Friday, March 30, 2007

What Have You Done for Me Philately?

As you (my American readers) fork over $8.20 for a double-sided book of 20 "Forever" stamps next month, spare a thought for Sir Rowland Hill, Victorian reformer and inventor of the prepaid postage stamp and the modern postal service.

Shown here is the "Penny Black," the world's first postage stamp, which debuted in May 1840. Before the introduction of stamps, postage was based on weight and distance; it had to be calculated for each letter and was usually paid by the recipient. The introduction of the Penny Black shifted the cost of postage to the sender and replaced a system based on complex computation with one based on a uniform, affordable rate.

In 1965, Brighton businessman Reginald M. Phillips donated his extensive collection of Victorian stamps to the nation. Last autumn, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the British Postal Museum and Archive digitized the 45-volume collection and made it available on the web under the auspices of a project called "The Penny Black Changed the World."

Did You Know?

Microsoft has a research initiative called "The Penny Black project" that is looking into ways to reduce e-mail spam by making the sender pay.

"Internet e-mail is becoming increasingly expensive for message recipients," say the Microsoft researchers. "In the current case, the culprit is spam. Although spam does not constitute a monetary expense for most users, it does require time and attention (and hence productivity) to deal with spam. Moreover, measurable costs associated with spam are incurred by providers of network services, and these costs are increasing daily."

In a nutshell, the idea is this: "If I don't know you, and you want to send me mail, then you must prove to me that you have expended a certain amount of effort, just for me and just for this message." The researchers have investigated several techniques to reduce spam by making the sender pay.

Whatever the mechanism eventually adopted, the Penny Black project, with its nod to Victorian philately, gets my stamp of approval.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Historical Fictions

Right out of Julian Barnes's England, England comes Dickens World, a £62 million "indoor themed attraction based on the life, books, and times of Charles Dickens" opening at Easter in Chatham, Kent, where Dickens spent much of his childhood.

The four-acre theme park, variously called an "attraction" or "experience" in publicity materials, will "reproduce the architecture of the period with picturesque archways, cobble-stoned streets, and decorative features, together with specialised lighting and appropriate euphonics as well as a host of costumed characters, shop keepers, and street entertainers."

It will include a "Dickensian shopping mall," rides (including a "dark boat ride" complete with smells and rats, that will transport visitors "from the depths of London’s sewers through atmospheric streets, courtyards, markets, and shops to a magical flight across the rooftops of London"), a Haunted House, Fagin's Den, Peggoty’s Boat House, a School Room (illustrating "the Dreaded Disciplines of Victorian Education, Crime, and Punishment") and, of course, The Old Curiosity Shoppe. A 250-seat theatre will provide a multisensory animatronic performance throughout the day and "burlesque" dinner shows will provide a nightly menu of "naughty delights" in the "free and easy" Victorian music hall.

But wait, there's more...during the holidays, Dickens World will convert into a winter wonderland, replete with snow and complemented by a water feature that morphs into an "ice fantasia" dominated by "The Spirit of Christmas," "Jack Frost," "Scrooge," and a host of other "delightful" characters who magically come to life.

Says management: "Dickens World is based on a credible and factual account of Charles Dickens's works and the world in which he lived. Working with The Dickens Fellowship great attention has been paid to the authenticity of the time, characters, and story lines. It offers a new and entertaining way to enjoy Dickens and his characters" and will help visitors gain "an understanding of the times and conditions people experienced living in England in the early nineteenth century."


I confess I am ambivalent about this. The snob in me is recoiling in horror; the cynic in me is snorting; the lover of spectacle and kitsch in me can't wait to see it. As a historian, I hesitate to rush to judgment because it was through another kind of historical fiction--novels--read as a child that I grew to love learning about other times and places and which ultimately led to my choice of profession. (I wonder how many historians are historians because of books like Esther Forbes's Johnny Tremain and Elizabeth Borton De Trevino's I, Juan de Pareja. I bet it's a lot.) Of course Dickens World will fall short in terms of historical accuracy and will be roundly derided for that reason by some scholars if they deign to comment on it at all. But perhaps it will inspire some young visitors to want to know the true story of the Victorians or even to become historians themselves. If nothing else it will provide fodder for a dozen PhD dissertations that will use words like "simulacra," "intertextuality," and "experiential consumption."

Meanwhile, the house in Kent where Charles Dickens lived the last 15 years of his life could become a public heritage center. Gad's Hill Place, in Higham, has been a school since the 1920s, but plans are afoot to build a new school in the grounds and open the house to visitors. Dickens lived at Gad's Hill from 1855 until his death in 1870 and wrote his last three novels, including A Tale of Two Cities, there. Read the BBC story here.

Speaking of fiction...

Via the March 2007 issue of
Locus Online: The next novel of science fiction and fantasy writer Tim Powers (Anubis Gates, The Stress of Her Regard, Three Days to Never) will be set in Victorian London. “This will be roughly 1880," he says. "It's going to involve the Pre-Raphaelites--Millais and Rossetti and Rossetti's sister, that whole crowd. It's always fun when I'm doing my recreational 'idle reading' and suddenly get a couple of red lights on the dashboard, meaning, 'You might be able to set a book in this stuff.'”

