Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Coloring the Victorian World

An absolutely unique and precious visual record of the Victorian era came to light last autumn as it was readied for sale. A set of photographs and hand-tinted magic lantern slides created by Henry Harrison, a paymaster-general in the Royal Navy, was the star of an auction by Duke's in Dorchester.

Harrison traveled the world in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and apparently took a camera with him everywhere he went. And I mean everywhere.

He sailed from Egypt to the South Pacific, taking in most of the important ports of call along the way. The photographs include scenes of Egypt, India, Venice, Pompeii, Tonga, and the West Indies. One of the never-before-seen slides (below) is labeled "An English party ascending the Great Pyramid."

There are pictures of a giant crocodile being captured on the Nile, Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, and the royal yacht Victoria and Albert, a 360-foot steamer. From the Holy Land there are pictures of King David's Tomb on Mount Zion, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Jericho.

There are pictures of Egyptian snake charmers:

Sudanese warriors:

Officers of the Khedive camel corps:

. . . along with ships in the Suez Canal, fighting Sikhs, Bengali lancers, and Indian mahouts with their elephants (shown at top), whose behavior Harrison likened to well-trained dogs. Even a “Howling Dervish” is recorded:

Especially interesting are Harrison's photos of the very early stages of the Boxer Rebellion in China, which are dated 1895. The rebellion was a violent anti-imperialist, anti-Christian movement by the "Righteous Fists of Harmony," or "Boxers," between 1898 and 1901.

Harrison captured several images of the rebellion and the names he gave to them highlight the nature of the uprising. They include: "executioners for minor punishments," "prisoner to be tortured," "prisoner chained to wall in street," "prisoner in cage," and "prisoners decapitated." These are thought to be punishments meted out to the Boxers who were caught, rather than acts perpetrated by the Boxers.

One photo shows a captured rebel imprisoned in a tiny crate:

Other rebels are prepared for execution:

Harrison (right), who was also an accomplished marine artist, turned his photographs into slides for the magic lantern by painstakingly tinting each one by hand. Because he was on the spot, he was able to record colors accurately. He also made detailed notes of his subjects, which are fascinating ethnographic documents in their own right. The collection has been handed down in Harrison's family since his death at age 66 in 1907. Thirty were sold at the auction by its current owner, the widow of his grandson, along with the paints he used and a mahogany brass-bound paint box and pallet.

“Henry Harrison went on seven-year tours and covered much of the globe taking pictures, painting pictures, and collecting specimens," says Moiya Harrison. “I’ve kept the family pictures and the specimens, but those for sale include the ones of the Boxer Rebellion, which are a bit gruesome. He must have been a very interesting man and his life spanned the Victorian age.”

The auction house set a presale estimate of £1,000 on the collection; it sold for exactly three times that amount.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Royal Art from the Heart

If you enjoyed the recent film "The Young Victoria," which centered on the early years of the queen's reign and her marriage to Prince Albert, be sure to put this exhibition on your "must see" list.

From 19 March, the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace presents "Victoria and Albert: Art and Love," the first exhibition to focus on the couple's shared love and enthusiasm for art. It will bring together more than 400 items from across the Royal Collection, celebrating Victoria and Albert's delight in collecting and displaying works of art from the time of their engagement in 1839 to the prince’s death in 1861.

Several pieces in the exhibition are gifts from one to the other, such as an orange blossom parure designed by Albert, the pieces of which he gave to Victoria over a period of six years.

For her part, the queen showered Albert with gifts of art, including portraits of herself. She referred to this painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (below), showing her in romantic deshabille, as the "secret painting." It was a surprise gift to the prince on his 24th birthday and hung in his waiting room at Windsor, where the queen referred to it as "my darling Albert’s favourite picture." The painting shown above right, also by Winterhalter, was another gift to Albert, showing Victoria in her wedding dress and given to the prince in 1847 on their seventh wedding anniversary.

