A Belgian at the Bodley

The Victorian establishment preached that art and literature fulfilled crucial ethical roles in society. If a creator dared to stray from the moral code, he was taken to court to be punished for his audacity – and so was his publisher. Critics of Émile Zola despised his ‘lavatorial’ literature and he felt the full power of repugnance when his novels were rendered into English. In 1888/9 publisher Henry Vizetelly of Catherine Street, Strand, was twice convictedof indecency for issuing two-shilling translations. The issue of ‘Corrupt Literature’ was discussed in the House of Commons in May 1888. Zola was rejected as an ‘apostle of the gutter’. To politicians and press barons, the moral health of the nation was at stake. The establishment was shocked when authors and artists of the Aesthetic Movement challenged the status quo by celebrating artistic, sexual, and socio-political experimentation. Having separated art from morality, they demanded an art for its own sake, that is: the disinterested pursuit of beauty. 

Our textbook narrative runs as follows: by the 1890s the term decadence had become fashionable and was used in connection with aestheticism. It originated from Paris and was used to describe the poetry of Baudelaire or Gautier with connotations of refinement, artificiality, ennui, and decline. Decadence was the complex literature of a society that had grown over-luxurious. From France, the movement spread to England thanks to the intervention of figures such as Walter Pater, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde. For a literary movement driven forward by foreign inspiration, however, a number of conditions have to come together. First and foremost, there is a simultaneous emergence (a ‘generation’) of talented representatives; then there is the essential support of a publisher prepared to take risks; and finally, there is the need for publicity (a ‘succès á scandale’ if possible). For such a movement to find wider acceptance and lasting significance in a hostile environment, the presence of a foreign ‘ambassador’ is of particular value. All these elements came together at a property in Vigo Street, Mayfair. Running between Regent Street and the junction of Burlington Gardens and Savile Row, this street was named after the Anglo-Dutch naval victory over the French and Spanish in the 1702 Battle of Vigo Bay during the War of the Spanish Succession. 

In 1887 Exeter bookseller Elkin Mathews and Devon-born John Lane formed a partnership in London to trade in antiquarian and second hand books. They established themselves at no. 6B Vigo Street, Mayfair. Over the shop door was a sign depicting Rembrandt’s head, which had been the insignia of the previous business on the site. Its new owners decided to replace the sign with that of Thomas Bodley, the Exeter-born founder of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and call their business The Bodley Head. Initially, Lane was the silent partner, but by 1892 he became actively involved in the running of the firm. From dealing in antiquarian books the partners changed direction and began to publish contemporary ‘decadent’ poetry. The Bodley Head became a sign of modernism. Nowadays, the house is associated with Ernest Dowson and The Book of the Rhymers’ Club (1892), with Aubrey Beardsley and the cover design of Oscar Wilde’s Poems (1892), and in particular with publication of the stunning Yellow Book series (1894/7; edited by Beardsley and Henry Harland). A contributor to the periodical was George Egerton (real name: Mary Chavelia Dunne). Her Keynotes (1893) caused a sensation by tackling controversial themes including sexual freedom, alcoholism, and suicide. In the public mind, whipped up by the popular press, Vigo Street smelled of immorality. When details about Oscar Wilde’s trial became widely known in April 1895, the premises of The Bodley Head were attacked by a stone-throwing mob.

Disagreements about the running of the firm led to the partnership to be dissolved in September 1894. Lane took the sign of The Bodley Head and moved to new premises in the Albany, Piccadilly. Mathews remained in Vigo Street and published the first editions of a number of important literary works, including Yeats’s The Wind among the Reeds in 1899, and James Joyce’s Chamber Music in 1907. Lane now concentrated mainly on publishing fiction. When he died in February 1925, control of the company passed to Allen Lane, a distant cousin who had learned the book trade from his uncle. He would become the founder and creator of Penguin Books. John Lane’s ‘ambassador’ was a man whose aesthetic outlook and artistic practice were formed by avant garde movements in Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris. The Bodley Head helped push the career of a Belgian poet and illustrator and, in doing so, integrate Continental modernism into mainstream British art and literature. 

Jean de Bosschère was born on 5 July 1878 in Ukkel (Uccle) in the Brussels region. He spent his childhood in Lier and studied art in Antwerp during the late 1890s when the city’s cultural scene was dominated by Art Nouveau. He began writing essays and monographs on (Flemish) art. He published his first collection of poetry Béâle-Gryne in 1909 to which he added his own illustrations in the style of Aubrey Beardsley. He also drew inspiration from Paul Claudel’s spiritual (Catholic) writing and the (French) symbolist poetry of his friend Max Elskamp. The theme of his first ‘poem-novel’ Dolorine et les ombres (1911) is the opposition between life and dream, between divine and profane love. Its content provoked an accusation of Satanism. The book was printed by Paul Buschmann (the ‘house printer’ of the Antwerp Society of Bibliophiles) in a limited edition of 250 copies. His approach was inspired by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in its ambition to create a perfect harmony between page, typography, and illustration. The Antwerp-based artist René Leclercq provided the novel with a portrait of the author. The impeccable presentation of this novel, aimed at a limited audience, set a precedent for all his later publications.

When World War I broke out, De Bosschère fled to London and settled in Hampstead. John Lane recognised his talent as a poet-illustrator and appreciated the hothouse temperature and erotic sophistication of his creative endeavour. In 1917 The Bodley Head published a collection of his poems under the title of The Closed Door. The translator of these poems was a significant figure. Frank Stuart [F.S.] Flint was a prominent member of the Imagist group. A poet and translator with a sound knowledge of French modernist literature, he ‘competed’ with Ezra Pound for being the brains behind the Imagist movement. The collection made an impact and the poet was admitted to the London elite of modernists. He influenced T.S. Eliot and befriended Pound, Joyce, Huxley, and others. In 1922, tribute was paid to his work by the American translator and Romanist Samuel Putnam in The World of Jean de Bosschère, published in an edition of 100 luxurious copies (with a letter of introduction by Paul Valéry). It cemented his place in the English-speaking world. 

