Friday, June 29, 2007

Dancing Queen

The delightful dancing pair shown here (Victoria and Albert, of course, in a moment lost to history) is one of a series of prints created by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to mark its 150th anniversary. It's by Ronald Searle and available in a number of sizes at the V&A's online shop.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

William Morris Gallery Update: Facebook and Flickr to the Rescue

Further to my post of 24 March on the financial difficulties of the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow ...

Supporters of the gallery, which faces closure due to funding cuts, have set up their own pages on the social networking sites Facebook and Flickr to help their campaign.

You can help the campaign by becoming a member of the "Save the William Morris Gallery" group on Facebook, and related images can be posted or viewed on Flickr at

Related link: Friends of the William Morris Gallery

Shown here: Morris & Company "Jasmine" wallpaper (1872); designed by William Morris; block-printed in distemper colors.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Victorian Things: Wine Decanter by William Burges

Today I begin a new occasional feature that will highlight a single Victorian "thing" outstanding for its beauty, utility, or both.

First up: the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University introduces us to a remarkable wine decanter made in 1865 by the even more remarkable William Burges (1827-1881). What does this man, who was "steeped in hallucinatory laudanum," have in common with guitar legend Jimmy Page (er ... besides a fondness for mind-altering substances)? Read on.

"This flamboyant and strange-looking object comes from the imagination of a flamboyant and strange-looking individual. A parrot-keeping, rat-hunting, opium-eating Freemason, Burges was an archaeologist and architect who was so short sighted, it is said, that he once mistook a peacock for a man. He was a great traveller, fascinated in particular by the art and culture of thirteenth-century Europe, and he became a leading figure in the nineteenth-century Gothic revival that dominated English taste between c.1830 and 1880.

"Though William Burges - 'Billy' or 'ugly Burges' to his many friends - is comparatively little known today, affectionate accounts of him by his contemporaries abound, and monuments to his peculiar Victorian Gothic genius still stand: Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in Wales, St. Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork, Ireland.

"Of his surviving buildings one of the most intriguing is Tower House in Melbury Road, West London, a home that he began designing for himself in 1875. [Note: This house is currently owned by former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who bought it from the actor Richard Harris; read this fascinating BBC story for additional information. -- KT].

"As the house neared completion in 1878, Burges (right) started to move his furniture and effects in. The interior became a dazzling testament to his antiquarian enthusiasms, his broad learning, and his eccentric imagination. Cultures and colours are mixed to startling, often humourous effect. The porch floor is dominated by a Roman style mosaic of his favourite dog Pinkie. Above the fireplace in his library, a sculptural frieze shows Queen Grammar issuing orders to the allegorical figures of Pronoun, Verb, Article, Noun, Adjective, Adverb, Conjunction, and Preposition. In the guest bedroom all is gold and crystal and four emu eggs hang from the butterfly-festooned ceiling. On the beams are represented scenes of the mock-epic battle between the frogs and the mice.

"This wine decanter would have blended in perfectly in such florid surroundings. An inscription around the neck tells us that Burges had it made for himself in 1865, and that it was paid for from the proceeds of his prize-winning design for the Crimean Church in Constantinople, a design that was eventually considered too costly to build. Maker's marks reveal that the decanter was constructed for the designer by Josiah Mendelson and George Angell. These two were effectively employed to put together an elaborate three-dimensional jigsaw, for the dark green glass body of the vessel is adorned with a remarkable array of objects from different cultures and periods. It is in many ways typical of the eclecticism of Victorian taste.

"The ivory, leonine head of the griffin that makes up the handle (right) is based upon the pommel of an eighth-century Assyrian dagger in Burges' own collection.

"An eighteenth-century Chinese rock crystal lion rests on top of the decanter's lid (left).

"The green glass body and malachite neck are clad in silver, which is itself studded with Greek, Roman, and Byzantine coins; Roman and ancient Persian intaglios (carved gems); and coral cameos (right).

"The spout is made of silver and takes the form of a ram's head, the horns curling back to the neck of the vessel (left).

"Silver foliage and animals are applied to the silver casing. On the foot of the decanter, like the fauna found in the margins of a medieval manuscript, we find engraved a hedgehog, a mouse, and a wren with a worm in its mouth accompanied by the inscription I WREN, for Jenny Wren.

