Friday, 31 October 2014

Of Clowns & Donkeys

Ok, so I was showing my ignorance slightly, with my facetious comments about the Clown on a donkey image found in an old scrap book.  After just a little Googling I found that it seems this was quite a popular image.

Circuses were huge in the 19th and a large part of the 20th century. It was not unusual to see the donkey used in the clowning routines.  You can imagine watching the graceful, scantily clad ladies performing acrobatics on the back of fine, well dressed horses, galloping around the ring. Then, as the applause subsides at the end of their turn, the perfect parody - out comes a clown on a donkey!

Sometimes it would be the clown himself who would ride, sometimes a stooge. The description below describes a short film made of such an act at Hagenbeck's Circus in 1903. (I got this from IMDB. It is quoted from the Lubin Film Company catalogue of the time. I was a little surprised that an old fashioned, somewhat racist term had been left in. I don't want to cause offense, but I've left it in too. That's how the world was.)

"This is a funny one. A clown first enters with an apparently docile donkey. A colored man follows and is assisted by the clown to mount on the donkey's back. He thinks he can manage him but the donkey thinks not, and after vainly trying to throw him off backward and failing in this, he changes his tactics and pitches the coon over his head. The man tries to mount him again, but all to no purpose, and some ludicrous positions and actions are witnessed."


As a kid, I remember a few circuses. These would mostly have been in the late 1960's. The clowns I remember, did the ubiquitous disintegrating car act, threw copious amounts of custard pies and kicked each others behinds. But for me, like many generations before, it was all about the animals. I remember Lions, Tigers as well as chimps, elephants and horses performing all kinds of tricks.

I found this image in the HTV collection I am working on at work. This was taken around 1969-70, and I'm fairly certain that this was one of the acts I saw as a child.

We were even allowed to view all the animals after the show, something today's health and safety officers would have nightmares about. I distinctly remember the smell. The aroma of hay and straw, the musky smells of different beasts. We all reveled in the excitement of the low, resonant growls of Tigers as we passed so close, and the rattling of sometimes rather flimsy looking cages. We looked on wide eyed as we were told what happened to "one naughty little boy" who put his hand between the bars to pull a tigers tail!

Since the 1980's very few animals are to be seen in the circus, there are very few circuses at all in fact, particularly of the traveling kind.  There were of course many animal welfare issues, and I suspect there still are in some parts of the world, it was inevitable that things would change. I don't defend the cruelty and hardships, to both animal and human, but I am very glad that I can, in some small way remember what it was to experience this kind of spectacle.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Miss Lobbs Lost Stuff

After many, many months of searching through the dark corners of the Library, I think I have found all I am going to find of Miss Lobb's collection.  I have found all but 5 items on the list. My most recent find was this rather gorgeous Victorian, Mother of Pearl bound portrait album. I had seen this on the inventory and, in all honesty, given up on finding it.

It doesn't contain any photographs any more, though there are names, in pencil, written under all the placements inside. They are mostly celebrities of the day, including some Royals and various landed gentry.
The other things I have been looking at quite a bit lately are scrapbooks. It turns out that the majority of the Library's collection of Victorian Scrapbooks, came from Miss Lobb's bequest, and until now they have remained listed (if they are listed at all) as "source unknown".  Some of them were her's, others came from her Grandmother, possibly her mother, her Aunt and one has the name of her younger sister, Arabella, inscribed on it. Some of them seem to have been bought at jumble sales or auctions, she seems to have been a real hoarder, collecting all manner of cuttings, illustrations and postcards. The materials contained therein are quite surreal! Things like the quite scary looking clown on a donkey were actually mass produced. You could buy whole sheets of "Scraps" like this and one has to wonder which particular hallucinogens the artists designing these things were abusing!

Is there something I'm missing in this? Why is the clown on a donkey? He seems to look quite alarmed as well as alarming! Maybe there was context to this for people of the time, something now long lost. Who thought this up?! Did some low paid artist wander into the "scraps" studio and declare "I have it chaps! What we need is a clown on a Donkey!"
Still, none of it is any stranger than finding reality TV amusing!