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, Neil Gaiman's second collection of short prose and poetry, has just been published in paperback in the UK. It includes the Hugo Award-winning Arthur Conan Doyle/HP Lovecraft pastiche “A Study in Emerald,” in which Sherlock Holmes must solve the murder of a member of the British royal family. It's ingenious and unforgettable. The story is also available at
Gaiman's website.

Shown here: The much-abused Charles Dickens

Eight Turner Paintings Find New Home at Courtauld Institute

(Via 24 Hour Museum)

London’s Courtauld Institute has received the most significant addition to its collection of works on paper in more than 25 years, including eight important paintings by JMW Turner (1775-1851). The bequest of 51 works is from the estate of art collector Dorothy Scharf, who died in 2004, and includes watercolours executed between 1750 and 1850, the so-called "Golden Age" of British watercolour painting.

The group of eight Turner watercolours includes Seelisburg by Moonlight and a vivid depiction of Margate Pier, a painting owned by John Ruskin and later by Franklin D. Roosevelt. They join 22 other works by Turner at the Courtauld and will be revealed to the public in an exhibition planned at the gallery for October 2008.

Related link: The Daily Telegraph, 28 March 2007: "Spinster leaves art treasures to the nation" ("Spinster"? Are you kidding me?)

Shown here: JMW Turner, Margate Pier

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Exploring the Diversity of Victorian London

Two online resources remind us of the rich diversity of cultures in nineteenth-century London.

The Jewish Museum has a very interesting online exhibition on the roots of Yiddish theatre, which was created by and for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in the East End of London, especially Whitechapel and Spitalfields, in the late nineteenth century. The exhibition provides details on Abraham Goldfaden and the birth of Yiddish theatre; on the first professional Yiddish theatre company in London, formed by Jacob P. Adler in 1883; on the first purpose-built Yiddish theatre in London, known as the Hebrew Dramatic Club (1886); and on the Standard Theatre and Pavilion Theatre ("the Drury Lane of the East," which became the primary London venue for Yiddish theatre in 1906).

The story of a much smaller group in Victorian London, the Chinese who lived in Limehouse, are the subject of a fascinating web resource published by Untold London. "Before the First World War there were never more than a few hundred Chinese people in London -- and many of these were transitory sailors," writes John Seed, professor of history and cultural studies at Roehampton University. "Why then did so many myths grow up around the Chinese of Limehouse – stories of mysterious murders in foggy riverside alleys, of sordid opium dens, of innocent English girls lost in a dangerous underworld controlled by an evil Chinese genius?" Reprinted here is a transcript of a talk given by Seed earlier this year at the Docklands Museum. He shows how public responses to drug scandals, interracial marriage, housing shortages, and unemployment contributed to an enduring myth: the idea of a Chinatown in Limehouse that never really existed.

Shown here: A poster for a benefit performance of The Lost Soul at the Working Lads' Institute, Whitechapel Road, c. 1900.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Out of the Shadows

One of the Victorian era's most intriguing "invisible women" has emerged from obscurity to the excitement of art historians, who are now combing the vast canvases of the painter William Powell Frith to find how often he used her as a model.

For the first time, photographs have come to light of Mary Alford, a young ward who became the artist's secret mistress and who almost certainly figures in his paintings of domestic life and social gatherings (see my post of March 14). The pictures were revealed by a descendant of one of seven children Frith fathered illegitimately with Mary. They were sent on condition of anonymity to Frith's biographer, Christopher Wood, whose book on the artist was published last autumn.

Frith lived a curious domestic life. He maintained Mary while married to Isabelle, with whom he had twelve children. When Isabelle died in 1880 (my guess: of equal parts exhaustion and disdain), Frith married Mary.

Read the full story in this fascinating Guardian article (26 March 2007).

Shown here: William Powell Frith, The Rejected Poet. Was Mary Alford the model for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in this picture? Art historians think so.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Transforming the World with Beauty

With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Today marks the 173rd anniversary of the birth of William Morris (1834-96), designer, author, and visionary socialist ... and the work does indeed go on. Morris's wallpapers and textiles are still in production more than a hundred years after his death, making him one of the most successful industrial designers in history.

However, the only museum in the world dedicated solely to preserving his legacy is under siege. The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is facing a budget cut of £56,000 from the Waltham Forest Council, which translates into the reduction of the gallery's opening hours by half and the sacking of curatorial staff. The proposed cut will be protested today at a birthday party near the gallery.

Waltham Forest Arts Council chair Tim Bennett-Goodman has told local media that the cut puts the gallery's core collection at risk, as its trustees might be forced to pass it on to a museum able to curate and display it properly.

MP Tony Benn, former culture minister Lord (Chris) Smith, Mayor Ken Livingstone, and Walthamstow Labour MP Neil Gerrard have all criticized the cut, while internationally renowned art experts and Morris specialists have expressed astonishment and disappointment.

Florence Boos, president of the William Morris Society (US), has called the move "unthinkable" given the gallery's role as a "place of pilgrimage for admirers of Morris's ideals, who come to Walthamstow from all over the world."

Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University says Morris's role in early socialism gives the gallery special relevance for a poor Labour-led borough. "Morris closely connected artistic with political freedom," he told media. "His work should be preserved not merely because it is a national treasure but also because of the lessons it can teach to precisely those constituencies Waltham Forest Council claims to represent." Boos agrees. "Morris was an enemy of the class structure, a foe of imperialism, a pioneer of 'green' thinking. Perhaps of all Victorians he is the most relevant to the lives of people today."

Friends of the gallery have established a website and an online petition to protest the cut.

I also recommend these sites:

William Morris Gallery (Water House, Morris's childhood home)
William Morris Society

For a list of museums and public art galleries holding works by Morris, visit Artcyclopedia.

The Red House in Bexleyheath, designed by Morris and architect Philip Webb, is a National Trust property undergoing restoration. It reopens early next year.

Think you know Morris and his circle pretty well? Try this crossword puzzle and see!

Shown here: William Morris, Pink and Rose Wallpaper Design, c. 1890.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Queen and Companion

Here are two people I must meet the next time I'm in the UK.

Sylvia Strange and Jean Grange of Leominster portray Queen Victoria and lady-in-waiting Charlotte Ponsonby, respectively, at events all over the country. Together they form Strange & Grange Presentations.

They create unscripted interactions with audiences that educate and entertain; it is history presented, according to their website, "with panache, humour and just a pinch of artistic licence."

They have performed in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations and have appeared in character at the Players Theatre, London; at the Upminster Tithe Barn Museum of Nostalgia; at Weston Park, Staffordshire; at the Dickens Festival, Rochester; at the Courtyard Theatre, Hereford; at Manchester City Hall, Manchester; at Osborne House, Isle of Wight; and at a dozen English Heritage sites. They have arrived in horse-drawn vehicles, steam trains, and private planes.

By the way, if you care to contact the queen, her e-mail address and mobile number are provided at the Strange & Grange website.

From the February 28 issue of The Hereford Times:

"Sylvia’s ‘Royal’ Image Has an Inspiring Effect"

Sylvia Strange sometimes has an unsettling effect on people when she dresses up as Queen Victoria.

Hearing the rustle of a crinoline, a member of staff tidying a fireplace at Osborne House, Victoria's much-loved summer residence on the Isle of Wight, turned and shrieked at the sight of the royal "ghost."

"The woman was quite overcome - Sylvia just said 'carry on' as we passed," said Jean Grange, who partners "Her Majesty" as lady-in-waiting Lady Charlotte Ponsonby. "Sylvia actually looks like Victoria and gets so immersed in the role that people really feel they have met royalty after meeting her."

The Leominster "royals" were invited to take part in an event at Osborne House, now managed by English Heritage, where the real Victoria spent many of her long years of mourning after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. It was just one of a dazzling round of official engagements for the two enterprising grandmothers, both aged 65.

Life has taken an interesting turn since they did an impromptu double-act for a Victorian event in Leominster Antique Market six years ago. They kept their stands in the market and Jean still does the books for her husband's plumbing and heating business. But they have also developed another life. They take their act to stately homes, castles, banquets, luncheon clubs, and schools and next stop is the House of Commons.

At Westminster they are launching a book, 50 over 50 by Debbie Rowe and Tracey Larcombe, in which their profiles appear among those of 50 high achieving woman aged over 50. "We feel very, very honoured to have been included in the book - it is designed to stir the imagination of women who have turned 50 to show what women can achieve," said Jean.

The Leominster impersonators have worked hard to build their new career, researching Victoria and her times, taking drama and singing lessons and sourcing quality costumes and reproductions of Victoria's jewellery. It takes them two hours to prepare and their costumes include authentic - and copious - Victorian underwear and corsets.

--- end of The Hereford Times article ---

Shown here: Grange (left) as Lady Charlotte Ponsonby and Strange (right) as Queen Victoria at Wrest Park Gardens in Bedfordshire.

Mistaken Identity

Offered without comment ...

The Scotsman recently asked "a very unscientific selection of the Edinburgh public" to identify from pictures the statues of Greyfriars Bobby on George IV Bridge, Queen Victoria on the Royal Scottish Academy, King George IV in George Street, philosopher David Hume on the Royal Mile, sixteenth-century reformer John Knox in the University of Edinburgh, the statesman Viscount Melville, and the poet Robert Fergusson.

One reader thought the statue of Victoria was Mary, Queen of Scots; another thought the statue might be Robert the Bruce "or someone like that."

Well, OK, one comment: yikes!

Shown here: Queen Victoria surveys Edinburgh from her perch atop the Royal Scottish Academy. Photo by Juan J at Flickr.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Irish and the English

In honor of you-know-who's day: a collection of recent New York Times articles about the Irish and the English.

"A United Kingdom? Maybe," by Nicholas Wade, March 6, 2007
Most of history aside, DNA evidence suggests that the British and the Irish have much more in common than they once thought.

"When Irish Genes Are Smiling,"by John Tierney (blog), March 6, 2007
"'Tis a good day for the Irish -– and a really bad one for Basil Fawlty — thanks to my colleague Nicholas Wade’s article (see above for link) tracing the genetic heritage of the British Isles. I grew up listening to my Irish-American relatives bristle at the social pretensions of the Anglo-Saxons in England: 'We were preserving civilization while they were painting themselves blue! Blue, I tell you!' Now we can point to research suggesting the Celts started civilization in those isles by introducing agriculture 6,000 years ago."

