Thursday, May 31, 2007

(Steam)Punk'd Model Trains

The blogosphere is abuzz over the steampunk-influenced model trains devised by artist Chris Walas, and no wonder. They just may be the coolest thing ever.

Shown here is Captain Nemo's "Seafood and Saltwater Salvage Railroad" with submersible locomotive, which Walas created from "the boiler from a Bachmann ten-wheeler" and "an Aristo-craft motor block." I have no idea what that means, but I know genius when I see it. (Plastic Easter eggs, a brass anchor, a drinking straw, and a seashell were also involved.) Its salt- and barnacle-encrusted exterior was created from sand and glitter mixed with acrylic paint.

From Journals of GMM: "Chris Walas makes model trains and creatures in his own alternate universe, consisting of vampires, terminators in rail wheelchairs, Victorian steampunk locomotives, Halloween skeletons, early sci-fi lunar rockets... I give up, if it is cool, Chris has modelled it."

From Table of Malcontents: "When steampunk crashes in head-on collision with model train enthusiasm, you get Chris Walas' rusty, corroded, and incredible creations. Walas' creations exist in a fictional micro-realm called Rogue County, where 19th century Americana meets the super-science villains, protagonists, and inventions of Victorian literature. Captain Nemo has converted his submarine into a locomotive in this universe, and someone appears to have captured Oz's Tock and put him on rails."

From Brass Goggles: "What that man does with blue foam, mustard seeds, and a hefty lick of paint puts a whole new perspective on what can be done with some ingenuity and inspiration! Please also take a look at the collaborative effort that he was part of to create Futuropolis - complete with ‘Verne Engine’ and a flying copper airship. More steampunk than a brass bucket of goggles."
Shown here: The "Jules Verne" engine.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Who Are You Calling "Nellie"?

Yesterday Sir John Major called on his successor to quit Downing Street and hand over power to Gordon Brown as soon as possible. In an interview with the Guardian, the former Tory prime minister criticized Tony Blair's drawn-out departure from office, mocking him for being "in the middle of the longest farewell since Dame Nellie Melba quit the stage."

Major's invocation of Melba, the great Australian soprano (1861-1931) who gave her name both to thin, dry toast and a dessert concoction of peaches and ice cream, was brilliant. Certainly he was right in using Melba as an example of "the long goodbye": in 1924, forty years after her professional debut, Melba announced her farewell to opera but continued to perform through much of 1928. There are additional unflattering parallels between the singer and politician: George Bernard Shaw initially found Melba "hard, shallow, self-sufficient and altogether unsympathetic," epithets that have sometimes been hurled at Blair by his opponents.

Major was also diabolically clever in his use of Melba instead of a contemporary example of the protracted retirement tour (Cher, say, or Barbra Streisand). Her first name, "Nellie," is a common euphemism for effeminate men and Major pointedly included the honorific "Dame." In one fell swoop, Major managed to cast aspersions both on his rival's seeming diva-like reluctance to leave the stage and on his masculinity. (For an amusing discussion of the wide range of negative slang meanings associated with the name "Nellie," see Michael Quinion's "Alas Poor Nell" at World Wide Words.)

Yet there are positive parallels between Melba and Blair, as well. One biographer has noted Melba's "splendid constitution and tenacity of purpose, allied with exceptional powers of concentration and attention to detail" as well as her "charismatic personality" that enabled her to stay at the forefront of her profession for so long -- traits shared by the soon-to-be-ex prime minister.

Major's remarks run against the British public mood. A Guardian/ICM poll published on Thursday showed that most voters think Blair should continue in his job until 27 June. Only 28% of voters said that they wanted Brown to take office now, with 71% of Labour supporters saying they were happy to wait.

Does Major's self-insertion into the public eye now have anything to do with the fact that he is on a book tour to promote his new history of cricket? (In 1997, following the Conservatives' worst electoral defeat in living memory, Major assuaged his disappointment by attending a cricket match at the Oval.)

Perhaps the one truly "doing a Melba" is Major himself.

Shown here: Madame Melba (1901-02) by Rupert Bunny, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An Inside Look at Five Royal Weddings

Via the BBC and The Telegraph:

A new exhibition at Windsor Castle provides a rare glimpse into the world of royal weddings ... intimate occasions that have become spectacularly public events in recent years.

"Royal Weddings, 1840-1947" runs through 11 May 2008 in the Drawings Gallery. It tells the stories of five royal weddings – from the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten – through photographs, documents from the Royal Archives, rare memorabilia, and charming personal gifts exchanged by members of the Royal Family.

