Wednesday, 12 August 2015


Alphonse Mucha July 24 1860 - July 24 1939

Born in the Czech Republic, the name of Alphonse Mucha was later to become forever linked with the artistic style of Art Nouveau. The mass appeal of his illustrative work was often used for advertisements and commercial designs for which he was always in great demand. Even today his images appear to be fresh and modern. Back in the 1970’s when I first became aware of what is known as 'Mucha Style' (when many of his romantic designs were placed as posters on my walls) I imagined the work was contemporary.

Precious Stones and Flowers

In fact, Mucha’s artistic flair dated back to before he could even walk, when he was obsessed with drawing, when his mother tied a pencil around his neck to be there whenever he needed it. Even so, his first attempt to join the world of art and design was to fail, being refused an entry to the Prague Academy of Fine Art. However, by the age of 19 he found work as an apprentice, painting theatrical scenery in Vienna - until the theatre company closed down after a serious fire. 

In 1881, at 21, Mucha found himself travelling in search of work and was commissioned by Count Khuen Belasi to decorate his Moravian castle, mainly with murals of himself and other family members. The count was then so pleased and impressed that he sponsored the talented young man to go on and study more seriously at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.

Another lucky break was to come at the age of 27 while Mucha was living in France, where the count had agreed to sponsor him for three more years of Parisan study. It was there, when the three years were up and Mucha was desperately looking for work that he visited a print shop one day and, with every other illustrator they used being unable to help out, was asked if he could quickly produce a lithograph poster for Gismonda: a play featuring Sarah Bernhardt.

From the Zodia series

The posters were so popular that people stole them from public boards. Sarah Bernhardt was so pleased with the work that she then contracted Mucha to produce her posters for the next 5 years - during which time his work also featured at the 1900 Universal Exhibition of Paris. Meanwhile, he continued to produce an enormous amount of commercial work - most of which featured subtle and muted tones, with neo-classical looking young women, often with halos around their heads and with and intricate floral border work.

Byzantine Heads: Brunette

The work continued to flood in, with Style Mucha always in demand for more theatre posters, decorative panels, magazine covers, menus, postcards, calendars, jewellery and tableware; even fabrics for the home. He was also frequently asked to teach at the Academie Colarossi, and then the Academie Carmen.

Despite his huge commercial success which eventually led him to New York, Mucha always insisted that his art was primarily a gift he had to communicate a spiritual message. This led to a growing dissatisfaction with the constant demands of professional life.

Mucha at work on his Slav Epic

Returning to his Bohemia homeland, he preferred to use his talents to promote pride in nationalism - creating monumental friezes to show the history of the Slavic race, and also many murals for official and political residences. He also designed national postage stamps, banknotes and government documents.

Detail from The Slavs In Their Original Homeland

It was perhaps not a great surprise when Mucha was arrested on charges of inciting national fervour when German troops entered Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939. During interrogation by the Gestapo he became very ill with pneumonia and died shortly after his release. He is buried in the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague.

If you would like to see some of Mucha’s work at first-hand there is currently an exhibition in the UK, in Bournemouth, at the beautiful Russell-Cotes Gallery.

For more comprehensive information on the artist, his work and life visit The Mucha Foundation

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


Lydia Estes Pinkham - February 9, 1819 ~ May 17, 1883

Born in Massachusetts as the tenth of twelve other children belonging to a Quaker couple, Lydia Estes, as she was then known, had a relatively comfortable and well-cared for childhood. When she was sixteen she followed her parents political lead and joined the Female Anti Slavery Society, before at the age of twenty-four, settling down to married life. 

Isaac Pinkham was a widower who worked as a shoe manufacturer, though he went on to try other businesses - and rarely with very much success. Meanwhile, Lydia often made a brew using various natural herbs for general everyday maladies, and especially to alleviate certain specific 'female' complaints such as menstruation pains or the side affects of the menopause. 

For this brew she added to an alcohol base crushed plants such as Life Root, Fenugreek, Unicorn Root, and Black Cohosh - the latter being frequently used by native American Indians, and all being accepted to this day as valuable remedies to alleviate inflammation, or as diuretics, or to ease pelvic congestion and muscle spasms. 

At first, Lydia was happy to give this brew as gifts to family and friends - with glowing testimonials - until her husband's fortunes failed and, in 1875, she started to manufacture it in very much larger quantities, selling it for a dollar a bottle to try and bring some much needed money into the family coffers, and resulting in newspaper advertisements such as the one below -

Thus, Lydia E Pinkham's Vegetable Compound became one of the best known patent medicines that was used in the nineteenth century, going on to gross $300,000 a year at the greatest height of its success. Not only this, but a bi-product was for Lydia to then become a sort of agony aunt when many women customers wrote to her with problems - which Lydia mostly answered - although it was quite a scandal when her answers continued to arrive long after the woman herself was dead: when a picture of her tombstone was publicised to expose the deception. 