A period of intense activity would follow. He illustrated classic works by Aristophanes, Ovid, Strato, and Apuleius, but he was very much involved with contemporary literature too. In 1927, he illustrated the Boni & Liveright edition (New York) of The Poems of Oscar Wilde. In 1928 he produced the plates for Baudelaire’s Little Poems in Prose, translated by Aleister Crowley, and published in a limited edition of 800 copies. Two years later, he enriched Richard Aldington’s translation (from the French) of Boccaccio’s Decameron with fifteen full-page colour plates. His distinctive, often grotesque style of fantasy illustration (with reminders of Jeroen Bosch) fitted children’s books as well. He authored and illustrated The City Curious (published by Heinemann in 1920), a masterpiece that rivals the achievements of Lewis Carroll. The choice of material indicates that his work was marked by a fascination with the erotic, the obscure, the child-like, and the occult. The pioneering technique of chromolithography as a method of colour printing which was developed in Paris by Godefroy Engelmann and refined by his son Godefroy II during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, did lend itself very well for his work and he applied the technique with great skill. It made him was one of the great colour-plate artists of the early twentieth century.

Apart from The Closed Door, John Lane published four more of books in which Jean de Bosschère participated:

1922: 550 copies of De Bosschère’s Job le Pauvre with fourteen illustrations by the author; frontispiece by Wyndham Lewis; text in French & English.

1923: 3,000 copies of The Golden Asse of Lucius Apuleius; translated by William Adlington; introduction by Edward Bolland Osborn; illustrated by De Bosschère. 

1924: 3,000 copies of Gustave Flaubert’s The First Temptation of Saint Anthony; translated by René Francis from the 1849/56 manuscripts; illustrated by De Bosschère.

1925: 3,000 copies ofThe Love Books of Ovid; a translation of Ars Amatoria by J. Lewis May; illustrated by De Bosschère.

The author and illustrator himself was back in continental Europe by then. His love affair with the translator Vera Anne Hamilton had blossomed in 1920, but she died two years later. He left London towards the end of 1922, spending the remaining years of his life in Paris, Brussels, and Sienna, where he worked on his novels and poetry collections. He remained a prolific artist, but his days of glory were gone. With the darkening socio-political atmosphere of the 1930s, modernist artists came under attack. The general movement was away from individual vision towards joined values. Contemporary society was attacked for the disintegration of principles and decline of moral authority. The brutality of Nazism, the fury of Fascism, and the emergence of Bolshevik realism, dealt a mortal blow to modernist exploration. De Bosschère’s work sunk into relative obscurity. He died in January 1953 in France. From 1946 onwards, he kept a diary titled Journal d’un rebelle solitaire (as yet unpublished). Jean de Bosschère’s work deserves a catalogue raisonné – urgently.

Puzzled Europe | St Martin’s Lane (Covent Garden)

The Enlightenment (‘siècle des lumières’) was the age of European Union proper. Enlightenment was an outlook and an attitude: rational, inclusive, and outward-looking. Geography was its preferred science. Travel, travel-writing, and remote explorations excited the curiosity of the eighteenth century. From dangerous journeys to unexplored parts of the world to the ‘civilised’ passage of Grand Tourists, the age was on the move, both physically and intellectually. The ‘other’ was treated as an intriguing figure, not as a threat or risk. The ambition was to create an open and diverse society by bringing down barriers and borders that obstruct individuals to progress. Enlightenment was both a movement and a state of mind: an intellectual and psychological alliance, not an economic one. Economics alone will not built a community of minds. Instead, it tends to divide and destroy any sense of common purpose or perspective. 

Refugees played a crucial role in the spread of Enlightenment ideas. The Rainbow Coffee House Group was a circle of mainly Huguenot intellectuals who met informally at the Rainbow Coffee House in Lancaster Court, off St Martin’s Lane, where they exchanged books and ideas, and engaged in discussion on philosophical and theological topics associated with the growth of scepticism in early eighteenth century Europe. With links to Paris and the Low Countries, its members formed part of an international web for the free flow of ideas and views. Convention was the enemy. The driving force behind the group was the journalist and biographer Pierre Des Maizeaux. He promoted the circulation of English scientific and philosophical ideas on the Continent through his contributions to French-language periodicals published in the Netherlands, and maintained an impressive network of contacts. Pierre Coste was a close friend of Des Maizeaux and his translations of John Locke and Newton facilitated the spread of their work throughout Europe. Michael de la Roche was a journalist and translator who worked on the first English translation of Bayle’s Dictionnaire critique. He played a major role in the dissemination of English science and philosophy abroad, and conducted a campaign in favour of religious toleration. The unorthodox bias of the Rainbow group extended to its English members which included Richard Mead, a leading figure in the Royal Society, and the freethinking philosopher Anthony Collins.

Cartographer and author Jean [John] Palairet was born in 1697 in Montauban, near Toulouse, into a Huguenot household. The family was forced into exile and settled in The Hague where Jean’s father worked as a (wine?) merchant. Jean was educated in the Netherlands. At some time he entered the Dutch diplomatic service and was sent to London as an agent for the States General. He was in London by 1727 when he married his first wife Elizabeth Dawson. Having published Nouvelle introduction à la géographie modern in 1754, he created an Atlas méthodique on behalf of William, Prince of Orange (son of Princess Anne, daughter of George II) in 1755. The work offered him an entrance in English Royal circles and he acted as French teacher to three of the children of George II at Leicester House. He remained in Royal service under George III and, at the same time, represented the private interests of the Dutch diplomat, garden designer, and Anglophile Jacob Boreel. Another influential publication, also in 1755, was his Carte des possessions angloises et françoises d’Amérique septentrionale. His brother Elias Palairet, a classical and biblical philologist who had studied at Leiden University, also settled in London and preached at the Dutch Chapel at St James’s Palace, Westminster. 

