tilley’s ‘flesh’

Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) depicts Tilley in the corner of the sofa with her head lolling back, as if she’d just swallowed some poison; a position that could not have been comfortable either. Finally, in Sleeping by the Lion Carpet (1996) Tilley is shown sleeping upright in a chair, facing us. I like that painting because the juxtaposition with the lions in the background suggests that Tilley’s grandeur is epic. (Quite true, I’d say.) She hates that painting because she says it makes her look awful.

Freud once revealed: “If I am putting someone in a picture I like to feel that they’ve fallen asleep there or they’ve elbowed their own way in: that way they are there not to make the picture easy on the eye or more pleasant, but they are occupying the space of my picture and I am recording them.” This unflinching gaze produced works that resonate deeply with viewers. “The task of the artist,” Freud said, “is to make the human being uncomfortable, and yet we are drawn to a great work of art by involuntary chemistry, like a hound getting a scent; the dog isn’t free, it can’t do otherwise, it gets the scent and instinct does the rest.”

All of Freud’s paintings of Tilley are in ‘private collections’, ie the hands of extremely rich men, capable of paying tens of millions of pounds for the privilege of gazing on her ‘flesh’ (Freud’s word). For instance, Roman Abramovich set a then-record for the largest amount paid for a painting by a living artist when he bought Benefits Supervisor Sleeping in 2008 for £17 million ($33.6 million at the time). If you want to see it, you might want to become very good friends with him. Be prepared to become a Chelsea supporter, because he owns that football club too.

(Credit: Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images)

Freud has been called an “unrivalled interpreter of human flesh in paint”; he painted Sleeping by the Lion Carpet in 1996 (Credit: Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images)

Another one, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, is on display as part of the show All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, currently on at Tate Britain in London until the end of August 2018. That painting is on loan from a billionaire who among other things owns Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Catch it before he hangs it back up in his guest toilet.

Benefits Supervisor Resting, meanwhile, has been described as “Freud’s ultimate tour de force, a life-size masterwork in the grand historical tradition of the female nude, painted obsessively with intense scrutiny and abiding truth”; when it was sold at auction in 2015, Christie’s head of post-war art Brett Gorvy said that the painting “is recognised internationally as Freud’s masterpiece and proclaims him as one of the greatest painters of the human form in history alongside Rembrandt and Rubens”. Gorvy described the painting as “a triumph of the human spirit, showcasing Freud’s love of the human body”, commenting on Tilley that Freud “observed every inch of her with an uncritical eye almost daily for more than nine months”.

(Credit: Alamy)

Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) has been described as ‘a triumph of the human spirit, showcasing Freud’s love of the human body’ (Credit: Alamy)

According to Gorvy, Tilley “is calm and confident, relaxed and comfortable in her own skin. She is very much in control, taking on the artist and the viewer. A contemporary take on the Odalisque and the fertility goddess, with her head flung back, she exudes an intriguing ambiguity, implying ecstasy, defiance and the deep exhale of peacefulness.” Benefits Supervisor Resting went on to sell for £35 million ($56 million).

None of the money that has rained down on her representations has made its way to Tilley. When she was posing for Freud he paid her a small daily fee (she told The Guardian that she thought she’d been picked out by Freud as a life model because she represented good value for money – “He got a lot of flesh”).

She liked Freud because he was ‘hilarious’ and loved to gossip with her

Yet, she says, she had the pleasure of his company. She liked him because he was ‘hilarious’ and loved to gossip with her. (Tilley met Freud through Bowery, who was also being painted by him.) She found Freud’s mercurial personality fascinating: she says he could be “mean, extremely generous, grumpy, funny, loud, quiet”; also manipulative, but perhaps in a rather charmingly transparent way. Grumpy seems to have won out, because eventually he dropped her as a friend after taking offence at an offhand remark she made.

(Credit: Tate photography, Joe Humphrys)

Freud’s Sleeping by the Lion Carpet is currently on show as part of All Too Human at Tate Britain (Credit: Tate photography, Joe Humphrys)

Freud gave her some etchings, which she sold years ago because she was short of money, but otherwise she has no mementos. She says he didn’t phone to say thank you after his first painting of her sold for a large sum of money.

