Tuesday, 29 March 2011

THE CASE OF THE COTTINGLEY FAIRES...

Under the Dock Leaves - An Autumnal Evening's Dream by Richard Doyle. 1878. 
This painting is held in the British Museum


Having read The Unseen, Katherine Webb's second novel, there was one scene so vivid and magical that the VV was instantly put in mind of this picture by Richard Doyle - in which fluttering white fairies might well be moths as they hover beneath the dock leaves.

With this painting's creator also having been the uncle of Arthur Conan Doyle, it seems fitting that Katherine has written this guest post in which she discusses a famous event that intrigued the creator of Sherlock Holmes who - surprisingly for some - was a firm believer in fairy folk...


THE CASE OF THE COTTINGLEY FAIRIES 
By Katherine Webb



In 1917, Elsie Wright (above) and Frances Griffiths, two schoolgirls living in Cottingley, West Yorkshire, took a series of photographs of what they claimed were fairies. These famous pictures have always fascinated me – when I was younger because I liked to think that the fairies were real, and as I grew up because the hoax (or alleged hoax!) had lasted as long as it did, and managed to convince several prominent and well-respected figures of the age, including leading theosophist Edward Gardner and, most famously of all, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

So why were these rational, intelligent men so prepared to accept that the pictures were genuine? To sceptical, modern eyes, the photos look very staged indeed. Rather than appearing to be wild, elemental creatures, the fairies have neat, fashionable hair styles and slip dresses; they appear two dimensional, perfect, and doll-like. Photography experts at the time confirmed that the pictures had not been taken as double exposures, and that nothing had been painted or printed onto the negatives after exposure. One even testified that the fairies in the dancing picture (below) seemed to have moved during the exposure – proof positive that they were real, and had been dancing when photographed. Or perhaps, that a light and flimsy paper figure had shifted slightly in a breeze…


The answer to why the photos convinced these men becomes evident when you read the letters that passed between Edward Gardner and Conan Doyle, the articles about the case which Conan Doyle wrote for Strand Magazine, and his later book ‘The Coming of the Fairies’. They believed because they so desperately wanted to believe. For Gardner and Conan Doyle, fairies were part of a hierarchy of nature spirits and ethereal beings, in turn a part of the ‘universal soul’ that lies at the centre of theosophy. Only the truly enlightened, or the naturally clairvoyant, would be able to see these pure beings. As such, their existence proved the tenants of theosophy, or the ‘Divine Truth’, to be true.

But sightings of fairies didn’t always fit the theosophical model so neatly, and in ‘The Coming of the Fairies’, Conan Doyle clearly wrestles with the details of some reported cases. One Mrs Hardy, living in New Zealand, described seeing fairies riding around her garden on little fairy horses. This was not the only account of fairy horses that Conan Doyle had come across, but he admitted that such descriptions made things “more complicated and harder to understand.” If they had miniature horses, then, as Conan Doyle writes, “why not dogs?” At this point, the fairies stopped being the essence of nature made visible in bodies less dense than air, and became the ‘little people’ of childhood stories. So perhaps what made the Cottingley fairies so attractive, from a theosophical stand point, was that they had been seen by virginal young girls, often thought to possess a natural clairvoyance; that they were seen in an area of unspoilt natural beauty; and that they showed no complicated behaviour or equipment that interfered with the idea that they were indeed manifestations of pure natural energy.

The number of ghost and fairy sightings, and the popularity of theosophy and spiritualism from the late Victorian era right the way through the Edwardian, shows that people at the time were very keen to believe in an ‘other world’ of some kind – either the world of the spirits of the dead, with which a medium could communicate; or on a grander scale, in a whole pantheon of spirits of various types and powers. Perhaps, as some writers believe, these beliefs came to fill a void that was left behind at a time when new discoveries were encroaching on religious faith. Darwin’s theory of evolution was gaining ground, and undermining the traditional Christian explanation of the origins of mankind. Science, medicine and rationalism had left some people with serious doubts about the church’s teachings, and yet the world was still full of wonders – from electricity to anaesthesia – that remained beyond most people’s understanding. Spiritualism stepped into this gap. In short, people still wanted to believe in something – in some supernatural driving force; and if that was no longer God, then they would look for alternatives.


It was this desire to believe that was my starting point as I began to shape the plot of my novel, The Unseen. I started to wonder why different people might believe, and what their various reactions to the possibility of fairies living at the bottom of the garden might be; and also why somebody might be prepared to assemble a hoax to help convince the sceptics. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths admitted in later life that their photos had been hoaxed, taken with the help of paper cut outs. The high-profile attention they received made it impossible for them to confess at the time.  But to her dying day Frances insisted that there had been fairies at Cottingley, and that the final picture they took, of the fairy bower (above), was genuine. Using a fake to prove that something is real…a fascinating idea that I carried into my book!




