Sepulchral Vagaries

06 21 captain backhouse tombToday is the anniversary of the death of Captain Thomas Backhouse who died on this day in 1800. In life, he was a soldier who served in Europe, India and the Philippines. But today’s post is not about his life. Today I am looking at unusual burials, and Captain Backhouse is my first example.

When Thomas Backhouse retired to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, he declared that he would “have nothing to do with the church or the churchyard”. Instead, he began to build himself a tomb. It was around eleven feet square, built of flint and bricks. The walls tapered to a pyramid and were finished at the top with a flat stone about three feet square. I assume that the tomb is now long gone, as this is the only picture of it that I could find. “Bury me there,” he said, “in my own wood on the hill, and my sword with me, and I’ll defy all the evil spirits in existence to injure me.” When the captain died, his body was placed in a coffin, along with his sword and stood on end in a niche in the wall. Presumably so the evil spirits didn’t catch him lying down. Then, the niche was bricked up. His body remained there, standing to attention, for seven years, until one of his sons returned from India and had his body removed to the churchyard.

This gave rise to a tale among the villagers that the old man’s body was guarding the property until his son came to take possession of it, and also that his ghost still haunted the mausoleum. There is a splendid tale about some boys who were out in the woods when they came upon the tomb. One said to another : “Jack, I’ll lay you a penny you dursn’t put your head into that window, and shout out, Old Backhouse.” The boy took the challenge. He thrust his head through the window and yelled “Old….” That was as far as he got. The boys outside heard the screams, they saw him kick and struggle, they saw that something had a hold of him and that he couldn’t get away. They all ran away, terrified.

This is what really happened. When Jack put his head in at the window, his first shout had roused an owl that had taken up residence there. The owl was also frightened, and it’s first instinct was to make for the only exit – the window. Jack, seeing it’s great pale face hurtling towards him, thought it really was the ghost of Old Backhouse. The window was of a Gothic design, pointed at the top. He had jerked up his head to get away and it had become lodged in the top of the window. So Jack was stuck in the window and the owl inside was flying round screeching and making occasional lunges at his face. Luckily, some men, working in a nearby field, heard the frightened yells of his friends and went to help him. They pulled him out. He was unconscious and had to be carried home. Luckily he made a full recovery, although for several days there was concern that: “his intellect was impaired”. Though he certainly never stuck his head in Backhouse’s tomb again, so maybe his intellect was improved if anything.

The other really weird burial I want to tell you about today is that of Reverend Langton Freeman of Whilton, Northamptonshire. He died on October 9th 1784 and, as this year long project of mine will be up in just over a month, I won’t be here to tell you about it then. So let’s look at him now. In fact, I can let him speak for himself about how he wanted his body disposed of. The following is an extract from his will:

“…first, for four or five days after my decease, and until my body grows offensive, I would not be removed out of the place or bed I shall die on. And then I would be carried or laid in the same bed, decently and privately, in the summer house now erected in the garden belonging to the dwelling house, where I now inhabit in Whilton aforesaid, and to be laid in the same bed there, with all the appurtenances thereto belonging; and to be wrapped in a strong, double winding sheet, and in all other respects to be interred as near as may be to the description we receive in Holy Scripture of our Saviour’s burial. The doors and windows to be locked up and bolted, and to be kept as near in the same manner and state they shall be in at the time of my decease. And I desire that the building, or summer house, shall be planted around with evergreen plants, and fenced off with iron or oak pales, and painted of a dark blue colour; and for the due performance of this, in manner aforesaid, and for keeping the building ever the same, with the evergreen plants and rails in proper and decent repair,”

All this seems to have gone ahead as he requested. I have this story, and the other from Robert Chambers ‘Book of Days’ which was published in 1864. He tells us that until relatively recently, the summerhouse was still surrounded by trees, but they had now been cut down. There was a hole in the roof and, two years before he was writing his book, some men had climbed in to have a look round. His body was still there and still intact.