She has a £60 printed copy of Freud’s portrait of Leigh Bowery (now in Tate Britain) on the wall of her flat. In 1997 she published Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon, which must be his most definitive biography. It also captures the London club subcultures of the Bowery era very vividly.

From muse to maker

Tilley has retired from the Jobcentre and moved from London to a quiet seaside town in East Sussex. But she is not dozing off. She enjoys frequent visits from artists, creatives, and journalists from around the world who want to talk about Freud, Bowery, and Tilley. And the walls of her flat are vibrant with art, some of it by friends, but most by her. She learned how to draw when she was young and then dropped it, but she has recently taken it up again. She is good.

(Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley has been painting for years: this 2016 image shows Trojan, one of the people in Leigh Bowery’s circle in the 1980s (Credit: Sue Tilley)

Through friends and accident, she ended up having a large solo show of paintings and drawings at an east London gallery in 2015. It caught her a little by surprise, but got her working flat out to produce pieces to fill the gallery. Her style is sketchy, maybe a little cartoonish, self-assured. The effect of her anti-aesthetic is charming. She focuses on the personal: portraits of friends, drawings of everyday objects which she sometimes affectionately calls ‘boring’ but which she loves.

Tilley elaborates on this low-key universe in a further step in her artistic career: her collaboration with the S/S18 Fendi Men’s collection, where luxury clothes and bags are decorated with her pictures of desk lamps, bottle openers, banana skins, cups of coffee. Fendi calls this “corporate escapism” and it is undeniably fun; although you would need to be escaping after light-heartedly robbing a bank, since a T-shirt with a drawing of a martini goes for about £480. I suppose one can’t really complain, since a painting of Tilley goes for upwards of 35,000 times that amount. It is long past time that she got a bigger piece of the action.

(Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley describes this image she painted on a plate as The Benefit Supervisor Has Woken Up (Credit: Sue Tilley)

So, onward for Sue Tilley and her remarkable life. At one point she shows me a nude self-portrait that she painted on a plate for a charity auction. The image echoes Benefits Supervisor Resting, except she is sitting upright and alert, her eyes open. She tells me the title is The Benefit Supervisor Has Woken Up. I would say she never went to sleep. Such a pity that Freud isn’t alive to sit for her.

By Cameron Laux 14 May 2018


In fifth-century Europe, socks were usually worn by “holy” people to symbolize purity

Featured image
The earliest known surviving pair of socks Author: David Jackson  CC BY-SA 2.0

Although nowadays socks seem to be nothing more than just a simple detail of one’s outfit, the fact is that they have come a long way and dramatically evolved over the centuries. Socks are considered by many as being the oldest type of clothing to have ever existed, dating back to the Stone Age when our ancestors first started using animal skin for the purpose of covering their feet and ankles in order to provide much-needed warmth and comfort.

The oldest known surviving pair of socks was discovered in the city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. They date back to 300-500 A.D. and were created by needle-binding. Today, these strange looking ancient socks are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The museum explains that:

“The Romano-Egyptian socks were excavated in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They were given to the Museum in 1900 by Robert Taylor Esq., ‘Kytes,’ Watford. He was the executor of the estate of the late Major Myers and these items were selected among others from a list of textiles as ‘a large number of advantageous examples.”

It appears that humans have embraced the benefits of wearing socks since the earliest cultures and civilizations, including people of Ancient Greece. The famed Greek poet, Hesiod, gives us one of the first written accounts of the importance of keeping our feet warm by using “piloi,” ancient type of socks made from matted animal hair.

 In his didactic poem entitled Works and Days, Hesiod advises his brother Perses to protect himself by using this particular type of ancient socks: “Around your feet, tie your sandals made from brutally hunted oxen skin and, under these, dress them in piloi.” 

