Monday, April 25, 2011

Dishing the Victorian Dirt

Imagine living anywhere near this gray mountain of trash in the first year of Queen Victoria's reign. It's the "Great Dust-Heap at Kings Cross" as seen from Maiden Lane (now York Road), painted in 1837 by the watercolorist E. H. Dixon, surrounded by slum housing and adjacent to the Smallpox Hospital.

The crud all around us is the focus of a fascinating new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London. "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life," brings together a variety of art, documents, cultural ephemera, photos, videos, and art installations to -- as curator Kate Forde puts it -- "uncover a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past."

The exhibition uses six different historical times and places as starting points for exploring attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness: a home in seventeenth-century Delft, a street in Victorian London in the 1850s, a hospital in Glasgow in the 1860s, a museum in interwar Dresden, a community in present-day New Delhi, and the Fresh Kills landfill site in New York City. 

Highlights include paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Joseph Lister's medical instruments, and a wide range of contemporary art on related themes. You can peer through one of the first primitive microscopes used to discover bacteria (which had been collected from the mouth of a Dutch scientist), learn about the cesspools that turned the Thames into a "monster soup" in the early nineteenth century, and gaze on "Laid to Rest," a sculpture by Serena Korda featuring bricks that incorporate dust sent to her by modern Londoners.

The exhibition's display on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in London's Soho district, ground zero of a cholera epidemic in 1854 that killed more than 600 people, is particularly interesting. At the time, an infecting "miasma" was thought to cause the disease. It took the brilliant detective work of the physician (and royal anaesthetist) John Snow (DNB bio here;
Wiki bio here) and the Rev. Henry Whitehead (Wiki bio here) to find the true culprit: fetid water that was being distributed through a public water pump. Snow's famous "ghost map," which traced the progress of the terrifying disease through the city, is included in the exhibition.

As for Kings Cross ... similar dustheaps featured in Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (the "Golden Dustman" Noddy Boffin is one of the writer's most indelible creations) and were the subject of "Dust, or Ugliness Redeemed," an essay by the poet R. H. Horne that appeared in Household Words, the weekly journal Dickens edited from 1850 to 1859. Horne vividly describes the underclass of "Searchers and Sorters" who scaled the debris and painstakingly raked through the refuse, separating animal and vegetable matter from broken pottery, bones, rags, metal, glass, and other detritus. Everything was sold off and recycled: coarse cinders were sold to brickmakers, bones to soapmakers, threadbare linen rags to papermakers. [Shown here: The sifting process at a dust-yard in nineteenth-century London; Mayhew, 1862.]

The Kings Cross dustheap pictured at the top of this post was packed up and shipped to Russia in 1848 when city developers decided to convert the site into what is now the Kings Cross railway terminus. The Russians mixed ash from the pile with local clay to make bricks that were used to rebuild their war-ravaged country.

This exhibition is part of the Wellcome's "Dirt Season" that involves a collaboration with the BBC (a series called "Filthy Cities" with accompanying scratch-and-sniff cards), an environmental theatre piece at this summer's Glastonbury Festval, related events for children at the Eden Project in Cornwall, a "Dirt Banquet" held earlier this month at Joseph Bazalgette's Crossness Pumping Station, and a free iPhone/iPad word-puzzle app called "Filth Fair."

"Dirt" runs through 31 August at the Wellcome Collection, 215 Euston Road, London.


"Wellcome Collection Takes a Filthy Look at an Age-Old Obsession," The Guardian, 23 March 2011.

Henry Mayhew, "Of the Dustmen of London.London Labour and the London Poor, 1851.

Brian Maidment, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780–1870. Manchester University Press, 2007.

H. P. Sucksmith, "
The dust-heaps in Our Mutual Friend," Essays in Criticism 23.2 (1973), pp. 206–212.

Costas A. Velis, David C. Wilson, and Christopher R. Cheeseman, "19th century London dust-yards: A case study in closed-loop resource efficiency." 
Waste Management 29.4 (April 2009), pp. 1282-1290.

Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Riverhead Press, 2006.  There's a wonderful website for this book here. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

"From Mama V.R. to Helena"

A gold, enamel, and garnet bodice brooch from 1830 that belonged to Queen Victoria made fourteen times its pre-sale estimate at auction last week, selling for £11,400. 

The intricately worked brooch features two large cabochon garnets in a setting of green and red enamel.  

The brooch (shown at left) originally belonged to Victoria, Duchess of Kent (DNB bio here, Wiki bio here), who on her death in 1861 left her jewelry to her daughter, Queen Victoria. 

