Saturday, 9 May 2015

THIS VIRTUAL PUNCH AND JUDY SHOW...

Punch Kills Judy 
From Gutenberg ebooks - author and illustrator unknown.


As another UK Election ends, during which political parties have all indulged in varying degrees of wit and repartee, the VV is reminded of a different Punch and Judy show: the popular fairground attraction which dates back to the sixteenth century and the Italian ‘commedia dell’arte’ - from which Pucinella, the Lord of Misrule, was later anglicised as Punch.



During the nineteenth century Punch and Judy shows were very popular, adapted for the entertainment of children rather than adults. At the seaside, in towns, and at country fairs, even in private houses, there was often a Mr Punch to be found. Set in a colourful mobile tent, the puppet was seen to be bobbing about, squawking in his distinctive, cackling voice (created by the use of a ‘swazzle’ or ‘squeaker’ through which the puppeteer’s voice was distorted).


A cast iron doorstop based on the image of Punch



Visually, Punch was instantly recognisable. A hunch-backed jester with enormous hooked nose and jutting chin, he wielded an oversized battering stick and created a state of anarchy as he murdered his baby for crying, before also beating his wife, Judy, to death. The dictator continued to mete out abuse on whoever happened to cross his path. Even the strict code of Victorian morality was thrown to the wind in the face of the tyrant who consistently avoided justice - either by tricking the hangman to place the noose around his own neck, or evading death with the devil himself. However, Victorian ‘Punchmen’ or ‘Professors’ sometimes removed the devil character, expanding the original story and cast by introducing the ghost of Punch's wife, and also black servant called Beadle. There might be a clown and policeman, a crocodile, and a string of sausages. There might even be Toby the dog, sometimes a living animal, trained to sit upon the stage, either biting or shaking hands with Punch, and sometimes even smoking a pipe.


From Gutenberg ebooks - author and illustrator unknown

For the politically correct, the visually grotesque Punch and Judy shows were often viewed as a bad influence; a means of inciting aggressive behaviour; creating the same sort of moral dilemma as today’s use of violent computer games. In his own contribution to the debate Charles Dickens was to write:
In my opinion the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.
Today, if you happen to witness a Punch and Judy show, remember that you are experiencing a flavour of Victorian life, for the dramatic presentation has altered very little since - and for many years before as well with the very first Punch and Judy show presented on an English stage on this  day in 1662.


‘That’s the way to do it.’


Punch and the baby - from Gutenberg ebooks


For further information, or to book a show, you might like to view the official site of the modern day Punch and Judy college of Professors.

Friday, 1 May 2015

THE TRUE VALUE OF THE PENNY BLACK



Today, when we can send and receive a text message or email in seconds, it's hard to imagine the impact on social communication that was brought about by the manufacture of one little black penny stamp, which, when affixed to an envelope ensured a postal delivery to any part of British Isles.

Before 1840 any mail services were costly – except for subscriptions to newspapers which were then delivered free of charge. But as far as letters went, postal charges were calculated by the number of sheets that were written on, and then the distance travelled to reach their destinations - at which point the recipient would pay.

This is why many historical letters were written with vertical and horizontal lines which crossed each other on the page.




As early as 1822, James Chalmers, a bookseller and printer from Dundee, suggested the introduction of pre-paid postage stamps, along with a standard letter size. But not until 1837 did Robert Wallace (MP for Greenock) propose the use of an envelope onto which a stamp could be attached - before which the papers would simply be folded and sealed with ribbons, strings, or wax.


Parliament passed the Penny Postage Bill in the August of 1839, advocating the basic postal rate to be priced at one penny, with the Twopence Blue produced for the delivery of larger items. 

Roland Hill of the Treasury announced a competition for envelope and stamp designs, but when no submissions were considered as being suitable to use he chose an envelope designed by William Mulready (which proved to be not at all popular) and a stamp illustration of the Queen's profile based on an engraving by the artist Henry Corbould. 


