Saturday, November 1, 2014

The 'Peeper' on Pause

Just a quick note to readers of The Victorian Peeper: as more and more of my time is devoted to writing up my PhD thesis, I have temporarily shifted my focus away from this blog and towards Facebook (VictorianLondon) and Twitter (@Tetens). Please follow me in one or both of those places for the latest information on books, exhibitions, and events of interest to Victorianists. I will continue to update the "Exhibitions and Events" listing here, as well as the lists of search tools and resources. I will return to writing this blog in the spring of 2015. Thank you all very much for your understanding and support.

Shown above: Louis Haghe (1806-85), The Great Exhibition: The Medieval Court (1851)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sack and Slaughter: Representations of the Crusades on the Nineteenth-Century Stage

"The Blood Red Knight" by J. H. Amherst, lithograph with hand-coloring and tinsel, c. 1850,
published by John Redington

Although historians of the British theatre have long been interested in representations of the “East” on the nineteenth-century stage, few have explored plays depicting the medieval Christian quest to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule.

The popularity of theatrical representations of the Crusades in the first half of the nineteenth century coincided with the British public’s growing curiosity about the Near East. Tourism to the main Crusade sites rose sharply with improvements in transportation. Artists and engravers brought images of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Damascus Gate, and the Dome of the Rock directly into homes; the exploits of archaeologists in Palestine made newspaper headlines; and enormous, topographically accurate panoramas of biblical landscapes drew crowds across London. A gigantic moving diorama of Jerusalem, for example, complete with Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane, drew crowds to Hyde Park Corner in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. Eastern-themed novels, poetry, children’s literature, missionary tracts, journals, and pictorial art of all kinds were widely available.

Theatrical managers, ever on the lookout for new ways to tap into the public’s enthusiasms, were quick to take advantage. The following examples, which are representative of the genre, demonstrate how playwriting offered considerable scope to the romantic imagination and plenty of room for an idiosyncratic interpretation of historical events.

The Blood Red Knight; or, The Warriors of Palestine, 
Penny Pictorial Plays
The Blood Red Knight by William Barrymore was first produced in 1810 at Astley’s Amphitheatre on the south side of the Thames. There were many versions of it, over many years, by many playwrights. Its first production ran for 175 nights and made more than £18,000, an enormous sum at the time. The plot revolves around the attempts of the Blood Red Knight to seduce Isabella, wife of his brother Alfonso, the crusader. Alfonso returns, is defeated, but then calls in reinforcements, when “the castle is taken by storm, the surrounding river is covered with boats filled with warriors, and the battlements are strongly contested. Men and horses are portrayed slain and dying in various directions, while other soldiers and horses are submerged in the river, forming an effect totally new and unprecedented in this or any other country, and terminating in the total defeat of the Blood Red Knight.”

Characters from the play were depicted in tinsel prints, a uniquely nineteenth-century art form that was popular between 1815 and 1830. Tinseling enthusiasts bought plain or colored prints, then added costumes made of die-cut metal foils, called tinsel, as well as bits of fabric, leather, or any other material. The blood-red knights shown at the top of this post and below might once have had real feathers on their helmets. When completed, tinsel prints would glow like religious icons.

"Mr. Gomersal as the Blood Red Knight," c. 1835 (Edward Alexander Gomersal, 1788-1862)

A lavishly tinselled version of "Mr. Gomersal as The Blood Red Knight"

The Crusaders; or, Jerusalem Delivered at the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1820 was billed as “an Entirely New and Splendid Melodramatic Tale of Enchantment, the Main Incidents of which are Taken from Tasso's Poem of ‘Jerusalem Delivered,’ Interspersed with Songs, Duets, Glees, Choruses, Marches, and Combats, with Entirely New Scenery, Extensive Machinery, Dresses, Properties, and Decorations.” The First Crusade was less popular than the Third Crusade as a dramatic subject during the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, playwrights inspired by Tasso’s “Gerusalemme Liberata” could depend on their audience’s knowledge of that poem, which was available in a number of English editions and translations. Its lyrical passion found a warm reception among the Victorians later in the century, who could appreciate the struggles of characters torn between love and duty and for whom historical inaccuracy was no impediment to enjoyment.

The Royal Coburg production appeared the same year that Charles Mills published his magisterial two-volume History of the Crusades for the Recovery and Possession of the Holy Land, one of the earliest studies devoted specifically to that topic – and one critical of the Western religious fanaticism that inspired the wars. Yet the impact of such historical scholarship was negligible on a general public that preferred to get its history lessons in the popular theatres of the day. This has not changed much from the Victorians’ time to ours. Compare the number of people who have dipped into The Oxford History of the Crusades (thousands, maybe?) with the number of those who have seen Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (millions). These recent films are the direct descendants of the nineteenth-century sack-and-slaughter plays.

In 1827, seven years after producing The Crusaders, the Royal Coburg produced The Unhallowed Templar, a three-act play billed as “an entirely new Grand Historical-Romantic Legendary Spectacle.” This time the subject was the Third Crusade, with much of the action focusing on the various engagements between the Christian forces commanded by the English King Richard I and the Muslim forces led by Saladin. In fact, this encounter of two towering personalities is tailor-made for the stage, which is why plays based on incidents of the Third Crusade outnumber all others during the nineteenth century. No matter that Richard and Saladin never actually met face to face – that inconvenient historical truth did not trouble the playwrights who wrote to fill London theatres. In nearly every one, there is stage combat of the most sensational kind, often on horseback, between the two leaders.