"Two more decanters closely resembling this one were made to designs by Burges, one of which is now in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford, the other in the Victoria and Albert Museum. An article that appeared in The Builder six years after Burges' death described these works as 'the best pieces of modern grotesque to be seen.'"

Related links:

Matthew Williams, William Burges (Pitkin Guides, 2004)

J. Mordaunt Crook, William Burges and the High Victorian Dream (John Murray, 1981)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Ethiopia is (rightly, in my opinion) demanding the remains of an emperor's son who was captured in 1868 and sent to Britain to be educated as a gentleman.

From The Independent, 18 June 2007:

Amid the gothic splendour of St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle there is a little-noticed brass plaque. Erected in memory of Prince Alemayehu Tewodros, it reads: "I was a stranger and ye took me in."

The memorial plate and the skeletal remains that lie behind it are the only concrete traces of the tragic and extraordinary tale of a seven-year-old boy who became embroiled in what many believe was the greatest orgy of looting conducted in the name of the British Empire.

The child prince (shown here), the son of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II, who has a claimed bloodline stretching back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was captured in April 1868 by the British Army, which conquered the ancient citadel of Magdala.

Alemayehu, a royal orphan, was transported to England to be educated as a gentleman. Along with him came so many looted treasures, including religious artefacts and 350 manuscripts, that it reportedly took 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry them from Magdala to the nearest sea port. The prince died barely a decade later of pleurisy and a broken heart, some 4,000 miles from his homeland, in Leeds. Among his mourners was Queen Victoria herself.

While the life of Alemayehu ranks as little more than a colonial-era curiosity in Britain, the events of 139 years ago are still keenly felt as an injustice in Ethiopia. The country, where European visitors are proudly reminded that it was never occupied for more than two years by a colonial power, has conducted a decades-long campaign for the return of the treasures. It recently celebrated the return of a 70ft obelisk from Italy.

These sentiments were resurrected two weeks ago when the country's President, Wolde-Giorgis Girma, formally wrote to the Queen asking for the remains of Prince Alemayehu to be exhumed and returned to Ethiopia for burial in time for the country celebrating its millennium in September. Ethiopia operates according to the Ethiopic calendar, which runs seven years behind the Western Julian calendar and marks the new year in September. The year 2000 will therefore arrive on 12 September 2007.

The campaign was further underlined yesterday when a nine-year-old schoolboy of Ethiopian origin delivered a petition to Downing Street calling for the restitution of the Magdala artefacts, which are spread throughout institutions such as the British Library and British Museum and include six illuminated manuscripts held in the royal library at Windsor.

Gabriel Kassayie, who collected more than 100 signatures among his classmates at a primary school in Hampstead, north London, said: "I wanted to do something. I learned how the artefacts were stolen from my country and how attempts to get them back were prevented. I wanted to do this for my ancestors."

Campaigners in Ethiopia argue that the epitaph to the prince in St George's Chapel is laden with irony: Alemayehu was not so much taken in as spirited away. Although Queen Victoria took a personal interest in Alemayehu's upbringing (reputedly paying his fees for Rugby School), they argue he was just as much of a "war trophy" as the gold crowns and altar pieces seized by the army of Sir Robert Napier, sent by the monarch to crush Emperor Tewodros in 1868.

Mulugeta Aserate, a second cousin of Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie, and a senior figure on the organising committee of the millennium celebrations, said the return of the remains for burial in a monastery in the northern city of Gondar would remove a blight on relations with Britain. He told The Independent: "The prince was a prisoner of war. Our relations with Britain are good and warm but the episode of Prince Alemayehu represents a dark side of that relationship.

"His return would be a cause for celebration here and what better time for it than this very African millennium of ours? He died in a foreign land but Alemayehu's name has not been forgotten in Ethiopia."

It is a further irony that the capture of the prince has its roots in an ill-fated attempt by his father to foster strong relations with Britain. In the late 1860s, the Christian emperor had sought the help of Britain in trying to protect Ethiopia from the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. When his entreaties went ignored and he imprisoned the British diplomatic mission, Napier inflicted a crushing defeat against his army on 10 April 1868 at Magdala, a fortified mountaintop in central Ethiopia.

Tewodros freed the prisoners and sent the British general a gift of cattle to be slaughtered for Easter Sunday two days later. When Napier replied with thanks, offering a safe conduct for Tewodros and his family, the emperor angrily rejected the overture and vowed never to be taken alive. After heavy bombardment, Tewodros committed suicide on Easter Monday, leaving the British to loot the palaces and churches and capture his young heir.

