A Stupendous Task

The Panama Canal opened for business just over 100 years ago, so nobody reading this can remember the world without it. We think of it as a convenient way to move between two oceans and, while we can’t fail to be impressed by the scale of the engineering involved, we forget the commercial and political upheaval it caused at the time – until we read this passage in an old school book, looking forward to its completion.

A lock canal of 40 feet deep, with a width of four or five hundred feet, estimated to cost £75,000,000, and to be ready by 1915, is now being made. The task is stupendous. The length, 49 miles, is not the great difficulty. The tropical river Chagres, whose waters rise nearly 40 feet in a day, has to be crossed many times. A vast lake for the control of this body of water has had to be made. Then the Culebra ridge at its lowest is 300 feet above sea level, standing as it does between hills 3000 feet high. This ridge for more than 5 miles has to be cut down to canal level.



There are three pairs of locks, one pair near Colon, the Atlantic port, and the other two pairs near Panama, the Pacific end. These locks will lift vessels 85 feet, and the whole passage is expected to take no more than 12 hours.


A vintage postcard of Pedro Miguel locks, Panama Canal, under construction.

So successful has the work of the Americans been since they began their task, that it is expected to be complete before the date fixed for opening.

A vintage postcard of Miraflores locks, Panama Canal, under construction.

There is little doubt that the opening of the canal will create a new centre that must largely modify the existing sea routes of commerce, as well as bring others into existence. All ships that use the canal must pass through the Caribbean Sea, and such a focus of trade will centralise large commercial and political interests. To protect and develop its own interests, each nation will regard its possessions in the West Indies as of prime importance. The opening of the Canal will open up the eastern coasts of the Pacific to Europe as well as to the United States, and provide an alternative route to China, Japan, and Australia. The sea journey from New York to San Francisco will be shortened by two-thirds, and to Valparaiso and South American ports by a half. The chief political result will be to make the eastern and western coasts of the United States practically one coast line, and perhaps to necessitate, in the opinion of the government of the United States, the further, as well as the nearer approaches to the canal being fortified and placed under their control. This control is regarded, if not as a necessity of existence, at least as one of full development and national security.


Text from ‘The World’ – a school text book by McDougall’s Educational Co., Ltd., c. 1913.
Images from a contemporary fold-out souvenir letter card by Underwood and Underwood, New York.

Eleanor’s cross

J. Valentine vintage postcard of Charing Cross, London, c.1913.

This is one of London’s busiest spots. The stream of traffic at this point is great and constant. The ornate stone monument is a replica of the original Charing Cross, one of many erected by Edward I , in memory of his Queen, Eleanor. On the right is the grand hotel entrance to Charing Cross Station, the terminus of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway.
Card caption c.1913.

Oamaru encore

This post expands on my last, showing more of the Victorian Precinct in Oamaru, New Zealand.


These are the second and third floors of a large grain store. The elaborate carved decoration around windows and doors projected an air of success and prosperity to the street. The back of the building, which faces the old railyard and harbour, has no decoration at all.


This facade sits to one side of the main precinct and is all that remains of the Northern Hotel. Originally built of Baltic pine in 1860, it was rebuilt in local stone twenty years later. There used to be more of it on the right. It was a social and business hub in its prime, located just across the road from harbour and railway, and it was the terminus for the Dunedin coach. Then the rail station was relocated to the north and the business district followed, leaving the “Northern” marooned at the southern end of town.
The precinct buildings lend themselves to a dramatic monochrome treatment but you have to see them in colour to appreciate the charm of the area.

Street sign on the derelict Victorian era Northern Hotel. Oamaru, New Zealand.

The limestone reflects ambient light and changes from cool white in the shade to yellow in the evening sun. This is a detail on the shadow side of the Northern Hotel.


A boutique shop in the precinct. This one sells second hand “retro” clothes.

The Victorian Precinct, Oamaru, New Zealand.

The Criterion Hotel really “pops” against a blue sky, with direct lighting from the late afternoon sun. Unlike the Northern, the Criterion is still in business. (They didn’t ask me to tell you that.)

Fake history?


The building is a real piece of history – built in 1876 – but the photograph is modern; made to look like an image from an Edwardian magazine or guidebook. An impression of the past. At least, that was the idea. Of course some people will say it’s fake. Sad.

This is the old Harbour Board Office in the Victorian Precinct of Oamaru, in New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a genuine historic area, not a theme park re-creation. All the buildings are real, made from solid locally quarried limestone in the 19th century, and still in use by boutique shops, artisans, and craftspeople. Recommended as a “top choice area” by Lonely Planet.

