Thursday, 30 October 2014


For many of us today, Halloween is a commercial tradition made popular in America, where pumpkin-head lanterns in front of doors lure children to come and Trick-or-Treat while dressed as skeletons, witches, or ghosts – and sometimes even Dracula.

But the supernatural or ‘Undead’ do have historical relevance to the origins of Halloween. Once known as Samain or ‘Sow in’, this ancient Celtic festival signified the beginning of the New Year when the harvest had been gathered in and the dread dark winter lay ahead. On its eve, October 31st, the divisions between the living and dead were said to draw back like a curtain, allowing supernatural folk and the souls of the dead to re-enter the world. Bonfires and fancy dress parades might drive the risen dead away. If not, they were placated with food, left in bowls outside locked doors.

The advent of Christianity then appropriated those customs, with ‘All- Hallowmas’ or ‘All Saint’s Day’ revering saints and martyrs instead of ghouls. And yet, as so often when cultures merge, remnants of both traditions remained. The gifts of food became ‘soul cakes’ left out for the homeless and hungry, in return for which they prayed for the dead. (Would our Trick-or-Treaters agree to that?)

Many other old superstitions persisted. American Irish émigrés replaced the carving of turnip heads with pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns – Jack being the folklore rogue who offended both the Devil and God, thereafter excluded from Heaven and Hell and walking the earth till Judgment Day. 

Other Celtic customs were described in Rabbie Burns’ poem, Halloween – in which fairies dance on a moonlit night while youths go out to the countryside, singing songs, telling spooky tales and jokes, or partaking in fortune-telling games; such as eating apples while looking in mirrors and that way creating a magic spell to reveal the face of a future love.

Whether Queen Victoria ever peered into such a mirror, she certainly entered the spirit of things when joining the annual fire-lit procession that took place at Balmoral castle. However, back in England, the rise of the Protestant Church meant that Halloween rituals had fallen away – perhaps explaining Charles Dickens’ shock when he travelled to America and witnessed the general festivities there. But what really piqued his interest, rather than the parties and popular games (such a Pin the Tail on the Donkey, or Blind Man’s Buff, or Bobbing for Apples – when the winner would be the next to wed) was the morbid fascination with ghosts.

It is surely no coincidence that after returning to England he wrote A Christmas Carol, in which spirits and future predictions abound. Other established authors went on to peel back age-old layers of myth to reimagine ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ – the genre soon very popular in poetry, art and literature; with tales of children stolen by fairies, or mirrors exposing some ghastly event, or women who wailed by misty graves – and all rendered yet more sinister when read by flickering candlelight to provide an eerie atmosphere.

The Victorians reveled in frightening tales. More than that, they embraced the culture of death, many visiting spiritualist mediums, or commissioning spirit photographers; the living duped into the belief that crudely exposed double negatives had captured some vision of their dead: all those veiled apparitions that lingered in shadows, and no longer just at Halloween. The image above is somewhat tongue in cheek, although others were taken more seriously - and the night of October 31st still holds a particular allure. Whether linked to innocent children’s games, or the horror films we view on screens there is nothing quite like a Halloween thrill.

The text of this article was first published in The Independent newspaper.

Sunday, 19 October 2014


Emma Cecilia Thursby (1845-1931) was an American opera singer who began her musical career by playing the piano for Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Brethren Church services. However, her talents were to spread to more secular entertainments too, soon sharing a platform with luminaries such as the famed author, Mark Twain ... who read poems on stage while Emma sang. 

Emma often held popular salons and her musical act saw her travel to Europe – and also to meet with a Hindu monk whose teachings she started to follow. But, perhaps the most interesting thing about this woman’s history – for the VV, anyway – is the story of her beloved pet and travelling companion: a Mynah bird.

Even though the bird died in 1899 it remained in this world in a stuffed form, lovingly cherished when Emma died by the singer's sister, Ina. And it was Ina who was interviewed for this 1937 newspaper report in the Journal of the New York Bureau, which described the bird as -

"...kept on a perch festooned with moss beneath a glass bell in Miss Thursby’s parlour. Each morning her Japanese servant carefully dusts it off. When friends come to visit, Miss Thursby will talk for hours about its exploits. All her friends have heard all the stories many times, but they llike to hear her talk about the bird. Sometimes she lifts the glass bell and strokes the dead bird’s feathers.”