The American journalist Henry Morton Stanley, who witnessed the aftermath of the battle, describes how the plunder covered "the whole surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill and the entire road to the [British] camp two miles off."

The British insisted it had been the dying wish of Emperor Tewodros that his son and his mother, Queen Terunesh, be looked after by the victorious power. Whatever the truth of this, the leaders of the expedition recognised the usefulness of the prince as a potential pawn in its efforts to expand British dominion in east Africa to Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then known.

When Queen Terunesh died a month later on the journey from Magdala to the Red Sea, a British officer, Captain Tristram Speedy, was appointed as the guardian of the young boy.

Speedy, who was 6ft 6in and sported a bushy red beard, was a veteran of British campaigns from India to New Zealand. A speaker of Amharic, the Ethiopian language, he dismissed the prince's tutor, Alaqa Zenneb, before beginning the sea voyage to Britain and it seems he rapidly formed a close bond with his new charge. In his journal, he described how a terrified Alemayehu refused to leave his side, day or night.

Speedy wrote: "The distressing alarm that then seized him rendered him so timid that for the following three months no persuasion could induce him to sleep out of my arms, so great was his terror that if he happened to wake and find me asleep, he would wake me and earnestly beg me to remain awake until he should fall asleep, and it was only by continued care and tenderness that he is gradually losing his timidity."

There is no evidence that such comforting by the "gentle giant" officer was anything other than paternal. But it is fitting proof of how the Victorian empire builders saw their obligations towards a young boy considered a near divinity in Ethiopia.

Once in England, the heir of the King Solomon, shown in early photographs with the braided hair and elaborate costume of Abyssinian royalty, began his conversion into an English gentleman. He left the care of Speedy and his wife in 1871 and was sent to live with Dr Thomas Jex-Blake, the headmaster of Cheltenham College, who later was appointed to the same post at Rugby School.

Later pictures of the teenage prince, who was patronisingly recorded on his voyage to Britain as not having "the faintest notion" what to do with a knife and fork and had to be shown how to put marmalade on his toast, show him dressed in a tweed suit reading a heavy tome. Evidence suggests the photos were showing Alemayehu as something which he was not. Speedy recorded "he had no interest in his books and had an utter dislike for anything in that line" while his tutors at Rugby stated baldly: "Progress in study he will never make." Instead, the prince was dispatched to Sandhurst Military Academy. He was no happier there. Despite frequently expressing a desire to return to Ethiopia, the government refused all his requests.

Dr Mandefro Belayneh, an Ethiopian academic researching the life of Alemayehu, said: "He didn't have any friends or family to call on. There were letters coming from Abyssinia from his grandmother ... and all the letters said, 'When are you coming back? Your people are expecting you.' But I suspect these letters were never shown to him."

The prince died in October 1879. His funeral was held in St George's Chapel.

Buckingham Palace yesterday declined to comment on the request from President Girma. Ethiopian sources suggested that although the request was being considered favourably, there were potential problems with identifying the remains. But arguably, the official verdict on Britain's role in the life of Prince Alemayehu was delivered long ago. After his death, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary: "It is too sad. All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him. His was no happy life."

-- end of The Independent article --

Pugin Praised in Salisbury

Via the Salisbury Journal, 17 June 2007:

A commemorative plaque celebrating the nineteenth-century architect AWN Pugin was unveiled last week at St Osmund's Church, Exeter Street, Salisbury (shown here) -- a church Pugin helped design in 1847.

Pugin (1812-1852) was one of the most accomplished architects of the Victorian era and a leading exponent of the Gothic Revival style. As well as contributing to the design of the new Houses of Parliament in 1834, he played an influential role in the design of numerous well-known buildings around the country, and, after moving to Salisbury with his second wife, he became particularly active in this area.

Pugin (shown here) designed St Marie's Grange in Alderbury as a private property, restored the building that is now the cinema in New Canal, and later designed St Osmund's. It was at that church that members of the Salisbury Civic Society gathered last week to unveil the commemorative plaque and pay tribute to Pugin's architectural influence.

The church's foundation stone was laid on 8 April 1847 and the building was consecrated on 6 September 1848. At the time the Salisbury Journal described the whole composition as "small and unpretending," although it "bespeaks itself as the production of one thoroughly conversant with the principles of Christian art; and we may add, that amongst the many beautiful edifices with which the skill and ability of Pugin has adorned our country, none more sustains his deserved celebrity than does the church of St Osmund, at Salisbury."

