By Jaap Harskamp / you can find more articles by his hand here
Peter Paul Rubens was a painter with a Baroque brush. He was admired by his contemporaries as the creator of dramatically charged and sensual scenes. As a person, by contrast, he established a reputation for tact and discretion. His genius opened doors to European monarchs and statesmen. He offered the perfect profile as a covert diplomat, his art providing cover for politically sensitive activities.
In 1629 he was sent to London by Philip IV on a (nearly) ten month mission to pave the way for a peace treaty between Spain and Britain. Charles I took this opportunity to conclude the details of a substantial commission for the ceiling paintings at Banqueting House, Whitehall Palace, in memory of his father James I. The nine canvases were produced at Rubens’s factory-like studio in Antwerp and eventually installed in 1637. For his diplomatic efforts and artistic skills, he was knighted by both monarchs.
Although eager to return to Antwerp, his long stay in London was productive from a creative point of view. Having brought his brushes with him, he accepted a number of commissions, including a three-quarter length painting of Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, whose collection of classical sculpture was accommodated in a mansion on the Strand.
Another and more intimate work shows the wife (Deborah Kip) and children of Middelburg-born Balthazar Gerbier, probably painted at York House where the latter was employed as keeper of and agent for the outstanding picture collection of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham.
Mingling with London’s diplomats, it was inevitable that Catholic painter Rubens would meet Protestant physician and polymath Theodore de Mayerne. It turned out to be a happy meeting of minds – in spite of religious differences.
On his penultimate day in London, Rubens paid an unauthorised call to the Chelsea residence of Albert Joachimi, Ambassador of the United Provinces in London. During this visit he made an unsuccessful plea for a truce in hostilities between the Netherlands and Spain. It seems likely that this meeting between two opponents was facilitated by Mayerne who, that same year, had married Joachimi’s daughter Elisabeth in Fulham.
Theodore de Mayerne was born at Geneva on 28 September 1573 and was named after his god-father, the reformer Theodore Beza. He studied medicine at Montpellier, before being appointed physician to Henry IV. When his Protestant background barred his career advancement, he moved to London in 1611.
Having settled at St Martin’s Lane, he was appointed Physician-in-Ordinary to the Stuart court. He kept a record of the many afflictions and final illness of James I (a cadaverous appearance, weak legs, swollen feet, arthritis in the joints, sore lips, and bad breath, the King repelled those close to him by hiccupping and belching). Charles I kept Mayerne in his post requesting a report from him on measures to prevent a plague epidemic. During the turmoil of civil war, Mayerne balanced himself between Parliamentarians and Royalists and he survived Oliver Cromwell’s rule unharmed.
At a time that the profession of physician in England was barely developed, Mayerne was part of a European medical clerisy, a group of elite practitioners who, writing and conversing in Latin, pushed medicine away from preachers and quacks. Cholera does not attend church, the plague has no pulpit. Disease is the great equaliser.
Mayerne was among the first to apply chemistry to the compounding of medicines. Heexperimented with drugs that were not recommended in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis compiled in 1618 by fellows of the Royal College of Physicians. His clinical reputation kept them from taking action against his ‘unorthodox’ approach of prescribing chemical remedies.
Mayerne’s interest in the structure and properties of substances extended into other domains of activity. He applied scientific methodologies to the study of artistic techniques (and pondered how painting could benefit from the development of chemical knowledge). The British Library holds the splendid ‘Mayerne manuscript’ (MS 2052, acquired by Hans Sloane, and catalogued as Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum atrium). Dated between 1620 and 1646, the manuscript contains notes on the making of pigments, oils, and varnishes; the preparation of surfaces for painting; and the repair and conservation of works of art.
Mayerne was in personal contact with Dutch and Flemish artists who had made London their home and involved them in his research. He interviewed Anthony van Dyck and it has been suggested that his research into the properties of pigments helped fellow Swiss immigrant Jean Petitot to reach the perfection of his colouring in enamel. Considering all this, it is not suprising that Mayerne was keen to meet great Rubens during his London mission. The British Museum holds a sketch in black chalk which Rubens later used for his Mayerne portrait (executed in Antwerp in 1631).
Like a number of medical men in history, Mayerne was also interested in the art of cooking (to the Romans, the word ‘curare’ signified to dress a dinner as well as to cure a disease). Mayerne’s 1658 cookery-book bears title Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus[The Anglo-French chef].
As he was regularly invited to gatherings organised by the Lord Mayor, he named his first recipe ‘A City of London Pie’. This gastronomic tour de force contains the following ingredients ‘eight marrow bones, eighteen sparrows, one pound of potatoes, a quarter of a pound of eringoes, two ounces of lettuce stalks, forty chestnuts, half a pound of dates, a peck of oysters, a quarter of a pound of preserved citron, three artichokes, twelve eggs, two sliced lemons, a handful of pickled barberries, a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper, half an ounce of sliced nutmeg, half an ounce of whole cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of whole cloves, half an ounce of mace, and a quarter of a pound of currants. When baked, the pie should be liquored with white wine, butter and sugar’.
