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!



As Christmas is drawing nearer, the VV has been thinking about the photographs of snow flakes made 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 depth of snowfall could be as much as 120 inches.

From childhood he was said to be fascinated by the natural world. At the age of fifteen his mother gave him the gift of a microscope. Bentley went on to become captivated by the close-up views of snow crystals, which he placed on a black velvet base so as to see them all the more clearly. But, to try and preserve the sights he saw – with the ice flakes often melting before he could try and sketch them – he set his mind on finding a method of attaching a camera to the microscope (now known as Photomicography). From that point on he was able to compile a unique collection of work which is still, to this very today, considered as remarkable.

Describing his snowflake photographs as "ice flowers" or “tiny miracles of beauty”, he produced more than 5,000 of these ephemeral works of art. In turn, these astonishing images were 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 Bentley sent 500 prints in 1903, in the hope that they would be preserved for the sake of posterity), now has a comprehensive record in their institution archives.

It is something of an irony that Bentley died from pneumonia, having been stranded and lost one day in a terrible blizzard of snow.

However, before his death he was able to see a book of his prints published by McGraw Hill. That book, produced in various forms, is still available to this day.

Here is a short film about The Snowflake Man ...



In 1835, while attempting to dig a duck pond, a man named James Newlove and his son Joshua discovered a peculiar hole in the ground. When Joshua crept down inside it, he discovered over 70 feet of winding passages, at the end of which he found the most wonderful subterranean shell grotto

All of the walls were covered in an exquisite tapestry of shells, since found to have been stuck there with an adhesive that is based on gypsum and volcanic elements. Over four million cockle, whelk, mussel and oyster shells form various patterns of mosaics. There are images of the Tree of Life, phalluses, gods and goddesses. Some say they can see the horns or a ram, and a three-pointed star; also representations of the sun and the moon.
Mr Newlove soon decided to tap into the commercial potential of such a dramatic find. By 1837, the first fee-paying visitors arrived – and with them the debate commenced as to origin of the caves. 

One idea was that it had once been an ancient pagan temple. Another, that it provided the home for a secret sect. Other people were entirely convinced that  it must be a Regency folly.  

However, such follies were usually built on wealthy estates, whereas Mr Newlove’s grotto was built underneath common farmland. And then, there is also the fact that had the grotto been constructed during the 1700’s then surely some record or map would remain – not least with regard to the enormous industry involved in excavating the passages and creating the shell mosaics. And yet, there is no local knowledge regarding the grotto’s creation or existence.

In 1999 English Heritage commissioned an investigation. The conclusion was that the grotto was unlikely to have been built during the Regency or Victorian period. Carbon dating was attempted, but failed to give a clear result owing to the build up of soot on the shells after oil lamps were used to illuminate the passages during Mr Newlove's tours. 

Later, in 2001, Mick Twyman of the Margate Historical Society also attempted to unravel the enigma. He observed that just before the arrival of each spring equinox, the sun enters the underground realm through a dome with a circular opening that acts like a pinhole camera. As the seasons turn, the ball of light reflected on the temple walls grows larger and continues to move over certain ‘lines’ or bars in the shells, as if with a solar calendar. At midday on the summer solstice, the light resembles an egg that glows in the belly of a mosaic snake. At this point in time, it is reflected up into square apertures built above the grotto’s three distinct passages. The light is then bounced down to shine on what is presumed to be an altar built within the 'temple' chamber. 

By the use of these phenomena and complex mathematical calculations Twyman was able to show that, allowing for the ‘creep’ of 1% in the Equinox angle that occurs every 72 years, the construction date for the grotto would have been around 1141 AD.

The following is an extract from an article Twyman wrote, linking the shell temple to the Knights Templar, claiming that it would have been used for Masonic rituals –

with a keystone over the entrance arch and its altar having everything required for Royal Arch Masonry...while mosaic design centres cleverly supply the basis for Masonic symbols, such as the Compass and Square, Star of David, Pentagram and Hardoian Tetrahedron, a symbol of great significance to the Templars and Cabbalists. ..There are also four panels which have above them the ancient God symbol of the three rays of heavenly light. Beneath one of these sits the Pleiades constellation, while the second has a Tree of Jesse surmounted by a tiny rose – another symbol of the virgin – and the third an ‘x’, which I believe to be the cross isolated from the banner of the Paschal Lamb, symbol of the Baptist.'