And what stories did she tell? Well perhaps she started off by relating how the bird had been given to her sister by Kaiser Wilhelm I; an enthusiastic admirer. He told how the bird had arrived at his court when brought there by the Chinese ambassador, who himself had found it in India.

So, a well travelled bird, but could that explain the fact that it spoke five languages and imitated perfectly a great many musical instruments, including the banjo? It was also a connesseur of wine – though port was the most favoured tipple – hopping about on the table top and dipping its beak into glasses at dinner.

Mynah – as the bird was simply known - was thought to be about sixteen years old when dying after falling ill at the end of an exhausting day spent at an annual pet show...after which, Miss Ina Thursby recalled -

“The last words he ever said were ‘au revoir.’ Dr Frank H. Miller, who was at one time a member of the staff of the Royal college in Berlin was called in to officiate at his autopsy. He said the bird’s brain was highly developed, containing a great deal of gray matter. We had a taxidemrmist mount him, and as a memorial my sister planted a weeping willow tree in Gramercy park...Mynah was valued at $10,000,” continued Miss Thursby as she toyed with two little rings on the stuffed bird’s left foot. “He grew world weary in his last years, and seemed bored with nearly everyboy but children and golden haired women. He was candid and not particularly polite to strangers. Once he mocked Miss Farrar while she was singing a difficult song and she became angry. She almost threw a book at him, and for a time they were not on good terms.

“He spoke Malay, Chinese, German, English and French. He played the piano with one foot. I am certain he was able to understand us, and we were able to carry on coherent conversations. For example, I once told someone he was born in India. He interrupted and said, ‘I’m an African.’ He repeated it in German. He called my sister ‘Mamma.’ We never caged him except when travelling. At home he had the run of the house. He went with us on many tours. During the day at home he would fly down to the park and play with the children, coming home for meals like a human.”

And the bird was not only loved by its owners. Mynah made a great impact on others too, as shown by this other news report from the Cambridge Chronicle, which is dated 1889.

“But I want to tell something of Miss Tbursby's wonderful Mynah bird, belonging to the starling family, as I heard it from her own lips. It is a very rare creature, and is said to be the only kind of bird that talks intelligently. It is a bird that has bad "advantages" of education and travel, having been pretty much around the world with its former master, who presented it to Miss Thursby. It speaks Chinese, French, German and English, rather forcible English, too, sometimes. Mynah, as his mistress calls him, answers questions that are put to him in a way that is positively uncanny, and he has a wierd, unearthly way of moaning "quacky, quacky," to himself. Upon one occasion this seemed strangely apropos, as Mynah struck up his refrain just as two physicians entered the room, one of them being the celebrated advocate of some new, though highly reputable method of treating certain forms of sickness. Fortunately both gentlemen had the grace and the sense of humor to appreciate the joke, no less than the others who heard it. One very remarkable thing about Mynah is his truly human laugh, which is never heard unless there is something to laugh at, which is more than can be said of some humans. When a joke is made in his presence, he is frequently the first to start the applause of laughter...and he joins with the greatest delight in all hilarity of his human friends. Mynah Is very fond of holding long conversations with himself, assuming first a masculine, then a feminine voice, asking and answering questions, scolding and defending himself against his own attacks. One of his chief amusements is singing with Miss Thursby, whom he always calls Mamma. First she sings a phrase, and he imitates it. But if "Mamma" continues too long without allowing Mynah his opportunity, he becomes deeply offended, ruffles his feathers, and utters a series a harsh squawks, drowning the sweet voice which be probably appreciates only as a means of amusement to himself. Not only does Mynah talk intelligently, but he appears to understand what is said to him, as for instance, when he calls: "Mamma, I want to get out!" he is quieted and satisfied upon being assured that he will be let out presently. Out of the city it is safe to let the bird roam where be will, so sure is he to return to his cage at night. As soon as a little child approaches his cage, Mynah begins a string of high pitched baby talk. He imitates wonderfully various Indian instruments, making a certain wiry twang in his throat like nothing else in the world. Not long ago two ladies recently returned from China, were calling upon Miss Thursby, when one of them was very much startled by hearing what she declared was a Chinaman chanting the dirge used in their ceremonial for the burial of the dead. And thus a light was shed upon a hitherto unaccountable practice of this most remarkable bird.”

