Untold lives blog

97 posts categorized "Arts and crafts"

29 November 2016

A music examiner’s tour of India

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Amongst the India Office Private Papers at the British Library is the personal diary of Dr Charles MacPherson.  A fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, and organist at St Paul’s Cathedral from 1916 until his death in 1927, MacPherson published a number of musical works.  The Library holds the manuscript of his Solemn Thanksgiving Te Deum for orchestra and chorus composed for the service held at St Paul’s to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Peace in July 1919.


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Charles MacPherson  -India Office Private Papers MSS Eur A93 Noc


In the autumn of 1925 MacPherson undertook a tour of India and Ceylon as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music.  His diary details the trials of travelling from town to town and his forthright opinions on just how foreign this nation and her people are to him, as well as moments of wonder at the beauty of the architecture or scenery.

Accompanied by his wife Sophie, MacPherson left Tilbury on 28 August 1925 bound for Bombay. The couple weren’t taken with the idea of a long voyage and ‘both thought the joys of seafaring overrated’.

MacPherson was keen to document any musical moments he encountered.  He described a ship’s officer playing the harmonium ‘whose left hand was greedy for more notes, that were always forthcoming though seldom possessing any connection with the “time-hand”’.  The crew and passengers formed a chorus, with MacPherson himself having to sing an octave lower than usual owing to laryngitis.

Arriving at Bombay on 18 September, MacPherson was immediately taken with the difference in appearance of the native people: ‘No two people looked or dressed alike …quaint old men wore white shirts, but outside of their lower garments. This custom would look odd in England with dress clothes!’



John H Doyle, View from St Paul’s School Darjeeling (1870) Photo 27/(91) BL Online Gallery Noc

The musician then undertook a programme of examinations that kept him so busy that he even had to turn down an invitation of lunch from the Viceroy.  His schedule took him to St Paul's School in Darjeeling, the highest school in the world at 7,600ft above sea level. In Bombay he visited ‘a girl’s school, good piano, birds flying about in the room’.  He found the town of Hardwar unsettling because it was 'infested with monkies’, wondering that 'these dreadful beasties are counted as sacred'.

In Delhi MacPherson commented; 'The old buildings are things to be wondered at, and seem to belong to picture books rather than reality. Ancient India must have been truly a wondrous country'. In Mysore he notated wedding music: ‘a marriage procession headed by a band consisting of a hand-drum, a tambourine, a native trumpet, a kind of cornet and a bagpipe. The really fine thing was the rhythm maintained between the hand-drum and the tambourine - something like...’

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India Office Private Papers MSS Eur A93 p.160 Noc


The MacPhersons continued onto Ceylon which they found, almost ‘Europe-like’ after India with the port ‘rather like Clacton-on- Sea, or a trifle less distinguished’.  Despite the tiring travels, the trip was deemed a success as he closed with ‘here ends the diary of a wonderful experience’.

Karen Waddell
Reference Specialist Cc-by

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers: Charles MacPherson Papers, MSS Eur A93
Solemn Thanksgiving Te Deum,  Charles MacPherson, Add MS 50776
The English Psalter ed. MacPherson, Bairstow & Buck (London, 1925) – 3089.a.5


16 June 2016

A dinosaur dinner and relics from 'one of the greatest humbugs, frauds and absurdities ever known'.

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These are the words which Colonel Charles Sibthorpe (1783-1855) used to describe the Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace. His staunch opposition to any foreign influence, including a deep suspicion of Prince Albert, was the likely cause of his dislike of the Exhibition, which housed 13,000  exhibits from around the world.


Lithograph published by Day & Son, 1854, showing the Crystal Palace and Park in Sydenham. Add MS 50150. Cc-by

The British Library Modern Manuscripts Department owns two volumes of letters, ephemera and artwork relating to the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace and its life in Hyde Park and later in Sydenham, South London. The collection contains posters, letters, tickets, photographs, drawings, newspaper cuttings and advertisements.

One of my favourite items is a letter dated August 27 1862 from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) to Edward Trimmer (1827-1904), secretary to the Royal College of Surgeons.

