SCHWITTERS AND JARRY AT THE GABERBOCCHUS PRESS | Randolph Avenue (Maida Vale)

Franciszka Weinles was born on 28 June 1907 in Warsaw, the daughter of the Jewish artist Jakub Weinles. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw in 1931. Stefan Themerson was born on 25 January 1910 in Plock, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire). His Jewish father was a physician and social reformer. Stefan studied physics and then architecture at Warsaw University, but his real early interest was photography and film making. The two met in 1929 and were married two years later.

Living in Warsaw until 1935, Stefan wrote children book that were illustrated by Franciszka. Together they produced a number of short experimental films. In the winter of 1937/8 the couple moved to Paris joining an international circle of artists and writers. Stefan wrote for various Polish publications in Paris; Franciszka illustrated children’s books for Flammarion. 

With the declaration of war in 1939, both enlisted. Stefan joined the Polish army; Franciszka was seconded as a cartographer to the Polish Government in Exile, first in France and from 1940 in London. With the German invasion and the Allied collapse, Stefan found himself desperately trying to escape from France. Towards the end of 1942 he succeeded to make his way to Lisbon and was transported to Britain by the RAF. 

Having been reunited with his wife, he joined the film unit of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation. There he and Franciszka produced Calling Mr Smith, an account of Nazi atrocities in Poland. In 1944 the Themersons moved to the West London district of Maida Vale, where they would stay for the rest of their lives. At the time of their naturalisation on 13 April 1954, the couple lived at no. 49 Randolph Avenue. 

Stefan and Franciszka established the Gaberbocchus Press in 1948. The choice of name was inspired by the Latinised version of Lewis Carroll’s inventive nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’ that was included in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass.

With Franciszka as artistic director and Stefan as editor, the Press was active until 1979 and published fifty-nine titles. In the typical private press tradition, work began from home by printing their first books on a hand-press using hand-made paper. As the press developed the titles were professionally printed. They kept an office in Formosa Street where, from 1957 to 1959, they also ran the Gaberbocchus Common Room which was a meeting place for artists, scientists, and members of the public to exchange ideas and enjoy readings, music performances, and film screenings. 

A characteristic of all the Press’s publications was the intimate relationship between image and text as an expression of content. The output included works by Apollinaire, Jankel Adler, and Bertrand Russell’s The Good Citizen’s Alphabet. Gaberbocchus also introduced Kurt Schwitters to an English audience. 

Born in June 1887 in Hanover and educated at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Dresden, Schwitters was conscripted into the army between March and June 1917, but was declared unfit for active service. The senseless slaughter of war had shaken his faith in the cultural norms of his generation. He became a prominent figure within the Dada movement, but his status was undermined with the rise of Hitler. 

In 1937, four of his works were included in the notorious Entartete Kunst (‘Degenerate art’) exhibition. Thirteen other works were removed from German museums. Forced to leave Germany he settled at Lysaker, near Oslo. When German forces attacked Norway he fled to Britain, arriving in Edinburgh in 1940. 

Kurt’s Dadaist reputation meant nothing in England. Singled out as an enemy alien, he was interned at Douglas on the Isle of Man. Behind barbed wire, Hutchinson Internment Camp held so many academics and artists that it functioned as a kind of university-in-exile. Kurt Schwitters performed his poems there and painted portraits. 

After obtaining his freedom he returned to London and moved into an attic flat at no. 3 St Stephen Crescent, Paddington. He exhibited in several galleries, but with little success. At his first solo exhibition at the Modern Art Gallery in December 1944, forty works were displayed but only one was sold. An outsider, he remained virtually unknown as an artist. In 1944, he met Edith ‘Wanty’ Thomas. In 1945 they moved to Ambleside in the Lake District. On 7 January 1948 Schwitters received news that he had been granted British citizenship. He died the day after.

Themerson first met Schwitters in 1943 at a London meeting of the PEN Club. Kindred spirits, they became friends. In 1958, the Gaberbocchus Press published Schwitters in England: 1940-1948, the first presentation of the author’s prose and poems in English. In his introduction Stefan praises Kurt’s art of collage as a conscious attempt to ‘make havoc’ of cultural conventions. The presentation of the book was a fitting tribute. Its unorthodox design with multi-coloured papers and striking cover reflects a rejection of established procedures that Schwitters would have appreciated.