"When English Eyes Are Smiling," by Wes Davis, March 11, 2007: The notion of racial inferiority persisted in British writing on the Irish well into the nineteenth century. In recent years, Irish writers have turned the idea of racial difference into an empowering distinction. Davis quotes Robert Knox, Matthew Arnold, and Charles Kingsley to devastating effect.

"A Wee Identity Crisis," by Alexander McCall Smith, March 11, 2007
Does new genetic evidence take the wind out of the sails of the cultural nationalists in Scotland, or those in Ireland?

"The Irish Are Like the English? Not!" (six letters to the editor), March 18, 2007

Thursday, March 15, 2007

William Powell Frith Returns Home

Speaking of English railways...

William Powell Frith's Railway Station (1862), shown here, is one of several of that artist's masterworks about to go on display in Harrogate, where Frith spent several years of his childhood. "William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age" moves from the Guildhall Art Gallery in London to the Mercer Gallery on 24 March.

Highlights of the exhibition include Ramsgate Sands: Life at the Seaside (1852-54), purchased by Queen Victoria for the Royal Collection, and The Derby Day (1856-58), now part of Tate Britain's permanent collection.

In writing this post I discovered that the Royal Collection has an illustrated set of web pages detailing Queen Victoria's art acquisitions...272 in all, ranging from exquisite lockets, bracelets, and pendants to maps, books, photos, paintings, and fans (including, apparently, one that had belonged to Marie Antoinette). Definitely worth a detailed browse.

I'm also pleased to see that the city of Harrogate has honored Frith by placing a heritage plaque on his childhood home. From the 13 March issue of the Yorkshire Post:

"Heritage plaque unveiled to honour Victorian artist"
By Brian Dooks

"A heritage plaque marking the former home of Victorian painter William Powell Frith was unveiled in Harrogate yesterday two weeks before a new exhibition of his work opens in the town.

"William Powell Frith (1819-1909): Painting the Victorian Age" is at the Mercer Gallery in Swan Road from March 24 to July 15 and features previously unseen works.

"The commemorative plaque has been placed on the site of the Dragon Lodgings at 35 Regent Parade where Frith, who was born at Aldfield, near Ripon, lived with his mother and father from 1826-1835. In the late Victorian and Edwardian period the Dragon Hotel was demolished and the land developed for housing. However, the Dragon Lodging – the manager's house where Frith's parents lived – remains and has been restored as three apartments.

"The plaque was unveiled by Harrogate Civic Society representative David Rhodes and the head of museums and arts at Harrogate Council, Ceryl Evans. It is a reminder of Frith's life before he set off to London on March 4,1835, saying he intended "to make my fortune." After the ceremony, guests walked to the nearby Christ's Church where Ms Evans gave an introduction to Frith's early life in Harrogate.

"Frith's father, Thomas, was one of the first wardens at Christ Church. Mr Rhodes, who organised the positioning of plaques at Aldfield and Regent Parade, believes the arrival of the first exhibition of Frith's works for over 55 years at the Mercer Gallery is the perfect time to remember his northern roots.

"Frith is considered to be the most important and influential artist to depict life in the Victorian age. He enjoyed huge success and popularity. On six occasions rails had to be put up in front of his pictures in the Royal Academy to hold back admiring crowds. The Mercer exhibition brings together Frith's three great panoramas – Life at the Seaside, a view of Ramsgate Sands lent by the queen, The Derby Day from the Tate collection, and The Railway Station from the Royal Holloway College at London University.

"The Mercer Art Gallery, run by Harrogate Council, already owns eleven of Frith's works, including Many Happy Returns of the Day and the recently acquired portrait of Annie Gambart, who was the child bride of Victorian art dealer Ernest Gambart. The exhibition charts Frith's career from his childhood copies of Dutch prints to his first success with scenes drawn from historical and literary sources that included his friend Charles Dickens, through to social panoramas and his moralising series The Race for Wealth and The Road to Ruin."

--- end of Yorkshire Post article ---

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Taking to the Rails

I love traveling by train in England and have been up and down the country several times this way. It always puts me in mind of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh: "So we passed / The liberal open country and the close, / And shot through tunnels, like a lightning-wedge / By great Thor-hammers driven through the rock," even though tunnels are few and far between and AL was traveling through France. So the following caught my eye, from the 14 February issue of The Engineer.

"When it's not overcrowded and/or broken and doesn't cost the same price as a flight on Richard Branson's spaceship, UK rail travel is, occasionally, an enjoyable, relaxing, and romantic experience.

"But it is still hamstrung by one glaring restriction that has dogged our railways since the golden age of steam — trains will only stop at stations, and most passengers have to find some other way of completing their journey. Readers will agree that in these sedentary days to ask anyone to walk anywhere is clearly unacceptable.

"Fortunately, a quick scan of The Engineer archives provides a ready-made solution to rail's limitations: simply attach a rotating piece of railway track to each of your vehicle's wheels, and the romance of rail will follow you all the way to your front door.

