Curiouser and Curiouser

Over 150 years since Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the storyline and characters are still a global phenomenon. As the Victoria and Albert museum demonstrates in their exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, the fantasy world of Wonderland continues to inspire artists, writers and members of the public. The immersive display takes visitors on a journey to discover the evolution of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from its humble beginnings in the 19th century to its worldwide celebrity.

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98), an Oxford don, logician, writer, poet, Anglican clergyman, and photographer. Although Carroll is most famous for his literary works, he did not deliberately set out to become an author. Carroll’s career path changed one afternoon in July 1862, when he took a boat trip and picnic with the daughters of Henry Liddell (1811-98), the Dean of Christ Church College. Affectionately remembered as a “golden afternoon”, Carroll kept the three girls, Alice, Edith, and Lorina, entertained during the boat trip by making up fantasy stories about a girl called Alice and her adventures underground. The “real Alice” begged Carroll to write the story down, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born.

The “real Alice”, Alice Pleasance Liddell (1852-1934), was only five years old when she met Charles Dodgson for the first time. Dodgson often asked Alice and her sisters to sit for photographs, so that he could experiment with his new camera. The Victorian era was a period of change, particularly in technology, science, art and politics, all of which inspired the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Of course, the character Alice was based on Alice Liddell, a girl with a stubborn, curious nature who bullied Dodgson into writing the story down. He presented Alice with a handwritten manuscript called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground as a Christmas present in 1864.

Before giving the manuscript to Alice, Dodgson researched the natural history of animals to make some of his characters, for instance, a dodo, as accurate as possible. Of course, some creatures in the story are entirely fictional. Dodgson also sought the opinion of his friend and mentor George MacDonald (1824-1905), a minister and author who loved the story and suggested Dodgson publish it. By the time Alice received her copy, Dodgson was already preparing the manuscript for publication and extending it from the original 15,500-words to 27,500 words.

Not wanting to publish under his real name, Dodgson decided to create a pseudonym. Inspired by the Latin version of his real name, Carolus Ludovic, he chose two other English names that derived from the same words: Lewis Carroll. Dodgson also wished to change the book title and toyed with Alice’s Hour in Elf-land and other options before settling on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Finally, Dodgson/Lewis was ready for Alexander Macmillan (1818-96), a co-founder of Macmillan Publishers, to print his work. For the illustrations, he approached John Tenniel (1820-1914), who worked tirelessly alongside The Brothers Dalziel, a wood-engraving business in London. By November 1865, the book was published.

Both children and adults enjoyed the “delicious nonsense”, which inspired Carroll to work on a second book. The production time took much longer because Tenniel had other jobs but managed to work on the illustrations from 1869 onwards. Carroll named the sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, which was eventually published on 6th December 1871. It rekindled the nation’s love of Alice and the odd characters, as well as introducing new and bizarre creatures.

Most people are familiar with the story of Alice who follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole. She finds herself in a hall with a tiny door, which she is far too large to fit through. She then discovers a bottle of liquid labelled “DRINK ME”, which she obligingly does, which causes her to shrink in size. Unfortunately, she can no longer reach the key to the small door, which rests on a table far above her head. Yet, she quickly discovers a cake labelled “EAT ME”, and grows to the size of the room. After flooding the room with her tears, Alice picks up a fan and shrinks back down.

Now Alice can fit through the door, where she meets several peculiar characters, including the Dodo, who starts a Caucus-Race, which consists of everyone running in a circle with no clear winner. Whilst Alice is based on Alice Liddell, Carroll based the Dodo on himself. Carroll spoke with a stutter and often introduced himself as “Dodo-Dodgson”. Carroll also referenced Alice’s sisters, Lorina and Edith, by mentioning birds called Lory and Eaglet.

Next, Alice meets the Duchess, who Tenniel based on Quentin Matsys’s (1466-1530) The Ugly Duchess (c. 1513). The painting is said to be a portrait of Margaret, Countess of Tyrol (1318-69), who had the reputation of the ugliest woman who ever existed. Since Matsys painted the portrait 150 years after her death, there is no proof that she looked as grotesque as the caricature. Nonetheless, Tenniel felt inspired by the painting and made the Duchess look equally ugly.

The Cheshire Cat, who belongs to the Duchess, has a distinguishing feature – his grin – and the ability to gradually disappear until only his mouth remains. The phrase “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” predates the Alice books, and according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Second, Corrected and Enlarged Edition compiled by Francis Grose (1731-91), means “one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing.” Carroll may have based the character on Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-82), the Patristic Catenary (expert on the fathers of the Church) and professor of Hebrew at Oxford University.

There are other characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel who may be based on real people. Whether Carroll intended this is uncertain, but Tenniel’s drawing of the Lion and the Unicorn looks remarkably like his Punch illustrations of Prime Ministers William Gladstone (1809-98) and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88). Whilst the appearance of the Lion and the Unicorn may be Tenniel’s input, Carroll’s reference to a conga eel that taught “Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils” certainly alludes to the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who instructed the Liddell children in drawing, sketching, and painting in oils.

One of the most memorable scenes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Mad Tea-Party, where Alice discovers the Hatter having tea with the March Hare and the Dormouse. Carroll instructed Tenniel to base his illustration on Theophilus Carter (1824-1904), an eccentric British furniture dealer. Carter used to wear a top hat and stand in the doorway of his shop, watching the world pass by. While at the party, the sleepy Dormouse tells Alice a story about three sisters called Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie. This is yet another reference to Alice and her sisters. Lacie is an anagram of Alice; Elsie sounds like “L.C., Lorina Charlotte’s initials; and Tillie is short for Matilda, Edith Liddell’s nickname.

Carroll loosely based the Queen of Hearts on Queen Victoria (1819-1901) because he thought children would recognise her authority. He may also have taken inspiration from the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) because the Queen is angry that the gardeners have planted white roses instead of red.

Not all characters have real-life human counterparts. Through the Looking-Glass has many referenced to nursery rhymes, such as Humpty Dumpty, and features pieces from the game of chess. Dodgson even took inspiration from buildings in Oxford; for example, the “Rabbit Hole” symbolises the stairs at the back of the main hall in Christ Church.

By the end of the Victorian era, the Alice stories and characters extended beyond the books. Products and merchandise containing Tenniel’s illustrations were much sought after, and the stories found new life on stage as part of dance performances and pantomimes. Before his death, the English novelist Walter Besant (1836-1901) said Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “was a book of that extremely rare kind which will belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete.” Besant’s statement proved correct, and Alice continues to be a positive role model.