"The Combat Between Richard and Saladin," Astley's Amphitheatre,
Illustrated London News, 20 May 1843

So we have, in 1843, a play at Astley’s Amphitheatre called The Crusaders of Jerusalem, which featured a violent encounter between Richard and Saladin. Above is an artist’s rendering of this scene. Such depictions must have made an indelible impression on audiences and shaped how they thought about England’s role in the historical Crusades. Certainly they had an impact on later artistic representations, including the work of Gustave Doré, who illustrated an English edition of Joseph Michaud’s History of the Crusades in 1877. Below is a plate from that work featuring the iconography that had developed around the completely fictional meeting of Richard and Saladin.

Gustave Doré (1832-1888),"Richard the Lion-Heart and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf,"
from History of the Crusades by Michaud (1877)

In these plays, Richard is always portrayed as a heroic exemplar of English honour and liberty. Saladin himself behaves in admirable ways – and he was revered by some British writers, including Sir Walter Scott, who compared him favourably with European sovereigns. Still, these plays leave no doubt that the “barbarism” of the Muslims must be extinguished, and that is invariably what happened on stage.

And speaking of Sir Walter Scott … it would be hard to overstate his influence in creating and perpetuating nineteenth-century romantic notions of the Crusades. Productions of plays based on Ivanhoe and The Talisman, in particular, were instrumental in transmitting these ideas to an audience well beyond those who read the books.

The first dramatisation of Ivanhoe, for example, appeared at the Surrey Theatre in 1820 within weeks of the novel’s publication and inspired a further 290 versions over the following decades. One witness of the Surrey production compared its effect to the feeling inspired by a stained glass window or a Gothic chapel full of shrines, banners, and knightly monuments. Dramatists often played fast and loose with Scott’s story, creating pastiches derived from multiple sources in the interest of heightening its spectacular elements. It was also transformed into opera, pantomime, burlesque, and toy theatre versions.

Although Ivanhoe was the most widely adapted of Scott’s Crusade novels, The Talisman was also extremely popular. The first theatrical adaptation of this story of the Third Crusade was produced in Edinburgh in 1825, and more than 70 other versions followed over the course of the century. In the novel, which is set in Palestine, the Scottish knight Sir Kenneth is charged with guarding the standard of Richard the Lionheart’s camp overnight, a task he undertakes with his faithful deerhound Roswal. When Kenneth abandons his watch temporarily, the villain Conrade of Monserrat steals the banner, wounding Roswal in the process. Later, as Conrade marches in a procession before the king, the dog leaps at him, seizing him by the throat, revealing him as the thief.

The Knights of the Cross; or, The Dog of the Blood-Stained Banner was just one of many mid-Victorian plays that used this plot as a starting point. It was performed in 1841 at the Royal Albert Saloon, an establishment specializing in burlesque, comic ballets, and melodramas.

The Knights of the Cross; or The Dog of the Blood-Stained Banner, 1841 (East London Theatre Archive) 

On the poster for this play (above), you can see Roswal, played by a large dog called “Victor,” fighting Conrade for King Richard’s standard. Below that we have the list of characters with the names of the actors portraying them, and below that is a synopsis of the play and its key settings. Act One alone featured a hermit’s cave, a gothic chapel, King Richard’s tent, and a “Grand Eastern Procession” featuring “six suits of real armor.” Act Two included Richard’s camp with a distant view of Jerusalem at sunset, Queen Berengaria’s tent, and St. George’s Mount in the center of Richard’s camp. Note the action described here: Kenneth is seduced from his duty by the queen and one of her ladies, leaving his faithful dog to guard the English banner; Roswal is attacked by Conrade and an “awful, desperate, and protracted conflict ensues … the noble creature fights until his Blood bedews the Mount, and true to the last lies weltering as the Sentinel of his Master’s Honor.” Then follows an “Affecting Meeting of the Dying Dog and the Knight” that was apparently a masterpiece of the histrionic art, both human and canine. The final act began with scenes in King Richard’s tent and the Crusaders’ camp and concluded with a tournament in which “desperate broadsword and shield combat” ended in the “pride and glory of the English crusaders.”

The success of this adaptation led to a vogue for plays featuring trained dogs, who often upstaged the human actors and became stars in their own right.

A slightly earlier play called The Siege of Jerusalem, also based on The Talisman and shamelessly mixing fact and fantasy, featured Saladin’s capture of the Holy City, a view of the Dead Sea, the arrival of the French and Austrian fleets, the burning sands of the desert, an appearance by Saladin’s white bull, a “Grand Asiatic Ballet,” the encounter between the Leopard Knight and the Templar – which is straight from Scott – and a feast in Saladin’s camp. The audience certainly got its money’s worth from that one.

Each of these plays referenced tropes about the Crusades that swirled through Victorian society. Crusade plays simplified these down to their basic elements and then exploded them out into a three-dimensional sensory feast, using every trick and technique in the arsenal of stage management. They were, truly, spectacles that cemented a highly romanticized version of the Crusades in the nineteenth-century British imagination.

"Suffragettes Posting Bills," c. 1910
(Library of Congress)
Finally, I’d like to share an image that brings the legacy of nineteenth-century theatrical representations of the Crusades crashing into the modern age – one that links the world of stage melodrama with the beginning of the modern age of film. The image on the right shows two American suffragette bill posters, one of whom is just outside the frame on the right. They're pasting their “Votes for Women” posters over two advertising posters for a silent Italian film called The Crusaders, or Jerusalem Delivered that was released in the U.S. in 1911. The film was based on Tasso’s poem, making it a direct descendant of the Royal Coburg play of the same name. With one swipe of a big brush, one historical crusade is replaced by another.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Henry Mayhew Takes to the Sky

In 1852, the year after his groundbreaking survey of London's working classes was published in book form, Henry Mayhew (1812-1887; DNB bio here, Wiki bio here) climbed into the wicker basket of a hot air balloon piloted by the legendary aeronaut Charles Green (1785-1870; DNB bio here, Wiki bio here). 

