Halloween story – the invitation

This week’s guest blogger from the European Institute of Applied Cyanography is the recently appointed Chief Investigator Kristina Jones who is following up on a previous post.


The customer, whose name was Phelps, was a man with an obsession, He was convinced of the existence of a subterranean passage which ran from a basement somewhere in Chelsea House towards the river. It had once been possible to exit the tunnel in the octagonal summer house built by Lady Cathryn Beck in the grounds of Beck House, according to Mr Phelps. Proof of this lay in a 19th century account of a walk through the tunnel by Henrietta Cole-Elliott, unpublished of course, but thought to be among the papers deposited in our collection.

He had seen the watercolours by Mrs Fletcher showing the summer house and a tunnel, possibly unconnected but I knew she couldn’t always be trusted on the details. I said as much but he wanted to believe differently, as people sometimes do.




I promised to look through the boxes and Mr Phelps reluctantly left. I admit to being in a less than perfect mood that morning. I had finally been appointed to the post formerly held by my colleague and friend Marianne Collins only to be told by the Deputy Director that the new dress code applied to anyone who sat on the enquiry desk or went to meetings outside the building. I was not particularly happy about my new business suit and smart look but I imagined Marianne being quite amused.

Feeling a little guilty about not taking Mr Phelps seriously, I sat down with the Elliott boxes, wearing a warehouse coat and the white archive gloves and looked at every item, checking them against the deposit list. There was no sign of the tunnel account but to be thorough I also went through all our copies of Mrs Elliott’s books. I frittered away some time reading passages from her faery novel but finally got back to business and the last thing I looked at was a large format edition of Esoteric Churches of London (1905) with many photographs. Stuck to the rear endpapers by some desiccated Sellotape was a pamphlet entitled “Traveller’s notes for Lady Beck’s House”. It came away from the book in my hand. The title was so intriguing that despite the air conditioned coldness of the room I settled down in the most comfortable chair with my overcoat draped over my shoulders to read the whole thing.

“For the amateur Traveller Lady Beck’s house presents a particular challenge. At the present time the house is quite empty and lacking in furnishings, particularly the many carpets and wall hangings which were sold at auction when the Lady became a widow. There is no atmosphere to speak of, aside from the feeling of abandonment. I saw no sign of the celebrated tunnel. I found no portals”

There, then – no tunnel. Surely that settled it? I decided to ignore the reference to portals. I have heard quite enough about doors which lead to unexpected places. Marianne has been gone for more than a year and her flatmate Blanka hasn’t been seen for some time. I miss Marianne but not her friend.

Mrs Elliott goes on to say. “Adepts of the Trick will imagine Beck House and wish fervently that it had survived into the age of photography. Or that the strange combination of light and chemicals had occurred to some savant in the previous century. Miss Collins has hinted that the higher adepts had employed other methods, a workaround she called it, an example of her idiosyncratic phraseology.”

She moved on to a discussion of another matter. Nevertheless, I felt the already cold room turn chillier at the thought that this Miss Collins was the same as the one I knew. I put the book aside and let my mind wander off, thinking about her and her sudden departure. I wished I had Blanka there to ask questions.

I picked out a copy of the standard edition of the book and went through both side by side. Closing time rolled round and the motion sensitive lights went out one by one until I sat in a single cone of light, the rest of the basement room in darkness. I put my arms into the sleeves of the coat and buttoned it up before continuing. I did this as surreptitiously as possible out of a superstitious desire not to trigger the lights. By the end of each copy I was exhausted, and I could easily have missed it. But when I forget myself and stretched out my arms several lights went on and I could see the rear end-papers of the de luxe edition more clearly, and the bulge where something had been pasted over. I used a craft knife to cut a slit around the bulge and carefully removed a small envelope. On the front, in neat copperplate handwriting was written my name

Inside was a single piece of card, with fancy edges.

“Beck House, Putney Heath.

Miss Kristina Jones is invited to a fancy dress ball for Halloween, on Thursday 31st October 1906.7.30pm”

On the back was a printed notice: “Lady Beck recommends Mrs Matilda Stuart’s Photographic Studio and Costume Hire, Brompton Road.

I put the card and the envelope together in a larger envelope which I put in the inner pocket of the overcoat. I didn’t dare put it in my bag, out of an irrational fear that it would vanish or get stolen. I keep a change of clothes in my locker but I didn’t want to linger in the building. I looked up at the picture we call “The Cross Dressing Count”.


I let myself out the back way, my coat belted up and my hat pulled down low as if I was trying to disguise myself.


I had no desk duties or meetings the next day so I dressed in my usual clothes. I subjected the card and the Cole-Elliott collection to some routine enquires looking in street directories and the ephemera collection and particularly looking for photographs. I actually found what looked like the Stuart studio, and several images of Brompton Road from that period. I also tracked down a picture of Henrietta Cole-Elliott in one of the Fletcher family albums.