In 1903, Lewis Carroll’s famous book was adapted for film for the first time. With the title Alice in Wonderland, the silent film squeezed as many scenes into a ten-minute slot. At the time, this was the longest film made in Britain. Directors Percy Stow (1876-1919) and Cecil Hepworth (1874-1952) used all the available technology to create live versions of Tenniel’s famous drawings. Twelve years later, American director W. W. Young produced a 50-minute version of the film, albeit still silent.

The first “talkie” version of Alice in Wonderland appeared on screens in 1931, starring Ruth Gilbert (1912-93) as Alice. The following year, the “real Alice”, now married to English cricketer Reginald Hargreaves (1852-1926), visited America to take part in the centenary celebrations of Lewis Carroll’s birth. Although Alice had kept herself out of the public eye for most of her life, her presence in America inspired “Alice Fever”, and the books, merchandise, and films soared in popularity.

The following year, Paramount Pictures produced their version of Alice in Wonderland, which combined the storyline from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Previously, Lewis Carroll forbade stage productions to combine the two books, but since his death, producers disregarded his wishes. The film featured Charlotte Henry (1914-80) as Alice, Cary Grant (1904-86) as the Mock Turtle, and W.C. Fields (1880-1946) as Humpty Dumpty.

Without a doubt, the most iconic Alice in Wonderland film to date is Walt Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation. Mary Blair (1911-78) developed the concept for the illustrations, modernising Tenniel’s drawings with bold and unreal colours. Today, Alice is recognisable from her long, bright blond hair, blue dress and “Alice band”, a hair accessory named after the character. The lively script and music earned the film a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, but it lost to An American in Paris.

In 2010, Walt Disney Pictures reproduced Alice in Wonderland as a live-action film directed by Tim Burton (born 1958). It is a much darker, fantasy version of the story, which serves as an unofficial sequel to the original. Alice is now 19 and thought her adventures in Wonderland were all a dream. She soon learns they were not when she falls down a rabbit hole for the second time in her life. The creatures of Wonderland need Alice’s help to defeat the Red Queen, not to be confused with the Queen of Hearts and slay the Jabberwocky, a dragon-like beast written about in Through the Looking Glass.

Burton’s Alice in Wonderland starred many leading actors, such as Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Alan Rickman (Caterpillar), Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat) and Barbara Windsor (Dormouse). At its release, critics were torn between loving the computer-generated imagery (CGI) and hating that it “sacrifices the book’s minimal narrative coherence—and much of its heart.” Many fans of the original Alice complained the film ruined Lewis Carroll’s work. Having said that, Alice in Wonderland (2010) won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

The Alice in Wonderland franchise was initially aimed at children, but in the 1960s, the stories began to appeal to artists, particularly those affiliated with the Surrealist movement. Surrealism, as a cultural movement, developed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Artists within the group aimed to change people’s perceptions of the world and explored the desires of the unconscious mind. The founder of the movement, André Breton (1896-1966), claimed: “everyone has the power to accompany an ever more beautiful Alice to Wonderland.” Encouraged by this, several Surrealist artists used Lewis Carroll’s dreamlike characters and storylines as inspiration for their creations.

One Surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí (1904-89), provided illustrations for a limited edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1969. These illustrations are a stark contrast to Tenniel’s original images. Each full-page artwork needs studying carefully to understand and appreciate the scene. Many contained typical Surrealist motifs, such as a melting clock, as seen in The Mad Tea-Party illustration. Alice appears as a stick-figure-like girl wearing a full-length skirt, playing with a skipping rope. On each page, Alice differs in size but is usually tiny in comparison to other elements in the artwork.

The Alice stories and themes also inspired the Psychedelic movement in the mid-1960s. In the United Kingdom, artists combined Wonderland with politics and social issues, and in the US, the stories inspired hallucinogenic artwork and multi-sensory experiences involving sound, images and movement.

Joseph McHugh (b.1939), the founder of the poster design company East Totem West, created kaleidoscopic prints based on characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One features the White Rabbit standing on a chequered floor surrounded by objects from the story. Yet, all these elements are difficult to see due to the psychedelic pattern of blues, reds, greens and browns. Through his work, McHugh aimed to appeal to the hippie and freethinker generation of the 1960s.

Whilst Wonderland lent itself to the more abstract forms of art, it also appealed to more traditional artists, such as the Ruralists. Ruralism aimed to revive and update former painting styles, such as those by English landscape artists and the Pre-Raphaelites. The movement wanted to focus on typically English themes, including cricket and classic novels by English authors. They particularly admired the works of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and music by Edward Elgar (1857-1934).

Pop Artist Peter Blake (b.1932) and his contemporaries formed the Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1975 after becoming disillusioned with London and their former art styles. Their aims were “to paint about love, beauty, joy, sentiment and magic. We still believe in painting with oil paint on canvas, putting the picture in the frame and hopefully, that someone will like it, buy it and hang it on their wall to enjoy it.”

After forming the Ruralists, Blake’s work frequently included literary subjects, such as works by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Lewis Carroll. During the 1970s, Blake produced a series of illustrations called Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Rather than replicate the Victorian-style illustrations by Tenniel, Blake painted Alice as a modern (seventies) girl. In one picture, titled ‘Well, this is grand!’ said Alice, Queen Alice stares out at the audience while a typically English country garden unfolds behind her.

During the 1950s and 60s, commercial artists used Alice, Wonderland and other characters to advertise brands and products. The release of the Disney film increased the popularity of Alice in Wonderland and companies fought to partner with the franchise. Sweet manufacturer Barratt’s used the Disney illustrations to advertise their Christmas crackers, and Ford Motor Company used coloured versions of Tenniel’s drawings to promote their new Falcon Wagons. The Irish brewery Guinness also partnered with the Alice franchise – one of the most peculiar pairings. The company hired artists to produce illustrations that loosely resembled Tenniel’s illustrations, combined with some Lewis Carroll-esque text. One poster reads: “He thought he saw a Dome that held Discoveries galore; He looked again and saw it was A Guinness by Thames Shore. ‘We know it’s Good for You,’ he said, ‘Need man discover more?'”

Although Tenniel and Disney created the two most popular visual versions of Alice and the other characters in Wonderland, every artist and designer has different visions and competes to develop new interpretations. This is particularly the case in theatrical and dance performances. The costumes and scenery need to stick close enough to Carroll’s original descriptions for the audience to recognise the familiar story, but they cannot be copies of previous designs. As technology has developed, the stage settings and special effects have become very ambitious, but there continues to be the issue of making fantastical costumes practical for the stage.

The V&A exhibition showcases several costumes worn on stage in various performances. Since Disney’s interpretation of the story, Alice is frequently depicted in blue, which many costume designers continue to replicate. To stand out from other stage shows, some designers look at Tenniel’s original illustrations, such as those in the young children’s book The Nursery Alice (1890), in which the main character wears a yellow dress. This is the colour the designers used for the costume in Alice, an opera performed in Hamburg in 1992.