Even so, whether Lydia herself, or her daughter in law - Jennie Pinkham - ran the Department of Advice, the fact is that information was sent on a great many personal issues that were then barely ever spoken about. Pamphlets were also printed up presenting all female facts of life through puberty, childbirth and to menopause. As such, Lydia Pinkham was quite a trailblazer when it came to women's health issues, family planning, and general family advice.

The family-owned business finally sold out to Cooper Laboratories in 1968. Even to this very day some of the Pinkham remedies are available to buy in American drug stores. And perhaps it was publicity about that sale in '68 that led a group in Liverpool who called themselves The Scaffold to release a single that became a great hit in the pop charts at number one, and which went by the name of Lily the Pink: The Saviour of the Human Race - being a modern version of a much older song about Lydia's medicinal brew. 

The VV remembers it very well, and may well have a sing-a-long right now ...

Saturday, 9 May 2015


Punch Kills Judy 
From Gutenberg ebooks - author and illustrator unknown.

As another UK Election ends, during which political parties have all indulged in varying degrees of wit and repartee, the VV is reminded of a different Punch and Judy show: the popular fairground attraction which dates back to the sixteenth century and the Italian ‘commedia dell’arte’ - from which Pucinella, the Lord of Misrule, was later anglicised as Punch.

During the nineteenth century Punch and Judy shows were very popular, adapted for the entertainment of children rather than adults. At the seaside, in towns, and at country fairs, even in private houses, there was often a Mr Punch to be found. Set in a colourful mobile tent, the puppet was seen to be bobbing about, squawking in his distinctive, cackling voice (created by the use of a ‘swazzle’ or ‘squeaker’ through which the puppeteer’s voice was distorted).

A cast iron doorstop based on the image of Punch

Visually, Punch was instantly recognisable. A hunch-backed jester with enormous hooked nose and jutting chin, he wielded an oversized battering stick and created a state of anarchy as he murdered his baby for crying, before also beating his wife, Judy, to death. The dictator continued to mete out abuse on whoever happened to cross his path. Even the strict code of Victorian morality was thrown to the wind in the face of the tyrant who consistently avoided justice - either by tricking the hangman to place the noose around his own neck, or evading death with the devil himself. However, Victorian ‘Punchmen’ or ‘Professors’ sometimes removed the devil character, expanding the original story and cast by introducing the ghost of Punch's wife, and also black servant called Beadle. There might be a clown and policeman, a crocodile, and a string of sausages. There might even be Toby the dog, sometimes a living animal, trained to sit upon the stage, either biting or shaking hands with Punch, and sometimes even smoking a pipe.

From Gutenberg ebooks - author and illustrator unknown

For the politically correct, the visually grotesque Punch and Judy shows were often viewed as a bad influence; a means of inciting aggressive behaviour; creating the same sort of moral dilemma as today’s use of violent computer games. In his own contribution to the debate Charles Dickens was to write:
In my opinion the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.
Today, if you happen to witness a Punch and Judy show, remember that you are experiencing a flavour of Victorian life, for the dramatic presentation has altered very little since - and for many years before as well with the very first Punch and Judy show presented on an English stage on this  day in 1662.

‘That’s the way to do it.’

Punch and the baby - from Gutenberg ebooks

For further information, or to book a show, you might like to view the official site of the modern day Punch and Judy college of Professors.

Friday, 1 May 2015


Today, when we can send and receive a text message or email in seconds, it's hard to imagine the impact on social communication that was brought about by the manufacture of one little black penny stamp, which, when affixed to an envelope ensured a postal delivery to any part of British Isles.

Before 1840 any mail services were costly – except for subscriptions to newspapers which were then delivered free of charge. But as far as letters went, postal charges were calculated by the number of sheets that were written on, and then the distance travelled to reach their destinations - at which point the recipient would pay.

This is why many historical letters were written with vertical and horizontal lines which crossed each other on the page.

As early as 1822, James Chalmers, a bookseller and printer from Dundee, suggested the introduction of pre-paid postage stamps, along with a standard letter size. But not until 1837 did Robert Wallace (MP for Greenock) propose the use of an envelope onto which a stamp could be attached - before which the papers would simply be folded and sealed with ribbons, strings, or wax.