It is hardly surprising that, in late life, obesity made him immobile. Ironically, the cause of his death in March 1655 was attributed to consuming bad wine at the Canary House tavern in the Strand.
During the high and late Middle Ages the majority of strangers in London were individual members of a multi-national merchant class. In 1303, Edward I had signed the Carta Mercatoria (Charter of the Merchants), an agreement in which rights were granted to foreign merchants in return for dues and levies. Under its terms overseas traders were free to come and go, import and export. They were exempted from tolls and allowed to enforce contracts or settle disputes. Free trading was inevitably accompanied by freedom of movement.
Although attempts were made to regulate migration, many strangers settled in London and were able to run their enterprises without too many obstacles. In 1334, in exchange for financial assistance, Edward III replaced the general accord of rights to foreign merchants with a charter specifically tailored the needs of the powerful Hanseatic League. In its heyday, some seventy cities were regular members of this trading block (an early European Union) and around one hundred more acted as passive associates without decision-making power. Representatives met on a regular basis to strike trading agreements or resolve issues of common (often political) interest. Many of contemporary notions of commerce, economic association, free trade, were formulated during the League’s existence.
Its London branch occupied a walled area on the north bank of the Thames, just south of London Bridge, now known as Cannon Street. Called the Steelyard or ‘Stalhof’, it was in effect a separate community, independent of the City of London, and governed by its own code of laws. The name referred to either the great steel beam used for weighing goods, or to the extensive courtyard where products were traded from stalls. The yard was not dissolved until the German cities of Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg sold their common property in 1853.
Hans Holbein the younger was born in 1497/8 in Augsburg. His father had settled in that city in 1494 and both his sons Ambrosius and Hans were employed in his workshop where he produced large altarpieces. By 1515 Hans and his brother appear to have migrated to Basel. This date is established by the survival of a copy of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, in which the margins are illustrated in pen and ink by the young Holbein. Hans was active in the city not only as a painter of portraits and religious imagery, but also as a designer of woodcuts, engravings, and stained glass. Holbein’s earliest surviving dated paintings are the portraits of Jacob Meyer, ‘burgomeister’ of Basel, and that of his wife, both painted in 1516. He was appointed town painter in 1518/19. He may have painted relatively few portraits at the time, but the images he produced of his friend Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 were prove of his prodigious talent.
The lure of a lucrative Royal post tempted Holbein to travel to England in 1526. Erasmus had many close contacts there and they helped him to find patronage. His arrival effectively brought Renaissance painting from the Continent to England. He was commissioned to paint a series of portraits, including those of clergyman William Warham (patron of Erasmus), astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer (depicted as an instrument maker surrounded by rulers, compasses, and sundials), and that of his own patron, Thomas More.
Holbein’s first visit to England lasted only two years. He left London in 1528 for Basel, but the violent upheavals of the Reformation encouraged a swift return to in 1531/2. He stayed in London until his death in 1543. These were turbulent years in England too, both politically and socially. During Holbein’s second spell in England, Thomas More resigned from office. Unable to depend on More’s influence to obtain commissions, he found employment amongst fellow countrymen, the German business community in London. Holbein created eight portraits of Steelyard merchants.
The first of those was a portrait commissioned by Georg Giese, titled ‘Der Kaufmann Georg Gisze’ (1532). This detailed composition may have been intended as a show piece to elicit further Steelyard commissions. A plaque depicted over the sitter’s head identifies him as a person and states his age. He is holding a letter he had received from his brother, written in Middle Low German. Holbein’s next portrait was probably that of Hans of Antwerp, dated 26 July 1532. This sitter resided in London from 1515 to as late as 1547 and was married to an English woman. He was employed as a jeweller by Thomas Cromwell and associated with the London Steelyard, combining the activities of goldsmith and merchant.
Holbein’s talent became widely recognised and appreciated. As a dedicated patron of the arts, Henry VIII appoint him as court painter in 1536. Thereafter, he devoted most of his time to Royal commissions. He is known to have been living in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in Aldgate in 1541 and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever worked at Whitehall Palace. In addition to his role as painter to Henry VIII, Holbein created the portraits of many of the King’s courtiers, as well as those of other prominent figures living in London. A number of painted portraits survive, mostly unsigned. In addition, the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle holds over eighty of preparatory portrait drawings. Holbein’s portraits and drawings provide an unrivalled depiction of the Tudor court and includes a striking image of Henry VIII.
