Carte-de-visite of the week #3             Priscilla Bright Maclaren

This cabinet card shows Priscilla Bright McLaren (1815-1906), the fifth of eleven children of Jacob Bright, who worked in the Rochdale cotton business, and the sister of reforming MPs John (1811-89) and Jacob Bright (1821-99), and the temperance campaigner and suffragist Helen Bright Lucas (1818-90.) Born on 8 September 1815, she was educated in York and Liverpool, spending much of her early life assisting her family with both domestic and political activities.

In 1848 she married Edinburgh politician Duncan McLaren (1800-86), who was later the city’s Lord Provost as well as Liberal MP from 1865 to 1881. They lived at Newington House, in Blacket Avenue. McLaren had already been married twice and had several children, including Charles and Walter – both MPs – and medical pioneer Agnes McLaren (1837-1913), the tenth woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor; she converted to Catholicism in 1899 and helped set up medical missions for women in India. In all, a remarkable family who contributed greatly to welfare reform, women’s suffrage and other philanthropy. She supported Josephine Butler in campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Act, which was eventually repealed in 1886.

Her husband died that same year and was buried in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard. Ten years later she joined him there, having died from pneumonia on 5 November 1906.

This card was signed by the illustrious old lady in 1900, inscribed:
‘With much love to her young friend, Dennis Kirkpatrick [?], from Priscilla Bright McLaren, aged 86.’ It is stamped with the name of ‘Moffat, Edinburgh’, which suggests it was the work of Frank Pelham Moffat, son of the well-known photographer John Moffat (1819-94.) It may have been taken by one of his assistants – it was a large studio business with many employees – but it seems unlikely that the anyone else but the head of the firm would be entrusted with taking the portrait of such a revered Edinburgh character. The photograph has evidently been taken in her room at Newington House. In the background are several family portraits, including one of her brother John Bright. Can anyone identify who the young woman is portrayed in the marble bust on the right?

Scattered Thoughts on ‘The Elephant Man’

Poster for ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980)

It has been many years since I last saw The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980), and a considerable time too – although somewhat less – since I last sat in a cinema with tears in my eyes. Last night I revisited both experiences, thanks to a special screening of the film as part of Exeter University’s Screentalks series. What follows below is just a series of scattered thoughts and impressions, written without the usual care applied to my blog posts.

Sometimes The Elephant Man is described as an anomaly in Lynch’s oeuvre, its period setting, factual basis and star-studded cast distancing the film from the highly original and darkly surreal narratives of his other projects. Such an opinion seems convincing on paper, even in conversation, but when watching the film on the big screen one cannot fail to be impressed by the powerful motifs familiar from other David Lynch movies: the bleak monochrome industrial landscape and off-screen synthesised drones of Eraserhead (1977), the use of dream sequences and visions reminiscent of Wild at Heart (1990) or an anxiety about the infernal worlds that lie beneath and behind the respectable facades of society, disturbingly portrayed in Blue Velvet (1986.)

In her introductory talk, Corinna Wagner drew attention to the Gothic elements of the film, including the preoccupation with dark secrets, with what is hidden behind the surface. Episodes during Merrick’s early period in the hospital evoke Gothic tropes, such as the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre or the ‘horror behind the door’ of Bluebeard. 

The threat of ‘what lies beneath’ is depicted quite literally in several sequences, where the camera appears to drop beneath the streets of London to glimpse a labyrinthine network of tunnels and serpentine pipes, shadowy chambers in which we occasionally spy blackened half-naked men slaving away in fiery pits or labouring over mysterious Victorian machines, the purpose and function of which remain obscure. Again, these sequences recall the lady in the radiator in Eraserhead but also the unnerving opening shot in Blue Velvet when Lynch shows us the subterranean horrors that lurk beneath the white picket fences and smiling firemen of small-town America.

One might argue that there was enough horror within damp, dank, smoke-filled squalor of industrial London, without the need for any further Gothic mystery – but it was growing anxiety about such urban nightmares that encouraged authors to use cities as their setting for ghastly tales. Eighteenth century Gothic stories contrasted the civilization of the city with the dangers of the countryside, a place under the sway of strange customs, primitive superstitions, lawless brigands and feudal tyranny, not to mention unmapped forests, inhospitable terrain and wild animals. Technological progress in the Victorian era may have brought a degree of enlightenment, but at what cost?

Near the beginning of the film, we see Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins) operating on a man who has been injured in a machine accident – another sign that modern technologies brought new dangers as well as benefits. He remarks to his colleague that they will be seeing many more of these injuries in the future, one fatal drawback of machines being that ‘you can’t reason with them.’ There is a sense here that man is caught between two contrasting, inhuman threats: the irrationality of primitive nature (darkness, wild beasts, madness and the like) and the irrationality of modern technology. Despite his attempts to master them, ultimately he cannot claim to control either. Many of the classic Gothic tales contemporary with the period in which The Elephant Man is set – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Dracula (1897) blend modern science and the supernatural within contemporary urban settings. Darwinian theories about evolution may have seemed daringly progressive, but they were backward-looking too: for if modern man had evolved as part of a long and gradual process, then what distinguished him from animals was a matter of degree rather than a distinction in kind. Surely such a mutation could move in the opposite direction as well?