Katherine Webb was born in 1977 and grew up in Hampshire. She read History at Durham University, since when she has spent time in London and Venice. She has worked as a waitress, and an au pair, a personal assistant, a book binder, a library assistant, a seller of fairy costumes, and also a housekeeper. Katherine now writes full time. 

Sunday, 20 March 2011

FROM JEWEL BEETLES TO FAIRY WINGS...



The glorious dress constructed of thousands of irridescent beetle wings that was worn by Ellen Terry and then immortalised in the art in John Singer Sargent might very well have been designed as the garb to adorn a fairy queen - for who might not fly with those draping green sleeves, like the folded wings of angels.

The Victorian age was one in which an obsession with elementals, or fairy folk, provided the inspiration for many well-regarded artists, who in turn drew on characters from the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser to populate their imaginary scenes. 

Below are just a few of those fairy-inspired paintings -



Ferdinand lured by Ariel, by Millais - inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest.



 
A Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream, painted by Sir Joseph Noel Paton



Fairies looking through a Gothic Arch by John Anster Fitzgerald



One of the earliest and most stunning works - the impressionistic Queen Mab's Cave by Turner




From Turner's magical illusion to the almost photographic realism that instructed the Pre-Raphaelites and their admirers: Under the Dock Leaves by Richard Doyle - who happened to be the uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who, as well as writing the Sherlock Holmes novels, developed a great interest in fairies.


 

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A GLORIOUS GOWN OF BEETLE WINGS...




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 wings shed from Jewel beetles – the shedding being a natural process of the insects’ life cycle.




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 Terry wearing it when alighting one day from a cab, 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 sixteen and he 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 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, following five years and hundreds of hours of repair work carried out by Zenzie Tinker of Brighton and funded by the National Trust. The fabric’s structure was strengthened and many of the original wings were 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, alongside items from Ellen Terry’s dressing room and many other exhibits relating to her theatrical career, at Smallhythe Place in Kent, the home in which Ellen Terry died in 1928.

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



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




Sunday, 13 March 2011

THE GREAT EARTHQUAKE OF JAPAN IN 1891...


On October 28, 1891, at 6 o'clock in the morning, a terrible earthquake struck Japan. Measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale it caused damage over an area of 4200 square miles, with tremors experienced from Tokyo to Osaka and killing in excess of 7,000 people. The outcome was captured in photographs - one of which can be seen above - and the story was subsequently published in 1892 in a book entitled, The Great Earthquake of Japan: 1891 by John Milne and W. K. Burton, with plates by K Ogawa.


This week another quake occurred of even greater proportions, the terrible scenes of which have not waited a year to be seen by the world but have played out as live before our eyes on many television screens. As such the VV hopes that our own response to this tragic event will be just as swift - and that many will think to contribute to the charities who will be involved in helping the victims of Japan.

The Disasters Emergency Committee is currently raising funds to help, and the British Red Cross has also launched a specific appeal.

 Please be wary of any unauthorised charity appeals.


Thursday, 10 March 2011

PTERIDOMANIA: THE VICTORIAN FERN CRAZE ...



The Great Exhibition of 1851 may have produced the iconic 'Crystal Palace' but all over the country glass houses were becoming increasingly popular – whether the opulent orangeries built onto prestigious houses, or simply in the form of the 'Wardian Case' – an ornamental miniature glass house that adorned many fashionable homes. And what would the fashionable Victorian display in such a box? Well, there really would be little delay in purchasing a collection of ferns and joining the craze of ‘Pteridomania’ - which the VV has been reading about in Sarah Whittingham's fascinating book, The Victorian Fern Craze


The name of Pteridomania was coined by Charles Kingsley, who wrote: ‘Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’ and are collecting and buying ferns…and wrangling over inpronouncable names of species, (which seem to be different with every new fern that they buy), till the Pteridomania seems to you something of a bore.’



One imagines that Mr Kingsley was speaking from personal experience, and may well have been bored by obsessions with ferns when he penned those words in 1855. But ‘Pteridomania’ or Fern Mania remained quite a craze for decades to come, during which time it spread throughout the British Isles, The Empire and even America – and was popular not only with women, but also men and children, and of every social class.



Until the nineteenth century ferns had been rare in England, imported back home by botanists who travelled to places such as Jamaica or Australia. But those tender ferns were never successfully mass reproduced in the more hostile British climate until the amateur naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward devised a method of raising the plants in ‘closely glazed cases.’ This development of Wardian Cases, along with the 1840 publication of A History of British Ferns by Edward Newman were what led to the genesis of the craze – after which such books were in constant demand, along with those specialist periodicals which encouraged collectors to join fern societies and visit botanical gardens, or to spend their leisure time in the merry pursuit of ‘fern hunting’, a pastime considered as healthy, educational and moral – and which also gave the opportunity of fraternising with the opposite sex in the idyll of the countryside. 