Palairet’s maps had drawn the attention of author and educationist Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Born in April 1711 in Rouen she had been engaged as governess at the court of Lunéville, residence of Duke Leopold, nephew of Louis XIV by marriage. Her duties were primarily with Elisabeth-Thérèse, oldest of the daughters (who, two years later, would marry Charles-Emmanuel III, King of Sardinia). Presence at court brought her in direct contact with many prominent figures, including Voltaire who became a regular contributor to her Nouveau magasin français (1750/2). Having separated from her husband in 1748, she left France for London. That same year she published her first novel Le triomphe de la vérité. She is remembered for her abridged version of La belle et la bête (better known as Beauty and the Beast), adapted from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original and published in her Magasin des Enfants (1756), which has been hailed as the best female fiction published during the eighteenth century. To what extent the Enlightenment advanced female emancipation remains a topic of debate, but there can be no doubt that Mme De Beaumont played a significant role in the process.

In London, Beaumont was close to Henrietta Louisa Fermor, Lady Pomfret, who provided her with numerous introductions. Beaumont’s ideas on education (the use of interactive teaching tools) influenced Pomfret’s daughter, the future Lady Charlotte Finch, who from 1762 to 1793 was governess to the fifteen children of George III and Queen Charlotte. The urge to discover and explore the world was reflected in teaching. Practical map-making was an integral part of (aristocratic) male schooling, but young girls were introduced to geography as well. One of Beamont’s suggestions was that Jean Palairet’s maps should be used in the classroom. Finch took up that idea, possibly in consultation with Queen Charlotte who herself was an avid reader of books on the latest developments in child education. But how to teach map-reading to young brains in a playful manner?

The history of jigsaws started with the production of so-called ‘dissected maps’. Virtually all of the oldest surviving puzzles are made of engraved maps which were hand-cut with a fret (bow) saw into irregularly shaped pieces. They were created as educational tools. Beaumont made part of her income by running private classes which were advertised. Her teaching fee included a cost item for the use of wooden maps. An early commercial publisher of these puzzles was John Spilsbury who was based at Russel Court, off Drury Lane. A former apprentice of Thomas Jefferys, Geographer to the King, he is presented in the 1763 Universal Director as an ‘Engraver and Map Dissector in Wood’. His first puzzle map was called ‘Europe Divided into its Kingdoms’ and featured pieces cut along national boundaries. Charlotte Finch acquired such puzzles on behalf of the Royal family. These were (and remained) costly items. In Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814), the poverty-struck heroine Fanny Price is mocked by two privileged cousins for her inability to ‘put the map of Europe together’ using one of those expensive puzzles. Such was the appeal of the new educational tool that by the end of century London was home to nearly twenty engravers who specialised in puzzle making. As the nineteenth century progressed and new colouring and cutting methods streamlined the manufacturing process, puzzle maps declined in cost and became accessible to a wider public. The use of the term jigsaw itself originates from the later nineteenth century (after 1870).

Charlotte Finch commissioned a mahogany cabinet to hold several dissected map puzzles which she had acquired for the Royal children (the cabinet has been preserved and is held at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green). Eight of the maps in her puzzle cabinet were produced from Palairet’s Atlas méthodique and, most likely, dissected to her direction. In a project of Anglo-French participation, promoted by Dutch and Hanoverian Royalty, the map of Europe was cut into a multitude of pieces which were presented to young pupils to be put together again into a unified geographical entity. In our age of division and disintegration, this is a striking metaphor.


Burking the Italian Boy | Nova Scotia Gardens (Shoreditch)

Before being pulled down in 1910, the Fortune of War was a notorious public house located on the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane in Smithfield. Here the London Burkers met, a criminal gang led by John Bishop and Thomas Williams, which included such characters as Michael Shields, a Covent Garden porter, and James May, an unemployed butcher, also known as Black EyedJack. As bodysnatchers (or ‘resurrection men’), they had modelled their gruesome activities on the practices of the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke & Hare. The Burkers unearthed recently buried bodies which they sold to anatomists at London’s major hospitals. The newly created verb ‘burking’ implied an even more sinister practice. It meant ‘killing a person for his/her marketable cadaver’.

In July 1830, Bishop & Williams rented a slum house at no. 3 Nova Scotia Gardens, a former brick field filled in with human waste. On 5 November 1831, the fresh corpse of a fifteen year old boy was delivered to King’s College School of Anatomy in the Strand. Members of staff there were suspicious and summoned the police. During a methodical search of the Nova Scotia premises, items were recovered that suggested multiple crimes. B & W confessed having abducted and murdered the youngster. They also admitted to stealing between 500 and 1,000 bodies over a period of twelve years. Both men were convicted at the Old Bailey and hanged at Newgate on 5 December before a crowd of 30,000. Their bodies were removed for dissection the same night. The public display of their remains attracted large crowds of curious viewers. The criminals had attracted all attention, but who was the victim?

Carlo Ferrari was a teenage migrant from Piedmont who was living near Smithfield meat and livestock market. The physical state of the area was abysmal. The market was choked with animal remains and excrement.Young Carlo scraped a living by exhibiting caged white mice and pet rats to Smithfield passersby. Working in such a rough area, he and other young men exposed themselves to a particular danger. Smithfield’s proximity to St Bartholemew’s hospital [Barts] meant it was ideally situated for the traffic in human corpses. It was here that the B & W gang operated. Ferrari was slaughtered by these resurrectionists and his body sold for cash. Londoners were outraged and their anger was whipped up by the popular press. Throughout the court hearings, sentimental sketches of the ‘Italian Boy’ appeared in the newspapers in combination with horror stories about the practice of bodysnatching (the case was attended by young Charles Dickens as a note-taker for the publisher John Fairburn who issued a chapbook entitled Burking the Italian Boy). Multiple portraits of the poor Italian victim were in circulation.

It was fake news. From the trial documents it appears that the murdered young man was a Lincolnshire drover who worked at the cattle pens just off Smithfield’s Chick Lane (one of London’s most infamous streets). Bishop confessed that the victim had been taken from the Bell public house in Smithfield to their dwellings where he was drugged with rum and laudanum. B & W then went for a drinking session at the Feathers, near Shoreditch church. On their return they calmy killed the young man. 