Hawkins was the designer and sculptor of the models of extinct animals and dinosaurs which were commissioned to stand in the grounds of the Crystal Palace after its move to Sydenham. To celebrate the launch of the models, Hawkins hosted a dinner on 31 December, 1853, inside one of the dinosaur models.


Baxter-type showing the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace, 1854. Add MS 50150. Cc-by

Trimmer had evidently asked Hawkins which dinosaur was the location of the supper party and Hawkins responded:

"In reply to your enquiry as to which of my models of the gigantic extinct animals in the Crystal Palace Park at Sydenham I had  converted into a sale á manger. I send you herewith a graphic answer in a miniature sketch of the Iguanodon as he appeared with his brains in and his belly full on the 31 of Decr 1853 and if you are further interested in the details of my whimsical feast you will find a good report in the London Illustrated News of July 7 1854 as its proprietor The late Mr Ingram was among the press of guests on that occasion; I had the pleasure of seeing around me many of the heads of science among whom in the head of the squadron was Professor Owen and the late Professor Ed forbes with eighteen other friends we were all very jolly to meet the new year 1854."

Hawkins' sketch of the Iguanodon shows a lively scene of people standing and raising glasses inside the body of the dinosaur.


Detail of the dinner party held inside the Iguanodon, from Hawkins' letter to Trimmer, Add MS 50150. Cc-by

The drawing is similar in composition to the wood engraving from the Illustrated London News which was taken from an original drawing by Hawkins, and shows the dinosaur surrounded by a wooden platform and steps.


 Wood engraving from the Illustrated London News, January 7 1854, showing 'Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham'. Add MS 50150, f. 225. Cc-by

The dinosaurs remain in the Crystal Park today and are Grade I listed. There's a brilliant Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs group who promote the long-term conservation of the models. A recent blog on the FCPD site shows images of the interior of the Iguanodon, the dinosaur in which Hawkins hosted his banquet.

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Manuscripts 1601-1850.

03 June 2016

‘My present dreadful situation’: The perils of fame as an 18th century actress

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Shakespeare in Ten Acts, our major summer exhibition for this year, tells the story of 400 years of Shakespeare in performance.  We tell the stories not only of the best known and most successful actors of the day, but also those who struggled to make a living and today have fallen from memory.

I curated the part of the exhibition showing women on the stage, from the unnamed first professional female actor who played Desdemona in Othello on 8 December 1660, right through to genderblind and genderqueer casting in the last few years. 18th century female actors typically came from difficult backgrounds and went on the stage through a lack of social options, and were discarded by theatre managers and the public when they became a little older.

The Folger Shakespeare Library has generously loaned us a number of items of memorabilia relating to female actors in this period. The cult of celebrity around the performers meant that women were evidently clamouring for domestic items such as a decorative tile with Jane Lessingham as Ophelia in Hamlet ...


© Folger 241098 ART (realia) (B2d). Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


...or a perfume bottle with Ann Barry as Constance in King John -

Tanya BL14.4.16_082

Items loaned  by the Folger Shakespeare Library


...or even an enamel medallion featuring George Anne Bellamy with David Garrick, as Romeo and Juliet -

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David Garrick and George Anne Bellamy in Romeo and Juliet. Based on a painting by Benjamin Wilson engraved by Ravenet. Enamel, ca. 1765 © Folger Shakespeare Library

I found George Anne Bellamy’s story the saddest. She was a star of the Covent Garden stage, particularly successful in romantic roles. She was extremely popular with the public, and when a rival actress was cast as Cordelia in King Lear, Bellamy arranged for handbills to be distributed to the audience, stating that the part had been taken from her the previous night but that she would ‘be ready in case I should, that evening, be honoured with the preference'. The crowd cried in her favour and she was waiting in the wings to replace her humiliated rival.

This might seem like an unsisterly act, but the stage was a cut-throat business for women and the crowds could be very fickle. Indeed by her late thirties, Bellamy’s fame was beginning to fade and she was plagued by gambling and lifestyle debts. She had also had three illegitimate children.

I uncovered three poignant letters written by Bellamy amongst the private papers of Robert Clive at the British Library.

