Thrill to the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Musical Museum

Visiting the Musical Museum near Kew Bridge last week was huge fun and it’s something I thoroughly recommend. So what’s it about? It comprises a large collection of 19th – early 20th century self-playing musical instruments and (and this is the fun bit) most of them still work. I went on a group tour, guided by the wonderful Roy Huddlestone – now eighty-six and looking twenty years younger – who not only knows the various instruments and their stories inside out but also demonstrates them, to thrilling effect. Until you’ve heard the Popper ‘Clarabella’ Orchestrion, which, in its 1910 heyday thrilled customers in a German Bier Garten, complete with flashing lights and lit up ornamental waterfall, not to mention a bronze statue of the Pied Piper, belting out popular tunes fortissimo with full orchestral piano, xylophone, Glockenspiel, drums, cymbals and triangle, you ain’t lived.

Orchestrion from the front

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Bulgarian pottery: the Shock of the Old

Never mind about the ‘Shock of the New’, sometimes the Shock of the Old can take your breath away just as forcefully. Have a look at this large plate:

How old do you think it is? Could it be by Picasso, who became interested in ceramics in the 1950s? Or are we talking 1980s Scandinavian?

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The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments

My copy of this famous book belonged to my grandfather and dates from the late 19th century. It’s based on a French translation by Antoine Galland, who heard it in oral form from a Middle Eastern story teller in Aleppo, sometime in the early 17th century. Galland’s translation appeared in 1704-8 and became an instant hit. James Mason, who edited this English version, wrote: ‘Few works have been translated into so many languages, or given such wide-spread delight.’

He felt that it was particularly well adapted ‘for putting into the hands of the young, to stimulate their growing faculties, to cultivate their imagination, and to assist, by healthy exercise, the expansion of their mental powers.’ We know that Charles Dickens loved the stories since childhood. As my grandfather’s copy was acquired when he was well into his forties, I would argue that it’s a wonderful book for all ages.

The Sultan Schahriah and Scheherazade (above) and her sister Dinarzade (below)

I do not know who is responsible for the illustrations; the frontispiece says only ‘With numerous illustrations.’

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The Mysterious Etruscans

Tuscany, Italy, last year. The first thing our guide to the Etruscans said was, ‘Everyone calls the Etruscans “mysterious” and it’s simply not true.’ By the end of the week, I thought: You’re wrong. Yes, thanks to archaeology, we can see inside their tombs; admire their grave goods, the amazing terracotta sculptures, and their famous black bucchero ware; and we know what the Romans thought of them. But, for me, the Etruscans themselves still remain fascinatingly elusive. This is why.

 Apollo, from the temple at Veii

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J. E. Millais: The Woodman’s Daughter, a tragic tale for Valentine’s Day

This week I’m looking at a poem/picture about love: a tale of a fatal attraction between two children. She, Maud, is a woodman’s daughter; he is the squire’s son and they meet in his father’s woods where Maud’s father, Gerald, is clearing the undergrowth. The story comes from Coventry Patmore’s 1844 poem The Woodman’s Daughter.

The young Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais (1829-1896), came across the poem and made it the subject of his 1851 Royal Academy painting.

The Woodman’s Daughter by John Everett Millais

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Celebrating Artemisia Gentileschi

I first came across the Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1652), in Our Hidden Heritage by Eleanor Tofts, published in 1974. It was one of those books at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s which sought to re-instate women writers, artists and composers whose works had been forgotten or downgraded.

Our Hidden History by Eleanor Tofts, 1974

Artemisia was taught to paint by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in Rome. Both were influenced by the new style of the painter, Caravaggio, with its accentuated use of shadows, strong colours and dramatic story-telling. Artemisia became known for her wit and high-spirits, as well as her painting. But, when she was only seventeen, her life took a traumatic turn. She was raped by a friend of her father’s, a fellow painter called Agostino Tasso. Orazio appealed to the Pope and Agostino was brought to trial. Artemisia was cross-questioned under torture but held firm, and Tasso was imprisoned for eight months. Poor Artemisia was hastily married off and moved to Florence.

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The Secret Life of a Victorian Screen

In the 19th century, screens were very popular and many well-to-do day homes had one. They comprised three wooden frames hinged together, with hessian stretched across each frame and painted to create a base for illustrations. The owners would decorate the screen themselves. They could buy a whole range of painted decorations – often flowers, birds or animals – and customize the screen to suit their own tastes. Looking at the oval photographs of Princess Beatrice (Queen Victoria’s youngest child) and Prince Henry of Battenburg which probably celebrates their wedding in 1886, I’m guessing that my screen dates from the late 1880s, and I suspect that the original owner was female, romantic and about thirteen. I’ve named her Muriel after my great-grandmother.

One of the pictures is interestingly misleading.

Three boys pulling girl in sleigh on the ice

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British Library Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun

Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to be invited to the preview of this small but fascinating exhibition at the British Library. It celebrates late 19th century popular entertainment through vividly-coloured posters, playbills, and various magical artefacts. It concentrates on major entertainment characters, such as Dan Leno, Mr Evanion, ‘Lord’ George Sanger, and John Nevil Maskelyne.

I love this cut-out novelty of Ada Blanche as Dick Whittington on a swing, plus cat in Dan Leno’s pantomime at the Theatre Royal, London in 1894.

Ada Blanche as Dick Whittington advertising novelty

Theatre Royal novelty: Now in full swing, Dick Whittington at Drury Lane

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J. E. Millais and the Seductive Mariana

This is Mariana – and she has a problem. She was betrothed to Angelo, a man she was passionately in love with, but, when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, the rat Angelo repudiated her. She now lives a lonely life in a moated grange. But things are about to change…

Mariana brighter

Millais’s painting ‘Mariana’

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Jane Austen and the Missing Grandparents

In this post, I want to look at the curious fact that none of Jane Austen’s heroines (whose ages range between seventeen and twenty-seven) or her heroes (whose ages range from about twenty-four to thirty-seven) have living grandparents. Indeed, that older generation of, say, sixty plus, seems to be missing. Can this be true? And, if so, what difference does it make? To answer these questions, we need a bit of background information about life expectancy in the early 19th century. Edwin Chadwick’s ground-breaking 1842 survey on public health, tells us that the life expectancy of a member of the gentry or professional class in Rutland (chosen as a typical rural location) was fifty-two; and for an artisan or labourer, it was thirty-eight. There are, of course, a number of factors to be taken into account: infant mortality rates, for example, but for the purpose of this post, I’m staying with the basic facts, as near as we can get them.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870
after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870

The only young lady in Jane Austen’s novels with a living grandparent is Jane Fairfax in Emma who has the aged Mrs Bates, ‘a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille.’ I’ll be looking at how old Mrs Bates actually is later.

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