Queen Victoria ascended the throne three years before her marriage to Prince Albert and was the first reigning queen to marry since the sixteenth century. (Shown here: Queen Victoria by Franz Winterhalter, 1840; this portrait, showing the queen in her wedding dress, was painted for the queen as a present to Prince Albert on their wedding day.)

In her journal, Victoria describes her joy when Albert agrees to marry her, saying how happy she is to "feel I was loved and am loved by such an angel."

For her engagement in 1839, she received a beautiful gold bracelet with conjoined amethyst hearts from her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and "a lovely brooch, a spray of orange flowers" designed by the Prince.

A sketch by Queen Victoria of how she imagined she would look in her wedding veil (shown here) is among the memorabilia on display. It was doodled by the young queen as she planned her wedding to Albert, a man she described as "excessively handsome," with "such beautiful blue eyes, and exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers."

At the wedding ceremony on 10 February 1840, Victoria was attended by twelve train-bearers, all daughters of peers of the realm. Each girl received a gold brooch, designed by Prince Albert, in the form of an eagle and set with turquoise, pearls, rubies, and diamonds. The queen designed their dresses and recorded in her diary her first sight of the bridesmaids "dressed all in white with white roses, which had a beautiful effect."

Two pieces of the couple's wedding cake are included in the exhibition. John Mauditt, Queen Victoria’s confectioner at Buckingham Palace, made the cake shown here. It was on a vast scale, measuring three metres in circumference and weighing more than 140 kg. The allegorical figure of Britannia stands at the top blessing the symbolic figures of the bride and groom. On top of the cake were bouquets of white flowers tied with true-lovers-knots of white satin ribbon intended as presents for the guests at the wedding breakfast.

The exhibition also details the 1863 wedding of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the 1893 wedding of Princess Victoria Mary of Teck (the future Queen Mary) to Prince George of Wales (the future King George V); the 1923 wedding of the Duke of York (the future King George VI) and Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (the future Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother); and the 1947 wedding of Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (the future Duke of Edinburgh).

Royal librarian Jane Roberts says the display shows "how the Royal family really had the same sort of views about marriage and love and weddings as the rest of us."

The exhibition was mounted in celebration of the upcoming 60th wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Some reports say that Elizabeth will bestow the title of Prince Consort on her husband later this year. If those reports are true, he will join Prince Albert as one of only two prince consorts in British history.

An excellent online version of the exhibition is available here.

The exhibition is accompanied by the book Five Gold Rings: A Royal Wedding Souvenir Album, which is richly illustrated with images of wedding dresses and jewelry, gifts between bride and groom, engagement and wedding presents from friends and family, wedding cakes and flowers, invitations, menus, music, and photographs. Woven through the text are personal letters and diary entries from the Royal Archives, several of which are reproduced for the first time.
It can be ordered for £9.99 from the Royal Collection online shop.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Cutty Sark Damaged in Fire

A spectacular fire early today heavily damaged the clipper ship Cutty Sark, a British merchant sailing vessel built for the lucrative nineteenth-century tea trade with China.

The ship, which is moored in drydock at Greenwich, had been closed to visitors since last year for a four-year, £26 million ($50 million) renovation.

In a bit of good news, Ian Bell, manager of the restoration project, emerged from an inspection of the ship with soot on his cheeks but an optimistic message about the condition of its iron frame.

"Initial indications suggest we don't have any massive distortions of the ship," Bell said. "It is not as bad as it could have been."

More than half of the ship's structure, including the three 100-foot (33-metre) masts and 250 teak planks, had already been removed as part of the restoration work. Much of the damage was to a temporary wooden roof installed to provide cover for the 65 carpenters, shipwrights, fabricators, and other conservationists currently working on the project.

"I think the most disturbing thing for me is the smell in the air," said Richard Doughty, chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust. "Anyone who has been on the Cutty Sark knows it has a very distinctive smell from the timber, from the rope. Tragically, that smell now pervades southeast London."

The Cutty Sark left London on its maiden voyage on 16 February 1870, proceeding around Cape Hope to Shanghai a few months later. The ship made only eight voyages to China before its usefulness was usurped by faster ships powered by steam.

Measuring 280 feet in length, the ship weighed 979 tons and its main mast soared 152 feet above the main deck. It was used for training naval cadets during World War II; in 1951 it was moored in London for the Festival of Britain. Shortly afterward, the ship was acquired by the Cutty Sark Society.

Says The Guardian: "The Cutty Sark was the one of the most refined of all ships, the Concorde of her day, fast, delicate and elegant. Her curved lines showed she was not some salt-crusted carrier but a whippet of the seas, designed to race from China with tea. Never quite the fastest, or happiest of ships - beaten for speed by the Thermopylae, the greatest clipper of all - she was nonetheless the last to survive. The sight of her great masts and sharp bow jutting towards the Thames in Greenwich was a reminder that London was once a great port."