Averse of the vulgar commerciality of publishing, a key objective of the Press was to produce ‘best lookers rather than best sellers’. A refusal to conform is best illustrated by the 1951 publication of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.

Hallmarks of the playwright’s style are absurdity and irreverence, characteristics that inspired the Themerson edition. Printed on yellow paper, Barbara Wright produced her translation by hand on lithographic plates to which Franciszka added the witty drawings that capture the spirit of the play. For its presentation and design, it became the most acclaimed book of the Gaberbocchus Press.

In 1952, Franciszka created masks for a reading of the play at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; she also designed life-size puppets for s stage performance by the Stockholm’s Marionetteatern in 1964, and finally drew ninety episodes of a comic-strip version of Ubu in 1969. 

At Themerson’s invitation, the Gaberbocchus Press was taken over by De Harmonie publishers in Amsterdam in 1979. Two years later, Stefan delivered the annual Huizinga Lecture at Leiden University and it was through this strong Dutch connection that some of his novels gained recognition in the English-reading world. In 1985, De Bezige Bij in Amsterdam published a translation of an English manuscript which they titled Euclides was een ezel (‘Euclid was an ass’). It motivated Faber & Faber to publish an English version in 1986, now called The Mystery of the Sardine.

Franciszka died in London in June 1988. Stefan passed away in September that same year. Together, they had spent more than four creative decades in exile, underscoring Stefan’s credo that writers carry their culture with them wherever the city of refuge may be. Having to resist threats of patriotic fervour and nationalism, exile – be it externally or self-imposed – is the artist’s natural condition.      

Jaap Harskamp, PhD at Amsterdam University (Comparative Literature), Researcher at European University Institute (Florence), Curator Dutch & Flemish Collections at British Library (retired), Researcher at Cambridge UL. His work has been published by the Wellcome Institute, British Library, and Brill. He writes a weekly blog for the New York Almanack at

www.newyorkalmanack.com/author/jharskamp/

Beyond the religious divide: Rubens and Mayerne in London St Martin’s Lane (Covent Garden)

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. He experimented 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.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune : Palace of Westminster (Westminster)

The Renaissance held music in high regard. It played a prominent part in religious, court and civic life. The interchange of ideas in Europe through ever closer economic and political contact brought about the creation of new musical genres, the development of instruments, and the advancement of specialist printing. 

By about 1500, Franco-Flemish composers dominated the domain. Most prominent among them was Josquin des Prez who, like fellow artists at the time, travelled widely between nations. The intensity of international encounters led to stylistic developments that have been appreciated as being truly European. 

By the beginning of the sixteenth century Antwerp had developed into a hub of musical activity. The most important initiatives were undertaken by the church. Antwerp Cathedral employed twelve choristers who lived in a private house where they received instruction from a singing master. At the beginning of the century this office was held by Jacob Obrecht who was famous for his polyphonic compositions. The composer’s prolific output consists of some twenty-six masses, thirty-two motets, and thirty secular pieces, not all texted. Antwerp also employed a company of fiddlers for both secular and ecclesiastical performances. 

Composers from all over Europe chose Antwerp as their home, amongst them a number of English musicians. Peter Philips had moved to the Continent as a Catholic refugee. In 1593, he travelled from the Southern Netherlands to Amsterdam to see and heare an excellent man of his faculties’. The man he referred to was organist and composer JanPietersz Sweelinck, known as the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’. The latter had converted to Calvinism in 1578, but he was not unsympathetic to his old faith. Philips was one of many Catholic musicians who had left England. A prolific composer of Latin sacred choral music, he was made organist to the Chapel of Archduke Albrecht in Antwerp. 

Another refugee was Hereford-born John Bull. Appointed chief musician to Prince Henry in 1611, he furtively disappeared to Flanders after the death of his patron in November 1612. Bull later explained his flight because of the accusation of Catholic sympathies made against him. He moved to Brussels where he was briefly employed as one of the organists in the Chapel of Archduke Albrecht VII, sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands. From September 1615, he held the post of organist of Antwerp Cathedral. In December 1617 he acted as city organist at ‘s Hertogenbosch. Bull’s later reputation rests mainly on his keyboard music. The composition of God Save the Queen has been attributed to him. 