During Holbein’s stay in London the nature of immigration was changing. The Steelyard community had been a class of powerful merchants, influential but aloof, rich but reclusive. Members were welcomed in high society, but did not mix with Londoners in their day to day business. In the course of the century, immigration moved on from a transient presence of rich merchants to the permanent settlement of an artisan class whose members descended from the Low Countries in particular. This change brought about economic benefits to London and the Southeast, but the presence of a large number of strangers also created tension and outbreaks of anti-alien violence. As far as immigration is concerned, Holbein’s portraits represent an earlier period and a more static state of affairs in the capital.
Birds represent crucial aspects of Christian teaching. The dove signifies the Holy Spirit as well as marking peace and purity; the eagle, like the phoenix, is a symbol of the Resurrection; the pelican stands for the passion of Jesus and the Eucharist; the peacock symbolises immortality; the lark refers to humility; the blackbird represents sin and temptation. One can go on. The robin, owl, partridge, swallow, raven, stork, goose, goldfinch, woodpecker, even the sparrow, are invested with meaning – but not the canary. And yet, the songbird is unique. It is is our only feathered friend that participated in the Reformation.
In origin, the canary was a Catholic bird. When Spanish sailors first reached the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century, they were charmed by its song. They caught the creatures and shipped them home. Having conquered and claimed the Islands in 1500, the Spanish trade in canaries boomed. Soon they were being bred on the mainland and sold to Italian and Swiss admirers, with monasteries holding a monopoly on the business. The monks only sold male birds and there was no canary-breeding beyond the cloister walls. Italian bird traders eventually broke that possessorship by getting their hands on female birds and beginning the process of selective breeding (with a wider colour range). The birds spread outwards from Italy on trading routes into Europe. The canary was warmly received and coolly caged in France and Flanders – and became associated with the history of Protestant migration from these regions.
In 1564, Queen Elizabeth had allowed a number of Flemish families to settle in Norwich. The process began when local authorities approached Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, for assistance in establishing an alien community to arrest the decay of the town precipitated by the decline of its worsted manufacture. The arrival of ‘strangers’ marked the city’s revival. It set a precedent. Upon reports in 1567 that the Duke of Alva was heading towards the Southern Netherlands with a large army, vast numbers of people fled from town and country. This was the most serious uprooting that early modern Europe had experienced. By the early 1570s some 10,000 refugees were estimated to have moved across the Channel. This, the first major influx of refugees during the reign of Eliabeth coincided with a period of social and economic instability in England. Protestant immigrants from the Low Countries were welcomed because of their religion and economic utility, yet at the same time an increasing number of aliens in the country was feared as a possible ‘fifth column’ in the struggle with the Catholic Church. From the beginning asylum has been accompanied by varying degrees of xenophobia and resentment.
Norwich housed the largest provincial immigrant community of the late sixteenth century. The newcomers grew flowers and vegetables unknown before in England; Jasper Andries and Jacob Janson, refugees from Antwerp, started a business making tiles and pottery; Anthony Solen introduced the craft of printing in 1570 for which he was presented with the freedom of the city (the Solen Press is still active in Norwich). Refugees did not just bring their individual skills, but they also introduced new pastimes and hobbies. In Flanders, canary-breeding had become a passion which was exported to Norwich (the ‘Norwich canary’ became a popular breed). In 1902, Norwich City football club was formed. Its players were soon nicknamed ‘the canaries’ with matching club match and team colours of yellow shirts, green shorts, and yellow socks.
During the reign of Elisabeth I, Flemish and Frenchimmigrants had already been involved in establishing the English silk industry. With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 large numbers of skilled Huguenot weavers crossed the Channel, most of them settling in the hamlets of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. They set up their looms there and manufactured large quantities of lustrings, velvets, brocades, satins, and silks that could previously only be procured from Lyons and Tours. Powerful mercers and master weavers inhabited grand premises in the Old Artillery Ground, Spitalfields, controlling the journeymen weavers who worked from more modest homes in neighbouring streets. They instructed local Londoners to produce these goods themselves and many pupils soon equaled or rivaled their teachers. For generations to come, Spitalfields would be associated with silk.
Since 1681 Huguenot refugees were allowed to obtain a patent of denisation, which brought with it the right to own property. Naturalisation guaranteed a range of additional rights, but was only possible by a private Act of Parliament. Few were able to choose that option because of forbidding costs. In March 1709 the Whig government passed the Foreign Protestants Naturalisation Act, stating that any alien who swore allegiance to Church and government would be naturalised and enjoy all the rights held by English-born citizens (for the cost of a shilling). Opposition to the Act was strong. The canto Canary-birds Naturaliz’d in Utopia was published in 1709 by the Booksellers of London and Westminster with the intention of manipulating public opinion against the government. The poem’s title refers to the canaries that Huguenot silk weavers kept in cages besides their looms to entertain them while they were at work. Because of continuous protest, the Act was largely repealed by the Tories in 1711. To this day, Tories stoke the fear of foreigners. Ideally, they want to create an environment so hostile that even migratory birds, unless they have received permission from the Home Office, would refrain from shitting on British soil.