Parliament passed the Penny Postage Bill in the August of 1839, advocating the basic postal rate to be priced at one penny, with the Twopence Blue produced for the delivery of larger items. 

Roland Hill of the Treasury announced a competition for envelope and stamp designs, but when no submissions were considered as being suitable to use he chose an envelope designed by William Mulready (which proved to be not at all popular) and a stamp illustration of the Queen's profile based on an engraving by the artist Henry Corbould. 

Mulready's envelope design

Printed by Perkins, Bacon and Petch (the original press is shown above), the stamps featured the word POSTAGE at the top, and ONE PENNY at the bottom. At the top right and left were star like designs. At the base were two letters that indicated the position of the stamp when printed in a sheet of 240 others. And, until 1854, when sheets were perforated, the postmaster or mistress would have to cut each individual stamp they sold by using a pair of scissors.

Penny Black printing die

The first Penny Blacks were available on May 1, 1840, but they were only valid to use from the official launch date of May 6. The design is now iconic, but it was only produced for one year because the red cancellation ink was hard to see and too easily removed, meaning that the stamps could be reused. This led to the Treasury’s decision to reverse the colours, printing new postage stamps in red with the cancellation frank in black.

With 68,808,000 Penny Blacks having been produced in that one year alone and many still surviving, they are not that rare a commodity. But, for the VV their true value lies in the fact that so many stamps were bought, and so many Victorians took up what has now become a dwindling art – that of letter writing.

Thursday, 30 April 2015


Douard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, John Singer Sargent, 1881

As it is with the world of fashion, the popularity of certain styles of art will art wax and wane along with the times. Sometimes, appreciation comes only after the artist's death, as in the case of Vincent Van Gogh.

By comparison, John Singer Sargent’s art was wildly popular while he lived. The son of American parents who travelled all over in Europe and never went home again, Sargent first trained as an artist in France where he painted the scandalous Madame X – after which he left Paris to settle in London, gaining admiration, wealth and success for his elegant society portraits. 

But after his death in 1925 the value of his work plummeted, being viewed as old fashioned and frivolous,  very much of a certain age and time. The influential critic, Roger Fry, even went so far as to say that Sargent's work was completely irrelevant to 20th century Modernism.

Perhaps he was thinking of the style of work shown in The Fountain below, which is somewhat indicative of the privileged nature of the rich in the so-called Edwardian summer, which was all too soon to merge into the horrific realities of war.

The Fountain, John Singer Sargent, 1907

So, by the 1960’s when Richard Ormond (Sargent’s sister’s grandson) began to collate and exhibit some of Sargent's artworks, his friends assumed that he was mad - until now when the National Portrait Gallery are hosting a major exhibition – after which the collection will move on to the Metropolitan in New York.

Portrait of R L Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, with the writer's wife sitting on the sofa to the right of the frame

Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery says that: “Extraordinary and rare loans are coming together for the first time to demonstrate Sargent’s talent in a new way.” In essence, this  exhibition will expose the looser intimacy to be found in the work concentrating on Sargent's family and friends, as well as fellow Americans abroad. There will be fascinating personal depictions of fellow artists, actors and writers – though R L Stevenson was said to have called one of his portraits ‘damn queer’, and the VV has no idea at all of what Ellen Terry might have made of the portrait in which she posed as if still playing the part of Lady Macbeth, when she wore her magnificent beetle gown.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by John Singer Sargent

The VV adores them both - such striking, powerful images. She was mesmerised by this exhibition which opened at The National Portrait Gallery on February 12, and which ends on 25 May 2015.

Hurry, hurry, hurry... and you'll be able to see such gorgeous vivid pictures as this, with faces that - at any moment - might turn to look you in the eye, or speak to you, or even sing. The portraits really are 'alive'.

Lily, Lily, Rose ~ 1885-6

Le Verre de Porto (A Dinner Table at Night) 1884

Carolus Duran ~ Sargent's tutor in Paris

Dr Prozzi - A Parisian and doctor and seducer of women
A somewhat satanic image!

Mrs George Batten Singing 1895

Golden Girl  ~ The Spanish dancer La Carmencita. 1890

You might also like to see the NPG's Timeline of Sargent's life.

And there is also this 'Connections Map' to show the circles of friends and artists with whom Sargent was well acquainted.

Thursday, 23 April 2015


Ellen Terry (Alice Ellen Terry) was a famous Victorian actress who was born into a theatrical family and first appeared upon the stage when she was only eight years old.

Renowned for her voice and striking looks, and blessed with her stunning red hair, Ellen went on to become Henry Irvin’s leading lady, greatly admired for her sensitive portrayals of Shakespearian heroines.

