The treasures of conquest

When visiting museums we’re often so impressed by the exhibits that we don’t stop to think how they came to be there. Sometimes they were “acquired” as “spoils of war” or, to put it more bluntly, by looting – although the guardians of the treasure haven’t always been keen to advertise the fact. Artifacts “came into the possession of…” or (my favourite) “fell into the hands of…”, as if from a tree or upper balcony.

treasure 1These cigarette cards issued by Churchmans in 1937 are a good example. All the loot was in the care of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, at the time. If you aren’t familiar with the period or its Imperialist wars, just follow the links.

The Golden Throne of Ranjit Singh.
The ambitious nature of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh [1780-1839], combined with his forceful character and military genius, earned him the title of “The Lion of the Punjab.” The throne illustrated was made for him after his accession to the throne of Zaman Shah, King of Afghanistan, whom he defeated in 1799. It is made of wood covered with richly-chased gold plates, analysis showing the metal to contain 97-75% of pure gold. The throne later came into the possession of the East India Company, becoming the property of the British Government after the Indian Mutiny [1857].

Gold treasures from the Burmese Regalia.
treasure 2After the third Burmese War of 1885-6, in which King Thibaw was decisively defeated, the Burmese Regalia were taken from the Royal Palace at Mandalay, passing into the possession of the Secretary of State for India and thence, in 1890, to the Victoria and Albert Museum. We illustrate two of the many magnificent objects from the Regalia on view there : left, a gold food-vessel in the shape of a duck, elaborately chased and set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds; right, a gold salver, 23¼ inches in diameter, bearing a 9-stone ornament in the centre.

treasure 3

Gold Crown and Chalice from Abyssinia [Ethiopia].
When the British military expedition to Abyssinia, under Sir Robert Napier, entered Magdala on April 13th, 1868, several of the Emperor Theodore’s treasures fell into Sir Robert’s hands. We show two interesting items of this treasure. The gold crown (on right) belonged originally to the Abuna or Head of the Abyssinian Christian Church, being subsequently appropriated by the Emperor Theodore [Tewodros II]. The chalice, of hammered gold, bears incised inscriptions recording that it was given by King Joshua (1682-1706) to the Sanctuary of Quesquam.

A few of the looted treasures have been returned to Ethiopia over the years. An association was founded in 1999 to lobby for the rest.

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The Laird of Abbotsford

[Sir Walter] Scott was now [1810] in receipt of £1,300 a year as clerk of session, and when the lease of Ashestiel ran out in May 1811, he felt justified in purchasing, for £4,000, a farm on the banks of the Tweed above Gala-foot. This farm, then known as Clarty Hole, became Abbotsford, so called because these lands had belonged of old to the great Abbey of Melrose; and in his own mind Scott became henceforth the Laird of Abbotsford.

Abbotsford 1

During [1817] the existing house of Abbotsford had been building, and Scott had added to his estate the lands of Toftfield, at a price of £10,000. He was then thought to be consolidating a large fortune, for the annual profits of his novels alone had, for several years, been not less than the cost of Toftfield.

Abbotsford 2

The house of Abbotsford was not completed and finally rid of carpenters and upholsterers until Christmas 1824; but the first time I saw it was in 1818, and from that time onwards Scott’s hospitality was extended freely, not only to the proprietors and tenants of the surrounding district but to a never-ending succession of visitors who came to Abbotsford as pilgrims. In the seven or eight brilliant seasons when his prosperity was at its height, he entertained under his roof as many persons of distinction in rank, in politics, in art, in literature, and in science as the most princely nobleman of his age ever did in the like space of time.

Abbotsford 3

Scott’s diary from November 1825 shows clear forebodings of the collapse of the [publishing] houses of Constable and Ballantyne. In December Scott borrowed £10,000 on the lands of Abbotsford, and advanced that sum to the struggling houses; on January 16, 1826, their ruin, and Scott’s with them, was complete.
On May 15 Lady Scott died, after a short illness, at Abbotsford. “I think,” writes Scott in his diary, “my heart will break.”

Abbotsford 4

An expedition to Paris in October, to gather materials for his “Life of Napoleon,” was a seasonable relief. The “Life of Buonaparte” was published in June 1827, and secured high praise from many…… It realised £18,000 for the creditors, and, had health been spared him, Scott must soon have freed himself from all encumberances.
‘Life of Sir Walter Scott,’ John Gibson Lockhart, published 1837/’38 in seven volumes.

Sir Walter Scott, author of such classic novels as ‘Rob Roy’ and ‘Ivanhoe’, died at Abbotsford on 21 September 1832.

Profits from the ‘Life’ were donated by Lockhart, his son-in-law, to the creditors.

Abbotsford (“just a short train ride from Edinburgh”) is now in the care of a charitable trust and still attracts thousands of “pilgrims” every year.