Mulready's envelope design





Printed by Perkins, Bacon and Petch (the original press is shown above), the stamps featured the word POSTAGE at the top, and ONE PENNY at the bottom. At the top right and left were star like designs. At the base were two letters that indicated the position of the stamp when printed in a sheet of 240 others. And, until 1854, when sheets were perforated, the postmaster or mistress would have to cut each individual stamp they sold by using a pair of scissors.


Penny Black printing die



The first Penny Blacks were available on May 1, 1840, but they were only valid to use from the official launch date of May 6. The design is now iconic, but it was only produced for one year because the red cancellation ink was hard to see and too easily removed, meaning that the stamps could be reused. This led to the Treasury’s decision to reverse the colours, printing new postage stamps in red with the cancellation frank in black.




With 68,808,000 Penny Blacks having been produced in that one year alone and many still surviving, they are not that rare a commodity. But, for the VV their true value lies in the fact that so many stamps were bought, and so many Victorians took up what has now become a dwindling art – that of letter writing.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

JOHN SINGER SARGENT ~ PORTRAITS OF ARTISTS AND FRIENDS

Douard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, John Singer Sargent, 1881

As it is with the world of fashion, the popularity of certain styles of art will art wax and wane along with the times. Sometimes, appreciation comes only after the artist's death, as in the case of Vincent Van Gogh.




By comparison, John Singer Sargent’s art was wildly popular while he lived. The son of American parents who travelled all over in Europe and never went home again, Sargent first trained as an artist in France where he painted the scandalous Madame X – after which he left Paris to settle in London, gaining admiration, wealth and success for his elegant society portraits. 

But after his death in 1925 the value of his work plummeted, being viewed as old fashioned and frivolous,  very much of a certain age and time. The influential critic, Roger Fry, even went so far as to say that Sargent's work was completely irrelevant to 20th century Modernism.

Perhaps he was thinking of the style of work shown in The Fountain below, which is somewhat indicative of the privileged nature of the rich in the so-called Edwardian summer, which was all too soon to merge into the horrific realities of war.


The Fountain, John Singer Sargent, 1907


So, by the 1960’s when Richard Ormond (Sargent’s sister’s grandson) began to collate and exhibit some of Sargent's artworks, his friends assumed that he was mad - until now when the National Portrait Gallery are hosting a major exhibition – after which the collection will move on to the Metropolitan in New York.


Portrait of R L Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, with the writer's wife sitting on the sofa to the right of the frame


Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery says that: “Extraordinary and rare loans are coming together for the first time to demonstrate Sargent’s talent in a new way.” In essence, this  exhibition will expose the looser intimacy to be found in the work concentrating on Sargent's family and friends, as well as fellow Americans abroad. There will be fascinating personal depictions of fellow artists, actors and writers – though R L Stevenson was said to have called one of his portraits ‘damn queer’, and the VV has no idea at all of what Ellen Terry might have made of the portrait in which she posed as if still playing the part of Lady Macbeth, when she wore her magnificent beetle gown.


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by John Singer Sargent


The VV adores them both - such striking, powerful images. She was mesmerised by this exhibition which opened at The National Portrait Gallery on February 12, and which ends on 25 May 2015.

Hurry, hurry, hurry... and you'll be able to see such gorgeous vivid pictures as this, with faces that - at any moment - might turn to look you in the eye, or speak to you, or even sing. The portraits really are 'alive'.



Lily, Lily, Rose ~ 1885-6



Le Verre de Porto (A Dinner Table at Night) 1884



Carolus Duran ~ Sargent's tutor in Paris



Dr Prozzi - A Parisian and doctor and seducer of women
A somewhat satanic image!



Mrs George Batten Singing 1895



Golden Girl  ~ The Spanish dancer La Carmencita. 1890




You might also like to see the NPG's Timeline of Sargent's life.

And there is also this 'Connections Map' to show the circles of friends and artists with whom Sargent was well acquainted.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

A GLORIOUS GOWN OF BEETLE WINGS...




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

THE FIRST WOMAN TO STAND FOR THE PRESIDENCY...

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

ON SALT AND SILVER PHOTOGRAPHY ...



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

FROM CAIRO TO CONSTANTINOPLE ~ THE PRINCE OF WALES ON TOUR IN 1862 ...

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 only...in 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 -