They came, they saw, they wore socks with sandals. As you might have already guessed, we are talking about the Ancient Romans. Several years ago, an archaeological dig in North Yorkshire brought archaeologists to a conclusion that Roman legionnaires wore socks with sandals. Although one can rarely see an Ancient Roman sculpture that features socks, the fact is that Ancient Romans, similarly to the Ancient Greeks, also wore socks for protection against cold weather.

While Ancient Greeks and Romans used socks for functional purposes, among Europeans of the 5th century A.D., socks become known as puttees and were usually worn only by “holy” people to symbolize purity.

Status symbols, both financial and cultural, have existed for quite a long time throughout our history with every era being defined by a different one. We all know the status symbols of our own era, but one might be surprised to find out that around 1,000 years ago a rather strange object was considered a mark of social standing, and that was, believe it or not, a pair of colored socks.

It was not until 1000 A.D. that socks became a prominent object in everyday life and a symbol of wealth among the nobility. However, this changed with the invention of the knitting machine in 1589, which made it possible for socks to be knitted far faster than knitting them by hand as people did before. A strange new substance known as nylon was introduced in 1938 which caused a revolution in the entire textile industry and changed sock production forever.


Today in the 21st century, socks can be found for any kind of need, purpose, or style; the only thing that remains a struggle is to keep one pair of socks complete.

 Alex .A

Alzheimer’s researchers win brain prize

Alzheimer's disease brain compared to normalImage copyright  SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image captionAlzheimer’s disease brain (left) compared to normal (right)

Four dementia scientists have shared this year’s 1m Euro brain prize for pivotal work that has changed our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.

Profs John Hardy, Bart De Strooper, Michel Goedert, based in the UK, and Prof Christian Haass, from Germany, unpicked key protein changes that lead to this most common type of dementia.

On getting the award, Prof Hardy said he hoped new treatments could be found.

He is donating some of his prize money to care for Alzheimer’s patients.

Much of the drug discovery research that’s done today builds on their pioneering work, looking for ways to stop the build-up of damaging proteins, such as amyloid and tau.

Alzheimer’s and other dementias affect 50 million people around the world, and none of the treatments currently available can stop the disease.

Path to beating Alzheimer’s

Prof Hardy’s work includes finding rare, faulty genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

These genetic errors implicated a build-up of amyloid as the event that kick-starts damage to nerve cells in Alzheimer’s.

Profs Hardy and De StrooperImage copyright  MICHELLE ROBERTS
Image captionProfs Hardy and De Strooper discussed how they would spend the prize money

This idea, known as the amyloid cascade hypothesis, has been central to Alzheimer’s research for nearly 30 years.

Together with Prof Haass, who is from the University of Munich, Prof Hardy, who’s now at University College London, then discovered how amyloid production changes in people with rare inherited forms of Alzheimer’s dementia.

How one woman and her family transformed Alzheimer’s research

Prof Goedert’s research at Cambridge University, meanwhile, revealed the importance of another damaging protein, called tau, while Prof De Stooper, who is the new director of the UK Dementia Research Institute at UCL, discovered how genetic errors that alter the activity of proteins called secretases can lead to Alzheimer’s processes.

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Our congratulations go to all four of these outstanding scientists whose vital contributions have transformed our understanding of the complex causes of Alzheimer’s disease.

“The fact that three of these researchers work in the UK reflects the country’s position as a global leader in dementia research.”

Prof Hardy said he would be donating around 5,000 euros of his share of the 1m euros from the Lundbeck Foundation to help campaigns to keep Britain in the EU, and called Brexit a “unmitigated disaster” for scientific research.

He also pledged his thanks to all the people with Alzheimer’s who, over the years, have volunteered to help with dementia research.

Haemochromatosis: ‘Celtic curse’ gene can cause major organ damage

Sheenagh Lundy
Image captionSheenagh Lundy suffers from haemochromatosis or what is sometimes called the “Celtic Curse”.

Shenagh Lundy was diagnosed with Genetic haemochromatosis (GH). when she was 18.

The disorder sometimes known as ‘the Celtic curse’ causes the body to absorb excessive amounts of iron.

The iron is deposited in various organs including the liver, heart, pancreas and the joints causing an iron overload.