I have stolen my title for today’s post from Robert Chambers. He has quite a lot to say on the subject. If you want to read about more unusual burials, you can visit Robert here. He will tell you about a farmer, named Trigg, who had his body encased in lead and set into one of the roof beams in his barn. Or Geoffrey de Manville, the 1st Earl of Essex, who could not be buried because he had been excommunicated. His body was taken by the Knights Templar. They put it in a lead coffin and hung it in a tree in their garden until they had received permission from the Pope to bury it. They buried it at a new church they had built themselves in the City of London. A cursory search of the internet tells me that he died in 1144, but the new church was not consecrated until 1185, so he was in that tree for a really long time. I don’t have a picture of the tree, but here is the church, which is still standing…

06 21 temple church

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Queen of Nowhere

06 06 queen christinaToday I want to tell you about Queen Christina of Sweden. She is something of a contradictory character. Not entirely good, but also a fascinating person. I didn’t want to celebrate her birth, because she caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. But celebrating her death isn’t really appropriate either, so today I am celebrating her abdication from the throne of Sweden on June 6th 1654.

Christina was born in 1626 and was made heir to the throne by her father, Gustav II. Her mother had already given birth to a stillborn daughter and a second daughter, also called Christina, who died when she was only a year old. When Christina number two was born there was, at first, some confusion over her sex and everyone thought she was a boy. This seems mainly to have been because her body was covered in hair and she cried with a “strong, hoarse voice”. When the king was informed of the mistake he replied: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”

Gustav was very fond of his daughter and had her raised with the sort of education normally reserved for boys. She studied languages and philosophy and learned about politics. When Christina was only six, her father was killed in a battle and her mother, who was already emotionally unstable, went completely over the edge. She refused to bury her husband’s body. She kept it in an open coffin and visited it regularly. The King remained unburied for over eighteen months. So Christina’s mother was, fairly swiftly, sidelined and she was raised by an aunt.

06 06 christina and descartesChristina was hugely interested in arts and sciences and, by 1649, had amassed an enormous collection of paintings, statues, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments. She was equally interested in opera and theatre and was a bit of an amateur actress herself. Christina wanted to make her capital, Stockholm, the “Athens of the North” and she invited many learned men to her court. Most notably, she asked René Descartes. Christina had a lot of stuff she felt she needed to learn about. Her days were long and she decided the only time she could possibly see Descartes was at five in the morning. The climate and possibly the early starts didn’t agree with poor Descartes and, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died there in 1650.

She was not officially crowned until later that year, but it wasn’t long before she was making plans to abdicate. Christina made it very clear that she had no plans to marry, ever. She admitted “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all things that females talked about and did.” Though this did not stop her having an extremely close relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she describes as her ‘bed-fellow’. For most of her reign though, she pursued a punishing regime of long days, a rather ascetic existence and very little sleep. It led to a sort of nervous breakdown in 1651 and she again asked to abdicate. In 1652, under the care of a French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, she was persuaded to stop studying so hard, get more sleep and enjoy life a bit more. He also introduced her to the sonnets of Pietro Aretino.

As she never planned to marry or have children, she made arrangement to have her cousin, Carl Gustav, made her heir. Christina had, for a long time been very interested in the Catholic idea of celibacy and with Catholicism in general, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. This may have been one of the reasons her abdication was finally accepted. Another could have been that she was just spending loads of money and had become a bit of a liability. There was an abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle in which she removed her regalia piece by piece. She made a speech and left in a simple white gown. But she had already packed up most of her treasures and sent them on ahead.

Days later, she left Sweden disguised as a man, to make travelling easier. She journeyed through Europe, spending and partying all the way and arrived in Rome in 1655. There, she was warmly greeted by the Pope, Alexander VII, and was accepted into the Catholic faith. Her presence was widely celebrated. Firework displays, jousts, fake duels, operas and all manner of celebrations were held in her honour. Take a look at this carousel (below), which was given for her in February 1656, it’s pretty splendid. She set up home in the Palazzo Faranese and opened an academy for the enjoyment of music, theatre and literature.