In 1658, physician and author Thomas Browne published his reflections on death and burial in Hydriotaphia: Urne-Buriall which made him a pioneer in the British history of cremation. Every word in this splendid discourse smells of ashes. Anxieties about the desecration of his own final resting place put him in the forefront of a fight against body snatching. In a striking passage he wrote: ‘To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculs made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials’.
His foresight was uncanny. Browne died in 1682 and was buried at St Peter Mancroft Church, Norfolk. In 1840 his coffin was disturbed while a vault was being dug next to his plot. Sensing an opportunity, the sexton George Potter absconded with the skull and sold it to Edward Lubbock, a surgeon. The latter left Browne’s head to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum, which put it on display. A photograph of the skull resting on two volumes of Religio medici appeared as the frontispiece to the 1904 edition of The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. It was not until 1922 that the missing head was returned for reburial. Browne is the patron saint of stolen skulls. He speaks for the collective indignity of all those corpses whose heads have been dragged around by curators, collectors, souvenir hunters, anatomists, phrenologists, and craniologists.
Robbing graves in order to facilitate the detailed study of bones and cadavers has been a long tradition in medicine and art. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were known for stealing bodies from morgues in order to research human anatomy. The dissection of corpses did not become a standard practice in medical education until the mid-sixteenth century. Finding suitable corpses was one a major problem. Bodies cut up tended to be those of criminals or heretics and were predominantly male. The occasional dissection of a woman attracted large numbers of spectators lured by the prospect of the exposure of female organs. A public dissection in those early days was both spectacle and instruction, being attended by professionals, artists, and the curious alike. Within medical circles, the cutting up of a body was regarded as a celebration of scientific progress.
Anatomy and dissection became integral parts of medical study during the early eighteenth century. The demand for corpses increased, but the supply was limited. The ‘Murder Act’ of 1752 allowed for the public dissection of killers following their execution. The underlying idea was that the process would serve science and overwhelm the crowd with a graphic set of images that restored the deterrent effect of punishment. But even criminal bodies were hard to obtain as families and friends battled with the authorities for the right of burial. As a consequence of cadaver shortage, a clandestine trade emerged. Anatomists paid resurrectionists (body snatchers) to dig up recently interred bodies. It was a seasonal occupation as the coldness of winter slowed down putrefaction. Until the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 grave robbers earned a good living. The act allowed for unclaimed bodies to be turned over to the medical profession, effectively substituting the poor for the executed.
For the anatomist the freshness of a corpse was an essential condition – any corpse. Phrenologists were more selective. The first half of the nineteenth century was the age of gruesome skull-theft. Franz-Joseph Gall was the godfather of phrenology. He based his research on the assumption that mental faculties are located in ‘organs’ or ‘bumps’ on the surface of the brain. Each bump corresponds to a brain chart and the cranial bone adapts to accommodate the different sizes of these particular areas. In his topographic organisation of the brain, Gall identified twenty-seven organs (his pupil and protégé Johann Spurzheim added another ten to the list) which affect the contour of the skull. Phrenology, therefore, is the study of skull structure to determine a person’s character and mental capacity. Scientific grave robbers were particularly interested in collecting the skulls of creative individuals. As both Gall and Spurzheim were working at the University of Vienna, is not surprising that the disinterred heads of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, or Schubert, received particular attention from phrenologists in search of the ‘music bump’, the node on the brain that (supposedly) corresponds to musical genius.
Thomas Browne was still alive in 1666 when the catastrophic Fire of London broke out. The rebuilding of the city required a vast number of workers and an endless supply of materials. Scandinavian timber ships had been coming to London for centuries, bringing their cargoes right up to the inner London docks. The huge demand for timber in the aftermath of the Great Fire substantially increased the trade and brought countless skilled workers to London. Timber merchants established their discharging wharves at Wapping, as their ships were too large to pass under Tower Bridge. Nordic immigrants settled around the Thames in East London and built their own shops and churches. Caius Gabriel Cibber designed the Danish Church in Wellclose Square. With local Norwegians involved in its foundation and finance, the church was consecrated in 1696. Three decades later, the Swedish Lutheran Church was built in nearby Prince’s Square, Wapping, under the episcopal oversight of Jesper Swedberg, Bishop of Skara. As the Swedish community (including Swedish-speaking Finns) around Wapping expanded, the church played a significant welfare role in an enduring maritime presence of Nordic citizens.
Swedberg was the father of Emanuel Swedenborg. The latter first visited London in 1710 and was to return a dozen times or more, often residing in the city for extended periods. He appreciated London’s freedom of expression allowing him to publish his works without the interference of Sweden’s strict anti-heresy laws. During his visits to the capital, Swedenborg resided in Wapping’s Scandinavian quarters and worshipped regularly at the Swedish Church. He was finally buried there following his death in 1772. The capital did not forget him. In 1789, the New Jerusalem Church at Maidenhead Court, Great Eastcheap, which was based on Swedenborgian principles, opened its doors to devotees with William and Catherine Blake as founder members. The London Society for Printing and Publishing the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg (now: Swedenborg Society) was founded in February 1810.