Whatever you think about the grotto and the mystery of its origins, the fascinating research goes on and. Meanwhile, the Grotto has been given a Grade 1 listed building status, and although it remains in private hands it can still be visited today.
More information can be found on the Grotto's official website.

For more posts on the Margate Shell Grotto, please see ...




Fanny Eaton 1835-1911
Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

One of the most interesting things about the current exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery are the images relating to the model, Fanny Eaton.

Portrait by Walter Fryer Stocks around 1859

Fanny was born in Jamaica's St Andrew Parish in 1835. Her mother, Matilda, was said to be a slave, but her father was never named. She became involved with the Pre-Raphaelite circle between 1859 and 1867 by which time she was living in London's Shoreditch, and had married the cabbie, James Eaton. In-between the drudgery of raising their ten children and working as a domestic servant, Fanny had another means of support – posing as an artists' model at the Royal Academy.

The Mother of Moses, by Simeon Solomon

After featuring in Simeon Solomon's famous painting, The Mother of Moses, she drew the attention of other artists in the PRB circle, including Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Despite racial prejudices of the times, Fanny was described by Rosetti as having 'a very fine head' and being of 'incomparable beauty'. With her grace, waving hair, and strong profile, she is not that unlike his lover and muse, Jane Morris.

Fanny Eaton in Millais' painting Jephthah - in the yellow hood on the right

Sadly, her allure did not bring wealth or fame. She spent her later years working as a cook on the Isle of Wight, eventually dying of old age and 'senility' in 1911, in a daughter's home in Acton. But her face, her grace, and beauty still live on in many paintings, and not only as the token exotic in the scenes, but often as the main character.

Perhaps of all the paintings of Fanny in this exhibition the one below might be a favourite. Fittingly it was created by one of the 'sisters'. It is the elegant study by Joanna Boyce Wells' in preparation for the never to be realised painting based on a Libyan sibyl.

Study by Joanna Boyce Wells, 

The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition is currently at the National Portrait Gallery, from 17 October 2019 to 26 January 2020



Thomas Cook (1808-1892)

Package holidays may seem to be a modern construct, but their origins go back over many centuries, very often being organised for mass religious pilgrimages.  

The Victorian Thomas Cook was no exception to this rule when he founded his own company to provide travel arrangements that were ‘simple, easy and a pleasure’ and in which he was ‘the willing and devoted servant of the travelling public’.

An illustration of Thomas Cook's First Trip, organised in 1841

The grandson of a Baptist minister, Cook was born in 1808 in the Derbyshire market town of Melbourne. Trained as a wood-turner and cabinet-maker, on reaching the age of twenty Cook preferred to choose a different trade. Following his heart - and soul - be became a wandering preacher. But he clearly had a yearning for adventure and discovery, which emerged when he then planned his first public excursion. 

In 1841 he organised a 12-mile railway journey which originated in Leicester and ended up in Loughborough to celebrate a temperance gala. 500 passengers paid a shilling each for their bookings, with the outing being so successful that Thomas was soon being asked to organise another.

A Tour Party in 1868

By 1855, the business was turning a profit with regular railway excursions to cities such as Liverpool or Nottingham. European 'packages’ followed where tourists could embark on  a ‘grand circular tour'. This included visits to Brussels, Cologne, the Rhine, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Paris. In each city hotels and meals were provided. Even the exchange of foreign currency (by 1874 Cook had devised an early form of travellers’ cheques) was included in the price.

There was such an interest in this form of travel that by 1865 a shop was set up in London’s Fleet Street. In 1873 by an imposing head office stood proud in Ludgate Circus. The hugely successful business was then left in the capable hands of Thomas’ son,  John Mason Cook, when, at the age of sixty-three Thomas indulged his own passion for travel and set off on a personal tour that lasted 222 days. During this time he covered more than 25,000 miles, visiting Egypt and China via the Suez Canal which had opened in 1863.

A Thomas Cook brochure cover from 1891

The business endured for almost 200 years, becoming a trusted and thriving company. But today  financial losses have led to its sad collapse.

For related railway posts please see -




Vincent Van Gogh 30 March 1853-29 July 1890 - self portrait: As an Artist

Having just been to see the recent Van Gogh exhibition at Tate Britain, I was reminded of another one in  2010 when much of the artist's work was shown at the Royal Academy in London.

