Art and Money: The Peacock Room

Rose and Silver

For a man who described his artworks as Harmonies or Symphonies, in his personal life the famous artist James MacNeill Whistler created plenty of discord. One of his greatest quarrels happened with his former friend and artistic patron, F.R. Leyland.

Called the “Liverpool Medici,” Leyland was a self-made man who rose from office-boy to wealthy ship-owner.  He was an accomplished amateur pianist and an art lover with a discriminating eye for both Old Masters and contemporary artists, including Botticelli, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, and Albert Moore.

In order to fulfill his ambitions of living like the culturally enlightened merchant prince he believed himself to be, Leyland bought an elegant house in Kensington, The Mansion, at 49 Prince’s Gate and began to remodel it to suit the needs of a merchant prince. And thus began the saga of “L’art et L’argent (Art and Money), or the Story of the Room.”

Noted interior designer Thomas Jeckyll was hired to remodel the dining room. Jeckyll’s original plan was to cover the walls in Spanish leather hangings that had once belonged to Catherine of Aragon. They were painted with her heraldic device, the open pomegranate, and a series of red Tudor roses, to symbolize her union with Henry VIII. Walnut shelves would hold Leyland’s extensive collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain.

The centerpiece of the room was to be Whistler’s large painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain.  Toward the end of the remodeling Jeckyll became ill, and Whistler was asked to finish the room and oversee the placement of his painting on the wall.

Then the trouble began. Whistler thought the red Tudor roses painted on the leather wall hangings clashed with the colors in his painting. He wrote to his patron, and Leyland agreed that maybe the flowers could be painted yellow instead. Then the artist wanted to paint a “wave” pattern on the on cornice and wainscoting. Leyland agreed again.

The Peacock Room

Whistler painted, and then he kept painting. “I just painted as I went on – without sketch or design – it grew as I painted…And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it!”

He re-finished the ceiling in imitation gold with painted peacock feathers. Then he gilded the walnut shelves. Blue and green paint covered the antique Spanish leather. The panels on the walls were embellished with golden peacocks.

When he was done, Whistler was so pleased with his work that he called the newspapers and held press conferences in the finished room. In a letter to Mrs. Leyland, he confided that he thought his work was wonderful and worth a “large sum.” He billed his patron Leyland 2,000 guineas.

Leyland was definitely not pleased.

The finished room was not at all what he’d expected—nor did he expect to pay 2,000 guineas for work he hadn’t agreed to. Furthermore, the artist’s nerve in calling in the press before he’d even gotten a look at it really upset him. To add insult to all these injuries, Whistler was also having an affair with Leyland’s wife.

Leyland grudgingly agreed to pay £1,000 for Whistler’s work. Oddly, he didn’t kick Whistler out of his house, despite all that had happened. Whistler, deciding that Leyland probably wouldn’t hang three of his other works on the wall opposite Princess, came back to the Mansion and as a final act of defiance, painted two huge peacocks in the empty spot where his pictures were to have gone. One peacock was supposed to be Leyland, standing on a pile of gold coins, and the other peacock, meant to represent Whistler himself, is letting loose with an angry shriek.

Finally, in 1877, Whistler was barred from the house, but that did not put an end to his romance with Mrs. Leyland. When her husband found out, he wrote to the artist: “I am told you were seen walking about with my wife at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It is clear that I cannot expect from you the ordinary conduct of a gentleman. If I find you in her society again I will publicly horsewhip you.”

Thomas Jekyll, the interior designer whose original plans had been completely altered by Whistler, took one look at the Peacock Room and had a breakdown. He was later found in his home, feverishly gilding his bedroom floor and babbling about fruits and flowers and peacocks. He was committed to an asylum, where he died soon afterward.

Despite the enmity that had grown up between them, Leyland never had the Peacock Room re-done. It stayed exactly as Whistler had created it until Leyland’s death in 1896 at the age of 60.

In 1904, the American industrialist Charles Freer bought the entire Peacock Room and had it shipped to the United States, where he installed it in his own dining room in Detroit. When Freer died in 1919, the Peacock Room was permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The Peacock Room should be open to viewers again in the summer of 2017.