Today we would call her a ‘star’.  Reporters followed her every move and fans were eager for any news, especially the details of her love life. She caused quite a sensation in 1888 when she played the part of Lady Macbeth at the London Lyceum Theatre, wearing a  spectacular emerald green costume constructed from more than a thousand Jewel beetle wings.

The gown was later immortalised in a portrait by the artist, John Singer Sargent, which can still be viewed today at London's *Tate Britain galleryHaving witnessed Ellen wearing it when alighting one day from a cab one day, Oscar Wilde went on to write: ‘The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets. It must always be full of wonderful possibilities.’

Choosing by G F Watts

Ellen had quite an effect on men, whatever their sexual persuasion and she clearly enjoyed male company, wedding her first husband (the artist G F Watts) when she was only sixteen years old and he was over twice her age. And although the marriage was short-lived, Watts painted some beautiful portraits of his wife.  

She had an affair with the architect and designer Edward Godwin, with whom she had two children, after which she married the actor and journalist Charles Kelly. She conducted an infamous affair of letters with the writer George Bernard Shaw, and then married again at sixty, this time to man who was half her age.

Today, the shimmering glory of the Macbeth dress can be viewed again. Funded by the National Trust, Zenzie Tinker of Brighton has restored and strengthened the fabric’s structure with many of the original beetle wings then being carefully reattached. Those that had broken were repaired using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The remainder were donated by a generous antiques dealer.

The conserved garment is now on display at Smallhythe Place in Kent, the home in which Ellen Terry died in 1928.

Sadness - Ellen Terry aged 16, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron

*The Sargent portrait of Ellen Terry in the gown of beetle wings is currently on display at The National Portrait Gallery as part of a show devoted to the work of John Singer Sargent.

For other VV's posts related to John Singer Sargent's work, please see:

Friday, 17 April 2015


Victoria Woodhull 1838-1927

The VV has been musing on the life of Victoria Woodhull – who was (although few have heard of her now) the very first woman who made a bid to stand for the American presidency, as far back as 1872. 

Not that her attempt met with success. At that time women had no legal vote and, on the day of Grant’s re-election his female rival was safely imprisoned on charges of libel and pornography. But, what had preceded such ignominy?
Buck Claflin in old age

Victoria's was a sensational life. She was born in Ohio in 1838 and during her early years was part of the family's travelling medicine show. Always having a talent to draw a crowd, the little girl would preach and tell fortunes, even claiming the power to cure all ills while her father – the one-eyed Reuben ‘Buck’ Claflin – stood at the back of his wagon and sold bottles of his opium-based Life Elixir.
At the age of fourteen Victoria fell ill, driven to the point of exhaustion after being deliberately starved by Buck as a means of enhancing  her spiritual ‘visions’. She later claimed that her father sexually abused her when drunk, even trying to sell her as a whore. But then, during her convalescence, she was wooed by another shameless fraud - the apparently well-to-do doctor who was known as Canning Woodhull.
Canning, who was then twenty-eight, asked for Victoria’s hand in marriage, which offered the girl a means of escape from her father’s tyrannical grasping ways. But, once again she was misused. Her ‘Doc’ was no more than a worthless quack, an opium addict and womaniser. Unable to support his child bride, he was so drunk at the birth of their son that Victoria very nearly died, and blamed her husband evermore for the boy’s severe mental impairments.
When contemplating returning to Buck, Victoria came to realise that her place in the family ‘enterprise’ had been usurped by her sister, Tennessee. So, with husband and idiot son in tow she made her way to San Francisco, there hoping to realise a dream. 

As a small child, Victoria claimed to have had a vision in which the spirit of the Greek orator, Demosthenes, foretold of a glorious destiny in which she would grow up to lead the American people – a position that she was destined to hold in a city of water, and ships, and gold. 

San Francisco seemed to fit the bill, being the scene of the gold rush and also a sea port town. But dreams of success were soon to be crushed. While Canning spent every cent he owned in opium dens and on prostitutes Victoria was left with little choice but to support her family, working as a cigar girl in a bar, as an actress, and probably a whore.
Returning at last to Ohio, rather than joining Buck’s latest venture (running a dubious hospital from which he advertised himself as ‘America’s King of Cancers), along with her sister, Tennessee, Victoria worked as a spiritual healer – though many have come to suspect that the sisters also provided a somewhat more physical sustenance. 

Colonel James Harvey Blood 

While in such trade Victoria met Colonel James Harvey Blood; a glamorous civil war hero who shared her belief in ‘other realms’ and who also supported her ‘destiny’ as a future ruler of America.  Leaving his respectable life behind, as well as his wife and daughters, he joined Victoria and Tennessee when they set out to make their mark in New York – another city of gold and ships.

