A Monk and His Movies

 Some notes on the 50th anniversary of the death of Abbot Wilfrid UpsonOn this day fifty years ago occurred the death of Abbot Wilfrid Upson OSB (1880-1963), the first abbot of Prinknash Abbey near Gloucester, and author of Movies and Monasteries in USA (Gloucester: Prinknash Abbey, 1950), about which I wish to write in today’s blog. As some of you may know, I have been researching the religious applications of film and photography for many years. and am particularly curious about the way these arts were used, interpreted and criticised by clergymen in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Abbot Wilfrid is a little bit unusual in that – as well as making 16mm home movies -he travelled to Hollywood and took an inquisitive interest in the workings of the film industry.

John Henry Neil Upson was born in London on 28 June 1880. His family belonged to a Nonconformist sect, The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, and kept a strict Sunday observance that saw books and toys packed away from Saturday night to Sunday morning. In his late teens he became interested in the Church of England, attending High Anglican services at St Augustine’s, Stepney, where the name of the Pope was included in the prayers. He got involved in youth work, running clubs for boys at the St Frideswide Mission in Poplar as well as travelling to Kent to help with evangelical missions for the hop-pickers in the fields. A large marquee was set up in which they held concerts during the week and, on Sundays, religious services at which he played the harmonium and helped lead prayers. Adopting a classic pre-cinema technique, a large lantern sheet was erected in the middle of a field on which to project devotional images such as the Stations of the Cross.

While Upson was engaged in these activities, a young Anglican medical student named Benjamin Fearnley Carlyle (1874-1955) was struggling to establish a tiny monastic community at a house in the east end of London.  ‘Br Aelred’ as Carlyle called himself, was by no means the first Anglican drawn to religious life: the tradition stretches as far back as Nicholas Ferrar’s community at Little Gidding. The 19th century saw a surge of interest in monastic life, spurred on by the Gothic revival in art and architecture, the influence of Romantic literature, and the religious ideals of the Oxford Movement. From around 1845 Anglican Sisterhoods began to rise up under the direction of men such as J.M. Neale and Pusey. The development of religious life for men was later and slower. ‘Father Ignatius of Jesus’ (Ignatius Lyne, 1837-1908) made the first serious attempt in the early 1860s, followed by the Society of St John the Evangelist (‘Cowley Fathers’) in 1865, the Community of the Resurrection (1892), the Society of the Sacred Mission (1893) and the Society of Divine Compassion (1894.)

By 1896 Aelred Carlyle had gathered around him a few sympathetic young Anglo-Catholics at ‘The Priory’ in London’s Isle of Dogs, where an idiosyncratic form of monastic life was combined with pastoral work among the working boys. They had to leave this house in 1898 and over the next few years the community flitted from place to place, gathering and losing members, changing its habit from black to white to Cistercian black and white. In 1906 they returned to Caldey Island, where they had spent a short interlude in 1901-2. This was to remain their home for the next 22 years.

Having joined the Church of England, John Upson gradually felt he had a vocation to the religious life and contacted the Superior of the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire. After he failed the Society’s medical, he recalled seeing a magazine called PAX which was being printed at Kelham. This was the magazine of the monks of Caldey, and so he contacted Aelred Carlyle to enquire about joining their community instead. They met for an interview in London, after which Upson arrived on Caldey Island in April 1908.

Carlyle’s vision was influenced by the romantic medievalism of his time, and the community became closely associated with the contemporary Arts and Crafts movement. Work carried out by the monks included painting, woodcarving, sculpture, stained glass manufacture, pottery, calligraphy and metalwork. Br. Wilfrid felt at home on Caldey, and was able to develop his artistic skills with pen and ink sketches and small watercolours. He excelled at other visual media too, organising theatrical productions of medieval Passion Plays during Lent that were performed by the monks as well as local islanders. This took place for many years and became well-known. Writing in Time and Tide magazine, Miss Christopher St. John enthused: ‘Not since Gordon Craig’s Masque of Love have I seen such harmonious grouping and movement . . . the great achievement of the Caldey Passion is that visions are created instead of illusions.’ He was in fact adept at illusions too, as he had learned a number of conjuring tricks and enjoyed entertaining the community with magic shows.

The monastic life led on Caldey Island went far beyond what was generally accepted within the Church of England, combining spartan austerity with observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict, full Roman liturgy involving incense and Gregorian chant in Latin. Tension grew between the community and the Anglican authorities, which eventually led to a parting of the ways: in 1913 almost the entire community converted to Catholicism. Although in some respects this made life much easier, the community was severed from its Anglican friends and benefactors, many of whom felt grieved at the loss of the money they had invested in the unfinished building projects. It soon became apparent that the financial situation was dire.