This is just one of the pages reflecting, what seems to me, a strange obsession with vegetables! They appear with remarkable regularity. Turnips, potatoes, and particularly peas! Many of these things appear in other scrap books so I can't be sure if it's a general Victorian cultural thing or just the strangeness of the Lobb family!

Here I think we're seeing, Tony Robinson on the left in a Victorian incarnation of Baldric, Frankie Howerd in the middle, not sure about the one on the right, any suggestions?!

Anyway, now that I know the whereabouts of the collection, I can start looking at it all more closely and recording what I find. This may take some time. 

Friday, 17 October 2014

A Visit To Kelmscott 2- The Actual Visit

It was originally Kathleen's idea. A weekend away, visiting the place we had both been learning about. Having made contact with a few people at Kelmscott Manor, it was now going to be even more interesting, because we had arranged to meet to compare notes on Miss Lobb.

It was a long, but fairly pleasant drive. We stopped in Rhayader for lunch. I managed to snap my photo for the day as we passed the sheep market.

We had a quick look in a small shop pretending to be an antique shop. In times past the items these places sold would be referred to as bric-a-brac and the shops named accordingly. These days they all call themselves antique shops despite the fact that so much of their stock is pretty much old tat! Don't get me wrong, I love old tat, I just get annoyed at the ridiculously high prices they place on such things.  I have to admit to being slightly tempted by a vintage fireman's jacket, but in the end I didn't even ask the price. How good am I?!

We made our way through the ever changing landscape, with the rolling hills and valleys of Wales slowly giving way to the flat expanses of the Cotswolds. There was some occasionally temperamental guidance from the navigation app on my phone, but it was supplemented by some good old fashioned navigation from The Lovely. By early evening we had arrived at Lechlade, then it was just a few minutes to reach Kelmscott. 

The Plough Inn is a very welcoming little place. We settled into our room, The William Morris Room no less, and then sat outside for a welcome couple of pints. It was still quite warm for the start of October, so we made the most of it before venturing into the dining room for some good wine and a rather fine, filling meal, including some duck, the like of which I had never tasted! Having been on a bit of a diet lately, the mini banquet we consumed, along with the wine, was quite a shock to the system resulting in slightly impaired motor functions. 

Next morning, the weather changed dramatically, the temperature had dropped and it was now raining profusely. Still, that wasn't going to spoil anything, especially as I had a full cooked breakfast to feast upon. Then it was a quick dash through the rain to the Manor. On our arrival we were approached by a volunteer asking if we had visited before. I said that I had come to meet Sarah, to which her eyes opened wide, " Ahh, you're errr..." She seemed to struggle to find the words, then blurted "You're the Welsh!". Well, I thought, not all of them! But I answered, "Yes, that's us."

We were shown to the offices housed in some of the converted outbuildings, and here I could put faces to those who had been just email addresses until now. Here was Sarah, Kathy, and students Sophie And Thomas. I gave them an outline of what was in the collection, they were extremely keen to know more about Miss Lobb and I was keen to see what they had. 

They had recently been sent some material that had been found in a skip years ago. It included some paperwork including receipts and invoices, an interesting postcard written by Miss Lobb, and some photos I hadn't seen. I won't go into all the details here, all will be revealed in time!  

After we had been shown the new discoveries we went around the house itself. Of course, the rooms are all clean and conservation friendly now. No damp corners and dusty attics, no smell of fires burning in the hearths or the clutter of everyday life, but you still get a feel for the place and how it influenced and inspired the people who had lived there. It wasn't too difficult to imagine Jane Morris sitting writing letters in her room overlooking the garden as the the young May and Jenny clattered up the stairs to play in the attic, or Rossetti working in the Tapestry Room. There is still continuity in the place, those tapestries have been there almost since the place was built, William Morris' ancient four poster bed which he brought to the Manor, was the one in which he was born, and in which he died.  Then there are the paintings and drawings. It was great seeing Rossetti's painting, Blue Silk Dress, in the flesh, as it were. I wish I could take photographs in the house. I would love to record some of the little details - things like the various ornate window fittings, the old graffiti scratched into the stone around some of the windows, and the way shadows form as the light flows into the different spaces. 

