Victorian Age

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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This is my heroine of the week: the redoubtable – and diminuative (she was only 4ft and 10 ins) – Dame Sarah Ann Swift, the founder of the Royal College of Nursing.

Sarah Swift

Dame Sarah Ann Swift (1854-1937) by Herbert James Draper

Born in 1854, Sarah Swift had had a long and successful career in nursing and proved herself to be an excellent organizer. She had not long retired when war broke out but she immediately offered her services to the government. They accepted and she found herself responsible for the placement of 6000 trained nurses, and VAD nurses, in various war zones. It was 1916, and World War I was about to enter its most bloody stage; the Battle of the Somme, where over one million soldiers were killed.

RCN facing Cavendish Sq

20 Cavendish Square, home of the Royal College of Nursing

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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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This post is about two Arts and Crafts oak chairs with Walter Crane tiles, bought for ten shillings (50p),  with an intriguing story to tell. My mother, who loved auctions, got them from Mr Little’s Salerooms in Barnard Castle, an attractive upper Teesdale market town.

Chair a

The first History chair

They were, she explained, hall chairs, you weren’t meant to sit on them. In fact, they are excruciatingly uncomfortable, not to mention unsafe. I wouldn’t trust the front right leg of one of them (see photo above) and the other creaks ominously. But I like them, and I’m a fan of Walter Crane (1845-1915), an eminent artist who collaborated with William Morris. The tiles say a lot about late Victorian England and what people thought was important about English history. (And it’s definitely English history, as opposed to British.)

Caesar b

Julius Caesar tile by Walter Crane

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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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The Queen’s Gallery has two exhibitions on at the moment. The larger exhibition space is showing  Scottish Artists 1750-1900: from Caledonia to the Continent which I also saw at the Bloggers’ Breakfast preview last week. All the pictures come from the Royal Collection and the exhibition’s subtitle is well chosen – Sir Walter Scott’s phrase ‘Caledonia stern and wild’ comes to mind. I’m concentrating on just four of the paintings which George IV, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought that show their love of Scotland.

Deborah Clarke talks

Deborah Clarke talks about the exhibition

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Sometimes, when visiting a famous monument, I find that what attracts me most is the visual. Take the Cutty Sark, one of the last tea clippers to be built on the Clyde in 1863 and now permanently on display at Greenwich. There’s something about the interconnected intricacy of the rigging and masts, together with the elegant shape of the ship’s hull, which I find aesthetically deeply satisfying.

1 Hull

The hull

From this angle, it looks like some futuristic butterfly, and the shape of that curving hull is just beautiful.

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What makes people want to own something that once belonged to someone famous? Is it a desire to acquire some quality of the deceased by a sort of spiritual osmosis? Or is the object more akin to a relic, something to be venerated. Or, more personally, perhaps it reminds the new owner of a precious memory of the loved one, as with the 19th century fondness for locks of hair incorporated into mourning rings, brooches, and so on.

Henry WEllcome

Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) by Hugh Goldwin Rivière, 1906.

I was pondering this question when I visited the Wellcome Collection in London, founded by Sir Henry Wellcome, pharmaceutical entrepreneur and also founder of The Wellcome Trust which funds medical research. He was an obsessive collector of things medical and his collection is wide-ranging, not to say eccentric. It includes a number of objects only tenuously connected with medicine which once belonged to famous men – and women.

Napoleon's toothbrush

Napoleon’s Toothbrush

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