A remarkable bird indeed! And, what's more, he really could play the piano - not simply imitate the sound. There are quite reputable reports of Emma asking Mynah to play - including one by Joseph Francis Rinn, an American magician and friend of Houdini who often attempted to debunk the fraudulent claims of spiritualists. But Rinn himself had to admit that the bird had remarkable unexplained gifts, as if he had a human soul. He held lucid conversations with Mynah - in more than one language too. He  saw Mynah hop onto a piano and perfectly pick his way over the keys to play the tune of  'Home Sweet Home.'

NB - The bird shown in this post is not the actual Mynah. Sadly, the VV has been unable to find any image of this remarkable creature.

Friday, 17 October 2014


The VV was very touched when the Pre-Raphaelite Society's Poet in Residence, Sarah Doyle, wrote to say that she had been inspired to write the following haunting poem after reading the novel The Somnambulist, in which this painting by Millais is central to the story's plot...

John Everett Millais ~ A Somnambulist - 1871


In gauzy white, a wraith-like being: 
eyes, though open, all unseeing. 
Where shadows swallow up the light, 
she wanders through the lonely night, 
she wanders through the night.

On naked soles, she treads a route 
of jeopardy. Irresolute,
imprisoned in a dream, engrossed – 
a walking, breathing, living ghost, 
a walking, living ghost.

Impassive face and tumbling hair,
her consciousness suppressed, elsewhere; 
suspended on the precipice,
one halting step from the abyss,
one step from the abyss.

The darkling moon withdraws its gaze. 
The candle’s flame, just now ablaze, 
snuffs out, and leaves her quite alone, 
the cliff-top air as cold as stone,
the air as cold as stone.

A statuette, she stands stock-still, 
compelled to heed another’s will.
A puppet pulled by unseen strings,
a grounded moth, deprived of wings, 
a moth deprived of wings.

One mistimed footstep from the ledge. 
A stumbling toehold to the edge
of nothingness, and all is spent,
one swift and perilous descent,
one perilous descent.

What soul has not endured such fear? 
Who doesn’t, on occasion, hear, 
entwining with their stifled screams, 
the whispered lure of vivid dreams, 
the whispered lure of dreams?

Who hasn’t known the twisted sheet, 
the writhing visions, incomplete;
the drowning terror, ragged breath, 
the chill embrace of sleeping death, 
the chill of sleeping death?

Oh, precious one, Somnambulist, 
enshrouded in your drowsy mist:
give up this path your numb feet tread. 
Turn back, turn back, return to bed. 
Turn back, return to bed.

And as for those who wander, lost;
whose dreams are fractured, tempest-tossed: 
resist the night-time’s distant call
and hope you wake before you fall,
you wake before you –

© Sarah Doyle, June 2014

Sarah Doyle is Poet in Residence for the Pre-Raphaelite Society. You can find more of Sarah's poems on the society's website, as well as excellent articles and news relating to the Pre-Raphaelites in general. You can also find the society on Twitter as @PreRaphSoc, and Sarah as @PoetSarahDoyle.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Recently, the VV visited the Newman Bros. Coffin Works in Birmingham to speak on the Victorian cult of death, a somewhat fitting topic while she stood between rows of old sewing machines and tables piled high with tassels, lace, and the coloured threads and bolts of cloth that were once made into coffin shrouds. Here is an abridged version of that talk -

My knowledge of the trade of death is very much restricted to the limited research that I've done when writing my historical novels. So, you'll find some deaths and funerals, perhaps a graveyard scene or two, but those scenes are all imaginary. I almost shiver when thinking of the reality of such events and the pain of any last goodbye when, however clichéd it may sound, there is only one certainty in life – and that is the fact, literally expressed in the Latin Memento Mori – Remember You Must Die.

The Blue Room at Windsor Castle - kept as a shrine after Albert's Death

During the Victorian era it was very hard to forget. Mortality rates were high. There was no National Health Service. No inoculations to protect against fatal childhood diseases. No antibiotics to kill off infections. Death could strike at any time. Ruthless, swift, invisible, whatever your age or social class. And perhaps that might in some small way explain what many have described as the Victorian Cult of Death. And that cult had a great deal to do with the behaviour of Queen Victoria, when her husband died so very young, when the widow turned her suffering into something of an art form... with the man she had adored in life almost worshipped as a god in death.