"I had seen the world of London below the surface, as it were, and I had a craving to contemplate it far above it – to behold the immense mass of vice and avarice and cunning, of noble aspirations and humble heroism, blent into one black spot," he writes in his vivid account of the evening voyage, which began in the bright pleasure-grounds of Vauxhall Gardens and ended in a Surrey swamp. And indeed, as the famous Royal Nassau balloon rose into the air, the geography of the lives of the costermongers, oyster sellers, flower girls, hawking butchers, and pickpockets whose activities he recorded in London Labour and London Poor came into undifferentiated view. 

This occasion marked Green's 500th ascent in the Royal Nassau; in 1836, in the same balloon, he had led a voyage from London that ended 480 miles and eighteen hours later in Weilburg, Germany—a flight that was at the time (and until 1907) the world’s longest. 

"In the Clouds,” or, Some Account of a Balloon Trip with Mr. Green
By Henry Mayhew

The Illustrated London News, 18 September 1852

I am naturally a coward – constitutionally and habitually timid – I do not hesitate to confess it. The literary temperament and sedentary pursuits are, I believe, seldom associated with physical courage. Fear, or the ideal presence of prospective injury, is necessarily an act of the imagination; and the sense of danger, therefore, closely connected with a sense of the beautiful and the aesthetic faculties in general. Your human bull-dogs are mostly deficient in mental refinement, and perhaps if there be one class of characters more fancyless than the rest of the world, they are those who are said to belong to the “fancy.” My creed is that all imaginative men are cowards; and that I am one I have at least moral courage and honesty enough to acknowledge.

Then why go up in a balloon?

Yes, why? These are times when men’s principles of action are sure to be canvassed; so, to prevent the imputation of any false motives, I will make a clean breast of it, and confess that it was merely “idle curiosity,” as the world calls it, that took me into the air.

I had seen the great metropolis under almost every aspect. I had dived into holes and corners hidden from the honest and well-to-do portion of the cockney community. I had visited Jacob’s Island (the plague spot) in the height of the cholera, when to inhale the very air of the place was almost to breathe the breath of death. I had sought out the haunts of beggars and thieves, and passed hours communing with them as to their histories, habits, natures, and impulses. I had seen the world of London below the surface, as it were, and I had a craving to contemplate it far above it – to behold the immense mass of vice and avarice and cunning, of noble aspirations and humble heroism, blent into one black spot; to take, as it were, an angel’s view of that huge city where, perhaps, there is more virtue and more iniquity, more wealth and more want huddled together in one vast heap than in any other part of the earth; to look down upon the strange, incongruous clump of palaces and workhouses, of factory chimneys and church steeples, of banks and prisons, of docks and hospitals, of parks and squares, of courts and alleys – to look down upon these as the birds of the air look down upon them, and see the whole dwindle into a heap of rubbish on the green sward, a human ant-hill, as it were; to hear the hubbub of the restless sea of life below, and hear it like the ocean in a shell, whispering to you of the incessant strugglings and chafings of the distant tide – to swing in the air far above all the petty jealousies and heart-burnings, and small ambitions and vain parades, and feel for once tranquil as a babe in a cot – that you were hardly of the earth earthy; and to find, as you drank in the pure thin air above you, the blood dancing and tingling joyously through your veins, and your whole spirit becoming etherealised as Jacob-like, you mounted the aerial ladder, and beheld the world beneath you fade and fade from your sight like a mirage in the desert; to feel yourself really, as you had ideally in your dreams, floating through the endless realms of space, sailing among the stars free as “the lark at heaven’s gate,” and to enjoy for a brief half-hour at least a foretaste of that elysian destiny which is the hope of all. To see, to think, and to feel thus was surely worth some little risk, and this it was that led me to peril my bones in the car of a balloon.

It is true that the aerial bulls and ponies of late had taken nearly all poetry from the skies, reducing the ancient myths to the mere stage trickeries of an ethereal Astley’s; true that the depraved rage for excitement  -- that species of mental dram-drinking which ever demands some brutal stimulant – had given a most vulgar, prosaic character to a voyage which, when stripped of its peril, is perhaps one of the purest and most dignified delights that the mind is capable of enjoying; still, quickened with a love of my own art, and heedless of any silly imputations of rivalry with quadrupeds and mountebanks, I gladly availed myself of a seat in the car which Mr. Green had set aside for me.

At about a quarter to seven o’clock, six of us and the “veteran aeronaut” took our places in the large deep wicker buck-basket of a car attached to the Royal Nassau Balloon, while two gentlemen were seated immediately above our heads, with their backs resting against the netting and their legs stretched across the hoop to which the cords of the net-work are fastened, and from which depends the car. There were altogether nine of us – a complete set of human pins for the air to play at skittles with – and the majority, myself above the number, no sylphs in weight. Above us reeled the great gas-bag like a monster peg-top, and all around the car were groups of men holding to the sides of the basket, while the huge iron weights were handed out and replaced by large squabby bags of sand.