Beyond the upcoming exhibition, the Royal Collection has a magnificent illustrated set of web pages detailing the royal couple's art acquisitions...more than 1,000 in all, ranging from exquisite lockets, bracelets, and pendants to maps, books, photos, paintings, and fans. Definitely worth a detailed browse.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Victorian Entertainers Honored by English Heritage

Two Victorian entertainers were honored by English Heritage with blue plaques last year.

Fred Russell (1862-1957; born Thomas Frederick Parnell) is generally acknowledged to be the father of modern ventriloquism. Unlike other ventriloquists of the era, who worked with many dolls, Russell worked with only one, the Cockney "Coster Joe," which he perched on his knee. He was also a leader in improving conditions within his profession: in 1906 he helped create the Variety Artistes Federation, a trade union that later incorporated Actors' Equity. A plaque was placed on the house at 71 Kenilworth Court, Lower Richmond Road, Putney, where he resided for twelve years between 1914 and 1926. Russell lived long enough to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. Wiki bio here. Recommended resource: Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), known as "the forefather of bodybuilding," was a Victorian muscleman who became a freak show attraction in London and across the world for his extreme feats of strength. A Prussian by birth, he first appeared on the London stage in 1889. Eight years later he founded the Institute of Physical Culture, an early gymnasium for bodybuilders. In 1901, he sponsored the first bodybuilding contest: the "Great Competition" held at Royal Albert Hall and judged by himself, the athlete and sculptor Sir Charles Lawes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sandow's life was commemorated with a plaque at 161 Holland Park Avenue, where he lived for 21 years. DNB bio here; Wiki bio here with great photos and useful links. Recommended biography: David L. Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding (University of Illinois Press, 2006).

Stitching Lives

Victorian artistry will be front and center in “Quilts 1700–2010,” an exhibition opening on 20 March at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

"Quilts evoke the past – they stimulate our earliest memories of security and comfort and resonate with historical and cultural references challenging the assumption that stitching is simply ‘women’s work,'" says Sue Prichard, the V&A's curator of contemporary textiles. The exhibition promises to be a visual feast, with thousands of minute pieces of fabric in 65 historical and contemporary quilts reflecting three centuries of pattern and print.

A patchwork bedcover commemorating Queen Victoria's coronation will be one of many highlights. The central panel of this piece features a coronation scene surrounded by a wreath of roses, thistle, oak, and shamrock in red, green, brown, mauve, and yellow on a white ground. The coverlet is quilted in white cotton in running stitch with interlacing circles, leaf-shapes, chevrons, and other geometric patterns. It was given to the museum by a woman in Burton-on-Trent who discovered it at the bottom of a box following the death of her aunt, its previous owner.

On loan from the National Gallery of Australia will be the Rajah quilt (shown at top), made in 1841 by women convicts aboard the HMS Rajah as they were being transported to Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania). The women used sewing provisions donated by Elizabeth Fry's social reform initiative – including tape; 10 yards of fabric; four balls of white cotton sewing thread; a ball each of black, red and blue thread; black wool; 24 hanks of colored thread; a thimble; 100 needles; threads; pins; scissors; and two pounds of patchwork pieces – to create this extraordinary work, which is the only transportation quilt in a national collection, never before shown outside Australia.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845; DNB bio here; Wiki bio here) was a remarkable Victorian whose efforts on behalf of female prison inmates deserve to be more widely known.

You can get a behind-the-scenes peek at the making of "Quilts 1700-2010" on Prichard's blog.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the V&A has delved into its legendary archives to produce a limited-edition series of vintage fabrics that will be available online and in the museum shop. The 18 designs in the debut collaboration between Liberty Art Fabrics and the V&A Shop are inspired by several nineteenth-century patchwork coverlets.

Shown below is "Seaweed," adapted from a quilt commemorating the Duke of Wellington's victory at the Battle of Vittoria. Made in England in 1829 by Elizabeth Chapman, the patchwork incorporates several block-printed cottons dating from the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Other patterns, including "Lattice," "Palm Tree," and "Petals" were inspired by English and Welsh coverlets of printed cotton and linen that had been painstakingly adorned with appliqué and embroidery.
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