Sources and further reading:


The Aesthetic Movement,  by Lionel Lambourne



By James Abbott McNeill Whistler – This file was derived from James McNeill Whistler – La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine – Google Art Project.jpg:, Public Domain,

Peacock room: By Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery –, CC BY-SA 2.0,




A Trip to the Dentist – Victorian Style

Vintage scrap art from the Graphics Fairy

So I went to the dentist yesterday, and completely forgot about the blog post I’d planned to write!

However, in an effort to assume an attitude of gratitude toward dentistry, I decided to research what it would be like to go to the dentist in Victorian times.

Now I am very grateful.

The watchword for the Victorian era was “progress.” Modernization through science and automation allowed our Victorian forebears to live longer and better than their parents ever did. From the beginning of the 1800s to the middle of the 19th century, dentistry had progressed from the local blacksmith’s side business in un-anaesthetized tooth extraction using pliers to less painful procedures with better health outcomes for the patient.

Even though the practice of brushing one’s teeth had been known and practiced since ancient times (either by chewing on a fibrous stick or twig, or using toothpicks or  little metal scrapers to clean the teeth, or brushing with a boar-bristle toothbrush and a paste made with salt and bicarbonate of soda), toothaches still happened – and often the only remedy available was extraction. In fact, problems with teeth were so common that in some areas, some people opted to have all their teeth removed just to avoid further pain.

Ad from the British library collection

This led to a good business in dentures which were made of wood (not a good choice since saliva would eventually turn the wood to mush), porcelain, animal bone, ivory, hardened rubber and even gold. Often real human teeth were used in the dentures: “Waterloo teeth” scavenged from the corpses on the battlefield, teeth robbed from graves, or the teeth of poor people who raised desperately needed funds by allowing someone to plunder their mouths.

In 1856, the College of Dentists of England was formed, largely through the efforts of a young dentist in Croydon, England named Samuel Lee Rymer. Across the Atlantic, by the 1870s American dentistry was being brought into the modern age by a Civil War-era practitioner named G.V. Black. Mostly self-taught, Dr. Black invented over 100 hand instruments and even developed silver alloys for restoring teeth. His system for classifying different types of cavities and how they should be filled is still in use today.

Dental anesthesia had also progressed from a swig of whiskey before tooth-pulling to other methods. Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, was the first chemical used for pain relief, but Horace Wells, the American dentist who pioneered the practice, was not able to reliably provide the correct mix of gas and air.

Other solutions, including chloroform (also unreliable and sometimes leading to death), and liquid cocaine injected into the jaw (less dangerous but the needles were huge), were also tried.

Foot-powered dental drill

As dentistry improved, practitioners were able to use drills to remove cavities – but the drills were operated by a foot-pedal, like sewing machines. This was better than extracting the whole tooth.

However, as one Victorian era writer noted, to avoid cavities one should eat whole-meal bread instead of refined white bread, and avoid sugary treats. Good advice even today!

Aren’t you glad that you didn’t live during the Victorian era? I am – at least in terms of dentistry!








Images: Foot powered dental drill : By Royalbroil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Article Sources:


Entertaining house guests, Victorian-style

Before the Internet—even before television and radio—beamed professional entertainment directly into our homes, what did people do for fun?

Our Victorian ancestors, especially those of the middle and upper classes, had plenty of leisure time to fill. One way to enjoy oneself was to invite friends over to stay for a while—three days was the standard visit. But once you had your circle of intimates gathered at your country home, what were you to do with them?

Welcoming your guests

The proper time for arrival was mid-afternoon, around teatime. Guests often arrived by train, so a good host would arrange for the guests to be met at the train station. Servants would convey the trunks, suitcases and other baggage to the house, and a carriage would be waiting to bring the guests themselves to the house.

Once at the house, the guest rooms would be all ready with everything they might need—toiletries, needles and pins, brushes, writing paper and pens, and entertaining reading materials.


Reading aloud – tableau with WS Gilbert, Maud Tree, “the Playwright”, and Beerbohm Tree

A good host and hostess would have put some thought into providing entertainment for the guests. Outdoors, there might be opportunities for hunting, or horseback riding, or hiking. In good weather, croquet matches might be held on the lawn. Indoors, options included reading, working jigsaw puzzles, and other quiet activities.

Also, groups of guests might like to indulge in conversation or dancing. Someone could read aloud, or if a guest was good at singing or playing an instrument, they might give a recital. The most active guests could dress up in costume and present a “tableau vivant.”