In 1906, the deserted Swedish Church (its congregation had moved on) was in danger of being demolished. Members of the London Swedenborg Society made representations to the Swedish government, recommending the repatriation of Emanuel’s remains. Some five years later, preparations were made to have his body reburied in Uppsala Cathedral. When the corpse was exhumed, it appeared that the body had been tampered with. An investigation revealed that Swedenborg’s cranium was stolen after the coffin had been opened in 1790 and sold to a phrenological society. In its place was put a substitute. After that, the relic changed hands several times, eventually finding its way to no. 4 Victoria Arcade, Swansea. Bookseller and phrenologist William Alfred Williams had purchased the skull in a London curiosity shop before World War I. When he died in 1957, it remained in the family before being offered at a Sotheby’s sale in March 1978. The auctioneer described the skull poetically as ‘of dark ivory colour, jawbone lacking … otherwise in good condition with an attractive patina’. The Swedish Royal Academy of Science was the highest bidder (£1,500), having decided that the skull was (almost) certainly that of the mystic philosopher. Swedenborg’s remains were reunited with its wandering cranium and returned to his country of birth.
In September 2009 workers in a mass grave on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo dug up a female skeleton with a brick lodged between her jaws. The person had died during the plague epidemic of 1576. In October 2018, archaeologists working at the ancient La Necropoli dei Bambini in Lugnano, Umbria, unearthed the remains of a fifth-century child with a rock stuffed into his/her mouth. The youngster had died of malaria. These discoveries supplied a clue to how the vampire myth was born and an opportunity to reconstruct its ritual exorcism. The epidemics that ravaged medieval Europe fostered a belief in vampires. The ‘un-dead’ spread pestilence in order to suck the remaining life from corpses until they are reanimated.
The myth persisted because the decomposition of corpses was not understood. Gravediggers came across bodies bloated by gas, with hair still growing, and blood seeping from their mouths. The shrouds covering their faces were decayed and revealed the corpse’s teeth. Vampires became known as ‘shroud-eaters’. In order to kill the vampire the cloth had to be removed and replaced by a rock or brick. Such vampire burials are associated with Roman civilisation in particular (although a number of similar burials have been reported from Poland). It is therefore not entirely coincidental that the first fictional vampire to enter British literature was let loose by the son of an Italian immigrant.
Gaetano Polidori had moved from Pisa to London in 1790 where he worked as a teacher, translated Milton into Italian, wrote poetry and fiction, and set up his own private press. In early 1816, his son John William became travelling physician to Lord Byron, then departing on a tour of the Continent. In April 1819, JW published a story in Henry Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine entitled ‘The Vampyre’.
Byron himself produced a fictional fragment on this subject, which forced Polidori to seek an injunction against Colburn for attributing his story to the poet. Despite its troubled genesis, the storyachieved spectacular success in Europe. Polidori’s tale launched a prototype of the modern vampire in literature. He opened a window for Dracula in the guise of a black bat to flit into house of fiction. The extraordinary impact of Stoker’s novel (1897) demands a context.
The masculinity of Victorian Britain was shaken by lurking anxieties – fear of the masses, socialists, and feminists; dread of miscegenation; unease about the loss of Empire, etc. These concerns overlap in eugenic theories which were (especially in Britain) current at the time. Immigration and racism were integral parts of genesiological thinking. Various revolutions in Europe had pushed waves of political refugees into Britain who profited from liberal asylum conditions. Up until the late nineteenth century immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe had been limited in scale. Those who settled in London and elsewhere were merchants, scientists, or artists. The number of religious or political refugees was low. All that changed dramatically in 1881 with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.
The murder became a catalyst for relentless pogroms which, together with the enforced conscription of young men into the Russian army, caused large numbers of Jews and activists to flee from home. London was confronted with an influx of Yiddish-speaking refugees. The sheer number of newcomers was a cause of concern for the wider Jewish population. Fearful that their own position within society would be negatively impacted upon, they undertook to ‘Anglicise’ new arrivals by imbuing British customs and language. From the early 1890s onwards, a network of Jewish schools and organisations was created to mediate between local and immigrant life styles.
By the turn of the century, a populist backlash turned against immigration. The Ripper crimes had created a storm of hysteria with the local Jewish community bearing the brunt of outbursts. The secretive nature of the Whitechapel ‘ghetto’ was cited as a reason why the murders were never solved. The British Brothers League (BBL) was formed in 1902 along paramilitary lines with support of the right-wing press and hard-line politicians. Its members took to the streets and in the clamour of anti-Jewish slogans the dictionary of medieval slurs was reopened and racial stereotyping introduced. The rhetoric suggested that Jewishness and Englishness were incompatible. The 1905 Aliens Act introduced strict immigration controls. While the Act was ostensibly designed to prevent paupers, criminals, and undesirable aliens from entering the country, its objective was to stem ‘rampant’ Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe.
