Monday, August 27, 2007

Steampunk: Channeling the Spirit of Victorian Inventors

Today's Boston Globe takes note of the endlessly creative band of steampunk aficionados who seem to be channeling the spirit of Victorian inventors with their imaginative versions of modern technological objects. Check out the article's extensive photo gallery and prepare to be amazed.
"In the past two years ... steampunk has emerged in the real world, as a growing number of enthusiasts build steampunk objects and then share photos of them on the Internet. One of the first was the appearance last summer of a group of robots designed by the San Francisco Bay Area artist I-Wei Huang: they look like nineteenth-century locomotives with legs and are literally steam powered.

"This year alone has produced steampunk watches from Japan (bizarre assemblages of rusted brass, cracked leather, and antique watch faces) and a steampunk tree house (a steaming metal tree that houses a main room with all manner of secret compartments and drawers) at the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. There is even steampunk fashion, such as a combination dress/overalls adorned with gears and belt loops for every lady's steampunk tools.

"In their embrace of the toothy cog and the sooty pipe, this guild of steampunk hackers represents a rebellion of sorts against our iPhone moment."

Shown here:'s modified keyboard and flat-panel monitor.

Related links:

Steampunk Magazine

Saturday, August 25, 2007

If We Could Talk to the Animals ...

"Walter Rothschild: The Man, the Museum, and the Menagerie" is a fascinating exhibit running through 2 December at the Natural History Museum at Tring.

Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild (1868-1937; shown above apparently teasing a giant tortoise) was a Victorian collector par excellence. Born into the Rothschild banking dynasty, he became interested in zoology while still a boy. As a young man, he gallivanted around the Empire with net and trap in hand, conducting numerous (and treacherous) collecting expeditions, and became a noted authority on the taxonomy of birds and butterflies.

To house his finds, he created a private zoological museum and park at Tring, Hertfordshire, near his family's country home, which was opened to visitors in 1892.

Rothschild's collecting interests literally ran the gamut from A (armadillos) to Z (zebras). At the end of his life, the museum included about 950 stuffed mammals, 2,000 mounted birds, 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds' eggs, 200 reptiles "stuffed and in spirit," 300 fish, 2 million butterflies and moths, 144 giant tortoises, and a range of shells, corals, and sponges. In the park he kept, among other exotic animals, a tame wolf, rheas, kangaroos, kiwis, and cassowaries. He once drove a team of zebras into the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. (The monarch's reaction is unrecorded.)

The Rothschild family gifted the entire museum and its collections to the nation in 1937 on Walter's death.

The museum's website includes a biography of Walter Rothschild, a history of the collections, and a description of the Rothschild Room, a reconstruction of the office in which the museum's original curators may have worked.

Related link:

"Something in the Genes: Walter Rothschild, Zoological Collector Extraordinaire": Lecture by Victor Gray, former director of the Rothschild Archive, to The Royal College of Surgeons, 25 October 2006 [PDF]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Liverpool Museum Honors Black Victorians

Via The Independent, 17 August 2007:

The International Slavery Museum opens in Liverpool later this week with an exhibition naming history's greatest black achievers. Some are household names, others are barely known. All are extraordinary.

"The transatlantic slave trade was the greatest forced migration in history," says David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool. "And yet the story of the mass enslavement of Africans by Europeans is one of resilience and survival against all odds and a testament to the unquenchable nature of the human spirit."

The museum aims to address ignorance and misunderstanding by looking at the deep and permanent impact of slavery and the slave trade on Africa, South America, the United States, the Caribbean, and Western Europe.

One way the museum will do that is through its "Black Achievers Wall," which will demonstrate how people of African descent have contributed to cultural transformation in the Americas and Europe. Nearly 80 individuals representing a diverse mix of backgrounds, eras, and disciplines will be included initially, with more to come.

Among the black Victorians who will be honored are:

John Archer - Campaigner, 1863-1932
In 1913, John Archer was elected Mayor of Battersea, the first person of African descent to reach such a position in the UK. An equality campaigner, he chaired the Pan-African Congress in London in 1921 and was president of the African Progress Union. [Related links: Untold London--England's First Black Mayor Speaks; British Library--Black Europeans: John Archer]

Paul Bogle - Cleric, 1822-1865
A hero in Jamaica, Bogle (shown here) was a Baptist deacon who used his education and wealth to help the black community. He led the Morant Bay Rebellion, in which many impoverished former slaves were killed by British troops sent to quell the uprising. He was hung by the British.

