Stormed It

07 14 bastilleToday, most people in France get a day off because it is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison in Paris, which had the reputation of being a place where you could be locked up without trial, just for doing something that the King didn’t like. The prison had held assassins and spies, booksellers and magicians. It also held members of the nobility whose behaviour had been deemed too shocking to be revealed in a public trial. But what that actually meant, was that anyone with an embarrassing relative could have them locked away, if they could get the King to agree to it. During the reign of King Louis XIV, some 2,320 people were detained there. It wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be. If you were rich enough, you could take your own clothes, you’re own furniture, even your own servants if you could persuade them to go. But it wasn’t necessarily a good place either. There were tales of torture chambers and mysterious prisoners who had lain forgotten for years. A tremendous amount of secrecy surrounded who was actually held there. People didn’t like it very much but, in truth, by the reign of Louis XVI, it was barely used at all and there were plans to demolish it. Nevertheless, it was a looming symbol of royal oppression, so after the people of Paris stormed the building and freed the prisoners held there on July 14th 1789, it quickly became a symbol of everything the Revolutionaries stood against.

What the people who stormed the building were really after was the gunpowder that was stored there. Earlier in the day, the same crowd had stormed L’Hôtel des Invalides, which does not sound quite so glorious, in order to steal weapons. It was a sort of hospital and retirement home for war veterans. There, they had seized around 30,000 muskets but had found no ammunition.

When it occurred to them that it would be politically expedient to free the prisoners of the King while they were there, they began to search the cells. They found only seven inmates. Four were forgers, who couldn’t believe their luck and immediately absconded. One was an aristocrat named the Comte de Solages who was held there at the request of his family, possibly for kidnapping his sister. There were also two lunatics. One had been imprisoned for telling everyone that he had been involved in a plot to assassinate the present king’s grandfather, Louis XV. The other man was either British or Irish. His name was Jacques-François-Xavier de Whyte. He had a long white beard and looked far more like the sort of prisoner that they were hoping to find. He looked like a man who had been cruelly imprisoned for years on the whim of an uncaring monarch. They paraded him through the streets. De Whyte was delighted and smiled and waved to the crowds, but then he did believe that he was Julius Caesar…

When the liberators realised that there wasn’t a suitably heroic prisoner in the Bastille, they simply made one up. The Comte de Lorge had supposedly been imprisoned for thirty-two years and bore a striking physical resemblance to De Whyte. Despite the fact that someone claimed to have met him and even wrote a book about him, there is no evidence that he ever existed at all.

Had the Revolutionaries arrived ten days earlier, they would have found an eight prisoner. The Marquis de Sade had been transferred to an asylum at Charenton on July 4th. He was moved because he had been shouting at passers-by from the battlements, yelling that prisoners were being killed inside. When he was confined to his cell he continued to shout from his window using an improvised megaphone. His behaviour fuelled unrest in the city so he was bundled out of his cell in the night. He left in such a hurry that he left behind a manuscript he had been working on: ‘120 Days of Sodom’. To the end of his life, he believed that it had been lost during the subsequent looting of the prison but it was later found hidden in the wall of his cell.

07 14 bastille foundationsThe prison itself was raised to the ground, pieces of it were taken away as souvenirs. Nothing now remains of the building, excepting a few foundation stones that were discovered during the construction of the Paris Metro in 1899. On the site where it stood though, there was, for thirty-two years, a large plaster elephant that was also a fountain. When I say ‘large’, I really mean it, it was seventy-eight feet high. It was protected by a guard who lived in one of its legs. The plaster elephant was actually just a stand-in for a bronze elephant, that the Emperor Napoleon planned to have cast from the cannons of his defeated enemies. He imagined people being able to climb up the inside and stand on a platform at the top to take in the view. But Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the project was abandoned. By 1820, people were pretty fed up of the plaster elephant because it was full of rats. But it was not removed until 1846. Its base was used to support the column that now stands there, which commemorates the second French Revolution in 1830.

07 14 napoleon's plaster elephant

When I started to think about Napoleon’s elephant, it occurred to me that the Parisians seem to have been oddly obsessed with buildings that are also elephants. Napoleon probably had his idea from an architect names Charles Ribart, who, in 1758, had proposed building a giant elephant on the site now occupied by the Arc de Triomphe. He imagined that banquets and balls could be held inside it. There also seems to be a little forest, which I’m guessing is a theatre.