Off the stage, fashion designers have used Alice in Wonderland as their inspiration for new clothing lines and one-off pieces on the catwalk. Designers include Christian Dior (1905-57), Vivienne Westwood (b.1944), Viktor&Rolf, Thom Browne (b.1965) and various Japanese-punk fashion houses.

Visiting the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the V&A is almost like falling down a rabbit hole. From beginning to end, the installations look as wonderfully creative and psychedelic as Wonderland. Each section represents a different part of the Alice stories as well as various interpretations over the past century and a half. The further into the exhibition one travels, the “curiouser” it becomes until you start believing the Cheshire Cat that “We’re all mad here.”

The exhibition has more value for adults, who will appreciate the wealth of information and the opportunity to remember the stories and characters from childhood. Of course, it will also appeal to children, who will enjoy searching for the White Rabbit, watching film clips, and playing with fun-house mirrors and other interactive displays. The lights, sounds and twisting paths throughout the exhibition make visitors feel bewildered as Alice when she first entered Wonderland. You will likely exit the museum feeling entirely bonkers. “But I’ll tell you a secret: All the best people are.”

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser is on now until Friday 31st December 2021. Tickets for the week ahead are released every Tuesday at 12.00. Adult tickets cost £20 but children under 12 can visit for free.


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Unicorns: A True Story

Over the past five years or so, unicorns have gained sudden popularity in the Western world. It is almost impossible to go shopping without seeing one of the mythical creatures, whether it be on a t-shirt, a card, a toy, a cake or even chicken nuggets. In popular culture, unicorns are a pretty, make-believe character with which many children (and even adults) are fascinated. This commercial unicorn, however, has its roots in ancient mythology. For hundreds, if not thousands of years unicorns have been described in natural histories and folktales.

Unicorns are the stuff of legends and, as many people agree, probably never existed. Yet, who came up with the idea of the unicorn? How did a horse with a horn on its head become a thing? Ancient accounts of natural history include the unicorn, so perhaps they did exist, or at least something similar to our modern idea of the unicorn.

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The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05

Whether real or not, unicorns are recognised from a single horn protruding from their forehead. The horn, known as an alicorn, is the source of their magical power, usually used for purification and healing. Typically, they resemble a white horse and have been used as a symbol of purity and grace. Despite their elegance, they are wild, woodland creatures and, according to some legends, only a virgin could tame them.

The earliest written description of a unicorn comes from a book written in the 5th century BC. Indica or Indika contains a mix of dubious stories and myths about the East, possibly India, compiled by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias the Cnidian. Ctesias was the physician to the king of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II (c435-358 BC). As part of his role, Ctesias accompanied the king on various expeditions and battles and, therefore, became well acquainted with the neighbouring lands. This allowed the physician to pen treatises on rivers and lands, including Persia and India. Some of the information is based on first-hand experience, however, the rest was pieced together through various stories told by travellers.

Indica, which only remains in fragments, is generally considered to be pure fantasy. It contains many of the strange beliefs the Persians had about India, including that the country was full of riches and gold, artisans, philosophers, god-like people and, of course, unicorns.

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Unicorn IV (Ctesias)- Cecilia Caride

Ctesias’ unicorn is described as a white horse with a purple head and blue eyes. The horn projecting from the forehead was approximately 27 inches long and coloured white at the base, black in the middle and red at the point. As well as being the first person to describe a unicorn, Ctesias was the first to attribute magic to a unicorn’s horn.

“No creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.”
– Ctesias

It is now thought Ctesias’ unicorn may have resulted from a mixture of animal descriptions, such as the Indian rhinoceros and an ass. Alternatively, there is the smallest of chances it may have been real, however, the other creatures described in Indica suggest otherwise, for example, people with one leg and feet so big they could be used as umbrellas, and manticores – red creatures with human faces, three rows of teeth, and scorpion tails. On the other hand, some of the information proved to be true, for instance, Indian elephants, monkeys, Indian customs, a large population and the Indus river.

Indica remained the main source of information about India for people in the Mediterranean until the 2nd century AD when the book was satirised by Lucian of Samosata (c125-c180). Lucian claimed Ctesias to be a liar and depicted him as being condemned to a special part of hell to pay for his sins.

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Although Ctesias may have provided the earliest written description of the unicorn, evidence that the creatures may have “existed” long before then has been discovered in South Asia. Several seals depicting what looks like a unicorn have been unearthed in the land once belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They date back to the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3300 BC until 1200 BC.

These seals are thought to have belonged to people of high social rank, however, little else can be gleaned from them. There is also the argument the creature on the seal was not intended to be a unicorn but an auroch. Now extinct, aurochs were a species of large cattle that inhabited areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. Skeletons of the creatures reveal they had two horns, one on either side of their head. Always drawn in profile, the creatures on the seals could have been an auroch with one horn hidden from view by the other.

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Despite the theories that the seals were not unicorns and Ctesias was a fraud, many other ancient texts mention the unicorn. De natura animalium (On the Nature of Animals) was a collection of seventeen books about natural history compiled by Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, 175-235 AD). Aelian was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric (persuasion, grammar and logic) who was also fluent in the Greek language. The majority of the anecdotes in the collection were taken from other sources, including Ctesias. Aelian stated India produced one-horned horses known as the monoceros. Another name for the monoceros was cartazonos, however, this may be the Greek form of the Arabic word karkadann, which means “rhinoceros.”

Aelian also quotes Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who wrote the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Pliny wrote about about “a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length.” He also claimed the oryx antelope and Indian ox were one-horned creatures, as did Aristotle (384-322 BC) centuries beforehand. The Greek philosopher Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) also mentioned one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

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In the 16th century, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-65) produced a Latin translation of Aelian’s work titled Historia Animalium. Although he attempted to sort fact from fiction, Gessner still included the unicorn, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. Gessner made it clear that he doubted some of the information, however, included it anyway since he believed it could teach moral lessons and divine truths. He went into as much detail into mythological creatures as he did about real animals. Mythological creatures that featured in the book included unicorns, mermaids, sea bishops and ichthyocentaur – creatures with the upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse and the tail of a fish.

As early as the 6th century, theories were expressed as to why unicorns were rarely seen. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt reported, “it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Cosmos also wrote a series of books about scientific geography known collectively as Christian Topography. Cosmas aimed to convince people of his theory that the earth was modelled on the tabernacle described to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. His view was the earth was flat and the heavens formed the shape of a box with a curved lid.

