Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Louisa Waterford


a much-overlooked artist, not least because  her major work is on the upper walls of a village hall in far [depending where you are] Northumberland  but worth a big detour.     

Born into high society, her father being British ambassador to Paris, her elder sister married to Viscount Channing, Louisa fell for the dissolute Marquess of Waterford at the famous Eglinton Tournament and spent several years as a 'hunt widow' in Ireland until his lordship broke his neck in a riding accident..  

Louisa retired to Ford in the far north of England, where she built and decorated the hall with instructional images [not murals because they are on paper]. Lots of them, many using local people and local animals as models.

The Hall is now a free museum. Home page - Lady Waterford Hall (ford-and-etal.co.uk)

Monday, 19 April 2021

Racism 1880s


In a speech in 1888 prime minister Lord Salisbury referred back to the election of 1885 when the Conservative candidate had won the Holborn seat, saying that the winner had been  “opposed to a black man, and, however great the progress of mankind has been, and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet got to the point where a British constituency will elect a black man to represent them ... I am speaking roughly and using language in its colloquial sense, because I imagine the colour is not exactly black, but at all events, he was a man of another race". 

The defeated candidate was the Hon. Dadabhai Naoroji.

‘Few more unfortunate utterances have ever fallen from the lips of a British prime Minister’, began a Radical response published in the Pall Mall Gazette, the London evening newspaper. ‘It would have seemed unspeakably shocking to him to have sneered at the colour of a brother noble’s hair or even at a country squire’s freckles. These people are within the circle of the sacred caste. But to those who are without, the mere Irishry, the Hottentots, and Blackfellows generally, Lord Salisbury can be as rude as a bargee without ever dreaming that he is displaying a vulgarity of soul that is disgraceful to an English gentleman.

‘We see the same thing constantly in the case of slaveowners, and in a less degree the dealings of men with women.  A man loses caste for ever if he cheats another man at cards, but if he cheats a woman of her honour he is none the less received into society and indeed is regarded by many who would cut him dead if he cheated at cards as a very fine fellow indeed.

‘Now in Asia our myriad subjects have been made to feel that in the eyes of this proud patrician, who after all is but of yesterday compared with many of their ancient families, that they are all but “n*****s”.

‘Many a better man than Lord Salisbury has been a “Blackman”. Equally, it is true that many of our fellow subjects in India have skins swarthier in hue than our own.  That was also true in all probability of Christ and the Twelve Apostles …  The whiteman is the aristocrat of the world and he sums up his superiority in his own estimation when he sneers at the blackamoor.’

Salisbury's defence when rebuked was inimitably imperialist.  Claiming that the term ‘black’ did not imply contempt, he remarked that “The people whom we have been fighting at Suakim [sic, in Sudan], and whom we have happily conquered, are among the finest tribes in the world, and many of them are as black as my hat".   And, he went on, the House of Commons was too unique and “too delicate to be managed by any but those who have been born within these isles".  

In 1892, Naoroji was elected as MP for Finsbury.

The author of the letter in the Pall Mall Gazette and of its anti-racist views was a Dissenting minister named J Page Hobbs, who was based in Leicester.  According to Sydney Gimson, whose family owned the large iron foundry and engineering works there, his fellow middle class Radicals in the Leicester Secular Society were vehement Individualists in the wake of John Stuart Mill, but also decided to hear ‘the best that could be said for the new Socialism which was then rapidly coming to the fore.’  On consecutive weeks in January 1884, they listened therefore to H.M.Hyndman and William Morris, both from the newly-launched Social Democratic Federation, followed in the third week by J.Page Hobbs on ‘Sensible Socialism’. 

Gimson and his architect brother Ernest were greatly impressed by Morris, who gave what became his default speech on ‘Art and Socialism’.  It’s likely that current political events were also discussed, including the British military expedition against the Madhist uprising in the Sudan, on which Morris had forthright views.  When General Gordon was killed ‘defending’ Khartoum, Morris’s anti-jingoist comment was ‘Khartoum has fallen – into the hands of those to whom it belongs’.  That might have been too extreme for most of Leicester’s Secularists, by maybe not for Page Hobbs.

Hobbs is best remembered for a famous exchange that took place in the Gimsons’ home after Morris’s lecture.  ‘After supper we were talking about the lecture, Page Hobbs sitting in an easy chair, Morris on a dinner table chair,’ recalled Gimson. ‘Page Hobbs said, "You know, Mr. Morris, that would be a very charming Society that you have been describing, but it's quite impossible, it would need God Almighty himself to manage it!" Immediately Morris jumped up, ran his fingers through his hair and ruffled it, walked once or twice round his chair, then, shaking his fist close to Page Hobbs' face, exclaimed: "All right, man, you catch your God Almighty, we'll have him!" There was a burst of delighted laughter, in which Page Hobbs heartily joined.’ 

