30/10/2014

THE TRADITIONS OF HALLOWEEN...



For many of us today, Halloween is a commercial tradition made popular in America, where pumpkin-head lanterns in front of doors lure children to come and Trick-or-Treat while dressed as skeletons, witches, or ghosts – and sometimes even Dracula.

But the supernatural or ‘Undead’ do have historical relevance to the origins of Halloween. Once known as Samain or ‘Sow in’, this ancient Celtic festival signified the beginning of the New Year when the harvest had been gathered in and the dread dark winter lay ahead. On its eve, October 31st, the divisions between the living and dead were said to draw back like a curtain, allowing supernatural folk and the souls of the dead to re-enter the world. Bonfires and fancy dress parades might drive the risen dead away. If not, they were placated with food, left in bowls outside locked doors.

The advent of Christianity then appropriated those customs, with ‘All- Hallowmas’ or ‘All Saint’s Day’ revering saints and martyrs instead of ghouls. And yet, as so often when cultures merge, remnants of both traditions remained. The gifts of food became ‘soul cakes’ left out for the homeless and hungry, in return for which they prayed for the dead. (Would our Trick-or-Treaters agree to that?)

Many other old superstitions persisted. American Irish émigrés replaced the carving of turnip heads with pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns – Jack being the folklore rogue who offended both the Devil and God, thereafter excluded from Heaven and Hell and walking the earth till Judgment Day. 




Other Celtic customs were described in Rabbie Burns’ poem, Halloween – in which fairies dance on a moonlit night while youths go out to the countryside, singing songs, telling spooky tales and jokes, or partaking in fortune-telling games; such as eating apples while looking in mirrors and that way creating a magic spell to reveal the face of a future love.



Whether Queen Victoria ever peered into such a mirror, she certainly entered the spirit of things when joining the annual fire-lit procession that took place at Balmoral castle. However, back in England, the rise of the Protestant Church meant that Halloween rituals had fallen away – perhaps explaining Charles Dickens’ shock when he travelled to America and witnessed the general festivities there. But what really piqued his interest, rather than the parties and popular games (such a Pin the Tail on the Donkey, or Blind Man’s Buff, or Bobbing for Apples – when the winner would be the next to wed) was the morbid fascination with ghosts.




It is surely no coincidence that after returning to England he wrote A Christmas Carol, in which spirits and future predictions abound. Other established authors went on to peel back age-old layers of myth to reimagine ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ – the genre soon very popular in poetry, art and literature; with tales of children stolen by fairies, or mirrors exposing some ghastly event, or women who wailed by misty graves – and all rendered yet more sinister when read by flickering candlelight to provide an eerie atmosphere.




The Victorians reveled in frightening tales. More than that, they embraced the culture of death, many visiting spiritualist mediums, or commissioning spirit photographers; the living duped into the belief that crudely exposed double negatives had captured some vision of their dead: all those veiled apparitions that lingered in shadows, and no longer just at Halloween. The image above is somewhat tongue in cheek, although others were taken more seriously - and the night of October 31st still holds a particular allure. Whether linked to innocent children’s games, or the horror films we view on screens there is nothing quite like a Halloween thrill.



The text of this article was first published in The Independent newspaper.

19/10/2014

EMMA THURSBY'S ASTONISHING MYNAH BIRD ...



Emma Cecilia Thursby (1845-1931) was an American opera singer who began her musical career by playing the piano for Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Brethren Church services. However, her talents were to spread to more secular entertainments too, soon sharing a platform with luminaries such as the famed author, Mark Twain ... who read poems on stage while Emma sang. 

Emma often held popular salons and her musical act saw her travel to Europe – and also to meet with a Hindu monk whose teachings she started to follow. But, perhaps the most interesting thing about this woman’s history – for the VV, anyway – is the story of her beloved pet and travelling companion: a Mynah bird.




Even though the bird died in 1899 it remained in this world in a stuffed form, lovingly cherished when Emma died by the singer's sister, Ina. And it was Ina who was interviewed for this 1937 newspaper report in the Journal of the New York Bureau, which described the bird as -


"...kept on a perch festooned with moss beneath a glass bell in Miss Thursby’s parlour. Each morning her Japanese servant carefully dusts it off. When friends come to visit, Miss Thursby will talk for hours about its exploits. All her friends have heard all the stories many times, but they llike to hear her talk about the bird. Sometimes she lifts the glass bell and strokes the dead bird’s feathers.”


And what stories did she tell? Well perhaps she started off by relating how the bird had been given to her sister by Kaiser Wilhelm I; an enthusiastic admirer. He told how the bird had arrived at his court when brought there by the Chinese ambassador, who himself had found it in India.

So, a well travelled bird, but could that explain the fact that it spoke five languages and imitated perfectly a great many musical instruments, including the banjo? It was also a connesseur of wine – though port was the most favoured tipple – hopping about on the table top and dipping its beak into glasses at dinner.