Why did this made-up story stir London’s feverish imagination? For a sensationalist journalist, the butchering of an endearing Piedmontese boy (as he was portrayed) made for a more captivating story than the cold-blooded murder of a youngster from the Lincolnshire flat lands. But there were deeper reasons for the tale to make a social impact. The affair seemed to catch the mood of the age. There were concerns about crime, degradation, and filth in the metropolis. More particularly, there was an intense disgust with and anxiety about the presence of bodysnatchers. The immediate effect of the public outcry was the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, providing a regulated and legitimate supply of corpses for medical schools. Calls for urban regeneration would eventually lead to the clearing of the Nova Scotia slums and the creation of Columbia Market (which included the building of a new livestock market).

There was a burning issue of immigration as well. As early as 1820 an editorial in The Times highlighted what was called the Italian ‘slave trade’, a system whereby a London-based padrone imported children from destitute Italian parents. Living in overcrowded lodgings, the kids were given a street organ and send out to beg and perform on the streets of the capital. In a practice known as ‘La tratta dei fanciuculli’, the boss took all the earnings of his organ grinders. Such was the demand for instruments that a barrel-organ manufacturer such as Giuseppe Chiappa could make a good living at Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell (part of an area known as ‘Little Italy’).

Parma-born Luigi Rabbiotti was recorded in the 1841 census as a married man, living in Laystall Street, just off Leather Lane. Leading a seemingly respectable life, he was naturalised in 1867. Yet, the back of the same house was shared by twenty-five organ boys. Later he was associated was an address in Eyre Hill Street, Clerkenwell, were some fifty organ grinders were held. In 1845, fifteen-year old Giuseppe Leonardi died in the street of lung disease, thought to have been brought on by abuse. Rabbiotti was charged with manslaughter, but acquitted. The system persisted in spite of public sympathy for the victim. In May 1864 brewer and liberal MP Michael Thomas Bass put forward a bill on ‘Street Music in the Metropolis’. The resulting Act introduced fines to discourage the spread of organ grinders. The measure received support from artists and authors, including Charles Dickens who regularly complained about noise pollution in the capital. The condition of child-musicians was ignored. As late as 1876 Thomas Barnardo called for the rescue of ’White Slaves’ from Italy. It was not until 1889 that a charter was passed to stop child exploitation.

During the 1830s a number of Italian political exiles settled in London. Giuseppe Mazzini arrived in January 1837 after being expelled from Geneva. With funds provided by British friends (including Charles Dickens), he opened a free school where two hundred deprived children received a rudimentary education. Established on 10 November 1841, it was London’s first Italian school. Dickens seemed to embody a more general ambivalence towards migrants at the time, expressing empathy for the fate of young immigrants from Italy, but mixing it with irration about their noisy and continuous presence. Support for Mazzini’s ideal of unification may well have been seen as a way of solving the fragmented country’s socio-economic problems and hence: reducing Italian chain migration to London and other major cities. British attitudes towards immigrants were (and are) seldom straight forward.

Robbing the Past: London and Paris

Librarian and art dealer Abbé Luigi Celotti was born on 12 August 1759 in Treviso in the Veneto region. His name appears as an art dealer after the Napoleonic invasion of Italy in 1796 when he was active in Paris. His contact with the British art market was evident in November 1828 when he sold Titian’s Portrait of Two Boys (said to be members of the Pesaro family) to James Irvine on behalf of William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo. Celotti was trading from premises in London by the spring of 1825. His presence on the British art market is significant not for the paintings or antiques he sold, but for his dealings in illuminated miniatures. 

The scale of French plundering in Italy was unprecedented in modern history. Napoleon turned his campaign into a looting expedition and transported his gains of war to Paris (including the the Bronze Horses of Saint Mark in Venice and the Laocoön in Rome – later returned) where the works of art were received in classic imperial style of a triumphal procession. 

During Napoleon’s Italian campaign, French troops had looted the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Library in 1798. Soldiers were dealing in priceless devotional books and liturgical manuscripts. Celotti took the stolen goods from their hands. Having acquired the volumes, he removed the illuminated miniatures, kept the best ones for himself, and sold others to collectors. London was his prime commercial market. In March 1825 he sold a set of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin manuscripts at Sotheby’s. The sale was recorded as the first known specialist auction of a collection of medieval manuscripts in London. 

Two months later, Christie’s announced the sale (on 26 May) of more than two hundred miniatures. Such a sale had never occurred before on the art market. The title of the catalogue indicated the rarity of that occasion: A Catalogue of a Highly Valuable and Extremely Curious Collection of Illumined Miniature Paintings taken from the Choir Books of the Papal Chapel in the Vatican during the French Revolution; and subsequently collected and brought to this Country by the Abate Celotti. London, Mr Christie, May 26, 1825. A precedent was set. Collectors realised that the best of medieval painting survived within the covers of manuscripts rather than on panels or walls. It stimulated the large-scale cutting up of volumes and the disposal of the body of text. Miniatures were preserved as ‘monuments of a lost art’ and framed like small panels. 

A great collector of miniatures was William Young Ottley, Keeper of Prints at the British Museum, who had catalogued the 1825 Celotti sale at Christie’s; so was Charles Brinsley Marlay, a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner and member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club. On his death in 1912, he bequeathed 240 illuminated cuttings (dating from the twelfth to the sixteenth century) to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge where the collection is known as the ‘Marlay Cuttings’ and includes leaves from the celebrated choirbooks of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, San Marco in Venice, and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Another cutting was originally part of one of the sixteenth-century missals listed in an early eighteenth-century inventory of the Sistine Chapel. Showing Pope Leo the Great worshipping the Virgin, it is known to have passed through Celotti’s hands. The dealer himself died in October 1843 at the Palazzo Barbarigo, Venice. 

