Thursday, August 21, 2008

Salmagundi #8

Victorian art: Jeremy Paxman is to present a new television series about his “first love”: Victorian art and culture. The four-part series will air on BBC1 next year. “All human life is there in Victorian paintings," Paxman says, "from the huddled poor in the workhouse to the queen at her court to the seamstress in her garret and the soldier reading letters from home. They show the Victorian world in all its moods -- swaggering self confidence and anxious doubt, cheery festivity, and aching loneliness." Paxman will use paintings such as The Derby Day by William Powell Frith and Work by Ford Madox Brown [shown above; click for a larger image] to evoke the great changes that took place in England during Victoria’s reign. He will also examine broader Victorian themes, including Gothic architecture, Mrs Beeton’s household manual, and the civic pride of Britain’s great industrial cities. Cultural landmarks include the arrival of the football league, the tabloid press, and fish and chips. Paxman will be seen travelling by canal boat and steam train, as well as pouring molten metal in a Victorian ironworks and wading through a Victorian sewer.

Charles in charge: Speaking of TV, Channel 4 in the UK is currently airing a three-part series called "The Genius of Charles Darwin." The website created in conjunction with the series is quite good, with video and audio clips, background information on the major figures in mid-Victorian debates on evolution, and an "Ask an Expert" page where you can submit a question to Professor Anthony K. Campbell, scientific director of the Darwin Centre for Biology and Medicine in Pembrokeshire. The series has a very specific point of view: it's presented by Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion.

Pistols at ten paces: The Honourable Henry Lytton Cobbold, of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, will travel to the town of Lytton, British Columbia, Canada, later this month to debate the founder of the International Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, Professor Scott Rice. The contest seeks the opening sentence to the worst possible novel, inspired by Bulwer-Lytton's notorious "It was a dark and stormy night." Says the Honourable Henry, who is the author's great-great-great grandson: "Bulwer-Lytton was a remarkable man and it's rather unfair that Professor Rice decided to name the competition after him for entirely the wrong reasons. He was a great champion of the arts . . . [a] politician, writer, playwright, and philosopher." Rice, who founded the contest in 1982 at San Jose State University, is having none of it: "The evil that men do lives after them, in Lytton's case in 27 novels whose perfervid turgidity I intend to expose, denude, and generally make visible." That's Bulwer-Lytton, caught in the act of purveying the perfervidly turgid, on the right; you can visit the contest's website here.

Things that would have been sold on Victorian infomercials if the Victorians had invented TV: Through 10 November, visitors to the British Library's Business and Intellectual Property Centre can see "Weird and Wonderful Gadgets and Inventions," a small display of Victorian labor-saving devices from the collection of Maurice Collins, author of Eccentric Contraptions and Ingenious Gadgets. Included in the display are a "memorandum clock" (1890), used to indicate the end of a business appointment (or, as a label points out, the end of a session in a brothel), a two-handled self-pouring teapot (1886), a clockwork burglar alarm (1852), a grenade to put out fires (1890), and a mechanical page-turner (1890).

Time machine: A Victorian time capsule was discovered recently in Exeter. Dated April 1897, it contained newspapers and letters written by two builders working on the restoration of an old Devon coaching hotel. In one letter, the writer refers to the outbreak of war between Greece and Turkey. The items are currently on display at the Red Lion Hotel, Chulmleigh. Shown on the left: Rod Taylor takes off for the past in George Pál's science fiction film The Time Machine (1960), based on the 1895 H. G. Wells novel [click for a larger image].

Cheers: Beer and architecture experts Geoff Brandwood and Jane Jephcote have identified London's most important historic pub interiors, a list that includes six lavishly decorated late Victorian hostelries: the Princess Louise in Holborn, the Red Lion in St James's, the Black Friar in, er, Blackfriars; the Salisbury in Harringay, the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale, and the Falcon in Battersea. If you're interested in historic pubs, be sure to check out the Campaign for Real Ale's National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, where you can find descriptions and images of these and other Victorian pubs. Shown here is my own favorite historic London pub, the Salisbury on St Martin's Lane. It's named for Robert Cecil, the third Marquess of Salisbury, who was three times the prime minister during Victoria's reign. Heaven on earth: shopping for used books up and down Charing Cross Road on a cold and rainy day and then slipping in here to warm up with cider and a traditional ploughman's lunch. (By the way . . . how does one go about becoming a "beer and architecture expert"?)


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