"In its description of Cambridge's portable railway [July 24, 1857], the magazine outlines a design for 'portable or endless railways' that can be 'applied to the wheels of engines and carriages, for the purpose of facilitating their movement over loose ground and irregular surfaces.' . . . The invention is, essentially, one of a number of early forerunners of the caterpillar track."
--- end of The Engineer article ---

Shown here: A Victorian-era steam train passing the fourteenth-century Bodiam Castle in East Sussex.

Related links:
Kent and East Sussex Steam Railway
UK Heritage Railways

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

More Statuary Victoria ...

By popular demand, here are a few more sightings of the queen from around the blogosphere.

The lovely photo shown here is by David Hill (you can view his amazing Flickr portfolio here). This marble statue, which faces east toward the Round Pond at Kensington Palace, was sculpted by Louise, the queen's sixth (and some say most talented) child.

In 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the new capital of the United Province of Canada. Here she visits the Library of Parliament to see how things are going.

An en-fringed queen, with birds, in Malta.

The queen unamused by snow in Toronto.

On a pedestal in Birmingham.

The queen directing tourists to Adventure Island in Southend-on-Sea.

Atmospheric queen in Blackburn.

The queen on the lookout for French troops in Hastings.

Green queen in Lancaster, in an outfit inspired by Scarlett O'Hara.

The queen as Darth Vader in Canada ... and as Jabba the Hutt in India.

Monday, March 12, 2007

New Vision for UK Heritage Sites

Osborne House and Ironbridge Gorge could be among the British national treasures protected by a new register of historic sites proposed last week by culture secretary Tessa Jowell.

In a 71-page white paper, "Heritage Protection for the 21st Century," the government recommends a unified heritage protection system, additional opportunities for public input, and a less cumbersome approach to the planning process. A key proposal is the replacement of the current complicated system of listing, scheduling, and registering historic properties with a single, easy-to-understand system.

In announcing the first heritage white paper in a generation, Jowell said: "We all want a system that provides the right levels of protection, but we also want one that is easy to use and allows everyone a stake in it. The benefits of getting this right are great. In a time of rapid change, our reforms will put heritage protection on a sound footing for the future.”

Shown here: George Brannon, View of Osborne House over the River Medina (c. 1845)

. . . . . .

In related news, Jowell has taken action to protect the remains of a cargo of nineteenth-century Cornish mining equipment discovered by local divers off Little Ganinick in the Isles of Scilly in 2005.

“These rare and well-preserved remains represent one of the most significant periods in Cornwall’s history – when expansion of the mining industry during the nineteenth century resulted in massive migration and the spread of Cornish culture throughout the world," said culture minister David Lammy.

The landscape of the Cornish mining industry was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in July 2006. This cargo represents a rare find of contemporary mining equipment lost during transhipment. The remains of the as-yet-unidentified ship, which is believed to have capsized and sunk nearby, remain undiscovered.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Nepalese Gurkhas Finally Win British Benefits (sort of)

Another loose end of empire imperfectly tied up ...

From the Associated Press: "Nepalese Gurkha soldiers who have been fighting for Britain but receiving unequal retirement benefits since the days of the British Empire will finally receive the same pensions as the rest of the army, the government said Thursday. But the change will only apply to those who retired from the army in the last 10 years, leaving many older veterans of Britain's Gurkha Brigade disappointed . . . The decision follows years of campaigning by Gurkha and British veterans who say many retired Gurkhas are destitute. Gurkhas began serving the United Kingdom in 1815 in India, and with Indian independence in 1947 became part of the British army. More than 3,300 Gurkhas are in the army and most serve in overseas operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan."

According to Peace, Padam Bahadur Gurung, president of the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organization, said the government's decision was only a partial victory. "The dedication and loyalty of Nepali soldiers to the British Crown has been unquestionable all through history, but the issues of the Gurkhas who joined before 1997 have been ignored," he said. "The British government should justify the reasons to exclude the soldiers who retired before 1997."

During the Indian Rebellion (or "Mutiny") of 1857, Gurkhas fought on the British side. They became part of the British Indian Army when it was formed the following year. From 1858 until the start of World War I, Gurkha regiments saw action in Burma, Afghanistan, the frontiers of India, Malta, Cyprus, Malaya, China, and Tibet.

The British government's decision is praiseworthy as far as it goes and an affront to human dignity where it falls short. Note that it comes in a week full of media reports about the poor treatment given wounded British and American troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (see here, here, and here for just a few examples). The lack of respect and appreciation shown by governments to those who willingly make sacrifices of life and limb on behalf of their countries is simply outrageous and completely indefensible.

Déjà vu
Rudyard Kipling, "Tommy," Barrack-Room Ballads, 1889-1891 (read the complete poem here)

I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:

O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins,'' when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mr. Atkins,'' when the band begins to play.
. . .
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country," when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
But Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!

Shown here: A nineteenth-century Gurkha with his kukri.

Related links:

"The Battle for Parity: Victory for the Gurkhas" (Independent, 9 March)

British Gurkha Welfare Society
The Gurkha Museum

Brigade of Gurkhas--History

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Rare Nineteenth-Century Letters Stolen from LMA

From the 9 March issue of Islington Tribune:

"Cops hunt Queen Vic’s letters"
By Mark Blunden and Lewis Maughan

Detectives are trying to trace 40 rare letters from the nineteenth century, including correspondence from Queen Victoria and William Gladstone, after they were stolen from London’s biggest archives.