Antwerp acquired a reputation for its printing skills. Originally, all music was notated by hand. Manuscripts were costly and owned exclusively by religious orders, courts, or wealthy households. That all changed in 1501 when Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci published Harmonice musices odhecaton, the first significant anthology of (100) polyphonic secular songs. The availability of notation in print boosted the development of instrumental music for both soloists and ensembles, and engendered the creation of new genres. 

In Flanders, Tielman Susato was the first printer to gain esteem for producing music books. Nothing is known about the date or place of his birth – he may have been Dutch or German. Details about his activities begin in 1529 when he was working as a calligrapher for Antwerp Cathedral. He also played the trumpet and was listed as a ‘town player’ in the city. In 1541, he created the first music printing company in the Low Countries which he combined with selling musical instruments from his home. During his prolific publishing career he was responsible for twenty-five books of chansons, three books of masses, and nineteen books of motets. 

The indefatigable Christopher Plantin was also active in printing music and produced some of the finest choir-books of his day. From the 1570s onwards, the Bellerus and Phalesius families were leading printing houses within the domain. The whole contemporary repertoire was made available by Antwerp presses: vernacular song books and psalms as well as polyphonic secular and religious music. Composers from all over Europe had their work printed in this, the most musical of all cities at the time.

Flourishing musical life in Antwerp and Brussels did not go unnoticed at the English court. In fact, a number of outstanding Flemish musicians were invited to cross the Channel. Henry VIII had received a thorough musical education and was a dedicated patron of the arts. He was accomplished at the lute, organ, and virginals and, apparently, could sing as well. Henry recruited the best musicians to join his court. There are a number of Flemish musicians amongst the many Europeans that were attracted to join the music scene in and around London. 

Dyricke Gérarde [Derrick Gerarde] arrived in England in 1544. Little is known of his life, but almost his entire musical output is contained in manuscript in the British Library. These manuscripts constitute one of the largest collections of polyphony by a single composer to have survived from the Elizabethan era. His achievement however was overshadowed by the reputation of a Flemish composer who had arrived in London some two decades previously. 

Lutenist Philip van Wilder was first recorded as a resident in London in 1522. By 1529 he was a member of the Privy Chamber, the select group of musicians who played to the king in private. During the second quarter of the sixteenth century Van Wilder oversaw secular music-making at the court, a position that brought him close to Henry VIII. He taught playing the lute to Princess (later Queen) Mary and subsequently to Prince Edward (later Edward VI). 

At the time of Henry VIII’s death in 1547 Van Wilder was Keeper of the Instruments and effectively head of the instrumental musical establishment at Westminster, a post later known as Master of the King’s Music. The upkeep of the Royal instruments at Westminster was a heavy duty. The scope of that task becomes clear from the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his death, listing thirteen organs, nineteen other keyboard instruments (virginals and clavichords), and several hundred smaller wind and string instruments including viols, lutes, and recorders. 

Van Wilder continued to enjoy Royal favour during the reign of Edward VI. He was granted a coat of arms and crest and, in 1551, authorised to recruit boy singers for the Chapel Royal from anywhere in England. Three years after his death in February 1554 an anonymous tribute was paid to the musician and printed by Richard Tottel in his collection of Songes and Sonettes (1557), commonly known as ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’, containing the following line:

Laye downe your lutes and let your gitterns rest.

Phillips is dead whose like you can not finde,

Of musicke much exceeding all the rest.

Renaissance court and civic life teaches our age the salutary lesson that a nationalist message is one of isolationism. The appeal to nativist emotions conceals the yearning for an ideal world that never was. The cultural strength of a country manifests itself in the openness of its borders, in the assimilation of alien concepts, in the embracing of external influences. It takes a cosmopolitan mind to be a veritable patriot.

PISSING IN THE WIND: Great Queen Street (Covent Garden)

The Atlantic slave trade began in the mid-1400s and lasted into the nineteenth century. By the 1600s the Dutch contested the English and French for control of the trade, but England emerged as the dominant slave dealing nation. As the Empire expanded, slaves were sent across the seas to work on plantations in the Caribbean or the Americas. Small numbers were ferried into the ports of London, Liverpool, and Bristol. To hire African staff became a status symbol. Samuel Pepys employed a ‘blackmore’ cook, Dr Johnson engaged Jamaica-born manservant Francis Barber, and Royal Academy sculptor Joseph Nollekens recruited a female servant nicknamed Miss Bronze. 