The Skirl of the Pipes

Are these Highland gatherings, these Highland games (I have never been able to discover the difference, if any, between “gatherings” and “games”), ancient and traditional? If they are, then history is remarkably silent on the point. Was it ever the pastime of the Highlander to hurl the trunks of pine trees about the countryside? Somehow I doubt it. Indeed, I harbour a suspicion that Highland games are only about 100 years old….

Braemar Pipe band

To put it bluntly, I do not believe that the Highland Gathering is ancient nor that the Highland Games are traditional, although they have undoubtedly become a tradition. They are also one of Scotland’s very best advertising media.

Let me hasten to add that this does not mean that I dislike or disapprove of Highland Games. On the contrary, I love them. As a spectacle I do not think they can be bettered anywhere in the British Isles.

Braemar duoWatching the games, the observant onlooker cannot fail to notice a marked difference in interest between the Scots in the audience and the foreigners in the audience, especially among the women. The kilt, it is apparent, arouses emotion in the foreign female breast; the Scots female…. appears to be quite unmoved….the Scots, male and female, are much more interested in the pipe music and the dancing.

This, surely, is because both are, in fact, ancient and traditional, technical and very highly skilled. You have to be an initiate to understand the finer points of either. I like watching Highland dancing, which I find both graceful and energetic: but the technical points are a closed book to me. I love the barbaric music of the bagpipes, but I am quite unable to distinguish between the playing of one competing piper and another on the platform. They sound exactly alike to me. But they do not to the Scots.

Braemar Pipers

Text edited from an article by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald (1900-1981) published in the ‘Sphere’, September 21, 1957.

Images from the Royal Braemar Gathering 1984.

Now You Has Jazz*

Friday Flashback says Happy Birthday.

Welsh jazz fans are gearing up for their annual treat next weekend (9th – 11th) when the Brecon Jazz Festival celebrates its 35th anniversary. I was lucky enough to be there for the first one.

Brecon jazz festival 1

A band called Adamant, from Cardiff, leading the first parade down High Street.

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It was a modest programme compared to this year’s offering but everybody had so much fun they decided to do it again.  And again……

*’Now You Has Jazz’ is a classic performed by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and his “ensemble” in the 1956 movie ‘High Society’. Watch.

London’s Gaiety Girls

In the “seventies” [1870s] there was a wonderful galaxy of talent at the old Gaiety Theatre, Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, Edward Terry, and Royce forming a matchless quartette.

Kate Vaughn

Kate Vaughan

Young men, of course, will always be foolish, up to the end of time. Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, and Emily Duncan all had their “colours.” Nellie Farren’s were dark blue, light blue, and white; Kate Vaughan’s were pink and grey; Emily Duncan’s black and white; the leading hosiers “stocked” silk scarves of these colours, and we foolish young men bought the colours of the lady we especially admired, and sat in the stalls of the Gaiety flaunting the scarves of our favourite round our necks.

As I then thought, and still think, that Nellie Farren was one of the daintiest and most graceful little creatures ever seen on the stage, with a gaminerie all her own, I, in common with many other youths, sat in the stalls of the Gaiety wrapped in a blue-and-white scarf. Each lady showered smiles over the footlights at her avowed admirers, whilst contemptuously ignoring those who sported her rival’s colours. One silly youth, to testify to his admiration for Emily Duncan, actually had white kid gloves with black fingers, specially manufactured for him. He was, we hope, repaid for his outlay by extra smiles from his enchantress.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Aldwych

Nellie Farren

Nellie Farren

For a popular burlesque, in the days of Nellie Farren and Connie Gilchrist, of Fred Leslie and Arthur Roberts, the same stalls were filled night after night by the rich unemployed, who afterwards followed their fancies hither and thither and spent quite considerable sums upon them. There was no great stir when marriages followed such aquaintance, and most of them turned out a great success.
‘Gilded Youth’ (essay) ‘Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts’, Sir Ian Malcolm. Thornton Butterworth, Ltd; London, 1932.

I have to admit, in the interest of accuracy, that the Gaiety shown above in 1913 is not the “old Gaiety Theatre” these two men remembered. That stood across the road on the site of the Morning Post newspaper office at left. It had its last performance in 1903 and was demolished soon afterwards. The new theatre (on the right) had been under construction since 1901 and opened four months after the original closed.

Some of the Gaiety Girls held a reunion in 1950 and what remained of the theatre, just a shell since 1939, was demolished in 1957. The Morning Post building, completed in 1907, is now the One Aldwych hotel.

The Business of the Actor

English playwright and actor, Sir Arthur Pinero, writes about ‘The Theatre in Transition’ in 1932.

Marie Bancroft. PRG-280-1-5-179

Marie Bancroft.

