Friday, April 27, 2007

Recording the Empire

A number of museums and archives with material relating to nineteenth-century Britain and her empire have made extensive collections of photographs available online. Here are two well-organized and visually striking web resources.

Roger Fenton Crimean War Photographs at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The Crimean War photographs of Robert Fenton (1819-69) represent one of the earliest systematic attempts to document a war through the medium of photography. Fenton, who spent fewer than four months in the Crimea in 1855, produced 360 photographs under extremely trying conditions. He photographed the leading figures of the allied armies, documented the care and quality of camp life of the British soldiers, and recorded scenes in and around Balaclava and on the plateau before Sevastopol.

He did not photograph combat or its aftermath. Whether there was an explicit directive from the British government to refrain from photographing views that could be deemed detrimental to the government's management of the war effort, perhaps in exchange for permission to travel and photograph in the war zone, or whether there was merely an implicit understanding between the government and the photographer is not known.

Fenton photographs shown here: William H. Russell, The Times special correspondent (top); Cornet Henry John Wilkin of the 11th Hussars (bottom). Twenty-five letters written by Fenton to his family and friends while he was in the Crimea are available here.

"Images of Empire" at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol

More than 6,000 photographs and film clips representing almost 150 years of British colonial life are available online for the first time at this website maintained by the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Visitors can explore the site by ten thematic areas (domestic life, dress and adornment, hunting, landscapes and scenery, portraits, royalty and chiefs, street scenes, trade and industry, transport, and wars and conflicts) or search by collection or keyword.

Shown here: Group portrait (1902) featuring Raja Sikander Khan of Nagar and the Mir of Hunza dressed in ceremonial attire for the Coronation Durbar at Delhi (top); portrait of Osman Digna (c. 1887), general in the Mahdist army of Sudan from 1883 until his arrest by the British in 1900 (bottom).

This is a research database containing individual records for more than 20,000 photographs drawn from forty exhibition catalogues published between 1839 and 1865. You can search by exhibition, photographer, and process.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Victorian Girl and Her Mummy

It takes about twenty minutes to read The Professor's Daughter, a charming and gorgeously illustrated graphic novel by French artists Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert originally published in 1997 and recently reissued in an English translation by First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press.

That's more than long enough to become emotionally invested in this madcap love story featuring Lillian Bowell, the daughter of a famous Victorian Egyptologist, and Imhotep IV, a pharaoh a few thousand years her senior.

Along the way, subtle points are made about cultural imperialism, class inequities, the tyranny of fathers, and women's rights during the Victorian period. "I'm an antiquity," says Imhotep IV. "I belong to the country of the one who found me." Lillian complains that she sometimes feels like a possession of her father's.

This 64-page fable moves at a cracking pace but you'll want to slow down to enjoy Guibert’s elegant ink and watercolor panels. The softness of his brushwork and the impressionistic wash of browns, grays, blues, and reds are a perfect match for the sweet, loopy story. Imhotep IV may be the most dashing pharaoh ever to grace the printed page: think King Tut crossed with Fred Astaire ("dancing by the Nile, the ladies love his style") and you get the idea. This book is a thing of beauty ... an absolute treat and a joy to read.

I've written a longer review of this book, with a plot summary, for Amazon:

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Imperial Slapdash

"Victoria's Empire," a three-part series from BBC1 starting Sunday, April 29, takes viewers on a tour of former outposts of the British Empire.

In the first episode, presenter Victoria Wood travels to Kolkata, where she explores the remains of the British Raj and finds some very well-preserved Victorian buildings. She chats with resident Toby Sinclair and discovers how the British learned local languages. Then it's up to Darjeeling where memsahibs avoided the hot summer weather and where taking tea wasn't the only diversion. Wood also visits Hong Kong and Borneo, where she comes face-to-face with the descendant of a chief head hunter, bird's nest soup, and a baby orangutan.

In future episodes, Wood visits Ghana, Jamaica, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Australia, and Zambia.

No doubt this series will show up on American public television in the not-too-distant future. Not having seen it, I'm not in a position to judge it. It strikes me, however, that what is truly needed today is not a chirpy, whirlwind "highlights of empire" tour but an informed discussion of the British imperial legacy (both good and bad) and how it has fueled contemporary geopolitical conflicts. Not as riveting, perhaps, as watching Wood experience her first taste of bird's nest soup, but surely more important.

The Manchester Evening News has just published this more optimistic preview (26 April 2007).

Shown here: Imperial Federation "Map of the World" showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886. Click on the image for a larger version.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Big-Screen "Middlemarch," "Wolfman" Remake on Tap

Two new films in the works look very interesting ...

