A New Essay in ‘Plum Lines’

In 1914 the English novelist P.G. Wodehouse was married at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan. This parish is New York’s historic actors church, known fondly in theatrical circles as “The Little Church Around the Corner.” For the rest of his long career Wodehouse commemorated the event by sending his characters there to be married. He even set the finale of a Broadway musical at the church, necessitating its recreation on stage.

My essay about the parish appears in the Spring issue of Plum Lines: The Quarterly Journal of the Wodehouse Society. If you are a member of the Society, you have your copy. If not, join here.

Oxford 1928

The 1920s were probably the last golden age of university life on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a time when serious scholarship, gentlemanly sport, camaraderie, and collegiate gothic were still the rule, before academia became an increasingly dreary training ground for the increasingly deranged Post-War political order.

At Oxford in 1928 the Union and Dramatic societies collaborated on a short film documenting student life. It was filmed by C.C. Calvert and edited by Thorold Dickinson, who went on to direct the superior 1940 version of Gaslight starring Anton Walbrook.

Oxford can be watched in its entire 19-minutes via the British Film Institute. But just the still frame above captures much that was special about the time and place. 

Rip Van Winkle at the D.A.C.

When I was growing up my father was a member of the Downtown Athletic Club on West Street in lower Manhattan. The D.A.C. was best known for awarding the Heisman Trophy to college football players beginning in the 1930s. The clubhouse was a purpose-built Art Deco tower with sports facilities, baths, dining, and guest rooms. Located near the Battery its membership mostly worked on Wall Street.

The club is gone now. It was in financial decline by the late 1990s when I graduated high school and it never reopened after 9/11. The landmarked building has been converted into condos and the membership were scattered to our midtown clubs.

For a time the D.A.C. boasted the longest bar in New York. Above it hung a mural based on Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle.” An article in the June 1931 club bulletin describes the artwork:

The first panel at the extreme left shows Rip Van Winkle going up into the Catskills with his newly found friend. In the center panel we see Henrich Hudson’s men bowling, drinking and having a general good time. Rip is partaking generously from the jug. The third panel shows Old Rip’s return to town where after twenty years no one seems to know him.

Aldo Lazzarini, the artist, spent about six weeks on the paintings and J. Schuyler Casey often visited the studio to watch the work as it progressed.

The only picture I could find of the mural is the low-quality scan reproduced above. It shows a detail from the center panel. I wonder what happened to the mural. I would like to think it found a good home.

The Met Armory

Bashford Dean, who founded the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote:

Helmets and body armor are usually considered as objects beautiful, rather than useful. They are exhibited in museums, in halls hung with tapestries, beside faience, ivories and enamels of olden times… [but] one may point to the evidence of ancient and formidable injuries which numerous specimens of armor exhibit today; and one may even affirm that there was scarcely a famous soldier in those days who did not owe his life, directly or indirectly to his armor.

The quote comes from Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare, published in 1920. Dean was foremost a marine biologist but a lifelong weapons collector and researcher.

Tweed Archive: Prince of Wales Edition

HRH Prince Charles, writing in The Telegraph, September 2016:

I want to encourage much greater understanding of wool not only as a global environmental resource—versatile, sustainable, renewable and natural—but also as a global fashion resource of the highest quality, with a natural elasticity that makes it easy to care for and a cell structure that allows it to adapt to its environment, making it cool to wear in summer and warm in winter.

Dunsany’s Signet Seals

Lord Dunsany, the Anglo-Irish writer of weird fiction, employed a number of wax seals of his own design in the early twentieth century. They are all strange and whimsical. Douglas A. Anderson recently posted photographs of half a dozen or so at A Shiver in the Archives. See two examples above.

Another interesting seal used by Dunsany appears on a letter he wrote in 1918. He had drafted a playful warrant, or certificate, admitting his cousin Mary into “The Most Singular Order of the Crocodile and Cart.” It is sealed with a caricature of Dunsany in profile with the epithet “Edvardus Avunculus.” He refers to it as his Avuncular Seal.

The item sold at auction at Whyte’s in 2019.

The Voynich Manuscript, a Modern Forgery?

