Saturday, November 17, 2007

Watercolours of the Great Exhibition

"Watercolours of the Great Exhibition" is a small but exquisite display at the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) running through 14 January.

It features 11 watercolours painted in 1851, each showing a different interior view of the Crystal Palace. The exhibition website offers large-format images of all eleven paintings so viewers can see every minute, fascinating detail. They are part of a larger group of images that were reproduced both as colour and monochrome lithographs in different versions of Recollections of the Great Exhibition, a lavish contemporary souvenir guide.

The Great Exhibition took place in Hyde Park in 1851 and was the first international "trade show" of manufactured products. More than six million people -- a third of the population of Great Britain at the time -- traipsed to the park to view both the familiar and the exotic among 13,000 exhibits.

Shown at top is "Part of the Russian Court" by Henry Clarke Pidgeon (1807-80), executed in watercolour and gouache over pencil on paper. The Russian Court included furniture made of malachite, a bright green mineral, by the St Petersburg firm of Demidoff. The large porcelain vase in the middle of the display is by the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory of St Petersburg. It's decorated with scenes after the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Nicolaes Berchem.

Shown below is "Part of the French Court, No. 2" by John Absolon (1815-95), also executed in watercolour and gouache over pencil on paper. The sideboard of carved walnut on the left is the work of the Paris manufacturer Fourdinois. It was discussed in The Illustrated Exhibitor, 13 September 1851: "the design of the artist is to make the ornamentation entirely subservient to its intended purposes."

Friday, November 9, 2007

St Pancras: Return to Splendor

Historian and presenter Tristam Hunt, author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Metropolitan Books, 2005), assesses the new St Pancras station, the soaring, single-span iron-and-glass train shed engineered by William Henry Barlow (1812-1902) and Rowland Mason Ordish (1824-1886), which reopened on Tuesday, 6 November, as the British terminus of the Eurostar train service.

From The Guardian, 6 November 2007:

"'Railway terminuses and hotels are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century. They are truly the only representative buildings we have," declared the Victorian architects' journal, Building News. And none was more representative than St Pancras. Built in 1867, listed as a Grade I monument in 1967, and officially reopened today as the Eurostar terminal, it embodied all the vulgar brashness of the mid-1800s - wealth, empire, technology, and hubris -- but also the great gift of the Victorians to our cities: civic pride and a public sphere.

"In the second half of the 19th century, north London was the ground zero of railway improvement. The tracks that arched into Euston, St Pancras, and King's Cross sliced through the working-class slums of Agar Town, Camden Town, and Somers Town. 'Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood ... ' was how Dickens described it in Dombey and Son.

"St Pancras went further by unearthing the dead as well as the living. The station was named after the local parish church, whose graveyard was dug up with the forced dispersal of 8,000 souls. Overseeing the exhumations was a young architect's assistant by the name of Thomas Hardy. The daily array of coffins and cadavers that Hardy had to deal with saw him swiftly return to Dorset to recover.

"The Victorians were not a sentimental people; on the remains of the dead the Midland Railway built a triumph of technology. The station's route over the Regent's Canal and its multilayered platform system were impressive enough, but the soaring, 105 ft-tall train shed was something else. Modelled on the Crystal Palace system of 'ridge-and-furrow' roofing, WH Barlow's glass and iron canopy was a model of industrial technology -- with its single-span structure and rain resistance -- and corporate bravado. Copied around the world, St Pancras became the model for New York's Grand Central station and Mumbai's Victoria terminus.

"Curiously, this testimony to modern progress terminated in a building reminiscent of a 14th-century cloth hall. St Pancras's great frontispiece, the phantasmagorical Midland Grand Hotel, seemed to muddle the age of steam with the age of chivalry: George Gilbert Scott with Walter Scott. But it had always been the ambition of its architect to take gothic out of the church and country house and into the high street. Scott wanted to prove its modern applicability and, along Marylebone Road, he achieved that to stunning effect. The Midland Grand's steepled roofs, carved brickwork, and castellated features recall the great civic edifices of medieval Bruges and Ghent. Yet he combined this historicism with state-of-the-art infrastructure: steel girders, vast clocks, and ticking telegrams were as much part of St Pancras as ribbed vaults and oak panelling.

"For St Pancras was conceived as a statement. Above and beyond the architecture of Scott and engineering of Barlow, it was a bullish celebration of the wealth, power, and industry of 'the north.' The iron came from Derby, the bricks from Leicestershire, and the money from the railway barons, industrialists, and landowners of the Midlands. The Euston arch, the Midland Grand, and the Great Northern Hotel at King's Cross were cultural testimonies to northern England's confidence. In the capital, the hard-faced men of smoke-filled towns were making their mark with the grandest architecture available.

"Today, with its vast champagne bar and promise of Paris in a little over two hours, the new St Pancras might be dismissed as another component of an overheated capital. But that would be to misread the national achievement of its visionary architect, Alastair Lansley. Not only has he restored the majesty of Barlow's roof and confirmed the malleability of gothic with a 21st-century update that skilfully avoids pastiche. In true Victorian style, Lansley has also revived civic ownership of a commercial space.