Cosmas was not the only Christian writer to describe the legendary unicorn. Many authors of bestiaries (books about beasts), including the aforementioned Conrad Gessner, relied on the Christian text Physiologus, which was compiled in Greece during the 2nd Century AD. Although the unknown author introduces each creature by saying “the naturalist says” or something similar, each chapter is told more like a story than a statement of fact. Many of these stories relate in some way to the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, for example, the phoenix, which burns itself to death but rises from the ashes three days later.

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Physiologus devotes entire chapters to individual creatures, some real and some mythological, beginning with the lion and ending with the eel. Other creatures include hedgehogs, ostriches, panthers, elephants, doves, serpents, pelicans, phoenixes and, rather strangely, Amos the Prophet. The unicorn is found in chapter 36 and is the source of the legend that only a maiden can tame the unicorn. This allegory refers to the Virgin Mary upon whose lap the unicorn laid its head and slept.

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Virgin Mary holding the unicorn (c. 1480), detail of the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych

Many religious artworks concerning the Inception of the Virgin Mary are inspired by the story in Physiologus. In some interpretations, the unicorn represents Christ and his relationship with the Virgin, his mother. Secular writers have developed this story into myths about chaste love and faithful marriage. Even the polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) explored the tale of the unicorn, stating in one of his notebooks, “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) also alluded to the myths about unicorns, however, he also called them ugly, brutes, and reported they “spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.” It appears he may have mistaken a rhinoceros for a unicorn.

The secular take on the myth of the unicorn and the virgin, as noted by Da Vinci, led to the story The Hunt of the Unicorn. The tale involves a group of hunters who are struggling to capture a unicorn until a young maiden offers her assistance. Since virgins can tame unicorns, the creature came and rested its head upon her lap, allowing the hunters to capture it.

The Hunt of the Unicorn was first recorded on a series of tapestries in Paris at the turn of the 16th century. It is speculated they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1541) to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII (1462-1515). Each tapestry, seven in total, tells a different part of the story:

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn Is Captured by the Virgin
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Despite being based on a pagan story, scholars have identified Christian symbolism in the tapestries. The unicorn is Christ and its death is the crucifixion. As you will notice from the order of the seven tapestries, the unicorn’s death is not the final stage. In scene seven, despite remaining in captivity, the unicorn has returned to life, similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Another tapestry involving a unicorn is La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which was produced in Flanders in the 16th century. Five of the six tapestries depict one of the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch; with À mon seul désir being the title of the sixth. The latter translates as “my only desire” and has left many wondering its true meaning. A possible interpretation is the desire for love or understanding.

La Dame à la licorne does not tell a sequential story like The Hunt of the Unicorn, instead, it presents a meditation on earthly pleasures demonstrated through the five senses. Touch is demonstrated by the lady holding a banner in one hand and touching the unicorn’s horn with the other. Sweets represent taste, flowers for smell, a portative organ for hearing, and a mirror for sight.

The sixth tapestry shows the woman placing her pendant in a box. Some suggest this is an acknowledgement of the passions aroused by the other senses and free will. Others have put forward the idea that it represents a sixth sense: understanding. There is also the argument that there is no way of telling if the woman is putting the pendant in the box or retrieving it. It has been noticed, however, that this is the only tapestry in which the woman smiles.

La Dame à la licorne does not only feature a unicorn but also a lion. Both these creatures are used in heraldry to symbolise a country. The most famous use of these animals are for Scotland (unicorn) and England (lion). One legend claimed the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion and would rather die than be captured. This represented Scotland’s desire to remain sovereign and unconquered. Of course, this all changed with the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

It is not certain where the idea that lions and unicorns were enemies originated, however, the legend is recorded in a nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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This rhyme featured in Lewis Carroll‘s (1832-98) 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A unicorn and a lion are seen fighting over the crown belonging to the White King. For comedic effect, Carroll alters the traditional characteristics of the animals, making the lion slow and stupid and the unicorn monstrous. When producing illustrations for the book, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) made caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88) as the unicorn and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) as the lion in reference to their frequent parliamentary battles.

There are two common jokes about why unicorns may no longer exist. The first is the unicorns did not get on Noah’s ark in time (see video at the end of this article) and the second that they did get on the ark, but they were both males. Incidentally, unicorns are traditionally believed to be male and none of the myths, legends or bestiaries shed light on how they reproduce. The only claim about their nature is they are solitary creatures and can live for hundreds of years.

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Unicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in Ravenna, Italy

So, unicorns may not have been on Noah’s Ark, however, they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible mentions an animal called the re’em, an untamable animal of great strength and agility, with a horn. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the description was based upon the seals belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now thought to be aurochs. Nonetheless, the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, translates the word re’em as “unicorn”.

There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. They are as follows:

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” – Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.” – Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalms 92:10
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7

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Real or not, what makes a unicorn so interesting is the horn protruding from its forehead. The existence of unicorns was supposedly disproved in 1825 by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, the father of palaeontology. Cuvier declared it was impossible for any animal with a split hoof, such as a horse, to have a horn on top of its head. Before this claim, unicorn horns were a much sought but rare commodity.

Ancient writers such as Ctesias and Aelian recorded that a unicorn’s horn, made from a substance called alicorn, could be made into a vessel that when drunk from would protect against diseases and poisons. Other parts of the body of a unicorn were also considered to have medicinal properties. The 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote a recipe for an ointment to cure leprosy. The ingredients included egg yolk and foie de licorne, also known as unicorn liver.

In Physiologus, the unicorn is said to be able to purify water with its horn. The book tells the story of a lake poisoned by a snake. None of the animals dared to go near the water to drink, however, when the unicorn appeared, it went straight to the water. With its horn, it made the sign of the cross in the water (remember Physiologus was a Christian text) and the poison was rendered harmless.

Over time, the horn of the unicorn was assigned many medicinal properties. These included cures for rubella, measles, fever, pain and plague (perhaps it could cure COVID-19). Apothecaries across Europe boasted they could sell unicorn horns and elixirs made from ground alicorn. Also for sale were belts made from unicorn leather to protect the wearer from harm.

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Royalty was often given alicorns as gifts. Elizabeth I was said to own a unicorn horn and the Throne Chair of Denmark was said to be made from many horns. Commissioned by King Frederick III (1609-70) in 1662, the throne was made by Bendix Grodtschilling (1620-90) to resemble the Biblical Throne of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 10. The throne was used at coronations until 1849 when the Danish monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The unicorn horns, however, have since been proved to be narwhal tusks.

As early as 1638, alleged alicorns were being identified as narwhal tusks. Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) was the first to start making this connection with the medium-sized toothed whales that live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.

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Ole Worm’s beliefs were studied at length by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, more commonly known as Vulgar Truths. Brown was a polymath and author of a variety of subjects, including science, religion, medicine and the natural world. Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, to give its full name, challenges the common errors and superstitions of the 17th century. Although Brown tried to be scientifically accurate, he included subtle elements of humour. Of the alleged alicorns, Brown said:

“False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals.”