Ferns and flirting? Surely not!
'Gathering Ferns' by H Paterson, printed in the Illustrated London News on July1 1871.

Of course, there were those such as Charles Kingsley who turned up their noses at such sport, and others were determined to end it all, accusing ‘thoughtless trippers’ of filling their baskets with ferns, only to let them die at home. However, far more serious crimes were committed by the fern vendors or touts who plundered the countryside of plants and then sold them on the city streets, or even door to door.


More respectable outlets were the nurseries which specialised in fern cultivation, producing lavishly illustrated catalogues. And, with more knowledge and expertise at hand some amateur gardeners became quite ambitious, planting outdoor gardens with the hardier specimens, or creating more ‘natural’, romantic grottos out of rock and stone.



Brighton Aquarium was a great lure with its conservatory and fernery, with towering cliffs of Pulhamite rockwork, and cascading waterfalls and pools. It was described by the Art Journal as, ‘one of the most impressive, most effective, and most refreshing sights to be seen anywhere’, and when the fashionable Cremorne Gardens re-opened to the public in 1860 one of its main attractions was the picturesque fernery. Musical and dramatic productions were also incorporating ferns and when in 1869 alterations were made to the London Prince of Wales theatre there was –

‘an opening by the footlights allowing the sound of the music to be as distinctly heard as heretofore…The space formally occupied by the band is now converted into a grotto and fernery, intended, with fountains and jets of water, to cool the atmosphere between the acts, and by an ingenious looking glass arrangement to exhibit an interminably multiplied reflection of tiny crystal rills, which will leap and sparkle in the light through a multitude of leafy labyrinths constructed out of tangles masses of choice ferns most artistically disposed.’

What a sight that must have been - though the orchestra players may not have agreed, going home bleary eyed and little damp and no doubt then to meet with yet more ferns - for the plants influenced the decor of many a private home, being used in architectural design, in carpets and papers and textiles, umbrella stands, china and glass ware, fire surrounds – even grave stones – not to mention the design of greetings cards to send to fellow fern admirers. 

Why not take a look around your own home or when you're walking out and about, and see how many examples of Victorian fern design you see? 

Friday, 4 March 2011

THE SOMNAMBULIST LISTED FOR THE PEOPLE'S BOOK PRIZE...

Essie Fox (aka the VV) at the Trade Launch for her novel, The Somnambulist, which was held at Wilton's Music Hall

Yesterday, the VV was delighted to discover that her soon to be published novel has been short-listed for the People's Book Prize. To read an extract from the book, or to vote for The Somnambulist, please see this link from Essie Fox's News Page - THE SOMNAMBULIST NEWS. The VV would be very grateful for any support.
  

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

HEE SING AT THE GREAT EXHIBITION...



The opening of the Great Exhibition by Henry Courtney Selous 1851-2


The Victorians often commissioned paintings of major historical events which were then produced as commemorative prints and sold in enormous numbers. One such example is the painting shown above which illustrates the grand opening of the Great Exhibition on May 1st 1851, to which 25,000 guests were invited.

Hee Sing



What the VV really likes about this depiction of an event steeped in pomp and ceremony is the ‘other story’ it contains – the story about just one of those guests – one who was not invited at all, and yet is shown in the painting as dressed in ceremonial Chinese robes.


Hee Sing follows the Queen


His name, so it later transpired, was Hee Sing and his presence that day was not questioned at all, even though China had not been invited and had therefore sent no official delegation to attend the opening ceremony. But, so the story goes, this noble-looking gentleman had simply ‘happened’ upon the occasion having recently arrived in London upon a Chinese junk - a ship which was moored on the River Thames and could be visited by anyone who also had a shilling to spare. And there, when he came to hear the news about the Great Exhibition, Hee Sing wished to go and take a look and decked himself up in finest clothes - which led many other dignitaries to assume him a man of importance. 


Hee Sing mingles with the guests


Lyon Playfair, a Scottish scientist and Liberal politician wrote –‘a Chinaman dressed in magnificent robes, suddenly emerged from the crowd and prostrated himself before the throne. Who he was nobody knew. He might possibly be the Emperor of China himself who had come secretly to the ceremony.’

Later Playfair observed Hee Sing standing between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Wellington and – ‘In this dignified position he marched through the building, to the delight and amazement of all beholders.’

That delight was also noted by the Illustrated London News when one of its reporters wrote –‘We must also remember the droll Chinese Mandarin amongst the Foreign Ambassadors and Ministers, who swayed along from side to side, those before and those behind him leaving a pretty full berth for his comical progress.’

However comical he looked, the VV would say that Hee Sing surely had the last laugh, not only visiting The Great Exhibition but revered as one of the great and the good; what you might call gate-crashing in style.