Shown above: Louis Haghe (1806-85), The Great Exhibition: The Medieval Court (1851)
Saturday, November 1, 2014
Shown above: Louis Haghe (1806-85), The Great Exhibition: The Medieval Court (1851)
Friday, June 20, 2014
|"The Blood Red Knight" by J. H. Amherst, lithograph with hand-coloring and tinsel, c. 1850, |
published by John Redington
Although historians of the British theatre have long been interested in representations of the “East” on the nineteenth-century stage, few have explored plays depicting the medieval Christian quest to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule.
The popularity of theatrical representations of the Crusades in the first half of the nineteenth century coincided with the British public’s growing curiosity about the Near East. Tourism to the main Crusade sites rose sharply with improvements in transportation. Artists and engravers brought images of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Damascus Gate, and the Dome of the Rock directly into homes; the exploits of archaeologists in Palestine made newspaper headlines; and enormous, topographically accurate panoramas of biblical landscapes drew crowds across London. A gigantic moving diorama of Jerusalem, for example, complete with Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane, drew crowds to Hyde Park Corner in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. Eastern-themed novels, poetry, children’s literature, missionary tracts, journals, and pictorial art of all kinds were widely available.
Theatrical managers, ever on the lookout for new ways to tap into the public’s enthusiasms, were quick to take advantage. The following examples, which are representative of the genre, demonstrate how playwriting offered considerable scope to the romantic imagination and plenty of room for an idiosyncratic interpretation of historical events.
|The Blood Red Knight; or, The Warriors of Palestine, |
Penny Pictorial Plays
Characters from the play were depicted in tinsel prints, a uniquely nineteenth-century art form that was popular between 1815 and 1830. Tinseling enthusiasts bought plain or colored prints, then added costumes made of die-cut metal foils, called tinsel, as well as bits of fabric, leather, or any other material. The blood-red knights shown at the top of this post and below might once have had real feathers on their helmets. When completed, tinsel prints would glow like religious icons.
|"Mr. Gomersal as the Blood Red Knight," c. 1835 (Edward Alexander Gomersal, 1788-1862)|
|A lavishly tinselled version of "Mr. Gomersal as The Blood Red Knight"|
The Crusaders; or, Jerusalem Delivered at the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1820 was billed as “an Entirely New and Splendid Melodramatic Tale of Enchantment, the Main Incidents of which are Taken from Tasso's Poem of ‘Jerusalem Delivered,’ Interspersed with Songs, Duets, Glees, Choruses, Marches, and Combats, with Entirely New Scenery, Extensive Machinery, Dresses, Properties, and Decorations.” The First Crusade was less popular than the Third Crusade as a dramatic subject during the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, playwrights inspired by Tasso’s “Gerusalemme Liberata” could depend on their audience’s knowledge of that poem, which was available in a number of English editions and translations. Its lyrical passion found a warm reception among the Victorians later in the century, who could appreciate the struggles of characters torn between love and duty and for whom historical inaccuracy was no impediment to enjoyment.
The Royal Coburg production appeared the same year that Charles Mills published his magisterial two-volume History of the Crusades for the Recovery and Possession of the Holy Land, one of the earliest studies devoted specifically to that topic – and one critical of the Western religious fanaticism that inspired the wars. Yet the impact of such historical scholarship was negligible on a general public that preferred to get its history lessons in the popular theatres of the day. This has not changed much from the Victorians’ time to ours. Compare the number of people who have dipped into The Oxford History of the Crusades (thousands, maybe?) with the number of those who have seen Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (millions). These recent films are the direct descendants of the nineteenth-century sack-and-slaughter plays.
In 1827, seven years after producing The Crusaders, the Royal Coburg produced The Unhallowed Templar, a three-act play billed as “an entirely new Grand Historical-Romantic Legendary Spectacle.” This time the subject was the Third Crusade, with much of the action focusing on the various engagements between the Christian forces commanded by the English King Richard I and the Muslim forces led by Saladin. In fact, this encounter of two towering personalities is tailor-made for the stage, which is why plays based on incidents of the Third Crusade outnumber all others during the nineteenth century. No matter that Richard and Saladin never actually met face to face – that inconvenient historical truth did not trouble the playwrights who wrote to fill London theatres. In nearly every one, there is stage combat of the most sensational kind, often on horseback, between the two leaders.
