Freaky Friday - The Darkside of Victorian Britain
Follow Paul Stewart down a dusty passage to a secret storehouse of the macabre, the sinister and the undead, in a binge of Victorian wonders!
We need to see the progress of the Victorian era as the triumph of science and reason. But there was another, less rational, Victorian age running parallel with this: an age that believed in ghosts and fairies, séances and the paranormal alongside such spooky popular ‘sciences’ as phrenology, galvanism and mesmerism.
Don’t get me wrong, we owe a lot of our advances in technology and medicine to the Victorians. And as for spooky science, they might well run a mile if they saw a mobile telephone device with Justin Timber-whats-his-name wailing out of it – and rightly so! But we should tip our top hats to this sometimes naïve age as it bridged the gap between the old and the modern world we know today. They were pioneers in new technologies like photography and electricity – but they sometimes chose some pretty odd things to do with them!
Wander amongst the countless Victorian headstones in any ancient churchyard and it is particularly alarming to note, among those poor souls no longer with us, the pro- portion who died young. Many of these youngsters met their bitter end from some ailment or other that, thankfully, we rarely hear of now. For that you can thank better healthcare, exercise and knowledge gained from decades of research and development in science and medicine. But there had to be a lot of trial and error first. A visit to the quack 150 years ago would have resulted in the administration of all manner of bizarre ‘remedies’ and treatments that could leave the suf- ferer with more to worry about than when they went in.
Take the 19th-century killer cholera. Said to have drifted in from the East on the ships that plied the Empire, on migration to Blighty, this monster’s tentacles tightened its grip on hundreds of Londoners at a time. Even after ground- breaking scientist John Snow spotted a link to contaminated water in 1854, orthodox opinion held to the theory of ‘miasma’ or bad air as a means of transmission. Suggested treatments were copious amounts of garlic, proximity to burning tar, wearing a tight flannel girdle and praying. Better these, though, than the suggestions of prescribing measures of camphor and mercury, followed by an enema, finishing up with boiling water poured over the victim’s stomach!
Many medical artefacts survive from this era and collectors revel in bottles with their original stoppers, pill- boxes and potions. The most sought-after tend to be those with the most ornate labelling – or the most poisonous.
One most curious invention, harnessing new science with quack medicine, is the fascinating but potentially deadly violet wand. By the late 19th century, electricity was believed to be a most effective cure for a lot of physical and mental ailments. Some households even had ‘shock boxes’ as part of their medical cabinet. In many, a lovely oak box contained a galvanised rod or pads powered by a dry cell battery. When the charge passed through a glass rod, it reacted with the gas inside and caused it to glow – rather like a neon sign. When placed close to the skin however, it caused sparks to arc, ‘stimulating’ the area in a manner believed to have mysterious healing powers. Such equipment is very collectable today, especially if the kit is complete in its box with various attachments and cables!
The Victorians were not just familiar with death, they were ruled by it. After cholera claimed her husband Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria wore black for the rest of her life – another 40 years. And the Victorian fixation with death cannot be illustrated more starkly than their post-mortem family portraits.
We may all treasure photographs of long-dead relations – but they were usually alive when they were taken! Not so with the Victorians. This was an ideal meeting of an emergent technology with its perfect market. The first-ever person photographed, in 1838, had been a Parisian who had stopped for a shoe-shine, thus allowing the long exposure necessary to be caught by an early camera – but the dead proved to be even more patient subjects. Photography was in its infancy, and extremely expensive; this was the last and often only chance a family had to get a portrait of a loved one. Our unease with this sensitive subject illustrates how different our attitudes have become over the decades. Now, this practice seems utterly abhorrent to us. But, to them, it was love that drove the business of costume, make-up and even scene-setting to create an eerie addition to the family album. The images of lifeless souls propped up, and in some cases with ‘eyes’ drawn on the closed lids to imitate life, or tint applied to cheeks after the photograph was produced to add further realism, recaptured the person that they knew. Sometimes the corpse even sat among their living relatives, who then had to try to match the stillness of their dear departed.
Other mementoes of deceased loved ones ranged from snipping off a lock of hair and curling it up inside a locket, to stuffing the family cat and mounting it in the hallway. But the most haunting artefact of death has got to be the death mask. Made from plaster or wax, the idea has been around for centuries, encompassing kings and criminals and, unlike a photograph, three-dimensional, capturing details like no other medium can. Some 19th-century celebrities were also immortalised with a ‘life mask’, including Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, Felix Mendelssohn and John Keats.
Of course the arch player with ideas of science, spooky and otherwise, in the Victorian age was H G Wells, who wrote the futurology classic The Time Machine in 1895.
But if you want to see, feel and even smell what living in this time was like then you can’t fail to be transported back there by visiting 18 Stafford Terrace in Kensington. You are met by a maid who opens the large front door of this house on a quiet West London street, which was occupied by renowned Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne from 1875 to 1910. Inside, every one of its three floors and countless rooms is exactly as it was when it was lived in. Spectacles reside silently on an open book, clocks tick menacingly in the hallway and the narrow stairways are encased with dark green wallpaper. The maid, who is your guide for the duration of the visit, expertly takes on the cheeky Cockney character that one imagines trotting up and down the stairs with tin buckets of hot water and a broom tucked under one arm.