William Cuffay - Activist, 1788-1870
Cuffay (shown at the top of this post) was the son of a former slave and a leading figure in the Chartist movement, which opposed imbalances in the distribution of wealth in Britain. He was transported to Tasmania in 1848 for his role in organizing a popular protest. The significance of his contribution is evident from a report in The Times which referred to the London Chartist movement as "the black man and his party." The Chartist movement is considered the first major working-class movement in the world. [Related links: 100 Great Black Britons: William Cuffay; BBC Historic Figures: William Cuffay]

Mary Seacole - Nurse, 1805-1881 (read my previous post on Seacole and her memorial)
Seacole rose to prominence during the Crimean War when she funded her own journey to Turkey after British authorities refused her offers of help. There she opened a hospital and became a popular figure in Britain, receiving various awards for bravery. Her autobiography (shown here) was published in 1857.

Related link: Celebrating the Black Presence in Westminster, 1500-2000

Shown here: William Cuffay in Reynolds’s Political Instructor, 13 April 1850 (top); Paul Bogle (middle), cover of Mary Seacole's autobiography (bottom).

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Watts Gallery Acquires Important Collection of Victorian Photographs

From The Times, 11 August 2007:

"The Watts Gallery at Compton in Surrey, created by the wife of the painter G. F. Watts towards the end of his life to show his paintings and store his archive, has acquired a collection of almost 5,000 Victorian photographs, almost none of them seen in public before, thanks to the generosity of one of its own trustees.

"In it we see Alma Tadema decorously leaning on the mantelpiece of his capacious studio; a youthful Ruskin with his friend Rossetti, and again at the end of his life in a dramatic profile by Frederick Hollyer, who photographed many of the Pre-Raphaelite artists; and the actress Ellen Terry [shown here] to whom Watts was briefly married when she was 16 and he 46.

"It was with his second wife, Mary, that Watts moved to Compton, near Guildford, and where she set up pottery workshops and built the gallery using local labour.

"The recording magnate and philanthropist Rob Dickins – famous for having signed Vangelis and the Sex Pistols when he was managing director of Warner Music – had already been a collector of nineteenth-century literature and correspondence, particularly about the Pre-Raphaelite painters and their circles. Over three decades he had been amassing his own archive of their lives, through which he gradually came to know them intimately, 'not just their talents but hopes, dreams, successes, and failures – almost all of them were vulnerable and flawed in their brilliance. As much as I thought I "knew" them as people, though, I had very little to go on visually.'

"Then, with the death in 1997 of Jeremy Maas, the art dealer and historian who specialised in Victoriana, he found a new dimension for his archive.

"'Jeremy Maas was one of the very few champions of Victorian art in the 1960s and 1970s, and over many years he’d put together this vast collection of Victorian photographs, many of which have never been seen in public,” Dickins said. “When I bought his archive I realised that I had the final piece of a jigsaw and my own collection became in its way, complete.'

"Then, after becoming a trustee of Watts Gallery in 2004, he realised how the sepia prints could be a resource for others. He intends the rest of his archive to go the gallery after its refurbishment.

"'The Watts Gallery in Compton is a magical place at which another, mostly lost, England exists but which unfortunately is showing the ravages of age (after all, it is over 100) and which desperately needs and is thankfully beginning to receive the support and recognition that will make it a unique venue to see the work of G. F. Watts,' he said.

"'By donating my collection to the Watts Gallery, I hope to add another facet, one in which the work and lives of Victorian artists can be studied as well as the chance to view such extraordinary people and their contemporaries at the dawn of the age of photography.'

"Last month he added a new acquisition to the gift, a drawing of the chapel the Wattses built close to the gallery, and three signed photographs of them.

"The Watts Gallery is in serious need of refurbishment and if a £10 million fundraising campaign – to which the Heritage Lottery Fund has promised to contribute £4.3 million if it can be matched – is successful by the spring, it will close next year for the work to be done on restoring the Grade II listed building and conserving the collection and archive.

"Meanwhile, a selection of 200 of the photographs will be the subject of the last temporary exhibition at the Watts before its refurbishment, opening on September 15 and running until the end of the year."

--end of The Times article--

On the Watts Gallery website, Dickins adds: “G. F. Watts was a visionary not only in art but also in the needs of society, campaigning for the poor and dispossessed as well as against the then common use of animals and birds in fashion. Watts Gallery is the best way to see and appreciate his work and the perfect home for my collection of photographs. My interest in this period was first sparked by the paintings of the Victorian artists but caught fire when I read more about the lives of Rossetti, Morris, Whistler, Solomon, Shields, Hunt, and the poet Swinburne ... with their interest in sex, drugs, and art, I think their lives were very rock’n roll.”

