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.

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.

RATS, RAGS AND RICHES – Grove House (Wandsworth)

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Yolande Duvernay was born in December 1812 in Versailles. Little is known about her youth, apart from the fact that she was brought up in poverty. Her domineering mother, only known as Madame Duvernay, had been a dancer in her youth and steered her six-year old daughter into the same direction. An underfed and poorly clad girl, she was enrolled in the School of Dance where pupils were known as petits rats de l’Opéra. 

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Under control of their mothers, the rats spent their days in school and their evenings on the stage of the opera house, appearing in a variety of juvenile roles. Dance may have been a career for some in the end, for most girls it was an instruction into coquetterie and a pathway into the shady world of sex and abuse. Men of society kept an eye on ballet pupils and, through mothers who ‘managed’ their daughters, made sexual assignations with the young rat of their choice. The school was a stage where mothers ‘auctioned’ off their daughters. Some girls did make careers and Yolande fared particularly well. She was described as an elegant young woman and a graceful dancer. Aware of the situation, Madame Duvernay was intent to exploit her daughter’s eye-catching presence. In 1831, Yolande became the mistress of Louis-Désiré Véron, the newly appointed director of the Paris Opéra after the toppling of the Bourbon monarchy. He took her out of ballet school and promoted her straight into leading roles. She made her début in Jean-Baptiste Blache’s neo-classical ballet Mars et Vénus ou Les fillets de Vulcain (1809). Having adopted the stage name Pauline Duvernay, she became the star of the theatre.

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Her fame crossed the Channel where Princess Victoria loved her performances. Young Wiliam Makepeace Thackeray was in awe of her and, according to fellow dancer and friend Antoine Coulon, she was the ‘idol of all the dandies’ in London. In October 1836, Pauline performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where she danced the role of Florinda in the first London production of Le diable boiteux. Published as a novel set in Madrid by Alain-René Lesage in 1707 (translated as ‘The Devil upon Two Sticks’ in 1708), the story was turned into a ballet by Jean Coralli in 1836. Her performance of an unusual Spanish-Cuban solo dance, the ‘cachucha’, catapulted her to unequalled fame. Alone on stage, castanets in her hands, wearing a pink satin dress trimmed with black lace, she added a provocative twist to the curious steps of the dance (captured in a hand-coloured lithograph by John Frederick Lewis in February 1837). Society went wild. Men of all ages were eager to pay for the privilege of being near to her. The price (set by Madame Duvernay) was high. All rivals in the ‘sale’ of sexual favours were outbid by a self-effacing, but immensely rich man. His name was Stephens Lyne-Stephens. His wealth was inherited.

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Protestant glassmaker William Stephens was the illegitimate son of Cornish schoolmaster Oliver Stephens and servant girl Jane Smith. In 1746 he travelled to Portugal where one of his relations worked as a merchant. In 1755 he survived the Lisbon earthquake and during the next decade he made a living out of burning lime to provide mortar for rebuilding the city. In 1769, he was asked by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mel, 1st Marquis of Pombal, Secretary of the State of Internal Affairs in the government of Joseph I and its de facto head, to re-open a derelict glass factory which was located some ninety miles north of Lisbon. Such was the urgency to stimulate commercial activity that he was granted a number of lucrative privileges: exemption from all taxes; a monopoly of glass supply in Portugal and its colonies; and free use of fuel from the Royal pine forest. Joseph I died in 1777 and was succeeded by his eldest daughter Maria I who hated Pombal and his policies. The latter lost his position, but Stephens held on to his status and build a good working relationship with the new queen. That in itself was remarkable. She was a Catholic monarch who believed that her authority was derived from God; he was an illegitimate and foreign Protestant ‘heretic’ – and they enjoyed each other’s company. William retained his privileges for almost forty years and build up an enormous fortune. After he died, unmarried and childless, his wealth was bequeathed to a cousin in London, Charles Lyne, who applied for Royal license to take the name Lyne-Stephens. Charles’s inheritance made him the richest commoner in England. It became a cause célèbre and his only son and heir, Stephens Lyne-Stephens, found himself in great demand by families with unmarried daughters. But Stephens was an unassuming young man who showed little interest in the company of women – until the day he encountered Pauline Duvernay on stage at Drury Lane. 

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At that time she was the mistress of the diplomat Charles, Marquis de la Valette, but in an arrangement negotiated between Count d’Orsay (a friend of Stephens and himself a colorful French figure in British high society) and Yolande’s greedy mother who took two-thirds of the cash deal, Stephens paid a considerable amount of money for the pleasure of ‘owning’ the ballerina. Stephens provided Yolande with a comfortable lifestyle and a property in Kensington, whilst he remained at his father’s estate in Portman Square, Marylebone, to keep up appearances. In 1837, he persuaded her to retire from the stage and live with him at his father’s house. The latter felt uncomfortable with the arrangement (she demanded that he addressed her in French) and, in June 1843, he acquired Grove House in Wandsworth. Pauline remained Stephens’s mistress for eight years. In 1845, out of the blue, the couple married at St Mary’s Church in Putney for an Anglican service, followed by a Catholic one at Cadogan Terrace chapel in Chelsea. To keep a mistress in Victorian society was quietly accepted, but to marry in a mixture of religion was considered a social disgrace. Ostracised by relations and friends, London became a prison to them. When his father died in 1851, Stephens became the richest man in Britain. He bought Hôtel Molé, a grand mansion in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, acquired Lynford Hall near Thetford (Norfolk), and built up a celebrated art collection. The couple settled at Grove House.

