Thursday, 23 April 2015


Ellen Terry (Alice Ellen Terry) was a famous Victorian actress who was born into a theatrical family and first appeared upon the stage when she was only eight years old.

Renowned for her voice and striking looks, and blessed with her stunning red hair, Ellen went on to become Henry Irvin’s leading lady, greatly admired for her sensitive portrayals of Shakespearian heroines.

Today we would call her a ‘star’.  Reporters followed her every move and fans were eager for any news, especially the details of her love life. She caused quite a sensation in 1888 when she played the part of Lady Macbeth at the London Lyceum Theatre, wearing a  spectacular emerald green costume constructed from more than a thousand Jewel beetle wings.

The gown was later immortalised in a portrait by the artist, John Singer Sargent, which can still be viewed today at London's *Tate Britain galleryHaving witnessed Ellen wearing it when alighting one day from a cab one day, Oscar Wilde went on to write: ‘The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets. It must always be full of wonderful possibilities.’

Choosing by G F Watts

Ellen had quite an effect on men, whatever their sexual persuasion and she clearly enjoyed male company, wedding her first husband (the artist G F Watts) when she was only sixteen years old and he was over twice her age. And although the marriage was short-lived, Watts painted some beautiful portraits of his wife.  

She had an affair with the architect and designer Edward Godwin, with whom she had two children, after which she married the actor and journalist Charles Kelly. She conducted an infamous affair of letters with the writer George Bernard Shaw, and then married again at sixty, this time to man who was half her age.

Today, the shimmering glory of the Macbeth dress can be viewed again. Funded by the National Trust, Zenzie Tinker of Brighton has restored and strengthened the fabric’s structure with many of the original beetle wings then being carefully reattached. Those that had broken were repaired using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The remainder were donated by a generous antiques dealer.

The conserved garment is now on display at Smallhythe Place in Kent, the home in which Ellen Terry died in 1928.

Sadness - Ellen Terry aged 16, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron

*The Sargent portrait of Ellen Terry in the gown of beetle wings is currently on display at The National Portrait Gallery as part of a show devoted to the work of John Singer Sargent.

For other VV's posts related to John Singer Sargent's work, please see:

Friday, 17 April 2015


Victoria Woodhull 1838-1927

The VV has been musing on the life of Victoria Woodhull – who was (although few have heard of her now) the very first woman who made a bid to stand for the American presidency, as far back as 1872. 

Not that her attempt met with success. At that time women had no legal vote and, on the day of Grant’s re-election his female rival was safely imprisoned on charges of libel and pornography. But, what had preceded such ignominy?
Buck Claflin in old age

Victoria's was a sensational life. She was born in Ohio in 1838 and during her early years was part of the family's travelling medicine show. Always having a talent to draw a crowd, the little girl would preach and tell fortunes, even claiming the power to cure all ills while her father – the one-eyed Reuben ‘Buck’ Claflin – stood at the back of his wagon and sold bottles of his opium-based Life Elixir.
At the age of fourteen Victoria fell ill, driven to the point of exhaustion after being deliberately starved by Buck as a means of enhancing  her spiritual ‘visions’. She later claimed that her father sexually abused her when drunk, even trying to sell her as a whore. But then, during her convalescence, she was wooed by another shameless fraud - the apparently well-to-do doctor who was known as Canning Woodhull.
Canning, who was then twenty-eight, asked for Victoria’s hand in marriage, which offered the girl a means of escape from her father’s tyrannical grasping ways. But, once again she was misused. Her ‘Doc’ was no more than a worthless quack, an opium addict and womaniser. Unable to support his child bride, he was so drunk at the birth of their son that Victoria very nearly died, and blamed her husband evermore for the boy’s severe mental impairments.
When contemplating returning to Buck, Victoria came to realise that her place in the family ‘enterprise’ had been usurped by her sister, Tennessee. So, with husband and idiot son in tow she made her way to San Francisco, there hoping to realise a dream. 

As a small child, Victoria claimed to have had a vision in which the spirit of the Greek orator, Demosthenes, foretold of a glorious destiny in which she would grow up to lead the American people – a position that she was destined to hold in a city of water, and ships, and gold. 