John Elliott, a Civic Society member and former lecturer in art and architectural history at the University of London, noted Pugin's place in history.

"There is no doubt that Pugin was the single most important English architect of the early-Victorian era and it is only right for him to be commemorated in this way. He had a short life and died aged 41, but he had an enormous impact -- one much greater than most of us achieve in double the years. And it is particularly fitting that the plaque is here in Salisbury because the city had a huge impact on his life - it was here that he converted to Catholicism and wrote some of his most influential works - and really helped to make him into the Pugin we remember today."

The plaque was formally unveiled by Civic Society president Lord Congleton.

Related links:

The Pugin Society

St Osmund's Parish

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Image on the Wall

Via 24 Hour Museum:

Speaking of the workhouse ...

Scrub, Workhouse Boy is one of a rare series of hand-tinted magic lantern slide sets dating from 1880 to 1900 that have been made available online by the University of Bristol's Theatre Collection.

The magic lantern was a precursor of the modern slide projector. Mervyn Heard provides a capsule history of this "prodigious conjuring device" here.

Among the collection's 400 magic lantern slides are several complete sets, or stories, including Scrub; Rare Metal: A Story of City Life; The Life Boat; Nellie’s Prayer; The Matron’s Story; Christmas in Paradise; and Little Jim.

Some magic lantern stories, like Christmas in Paradise, which was published by the Wesleyan Conference Office in London as part of a temperance series on the dangers of drink, were essentially sermons. Others, like Scrub, were melodramatic tales of misfortune and redemption that mirrored popular taste in literature and drama.

In addition to the story sets, Bristol's collection includes images of carvings, crosses, effigies, and stained glass in British, French, Italian, Swiss, and German churches that were once part of magic lantern shows on religious art and architecture. Today they form a unique visual resource for the historian.

A separate set of slides, the T. Edgar Pemberton Lantern Slide Collection, shows unusual exterior and interior views (including backstage work areas) of the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. Many of these images were published in Pemberton's history of the theatre in 1901.

“Though there was a huge market for magic lanterns and slides in the nineteenth century, they eventually fell out of favour after the invention of moving pictures,” says Jo Elsworth, Keeper of the Theatre Collection. “Few lanterns and slides survived, which makes this archive even more precious. We are delighted to have been able to conserve this remarkable collection and make it available to a twenty-first century audience.”

Related links:

Magic Lantern Society (UK)

Magic Lantern Society (US and Canada) and links

Friday, June 15, 2007

Salmagundi #4

My fourth collection of odds and ends ...

Steampunk bugs (stag beetle shown here) at Insect Lab.

Need a steampunk raygun? Or a riveted leather mask with ruby-lensed brass goggles? (I do not recommend leaving the house wearing the mask and carrying the raygun.)

This week blogger Vanessa Bertozzi (ArtsJournal) discusses the steampunk subculture: "On the surface, steampunk seems anachronistic, oddball, 'totally random' ... But when you talk to people who consider themselves steampunk and observe them, they don't just 'like steampunk.' ... They value intellectual curiosity, an engineer's hands-on capability, a quirky difference from the mainstream -- born of a realization that their way of life is teetering on the edge of complete technological obsolescence."

Coming to a movie theater near you in December: the vaguely Victorian-y, vaguely steampunk-y world of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass (shown here).

The Little Professor provides a handy list o' links relating to Victorian stained glass.

The BBC Radio 4 "In Our Time" series has an excellent archive of programming on Victorian subjects, including the Opium Wars, the Great Exhibition, Victorian realism, Victorian pessimism, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, archaeology and imperialism, John Ruskin, sensation novels, Bohemianism, John Stuart Mill, the Oxford Movement, and many more.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Down and Out in Victorian Nottinghamshire

The National Archives and The National Trust (UK) have launched a new online resource that includes a searchable database of correspondence written from 1834 to 1871 between the guardians of the Southwell Poor Law Union in Nottinghamshire and the central poor law authorities based at Somerset House in London.