Middlemarch: "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?" Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes has announced that he will make the first big-screen version of George Eliot's 1871 novel Middlemarch. Andrew Davies, who created the 1994 Middlemarch mini-series for the BBC, is currently writing the script; filming will begin next year. Says Davies: "It's strange to be revisiting [Middlemarch] again and trying to cut it down to two hours...I'm struggling with that at the moment. I think, though, it'll be like the last one I did but I'll make it more of a love story... I'm going to concentrate on the four main characters. It'll be much more romantic and emotional than the series. And I think Sam wants Kate Winslet [Mendes's wife] to play Dorothea. I don't think she'll be able to say no, will she?" Shown here: Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw and Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke in the BBC mini-series. Read more...

Wolfman: "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright." It looks like Anthony Hopkins may be joining Benicio Del Toro in the cast of Wolfman, a remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. horror classic, which tells the story of a man who returns from America to his ancestral home in Victorian-era Britain only to be bitten by a werewolf and turned into one himself. Shooting starts this fall; Mark Romanek will direct; script by Andrew Kevin Walker. Read more...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

"Dickens World" Revealed

Further to my posts of 28 March and 12 April, here are a few new photos (courtesy of the Associated Press) of Dickens World in Kent, now scheduled to open on 25 May.

Eddie Sampson in character as "Ned Fiendish," rat catcher.

An unnamed "Dickensian character" at Dickens World.

A view across the rooftops.

Visitors enjoy a boat trip.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Durbar Chairs Return to Osborne House

(Via 24 Hour Museum):

Four of the original Durbar chairs made for Queen Victoria in 1890-91 have been restored to their rightful place in Osborne House, Isle of Wight, after 100 years in private hands.

English Heritage helped raise £45,000 to buy the chairs after being tipped off when they appeared in a Midlands sale room. They join five other chairs from the original set of 36, bringing the total at Osborne House to nine.

“The chairs were disposed of shortly after Queen Victoria’s death when they were presumably thought to be of little interest," said Michael Hunter, English Heritage curator at Osborne House. "However, the chance for us to acquire them and bring them back home to Osborne after nearly 100 years is very exciting.”

The magnificent walnut and leather chairs were created by Bhai Ram Singh to complement the Indian-style Durbar Room (shown here), which was commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1890 to celebrate her role as Empress of India. The room, which was used originally as a banqueting hall, was designed by Singh and John Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard Kipling. Its walls are decorated with symbols of India, including Ganesh, the elephant god of good fortune; the deeply coffered ceiling is made of a fibrous plaster.

A photograph of the Durbar Room at Osborne House
taken in the 1890s and showing the Durbar chairs in place.

The four Durbar chairs secured by
English Heritage for Osborne House.

The intricately carved chairs have an
elaborate bird motif that is repeated on panels
in the door and door surrounds in the Durbar Room.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Salmagundi #3

My third collection of odds and ends ...

Fit for a king: The category: "Court Comestibles." The answer: Smoked haddock, scrambled eggs, cold cuts, kippers, roast pheasant, fruit, bacon, sausages, devilled kidneys, scones, and kedgeree. The correct question: What is breakfast for King Edward VII? (The Times, 12 April 2007). Shown here: The portly monarch.

Victorian shrunken heads redux: Blogger Maria Grasso takes another look at the hand-wringing over one of the most famous exhibits in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. (Spiked, 28 March 2007; read my 7 March 2007 post on this topic).

Out of pocket: The pocket handkerchief was a useful tool that helped genteel ladies in the nineteenth century artfully highlight a blush or a tear. (Common-Place, January 2007).

New resource in women's history: Genesis, an online guide to sources for women's history in the British Isles sponsored by The Women's Library in London, has been relaunched with a new site and expanded content. It now includes a searchable database of women's history collections in museums, libraries, and archives throughout the UK and a "Guide to Sources" that provides access to a wide range of international web resources on women's history. Type "Victorian" into the database and up comes everything from the personal library of Mrs George Linnaeus Banks, nee Isabella Varley, the Manchester schoolmistress and author of The Manchester Men (1876) to the papers of Mary Eliza Haweis, arbiter of Victorian taste and author of The Art of Decoration (1881).

Movin' on up: A new exhibition at the American Museum in Britain (Bath) recounts the triumphs of the many beautiful and famous American heiresses who married into British aristocracy in the late nineteenth century and offers insight into an era characterized by money, love, infidelity, and ruthless social climbing. "Dollar Princesses – American Heiress to Peeress in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain" runs through 28 October. The American Jennie Jerome (shown here), wife of Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston, is among those featured. Fascinating details emerge about her life at the highest echelons of British society – including her affairs with Edward VII (he of the 3,000-calorie breakfast described above), her job as a magazine editor, and the tattoo of a snake entwined around her wrist. These "dollar princesses" were feisty women who loved life and lived it to the fullest, often in direct opposition to the social mores of their day.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Conductor Costa Gets Blue Plaque

Sir Michael Costa (1808-1884), pioneering conductor and orchestral reformer, was commemorated today with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at 59 Eccleston Square, London.