San Francisco seemed to fit the bill, being the scene of the gold rush and also a sea port town. But dreams of success were soon to be crushed. While Canning spent every cent he owned in opium dens and on prostitutes Victoria was left with little choice but to support her family, working as a cigar girl in a bar, as an actress, and probably a whore.
Returning at last to Ohio, rather than joining Buck’s latest venture (running a dubious hospital from which he advertised himself as ‘America’s King of Cancers), along with her sister, Tennessee, Victoria worked as a spiritual healer – though many have come to suspect that the sisters also provided a somewhat more physical sustenance. 

Colonel James Harvey Blood 

While in such trade Victoria met Colonel James Harvey Blood; a glamorous civil war hero who shared her belief in ‘other realms’ and who also supported her ‘destiny’ as a future ruler of America.  Leaving his respectable life behind, as well as his wife and daughters, he joined Victoria and Tennessee when they set out to make their mark in New York – another city of gold and ships.

At first, times were very hard and the sisters' spiritualist business was bolstered by the selling of contraceptive devices to the prostitutes. Meanwhile, Blood was often absent, spending time with his brother’s newspaper business and learning the tricks of that trade – publishing pamphlets and magazines deemed to be a vital means of spreading the word of Victoria’s aims when she set her cap at the presidency.

Cornelius Vandervilt

Before that, the bad penny Buck Claflin turned up. Having heard that the widowed Cornelius Vanderbilt – then the richest man in America – was seeking the services of mediums, he contrived a means of introducing his daughters to the gentleman. Matters rapidly progressed. Victoria became Vanderbilt’s personal  medium with ’the ‘spirits’ offering financial tips which, in reality, were gleaned from gossiping bankers in brothels. Tennessee became Vanderbilt’s mistress – a natural progression of events after performing her ‘magnetic healing’ and curing the 'old goat's' niggling complaints.

A contemporary newspaper cartoon of Victoria and Tennie as Wall Street traders

Generously rewarded, the sisters caused a public sensation by going on to set themselves up as Wall Street’s very first female brokers - an enterprise that brought further wealth. With the aid of Colonel Blood, they then founded a spiritualist newspaper and Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly became their political voice – a voice that reached a great many ears, for the religion of Spiritualism was at that time one with a massive following, and it also offered a platform from which women could express their views. 
Victoria Woodhull addressing the House Judiciary Committee

Holding spectacular salons, Victoria was soon courted by the Women’s Movement who supported her bid for the presidency. She lectured to enormous crowds and under the popular banner of universal suffrage and equal rights, Victoria travelled to Washington where she was to petition the House at a Judiciary Committee in 1871.

But the plans began to fall apart. With Buck’s criminal antics raked up by the press along with stories of her dubious past, ‘The Woodhull’ was soon being demonised as no less than ‘Mrs Satan’. A crippling series of court cases followed which led to her being sued and imprisoned time and time again. Her outspoken thoughts regarding 'free love' caused even more offence when combined with an ill-advised liaison with the press man, Theodore Tilton.

Theodore Tilton

It was a complicated affair. Tilton's wife had been sexually involved with a popular married clergyman whose name was Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher in return had sworn to offer Victoria's campaign support before having second thoughts. Victoria then sought revenge by exposing Beecher's adultery, only to find herself immersed in the ‘Trial of the Century’.  Beecher was to emerge unscathed, but the Tiltons were socially disgraced, and Victoria had been portrayed as a promiscuous pornographer. Her life and ambitions were ruined – politically, personally and financially.

It was Vanderbilt who brought some salvation. When the old man died his heirs were keen to hush up the millionaire's immoral past. Victoria and Tennessee were given a generous settlement and with this they travelled to England, settling in London - another city of gold and ships in which they reinvented themselves. Leaving their lovers and scandals behind - along with all dreams of the presidency - they still attained some degree of success. 

Victoria and John Biddulph Martin - happy and 'respectable' at last

Tenessee married a viscount and was afterwards known as Lady Cook. Victoria married John Biddulph Martin, a bachelor merchant banker and a man of considerable personal wealth. When widowed she was heartbroken, withdrawing to the Martin's country estate. 

But she certainly didn't give up on life! She became a passionate motorist, and founded an agricultural college dedicated to training women. She also funded a village school, and a famous country club – at which Edward, the Prince of Wales was said to be a visitor.

