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.

Fenimore Cooper in New York

For many years I lived on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. During that time I wrote a biography of James Fenimore Cooper. My office at the back of the apartment overlooked a charmless space behind the neighboring bars, restaurants, and apartment buildings. But as I was researching and writing the book I discovered that the room afforded me a view of Cooper’s own house. 149 Bleecker Street is one of two surviving city residences. Cooper, his wife Susan, and their children, moved into the house in 1833, after a seven year sojourn in Europe.

I describe their arrival in the following excerpt:

The Coopers disembarked on Manhattan Island along with four Swiss servants and a French tiger cat named Coquelicot, after the French word for poppy, the flower that had made such an impression on the family when first seen at Netley Abbey. From the docks they went directly to the City Hotel on Broadway between Thames and Cedar streets. A letter was waiting for them at reception from Susan’s sister Caroline. She informed them that lodgings had been rented for the Coopers in Greenwich Village. It was Samuel Morse who had made the arrangements. He selected for them a townhouse at number 4 Carroll Place, what is now 149 Bleecker Street. In 1833 the section of Bleecker between Thompson Street and LaGuardia Place (then Laurens Street) was named Carroll Place, after Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Susan’s sisters had taken it upon themselves to furnish and prepare the house. In a letter to Ann Pomeroy, her sister-in-law, Susan wrote that the DeLancey women “had every thing as comfortable for us, as it was possible, a good and bright fire, and tea ready—and were themselves on the steps waiting to welcome us—It was a happy moment, when I heard their dear voices, and pressed them to my bosom, after so long a separation”. Within an hour of their arrival the Coopers were joined at Carroll Place by James’s niece (Ann’s daughter) Georgeann, her husband Theodore Keese, and their son George Pomeroy Keese, as well another niece, Isaac’s daughter, Mary.

The Coopers also received a warm welcome from their oldest and dearest friends. Upon learning that they had returned, William Dunlap made haste to the house at Carroll Place. In his enthusiasm he arrived before the Coopers. As James Beard writes, Samuel Morse, who had preceded them across the Atlantic, “immediately resumed his intimacy with the Coopers”—as did James’s lifelong friend, William Jay, and Jay’s brother Peter, along with their families.

Viewed from the old office (below), the house in question is third from the foreground, with a black garret window. The taller building in the middle is part of the original terraced row with its neighbors, but was later extended by two storeys.

149 Bleecker Street has been occupied by Terra Blues for the past thirty years.

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!

Elephant and Swastika

A souvenir from the recent trip to Vermont is this very threadbare cloth and wood elephant from India. It was given to my parents many years ago as a gift and in my infancy I rode it over the Alps, so to speak, in no small part contributing to its present condition. My oldest and dearest friend has been its custodian of late and kindly passed it back to me when he visited us for tea.

It seems a fitting curio to take home since we were staying at the former house of Rudyard Kipling, whose association with India and the British Raj needs no elaboration.

Kipling used a roundel depicting the head of an elephant surmounted by a swastika as a personal logo. It appears on most editions of his books published in the early twentieth century, after his residence in Vermont. Kipling employed the ancient Indo-European sun symbol as a good luck charm. The Sanskrit word swastika means “conducive to well-being,” with roots derived from fortune and auspiciousness.

The medallion was designed by Kipling’ father, John Lockwood Kipling, whose decoration of the house is examined in a previous post. Lockwood Kipling had earlier connected the elephant and swastika in an illustration for the 1894 book, Tales of the Punjab, by Flora Annie Steel.

The illustration depicts a scene from “The Two Brothers,” wherein the king is to be chosen by a sacred elephant “kneeling down and saluting the favored individual as he passed by, for in this manner Kings were elected in that country.” The swastika appears on the elephant’s headdress.

The Night Cometh

Rudyard Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, visited his son’s family at Naulakha in Brattleboro, Vermont, in June of 1893, shortly after the house was built. The elder Kipling was an accomplished illustrator and art teacher. His appointment to a professorship in Bombay accounted for the family’s long association with India. He illustrated many of Rudyard Kipling’s novels, including The Jungle Book, which was written in Vermont. One of his most famous illustrations was his son’s ex libris.

During that summer, Lockwood Kipling contributed a number of interesting decorative touches to the house, at least two of which survive. I have been exploring Naulakha, as detailed in my previous post, At Rudyard Kipling’s House. It has been a pleasure to discover—and even to touch—Lockwood’s work, having seen a nicely curated exhibit at the Victoria and Albert in London several years ago.

Above the fireplace in the study, Lockwood inscribed in bas relief a quotation from the King James Bible: “The Night Cometh when No Man can Work.” It comes from John’s Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples: “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”

Upstairs another example of Lockwood’s art can be found. In the day nursery, now a dressing room connecting two bedrooms, a plaster relief of a cat and two birds adorns a thin panel beside the bay window.

The house is full of remnants left behind by the Kiplings. This includes furniture and framed prints: George Frederic Watts’s Hope, which hangs on the wall of the master bedroom, is original, as are a number of French military prints. Above the desk in Kipling’s study are two Tiffany stained glass windows that light up like the dawn sky. These features can be seen in the earlier post linked above.