07 14 ribart elephant

In 1889, Paris hosted a World Fair to commemorate the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. I know that the exhibition included a model of the prison, though I couldn’t find a picture of it anywhere. I also know that there was a large elephant. I know this because it was afterwards purchased by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. Creator and manager of the Moulin Rouge. They installed it in their garden where it served as either a venue for belly dancers or an opium den, possibly both.

07 14 moulin rouge elephant

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Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.

Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.

07 02 burning glass

In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.

So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.

07 02 robert's balloonHe left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.

When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:

“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”

Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…

07 02 robert's tomb

Things Could Be Better

04 27 mary wollstonecraftToday is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft who was born on this day in 1759 in Spitalfields, London. She was an English writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights. Her belief that women are not naturally inferior to men was unusual at the time. Mary knew from childhood what it was like to be part of a family that was ruled by a domineering and sometimes violent man. Her father was not a good person. When Mary was in her teens she used sometimes to sleep in front of her mother’s bedroom door, to prevent her father getting in and beating her in a drunken rage.

She sought refuge at the houses of friends, where she began to read and attend philosophical lectures. She definitely didn’t want to end up in the same situation as her mother and she thought the way out would be to educate herself and find work that would allow her to be independent. At nineteen, she found a job as a ladies companion, but didn’t get on very well with her employer. She later set up a school with her sisters and her friend Fanny Blood, but it failed to thrive and collapsed completely after Fanny died of tuberculosis. After that she went to work as a governess for an aristocratic Irish family, but although she got on well with the children, she did not like their mother. Mary found out what the upper class was really like and she didn’t care for what she saw.

Her experiences led her to reflect on the sorts of opportunities open to single women of her social standing, and the sort of education they received. These thoughts would lead her to write her first book: ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’ in 1787. Women of the emerging middle class were generally taught things like how to dance, draw, play cards, look pretty. These were not things that were particularly useful if you found yourself having to make your own way in the world. She didn’t think they were much good for anyone else either. Mary really felt that women should be given the same sort of education as men. That they should be taught to be reasonable and rational human beings instead of being raised to spend all their time thinking about pretty frocks and going to the theatre.

The lot of women in the eighteenth century was generally to become a wife and mother. This meant that they would be largely responsible for caring for and educating the next generation. Mary thought they could probably do this a lot better if they were themselves better educated. For those who did not marry, the sort of employment women such as herself could find: ladies companion, governess, teacher, left you in a sort of limbo between your employer and other servants and disliked by both. It was not a recipe for happiness.

Mary decided that what she really wanted, was to be a writer. At that time, very few women could support themselves by writing. But Mary learned French and German and found work translating texts. She also wrote book reviews for a magazine run by a liberal publisher called Joseph Johnson. Through him she met intellectuals like radical pamphleteer, Thomas Paine and philosopher, William Godwin. Her writing career spanned the years of the French Revolution when there was much debate on both sides of the channel about the future of the monarchy. A lot was written about it by both the pro-aristocracy and the pro-republican camps and there was a huge pamphlet war. Mary became heavily engaged in the political debate.

In 1790 she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’, in response to a pamphlet published by a man named Edmund Burke, who defended the aristocracy, government, paternalism and chivalry. His argument was; a government was a result of political consensus and that citizens did not have the right to overthrow it. Traditions should not be challenged or the result would be anarchy. Mary countered that everyone should be judged on their merit and not on their birthright. That rights should be conferred because they are just and reasonable, not because they are traditional. She criticised the political elite for their opulence, corruption, and inhumane treatment of the poor. Also she accused the liberals of hypocrisy because they talked about equality but bowed and scraped before the old hierarchy.

In 1792 she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ which is regarded as one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. It was written in response to a treatise read out in the French parliament which suggested that “The paternal home is better for the education of women; they have less need to learn to deal with the interests of others, than to accustom themselves to a calm and secluded life.” She was further infuriated by the comments of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said that women should be educated for the pleasure of men. And who wouldn’t be?

The idea that women were weak, frivolous and unable to think clearly was a common one. Mary argued that women only seemed that way because they were not taught to reason clearly and were encouraged by men to be frivolous. This is what she has to say:

Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

She also pointed out a massive double standard men had as regards morality. They expected women to be virtuous but did not apply the same standards to themselves. She believed that the sanctity of marriage should be respected by both partners.