I didn’t show the picture to any of the others at the Institute. I didn’t want any of them to tell me that the woman next to Henrietta wasn’t Marianne. I knew it was.

Then there was the question of getting to the ball. I knew about Marianne’s ex, Daniel and had even met him once. And I’d spent a few evenings at Marianne’s flat. At the end of an evening, when the creepy flatmate had gone off she had told me about the Trick. And that was how I could get to the ball

If you can believe it, I can explain the Trick quite easily. Some people can use photographs as gateways to other times and places. Marianne’s ex was one of them. And according to her, so was I. She told me this when we were both tired and slightly drunk. The memory had a fuzzy frame around it as if I could easily choose to believe it was a mistake or a misunderstanding. Or it could suddenly sharpen and I could see that my view of reality had been fundamentally altered. She had told me about the first time Daniel had used the Trick. And now it was my turn

I looked through some photos of Brompton Road which looked like they came from the right period. I settled on a couple from a collection by Ernest Milner who took pictures of streets for the new railway companies who were building deep level tube lines beneath them. . I wondered if I could use one of them



There was no problem with a costume. I used to work at the Sekmet Gallery in Holborn. The photographer Aiofe Campbell had an exhibition of her Goth pictures there. The staff all wore elaborate Euro-Goth costumes for the opening, paid for by a Dutch TV company. We kept them. So on Saturday morning I put on a vaguely 18th century outfit, some appropriately gloomy make-up and sat down at the table with the picture in front of me.



The main problem was taking the idea seriously. But after a few minutes I calmed down and allowed the picture to take over all my attention. I ignored the white letters showing the date at first but then changed them in my mind. I imagined the view in 3D. I heard distant sounds clattering. At the last moment there was an unfamiliar smell, quite pungent. I felt myself leaning forward.


The clattering was the wheels of a wooden trolley being pushed along the street. A man in dark clothes wearing a peaked cap was pushing the trolley walking beside another man in an overcoat. A woman in black with a pale face across the road stared at me but showed no sign of seeing me appear out of nowhere. The two men looked at me and shared some joke, but they didn’t seem hostile. I grabbed the skirts of my dress on both sides and walked onto the main road. It was early in the morning. There were a few people about, mostly men, but a few women in dark, heavy dresses, or skirts with white blouses. Everyone looked at me, but no one spoke. One young woman in an elaborate wide brimmed hat smiled at me and nodded. I nodded back. I looked at the shop fronts, noticing the numbers. It wasn’t long before I reached Stuart’s studio.


I had to wait for it to open. A young woman in an ankle length artist’s smock let me in and called for Mrs Stuart a middle aged woman in the white blouse and skirt combination. I couldn’t imagine how they dressed like that every day. My costume was bulky and a little tricky to move around in but it had been made in the 21st century. Compared to the women around me I was lightly dressed.

Mrs Stuart looked me up and down as if gauging how I would look in one of her photographs. I showed her the invitation, now a hundred years older than any other example.

“You’re rather early Miss Jones. But I suppose you had no way arriving at a more convenient time. Please, come into the studio. Many of the guests are coming here today in costume to have their portraits made. You can wait here. Some of us are travelling by automobile, and I know Mrs Hope-Elliott would want me to extend every courtesy to a special guest.”

She was formal, but friendly. If she knew where I was from I must have been an object of great curiosity. Perhaps she was even a little worried. I spent the morning sitting in a hall. Once I’d seen one picture done I didn’t need to stay in the studio and drawer attention to myself. For a while a morose teenager sat with me waiting for her mother.


I carefully took a few pictures on my phone. I was particularly taken with a group of witches.


The day passed. Mrs Stuart put on her own costume.


Four of us got into the rear of a substantial vehicle shut into a cab with curtained windows while a chauffeur and a uniformed attendant sat in front. Mrs Stuart drew the blinds but I knew where we were going, and took a peek as we crossed Putney Bridge. Something was happening in the distance



The new Beck House must have been a step down for the widowed Lady Beck, but it was still a large property. It was only late afternoon

[Picture withdrawn – B. Azdajic]

Inside I started shaking at the thought of actually seeing Marianne who had traveled so far from home and was now presumably stuck in the wrong time. Inside my dress was a packet of photographs I had taken only yesterday and printed on high quality paper. That should be all we would need I assumed. I jumped when I saw her.


But when she hugged me I realised that she had simply made a bit of an effort for the costume party. I asked her what I considered to be the obvious question.

“Couldn’t you just have sent me a letter? Wasn’t it all a bit tenuous? I could easily have missed that invitation.”

“Well, when you send a message across a hundred years you have to be sure it only gets to the recipient.”

“Haven’t you heard of solicitors? Don’t you remember that bit in Dr Who? The guy in Blink who comes to the door?”