Despite, arguments against the existence of unicorns, they have “existed” throughout many cultures and periods. The European unicorn is traditionally believed to have the body of a horse with a pearly white coat and a long, white spiralled horn. In Asia, on the other hand, unicorns are depicted as a scaly, colourful deer-like creature with a flesh coloured horn.

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An Asian legend claims the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (AD 1162- 1227) was prevented from invading India by a unicorn. The creature is said to have gazed into the leader’s eyes, which Genghis Khan took to be a sign from heaven and ordered his army to retreat.

The Chinese unicorn, also known as the qilin looks less like traditional descriptions of the magical creatures and more like a chimaera. Although it had a single horn, some sources say it had the body of a deer, the head of a lion, and green scales. Other sources claim it had the head of a dragon. According to legend, the qilin first appeared in 2697 BC during the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The Chinese unicorn’s rare appearances were believed to foretell the birth or death of a wise ruler. Rumour says the qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (551- 479 BC) in the 6th century BC and once more shortly before his death. Confucius is also said to be the last person to have seen the unicorn.

“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”
– Tibetan proverb

Most of the original myths about unicorns have been forgotten and yet, unicorns have never been more popular than they are today. Social media has spread the unicorn fad across the world, with tips about throwing unicorn parties, making unicorn art and so much more.

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Every July, the Festa dell’Unicorno (Unicorn Festival) is held in the Italian town of Vinci (where Leonardo was born). Dressed as fairies, elves or characters from fantasy films, visitors can attend three days of magical shows, concerts, competitions and a medieval market.

The unicorn has been rising in popularity since 2015, helped along with companies, such as Starbucks with their unicorn frappuccino, Kellogg’s Unicorn Fruitloops and Unicorn Snot glitter gel. They also feature in recent films, TV shows and books. It has become a symbol of benevolence and happiness, shunning the harsh realities of today.

Although the unicorn craze belongs to the 21st century, unicorns have featured in famous literature of the past. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned unicorns in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Timon of Athens. The most famous work of fiction involving the magical creatures is, of course, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (b.1939). First published in 1968, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages. The story follows a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind, on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her species.

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Detail from James Thurber’s original illustration

Another story is The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber (1894-1961). The short, humorous tale is about a man who sees a unicorn in the garden but when he tells his wife, she does not believe him. The more the man insists, the more adamant his wife becomes that unicorns do not exist. In the end, the wife has become so obsessed with proving her husband wrong that she is mistaken for the “loony” one.

This, of course, was only a humorous story but would anyone believe you today if you saw a unicorn in your garden? Are unicorns real? Whilst science puts forward evidence to suggest they are not, mystery still abounds, making the answer inconclusive. The stories and legends told throughout time suggest that it is highly unlikely to spot or capture a unicorn, therefore, if they do exist, we may never know.

Whether or not you believe in unicorns, they are fascinating creatures to research. There are so many different beliefs, myths and legends that it is impossible to fully comprehend the legendary creature. Nonetheless, their presence in popular culture is adding a bit of sparkle to the world. So, to paraphrase the Festa dell’Unicorno, enjoy your life, have fun, anything goes, so long as you do not betray the “spirit of the unicorn.”

“The unicorn is noble,
He knows his gentle birth,
He knows that God has chosen him
Above all beasts of earth.”
– German Folk Song

A Serious Museum with a Smile on its Face

On the edge of Pinner Memorial Park, Harrow is a museum devoted to the painter, illustrator and cartoonist William Heath Robinson (1872-1944). With over 1000 artworks, the Heath Robinson Museum explores the life and artistic progress of the celebrated “Gadget King”. Regardless of age or prior knowledge, the museum is a place for everyone to enjoy, as the website states:

“The Heath Robinson Museum is for students of illustration, lovers of landscape paintings, advertising enthusiasts and academics, dads building contraptions in sheds, believers in fairies, children with time to dream, couples stuck in tiny flats, people who put holes in cheese, artificial teeth testers and anyone who’s ever held something together with a bit of string.”

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William Heath Robinson

The term “a bit Heath Robinson” may be familiar to some but its origin has almost fallen into obscurity. Entering the English language in 1912, the term is used to describe any sort of ad hoc contraption or complicated gadget that has been assembled from everyday objects. As the museum reveals through a visual timeline of Heath Robinson’s life, the artist was most famous for his humorous drawings that often involved mindboggling, bizarre ideas.

William Heath Robinson was born on 13th May 1872 in Finsbury Park, North London. Being the third son of Thomas Robinson (1838–1902), a wood-engraver and illustrator who drew for The Penny Illustrated Paper, William was encouraged to develop his artistic skills.  William “didn’t want to be anything else than an artist,” and enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools where he excelled as a landscape painter. Unfortunately, landscapes were unlikely to earn Heath Robinson enough money to live comfortably, therefore, he began his career working alongside his illustrator brothers, Charles (1870–1937) and Tom (1869–1954).

 

Heath Robinson’s first published illustrations featured in The Sunday Magazine in 1896 and, soon, he was receiving commissions for book illustrations. One of the first books to include his drawings was a reprint of Don Quixote (1615) by Miguel de Cervantes, which was followed by The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe in 1900. Two years later, Heath Robinson wrote and illustrated his own story, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), which provided him with enough money to finally marry his fiancée Josephine Latey.

The Adventures of Uncle Lubin was the first instance of humour Heath Robinson expressed in his work. Aimed at children, Uncle Lubin was a comically dressed man in baggy leggings and an oversized floppy hat. The gentle, serious uncle is left to look after his nephew Peter, however, whilst he is napping, an evil “bag-bird” swoops down and kidnaps the child. Desperate to save his nephew, Uncle Lubin sets out on a series of adventures, involving remarkable inventions and contraptions, for instance, an air-ship and an underwater boat. Despite the highs and lows of the story, Uncle Lubin and Peter are eventually reunited in an enchanting conclusion.

Having succeeded with child humour, Heath Robinson continued to draw comical illustrations, this time for adults. In 1906, The Sketch ran a series of his cartoons titled The Gentle Art of Catching Things in which he began to reveal his imagination and crackpot inventions. The Sketch, having profited from Heath Robinson’s contributions, commissioned another series of cartoons in 1908, Great British Industries – Duly Protected.

 

By 1908, Heath Robinson could afford to buy a house in Pinner, the same town in which the museum is located. This coincided with the development of colour printing, which allowed multiple copies of coloured illustrations to be produced in books. The same year, Heath Robinson was commissioned to draw 40 large coloured pictures for Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night. Although he was progressing with his humorous illustrations, this project proved he could also compose serious outcomes.