So raise a glass of Cutty Sark whisky this evening, then go online and make a donation toward this unique ship's restoration. That's what I'll be doing.

Shown here: Associated Press photo of the Cutty Sark on fire (top); The Cutty Sark by Frederick Tudgay, 1872 (bottom).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Jai Hind!" -- India Commemorates 1857 Uprising

From The Times, 12 May 2007:
Thousands of flag-waving patriots flocked to the Mughal-built Red Fort in Delhi yesterday [Friday, 11 May] to kick off a year-long celebration of the bloody uprising 150 years ago by Indian rebels against British occupation.

The Indian Mutiny, or the First War of Independence as it is known in India, brought to an end the Mughal empire and the rule of the British East India Company, and led to direct governance by Britain for 90 years.

What was subsequently played down in some British textbooks as a small insurrection by a faction of disaffected, underpaid Indian soldiers – dubbed sepoys by their British commanders – is now widely accepted as a much more significant event, sowing the seeds of nationalism that eventually led to independence in 1947.

India’s leaders have chosen to use the anniversary as a unifying event for a country still riven by religious and caste divisions.

“The fight for freedom united people from different religions and speaking different languages,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Hindus and Muslims stood together shoulder to shoulder. We cannot forget the Hindu-Muslim unity that 1857 represented and held out as an example for subsequent generations.”

A Government-sponsored march this week by 30,000 young people covering the 50 miles (80km) from Meerut to Delhi highlighted how Muslims fought determinedly in military units that were 85 per cent Hindu.

The soldiers were galvanised initially by reports that the British were using cow and pig fat – offensive to both Hindus and Muslims – to grease the cartridges of their rifles, but their dissatisfaction became a popular revolt because of the close ties between the army and civilians.

“While the sepoys were in the vanguard, the people of the country were behind them,” said Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling Congress Party.

Mindful not to idolise one of the bloodiest chapters in Indian history, the Government has also tried to use the mutiny to focus public attention on the seminal moment of independence – won 60 years ago – without the use of force.

“As a nation inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s message of nonviolence, India has consciously abjured violence as an instrument of social and political change,” Dr Singh said in a speech to parliament.

[At Red Fort, colorful floats and a huge demon-shaped balloon with the Union Jack printed on it (shown here) depicted scenes from the conflict that glorified the mutineers' courage in the face of the might of the country's British masters.]

Tens of thousands on both sides were slaughtered in the uprising that was suppressed savagely in Delhi. The British took four months to quell the revolt and exiled Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, to Burma.

William Dalrymple, the British historian and author of The Last Mughal, is in no doubt that the anniversary is worth celebrating. “For all that it was a failure and accompanied by some of the most ghastly bloodshed, it was undoubtedly the largest anti-colonial revolt in the nineteenth century – the high point of imperialism – and unequivocally a significant event.”


Several related news stories are available online at World News Network.

There's a great discussion of 1857 over at chapati mystery.

International Herald Tribune, 10 May 2007: "Letter from India: India's commemoration of 1857 mutiny overcomes some problems," by Amelia Gentleman

Read a dissenting view of the celebration by Tarun Vijay (Times of India): "That the Prime Minister forgot Mangal Pandey, the hero of 1857, in his Parliament speech but remembered Karl Marx shows the pressures and the stress he is working under to keep his government afloat. Most of the MPs and MLAs stayed home glued to their TV channels for the UP results rather than attending the 1857 function at Red Fort. It's a shame to see how the 150th anniversary has been turned into a sham sarkari jholawala function devoid of any life and vibrancy."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

County Collection of Eliot Letters Goes Online

A new website celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of George Eliot’s first novel, Scenes of Clerical Life, has just been launched by the Warwickshire Library Service. It features facsimiles and transcripts of the county’s collection of George Eliot letters that are now made available online for the first time.

Eliot was born in 1819 at South Farm on the Arbury estate near Nuneaton in Warwickshire. The letters provide a fascinating insight into her everyday life and fall into two groups.

The first group includes Eliot's correspondence with the Sibree family, with whom she grew close while living in Coventry in the 1840s. Other letters in this group date from the 1870s and are addressed to Eliot's lover, George Henry Lewes, from his son Herbert, then living in Africa. Several letters addressed to Arthur and Alice Helps reveal telling details of the Eliot-Lewes relationship and touch on matters of contemporary concern, such as vivisection. Still others concern Lewes’ views of various science-related issues.