In the course of about ten minutes all the arrangements for starting were complete; the grapnel, looking like a bundle of large iron fish-hooks, welded together, was hanging over the side of the car. The guide-rope, longer than St. Paul’s is high, and done up in a canvas bag, with only the end hanging out, was dangling beside the grapnel, and we were raised some fifty feet in the air to try the ascensive power of the machine that was to bear us through the clouds. Then, having been duly dragged down, the signal was at length given to fire the cannons, and Mr. Green loosening the only rope that bound us to the Gardens, we shot into the air—or rather the earth seemed to sink suddenly down, as if the spot of ground, with all the spectators on it, and on which we ourselves had been lately standing, had been constructed on the same principle as the Adelphi stage, and admitted of being lowered at a moment’s notice. The last thing that I remember to have seen distinctly was the flash of the guns, and instantaneously there appeared a multitude of upturned faces in the Gardens below, the greater part with their mouths wide open, and a cheveux de fries of hands extended above them, all signaling farewell to us. Then, as we swept rapidly above the trees, I could see the roadway immediately outside the Gardens, stuck all over with rows of tiny people, looking like so many black pins on a cushion, and the hubbub of the voices below was like the sound of a distant school let loose.

And here began that peculiar panoramic effect which is the distinguishing feature of a view from a balloon, and which arises from the utter absence of all sense of motion in the machine itself. The earth appeared literally to consist of a long series of scenes, which were being continually drawn along under you, as if it were a diorama beheld flat upon the ground, and gave one almost the notion that the world was an endless landscape stretched upon rollers, which some invisible sprites were revolving for your especial enjoyment.

Then, as we struck towards the fields of Surrey, and I looked over the edge of the car in which I was standing, holding on tight to the thick rope descending from the hoop above, and with the rim of the wicker work reaching up to my breast, the sight was the most exquisite delight I ever experienced. The houses below looked like the tiny wooden things out of a child’s box of toys, and the streets like ruts. To peer straight down gave you an awful sense of the height to which the balloon had already risen, and yet there was no idea of danger, for the mind was too much occupied with the grandeur and novelty of the scene all around to feel the least alarm. As the balloon kept on ascending, the lines of buildings few smaller and smaller, till in a few minutes the projections seemed very much like the prominences on the little coloured plaster models of countries. Then we could see the gas lights along the different lines of road start into light one after another all over the earth, and presently the ground seemed to be covered with little miniature illumination lamps, such as may be seen resting on the grass at the sides of the gravel walks in suburban gardens of amusement. The river we could see winding far away, undulating, as it streamed along, like a man-of-war’s pennant, and glittering here and there in the dusk like grey steel. All round the horizon were thick slate-coloured clouds, edged with the orange-red of the departed sun; and with the tops of these we seemed to be on a level. So deep was the dusk in the distance, that it was difficult to tell where the earth ended and the sky began; and in trying to make out the objects afar off, it seemed to be as if you were looking through so much crape. The roads below were now like narrow light-brown ribbons, and the bridges across the Thames almost like planks; while the tiny black barges, as they floated up the river, appeared no bigger than insects. The large green fields had dwindled down to about the size of kettle-holders, and the hedges were like strips of chenille.

When we were about a mile above the ground some of us threw pieces of paper into the grey air, and these, as we rose and left them below, fluttered about like butterflies as they fell. Then some of the more noisy of the crew struck a song; while I heard a dyspeptic gentleman immediately behind me, as I was kneeling down (for there was but one seat), and stretching my head over the side of the car, contemplating the world of wonder below, confess to feeling a little nervous, saying that he was a man of natural moral courage, but his body overcame it as he was subject to fits of indigestion and as a preventive to extreme nervousness had taken nothing but vegetables for dinner that day. And I must confess myself that, poised up high in the air, as we were, with but a few slender cords to support us, I could not help thinking of the awful havoc there would be if the twigs of the wicker car were to break and the bottom to give way.

On what sharp church steeple thought I should I be spitted, and as I looked down the beauty of the scene once more took all sense of fear from my mind, for the earth now appeared concave with the height, and seemed like a huge black bowl—as if it were the sky of the nether regions. The lights of the villages scattered over the scene, were like clusters of glow-worms, from the midst of which you could here and there distinguish the crimson speck of some railway lamp.

“There, I’ve thrown over a letter, directed to my house,” said one of the passengers, “telling ‘em we’re all safe up here”—and as I stretched over the car I saw the little white fluttering thing go zigzagging down the air, while we still mounted the sky.

Then some of the passengers, who had supplied themselves with an extraordinary stock of courage previous to starting, by means of sundry bottles of “sparkling champagne,” which had the effect of making them more noisy than agreeable in such a situation, must needs begin quarrelling with a rose-water Captain in the hoop, as to whether they belonged to the “Snobocracy” or the “Nobocracy,” and at one time their words were literally so high that could the pair have got to close quarters the dispute would certainly have assumed a more serious character, for jammed tight together as we were in the car, the least attempt at violence would certainly have ended in discharging the whole human cargo into the railway station below. But as it was, it certainly did appear most ludicrous that two rational beings must choose that place of all others for engaging in some paltry squabble as to the vulgar division of the human family into “Nobs” and “Snobs.”

Silence, however, was soon restored by Mr. Green reminding the disputants that we were descending at a rapid rate, and it was time they began to look out for their safety.

The dyspeptic passenger, who during the dispute had evidently been suffering from another attack of nervousness, was at length terrified beyond human endurance by the gentleman who was rather the worse for champagne indulging in even warmer language than he had yet given vent to.

“For mercy sake don’t swear up here, my good man,” shivered out the poor invalid. “Wait till you get down below, if you must swear. We are always in the hands of Providence; but up here, it strikes me, that our lives are literally hanging by a thread.”