Queen Victoria subsequently gave the brooch to her fifth child and third daughter, Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein (DNB bio here, Wiki bio here), as a present on her 24th birthday in 1870. The reverse of the brooch has a simple yet very personal engraving: “Belonged to dear Grandmamma V. From Mama V.R. to Helena 25th May 1870." 

Although Princess Helena married the German prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein in 1866, the couple remained in Britain close to the Queen, who liked to have her daughters nearby. 

Helena was an extremely active member of the royal family, carrying out an extensive program of royal engagements. She was also a committed patron of charities, and was one of the founding members of the Red Cross. She was also the first president of the Royal School of Needlework and the first president of the Royal British Nurses' Association.

She is, perhaps, my favorite of Queen Victoria's children...the Jan Brady of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha clan. She fell in love with her father's German librarian, who was promptly sent back to the continent when "Mama V.R." discovered the liaison. There is an excellent biography of her by Seweryn Chomet, Helena, A Princess Reclaimed: The Life and Times of Queen Victoria's Third Daughter (New York: Begell House, 1999).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Restored: Ellen Terry's Beetle-Wing Dress

"Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't." This briefest of lines from Act I, scene 5, of Shakespeare's Macbeth inspired one of the most famous stage costumes ever constructed.

When the Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving [DNB bio here; Wiki bio here] decided to produce "the Scottish play" in 1888, with he playing the title role and Ellen Terry, his acting partner, playing his wife, Terry [DNB bio here; Wiki bio here] called on her close friend Alice Comyns Carr to design her dresses. Carr wanted one of them to "look as much like soft chain armour" as possible and "yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent." Working with Lyceum dressmaker Mrs. Nettleship, Carr devised a garment "sewn all over with real green beetle wings, and a narrow border in Celtic designs, worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffins were embroidered in flame-coloured tinsel. The wimple, or veil, was held in place by a circlet of rubines, and two long plaits [of hair] twisted with gold hung to her knees."

The result was magnificent, and John Singer Sargent painted Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889 (shown at left, on display at Tate Britain). 

Now this costume, an irreplaceable link to the Victorian theatre and one of its most famous and fascinating stars, has been restored and put back on view at Smallhythe Place, Ellen Terry's former home in Kent.

[Read the National Trust's press release here,]

Via Kent News 'One of the most iconic dresses of the Victorian era – shimmering with 1,000 real beetle wings – is returning home to Kent. The emerald and sea-green gown, which is covered in iridescent wings of the jewel beetle, was made famous by the celebrated actress Ellen Terry in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in 1888.

'The 120-year-old dress was one of the most iconic costumes of the time, immortalised by the John Singer Sargent portrait at the Tate Gallery. Now, after 1,300 hours of painstaking conservation work costing £50,000, the gown is on display at Smallhythe Place, near Tenterden, where Ellen Terry lived between 1899 and 1928. House manager Paul Meredith said the beetle wings that had dropped off were collected and reattached along with others that had been donated by an antiques dealer.

'"The 100 or so wings that were broken were each carefully repaired by supporting them on small pieces of Japanese tissues adhered with a mixture of wheat starch paste," he said. "But the majority of the work has involved strengthening the fabric, understanding the many alterations that were made to the dress and ultimately returning it to something that is much closer to the costume worn by Ellen on stage in 1888."

[Read a description of the restoration and see additional photos here.]

'The actress, known as the Queen of the Theatre, was famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean heroines and played opposite Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London for more than 20 years.

'Her beetle dress stage costume was one of the most important items in the National Trust’s collection and was on the priority list to be conserved. Brighton-based conservator Zenzie Tinker and her team carried out the work.

'"We have restored the original shape of the elaborate sleeves and the long, trailing hemline that Ellen so admired," Tucker said. "If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d be delighted. She really valued her costumes because she kept and reused them time and again. I’d like to think she’d see our contribution as part of the ongoing history of the dress."

'The gown is now in a new display space at Smallhythe Place alongside other features from Ellen Terry’s dressing room which have never been viewed by the public before. The half-timbered house, built in the early sixteenth century when Smallhythe was a thriving shipbuilding yard, was Terry's home from 1899 to 1928 and contains her fascinating theatre collection. The cottage grounds include her rose garden, orchard, nuttery, and the working Barn Theatre.

'Mr Meredith said the setting was an intimate area, bursting with theatre history and stage costumes. "Now the beetle wing dress is back and we finally have a really good contemporary display space, we hope to show many more people just how special the house and collections are."'


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, Tate Collection

"Ellen Terry's Beetlewing Gown Back in Limelight," The Guardian, 11 March 2011

Alicia Finkel, Romantic Stages: Set and Costume Design in Victorian England (McFarland, 1996) 

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