The VV wonders how Victoria felt when, at the age of eighty, universal suffrage was finally won – when the 'modern' world had all but forgotten the woman who once caused a national sensation and was known as the wife of the devil. All but in exile when she died, she asked for no more than to be remembered with the following brief words:
‘You cannot understand a man’s work by what he has accomplished, but by what he has overcome in accomplishing it.’
In her own way, and by her own means, Victoria Woodhull achieved a great deal. She was one of those brave Victorians who lived in a time when a woman was seen as no more than a man's possession. She paved the way for equality – though who knows when her ultimate hope will come true, when a woman will stand in the White House as President of America.

The VV has hardly scratched the surface of Victoria Woodhull's amazing life. Should any readers wish to investigate further there is a wealth of information on the web. As far as books are concerned, Other Powers by Barabara Goldsmith is an excellent resource which gives a full and well-researched view of  relevant historical events at the time. Mary Gabriel's Notorious Victoria is another fine investigation. And, for younger historians, Kathleen Krull's A Woman for President is a good starting point which has the added bonus of being brought to vibrant life by Jane Dyer's watercolour illustrations. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015


Salt prints are the earliest photographs that still exist today, having first been presented in Britain in 1839. The technology very soon moved on, but where the salt prints are concerned the photographs are ‘captured’ via paper coated in silver salts which is then made sensitive to light.

Study of China, 1844. By Henry Fox Talbot

Henry Fox Talbot first had the idea of ‘drawing’ a picture in such a way while sketching on his honeymoon. On returning home to Lacock Abbey, he soon set about experimenting and the negative images he made were then exposed onto other sheets, using direct sunlight to create a positive image. 

Abbey Ruins by John Wheeley Gough Gutch, circa 1858

The results were almost like paintings with a soft interplay between light and shade creating such stunning photographs that then inspired many more to make light pictures of their  own. And, when seen in reality, rather than here on the blog, the pictures are incredibly fine in detail, tone and contrast.

Jean-Baptiste Frenet. Horse and Groom. 1855

Variations on such a portable method of recording people, buildings, and art, soon spread through Europe and beyond. This was also the age of steam, with ships and trains enabling explorers and artists to move around more easily than they could before.

La Porte Rouge, Notre Dame by Louis Desire Blanquart-Evrard. 1851

Eventually the process was modified and developed by the Frenchman, Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evrard, who first found a way producing prints in mass quantities for a public trade. And then, a few years later, he went on to invent an entirely new process; with the albumen method of making prints soon replacing the salt and silver one. 

So, only for a short span of time was the salt print method popular. And from now, until this coming June, you can view some of the finest examples which are currently being exhibited in the galleries of Tate Britain.

For related posts on photography, please see — 

Sunday, 11 January 2015


Albumen print by Francis Bedford which shows The Sphinx, the Great Pyramid and two lesser pyramids, Ghizeh, Egypt. March 1862. 

Recently the VV attended the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace in London. There she viewed a collection of  photographs taken by Francis Bedford - which provide a fascinating record of the very first tour of the Middle East to be made by member of the British royal family.

The tour - which occurred just a few months after the death of Prince Albert - had been very carefully planned to keep his son, the Prince of Wales out of any scandal's way when he'd left university, but still had some free time on his hands before the planned date of his marriage to Alexandra of Denmark. 

But it was also considered as being politically important for Bertie - who would one day become King Edward - to understand an area that was in such close proximity to the Empire's Indian territories. 

The Prince of Wales with Prince Louis of Hesse (engaged to the Prince's sister, Princess Alice) taken in Europe in February 1862 when the Prince was travelling to Venice to join the Royal Yacht.

Those lands were fast becoming areas of fascination for historians, explorers, pilgrims and tourists - much helped by the fact that travelling times had by then been vastly reduced by steamships to Alexandria.

The Prince of Wales' own four month tour covered Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. During that time he met rulers, politicians and other notable figures - even Abd al-Qadir, the exiled Algerian freedom fighter who was said to have protected a group of Christians in his home. 