|"The Combat Between Richard and Saladin," Astley's Amphitheatre,|
Illustrated London News, 20 May 1843
So we have, in 1843, a play at Astley’s Amphitheatre called The Crusaders of Jerusalem, which featured a violent encounter between Richard and Saladin. Above is an artist’s rendering of this scene. Such depictions must have made an indelible impression on audiences and shaped how they thought about England’s role in the historical Crusades. Certainly they had an impact on later artistic representations, including the work of Gustave Doré, who illustrated an English edition of Joseph Michaud’s History of the Crusades in 1877. Below is a plate from that work featuring the iconography that had developed around the completely fictional meeting of Richard and Saladin.
|Gustave Doré (1832-1888),"Richard the Lion-Heart and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf,"|
from History of the Crusades by Michaud (1877)
And speaking of Sir Walter Scott … it would be hard to overstate his influence in creating and perpetuating nineteenth-century romantic notions of the Crusades. Productions of plays based on Ivanhoe and The Talisman, in particular, were instrumental in transmitting these ideas to an audience well beyond those who read the books.
The first dramatisation of Ivanhoe, for example, appeared at the Surrey Theatre in 1820 within weeks of the novel’s publication and inspired a further 290 versions over the following decades. One witness of the Surrey production compared its effect to the feeling inspired by a stained glass window or a Gothic chapel full of shrines, banners, and knightly monuments. Dramatists often played fast and loose with Scott’s story, creating pastiches derived from multiple sources in the interest of heightening its spectacular elements. It was also transformed into opera, pantomime, burlesque, and toy theatre versions.
Although Ivanhoe was the most widely adapted of Scott’s Crusade novels, The Talisman was also extremely popular. The first theatrical adaptation of this story of the Third Crusade was produced in Edinburgh in 1825, and more than 70 other versions followed over the course of the century. In the novel, which is set in Palestine, the Scottish knight Sir Kenneth is charged with guarding the standard of Richard the Lionheart’s camp overnight, a task he undertakes with his faithful deerhound Roswal. When Kenneth abandons his watch temporarily, the villain Conrade of Monserrat steals the banner, wounding Roswal in the process. Later, as Conrade marches in a procession before the king, the dog leaps at him, seizing him by the throat, revealing him as the thief.
The Knights of the Cross; or, The Dog of the Blood-Stained Banner was just one of many mid-Victorian plays that used this plot as a starting point. It was performed in 1841 at the Royal Albert Saloon, an establishment specializing in burlesque, comic ballets, and melodramas.
|The Knights of the Cross; or The Dog of the Blood-Stained Banner, 1841 (East London Theatre Archive)|
The success of this adaptation led to a vogue for plays featuring trained dogs, who often upstaged the human actors and became stars in their own right.
A slightly earlier play called The Siege of Jerusalem, also based on The Talisman and shamelessly mixing fact and fantasy, featured Saladin’s capture of the Holy City, a view of the Dead Sea, the arrival of the French and Austrian fleets, the burning sands of the desert, an appearance by Saladin’s white bull, a “Grand Asiatic Ballet,” the encounter between the Leopard Knight and the Templar – which is straight from Scott – and a feast in Saladin’s camp. The audience certainly got its money’s worth from that one.
Each of these plays referenced tropes about the Crusades that swirled through Victorian society. Crusade plays simplified these down to their basic elements and then exploded them out into a three-dimensional sensory feast, using every trick and technique in the arsenal of stage management. They were, truly, spectacles that cemented a highly romanticized version of the Crusades in the nineteenth-century British imagination.
|"Suffragettes Posting Bills," c. 1910|
(Library of Congress)
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
In 1852, the year after his groundbreaking survey of London's working classes was published in book form, Henry Mayhew (1812-1887; DNB bio here, Wiki bio here) climbed into the wicker basket of a hot air balloon piloted by the legendary aeronaut Charles Green (1785-1870; DNB bio here, Wiki bio here).