At Rudyard Kipling’s House

In 1893, Rudyard Kipling and his American wife Caroline settled near her family in Brattleboro, Vermont. Kipling designed a house to suit them: an Indian bungalow in the New England shingle style. He named it Naulakha. The word means nine lakh, or nine-hundred thousand, an extraordinary price in rupees, signifying its value. There is a pavilion of that name at Lahore Fort in the Punjab.

Kipling intended to make Vermont his permanent home. But after a very public falling out with his brother-in-law it was not to be. He felt hounded by the local press, his family’s privacy encroached upon, and his home no longer a haven. The Kiplings moved back to England in 1896.

The three years that he lived at Naulakha were fruitful for Kipling. In his study at the back of the house, he wrote The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, parts of Kim and The Just So Stories. In 1896 his daughter Elsie was born there.

Growing up I spent many school holidays in lower Vermont: many long lush summers and white Christmases. I had seen Naulakha once or twice from the road but had never been inside. This week my family and I are up for the foliage, which begins just a little earlier than our own in the Hudson Valley. We have been staying at Naulakha, which is now a guest house. It is little changed from Kipling’s day. The desk where he wrote The Jungle Book sits in the study.

Where the statue of a lion appears on the bookcase today, the statue of a wolf can be seen in a photograph of Kipling from the 1890s (above). We found that same wolf in the attic, one of two plaster pieces given to the Kiplings by Joel Chandler Harris, the author of Br’er Rabbit. They depict Bagheera and Gray Brother from The Jungle Book.

Kipling belonged to a family of artists active in the Arts and Crafts movement. His father John Lockwood Kipling was the subject of a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert in 2017: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was an uncle by marriage. The Arts and Crafts aesthetic permeates the interior design of Naulakha, leaving many built-ins and decorative fittings even as the house changed hands between then and now.

In order to reach Kipling’s study, visitors had to pass through Caroline’s office. She was the arbiter of who was admitted to see him. Above her desk hangs a portrait of the author by his cousin Philip Burne-Jones.

The house has a happy and comforting atmosphere—all the more so this time of year, with a fire in the hearth, and the children marching around exploring. We brought our happiness with us, of course. But the Kiplings found it here too.

“There are only two places in the world where I want to live,” Kipling wrote in 1898, “Bombay and Brattleboro. And I can’t live at either.”

The Saint-Gaudens Diana

When Stanford White designed the second Madison Square Garden at 26th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, he commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a statue of the Roman goddess Diana, which would surmount the tower.

The venue opened in 1890 and Diana was installed the following year. Saint-Gaudens made several versions and casts of the sculpture. At eighteen feet and eighteen hundred pounds the original was deemed too large and was replaced. It went on to adorn the Women’s Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where it was ultimately destroyed by the fire that ravaged the fairgrounds eight month after the exhibition concluded.

A second version was installed at Madison Square Garden in November of 1893. A much lighter thirteen feet of hollow gilt copper, it functioned as a weathervane, turning on an orb plinth in the wind. This version became an iconic feature of the New York City skyline, lit at night by electric lights.

When Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925 the statue was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it remains today.

Diana of the Tower still has a presence in New York, in the form of a 1928 cast. It stands in pride of place in the courtyard of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in front of a fine Neoclassical facade, both pictured below.

The House That Sherlock Holmes Built

The Broadway actor-manager William Gillette was famous for playing Sherlock Holmes. His 1899 production was the first stage play authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The image of the character with his deerstalker hat, magnifying glass, and curved meerschaum pipe is largely derived from Gillette’s stage persona.

A native of Connecticut, Gillette built a large and eccentric country house in Hadlyme near the mouth of the Connecticut River. The estate is now operated as a state park.

Gillette Castle re-opened this summer season after being closed for more than a year. I took the opportunity to visit on opening day back in May.

The exterior could pass for a gothic ruin weathered by centuries. The interior is Arts & Crafts. The walls are covered in woven rattan. Secret doors communicated between rooms so Gillette could surprise (or avoid) his guests.

While the house was being built he lived on a boat named Aunt Polly. It was later destroyed in a fire but a few details remain.

Upstairs in the tower is a collection of theatrical memorabilia, including sketches of Gillette in character by Pamela Colman Smith, who illustrated the Rider-Waite tarot.

A miniature railway once traversed the estate. Gillette housed his engines in a shed he called Grand Central Station. Walking trails now follow the route of the rails.

Gillette Castle is currently opened for tours through September 6, 2021.

Nantucket Scrimshaw

If you watched my experiment with a whale oil lamp, you know that I have an interest in nineteenth century whaling. There are two fine museums dedicated to that bygone industry, located in the Massachusetts coastal towns that feature in Melville’s novel, Moby Dick: New Bedford and Nantucket. Having sailed out to Nantucket recently, I visited the museum on the island.

Pictured below are examples of scrimshaw from the collection—in this case whale teeth—laboriously engraved by sailors, as well as the once ubiquitous whalebone corset.