Costa was the dominant figure in England's musical advancement during the mid-nineteenth century and it was during his career that England largely shed the reputation of being a "land without music."

59 Eccleston Square is a particularly significant address because it was here, between 1857 and 1883, that Costa spent half of his 55-year career in London. He entertained some illustrious guests at the house, including the Anglo-Italian opera singer Adelina Patti; the leading music critics, for whom he gave an annual dinner; and the Prince of Wales, who called on Costa several times when he was ill in the 1880s.

Costa organized most of the Royal Family's private concerts at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and was regularly invited to sing and play with Queen Victoria. His preeminence as the first professional conductor in England was recognized in 1869 when he became the first person to be knighted for his services as a conductor.

Maestro Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera, unveiled the plaque.

Shown here: Michael Costa

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Duleep Singh: The Last Maharajah of Punjab

This week a marble bust of the Sikh maharajah Duleep Singh by celebrated sculptor and Royal Academician John Gibson (1790-1866) will be auctioned by Bonhams. Singh was one of the nineteenth century's most intriguing personalities; the bust, showing him at the height of his fame, with pearl necklace and embroidered tunic, is expected to fetch as much as £35,000.

According to The Times of India: "Punjabis have begun exploring ways to have the community hold on to [the bust]. Taking a lead is the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandhak Committee (SGPC), which has decided to send a representative from Amritsar, or elsewhere, to stand guard during the April 19 sale. 'The bust is our pride,' said SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar. 'We will either send a buyer or have someone else, it could even be a company, buy it for us. We will leave no stone unturned in our effort to get such a precious thing back.'"

[Update: The bust sold for an astonishing £1,500,000 plus premium and tax. The buyer was a private UK collector. Bonhams issued this press release on the auction results. There's also this analysis in The Times of India.]

The last Maharajah of Punjab, Singh led an eventful life that included becoming the ruler of his northwestern Indian state in 1843 at the age of five. Deposed six years later when the East India Company annexed his territories, he was placed under the tutelage of Dr. John Spencer Login and efforts to "Anglicize" him began in earnest. (Login had served as the first governor of Lahore Fort when the British annexed the Punjab in 1849.) Singh was more or less forcibly converted to Christianity in 1853; the following year, he was packed off to exile in England.

He quickly became a society favorite and a familiar presence at court. Queen Victoria doted on him and became godmother to Singh's first son. (It was she who commissioned the portrait shown here, by court painter Franz Winterhalter, in 1855.) The queen appears to have been taken with him from the start. Singh is "extremely handsome and speaks English perfectly," she wrote, "and has a pretty, graceful, and dignified manner ... I always feel so much for these poor deposed Indian princes." In 1858 she noted that Singh "looks so handsome and well – and is talkative and agreeable ... Those eyes and those teeth are too beautiful.” Under tutors appointed by Prince Albert, Singh learned science, music, and German.

In 1863, he left London and settled at Elveden Hall in Suffolk, where he entertained the Prince of Wales and other members of the aristocracy. Under his care the 17,000-acre estate became a well-managed game preserve that was the site of lavish hunting and shooting parties, or shikar. For the house itself, Singh hired architect John Norton to add an overlay of oriental splendor in the form of a minaret; a domed water tower; ceiling and wall panels in elaborate Indian designs; marble fireplaces; embroidered Indian wall hangings; and a set of six upholstered chairs with "peacock" backs. In the process, Singh racked up a considerable amount of debt and his pleas to the British government to return to him the personal treasures his father Maharajah Ranjit Singh had bequeathed him fell on deaf ears. Among those was the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which had been surrendered to Britain in the same Treaty of Lahore that had ended the younger Singh's reign in Punjab. (Shown here is the statue of the maharajah in nearby Thetford, which was unveiled by Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1999).

Angered by his treatment, Singh tried to return to India but was stopped in Aden and sent back to Britain. Eventually he settled in Paris in substantially reduced financial circumstances and died there in 1893. Today he lies in the yard of the Suffolk parish church he restored, next to his first wife and one of his three sons. Shown here: Singh's gravestone at the Church of St Andrew and St Patrick, Elveden, Suffolk.