In 1912, Heath Robinson produced coloured illustrations for his own story Bill the Minder. Turned into a television series for Channel 5 in 1986, the book tells of the adventures of fifteen-year-old Bill and his cousins Boadicea and Chad. In a Heath Robinson-like manner, the characters solve their unique problems with the use of exotic, handmade machines, for example, fitting balloons and pedals to a broken aeroplane to make it fly again.

The following year, Heath Robinson produced a series of coloured illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Although he had to return to a more serious style of drawing, Heath Robinson was able to use his imagination to develop the magical characters that fill Andersen’s stories.

 

Once again, Heath Robinson was asked to illustrate a Shakespeare play, this time A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This included a number of coloured illustrations as well as the traditional black and white. Given the nature of the play, Heath Robinson was able to use his experience of fantasy drawing and combine it with his love of comedy.

By now, the First World War was afoot and book illustrations were not the main priority of book publishers. In 1915, for instance, Heath Robinson was commissioned to illustrate Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, however, the publishers only wanted eight coloured pictures. This was a massive drop from the 40 illustrations produced for Twelfth Night seven years earlier. Soon, book illustrating jobs had temporarily dried up altogether.

 

The war period, however, gave Heath Robinson plenty of opportunities to produce humorous, satirical illustrations. Collected together and published in books such as Some Frightful War Pictures and Hunlikely! (1916), Heath Robinson used satire and absurdity to counter the German propaganda that was leaving Britain afraid and disheartened.

Aiming to lighten the mood, Heath Robinson depicted the enemy in farcical situations and British troops using imaginative contraptions to win the war. An example shown at the museum depicted the Huns (Germans) using laughing gas instead of mustard gas in an attempt to defeat the British.

 

Heath Robinson continued to make people laugh after the end of World War One with a weekly cartoon in The Bystander Magazine. From here on, Heath Robinson was regarded as the “Gadget King”, designing new, increasingly eccentric contraptions, usually combining everyday objects. These over-the-top machines were preposterous ideas but the characters in the illustrations were taking the situation so seriously that people began to question whether they were silly schemes or not.

In 1935, Heath Robinson returned to book illustration, however, this time it was in collaboration with the writer K. R. G. Browne (1895-1940). Based around Heath Robinson’s many gadgets, the pair published four “how to” books, beginning with How To Live In A Flat. This was shortly followed by How to Be A Perfect Husband, How to Make a Garden Grow and How To Be a Motorist, which are now, unfortunately, slightly outdated.

Unlike the other three books in the series, How To Live In A Flat is still relatable today as it applies to any building with limited space. At the time it was published, the thought of living in a flat was a new idea that many, particularly Heath Robinson, were struggling to come to terms with. The illustrator was averse to modern architecture and design, which shows in his satirical drawings that mock the tiny rooms in a flat. Browne and Heath Robinson thought up all the potential difficulties the limited room would throw up, inventing space-economising inventions to produce a little more comfort.

 

Heath Robinson thinks of every aspect of flat-living, planning beds that fold down from wardrobes, communal rubbish shoots, central heating and multi-purpose furniture. In some ways, he was ahead of his time, developing ideas that, whilst absurd at the time, would eventually become a common commodity. Take, for example, the coffee machine. Heath Robinson would be amazed at the technology available today, especially because coffee can be made by merely touching a button, rather than using candles and a range of obscure objects.

 

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Architecture Model (2016)

In the centre of the exhibition space at the Heath Robinson Museum sits a model of the flat described by Browne and Heath Robinson in How To Live in A Flat. Produced as part of a Btec Architecture, Interior and Product Design course at Harrow College, Estera Badelita constructed many scenes from the illustration and combined them together to make one model. On the roof, roof-top hikers are walking around in a continuous circle, a couple of people are diving off a balcony into a swimming pool on the balcony below, and another person is sitting on an outdoor chair attached to the wall of the building.

 

If it had not been for Browne’s death in 1940, the artist and writer partnership may have produced more books in the series. Nonetheless, Heath Robinson worked with the journalist Cecil Hunt (1902-54) during the Second World War on a new series of “how to” books aimed at boosting the morale of the public. Titles included How To Make The Best Of Things, How To Build A New World and How To Run A Communal Home, the latter produced just in case people needed to take in lodgers due to shortages of houses after the Blitz.

As well as developing his reputation as the “Gadget King”, Heath Robinson spent the period between 1915 and his death in 1944 producing advertisement illustrations for a number of clients. Companies that benefitted from Heath Robinson’s combination of serious and comical drawings include Chairman Tobacco, Johnny Walker Whisky and Connolly Brothers Ltd.

“… humour may be merely refreshing and light-hearted jollity, without which the world would be a sadder place to live in.”
– Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson was saddened by the start of another World War in 1939, however, similarly to the previous war, he attempted to lighten the mood with his illustrations. Rather than satirise the enemy, Heath Robinson focused on the Home Front in his weekly drawings for The Sketch. The museum displays a couple of examples from this period; one shows a group of large men using their weight to activate a machine that dislodges the position of an enemy gun post and another demonstrates an idea to hold up the enemy’s progress.

 

For children (or adults, why not?), the museum provides a couple of jigsaw puzzles of Heath Robinson’s wartime illustrations, including the above drawings. Alternatively, sheets of paper are provided to copy or draw new inventions. Other activities, such as spot the difference and worksheets related to the exhibition are available to keep younger visitors entertained.

 

Peter Pan and Other Lost Children

The Heath Robinson Museum consists of two exhibition rooms. One contains the permanent display of Heath Robinson illustrations and timeline, whereas, the other houses temporary exhibitions throughout the year. Since 25th August, an exhibition to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage showcases the work of two exceptional Edwardian female illustrators.

As the exhibition title Peter Pan and Other Lost Children suggests, the illustrations come from books such as Peter Pan and others involving children. The two artists, Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862-1951) and Edith Farmiloe (1870-1921), despite being women, were successful in the book illustration industry. This exhibition celebrates the lives of two people who made a name and career for themselves despite the inequalities in Edwardian society.

Alice Bolingbroke Woodward was born in West London in 1862, a daughter of the British Museum geologist, Dr Henry Woodward. Like the rest of her sisters, Alice wanted to be an artist and her father encouraged this by asking them to draw scientific drawings for his lectures. After studying at various schools, including the Westminster School of Art, she took her first steps to become a commercial artist with a commission to illustrate an article in the Daily Chronicle (1895).

Alice’s big break occurred in 1907 when she received a contract from the publisher George Bell & Sons to illustrate The Peter Pan Picture Book based on the original play by J. M. Barrie. Alice was the first person to ever illustrate the famous story of Peter Pan; many of these drawings are currently framed on the walls of the Heath Robinson museum. The initial print run of 5750 copies quickly sold out and 10,000 more were printed. Soon, Alice’s illustrations were familiar to children all over Britain.