Paxton’s Palace

This card, published by J. Beagles & Co of London, was posted from Beckenham to an address in Christchurch, New Zealand, on May 16 1907.

A vintage postcard view of Crystal Palace.

My Dear Jack,
We can see this place quite plainly from Beckenham and on a bright day the roof sparkles like the sun.
With Much love, D.E.

The Crystal Palace was built, in slightly less elaborate form, in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Its designer, Joseph Paxton (1803 – 1865), is sometimes described as the architect, or even engineer, although he probably had no formal training in either profession.

Although Paxton had a brilliant and inventive mind, he was primarily the head gardener at Chatsworth House who had developed a method of building greenhouses on a large scale. His inspiration for their framework came from studying the structure of a giant tropical water lily leaf that was strong enough to support the weight of his young daughter. So his world famous palace was, in effect, the biggest greenhouse ever seen.

After the Great Exhibition closed, the building was dismantled, transported to this location, which was outside London at that time, reassembled, and reopened with additions in 1854. The water towers at each end were designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to power the new fountains in the grounds.

The palace was very expensive to maintain in the years that followed and some of its past glory had faded when, on 30th November 1936, it was lost to a fire hot enough to melt and buckle its iron frame. One of the towers remained until the outbreak of WWII when it was demolished so that it wouldn’t provide a landmark for German bombers.

A day at the seaside

Tuck's Oilette postcard of Littlehampton, England.

Littlehampton, the Harbour. Here is the pier and its little lighthouse, and the houses of Littlehampton showing hazily in the distance. Steamers come up alongside the pier to take a cargo or to drop one. – Card caption

Littlehampton is in the county of Sussex on England’s south coast. This is one of a set of six Tuck’s Oilette postcards first catalogued in 1908 and shows the East Pier. The picturesque wooden lighthouse was replaced in 1948 by a futuristic concrete cyclops.

But is it Art?

Professor Henry Tonks (1862 – 1937), a ‘traditionalist’ of the Slade School of Art, was known almost as well for his sarcasm as for his paintings. Here he takes aim at ‘modern’ Art movements and their followers.


Tonks in 1922

It is interesting, on looking back on the early days of Post-Impressionism, as the new movement was called (a good title seeing that it followed Impressionism and to a certain extent was its product), to remember the attitude of the critics to these new ideas. They had not been very ready in detecting the good work that was being done in France and England in the fifty years before…….. the rule of the critics seems generally to have been very simple : all new work was bad, or at least to be suspected……

Why exactly I cannot say; but their treatment of the Post-Impressionists, and the large number of followers who arose over here [England], was very different. They were going to be well up with the hounds this time, and every new painter had a chance of becoming a genius very early in life.

After the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1911*, at the Grafton Gallery, a great many smaller exhibitions were held of the various divisions of the movement, among which were the Futurists, who, alas! now are part of the past; so that the adventurous artist and the critic had a fine time. Gradually a vocabulary was collected to enable the new ideas to be conveniently talked about, and we became familiar with such words as “plasticity,” “three-dimensional composition,” “volume,” “abstract form,” “formal design,” and so on, some of which seemed, on consideration, to be merely a new word for an old idea, others unconvincing, even supposing we understood what was intended to be expressed. But the great adventure had begun, and the critics cheered each little barque as it sailed away into the unknown…….

I am inclined to think that a new type of man altogether began to find his way at this time into the schools, one who would never have thought of trying to become an artist fifty years ago. He was tempted partly by what he found on the walls of exhibitions, feeling that he also might be able to express much that he saw there; he felt that he had no aptitude for drawing; on the other hand, he felt he had ideas, better, perhaps, than the artists he was looking at; a common enough belief among quite intelligent people this, that, if they did paint, they would find much better subjects than most artists, not realizing that it is the treatment of the subject which makes it into a work of art – or not. He saw that no great power of drawing was necessary to produce a picture of ideas, so he made the plunge – perhaps plunge is too violent a word, he sidled into art.

Fifty years ago a man would very likely begin his artist life as an illustrator, perhaps working half his time at earning what he could by drawing for papers or books, and the other half, or less, working in some school to improve his drawing. This course he certainly could not have followed if he had not had much natural ability. Today the word illustrator is a term of abuse; it is now definitely settled to have no relation to art; it is concerned with mere representation……… Who knows, perhaps in a hundred years a child who tries with his pencil to draw something he sees will be hurried off to a psycho-analyst?
‘The Vicissitudes of Art’ (Essay), Professor Henry Tonks, Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thornton Butterworth, Limited. 1932.

*1905 for the first exhibition and 1910 for the second. See Grafton link.
Photograph of Tonks by George Charles Beresford.