Sunday, January 25, 2009

Salmagundi #10

Pathetic phallacy: Actress Emma Thompson and her husband, the actor Greg Wise, will reportedly travel to Majorca in March to begin work on "Effie," a film based on the marriage of John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic, and Euphemia ("Effie") Gray. Thompson and Wise wrote the script together and will co-star as the unhappy couple, whose marriage was annulled in 1854 based on the charge (attested to by physical examination and never contested by Ruskin) that, after five years, the marriage remained unconsummated. Ruskin was widely supposed to be impotent. Effie later wed the painter John Everett Millais, with whom she had eight children. Shown here: Millais's portrait of Effie from 1873.

UPDATE, 5 February: Here's one clue to how the marriage might be portrayed; Thompson is quoted as saying the film is "about the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who was married to this frightful woman named Effie." Hmm. Seems to me Ruskin was the more frightful of the pair.

Celebrating Darwin: The January 2009 issue of Scientific American is all about the 150-year-old theory that still drives the contemporary scientific agenda. Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago next month.

Cabinets of curiosities: England’s oldest university zoological collection, the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, is a treasure trove of skeletons, mounted animals, and specimens preserved in jars -- all crammed into a series of rooms lined with old-fashioned cabinets that recreate the atmosphere of a Victorian natural-history museum. Founded as a teaching collection in 1827 by the radical zoologist Robert Grant (one of Darwin's mentors), the museum is still used for teaching by the Department of Biology at UCL. Look out for the bones of a dodo, the skeleton of a quagga (a type of zebra), and the dissected corpse of a Tasmanian tiger. You can adopt one of the 55,000 specimens and have your name displayed on a label next to it.

Grueling: Earlier this month the Royal Society of Chemistry in London served gruel to members of the public after recreating the workhouse porridge made famous by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist (see my post of December 27 here). The glutinous concoction of water, oats, and milk was prepared by a French chef in the society's kitchen and ladled onto pewter dishes for those brave enough to sample it. The event coincided with the premiere of Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Oliver! at the Drury Lane Theatre (visit the show's amusing website here) and was a clever way to generate press coverage of the society's new report on sustainable food. "The part that food plays in our lives has perhaps never been more memorably portrayed in literature than in the workhouse scene [in Oliver Twist]," says RSC chief Dr. Richard Pike. "Thankfully in Britain matters have improved tremendously but it remains a daily threat in many parts of the world. This year we will be looking closely at food sustainability and the part that science and engineering play in this." Shown here: Lawrence Wright tries some of the gruel on offer outside the RSC office at Burlington House, Piccadilly. The apparent presence of Napoleon behind Mr. Wright is unexplained. Perhaps it is the French chef, who -- if he ever returns to France -- will be imprisoned for this crime against gastronomy, sans doute.

Speaking of orphans: The large cast of child actors who portray nameless workhouse inmates in the Mackintosh Oliver! are believed to be earning around £20 a night, less than the fee recommended for child performers by Equity, the actors' union. Children playing named characters are thought to be earning between £35 and £60 a performance. More than 150 children are employed in the £4.5m production, including three Artful Dodgers and three Olivers. Lewis Jenkins, a spokesman for the production company, said that the company was meeting all applicable legal requirements and explained that the children taking part are divided into three grades. "There are those playing Oliver and the Artful Dodger on one grade, and there are three gangs of children on another grade. And then there are 'the coach kids', as we call them, who are in the workhouse scene and have a little less to do." Hmm. It's enough to make one wonder who the real pickpockets are. Shown above: Some of the talented actors in Oliver! who could be making more money working at McDonald's.

The best London museum you've never heard of: The quirky Cuming Museum in Southwark houses one of the very few Victorian private collections to have survived intact to the present day. Opened in 1906, it’s the legacy of Richard Cuming and his son Henry Syer Cuming, who bought more than 25,000 artifacts from all over the world at London sales between 1780 and 1900. The collection spans the areas of archaeology, British social history, ethnography, decorative art, geology, textiles, natural history, prints, coins, ceramics, and ancient Egyptian and Etruscan objects. The many treasures include a nineteenth-century beaded apron from Guyana, a Hawaiian gourd bottle acquired during one of Captain Cook’s voyages, slippers belonging to Queen Anne and Queen Victoria, and a dentist’s cap embroidered with extracted teeth. You can also gaze at a small group of prints by Daumier, photos that document the development of the Elephant and Castle area of Southwark, and several items belonging to the experimental scientist Michael Faraday. The "Lovett Collection of Superstitions" features lucky charms and fetish objects that show the myriad ways in which the Victorians attempted to appease the Fates. The Cumings collected with abandon: important objects, worthless objects, fake objects . . . they didn't care. It all adds up to a wonderful testament to Victorian curiosity and acquisitiveness. Shown here: A bracelet of blue beads of a type worn in London by children under their clothes as a cure for rheumatism, c. 1870-1900.


David said...

Pathetic phallacy! Poor Ruskin.

Wasn't Ruskin repulsed by something in Effie's physical appearance, which he only saw after she was undressed?

Also, I didn't know Emma Thompson and Greg Wise were married. Somehow I missed that. After Sense and Sensibility you'd think Hugh Grant would have ended up the "lucky" guy.

Thanks for the advance notice of the movie and for this collection of information. I'd love to see the Cuming Museum. Sounds fascinating.

Kristan Tetens said...

Hi David. Thanks for the comment! The idea that Ruskin was so repulsed by the sight of his naked wife on their wedding night that he refused ever to have sex with her has been explored by numerous biographers. One guessed that it had been Effie's pubic hair that caused Ruskin's consternation; however, the evidence on this point is ambiguous at best. The Ruskins' marriage has been depicted in several films, including a 1994 short called "The Passion of John Ruskin" (starring Neve Campbell) that focuses on the pubic hair theory. "The Countess" is probably the best-known play on the subject. It will be interesting to see what Thompson/Wise do with this question that continues to fascinate.

M.M.E. said...

I'm an art major and I was told that Ruskin was disgusted by her pubic and armpit hair since he had only seen paintings of women who, therefore, had no hair. Hopefully the movie doesn't make Effie into a monster.

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