The Snow Queen

The image above is taken from a print in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it is described as: “photograph of man making a snow sculpture resembling Queen Victoria, unknown photographer, ca. 1890.” The sculptor is quite talented. Can he be identified?

The only account of Her Majesty sculpted in snow that I could find was in The Harmsworth London Magazine from December of 1901. An article describes the “young art students of Brussels…moulding statues in the snow.” The previous year “some twenty-six different statues were on show at the Royal Park in Brussels.” The entries were judged and “the moulder of the statue of the late Queen Victoria was awarded a prize.”

Ratcliffe Highway Revisited

In Victoriana, I describe a piece of ink-black satire written by the Romanticist, Thomas De Quincey, entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”

“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.

The entire chapter, “Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre,” can be read here on the blog.

The Ratcliffe Highway murders took place two hundred and ten years ago this month. At Spitalfields Life, The Gentle Author has a serialized account of the events running roughly coterminously with the 1811 dates. So far he has published three chapters: “The Death Of A Linen Draper,” “Horrid Murder,” and “The Burial of the Victims.”

Beatrix Potter and The Pre-Raphaelites

In her youth the author Beatrix Potter knew Sir John Everett Millais as a family friend. Her father Rupert Potter was a member of Millais’s social circle. His photographs of the Pre-Raphaelite artist are the subject of a previous post.

Beatrix Potter was herself an accomplished illustrator, principally of her own Peter Rabbit stories. She was a prolific watercolorist whose landscapes and studies of mushrooms, animals, plants, and insects will be displayed at the Victoria and Albert early next year in the exhibition, Drawn to Nature.

On his death in August of 1896, Potter wrote in her journal that she would “always have a most affectionate remembrance” of Millais, though she was “unmercifully afraid of him as a child” on account of his teasing “schoolboy manner.” Despite this fact she was not afraid to show him her drawings. He gave her “the kindest encouragement” and complimented her, saying, “plenty of people can draw, but you and my son John have observation.” She concluded, “He was an honest fine man.”

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature opens at the V&A on February 12, 2022.

Rossetti’s Wombat

At his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a menagerie of exotic animals. This included peacocks, owls, parakeets, armadillos, kangaroos, a Brahmin bull, donkeys, and a raccoon who lived in a chest of drawers.

Most of the animals were purchased through Charles Jamrach, a dealer of wild animals with premises in Ratcliffe Highway. Jamrach was well known, mentioned by name in Dracula by Bram Stoker: a wolf that escapes from the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park is “one of three grey ones that came from Norway to Jamrach’s, which we bought off him four years ago.”

In September of 1869, Rossetti acquired the jewel of his collection: a wombat. His interest in the marsupials had evidently been cultivated at the same Regent’s Park Zoo, where several were exhibited. In a letter to Ford Madox Brown in July of 1860, he wrote, “Dear Brown: Lizzie [Siddal] and I propose to meet Georgie and Ned [Burne-Jones] at 2 pm tomorrow at the Zoological Gardens—place of meeting, the Wombat’s Lair.”

An early appearance of a wombat in Rossetti’s art can be seen in the frontispiece illustration he made for his sister Christina’s book, Goblin Market, in 1865.

The wombat that Rossetti purchased from Jamrach was short lived, as were many of his rather irresponsibly housed pets. Rossetti named the creature “Top,” in what seems to have been a reference to the plump, hirsute William Morris, whom Rossetti was cuckolding. Morris had long been known to friends by the nickname “Topsy.” A sketch by Rossetti of Jane Morris leading the wombat Top by a leash can be seen to underscore the point.

The wombat died on November 6, 1869. Rossetti commemorated the event with a sketch of himself in mourning. As Angus Trumble writes, the portrait “is satirical but was apparently prompted by genuine grief.”

Rossetti wrote a stanza of verse to accompany it:

I never reared a young wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet and fat
And tailless, he was sure to die!

Alas!

The Unexpected Return of Dennis Severs

I wrote at length about Dennis Severs’ House in my book Victoriana. You can read the chapter in an earlier post. The house is an extraordinary creation that defies easy explanation. Is it a museum? Is it a work of theater? Is it an artwork that the viewer enters into? It is all of these things.

The Guardian reports that curators have recently discovered “hundreds of cassette tapes stuffed in cupboards” containing narration of the original house tour given by Severs, who died in 2000. The headline reads: “Dennis Severs’ House recreates his eccentric tours based on found tapes.”

These recordings “have been distilled down to create a new tour” by The Gentle Author who writes the Spitalfields Life blog. An actor will conduct the tours in place of Severs.

Dan Cruickshank is quoted as saying, “Dennis was an amazing character and his spirit does live on with these tapes. There is life after death, he is back from the grave … We have resurrected him. We’ve brought Dennis back, and he would love that.”

Silence at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The UK government has given final approval to a development plan that will convert the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a hotel with drastic architectural changes. The foundry operated on Whitechapel Road from 1739 until it was sold in 2017. Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were cast on the premises. Heritage groups attempted to intervene. In 2018 I covered a proposal by the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust to acquire the foundry and continue manufacturing bells.