Aelred Carlyle was ordained priest and returned to Caldey to be blessed as the Benedictine Abbot of Caldey in October 1914. He struggled on for seven years before resigning and moving to Canada where he spent the next thirty years doing missionary work in Vancouver. While the local bishop assumed jurisdiction over the monastery, Wilfrid Upson – who had been ordained priest in 1915 – was appointed Prior. To sort out the financial mess, Pius XI asked the Abbot General of the Cistercians if he could purchase Caldey, as the Benedictines had been offered a home at Prinknash Park near Gloucester. They moved off the island in 1928, floating the wooden refectory tables over the water to the mainland and transferring all their goods to the Tudor mansion of St Peter’s Grange at Prinknash, the former home of the pre-Reformation Abbot of Gloucester Abbey. In 1929 the community joined the Cassinese Congregation of the Primitive Observance. This was, and remains, the largest of the Benedictine congregations with houses all over the world. The peculiar background of Caldey had made the community reluctant to abandon their own ideals and practices, and they were resistant of being absorbed into a highly centralised order. Exhausted by the strain, Fr. Wilfrid resigned as superior and went to act as chaplain to a community of nuns in Westgate-on-Sea.

Monastic life continued to flourish at Prinknash and when the monastery was raised to the status of an abbey in 1937, Wilfrid Upson was elected its first Abbot. The community grew to such a size by the early 1940s that it was necessary to open overflow houses at Bigsweir and Millichope. Plans were also put in motion to start new foundations at Farnborough and Pluscarden, in addition to building a new monastery at Prinknash. Much of the building work was carried out by the monks themselves and Abbot Wilfrid recorded some of these activities in his home movies, which he shot on a 16 mm camera. He took still photographs too, and continued to enjoy sketching and painting. The community were regularly entertained with his film-shows, recording visits to places of interest – such as Lourdes – as well as scenes of monastic life. Arranging the new foundations required him to travel outside the monastery, making site visits, negotiating with lawyers, contractors and benefactors, as well as trying to raise funds from Catholic parishes, guilds and societies. This was particularly challenging in postwar Britain, given the scale of the abbot’s projects, and it seemed sensible to cast his net slightly wider. And so it was that Abbot Wilfrid, accompanied by his subprior Fr. Norbert Cowin, sailed to New York in November 1947 on a fund-raising trip that would last six months, cover some 20,000 miles, and involve two separate visits to Hollywood.


The abbot with matinee idol Tyrone Power (left), swashbuckling hero of The Mark of Zorro (1940), Prince of Foxes (1949) and The Black Rose (1950).

Picture‘All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up…’

Here, Cecil B. DeMille – director of sits between Abbot Wilfrid (left) and Fr. Norbert (right). DeMille began directing in 1914 and was the first Hollywood director to become a celebrity in his own right. His films include several Biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments (a silent version in 1923 and a very different Technicolour film starring Charlton Heston in 1956), The King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Samson and Delilah (1949.) They also met with Sam Goldwyn and the Warner Brothers, Harry and Jack.

Considerable time at these meetings was spent discussing moral issues, as debate over the power of cinema – for good or for evil – had become an important topic of debate amongst Catholics. After its reception into the Catholic Church, the Caldey community shared the tendency of many converts to become ‘more Roman than Rome.’ Sensitive to what many Catholics might regard as a Protestant past, the monks were keen to prove that they were as thoroughly orthodox in matters of doctrine and morals as any other Catholic religious institute. As Abbot of Prinknash, he took a generally conservative standpoint on points of theology, although this was moderated by his aesthetic tastes and serious interest in film and art: qualities which were not shared by everyone involved in making decisions on what should or should not be shown on the screen. During his visit he met with Joe Breen (1890-1965) – who for many years was responsible for implementing the so-called Hays Code – as well as Fr. William  Masterson and other members of the Legion of Decency. Both Breen and the Legion campaigned vigorously against what they perceived as being objectionable or morally offensive content in films. Abbot Wilfrid also attended a private screening of the recently released Forever Amber, which starred Linda Darnell as Amber St Clair, an orphan who sleeps her away to the top in 17th century England. Upson thought it ‘A film of much artistic merit but unworthy of the art of the cinema.’ Kathleen Winsor’s novel was in fact much racier than the film, which was edited and watered down in response to condemnation from the Catholic church. Roughly the same thing happened in America that year to Black Narcissus – perhaps cinema’s finest fictitious portrayal of monastic life.
Quite apart from his interest as a film-maker himself, Abbot Wilfrid had an official role in such matters as Chairman of the Catholic Film Society. Dominican priest Fr. Ferdinand Valentine O.P. founded the Society in 1934, shortly after the formation of the Legion of Decency. Both organisations were responding to growing Catholic concern about the moral content of films, which had been highlighted in a section of Pius XI’s 1929 encyclical on education, Divini illius Magistri. The Production Code had been drawn up the following year, but a perceived failure of its efficacy led to the Legion being set up in 1933. Another papal encyclical Vigilanti Cura (1936) was dedicated entirely to the topic of motion pictures, setting out provisions for each country to have a National Reviewing Office that would monitor film production.  In England, the activities of the Catholic Film Society were more practical. Initially, they organised film shows of religious and general interest, screening religious documentaries and other short films; gradually this shifted to providing information and discussion of mainstream films, reviews of which were published in the monthly magazine Catholic Film News. After fading away somewhat during WWII, the Society was revived and reorganised in 1946 with Upson elected as Chairman.