By the time we had finished seeing the inside of the house, the rain had been banished. Clear skies took over as we sat for an obligatory cream tea before exploring the garden. The grounds are not huge and rambling as such. What makes it special for me are the spaces defined by the high walls, hedges, trees and of course, the building itself, which stands, observing, like a smiling old man who sits on the side of the road watching the world go by. If only it could talk. 

To complete the weekend, we had planned to create a Pre-Raphaelite inspired image starring The Lovely, doing her best moody muse look. Although there was some photoshop work done on our return, the basic elements were all shot at Kelmscott. I think it worked quite well.

A few more photo's can be found on my FlickrPhotostream

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A Visit To Kelmscott

Well, so much for me writing more regularly! I'm not sure where all those tweeters and bloggers out there, find the time to consistently produce such prolific output!
Anyway, so I finally got to visit Kelmscott Manor. A very nice weekend spent with The Lovely, who, it has to be said, paid for our room and board at The Plough Inn, just down the road from the Manor. 
I have been working on a little research project which connects a collection at work, in the National Library, to Kelmscott. Before I go any further, I shall repeat, and possibly slightly enhance, a short blog I wrote for work outlining what I have found.


The Farmer, The Artist, The Princess And The Tzar

There is a small collection which first came to my attention last year, bequeathed to the Library by one Miss Mary Lobb. My attention was first drawn to some images of what appeared to be quite rich 19th Century tourists. One image was of two women looking out of a window, shot into the light, making it almost a complete sillouhette. 

The intimate, relaxed nature of this, and other images, made me curious. Was Miss Lobb, who’s bequest this was, the photographer?  
Well, as it turned out – no. She and her collection turned out to be far more interesting than anyone had previously realised. 

Miss Lobb in her younger days.

Mary Frances Vivian Lobb, was originally from Cornwall. During WW1 she joined the Land Army and was posted to Lechlade in Gloucestershire. She was a formidable character, and had very soon upset the local men, who wanted her removed from the farm. Close by was Kelmscott Manor, home to May Morris, the youngest daughter of designers and artists, William and Jane Morris. She took Miss Lobb on as a helping hand and they remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Digging deeper I found that the 17 items attributed to Lobb in the catalogue, were only a fraction of the bequest, which originally consisted of 98 items. Scrap books, photo albums and postcards, some from her family and some, clearly from Kelmscott Manor. There are several watercolours by May Morris, many designs and test pressings of illustrations, decorative borders and typefaces from the days of William Morris' Kelmscott Press. 
Most mysterious is the photo album which originally caught my attention. It took some time to work out, but it has been confirmed that it contains “snapshots”, from around 1895, of a gathering of Royal Families in Denmark. These include, Alexandra, Princess of Wales who probably took some of the photographs. Her sister Marie Feodrovna is shown with her husband Tsar Alexander III and children, Princess Xenia, one of the few Romanovs to survive the revolution, and Nicholas who would become the very last Russian Tsar.  How this album came to be in the possession of Miss Lobb, we might never know. 

Here we see Marie Feodrovna (formerly Princess Dagmar of Denmark), her sister Alexandra (soon to be Queen of Britain) both sitting on top of their niece Marie Georgievna of Greece.


I have continued to dig and delve into this collection, slowly finding all the items in the bequest and doing my best to see what is there altogether.  The above blog was spotted by a student from Oxford University who was doing their internship at Kelmscott Manor. She was very interested in what I had found, particularly as no one seems to know a huge amount about Miss Lobb herself beyond the scattered tales and anecdotes recorded by locals and visitors to Kelmscott. Miss Lobb is a much maligned character I think. However, as I've looked at her past, her family and the collection she left to the Library, I've become quite fond of her!  With the help of my Firstborn, who has grown into a fine genealogist also working at The National Library, we now know quite a bit about her family history. With what I've found in the collection, I can probably say more about Miss Lobb than anyone else. Who'd have thought it!
So, the next step was to talk to some people at Kelmscott, hence the visit. With a little luck, we are hoping to manage some kind of collaboration in the form of an exhition and general sharing of information. It will certainly mean another visit, which will be rather nice. But I get ahead of myself.... How did this visit go? What did I think of the place?   That might have to be the subject of my next posting....