Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Salmagundi #9

The weird and wonderful paintings of New York artist Travis Louie depict alternate Victorian lifeforms -- what he calls "human oddities, mythical beings, and otherworldly characters who appear to have had their formal portraits taken to mark their existence and place in society." His influences include sci-fi and horror films, circus sideshows, vaudeville, and the conventions of Victorian portraiture. "Jack Longfellow," shown at left, reminds me a bit of Gladstone. Check out the complete gallery of characters here.

Royal Holloway, University of London has announced that it is sending its world-famous collection of Victorian-era paintings on a two-year tour of the United States. The majority of the 60 canvases -- amassed in the late nineteenth century by self-made English millionaire Thomas Holloway -- have never been seen outside England. "Paintings from the Reign of Victoria: The Royal Holloway Collection, London" opens at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then travels to the Delaware Art Museum, the Yale Center for British Art, the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, the Huntsville (Alabama) Museum of Art, the Society of the Four Arts (Palm Beach, Florida), the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University, the Fresno (California) Metropolitan Museum, and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Learn more about Royal Holloway's outstanding collection here.

To mark the 200th anniversary of its founding, the famous tour operator and travel agent Thomas Cook is opening its archives, housed in Peterborough, to the public. The company was founded by, er, Thomas Cook, a Baptist missionary and cabinet maker from Derbyshire who began offering breaks for Temperance campaigners in the 1840s. Visitors to the archives can consult destination brochures and handbooks dating back to 1845, issues of Cook's Excursionist newspaper (1851-1902) -- first issued to promote trips to London's Great Exhibition in 1851 -- and its successor, The Traveller's Gazette (1902-39), travelers' diaries, railway timetables, business records, photos, and film. Shown above: a detail of a map showing Cook's steamer and dahabeah service on the Nile, 1897.

Just after being married for the third time, the architect A. W. N. Pugin told a friend: "I have got a first-rate Gothic woman at last, who perfectly understands and delights in spires, chancels, screens, stained glass, brasses, vestments, etc." Rosemary Hill's biography of Pugin, God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain, has just won the 2008 James Tait Black biography prize. Read the TLS review by John Carey here.

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"?)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tyntesfield Treasure

So you think spring cleaning is a major undertaking at your house? Consider what National Trust staff are up against in their effort to catalogue the contents of Tyntesfield, a Grade I-listed property near Bristol that is thought to be the most complete Victorian Gothic Revival mansion in England.

From The Guardian (5 August 08):

"Cataloguing the clutter and everyday items that make up the contents of a family house is an unenviable task. But when the property in question is a 43-bedroom house that was occupied continuously by four generations of the same family 'who kept everything,' the task becomes that little bit harder.

"Since January 2004, National Trust staff and volunteers have been faced with just such a daunting project at Tyntesfield, a Grade I-listed Victorian property in north Somerset, near Bristol [BBC panoramic tour here; Wiki entry here].

"The cataloguers have just recorded their 30,000th item and expect that by the end of the painstaking process, which is likely to last another year, they will have recorded the details of more than 40,000 objects. So far the project has thrown up everything from the mundane--the plastic bags of the late Lord Wraxall, the last inhabitant of Tyntesfield before it was acquired by the trust after a remarkably successful public appeal--to the bizarre: item 29,999 was a sinister-looking coconut, hollowed out and with a face carved into it and plant fibres added for hair.

"The origin of the coconut, which sits in the gun room, only recently opened to the public, is unknown, but the Gibbs family, who occupied the house, were a well-travelled clan. Antony, who began the business empire on which Tyntesfield was built, was an international wool merchant. His sons made their fortune from importing seabird droppings for use as fertiliser from South America, while Wraxall (George Gibbs) served in the Coldstream Guards and the local Yeomanry regiment.

"Among other objects discovered at the property were a jewel-encrusted chalice, moth-eaten teddy bears, and unused Christmas crackers. A prime find has been a spare roll of original 19th-century flock wallpaper. The same design currently hangs in an anteroom and the discovery demonstrates how different the room would have looked when it was first decorated. Ruth Moppett, the inventory supervisor, described the change in colour as 'quite amazing,' from 'plush mink' on the unused roll to 'orangey gold' on the walls.

"Tyntesfield was saved for the nation in 2002 after Wraxall died and a public appeal saw more than 77,000 people donate £8.2m in 100 days. The project to buy the house also attracted the largest ever single grant, £17.4m, from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. [You can make an online donation here. -- KT]

"The spectacular Gothic revival house captured the imagination of the public, but there were critics who felt that it was not sufficiently old and distinctive to warrant the expense. However, for Tyntesfield's visitor services and enterprise manager, Rebecca Aubrey-Fletcher, the finds provide compelling justification for the purchase.

"'It's quite unique, four generations of the Gibbs family who kept everything--they really did keep everything,' she said. 'The interesting thing about it is the range of items, from the 19th-century objects to Lord Wraxall's 20th-century washing machine.'