“You have to make sure that no-one else gets the message. I’ve been on quite a journey. When I wanted to come home I thought of you. But I had to hide my intentions from anyone else who might be interested. Blanka thought any of the living in the Third City could do the Trick, but she was wrong”

Now that I’d found her I was much more impressed by the Trick and wanted to show off.

“I’ve got a bunch of photos with me. And my phone. Does anyone use those to Travel? I’m ready when you are. Back in time for a tuna melt at that place you like.”

She kept her arm round my shoulder.

“There are a couple of things to do here first. We can’t go from this house anyway. . And like I said, there are other interests involved, and a few obstacles. We’ll have to get past some of the guards.”

She looked out of the window at the Heath. I did the same.


As she said, still a few obstacles



The picture of Ms Jones is a detail from a photograph by the German photographer Luna Feles.

Normal service will be resumed next week.


Bignell at work

I’ve been having trouble with the post I was going to do this week. I had the pictures I wanted to use but I couldn’t find the right way to write about them. I came into work on a Saturday and while I was waiting for the computer to finish the things it likes to do when I log in the cursor alighted on a folder of pictures by John Bignell, a not quite random selection of images which showed people doing various forms of work. So almost immediately I decided not to force the other post into existence but to let Bignell take the reins. We haven’t had a Bignell post for a while so why ever not?

As always with Bignell he moves from the world of art and artists in which he had many friends to a more ordinary world of shops and street stalls where he appeared to be equally welcome. Here is the sculptor, Loris Rey at work in his studio in 1959.


We’re lucky to know the date of that picture. In others you have to infer from the picture itself when it might have been taken. In this case the late 1950s or early 1960s is as close as you can get.


An old school  milk float with a perky horse pulling milk, a man and a dog. You can imagine Bignell wandering the streets setting up pictures like that as he came across people he might have known, or struck up an acquaintance with, but on other occasions it looks like he was invited.



Everything looks clean and modern in this picture but it has an undeniably period feel to it. It’s sparse compared to a modern operating theatre.

Back on the streets, a rare colour picture taken in the old World’s End area.



Sea food al fresco. The St John’s Church Hall visible in the back ground and the green grocer’s stall we’ve seen before.

This is another street stall much further east along the King’s Road.



The three people posing for the picture look eminently recognizable (if anyone knows them?)

Not far away from that location, a flower stall.


Thank you Madam, says Bignell. The lady herself is clearly not quite sure what he’s doing, and why she’s in the picture.

Bignell also went into shops. Here a grocer slices meat.


And Loris Rey works on something else.


Here is a shop which is possibly devoted to Japanese goods, complete with a kimono-clad member of staff.


Bignell was forever popping into art shops and small galleries.


Framing work done here. Half a notice on the subject is visible in the door.

Art supplies available here. The picture below may be at Green and Stone, the long established shop on the King’s Road.

Bignell was in  butchers.


And fish shops


A 1970s look to that picture – the woman’s hair (and the guy with his back to us whose hair is getting good in the back as Frank Zappa used to say). And see the slogan – “Go to work on an egg”.

More hair in this picture where Bignell looks in a a barbers (“well groomed hair”).


And a classy looking florists.


The Pottery. Anyone remember that one?


Bignell even looked at used car lots. This one was where the new fire station on the corner of Dovehouse Street was built.


Finally, some actors at work.


I wonder what she made of it all?




I know sometimes a Bignell post can seem like a random selection, but there’s always something interesting there, even in the most throwaway  sort of pictures.


Note the little figure of the girl in leg braces, a charity coin box, in the background. Those used to be everywhere. The two women are crossing to the south side of the King’s Road possibly near Glebe Place (E A Fownes is now My Old Dutch).

Have fun identifying some of these locations.

Next week there will be another guest blogger for Halloween so I make no guarantee about factual accuracy.

Thomson and Shakespeare: into the woods

We had a look recently at a Shakespeare comedy through the eyes of W Heath Robinson and saw a dark and fantastic view of the play. This week we’re back in lighter territory with Hugh Thomson’s illustrations for As you like it. (1909)

The play is another of those stories where the heroine takes on a male identity. There is even more confusion and a greater number of frustrated lovers in the play than in Twelfth Night and at the end Rosalind gathers them all together like a drawing room detective not to name the killer but to marry them: herself and Orlando, her best friend Celia and Orlando’s brother Oliver, a pair called Phebe and Silvius and the clown/fool Touchstone with a girl called Audrey. It all takes place in the Forest of Arden, a sort of rural paradise setting, and although there is some actual danger and threat from time to time the story has plenty of scope for Thomson’s favourite subjects and places: attractive young women, foolish young men in a rural setting.

At the start of the play he depicts a kind of classical / medieval scene with several pictures of Rosalind and Celia. Here they join the crowd watching the wrestling.


