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!

Sunday, 14 December 2014


The royal Christmas tree at Windsor Castle

Queen Charlotte (the consort of King George III) had first introduced the tradition of decorating a  pine tree in the royal rooms at Christmas time. But it was Prince Albert who really encouraged and popularised the festive event; that habit soon adopted in every English parlour.

However, at Windsor Castle, on December 14th 1861 when the tree would have normally glittered and shone with hundreds of tiny candles, all such joyous plans were discarded and every decorative light was doused ~ because of Albert's sudden death at the age of only 42.

Victoria and Albert enjoying Christmas with their children

Following Prince Albert's death Victoria still celebrated Christmas day, but she hated to spend it in Windsor, the place of her husband's death. Instead, she travelled to the Isle of Wight and the Italianate palace of Osborne House where the family had previously spent happy times together.

The royal family in happier times

However, after 1861, Victoria no longer shared this time with her eldest son, the Prince of Wale who preferred to go to Sandringham, claiming that he found Osborne House to be 'utterly unattractive'.

Bertie, (Edward) the Prince of Wale, and his father, Prince Albert, on the right.

Perhaps an element of guilt influenced the young man's decision, for shortly before his father's death there had been a notorious scandal involving the future king and an actress by the name of Nellie Clifton. All of the press publicity had caused his father enormous distress. Albert wrote several letters to Bertie and then, in appalling weather, set off to Cambridge to meet his son, to implore him to change his decadent ways.

 Prince Albert's deathbed at  Windsor

The stress of that situation, combined with pre-existing poor health (and some say the state of the Windsor drains) led to a fatal illness. Diagnosed as suffering from Typhoid fever, Albert came home from seeing his son and died in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria never recovered from the shock of Albert's loss. She entirely blamed the Prince of Wales, as illustrated by this line which is taken from a letter written to one of her daughters: "That boy...I never can, or ever shall look at him without a shudder."

In the VV's new novel, The Goddess and the Thief, Victoria's grief is dramatised - as is her ensuing interest in the hiring of spirit mediums. She continued to try and contact her husband from where he dwelled on 'the other side' throughout her remaining widow years. As time went on she relied more and more upon her closest friend, John Brown - the game keeper who also claimed to be a spirit medium. There were said to be many rumours of private seances being held, and that these were described by the Queen herself - a notoriously regular diarist. But these records were destroyed at the time of Victoria's own death; viewed by her advisers and family members as being an embarrassment.

What a shame that is!

Thursday, 4 December 2014


From the V&A Archives

The VV really loves this engraving. It reminds her of the time when she wrote The Somnambulist, her first Victorian novel which opened up with a theatre scene from a Christmas show at Wilton's Hall. But then a trip to a pantomime was such a traditional thing to do in the Victorian era: a mixture of story and music, with  rhyming couplets, double entendres, and lashings of topical wit.

From the V&A Archives

However, the name 'pantomime' derives from Ancient Greece, when an actor or 'pantomimus' told stories by means of mime or dance, and that act was often accompanied by music and a chorus line.

In the middle ages, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte (from whom we also owe thanks for the creation of Punchinello or Mr Punch) was a type of entertainment where travelling troupes performed dramatisations in marketplaces or fairgrounds. They improvised their story lines around the character Harlequin, who wore a diamond-patterned costume and carried a magic wand. Later, this part was famously played by Grimaldi the clown who died in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne.

Joseph Grimaldi as Harlequin

As Victoria’s reign progressed the stories told by Harlequin became entwined with the antics of rural English Mummers. Eventually those events evolving into very much grander productions – although many pantomimes back then were still then based around Harlequin's character. 

From the V&A Archives

The proof of this is illustrated in elaborate titles for the shows, such as Harlequin and the Forty Thieves, or  Jack and the Beanstalk; or, Harlequin Leap-Year, and the Merry Pranks of the Good Little People (surely some dwarves had been employed). In 1863 W S Gilbert wrote Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren; or, Fortunatus and the Waters of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man who Wooed a Little Maid - though that particular production may have been somewhat ambitious in its scope and its complexity. Years later Gilbert was heard to confess that perhaps it was not the best title to use.

Augustus Harris

For whatever the reason, as years went by the Harlequin character was used much less. Productions such as those put on by the manager Augustus Harris at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane were based on traditional fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Cinderella. These were extravagant stagings featuring ballets, acrobatics and grand processions of specially recruited children. There were magicians  and slapstick, cross dressing and innuendo. There was audience participation in the vein of the still familiar refrains of  'Oh no, he isn’t…Oh yes, he is'. 