Abbot Wilfrid’s visit was a mixture of religious discussion and film shows, as well as (it must be said) a great deal of socialising, even if this was undertaken for a good cause.  Before leaving Hollywood he managed to assemble a seventy-strong audience for a screening of his own colour Kodachrome 16mm film, Abbey Builders of the 20th Century, which was accompanied by a talk on the community’s history.

Abbey Builders had been filmed in 1940, and incorporated footage of some of the great English ruined abbeys – such as Rievaulx and Fountains – which were then juxtaposed with shots of the overcrowding at Prinknash. The abbot was shown discussing with the other monks the need to build a larger monastery, followed by close-ups of some of the monks looking doubtful or asking one another sceptical questions. Other scenes include the laying of the foundation stone, vignettes of daily monastic life that emphasised the manual skills required for the building work, and a lovely sequence where a rainbow breaks over Prinknash – no doubt Abbot Wilfrid really was hoping for a pot of gold at the other end.

Amongst the audience were Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon (right.)
Cinema goers were used to seeing them together, both on the screen and off it, as they were good friends in real life and played a married couple in no fewer than eight films: Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Mrs Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), Mrs Parkington (1944), Julia Misbehaves (1948), That Forsyte Woman (1949), The Miniver Story (1950) and finally Scandal at Scourie (1953.) They were just the sort of screen couple of which the League of Decency could approve – wholesome, virtuous, morally upright, mutually supportive, kind and courageous. Little surprise that the abbot was smiling.

Others who watched the abbot’s film included movie columnist Louella Parsons, Loretta Young (fresh from playing opposite David Niven and Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife), Ruth Hussey – who played the photographer in The Philadelphia Story (1941) – and Pat O’Brien, a former altar boy who was cast as a priest in several films, including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Fighting Father Dunne (1948.)  Most of these stars were Roman Catholics, either from birth or -like writer Clare Booth Luce, who invited Abbot Wilfrid to her house – adult converts. Luce had been received into the Catholic Church in 1946, two years after losing her young daughter in a car accident, taking to Catholicism with the same zeal she applied to all her work. In 1949 her screenplay Come to the Stable was made into a film, starring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two French nuns founding a children’s hospital in the New England town of Bethlehem. Abbot Wilfrid met Loretta Young again before leaving Hollywood when Louella Parsons organised a tea party for the two monks, inviting the actress and her husband producer Tom Lewis, along with Maureen O’ Sullivan, Irene Dunne and Mgr Patrick Concannon of Good Shepherd parish, Beverly Hills.  The group may all have appeared highly pious, but their personal lives were often more tangled than those of the characters in their films, and some of Loretta Young’s early films might have brought a blush to the abbot’s cheeks. 


The only disappointment at Louella’s tea party was that she had a 35mm projector and the abbot was therefore unable to show the guests any of his 16 mm films. In addition to Abbey Builders he had taken his colour film of a day in the life at Prinknash Abbey, which was titled (after a local saying) As Sure as God’s in Gloucestershire.

The two monks took their leave of Hollywood in March 1948 and spent the next few weeks journeying east, visiting monasteries in Kansas, St Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington before reaching New York from whence they returned to England. In terms of raising funds the expedition fell short of expectations, but this did not prevent the foundation at Pluscarden going ahead. A special Mass was celebrated at the ruined monastery in Moray on 8 September 1948 to celebrate the return of monastic life to the spot, after almost 400 years. Abbot Wilfrid was there with his camera:

Fr. Norbert was appointed Superior of the Pluscarden community in 1951, a post he held until 1961, which was the year that Upson stepped down as the Abbot of Prinknash. He died two years later, on 23 October 1963. Requiescat in pace.
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Seasons of Mist

This was the view from my bedroom window a couple of days ago, and when driving up through the Exe Valley last week I noticed thick banks of white mist hanging over the fields to the side of the road and thought of Keats’ lines in Ode to Autumn:
Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.