The Pig-Man (Buster Brodie) in ‘Island of Lost Souls’ (1932)
The title The Elephant Man is an obvious indication of anxieties about transgressing boundaries between man and beast. Similar fears played out in H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), in which a crazed scientist attempts to create humans through surgical operations on animals. Characters included The Dog-Man, The Leopard-Man and The Ape-Man. It was made into a film, The Island of Lost Souls (Erie Kenton, 1932), starring Charles Laughton as Dr Moreau and also featuring Bela Lugosi – emphasising Paramount’s wish to link the film with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies from the previous year. The possible fusion of man and beast is further alluded to in The Elephant Man by the animal costumes worn by the performers in the theatre show attended by Merrick. While playing with the notion of the ‘noble savage’ there is an obvious contrast made between Merrick’s gentle, civilised soul trapped in a deformed body, and the bestial, inhuman behaviour of porter Jim (Michael Elphick) and his able-bodied friends. This is also paralleled in the kindness shown Merrick by the dwarves and ‘circus freaks’ in Belgium, who join forces to free him from his cage and help him return to England. It’s all very reminiscent of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) – which incidentally starred Leila Hyams from Island of Lost Souls – in which the murderous deceptions of the able-bodied trapeze artist and strongman are defeated by the humanity and kindness of the deformed performers (dwarves, amputees, a ‘bird-woman’ and Siamese twins – played by Violet and Daisy Hilton who feature in my book A Carnal Medium.) Lynch’s films, of course, have frequently included characters with physical disabilities – such as the main character in The Amputee, the radiator-lady in Eraserhead, Ed (Blue Velvet), Juana (Wild at Heart) or Arnie (The Lost Highway.)

I wrote a little about Victorian freakshows in a previous post, and The Elephant Man makes the same point as I did: much as we like to distance ourselves from the insensitive vulgarity of those showground spectacles, modern media is not really that different in its commercialisation of all manner of forms of human tragedy, and we as audiences often share equal guilt in our consumption. In the film, Treves’ conscience begins to trouble him after visitors start flocking to see Merrick at the hospital: he recognises the truth of the accusation of hypocrisy made by Merrick’s previous ‘mentor’, the showman Bytes (Freddie Jones) – are not both men, in their own way, exploiting Merrick for their own ends?

What sort of man was Treves? There is actually a copy of his December 1923 obituary in the scrapbook that I wrote about in last week’s blog post. Reference to ‘The Elephant Man’ appears in the second half of the tribute.

Treves and Merrick first met in November 1884, and it is not hard to equate his rapid rise thereafter with the publicity generated by their association. By 1902 the respectable doctor had been granted the rank of baronet, and this surely shaped his perspective on the events of the 1880s. The film claims to be based on Treves’ 1923 memoir, The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences, and the depiction of London’s ‘lower’ classes is far from flattering. Recently I came across Raphael Samuel’s essay ‘Modern Gothic: the Elephant Man’ in Theatres of Memory (1994) which dissects the use of class stereotypes in the film, and argues that Lynch has in fact created a ‘fairy tale in documentary form.’ The Elephant Man is unashamedly moralising and sentimental, playing with our emotions sometimes in ways we might associate more with the director of E.T. than Eraserhead, and the fairytale element is impossible to deny. One cannot watch the scene with Merrick and famous actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) without being reminded of Beauty and the Beast…
...which reminds me that the next Screentalks event is a screening of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946) on Monday 9th February. I’m looking forward to that already.

Piper Laurie – Happy Birthday!


It is hard to equate the photograph below with the puritanical character of Margaret White in Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) with her negative opinions about ‘dirtypillows.’ Today’s blog post looks at the career of Piper Laurie, who was born in Detroit on this day in 1932.

Piper Laurie making her debut in Universal’s family comedy ‘Louisa’ (Alexander Hall, 1950) in which she played Ronald Reagan’s daughter
Born Rosetta Jacobs, she moved with her family to LA when she was six, and her acting career began with a few bit parts at Universal Studios, to whom she was eventually contracted in 1949. After the studio changed her name to Piper Laurie, she had her first big success with Louisa (Alexander Hall, 1951) in which she starred opposite Charles Coburn and Ronald Reagan.


Another Universal publicity photograph

Several other supporting roles followed in the early 1950s, including pairings with the likes of Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, but dissatisfied with the work she was getting, Piper upped sticks and moved to New York. Here, she spent three years at drama school, developing greater depth as a character actress. Her experience and maturity was further boosted by appearing on stage and in live television dramas on Playhouse 90 and Studio One.

She was lured back to Hollywood to play Paul Newman’s depressed girlfriend Sarah Packard in The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961.) Her strong performance as the tragic alcoholic short-story writer – blending sadness, bitterness, fragility and a sense of desperate inner strength – earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress – the first of three Academy Award nominations, none of which (to the everlasting disgrace of the panels) she would win.