The collapsing of the bottom part of the balloon to which Mr. Green here drew our attention as evidence of the rate at which we were descending, soon restored order, and made every one anxious to attend to the directions of the aeronaut. We could now hear the sounds of “Ah bal-loon” again rising from the ground and following in our wake, telling us that at the small villages on our way the people were anxiously looking for our descent. A bag of ballast was entrusted to one of the passengers to let fall at a given signal, while Green himself stood with the grapnel ready to loose immediately he came to a fitting spot. Presently the signal for the descent of the ballast was given, and as it dropped it was curious to watch it fall; the earth had seemed almost at our feet as the car swept over the fields, but so long was the heavy bag in getting to the ground that, as the eye watched it fall and fall, the mind was filled with amazement at the height the balloon still was in the air. Suddenly the sound as of a gun announced that the bag had struck the soil, and then we were told all to sit low down in the car and hold fast; scarcely had we obeyed the orders given than the car was suddenly and fiercely jerked half round, and all within it thrown one on top of another; immediately after this, bump went the bottom of the car on the ground giving us so violent a shake that it seemed as if every limb in the body had been simultaneously dislocated. Now the balloon pitched on to its side, and lay on the ground struggling with the wind, and rolling about, heaving like a huge whale in the agonies of death.

“For heaven’s sake! Hold fast,” shouted Mr. Green, as we were dashed up and down in the car, all rolling one on the other, with each fresh lurch of the giant machine stretched on the ground before us, and from which we could hear the gas roaring from the valve, like the blast to a furnace.

“Sit still, all of you, I say!” roared our pilot, as he saw someone endeavouring to leave the car.

Again we were pitched right on end, and the bottom of the car shifted into a ditch, the water of which bubbled up through the wicker work of the car, and I, unlucky wight, who was seated in that part to which the concussions were mostly confined, soon began to feel that I was quietly sitting in a pool of water.

To move, however, was evidently to peril not only one’s own life, but that of all the other passengers, but still no one came to us, for we had fallen into a swamp, which we afterwards found out was Pirbright-common, situate some half-dozen miles from Guildford.

Presently, however, to our great delight, some hundred drab-smocked countrymen appeared, almost as if by magic, around the edges of the car; for some little time they were afraid to touch, but at last they got a firm hold of it, and we were one after another extricated from our seats.

To tell the remainder of the adventure would be tame and dull: suffice it after some two hours’ labour, the aerial machine, car, grapnels, and all, was rolled and packed up in a cart, and thus transported, an hour after midnight, to Guildford; the voyagers journeying to the same town in a tilted cart, delighted with their trip, and listening to the many curious adventures of the veteran aeronaut who had successfully piloted them and some hundred others through the air; and who, now that the responsibility of their lives rested no longer in his hands, seemed a thoroughly different man: before he was taciturn, and almost irritable when spoken to; and now he was garrulous, and delighting all with his intelligence, his enterprise, his enthusiasm, and his courtesy. Indeed, long shall we all remember the pleasant night we passed with the old ethereal pilot on his 500th ascent with the Royal Nassau Balloon.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Fondness for Fronds - Book Review

"Kate Dore with frame of plant forms,"
Victoria & Albert Museum, PH.258-1982
Among the items in the V&A’s remarkable photography collection is a small portrait by Oscar Rejlander (DNB bio here, Wiki bio here) of the Pre-Raphaelite favorite Kate Dore (at left). The leafy frame that surrounds the sitter, made by pressing ferns between the photographer’s glass plate negative and light-sensitive paper, was added later by Julia Margaret Cameron (DNB bio here, Wiki bio here), perhaps during a visit by Rejlander to Dimbola Lodge, Cameron’s Isle of Wight home, in 1863.

It’s a striking image that illustrates a fad then at the height of fashion, one recounted with great style in Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania (Frances Lincoln Limited, 2012), Sarah Whittingham’s new book on the Victorian obsession with what one journalist writing in 1891 called the "tasseled, feathered, fringed, frilled, crimped, and curled" plant. It was an enthusiasm that manifested itself in the passionate cultivation, collection, and exchange of fern varieties, both native and exotic, and one that quickly developed a full panoply of related interest groups, specialist growers, and publications.

The term "pteridomania" is derived from pteridophyte (a vascular plant that reproduces by spores, from the Greek pteri, feather, and phyte, relating to plants), and mania (madness or frenzy). It was coined by the clergyman and naturalist Charles Kingsley in Glaucus; or, the Wonders of the Shore (1855), his call for better science education among the young. Addressing the parents of mid-Victorian girls, he wrote: "Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing 'Pteridomania' and are collecting and buying ferns, with Ward's cases wherein to keep them (for which you have to pay), and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy), till the Pteridomania seems to be somewhat of a bore: and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool."

Yet as Whittingham convincingly shows, the passion for ferns transcended gender and could be identified in men, women, and children of all ages and classes throughout the English-speaking world. She finds examples not only in Britain, but also in the far-flung corners of the Empire and in the United States. Her material is (more or less) 
neatly organized into three main areas of activity: collecting, cultivation, and public display. 

From Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania (c) 2012 Frances Lincoln Ltd.
and Sarah Whittingham. National Library of Australia, Canberra.
The first part of the book is enlivened by contemporary descriptions of "fern hunts," rambles over the countryside conducted with "trowel, satchel, and stout stick" in search of specimens in the wild. Whittingham's discussion of the tools used during such forays is fascinating. Tucked into bags and pockets were fern spade and hatchet, frond pattern book (for identification) and magnifying glass. The "vasculum" -- a cylindrical tin case in which the collected plants were carried home -- was ubiquitous. This was a physically demanding outdoor pursuit with a thrilling edge, and, as Whittingham notes, it could be extremely dangerous: "The overwhelming desire to find a rare fern led the hunter or huntress to lean over fast-flowing rivers, descend precipitous ravines, wade through bogs, and scale rock faces and waterfalls." In 1864 the novelist Eliza Lynn Linton recounted a gruesome accident in the Lake District. "A fine athletic young man, in the very prime of his life and flower of his strength, lost his life at the [Stock Ghyll] Force while we were there. Looking for ferns, he overbalanced himself and fell -- dashed into eternity in a second among the rocks." 

From Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania
(c) 2012 Frances Lincoln Ltd. 
and Sarah Whittingham.
Once prised from rock or ground, a fern could be transplanted into the large glass display boxes known as Wardian cases, which became the sine qua non of the fashionable drawing room, or into the garden. In the second part of her book, Whittingham describes the varieties of these cases in some detail, along with other forms of home display and cultivation, including nurseries, "stumperies," grottos, and conservatories.

The third part of the book describes how fern motifs were applied across the fine and decorative arts, adorning everything from majolica plates and pitchers to cast-iron fire grates and garden benches. The most original section here is a profusely illustrated consideration of the Victorian ferneries that were built into botanic gardens, winter gardens, and aquaria. 

These long chapters are complemented by a pair of fine short essays, the first describing the links between ferns and fairies, the second providing an entertaining capsule biography of the painter Edward William Cooke (1811-80; DNB bio here, Wiki bio here), who experienced, according to Whittingham, what was probably “the most intense and long-lasting attack of fern fever in the nineteenth century.”

Rounding out this useful 256-page oversized volume are extensive notes; a list of surviving and restored ferneries in Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States; an exhaustive bibliography; and a thorough index.

The book is largely descriptive, an approach that will suit many readers. Others will be frustrated by its superficial analysis of the cultural and social contexts in which pteridomania flourished. The book’s colorful anecdotes sometimes feel strung together in pursuit of a point that never quite gets made. Quotes from contemporary books and periodicals might have been selected more judiciously in service to a sustained argument about the needs, desires, and aspirations that fern fever (and indeed other Victorian plant obsessions, such as those for orchids, roses, coleus, and palms) represented during this period. Advances in the nineteenth-century understanding of fern biology are cursorily treated. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating survey and one that is sure to inspire additional studies.


Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (Harper Press, 2006).

Catherine Horwood, Potted History: The Story of Plants in the Home (Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2007).

Mary Kocol, "The Garden in Early Art Photography," Gardens Illustrated (November 2010).

Peter D. A. Boyd, "Pteridomania: The Victorian Passion for Ferns," Antique Collecting 28 (1993), 9-12. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Dishing the Victorian Dirt

Imagine living anywhere near this gray mountain of trash in the first year of Queen Victoria's reign. It's the "Great Dust-Heap at Kings Cross" as seen from Maiden Lane (now York Road), painted in 1837 by the watercolorist E. H. Dixon, surrounded by slum housing and adjacent to the Smallpox Hospital.

The crud all around us is the focus of a fascinating new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London. "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life," brings together a variety of art, documents, cultural ephemera, photos, videos, and art installations to -- as curator Kate Forde puts it -- "uncover a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past."

The exhibition uses six different historical times and places as starting points for exploring attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness: a home in seventeenth-century Delft, a street in Victorian London in the 1850s, a hospital in Glasgow in the 1860s, a museum in interwar Dresden, a community in present-day New Delhi, and the Fresh Kills landfill site in New York City. 

Highlights include paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Joseph Lister's medical instruments, and a wide range of contemporary art on related themes. You can peer through one of the first primitive microscopes used to discover bacteria (which had been collected from the mouth of a Dutch scientist), learn about the cesspools that turned the Thames into a "monster soup" in the early nineteenth century, and gaze on "Laid to Rest," a sculpture by Serena Korda featuring bricks that incorporate dust sent to her by modern Londoners.

The exhibition's display on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in London's Soho district, ground zero of a cholera epidemic in 1854 that killed more than 600 people, is particularly interesting. At the time, an infecting "miasma" was thought to cause the disease. It took the brilliant detective work of the physician (and royal anaesthetist) John Snow (DNB bio here;
Wiki bio here) and the Rev. Henry Whitehead (Wiki bio here) to find the true culprit: fetid water that was being distributed through a public water pump. Snow's famous "ghost map," which traced the progress of the terrifying disease through the city, is included in the exhibition.

As for Kings Cross ... similar dustheaps featured in Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (the "Golden Dustman" Noddy Boffin is one of the writer's most indelible creations) and were the subject of "Dust, or Ugliness Redeemed," an essay by the poet R. H. Horne that appeared in Household Words, the weekly journal Dickens edited from 1850 to 1859. Horne vividly describes the underclass of "Searchers and Sorters" who scaled the debris and painstakingly raked through the refuse, separating animal and vegetable matter from broken pottery, bones, rags, metal, glass, and other detritus. Everything was sold off and recycled: coarse cinders were sold to brickmakers, bones to soapmakers, threadbare linen rags to papermakers. [Shown here: The sifting process at a dust-yard in nineteenth-century London; Mayhew, 1862.]

The Kings Cross dustheap pictured at the top of this post was packed up and shipped to Russia in 1848 when city developers decided to convert the site into what is now the Kings Cross railway terminus. The Russians mixed ash from the pile with local clay to make bricks that were used to rebuild their war-ravaged country.