Autumn is almost upon us now, and I like the pleasing contrast between the white mist and the piles of bronze and gold leaves that are starting to accumulate on the ground. I call it ‘mist’ rather than ‘fog’ because I’ve always associated the latter with the sea. Strictly speaking, however, the distinction lies in visibility: fog is thicker than mist, and there is a precise point at which one becomes the other.  Hill-walkers, drivers, seafarers, pilots and others have good reason to dislike such treacherous conditions: routes are hidden from view, dangers concealed, sounds are muffled and distances become hard to judge. Fear of what lies within the mist, or fog,  is also a familiar trope from the worlds of film and literature. Perhaps the most notorious example would be London’s ‘pea-souper’ fogs, which have provided the atmosphere (literally) for numerous acts of murder and skulduggery by Victorian villains.


Contrary to popular belief, Conan Doyle never used the term ‘pea-souper’ in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Another common misconception is that the Whitechapel murders ascribed to ‘Jack the Ripper’ took place in thick fog, when in actual fact the killings ceased during the month of October 1888 – the only time when there really was a pea-souper.  These murders provided the inspiration for Hitchcock’s silent thriller The Lodger (1927)starring Ivor Novello as the suspected serial killer. Its full title is The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. Although Novello’s appearance matches the description of the killer as ‘wearing a scarf over the lower part of his face’ (left), many Londoners at this time would have masked their faces in the same or similar ways to protect themselves from the damp unhealthy air. Is the lodger the killer? Viewers’ inability to decide  is just another aspect of the fog’s power to dull our powers of perception.


There is more confusion over mistaken identity in the film Footsteps in the Fog (1955), set in the early 1900s and based on a short story by W.W. Jacobs, the author of the classic horror tale The Monkey’s Paw. It starred the then husband and wife team of Stewart Grainger and Jean Simmons, caught up in a dark plot of murder and blackmail.
The basic set-up – murderous husband teaming up with flirty maid – recalls the dysfunctional household in Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight which was filmed in 1940 by Thorold Dickinson and then remade in Hollywood in 1944.  Again, fog is used to hint at villainy – when we first see Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) leave the house and sets out on one of his nocturnal missions (below).


Sergeant Rough, wrapped up against the London fog with the same thoroughness as Ivor Novello – although falling short of the latter’s sartorial elegance – is able to use the fog as a cover for following Mallen as he crosses the square.


Gaslight was set around 1885, but as late as December 1952 thousands of Londoners died during a dense smog that enveloped the capital for several days. This led to the Clean Air Act (1956) which sought to banish black smoke in urban areas through the introduction of smokeless fuels. It took many years, but London’s pea-soupers eventually became a thing of the past. Times were changing in other ways, as the televised Coronation in March 1953 encouraged huge numbers of British households to invest in TV sets. The 1950s are now regarded now as the ‘golden age of science fiction’ and programmes made for television began exploring themes of space travel, frightening technology and strange creatures from other worlds. Most of these were aimed at young audiences, but a six-part series The Quatermass Experiment – broadcast in six half-hour episodes on Saturday evenings in July-August 1953 – was aimed at adults, and proved amazingly popular: when the last episode was broadcast on 22 August 1953, audience figures were estimated  at around 5  million. The film industry took notice, and Hammer Films bought the rights, releasing The Quatermass Xperiment in cinemas in 1955. In America, it was renamed The Crawling Terror and was equally successful.

Although less famous, The Trollenberg Terror followed a similar trajectory to Quatermass. Occupying the same Saturday evening slot, it was broadcast in six episodes between 15 December 1956 and 19 January 1957, and then quickly bought up and remade into a film for release in 1958. In America it was renamed The Crawling Eye, possibly to capitalise on audience’s familiarity with the Quatermass film, although ‘crawling eyes’ is a perfect description of the monsters. Their appearance, however, is concealed until the end of the film by a cloud of mist; this aspect of the film, one might argue, was a direct influence upon later horror films such as The Fog (1980) and The Mist (2007.)

Most of the action takes place on the Trollenberg, a mountain in the Swiss alps which has been partially covered by a mysterious cloud that remains static over the south slopes. The phenomena is being monitored by scientists from a nearby observatory, led by Professor Crevett (actor Warren Mitchell, soon to become better known as Cockney bigot Alf Garnett), who has detected high levels of radioactivity in the cloud. This is not the only sinister happening: since the cloud’s appearance, mountain climbers have been found with their heads torn off. Crevett is joined by his old friend Alan Brooks, a United Nations expert who investigated similar goings-on in the Andes three years earlier.  He arrived at Trollenberg along with two sisters, Anne and Sarah Pilgrim.


Anne Pilgrim (played by the lovely Janet Munro) is in fact telepathic, and has just finished performing a mind-reading show in London with her older sister Sarah (Jennifer Jayne.) Later, Anne’s psychic powers forge a link with the alien creatures in the mist, allowing her to visualize events on the mountainside and direct rescue operations. The aliens sense her power and try to have her killed by human ‘zombies’ whose minds they control. The presence of the sisters is one of the more intriguing elements in a film that – although full of absurdities – I have enjoyed watching several times.