06 06 carousel for christina

Of course, as soon as the Swedish government found out about her religious conversion, they cut off all her financial support. Then, she became involved in a very close relationship with a cardinal called Decio Azzolino, who was rather liberal for a Catholic, and that didn’t go down so well. But they stayed firm friends for the rest of their lives.

Cut off from her revenue, she hatched a plan to become Queen of Naples. Spain and France had been fighting over Naples for years and she had the idea that, if she were made Queen, she would pass on the crown to the King of France. When she visited France, in an attempt to organise this, the French found her extremely uncouth. At the ballet, she applauded too loudly and sat with her legs over the arm of the seat. Nevertheless, she was treated with respect by the King and his mother. It was at this time that she visited and recommended the release of Ninon de l’Enclos, who I mentioned back in November.

However, things went terribly awry when she accused her master of the horse of revealing her plans and had him executed. She had to leave France and was not particularly welcome in Rome either. Then, in 1660, her cousin. Carl Gustav died and she thought she might go back and be Queen of Sweden again, But, being a Catholic, they wouldn’t have her and she went back to Rome. She was reasonably happy there until 1666, when she returned to Sweden again and, disappointed by her reception, went to live in Hamburg. There, she found out that her patron, Pope Alexander, had died. The new Pope, Clement IX, was also a friend and had been a regular guest at her palace. She threw a party to celebrate. Citizens of Lutheran Hamburg were furious. The party ended with shooting and she was forced to leave in disguise via the back door.

Christina made a spirited attempt to be made Queen of Poland in 1668, but this also failed. She passed the rest of her years in Rome. She and Pope Clement shared a love of theatre and in 1671, she established Rome’s first public theatre. Subsequent Popes were less keen, and Innocent XI had it turned into a storeroom for grain and banned women from performing. Christina didn’t care though, she carried on putting on plays at her palace.

06 06 queen christina 1685She continued to be a bit of a rebel, supplying the world with her unsolicited opinions, long after she had lost her rights to rule. When Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants, she wrote him a letter of objection. In 1686, she made the Pope put an end to an awful practice of chasing Jews through the streets at Carnival. Then, she issued a declaration pronouncing all Roman Jews under her protection and signed it ‘the Queen’.

When she died, in 1689, she left all her treasures to her old friend Cardinal Azzolino and they passed almost immediately to his nephew, who sold them. Many of her books are now part of the Vatican library. Most of her paintings went to France and many are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

On balance, I really like Queen Christina. She upset a lot of people, but she did what she wanted and she didn’t care. Certainly, she walked off with a lot stuff that almost definitely should have stayed in Sweden but, in 1697, her castle burnt down and it would all have been destroyed anyway. She is one of only three women to have been buried in the Vatican.

Quack

Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the StageLast month, when my laptop was broken, I thought all my notes for this blog might be lost forever. So I was scratching round for something to write about and came across Robert Chambers article about mountebanks. He then went on to describe a bunch of fascinating people that I’d never heard of. Mountebanks were quack doctors who travelled about pedalling their cures and often performed operations on stage in front of an audience. As I wrote about Franz Mesmer yesterday, the link between medicine and theatre is still on my mind.

Today marks the death of Sir William Read who died in 1715. He wasn’t destined to be a knight. Originally, he was either a tailor or a cobbler and he was barely literate. He somehow became a mountebank and travelled the country peddling his wares. His specialities were diseases of the eye and the removal of tumours. He did all this with the aid of a substance he called ‘styptic water’ which was, I believe, designed to stop bleeding. In fact, you can still buy styptic pencils today for the same purpose, so perhaps it worked. Anyway, he managed to rise to the position of eye doctor to Queen Anne and her successor George I. People didn’t like him very much. When he was knighted, Beau Nash, a dandy from Bath turned down the offer of a knighthood because he did not want to be associated with Read. Beyond that, I couldn’t find out very much about him, apart from the fact that he published a book about eyes which was mostly lifted from someone else. But it does give me the opportunity to tell you about a couple of Robert Chambers mountebanks.