The second group relates largely to the family of Eliot's brother Isaac Evans and shed considerable light on how Eliot’s family, which had disowned her during her 24-year "marriage" to Lewes, responded to her in the decades following her death.

The website provides a number of useful links. A collection of Eliot’s works held at Nuneaton Library can be accessed via the site; the site also includes a biography detailing key points in Eliot's life, including her move to London after her father’s death; her dealings with Thackeray, Dickens, and Browning; and her relationship with Lewes. A list of Warwickshire events related to the 150th anniversary of Scenes of Clerical Life is also provided.

The digitization of the letters was funded by Museums Libraries and Archives West Midlands.

“The website is a wonderful opportunity to find out more about one of the county’s foremost figures," says Lesley Kirkwood, Warwickshire local studies librarian. "The letters are an authentic source of what was happening in her life at a time when she was among the nation's most prolific and talented writers and are of great importance to those interested in Eliot or to those who are just curious about society life in the nineteenth century.”

Shown here: George Eliot by François d'Albert Durade, 1849; the first page of a letter from Eliot to her uncle Samuel Evans of Millhouse, comforting him on the illness of his wife Elizabeth (the model for Dinah in Adam Bede).

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Queen's "Schoolgirlish" Scribbles

From the 6 May 2007 Scotland on Sunday:

Queen Victoria discussed the "horrid" Irish and Russians in private correspondence with Disraeli, according to papers of the Scots-born prime minister Arthur Balfour (1848-1930) held by the Brander family of Whittingehame, East Lothian.

Britain's longest reigning monarch also told Disraeli she wished she were a man so she could go and fight enemies of her empire.

In November 1919, a Buckingham Palace aide wrote to Balfour, then in the Cabinet as Lord President of the Council, asking for advice about the proposed publication of letters between the Queen and Disraeli.

The following month Balfour wrote back suggesting that a number of the Queen's remarks be removed from the letters, dating between 1875 and 1878, to protect her reputation. Balfour wrote: "There is a phrase used by the Queen in which she talks about giving the 'horrid Russians such a beating.' I rather like the Queen's passionate wish 'to be a man and go out and fight her country's enemies.' All the same, these are expressions which rather degrade sentiments which are in themselves wholly admirable."

Balfour also called for the passage where the Queen referred to "these horrid Irish" to be removed before publication. He wrote: "No doubt the Irish party of obstruction in the House of Commons was horrible, but I cannot help feeling that this colloquial commentary might, with advantage, be omitted. It is somewhat schoolgirlish. If I have seemed to cavil at words, it is not because they are too vehement, but because I think they will be misunderstood and will injure rather than improve the general effort of this remarkable piece of political portraiture."

Balfour added: "Without being in the least clever, Queen Victoria was certainly a most remarkable personality. Unfortunately she wrote like a schoolgirl, incapable of seeing the reality behind the form."

Shown here: The Queen and Disraeli.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Brunel's Crystal Palace Towers to Rise Again

From the 29 April 2007 Observer:

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's water towers at Crystal Palace, once famed throughout the British Empire for their height and grandeur, are to be rebuilt in a remarkable plan that blends history with cutting-edge green technology.

A major redevelopment of the south London parkland site will see the towers again dominate the surrounding area, just as they loomed for nearly 80 years over the pleasure gardens once described by Queen Victoria as "a magical fairyland."

The original towers, which were 280 feet tall, fed hundreds of tons of water to showpiece fountains below and were completed by Brunel in 1855. The new structures will employ state-of-the-art engineering to draw in wind at their base to power internal turbines and generate electricity.

The vast glass conservatory that stood next to the towers for decades and became an icon of the Victorian age was designed by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Boasting nearly a million square feet of glass, the pavilion was quickly dubbed the Crystal Palace. After wowing the crowds in Hyde Park, where it was first erected, the whole building, along with much of its landscaped grounds and entertainments, was recreated on an even more impressive scale on Sydenham Hill in south-east London.

In order to feed Paxton's new fountains on the site, Brunel built towers with tanks at the top that could hold 1,200 tons of water. A year after the towers were finished, the fountains were unveiled. Visitors were reportedly astounded by their 11,788 jets of water, all flowing at 120,000 gallons a minute. Word of these delights spread speedily through Europe and the French emperor, Napoleon III, paid a visit with his consort, Eugenie. Influential concerts given there in those early years introduced Schubert, Schumann, and Sullivan to the British public. Now the London Development Agency is planning to regenerate the historic site and bring back some its former glory.

Shown here: Postcard showing the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, 1905 (top); the fountains on the Italian terraces were just some of the water features fed by water stored in a pair of water towers, one at each end of the building, which were designed by Brunel (bottom).

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