John Carpenter saw The Crawling Eye as a child, and provided at least some of the inspiration behind his film The Fog (1980.) During their commentary for the 2002 special edition DVD of The Fog both he and producer Debra Hill refer to it as one of their favourite films. Carpenter’s image of the fog billowing under Dan O’Bannon’s doorway and entering his room is just one of several incidents that are reminiscent of those that took place on the Trollenberg. Another source of inspiration was a visit to Stonehenge made by Carpenter and Hill in 1977 when they witnessed a fog bank ‘just sitting on the horizon, way past Stonehenge’ causing Carpenter to wonder ‘what if there’s something in that fog?’

The malevolent beings concealed within the fog are, in this film, ghostly rather than alien: exactly one hundred years earlier, in 1880, the founders of the Antonio Bay community lit false beacons to lure a ship onto the rocks – a cruel trick allegedly employed by wreckers in Devon and Cornwall in years gone by (as depicted in Jamaica Inn for example), although there seems to be little documentary evidence to support these tales. All those aboard died in the wreck, but their vengeful spirits have returned on the night of the town’s centenary celebrations, and are intent on claiming the lives of six descendants of the original murderers.


The horrific killings take place within an eerie bank of glowing fog, that rolls in from the sea. As in The Trollenberg Terror the cloud of fog defies nature, moving against the wind. Local radio broadcaster Stevie Wayne (played by Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau) plays a key role in the night’s events, as her radio station is located in a lighthouse overlooking the bay. From this vantage point she is able to provide a running commentary on the inexorable progress of the fog to her listeners. For me, the most memorable part of the film is listening to her voice:

               ‘It’s moving faster now, up Region Avenue, up to the end of Smallhouse Road…just hitting the outskirts of town…Broad Street…Clay Street… It’s moving down Tenth Street, get inside and lock your doors, close your windows…there’s something in the fog. If you’re on the south side of town, go north. Stay away from the fog…Richardsville Pike up to Beacon Hill is the only clear road. Up to the church. If you can get out of town, get to the old church. Now the junction at 101 is cut off..if you can get out of town, get to the old church. It’s the only place left to go. Get to the old church on Beacon Hill.’

Oddly enough, in James Herbert’s novel The Fog an empty church is also a place sought for sanctuary – but it is the fog that takes refuge there, rather than its victims. Apart from sharing the same name there is no relation between Carpenter’s film and Herbert’s novel, which was published in 1975. Interesting to note, nonetheless, that both men turned to the theme following their first big breakthrough. After a few minor films, Carpenter had just enjoyed his first great commercial success with Halloween (1978) and invited several of the actors to take roles in The Fog. Herbert’s first novel The Rats (1974) had sold out within weeks and attracted a great deal of attention – not all of it positive by any means – due to the graphic descriptions of death and violence. The Fog was written in the same vein and expanded upon The Rats’ theme of natural disaster brought upon by misguided government experiments; this would also form the basis of Stephen King’s novella The Mist. Herbert’s tale begins in Wiltshire when an earthquake unleashes a foul yellow fog that erupts from a crack in the earth and begins drifting through the southern counties of England. Those who are caught by it are affected mentally and the novel progresses through a series of horrific episodes in which the madness leads to murder, mass suicide, mutilation and sexual violence. The fog here does not conceal any monster other than itself; the fog is the horror, and it is slowly revealed that is has a biological life of its own.


 The horror within Stephen King’s Mist shares more similarities with that of the Trollenberg cloud than either of the Fog stories. The first film Stephen King remembers seeing was The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and he was about eleven years old when The Crawling Eye  was released in the USA. The film is referred to in his 1986 novel It, which is set around the time of the film’s release in the summer of 1958. King’s youthful immersion in popular culture – early horror and science-fiction films, radio drama serials such as Dimension X and E.C. comics like Tales from the Crypt – were important influences on his later writings.

               ‘There’s something in the mist!’

There are a few superficial parallels between The Trollenberg Terror and the 2007 film The Mist, which was director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of King’s novella of the same name, first published in the Dark Forces collection (1980). I was on holiday in Cornwall when I first read the story in 1985, after it had been republished in another anthology,  Skeleton Crew. It is by far the longest story in the collection but I read it all in one continuous session, curled up in a dormitory bed with my borrowed book and a packet of biscuits. It made quite an impression on me, and the only other story I can remember from that collection is The Raft.  My vision of the scenes differed rather a lot from that of Frank Darabont, who had already brought two of King’s other stories to the screen – The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999.) Many of King’s fans were displeased at the shocking twist – not in the book – with which Darabont decided to end the film. Personally, I approve of the ending. Few modern horror films contain genuine shocks; the final frames of The Mist have an undeniable impact that has unsettled audiences. The ending neatly confirms what has been true of all the films above – fog and mist not only conceal terrifying threats, but they cloud judgment as well as vision, rendering opaque the distinction between innocence and guilt


So when I’m walking across the fields again this week and happen to see banks of mist (or worse still, fog) drifting over the ground towards me, the question is bound to come to mind….what lies within?