05 24 gustavus kattafeltoGustavus Katterfelto was a Prussian conjurer, scientific lecturer and mountebank who travelled about England and Scotland towards the end of the eighteenth century. He found fame in London during a flu epidemic in 1782. Part of his performance included a solar microscope, which he used to project images of micro organisms found in water, on bread or in cheese. He claimed these were the insects which caused the influenza. Unfortunately, people started to think he might be releasing the insects and actually causing the disease. He quickly took out an advertisement announcing that all his insects had died in a rain storm. Then, three days later, he took out another announcing that he himself had caught influenza. Not long after that he claimed to have found the cure, which he would sell at five shillings a bottle. Among his other claims were, that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion and that he had launched the first hot air balloon fifteen years before the Montgolfier brothers. Katterfelto lectured on electricity and magnetism and performed with a black cat, who he claimed was evil. When the cat later gave birth kittens, its offspring were very much in demand. Marie Antoinette may have had one of them. The kittens that he kept would sometimes magically convey themselves into the pockets of his audience members, but they might also find that they had been relieved of their money and watches at the same time.

After he had outworn his welcome in the capital, he took off on a less successful tour of the provinces. In Shrewsbury, he accidentally set a haystack on fire with a hot air balloon and was jailed when he couldn’t afford to pay for the damage. I was delighted to find out that he performed, and was well received in Whitby, which, you might have gathered, is my home town. One of his favourite tricks there was to put his daughter in a massive steel helmet and lift her to the ceiling with a giant magnet.

05 24 james grahamThe other mountebank I want to tell you about today is James Graham, who operated in London at the same time as Katterfelto. Graham studied medicine in Edinburgh, but never took a degree. He travelled to America where he learned about the principles of electricity from a friend of Benjamin Franklin. He left before the revolution and travelled Holland, Germany and Russia before setting up in Bath in 1776. By 1780, he had opened his ‘Temple of Health’ in London. There, he offered electrical and magnetic cures with a heavy emphasis on the electrical. You could sit on an electric throne, put on an electric crown or soak yourself in an electric bath. He sold medicines with names like ‘Electrical Aether’ and ‘Nervous Aetherial Balsam’ and gave medical lectures. These he performed with the aid of a succession of ‘Goddesses of Health’, who were supposed to represent physical perfection. One of his goddesses was Emy Lyon, who later became Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson.

The following year, he opened another premises, his ‘Temple of Hymen’ in Pall Mall. This held his most impressive piece of equipment. His ‘Celestial Bed’. The bed was designed to help couples who were having difficulty conceiving a child. It was twelve feet by nine and was surmounted by a dome filled with fresh flowers, automata, a pair of live turtle doves and also a large mirror. The mattress could be tilted into a favourable position and was filled with fresh wheat or oat straw, rose petals, lavender flowers and, just for good measure, hair from the tails of the best English stallions. If you think this all sounds a bit much, I want to tell you that it was also a musical bed. The movements of its occupants would cause organ music to play which increased in intensity with their ardour. You could hire this bed for fifty pounds a night. That was an exorbitant sum in the 1780s but there were plenty of aristocratic families who desperately needed an heir and who were probably so riddled with syphilis that they were having difficulty producing one. I was a bit sad that I couldn’t find a picture of it, but then I came across this lovely re-imagining of Graham’s Celestial Bed by an artist called Tim Hunkin.

Graham was a great showman but sadly not very good with money and, by 1784, he was bankrupt. Two years later, he was back in business and promoting ‘earth-bathing’. He claimed that bathing in soil was the secret to immortality. That a person could absorb through their skin, all the nutrients they needed. He claimed that he had survived for two weeks immersed in his earth bath, with nothing but a few drops of water for sustenance. He even gave lectures whilst burieded up to his neck in a flower bed. In later years, he became extremely religious and founded the New Jerusalem Church. He was its only member. In 1792, he began to experiment with prolonged fasting as a way of extending his life-span. He died two years later. He was forty-nine.