The Union ran the Southwell Workhouse, which in its daily regime, management, architecture, and division of the poor into "deserving" and "undeserving" categories provided the model for hundreds of similar institutions throughout the country that were created in the wake of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

The correspondence made accessible by "Being Poor in Victorian Southwell" paints a vivid picture of life in a nineteenth-century workhouse. It comprises thousands of letters, memos, and reports from the Southwell Union as well as draft responses from London. These include details of the treatment of individual paupers, activities of parish and union officers, and general accounts of the conditions in the workhouse as well as instances of cruelty, disturbances, and corruption.

Like so many local history initiatives, this one depended on the dogged persistence of volunteers. Says The Independent: "The 5,000 documents from the Southwell Poor Law Union between 1834 and 1871 went online yesterday [16 May] after a remarkable five-year partnership between the National Archives and a group of enthusiasts. Without the resources necessary to read and catalogue the muddled records, part of a vast library of documents covering all Victorian workhouses inherited from the Ministry of Health, the National Archives handed over electronic copies to the Southwell Workhouse Research Group, based in the property, which is owned by the National Trust.

"The 20 volunteers then painstakingly read through the vast quantities of correspondence, memos, and reports written in the spidery script of the era, providing a detailed description of the contents of each document so it could be searched online."

Hats off to these volunteers, who patiently examined eleven large volumes of bound correspondence! They have made an absolutely invaluable contribution to our understanding of Victorian Britain.

"This project has opened up a proportion of a really important, but usually pretty inaccessible, set of records," says Paul Carter, principal modern records specialist at The National Archives. "It is a fantastic collection of materials for family, local, and regional historians. However, as poor law unions dealt with issues such as pauper education, mental and physical health, as well as poverty, the new online resource will be invaluable to anyone interested in nineteenth century social history."

"The Workhouse and its records tell the story of the building, the paupers, and staff who lived there and wider issues with real contemporary relevance," adds Rachel Harrison, property manager of The Workhouse, National Trust. "This material, which is now available to the public for the first time, is uniquely placed to help visitors and researchers discover how important history is to them today."

The project is a further demonstration of the outstanding community partnership and outreach efforts that have been undertaken recently by The National Archives (here's another example: the Prisoner 4099 project).

The Southwell Workhouse was built in 1824 by the Reverend John T. Becher. The building is the least altered workhouse structure in existence today and was acquired in 1997 by the National Trust. It has been open to the public since 2002.

Related links:

The Workhouse, Southwell (National Trust)

The Workhouse

Shown here: (top) Luke Fildes, "Applicants for Admission to the Casual Ward" (1874); (bottom) Southwell Workhouse

Monday, June 11, 2007

Victoria's Accession; or, What Really Happened at Kensington Palace on 20 June 1837

Even worse than the last one ...

Extract from the Queen's Journal: "I was awoke at 6 o'clock by Mamma, who told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here, and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing-gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham (the Lord Chamberlain) then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.

"Lord Conyngham knelt down and kissed my hand, at the same time delivering to me the official announcement of the poor King's demise."

[The following sentences deleted by Lord Esher in the published version: "Then I made inquiries about whether this turn of events would entitle me to the brekkfist meat of my choice, namely cheezburgerz, of which I have been inordinately fond ever since visiting Mr McDonald's establishment in the Kensington High Street. Lord Conyngham and the Archbishop stared at me for a moment, pretending to be unaware of the delishishness of cheezburgerz."]

"The Archbishop then told me that the Queen was desirous that he should come and tell me the details of the last moments of my poor good Uncle; he said that he had directed his mind to religion, and had died in a perfectly happy, quiet state of mind, and was quite prepared for his death. He added that the King's sufferings at the last were not very great but that there was a good deal of uneasiness. Lord Conyngham, whom I charged to express my feelings of condolence and sorrow to the poor Queen, returned directly to Windsor. I then went to my room and dressed [the next part also deleted by Lord Esher], dreaming of all the cheezburgerz I would now be able to enjoy."

There will be no more of these, I promise. The next post takes up the dire topic of the Victorian workhouse.

Shown here: "Queen Victoria Receiving the News of Her Accession to the Throne, June 20, 1837," by HT Wells, RA. LOL'd image from lolhistory.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

LOLing Around with Jeremy Bentham

I will write about this as soon as I can stop laughing.

Shown here: The body of Jeremy Bentham, preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet at University College London; acquired by the college in 1850. LOL'd image from the Flickr pool philolsophers.

Related links:

University College London Bentham Project

The "Auto-Icon" of Jeremy Bentham at University College London (Medical History, April 1958).

"Lolcat" at Wikipedia
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