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Horatio Ross

Yesterday’s talk, given to the southwest branch of the Photographic Collectors’ Club of Great Britain (PCCGB), provided an hour-long romp through the colourful life of Horatio Ross (1801-86), a pioneer photographer who worked with the daguerrotype, calotype and collodion processes, as well as a brilliant marksman and all-round sporting hero.

This illustration indicates the range of his achievements. The images are based on well-known paintings, engravings or photographs, by artists including Joseph Ferneley, Sir Edwin Landseer and Horatio’s wife Henrietta.

Picture Horatio’s grandmother, Henrietta Tod Parish, from a painting by Sir Henry Raeburn

Horatio’s parents were Hercules Ross, who sailed to Jamaica in 1761 to make his fortune and sailed back into Falmouth harbour twenty years later in his own 36 gun frigate, and society beauty Henrietta Parish. They married in 1785 and four daughters were born before Horatio arrived on 5 September 1801. He was named after his godfather, Admiral Horatio Nelson, whom Hercules Ross had met and befriended in 1779. Henrietta’s mother was painted by Sir Henry Raeburn; a copy of the portrait is reproduced above.The family were raised at Rossie Castle, a large mansion that Hercules had erected to the south of Montrose. Due to the war with France, Hercules raised a local Volunteer force which drilled on the lawn at Rossie. One day when Horatio was six, he was frightened by the rifle fire and ran into the house crying. His father, regarding this as a sign of weakness in the child, had his valet fire a gun several times immediately over Horatio’s head each day from then on to accustom him to gunshot. Whatever other effects this may have had, the boy grew up with exceptional physical stamina. After six years in the army he threw himself into the sporting life, taking part in the first ever recorded steeplechase in Leicestershire (30 March 1826), a non-stop 97-mile walk from the River Dee to Inverness (19–20 July 1826) and a sunrise-to-sunset partridge shooting competition with Gen. George Anson (10 Nov 1828), as well as numerous other daring exploits and feats of marksmanship too numerous to mention here, but well-documented in contemporary literature. He was well-known enough to appear in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as well as in paintings by artists such as John Ferneley, Henry Alken, Francis Grant and Edwin Landseer. Large sums of money were staked on these races and competitions – Ross rode the steeplechase for £1,000, and three times that amount exchanged hands on other occasions.

Ross entered politics in his late twenties and was returned unanimously on 23 May 1831 as Whig MP for the Aberdeen burghs. He held this seat for eighteen months before defeating Radical Whig Patrick Chalmers in a contest for the Montrose district in December 1832. When the first reformed Parliament met early in 1833 Ross sat alongside the new Whig MP for Chippenham, Henry Talbot. Did he ever whisper to Ross on the benches about his latest experiments with photo-sensitive paper? Ross married eighteen-year-old Justine Henrietta Macrae in December 1833, exactly a year after Talbot’s marriage to Constance Mundy. Constance Talbot was probably the first ever female photographer, but Henrietta Ross also turned out to be highly proficient with a camera. Between 1834 and 1843 she gave birth to five sons: Horatio Senftenberg John, Hercules Grey, Edward Charles Russell, Colin George and Robert Peel. Three of the boys shared their father’s shooting skills, and all of them appear in his photographs, often captured during sporting activities such as fishing, archery and deer stalking.


Ross’s photographic work began with daguerrotypes in 1843 or 1844, possibly inspired by contact with Talbot’s friend Sir David Brewster, whose brother, the Rev James Brewster, was the local minister and a close friend of Ross. This is Hoddy and John Munro fishing at Flaipool


After receiving tuition from James Ross (no relation), Horatio took up the calotype process in 1849. However, he became dissatisfied with the calotype’s inability to show the textures of his favourite mountain landscapes, and switched to the wet collodion process in the early 1850s. He made hundreds of photographic images during the 1850s, many of which were displayed at the exhibitions of the Photographic Society of Scotland, which Ross helped to found in 1856. His work shows great technical skill as well as a strong aesthetic sensibility in matters of composition and lighting.He was a true amateur photographer, in that he was an amator, or lover, of the art, and the seriousness with which he regarded his work is suggested by, for example, his use of paper negatives and his choice of literary quotations as captions.


These are just a few brief excerpts from my talk, a full version of which will appear in the forthcoming issue of Photographica World.

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Raus, Untoten!

My latest foray into the world of fiction is a short story, Shadows in the East , which will appear next year in the third volume of a new anthology, Raus, Untoten! published by Fringeworks.