Hedgewig

04 07 john elwesToday is the birthday of John Elwes, who was born in 1714 in Southwark. He was born John Meggot. Elwes was his mother’s family name. He inherited several large fortunes during his life and could have lived very comfortably. But he didn’t. Elwes was a miser. He came from a long line of misers, his maternal grandmother Lady Isabella Hervey was notoriously mean. His first fortune came to him at the age of just four, when his father died. His mother was left £100,000 in the same will, but she didn’t spend it. In fact, it is said that she starved herself to death. John inherited the rest of the estate.

His mother’s brother, Sir Harvey Elwes, became a big influence in his life. He was also a miser. When John visited his uncle he would dress down especially for the occasion and make sure he’d had a good meal first. The two would spent evenings together, complaining about the extravagance of others, while they shared a single glass of wine and burned a single stick on the fire. When it got dark, they went to bed to save on candles. John changed his surname from Meggot to Elwes in order to inherit his uncle’s fortune which was worth £250,000.

John Elwes inherited his uncle’s miserly ways along with his fortune. He began to dress in ragged clothes all the time. When his wig wore out, he wore another that he had found in a hedge. People used to mistake him for a beggar and press pennies into his hand. He would walk in the rain rather than pay for a coach and then sit in wet clothes rather than build himself a fire to dry them. He kept food after it had gone off and would eat putrefied game before he would allow more food to be bought. His huge house was crumbling because he wouldn’t spend anything on repairs. Once, when his nephew, Colonel Timms, came to stay, he was awakened in the night by rain pouring in on him through the roof. He could find no bell to summon help, so he was forced to move his whole bed several times until he found a spot where he could stay dry. When Timms mentioned it the next day, Elwes replied that he didn’t mind the leaks himself, but for anyone who does: ‘…that is a nice corner in the rain’

Remarkably, for someone who was so careful with his money, he was very fond of gambling and lost some of his fortune that way. He also didn’t mind lending to friends and never seemed to notice when they didn’t repay him. He once lent £7,000 to Lord Abingdon to bet on a horse at Newmarket. Elwes attended the race himself, he rode there on horseback with nothing to eat for fourteen hours except a piece of pancake he had put there two months earlier. He claimed in was ‘good as new’. It’s a good job he had a strong constitution, because he disliked paying for a physician. Once he fell and badly cut his legs whilst walking home in the dark. He would only allow the doctor to treat one of his legs. Then he bet the doctor his fee that the untreated leg would heal quicker. He won his bet.

There are other stories about John Elwes and his legendary miserliness. There was the time he almost died because he fell ill whilst sleeping in a stable and the time he was made MP for Berkshire, having laid out election expenses of only eighteen pence. He may have been the inspiration behind the character of Scrooge in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ and he is mentioned by name in ‘Our Mutual Friend’. There is one tale about him though, that shows him in a different light. It seems he was once out hunting with another gentleman who was a terrible shot. This man accidentally fired his gun through a hedge and some of the lead shot hit Elwes in the cheek. The man was clearly embarrassed and also quite concerned. As he approached to apologise Elwes held out his hand and said: “My dear sir, I congratulate you on improving; I thought you would hit something in time.”

The Art of Dying

03 28 ruyschToday is the birthday of Frederick Ruysch who was born in 1638 in The Hague. Someone who had himself painted pulling the insides out of a dead baby might seem like an unlikely candidate for ‘Why Today is Brilliant’, but bear with me. Ruysch is the last of three peculiar Dutch anatomists who I first stumbled upon last summer. They all studied at the university of Leiden in the 1660s. I have written about Reinier de Graaf and Jan Swammerdam elsewhere and how they fell out about who had discovered that humans had ovaries. As anatomists, what they really needed were corpses to dissect, but they were difficult to come by, had a disappointingly short shelf life and were rather expensive. They all became involved in finding a way to preserve anatomical specimens. They devised a way of injecting melted wax into blood vessels. When it cooled and set, they had something that they could dissect. It was a method that revealed delicate structures that had never been seen before. They stained the wax red to make the results a bit more lifelike. While de Graaf and Swammerdam were arguing about the nature of human reproduction, Ruysch was doing something else. He was making dioramas out of body parts.