[ Sydney Gimson, Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society, March 1932, pp.20-23]

Thursday, 15 April 2021

The Rossetti Brothers' Seances


In the early 1860s  - a decade I have inhabited for some years now - much of British society was taken up and taken in by a craze for self-styled Spiritualist seances.   More or less serious endeavours o receive communications from dead relatives and celebrities, seances involved a darkened room, a moveable table and a group of which one member was identified as the 'medium', to whom messages were put.  Responses chiefly in the form of 'yes' and 'no' were typically received through raps or tilts heard and seen by all, from 'spirits'  who were initially identified through questions.

As a fashionable parlour game, this was harmless; for many it was proof [of a kind] of the existence of an afterlife as then promised by some varieties of Christianity that promoted 'reunion in heaven', now that traditional belief in heaven was severely compromised by geological and Darwinian thinking that quite destroyed the creationist view of the universe.  Seances as such were distinct from the wide Spiritualist movement, which claimed to apprehend an invisible realm beyond the terrestrial.  Messages from 'beyond' were eagerly sought by the bereaved.  It was wholly fanciful, though not wholly fraudulent - mediums could be as baffled as anyone about the nature of the apparent communications.

William Michael Rossetti, the level-headed, rational, atheist brother, was most involved in the seances.  Dante Gabriel was already intellectually sympathetic to occult and superstitious notions, but less persuaded by the mediums, professional or amateur, and indeed rather irreverent towards the spirits.  Possibly he felt real ghosts could do better than table-tilting and knocking.

William's records of the seances in various houses round London in 1866-67 read like the minutes of inconsequential meetings with motley participants.   Long known of from WMR's personal archive preserved by his daughter and descendants until given to Dick Fredeman and sold by him to the university of British Columbia, the full transcript of the Seance Diaries has now been edited by Barrie Bullen, for publication by Peter Lang.

The majority of the communications came from a spirit identifying as Elizabeth Siddal, who had died in 1862.  Sadly for posterity, she failed to reveal anything substantive about her afterlife, or even her previous life, and no details on whether her death was suicidal or accidental.  The Rossettis on one occasion communicated with their late father, but gave up [in some disgust?] when his spirit proved unable to understand or speak Italian - in life professor Rossetti seldom used English.

Also included with the Diaries is a completely crazy epistle from fellow artist Anna Mary Howitt to Gabriel Rossetti in 1856, which over 8000 rambling words offers a garbled version of Georgina Houghton's later exegeses of the Spirit's rhetoric, and illustrates the gravity of Howitt's psychic breakdown - surely not caused by but certainly coinciding with Ruskin's critical censure of her painting of the rebellious Boadicea. 

It remains the greatest regret that this canvas was destroyed, and that Howitt's earlier works, The Castaway and Gretchen at the Fountain, which apparently both sold, do not survive either.  And a pity that no spirits from beyond the grave offer to describe them to us.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

The Libyan Sibyl

 The Dean of Jesus College Cambridge has drawn my  attention to Burne-Jones's depiction of the  Libyan Sibyl in the extensive sequence of Morris & Co glass in the college chapel, to inquire if the portrayal was based on Fanny Eaton.  It's a good question, given that Eaton was the favoured model for numerous dark-skinned and exotic figures in the 1860s, and this design dates from the early 1870s.

But is there any evidence that EBJ used her as a model, or drew her in other guises?   I can't immediately find any.   

I incline to think that all the EBJ Sibyls, like most other figures in the window designs, are generalized images.   It's notable that the Libyan is dark-skinned, as pictorially befits a mythical figure whose role is (presumably) to serve the population of north Africa.  But I'd guess that EBJ's decision was prompted by the ten Sibyls on the floor of the duomo in Siena, where the Libyan is notably Black.


It is however, also interesting to note that another EBJ/WM window at Jesus College includes a second Black figure, in the person of Balthazar, the third Wise Man or Magus representing pagan Africa in the Adoration of the Kings.  

 It's true this Balthazar is not very dark.  But, together, the designs introduce a glimpse of diversity into an otherwise all-European  decorative scheme that purports to depict events in ancient Egypt and Syria.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Jem Wharton 2


One exciting sequel to my BLACK VICTORIANS exhibition 2006-7 was a message from retired banker Gerald Pointon in Paris telling me of his painting of a then-unnamed boxer. 

A  few weeks later NPG colleagues visiting Paris on other business, called on Gerald and brought back snapshots of the portrait as it then was, with a detached outer frame.

William Daniels, Jem Wharton, Pugilist, NPG 

Signed and dated W.Daniels 1839, it offered a good clue to its location of origin in the Liverpool area, where Daniels worked, but nothing about the sitter's identity.   On the back, however, an ancient label described him as the 'Young Molineux'.  A crash course in the history of early pugilism, usually illegal bouts by bare-knuckle fighters backed and bet on  by sporting gentlemen, revealed that with some notable exceptions, men were known under all kind of sobriquets, and that 'Young Molineux' mainly meant a Black prize-fighter in the steps of the famous Tom Molineaux  1784-1818.  