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The Grove estate was re-designed and built in the later eighteenth century by James Wyatt for the Dutch immigrant merchant and financier Joshua van Neck (the name was later anglicised as Vanneck). At his death in 1777, he was one of the richest men in Europe. Yolande settled in an environment of traditional wealth and she acquired her share of it. When Stephens died in 1860, he left his entire fortune to her. She became the nation’s wealthiest woman, richer – it was rumoured – than Queen Victoria. She owned three grand estates in England and Paris, thousands of acres of land, and employed hundreds of staff. Yolande continued to live at Grove House, building a Romanesque mausoleum in its grounds. In addition, she acquired the 1863 sculptural group Fighting Bulls by Jean-Baptiste Clésinger which was sited in the gardens of Lynford Hall also as a memorial to her late husband. 

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Not equipped to handle her financial obligations, she befriended Edward Stopford Claremont, a former British military attaché in Paris and friend of Napoleon III, to help her out. Yolande persuaded him to join her at Lynford Hall and live in a ménage-à-trois with his tragically unhappy wife. The arrangement lasted for two decades. Then the past started to trouble her. There were dark secrets and two abandoned children in Paris. Religion took hold of her. She gave huge sums of money to the church and financed the building of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge, one of the biggest Catholic churches in England. With the tallest spire in the city, the building remains a landmark sight.

Yolande Duvernay died on 2 September 1894. She rests in the Grove House mausoleum, next to her husband. Since the marriage had been childless, the trustees put the contents of Lynford Hall and most of the furniture and paintings in Grove House up for sale. The auction took place at Christie’s in May 1895 and lasted nine days. A whole day was devoted to pictures, including portraits of Philip IV and the Infanta Maria Teresa by Velazquez; paintings by Albert Cuyp, Bellini, Veronese, Watteau, Murillo, Claude Lorrain, and others. The furniture was French, mostly Louis XIV and Louis XVI; there was a large quantity of (Sèvres) porcelain; and a wide variety of exclusive objets d’art. Day nine was exclusively dedicated to silverware and jewelry for which a separate catalog was issued for this day (17 pages, 158 items). The sale attracted buyers from Paris, Vienna, Berlin, New York, and elsewhere. The proceeds of the sale were mind-boggling. It was a classic rags-to-riches story with an immigration twist: a young rat who had been ‘auctioned’ by her mother in Paris setting a record art sale at Christie’s after her demise as Britain’s richest widow.

Yolande Marie-Louise Duvernay, Mrs Stephen Lyne-Stephens (1812-1894) by Lorenzo Bartolini (Vernio, Tuscany 1777 ¿ Florence 1850)

Euston Road (Camden)

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Brass instrument maker Gustave Auguste Besson was born in Paris in 1820. At the age of eighteen he produced a revolutionary design of cornet which surpassed all contemporary models. He formed the Besson Company in 1837 and his products quickly gained a great reputation throughout Europe.

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In 1857, he moved to London where he built a large factory at no. 158 Euston Road. Following Besson’s death in 1874, the company changed its name, becoming Fontaine-Besson in 1880 in France, and Besson in England. At the end of the nineteenth century (1894), the Besson factory of London employed 131 workers, producing some hundred brass instruments a week. In 1968, the group Boosey & Hawkes acquired the Besson London brand. As a consequence, Besson cornets, horns, trombones, tubas and other instruments are still made today. The Boosey family was of Franco-Flemish origin. The company traces its roots back to John Boosey, a bookseller in London in the 1760s and 1770s. His son Thomas continued the business at no. 4 Old Bond Street.

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Gresham Street

 

001Merchant banker Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Schröder [known as: Baron John Henry Schröder] was born on 13 February 1825 in Hamburg into a prominent dynasty of bankers and merchants. His father was one of the foremost merchants of his generation in Hamburg. During the Napoleonic wars he lived in London, where he built up a mercantile business with his brother. In 1818 he established his own merchant banking firm, J. Henry Schroder & Co (now at no. 31 Gresham Street).

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John Henry Schröder joined his father’s London firm in 1841, aged sixteen, learning the business under the supervision of a resident partner. The London partnership was restructured in 1849, the new resident partners being John Henry and Alexander Schlüsser. The latter was a specialist in trade with Russia. Much of the firm’s business was conducted in Hamburg and other commercial centres with John Henry’s brothers and cousins, who formed an extensive network of family firms. Schröder married Alexander’s niece Dorothea Eveline Schlüsser. They took up residence in fashionable Bayswater.

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On Alexander Schlüsser’s retirement in 1871, Henry Tiarks, the son of a pastor to London’s Anglo-German community who had worked at the firm as a clerk since 1847, was made a partner. The 1870s and 1880s were John Henry’s heyday as a businessman. He was a director and later chairman of the North British and Marine Insurance Company; in 1888 he became a director of the West India Dock Company, and two years later a member of Lloyd’s of London.

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In 1895, being childless, he brought in his nephew Bruno Schröder from Hamburg to represent the family in the partnership. The latter soon assumed control of the firm’s affairs. John Henry spent the remainder of his time looking after his extensive collection of objets d’art and the cultivation of orchids. Throughout his life, Schröder was a generous benefactor to German institutions and charities. From the outset he was treasurer of the German Hospital, Hackney, and in 1862 he became a trustee of the Hamburg Lutheran Church, London’s oldest German institution. He died in April 1910. He was one of only thirty persons to leave a fortune in excess of £2 million in the years between 1895 and 1914.

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