Mynah – as the bird was simply known - was thought to be about sixteen years old when dying after falling ill at the end of an exhausting day spent at an annual pet show...after which, Miss Ina Thursby recalled -


“The last words he ever said were ‘au revoir.’ Dr Frank H. Miller, who was at one time a member of the staff of the Royal college in Berlin was called in to officiate at his autopsy. He said the bird’s brain was highly developed, containing a great deal of gray matter. We had a taxidemrmist mount him, and as a memorial my sister planted a weeping willow tree in Gramercy park...Mynah was valued at $10,000,” continued Miss Thursby as she toyed with two little rings on the stuffed bird’s left foot. “He grew world weary in his last years, and seemed bored with nearly everyboy but children and golden haired women. He was candid and not particularly polite to strangers. Once he mocked Miss Farrar while she was singing a difficult song and she became angry. She almost threw a book at him, and for a time they were not on good terms.

“He spoke Malay, Chinese, German, English and French. He played the piano with one foot. I am certain he was able to understand us, and we were able to carry on coherent conversations. For example, I once told someone he was born in India. He interrupted and said, ‘I’m an African.’ He repeated it in German. He called my sister ‘Mamma.’ We never caged him except when travelling. At home he had the run of the house. He went with us on many tours. During the day at home he would fly down to the park and play with the children, coming home for meals like a human.”

And the bird was not only loved by its owners. Mynah made a great impact on others too, as shown by this other news report from the Cambridge Chronicle, which is dated 1889.


“But I want to tell something of Miss Tbursby's wonderful Mynah bird, belonging to the starling family, as I heard it from her own lips. It is a very rare creature, and is said to be the only kind of bird that talks intelligently. It is a bird that has bad "advantages" of education and travel, having been pretty much around the world with its former master, who presented it to Miss Thursby. It speaks Chinese, French, German and English, rather forcible English, too, sometimes. Mynah, as his mistress calls him, answers questions that are put to him in a way that is positively uncanny, and he has a wierd, unearthly way of moaning "quacky, quacky," to himself. Upon one occasion this seemed strangely apropos, as Mynah struck up his refrain just as two physicians entered the room, one of them being the celebrated advocate of some new, though highly reputable method of treating certain forms of sickness. Fortunately both gentlemen had the grace and the sense of humor to appreciate the joke, no less than the others who heard it. One very remarkable thing about Mynah is his truly human laugh, which is never heard unless there is something to laugh at, which is more than can be said of some humans. When a joke is made in his presence, he is frequently the first to start the applause of laughter...and he joins with the greatest delight in all hilarity of his human friends. Mynah Is very fond of holding long conversations with himself, assuming first a masculine, then a feminine voice, asking and answering questions, scolding and defending himself against his own attacks. One of his chief amusements is singing with Miss Thursby, whom he always calls Mamma. First she sings a phrase, and he imitates it. But if "Mamma" continues too long without allowing Mynah his opportunity, he becomes deeply offended, ruffles his feathers, and utters a series a harsh squawks, drowning the sweet voice which be probably appreciates only as a means of amusement to himself. Not only does Mynah talk intelligently, but he appears to understand what is said to him, as for instance, when he calls: "Mamma, I want to get out!" he is quieted and satisfied upon being assured that he will be let out presently. Out of the city it is safe to let the bird roam where be will, so sure is he to return to his cage at night. As soon as a little child approaches his cage, Mynah begins a string of high pitched baby talk. He imitates wonderfully various Indian instruments, making a certain wiry twang in his throat like nothing else in the world. Not long ago two ladies recently returned from China, were calling upon Miss Thursby, when one of them was very much startled by hearing what she declared was a Chinaman chanting the dirge used in their ceremonial for the burial of the dead. And thus a light was shed upon a hitherto unaccountable practice of this most remarkable bird.”

A remarkable bird indeed! And, what's more, he really could play the piano - not simply imitate the sound. There are quite reputable reports of Emma asking Mynah to play - including one by Joseph Francis Rinn, an American magician and friend of Houdini who often attempted to debunk the fraudulent claims of spiritualists. But Rinn himself had to admit that the bird had remarkable unexplained gifts, as if he had a human soul. He held lucid conversations with Mynah - in more than one language too. He  saw Mynah hop onto a piano and perfectly pick his way over the keys to play the tune of  'Home Sweet Home.'


NB - The bird shown in this post is not the actual Mynah. Sadly, the VV has been unable to find any image of this remarkable creature.

17/10/2014

INSPIRED BY MILLAIS' SOMNAMBULIST...

The VV was very touched when the Pre-Raphaelite Society's Poet in Residence, Sarah Doyle, wrote to say that she had been inspired to write the following haunting poem after reading the novel The Somnambulist, in which this painting by Millais is central to the story's plot...