Recommended links:

The Times of India
, 27 March 2007:
"Sikhs want royal bust, at any cost"

Recommended books:
Peter Bance, The Duleep Singhs — The Photograph Album Of Queen Victoria’s Maharaja (2004)

Christy Campbell, The Maharajah's Box: An Exotic Tale of Espionage, Intrigue, and Illicit Love in the Days of the Raj (2002)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Au Naturel

Following on from yesterday's post (15 April 2007)...

Who needs a court painter, sculptor, or wax model maker when you've got 64 million years of erosion working on your behalf?

Shown here is the very famous Queen Victoria hoodoo in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. See her standing there, facing right, in crown and voluminous dress?

This naturally occurring spire of soft, ancient limestone consists of sediments deposited by the repeated advancing and retreating of sea and lake over millions of years.

It's the same material -- formed in exactly the same way -- used to build many of Britain's most beautiful stately homes and public buildings.

"Bless the geology of Britain, in all its astonishing variety," says Clive Aslet in a recent Independent article on the use of limestone for building in Britain. "Owners of stone-built houses across the country inhabit a world unimaginably older than man."

It's the same world inhabited by this naturally regal queen.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Waxing Victorian

Not all modern incarnations of Queen Victoria are executed in stone (see previous posts of 2 March and 12 March). Here are a few fashioned of softer material.

Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, London: Wax model maker Marie Tussaud moved to London from Paris three years before Victoria ascended the throne. Her "museum" in Baker Street, which initially focused on French figures such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Napoleon, was an instant success, and Tussaud became one of the leading women entrepreneurs of nineteenth-century London. Tussaud soon added figures from British history to her display, emphasizing verisimilitude. When Queen Victoria married in 1840, for example, Tussaud obtained her permission to have the same dressmaker create a replica of her wedding gown for £1,000.

Brading Wax Works, Isle of Wight: In the "Great British Legends" room you'll find the queen mourning her husband in a version of the Durbar Room at Osborne House. Originally called the Isle of Wight Wax Works Museum and Animal World, this attraction located between Ryde and Sandown was founded by Graham Osborne-Smith in 1965. The queen shares the room with Titus Flavius Vespasian; Lord Louis Mountbatten; Diana, Princess of Wales; and Sir Winston Churchill.

Queen Victoria Building, Sydney: The Queen Victoria Building has been described as "the most beautiful shopping center in the world." Built in 1898 to replace the original Sydney Markets, it occupies an entire city block. In 1984 it was completely refurbished as a shopping center. A hanging clock displays a series of mechanically moving tableaux of British kings and queens every hour on the hour. This "exhibition" is heralded by loud trumpeters and ends with the beheading of Charles I. Permanent and temporary exhibitions are featured on each level and include this wax model of Queen Victoria and replicas of the British crown jewels.

Royal London Wax Museum, Victoria, British Columbia: The queen receives Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in her tartan-lined drawing room. Disraeli, a Tory, was PM for nine months in 1868 and then again from 1874 to 1880. Victoria approved of Disraeli's conservatism and enjoyed his charm. Disraeli famously noted that "everyone likes flattery, and when you come to royalty, you should lay it on with a trowel." When Disraeli died in 1881, Victoria was devastated and reportedly cried for days.

Potter's Wax Museum, St. Augustine, Florida: In the heart of historic St. Augustine you can find this rendition of the queen. Founded by George L. Potter in 1949, this attraction claims to be the first wax museum in the United States. The general consensus among those reviewing it on is that it is also the lamest wax museum in the United States. Clue #1: the elasticized neckline in the queen's polyester blouse.

National Railway Museum, York: In 2003, Queen Victoria's favorite royal train carriage, or "saloon," went back on public display at the National Railway Museum in York after a £100,000 restoration. Built by the London & North Western Railway in 1869, the saloon was originally two separate vehicles. It was converted to a single carriage in 1895 and lavishly finished in silk, ivory, satinwood, and bird’s eye maple. In this photo, actress Prunella Scales, who portrayed the queen in the BBC docudrama Looking for Victoria, visits the saloon before it is sealed for display. (Here the queen is portrayed by a live person; for a blurry -- or is that "artsy" -- photo of the current wax doppelganger, visit Carlos62 at Flickr.)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

When East Met West in New Bond Street

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," said Rudyard Kipling. Yet a new exhibition of photographs suggests otherwise--that, in fact, the East and the West met each other in surprising and profound ways during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

"Neither East Nor West - The Lafayette Collection: Asia in the Age of Monochrome," which runs through 10 September at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, features 45 photographs drawn from the extensive Lafayette photo archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

For more than two decades, the world's rich and famous trooped to 179 New Bond Street to have their portrait taken by James Lafayette, the most commercially successful photographer of the day. He photographed the most prominent people at court, in society, the arts, the armed forces, and the professions, as well as a stream of foreign visitors, from Japanese diplomats to African princes.
The IAMM exhibit notes that "the sitters in the Lafayette photographs keep their identity while participating in a newly emerged global environment ... The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may have been oppressively ‘Victorian’ for many, but for the elite this was a time of openness and international understanding. The Lafayette Studio is a symbol of this dual role: a force that brought people from many parts of the world together for their mutual benefit."