The two friends wear ethereal / angelic robes (Celia is the dark haired one) and they live in some kind of ornamental garden. Italian gardens were already familiar to contemporary British and American readers. The novelist Edith Wharton had written a book about them with photographs and illustrations by the artist Maxfield Parrish (1904). We saw some of those big urns in the post about Twelfth Night.


Rosamund and Celia look particularly attractive in this picture as they bid farewell to Orlando. Rosalind is about to be banished and Celia to accompany her into the Forest of Arden. They opt to change their clothes and adopt new identities as they go on the lam, into the woods.

Here they are in their disguises with Touchstone, the clown/fool of the play, looking already tired out by the exertions of their flight. “O Jupiter, how weary are my spirits.”(Rosalind)


And disheveled, in a bohemian sort of way. Celia looks like she could stroll down any 21st century street without causing any time paradoxes. (Actually, according to this article in the Guardian she’s right on trend.)

Thomson was pretty good at depicting characters who are tired, exhausted or just lazing around. (Don’t take my word for it. Look back at some of the other Thomson posts. He loves to draw people resting. As below)


The shagged out trio are observed by the local animal life.

Below, being tired has shaded into some serious sleeping overlooked by some supernatural characters. Thomson illustrates the line spoken by Rosalind: “Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.” as she decides to become a man for the purposes of their journey.


Thomson used nymphs, cherubs, satyrs and others in his pictures, especially in the decorative black and white drawings. I’ve put a group of those together.


In this picture we’re back in that ornamental garden, to illustrate a line from a speech by Jacques. (“If ladies be but young and fair they have the gift to know it.” ) Compare this with Robinson’s pond/fountain in Twelfth Night.


Still in the woods there is time for some clandestine sneaking around as Rosalind and Celia spot Orlando.


And then emerge to have a bit of fun with him. Rosalind:”I will speak to him like a saucy lackey and under that habit play the knave with him.”


Now here are some of the other members of the cast: barefoot Audrey, another wild child, having some goat problems in a picture reminiscent of some of Thomson’s illustrations for the Admirable Crichton (a 20th century look at social identities, among other things).


And the lovely Phebe, tending to a sizeable flock of sheep. As I may have said before, Thomson was essentially a rural artist, and he loved the chance to depict country life.


I particularly like the sheep keeping an eye on one of its lambs.

As often happens Phebe falls in love with Rosalind-as-a-boy, scorning Silvius, who is love with her. The sheep find all this quite confusing.


Below we’re back to the diaphanous gowns with a confused bit of symbolism.


Rosalind says speaking of the depth of her love for Orlando “..that same wicked bastard of Venus that was begot of thought, conceived of spleen and born of madness, that blind rascally boy that abuses everyone’s eyes because his own are out, let him be judge how deep I am in love.”

As usual, Thomson has wandered off from the main thrust of the plot in the last section of the play. (He’s not the only artist who does this. Is it a kind of “no spoilers” policy, or has he lost interest?). Touchstone calls upon two pages belonging to the exiled Duke. “Come sit, sit, and a song”. His own intended, Audrey sits with them.


The song they sing is a well known one: “It was a lover and his lass…”


Like Robinson, Thomson ends with a clown’s song. He declines the opportunity to show us the goddess Hymen who officiates at the multi-character wedding.

It’s a good picture but I wasn’t satisfied with it as a finale. So I saved this final colour plate for you from the first act. Imagine Rosalind and Celia, still best friends, back in the decorative grounds of that villa wearing their white robes and still looking pretty decorative themselves.


So that’s our end. And here is the title page, where mischievous minor supernatural entities, one rural and one a bit more urban, meet for a closing tune.



I think that “As you like it” is one of Thomson’s most successful projects. There are 40 colour prints in all in the book so it’s well worth having a look at.

The second part of the title of this post is of course a reference to the Buffy episode where she breaks up with Riley, rather than the Sondheim musical.

Thomson’s work on the Merry Wives of Windsor is also pretty good. You can see a few of the pictures here.

We never got around to mentioning “All the world’s a stage” etc. But then Thomson didn’t choose to illustrate it either.

I’m resolved to leave Thomson alone for a couple of months. We may return to Shakespeare. But I have set aside some pictures from another Thomson book for a near Christmas post

Before the Westway: a North Paddington skyline

This week we have the long awaited return of my occasional co-blogger Isabel Hernandez who grew up in the area  sometimes called North Paddington and has many memories of it as it changed in the years around the building of the Westway. Like myself she has been looking closely at the photographs of Bernard Selwyn.


The city skyline changes over decades much as mountains change shape over centuries. Our small local areas, places we call home, or used to call home, places we are familiar with, are no different. These urban cityscapes seem to undergo a makeover every fifty years or so. From the overcrowded terraces of the Victorian period to the later concrete brutalism of the 1960’s, we are now witnessing the era of glass and mirrors built in angular shapes in what is now contemporary modern architecture.