In the Coffin works you can view all the fixtures and fittings that were used in coffin manufacture – such as name plates, handles, or metal figurines that would decorate the casket. But, those Victorians who continued to live, and grieve, also revelled in their own ‘fittings’ of mourning – the items worn or placed in homes to signify remembrance – all the things that could be purchased from enormous mourning emporiums – by visiting in person, by inviting the sellers into your home, or else by mail order, with adverts placed in newspapers and the pages of popular magazines. Should you want to read more in fiction about such enterprises, I recommend Michelle Lovric's The Mourning Emporium, or Diana Setterfield's Bellman & Black - and for a review of the latter you can read this guest post by Adele Geras.  

The discerning and fashionable widow might choose to order black edged stationery, a black fan or a black fringed parasol, some black embroidered handkerchiefs; even black satin ribbons to thread through the lace of her undergarments. 

And what fashions the emporiums stocked... though the strictest rules and traditions were applied to the colours permitted for those who dressed in mourning: the blacks, the greys, browns, purples and mauves made fashionable by the Widow of Windsor.

Jewellery was acceptable, but nothing too bright or colourful - which was why jet was so popular: a great boost for places like Whitby where the finest was said to be found, with necklaces, brooches, bracelets or rings very often being customised with a loved one’s name or initials, or even the numbers to signify the date or age when death occurred.

Such jewellery often had a compartment in which to keep a lock of hair, such as the strands which are seen in this locket. Or the hair might be woven into ‘lace’, creating elaborate mourning wreaths – but I’m not sure I’d like to own one myself! It does seem rather eerie... this ritual of remembrance by hair.

Today we remember with photographs...with videos, and voicemails too. But, in the Victorian era photography was very new. And even when professionals began to set up studios, a portrait was a luxury; an expense that many could ill afford – which is why some people were only ever photographed once in their entire lives – or I should say when life was gone, at the time when they were newly dead, thus creating a personal memory for a family to treasure in years to come.

In these Post Mortem photographs the corpses were often dressed and posed as if they were still living; sometimes with other family members. If you want to see some for yourself, you’ll find plenty through a Google search. But I warn you, they can be disturbing which is why I’ll only show you two. The first is a family’s beloved pet...

The second shows two children who are standing beside the bed in which their little sister lies, and where - due to the long exposure time – the living children look like ghosts, because they are blurred, because they moved whereas the dead girl is clear to see. But then, of course, she has not moved. I find that very poignant.

Such accidental blurring soon became a deliberate method used by all those charlatans who claimed to take pictures of the dead, who appeared as ghosts in photographs. 

It was double exposure. Nothing more. Still, it is astonishing, how many people were convinced. But then, people see what they want to see – they believe what they want to believe – particularly in times of grief. And the Victorians also lived in times of great scientific advancements, like the harnessing of electricity, or communication by telegraph, and for many it seemed inevitable that other invisible energies could also be harnessed, allowing man to penetrate the Veil of death and communicate with ‘the other side.’...with the energy of human souls.

Here we see Prince Albert, photographed on his deathbed: when the soul had clearly fled the flesh. But his wife often tried to call it back - as I describe in various scenes in my novel, The Goddess and the Thief - when she met with spirit mediums for séances held in candlelit rooms in Buckingham Palace and Windsor, and no doubt her other homes as well - though during Albert's lifetime when the couple once used a Ouija board while holidaying in Osborne, the table was said to levitate and move about so violently that Albert had the object burned and demanded his wife never again meddle in the spirit world. In that matter she did not remain the most obedient of wives.

This new belief in the spirit world – all a part of the cult of death – is thought to have first gained momentum in America, after the Civil War, when so many young men had lost their lives and survivors were desperate to contact them. But other external influences were also coming into play – with ideas taken from eastern faiths encountered through the Empire’s reach, when ancient myths and mysteries were to capture imaginations – and back home, in England, such tales went on to feature in popular novels like The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins’ which centred around the imaginary theft of the infamous Koh-i-noor diamond.