The RA exhibition examined the work of Vincent Van Gogh in relation to the countless letters written throughout his adult life. Many of those letters showed quite a different side to his character - so often portrayed as the tortured depressive who pickled himself in absinthe, cut off his ear in a spate of passion after an argument with Gaugin, and finally shot himself in the chest in a badly bungled suicide, after which he took two days to die. 

Most of the letters shown were addressed to his brother, Theo (above) whose profession was that of an art dealer. But, the existence of the RA exhibition, which had been five years in the making and which displayed around 65 paintings and 30 connected drawings, was largely thanks to Theo's wife.

Photograph of the graves of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh ©Suzette Raymond

Widowed only six months after Vincent's death when her husband then succombed to the complications of syphillis (the two brothers are buried side by side in graves in Auvers-sur-Oise), Johanna Van Gogh carefully preserved every one of her brother-in-law's letters. And, rather than disposing of what had been Vincent's unsaleable paintings, all of which Theo had collected and stored, she devoted the rest of her life to promoting his talent and work.

Johanna Van Gogh

The RA exhibited some 40 letters, many of which are in such a fragile state it is highly unlikely that they will ever be exhibited publicly again. Several of them contained sketches of paintings that Vincent was planning to make in the future. The final pieces that we know so well are often composed of heavy and vibrantly coloured strokes of paint, but these smaller preparatory works were often very precisely executed, with fine straight lines and an element of realism: quite different to the Impressionist style of the larger canvasses. 

Visitors at the RA were also able to view a letter found in Vincent's pocket after he had shot himself. It is splattered with either paint or blood, and the words that Vincent wrote were: “I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it  -”

Many of the artist's earlier letters are made up of thoughtful and eloquent prose. We 'see' a cultivated man who is clearly well-read and whose words convey poetic imagery. He describes the light shimmering on the sea -“like a mackerel ... always changing — you don’t always know if it’s green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue...”

Of his paintings of Cypress trees, he said: "The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. [The cypress is] beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes... they must be seen here against the blue, in the blue, rather."

Imagine talking to the man whose thoughts were so poetically inspired!

Sadly, many darker moments obliterated joy. Even as a youth Vincent possessed a serious, brooding, troubled look. 

As a young man his first employment was with a firm of art dealers; his profession taking him to England and Paris. But, a series of disappointing affairs along with an increasing dissatisfaction with the unscrupulous art world led him to contemplate life as a preacher - the same profession as his father. 

That ambition was doomed to failure when Vincent failed to pass the necessary exams, though he did work as a missionary in Belgium, and there he produced The Potato Eaters - which was his first major painting. Like many of the earlier works, this was not a blazing of light, but suffused in dark and earthy tones which echoed the paintings of Rembrant. Vincent was also influenced by the prints reproduced in English magazines that showed the toil of the working man. He was to purchase a ten-year run of the popular magazine The Graphic, simply to study such gritty scenes which he then attempted to emulate.

 The Potato Eaters 1885-6

It was when Vincent travelled to the south of France that his obsession with colour began. Inspired by the French Impressionists he had hopes of founding a community of artists, but his sense of inadequacy and increasingly violent mood swings were far from conducive to such harmonious living arrangements. Even so, despite his "sounds and strange voices...that cannot but frighten you beyond measure", the time he went on to spent in an asylum did offer some security. Vincent said that the close proximity of other people similarly afflicted was somehow reassuring. It became his daily routine to set up his easel and paint - either in the hospital gardens or the surrounding countryside, producing swirling images of corn fields and olive groves.


In the few years before his death, Vincent was to move to Arles where he rented 'the Yellow House' - another subject of his paintings, and about which he was to write: "That's a really difficult subject! But I want to conquer it for that very reason. Because it's tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue." 

Well, however hard the task, there can be no doubt that Vincent succeeded in his ambition. And, how poignant it is that the art that went unappreciated during the course of his lifetime is now considered to be among the world's most sought-after and lauded.

The Real Van Gogh exhibition was curated by Ann Dumas. In this short BBC film you can hear her thoughts and view some more of the works on display.

If you have more interest in the letters of Van Gogh, Thames and Hudson have published them in a six-volume edition of books. They can also be viewed online at http://www.vangoghletters.org/.

The current Tate Britain Exhibition continues until August 11th. It compares his work with that of other artists who either influenced him, or who were influenced by his work in later years.