Thursday, May 5, 2016

"The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851"

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Isabella reporting,

When newsworthy events happen today, the rest of the world is instantly informed by television and social media. Images can become part of our shared consciousness almost as soon as they occur - sometimes even while they're occurring.

Things worked a bit more slowly 165 years ago. In the spring of 1851, the most important event in London was the opening of the International Exhibition of Arts and Manufacture - more customarily (and concisely) known as the Great Exhibition - in the enormous Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Initiated by Prince Albert, the Exhibition was an early "tech show," showcasing the best manufactured examples of imagination and ingenuity from around the world.The not-so-subtle message, however, was that the creations of Great Britain were hands-down the best in the world, and so the exhibition became as much a tribute to the British Empire as it was to international excellence. Even the Crystal Palace itself was an architectural triumph, a marvel of British engineering.

While over six million people visited the Exhibition between 1May and 11 October, 1851, there were still many more, unable to attend, who wished a glimpse at its wonders. Artists of the day were quick to capture the Crystal Palace and the various exhibits, and while they couldn't post the images on Instagram or Facebook, they swiftly did produce prints of their work that were sold around the world.

The painting shown above was made by Henry Courtenay Selous (1803-1890), and shows the opening day festivities. Of course the Royal Family (above left) is the centerpiece of the composition, but the Archbishop of Canterbury is also there, offering a benediction, as well as many of the dignitaries connected with the exhibition, right. (Except for Queen Victoria and her ladies, these are all male; other women appear to have been relegated to the viewing stands on either side of the ceremony, lower left, the curving brims of their bonnets framing their faces like scallop shells) In the foreground, the dignitaries are all carefully painted portraits, their presence documented.

For that, really, was the purpose of a commemorative painting like this: to preserve an important historical moment for posterity. The painting became an event in its own right, and was publicly exhibited for an admission fee in the year after the exhibition had closed. The large scale of the painting - it's over ten feet wide - meant that details could be studied and appreciated equally by those who had attended the opening and those who had not. In addition, prints were produced and sold commercially, making this one of the most popular and best-known images of the exhibition.

A reviewer in the Art Journal in August 1852 proclaimed: "[This painting] will form an interesting memorial of an event that for many years to come will lose little of its attractiveness in the estimation of thousands." It still does.

The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851, by Henry Courtney Selous, 1851-1852. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Fashions for May 1842

Tuesday, May 3, 2016
1842 Fashions
Loretta reports:

Let me just say at the outset that finding good images for the 1840s is a bear. While I’ve located a number of magazines online, color plates are not abundant, and the scan quality of many is less than ideal. And I do wish the women didn’t wear such simpering expressions.

The poor quality may be the fault of the paper used in the magazines. There was a shift from rag paper to paper paper at some point in the Victorian era, and rag doesn’t deteriorate as easily as paper. As to the simpering expressions, I can come up with a couple of explanations: (1) the artists weren’t good with faces or (2) this is the way the ideal woman was supposed to look: sweet and not too intelligent.

In any case, I think this plate will explain why I refer to the early-to-mid Victorian look as droopy. Remember those wild and crazy hairdos of the 1820s and 1830s? Gone.

Hair is now  slicked down on top, with the curls and braids and other artistic inventions relegated to the back of the neck. But that’s a sexy place, especially when the lady is wearing evening dress, with shoulders bared and bosom exposed in a way that seems not at all prudishly Victorian.
1842 Fashion Description

In any case, I think these dresses are very pretty. Notice that while the skirts are full, they haven’t yet yet attained the room-filling, knocking-over-tables-and-small-children width of the 1860s.

Images from The Magazine of the Beau Monde for May 1842

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

From the Archives: Men (and Women) Behaving Badly: May Poles

Sunday, May 1, 2016
Isabella reporting:

We've just begun the merry month of May Day and May poles. While most of us today think of May poles with school children clutching the ribbons, that sweetly pretty version is a Victorian invention. Earlier May poles were much less innocent, with pagan antecedents so distant that no one knows exactly when the first was, ahem, erected.

But there's no mistaking their symbolism: a phallic pole firmly planted in Mother Earth, part of the annual celebration of fertility, procreation, and returning spring. Most May Rites were in that spirit, too, with much drinking and bawdy carousing. Puritanical Christians were appalled, as this description from Anatomy of Abuses (1583) by conservative pamphleteer Philip Stubbs (c.1555-1610) attests:

"All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, grove, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them...their May pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: they have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this May pole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered allover with flowers and herbs, bound round with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with three hundred men, women, and children following with great devotion. And thus being reared up...they fall to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols....I have heard it credibly reported (viva voce)...that of forty, three-score, or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled. These be the fruits with which these cursed pastimes bring forth."

Could there be any coincidence that May with its May pole and night-long "gadding" is soon followed by June, the traditional month of weddings? 

Above: The May-pole Dance, c. 1620. While there are many written descriptions of 17th c. May poles, both in their favor and against them, this demure illustration is the only contemporary one that I could find. Perhaps all the artists were too busy running into the woods?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Breakfast Links: Week of April 25, 2016

Saturday, April 30, 2016
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• Ownership and imprints: famous hands and famous gloves.
• Even a genius has to sell himself: the remarkable resume of Leonardo daVinci.
• Wealthy boys from Eton who were accustomed to getting their own way: The Eton College Riot, 1818.
• "I don't know whether to kiss you or spank you": a half-century of fear of an unspanked woman.
Image: 17thc blocks for printing playing cards.
• The golden age of the classic high heel: Ferragamo, Vivier, and the stiletto.
• The extraordinary life of Marianne North, Victorian explorer, naturalist, and painter.
• A history of virility, and why it's different (and maybe better than) mere manliness.
• Blue men, the bean-nighe, and a brownie: more mythical creatures of Scotland.
Image: Postcard of American tourists in Europe, 1910.
• Why the colors you see in an art museum can't be replicated today.
• Why there's nothing vanilla about vanilla.
• An early 19thc church in Manhattan's Henry Street still retains its slave galleries.
• Painstaking portraits of 19thc dermatology patients.
Image: Central dome of the 1889 Paris World's Fair Gallery of Machines - the world's largest interior space at the time.
• Could the Broadway smash Hamilton keep a woman's face off the $10 bill?
• The secret history of the Civil War photo at the center of the black confederate myth.
• Egyptian blue, the oldest known artificial pigment.
• Only a year after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Mrs. Irwin wears an "earthquake costume" to a party.
• A tale of two 18thc patriots from Salem, MA.
• For an editor in 1800, the best way to document a brutal local murder was to publish an epic poem about the crime.
Image: Good luck using this 19thc tax calculator.
• Long (but interesting!) read: conversations and chimney-pieces: the role of the hearth in 18thc British portraiture.
• Watch 65 of Charlie Chaplin's films free online.
• Presidential inaugurations: national unity and partisan poking.
• Is Longfellow's famous poem about Paul Revere's ride really a call to 19thc abolitionists?
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection.

Friday, April 29, 2016

2NHG Signing Books in Burlington, MA

Friday, April 29, 2016
Loretta & Isabella report:

There we were, at last year's book signing.

We'll be there again.

Loretta & Isabella
aka Two Nerdy History Girls
will, once again, be signing their books
in Burlington MA.
Open to the public.

Details below—with thanks to Penny Watson of NEC/RWA for posting a lovely image for me to steal.

Hope to see you there!
 
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