The exhibit's curators believe that this convivial mingling of the elite from East and West ("not only did they use the same photographic studio; they also attended the same events and often dressed in the same way") played a role in Malaysia's relatively peaceful transition to independence.

Can't make it to Kuala Lumpur? The exhibition's catalogue is available online from the museum's shop.

Shown here: Junku Mahmud, President of State Council of Kedah, Malaysia; part of the Lafayette Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Friday, April 13, 2007


The Government of India announced this week that several programs are being organized to mark the 150th anniversary of the Uprising of 1857 (or, if you prefer, the Sepoy Rebellion, the Indian Mutiny, or India’s First War of Independence).

Officials say the programs are part of "a national tribute to the martyrs who lost their lives for the cause of independence of our country from the clutches of the British raj."

In its 2007 budget, the Government of India set aside an amount of Rs. 10 crore for the celebration (about $2.3 million or £1.2 million if I've figured the conversion correctly).

Among the plans: a national youth rally in May in which 30,000 young people will walk from Meerut to Delhi, covering a distance of 80 kilometers in five days, in a modern version of the sepoys' march between those two cities.

For those who would like to mark the occasion with a bit of Bollywood, I recommend The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, starring the very handsome Aamir Khan as Pandey, a sepoy in the 34th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry of the British East India Company in Barrackpur. Pandey goes berserk (perhaps under the influence of bhang) on hearing rumors that a new bullet cartridge is greased with pig and cow fat. He attacks his British sergeant, setting off the chain of events that leads to the wider rebellion.

This film broke Indian box office records when it was released in 2005. Its historical inaccuracies (huh...go figure) caused rioting in Uttar Pradesh, Pandey's home region.

Read the review in the blog "chapati mystery" here.

Related link: The Financial Express, 8 April 2007: "Accidental hero or a forgotten martyr? The controversy surrounding his intentions apart, Indian history has failed to give sepoy Mangal Pandey due credit"

Great Expectations or Hard Times Ahead?

Further to my previous post on Dickens World (28 March 2007):

"Great Expectations for Dickens Theme Park"

CHATHAM (Reuters), 12 April 2007 - Literary purists may quake at the prospect of a Charles Dickens theme park complete with a Great Expectations boat ride and Ye Olde Curiosity Gift Shop.

But Dickens World, a £62 million ($115 million) complex built in the naval dockyard where his father once worked as a clerk, is confidently predicting 300,000 visitors a year to this new attraction dedicated to the Victorian author.

"We are not Disney-fying Dickens,'' insists manager Ross Hutchins as he dons hard hat and fluorescent jacket to tour the site, a hive of activity as the Fagin's den playground and Newgate Prison's grimy walls are given their finishing touches.

"If Dickens was alive today, he would probably have built the place himself," Hutchins said of the theme park in Chatham, once a big unemployment blackspot in southeast England after the dockyards closed in the 1980s but now a major regeneration target.

"In fact, if Dickens was alive today, he would probably have been working for television as a scriptwriter. He was very much a populist,'' he said of the author of classic tales like Oliver Twist.

Some critics may have been scornful of the project in the lead-up to its opening on April 20. But Hutchins insists the attraction -- a dark, dirty, and dank London is populated by thieves, murderers, and ghosts -- has the air of authenticity as it was built in consultation with experts from the Dickens Fellowship.

"Is the world ready for a Dickens theme park?'' The Observer newspaper asked of the giant indoor attraction.

"There is a lot to fear here,'' The New York Times said. "There is the prospect that characters from Dickens' novels -- Mr Pecksniff and the Artful Dodger, Mr Pickwick and Uriah Heep -- will wander through Dickens World the way Goofy and Mickey walk the streets of Disneyland.''

Hutchins retorted: "If we were Disney-fying Dickens we wouldn't be talking to people like the Dickens Fellowship to ensure the correct historical facts.''

He talks with crusading zeal about the project, proudly showing off the interactive screens in the mock schoolroom or checking the boat ride that takes visitors from "the sewers to the rooftops of London.'' But he is the first to recognize Dickens still has a lot of catching up to do with Shakespeare in literary popularity.

"If you asked many people today under 30 to name five Dickens novels, they probably couldn't. We are going to bring Dickens to life,'' he promised.