I’ve also woven the Koh-i-noor into The Goddess and the Thief - in the story of a young woman who is born and raised in India, who then comes to England to live with an aunt who works as a spiritualist medium and who lures her niece into her trade... and other darker mysteries surrounding the Victorian - and also an Indian - cult of death.

The paperback of The Goddess and the Thief will be published by Orion Books in November, 2014

Sunday, 5 October 2014


Richard Dadd – 1817 - 1886

The VV has long been fascinated by the work of Richard Dadd, a Victorian artist whose depictions of fairies – in whose existence he staunchly believed – were executed in the minutest detail.

The son of a Chatham pharmacist (and one of nine other children of whom at least three exhibited some form of mental instability), when the mild-mannered and cheerful Dadd entered the Royal Academy he was regarded as being one of his generation's most promising talents, going on to found ‘the Clique’ – a group of young artists of whom he was the undoubted and popular leader. 

Bacchanalian Scene 1862

But something happened to affect Dadd’s health when, in 1842, he left England and travelled abroad, employed as an expedition artist. He journeyed through Greece and Turkey, Syria, and Egypt - and it was on his arrival in Egypt, when immersed in the country's culture and landscape that Dadd came to believe himself possessed by the spirit of the god Osiris. 

Dadd's portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips

When brought back home to England, Dadd recuperated from his mental distress while staying with his family. But this period of convalescence only resulted in tragedy when Dadd suddenly murdered his father, convinced that he was the devil in disguise.

The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke (painted between 1855 and 1864) - thought to be Dadd's most accomplished work

Attempting to flee to the safety of France, Dadd was apprehended and then returned to England where a list of other intended victims was found upon his person. Also, several portraits that he'd made were discovered with violent streaks of red pigment slashed across their throats - inferring that he also planned to damage the subjects of the works. Considered to be a serious risk, Dadd was confined to Bethlem (the asylum also known as Bedlam) and there he remained until 1864 when he was moved to Broadmoor – a hospital for the criminally insane where the artist lived for many years until dying of consumption. 

During his years of confinement the talented artist was lucky enough to be under the care of kind and forward-thinking doctors who allowed their patient to continue producing his astonishing work.

Come unto these Yellow Sands

The VV's favourite painting by Dadd is  Come unto these Yellow Sands, inspired by Fairy Land iii, a poem by William Shakespeare - and this is also the title of a radio play by Angela Carter, in which she wrote about Dadd's life. The VV has only been able to source this very short extract from the play - but there is always the hope that Radio 4 might one day decide to repeat the play again. 

COME unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Court'sied when you have, and kiss'd,-
The wild waves whist,-
Foot it featly here and there:
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Bow, wow,
The watch-dogs bark:
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow!

If you wish to see paintings by Richard Dadd there are several on display at Tate Britain.

Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum by Nicholas Tromans is a book with a wealth of information and stunning reproductions of the artist's work. Tate Publishing in July 2011. 

There have also been exhibitions held at The Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham and the the gallery may still have information on any forthcoming events.

And this article by A S Byatt is well worth a read.

Friday, 3 October 2014


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 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, viewed as old fashioned and frivolous,  very much of a certain age and time. The influential critic, Roger Fry, 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 led on to the harsh reality and horrors of the First World 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 the artist’s work, his friends assumed that he was mad - until now when the National Portrait Gallery are to host a major exhibition in the spring of 2015 – 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 will certainly be hurrying to see this exhibition which will open at The National Portrait Gallery on February 12, and run until May 2015.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


1890. Britannia really did rule the waves, and much of the commerce of the globe. The Empire was at its height, with manufacturing and innovation never stronger at home, and the North as its industrial engine; those dark, Satanic mills consolidated fortunes for some. It’s Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and more, that great wealth provided so many of the great civic buildings. 

But no empire ever became great without exploitation. No just in the colonies, but also at home. The lust for profit and cutting costs was every bit as strong as it is today. In Leeds, the council had purchased the private gas companies, taking complete control of the utility. It was run by the Gas Committee, which conceived a novel way to reduce costs, as the price of gas had fallen: in essence, they’d lay off the workers for the summer, when demand was lower, and hire them back at lower wages. Interestingly, several councillors had interests in collieries that supplied (often inferior) coal to make gas. 