Subjects included in the temporary exhibition, which runs through 31 December:

Royalty and politicians: Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Gladstone, Disraeli

Influential thinkers: Ruskin, Carlyle, Darwin, J S Mill

Literary greats: Tennyson, Dickens, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins

Artists: Leighton, E J Poynter, Lady Butler, the Alma Tademas

G. F. Watts and his circle: Tennyson, Prinseps

The Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement: Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Burne-Jones

Artists at home in the studio: Leighton, Val Prinsep, Philip Morris

Artists’ dress and costume: Henry Holiday, Dalziel dressed up

The artist’s muse: Fanny Cornforth, Phoebe "Effie" Cookson, Edith Holman Hunt, and Margaret Burne-Jones

Satellites of the art world: John Tenniel, Phil May, George Cruikshank


Monday, August 6, 2007

Victorian Dinos Get an Upgrade

The Victorian dinosaur models in Crystal Palace Park, London, were granted status as a Grade I-listed monument today by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. They had been listed Grade II since 1973.

The models were constructed in 1852-54 in the grounds of the Crystal Palace after the building was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham following the Great Exhibition of 1851.

They were created to demonstrate the process of evolution -- notably five years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. They were built at the lower end of the park, near Penge, and were accompanied by exhibits illustrating the geology that existed at the time of each dinosaur. The site soon came to be known as Dinosaur Court.

The models, comprising 15 separate prehistoric species, collectively formed the first-ever "dinosaur theme park," although their accuracy has long been disproved.

"The prehistoric animal sculptures and associated geological formations provide an insight into the mid-nineteenth century reconstruction of dinosaur species that had only recently been discovered," said Margaret Hodge, culture minister, in a statement.

"They are believed to be unique and are clearly of exceptional historic interest in a national and probably international context. I am delighted to upgrade their list entry to reflect their importance.”

They were designed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and built out of brick and artificial stone on a framework of iron rods. The park's geological strata exhibits were constructed at the same time by engineer and mineralogist James Campbell.

A £4 million restoration of Dinosaur Court was undertaken in 2002 by the London Borough of Bromley with contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Government’s SRB scheme, and Bromley Council.

Related links and resources:

Crystal Palace Panoramics (BBC)

Crystal Palace Park, London Borough of Bromley

Crystal Palace Foundation

Martin Rudwick, Scenes From Deep Time (University of Chicago Press, 1992)

Steve McCarthy and Mick Gilbert, Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (Crystal Palace Foundation, 1994)

Shown here: Megalosauri on the prowl at Crystal Palace Park, with pterodactyls in back. Hawkins incorrectly portrayed the former as a quadruped with a sloping gait rather than the two-legged agile predator we now know it was.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Salmagundi #5

My fifth collection of odds and ends ...

Behold the handiwork of musician Ryan Adams (left)! This is the front cover he designed for Bram Stoker's Dracula as part of publisher Penguin's "My Penguin" program. Adams used oil paints to create an "outline or silhouette juxtaposed with the idea of the castle -- you know, Dracula's headquarters, his hang." He continues: "In my opinion, Dracula is about how suffocating the Victorian times were. The bonus is, you get vampires! I can't reveal my secrets, but I can reveal that no garlic was harmed in the making of this cover." This is a cool idea, actually ("My Penguin," I mean, not Adams's exegesis) ... you buy a "naked" book for £5 from a list of a dozen classics (including, besides Dracula, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), then "draw, paint, scribble, or scratch" your own cover for it.

Queen Victoria is getting rained on in Kolkata.

Think the Victorians were crazy? Check out The Little Professor's list of links on the Victorians and mental illness.

Two interesting picture sources have come to my attention:
  • British Library Images Online is intended for commercial picture buyers but makes for fascinating browsing even if you don't fall into that category. The site features "thousands of the greatest images from the British Library's collections," which include manuscripts, rare books, musical texts, and maps spanning almost 3,000 years. It's searchable and conveniently divided into 15 subject areas, including buildings, historical events, military and combat, religion and belief, and entertainment.

  • English Heritage's Viewfinder boasts "illustrations of the industrial age, social history, architecture, and archaeology dating from the 1840s to the present day." You can search by keyword, theme, place name, or "story" (for example, "England at Work"). There's a wonderful collection of the work of Victorian photographer Henry W. Taunt (1842-1922), whose favorite subjects included the Thames River and Oxfordshire. York & Son, one of the largest English producers of lantern slides in the second half of the nineteenth century, is also well represented. Also included are Philip Delamotte's photographs of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham.

And finally ... did you know that there's a variety of rhubarb named for Queen Victoria? Nor did I.