There was certainly no shortage of job applicants with 950 people chasing up to 60 jobs in the theme park.

Hutchins said: "One man was so mad about Dickens that he applied for the job despite living on the west coast of America near Seattle. I did e-mail him back and said don't you think 4,800 miles might be a bit of a long commute for you?''

---end of Reuters article---

Shown here: Image from Dickens World publicity materials

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Queen's Brum Deal

From the Express & Star, 11 April 2007:

Decades-old pictures picked up in a secondhand shop by Black Country man Sam Humphries bring to life a royal visit to Birmingham more than 100 years ago. Within the pages of the A3 size binder, titled The Illustrated News of the World and National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Personages, lie a series of artists’ impressions and articles that give an insight into the history of the city – one big day in particular.

It was Saturday, June 26, 1858, and Queen Victoria arrived in Birmingham to meet dignitaries and visit Aston Hall and Park. The hall was purchased by the Aston Hall and Park Company and opened as a place of public entertainment in that year. Queen Victoria was in the West Midlands to perform the opening ceremony. It was the first of just two visits the royal made to Birmingham as Queen of England. She was back in the city again on March 23, 1887, to lay the foundation stone of the new Birmingham Assize Court.

The pictures, which were engraved on steel, show a panoramic view of the park and hall along with Aston Church as it was 149 years ago. The images depict the Queen’s arrival at the recently refurbished town hall in the city centre with a full military procession. The waiting crowds are shown waving their hats in the air.

A large double-page picture shows the Queen inside the city town hall and the reading of the address of the corporation of Birmingham with members of the public crammed into the galleries eager to catch the royal's every word.

Mr Humphries, of Engine Lane, Lye, Stourbridge, said: “It was 40 or 50 years ago and I bought this book from a secondhand antiques shop called Talbots in Cradley Heath for about £3. I worked as a drop forger and used to pop down the road to this shop while I was waiting for my bars to heat up in the furnace.” He added: “There is a lot of stuff in there and it is interesting to look back at these events and figures from more than 100 years ago.”

The book also includes pictures of Mayor of Birmingham John Ratcliff in 1858, as well as images of places like Edgbaston Old Church, Stoneleigh Abbey, King Edwards Grammar School, Spring Hill College, and the Beauchamp Chapel in Warwickshire.

---end of Express & Star article---

Shown here: Queen Victoria in Victoria Square, Birmingham; photo by Rory Henry at Flickr

Victorian Monkey Business

Blogger John Brownlee at Table of Malcontents recounts a discussion with his friend Stacey.

"Our topic was monkeys. After several hours of monkey-centric conversation, Stacey dropped this bombshell: 'When I was in school, my professor told me about this Victorian hat craze. It apparently became fashionable at a certain point for ladies to wear wide brimmed hats, on top of which tiny monkeys lived. But because no one wanted a tiny chattering monkey crapping all over their fashionable hat, they wouldn't feed the monkeys: they'd just starve to death. Ladies would replace their monkeys once a week. By the end of the London season this entire species of monkey had been made extinct.'

"My eyes lit up. Oh, I knew the story was too good to be true: how is a monkey crapping on your hat any less disturbing than a week spent enduring its shrieking starvation cries? Still, Stacey was emphatic that she had actually been told this by a reputable professor. It was 2 a.m; we immediately woke several of her old classmates up, demanding that they groggily corroborate. No one remembered the story. We even spent an hour combing Google for corroboration. By the time we were ready to admit defeat, we'd exhausted all possible search terms, including 'Lady Monkey No Crap Hat.'"

All right, Peeper readers: can anyone find a factual basis for this story?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Salmagundi #2

My second collection of odds and ends ...

Afghanistan, 1833-1933: "From Kabul to Kandahar: 1833-1933," an exhibition that runs through 1 June at the Royal Geographical Society (London), features a selection of the Society's historical photographs, drawings, and lithographs related to Afghanistan as well as travel journals and maps. From scenes of Kabul's marketplaces in 1842 to panoramic views of Kandahar taken after the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80, these materials provide a revealing insight into the communities, customs, and histories of this mountainous country. At Untold London, writer Sara Wajid notes that the RGS's collections are a valuable resource "for those wanting a deeper understanding of the historical relationship between Muslim cultures around the globe and the West" and provide "surprising and useful traces of a long, complex, and intimate relationship between Britain and Muslim countries." Also at Untold London: "Afghanistan, Then And Now," a review of the exhibition by Kate Smith and a list of places to find Afghan history in London, from the British Museum to the Turkmen Gallery in Eccleston Street. Shown here: Artillery square and main bastion of citadel, Kandahar, 1881, RGS.