Once regarded as rare, as many as one in eight people in Ireland are now found to be carrying the gene.

BBC News NI Health Correspondent Marie-Louise Connolly explains Haemochromatosis (

The symptoms can include extreme tiredness, joint pain and in extreme cases it can cause damage to vital organs.

Shenagh is now 25 and working as a nurse in Newry, but the condition can still leave her feeling exhausted.

“I knew there was something not quite right when at 18. I was always feeling tired and lethargic. Up to then I had been active going to the gym. I had pains in my joints especially in my knuckles which were very painful. ”

Exhausted and lethargic

The underlying cause is the inheritance of a mutated gene which stops the body’s control of iron from working properly. It can only be inherited and can’t be caught from anybody else. It can however be passed on by having a child.

While a person can carry the gene that doesn’t necessarily mean they will present with symptoms.

Shennagh Lundy and Nurse.
Image captionSheenagh Lunday was diagnosed with haemochromatosis at the age of 18

Shenagh told the BBC that her blood was tested and found to be carrying the haemochromatosis gene.

“I had never heard of it then and I had to start doing a lot of research. I was amazed to find out that it is a celtic disease but no one in my family had ever heard of it either.

Now we’ve all been tested and my parents are both carriers but my brother doesn’t have it. ”

Dr Johnny Cash
Image captionConsultant Hepatolgist Dr Johnny Cash

Dr Johnny Cash is a consultant hepatologist at the regional liver unit at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital.

“The Celtic curse refers to both the prevalence and incidence of the disease in the Irish population but also because the genes have been detected as far back as the Neolithic era in a woman who lived back then just south of Omagh. Her body was exhumed over 5 years ago as were two men who lived on Rathlin Island in the Bronze age. All were found to have the Celtic gene.”

To detect whether a person has too much iron in the blood a ferritin or blood test can be carried out. High levels of ferritin can indicate an iron storage disorder. The typical ranges are 20 to 500 nanograms per millilitre in men; while 20 to 200 in women. Shenagh’s first reading was 316.

That’s considered high. In order to release the iron around a pint of blood is withdrawn. For some people this can mean attending hospital several times a year until the iron levels are reduced.

nurse drawing blood
Image captionAround a pint of blood is withdrawn to release the iron content

Shenagh said after giving blood she normally feels much better and energy levels are restored.

“Beforehand I’m usually very tired. My joints are sore especially my knuckles.

Then I get the procedure done and within a day I am back feeling a lot better. ”

The blood that is taken is considered ‘good blood’ and once treated can be used by the transfusion service.

Dr Johnny Cash says more people are now aware of the condition.

“Haemochromatosis is no more prevalent now than it would have been in the past however we are getting better at public awareness of the condition and word of mouth is certainly playing a part.

Around 20,000 people in Northern Ireland have it but there could be more who aren’t aware. ”

Early detection of this condition is possible and recommended so that it can be treated early.


In 1703, Britain was struck by possibly its worst ever storm

An illustration of ships caught up in the Great Storm of 1703 (Credit: Alan King/Alamy)

On the night of 7 December 1703, the United Kingdom was visited by an extreme weather event.

Following weeks of wind and rain, a cyclone blew through the country at midnight, from the Welsh coasts to the Midlands and the south of England, hitting the cities of Bristol and London in particular. The storm also wreaked havoc in continental Europe, causing severe damage in the Netherlands, the Danish islands and Germany.

Remembered through history as the “Great Storm of 1703”, it is a contender for the worst storm Britain has ever seen. Queen Anne described it as “a Calamity so Dreadful and Astonishing, that the like hath not been Seen or Felt, in the Memory of any Person Living in this Our Kingdom.”

Just before the 1703 storm struck, the novelist Daniel Defoe noticed that the Mercury had “sunk lower than ever I had observ’d it” and assumed the instrument had been meddled with by his children. He recorded the “terrible night” in great detail in a 1704 book, The Storm, using accounts sent in from people across the country.

The Great Storm of 1987 is often said to be Britain’s worst storm since the Great Storm of 1703. But was the 1703 storm the greatest in British history, prior to 1987?

The aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987 (Credit: Simon Dack Archive/Alamy)

The aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987 (Credit: Simon Dack Archive/Alamy)

The late Hubert Lamb, founder of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, studied the storm in collaboration with Knud Frydendahl of the Danish Meteorological Institute. In their 1991 book Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe, they ranked it just fifth in a chart of severity.

The storm scored 9,000 on their “severity index”. This was based on wind speeds, area covered by damaging winds, duration of damaging winds, as well as total damage to landscape and property, and the number of human and animal lives lost.

A cow was blown into the high branches of a tree

The most severe storm according to Lamb’s index was the storm of 1987 with a score of 20,000, followed by the storms of 1792 (12,000), 1825 (12,000) and 1694 (10,000, but with the caveat that this storm is poorly known because it happened so long ago).

So why has the Great Storm of 1703 remained in collective memory, more so than several others that were apparently more severe? Partly it is thanks to Defoe and his detailed and popular account, which turned the storm into Britain’s first weather-related major news story.

It may also be because of the physical damage the storm caused. The impact was especially heavy because it hit the south of England, with its populated cities and busy harbours.

The storm uprooted thousands of trees; blew tiles from rooftops, which smashed windows in their paths; and flung ships from their moorings in the River Thames. A boat in Whitstable, Kent was blown 250m inland from the water’s edge.

As Britain slept, the wind lifted and dropped chimney stacks, killing people in their beds. It blew fish out of the ponds and onto the banks in London’s St James’s Park, beat birds to the ground and swept farm animals away to their deaths. Oaks collapsed and pieces of timber, iron and lead blasted through the streets. The gales blew a man into the air and over a hedge. A cow was blown into the high branches of a tree. Lightning kindled fires in Whitehall and Greenwich. From the hours of five in the morning until half past six, the storm roared at its strongest. It is thought between 8,000 and 15,000 people in total were killed.

If you’ve got westerly winds in the Channel, you cannot sail down the Channel

Strong and persistent winds had already blown through the country for 14 days leading up to the storm. Those winds were already fierce enough to topple chimneys, destroy ships and blow tiles from the roofs of houses.

“In terms of its dramatic impact, it’s up there with the best of them,” says Dennis Wheeler, emeritus professor of climatology at the University of Sunderland. “Thousands of sailors died. The number was put at about 6,000. At the time, we were engaged with the War of the Spanish Succession, so we could ill afford to lose them. We lost a lot of ships, a lot of trade, and there was horrendous damage.”

Records show the country experienced westerly winds in the weeks preceding the storm which meant ships were crowded in the English Channel, waiting to travel out.

“If you’ve got westerly winds in the Channel, you cannot sail down the Channel,” says Wheeler, who studied the storm in 2003. “You’ve got all these ships waiting to sail out with goods.”

Plenty of Royal Navy ships had amassed in the region too, he says, ready for an assault on the Spanish coastal city of Cádiz – an operation that ultimately ended with the forces taking Gibraltar instead. Thirteen Royal Navy ships and many merchant vessels were lost in the Channel, along with the sailors.

An illustration of ships caught up in the Great Storm of 1703 (Credit: Alan King/Alamy)

An illustration of ships caught up in the Great Storm of 1703 (Credit: Alan King/Alamy)

Modern meteorologists have studied the storm to find out what happened.

In his 1991 book co-written with Knud Frydendahl, Hubert Lamb charted its movement over the 14-day period.

He suggested that cyclonic activity was concentrated over Britain for the first six days and then moved north. On the seventh day, another system arrived from the west and marched across the country into northern Europe.

The 1680s and 1690s were arguably the coldest two decades since the ice retreated about 12,000 years ago

Looking at records of barometric pressure from the time, he noted a “deep low pressure system”, with London experiencing the “sharpest” pressure changes. His analysis of the source material found the lowest pressure of 950 millibars (mb) over central England.

“Depressions generally form in the mid-Atlantic and are driven across the Atlantic by the famous jet streams, which steer cyclones,” says Wheeler. “Sometimes a cyclone is benign, but they are areas of low pressure and they bring cloud and rain.”