A few years later (1914), the publishers contacted Alice with a request for eight coloured full-page illustrations, cover design, title-page and endpapers for a new edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. After a brief dispute about the commission fee, Alice readily accepted. Keeping to the physical characteristics imagined by the original illustrator of the story, John Tenniel (1820-1914), Alice used her well-loved method of pen ink and watercolour to produce a handful of beautiful drawings.

Edith Farmiloe is, perhaps, the lesser known of the two women, at least with the younger generations, although, she had a distinct style of illustration. Born in Chatham, Kent in 1870, Edith did not receive the art education and support that Alice Bolingbroke Woodward received as a child. It was not until 1891, when she married Reverend Thomas Farmiloe, that she began experimenting with story writing and illustration. She admitted that she could not draw from nature, however, her characters took on a unique, simple but appealing appearance.

Between 1895 and 1909, Edith wrote stories about poor children, which were printed in magazines alongside her illustrations. Eventually, the publisher Grant Richards asked her to illustrate a large picture book for children, the result being All the World Over, which demonstrates children’s fashion and activities in a range of different countries.

A follow-up book to All the World Over was requested in 1898 that focused on children seen on the streets in Soho, London. On this occasion, the story, or verses, were written by Edith’s sister Winifred, and together they produced the book Rag, Tag, and Bobtail.

Edith was also interested in the increasing Italian immigrant community in London, which inspired her children’s story Piccallili, published in 1900. The illustrations complement the story about life in Italy and its comparison with the streets of London.

Edith wrote a few more books for children on similar themes up until her death in 1921. The Heath Robinson Museum gift shop has postcards for sale featuring Edith Farmiloe’s illustrations but, unfortunately, lacks any memorabilia of Alice Bolingbroke Woodward’s drawings.

The Heath Robinson Museum has curated an outstanding little exhibition that introduces visitors to illustrators who have been largely forgotten about. It is refreshing to learn about female artists, especially those working in a male-oriented world. The Heath Robinson exhibition is also exceptional and visitors come away feeling as though they knew the “Gadget King”.

The Heath Robinson Museum is open from 11am until 4pm on Thursday to Sunday and charges £6 (£5 for over 65s, £4 for children) to view both exhibitions. Peter Pan and Other Lost Children will close on 18th November 2018 to make way for an exhibition about Heath Robinson’s home life.

Victorian Giants

The Birth of Art Photography

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest major exhibition offers something different to the usual portraits visitors expect to see. The concept of “art” is difficult to define and everyone has their own opinion as to what falls into that category. Victorian Giants introduces the idea of art photography by looking back at the four most celebrated figures who changed attitudes and artistic approaches in relation to photography, art and portraiture, which has influenced artists ever since.

Endorsed by HRH the Duchess of Cambridge, a patron of the gallery and an aspiring amateur photographer, this exhibition contains a hundred or so images taken during the latter half of the 19th century when a new developing technique was underway. Gone were the days of unwieldy Daguerreotype processes, replaced by wet-plate collodion, allowing photographers to take faster, sharper and more versatile shots.

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Moutain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (Mrs Keene) by Cameron (1866)

A single photograph stands alone at the entrance to the exhibition, enticing visitors in with a suggestion of the portraits to come. Although not much is known about the sitter, Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (1866) reveals the emotional and powerful charge of Julia Margaret Cameron’s (one of the four photographers) style of portraiture.

As the exhibition reveals, the four photographers were often inspired by various literature and attempted to capture fictional scenes or characters in their work. In this instance, the title of the photograph was taken directly from a John Milton poem, L’Allegro (1645). “Come, and trip it as ye go / On the light fantastick toe, / And in thy right hand lead with thee, / The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty.”

 

Of the four photographers, only one was a professional. Oscar Gustaf Rejlander (1813-75) was a Swedish émigré who came to England and set up a photographic studio in Wolverhampton in 1856. He later moved to London in 1863 where he learnt the new process of developing photographs, wet-plate collodion. This involved pouring collodion onto a glass plate and exposing it to light, via a camera, to capture the desired image.

Rejlander was known for his expressive portraits, often experimenting in order to perfect his photographs. He became an expert at photomontage in which two or more negatives were combined together to create a completely new image. By this method, people could be added into or removed from photographs as necessary or two very different scenes merged to form an impossible landscape.

The National Portrait Gallery has recently acquired a photo-album of previously unseen portraits, many of which are included in this exhibition. The head of photographs, Dr Phillip Prodger told Art Fund, “The Rejlander album becomes one of the jewels in the crown of our already impressive collection of 19th-century photographs.” It changed the way Victorian photography was perceived, particularly in relation to the extent of experimentation with a comparatively new medium.

Unlike the stiff, wooden portraits associated with the Victorian era, Rejlander’s photographs were life-like and natural. He captured sitters in natural, sensitive poses, such as staring into space deep in thought – a fleeting, almost private moment. It was this evanescent style that inspired the remaining three photographers that make up the Victorian Giants: Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden, and Lewis Carroll.

 

Lewis Carroll is by far the most famous of the group due to his popular children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Although often working under his pseudonym, the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98) was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford University and picked up photography as a hobby in approximately 1856. Preferring to work outdoors, many of his portraits are situated in gardens where natural elements frame the model or sitters.

Carroll specialised in pictures of children, which make up half of all his known photographs. Understanding the complexities of working with youngsters, Carroll ensured a parent or governess was always present at the photoshoot. To entertain the children, he often initiated a game of dress up in which they would pretend to be heroes from works of fiction. An example is Captive Princess where one of his favourite models Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin (1864-1925), a daughter of a work colleague, poses as the princess, complete with crown, from the Golden Legend, awaiting rescue from the heroic St George.

Being a mathematician, Carroll was interested in the preciseness of angles and lighting, lining up additional light sources to achieve a particular size and direction of the shadow. It is clear from the photographs in this exhibition that Carroll put a lot of thought into his portraits in order to produce the best possible outcome.

 

Refreshingly, particularly for the era, the other two photographers are female. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) took up photography during her 40s on the Isle of Wight after receiving a camera from her daughter in 1863. As seen in the first photograph of the exhibition, Cameron was particularly interested in Arthurian, legendary or heroic themes and other allegorical subjects.

Cameron usually used family members, friends and the local villagers as her models, however, she also took photographs of well-known people. Her portraits have been described as Rembrandt-like due to the dark, natural backgrounds and the depthless focus on the sitter’s face. Examples of this technique are the portraits of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a distinguished historian, and the astronomer J.F.W. Herschel (1792-1871). Both men have an ethereal appearance, their hair and facial features emerging from the darkness.

