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Enviable Minds, Extraordinary Turnips

June 2, 2016

As promised, guest post from Martyn

So… A few weeks ago I sent Julia a link to an interesting article in the Girl’s Own Paper, and ended up agreeing to write something about, as she put it, ‘the Victorian/Edwardian magazine possibly with reference to archaeology’. That seems to me like a hint that something responsible and serious is expected… And we don’t want anything like this to happen, do we?


So… Serious. Serious stuff only. Serious archaeological stuff. How about celebrities? Archaeological celebrities. Victorian archaeological celebrities. Serious ones. The Strand Magazine, home to such regular features as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, had a long-running series called ‘Portraits of Celebrities at Different Times of their Lives’ which, in January 1891, alongside the likes of Tennyson, Ellen Terry and H Rider Haggard, featured none other than Sir John Lubbock complete with a portrait of the man himself aged 28, an age when “he was already meditating his great work on “Prehistoric Times” – a book which has been translated into all the leading languages, and to which the writer chiefly owes his fame”. It was his mind which was to be envied by readers, obviously – a mind that “can find its interests alike in the great and the little, in the past and in the present – which can pass from the wigwam of a prehistoric savage to the London of today, and turn with equal gusto from canoes to County Councils, and from banks to bees”. Yes, bees. His enviable mind was greatly interested in their ‘mental conditions and powers of sense’, with the honey and beeswax an added bonus.

Interestingly, Lubbock appeared side-by-side in The Strand with Algernon Swinburne. They might at first seem strange bed-fellows, although their paths may have crossed as early as the 1860s when Swinburne was a member of the Anthropological Society of London. However, beyond noting the ‘fiery vigour’ of his poetry, and offering a passing comparison with Shelley, there is no allusion to Swinburne’s various lifestyle issues beyond his verse. No celebrity tittle-tattle; no monkey-business.

Leaving aside some fin-de-siècle flint-mining stuff*, my own extensive, serious, and very sensible use of Victorian and Edwardian illustrated magazines really began when I was researching the book that I wanted to call ‘Mata Hari’s Glass Eye and Other Tales’ but wasn’t allowed to**. Making the point that aerial photography had a long, long history before the aeroplane would have been rather difficult were it not for the almost simultaneous development of the half-tone process and the first Kodak, along with the increased social acceptability of ballooning during the last years of the nineteenth century. Suddenly aerial photography was easy-peasy, mechanically reproducing the photographs likewise, and – crikey! – the photographer was probably from the ‘right’ background too! And in most cases, while the original prints, plates and negatives have proved somewhat elusive, in the sense that none have turned up yet***, the half-tones in magazines like The Strand or The Graphic are still knocking around in libraries, archives and, of course, on Ebay. If only more of them had been available on ten years ago. I had to make do with actual physical objects with real pages and covers.

So I got to read about Griffith Brewer who, on 9th May 1891, photographed Millbank Prison from a balloon – as Helen pointed out, a panopticon photographed from above with a ‘detective’ camera, as the early Kodaks and their competitors were often known. The prison was demolished around a decade later, news I had to break gently to one editor who wanted to know if we could send someone up to get a better view.


Millbank Prison, adjacent to the Thames, in May 1891, as photographed by Griffith Brewer from the balloon ‘City of York’, piloted by Percival Spencer. The earliest Kodak photos were circular.

My favourite balloonist-photographer is definitely the Reverend John MacKenzie Bacon, who took to ballooning in 1888, drawn by its potential as a platform for what he liked to think of as scientific experiments. He was keenly interested in studying the properties of sound, which generally meant explosions. He would either arrange for explosions to happen on the ground, so he could record, measure, assess, pontificate etc from the air; or he would let off explosives from his balloon basket. Ideally, he would combine the two and really make a day of it. He always took a camera up with him (and the first Kodaks used a roll of film capable of 100 exposures) and illustrated lectures and illustrated magazine articles became a key source of income. Consequently there’s a lot of this sort of thing:

MB3Trafalgar Square from 2000 feet, probably August 1901

But there’s also things like this, published in The Graphic on 29th November 1902, and captioned “First view of Scotland”, which wasn’t completely accurate, as the existence of Scotland had been more than a rumour for some time.


Bacon, whose daughter Gertrude was almost certainly the world’s first female aerial photographer, also turned up in December 1900 in Good Words, a magazine with quite a strong emphasis on religion. He was describing an all night vigil at Stonehenge one midsummer, probably in the 1880s, watching the rise and fall of both sun and moon in relation to the stones (astronomy was another interest). He left Salisbury Plain satisfied that he had indeed spent the night in the ruins of a rude observatory. Later, he became the first man to fail to photograph Stonehenge from the air.

Although there’s plenty of interest in these magazines to interest the historian of archaeology, it can take a while to find anything of either direct or indirect relevance. It’s also very easy to get distracted along the way by the tales of adventure, romance, travel, vegetables, celebrity and murder, but it’s (almost) always very uplifting. It’s also somewhat prone to being prolix, verbose, abstruse, garrulous, loquacious and, at times, rambling and needlessly repetitive. Never dull, though.


Julia provided some links that might be of interest. The Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (yes, the RSVP) and its journal, the Victorian Periodicals Review, are well worth a look too. Probably the best known illustrated magazine as far as archaeological content is concerned, the Illustrated London News, is accessible in a variety of places and to varying quality – try here, for example, or via Gale for a fully searchable high-res version if your institution subscribes (I get free access through my local library). There’s loads loads more and the Victorian Web, as recommended by Julia, is as good a place to start as any. As is this. And this. This might come in handy too. And finally, here’s a penetrating analysis of one of those Victorian texts that labours the point somewhat.


* In prep, as always.

** Do take care to shop around.

*** Stop Press

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathleen Sheppard permalink
    June 3, 2016 1:58 pm

    Martyn–excellent, fascinating, and as always, very serious. Thank you!! My favorite quote, and the last part of which I may begin to use in daily parlance:
    “He would either arrange for explosions to happen on the ground, so he could record, measure, assess, pontificate etc from the air; or he would let off explosives from his balloon basket. Ideally, he would combine the two and really make a day of it.”


  1. ICYMI: @HistoricEngland’s Martyn Barber is #Serious | Adventures in History and Archaeology
  2. A History of Aerial Photography and Archaeology (and moustaches) | HARN Weblog

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