India, 1857: Amardeep Singh recommends an Open Source interview with William Dalrymple, author of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, which tells the extraordinary story of the last Mughal emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar (see my post of 17 February featuring an excellent review of the book). As Singh notes, Dalrymple suggests a parallel between the behavior of the British in the years leading up to the Mutiny of 1857 and the attitude of today's neoconservatives on regime change and the spreading of democracy throughout the Middle East.

London, 1892: Martha Ann Erskine Ricks, born into slavery in Tennessee in 1817, spent 50 years chasing her dream of meeting Queen Victoria. Her true tale is told in Martha Ann's Quilt for Queen Victoria, a new children's book by Kyra Hicks with illustrations by Lee Edward Födi. In 1830, after Ricks' father bought their freedom, the family moved to Liberia, where young Martha Ann watched British warships protecting the African coast from slave traders. As a result, she wanted to see for herself the woman she thought of as a good Christian and a "friend of the slave." She decided to thank the queen by making her a silk quilt inspired by the coffee trees that grew on her family's Liberian farm. The quilt featured a trunk with more than 300 pointed green leaves with plump red coffee berries delicately hand-appliquéd onto a white background. Finally, in 1892, when Martha Ann was 76, she traveled to England and presented her quilt to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. This is an inspirational story about perseverance and faith that provides a perfect introduction to the Victorian era for children.

Turner Painting to Represent UK in Rome

More JMW Turner news (see posts of 24 February and 28 March):

The 27 member states of the European Union were recently asked to provide a work of art for "Capolavori dell’ Arte Europea" ("Masterpieces of European Art"), an exhibition in Rome celebrating the 1957 signing of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding document.

The Times reports that when Italian president Giorgio Napolitano paid a state visit to London last autumn, Queen Elizabeth told him that she would be sending a painting by JMW Turner to the exhibition. Tate Britain then chose The Arrival of Louis-Philippe at Portsmouth, 8 October 1844, a swirl of smoke and gold that for years was thought to depict Venice but four years ago was found to show the arrival of the French “citizen king” in England at the start of a visit to Queen Victoria – a happy moment of Anglo-French entente.

Turner had known Louis-Philippe years earlier, when the exiled French court was living in Twickenham as refugees from revolutionary Paris.

"Masterpieces of European Art" is at the Quirinale Palace in Rome through May 20. Shown here: The Arrival of Louis-Philippe at Portsmouth, 8 October 1844, Tate Britain.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Crown and Country

A very interesting tempest is raging in the blogosphere between The Monarchist ("Defending the British Crown Commonwealth and the English-Speaking Peoples") and a 21-year-old Canadian college student and online cartoonist named J.J. McCullough.

The latter has accused the former of celebrating "white pride," of indulging in "benign bigotry," of admiring "white men in top hats," and of being interested in only the most Anglocentric aspects of the "white dominions," which, he states, is a kind of "racism by omission."

The Monarchist retorts: "While we are all perfectly free to make up our own minds about the Crown, the level of revulsion and enmity [Mr. McCullough] displays towards something that is essentially benign and harmless suggests an unhealthy emotional incompetency, and explains why he has engaged in this undignified bit of race baiting. He simply hates the Queen, he hates our traditions, and he hates [my] site for promoting it."

McCollough, who cheekily wears a sweatshirt displaying the British royal arms in a photo on his website, responds by asserting that support of the monarchy "stems from feelings of Anglophilia and ethnic pride, and not from any genuine faith in monarchy as a sound political concept" and criticizes monarchists' lack of interest "in celebrating the color and diversity of Her Majesty's empire, instead treating the 'lesser' realms as bothersome technicalities that sully the purity of the Crown ... This sort of petty provincialism is a disservice to the grand orientalism of the British imperial tradition ... There was a time when people actually believed in and celebrated the crown as a force capable of uniting all creeds and races. Sad that this is now considered a sign of weakness rather than pride."

It was that bit about "the grand orientalism of the British imperial tradition" that made my Victorianist ears perk up. Is it right to use such admiring tones about "orientalism" in the sense that McCullough uses that concept here? Is it true that the crown was once capable of "uniting all creeds and races"?

The answer to both questions is pretty clearly no, despite recent efforts by historians such as Niall Ferguson and David Cannadine to find redeeming value in some aspects of the orientalist project (in Cannadine's words, to see the empire as "one vast interconnected world," an "integrated, ordered, titular, transracial hierarchy"). As I have pointed out elsewhere ("'A Grand Informal Durbar': Henry Irving and the Coronation of Edward VII," Journal of Victorian Culture, 2003), one cannot turn a blind eye to the overwhelming evidence that racial prejudice nearly always trumped efforts to create an "interconnected world." During Victoria's reign, not even the premiers of the self-governing colonies (that is, the white ones), were able to form a working political federation despite then-secretary of state for the colonies Joseph Chamberlain's efforts to create a "closer union."