It was revealed this week that the letters and documents, worth “several hundred thousand pounds,” were taken from the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) in Northampton Road, Finsbury. Police have so far recovered 11 of 51 stolen documents, which were removed between April and December last year. Officers have refused to comment on whether they suspect the thefts were an “inside job” but it is understood that even more letters could be missing.

The items were taken from Lord Jersey’s collection and include letters from Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington. Also part of the Jersey Collection is correspondence from novelist Sir Walter Scott to Lord Byron and from Liberal prime minister William Gladstone to Sir Robert Peel, father of the modern police force.

A police source said: “In historical terms some of the items are unusual. We are looking at lots of things at the moment, which may lead to other archives. The LMA is really helping but this will be a lengthy investigation.”

The City of London, which runs the LMA, is refusing to comment on the thefts. A spokeswoman would only say that a “security review” is under way. The LMA is the primary archive for London, with files dating from 1160, and is also the biggest local authority archive in the UK. It includes tens of thousands of maps, documents, photographs of people, and business, charity, and diocese records.

It is unclear how the thief took the letters but gaining access to the documents is not easy. In order to view most archives, a written or e-mail request is initially required. Particularly “iconic” documents, like those in the Jersey Collection, are not accessible without applying for permission through the principal archivist, who vets applications to judge whether or not a request “is suitable.” If successful, though LMA officials say “it is unlikely,” members of the public will get permission to look at documents. Depending on the condition of the documents visitors may be able to handle them. But many of the thousands of documents held at the LMA are very delicate and cannot be handled by the public. An LMA official said: “We can’t allow everyone to hold the documents or very soon there will be nothing left of them . . . We don’t usually let people have access to iconic documents but you can look at copies of them on the web, or we have most copied to microfilm, which are kept here.”

Detective Sergeant Joe Lock, of Islington CID, is appealing for anyone who may have been offered “items of a similar nature without provenance” to contact him on 020 7421 0149.

Update: A man in his 40s from south west London has been arrested for theft and bailed pending further enquiries.

---end of Islington Tribune article---

Museum to Showcase Victorian Eco-Engine

(Via 24 Hour Museum):
A London museum is helping to highlight an eco-friendly way of creating "free" energy that was invented almost 200 years ago.

Stirling engines (a desktop model is shown here) were commonplace around 1880 to 1920 but fell out of fashion with the advent of the electric motor. Amid concerns over global warming, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum is organizing a rally to showcase these engines, which some scientists believe have a role to play in delivering clean energy.

Originally invented in 1816 by the Rev Dr Robert Stirling (1790-1878), they are closed-circuit combustion engines. They work by using heat to warm a cylinder. The air within the cylinder expands with an increase in pressure that in turn drives the engine. True Stirling engines also incorporate a regenerator, which stores heat energy during one part of the cycle and releases it later, making the engine even more efficient.

The rally, to be held on March 25 at the museum in Brentford, will bring together more than 80 working engines made by members of the Stirling Engine Society. It will focus on working models and engines designed to stretch the application of this technology and is thought to be the largest event of its kind ever staged.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Prisoner 4099

A play inspired by the true story of William Towers (shown here), a 12-year-old boy sent to Wandsworth Prison for one month of hard labor in 1872 for stealing two rabbits, was created and performed last year by students at the Royal National Institute of the Blind New College Worcester and young people from LOOK: The National Federation of Families with Visually Impaired Children.

"Prisoner 4099" was facilitated by staff at The National Archives and has now been made available online as part of the Archives' Learning Curve website. (Read the press release here; the Learning Curve also has "exhibitions" on Victorian Britain, the British Empire, crime and punishment, and nineteenth-century politics.)

The project began in 2004 when staff from The National Archives met sixth formers and teaching staff of RNIB New College Worcester. The National Archives wanted to use its historical records to create an exciting project for children and young people. The blind and partially sighted students involved in the project examined original documents and learned about the treatment of children in prison during the nineteenth century. Many of them visited the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law Galleries of Justice in Nottingham. They also made a special trip to The National Archives in London.

"We were keen to get involved as it provided an ideal opportunity for our students to broaden their appreciation of the nature of sources, and to link up with other students," said Jeanette Normanton Erry, head of history at RNIB New College Worcester. "The project also demonstrated how students with a visual impairment can use primary sources independently and work as equals alongside their fully sighted peers."

Along with a recording of the play made by Youthcomm Radio, a project of Worcester County Council, the "Prisoner 4099" website includes information and images related to life in Victorian prisons and to Wandsworth Prison in particular. It also provides links to documents at The National Archives and General Register Office, including Towers' birth certificate and charge sheet.

This is an exemplary project that combines several best practices in history education, archives outreach, use of technology, and community inclusiveness. I highly recommend the website to parents and teachers interested in learning how they might partner with a local museum, archive, or library to enhance the teaching and learning of history.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Shrunken Head(ache) in Oxford

Of all the objects scooped up by the Victorians on their expeditions around the world, few were as gruesomely fascinating to friends and family back home as shrunken heads collected in the deep jungles of South America.

