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Tag: 19th century
“Everyone’s a winner, baby, that’s the truth.” (
Henrik Ibsen Hot Chocolate). Henrik Ibsen painted by Henrik Olrik, 1879.
From the book Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney, Paul Johnson on the shitty, unfair and callously underappreciated lives of the world’s most undeniably creative people, who bring pleasure, beauty and inspiration to thousands or millions of people… plus Henrik Ibsen’s splendid but bonkers riposte.
“What strikes me, surveying the history of creativity, is how little fertile and productive people often received in the way of honours, money, or anything else. Has there ever been a more accomplished painter than Vermeer – a painter closer to perfection in creating beautiful pictures? How Vermeer must have cared about what he was doing! And how hard and intensely he must have worked to do it! Yet when he died, his widow had to petition the local guild for charity…
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Discussions of economics and making a living from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854):
SELLING AND AVOIDING THE NECESSITY OF SELLING
“Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off—that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed—he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it…
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Although this anecdote is ridiculous, it comes from the late 16th century witch hunt period so it has a predictably brutal ending. John Fian was a young schoolmaster from Tranent, near Edinburgh. He was one of a number of unfortunate people tortured over accusations of witchcraft. Godwin writes that Fian was “tortured by means of a rope strongly twisted around his head, and by the boots.” The boots were actually cruder than they sound, usually just a kind of vice designed to crush the feet and lower legs. Even people who survived the torture were usually crippled.
“He told of a young girl, the sister of one of his scholars, with whom he had been deeply enamoured. He had proposed to the boy to bring him three hairs…
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Some interesting stuff from Lives of the Necromancers (1834) by William Godwin, the proto-anarchist and father of Mary “Frankenstein” Shelley, nee Godwin. Well, interesting if you’re into necromancers anyway. And who isn’t interested in necromancers? Nobody I want to hang out with, is the answer.
William Godwin also wrote a novel called St. Leon (1799), about a man who artificially attains immortality. Without taking anything away from Mary– she was undoubtedly the most talented of the famous four who played at writing stories near Lake Geneva in 1816, not to mention being only eighteen years old at the time– it’s obvious that her super cool father with his love of fringe science and radical politics was a big influence on her. Godwin’s wife and Mary’s mother was the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, though Mary senior sadly died of septicaemia shortly after giving birth and so never knew her daughter…
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Lafcadio Hearn, in his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), sums up nicely how I feel about the place over a century later:
“The largest steamer that crosses the Pacific could not contain what you wish to purchase. For, although you may not, perhaps, confess the fact to yourself, what you really want to buy is not the contents of a shop; you want the shop and the shopkeeper, and streets of shops with their draperies and their inhabitants, the whole city and the bay and the mountains begirdling it, and Fujiyama’s white witchery overhanging it in the speckless sky, all Japan, in very truth, with its magical trees and luminous atmosphere, with all its cities and towns and temples, and forty millions of the most lovable people in the universe… ‘And this,’ the reader may say,—’this is all that you went forth to see: a torii, some shells, a small…
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An 1890 cartoon by John Tenniel, in which the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street– the Bank of England, so called for the City of London street where it was and still is located– doles out free money to silly, naughty boys, AKA bankers. The more things change the more they stay the same, and all the other appropriate sayings…
Two nice details: firstly, the boys have been playing at cards (emphasising that they’re just gambling and can lose just as easily as they win, no particular skill involved) and secondly, the Old Lady’s costume is made of money bags and bank notes.
From Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan (1895), about a failed writer who makes a deal with the devil in fin de siècle London. It’s actually a terrible, repetitive and badly structured book. Nor has Corelli’s prose style aged well. She was very popular at the time, but like many popular writers then and now she hardly bothered writing anything but complete shit once she’d found her audience, with more concern for quantity than quality. She also wrote a (likewise popular at the time) book inspired by Jack the Ripper but the only thing she succeeds at in The Lodger is making the Whitechapel murders seem like a total bore as well. Her not very fictionalised, undigested chunks of rant about the publishing industry are enjoyable, though, perhaps precisely because she was so looked down upon as a writer and took the opportunity to vent her…
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Regular readers will know that I love old books on etiquette for their combination of timeless, rock-solid advice and things that have turned into baffling absurdities with the passage of decades or centuries. The passages quoted here are from The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness by Cecil B. Hartley, 1860. Its publication in Boston shows how, at the time and right through into the twentieth century, upper class English manners were held up as the ideal to which all others should aspire if they were to be thought of as cultured and civilised.
The “hideous Newgate frill” he writes of at one point (see below) is a beard grown only under the jaw line, with shaved chin, cheeks, and upper lip. It was and is indeed hideous. He’s also correct to say that “the moustache should be kept within limits.”
Another thing worthy of note is a…
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Firm advice for ladies who pride themselves on saucy chique, very stout persons, and gentlemen who so far forget what is elegant as to smoke in the street from George Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette, circa mid-to-late 1860s judging by the complaint about crinolines, which had gone out of fashion in favour of bustles by the 1870s.
Some of the advice is actually still completely relevant; Mr Routledge’s glove fixation, not so much. “Worsted or cotton gloves are unutterably vulgar,” apparently. You’ve been told.
It is always better to let your friends regret than desire your withdrawal…
If you are yourself the performer, bear in mind that in music, as in speech, “brevity is the soul of wit.” … If your audience desire more they will ask for more; and it is infinitely more flattering to be encored than to receive the thanks of your hearers, not so much…
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OR: PEOPLE WHO THROW STONES SHOULDN’T LIVE IN GOVERNMENT HOUSES
The Louvre is shortly to open a new facility in Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel and looking like some kind of Logan’s Run shit that nobody who knew anything about art would ever want to show art in, as is usual for 21st century art silos. Talk about sterile. An outpost of the Guggenheim is also in progress, which will probably be equally austere, inhumane, architect-cool and ghastly. Having realised that they probably need some art or something– even if most of the walls are wonky or fifty meters from floor level– the gold-plated Arabic Louvre flagship store just announced the loan of 300 art works from French institutions. So let’s explore beautiful Abu Dhabi as it uses up the Earth’s precious resources to water lawns in the desert, let’s check out some of the art works being…
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“You’re my wife now”
Some of the more unnerving examples from the book Masks: Masterpieces from the musée du quai Branly. (previous post here)
Ammassalimiut (Greenland) fur mask for a child, associated with Christian Epiphany celebrations. Because nothing says “Jesus” more than hideous slit mouths and inky black eyes, obviously. 1920s-1930s.
Japanese Noh masks
A few months ago I visited the very inspiring Musée du quai Branly in Paris. I recommend it to anybody who is interested in anthropology or ethnography. Or disconcerting masks and dolls, because they have tons of those. They’ve published a great book called Masks: Masterpieces from the musée du quai Branly. The text is by the splendidly named Yves Le Fur, with photos by Sandrine Expilly. I’m going to reproduce a few scans, but the book is worth a look if– as mentioned previously– you’re one of those creepy mask people like me. I’ll also be sharing some of my own photos from the collection. All the ones by me will be clearly marked, otherwise credit goes to Expilly.
This time I’m concentrating on Noh (能) masks from Japan. Noh is the extremely formalised theatre that originated…
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Clockwise from top left: “God in a bottle”, chimney sweep trade mannequin, soldier’s pincushion, boody (broken china) mosaic tray with doll, papier maché meat from a butcher shop, carved bone chicken.
