Friday, November 28, 2008

The Victorian Painting that Inspired Barack Obama

This is Hope by the Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (DNB entry here, Wiki entry here), an oil on canvas painted in 1885. It has been called the most influential, striking, memorable, and strange of all Watts’s works.

One copy (Watts painted several) was presented to the nation by the artist in 1897. It can be seen in Room 15 of Tate Britain, where it hangs next to other works depicting "Victorian Spectacle." Another copy is on display now through April as part of "GF Watts: Victorian Visionary" at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. (A related exhibition, "GF Watts: Parables in Paint," opens at St Paul's Cathedral in London next week.)

"The figure of Hope is traditionally identified by an anchor," says the caption on the wall next to the Tate's version. "In this picture she is blindfolded, seated on a globe, and playing a lyre of which all the strings are broken except one. Watts wanted to find a more original approach to symbolism and allegory. But Hope’s attempts to make music here appear futile and several critics argued that the work might have been more appropriately titled Despair. Watts explained that ‘Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.'"

Twenty years ago this painting was the subject of a now famous sermon delivered by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. In the audience: a 27-year-old community organizer named Barack Obama.

"The painting's title is Hope," Wright told his congregation. "It shows a woman sitting on top of the world, playing a harp. What more enviable position could one ever hope to achieve than being on top of the world with everyone dancing to your music? As you look closer, the illusion of power gives way to the reality of pain. The world on which this woman sits, our world, is torn by war, destroyed by hate, decimated by despair, and devastated by distrust. The world on which she sits seems on the brink of destruction. . . . [yet despite all this] she had the audacity to make music and praise God . . . the audacity to hope." (Here's a link to one version of the complete sermon.)

That last phrase struck the young Obama and he adapted it both for the title of his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and for the title of his second book in 2006.

Obama was not alone in being inspired by the imagery of this painting; Nelson Mandela reportedly kept a reproduction of it on the wall of his Robben Island prison cell.


"Where There's Life, There's . . ." Paul Barlow on George Frederic Watts, from Tate Etc (August 2004)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Victorian Lives: Sarah Greengrove, Hopper

In case you were inclined to think that Dickens made up some of the more piteous episodes in his novels . . .

From The Times, 17 October 1844:

"Maidstone Petty Sessions ~ Sarah Greengrove, a girl about 15 years of age, was charged with stealing 10 turnips, value 4d., the property of Mr. Charles Frederick Baxter. James Smith, a man in the employ of Mr. Baxter, stated that on going into the field yesterday (Thursday) morning, about 6 o’clock, he observed the prisoner pulling turnips; he went up to her, when she dropped them and walked away, but was apprehended in the course of the morning.

"The girl denied taking 10, but stated that she had come from Marden that morning, where she had been hopping [i.e., harvesting hops -- KT], and being very hungry and thirsty, went into the field and drew four turnips.

"Mr. Ellis [the magistrate] said there was no direct evidence of her having taken 10 turnips, but from her own admission she had taken four under the circumstances stated. It did not appear that she was one of those that had committed depredations there before, and he should leave it for Mr. Baxter to use his own discretion in going any further with the case.

"Mr. Baxter said he wished to press the case, as he had lost a great many turnips, and had been subject to several severe depredations lately on his farm.

"Mr. Ellis thought this a very different case to that of an old offender.

"Mr. Baxter said they had a great difficulty in catching them, and he was determined to make an example of the first one.

"Mr. Ellis regretted very much that his appeal to Mr. Baxter had no effect, for he felt extremely sorry to be obliged to send her to prison; but, as Mr. Baxter seemed determined to press the charge, they had no alternative but to do that. She was then sentenced to pay 4d., the value of the turnips, 3s.6d. costs, and 6d. penalty.

"Prisoner said she had no money, and was ordered to sit down.

"Shortly after, a boy entered the court, crying bitterly, and on going towards the bench said that he had taken his shoes from off his feet and pawned them to pay for his sister. He then gave the money to the magistrate's clerk, Mr. Case, and the girl was discharged.

"We understand that the money was refunded to the boy, and he immediately went to redeem his shoes."

Shown here: Unidentified "Waif Girl," from Hidden Lives Revealed: A Virtual Archive ~ Children in Care, 1881-1918 (this fascinating website features unique archival material about poor and disadvantaged children cared for by The Waifs' and Strays' Society).


"Hopping Down in Kent," The Museum of Kent Life

"The Hoppers of Kent," BBC Legacies

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Charles Darwin on Display

Next year the world will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth with several blockbuster exhibitions and events. Here are a few; you can find a comprehensive list (more than 100 so far) at Darwin Online. If you attend any, please feel free to provide a short review in the comments.