But do we know why this area of low pressure was so forceful?

One reason could have been that a sharp contrast in temperature caused a particularly deep cyclone, suggests Wheeler.

“When they’re as deep as that, they normally result in a big temperature contrast between the polar latitudes and the tropical latitudes,” says Wheeler. “So there’s a suggestion that, although we don’t have air temperature records for the Atlantic, you could have expected a steep temperature gradient north to south. That’s the thermal energy inequality that gives rise to these cyclones.”

At the time, the country was in the so-called Little Ice Age.

“It’s quite possible that the chilliness may well have contributed to the storm, but like all these things they are multi-causal,” says Wheeler. “Certainly as far as the British Isles were concerned, the 1680s and 1690s were arguably the coldest two decades since the ice retreated about 12,000 years ago.”

"Winter landscape with skaters and bird trap" by Pieter Brueghel (Credit: Akademie/Alamy)

“Winter landscape with skaters and bird trap” by Pieter Brueghel (Credit: Akademie/Alamy)

One theory about the storm’s origin was that a hurricane in New England had drifted across the Atlantic.

“We are told they felt upon that [Florida and Virginia] an unusual Tempest a few days before the fatal 7th December,” wrote Defoe. But he gave no source.

It is not clear whether Beaufort was directly inspired by Defoe’s work

While it was the hurricane season and hurricanes can drift, Wheeler found no clear evidence to support this theory. Lamb, however, writes that there is “some support” for the idea.

Certainly, the winds were hurricane-force. Based on early instruments and charts, Lamb estimated that the strongest winds in the system were about 150 knots. Surface wind speeds seem to have been up to 80 or 90 knots (approximately 140-155km/h or 87-96mph), with “gusts and squalls probably much stronger”.

How much did the Great Storm influence early meteorology?

Defoe compiled a list of terms – a “Table of Degrees” – to describe wind forces in his 1704 book. A link is often made between Defoe’s table and the Beaufort scale, which was devised a century later and is now used throughout the marine world to measure wind. The two are similar in structure, but it is not clear whether Beaufort was directly inspired by Defoe’s work.

As far as a lot of people were concerned, it was literally an act of God

Wheeler looked in depth at nautical vocabulary and found that an unofficial language for describing wind force existed before Beaufort’s scale, but it was not Defoe’s Table.

The reason why the impact on meteorology was slim was the historical context: meteorology barely existed in 1703.

Before the 18th Century Age Of Enlightenment, most Europeans believed in the divine omnipotence of a Christian God, who could communicate his wrath with the weather. Sermons from the time show that clergy interpreted the storm as a sign of God’s anger at a variety of apparent misdemeanours, including the popularity of the theatre and science. Non-clerical accounts also link the storm to divine wrath. “The Winds are a Part of the Works of God by Nature,” wrote Defoe.

“You can see some scientists beginning to get an acknowledgement with a rational view of the world, such as Newton,” says Wheeler. “They were the tip of an intellectual iceberg, but most people had a deeply religious view of the events that they experienced. As far as a lot of people were concerned, it was literally an act of God.”

Hurricanes can form over the Atlantic Ocean (Credit: Panther Media GmbH/Alamy)

Hurricanes can form over the Atlantic Ocean (Credit: Panther Media GmbH/Alamy)

Compared with other sciences, meteorology took a long time to emerge and advance. As Wheeler points out, the problem with studying weather is that an event like the Great Storm cannot be repeated in a lab.

“It wasn’t until well into the 19th Century that scientists began to realise that these winds were circulatory systems, not a linear in-flow,” says Wheeler. “That really didn’t begin until 1820s and 1830s. Like all branches of science it was a stumbling, groping in the dark for some time.”

One gave up and just wrote ‘a most violent storm’ and left it at that, for sheer want of anything more he could say

As well as the theological language of most accounts of the storm, there was no standardised terminology to describe weather or atmospheric processes. Forecasting and a vocabulary of meteorology would not appear until much later, in the 1860s.