In London, the number of black people increased sharply when slave soldiers who fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War (Black Loyalists) arrived in the capital. These soldiers were deprived of pensions and forced into beggary. The high visibility of deprived black people in London is evidenced by William Hogarth’s 1738 engraving ‘Four Times a Day: Noon’. In 1801 Maria Edgeworth published her second novel Belinda. The story caused controversy as it features the marriage between an Englishwoman and a manumitted Jamaican slave. 

By the end of the eighteenth century the number of baptisms of black people was increasing. After conversion, Africans were given an English Christian name (John Baptist was a popular one). Notices of mixed marriages also grew. In 1773, a correspondent wrote to the LondonChronicle begging the public to save the ‘natural beauty of Britons’ from contamination. Simultaneously, the brutal nature of the slave trade gave rise to the abolitionist movement. The first protests were uttered by members of the Society of Friends. In 1783, a number of Quakers established the London Committee to Abolish the Slave Trade, Britain’s first anti-slavery society. 

Thomas Clarkson was educated at St Paul’s School, City of London, and St John’s, Cambridge. In 1785, he won the College’s annual essay prize on the topic Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare – is it lawful to enslave those who do not consent? Quaker bookseller James Phillips immediately published a translation of the Latin treatise as An Essay of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. For Clarkson, it was the start of a lifetime of pamphleteering. The Essay led to the creation of an informal committee to lobby MPs (nine of the original twelve members were Quakers) which succeeded in recruiting William Wilberforce. 

Clarkson was asked to investigate proceedings in the ports of London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and supply abolitionists with factual information concerning the slave trade. His findings formed the substance of the twelve propositions which Wilberforce put to Parliament in his historic speech on 13 May 1789. The push for abolition found public support. William Cowper’s poem ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ (1788) struck a chord and was followed by another poem entitled ‘Pity for Poor Africans’. During the campaign Josiah Wedgwood was commissioned (1790) to create a seal that could be used to spread the message. It had a picture of a kneeling black man in chains with round the edge the words ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’. The jasperware plaque was turned into a campaigner’s badge. 

The ‘literary’ fight against slavery made an impression upon contemporaries. Olaudah Equiano was a former slave who, by the 1780s, lived as a free man in London where he joined the campaign against the trade. In March 1788 he sent personal letter ‘on behalf of my African brethren’ to Queen Charlotte. In the following year he published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, his autobiography. It tells of his kidnap in Nigeria, his being sold into slavery, his journey to the West Indies, his life as a slave, and the struggle to buy his freedom. Renamed Gustavus Vassa (the name he used throughout most of his life), he travelled to England in 1754, was converted to Christianity, and baptised at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Equiano’s autobiography was a commercial success. Between 1789 and 1794, nine editions were published and the book was translated into many languages. Equiano’s autobiography was almost instantaneously translated into Dutch as Merkwaardige levensgevallen van Olaudah Equiano of Gustavus Vassus, den Afrikaan, published in 1790 by Pieter Holsteyn in Rotterdam (two years before the German translation; a French rendering did not appear until 2002). 

In 1807 the Slave Trade Act was passed prohibiting the practice in the British Empire. William Wordsworth celebrated the event by dedicating a sonnet to Thomas (‘Clarkson! it was an obstinate hill to climb’). A year later, Clarkson published a two-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade. The Act did not abolish slavery itself. In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was formed which eventually led to the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act a decade later. Clarkson presided over the opening session of the grand anti-slavery convention in the Freemasons Hall at Great Queen Street on 12 June 1840 (recorded in a painting by Benjamin Haydon). 

[More Dutch advertisements for slaves in the East Indies]

The voice of English abolitionists was heard in the Netherlands. Involvement in slave trafficking had started early and the Dutch were amongst the last to abandon the trade. After Denmark in 1803, Britain in 1834, and France in 1848, slavery was finally made illegal in the East Indies in 1862, and in Surinam and the Antilles a year later. The moral push towards abolition had been made much earlier. In 1822, Amsterdam publisher C.A. Spin simultaneously issued two translations of anti-slavery documents. One is Clarkson’s De kreet der Afrikanen tegen hunne Europeesche verdrukkers; the other title is Aanspraak aan de volken van Europa over den slavenhandel by Josiah Forster, a leading Quaker abolitionist. There was, it seemed, British-inspired pressure in the Netherlands to abolish slavery. Why then took it so long for the Dutch government to act and allow the pro-slavery lobby to protect its economic stake in the practice?