Raus, Untoten! is – as the title suggests – concerned with the German undead: including, but not limited to, that curious creature in horror films, the ‘Nazi zombie’. The editor of the anthology, Matthew Sylvester, wanted contributors to avoid the usual cliches of the genre and try approaching the subject from from unusual angles. I am dying (pardon the pun) to see how imaginative other authors have been, but clearly there was no shortage of enthusiasm: the anthology will be published in four volumes, as follows:

Volume One – October 31st 2013
Volume Two – January 31st 2014
Volume Three – April 30th 2014 (which will include my story)
Volume Four – July 31st 2014

The authors are an eclectic mix from both sides of the Atlantic and include Warhammer novelist Graham McNeill, and choreographer David Thomas Moore.

Matthew Sylvester has also written a story for the first volume. He interviewed me the other day, and our discussion can be read on his website at http://matthewsylvester.com/2013/08/23/author-interview-james-downs

My contribution was inspired in part by my fascination with the workings of German film studios during the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the vast complex at Babelsberg, home to UFA. I have seen many photographs of the studio buildings, both interior and exterior shots, and felt that these could be the ideal setting for my story. Originally, I intended there to be much more cinematic content, with allusions to Doktor Kaligari and other film themes woven into the narrative; as the story developed, it moved in a different direction and some of this material fell by the wayside – possibly no bad thing, either. Sometimes what writers want to write is not what their readers want to read, and there comes a point when an author has to decide who he wishes to please. I am hoping the anthology will be well received and look forward to posting more news about its progress here.

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Vivien Leigh and Anton Walbrook

Today’s post celebrates the opening  of the exhibition ‘Vivien Leigh: a Century of Fame’ at Topsham Museum, which runs from the 3 August to 31 October 2013.

The actress, best known for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1938) was born Vivian Hartley in India on 5 November 1913. Like Walbrook, she was educated in a Catholic religious school; he was taught by the Augustinian canons at Klosterneuberg, she by the Sacred Heart runs at Roehampton and elsewhere. She showed a talent for drama from an early age and took a leading part in several school productions. The last two years of her education (1929-31) were spent at a finishing school at Bad Reichenhall in the Bavarian Alps, run by Baron and Baroness von Roederer. From here she regularly crossed the border into Austria to attend operas in Vienna and Salzburg. She also spent ten days in Munich at the end of March 1931 and sat through eight hours of Parsifal. Walbrook was at this time in Berlin, appearing in Eine königliche Familie, Victor Barnowsky’s production of the Broadway hit poking fun at the Barrymore acting family. By this time Vivian spoke both French and German, but she returned home too soon to see Walbrook’s first sound film: Salto Mortale was released in August 1931.

Back in England, the Hartleys settled in Devon for the winter, staying at a bungalow called Troy near Polzeath. Vivian went to stay with her friend Mills Martin at Teignmouth, and it was thanks to him that she met her husband, Herbert Leigh Holman. Martin took Vivian to the Hunt Ball at the Two Bridges Inn on Dartmoor-  this was in February 1932 – where she was introduced to Holman, a well-established barrister whose family lived at nearby Holcombe Down. (There is another version of this story that claims they met at the South Devon Hunt Ball on Torquay Pier, although this seems less credible.) Holman’s family had a long connection with Topsham, the port town on the edge of Exeter.

After a short courtship Vivian and Leigh were married on 20 December 1932.  Her new husband requested that she drop her studies at RADA and abandon thoughts of an acting career, but even after the birth of their daughter Suzanne the following October, her desire to return to the stage persisted. Leigh finally relented, and as her theatrical agent did not like ‘Vivian Holman’ as a stage name, she took her husband’s first name instead and altered the spelling of her own. She appeared in four minor films in 1935: Gentlemen’s Agreement, Look Up and Laugh, Things are Looking Up and The Village Squire.

Vivien’s rising career was watched with interest by her sister-in-law Dorothy Holman, who carefully collected press-cuttings and photographs. Over the next two decades Vivien visited Dorothy many times at her house in Topsham, at No.25 The Strand. This lovely building, which dates back to the late 17th century, became the Topsham Museum after Dorothy Holman’s death. The memorabilia collected by Dorothy is on display in a special room. It is rather remarkable that Dorothy and Vivien remained on such friendly terms, given that the Holman’s marriage broke down following her affair with Laurence Olivier.