Tableau vivants

From the French phrase meaning “living picture,” a tableau vivant was when a person or group of people recreated a scene from a famous painting, a moment from a book or a play, or even an idea.

Using costumes, props, and backdrops, the participants would pose in the proper attitudes of the original scene. A curtain would be drawn back revealing the models, who stayed silent and frozen for about thirty seconds. Sometimes a poem or music accompanied the scene, and there might even be a large wooden frame placed around the scene, giving it the appearance of a painted canvas inside a picture frame.

With the advent of photography, the scenes could then be photographed and preserved. Julia Margaret Cameron created a number of fantasy images featuring friends and family dressed in medieval or legendary costumes. No doubt this was big fun for the Victorians, since many of them seemed to enjoy fancy-dress (costumes).

Arthur Sullivan belonged to a group of friends who called themselves the Moray Minstrels and met at Moray Lodge, the home of Arthur James Lewis.  Just for fun, they would hold musical evenings on a monthly basis – they put on the very first performance of Sullivan’s “Cox and Box,” on which he collaborated with writer F.C. Burnand.

Here is a photograph of the costume-wearing Moray Minstrels, plus sisters Kate and Ellen Terry – both were actresses; Kate was married to Arthur James Lewis.  Arthur Sullivan is seated on the far left; the woman seated closest to him is Ellen Terry, the other woman in the picture is Kate Terry, and seated on the floor in front is cartoonist George Du Maurier.

Moray Minstrels, from “Gilbert & Sullivan and their Victorian World” by Christopher Hibbert


Sullivan and the Crowned Heads of Europe

sullivan-young-manI love the old Victorian phrase, “the crowned heads of Europe” as a description of the members of the various royal families. It reminds me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz, where the wizard’s little wooden trailer is decorated on the side with the following legend:


Dorothy, of course, can’t help but read this boast, and since she wants to get away from Kansas, she pleads:


DOROTHY: Oh, please, Professor, why can’t we go with you and see all the Crowned Heads of Europe?

PROFESSOR: Do you know any?  Oh, you mean the thing – Yes, well, I – I never do anything without consulting my crystal first.


Arthur Sullivan did know a fair few crowned heads of Europe. One was Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s second son. The two men had music in common. Alfred studied violin at Holyrood, Edinburgh, and sometimes Arthur Sullivan played as his accompanist.

prince_alfred_1865In the Summer of 1881, Arthur Sullivan was invited by the Duke of Edinburgh to join him on the HMS Hercules for the Reserve Fleet’s annual maneuvers in the Baltic Sea.

Sullivan wrote to his mother, “I have a lovely cabin in the Admiral’s quarters at the stern of the ship, and am very luxuriously lodged altogether. … The officers seem pleasant fellows, the ship is splendid, the sea like glass & the weather heavenly, and I have nothing to do.”

Nothing to do but enjoy himself in the finest company, it seemed.

When the ship arrived in Copenhagen, Sullivan was among the dinner guests of King Christian IX and his queen. Then they stopped in St. Petersburg and stayed in a villa near Czar Alexander’ III’s villa. When the fleet departed, the czar and czarina saw them off, with guns firing royal salutes as they sailed away.

To me, the most remarkable encounter of the trip was when they docked at Kiel and were met by Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, the eldest son of Queen Victoria’s daughter Victoria, who would eventually grow up to become Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, during World War I.

wilhelm_ii_of_germanyHowever, that war was many decades in the future when the 22-year-old Prince Wilhelm greeted Sullivan by singing, “He Polished Up the Handle of the Big Front Door,” from HMS Pinafore.

“I burst out laughing,” Sullivan reported, “and so did everyone. It was too funny.”

It’s interesting to think that despite the rigid class structure of the Victorian era, some individuals whose lives began in very humble circumstances were able to climb to the very pinnacle of society.

So I have to wonder what Sullivan was thinking as he watched a Prince sing for him.

Fourteen years earlier, snobbish Mrs. Scott Russell forbade her daughter Rachel from marrying Sullivan, because she thought the poor musician and composer wouldn’t rise very high on the social scale.

If Mrs. Scott Russell could have seen him then!




By Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Winterhalter and the courts of Europe, Public Domain,

By Uploaded from en:Image:KaiserBill2.JPG, contributed by en:User:Infrogmation, 19:47, 4 Nov 2002., Public Domain,


W.S. Gilbert’s Political Snarkiness

"Iolanthe" American music cover from

“Iolanthe” American music cover from

W.S. Gilbert lampooned Victorian politics in Iolanthe, a topsy-turvy tale in which a troupe of fairies take over Parliament after their Fairy Queen is insulted by the Lord Chancellor. He mistook her for the Headmistress of a Ladies’ Seminary, and in revenge the fairies use their powers to pass all the laws the House of Peers can’t stand to see on the books.

All the political “hot potato” issues of the day are blithely passed into law — from Marriage to Deceased Wife’s Sister to making a Dukedom attainable by Competitive Examination, the fairies ruthlessly suppress all objections from the peers. How can the legislators rescue themselves and the nation from this quandary?

The premise gave Gilbert the chance to satirize Victorian notions of status, privilege, the two-party system, and the laws and lawmakers of the day (I’m feeling very political these days, so it pleases me to share with you the master’s snarkiness, even if it doesn’t apply directly to our own government).

In Iolanthe, the Peers of the House of Lords enter singing,

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!

Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses,

Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses,

Tantantara! Tzing, boom!


Later on, the Chorus of Peers try to woo the beautiful Arcadian shepherdess Phyllis by singing,

High rank involves no shame —

We boast an equal claim

With him of humble name

To be respected!


One of the most famous politically-minded songs from the opera is Private Willis’ song, in which the lonely guard offers his philosophical musings on politics, including the idea that every child is born “a little liberal or a little conservative.” (As a side note, I was thrilled when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted that lyric in a recent interview. Awesome!)

Private Willis also adds, if I’m reading the lyrics right, that it’s probably a good thing that politicians have to vote as their parties tell ‘em to, because it would be too frightening if they all started thinking for themselves. Read the song’s lyrics and decide for yourself:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!


When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!


Isaac Asimov, in his The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, called the bombastic “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” one of Gilbert’s most patriotic songs, but I think the lyrics sound ironic.

Asimov added this fun little story: “In 1909, some of the Liberals campaigning against the House of Lords’ power of veto after its rejection of Lloyd George’s radical budget of that year asked Gilbert for permission to quote this verse:

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!


Isaac Asimov continues: “He [Gilbert] replied rather pepperily: “I cannot permit the verses of Iolanthe to be used for electioneering purposes. They do not at all express my own view. They are supposed to be the views of the wrong-headed donkey who sings them.”

Asimov also reported that “with or without the help of Iolanthe however, the Liberal reformers achieved their aims and in 1911 the Parliament Act was passed, curtailing the House of Lords’ power to veto legislation already passed by the Commons. Since them noble statemen have largely withheld their legislative hand and contented themselves with moving amendments to Bills sent up from the Lower House.”

Here is the complete text of the song:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!



Yes Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!


When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!



Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!


And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!



As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!


And so the political pendulum swings back and forth. Satirists throughout the years have found plenty to mock in a nation’s leaders, but W.S. Gilbert managed to poke fun at the House of Lords and still have them laughing at themselves.

As Gilbert wrote in Yeomen of the Guard, “he who’d make his fellow … creatures wise/ should always gild the philosophic pill.”

"Bab" drawing of a king in the stocks, frm

“Bab” drawing of a king in the stocks, frm

Shopping — Victorian Style

Women of the Victorian era enjoyed shopping as much as women do today. By the middle of the 19th century, shopping had evolved into a way for middle-class Victorian women to get out and explore the city without male companions.

The first prototype of the shopping mall might be said to have been the Great Exhibition of 1851, which displayed consumer goods from around the globe.

A Victorian woman in the 1860s on a shopping expedition in London would probably head toward the West End, where the shops catered to fashionable upper-middle-class ladies. She might also go to Regent Street, which was designed as a promenade and shopping area with small stores selling luxury goods.

While Victorians placed a great deal of importance on items that were handed down from generation to generation (a symbol of historical wealth and family connections), they also enjoyed the latest in luxuries. Consider the recitative sung by Josephine, the young heroine of H.M.S. Pinafore, as she thinks about the comforts and elegancies of her father Captain Corcoran’s home – things she would have to give up if she were to marry the handsome but penniless sailor Ralph Rackstraw:

On the one hand, Papa’s luxurious home,
Hung with ancestral armour and old brasses,
Carved oak and tapestry from distant Rome,
Rare “blue and white,” Venetian finger-glasses,
Rich oriental rugs, luxurious sofa pillows,
And everything that isn’t old, from Gillow’s.