The workers were organised by the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain, set up a year before by Will Thorne and helped by Tom Maguire, who’d workers with unions in Leeds before and would become one of the seminal figures in the formation on the Independent Labour Party. 

The council’s Gas Committee decided to bring in ‘replacement workers’ (or blacklegs and scabs, if you were a union man) from Manchester and London. However, those responding to ads in the newspapers believed they were going to be in new facilities. To add insult to injury, before the strike began, the regular workers were ordered to clean out areas of the gasworks to provide living space for their replacements. They walked out. On Friday, June 27, men reporting for the night shift were turned away. The conflict had begun. 

In the end, it was all over in a few days. The first group of blacklegs was brought to the wrong railway station and forced to march through thousands of protesters to be put up overnight in the Town Hall. Their march to the gasworks the next day was plagued with violence by strikers and others, so bad that the cavalry was called out. Remarkably, no one was killed. 

However, once the blacklegs knew the truth, many of them abandoned their jobs. With hardly anyone to run the works, the supply of gas in Leeds was growing desperately low. The strikers showed no sign of giving in; in fact, the mayor read the Riot Act. More replacement workers were leaving their new jobs all the time. 

By Wednesday, July 2, arbitration was underway. The Gas Committee knew they’d lost, but they needed to salvage what face they could from the affair. Friday morning, it was all settled. A few minor concessions from the union, and agreement on payment and tickets home for the scabs, who’d been lured under false pretences. 

A strike, and the union had won. It was, perhaps, a sign of things to come, heralding the start of the Suffragists’ Union and many more unions fighting for the working man who sat at the bottom of Empire’s ladder, and the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. And, of course, there are echoes of the rapaciousness and greed of today’s economy, where workers are a disposable commodity; this is simply the Victorian version. 

It also makes a wonderful backdrop to a story. It’s an event that deserves to be more widely-known, and (self-promotion time) I’ve tried to do that in the crime novel Gods of Gold. In some small ways the times really were a-changin’.

Chris Nickson is a novelist and music journalist who was born and raised in Leeds, and moved back there after several decades away. His books include the Richard Nottingham series, set in Leeds in the 1730s, Emerald City and West Seattle Blues, both of which take place in the Seattle music scene of the 1980s/90s, and The Crooked Spire, a novel of Chesterfield in 1361. His newest book is Gods of Gold, the first in the Tom Harper series, and set against the backdrop of the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890.

Friday, 25 July 2014


The BFI has recently made a wealth of historical archival film available for the general public to view for free online. 

This is a wonderful reference for historians, historical novelists, and also simply for those who are interested to see how vivid and entertaining some of these films can be - and how they really do bring the past to life before our eyes.

In today's post the VV is featuring two films with lady cyclists from the end of the nineteenth century. Just look at that concentration! 

Please click onto the stills below to launch the BFI Iplayer.

For a related article, please see this post on the history of bicycling: DAISY DAISY GIVE ME YOUR ANSWER DO.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014



As acts of social rebellion in the nineteenth century went, a cross-class liaison was nothing usual. Some women like Catherine Walters, or ‘Skittles’ as she was known, made a career of it. Even marriage was not out of the question especially among the artistic set. William Morris married a stablehand’s daughter and Holman Hunt’s model Annie Miller married Lord Ranelagh’s cousin Captain Thomas Thomson. However, one love match was so unexpected, so romantic and scandalous that it became forever linked in contemporary imagination with the iconography and legend of King Cophetua and the Beggarmaid.

On Putney Heath (1852) Jane Nasmythe

In 1859, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was living at Ashburton Cottage, Putney Heath. One morning while walking, an Irish beggar woman, Mrs Ryan, accosted her, asking for help for herself and her 10 year old daughter, Mary. Moved by the woman’s pleas and Mary’s pretty face, Cameron applied to the local priest for details on the woman’s character. She was a hard-working, sober woman and so Cameron invited Mrs Ryan and little Mary into her home and gave the woman the option of a little cottage of her own. Mrs Ryan preferred to remain independent but allowed Mary to be taken in and almost adopted by the Camerons. When the Cameron family moved to Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, they took Mary with them, her mother preferring to stay in London.

Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight

When the poet Henry Taylor called at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater Bay in the Spring of 1861 he found the little Irish girl sitting in the school room with Cameron’s sons, taking lessons. Taylor had concerns: ‘What will become of her? If she is to be a servant, I am afraid there is no such thing as a good servant who is fond of reading. If she is to be a governess will she be any happier than governesses who have not been beggars?’ Taylor posed the question to Cameron who admitted that she had no idea what the consequence of her actions would be but had ‘more of hope than reason’ in her. Taylor noted that until she had worked out the status of the girl in the household he advised her to ‘guard herself against petting the beggar’. Certainly for Taylor, Mary could not lose her ‘beggar’ status despite becoming a member of the household, and he obviously feared that Cameron, with her philanthropic zeal, would confuse the child as to where she belonged in society. Interestingly, the census take at exactly the same month as Taylor’s visit lists Mary Ryan as ‘servant’ to the household, suggesting that no such confusion existed within the unconventional household. In photographs taken in 1863 by Oscar Rejlander, Mary appears in a white cotton maid’s dress, performing domestic duties, with a smile, for the camera.

Louisa Young (Parlour Maid) and Mary Ryan (House Maid) (1863) Photograph by Oscar Rejlander

Her mother apparently tried on countless occasions to retrieve her child from the household but failed each time. I think it is interesting that Cameron never wavered in her assumption that what she was doing was correct, despite the misgivings of friends, let alone Mary’s own family. It could be seen as the flip side of Cameron’s wonderful unconventional spirit, her unshakeable sense of her opinion. I think it makes it easy not to condemn her for what could be seen as arrogant and self-righteous in others as she so often appears to be right, as she was in the case of Mary Ryan.

In the Manner of Perugino Julia Margaret Cameron

When Julia Margaret Cameron received a camera for her 48th birthday in the winter of 1863, it might have been in response to the visit from Rejlander, but it was definitely a gift intended to keep her occupied while her husband was away in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Cameron had harboured an interest in photography for many years and set about mastering the art of it for herself. In a quest for the perfect image she used anyone she could get her hands on for models, including her maids, Mary Ryan and Mary Hillier.

The Wild Flower (Mary Ryan) Julia Margaret Cameron

While ‘Island Mary’ (as Mary Hillier was nicknamed) tended to be used for images of the Madonna (leading to her other nickname ‘Mary Madonna’), Mary Ryan played a variety of roles in Cameron’s work. She was Tennyson’s May Queen, Queen Esther, and Juliet, a range of beautiful, romantic heroines. It was said that Cameron kept one maid for profiles (Ryan) and one for full-face (Hillier), both Marys appeared together very rarely in her compositions, a notable exception being May Day of 1866...

May Day Julia Margaret Cameron

Mary Ryan sits in the centre of the group as the Queen of May, with Mary Hillier over her left shoulder. This image is interesting as not only are the two Marys together but Hillier is almost in profile while Ryan is full-face to the camera. Much is made of the likeness of Cameron’s models, difficult sometimes to tell apart in the dreamy monochrone haze of her work, but in her occasional full-face works, Ryan is easy to spot by her quite pronounced philtrum, possibly caused by the shadow of her long nose (which equally makes her obvious in her profile pictures).

Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die Julia Margaret Cameron

While it was joked that Cameron chose her maids for their beauty, it does seem true that both Marys provided limitless inspiration for their employer, as well as invaluable help in developing the plates. Mary Hiller, interviewed in her old age about her role in Cameron’s art, saw it as part of her duties to assist Cameron in any way necessary, despite the unconventional nature of her service. She later married the gardener of neighbour G F Watts, and they remained on the Island, Mary remaining a minor celebrity as the ‘Island Madonna’.

Summer Days (Mary Ryan, top right) Julia Margaret Cameron

The same cannot be said of Mary Ryan. Possibly it was the difficult issue of her upbringing, not exactly maid but not fully adopted or accepted as daughter to Cameron, that left her open to more opportunity. By the time she was 16, she had become one of Cameron’s favourite models and a young woman of good manners and grace. When Cameron exhibited in the French Gallery, London in November of 1865, she used Mary as a hostess for the occasion, noted by artist and girl-spotter George Price Boyce in his diary: ‘A very pretty fair girl with lovely tender eyes and light brown hair.’ There must have been an added thrill for some visitors to have the heroine of so many of Cameron’s pictures there in the flesh, and for one visitor in particular it proved too much.