Hasbeiya - Scene of the Massacre.
Albumen print, April 1862

During this adventure the Prince travelled with 'eight gentleman as private a manner as possible'. The party set off from London on February 6, 1862, travelling by train to Venice and from there on the Royal Yacht, Osborne. From Alexandria they then spent most of the journey on horseback, camping out at night in tents - unusual experiences which the Prince then wrote about in his own account. But as he would have been aware that these diaries would eventually be read by his mother in England, the VV is sure that some of the prince's more intimate experiences may very well have been left out. Even so, some risqué incidents were alluded to in a post previously published on this site.

The Street called Straight - Damascus, April 1862

If you are interested in this exhibition it runs until February 22, 2015. It really is well worth a visit to see the stunning images - though as Bedford's brief was to focus on the sacred and historic landscapes, only three of the surviving 191 photographs actually show the young Prince and his travelling companions. 

However the exhibition does show many archeological objects that the Prince collected on his tour - including an Egyptian funerary papyrus which relates 'what is in the netherworld', and several ancient scarabs, some of the which the Prince then had set into Egyptian-style jewellery, which he presented as a gift to the woman who was to become his wife.

For the VV's own visit to the Queen's Gallery she was accompanied by her friend, the author Wendy Wallace, whose own historical novel which is called The Sacred River is set around the journey made by three Victorian women who travel from England to Egypt. During Wendy's research she and her son also travelled there, creating this atmospheric film -

Tuesday, 30 December 2014


The VV's latest Victorian novel, The Goddess and the Thief, is a Gothic Oriental: a story in which Queen Victoria plays a small but significant role, during which she consults with mediums while hoping to make some contact with the soul of the man whose Christmas death would haunt her life forever more – when Prince Albert died on December 14th in the year of 1861.


The novel is a fiction, but some scenes are based on truths. The Queen’s Prime Minister, Gladstone, was himself a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research. Many eminent men of the time were convinced that, just as science had found a way to harness electricity, other invisible energies might soon be discovered and utilised - even the existence of a parallel spirit world.

Before Prince Albert’s sudden end the royal family would spend their Christmases at Windsor, with candles lit on the festive trees that Albert himself made fashionable, when he brought that tradition from Germany. But, following his passing the Queen preferred to spend her future Christmases at Osborne House.

It was there, on the Isle of Wight, that the couple enjoyed many happy times. It was also there, while Albert lived, that they met with spiritualist mediums. One of those psychics impressed the Queen so much that she received the gift of a golden watch, upon the back of which had been engraved the words: “Presented by Her Majesty to Miss Georgiana Eagle for her Meritorious and Extraordinary Clairvoyance Produced at Osborn House, Isle of Wight, July 17, 1846.” 

Perhaps Miss Georgina Eagle was also there when a table began to levitate and Albert was so horrified that he ordered the object be destroyed, and then demanded that they never dabble in such things again. But, he was also recorded as having told his wife: "We don't know in what state we shall meet again, but that we shall recognize each other and be together in eternity I am perfectly certain."

The Queen couldn’t wait for Eternity, though we’ll probably never know for sure how many spirit mediums were smuggled into her private rooms following her husband’s death, or whether his ghost was ever raised around the time of his Christmas death – as it seems he may have been in the plot of The Goddess and the Thief. However, there are verified accounts of meetings with a Mr Robert Lees – the first when Lees was just 13, when he wrote a letter to the Queen with reference to intimate details that no-one but she could have ever known. Victoria later invited him to join the royal household as resident spirit medium. However Lees was to decline, suggesting that another man would be better suited to fill that role.

That man was John Brown, the low-born Scottish gamekeeper who became Victoria’s confidante. He was also the spirit medium through which her husband often ‘spoke’ – so often that in later years the Queen expressed a strong desire to publish the diaries in which she wrote accounts of all those séances. However, her advisors were appalled at such a notion, no doubt relieved when, after her death, her diaries were heavily edited when re-transcribed by Princess Beatrice, her literary executor.

And as to the diaries of John Brown – every word was destroyed upon his death. What secrets might those words reveal if only we could read them now?

Tuesday, 23 December 2014


Star of Bethlehem by Sir Edward Burne-Jones
Exhibited at The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The Christmas carol, Brightest and Best is featured in the VV's novel, The Goddess and the Thief. And now, it has a beautiful new arrangement, composed by Kirsten Morrison, and sung by Kirsten and Peter Shipman in the link attached below - just as they performed it at the book's launch party in Windsor.