Tate Britain’s British Folk Art exhibition (continues in London until 31 August 2014, then moves to Compton Verney in Warwickshire) is one of the most inspiring collections I’ve seen in this country recently. I dislike terms like “folk art” or “outsider art” because to me if they’re art then they’re just art, but I acknowledge that these terms can have their uses. This is a minor quibble anyway, in the context of a show that clearly celebrates and validates the umtrammeled creativity of ordinary people in an intelligent and unpatronising way that few of our large art institutions would even bother to try. Most of the objects come from the collections of often sorely underappreciated museums in places like…
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From Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds (1852), in a chapter called Popular Follies of Great Cities:
“And, first of all, walk where we will, we cannot help hearing from every side a phrase repeated with delight, and received with laughter, by men with hard hands and dirty faces, by saucy butcher-lads and errand-boys, by loose women, by hackney-coachmen, cabriolet-drivers, and idle fellows who loiter at the corners of streets. Not one utters this phrase without producing a laugh from all within hearing.
London is peculiarly fertile in this sort of phrases, which spring up suddenly, no one knows exactly in what spot, and pervade the whole population in a few hours. no one knows how. Many years ago the favourite phrase (for, though but a monosyllable, it was a phrase in itself)…
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“The Buddhist Tartars believe in a great number of living Buddhas, who officiate as Grand Lamas at the head of the most imporatant monasteries. When one of these Grand Lamas dies his disciples do not sorrow, for they know that he will soon reappear, being born in the form of an infant. Their only anxiety is to discover the place of his birth… wherever he is born, the trees and plants put forth green leaves; at his bidding flowers bloom and springs of water rise; and his presence diffuses heavenly blessings.”
“A register of all the incarnate gods in the Chinese empire is kept in the Li fan yüan of Colonial Office at Peking. The number of gods who have thus taken out a…
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This one was apparently passed on by a Jesuit priest in California who was taught it many decades previously by an old Shakespearean actor who gave private elocution lessons in San Francisco:
Amidst the mists and frosts the coldest,
With wrists the barest and heart the boldest,
He stuck his fists into posts the oldest,
And still insisted there were ghosts on Sixth Street.
The first three (below) were reported by people who’d auditioned, worked in radio or had therapy for speech impediments. The tongue twisters on the second list are old, but still known today or until the recent past. Peter Piper was already old in the 17th century, when it was first collected in a book. The third set are newer. I remember some of them from…
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Erotic Japanese prints at The British Museum
Last week I had the chance to visit the British Museum’s exhibition of shunga, which translates as the rather euphemistic “Spring paintings”: Japanese erotic prints and books from the medieval period up to the turn of the twentieth century. So it’s Spring as in sap rising, if you know what I mean.
Given the enduring popularity at this blog of James Joyce’s bum letters and the number of people who come here trying to find out (in English) what the octopus is saying in Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, I thought some of you
perverts scholars may be interested to hear a bit about the exhibition. It’s worth a visit if you can get to London and you’re into Japanese culture and/or smutty pictures; therein lies one of the unintentionally funny things about it. Yes, every single day at the…
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“Paris will become a winter garden; espaliered fruit trees on the boulevard. The Seine filtered and warm – an abundance of fake gemstones – a profusion of gilding – the houses lit up – the light will be stored, for there are bodies that have this property, such as sugar, the flesh of certain molluscs and Bologna phosphorus. The fronts of the houses will be made to be daubed with this phosphorescent substance, and their radiance will light the streets.”
Visions of a lovely biotech future Paris from Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished draft of Bouvard and Pécuchet, the novel he was working on when he died in 1880. I suspect he may have had more than one sip of the laudanum on the night he wrote this. If it was the 1980s instead of the 1880s I’d say Ecstasy. It has that kind of E’d up I LOVE YOU SO…
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The first lesson is that during the late 1880s Vincent was more or less ignored by everyone in the art world except his brother Theo, and there was absolutely no prospect of any exhibition for Vincent’s work. In spite of this, he set himself the firm and no-excuses goal of making fifty paintings “worthy of exhibition” anyway. In the process he painted some of the works that are regarded as among his best. If I had £1 for every time an artist or a student told me they didn’t have time to make any work, I could probably just live from the proceeds of people saying they don’t have time to be artists. If it’s important to you, MAKE TIME.
The second lesson relates to the damage commerce does to art and artists. It comes from a letter to Theo about the July 1889 sale of a painting by Millet…
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