Why was Celotti so successful in flocking his ‘orphan’ leaves in Britain? In 1796 the Rev James Granger had published his Biographical History of England (1769) which introduced the practice of inserting leaves and prints which do not belong to the book, but were pertinent to the subject treated. The result was a rise in value of books containing portraits which were cut out and inserted in collector’s copies. Critics introduced the term ‘grangerising’ for the bizarre process of adding extra illustrations to the printed text. Celotti further encouraged biblioclastic pursuits where by researchers and/or dealers removed individual leaves and re-assembled them in a different form. Defending themselves against critics, those involved in the practice argued that the leaves came from books already imperfect or damaged. By dismantling the document concerned, images could be made available to and appreciated by a wider audience, particularly if the leaves were accompanied by an explanatory essay. Even John Ruskin subscribed to that theory. He created leaf collections out of his private holdings of medieval manuscripts. In retrospect, it seems an extraordinary contradiction that someone of Ruskin’s calibre would knowingly destroy the bibliographical evidence showing how a particular medieval text was materialised in a codex format. 

The secularisation of religious houses across Europe in general, and Napoleon’s art thievery in particular, led to irredeemable damage to sacred books. Illumination was taken out of context in a similar manner as the removal of paintings out of cathedrals. Our national museums originate in art robbery of which Napoleon was the Godfather. Celotti’s practice of ripping apart books and manuscripts fits into a wider context of cultural vandalism. The discovery of early civilisations was an adventure tale of the nineteenth century. Those were the pioneer days of historical digging when excavators employed hundreds of workers in a frenzied search for and acquisition of ancient monuments and treasures. From these excavations archaeology was born. They also spawned a legacy of efforts to rob the past (and subsequent requests for repatriation). 

Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin transported the Parthenon (‘Elgin’) Marbles from Greece to London. Considering Napoleon’s pillaging in order to stock his ambitious Musée Napoléon (as the Louvre was renamed in 1802 under the stewardship of Vivant Denon), it was ironic that the French responded by adding the word ‘elginisme’ to their vocabulary in the sense of an act of cultural vandalism by which artefacts are diminished when torn out of their cultural and spatial context. It was a typical case of the pot calling the kettle black; or, the French desecrator accusing his English counterpart of being a vandal.

The Gay Gondolier

The Gay Gondolier

Seymour Street (Marylebone)


On 7 December 1889 the Savoy Theatre on the Strand premiered the opera The Gondoliers. It was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last great success and ran for 554 performances, closing on 30 June 1891. Its title highlighted the long-lasting British passion for Venice and its gondolas. From then to the Italian Exhibition at Earls Court in 1904 (with a special section on ‘Venice at Night’) gondola-mania was at its height.


Venice installed its first Doge as leader of the young autonomous state in 697. It amassed its wealth from agriculture, local industry (textiles), maritime trade, and international banking. Shipbuilders provided commercial vessels and a naval fleet to protect and control the seaways. Commercial growth was matched by an astonishing cultural development. From Titian to Tintoretto, the city was home to renowned Renaissance painters and laid claim to the celebrated architects Jacobo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio. Aldus Manutius founded the Aldine Press producing the first printed editions of many of the Greek and Latin classics. Venice ruled the world, commercially, intellectually, and artistically. Known as Seranissima (‘most serene’), the Republic divided its power amongst members of the Doge’s Inner Circle which included six councillors and three inquisitors who were responsible for law and order. Policing the expanding domain was a necessity. After all, Venice produced Giacomo Casanova, Europe’s most notorious ruffian.


During the Renaissance it was also a city of courtesans of which there were two classes, namely ‘cortigna onesta’ (educated prostitutes) and ‘cortigna lume’ (common prostitutes). The first group was of a patrician or merchant background. In a society that dictated exorbitant dowries, many daughters were denied the opportunity of marriage. They would become nuns or spinsters. Alternatively, they followed a path into prostitution which enabled them to support themselves and other members of the family. As it was a duty for a Venetian male to make his fortune before marriage, many youngsters sought pleasure with women of taste and refinement (and most likely without disease). Elderly men were happy to supply young courtesans with a luxurious lifestyle.


British (English) School; A Venetian Courtesan at Her Dressing Table; National Trust, Calke Abbey; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-venetian-courtesan-at-her-dressing-table-169362

The prostitute appeared in influential circles and mixed with artists, poets, politicians, and philosophers. She was introduced into art and poetry (the trend was set by Pietro Aretino) – and with her presence the gondola became a regular feature. Boat ride and sex became intertwined. Sometimes in a shocking manner. In Il trentuno della Zaffetta (1532) Lorenzo Venier – a friend of Aretino – recounts the alleged ‘trentuno’ (gang rape) of Angela del Moro on 6 April 1531. The attack was organised by her noble lover as a punishment for her betrayal. He lures Angela into a gondola for a sumptuous day trip, but instead she ends up in the fishing town of Chioggia where she is raped by eighty of his cronies. She is then sent back to Venice in a boat full of melons, a fruit loaded with erotic connotations at the time. The impact of Vernier’s poem was significant and soon the word ‘trentuno’ became common place as a euphemism for the group violation of a single female victim. It appeared in English for the first time in John Florio’s Anglo-Italian dictionary A Worlde of Words in 1598.


The British passion for manifestations of Italian culture has a long history. The sonnet was introduced into English literature during the 1550s in imitation of models pioneered by Francesco Petrarca (known as Petrarch in English). For generations to come, Italy was considered the home of poetry. To Shakespeare, it was the domain of imagination. His plays may be set in France, Austria, or Denmark, but his references to Italy are frequent and mostly accurate (John Florio, the London-born son of a Reformed refugee from Tuscany, was tutor of the Earl of Southampton, patron of the bard). Such is the contemporary association of Shakespeare with Venice that Stratford-upon-Avon offers the affluent tourist a romantic passage on the river in his/her private gondola. 


During the eighteenth century Venetian painting came to the fore. Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, produced urban panoramas in which the painter tended to include architectural distortions for pictorial effect. From the late 1720s to the early 1750s Canaletto’s fortunes were bound up with the figure of Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice. The latter was one of the foremost collectors in the city who, over three decades, acquired fifty paintings by the artist which he housed in his palazzo on the Grand Canal. They were eventually sold en bloc to George III in 1762. Canaletto was and remains one of Britain’s favourite artists, widely appreciated as the genius of gondolas.