I've added a special set of Darwin links in the right-hand sidebar that includes selected events and online resources.

While you're thinking about Darwin, why not donate to the HMS Beagle Project, which will launch a sailing replica of the ship next year? Crewed by scientists and sailors, it will retrace the 1831-36 voyage of the original Beagle.

In the UK

Now through 31 January at University College London: "Charles Darwin of Gower Street" ~~ Darwin lived in a house on the site now occupied by UCL's Darwin Building from 1839-1842, just over two years after his return from H.M.S. Beagle's second voyage. The exhibition illustrates Darwin's life, work, and the influence of his ideas about inheritance and evolution on his contemporaries and successors. UCL's long association with the development of genetics stems from this period, and several items come from the personal libraries and papers of Sir Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, and Karl Pearson, first Galton Professor of Eugenics. An online exhibition is available here.

Now through 19 April at the Natural History Museum, London: "Darwin" ~~ This "biggest-ever" exhibition about Charles Darwin celebrates his ideas and their impact. Discover the man and the revolutionary theory that changed our understanding of the world. See incredible, revealing, and rare exhibits, some on display for the first time. There's a cool slideshow here and an interactive map of the Beagle voyage here.

Summer 2009 at Christ's Church College, Cambridge: "Darwin at Christ's" ~~ Darwin attended Christ's College from 1828 to 1831. This exhibition, which will be held in Darwin’s former rooms in the College, will feature rare letters, paintings, and the university diary of William Darwin Fox, a second cousin of Darwin and the person who introduced him to beetle collecting.

In the US

Starts 12 February at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut (and then moves to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University, on 16 June): "Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts" ~~ Science meets art in this groundbreaking exhibition exploring Darwin’s interest in the visual arts and the vast range of artistic responses to his ideas in the later 19th century. "Endless Forms" considers how Darwin’s ideas penetrated the consciousness of the great artists of the era, inspiring visual representations of the struggle for existence, of natural attraction and sexual selection, and the origin and descent of man. This will be explored through paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, taxidermy, and fossils, many of which will be on public display for the first time. Among the artists featured will be Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Turner, Church, Landseer, Tissot, and Rossetti.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Great Ball of Fire in County Durham, 1855

From The Times, 12 December 1855 (click for larger image):

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Life in Broadmoor Hospital Revealed

The Berkshire Record Office in Reading has recently made nineteenth-century patient records from Broadmoor Hospital available for the first time, enabling researchers to get a better picture of life inside England's first "criminal lunatic asylum," which opened in May 1863.

The archives tell the stories of some of the hospital's most famous patients, including William Chester Minor (DNB entry here; Wiki entry here), the "Surgeon of Crowthorne" and amateur lexicographer who supplied entries for the Oxford English Dictionary while a patient at Broadmoor, and Richard Dadd (DNB entry here; Tate Britain bio here; Wiki entry here), murderer and celebrated painter of fairies and other supernatural subjects. Roderick MacLean, who shot at Queen Victoria at Windsor Station in March 1882, was sent to Broadmoor after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.

(Concerning the last, there's a famously awful poem by the even more famously awful Victorian poet William McGonagall, one stanza of which goes: "MacLean must be a madman / Which is obvious to be seen / Or else he wouldn't have tried to shoot / Our most beloved Queen.")

Some of the newly released records are included in an exhibition that runs through 22 February at the Reading Museum. "The Secret World of Victorian Broadmoor" features documents and artifacts never before seen by the public, revealing the hidden lives of the hospital's patients, doctors, and staff.

The exhibition marks the completion of Berkshire Record Office’s project to catalogue and conserve Broadmoor’s archives, and includes paintings by Dadd on loan from Bethlem Royal Hospital.

"Broadmoor is one of those collections where every page tells a story," says Dr Peter Durrant, county archivist of Berkshire. "There are many sad tales of lives destroyed by mental illness, of families broken up and never mended, of fear and paranoia.

"It is not history for the fainthearted. Yet at Broadmoor's heart is a community of patients and staff, and it is the history of this community that is now available to all."

Broadmoor, in Crowthorne, still operates as a secure psychiatric unit.

Shown here: Broadmoor Hospital (top), Minor (middle), Dadd (bottom).


Patricia Allderidge, The Late Richard Dadd, 1817-1886 (Tate Gallery Publications, 1974).

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (HarperCollins, 1998).
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