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.
“When he descended the earth-cliff at some point a little north of Eastham village and its ‘salt pond,’ Thoreau found what he had come to see,” wrote Henry Beston in his introduction to the 1951 edition of Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau. “There lay the unbroken miles which had stirred his interest when he had seen them on the map, there stood the outer beach.”
What Thoreau first called The Great Beach in Eastham, Massachussetts is now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. I have been summering on the Cape and walking a great deal, a little ways in Thoreau’s footsteps. Below: Salt Pond and the Atlantic.
Napoleon Bonaparte died two hundred years ago today. It is worth revisiting the amusing headlines that accompanied the Emperor’s return to France in 1815, following his first exile on Elba.
As reported in The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume XVIII,
The French newspapers which, in 1815, were subject to the censor, announced the departure of Bonaparte from Elba, his progress through France, and his entry into Paris in the following ingenious manner:
— 9th March, the Anthropophagus has quitted his den
— 10th, the Corsican Ogre has landed at Cape Juan
— 11th, the Tiger has arrived at Gap
— 12th, the Monster slept at Grenoble
— 13th, the Tyrant has passed through Lyons
— 14th, the Usurper is directing his steps towards Dijon, but the brave and loyal Burgundians have risen en masse and surrounded him on all sides
— 18th, Bonaparte is only sixty leagues from the capital; he has been fortunate enough to escape the hands of his pursuers
— 19th, Bonaparte is advancing with rapid steps, but he will never enter Paris
— 20th, Napoleon will, tomorrow, be under our ramparts
— 21st, the Emperor is at Fontainbleau
— 22nd, His Imperial and Royal Majesty, yesterday evening, arrived at the Tuileries, amidst the joyful acclamations of his devoted and faithful subjects.
In Moby-Dick, Melville wrote, “But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”
This weekend I opened up a 125-year old bottle of whale oil and used the oil to light a lamp. I filmed a short video of the process which you can watch below, or at YouTube.
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.
“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:
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.
Pictured below: the guestbook of the Morgan Library from 1911. The novelist Henry James visited on January 18 of that year. His signature appears fourth from the bottom. I photographed this page a few years ago during the exhibition of Henry James and American Painting which I reviewed at the time.
VICTORIANA: ARTS, LETTERS, AND CURIOSITIES OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Hardcover, 160 pp (New York: Castle Imprint, 2019) Bookshop Amazon Barnes & Noble
“That after men might turn the page / And light on fancies true & sweet / And kindle with a loyal heat / To fair Victoria’s golden age”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, To the Queen (draft), 1851.
The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity in Britain. The transatlantic telegraph, Bessemer steel, modern sewage systems, and the first forays into analytical computing were all introduced during this time, when the British Empire governed a quarter of the globe. In the Anglosphere of the twenty-first century we have inherited the technologies of the nineteenth century but we have not inherited the culture that once contained them. The World Wars obliterated that culture. In the crisis of the early twentieth century the context in which the modern world had been developing was suddenly removed.
Was a different modernity possible? Something more romantic? Something more authentic? A future of dirigibles, telephones, Prussian and Russian monarchy on the Continent, railways (instead of motorways), heritage crafts, muscular Christianity, classical education, art and architecture that continued to develop within the Western vernacular not against it?
The Victorian period occupies a special place in our popular culture. Every year it is recreated on page, stage, and screen in pastiche. No other era is revisited with such regularity. What is it that fascinates us? I believe we see in the Victorian past a future that might have been. Or that might yet be. The Victorians were forced by the exigencies of history to find a balance between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and populism, community and individuality, the old and the new. These forces coexisted, if not always comfortably, then at least sympathetically and effectively. We have lost that balance. Sooner or later the exigencies of our own history will demand that we strike it again.
This book involves a cultural history of nineteenth-century Britain. I write “a” cultural history and not “the” cultural history because it is by no means exhaustive. The major figures in arts and letters are examined in detail: Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelite painters particularly. But you will read nothing of Darwin, Marx, or Freud. And you will read rather more about Thomas De Quincey than you might in another book about the period. Insomuch as I have written a general introduction to Victorian arts and letters, I have also, necessarily, written a very personal one. I trust that you will encounter in these pages interesting people and works previously unfamiliar, and familiar ones from unexpected angles. If I am successful you will come any with a touchstone to that lost future that still fascinates us. What you will make of it (indeed, what we will make of it as a society) remains to be seen.