Lord Byron lived between 1816 and 1823 in Italy and adored the country’s cultural history and vibrant present. He was the most Italian of British poets and certainly the most Venetian one. During his stay, Venice had an exuberant gay community although the punishment for sodomy remained severe. However, the topography of the city provided unparalleled opportunities for clandestine meetings. According to Casanova, gondolas were primarily used for ‘sex acts on water’. Venetian gondoliers sold a range of erotic services to both male and female clients (John Addington Symonds for years had an affair – love at first sight – with a blue-eyed gondolier named Giacomo ‘Angelo’ Fusato). Byron greatly enjoyed the Venetian Carnival in which gay men happily took part. The traditional costumes disguised the features of the masked wearer making it impossible to guess his or her gender. In Beppo: A Venetian Story (1817) Byron praised the carnival in terms of its ‘Gaiety’. During his lifetime, the word gay was already understood in its current use.


Giovanni Battista [Tita] Falcieri was born in Venice in 1798 into a family of hereditary gondoliers. He was described as a huge but gentle person, black-bearded, and ferocious in appearance. He was first employed as manservant by Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, the Gothic and homosexual novelist. Tita accompanied the author on his tour of the Continent and joined him on the long voyage to inspect his plantations in Jamaica. When in the early summer of 1818 Byron rented the Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal, Falcieri entered into the poet’s service as his personal gondolier, probably through Lewis’s intervention. Like the former, Byron liked the proximity of young and muscular men. There have been suggestions of a homo-erotic exchange between the two authors of an attractive male member of staff in their entourage.

Falcieri was close to Byron at Missolonghi when the poet died on 19 April 1824. He accompanied the body to England and was a mourner at his funeral. Tita subsequently fought for the Greek cause in an Albanian regiment. Having returned to England, he was employed as butler by Isaac D’Israeli at Bradenham House, Buckinghamshire. On Isaac’s death in 1848, Byron’s friend John Hobhouse arranged for him to be employed as a Government messenger at the (Indian) Board of Control’s headquarters at Canon Row, Westminster. He got married a year later. Falcieri was later appointed chief messenger at the new India Office, but without the liability of having to carry any messages. Venice had become a distant memory. The gay gondolier had become a grey civil servant, living at no. 60 Seymour Street in respectable Marylebone where he died in December 1874.

Art, Smoke and Bubbles 

In 1807 Andrew Pears started a small factory just of Oxford Street producing transparent soap. It proved a huge success in an age that became aware of the social value of hygiene. Pears Soap became a household name not in the last because of the firm’s brand marketing strategy introduced by the inspirational figure of Thomas J. Barratt, the ‘father of modern advertising’ (and son-in-law of the company’s founder). 

It all started with the commissioning of sculptor Giovanni Focardi. Born in Florence around 1843 and having studied under Enrico Pazzi, he moved to London in 1875 where he spent most of his working years at no. 10 Auriol Road, Baron’s Court. For the Pears Company he produced his most famous creation, a group of mother and child titled You Dirty Boy.

This statue of a ragged young boy having his ears washed was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition Universelle in 1878 where it was greatly appreciated. It was also part of Pears’s soap stand at London’s International Health Exhibition in 1884 under the patronage of Queen Victoria.

Pears had purchased the copyright to produce copies of the statue as advertisements for their products. They were made for shop counter displays in terracotta, plaster, or metal, and sold worldwide. Pears became famous for other advertising drives involving artists. Its campaign using John Everett Millais’s painting Bubbles (1886) continued over many decades. Art entered the domain of commerce.

Through the late 1800s Spitalfields, Whitechapel, and Bethnal Green were home to the tobacco industry. Production was driven by immigrants. The decline of the Dutch economy had prompted many skilled Amsterdam Jews to settle in London. Jewish immigrants from Germany were also involved in the industry. Samuel Gluckstein was born on 4 January 1821 in Rheinberg. He moved to London in 1841, starting his own business in Crown Street, Soho, in 1855. His two sons Isidore and Montague joined the firm. His daughter Helena married Barnett Salmon, also a tobacco salesman. The Salmon & Gluckstein firm was established in 1873.

By the turn of the century it was the world’s largest retail tobacconist (taken over by Imperial Tobacco in 1902). In 1887 Montague Gluckstein put forward the idea of providing catering services for large exhibitions that had become fashionable. Family members gave their consent on condition that their name would not be used in such a ‘vulgar’ enterprise. 

Montague employed Joseph Lyons, a water-colour artist, who had experience in dealing with exhibition authorities. In 1894 the company started a teashop in Piccadilly. Within a couple of decades a chain of so-called Lyons’ Corner Houses was established, including a number of huge restaurants on four or five levels. Each floor had its own eatery and all had orchestras playing to its diners. Corner Houses were treasures of Art Deco. This style of building in Britain was introduced by Oliver Percy Bernard. Having acted as technical director of the British Pavilion at the influential 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (from which Art Deco took its name), he operated as consultant for Lyons and designed the interior for their iconic Oxford Street and Coventry Street establishments. In 1929, he conceived an Art Deco entrance to the illustrious Strand Palace Hotel. Dresden-born refugee Hans Arnold Rothholz who had been trained in the Bauhaus tradition, also worked on behalf of the company and created a mural for the Lyons Corner House restaurant at Marble Arch.

There is an even more immediate link between tobacco and Art Deco. Bernhard Baron was born on 5 December 1850 in the Russian town of Brest Litovsk into a Jewish family of French descent. In 1867 Baron moved to New York where he manufactured handmade cigarettes. He later moved his business to Baltimore. In 1872 Baron took out his first patent for a cigarette making machine. In 1895 he visited London to sell the patent rights of his invention. Attracted by business opportunities, he decided to settle at St James’ Place, Aldgate, where he established the Baron Cigarette Machine Company. In 1903 he joined the board of Carreras Limited, becoming its managing director and chairman. He held both positions until his death in August 1929. Carreras’s cigarettes, notably their Black Cat brand, proved popular. 

Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun made a huge impact on art and architecture. The 1925 Paris Exhibition extended the vogue. Egypt-o-mania was in full swing. The country was also a major cigarette manufacturer. After British (BTE) troops were stationed in Egypt in 1882, soldiers developed a liking for local tobacco. Soon this ‘sophisticated’ smoke was in demand throughout the country. Tobacco companies adopted Egyptian motifs in their advertising to cash in on this all-gender fashion. Kate Chopin presented an image of the new ‘progressive’ woman in her story ‘An Egyptian Cigarette’, published in Vogue Magazine in April 1902. During the First World War smoking increased sharply and the Carreras Company came to the fore in supplying cigarettes to the armed forces. In 1920 the business moved to new premises, the Arcadia Works at City Road, Moorgate. Six years later, architects Collins & Porri were commissioned to design a new factory to be built on Mornington Crescent’s communal garden. The white building’s ornamentation included a solar disc to the Sun-god Ra, two effigies of black cats flanking the entrance, and colourful painted details. The plant was opened in style in 1928. The pavements were covered with ‘desert’ sand; there was a procession of cast members from a production of Verdi’s Aida; a performance was given by actors in Egyptian costume; and a chariot race was held on Hampstead Road. The Carreras factory is one of London’s finest surviving Art Deco designs.

The success of the Lyons and Carrera companies points at growing ties between business and design. Romantic thinkers feared the corrupting impact of commerce on the creative impulse. During the last decades of the nineteenth century this perspective changed, at least within the visual arts (Symbolist poets stubbornly defended their art against all intrusions from the ‘market’). Department stores and restaurants redefined the bond between commerce and aesthetics. Eye-catching design boosted sales. Increased profitability provided commissions to aspiring artists. The age of graphic art and advertising was born. With it, the artist modified the interpretation of his position in society. Much of the Romantic humbug of his ‘leading’ role was dumped. Simplification became the new catchword. An idealistic aspect (especially amongst the pupils of Bauhaus) remained a feature of socially engaged design, but even Utopia acquired a more human dimension. During man’s brief spell on earth, architecture and design could make his journey physically more pleasant and aesthetically more pleasing. Style became equated with wellbeing.

The Man Who Entered a Harem – Avenue Road

Painter Carl Haag was born in April 1820 at Erlangen, Bavaria. Having spent five months in Brussels, he travelled to London in April 1847. When Queen Victoria was made aware of his work, she invited him to spend six weeks at Balmoral where he produced a number of watercolours. Knowing the art market and responding to British taste, Haag travelled extensively in Egypt (together with Frederick Goodall), Jerusalem, Oman, Palmyra, and became a popular painter of Eastern themes. He settled in London. Having married in 1866, he added an oriental studio on top of a newly built four storey mansion which he named Ida Villa (after his wife) at no. 7 Lyndhurst Road, Hampstead. In 1883 a reporter of the Art Journal visited the artist. He left the studio overwhelmed by a multiplicity of exotic paraphernalia that ranged from Persian rugs and tapestries from Palmyra to Turkish swords and Nubian camel saddles.


Orientalism was a Franco-British obsession which manifested itself in literature, painting, architecture, and in music. The Orient had attracted European writers and artists from the Renaissance onwards, but nineteenth century fascination with the domain was unprecedented. On 1 July 1798, Napoleon landed in Egypt and proceeded to invade the country. The occupation lasted until 1801. Some 150 scholars and scientists were instructed to execute a comprehensive study of the country. Topographical surveys were carried out, animals and plants studied, minerals classified, and local skills scrutinized. The total set of spectacular publications contained 837 engravings which captured Egyptian civilization from every vantage point. Never before had a single country inspired such a monumental scientific and editorial effort. The research made a real impact on French art and architecture (dominating the Empire Style), inciting a vogue for all things Egyptian. Napoleon also employed court painters such as Antoine-Jean Gros to create striking images of him in action.


The Egyptian campaign, steamboat travel in the 1830s, the opening of the Suez Canal, the growth of international railway travel, together with Anglo-French political and commercial involvement in the Ottoman Empire, advanced the passion for the Orient over a period of time. It made the East a focus of artistic and literary interest and the harem was a defining symbol of Oriental imagery. Background information however was scarce. One of the first Western accounts of harem life was recorded by Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman sultan’s court. She spent time in Constantinople and strived to get to know Ottoman women and deliver dispatches from their private world. Her collected letters were published in 1763 and sparked interest for their eyewitness insights into Turkish society. Her descriptions influenced the work of subsequent Orientalist painters and writers.

To Europeans, the Middle East was a region of luxuriance and forbidden pleasures. Orientalism was a fantasy, an escape into the exotic and mysterious, an escapade into a domain of colour set against an ever darkening Western world. In 1877, five years after the author’s death, Georges Charpentier published Théophile Gautier’s L’Orient, voyages et voyageurs. In these accounts, the East is an outlandish ideal with emotional significance because it served the author as an alternative to European culture. His writing was a protest against contemporary goose-cackle about progress, a rejection of the ‘Americanization’ of society, and – by implication – a nostalgic memory of what old Paris used to be before Baron Haussmann took up the sledgehammer. Significantly, the author created his Oriental stories long before he had ever set foot in the region.

Orientalism coincided with a quest for sexual liberation. This erotic element was typified by the literary efforts of Richard Francis Burton. As a soldier stationed in India, he learned Arabic and immersed himself in Islam. In 1853, disguised as a pilgrim, he made the dangerous trek to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. He published a description of his journey in a three-volume book that became an immediate sensation in England. Burton was excited by Eastern erotica. He translated and printed the Kama Sutra (1883) and The Perfumed Garden (1886), and published a splendid edition of the Arabian Nights (1885) which still stands unchallenged. Burton’s success had been prepared by Edward FitzGerald’s translations of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (1859) which achieved astonishing popularity during the Victorian era.

France was the birthplace of Orientalist painting. The revolt against the stifling dominance of academic art shifted the attention from Rome towards the East. Disenchanted with artistic developments at home, Delacroix travelled to Morocco and Algeria in 1832. He returned to Paris to present Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement at the 1834 Salon, although he had been forced to use French models because western men were forbidden to enter the harem. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres never travelled to the East. In 1862 – an old man by then – he completed Le bain Turc, an oil painting depicting a group of women in the bath of a harem.