Shark Mania

In honor of "Shark Week," which is currently terrifying even those of us who live several hundred miles from an ocean (thanks, Discovery Channel!) and those of you in the UK enjoying a bout of "shark mania," I offer the following three Victorian close encounters with Jaws's great-great-grandparents.

From The Times, 12 July 1848: "AN INTRUDER ON SEA BATHERS -- A few days ago, as one of the fishermen of Hunstanton, Norfolk, was employed catching crabs near the shore of that watering place, he observed something of a most formidable size approaching him in the water. The tide was receding, and the man, who was without companions, was within fifty yards of the shore, but much above the waist in the sea, when, nothing daunted, he struck a severe blow at his new acquaintance, which he soon discovered to be a shark. A regular combat ensued, the man aiming heavy blows at the head of the fish and the latter fighting with his tail, with which he struck the fisherman two or three times severely on the chest. The man, fortunately for himself, never lost his footing, his presence of mind, or his strength, and ultimately succeeded in capturing the monster. The tide continuing to ebb, the shark was left on the dry sands, where the old man was soon standing, with much satisfaction, over his captured enemy. The shark measured nine feet in length and was presumed to weigh about 30 stone. The spot on which it was first seen was close to the place frequented by bathers, a machine having on that day frequently conveyed parties there."

From The Times, 3 October 1862: "CAPTURE OF A SHARK -- A gentleman writing from the Isle of Wight narrates a successful capture he and a party made of a shark. He observed a large fish floundering in the sea, near the shore, and concluding it was a shark, from its turning over on its side to seize some prey, he summoned some fishermen and manned a boat, taking with him a hook on an iron chain baited with beef. 'This,' he says, 'on approaching the monster, we dragged behind us. He immediately seized it in his rapacious jaws, and then tried with his teeth to cut the chain; he almost turned his stomach inside out to disgorge the hook, but in vain. The struggle lasted half an hour, when, quite spent, he suffered his head to be drawn above water, and, confining his tail with a noose, we drew him to shore and despatched him with great difficulty by beating him on the head. He measured 18 ft. 4 in., and from his enormous mouth, containing six rows of hard, flat, sharp-pointed teeth (of which I counted 120), and the total absence of spiracles, its skin rough, hard, and prickly, I judged it to be the carcharias vulgaris, or white shark, which is, according to Cuvier, sometimes found on the British coast."

From The Times, 29 September 1864: "BITTEN BY A SHARK -- On Monday morning, while Mr Barland, druggist, Home-Street, and some other gentlemen were bathing outside the eastern breakwater at Granton, a shark suddenly rose and seized hold of Mr Barland by the left leg, biting him in three places. Fortunately Mr. Barland was near the bulwarks, and notwithstanding the severe nature of the injuries he had sustained he was able to get out of the water. The shark was afterwards seen by other bathers, who say that this strange visitor to the Firth appeared to be about three feet in length."

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Morris Treasures Saved From Rising Waters

Via The Guardian, 1 August 2007:

"As the floods recede, tales of selfless heroism emerge. At Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, once home of the Victorian arts and crafts pioneer William Morris, staff and villagers stepped in to rescue tapestries, furniture, and works of art as water seeped up through the floor. And they did more: with the neighbouring village cut off from the outside world, the manor's manager, Tristan Molloy, took to a boat to deliver supplies from the manor's well-stocked restaurant refrigerators to local residents."


Says the Society of Antiquaries (London), which owns and manages the property:

"Prompt action by Kelmscott Manor's curatorial staff has ensured that unique works of art made by William Morris have been saved from flood damage at the Oxfordshire home of the arts and crafts movement founder.

"Tapestries, furniture, and paintings were rescued as water lapped at the steps and seeped through the floor of the historic manor house, described in Morris's Utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890) as 'the only house in England worth inhabiting.'

"While the village of Kelmscott was rendered inaccessible by three feet of water, the Manor’s on-site managers, Jane Milne and Tristan Molloy, battled to raise heavy furniture onto palettes and move irreplaceable works to safety, including the important 'Cabbage and Vine' tapestry, woven entirely by Morris himself, and a portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of Morris's wife, Jane, called 'The Blue Silk Dress.'

"Jane Milne said they had been helped enormously by residents from the village; in return Tristan Molloy toured the village in his homemade boat dispensing food from the Kelmscott cafe to neighbours who were left without electricity for two days as a result of the worst floods in the area since July 1968.

"Water levels are now described as stable. David Gaimster, General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London, said: 'Clearly we won’t know the extent of any damage to the fabric of the building until the water has receded and a proper assessment can be made, but everyone is very relieved that Jane and Tristan are safe and the collections have escaped damage.'

Shown here: Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire
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