History is made by people. No single person determines the course of development, yet one cannot exclude the ‘subjective factor’ in historical discourse. Individual audacity – or lack of it – is part of the social struggle. Mid-twentieth century historians argued that slave emancipation in England owed little to the efforts of abolitionists. Slavery had become an obsolete economic system which collapsed because it was no longer fit for purpose. This interpretation is untenable. At times of crisis or major socio-economic transformation, strategic leadership is of crucial importance. The campaign by a vocal anti-slavery lobby did have an impact and the relentless efforts made by Clarkson and his Quaker friends paid off. The Dutch movement lacked decisive governance able to assail vested interests. Abolitionism never attracted more than a few hundred activists who were good-willing academics or God-fearing ministers. Crusaders, not enforcers; preachers, not protesters, they were pissing in the wind.

Wedgwood jasperware plaque ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’ (1790).

Fag End Patriotism – Commercial Road (Whitechapel)

Linguist Luis de Torres accompanied Columbus on his first voyage to America as an interpreter. A Jew at the time of the Inquisition, he was forced to convert to Catholicism before setting sail in August 1492. The voyage coincided with the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. Legend has it that he settled in Cuba, learned the use of tobacco, and brought the weed to Europe. Since then, Jews have been associated with the tobacco trade.

The early market was a virtual Spanish monopoly. That changed in 1612 when colonist John Rolfe in Virginia successfully planted some seeds of Nicotiana tabacum which he had obtained from Trinidad. The Anglo-American tobacco industry was born, but planting and cultivation proved to be labour intensive activities and the settlers required more manpower. Jamestown’s trading problems were solved when a Dutch trading ship dropped anchor in the estuary of Chesapeake Bay in 1619. The colonists were offered twenty ‘negars’ (the term used by Rolfe for African slaves) who were set to work in the tobacco fields. Slavery became essential to the colony’s tobacco-based economy. European cravings for a good smoke created the slave trade.

The ambivalent attitude towards the new social phenomenon of smoking is summarised by the actions of James I. He attacked the habit as a ‘barbarous custom’ in his Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604), but was the first to put taxes on a weed he despised. Mixed feelings were expressed by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). He enthusiastically praised the medicinal qualities of the weed: ‘Tobacco, divine, rare, super-excellent tobacco … a sovereign remedy to all diseases’; but in the same paragraph he expresses disgust with the common ‘plague’ of smoking for pleasure: ‘hellish devilish and damnd tobacco, the ruine and overthrow of body and soule’. Panacea or pest – this contrasting view was manifest in all nations where the tobacco craze took hold.

Whilst tobacco was widely consumed and praised for its curative powers across Europe, it was banned in Russia under strict legislation imposed by the Romanov’s. Although the ban did not exclude tobacco entirely from the country – foreigners (Dutch and English merchants in particular) imported it for their own use and rampant smuggling of American tobacco was sponsored by the English authorities – it did restrict the product’s circulation. Those who transgressed the law were punished with beatings, the slitting of nostrils, or threats of death. Peter the Great reversed the ban in 1698, allowing the import of Virginia tobacco from England, thus creating a lucrative Royal monopoly at the same time. Smoking was legalised by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Opposition from religious and medical critics remained strong. The use of tobacco was condemned as sinful, as a cause of impotence, or as an impetus to criminal behaviour (murder according to Leo Tolstoy in his 1890 essay ‘Why Do People Stupefy Themselves?’).

The Russian ban on tobacco opened up a niche for Jewish entrepreneurs who were exluded from most other domains of commercial enterprise. They stepped in to supply the underground demand for tobacco, exploring new territories for the plant’s cultivation, and developing their own variations. They benefitted from the fact that smoking in Jewish law was treated with tolerance (but not without ambiguity). Many rabbis hailed tobacco’s benefits to health, as it was a means of aiding blood circulation, helping digestion, and being a curative for many afflictions. Some questioned whether a blessing ought to be recited upon smoking, since the pleasure derived from it resembled that of eating or drinking. Others opposed the habit.