"So far, the contents of 65 rooms have been recorded, with another 10 remaining, plus the stables and gardens. Among the items yet to be catalogued are parts of the textile collection. The plan is that eventually the fully photographed inventory will be put online so the public can view the miscellany on their computers. Conservation on the property is continuing, as is fundraising, with a target date for completion of renovation work of 2012. But the estate remains open to the public, who have flocked to Tyntesfield in increasing numbers since it was opened up weeks after being bought by the trust.

"Visitors can see almost all of the items catalogued, although there is one notable exception. An unexploded second world war bomb was found sitting on a shelf in the old servants' hall shortly after the inventory process began.

"'He [Lord Wraxall] was a soldier, so perhaps he wanted it as a souvenir,' said Aubrey-Fletcher. 'Unfortunately, that was taken away.'"

Addendum, 23 August:
According to Sarah Stevens, house manager, the conservation program has reached another milestone with the opening of two of the property's main bedrooms to the public for the first time. "We're still finding evidence of how the rooms would have looked in the past," she says. "So, for now, we're not plumping up the pillows and arranging the furniture. Instead we're showing them almost 'as found.'"

Monday, August 4, 2008

Pillow Talk

Further to my last post about the recent auction of some of Queen Victoria's undergarments...

Over the weekend Peeper reader Imelda Murphy of Nashua, New Hampshire, got in touch to let me know that she had been the high bidder for Queen Victoria's nightgown.

From The New Hampshire Union Leader (1 August 2008):

"In the scheme of things, Imelda Murphy's $10,000 nightie was a steal.

"Without it, her recently penned play, The Quane's Laundry, would just be another work of historical fiction about royal bloomers and the fallen women who washed them one fateful night in turn-of-the-century Ireland.

"In the heat of auction, Murphy, of Nashua, broke her budget but scored the lace-trimmed sleepwear, once worn by England's Queen Victoria, for 5,500 sterling -- about $10,800 U.S. dollars.

"'It was like I was in a trance,' Murphy said of her winning moment.

"She was listening to the auction in Derbyshire, England, by telephone Wednesday morning. She could hear the sound of the competition -- and all the media buzz -- in the background as she relayed the auction action to her husband, Manchester lawyer Frank Murphy, who was within earshot clutching his wallet.

"Murphy said she learned of the historic auction items while surfing the Internet a few weeks ago.

"A native of Dublin, Ireland, Murphy felt like she already knew Queen Victoria intimately, having researched her life and her historic final trip to Ireland in April 1900. Owning the royal undies would be like icing on the cake -- sort of.

"Murphy's play was inspired by a newspaper clipping about the queen's trip to Ireland, during which Victoria's laundry was in fact sent out to be washed at the Magdalene Asylum, an institution designed to reform prostitutes by having them process laundry all day.

"'The Quane's Laundry' -- the word 'quane' meant to portray the Irish peasantry pronunciation of 'queen' -- focuses on one woman's story, Nellie Clifton, who after 39 years living at the laundry, finally comes clean about the incident that landed her there: a scandalous affair with the queen's eldest son, Bertie -- eventually to be known as King Edward VII.

"In real life, Nellie Clifton, an Irish actress, did indeed have a scandalous affair with the future King of England. The compelling story line involving the queen's laundry was conjured from Murphy's imagination.

"Amid the play version of the scandal emerges a story of a poor Irish girl, born during "The Night of the Big Wind" in 1839, orphaned during Ireland's famine, and taken in by the Wrens of the Curragh -- prostitutes who serviced military men.

"Innocent Nellie, through a twist of fate, ends up in Bertie's bed and is sent off as punishment to the Magdalenes at age 22, where she spends the rest of her life.

"So naturally, Murphy sees winning the nightgown as providence -- luck of the Irish, if you must.

"Luck or godsend, Murphy feels she was meant to own the nightgown just as she was meant to write this particular play.

"'That's what I told my husband -- it was meant to be. Of course, all day long, after winning the auction, friends were calling to ask if I'd managed to pick him up off the floor yet,' Murphy said of the aftershocks of the pricey peignoir.

"Pre-auction estimates for all three royal garments, auctioned by Hansons Auctioneers, were so low Murphy fully expected to bid on and win all three items -- a chemise, a pair of bloomers and the nightgown.

"'My husband and I thought, wouldn't that be lovely for my play? My thought was to have the garments in the foyer so when people come out of the theater at intermission they can have a look at her real clothes. I was going to swoop up all three of them, not realizing the rest of the world wanted them, too,' Murphy said.

"Murphy said during the six months she spent writing the play she found a unique way to connect with the spirit of the deceased monarch.

"'I only dressed in black. Queen Victoria was in mourning for most of her life and I felt better and more comfortable wearing black when I was writing the play in the evening, by candlelight,' Murphy said.

"She's already made progress toward her goal of seeing her play produced -- through recent connections made with some Irish actors in New York City, who are coming here next week to read through the play.

"She has enjoyed the creative process and is optimistic that her compelling story and juicy dialogue will be enough to propel her play from obscurity to -- who knows, says Murphy -- maybe the big screen."

Shown here: The royal nightgown won by Murphy.
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