Ten such shrunken heads, or tsantsas, made their way into the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, where they are included in a display called "Treatment of Dead Enemies." Collected between 1871 and 1936 from the Upper Amazon region between Peru and Ecuador, they were made by the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa, and Aguaruna peoples.

According to a fact sheet published by the museum, the taking of heads from enemies has been "a socially approved form of violence with deep religious and cultural meanings. It was not seen simply as murder, but as a way of maintaining social and cosmological order. It has always been accompanied by elaborate rituals surrounding the killing of the victim and the display of the head itself."

The fact sheet further explains: "British explorers collected shrunken heads because they saw them as exotic curiosities . . . There was such demand for shrunken heads by museums and private collectors that some were made for sale from the heads of people who had died of natural causes."

One of the heads, acquired sometime before 1874 by General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), was part of the museum's founding collection. Pitt Rivers, shown here, is sometimes called the "father of scientific archaeology" because of his rigorous collection and cataloguing methods. Here's how the head was originally described:

"Head of a captured chief artificially shrunk by the Xebaroe Indians of South America. After the head has been boiled for some time with an infusion of herbs the skull and bones are removed through the neck, the hair and features being preserved. Heated stones are then put into the hollow and as they cool are constantly replaced by others; by this means the head is reduced to its present size; it is then suspended in the hut and solemnly abused by the owner; after which the mouth is sewn up to prevent the chance of a reply; the abuse is repeated at feasts and on special occasions."

Of course the display attracts thousands of people each year, riveting young and old alike, and is one of the museum's most popular attractions.

However, a curator at the museum has recently raised questions about the appropriateness of the display. Laura Peers told The Oxford Times she felt "uncomfortable" that the heads were on exhibit. "I personally would like to know more about what the communities in Ecuador and Peru feel about it," she said. She is currently reviewing visitors' responses to the display to determine the museum's next steps. The heads could be removed from public view or even returned to South America.

Her remarks have created a small uproar in Oxford, with some saying that political correctness has run amok.

"The heads are popular and educational," said Oxford resident Sara Patel. "I remember them as a kid and have a great fondness for the museum. No one is asking for them to be taken off display except this curator who clearly thinks she knows better than the public!"

The museum's director is taking a more measured view. "The Pitt Rivers tries to tread a careful line between acknowledging the very considerable public interest in these historical displays on the one hand, and shifting ethical sensitivities on the other," said Michael O'Hanlon.

A perspective that seems to be missing in the discussion is this: the exhibit tells us as much about the culture of the collectors as it does about the culture of those "collected" . . . and for that reason alone is a valuable teaching tool. Why not incorporate the current conversation over "shifting ethical sensitivities" into the display? Explain what the Victorians thought about this issue, and why, and then discuss how and why feelings have changed since their era.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Victorians Fetch High Prices at Christie's Auction

The Christie's auction of Victorian drawings, paintings, and decorative arts described in my post of February 21 fetched more than £1.3 million last week.

The 296 lots in "Christopher Wood: A Very Victorian Eye" included works by some of the best-known artists of the nineteenth century. The top price, however, was realized not by Burne-Jones, Millais, Rossetti, or Watts, but by the lesser-known John Atkinson Grimshaw, whose Lovers in a Wood by Moonlight (1873), shown here, sold for £156,000, a full £6,000 above the estimate.

A red and black chalk drawing of a girl's head by John William Waterhouse that had been estimated at £30-50,000 went for £72,000. A watercolor by William Fraser Garden, Woodland Scene at Twilight (1885), went for £60,000, four to six times its estimate of £10-15,000. The Crossing Sweeper by William Powell Frith, highlighted in my previous post, realized £26,400, well over its estimate.

From The Independent, 6 March: "Provenance is a key factor in determining the value of a work of art, and was seen at work last week at Christie's which was selling works from the collection of the Victorian art dealer Christopher Wood. Estimates were kept low to encourage bidding, and more than 90 per cent of the 268 works offered were sold, some for record prices. The most telling result was for Credo, a 16-inch bronze by Emmanuel Fremiet. Examples of this work sell regularly for between £2,000 and £3,000, and Christie's had valued it accordingly. But on the day, a private UK buyer paid £38,500 for Wood's version."

For a complete list of auction results, visit Artnet.

Update #3: The "Young Victoria" Film

From the Daily Mail, March 2:

"Bedroom Secrets of Queen Vic"
By Baz Bamigboye

Emily Blunt is looking for the woman in Queen Victoria. "She and Prince Albert had nine children, so there was obviously a lot of passion there," Emily told me in Los Angeles. The actress was about to head off for Albuquerque to play a punk pot-head in a comedy called Sunshine Cleaning opposite Amy Adams and Oscar-winner Alan Arkin.

Emily, who shot to stardom in Summer Of Love and The Devil Wears Prada, will portray the young Victoria in a movie that begins filming in London late this summer with director Jean-Marc Vallée. Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes has penned a screenplay and the movie has royal backing (sort of) from Sarah Ferguson, who sent the idea to Graham King, the producer of Oscar best picture The Departed. Martin Scorsese, another Academy Award winner, will keep a watchful eye over the project so it doesn't descend into a pretty "mantelpiece" historical saga.