Bellamy 1

India Office Private Papers Mss Eur G37/94/1   Noc

The letters date from summer 1767, when Clive had just returned from India for the final time. Bellamy, recently released from a debtor’s prison, wrote to him begging for money. In the first letter, she explains that  ‘My having had too liberal an education for my fortune, I was induced to come upon the stage where youth, adulation and my natural vivacity, as well as keeping too good company, led me into unpardonable follies’. She wrote two further letters in increasing desperation and concern that the letters had not been delivered properly.  On the back of each of the three letters, Clive or his secretary wrote the words ‘no reply’.

Most of these women are almost entirely forgotten today, while their male counterparts who acted with them – David Garrick or Spranger Barry – are still relatively well-known. It’s nice to be able to tell these women’s stories for a change.

Tanya Kirk
Co-curator, Shakespeare in Ten Acts  Cc-by

Further reading:
India Office Private Papers Mss Eur G37/94/1 & 2  Letters sent from George Anne Bellamy to Robert Clive 1767


More about our stunning Shakespeare exhibition and the programme of events









29 March 2016

Let a Pineapple Speak For You

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The transmission of secret messages through codes or ciphers has throughout history often been a matter of life or death. One only needs to think of Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded for treason when her cipher was broken, or Alan Turing, who, by creating a machine to decode messages encoded by the Enigma, saved millions of lives in the Second World War.

For the expression of romantic emotions, less complex codes have found a wide usership. Most famous among these is perhaps the language of flowers. A beautiful example of a key to flower symbolism is this little book illustrated by Kate Greenaway.

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Greenaway 2Noc

Title and sample page from Language of Flowers, illustrated by Kate Greenaway. c.1884,

During the Victorian age, the language of flowers became extremely popular, which made it a widely understood means of communication. However, this rendered ‘floriography’ useless to anyone desiring to keep romantic communication private in order to circumvent parental disapproval or public humiliation.  The unknown author(s) of the 1854 Electro-magnetischer Liebestelegraph, oder neue Zeichensprache zur Verständigung unter Liebenden und Anderen (‘Electro-magnetic love telegraph, or a new sign language for the communication between lovers and others’) therefore believed a new secret language was required.

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Title Page from Electro-magnetischer Liebestelegraph oder eine Zeichensprach zur Verständigung unter Liebenden und Anderen. 8415.a.64

The exchange of ordinary items was encoded to transmit very specific messages. If the item was inconvenient, for example a postman or an oven, then a toy replica, a drawing of the item or the word alone was used. The author(s) took great pains to come up with whole sentences that could be signified through objects.

Electro-magnetischer 2Noc

The assigned meanings are supposed to resemble the ‘natural significance’ of their objects. A letter or postman means ‘awaiting a message from you’; a hand -‘desiring your hand in marriage’; a knife -‘your words have caused me deep pain’; a peacock -‘your vanity makes you unbearable’; an oven -‘being near you warms my heart.’ Curious examples include a Badewanne (bathtub), signifying ‘only from the moment I saw you did my life truly begin’; a Pantoffel (slipper) -‘to kiss you would be a punishment for me’; a Kaffeelöffel (coffee spoon) -‘when I see you, all my sorrows disappear’; a Biber (beaver) -‘if you can offer me a house of my own, ask again’; or an Ananas (pineapple) -‘nothing compares to the sweetness of your kiss’.

The author(s) of this work were aware that their code was not the most poetic way for the communication between lovers. Moreover, it is probably a good idea to take this Liebestelegraph with a grain of salt, as the text moves between helpful instructions and amusing banter. The appendix for example includes helpful suggestions of other ways for secret communication such as musical code (see image below), or hiding a message on a candy wrapper, which is an example for steganography (simply hiding a message), which constitutes the oldest form of secret writing.

Electro-magnetischer 3Noc

 Keeping the Liebestelegraph in mind, however, can also add a bit of secret fun to the exchange of ordinary items in everyday life. Perhaps the next time someone hands you a book, you should ask yourself: is he or she trying to say ‘let my pleading open your closed heart to me’?