All efforts have come to naught. Campaigners for Save The Whitechapel Bell Foundry wrote on social media that this decision “destroys the possibility of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry ever having a future as a fully working foundry.”

Millais at Home

Rupert Potter was a longtime friend of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. A barrister by trade, Potter was a very talented amateur photographer, as was his daughter, the author Beatrix Potter. He made a series of portraits of Millais during the 1880s in Millais’s London studio and house at 2 Palace Gate, Kensington.

Potter visited Millais in July of 1886, capturing the artist at a moment of leisure during work on the painting Lilacs and a portrait of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, which appear on easels.

Lost Monuments of St Paul’s

Long ago a reader commented with an interesting historical and, it turns out, archaeological question:

Visited St. Paul’s Cathedral today in hope of finding the epithet of our ancestor John Cawood who was Queen Mary’s and Queen Elizabeth’ royal printer in the 1500’s. He was a member of St. Faith under St. Paul’s Church and supposedly buried there. By chance do you have a listing of those who were buried there or other information.

Every monument that survived the Great Fire of 1666 is accounted for and John Cawood’s is not among them so we have to assume it was lost in the destruction of Old St Paul’s. Thankfully a description of the Cawood monument survives. Payne Fisher, who was poet-laureate to Oliver Cromwell, recorded all of the memorials, their locations and descriptions, in his book The Tombs, Monuments, &c., Visible in S. Paul’s Cathedral (and S. Faith’s Beneath It) Previous to Its Destruction by Fire A.D. 1666.

According to Fisher, the Cawood memorial was located “over the Pillar” in the “Eastern part of the Church.” The epitaph read as follows:

JOHN CAWOOD, Citizen and Stationer of London, Printer to the most renowned Queen’s Majesty, ELIZABETH; married three wives, and had issue by JOANE the first wife onely, as followeth, three sons, four daughters; JOHN his eldest Son being Bachelour of Law, and Fellow in New Colledge in Oxenford, died 1580; MARY married to GEORGE BISHOPPPE, stationer; ISABELL married to THOMAS WOODCOCK, stationer; GABRAEL, his second Son bestowed this dutifull Remembrance of his deare Parents 1591, then Churchwarden; SUSANNA married to ROBERT BULLOCK; BARBARA married to married to MARK NORTON; EDMUND third son died 1570.

He died 1 of Aprill, 1572 he being of Age then 58.

Fisher’s book can be read in its entirety online.

Three Cheers for the Old Prayer Book

In early 2019 The Times reported a revival of traditional Anglican worship among younger churchgoers in Britain based on the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. I commented on the article at the time. The evidence was anecdotal but encouraging.

This week The Daily Mail reports that Marylebone Parish in London has seen its congregation grow exponentially after returning to the Prayer Book.

A Church of England parish has boosted its flock 20-fold after adopting traditional services abandoned by most Anglicans.

By 2010, St Marylebone in central London had seen its regular congregation fall to just six people.

But since the Rev Canon Dr Stephen Evans began to conduct services from the 500-year-old Book of Common Prayer attendance has risen.

It now stands at 100-plus, despite virus restrictions.

Dr Evans says the old prayer book’s ‘rich liturgical and linguistic heritage’ clearly still has wide appeal.

Perhaps more parishes will try this experiment.

Books from Boots

Sir John Betjeman wrote, “Think of what our Nation stands for, / Books from Boots’ and country lanes, / Free speech, free passes, class distinction, / Democracy and proper drains.” It is one of the poet’s many unexpectedly precise evocations of midcentury English life.

On Twitter, Anne Louise Avery wrote an interesting history of the lending libraries at Boots pharmacies during the first half of the twentieth century:

I remember asking my mother, who grew up in the 30s & 40s, about the Boots library, and she said, of course, that’s where we all got our weekly novels. At the time, Boots was as much associated with reading as it was with Calamine lotion and Friars Balsam & Syrup of Figs.

The “Boots Book-Lovers’ Library” was a circulating library which began in 1898, as one of the innovations applied to the family business by Jesse Boot’s brilliant, socially-conscious wife Florence.

Often taking her children to work with her, a cot squeezed into the corner of her office, Florence wanted to boost literacy levels amongst the poor and working class, enabling cheap, widespread access to books.

She began by installing a small revolving bookcase in the Nottingham Boots in Goose Gate, then established a proper library in the Pelham Street branch of the city.

There were 3 types of membership, priced from 3d. All members received a token & date of renewal, which could be attached to the borrowed book through the distinctive hole in the spine, the token then acting as a bookmark…

By the 1940s, there were over a million subscribers, 38 million books were exchanged in one year. The libraries were cosy, welcoming, with rugs and fresh flowers and trained librarians to help.

The Boots Booklovers Library closed in 1966 following the passage of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which provided for council-funded local libraries.