As a youth I climbed one night up to the sixpenny gallery of the Standard Theatre in Shoreditch. The Bancrofts and their company were “starring” for a week in that huge house….. From my remote seat I listened to Marie Bancroft as Polly Eccles in Caste. Her lightest whisper was as audible as her loudest tones. She might, so it seemed, have been holding me by the button-hole and imparting something to me that nobody else was expected to hear. Far off as was the stage, I felt that if I had held out my hand I could have grasped hers. And I am sure that every member of the audience had exactly the same sensation.

Her method, acquired after years of training, was the method of Mrs. John Wood, now almost forgotten, of

Vintage postcard of Mrs. (Madge) Kendal, Victorian/Edwardian actress.

Mrs. (Madge) Kendal

Ellen Terry and (both happily still with us) Dame Madge Kendal and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and of many others I could cite. It was the method of the old actors and actresses generally – the ABC of their equipment. They knew that acting is an enlargement of life to be viewed from a distance, not a reproduction of nature confined to the limits of the small space of the stage. In the delivery of their dialogue they appeared to be talking as people talk in a room. But they did not make the mistake of pitching their voices as though the walls of the room were the extreme range within which their voices had to travel. In short, they had learnt, in their rough school, that the business of the actor is to act. …..

The theatre is now engaged in a struggle for existence with the films. To all appearance, the fight will be long and bitter. Nobody can say how it will end, what conventions may be sacrificed, what new features may be encountered, what new forms evolved. Those of us who love the play as we have known it must be a little fearful lest it should cease to be a medium for the serious exposition of life and character, or should be allotted only the task of dealing with subjects which may uplift the soul but certainly do not cheer it. Whether eventually the silent films conquer the talking, or the talking the silent, is not, to my mind, of great importance. What is of importance is the fact that the “pictures,” for the moment at any rate, have captured the masses who formerly were the faithful supporters of the regular theatre, and who are now content with the thrills and humour furnished by mechanical process.

Image sources:
Marie Bancroft, State Library of South Australia
Mrs. Kendal, a postcard in my collection.

Creative Difficulties – censorship in the ’30s.

With the coming of peace [after WW1] the Allied Powers abandoned the use of the propaganda film. Producers found they had enough trouble with the censorship in foreign countries without adding to it by making films which would offend foreigners by open propaganda. All kinds of pitfalls – religious, political and moral – have to be guarded against and a company with an eye to the export market must always be on the look-out for incidents that may lead to wholesale cutting or total banning abroad.

A novelist, for example, may make his villain any nationality he pleases. Not so the film producer. So many foreign countries have taken exception to Hollywood pictures on this ground that most villains are now thoroughly cosmopolitan or else American!

Recent examples of censorship [1930s] illustrate the remarkable diversity of objections that are raised by countries acutely conscious of the influence of films on the minds of audiences.
Poland, for example, cut from Showboat the lines in Ole Man River,
“You an’ me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain,”
on the grounds that they were likely to stir up class enmity.

China banned the British Picture Jack Ahoy because the story of a naval life included a burlesque of Chinese pirates.
Mutiny_bounty_stillItaly cut from Mutiny on the Bounty all laudatory references to Britain, shots of the Union Jack, and the final words: “We’re off for the Mediterranean, lads. We’ll sweep the seas for England!” Germany, apart from banning particular films that offend the Nazi viewpoint, imposes a general veto on all foreign films in which non-Aryans take a part either as producers or actors.
Japan rejected the film The King Steps Out because it tended to ridicule royalty. A number of countries, including Italy, Germany and Poland, banned the film version of the sinking of the U.S. gunboat Panay by the Japanese.

Morality lays many snares for the producer. The film Black Legion was changed at the request of the Hays Office (the unofficial film censors in the United States) so that when a girl character leaves the man whose mistress she has been, she asked him for her hat and bag, not her trunk – the idea being to establish that she had not been living with him ‘but just dropped in for a visit’.

Black_Legion_Poster_1937

Humphrey Bogart in ‘Black Legion’. Racism, arson and lynching were o.k. but any hint of sex outside marriage was not!

Gilbert Seldes declares [in Movies for the Million] that during the depression the companies in Hollywood “tottered and one by one put themselves into the hands of banking houses”. Then, when they wanted to make a film to expose the munitions racket, it was found the subject could not be handled without giving offence to the bankers. So the project was dropped.

The list might be extended indefinitely with films in which references to sacred subjects, suicides, torture and whipping, bathroom and bedroom scenes, have incurred the wrath of different censors. No matter how innocent and free from controversy a story may appear, a film producer must handle it with kid gloves and walk on eggs until it is completed.
‘Propaganda Boom’. A. J. Mackenzie. The Right Book Club. London. 1938.