Still, the shadows of the past remain in photographs and to continue with my study of the Westway (Paddington-side) I thought I would share with you a few more images of this corner of London before the infamous Westway motorway was built.

Below is a panoramic view of North Paddington bordered by North Kensington at the top. You can see the Kensal Gas Works and the St Charles’ Hospital tower, formerly the Marylebone Infirmary. [Click on the image to see a bigger view]

The Great Western Railway to the left cuts unimpeded through the built-up area.


This is the same view a a short time later. The second tower block – Oversley House – is under construction.


Below,a closer view. In the background you can see Ladbroke Grove bridge more clearly, connecting North Kensington to Paddington. If you look closely there is also a footbridge on the left that appears to have a tree growing out of it. Obviously it isn’t, but from this angle the bridge resembles a horizontal chute. It wasn’t a very appealing crossing, but it was a shortcut through to Westbourne Park and North Kensington. I made use of it many times, sometimes late at night, probably not a very wise thing to do with hindsight, but it saved time. The dilapidated Victorian houses, a stark contrast to their taunting new neighbours, await the bulldozer. Nowhere was there a more densely packed neighbourhood than in this part of Paddington.



The houses come down and a temporary wasteland is created, with the exception of these houses in the foreground. They do seem a little grander than the terraces behind them and I wonder why they are still standing at this point when their neighbours have been demolished



The strange case of the solitary houses. I suspect they were slightly more upmarket than the usual fare in the area. There is also the interesting feature of the residents coming and going as has always been their routine perhaps; shopping or simply getting from one place to another. The lady (left of the house) probably had no idea she was being included in a photographic survey.




If you like trains, then the Great Western Railway before you would have been a spotter’s delight. Below is possibly Alfred Road or Torquay Street in the pre-redevelopment period. There is a builder, or certainly a very brave man,who appears to be intently prodding the side of a roof with a stick. By contrast an elderly gentleman with a walking stick is passing by, perhaps studying the changes in his area. Although there is a lot of pixilation when studying photographs at close range, when they are enlarged there is still enough to intrigue us.


The juxtaposition of the concrete towers to the dilapidated, slum terraces is a striking image – like two Lego blocks strategically placed inside of a crowded moat. Although you cannot see it, running parallel to the two tower blocks is the Grand Union Canal.


Below is a composite image of three photos showing the lower end of the Harrow Road. None of the shops seen here along the length of the long street now exist. Many have been replaced by the various convenience stores and take-away outlets you see today. On the corner of Bourne Terrace the Stowe Club was opened, now a doctor’s surgery and offices I believe. Many residents within Paddington and North Kensington did a lot of their shopping along the Harrow Road.

Westbourne Grove, by contrast (to digress a little), was more the Bond Street of the area with William Whiteley identifying the road as having future potential once the underground railway opened in 1863 and many more transport routes being opened up. He opened a small drapery in the area, tentatively doing what is essentially market research and gaining experience before expanding to what later became the department store, Whiteley’s of Queensway, attracting and catering for the wealthier clientele residing around Bayswater and Hyde Park.


Here is another image of the same area, magnified a little to give us more detail. If you look closely you will see the ‘Tardis’, a police box, no doubt placed there to keep an eye on things whilst the area was undergoing its concrete revolution. A billboard to the left advertising glue is almost comical given the toy-like remodelling we see from this perspective




In the picture below, the Post Office Tower, the highest building in London at the time, can be seen in the distance. It is almost impossible at this point to imagine the Westway being a part of this landscape. The Harrow Road here is clearly seen under an open sky. Within a few short years all of the buildings on either side of the Harrow Road in this image were demolished, and the Harrow Road itself partially covered by the huge motorway above it. Engineering ingenuity in the name of progress or engineering folly – a question that is still debated today.


Another composite image I pieced together looking north:



I had to include this one as it’s my old address – Gaydon House. I lived there for about 26 years. That is a long time to be anywhere. The rather forlorn, gothic-looking tree in the foreground appears in quite a few of the photographs before it was unceremoniously cut down to make way for more flats and other younger saplings ready for the next generation. All remnants of what came before, almost vanished within a ten year span.


Below is Westbourne Park Villas. It runs parallel to the Great Western railway on the other side of the tracks. The spire of St Matthew’s Church can just be seen to the right of the image and in the middle you can just about make out the dome of Whiteley’s. A little behind that is the dome of the Royal Albert Hall. On the left, along Bishops Bridge Road, are a series of buildings that make up what was known as The Colonnades up until recently, before Waitrose took over. Further back, (I had to really expand this image), you can make out the four chimneys of Battersea Power Station. After being derelict for many years, and a few investors later, it is now undergoing a major redevelopment: the usual combination of luxury flats and shopping outlets so typical of London now.


Here’s another view of Westbourne Park on the other side of the tracks, looking further west towards Notting Hill and Kensington – an interesting mixture of modern flats and late 19th century villas.