So here you have the inherited, “ancestral” items – which are still important indicators of status. In far more recent times, a British MP dismissed another politician as the kind of person “who bought his own furniture”— perhaps an indication that it was better to furnish a house with antiques that had long been in the family, than to have new stuff.

Also described by Josephine are the imported treasures like oriental rugs, tapestries from Rome, and Venetian finger-glasses (we would call them finger-bowls, filled with warm water and placed so that each diner at a fancy meal could rinse their fingertips after eating finger food).

The Six-Mark Tea-pot. Aesthetic Bridegroom. "It is quite consummate, is it not?" Intense Bride. "It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!"

The Six-Mark Tea-pot. Aesthetic Bridegroom. “It is quite consummate, is it not?” Intense Bride. “It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!”

The rare “blue and white” she mentions refers to the collections of Chinese porcelain so beloved by aesthetes of the Victorian age, including Oscar Wilde.

Not only that, but everything that isn’t old comes from Gillow’s – furniture makers renowned for creating high quality items.   (Gillows furniture is referred to by Jane Austen, Thackeray and the first Lord Lytton, which shows that our comic opera heroine Josephine has very good taste.)

But how could a woman get to the shops? Well, she could walk, take a carriage, or ride in an omnibus or even a train.

Not only were Victorian women more visible walking down the streets to get to the shops, but they also could be seen making use of various modes of public transportation. In an attempt to control and limit women in public areas, etiquette manuals strictly prescribed the way a “well-bred” woman was to act when outside the confines of her home.

According to “Daily Life of Victorian Women” by Lydia Murdoch, Victorian etiquette manuals stated that “one can almost invariably distinguish the well-bred girl at the first glance, whether she is walking, shopping, in an omnibus, descending from a carriage or cab, or sauntering up and down in the Park.” The key was their restrained behavior – their “self-effacement.”

Victorian women usually traveled in pairs or groups, but sometimes traveled by themselves. A comprehensive network of trains allowed women to travel throughout the cities, although for decades a debate raged over whether it was safe or proper for a woman to travel alone by rail. Some even argued that the speed of a train caused damage to the female organs.


Shopping for fabric in the Victorian era

Within a city, a woman might choose a horse-drawn vehicle to get to her destination. Privately owned and maintained carriages could only be afforded by the wealthy. Hiring a four-wheeler was expensive, but might be suitable for a group of ladies traveling together with luggage. However, by the middle of the century the lighter, two-wheeled “safety cab” or hansom, was a good option for those who could afford the fare.

Luckily, by the 1840s, the horse-drawn omnibus became a good and inexpensive way to get around the city – provided, of course, that a woman could manage to squeeze her hoops and crinolines into the vehicle!

For more on shopping and department stores, take a look at the BBC’s article here.

Later on, in the Edwardian era, Selfridge’s would dazzle the buying public, as depicted in the BBC series Mr. Selfridge.

Black History Month: Black Victorians

In honor of Black History month, I’d like to share with you a few notes about Black Victorians – people of color who lived and prospered in England (and in America too) during the 19th century.

Despite the prejudice and discrimination that people of color endured in Victorian England, there were a number of notable and distinguished black men and women in Britain.

220px-Mary_Seacole_DrawingMary Seacole (1805-1881) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican mother who taught her nursing. In 1854 she traveled to England and asked the War Office to send her to Crimea to nurse the wounded soldiers during the war. When they refused, she paid for her own trip there and established the British Hotel to provide a place to nurse sick officers. She also nursed the wounded on the battlefield, sometimes under fire.

“Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s chapter on Mrs. Seacole’s book about her experience, Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands, describes her curious progress from West Indian healer to anti-Nightingale on the battlefield. Paravisini-Gebert argues that Seacole “assumes her place in a British society–and history–from which she is initially rejected, by finding in the Crimea a substitute for ‘England,’ a war zone where the expected barriers to someone of her class, race, and colonial origins can be temporarily lifted.”  (from Being Black in Victorian England)


Samuel_Coleridge-TaylorSamuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), was a composer known as the “African Mahler.” His father, Daniel Taylor, was from Sierra Leone. His mother, the London-born Alice Hare, named him in honor of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He grew up in Croydon and studied violin and composition at the Royal College of Music. He later taught music as a professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music, conducted orchestras and composed music.  He was mentored by Edward Elgar and influential music critic August Jaeger, who thought Taylor was a genius.