"People always see Victoria as the mourning queen, but she wasn't always like that," Emily told me. "In the years she was married to Albert, she loved him to bits and we want to show what made them so good together."
---end of Daily Mail article---

For previous posts on this topic, see February 11: New Film on Queen Victoria's Early Life in the Works, February 16: Update #1: "The Young Victoria" Film, and February 23: Update #2: "The Young Victoria" Film

Friday, March 2, 2007

Salmagundi #1

A collection of odds and ends ...

According to Foreign Policy Passport, the world's oldest blogger was born during Victoria's reign. Olive Riley, who lives north of Sydney, Australia, and was born in 1899, just started her blog (or "blob," as she calls it) this month. The 107-year-old great-great-grandmother was born in the British colony of New South Wales two years before Australia became a nation.

Statuary Victoria

Has the queen had a nose job? You decide after looking at these photos of the Victoria Memorial in London published by In Soul.

I Love Brisbane describes the statue of Victoria that presides over Queens Gardens in that lovely Australian city.

The South Shields Daily Photo shows a very imposing Victoria guarding the entrance to South Shields Town Hall.

A photo of the queen at St. Nicholas Square, Newcastle, published by Jafabrit's Art.

The queen in Bangalore.

Floating Victoria

Cunard launches the Queen Victoria in December. This queen of the sea will have a "sleek outline," unlike the original.

Hungry Victoria

The Old Foodie notes that Fortnum & Mason was appointed grocer to HRH the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) on March 2, 1863: "The tradition of recognising tradesmen who satisfactorily supplied the Royal Household by the issuing of a Royal Warrant of Appointment was established in the 15th century. During the 64-year reign of Queen Victoria, she and her large family issued over 2,000 Royal Warrants."

At, you can find the recipe for "the only soup ever eaten by Queen Victoria."

Funny Victoria

In the web-based comic strip The New Adventures of Queen Victoria, Queen Victoria comes back to life to comment on the ways of the modern world. "She is fusty. She likes to complain about new things, even as she tends to get roped into them with an antique enthusiasm. And she hates the French with a passion ... She is assisted by her son Edward and her chaperone Maurice. They help her as she tries her hand at National Novel Writing Month, attempts to purchase a Wii, struggles with the cancellation of her strip thanks to low ratings..." (from The Ferret) This is a queen who participates in Victorian Idol and goes into mourning when The O.C. is cancelled. Hilarious.

Leicester to Host Victorian Studies Conference

The University of Leicester’s internationally renowned Victorian Studies Centre, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, will host a conference this month to consider the pasts and futures of Victorian studies.

As the longest established Victorian studies center in Britain, Leicester has been at the forefront of the discipline’s development in the UK, and has built up a distinguished record of forward-looking, interdisciplinary research on various aspects of the nineteenth century. The conference, "Victorian Studies: Pasts and Futures," will take stock of the present state of Victorian studies and point to new and emerging directions in research. In addition to the two keynote addresses, the conference will feature panel sessions on "Reading the Victorians" and "The Victorians in World Context." Read more...

In July 2005 I had the good fortune to present a paper at a VSC-sponsored conference on the actor-manager Henry Irving and was very impressed by both the place and its people.

Shown here: Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1842

Thursday, March 1, 2007

BFI Opens Doors to Victorian Cinema

The largest collection of moving images in the world has opened its doors to the public.

For the first time, the British Film Institute in London will allow free access to its film and television archive of nearly one million items. [Please read comments for important clarification of access policy.] This is a boon for Victorianists, as the collection includes a wide range of very early cinema -- from the documentation of events related to the Boer War (the embarkation in 1900 of the City Imperial Volunteers for South Africa, the entry in 1900 of the Scots Guards into Bloemfontein, Kitchener's arrival at Southampton in 1902) to the first forays into film by the stage actors John Martin-Harvey and George Alexander.

The actress Ellen Terry (see post of February 27) is represented by several short films, including The Greatest Performance (1916), in which she appears with her daughter, Edith Craig; Victory and Peace (1918), a propaganda film that supposes a German invasion of Britain; Pillars of Society (1920), a version of Ibsen's play; and The Bohemian Girl (1922), an adaptation of Balfe's opera. She is also filmed at home, laying a foundation stone at Walston-on-Thames, opening a school for the blind at Reigate, and chatting with JM Barrie on the occasion of her being named a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire.

Other BFI treasures of interest to Victorianists include the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection, an amazing visual record of everyday life in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, consisting almost entirely of actuality films commissioned by travelling fairground operators for showing at local fairgrounds and other venues across the UK (available on DVD); and the pioneering films of James Williamson, which provide an intriguing portrait of late-Victorian England.

The BFI has also put together a video compilation called "Film as Evidence: Britain in 1900." After seeing "animated pictures" of herself and her guests at Balmoral in 1896, Queen Victoria called cinematography "a very wonderful process." The film that she saw is one of the 37 films in the compilation.

Shown here: A Lumière Cinématographe, c. 1896

Related resources:

Who's Who of Victorian Cinema
This impressive website is a "biographical guide to the world of Victorian film" and features 300 profiles of those who contributed between 1871 and 1901 to the advancement of the art and science of film.

The Bioscope is a new blog devoted to early and silent cinema.
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