Every six months or so a new solution to the cryptic Voynich Manuscript is touted in academic journals and/or tabloid press. The document purports to be a cipher-herbal from the fifteenth century. Its Medieval origin is asserted and repeated uncritically by otherwise credible sources, but I am convinced that the manuscript is a twentieth-century forgery. The theory that it was created by or for the book dealer Wilfrid Voynich between 1908 and 1910 has been elaborated upon by Richard SantaColoma in his excellent blog. Consider:

1. The Voynich Manuscript has no independent provenance.

There is no written evidence that can be used as provenance for the famous and enigmatic Voynich Manuscript. Although it is claimed that certain 17th century mentions of a manuscript are the Voynich, on close examination these fail to satisfy the most basic standards of proof that the work existed back then.

This claimed provenance is in a small selection of 17th century letters to and from the Jesuit Polymath, Athanasius Kircher. These include mentions of a mysterious, unintelligible manuscript. From them, we learn that a Georg Baresch is the first assumed owner of the manuscript they describe. But these descriptions do not actually come close to identifying it as the Voynich Manuscript…

Moreover the proposed provenance is suspicious.

Voynich claimed to have found the Cipher Ms. in a “castle in Southern Europe”, and an “Austrian Castle”, and later, the Villa Mondragone in Frascati.

2. Voynich possessed sufficient materials to forge it. Immediately before the appearance of the manuscript, Voynich purchased the Liberia Franceschini, which consisted of:

over one half a million books, maps, pamplets and incuncubilia…Voynich could have had access to much unused, blank parchment…It would have taken just one blank ledger in that vast archive of unknown content to create a “Voynich” Ms.

3. He had or could access the skills to forge it.

Voynich sold at least one (known) forgery, the Columbus Miniature. It is considered by some a “Spanish Forger” work, but is also sometimes attributed to another unknown forger or shop.

For his own part, Voynich was “a trained chemist.” His friend, the spy Sidney Reilly, “took a book on mixing medieval inks out of the Cambridge library.”

And finally, there are anachronisms in both the subject matter and the physical binding of the manuscript. I urge anyone interested in literary mysteries to read Mr. SantaColoma’s scholarship at the blog linked above.

The Yale Club Bookplate

Howard Pyle was born on this day in 1853. He was the first of the golden age American illustrators, followed by his pupil N.C. Wyeth. Through Pyle a faint Pre-Raphaelite influence came to characterize the genre.

It interested me to discover a work by Pyle that I had seen many times before noticing his initials: the ex-libris of The Yale Club of New York City. Pyle’s design was commissioned in 1905. The plate was engraved by Edwin Davis French, whom Pyle described as “the best engraver in the world.” The ex-libris is affixed to every book in the clubhouse library.

Van Rensselaer Manor

From the year 1630 until well into the nineteenth century the Van Rensselaer family were lords of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, a vast fiefdom in upstate New York, around Albany. Killian Van Rensselaer had acquired the land from the Dutch West India Company ten years after the Mayflower landed and it remained in the family through successive Dutch, English, and American governments. I described the later years of the manor at length in my biography of James Fenimore Cooper, a friend of the family.

The manor house was dismantled in the 1890s and rebuilt as the Sigma Phi fraternity house, called Van Rensselaer Hall, at Williams College in Massachusetts. Unfortunately it was torn down by the college in the 1970s. The only surviving fragments of the house were interiors donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The wallpaper of the great hall has been used to reconstruct the room in the American Wing. On a recent visit to the museum I took the opportunity to photograph the furnishings in detail.

Dickens at 209

“I always go to bed at eight o’clock, except when it is my birthday, and then I sit up to supper.”—Charles Dickens, letter to Hastings Hughes, December 12, 1838.

“This is my birthday. Many happy returns of the day to you and me. I took it into my head yesterday to get up an impromptu dinner on this auspicious occasion—only my own folks, Leigh Hunt, [Harrison] Ainsworth, and [John] Forster.”—Charles Dickens, letter to J. P. Harley, February 7, 1839.

The great Boz was born on this day in 1812. I commend to your attention the following excerpts from my book Victoriana:

Dickens and the Stage
A Ghost Story for Christmas

and assorted Dickensian posts:

London By Gaslight
A Map of Dickensian London
A Lost Portrait of Charles Dickens Rediscovered
A Portrait of Charles Dickens Returns Home
A Dickensian Shop Sign