"In the Clouds,” or, Some Account of a Balloon Trip with Mr. Green
By Henry Mayhew
The Illustrated London News, 18 September 1852
Monday, February 20, 2012
|"Kate Dore with frame of plant forms,"|
Victoria & Albert Museum, PH.258-1982
The term "pteridomania" is derived from pteridophyte (a vascular plant that reproduces by spores, from the Greek pteri, feather, and phyte, relating to plants), and mania (madness or frenzy). It was coined by the clergyman and naturalist Charles Kingsley in Glaucus; or, the Wonders of the Shore (1855), his call for better science education among the young. Addressing the parents of mid-Victorian girls, he wrote: "Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing 'Pteridomania' and are collecting and buying ferns, with Ward's cases wherein to keep them (for which you have to pay), and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy), till the Pteridomania seems to be somewhat of a bore: and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool."
Yet as Whittingham convincingly shows, the passion for ferns transcended gender and could be identified in men, women, and children of all ages and classes throughout the English-speaking world. She finds examples not only in Britain, but also in the far-flung corners of the Empire and in the United States. Her material is (more or less) neatly organized into three main areas of activity: collecting, cultivation, and public display.
|From Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania (c) 2012 Frances Lincoln Ltd. |
and Sarah Whittingham. National Library of Australia, Canberra.
|From Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania|
(c) 2012 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Sarah Whittingham.
Monday, April 25, 2011
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
(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
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
[Read the National Trust's press release here,]
'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.
[Read a description of the restoration and see additional photos here.]
'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's Beetlewing Gown Back in Limelight," The Guardian, 11 March 2011
Alicia Finkel, Romantic Stages: Set and Costume Design in Victorian England (McFarland, 1996)
Monday, January 3, 2011
Friday, December 31, 2010
The Guardian, it was at Undershaw that Doyle "wrote the 'Hound of the Baskervilles' and a patriot defence of Britain's Boer War; resurrected Sherlock Holmes, having previously thrown him off the Reichenbach Falls; campaigned for justice for the falsely accused solicitor George Edalji, and attempted to learn the banjo."
Anyone who has read Julian Barnes's magnificent novel Arthur & George will feel that they know every inch of this house (shown above in 1897). At the time, I expressed the hope that the worldwide network of societies devoted to Doyle and his immortal creation, Holmes, would be able to rally private support to rescue the house from developers.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Four paintings by Augustus Edwin Mulready (1844-1904) are to be sold at Bonhams' Nineteenth-Century Paintings sale on 29 September in London.
Mulready's works frequently highlighted the social issues of the Victorian era -- particularly the poverty experienced by homeless street children, whom he often depicted gazing despairingly out at the viewer. The artist returned again and again to this subject in an attempt to draw official and public attention to the condition of these children.
Mulready (Wiki bio here) was a member of the Cranbrook Colony, a small group of painters who lived and worked in the picturesque town of Cranbrook, Kent. They were influenced by Dutch and Flemish genre painting and shared a sustained interest in child subjects. (Other members of the group included Frederick Daniel Hardy, Thomas Webster, John Callcott Horsley, and George Bernard O’Neill.)
Although the quality of Mulready's works as paintings leaves much to be desired, they are important social documents. As art reviewer Keith Roberts has noted, "Children could be used to publicize the iniquities of the social justice system without seeming to attack the social structure; reform might well be achieved by appeals to the conscience through sentiment rather than by reasoned argument and criticism of an overtly political character." This was an approach that Charles Dickens knew well and deployed to devastating effect in his novels.
In Uncared For (1871, shown above), one of the works that will be sold by Bonhams (estimate: £10,000-15,000), a pale, barefooted waif stares miserably at the viewer and a young boy buries his head in his hands. Their desolation contrasts powerfully with the more privileged group in the background. Above their heads is a torn street poster ironically proclaiming "The Triumph of Christianity." The juxtaposition would have been considered more provoking and subversive by Victorian viewers had the subjects been adults.
In Fatigued Minstrels (1883), also to be sold by Bonhams (estimate: £4,000-6,000), a pair of exhaused young street musicians slump against a stone pillar as a well-dressed family and couple walk along the brightly lit street opposite.
"This is a fascinating group of pictures, and it is particularly poignant to be selling them at a time when the plight of the urban poor is so much in the public eye," says Charles O'Brien, head of Bonhams' Nineteenth-Century Paintings Department.
Such paintings were soon eclipsed by documentary photography, which could induce an even more profound shock in viewers through their harrowing realism.
Poverty and Families in the Victorian Era (part of the superb "Hidden Lives Revealed" website)
Childhood -- Children -- Street Arabs (part of Lee Jackson's "Victorian London" website)
Pamela Horn, The Victorian Town Child (Sutton, 1997)