In the course of the nineteenth century, Russians and Ukrainians changed from the use of snuff or cigars to the inhalation of cigarette smoke. Compared to other European nations, they consumed tobacco of high nicotine content. Russia became a major tobacco producer and Jews were involved in its production, distribution, and consumption. Elderly Jewish women used snuff; younger women joined the men smoking cigarettes. So prevalent was the habit that efforts were made to prohibit smoking and snuffing in places of worship. In 1861, merchant Leyba Shereshevsky founded a tobacco factory in Grodno, Belarus. It became one of the biggest enterprises in the Russian Empire and a major artery in the city’s industrial production. Modern, mechanised, and efficient, the company was in Jewish hands and employed a pre-dominantly Jewish work force. Russia became (and remains) a heavy smoker.

Once the pogroms were set into murderous motion, production was taken out of Jewish hand (the ransacking of tobacco stores was a frequently reported occurrence in the explosion of anti-semitic violence). Some of those connected with the industry escaped to London where they build new cigarette empires. Julius Wix, Abraham Melinsky, Jacob Millhoff, and Major Drapkin, all arrived in the capital during the 1880s and established themselves in the Commercial Road area. These entrepreneurs ran their firms in close proximity to each other and at times in partnership, producing exotic oriental brands such as Kensitas, De Reszke, Mahalla, Pera, Mek-Bul, Yenidje, and others. They also introduced various legendary tobacco card series (originally used in America since the mid-1870s as ‘stiffeners’ to firm up the package) which were widely collected by cartophiles and are still on offer as popular items on eBay. With increasing commercial success the factory owners settled away from Whitechapel in the (then) leafy suburbs of West Hampstead, Kilburn, or Cricklewood.

The most successful of Jewish refugee cigarette manufacturers was Louis Rothman who was born in Kiev in 1869, then a part of the Russian Empire. As a youngster, he gained experience of the trade whilst apprenticed to his uncle who was in control of the largest cigarette manufacturer in South Russia. He moved to London in 1887 where he earned a living as a cigarette maker in Whitechapel and then used his savings to set up his own business, selling hand-rolled cigarettes from a small kiosk in Fleet Street (reputed to have been the smallest shop in the City of London). Around the same time he married Jane Weiner, who was also a Russian immigrant. Rothman became a naturalised British subject in 1896. From 1900 he relocated to 5a Pall Mall. His leading brand became Pall Mall cigarettes, containing a blend of South Carolina tobacco and Virginia leaf. In 1913, he merged interest with the company controlled by Marcus Weinberg, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, creating the Yenidje Tobacco Company. The partners clashed and in 1917 Rothman bought out full control of the venture. Sydney Rothman entered into partnership with his father from the early 1920s and helped to push the firm’s success to new levels. In 1922, they started to sell cigarettes by mail order through the Rothman’s Direct-to-Smoker service. Rothman & Co became a public company in 1929 and was the largest mail-order cigarette manufacturer in Britain by 1932. The business was acquired by British American Tobacco in 1999 and to this day Rothmans remains one of its leading brands. Ironically, Louis Rothman died of lung cancer in 1926 at his home at no. 225 Walm Lane, Cricklewood.

Under the Bolsheviks, the crusade against the weed was renewed. Lenin’s first real campaign was an attempt to introduce anti-tobacco legislation. The Commissar of Public Health, Nikolai Alexandrovich Semashko, established an ambitious ‘kick the habit’ program that may have failed at the time, but was a precursor – both in content and presentation – to later battles in the war on smoking. For the time being, the march of the smoker could not be halted. New to the First World War was the fact that governments classified the industry as essential to the war effort and authorised the inclusion of tobacco and rolling papers in the troops’s rations. The state acted as supplier. Members of the public were encouraged to help out. Supplying a soldier with ciggies (although known as ‘coffin nails’) was promoted as an act of patriotism. There were no smoke-free zone in the lines of battle. Enveloped in fumes, all life in the trenches was extinguished. Dead bodies and fag ends – just that. The Second World War further boosted business. Over one billion Rothmans cigarettes were supplied to the British armed forces during the conflict. After two world wars, the tobacco industry emerged as the sole victor.

The Gay Gondolier

The Gay Gondolier

Seymour Street (Marylebone)


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

Art, Smoke and Bubbles 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man Who Entered a Harem – Avenue Road

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Turkish Bath, 7th October 1859

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

RATS, RAGS AND RICHES – Grove House (Wandsworth)

etoiledelopera-le-site4-4

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. 

backstage-at-the-opera-edgar-degas

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.

Stephens-643510

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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