"Unlike Birmingham New Street or Manchester Piccadilly, this is a station of places and people. It has benches, statues, open vistas, and public toilets, while its shops and cafes conform to rather than contaminate the design. Advertising is constrained, while the glamour of train travel is revived. The Victorians worshipped profit, but also believed in a public sphere of architecture, design, and recreation. The reopened St Pancras has caught that perfectly. Lansley's next project? Rebuilding Euston arch."

Shown at top: The exterior of St Pancras station in 1874. The station and hotel were declared complete three years later.

Shown at bottom: The "ground zero of railway improvement" during the last half of the nineteenth century. In this 2006 photo St Pancras station is shown during renovation; Euston station is at the left edge of the photo; King's Cross station is at the right edge. The reddish building to the left of St Pancras is the British Library.


History of St Pancras station (London and Continental Railways)

"Not just a building, but a joy to behold: Ken Livingstone must hate St Pancras," The Guardian, 9 November 2007

"St. Pancras reborn as new Eurostar home," Business Week, 8 November 2007

"St Pancras is restored to international glory and even the French are impressed," The Times, 7 November 2007

"All change for Britain's grandest gateway to Europe," The Guardian, 7 November 2007

"In Pictures: St Pancras opening," BBC News, 6 November 2007

"The miracle of St Pancras," The Guardian, 11 October 2007

"St Pancras back on track: an idea above its station," The Independent, 5 September 2007

Monday, November 5, 2007

Praise for the Peeper

Here's a very nice way to start the week: "The Victorian Peeper" is featured today at, a site founded by Sid Leavitt, a retired newspaper editor, that promotes good writing. Read what he has to say about the Peeper's "clarity, interest, and expertise" here. Also be sure to check out Sid's blogroll, which brings together some of the most interesting and best-written blogs on the web. I'm happy to be in the club!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cannonball Express

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has written a fascinating three-part series for the New York Times on the Crimean War photography of Roger Fenton (shown here -- clearly a man who loved stripes; see my post of 27 April 2007).

The series focuses on two photos taken by Fenton on 23 April 1855, both called "The Valley of the Shadow of Death." In one, cannonballs litter the side of a road leading to Sevastopol (the "OFF" photo); in the other, the cannonballs are on the road itself (the "ON" photo).

Morris takes issue with Susan Sontag's reading of the photos in her last published book, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003). Sontag asserted that Fenton found the road devoid of cannonballs and moved them there from the side of the road to create a sense of drama and danger.

At question in Morris's series: which of the photos was taken first and whether one of them was staged (if so, which one and why). To find an answer, Morris travels to the Crimea and consults various experts, including a "sun and shadow position specialist." His conclusion? Let's just say that a provisional answer is found in that most basic force of nature: gravity.

The series is also an interesting commentary on battleground tourism and an instructive case study for those of us who use photographic evidence to build historical arguments.


High-resolution version of Fenton’s OFF photo.

High-resolution version of Fenton’s ON photo.

The Roger Fenton Crimean War Photographs collection (Library of Congress) has historical and biographical information along with 263 images.

"All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860" is an overview of the National Gallery of Art’s 2004 exhibition of the same name. The catalogue is available on Amazon.

Roger Fenton's Letters from the Crimea (De Montfort University)

Ulrich Keller, The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War (Routledge, 2001)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Engineering the Industrial Revolution

The current issue of American Scientist features an article on the 100th anniversary of the death of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), one of the founders of the science of thermodynamics and inventor of the Kelvin scale of absolute temperature measurement.

"One afternoon in 1842, in the town of Walsall in the heart of England's industrial midlands, two young men stood by a canal, watching a lock fill with water. The rising water lifted a barge crammed with valuable trade goods, one small step up on its climb to some unknown industrial destination. The two men mused upon this ingenious use of power, this impressive demonstration of the simple technology underpinning Victorian Britain's industrial dominance.

"The two men were brothers. One was James Thomson, a shipbuilder's apprentice later to become Professor of Engineering at Glasgow University. The other was James's brother William, destined for an even grander career. William's sojourn as Professor of Natural Philosophy—also at Glasgow—would span half a century and include fundamental contributions to an astonishing range of sciences and technologies, from the transport of fluids to the design of ultrasensitive telecommunications."

The article provides a straightforward primer on Victorian physics, showing how the work of Kelvin and others made the Industrial Revolution possible.

Shown here: Kelvin in a University of Glasgow classroom.

All the Queen's Men

Not to be outdone by Martin Scorsese, whose film "Young Victoria" -- which focuses on the queen's courtship and marriage to Prince Albert -- hits screens in 2008, Channel 4 (UK) has reportedly commissioned a drama-documentary about the queen's love life to air next year.