Advanced booking is essential for this exceptional glimpse into a world only ever seen in books. You’ll feel like you’re in a BBC drama so get out your pocket watch and spats to cut a dash and fit in with the surroundings when you go.
So, you’ve read your copy of Punch, sent the chimney sweep on his way, bolted the door against Spring-heeled Jack and turned down the oil lamp to an orange glow – but what to drink? Well, the Blue Moon is a Victorian era cocktail that seems suitably dark and decadent. It is based on a liqueur called Crème Yvette, known for its flowery violet aroma and strong berry flavour, which has only recently returned to the market after decades in oblivion. So, mix two ounces of gin with half an ounce of Crème Yvette, add half an ounce of lemon juice, shake well with cracked ice, strain into a martini glass and garnish with a slice of lemon. Cheers!
In 1837, the same year that Victoria came to the throne, the first sighting of what was to become a chilling mysterious figure in British folklore was reported. Spring- heeled Jack made dozens of appearances, terrifying all those who saw him. So called because of his ability to leap up high and bounce off into the night, eye-witness accounts tell of a tall man-like figure dressed in oilskins, leather boots and with outstretched arms like wings. His eyes shone bright like red-hot coals and flames were sometimes seen pouring out of his mouth. Depriving several ladies of their senses, he supposedly had the appearance of a ‘gentleman’ and some say they heard him speak English.
The most celebrated account of Spring-heeled Jack occurred on 19th February 1838, and involved one Jane Alsop. It was dark when she answered the door of the family home to a cloaked figure appearing to be a police officer claiming that Spring-heeled Jack had been caught in the lane and he needed to borrow a candle. Rushing out to give this to him, she held the light up to his face revealing a ‘devil-
like’ appearance. He spouted blue and white flames into her face and grabbed her head under one arm, drawing his metallic claws across her cheeks and ripping her dress. Hearing her screams, her sister ran out to pull her free and the two of them ran back into the house. Even this didn’t deter him though as the steampunk scallywag simply walked up the steps and continued to knock on the door – until help arrived and he disappeared into the night.
Sightings continued up and down the country as far as Northamptonshire, East Anglia and Liverpool, which questioned the credibility of it being one single entity. The hysteria Jack caused provided material for the newspapers and magazines like Punch who theorised on whom or what this urban pest could actually be. Although he did leap out of the darkness and frighten horse-drawn carriages, his as no thefts or murders were reported.
So, was this simply a well-educated scientist testing some kind of new footwear with elevating properties playing tricks on innocent members of the public, or was it a supernatural being that escaped from a laboratory? Either way, he was never caught, nor did the superstitious minds of the poor Victorians get round to inventing an instant camera quick enough to capture an image of him.
Victorian values inform the whole world of steampunk – as they do the fascinating, dark animated world of The Brothers Quay, identical twins born in Pennsylvania in 1947.
When it comes to the macabre and sinister, these chaps know their onions (or should that be garlic?) Their craft is the stuff of unrest, menace and decay, evoking long-forgotten childhood nightmares almost impossible to articulate but unnervingly familiar. In stop-frame animations, clockwork toys come to life; dolls’ heads with missing eyes rotate in time to contraptions made from broken clock parts and twine. The Brothers’ modelling skills and sets, intricate focusing and brave use of eerie silences punctuated with scratching cello strings playing diminished scales, are to be marvelled at. Even the choice of font for opening title sequences can have you reaching for the pause button.
In their 1986 classic Street of Crocodiles, they create a fertile underworld in which a withdrawn gentleman puppet in Victorian tailcoat and pinstripe trousers is beckoned into a closed-down museum. Venturing deeper inside against a muffled industrial pulse, mannequins prepare for his terrifying end, while choreographed pins and scissors are seen through cobwebs and glass screens, splattered with bromide. The near-monochrome treatment drains the modern life out of the viewer who is helplessly immersed into their world from the very beginning.
Timothy and Stephen Quay have remained, somewhat aptly, out of the public eye, but in 2012 MoMA in New York staged a retrospective, On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, featuring models, sets and rooms filled with avant-garde designs – with keyholes to peer through, handles to wind and mocked-up shop windows to stare at. Perhaps the most significant indicator of what they would eventually become was revealed at the entrance: in a moodily lit room with black, spindly trees coming out of the ground, an early photograph on the far wall showed the twins sitting motionless in identical clothing watching their mother as she tends to the garden. Even as toddlers, they look as if they are silently communicating, gathering inspiration from their surroundings and artistic mother.
The Brothers’ design aesthetic recognises the work of filmmakers like Jan Švankmajer and Dziga Vertov; propaganda posters of 1930s Eastern Europe and Constructivists like Alexander Rodchenko and Naum Gabo. And their feature-length films include The Eternal Day Of Michel de Ghelderode (1981), Stravinsky – The Paris Years (1983) and Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988). Though they also produced some rock videos, commercials and short pieces for MTV, BBC2 and even Sesame Street!
Luckily, its easy to buy DVDs of some of their greatest works online, so dim the lights, sip some absinthe and enter the dark, surreal Victorian world of the Brothers Quay.
Taken from Issue 13 of Vintagexplorer - available from our shop here. This issue is full of weird and wonderful articles. One of our favourites!!