John Everett Millais ~ A Somnambulist - 1871



DREAMFALL


In gauzy white, a wraith-like being: 
eyes, though open, all unseeing. 
Where shadows swallow up the light, 
she wanders through the lonely night, 
she wanders through the night.


On naked soles, she treads a route 
of jeopardy. Irresolute,
imprisoned in a dream, engrossed – 
a walking, breathing, living ghost, 
a walking, living ghost.


Impassive face and tumbling hair,
her consciousness suppressed, elsewhere; 
suspended on the precipice,
one halting step from the abyss,
one step from the abyss.


The darkling moon withdraws its gaze. 
The candle’s flame, just now ablaze, 
snuffs out, and leaves her quite alone, 
the cliff-top air as cold as stone,
the air as cold as stone.


A statuette, she stands stock-still, 
compelled to heed another’s will.
A puppet pulled by unseen strings,
a grounded moth, deprived of wings, 
a moth deprived of wings.


One mistimed footstep from the ledge. 
A stumbling toehold to the edge
of nothingness, and all is spent,
one swift and perilous descent,
one perilous descent.


What soul has not endured such fear? 
Who doesn’t, on occasion, hear, 
entwining with their stifled screams, 
the whispered lure of vivid dreams, 
the whispered lure of dreams?


Who hasn’t known the twisted sheet, 
the writhing visions, incomplete;
the drowning terror, ragged breath, 
the chill embrace of sleeping death, 
the chill of sleeping death?


Oh, precious one, Somnambulist, 
enshrouded in your drowsy mist:
give up this path your numb feet tread. 
Turn back, turn back, return to bed. 
Turn back, return to bed.


And as for those who wander, lost;
whose dreams are fractured, tempest-tossed: 
resist the night-time’s distant call
and hope you wake before you fall,
you wake before you –


© Sarah Doyle, June 2014



Sarah Doyle is Poet in Residence for the Pre-Raphaelite Society. You can find more of Sarah's poems on the society's website, as well as excellent articles and news relating to the Pre-Raphaelites in general. You can also find the society on Twitter as @PreRaphSoc, and Sarah as @PoetSarahDoyle.



05/10/2014

RICHARD DADD: MADNESS, MURDER, AND FAIRY FOLK...


Richard Dadd – 1817 - 1886

The VV has long been fascinated by the work of Richard Dadd, a Victorian artist whose depictions of fairies – in whose existence he staunchly believed – were executed in the minutest detail.




The son of a Chatham pharmacist (and one of nine other children of whom at least three exhibited some form of mental instability), when the mild-mannered and cheerful Dadd entered the Royal Academy he was regarded as being one of his generation's most promising talents, going on to found ‘the Clique’ – a group of young artists of whom he was the undoubted and popular leader. 

Bacchanalian Scene 1862

But something happened to affect Dadd’s health when, in 1842, he left England and travelled abroad, employed as an expedition artist. He journeyed through Greece and Turkey, Syria, and Egypt - and it was on his arrival in Egypt, when immersed in the country's culture and landscape that Dadd came to believe himself possessed by the spirit of the god Osiris. 



Dadd's portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips

When brought back home to England, Dadd recuperated from his mental distress while staying with his family. But this period of convalescence only resulted in tragedy when Dadd suddenly murdered his father, convinced that he was the devil in disguise.

The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke (painted between 1855 and 1864) - thought to be Dadd's most accomplished work

Attempting to flee to the safety of France, Dadd was apprehended and then returned to England where a list of other intended victims was found upon his person. Also, several portraits that he'd made were discovered with violent streaks of red pigment slashed across their throats - inferring that he also planned to damage the subjects of the works. Considered to be a serious risk, Dadd was confined to Bethlem (the asylum also known as Bedlam) and there he remained until 1864 when he was moved to Broadmoor – a hospital for the criminally insane where the artist lived for many years until dying of consumption. 

During his years of confinement the talented artist was lucky enough to be under the care of kind and forward-thinking doctors who allowed their patient to continue producing his astonishing work.

Come unto these Yellow Sands

The VV's favourite painting by Dadd is  Come unto these Yellow Sands, inspired by Fairy Land iii, a poem by William Shakespeare - and this is also the title of a radio play by Angela Carter, in which she wrote about Dadd's life. The VV has only been able to source this very short extract from the play - but there is always the hope that Radio 4 might one day decide to repeat the play again. 

COME unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Court'sied when you have, and kiss'd,-
The wild waves whist,-
Foot it featly here and there:
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark,hark!
Bow, wow,
The watch-dogs bark:
Bow,wow.
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow!


If you wish to see paintings by Richard Dadd there are several on display at Tate Britain.

Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum by Nicholas Tromans is a book with a wealth of information and stunning reproductions of the artist's work. Tate Publishing in July 2011. 

There have also been exhibitions held at The Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham and the the gallery may still have information on any forthcoming events.

And this article by A S Byatt is well worth a read.