03 28 vesaliusHis work was not entirely unprecedented. There were anatomical texts that showed bodies in dramatic poses. Take a look at this one from ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ by Andreas Vesalius which was published in 1543. But Ruysch had found a way of presenting actual specimens. He found a material that was even better than wax for injecting. It reached even the tiniest of vessels and, when coloured, gave a life-like quality to the whole specimen. He was pretty secretive about it, so no one is quite sure what it was. It may have included Berlin blue, mercury oxide and clotted pigs blood. But I’ve also come across mentions of spirits of Zeus and Poseidon. I have no idea what these are, if you do, I’d love to know. Later, he invented a clear liquid that he used to store his body parts in jars. It kept them soft and more life-like. He referred to it as ‘liquor balsamicum’ and I haven’t a clue what was in that either. It must have been good because some of his wet specimens still survive after more than three hundred years.

Ruysch amassed a huge collection of anatomical specimens. Initially, they were used only for medical study but when non-medical people heard about them, they wanted to see for themselves. He eventually displayed them in a series of cabinets in a private museum. Physicians were allowed free admission and, if they were particularly interested, could attend lectures given by Ruysch. The general public would pay an admission fee and be shown around by his daughter.

So far I have only mentioned anatomical specimens in the vaguest terms, and I promised you dioramas…

L0023489 F. Ruysch, Opera omnia anatomico-medico...
image credit: wellcome images

The centre piece of each cabinet was a little tableau, each of which conveyed some idea of the fleeting nature of human life. The main feature of these were foetal skeletons arranged in various poses. They would be playing the violin, clutching a string of pearls, weeping into a handkerchief. Ruysch actually had access to a lot of foetal skeletons as, in 1668, he was made chief instructor to the midwives of Amsterdam. (He managed to collect and preserve foetuses at all stages of development.) The rest of the scene was made up from bladder, kidney and gallstones for rocks, preserved blood vessels for trees and preserved lung tissue for grass and bushes. Even the handkerchiefs that his tiny skeletons were weeping into were made from the membrane that covers the brain. It all seems rather macabre, but this was not Ruysch’s intention at all. He saw them as beautiful objects that would: “allay the distaste of people who are naturally inclined to be dismayed by the sight of corpses.” It worked too. His anatomical preparations, partly teaching aid, partly works of art, did go a long way towards dispelling some of the stigma attached to the study of anatomy.

 

As well as doctors and the general population of Amsterdam his museum was frequented by the rich and famous. In 1697, he was visited by Peter the Great. Peter had a keen interest in all things scientific. Ruysch taught him how to catch and preserve butterflies and they had a common interest in lizards. The Tsar liked what he had seen so much that he returned for a second visit in 1717 and bought the entire collection for 30,000 guilders. Ruysch’s collection was installed in Tsar Peter’s Kunstkamera in St Petersburg where it helped to introduce ideas of European Enlightenment and modern sciences to Russia.

Ruysch immediately began to build a new collection. After his death in 1731, it was sold to Augustus the Strong, King of Poland. It is from Peter the Great’s collection that some of Ruysch’s specimens still survive. If you visit this site, you can see some photographs of a few of them. There is the hand of a child clutching the heart of an unborn baby. To cover the place where the hand was cut off there is a beautiful lace cuff that was probably made by his daughter. Some of the site is in English, though you will have the advantage of me if you speak Dutch. Sadly none of his dioramas have survived the test of time but luckily, they were carefully recorded in a series of drawings by Cornelius Huyberts, which is a good thing, otherwise you might not have believed me.

03 28 diorama 1

Selfie

03 22 virginia oldoini 1Since the invention of digital photography and social media it is not uncommon for people to amass hundreds of photos of themselves. In the nineteenth century, that was not so easy to achieve. Virginia Oldoini, the Countess da Castiglione managed to provide us with over 400 pictures of herself between 1856 and her death in 1899 and it is her birthday that I am celebrating today.