 

Last but not least, the fourth photographer is Clementina Maude, Viscountess Hawarden (1822-65) who had a short but prolific stint as a photographer. Picking up the camera just under a decade before she died at 42 from pneumonia, Hawarden produced around 800 photographs, the majority involving her eight children.

Unlike the others, Hawarden photographed full-length figures more often than head and shoulder portraits, creating emotional scenes. Rather than focusing on the faces of her models, Hawarden thought carefully about the overall composition, draping fabrics to create a background, or employing props such as furniture.

A theme that initially tied the photographers together is childhood innocence. Victorians viewed children as pure souls who had not yet been affected by the corrupt realities of life. Their presence in artworks portrays the raw, unsullied youth that eventually gets lost as they approach adulthood, which makes the viewer want to care for and protect them from the rest of the world.

Photographing children was not an easy feat, therefore, these images display the skill and patience each of the four photographers possessed. Although children are still not easy models to work with today due to their inclination to fidget, capturing a child’s portrait in the late 1800s was much more difficult. Early cameras had long exposure times, requiring the sitter to remain completely still for at least 30 seconds. The slightest movement could ruin the picture.

Lewis Carroll had plenty of opportunities to photograph children due to his close friendship with the Liddell family. Henry Liddell (1811-98) was the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll was employed and was a great supporter of his photographic experimentation. The Liddell family consisted of four children, the fourth being Alice (1852-1934) who inspired Carroll to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871).

Although Alice Liddell was a favourite of Carroll, only twelve solo photographs exist, which is a mere handful compared with Xie Kitchin of whom he produced 45 portraits. Carroll also produced several photographs of Alice’s sister Ina and several with more than one Liddell child present. It is unknown why Carroll eventually stopped spending time with the family and only one photograph of Alice is thought to exist from the period after the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Carroll was not the only photographer to use Alice as a model, Julia Margaret Cameron made several portraits a few years later. The example displayed at the National Portrait Gallery is a profile shot of the 21-year-old Alice, which shows the physical changes from a cropped-haired little girl to a young adult with long, flowing locks. This photograph was titled Aletheia (1872), which is Greek for true or faithful.

Although the four photographers never collaborated as a group, they often photographed the same sitters, including a few famous faces. Rejlander, Cameron and Carroll produced photographs of the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) and his sons Hallam and Lionel. The Tennyson family lived near Cameron on the Isle of Wight allowing for plenty of photographic opportunities. Rejlander, when tutoring Cameron, took the opportunity to visit the family, and Carroll came across them whilst on holiday in the Lake District.

Cameron produced the greater amount of photographs of Tennyson and experimented with style, pose and light. The poet was impressed with her skills and used one profile shot, titled The Dirty Monk (1865) as the frontispiece for a publication of his poems, Idylls of the King (1885).

Rejlander and Cameron were also responsible for taking photographs of Charles Darwin. Once again, the connection between Cameron and Darwin was made whilst on the Isle of Wight, however, Darwin preferred the style of Rejlander. Darwin often used photographs for research purposes when writing his books, particularly after discovering the way the camera could capture emotions and expressions. These were a great visual aid for his writing, and Darwin also hired Rejlander to contribute images to illustrate The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

“I am now rich in photographs, for I have found in London Rejlander, who for years has had a passion for photographing all sorts of chance expressions, exhibited on various occassions … instantaneously.” – Darwin, 1871

Portraits of family, friends and famous people allowed the photographers to experiment with the camera, location, light and so forth, however, they took things a step further by controlling the scene they were photographing. It is at this moment the argument that photography is art becomes strongest. In a similar way to painters, photographers have to think about composition, tones and shades and the message behind the overall image.

Occasionally, the four artists dressed their sitters as characters from literature or mythology, for example, Xie Kitchin as the Captive Princess and Tennyson as The Dirty Monk. In other photographs, models were positioned carefully to depict a particular scene, often replicating a well-known painting. A small number of the images displayed as part of Victorian Giants have been based on existing artworks. Some are loosely inspired by them, whereas, others closely resemble the exact portrait.

An example of a photograph based on a painting is Non Angeli sed Angli (1857) taken by Rejlander. It is a pastiche of Raphael’s cherubs in the Sistine Madonna. The two children pose in the exact same position, head on their hands, looking both innocent and mischievous at the same time.

The reason for making pastiches or reinterpretations of historic paintings was to prove to those who considered photography a tool rather than a visual art that photographs could do anything painting could do. Although they could not recreate brushstrokes, the composition, emotion and tone of the image could be produced equally as well with a camera as with a paint brush.

Carroll’s pastiche of Rembrandt’s Andromeda (1630) shows the actress Elizabeth “Kate” Terry chained to the rocks awaiting rescue from the sea monster by her future husband and hero Perseus. In this instance, the photograph is only loosely based on the painting, the position of the model, clothing and backdrop being completely different. Rejlander’s The Virgin in Prayer (1857), however, is a much closer representation of Sassoferrato’s painting of the same name. Rejlander has restaged the painting as closely as possible and, although the camera could not yet capture colour, the photograph is a very close approximation.

Rejlander’s most impressive reinterpretation of an artwork is his partial pastiche of  Guido Reni’s Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (1638-9). Focusing only on the head on a charger, Rejlander produced a powerful likeness of the Baroque painting. As recorded in the new testament, Salome requested and received the head of St John on a platter. Missing from the photograph is Salome holding her prize, however, Rejlander’s biographer believed he intended to use this image as the centrepiece of a larger picture made up of a variety of photographic elements. Unfortunately, Rejlander never got the opportunity to complete this but there are a couple of examples at the National Portrait Gallery of Rejlander’s combination photographs, including one made up of at least 32 separate negatives.

Victorian Giants is both a demonstration of photography as a visual art and a celebration of the development of the camera. Included in the exhibition is a four-minute film demonstrating the nineteenth-century technique of printing photographs using wet-collodion glass-plate negatives and albumen paper.

Although it is still a matter of opinion, the National Portrait Gallery strongly expresses the view that photography belongs under the category of visual art. None of the photographs exhibited is simply a resource for other outcomes and can exist and be displayed in their own right. Some, particularly the innocent photographs of children, are extremely beautiful and full of emotion. They look equally as good framed on a wall as a hand-painted version would.

Some pictures visitors may not care for as much, but it is interesting to see the innovative methods these four photographers experimented with during a time when new technology was only just developing. Compared with what the camera can do today, these photographs feel much more precious than any modern photographer’s work.

Closing on 20th May 2018, Victorian Giants is open daily from 10 am until 6 pm. Tickets cost £10 or £8.50 for visitors over the age of 60. Members and patrons may visit the exhibition for free and National Art Pass Holders receive a 50% discount.