Lena Böse
Intern, Western Heritage Collections Cc-by

Further Reading:
Simon Singh, The Science of Secrecy. The Secret History of Codes and Codebreaking. (London, 2000) YC.2001.a.11619

Visit the website of the Royal Collection Trust to learn more about the Victorians and floriography


14 January 2016

Tipu Sultan’s favourite son

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When Thomas Hickey sketched Prince Shukr Ullah on January 13 1801, this elegant ten year old boy’s life had just undergone a seismic shift. In 1799, when he was 8 years old, his father, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, had died in battle against the English East India Company.


WD3213 - Shukr Ullah, 7th son of Tipu. Inscribed, “Shuk’r Ullah Saheb, 7th and favourite son of the late Tippoo Sultaun and aged about 10 ½ . Jan 13 1801.” 


Tipu Sultan’s death brought the turbulent Mysore Wars to an end. The East India Company now controlled most of southern India. To ensure this victory, the Company’s next move was to quietly destroy Tipu Sultan’s family. The British placed a new, compliant ruling family onto the throne of Mysore, and Tipu Sultan’s potential heirs, his thirteen sons, were moved to Vellore Fort, the East India Company’s strongest fortress in the Carnatic.

According to the inscription on the drawing of Shukr Ullah, he was the “7th and favourite son of the late Tippoo Sultaun”. It is entirely possible that Tipu wanted this “favourite son” to ascend the throne of Mysore, but instead, he lived the rest of his life under house arrest. It is difficult to understand why the British found Shukr Ullah so threatening; At his young age, he probably hadn’t lived beyond the palace confines of the zenana.

Thomas Hickey’s sketch of Shukr Ullah was made into an oil painting, which is now in the Victoria Memorial Hall, Calcutta. It was part of a set of 16 portraits by Hickey, which were sent to Calcutta in 1804 to be framed and displayed in the Governor General’s residence. All 16 portraits depict Indian men and boys whose fates were altered by the British after the Fourth Mysore War. Shukr Ullah’s six older brothers were painted as part of this set, but his six younger brothers were not. Today, the 16 Hickey portraits are in Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial Hall and in Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi.

In July 1806, Shukr Ullah’s older brothers were implicated into a Sepoy mutiny at Vellore Fort. Soon afterward, their place of internment was moved from Vellore to Rasapagla, in Bengal. Shukr Ullah died there on 25 September, 1837 at the approximate age of 47.

Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia

Further Reading:
British Library, IOR/F/4/113, 2126. Pages 24L, 24M.
William Dalrymple. “Tipu Sultan: Noble or Savage?” The Open Magazine, 27 November 2015.


07 January 2016


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According to Picasso, a picture can serve as a stepping stone to other worlds.  A picture of a bookbinding, in itself a work of art, can do the same.  The thousands of images of bindings which the British Library released on Wikimedia Commons in August 2015 can take the viewer on unexpected journeys: to discover what Queen Elizabeth I’s books look like or to answer the question when is a binding not a binding? When it comes from Mrs Wordsworth’s wardrobe!  Robert Southey’s female friends were reputed to have covered his library books using dress fabric.

Scholars who appreciate the relevance of bookbindings to their field of study are familiar with websites which can help their research, for example the British Library’s image database of bookbindings but you do not need specialist knowledge to admire a bookbinding. 

  Bookbinding Collage

Serendipity occurs when we happen upon something amazing while seeking something else, and Wikimedia provides an exciting opportunity for bindings to be discovered in this way.  Publishing the Library’s bookbindings images on Wikimedia Commons means that they can be readily accessed and be easy to browse.  Hopefully the creative copyright commons licenced pictures will be available on other sites, guiding people to this fascinating but little considered subject.

At a time of limited resource, institutions can achieve a great deal with existing digital material, if they are prepared to be cooperative and generous. With this aim in mind, Mahendra Mahey and colleagues in BL Labs have explored how the bindings database could be exploited to reach a wider audience.   With the help of knowledgeable volunteers and students, notably Dimitra Charalampidou, who were given the opportunity of working with the Library’s technicians on real data (images and text), existing treasure troves were assessed, and others like Ed King’s research on stunning Victorian trade bindings were added, to expand the resource even further. We particularly thank Ed for his wonderful contribution.