And finally, a colour image of the Harrow Road most likely photographed by Selwyn from Wilmcote House, the first tower block to be built of the six now in existence. Two buses (probably the number 18) can be seen making their way north. Interestingly there existed along the Harrow Road a 2 ½ mile track from Amberley Road to Harlesden around 1888 for trams. These were replaced around 1936 by trolleybuses and later still (1961-2) by motorbuses such as the ones you see in this image.


As always Selwyn’s wonderful collection of photographs fails to disappoint. Dave and I have posted a number of them now on the blog knowing that you will probably appreciate them as much as we do. Or at least we hope you do. The posts I have written thus far about this part of Paddington are obviously a trip into a past that pre-dates my tenancy there, but in my view, still feels so very familiar and nostalgic. Now, not having lived in the area for a few years, I feel more like an outsider looking in with an abstract knowledge of a community I was once a part of. What I realise when I look at historical photographs, is just how temporary everything is, and how changeable. The only forever in these instances are images such as these frozen in time. Perhaps this is why we always find them so appealing. A record of a slither of time that we witness much as a fictional Time Lord in a Tardis would. Except we do it without having to travel very far.



Thanks to Isabel for another fascinating post. I particularly like the panoramas she has created, something Selwyn himself used to do using the medium of sellotape. Once again, if anyone knows an easy way of adding an author in WordPress I’d be grateful.

I will spend my week off working on some new posts in an unhurried languid sort of way and return next week with some of the usual stuff.



Robinson and Shakespeare: dark humours

Back in February, in the post on Edmund Dulac’s illustrations for The Tempest, I promised a series of posts based on individual volumes in the Hodder and Stoughton series of special editions of Shakespeare plays from the first decade of the 20th century. It’s 400 years since Shakespeare’s birth, which is a round number but not especially significant. Except of course none of us are going to be around for the 500th anniversary, so we might as well make the most of the 400th. A few technical issues have interrupted my plans. However, I have now had a look at some more of the books and we can resume with a look at William Heath Robinson’s illustrations to Hodder’s 1908 edition of Twelfth Night.

Robinson is best known for his humorous pictures, children’s books, cartoons and of course the famous complicated contraptions for achieving commonplace purposes. (His name has become an adjective to describe cobbled together gadgets for all kinds of uses from the banal to the serious). Images like this:


But there was a serious and darker side to his work.


Robinson has a distinctly gloomy view of Twelfth Night, or what you will (first performed in 1602) as in this view of Duke Orsino alone with his thoughts in a deserted courtyard. “So full of shapes is fancy…”

This view of the lovely Olivia, his intended, being serenaded in song is also quite dark. Olivia’s beauty is glimpsed from a distance. “O when mine eyes did see Olivia first..”


“If music be the food of love, play on..” The first line of the play

Robinson’s biographer, James Hamilton says “The palette Will has used…is heavily restricted. Deep blues, greens and greys predominate in the moody night scenes, except when relieved by the reds and oranges of sunset. Will’s reading of the play is overcast, and even the relatively few day scenes are in a heavily dappled or otherwise subdued light….”


Over the page from the Duke’ first speech he is informed by Valentine that “The element itself, till seven years’ heat, shall not behold her face at ample view: but like a cloistress she will veiled walk”. Robinson depicts that line, showing Olivia as a Gothic heroine gliding over another checkerboard floor.  The pillars are highly decorated but the colours are sombre.

Nature is equally bleak. On the shore the  shipwrecked Viola utters the famous words: “What country, friends, is this?” before she decides to disguise herself as a boy.


Hamilton looks at a contemporary review in the TLS and describes Robinson illustrating “a stage production… rather than the action”, as below when the servant Maria introduces herself.


But at the same time there is a fantastic element in Robinson’s pictures which take the setting right away from the stage like the one below with its soaring trees and clouds, and brighter colours. (Although you could also see the frames in front of painted scenery.)


Robinson used an architectural frame several times in this set of pictures. Below, Feste the clown/jester, clearly Robinson’s favourite character, sits on a table amongst the glasses and jugs while one of the other cast members rests his head.


Framed again, he sets to work entertaining a subdued group of guests with a song. “Come away, come away, Death.” An indistinct fountain is in the background.


I, as you know, am just here for the pictures. Here is another brooding landscape. “I am slain by a fair and cruel maid.” (the same song)


The story of Twelfth Night is another of those comedies of confusion.Viola is shipwrecked, loses track of her brother, disguises herself as a boy, takes service with the Duke who is supposed to marry the lovely Olivia. Viola falls for the Duke, Olivia falls for Viola as a boy. This must have been endlessly entertaining for the original audience in the days when the female parts were played by men. A man acting as a woman who is pretending to be a man. So, plenty of gender tomfoolery and a love triangle. And of course the steward Malvolio gets tricked into wearing yellow cross garters to impress Olivia and making a fool of himself. Ha ha.