This exhibition is part of the Wellcome's "Dirt Season" that involves a collaboration with the BBC (a series called "Filthy Cities" with accompanying scratch-and-sniff cards), an environmental theatre piece at this summer's Glastonbury Festval, related events for children at the Eden Project in Cornwall, a "Dirt Banquet" held earlier this month at Joseph Bazalgette's Crossness Pumping Station, and a free iPhone/iPad word-puzzle app called "Filth Fair."

"Dirt" runs through 31 August at the Wellcome Collection, 215 Euston Road, London.


"Wellcome Collection Takes a Filthy Look at an Age-Old Obsession," The Guardian, 23 March 2011.

Henry Mayhew, "Of the Dustmen of London.London Labour and the London Poor, 1851.

Brian Maidment, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780–1870. Manchester University Press, 2007.

H. P. Sucksmith, "
The dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend," Essays in Criticism 23.2 (1973), pp. 206–212.

Costas A. Velis, David C. Wilson, and Christopher R. Cheeseman, "19th century London dust-yards: A case study in closed-loop resource efficiency." 
Waste Management 29.4 (April 2009), pp. 1282-1290.

Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Riverhead Press, 2006.  There's a wonderful website for this book here. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

"From Mama V.R. to Helena"

A gold, enamel, and garnet bodice brooch from 1830 that belonged to Queen Victoria made fourteen times its pre-sale estimate at auction last week, selling for £11,400. 

The intricately worked brooch features two large cabochon garnets in a setting of green and red enamel.  

The brooch (shown at left) originally belonged to Victoria, Duchess of Kent (DNB bio here, Wiki bio here), who on her death in 1861 left her jewelry to her daughter, Queen Victoria. 

Queen Victoria subsequently gave the brooch to her fifth child and third daughter, Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein (DNB bio here, Wiki bio here), as a present on her 24th birthday in 1870. The reverse of the brooch has a simple yet very personal engraving: “Belonged to dear Grandmamma V. From Mama V.R. to Helena 25th May 1870." 

Although Princess Helena married the German prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein in 1866, the couple remained in Britain close to the Queen, who liked to have her daughters nearby. 

Helena was an extremely active member of the royal family, carrying out an extensive program of royal engagements. She was also a committed patron of charities, and was one of the founding members of the Red Cross. She was also the first president of the Royal School of Needlework and the first president of the Royal British Nurses' Association.

She is, perhaps, my favorite of Queen Victoria's children...the Jan Brady of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha clan. She fell in love with her father's German librarian, who was promptly sent back to the continent when "Mama V.R." discovered the liaison. There is an excellent biography of her by Seweryn Chomet, Helena, A Princess Reclaimed: The Life and Times of Queen Victoria's Third Daughter (New York: Begell House, 1999).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Restored: Ellen Terry's Beetle-Wing Dress

"Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't." This briefest of lines from Act I, scene 5, of Shakespeare's Macbeth inspired one of the most famous stage costumes ever constructed.

When the Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving [DNB bio here; Wiki bio here] decided to produce "the Scottish play" in 1888, with he playing the title role and Ellen Terry, his acting partner, playing his wife, Terry [DNB bio here; Wiki bio here] called on her close friend Alice Comyns Carr to design her dresses. Carr wanted one of them to "look as much like soft chain armour" as possible and "yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent." Working with Lyceum dressmaker Mrs. Nettleship, Carr devised a garment "sewn all over with real green beetle wings, and a narrow border in Celtic designs, worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffins were embroidered in flame-coloured tinsel. The wimple, or veil, was held in place by a circlet of rubines, and two long plaits [of hair] twisted with gold hung to her knees."

The result was magnificent, and John Singer Sargent painted Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889 (shown at left, on display at Tate Britain). 

Now this costume, an irreplaceable link to the Victorian theatre and one of its most famous and fascinating stars, has been restored and put back on view at Smallhythe Place, Ellen Terry's former home in Kent.

[Read the National Trust's press release here,]

Via Kent News 'One of the most iconic dresses of the Victorian era – shimmering with 1,000 real beetle wings – is returning home to Kent. The emerald and sea-green gown, which is covered in iridescent wings of the jewel beetle, was made famous by the celebrated actress Ellen Terry in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in 1888.

'The 120-year-old dress was one of the most iconic costumes of the time, immortalised by the John Singer Sargent portrait at the Tate Gallery. Now, after 1,300 hours of painstaking conservation work costing £50,000, the gown is on display at Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden, where Ellen Terry lived between 1899 and 1928. House manager Paul Meredith said the beetle wings that had dropped off were collected and reattached along with others that had been donated by an antiques dealer.

'"The 100 or so wings that were broken were each carefully repaired by supporting them on small pieces of Japanese tissues adhered with a mixture of wheat starch paste," he said. "But the majority of the work has involved strengthening the fabric, understanding the many alterations that were made to the dress and ultimately returning it to something that is much closer to the costume worn by Ellen on stage in 1888."

[Read a description of the restoration and see additional photos here.]

'The actress, known as the Queen of the Theatre, was famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean heroines and played opposite Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London for more than 20 years.

'Her beetle dress stage costume was one of the most important items in the National Trust’s collection and was on the priority list to be conserved. Brighton-based conservator Zenzie Tinker and her team carried out the work.

'"We have restored the original shape of the elaborate sleeves and the long, trailing hemline that Ellen so admired," Tucker said. "If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d be delighted. She really valued her costumes because she kept and reused them time and again. I’d like to think she’d see our contribution as part of the ongoing history of the dress."