Enter Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker. Born in Dublin into a Protestant family, he initially worked as drama critic for the Dublin Evening Mail (co-owned by the author Sheridan Le Fanu who, in 1872, published his story ‘Camila’ in which Laura, a virtuous English girl, is left at the mercy of a predatory East European vampire). After his wedding in 1878, Stoker settled in London taking up the position of business manager at Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, Wellington Street. He travelled extensively in his job, but never visited Eastern Europe. Images of Transylvania and a spooky castle in the remote Carpathian Mountains were products of a lively Irish imagination. Stoker was entirely responsible for our association of bats with vampires by exploiting the abundance of folkloristic tales concerning these nocturnal flying mammals. The bat was known asflittermouse (German: Fledermaus, Dutch: vleermuis, Swedish: fladdermus), until the moment that Johann Friedrich Blumenbach first recorded the species of ‘chiroptera’ in his Hanbuch der Naturgeschiche (1779), and Darwin supplied descriptive sketches of bat species in The Zoologyof the H.M.S. Beagle (vol. 1, 1839). It is the bloodsucking ‘Vampire bat’ that stuck in the popular mind and handed Stoker with a powerful literary device.
Stoker introduced the vampire as a synopsis of fears that haunted the epoch. Medieval vampire-dread was driven by the omnipresence of death and disease. To kill vampires, or at least stop them from feeding or chewing, were preventative acts. The early modern vampire entered the socio-psychological domain of collective anxiety. Count Dracula is an immigrant from Transylvania who subverts society and imperils the perception of Englishness. His forays into London and his ability to move unnoticed through crowded streets, touched on late-Victorian apprehensions about immigration. Newcomers were held responsible for a perceived increase in crime and the emergence of ‘no-go’ communities. The novel responded to the prejudice that villainous migrants disturbed social coherence and disrupted the moral and religious status quo.
The novel is structured on binary principles that work on different levels. Every dark force has a contrasting power of purity. Good versus evil, folklore versus technology, superstition versus rationality – Count Dracula versus Professor Abraham van Helsing. The latter is of Dutch descent and a Catholic. Religion is essential in this context. Medieval theologians reasoned that vampires are demons that reanimate human corpses. As they have no souls and are pure evil, they must be destroyed. The Catholic Church developed an arsenal of weapons to fight the vampire and perform exorcisms. When the un-dead rise from their graves, you want a priest or at least a pious person to be on your side. Van Helsing has the distinction of being both a scientific researcher and a devout Catholic. In Stoker’s tale religion and science are overlapping domains. The Dutch vampire hunter provides the means and methods for defeating wickedness to members of the Church of England. He is both a man of the here and now, and represents a tradition in which the Catholic Church is the major power combatting supernatural evil. There is another binary process at work here: Van Helsing is also an immigrant. He personifies ‘old’ immigration, the newcomer (or the descendant thereof) who has settled in the country, adapted to its culture and social structures, and makes a valuable contribution. In a Protestant nation, even his ‘hostile’ religion is no longer a hindrance. Dracula represents the opposite. He is the ‘new’ migrant, alien in language and culture, corrupt, depraved, and religiously suspect.
The vampire myth can also be read as a sexual allegory in which female virtue is menaced by foreign predators. In Dracula all women are at risk, some more than others. The binary principle is applied in the contrast of fate between Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker. The latter is a virtuous woman who selflessly (and symbolically) spends her honeymoon nursing her sick husband. By contrast, beautiful Lucy is a spirited young woman and a feminist. Dracula attacked both of them, but Mina’s qualities of righteousness and marital loyalty repel his advances. The free-spirited Lucy is not so lucky. Stoker selected her foreign name with care. Merchant Warner Westenra had moved from the Netherlands to Dublin, made a fortune, and became an Irish subject in 1661. One descendant married into the Peerage becoming Baron Rossmore and others were prominent politicians. In the last (1799) Parliament that sat in Dublin, Henry Westenra represented County Monaghan.
Lucy was of Dutch-Irish descent, a foreigner, and as such her moral outlook clashed with that of English women. In a male-dominated age, Lucy represents the New Woman, liberated, educated, socially engaged, and sexually forward. Towards the end of the century, immigrant women were becoming increasingly active in the (urban) labour market, not just as a cheap workers, but also as professionals in the care and creative spheres. They were not inhibited by British moral codes or value systems and eager to grasp new opportunities. The New Woman was ridiculed either as a mannish intellectual or as an immoral seductress (a favourite theme of fin de siècle artists). Lucy Westenra is a man-eater. Her moral ‘weakness’ and sexual appetite allow Dracula to prey repeatedly upon her during the night. As she joins the ranks of the ‘un-dead’ she herself becomes a vampire, leaving her tomb by night to feed upon defenceless children. For Stoker, the New (Migrant) Woman had murdered the concept of Victorian maternal femininity.