She was born in Florence in 1837 and was the daughter of a Tuscan marquis. At seventeen, she married an Italian Count, but it was not a happy marriage, she had numerous affairs and extravagantly spent all his money, eventually leaving him bankrupt. In 1856 the couple visited Paris and she was urged by her cousin to plead the case for the unification of Italy with Emperor Napoleon III. Italy was then, not a single nation but a collection of city states.  Her instructions were “succeed by any means you wish, but succeed.” She dazzled everyone at the French Court with her beauty. At a ball hosted by the Emperor, her entrance caused such a sensation that the even the orchestra stopped what they were doing to look at her. It wasn’t long before she became Napoleon’s mistress. The affair caused such a scandal that it led to her divorce.

03 22 virginia oldoini 4It was during her affair with Napoleon III that she first visited the studio of Mayer & Pierson and discovered the delights of photography. She was terribly self absorbed and narcissistic and probably quite annoying to know. The Princess Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador, described her thus: “Wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the colour of pink marble! In a word, Venus descended from Olympus!…after a few moments… she began to get on your nerves.” After her first portrait she went back again and again but she was no passive subject. She literally called the shots. With the help of photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, she began to recreate moments from her life and the beautiful and sensational gowns she had worn. Then, she began to dress up as historical, mythical or fictional characters. In one photo she might be a courtesan, in another a nun. When her ex-husband tried to get custody of their only child, Giorgio, she 03 22 virginia oldoini 5sent him a photograph of herself dressed as Medea holding a dagger dripping with blood. She would choose costumes, props, even camera angles and directed the hand colouring of some of the pictures. She became totally obsessed with her own image, spending all her money and even getting into debt in the process. Virginia Oldoini enjoyed particularly using mirrors in her photographs. Even when she was capturing her image for posterity, she was looking at herself. Some of her later photographs have an almost surrealist quality. There are photographs that are of just her legs, which was not only unusual but quite shocking for the time. There is even a photograph of her, from the waist down, lying in a coffin.

03 22 virginia oldoini 2As she grew older she became reclusive, living in an apartment of rooms painted black. The blinds were kept drawn, there were now no mirrors and she only ventured out at night. This made her very mysterious and intriguing to a poet and dandy named Robert de Montesquiou. He loved the idea of a great beauty locked away in darkened rooms. He really wanted to meet her, but the Countess was then living a rather squalid existence and she declined to receive him. After she died in 1899, he claimed that he arrived at her funeral just in time to glimpse her face as the lid of her coffin was shut. When her possessions were disposed of, he bought her nightgowns and 433 of her photographs. He also composed her biography ‘La Divine Comtesse’. It is clear from her later photographs that she was mourning her fading beauty. Although her life long project was born of extreme narcissism the photographs are beautiful and it is a truly unique 19th century record of one woman’s life.

03 22 virginia oldoini 3

Hester, Queen of the Desert

03 12 lady hester stanhopeToday is the birthday of Lady Hester Stanhope. She was born in 1776, the eldest child of Charles, the 3rd Earl Stanhope, at Chevening in Kent. Hester was an adventurous traveller, deeply eccentric and self-styled Queen of the Desert. In her late twenties, she lived at Downing Street where she acted as hostess for her cousin, William Pitt the Younger, who was then Prime Minister. She acted as his secretary and sat at the head of his dinner table making witty and intelligent conversation. Hester was in her element, but it didn’t last. Pitt died in 1806 and she was left homeless, but with a tidy pension of £1200 a year from the government in recognition of her services.

She lived for a time in Montagu Square in London and then moved to Wales. In 1810 she was advised by her doctor to make a trip to the Continent, for the sake of her health. She would never return. She travelled with her private physician and later biographer, Dr Charles Meryon. They stopped off in Gibraltar, where she picked up another travelling companion, a wealthy young Englishman called Michael Bruce. Although he was twelve years younger than her, they were soon lovers, much to the disappointment of Dr Meryon. From there, they travelled on to Malta, Greece and Constantinople. Here, she met with the French Ambassador. She had a mind to go to France and ingratiate herself with Emperor Napoleon. She thought if she could find out what made him tick, she could return to Britain with information that could lead to his overthrow. It was a mad plan and luckily the British government got wind of it and stopped her.