It really is exquisite. The VV hopes you enjoy it, and wishes you the very brightest and best of Christmas days.

Thursday, 18 December 2014


What could be more festive than a Christmas white with snow and ice? What could be more magical than the photographs of snow flakes which were made in the nineteenth century by Wilson Alwyn Bentley?

Born in 1865, 'Snowflake Bentley' was raised on the family farm in Jericho, in the American state of Vermont where the annual snowfall was about 120 inches. From childhood he was fascinated by nature and when, at fifteen, his mother gave him a microscope, he was said to be captivated by the close-up views of snow crystals which he placed upon a black velvet base to see them as clearly as possible. But to try and preserve the sights he saw – with the ice flakes often melting before he could manage to draw their designs – he set his mind to finding a way to attach a camera to the microscope lens (this is called Photomicography, of which Bentley was a pioneer), from then on beginning to compile the body of work which is still today considered as remarkable – combining science with nature and art.

Bentley proved that every snowflake is something quite unique. He poetically describing them as "ice flowers" or “tiny miracles of beauty.” He captured over 5,000 of these ephemeral works of art during the course of his life–time, by the end of which his work was sought by the Harvard Mineralogical Museum and the University of Vermont. Today his photographs are held by academic institutions all over the world. The Smithsonian (to whom he sent 500 prints in 1903 to ensure that they were preserved for the sake of posterity), now keeps that comprehensive record in their institution archives.

His obsession with water in various forms also led him measure raindrops and to photograph forms of frost and dew

The VV finds it sadly ironic that he died after contracting pneumonia, when he’d walked for six miles through a blizzard of snow to try and find his way back home.

Before Bentley died a book of his snowflake prints was published by McGraw Hill. The book, in various forms, is still available today.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


Winking Santa by Essie Fox

The VV has found her old box of watercolour paints and created this greetings card of Santa Claus to say thank you and to wish a very Happy Christmas to each and every one of you who follow The Virtual Victorian blog.

While painting she started to ponder on how odd it is that, before Queen Victoria came to throne in 1837 there were no commercial Christmas cards – that tradition only beginning in 1843, after the introduction of the Penny Post, when Sir Henry Cole had the bright idea of printing up thousands of images and selling them in his London shop, priced at just one shilling each. 

What an industry that enterprise began!

The design for Sir Henry Cole's commercial Christmas card

But, as far as jolly santas go, very few people in England then would even so much as know his name. And yet, by 1870 most every child would have been aware of the magical sleigh drawn by reindeer, and a stocking full of precious gifts - if only an orange to signify a gift from Father Christmas.

The names Santa Claus, and Father Christmas have become somewhat interchangeable. But their origins are quite different.

Father Christmas, on whom Charles Dickens based his Christmas Present was derived from an old English festival when Sir Christmas, or Old Father Christmas, or Old Winter, was depicted as wearing green; a sign of fertility and the coming spring – which is why many homes were decorated with mistletoe, holly and ivy. He did not bring gifts or climb down the chimneys, but wandered instead from home to home feasting with the families and bringing good cheer to one and all - as described in the mediaeval carol printed below this illustration...

Illustration by John Leech from Dickens' A Christmas Carol

Goday, goday, my lord Sire Christemas, goday!
Goday, Sire Christemas, our king,
For ev’ry man, both old and ying,
Is glad and blithe of your coming;

Imagine the goblets being raised with the cheering rendition of 'Goday!

The image of Christmas Present which we are more familiar with today – Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas – arrived in America in the seventeenth century when Dutch settlers imported their own Sinter Klass. And it was there in 1822 that Clement Clare Moore wrote a poem to delight his little children, which still has an enduring influence -

He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his sack.
His eyes how they twinkled! His dimpled how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up in a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed like a bowl fully of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, - a right jolly old elf –
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.

A Visit from Saint Nicholas (now more popularly known as The Night Before Christmas) described the old man’s appearance – the very image that every child has come to know and love today. It is so beautifully shown in this woodblock print designed by the artist Thomas Nast, who based the illustrations on his childhood in Germany.

 Santa and his works by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly Magazine in 1866

Merry Christmas! Ho Ho Ho!