The Turkish Bath, 7th October 1859

The sexualised style is typical. Denied entrance to seraglios and lacking authentic accounts, artists took a leap of the imagination to create opulent interiors in which sex slaves and concubines posed in the nude. Flights of erotic fancy brushed aside inhibitions. In 1872 Pierre-Auguste Renoir completed Intérieur de harem à Montmartre (Parisiennes habillées algériennes). It was painted in homage to Delacroix, the ‘sultan of Orientalism’, but rejected for entry to the 1872 Salon. The title of the picture acknowledged the artificial nature of much Orientalist painting by making it clear that these were Parisian women in costume (Renoir did not visit Algeria until 1881).

One aspect of the lure of the East was the cult of Cairo. Painters and poets were obsessed with the unhurried serenity of an old city that seemed far removed from the urban disquiets of Western civilization. They communicated the charm of the place rather than give a precise indication of topography. It was the atmosphere and ambience that attracted artists to Cairo where – in excitable male imagination – at every step one may stumble upon a harem enveloped in the scent of roses and set amongst sycamore figs.


John Frederick Lewis spent a year in Constantinople and most of the 1840s in Cairo. Famously, Thackeray visited the artist at his studio there. In his Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846) he described the painter as a languid lotus-eater who was living a ‘dreamy, lazy, hazy, tobaccofied life’. Once back in Britain, Lewis created a series of harem and bazaar scenes that were a huge success. In 1850 he exhibited his watercolour The Harem at the Old Water-Colour Society’s rooms in Pall Mall which set the tone for his later images. From his studio at Walton-on-Thames he produced one Oriental scene after another. Having never seen the traditional women’s quarters, his settings were those of the grand mansion he had once occupied in Cairo’s Europeanised Esbekieh district. His unveiled women were models who made a living out of posing for northern artists. Lewis and fellow painters such as William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton, or David Wilkie, relied on precise decors to convince the public of the authenticity of their work. If the facts were correct, then fantasy could take flight. The harem was perceived as an epitome of Oriental omnipotence, a male’s erotic dream of multiple wives and numerous sex slaves. To the contemporary eye most of these scenes are (at best) alluring still-lifes, but in the heated Victorian mind these images were loaded with erotic suspense and sexual promise.

The Siesta 1876 John Frederick Lewis 1805-1876 Purchased 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03594

In 1857 Lewis completed yet another Hhareem Life. The painting depicts a scene in which two women watch a cat picking apart a bouquet of feathers. The domestic setting is vaguely suggestive and quietly erotic – the location is supposed to be Constantinople, but it could just as well be Hampstead or Highgate. After all, the artist used his wife as a model without attempting to hide her British features.


French painters were less inhibited than their Victorian colleagues. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s smoke-filled images are voluptuous and seductive. Nude women are smoking a hookah or lounging lustfully bored at a pool side as can be seen in La grande piscine de Brousse (1885) which depicts a bath in the Turkish town of Bursa. His images may be less restrained, but Gérôme was just as ignorant about harem life as were the British painters. Western men were strictly forbidden to enter the female quarters. Stereotyping became inevitable.


The name of Félicien-César David is associated with the introduction of Oriental exoticism into music. Like many early Romantics in France he joined the socialist brotherhood of the Saint-Simonians and put music to the utopian vision of a New Christianity. From 1833 to 1835 he was in the Middle East having embarked with Barthélemy Prosper [Père] Enfantin and his followers on a voyage to Egypt to realise their utopia in the Mediterranean basin. During their short stay, Saint-Simonians were involved in a number of engineering projects, including the construction of Nile barrages, railways, and canals. In his later music, David incorporated recollections of the music he had heard Cairo and elsewhere. In 1844 he produced his symphonic ode Le Désert, an evocative work that became a sensation and foreshadowed the Orientalism of Bizet’s Djamileh (1882) or Delibes’s Lakmé (1883), and other Romantic operas. Verdi’s Aida was commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt and first performed in Cairo in 1871. The house where the opera was staged was built under the same ruler and faced the modernised city. The opera’s storyline represents an imagined Egyptian past. Ironically, performance of the opera marked the opening of the Suez Canal which connected imperial Europe with its colonies. Since the 1860s, developers had been engaged to regularise Cairo’s network of streets, create avenues, and establish public squares. Only remnants of the pre-industrial city survived. To celebrate technological achievements, a non-existent romanticised background was chosen as setting for the opera. In every aspect, Orientalism was a false statement – fake and fancy.

Imaginary harems were created metropolitan writing rooms and studios. Composers constructed narratives in sound in which the figure of Scheherazade came to dominate. Some artists travelled to Constantinople or Cairo, others never did. No one, not a single artist was permitted to enter into the private quarters of an Oriental harem – with one exception. Violinist August Wilhelmj was born on 21 September 1845 in Usingen, Hesse. A prodigy (Franz Liszt called him the ‘future Paganini’), he gave his first concert at the age of eight in Wiesbaden. He began his concert career in 1865, and eventually made a number of world tours. A personal friend of Richard Wagner, he led the violins at the première of Der Ring des Niebelungen in Bayreuth in 1876. He became famous for his arrangement of the air from J.S. Bach’s orchestral Suite in D major, known as the ‘Air on the G String’. His re-orchestration of Paganini’s violin concerto in 1882 was a major contribution to the pantheon of works for the violin. From 1894 he was a Professor of violin at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He also took an active interest in the technique of violin-making. His home at Avenue Road, St John’s Wood, was a museum of instruments. Wilhelmj owned a 1725 Stradivarius which later came to be known by his name. During his lifetime he was a legendary performer.

In 1885, he received what must have been an astonishing invitation from Abdul Hamid II. He was requested to travel to Constantinople and play for the ladies of the Sultan’s harem. It has not been reported what this female audience made of the performance by this tall, broad-shouldered figure with a massive forehead surrounded by long and wavy hair (like a Greek statue according to contemporary sources), but the Sultan was impressed. He decorated the maestro with the knightly Order of the Medjidie and presented him with diamonds. After decades of European devotion to the Orient and a multitude of suggestive scenes in art and literature, the virtuoso who entered the Sultan’s harem must have been the most envied man in the Western world.