His most famous work was “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” which premiered in 1898. He was determined to do for traditional African music what Brahms did for Hungarian music and Antonin Dvorak did for Bohemian music.

Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia at age 37, leaving behind his wife Jessie, son Hiawatha, and daughter Gwendolyn (who later took the name Avril and became a conductor-composer in her own right).


Ira_AldridgebyNorthcoteActor Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807 –1867) was born in New York City, but made his career mostly on stage in London and Europe.

After acting in African theater companies in New York, in 1825 he made his London stage debut as Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave’s Revenge, which was based on Aphra Behn’s play Oroonoko. He was also known for playing Othello, and in later years was praised for his performance as King Lear. Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.




220px-Sake_Dean_MahomedSake Dean Mohamed (1759-1851) or Sheikh Din Muhammad grew up in India. His father was of the barber caste, and Dean Mohamed learned a great deal about the soaps and shampoo used by the Mughals. He served in the English Bengal Army as a surgeon.

In 1786, age 25, he traveled to Ireland where he wrote and published his book, entitled ‘The Travels of Dean Mahomet’. He became the first Indian to write a book in English. He opened the first Indian take-away restaurant in London, the Hindustani Coffee House, in 1810. Customers could smoke a hookah and try all sorts of curries. Then, in 1814 Dean and his wife moved to Brighton and opened the first commercial bath-house, featuring “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (type of Turkish bath), a cure to many diseases.” The bath-house was very popular, and both King George IV and William IV were among his customers.


Pablo_FanquePablo Fanque (1796-1871) was born poor as William Darby in Norwich. He began his career as an equestrian stunt-rider and a rope-walker at Astley’s Amphitheatre and from there rose to become the proprietor of Victorian Britain’s most successful circus.  He was the first non-white circus owner in Britain.

He was celebrated for his skill in manège, the art of training horses to perform certain routines. Thirty years after his 1871 death, the chaplain of the Showman’s Guild said: “In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line, for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test – ability.”

He was featured in the lyrics of The Beatles song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.


sarah forbes bonetta 2Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) was orphaned at the age of eight in a brutal massacre in her home country in West Africa. She was kidnapped and given to King Ghezo of Dahomey to be used as a human sacrifice, but was rescued from captivity by a Captain Forbes who told King Ghezo that the girl should be a gift to Queen Victoria.  Sarah’s original name was “Aina” but the Captain named her Sarah, plus Forbes after him and Bonetta after his ship. Impressed by the girl’s intelligence, Queen Victoria made Sarah her goddaughter. She paid for Sarah’s education, and took a great interest in her.

Sarah married Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Yoruba businessman and philanthropist. They moved back to Africa and raised three children there.





Was Arthur Sullivan black?

sullivan-young-manOne thing I learned in my research was that being “black” during the Victorian Era wasn’t quite the same thing as it may be today –  according to Being Black in Victorian England  many people were called black, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they had African ancestors (they could have been from India or any number of other countries) nor did it mean that the individuals so identified viewed themselves as part of the same community.

So was Sir Arthur Sullivan black?  He was described in a news article as a “little dark brown man” and images of the time show that he had dark curly hair and dark eyes. But in my researches I can’t find any evidence that Sullivan had African ancestors. The only reference I’ve discovered is one unfounded comment on the subject, but I’m not sure that qualifies as reliable.

This much seems certain and verifiable: Sir Arthur Sullivan, one of Victorian Britain’s preeminent composers and musicians, was the son of music teacher Thomas Sullivan and his wife Mary Clementina Coghlan.  Arthur’s father Thomas was born in Cork, the son of an Irish soldier also named Thomas Sullivan.

Arthur’s mother, Clementina, was partly Italian: her grandfather Joseph Righi (later Anglicized to Righy) had come to England from Nice, which was then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. So it seems likely to me that he inherited his dark hair and eye color from her.