At first, times were very hard and the sisters' spiritualist business was bolstered by the selling of contraceptive devices to the prostitutes. Meanwhile, Blood was often absent, spending time with his brother’s newspaper business and learning the tricks of that trade – publishing pamphlets and magazines deemed to be a vital means of spreading the word of Victoria’s aims when she set her cap at the presidency.

Cornelius Vandervilt

Before that, the bad penny Buck Claflin turned up. Having heard that the widowed Cornelius Vanderbilt – then the richest man in America – was seeking the services of mediums, he contrived a means of introducing his daughters to the gentleman. Matters rapidly progressed. Victoria became Vanderbilt’s personal  medium with ’the ‘spirits’ offering financial tips which, in reality, were gleaned from gossiping bankers in brothels. Tennessee became Vanderbilt’s mistress – a natural progression of events after performing her ‘magnetic healing’ and curing the 'old goat's' niggling complaints.

A contemporary newspaper cartoon of Victoria and Tennie as Wall Street traders

Generously rewarded, the sisters caused a public sensation by going on to set themselves up as Wall Street’s very first female brokers - an enterprise that brought further wealth. With the aid of Colonel Blood, they then founded a spiritualist newspaper and Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly became their political voice – a voice that reached a great many ears, for the religion of Spiritualism was at that time one with a massive following, and it also offered a platform from which women could express their views. 
Victoria Woodhull addressing the House Judiciary Committee

Holding spectacular salons, Victoria was soon courted by the Women’s Movement who supported her bid for the presidency. She lectured to enormous crowds and under the popular banner of universal suffrage and equal rights, Victoria travelled to Washington where she was to petition the House at a Judiciary Committee in 1871.

But the plans began to fall apart. With Buck’s criminal antics raked up by the press along with stories of her dubious past, ‘The Woodhull’ was soon being demonised as no less than ‘Mrs Satan’. A crippling series of court cases followed which led to her being sued and imprisoned time and time again. Her outspoken thoughts regarding 'free love' caused even more offence when combined with an ill-advised liaison with the press man, Theodore Tilton.

Theodore Tilton

It was a complicated affair. Tilton's wife had been sexually involved with a popular married clergyman whose name was Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher in return had sworn to offer Victoria's campaign support before having second thoughts. Victoria then sought revenge by exposing Beecher's adultery, only to find herself immersed in the ‘Trial of the Century’.  Beecher was to emerge unscathed, but the Tiltons were socially disgraced, and Victoria had been portrayed as a promiscuous pornographer. Her life and ambitions were ruined – politically, personally and financially.

It was Vanderbilt who brought some salvation. When the old man died his heirs were keen to hush up the millionaire's immoral past. Victoria and Tennessee were given a generous settlement and with this they travelled to England, settling in London - another city of gold and ships in which they reinvented themselves. Leaving their lovers and scandals behind - along with all dreams of the presidency - they still attained some degree of success. 

Victoria and John Biddulph Martin - happy and 'respectable' at last

Tenessee married a viscount and was afterwards known as Lady Cook. Victoria married John Biddulph Martin, a bachelor merchant banker and a man of considerable personal wealth. When widowed she was heartbroken, withdrawing to the Martin's country estate. 

But she certainly didn't give up on life! She became a passionate motorist, and founded an agricultural college dedicated to training women. She also funded a village school, and a famous country club – at which Edward, the Prince of Wales was said to be a visitor.

The VV wonders how Victoria felt when, at the age of eighty, universal suffrage was finally won – when the 'modern' world had all but forgotten the woman who once caused a national sensation and was known as the wife of the devil. All but in exile when she died, she asked for no more than to be remembered with the following brief words:
‘You cannot understand a man’s work by what he has accomplished, but by what he has overcome in accomplishing it.’
In her own way, and by her own means, Victoria Woodhull achieved a great deal. She was one of those brave Victorians who lived in a time when a woman was seen as no more than a man's possession. She paved the way for equality – though who knows when her ultimate hope will come true, when a woman will stand in the White House as President of America.

The VV has hardly scratched the surface of Victoria Woodhull's amazing life. Should any readers wish to investigate further there is a wealth of information on the web. As far as books are concerned, Other Powers by Barabara Goldsmith is an excellent resource which gives a full and well-researched view of  relevant historical events at the time. Mary Gabriel's Notorious Victoria is another fine investigation. And, for younger historians, Kathleen Krull's A Woman for President is a good starting point which has the added bonus of being brought to vibrant life by Jane Dyer's watercolour illustrations.