'The gown is now in a new display space at Smallhythe Place alongside other features from Ellen Terry’s dressing room which have never been viewed by the public before. The half-timbered house, built in the early sixteenth century when Smallhythe was a thriving shipbuilding yard, was Terry's home from 1899 to 1928 and contains her fascinating theatre collection. The cottage grounds include her rose garden, orchard, nuttery, and the working Barn Theatre.

'Mr Meredith said the setting was an intimate area, bursting with theatre history and stage costumes. "Now the beetle wing dress is back and we finally have a really good contemporary display space, we hope to show many more people just how special the house and collections are."'


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, Tate Collection

"Ellen Terry's Beetlewing Gown Back in Limelight," The Guardian, 11 March 2011

Alicia Finkel, Romantic Stages: Set and Costume Design in Victorian England (McFarland, 1996) 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Picture Show

In addition to providing a useful list of nineteenth-century illustrated newspapers, this page from the 6 December 1890 issue of The Graphic is...well, just beautiful.

Papers in the UK, US, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Denmark, Holland, and Russia are represented.

Click the image and then the magnifying glass icon for a much larger (and readable) version.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Undershaw Under Threat

I previously posted about the threat to Undershaw, the Surrey home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in 2007.

As I noted then, quoting 
The Guardian, it was at Undershaw that Doyle "wrote the 'Hound of the Baskervilles' and a patriot defence of Britain's Boer War; resurrected Sherlock Holmes, having previously thrown him off the Reichenbach Falls; campaigned for justice for the falsely accused solicitor George Edalji, and attempted to learn the banjo."

Anyone who has read Julian Barnes's magnificent novel
 Arthur & George will feel that they know every inch of this house (shown above in 1897). At the time, I expressed the hope that the worldwide network of societies devoted to Doyle and his immortal creation, Holmes, would be able to rally private support to rescue the house from developers.

The following update is c
ross-posted from The Folio Newsletter, December 2010.

"Undershaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's home in Hindhead, Surrey, is the subject 
of a legal bid by campaigners aiming to prevent it from being converted into flats. The house, which overlooks the South Downs, was built by Conan Doyle in 1897 for his wife Louisa, who suffered from ill health. After her death a decade later, he sold it. The house is virtually untouched from the period and 
retains such features as the family coat of arms, which appears on the impressive stained glass windows. Undershaw also remains significant to fans of Conan Doyle as the place where he wrote many of his most famous works. With continued uncertainty about its future, however, it is in a state of neglect and has been boarded up because of recent acts of vandalism.

"The Undershaw Preservation Trust claims to have identified a buyer for the property who wants to restore it to its former glory as a single family home, but has so far failed to convince the local council to stop developers from pushing forward with plans to convert the property despite its status as a listed building. Julian Barnes, Stephen Fry, and Mark Gatiss are among those supporting the Trust in its legal action.

"The Trust sees Undershaw as the last physical link to Conan Doyle. 'This house is part of Conan Doyle's history and it is important to remember that if these plans go ahead, there will be no going back,' say Trust representatives. 'The work will be irreversible.'"

You can read more about the Undershaw Preservation Trust and how you can help its efforts at and

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Portraying Poverty

More news from the art world...

Four paintings by Augustus Edwin Mulready (1844-1904) are to be sold at Bonhams' Nineteenth-Century Paintings sale on 29 September in London.

Mulready's works frequently highlighted the social issues of the Victorian era -- particularly the poverty experienced by homeless street children, whom he often depicted gazing despairingly out at the viewer. The artist returned again and again to this subject in an attempt to draw official and public attention to the condition of these children.

Mulready (Wiki bio here) was a member of the Cranbrook Colony, a small group of painters who lived and worked in the picturesque town of Cranbrook, Kent. They were influenced by Dutch and Flemish genre painting and shared a sustained interest in child subjects. (Other members of the group included Frederick Daniel Hardy, Thomas Webster, John Callcott Horsley, and George Bernard O’Neill.)

Although the quality of Mulready's works as paintings leaves much to be desired, they are important social documents. As art reviewer Keith Roberts has noted, "Children could be used to publicize the iniquities of the social justice system without seeming to attack the social structure; reform might well be achieved by appeals to the conscience through sentiment rather than by reasoned argument and criticism of an overtly political character." This was an approach that Charles Dickens knew well and deployed to devastating effect in his novels.

In Uncared For (1871, shown above), one of the works that will be sold by Bonhams (estimate: £10,000-15,000), a pale, barefooted waif stares miserably at the viewer and a young boy buries his head in his hands. Their desolation contrasts powerfully with the more privileged group in the background. Above their heads is a torn street poster ironically proclaiming "The Triumph of Christianity." The juxtaposition would have been considered more provoking and subversive by Victorian viewers had the subjects been adults.

In Fatigued Minstrels (1883), also to be sold by Bonhams (estimate: £4,000-6,000), a pair of exhaused young street musicians slump against a stone pillar as a well-dressed family and couple walk along the brightly lit street opposite. 

"This is a fascinating group of pictures, and it is particularly poignant to be selling them at a time when the plight of the urban poor is so much in the public eye," says Charles O'Brien, head of Bonhams' Nineteenth-Century Paintings Department.

Such paintings were soon eclipsed by documentary photography, which could induce an even more profound shock in viewers through their harrowing realism.


Poverty and Families in the Victorian Era (part of the superb "Hidden Lives Revealed" website)

Childhood -- Children -- Street Arabs (part of Lee Jackson's "Victorian London" website)

Pamela Horn, The Victorian Town Child (Sutton, 1997)
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