An anonymous daily journal of the weather from 1703, analysed by Jan Golinski of the University of New Hampshire, gives some insight into just how differently language was used before the sciences of meteorology and climatology were established.

The diarist uses words such as “sad”, “uncomfortable”, “lovely”, “charming”, “smiling” and “cheerful” to describe the conditions and his response to them. “He described how his bodily humours responded to atmospheric circumstances. He even occasionally recounted feelings of spiritual elation or erotic union with his environment,” writes Golinski.

Admirals who were obliged to record the weather struggled to find the words to describe the Great Storm.

Barometers warn you when a storm is coming (Credit: trekandshoot/Alamy)

Barometers warn you when a storm is coming (Credit: trekandshoot/Alamy)

“It was so severe, none of these poor captains had ever experienced it before, so they didn’t have any yardsticks to base the description on,” says Wheeler, who studied Royal Navy logbooks at length. “One gave up and just wrote ‘a most violent storm’ and left it at that, for sheer want of anything more he could say.”

He even occasionally recounted feelings of spiritual elation or erotic union with his environment

However, there are clear signs of scientific interest in the event. The Royal Society, which had been founded a few decades earlier in 1660, released a special edition of its journalPhilosophical Transactions, which included accounts detailing temperature, barometer readings and rainfall in the preceding months.

A few years after the Great Storm, an English Admiral fleet was wrecked on the rocks of the Scilly Isles in severe weather and many sailors lost their lives. In response to the tragedy, the Board of Longitude was established to determine longitude at sea, so that ship navigators would have a better idea of their exact position.

While the Great Storm did not have a similar official impact, the written records show that it piqued an early scientific curiosity about extreme weather events. This in turn led to the meteorology we use today.

By Lucy Jones

‘Oldest tattoo’ found on 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies


Image caption This young man was one of the first people in the world to have a figurative tattoo. It appears as a dark smudge at the top of his arm.

Researchers have discovered the oldest figurative tattoos in the world on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.

The illustrations are of a wild bull and a Barbary sheep on the upper-arm of a male mummy, and S-shaped motifs on the upper-arm and shoulder of a female.

The discovery pushes back evidence for the practice in Africa by 1,000 years.

Details of the tattoos have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Image captionThe first tattoo: A wild bull with long tail and elaborate horns; and above it, a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder

Daniel Antoine, one of the lead authors of the research paper and the British Museum’s Curator of Physical Anthropology, said that the discovery had “transformed” our understanding of how people lived in this era.

“Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium,” he told BBC News.

TatttooTatttooImage copyright TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM  Image caption The first tattoo: A wild bull with long tail and elaborate horns; and above it, a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder

The male mummy was found about 100 years ago.

Previous CT scans showed that he was between 18 and 21 years old when he died from a stab wound to the back.

Dark smudges on his arm were thought to be unimportant until infrared scans revealed that they were tattoos of two slightly overlapping horned animals. One is interpreted to be a wild bull with a long tail and elaborate horns; the other appears to be a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder.

Image caption The female mummy has tattoos which may denote status, bravery and magical knowledge

The female mummy has four small S-shaped motifs running down her right shoulder.

She also has a motif that is thought to represent batons used in ritual dance.

The designs are under the skin and the pigment is probably soot.

Previously, archaeologists had thought only women wore tattoos in the ancient past, but the discovery of tattoos on the male mummy now shows body modification concerned both sexes.

The researchers believe that the tattoos would have denoted status, bravery and magical knowledge.

The mummies were found in Gebelein in the southern part of Upper Egypt, around 40km south of modern-day Luxor.

The individuals were buried in shallow graves without any special preparation, but their bodies were naturally preserved by the heat, salinity and aridity of the desert.

Radiocarbon results indicate that they lived between 3351 and 3017 BC, shortly before the region was unified by the first pharaoh at around 3100 BC.

The oldest example of tattooing is found on the Alpine mummy known as Ötzi who is thought to have lived between 3370 and 3100 BC. But his tattoos are vertical or horizontal lines, rather than figurative.

Image caption Four S-shaped motifs run down the woman’s right shoulder