Henry Cotton (1867) Julia Margaret Cameron

Henry Cotton was born in Madras in 1845, the son of an East India Company employee. He was sent back to England for the predictable public schooling, under the care of his grandparents. When he proved less of a scholar than his brother, instead of progressing into academia, he studied to join the Indian Civil Service. It was while he was studying that he attended the exhibition at the French Gallery and fell in love.

As with most things there are a couple of different versions of the story. I’ll start with Emily Tennyson (wife of the Poet Laureate) who tells the most popular version of the tale. Cotton, while attending the exhibition, fell in love with the beautiful model kneeling at the feet of King Lear...

King Lear and Cordelia (or Prospero and Miranda )(1865) Julia Margaret Cameron

The story goes that Cotton went on to purchase every photograph in the exhibition that Mary Ryan appeared in, getting her to write out the receipt for him in her role as hostess at the exhibition. Cotton, described by Helmut Gersheim, Cameron’s first biographer as ‘the wildly romantic young man with long hair’, travelled to Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater Bay two years later. He was led into the drawing room where he exclaimed ‘I have come to ask for the hand of your housemaid. I saw her at your exhibition and I have all the time kept the bill she wrote out for me next to my heart.’ He had waited until he had secured his post in the Indian Civil Service and could support a wife. He had waited for two years with his receipt next to his heart. How splendidly romantic.

Well, obviously it might have happened quite that dramatically. Cotton himself described the meeting in his memoirs Indian and Home Memories (1911) as being far more straightforward. While visiting the artistic hub that was Little Holland House, he first saw Mary and ‘I wooed and won the fairest of fair young girls who became my wife’.

Romeo and Juliet (Henry Cotton and Mary Ryan) (1867) Julia Margaret Cameron

However the couple met, the wedding was set for 1st August 1867 in the church at Freshwater. Mary’s mother attended, which puts pay to the story that she disowned her child or was kept away from her wedding.

Charles Cameron gave the bride away. Alfred, Lord Tennyson lent the happy couple the use of her carriage for the day and his youngest son, Lionel, acted as pageboy. An interest story also exists that on the wedding day, the erstwhile Mr Cotton took one look at the bridesmaid, Kate Shepherd, and announced that she, not Mary had been the one he had fallen in love with. Cameron removed the alluring Miss Shepherd and the wedding went ahead. I find this story dubious because firstly Miss Shepherd was supposed to be a maid and the inference is that a man so foolish enough to fall in love with one maid is not wise enough to realise which one he fell in love with. It also might be a dig at the ‘folly’ of the Camerons, encouraging the social boundary breaking, palming off their beggar-maid on a nice but dim rich boy. Another story that exists about the wedding day is the bride’s mother is meant to have asked Mr Cameron if he was disappointed that Mary did not marry his son Charlie. Mr Cameron’s response is not recorded, but it is assumed that enthusiasm for cross-class marriage might not have extended to one’s own children. Cameron in her memoir, Annals of My Glass House, described the match: ‘Entirely out of the Prospero and Miranda picture sprung a marriage which has, I hope cemented the welfare and well-being of a real King Cophetua...’

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron

She wrote this in 1874, the same year she produced a photograph of King Cophetua and the Beggarmaid as an illustration of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. By this point Mary and her King had moved to India and had four sons and a daughter. Mary returned with her children the same year and did not return to India and her husband until the end of the century. Henry Cotton was Assam Chief Commissioner by then, and working hard to confer some sort of fair working conditions and pay for the indigenous tea plantation workforce. Although defeated by the authorities, he was made a Lord in 1902 and Mary became Lady Cotton. Henry Cotton continued to campaign for fair treatment and constitutional reforms in the treatment of India.

Henry Cotton in India, 1880s

Mary died in 1914, her husband a year later, not wealthy but having accomplished a spirited rebuttal to the colonial status quo as well as creating a Lady out of an Irish child-beggar. It seems the Cotton’s
revolution extended beyond class boundaries to race and colony, further than even Julia Margaret Cameron could have envisaged in her photographs.

Enormous thanks to Kirsty Stonell Walker for this fascinating story - a love story played out in the most glorious photographs. 

Kirsty is an author with a great interest in the Victorian era. For more about her work and her books, please see her blog: The Kissed Mouth.