Immigration spread the fear of ‘contamination’. Our country is gradually falling to the Irish and Jews, Sydney Webb wrote in a Fabian Tract (no. 131) of 1907, concluding mockingly that the ‘ultimate future of these islands may be to the Chinese’. The act of vampirism, with its notion of tainted blood, suggests the panic about sexually transmitted diseases and, more generally, the alarm of physical and moral decay that was believed by many commentators to be afflicting society. They spoke of race-decay and their key word was degeneration. The term itself was integrated into the discourse of psychiatry by Bénédict Morel in 1867, but it was Max Nordau who gave the word its explosive interpretation. His critics may have rejected the term as pseudo-scientific humbug without diagnostic value, but his book Entartung (1892) made an enormous impact. Dedicated to the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, it was translated in 1895 as Degeneration (the same year that Dublin-born Oscar Wilde was prosecuted for homosexuality). Towards the end of Stoker’s novel, Mina observes that Count Dracula ‘is of criminal type, Nordau and Lombroso would so classify him’. Degeneration was an emotive abstraction. All this is part of the package Bram Stoker offered to his readers. Dracula is a novel with a reactionary message, an undertone of anti-Semitism, and an outspoken mistrust of migrants.
There is, in conclusion, a touch of irony that the persona of Dracula is associated with the descendant of an Italian migrant family. The Carandini dynasty rose to prominence in Modena in the fifteenth century. Under Frederick Barbarossa the family was given the right to bear the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire and the title of Conte (Count) was obtained following the Battle of Lepanto (1571). Additional titles were granted later, including that of Marchese (Marquis) of Sarzano. Countess Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano was born in 1889. An Edwardian beauty, her image was painted and sculpted by a number of artists. In 1910, she married Geoffrey Trollope Lee of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on 27 May 1922 at no. 51 Lower Belgrave Street, Westminster – the year of his birth coincided with the first screen appearance of the vampire in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu. With an acting career spanning nearly seven decades, Lee is remembered for his iconic role as Count Dracula in a sequence of Hammer Horror films.
In 1842, Edward Lear began a journey into the Italian peninsula and made the strenuous effort of travelling to the Abruzzo region where he fell in love with the harsh landscape and its hardy inhabitants. In notes and drawings, he gathered his impressions of local life and traditions, and described the splendour of ancient monuments. Lear drew a sketch of the medieval village of Albe; gave an account of Castello Piccolomini dominating the plain of Lago Fucino (which was drained a few years later); and recalled the stillness of snowy mountains that would impress D.H. Lawrence some seventy-five years later during his visit to Valle di Comino.
Lear published his Illustrated Excursions in Italy in 1846. He firmly put the region and its people on the map of creative discovery. Sudden interest in this ‘forgotten’ locality did not spark a rush of artists to conquer the cut-off terrain. Instead, it led to migrant movement from Abruzzo and neighbouring Ciociaria towards the art capitals of Europe. It would have a notable effect on English aesthetics.
During the nineteenth century, parts of Italy suffered serious economic hardship. From the 1820s onwards people started to leave en masse. Chain migration played a dominant part in the exodus from a fragmented society. The chain was formed by instrument makers from the valleys around Como; hat makers from Leghorn (Livorno); plaster cast makers from Lucca; waiters from Ticino; glass makers from Altare; and street musicians from Naples. Political integration did not solve the country’s economic problems. Emigration remained high in the following decades, owing to various crises in agriculture, and the inability of manufacture to generate enough jobs.
Abruzzo and Ciociaria, now hailed as the greenest parts of Europe, were once lands of deprivation. Surrounded by rugged mountains, the districts were long isolated from other parts of Italy. A self-sufficient agricultural economy was crucial for survival. Although remoteness was opened up by an emerging railway network (in 1839, a first segment of railroad was laid stretching the short distance from Naples to Portici; seven years it had reached Venice), the regions remained among the poorest in the country. Their economies were based on traditional methods. Outdated sheep-raising systems and uncompetitive wool manufacture forced labourers to leave the land and move away. Unification in 1860 and the subsequent introduction of conscription, made young men feel that their only escape route was either brigandage or emigration (‘o emigranti o briganti’). The exodus of farmers and workers began there and then, became intense in the mid-1880s, and reached a peak between 1900 and 1915. With the port of Naples connected by the Ferrovia Sangritana rail service, the Americas were their main destination although many of them remained within Europe. Migration was stimulated by the government as it removed the (deeply feared) threat of social unrest. It also helped the balance of payment as most migrants sent money home to support their families. By 1915 half a million Abruzzese were living abroad.