Here is Olivia, temporarily unveiled:


“But we will draw the curtain and show you the picture”

And the disguised Viola looking uncertain what to do next.


 “O time though must untangle this not I.”

Robinson seem to have seen the play as a dark sort of comedy. Below, Feste and Viola engage in banter by the side of a fountain.


For me. Robinson is something of a cinematographer in the way he sets up “shots”. Look at this one as an example of the way he worked with light and shade and the placement of characters. Not to mention a quality of picturesque decay. (the picture above, of Viola is another example.)


Generally speaking he avoids the big moments in the drama. But here is Malvolio in those those famous cross garters. Is Maria containing her mirth?


And here is a lovely aerial shot as though Robinson’s camera was sneaking up on the two characters.


For Malvolio it all ends badly of course, even bleakly. “They here propertied me; keep me in darkness.”


Robinson does give us another colourful picture where again the figures are secondary to the giant urns. Olivia and Sebastian (Viola’s brother – sorry for not mentioning him so far) have married, or are about to marry. (Viola and Sebastian look quite alike it seems, causing yet more confusion.). There is a happy ending in which both couples are together and they even remember to let Malvolio out of the dark room. (Although he isn’t very grateful).


After which in the last section of the book Robinson devotes all the illustrations to Feste and it’s pretty much gloom till the end. Robinson was a great lover of music and performing so it’s not surprising that he should choose to illustrate a line from one of the famous songs in the play- “the rain it raineth every day”


Although Feste is laughing it looks more like a manic laugh than one of unrestrained merriment. But that looks positively happy compared to this picture.


” Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gates”. It looks like we’ve wandered into King Lear.

So, although Robinson was one of the great book illustrators of his day it seems that his talents weren’t quite right for Shakespearian comedy. There are some striking images in the book, including several I haven’t space to show and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Robinson. He later did some magnificent pictures for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which better suited his sense of the fantastic. We may come to them sometime in the future. But in truth, this post has been for me a curtain raiser for some illustrations to that other cross dressing comedy, As You Like It, by this blog’s favourite illustrator Hugh Thomson. We’ll see those soon.


This is also a chance for me to remind you about the 2016 London History Festival. Along with the 6 main events between the 14th and the 24th November we have a Shakespearian prologue on November 10th in which Benet Brandreth talks about his novel The Spy of Venice.

Our final event on November 28th is a timely talk by historian Philip Mansel on the history of Aleppo. Details at:


and: www.londonhistoryfestival.com

I quoted from the excellent William Heath Robinson by James Hamilton (Pavilion Books 1995)


Earls Court days – Selwyn at home

Hogarth Road is opposite Earls Court Station. Walk up it away from the station and veer left. You’ll come to an alley called Hogarth Place. Take that and you’ll be in Kenway Road. Carry on walking and you’ll find a pedestrian way through to Cromwell Road, coming out near the Cromwell/Bupa Hospital. Cross the Cromwell Road and Marloes Road will take you to Wright’s Lane and ultimately to Kensington High Street. If you’re walking, that’s the quickest way. I’ve done it plenty of times to get from Brompton Library back to Kensington Library. I never fancy going all the way to Warwick Road to get the bus to the High Street. (They only go one way on the southern section of the Earls Court Road). So I know that bit of Hogarth Road and Hogarth Place quite well.  I hadn’t realised that this was the area our wandering surveyor Bernard Selwyn called home. He devoted a lot of time to recording building work, details of the walls and roofs  and pictures of the streets nearby from many angles.


Looking down Hogarth Road and Hogarth Place in May 1984. A typical day in early summer, the people heading towards and away from the Earls Court Road.


These are unlike many of his other pictures which are purely about the buildings. These are also about the individuals on the sreets.


The pictures come from 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1979. Arguably the end of what some writers have called the long 70s. Earls Court had a reputation for being a bit seedy, but also very lively.

The pre-occupations of the the shopfronts – food, flats and videos.


Cars parked in every posssible spot.


Short stay hotels and hostels.


Hanging around.


Looking at noticeboards:


Maybe a bit closer:


More hanging around:


Maybe waiting for something to happen.


I love that jacked up Merc.

Selwyn lived in an upper floor flat and had access to the roof, so he could take pictures like this:


And this (1979):


A similar view a few years later in 1984:


Life observed from a high perch.


And down at ground level.


Summer evenings at the pub.


I think someone spotted him taking the picture. I expect people were more relaxed about that in 1979.


Even on a wet November day he liked it.



But it was best in the summer.



I was intending something quite different this week but that is going to take a little longer and lots of people seemed to like Selwyn’s look at Shepherd’s Bush so I moved this post forward. The late 70s and early 80s don’t seem all that long ago to me. Do you kn ow any of the people in these pictures?

Or maybe that’s not so likely. The one thing that was true about Earls Court then was that many people came there and moved on just as quickly.

