Views of The Grange

Seven photographs depicting the home of Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, taken in 1887 by Frederick Hollyer, will be auctioned at Christie’s later this month. The artist and his family moved into The Grange, an 18th century house in West Kensington, London, twenty year earlier. Views include the exterior, drawing room, dining room; garden studio, and daughter Margaret’s bedroom. The lot, which is being sold by descendants, is estimated between one and two thousand pounds.

White Horse

But thou, Goddess, farewell, and turn thy steeds to the Ocean stream,
And I will endure my misery still, even as I have borne it.
Farewell, bright-faced Selene; and farewell too, ye stars,
That follow the slow-moving chariot of the tranquil Night.

—Theocritus, Idylls.

Pictured above: head of a chariot horse belonging to the moon-goddess Selene, designed by Pheidias in marble, once situated on the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens, now at the British Museum.

The Fleet Revisited

Over the past few years, I have made several attempts to film the River Fleet as it passes under a storm grate on Saffron Hill. You can see one of these attempts in an earlier blog post about the subterranean waterway. The Fleet is one of London’s “lost” rivers, a once-important tributary of the Thames that was covered over and incorporated into the sewer system in the 1800s.

My most recent attempt has proven successful, yielding clear footage. You can watch the video embedded below.

A Tower Raven

An apocryphal but well-known story tells of a prophesy: if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the Kingdom will fall. Out of an abundance of caution a flock of the birds are kept in residence.

Pictured above: a raven perched on a surviving portion of London Wall (the Roman defensive works that surrounded third-century Londinium) beside the White Tower.

A Spitalfields Tour

The Gentle Author is crowdfunding a walking tour of Spitalfields in East London. It draws from the centuries of cultural history documented on his blog, Spitalfields Life. The tour would challenge a market cynically dominated by Jack the Ripper. The Gentle Author writes,

I am appalled that educational institutions send classes of students and school children on the exploitative serial killer tours which display autopsy photographs of women in the street, indulging in ghoulish humour at the expense of these victims.

Instead, I am offering visitors the opportunity to meet a member of the local community and learn something of the infinite variety of life that has evolved in London’s first suburb over two millennia. For the past two years, I have been developing and road-testing THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS which I plan to launch this spring.

A donation of £100 or more includes two complimentary tickets.

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.”

Bulldog Drummond at the Drones Club

I have been watching the Bulldog Drummond films produced at Paramount Pictures in the late 1930s, adapted from H.C. McNeile’s pulp novels. The titular Captain Hugh Drummond is an English gentleman and veteran of the Great War who seeks out mystery and espionage on the home front in the interwar period.

The Paramount series features American actor John Howard as Drummond, who would go on to play Katherine Hepburn’s fiancée in The Philadelphia Story. John Barrymore appears in the first three films as Drummond’s ally, Colonel Nielson of Scotland Yard, occasionally disguised in elaborate Victorian stage makeup. The nine entries are low budget, but thoroughly enjoyable, comparable to Twentieth Century Fox’s Charlie Chan mysteries and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series of the same period.

In adapting the source material the tone was altered. Howard’s Drummond owes as much to P.G. Wodehouse as he does to Sapper, an improvement. The Wodehousian influence ranges in degrees of subtlety.

Whereas Sapper’s Drummond is married to Phyllis Benton, the Paramount films are set on the eve of their postponed wedding, with the events of each plot once again interrupting the nuptials. They are finally married in the last film, Bulldog Drummond’s Bride. As a bachelor, Drummond becomes a sort of capable, two-fisted Bertie Wooster. His valet, played by E.E. Clive, stands in for Jeeves, with lines like “I endeavor to give satisfaction, Sir,” upon producing a much-needed pistol. Reginald Denny plays Drummond’s friend Algy Longworth as the sort of comedic fop who comprise the membership of the Drones Club.

And indeed, Wodehouse’s fictional London club features in the dialogue, implying a crossover literary universe.

In Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1938) we find Drummond rehearsing a speech for his bachelor party, addressed to “fellow members of the Drones Club.” Sapper’s Drummond is a member of the fictional Junior Sports Club in St James’s.

Wodehouse certainly read the Drummond books. Leave It to Psmith contains an extended parody of the first novel.

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.”