Mary didn’t have a great time with relationships herself. She was extremely fond of the painter Henry Fuseli and tried to move in with him and his wife. When that didn’t work out, she went to France in 1792, just when it was all turning very nasty. She arrived just a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. There, she met and fell in love with American ambassador Gilbert Imlay. She got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, who she named Fanny after her friend. Things never worked out with Gilbert and she wound up abandoned with a baby in the middle of the French Revolution. She returned to London, made a couple of attempts to win him back and her failure led to two suicide attempts. But gradually she returned to her literary life and she and William Godwin fell in love. When she became pregnant for a second time, they decided to marry, simply so their children would be legitimate.

Six months later, their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born. You may her know better as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Sadly, Mary died eleven days after her daughter was born. William was devastated . A few months later, he published a book about her life: ‘Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women’. He thought it was a sincere and compassionate portrait of the woman he had grown to love. Those who read it were shocked to learn of her love affairs, her illegitimate child, her suicide attempts. The book blackened her reputation for almost a century.

Mary Wollstonecraft wouldn’t have called herself a feminist, there was no such thing at the end of the eighteenth century. But she did believe that things could be better for women. Some of her ideas about the way women are expected to be, and the effect that it has on society are very relevant today. If she could see the way that childrens’ toys and clothes are marketed specifically to boys or girls. If she could see the way girls get called ‘little princesses’ and positively encouraged to be frivolous and superficial. If she could see the way that women are forced to judge themselves against the impossible standards of some photo shopped ideal. Well, I think she’d probably cry.

Life in the Shadows

12 02 phantasmagoriaToday I am assigning a birthday to somebody who doesn’t have one. Yesterday I mentioned Paul Philidor who first brought Madame Tussaud and her waxworks to London. I don’t know when he was born, only that it was some time in the eighteenth century, I don’t know quite when he died, it was either 1828 or 1829. I don’t even think Paul Philidor was his real name.

The conjuring of ghostly apparitions, with the aid of a projector of some sort, for pleasure and profit, had been happening since at least the middle of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, other elements were being incorporated and the séance with lantern show was becoming something of an art form. One of its leading proponents was Johann Georg Schröpfer, who also had no recorded date of birth, so I might as well tell you about him too. Schröpfer was an occultist who presented himself as a necromancer who could raise the spirits of the dead. Beginning in 1768, he gave seances in his café in Leipzig. His was a multi-sensory experience. He would begin by giving his audience a special punch to drink. I don’t know what was in it. Then they would be taken into a darkened room in which there was a black altar with candles placed in skulls. They would be made to stand inside a magic circle. Schröpfer would light incense and begin his invocations. The lights would go out and the whole room would start to shake. Then his audience would see ghostly images appear, in the smoke of burning incense, which would speak. Of course, Schröpfer had a whole team behind the scenes to help him produce his startling effects. Though this does not seem to have prevented him from starting to believe in his own powers. He went a bit strange and his life did not end well.

By the 1780s, men of a more scientific persuasion had begun to publish books debunking Schröpfer’s work and exposing his methods. Although they were intended for scientific study, they also served as ‘how to’ handbooks for anyone else who wanted a go.

Paul Philidor was a follower of Schröpfer’s methods. We first hear of him in Berlin in 1789 where he was giving séances using magic lanterns and conjuring tricks to persuade his audiences that he had supernatural powers. He was exposed as a fraud and two years later he was in Vienna where his show ran for a year. He called his apparitions ‘Schröpferesque Geisterscheinings’ in homage to the man who had inspired him.

In 1793, he turned up in Paris. France was then several years into the Revolution and people were particularly interested in seeing ghosts of their martyred heroes. By now he was no longer claiming that the ghosts were real. In his introductory speech he said “I am neither priest nor magician; I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you.” Despite this, his performance did still seem to be quite unsettling, as he was able to back project his images onto a screen which was not seen by the audience, as it was lowered after the lights went out. By moving his magic lantern away from the screen he was able to make it seem as though the spirit was rushing at the crowd. He also employed more that one slide at a time to he could make the ghosts seem to move and change.

It seems Philidor misjudged his audience though, as he got into trouble for depicting Robespierre as a devil and make it seem (though he swore it was an accident) as if the spirit of Louis XIV was rising towards heaven. As this was pretty much in the middle of the reign of terror, only months after the king and queen had been guillotined, it didn’t go down too well and Philidor disappeared pretty sharpish. He may have been imprisoned and then liberated by the same Dr. Curtius who rescued Marie Tussaud.