The sidebar of The Monarchist is at least as interesting as the opinions expressed in its posts: check out the list of "Imperial Loyalists," "Anglo Monarchists," and "Gentlemen Royalists," as well as the blogroll of "Tory" and "Whig" sites.

Shown here: Andy Warhol, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, 1985

Welcome to Jamaica Mon, er, Ma'am

What's not to like about a book that includes the following entry in its index:

"Victoria, Queen: removes one of her undervests, 9; speaks highly of Bubble & Squeak, 11; refuses a goat chop for breakfast, 15; contrite about not opening an Aberdeen waterworks, 15; has golden syrup spilt over her, 26; runs, jumps, and somersaults, 29; walks on a tightrope, 33; shot out of a cannon, 37; dons eagle's wings, 40; swings through a forest, 40; makes balloon ascent, 42; plays tiddlywinks with Miss Biggy the Fat Lady, 53; imitates a hen, 65; bargains for a goat, 66; visits a dubious establishment, 71; involved in a bar brawl, 71-72; in prison, 72; with hiccoughs, 77; upside down, 86; catches a packet, 88."

Jamaica Holiday: The Secret Life of Queen Victoria by Jonathan Routh, first published in 1979, purports to be the diary kept by the queen during an incognito visit to the island in 1871.

The queen gets up to all sorts of adventures, all related through wry prose and more than three dozen whimsical paintings. She goes golfing and water skiing, learns to limbo dance and twirl the hula hoop, consorts with a sugar planter who prefers not to wear clothes, and smokes the wacky weed, among many other improbable, and hilarious, things.

This charming book is out of print but used copies are readily available from a number of online booksellers, including Amazon.

Routh himself is a very interesting character, a former British television star who developed Candid Camera for ABC in the early 1960s and the author of tongue-in-cheek guides to public toilets and tea shops in London, Paris, and New York City.

Shown here: The queen goes bicycling with her cheetah on a Jamaican beach. Painting by Jonathan Routh, Jamaica Holiday: The Secret Life of Queen Victoria.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Cragside, "Palace of Modern Magician," Opens to Public

From the 1 April 2007 Observer:

"Restored: The World's First Hydroelectric House"
By Vanessa Thorpe

William Armstrong had his most brilliant ideas while standing thigh-deep in water. The maverick Victorian inventor, who created the mechanisms that raise Tower Bridge in London and open Newcastle's Swing Bridge, was also a passionate fisherman and came up with the idea of hydraulic power at the age of 24 while trout fishing in the Dee in Dentdale.

This weekend, the largest monument to Armstrong's ingenuity is open to the public again after total refurbishment. Cragside, in Northumberland, was home to Armstrong for 30 years and was the first house in the world to be fitted with hydroelectricity. The incredible gadgets, from the rotating spit in the kitchen to the hydraulic lift, were all powered by a vast water pressure system housed in the basement.

Dubbed the "palace of a modern magician" by one contemporary visitor, it boasted an early dishwasher, a Turkish bath, and hot and cold running water. In completely refitting and rewiring the house for the first time, The National Trust had to commission 500 carbon-filament lamps.

In later life Armstrong described his moment of illumination that day in the river: "I was lounging idly about, watching an old water-mill, when it occurred to me what a small part of the power of the water was used in driving the wheel, and then I thought how great would be the force of even a small quantity of water if its energy were only concentrated in one column."

Armstrong became one of the richest men in Europe by inventing and manufacturing the Armstrong gun, a cannon. The son of a corn merchant from Newcastle upon Tyne, he founded one of the world's leading engineering firms, WG Armstrong, which sold hydraulic cranes around the world. He employed more than 20,000 men at his works on the Tyne. In 1869 he expanded the house he had built six years earlier on a country estate in Rothbury. The architect Richard Norman Shaw built Cragside by transforming a modest sporting lodge and Armstrong installed a hydroelectric generator in 1878, having dammed a nearby river to create a lake. He wanted to create a cutting-edge home to show important guests, including the King of Siam, the Shah of Persia, an Afghan prince, and the future King Edward VII and his wife Alexandra.

Armstrong eventually presented the patents for his guns to the British government and was knighted in gratitude in 1859. Then, in 1887, Queen Victoria's jubilee year, he became the first engineer to be raised to the peerage, as Baron Armstrong of Cragside. The founder of Newcastle University, he died at Cragside at the age of 90 in 1900.

---End of Observer article---

Shown here: Cragside, Morpeth
Related Posts with Thumbnails