Oh and if the text seems a bit slight this week, my apologies. I’m at home witha cold. But the blogging never stops.

On the border 3: Selwyn in Shepherd’s Bush, 1971

We’ve moved right over the border this week, into the Borough of Hammersmith, as it was known in 1971. These pictures are a continuation of Bernard Selwyn’s work on the post-industrial  locations near the old Latimer Road and the St Ann’s Road area. It was natural for him to cross the West Cross Route and take a look around Shepherd’s Bush Green, and quite natural for me to follow him. The borders of London boroughs are set on maps but not always so distinct in the minds of people on the ground, as our excursions into Paddington have shown. Or I could just say that I liked the pictures, and wanted to show them.

As in a previous post, the originals are colour photos in a tiny format which nevertheless have survived the forty or so years since they were taken in good condition. Here are a couple showing the roundabout between Holland Park Avenue and Shepherd’s Bush Green.


A quiet moment on the roundabout.Was traffic actually this light in 1971?

Above, the towers of the Edward Woods Estate, which was and is in Hammersmith, although most of the roundabout is in Kensington and Chelsea.


There you glimpse a low slung car in an unflattering orange colour. I won’t ask anyone to try and identify it. And a Routemaster bus. We’ll look at that white building later.

Below, a woman in black trudges eastwards. See comment – I’ve amended her gender)


Below, a better view of that foot bridge over the light stream of traffic.


On the north side of the Uxbridge Road was a public house – The Mail Coach


And the building beside it.


In 1971 Kelly’s street directory lists it as the home of Sage CDO Ltd, an industrial holding company but it had formerly been the surviving entrance to the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908. A little more on that later.

Below you can see the modest entrance to Shepherd’s Bush tube station.


And, from the other side of the foot bridge, a closer look at the temporary looking structure. I’m outside my area of local knowledge here so I’d be happy for any residents of Hammersmith and Fulham to tell us how long the bridge lasted. I wouldn’t trust my personal recollections but I don’t remember it being there in the 1990s. (Later: but it was – see postscript).


Below, another lone passer by on those quiet 70s streets. You can just glimpse the towers of the Sage building in the distance, truncated after their glory days.


On the same side of the road was a relatively new shopping centre.


Note the branch of Liptons, a now defunct supermarket chain, and some brightly decorated To Let notices on a vacant shopfront. More of those below. (The Liptons company was started by Thomas Lipton who was also the founder of the tea company of the same same. Liptons were part of a group called Allied Suppliers. Many of their stores were re-branded as Presto,a name some of you will remember. Allied merged with the UK arm of the American chain Safeway. Many former Safeway stores are now owned by Morrisons, to bring the story up to date.)


A bit of a throng down there if you select the right angle as in the picture below. This secluded arrangement was typical of the period. Some Chelsea readers will remember the small enclave on the King’s Road opposite Royal Avenue where branches of Boots and Sainsbury’s sat in their own little precinct (with a piece of civic sculpture?)


If we turn back towards Kensington we can now have a look behind the Sage building.


As you can see, a series of large sheds extended back from the former exhibition entrance. Selwyn might have taken these pictures from his vantage point in the North Kensington residential tower block Frinstead House. He seems to have been interested in these connecting structures, which we saw in the previous On the Border post


They carried on through the railway lands, leading to the exhibition site and later to the White City Stadium, which is visible below.


Much of this area has been redeveloped now, and the Westfield Shopping Centre covers most of the ground up to those two redbrick buildings with sloping roofs you can see in the centre of the picture. They were engine sheds, which survive now as bus garages.

I was intrigued by the long sheds when I first saw them in Selwyn’s pictures. I’ve been told that they were used by a number of companies for a variety of purposes, as they had lots of space for displays. I think they also appear as a sinister location in Nicholas Royle’s novel the Director’s Cut. (Not quite a candidate for my Fiction in Kensington and Chelsea series of posts)

We can go back to Kensington now. Although this week’s post has taken us out of our core area of interest I felt impelled to present these pictures for you. They’re a continuation of Selwyn’s journey but also a glimpse into the full colour of 1971, on a sunny day in May when the past didn’t look quite as grim as black and white images sometimes make it appear.

Below, we can see the area at the south of Norland Road where a foot subway has cut away the end of the street. That cryptic tower structure may be some kind of access point for the infrastructure below. (The London Ring Main later passed underneath here) And those two young women dressed in white are also typical of the optimistic 70s.




I hope you liked our short excursion westwards. In Kensington and Chelsea we’re never far from one border or another. As with other pictures from this period, many of the buildings in the pictures are now gone. I’m looking at another Selwyn based post in the near future but that one will be well inside Kensington. Thanks once again to Maggie T.

Postscript to the postscript

Thursday lunchtime. @cfcaway sent this amazing picture showing the foot bridge in the 90s:


Thanks for that.


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