Whatever happened, it is likely the same man who arrived in London in 1801 calling himself Paul de Philipsthal. He set up a permanent show at the Lyceum Theatre called ‘Phantasmagoria’. As well as his projections there was an exhibition of automata including a mechanical peacock, something called ‘the beautiful cossack’ and a ‘self defending chest’ which shot anyone who tried to open the lid. The following year, he exhibited alongside Madame Tussuad at the Lyceum. I’m not quite sure what happened to him after that. Philidor is a rather shadowy figure, who disappears and reappears not unlike his ghostly projections. It’s been rather difficult to tell which stories belong to him and which to his predecessor, Schröpfer or his successor, Robertson, but I hope I’ve done him justice here.12 02 phantasmagoria

Back Story

12 01 marie tussaudToday is the birthday of Marie Tussaud (Madame Tussaud), who was born on this day in 1761 in Strasbourg, which was at the time, in France. Madame Tussaud opened her first permanent wax museum in Baker Street, London in 1835. If you’ve ever wonder how a French Lady in her mid-seventies came to be in London with loads of life-sized wax models, and most particularly, a chamber of horrors, here is her back story:

Her father was killed in the Seven Years War, before she was even born, and her mother went to work as housekeeper for a doctor called Philippe Curtius. Dr Curtius was very good at making wax anatomical models and he eventually branched out making portraits of people in wax. In 1765, he moved to Paris to open a wax museum and Marie and her mother joined him the following year. Curtius began to teach his modelling techniques to Marie and she soon showed promise. She made her first model, of Voltaire, in 1777. Their exhibition moved to the Palais Royal, which belonged to Louis Phillipe, Duke of Orleans, when he opened it to the public in 1784. The Palais Royal was filled with fancy shops and theatres, was frequented by prostitutes, was a hotbed of the Revolution and the place to be seen.

Curtius and Marie cast the heads of their wax models from life, using the straws up the nose, plaster round the head technique. As many of their models were of Royalty, this put them on pretty good terms with some very important people. With no photography, a wax model was really the most realistic image of a person you could get, and preserve for posterity. They had two separate exhibitions. There was the celebrity part where you could see wax busts of famous people. There were also full body models. The royal family eating dinner was a very popular exhibit, so was Marie Antoinette preparing for bed. You could stare as much as you wanted and nobody got embarrassed about it. Then there was the ‘Caverne des Grands Voleurs’, a kind of chamber of horrors in which you could find tableaux of all the latest executions, in case you’d missed the real thing, or just needed more time to take in all the gory details. These too, were cast from the real individuals, but of course in those cases, you didn’t need to bother with the straws up the nose.

07 14 bastilleSo Marie was already accustomed to some pretty grim sights. Then, the French Revolution happened. Significantly, two days before the storming of the Bastille, a mob turned up at their museum asking to borrow their busts of Necker, a recently dismissed finance minister, and Louis Philippe who were both at that time heroes of the revolutionaries. They took them and paraded them about Paris and were attacked by the Royal Guard for doing so. Two days later, when the prison was attacked and its Governor killed, the mob brought his head to Marie and forced her make a cast and a wax model of it. Nine days later, two more men had been killed, the new finance minister and his son-in-law. Curtius and Marie were asked to model their heads as well.

In this way, they mostly managed to distance themselves from the royal family and their museum became, instead, the place to go to check on the progress of the Revolution and find out who had been beheaded. They had to keep making the casts to stay on the right side of the revolutionaries. Marie made death masks of both Marie Antoinette and the King, along with many other people she had known in life. Marie was arrested and thrown in prison during the Reign of Terror, suspected of being a royal sympathiser. She was so close to being guillotined that her head had been shaved. But Curtius managed to pull some strings and get her set free. While she was there, she met another lady in a similar predicament. Her name was Josephine de Beauharnais. She also escaped with her life and later married Napoleon Bonaparte and years later Josephine introduced Marie to the Emperor and she made models of both of them.

When Curtius died in 1794, he left her his collection of waxworks. The following year, she married Mr Tussaud and by 1802, they had two sons. She travelled to Britain with her models, and also one of her sons. There she exhibited alongside Paul Philidor who had a magic lantern show that projected ghost-like images onto smoke, which sounds exciting. It wasn’t particularly financially successful for her but she never returned to France. Instead, she spent the next thirty-three years travelling Britain and Ireland with her models before finally settling in at the Baker Street Bazaar. People were fascinated by the events of the French Revolution and were eager to see her work. But she never publicly displayed her death masks of the King and Queen.