Of the Scorsese film, screenwriter Julian Fellowes says: "Everyone thinks they know [Queen Victoria] but 99 per cent of the public don’t know anything about the story we are telling and will be surprised. People think of a fat widow in black. They’ve forgotten the exciting young woman trying to find her own way. Some girls like to have fun and she was certainly one of them.”

[For photos from the filming, see my 13 October post.]

"Victoria’s Men" (the working title of the 90-minute Channel 4 program), will take a closer look at the queen's relationships with, er, men. Producers are basing it on her diary and testimony from historians.

Editorial director Fiona Stourton explains: "The program aims to reverse the commonly held image of Queen Victoria as a rather dour, serious character and to reveal that she was a very passionate woman who was capable of great warmth -- as is revealed in her relationships with a series of men during her life."

By this time next year, everyone should be thoroughly disabused of the notion that the queen was an ice-princess.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Mad Dog!

A remedy used to treat dog-bite victims on the streets of Manchester in the Victorian era has been rediscovered by historians.

The city streets were once teeming with stray dogs -- and one bite from a rabid animal could end in fatal illness. A number of homespun remedies were in widespread use throughout Britain before an effective vaccine was created by French scientist Louis Pasteur.

Science historians at the University of Manchester have now uncovered the recipe for one such treatment -- known as the Ormskirk Medicine after the town where it originated -- and believe it shows surprising sophistication.

Although the mixture of clay and aniseed would not treat the deadly virus, scientists found it would have been effective at fighting further infection.

Around a fifth of all rabies deaths during the nineteenth century were recorded in Lancashire.

"The active ingredients in the medicine were aniseed, which is a mild antiseptic, and a herb called horseheal, which is still used by vets today, as well as alum, which helps blood clot," says Dr. Emm Barnes of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.

The mixture would be mixed with vinegar, which is also an antiseptic, and soaked on bandages that would be applied to the skin.

"Pasteur's new treatment was controversial because it was only the second vaccine ever invented," Barnes notes. "People still used the Ormskirk Medicine for quite a few years afterwards until it became clear that the vaccine was preventing rabies."

Scientists at the centre, who found the medicine's recipe in the archives, provided demonstrations of the old-fashioned treatment during the Manchester Science Festival. They also showed what dog bites would have looked like with the help of a makeup artist.

The disease causes fatal brain damage to humans and animals. Pasteur and Emile Roux developed a vaccine in 1885 that helped eradicate the illness in the UK by the early twentieth century.

[Via The Manchester Evening News, 1 November 07]

Shown here: Mary Langley Bruce with Cupid, her Griffon Bruxellois. (Check out that hat ... apparently made from a whole swan.) Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-B2-620-8 [P&P].


Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys, Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain, 1830-2000 (Palgrave, 2007)

"William Hill and the Ormskirk Medicine," Medical History, July 1968, 12(3): 294–297.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Hospital Puts Records of Victorian Patients Online

Via The Guardian, 1 November 2007:

"Great Ormond Street children's hospital today opened up more than half a century of its patient records, in a move it hopes will revolutionise historical research.

"The London hospital has digitised the details of more than 84,000 child patients treated between the day it first opened its doors in 1852 and 1914.

"The records, with details including names, addresses, ages, symptoms, and outcomes of sick children, are freely available on the Small and Special website, and are expected to vastly help medical historians and amateur family genealogists alike.

"The records have taken more than four years to transcribe with the help of volunteers from Kingston University's local history centre in south London.

"'We realised that the hospital had such a rich resource but it was difficult to access,' said Sue Hawkins, the project manager. 'You had to book an appointment at the hospital's archive office and go through all the records until you found what you're looking for. Now it's all available from anywhere in the world and catalogued accordingly. It's a unique resource.'

"Great Ormond Street was the first hospital to open for children requiring in-patient care and was established at a time when youngsters under 10 years old accounted for half of all deaths in the capital. Its success led to the foundation of similar children's hospitals around the country.

By far the most common disease affecting Victorian children admitted to Great Ormond Street was tuberculosis, Ms Hawkins said. The disease affected not just the lungs but also the bones, particularly those of children who had drunk infected milk, as was not uncommon among poor families.

"Although Great Ormond Street doctors were not supposed to admit people carrying infectious diseases, many patients suffered from measles and scarlet fever, Ms Hawkins said. The records have also led researchers to believe that the hospital built up an expertise in operating on conditions such as cleft palate.

"Most patients were local, coming from nearby boroughs such as St Pancras, Islington, and Shoreditch, but 20% of patients were from outside London.

"The Small and Special project carries the full biographical records of patients up until 1907, after which date – due to patient confidentiality laws that protect the details for 100 years – the records are anonymous. The project workers are hoping similar projects will soon be set up at two more London children's hospitals and two hospitals for children in Scotland. After that, they will look at expanding the research to general hospitals admitting adult patients.

"The £70,000 project was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Nuffield Foundation, and Friends of the Children of Great Ormond Street."

Shown at top: The hospital in the late nineteenth century.

Shown below: A ward in 1875.

Related link:
History of the Great Ormond Street Hospital
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