During the late nineteenth century and early 1900s many ‘romantic’ paintings were produced depicting the colourful costumes of Italian country-folk. Migrants found work acting as sitters for artists, sculptors, and photographers in Paris, Madrid, or elsewhere. They were admired for their grace and beauty. A typical example is Enrique Simonet Lombardo’s painting Woman from Ciociara (1889). The most successful of migrant models was Almerinda Caira. Born in Atina, she moved to France, and married the painter François-Maurice Roganeau, later Director of the Academy of Fine Arts of Bordeaux. She moved in prominent artistic and diplomatic circles and was a close friend of Giuseppe Garibaldi and his family.
In 1870, two significant events took place. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and the subsequent Siege of Paris, disturbed social and artistic life in the capital. Many Italian models living in Paris crossed the Channel and settled in London where they were seen as ‘reliable’ workers, willing to supplement their earnings by selling ice creams or chestnuts, or act as organ grinders. They became the elite of the modelling profession and were prominent in leading studios and art classes. The conflict in France coincided with the foundation of the Slade School of Art at University College London. Its first Professor of Fine Art was Edward John Poynter, the future author of Classic and Italian Painting (1880). He urged his students to use Italian rather than English male models, arguing that their physique was superior. To this he added that their feet were not deformed, because they wore traditional sandals rather than tight-fitting modern shoes. An intriguing side line: the name Ciociaria is derived from ‘ciocie’, the primitive local footwear. According to Poynter’s aesthetic theory, the Italian model came close to the ideal of Greek masculinity.
Victorian artists such as John William Waterhouse, Frederick Leighton, John Everett Millais, or John Singer Sergeant, employed migrant models. Angelo Colarossi had set a precedent. Born in 1838 in the village of Picinisco, he arrived in London in the mid-1860s. Having settled in Hammersmith, his fine physique had not gone unnoticed and he was soon in demand as a model. Posing for Julia Margaret Cameron at Little Holland House, Kensington, she produced the stunning 1867 image ‘Iago, Study from an Italian’ (Iago is a villain Shakespeare’s Othello). Unshaven and brooding, this is one of the finest portraits in early photography. His career soon took off.
John Everett Millais depicted him as a seaman in The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870), while John Singer Sargent cast him in the role of Moses. Frederic Leighton portrayed him as An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877)and as Elijah in the Wilderness (1879). Colarossi can also be seen as a figure in relief on the Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens, and leading a lion as part of Queen Victoria’s Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. In 1883, John William Waterhouse made him a slave in The Favourite of the Emperor Honorius. Angelo died in London in 1916. His son, also named Angelo, was the teenage model for Albert Gilbert’s Anteros in Piccadilly Circus (commonly known as Eros).
Gaetano Valvona fits the more rustic image of the migrant model. Born in 1857into a family of shepherds, he arrived in London during the early 1870s still wearing the costume of his native countryside. It provoked stone-throwing boys to chase him through Leather Lane, Holborn, where he had settled. His presence caught the eye of Frederick Leighton who made him his chosen model. Valvona posed for the Sluggard (1885), a life size bronze sculpture that Leighton exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Orazio Cerviwas born at some time in the 1860s in Picinisco. As a sixteen-your old he walked to London where he joined the Italian community at Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell, and started work as a street performer. His Abruzzi outfit drew the attention of artists and he soon entered the elite group of models. He was Hamo Thornycroft’s preferred model. Cervi stood for The Stone Putter (1880) and Teucer (1881), the champion Greek archer. After producing classical nudes in the manner of Leighton, the sculptor turned in The Mower to a contemporary subject. Using an Italian model, this is the first sculpture of a British labourer at work (without political connotations). Shortly before World War I, his looks fading and commissions drying up, Cervi returned to his place of birth. In December 1919, D.H. Lawrence and Frieda paid him a visit on their way to Capri. The couple stayed for eight days in the primitive surroundings. In The Lost Girl the novelist based the character of Pancrazio on his host.
Suggestions about home-erotic relationships were rife when, in 1892, Nicola d’Iverno entered the service of John Singer Sargent, acting as his valet and model for two decades. Alessandro di Marco was another intriguing figure. His androgynous features made him an attractive sitter as it was possible for him to pose for both male and female figures. He stood for Merlin in Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin (1872/7). He also posed for Walter Crane whose wife forbid her husband to use female models. Di Marco was favoured by Pre-Raphaelite artists exhibiting at Coutts Lindsay’s Grosvenor Gallery, Bond Street, as he was the ‘living embodiment of a classical sculpture’. This relatively short but evocative phase in the Anglo-Italian history of both art and migration came to an abrupt end with the start of World War I. The celebration of bright colour would be replaced by the dark aesthetics of loss and mutilation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 1stMarquis 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.
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.
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.
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.