The one mention I’ve found appears in Robert Edward Francillon’s book,  Mid-Victorian Memories:

Among the more intimate of their fellow-students at Leipzig, and the most frequent guests at their mother’s hospitable supper-table there — a highly popular institution among a cosmopolitan flock of young people mostly with appetites too big for their pockets— was the future Sir Arthur Sullivan, as notable then for easy charm of manner, and adaptability to all sorts and conditions of persons and circumstances, as when he became no less welcome a guest at royal tables. It may interest some who only saw him in after years to learn that he was golden-curled in his student days, and this in spite of the strong strain of African blood that became increasingly perceptible with increasing age. He was, in fact, an Octoroon, and was accordingly subjected to inconveniences and annoyances during his visit to the United States which permanently embittered him against Americans and American ways. I never saw much of him, for when my then future wife came home after some years in Italy he had already soared into social planes far above ours.

sullivan-colorI’m not sure how a person who wasn’t all that close to Arthur Sullivan and never saw much of him beyond their student days would have known about Sullivan’s ancestry, and I haven’t found any mention of it elsewhere. If there is more evidence, I’d like to know!


Other resources on Black Victorians:









Victorian Valentines

Valentine image with caption

Valentine image with caption

Across the centuries, humans have loved to celebrate love. From the ancient Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, to the Renaissance vision of courtly love, to Ophelia’s sad mention of Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, February 14 and Valentines have been symbols of romantic love.

In Britain around the 1820s, specially-made papers for sending Valentine’s Day greetings began to be marketed. They became so popular that they were soon being made in factories. Often flat paper sheets printed with colored illustrations and embossed borders, they were designed to be folded up and sealed with wax for mailing.

Elaborate lace quarto: Double-layered, openwork, cameo-embossed lace by the English firm of Joseph Meek, circa 1850. Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

Elaborate lace quarto: Double-layered, openwork, cameo-embossed lace by the English firm of Joseph Meek, circa 1850. Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

A very fancy Valentine could be made with real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the 1830s. Books and pamphlets containing sentimental verses and appropriate messages could be purchased by those wanting help in creating their card.

In 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards were mailed in Britain, despite postage being expensive.

After the introduction of the Penny Post in Britain in 1840, when adhesive stamps costing only a penny made mailing letters easy and inexpensive, sending Valentine’s Day cards became even more popular. And as the century progressed and mail deliveries around London became more frequent, a card sent in London in the early morning might easily be delivered to another London address the same day.

The stationery manufacturers Marcus Ward and Company helped to popularize printed Valentine cards. Specializing in stationery and general publishing, the firm won a medal for their color lithography in the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the 1860s, the firm was well-known for its calendars and greeting cards decorated by the likes of Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane.

Valentine by Kate Greenaway: England, circa 1870. Design from an illustration for the book, Melcomb Manor, a Family Chronicle. Printed by Marcus Ward, London,1875. from Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

Valentine by Kate Greenaway: England, circa 1870. Design from an illustration for the book, Melcomb Manor, a Family Chronicle. Printed by Marcus Ward, London,1875. from Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury



The Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University gathers 450 Valentine’s Day cards dating from the early nineteenth century, printed by the major publishers of the day.

Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury contains a wealth of information about the history of valentines and information about the National Valentine Collectors Association.

Here is a lovely collection of Victorian Valentines assembled by The Guardian.

And who wouldn’t relish receiving a Victorian Valentine with a picture of Cupid on roller skates?

For those who like their Valentines snarky, check out these “vinegar Valentines. ”



Young Arthur Sullivan at the Crystal Palace

sullivan-young-manIn the fall of 1866, young Arthur Sullivan (he was just 24) got one of his first big breaks: The chance to show off his orchestra-conducting skills as the guest conductor in place of Herr August Manns at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham on September 17, 1866.

Sullivan excitedly wrote, “I am to conduct the Ballad Concert on behalf of Manns—it may lead to greater things.”

The Crystal Palace began its existence as The Great Exhibition of 1851, featuring a wide variety of exhibits of art, crafts, manufacturing, and novelty items from around the globe.

Presided over by Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition was originally built in Hyde Park where it was open for 6 months. It was such a success there that a new, permanent building was built in London’s Sydenham area, south of the Thames. The permanent building opened in 1854.

The Crystal Palace was a breathtaking combination of museum, trade show, and entertainment venue, complete with refreshment courts and – a special innovation in those days – public toilets.