With nothing better to do, she and her swelling entourage decided to head for Egypt. On the way, they were shipwrecked off the island of Rhodes. Everyone lost their luggage and it led to Hester spending the night in a rat-infested windmill with a bunch of drunken sailors for company. Separated from her belongings, she had to find other clothes. Rather than wear a veil, she chose to dress in a robe, turban and slippers. When they eventually arrived in Egypt, she bought a purple velvet robe, embroidered trousers, a waistcoat, a jacket and a sabre. She found men’s clothes preferable and dressed that way from then on.

In Alexandria, she and her party set about learning Turkish and Arabic. The East was now in her blood and they pressed onwards to Lebanon and Syria. On the way, she met with many important Sheiks, some of whom would have been very dangerous enemies. They had never seen anything quite like her before and she seems to have been well received. Some accounts tell of how she was hailed as a princess, but it also seems possible that they all thought she was a bit mad and that just going along with her would be the polite thing to do. When she reached Damascus in 1812, she insisted on entering the city unveiled and on horseback, both of which were forbidden, but she seemed to get away with it.

03 12 palmyraThe following year, she visited the ruined desert city of Palmyra. It had once been ruled by Queen Zenobia who had led a revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century. No European woman had ever seen the city before. It was a week’s ride away from Damascus over a wasteland that was ruled by dangerous Bedouin tribes. She made the journey dressed as a Bedouin and took with her a caravan of twenty-two camels. The people of Palmyra were impressed by her courage and gave her a crown of palm leaves. She was a bit carried away by this and later wrote: “I have been crowned Queen of the Desert. I have nothing to fear…I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.”

In case you’re worried that her story is about to end with her being cruelly slain in a lonely desert, rest assured, it does not. Her end is not a happy one, but she has a few years to go yet. After that, she returned to Lebanon where she lived in several places before settling in a remote and abandoned monastery. Her lover returned to England in 1813, her doctor, in 1831. On her travels, she had come by a medieval Italian manuscript that said there were three million gold coins hidden under the ruins of a mosque at Ashkelon on the coast. She gained permission from the Ottoman authorities to excavate the site in 1815. It would be the first archaeological excavation in Palestine. Hester found no gold. What she did find was a seven foot tall headless marble statue. The thing she did next would horrify all later archaeologists and you probably won’t like it either. She had the statue smashed up and thrown in the sea. Apparently, she did this because she didn’t want to be accused of smuggling antiquities, although why she couldn’t just have left it there in one piece is beyond me.

At home in Lebanon, she became fascinated with astrology and alchemy. A fortune teller in London had once told her that she was destined to go to Jerusalem and lead the chosen people. She started to believe in the prophecy about an Islamic Messiah figure called ‘Mahdi’, and that she was destined to become his bride. She even owned a sacred horse that she believed he would ride on. It was born with a deformed spine. There was a prophecy which said that he would ride on a horse that was born saddled, and the animal’s sharply curved spine was, she thought, just like a Turkish saddle. She named the horse Layla and it was soon joined by a second horse named Lulu who she would ride alongside the Mahdi when he came for her.

Despite her eccentricities, she was generous with her hospitality. Any European traveller was well received and, when civil war broke out in the area, she gave shelter to hundreds of refugees. She fed and clothed them and, even though it nearly bankrupted her, never turned anyone away. The monastery at Djoun, which was her final home, was a hilltop house with thirty-six rooms full of secret passageways and hidden chambers. There, she kept thirty cats that her servants were forbidden to touch. In her old age, she was deeply in debt and became more and more of a recluse. Her servants resorted to stealing from her because she could not pay them. Then, in 1838, the government cut off her pension in order to pay her creditors. She sent her servants away and walled herself up in her house with her cats. She died there alone in 1839. Sad.