From the V&A Archives

There were also the popular ‘skins’, when actors would dress in animal garb - quite scarily as insects in the version of Cinderella (above), or more often, and more comically, to play the back or the front end of a pantomime horse or cow – a role once undertaken at the Stockport Hippodrome by an aspiring young actor by the name of Charlie Chaplin.

Back in 1881 Augustus' Harris’ production of The Forty Thieves began at 7.30pm and ended at 1am the next morning. One scene lasted for forty minutes while the thieves (each of whom had his own band of followers) processed across the stage. The pantomime cost £65,000 – the equivalent of several millions today. But then, with popular music hall acts such as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno employed to take the starring roles, Harris’ shows were always a success – artistically and financially. 

How the VV wishes that she could have been around to see one!

Monday, 24 November 2014


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (November 24 1864 - September 9 1901)

Today, November 24th, in the year of 1864, the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi, in France. He was to grow up and find his fame in the Post Impressionist period, inspired by all the Bohemian excesses of Paris in the 1890's. It was there he created his glamorous paintings - and in many of those creations he was to depict a dancer whose name was Jane Avril.

Jane Avril was a beautiful girl (though she was extremely thin, with pale skin and tresses of red gold hair) who had become quite infamous for performing the Cancan at the Jardin de Paris: a fashionable Parisian dance hall situated in the Champs-Elysees.

Lautrec had been employed to illustrate an advertisement for the hall, and the dancer who featured in his striking poster soon became very fond indeed of the diminutive artist - for whom congenital childhood illnesses resulted in legs which did not grow, with an adult height of around five foot.

The two friends came from very different backgrounds. Lautrec had been born into one of France's oldest noble families, and that family must have been disappointed when this talented young man's ambitions were not quite as lofty as they might have been - being so irresistibly drawn to night clubs such as the Moulin Rouge where he used his art to record the seedier side of Montmarte life; the area that was then a haunt of artists, writers and philosophers.

At the Moulin Rouge (1892-93)

There, amongst all the working girls, he was to meet Jane Avril. She was living in a Parisian brothel where it was said that she was the child of a famous courtesan, her absent father rumoured to have been a foreign aristocrat. She was originally named as Jeanne, but preferred to use Jane for her stage career - thinking it sounded English, and the epitome of 'chic'. Perhaps that renaming was also an attempt to forget an abusive past which resulted in her leaving home when she was only thirteen years old - very soon afterwards taken in by the Paris' Salpetriere psychiatric hospital.

While there, when attending a fancy-dress ball, Jane discovered her love of dance - the art form that would become her 'cure'. However, some nervous mannerisms exhibited during her illness (perhaps the condition St Vitus' Dance) were never quite lost when she performed, leading to some observers saying that she looked like a big jerky bird, or 'an orchid in a frenzy'. She was also known as 'La Melinite' (a form of explosive dynamite), and Jane La Folle (Crazy Jane).

Jane Avril (1891-92) - looking somewhat artistocratic

Lautrec saw Avril as more than a nickname, much more than another dancing girl. He viewed her as a complete being. Yes, she was the flame that shone in the darkness of his demimonde when he painted her in such glamorous poses. But he also presented her everyday - the somewhat more melancholic Jane. In those paintings she often seems to be somewhat older than her years, looking frail and tired, and nervous.

Jane Avril leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892)

Lautrec was prone to visit his muse at all hours of the day and night, often studying her features and mannerisms while taking her out to restaurants. In 1895, when she bore an illegitimate son, some suggested the child might be Lautrec's. But others think it doubtful that the friends were ever lovers. Lautrec had many insecurities, acutely aware of his physical defects. He took more and more to drinking (being particularly fond of cocktails with Absinthe and Cognac) and was also infected with Syphilis. He was only 31 years old.

It seemed that Jane was luckier, for a little while at least. At the age of 42 she met and married the German artist, Biais. The couple duly set up home in the Parisian outskirts. But her husband soon began to stray and when he died in 1926 she was left to live in poverty, eventually dying in an old people's home when she was seventy-five years old.

But her youth will always be preserved in the portraits created by Lautrec, along with his other visions of the French late nineteenth century nightlife. His brave and original style is filled with suh colour and vibrant life which still continues to lure us now - as does the life of Jane Avril, more recently reinterpreted when, in 2001, Nicole Kidman played the part of the dancer in the film Moulin Rouge.

Signature of Toulouse-Lautrec