An old-time printer marvels at the wonders of the Crystal Palace in this educational YouTube video.

It was the Place to Be from its opening in 1854 until the 1890s, when it began to fall into decline. The impressive iron-and-glass structure burned to the ground in 1936.

There were Egyptian, Roman, Renaissance, Greek and Pompeiian art exhibits. Giant dinosaur sculptures, displays of tropical fruit, handicrafts, and steam engines all could be found within the immense glass walls. Special events included a circus – the famous tightrope walker Blondin did a high-wire act inside the Crystal Palace that included him cooking an omelet 180 feet in the air above the crowd – the Shakespeare Tercentenary Festival, Christmas pantomimes, and weekly concerts at the 4,000-seat concert hall equipped with a complete concert orchestra and a 4,500-pipe Great Organ.

Here is a terrific collection of drawings, colored images and paintings of the exhibits (9 mins):

Beginning in 1855, Herr Manns took over the musical program at the Crystal Palace and stayed there until 1901. He expanded the orchestra from a small wind ensemble with an additional four string players into a full 34-person concert orchestra.

Manns was a mentor and friend to Sullivan for decades. He was the first to introduce Sullivan’s concert music to the English public, when he conducted Sullivan’s Tempest music – Sullivan’s first major work, consisting of incidental music designed to be played during Shakespeare’s The Tempest – in 1862.

The BBC radio show “In Our Time” has a 41-minute radio program on the Crystal Palace





Christmas, Victorian-style

During the Victorian era, Christmas became centered around the family. Celebrating the holiday became a matter of bringing together the whole family to share in the feasting, gift giving, entertainments and parlor games.

victorian-xmas-royalsThis is thanks in large part to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Illustrated London News in 1848 showed a picture of the royal couple and their young family (the couple had had six children by then: Victoria, Albert Edward, Alice, Alfred, Helena and Louise) celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, and soon Britons adopted the Germanic tradition of having a tree lit by candles and adorned with home-made decorations including tiny baskets of goodies, fruits, and small wrapped gifts.

Another British tradition that began in the Victorian era was the “Christmas cracker,” a small package filled with treats that made a cracking or snapping sound when opened. The Christmas cracker was created in 1848 by British confectioner Tom Smith after a visit to Paris, where he noticed Parisian confiseries selling sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper. Nowadays, Christmas crackers usually contain a colored paper hat shaped like a crown, a small toy, a plastic figure or other trinket and a joke or other saying on a small piece of paper. The paper crowns are usually worn while eating Christmas dinner.

The Victorians also gave us the tradition of eating roast turkey at Christmas dinner. Other meats, including roast beef and goose, were common main dishes at the holidays, but upper-class Victorian families began featuring turkey as the centerpiece of their festive meal. The roast turkey soon caught on among the middle classes as well, because its larger size made it a good choice for a large family celebration.

santa-1Gift-giving became more elaborate as the Victorian era progressed. Originally gifts were modest and hand-made, sometimes small enough to be hung on the tree itself, but as the decades passed they became bigger and found a new place under the tree, rather than on it. Handmade gifts were still considered preferable to store-bought, but perhaps a savvy gift-giver could find something handmade for sale! As the leisure of middle- and upper-class women increased, many became more involved in crafts and hobbies, producing large quantities of hand-crafted items that they could either use, give as gifts, or even sell at charity events like Christmas Bazaars sponsored by their churches or other groups.

Christmas carols – and visits from “the waits” or carolers – were also a tradition during Christmastime. A number of carols that we love and sing today originated in the Victorian era, such as

1843 – O Come All Ye Faithful

1848 – Once in Royal David’s City 

1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow

1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem

1883 – Away in a Manger 

onlyadancinggirlComposer Arthur S. Sullivan also contributed a few tunes to the Christmas mix. He wrote four carols: “I Sing the Birth” (1868), “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (1871), “Upon the Snow-clad Earth” (1876), and “Hark! What Mean those Holy Voices,” written in 1883.

Our heroine, Lucy Turner, will soon meet Arthur Sullivan as she embarks upon her mystery-solving career. But in 1866, they have barely met — and William S. Gilbert doesn’t meet his musical partner until 1873.

The cold, cold winter of 1866 will see lots of changes in the lives of these three, so I hope you will stay tuned! Until then, have a very happy holiday!