Anyone researching this field knows how fragmentary and elusive the records are,  detailing more or less clandestine fights without any of the later championship structure or codified Queensberry rules.   This 'Young Molineux'  could have been more or less any 1830s boxer of African ancestry,  including one who fought some times as the 'Prince of Morocco'. 

For a long time a photo of the portrait hung above my desk, asking to be identified. Eventually, with assistance from the worldwide community of pugilism historians, I decided his real name was Jem or James Wharton, and that Daniels' painting showed him in training or exhibition bout mode.  This was a common way for prizefighters to earn a living outside the ring, boxing against  those who fancied a round and had  a shilling or so to spend.  On these occasions, they used padded gloves, which were just coming into favour in the sport.  Wearing the vest and longjohns typical of boxers, wrestlers and others, round his waist Wharton also ties  a scarf, forerunner of the the boxers' belt denoting victory in a former fight.

Gerald Pointon followed all this with interest, as he had bought the painting from a London dealer in the 1960s without any information on its subject.  Eventually, further research showed Wharton keeping a tavern in 1851 - another typical prize-fighter occupation, as backyard buildings behind pubs were frequently used for sporting and entertainment events - with the Census giving his birthplace as London, and his death being registered in 1856.   These are the few, still uncertain, factual details we know.   The name Wharton suggests Scottish origin, perhaps from a Caribbean plantation, but may itself have been assumed.

Finally. the NPG was able to acquire the portrait, and hang it in the Regency gallery, cleaned and in its full frame.

Now comes the news that while the NPG is closed for renovations, Jem Wharton's portrait is being loaned to the Museum of Liverpool on the waterfront.     

COMING HOME: Jem Wharton | National Museums Liverpool (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk)

Here it is being installed,  even though the museum is currently lockdown-closed.  Check out their website details.

It's very satisfying to have found his picture and brought it into public ownership.  I'd still like to know more about his life, so maybe further information will be uncovered. 

Sunday, 24 January 2021

HMD 2021


it never ceases to matter  and the narratives never cease to be moving.  Despite the worldwide death toll from covid,  the Nazi holocaust remains the outrage of the millennium. 

This week marks the beginning of the end in 1945.  Eva Clarke, born on a rail truck destined for death  saved only because gas supplies failed, recounts her survival and that of her mother in today's Sunday Telegraph 

Eva Clarke Saturday Telegraph magazine, 23 January 2021.pdf

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Hobby Horse

Century Guild wrought iron door hinge at Pownall Hall Cheshire 

Not quite as offbeat as the subtitle The Hobby Horse Men suggests,  this new book fills a long-gaping hole in Arts & Crafts Literature 

 Ivy wallpaper design, 1880s by A.H.Mackmurdo [WMG]

One issue contributing to the lack has been that the official name of the loosely-allied  group of men who comprised the Century Guild - a title as dull as Hobby Horse is quirky -  bears only a rough indication of its function, making a history hard to write.  Ably assisted by literary historian Jean Liddiard, the late Stuart Evans, who sadly died before publication, made valiant,  successful efforts to knit all the strands together.  The variously flying threads provide a mobile web of the whole symphonic enterprise [ to mix a few metaphors ]

The three chief men involved were Arthur Mackmurdo, architect and designer; Herbert Percy Horne, architect and art historian who later settled in Italy; and Selwyn Image, firstly a vicar then poet, painter and stained glass designer.

Century Guild dining chair designed by Mackmurdo, c1882, WMG

Their furniture like this now-famous chair has proved most durable, along with their irregular publication The Hobby Horse, whose title references the Shandean scope of contributors' idiosyncratic passions, while displaying the Guild's taste for fine materials, woodcuts and spacious design that inspired the young Beardsley.  Most of the page, tailpieces and illustrations are elegant; some, like the grotesque, jumbled cover, created by the nominatively-determined Image, are a mess - but an arresting mess.

Arts & Crafts Pioneers

Together with quotations from the Guildsmen's windy, wordy aims about uniting all the arts in pursuit of beauty and freedom, the book offers a lucky dip trawl of 1880s and 90s artefacts and men, including a few women like Michael Field and the Alhambra dancers, whom the men eulogised and (in Image's case) eventually married.    

One notable discovery that came recently to light is a mahogany table-top casket in the manner of a cassone, decorated by Image with late-PreRaphaelite scenes of lost love and perhaps intended for letters sent and received by a now-grieving widower.  Less sentimental is Horne's woodcut depicting the dachshund owned by Matthew Arnold.   Quite surprising in name and appearance is Great Ruffians,  with four pavilions round a lantern-topped tower, like something from Topkapi built by Mackmurdo as a cultural centre in rural Essex - yet another strand, pulling in contemporary Garden City projects.   

It's hard to resist the impression of a distinctly precious, homoerotic atmosphere around much hobby-horse activity, but this is probably an effect of the period's counter-cultural impulses, and of Oscar Wilde's friendship.  Undeniably, Century Guild's products both fed into and fed off emerging Art Nouveau decorative styles, while retaining all its own varied originality.