As Sarah Packard in ‘The Hustler’ (1961)
Despite the critical success of The Hustler, Laurie stayed off the big screen for the next fifteen years, moving out to live in Woodstock with her husband – film critic Joe Morgenstern – and limiting herself to television and stage work while raising a family. She returned in 1976 with Brian de Palma’s Carrie, delivering another intensely theatrical performance that – as with Sarah Packard – gave much-needed depth and vulnerability to a character that could easily have been a two-dimensional caricature. She was nominated for an Oscar, but once again was unsuccessful, while Sissy Spacek – who played Carrie – went off with the award for Best Actress. The two actresses were reunited almost twenty years later in The Glass Harp (Charles Matthau, 1995), playing sisters Dolly and Verena Trumbo in Truman Capote’s gentle tale of small town life in the 1930s.


With Sissy Spacek in ‘Carrie’ (1976)
Unsurprisingly, offers to play maternal roles came in thick and fast after Carrie. Although some of these were for domineering or scary mothers, such the Agatha Christie mystery Appointment with Death (1988) and the giallo thriller Trauma (Dario Argento,1993), more serious work was also on offer: she got her third Oscar nomination for her performance as the mother of deaf girl Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God (Randa Haines, 1986.) As one might expect from a film about deafness, even though Laurie’s character can hear, she expresses an inordinate amount of meaning and emotion through subtle body language.


As Mrs Norman in ‘Children of a Lesser God’ (1986)
As the years flowed on, Laurie graduated to playing grandmothers in films such as The Dead Girl (Karen Moncreiff, 2006), Hounddog (Deborah Kampmeier, 2007) – both of which are rather too reminiscent of Margaret White repeat performances – and Hesher (Spencer Susser, 2010), as well as finding time to direct a short film, Property (2006)
Although the above survey gives some idea of the range of her talents, none of her performances was as bizarre as her role in the first two seasons of David Lynch’s television drama Twin Peaks. The first season was normal enough (relatively speaking of course – this was Twin Peaks), with her playing the part of Catherine Martell, the vengeful wife of Peter Martell (Jack Nance) who found the body of Laura Palmer. At the end of season one she disappeared in a blazing timber mill, and when the second season opened in September 1990 without Piper Laurie’s name on the credits, most people assumed her character had died and Laurie had left. However, in a characteristically Lynchian twist, kept secret from both the audience and cast, both were in fact present. On the set was an actor named Fumio Yamaguchi who spoke barely a word of English, and was playing the part of Japanese businessman Mr Tojamura. This was in fact Piper Laurie, dressed in a suit and disguised in heavy make-up including a black wig and moustache.

Twin Peaks will be back on the small screen in 2016, with stars including Kyle McLachlan and Sheryl Lee confirmed as returning for a new nine-episode series to be co-written and directed by David Lynch. There has been no mention of Piper Laurie returning, but then again – the same could be said of season two…

Many Happy Returns!

Mrs Tattershall-Dodd and the Octopus


One of my more interesting recent acquisitions is a 1920s scrapbook containing a diverse assortment of press-cuttings, covering topics such as Siamese twins, mysterious skeletons, local antiquities, unusual animal behaviour, freak weather and other tales of that ilk. There are several reports of odd behaviour by animals, from cannibalistic buzzards to long-lived cats, but while browsing through the pages the following story caught my eye for the simple reason that it was printed 93 years ago today. It is reproduced below without further comment.

Carte-de-visite of the week #2                       Frank Meadow Sutcliffe of Whitby

The Water Rats (1886)
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe Hon. F.R.P.S. (1853-1941) is best known for his photographs of Whitby – views that capture the landscape, including the iconic abbey, as well as the daily life of fisherfolk and other inhabitants of the Yorkshire town. Many of these images – such as The Water Rats (below) – were widely reproduced and imitated, enhancing Sutcliffe’s reputation and attracting droves of amateur photographers to Whitby. As a sign of his high standing amongst pictorialist photographers, he was invited to join the Linked Ring shortly after its foundation in 1892.
Equally interesting to me was the back of the card – not, for once, because of the ornate detail or florid artwork, but because of the minimalist simplicity of the design:
Sutcliffe’s cards bore many designs over the years, and typically they were adorned with details of all the awards he had won, and his claim to call himself ‘Photographer to Mr Ruskin.’ By contrast, there is almost nothing here, not even an address or advertisement – just his name, town, and two little animals…
Sutcliffe’s reputation as an art photographer means that it is easy to forget he also ran a portrait studio in Whitby from 1876 to 1922. There was a tendency among pictorialists to look down upon professional photographers for reasons of both aesthetics and social class. Sutcliffe is unusual in running the two traditions in parallel for such a long time, and there is no questioning the very high quality of his portrait work. Those who sat for him would have been both locals and visitors; judging by the cut of his coat, the customer who sat for this portrait may have been a clergyman.


What sort of creature is this supposed to represent? It reminds me very much of the mythological beasts with which medieval scribes adorned the marginalia of illuminated manuscripts. Most cdv backings were designed by commercial printers, using lithography to reproduce stock images; the photographer could then choose a template onto which business particulars could be added.

In this case, however, it seems certain that the back of the cdv was created by Sutcliffe – for some personal reason that remains as yet unclear.