Vivien first met  Olivier in 1935 and they grew closer during the filming of the historical drama Fire Over England in which she played Cynthia, lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) and lover of  brave sailor Michael Ingolby (Olivier.)  The film was a typical blend of patriotism and propaganda by Alexander Korda, with Spain standing in for Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition representing the Gestapo. While they were filming Fire Over England, Walbrook had left Germany and was on his way to Hollywood, which he would dislike almost as much as Vivien. In the meantime she was acting alongside another anti-Nazi emigre, Conrad Veidt, in the spy drama Dark Journey. Here she played Madeleine Goddard, a Parisian costumier working as an undercover agent in Sweden during WWI, who falls for German spy Baron von Marwitz. Watching the film is rather a dark journey itself, due to the various murky plot twists that can leave viewers confused about what’s going on, but it’s worth watching for the performances of the two stars. I find Vivien more beautiful here than in Gone with the Wind and the chemistry between her and Veidt more compelling than that with Clark Gable.  Although Veidt hated the Nazis with the same fervour as Walbrook, the two actors undertook opposing methods of fighting fascism: Veidt specialised in playing sinister German officers such as Baron von Marwitz, Captain Hardt and Major Heinrich Strasser, while Walbrook played ‘good Germans’ such as peace-loving Hutterite Peter, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff and Kurt Muller, all of whom deliver eloquent and impassioned condemnations of Nazi ideology. Both actors were effective in teaching British filmgoers to hate the Nazis – although the wartime experience must have done a great deal to achieve that anyway. The cameraman was Georges Perinal, who would later film Walbrook in Dangerous Moonlight, Colonel Blimp and Saint Joan.

Fire over England had its London premiere in February 1937 and six months later Vivien left her husband and moved in with Olivier at his Chelsea home. In the autumn she was in Hollywood for the filming of  A Yank at Oxford co-starring Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore, while Olivier worked on The Divorce of Lady X with Korda’s wife Merle Oberon (for whom the early version of The Red Shoes was originally written.) Olivier then accepted the role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights – starring opposite Merle Oberon, and joined Vivien in America. Leigh Holman filed for divorce in January 1940; this was granted on 26 August, allowing Vivien and Olivier to marry in California on 31 August 1940. The next two months saw them acting together as Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton in Korda’s That Hamilton Woman (1941) –  rather ironic, given that it depicted a semi-public and scandalous relationship similar to the one they had just formalised by getting married. Korda’s main aim with the film, however, was to encourage America to support Britain’s war against Nazi Germany. This was also the intention of Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel which starred Olivier and Walbrook as – respectively – a French Canadian trapper and a Hutterite leader, who come face to face with Nazi submariners in Canada. Also in the film was Leslie Howard, who had played Ashley in Gone with the Wind and with whom Vivien did not get on. Olivier by this time was serving as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, having joined in April 1941. He would have taken the starring role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had it not been for Churchill’s opposition to the film – as a consequence, the Fleet Air Arm refused to release him, and we got Roger Livesey instead (D.G.)

Olivier was not the only one from theatrical circles who joined the forces. Ralph Richardson served alongside Olivier in the Fleet Air Arm, while Vivien’s co-star from Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable, became a captain in the US Air Corps and flew on bombing missions over Europe. Rex Harrison, with whom she starred in Storm in a Teacup (1937) also joined the Royal Air Force. He had appeared with Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in Noel Coward’s play Design for Living, first in the west end and then – after the outbreak of the war – travelling around the provinces. At this time Walbrook was in a relationship with Norwegian artist Ferdinand Finne, who had joined the Norwegian Air Force after the invasion of Norway in April 1940. He had been working as a costume designer for the Norwegian National Theatre when he first met Walbrook on a train in France in 1938.  They returned there in 1939, travelling together through Brittany and the South of France, as well as staying in Paris where Finne’s circle of acquaintances included Coco Chanel and Somerset Maugham. After the German attack on his home country, Finne reported immediately to the Norwegian Embassy in London (where the above photograph was taken) which became the organizational base for Norwegian resistance. King Haakon and his son, Crown Prince Olav, resided at the Norwegian Legation in Kensington. Finne helped set up ‘Little Norway’, a training base in Canada for exiled Norwegian Air Force personnel. He was posted there while Walbrook was filming Dangerous Moonlight. The photograph shows Leigh, Walbrook and Admiral Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, founder of the Norwegian Air Force and the first commander of Little Norway.

PictureAfter the war, Walbrook joined Finne in Norway, spending time at the actor’s home and visiting places such as Lillesand, Langoya and Fornebu (west Oslo.) After Finne was asked to design the sets for a west end production of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama, The Wild Duck, he suggested that his friend audition for the lead role of Hjalmar Ekdal. Walbrook got the part, and appeared in The Wild Duck at St Martin’s Theatre from 3 November 1948 to 26 March 1949.  Their relationship ended that same year, which also saw Walbrook’s disastrous and short-lived return to Germany. In the meantime, Vivien had appeared in a series of critically-acclaimed stage plays – many of them with Olivier – culminating in her brilliant performance as the tragic Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Olivier at the Aldywch Theatre (where Walbrook had starred in Watch on the Rhine in 1943.)   She went on to win an Oscar in the 1951  film version, having already won the same award in 1940 for playing another, very different, Southern belle. She died on 8 July 1967, one month before Walbrook.

Topsham Museum is open from 2pm to 5pm on Mondays, (Tuesdays this month only), Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free, and a new booklet about Vivien has been produced to mark this centenary exhibition. 

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