The images are out there. We hope you enjoy them!

PJM Marks
Western Heritage Collections

View the collection British Library Bookbindings


01 January 2016

Happy New Year!

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To celebrate New Year's Day, here are pictures of two greetings sent to Sir Louis Dane when he was Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab 1908-1913.

The first is an illuminated address for New Year 1911 presented to Dane and his family by Pandit Deo Kak Shastri of Srinagar.

  New Year 1
MSS Eur D 1103/8/8   Noc

The second is a card signed by the Maharaja of Idar.

New Year 2

New Year 3

MSS Eur D 1103/8/8   Noc


Happy New Year!  We look forward to sharing with you many more stories from the British Library collections in 2016.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by


21 December 2015

The Singing Bookbinder: Roger de Coverly

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The bookbinding career of Roger de Coverly (1831-1914) seems to be characterised by a desire to leave it!  His apprenticeship with the flourishing firm of Zaehnsdorf’s was so “colourless and humdrum” that he petitioned for time off to study the violin. His name recalls a 17th century English folk dance but his passion was for music, not dancing, and this sustained him throughout his life.

Coverly image1

The British Book Maker vol V, no 6 Feb 1892 p179 Noc


Roger completed his apprenticeship (but left early albeit with Zaehnsdorf’s agreement).   He decided to try bookselling and applied to Mr Lilley of Pall Mall who could not offer employment but strongly recommended that Roger stuck with binding!  After assisting in a stationer’s shop, Roger rededicated himself to his original trade.

His next employment at John and James Leighton’s of Brewer Street provided more fun.  His fellows there shared Roger’s love of chess, which they played during their lunch-break and at meetings of the Bookbinders’ Amateur Chess Club founded c1852. Music was not neglected and Roger’s solo performance for the Battersea Vocal Association was commended in the Music Times of 1 March 1861.

When Roger established his own workshop (in Leicester Square and later 6 St Martin’s Court and 91 Shaftsbury Avenue), there was little time for the extra- curricular activities he loved.  As a one man band, he had to ‘forward’ and ‘finish’ the bindings himself.  His wife Elisabeth contributed financially by opening a school for young ladies.  Slowly, however, the bindings business began to flourish.  It was patronised by aristocrats, noted writers (for example T E Lawrence) and artists.  His style was rather conservative and retrospective but the good quality materials used and his stated goal, to bind “excellently rather than cheaply” made up for lack of originality, for some at least.

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British Library c108d11 Noc


William Morris wrote to the poet Swinburne in April 1882; “I am sending you by parcels Delivery, the North's Plutarch I spoke of: it is a very pretty edition, I think the first. Item, the bookbinder I told you of really rejoices in the name (or says he does, which is the same for our purpose) of Roger de Coverly: his address is 6 St Martins Court. He is not a man of any taste … but is careful, & will do what you tell him, & is used to dealing with valuable books”. (Incidentally, birth records indicate that De Coverly was baptised Edward Roger.)

Despite this lukewarm opinion, Morris’s friend T. J. Cobden-Sanderson chose to serve a short apprenticeship there from 1883-4. He later became one of the most influential binders in England.

Fortunately, Roger’s sons Edward, Arthur and William proved adept at bookbinding and bookselling.  By 1892, Roger was able to confess in an interview that “he does not now give his whole attention to his binding business, having besides one or two hobbies; he is an enthusiastic amateur musician and collector of old music … ; he has founded  two or three glee and madrigal societies and loves above all to take part in orchestral concerts or string quartets, varied with glee singing. He is a member of the Royal Choral Society".

The connection between the name of de Coverly and bookbinding lasted into the 1960s when H[orace] A. de Coverly was known to have bound, taught and written about the subject.  An example of his work can be seen in the Library’s online image database of bookbindings.

P J M Marks
Curator, Bookbindings; Printed Historical Sources Cc-by

Further reading;
Richard Ovenden, ‘An edition binding by Roger de Coverly for Alfred de Rothschild’ in Book Collector 47:1  1998 pp.79-82
The British Book Maker vol V, no 6 Feb 1892 p179-80.