Carte-de-visite of the week #13 Belle Bilton

This carte-de-visite was taken in the late 1880s and shows the Countess of Clancarty (1867-1906) – a singer, actress and music-hall entertainer better known under her stage-name of Belle Bilton. It shows her in costume and was taken in the Ebury Street studios of fashionable London photographers W. & D. Downey, opened in 1872 by William Downey (1829-1915) while his brother Daniel managed their studio in Newcastle. The Downeys took many portraits of Queen Victoria and the royal family, as well as aristocrats, society beauties and famous actresses. Belle was photographed by Downey several times, and also sat for other society photographers such as Alexander Bassano.

Background and Stage Career

Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton was born in 1867, the daughter of Sergeant John George Bilton of the Royal Engineers. Under the stage name of Belle Bilton she made her name as a music hall entertainer at the Alhambra and the Empire and other venues. Sometimes she appeared with her sister – an advert for a performance at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly in 1886 shows the ‘Sisters Bilton’ on the billing.

Lord Dunlo

Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty, using a stereoscopic camera around 1864, three years before the birth of his son.

At the Corinthian Club towards the end of April or beginning of May 1889, Belle met a young aristocrat – William, Viscount Dunlo, son of Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty and heir to the title. Like Belle, Lord Dunlo was twenty years old, and the couple quickly fell for one another: they were married soon after, at Hampstead Registry Office, on 10 July 1889. The groom’s father was not impressed at his son’s choice of bride, and William had already incurred the Earl’s displeasure due to his lack of enthusiasm for the army career that had been planned for him. As it had already been decided that William would benefit from foreign travel in the company of a sober and morally-minded mentor, his scandalous marriage to a music hall entertainer proved the last straw: the Earl forced his newly-wedded son to sail for Australia immediately under threat of losing his inheritance. A divorce case – which in those days depended upon proving adultery – was at once initiated, with the Earl determined to use every means in his power to blacken Belle’s name and have the union dissolved with his family’s honour intact.

The Trial

Over the next few months evidence was gathered, while Belle – in the absence of her husband – continued to socialise and pursue her stage career. In April 1890 she played the title role in the ‘burlesque extravaganza’ Venus at the Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. The trial opened in July 1890 with Sir James Hannen sitting as judge, Sir Charles Russell prosecuting, and the solicitor general Frank Lockwood QC representing Belle. The adultery trial had been preceded by a separate court case in which Belle was implicated in forgery; although the matter was quite independent of her marriage to Lord Dunlo, it was clearly intended to blacken her character – an objective that was largely thwarted by her being found innocent.

Eastern Evening News (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.2

It became apparent during the adultery trial that Belle was more sinned against than sinning, and the Earl and his associates came out looking worse, having instigated various machinations to make Belle look bad. As recent events have made all too clear, rich and powerful men can be responsible for all sorts of abuse to protect their interests. When Lord Dunlo declared he believed his wife to be innocent of the charges, the case collapsed, and he returned to live with Belle. Cut off from his father’s allowance, the couple were required to live off Belle’s earnings from the theatre – estimated at around £1,500 a year. Some felt that the publicity of the court case might actually help matters:

‘I dare say the photographs of Lady Dunlo (Miss Belle Bilton) are more marketable now than ever. I don’t know if this fascinating young lady has been paid liberal terms by Bassano and the other photographers to whom she has given sittings, but she certainly deserves to remunerated handsomely. She will sell like ripe cherries from now until her divorce trial comes off.’

London and Provincial Entr’acte (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.5.

The couple did not have long to wait. Belle’s father-in-law died less than a year after the trial, aged only 57. In May 1891 her husband became the 5th Earl of Clancarty, and Belle assumed the title of Countess of Clancarty. The couple had five children, including the 6th and 7th Earls of Clancarty.

Belle with her twin sons Richard and Henry, born Devember 1891. Photographed by Bassano ca. 1893-4. Reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Sadly, Belle died of cancer on 31 December 1906 at Garbaldy Park, Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, at the age of only 39. Carte-de-visite portraits of her – both in theatrical costume and as herself – are fairly easy to find and so it is tempting to consider building up a collection of these. Belle’s short life is intriguing for anyone with an interest in late Victorian theatre, and there is something inspiring – and remarkably topical – about the story of how this young woman refused to be crushed by powerful men who sought to silence her.

 

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Ministers of ‘the Black Art’

My newly-submitted thesis, alongside various items involved in its creation

 

Yesterday, on 5 March, I submitted my thesis, Ministers of ‘the Black Art’: the engagement of British clergy with photography, 1839-1914. As many of you know, I’ve been working on my Ph.D since September 2014, but my research into Victorian clergy-photographers stretches back many years prior to this. It was my original intention to write a book on the topic, but when publishers showed no interest and the opportunity arose to apply for doctoral studies, the project was turned into a Ph.D. The viva will follow in a couple of months and we’ll see how that goes, but in due course I expect to adapt the thesis for publication as a book.

Ministers of ‘the black Art’ looks at clergymen from all denominations – Anglican vicars, cathedral precentors, Catholic priests, monks, Methodist missionaries and so on – who were active photographers between 1839 and World War One, exploring the relationship between their religious background and culture, and their photographic work. This is a topic that has been overlooked by both photo-historians and church historians, largely because there are very few researchers who possess sufficient knowledge of both disciplines to make the connections. Having spent many years with my feet planted squarely in both camps, it seemed a good idea to attempt it myself.

Conceptual theories do not interest me, and so the thesis focuses on what people actually did on a grassroots level, looking at original photographic material – paper prints, glass negatives, lantern slides etc – and examining a wealth of printed and manuscript material from archives, museums and libraries all around the country: theological works, printed sermons, diaries, correspondence, exhibition catalogues, photographic society log books and ephemera. I managed to identify over 200 clergymen-photographers (and yes, it’s a shame that they’re all men – but inevitable given the period in question) and amassed a huge amount of information about their work. I think this project can contribute a great deal to our understanding of Victorian visual culture and I have really enjoyed the challenge of shaping my mass of handwritten notes (some written last century) into an ordered argument. It’s been hard work, and I won’t deny that finally submitting my thesis brings with it a sense of relief, unburdening and liberation. Time now to prepare for the viva, and also crack on with other projects. Further developments will be announced here….

Rev. Roderick C Macleod, 'Mitford Castle with Mrs Macleod'

Rev. Roderick C Macleod, ‘Mitford Castle with Mrs Macleod’

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Caldey Postcard – New Order for an Old Postcard

Caldey Abbey by Joseph Pike

Readers of this blog will already be familiar with my biography of the artist Joseph Pike and my original post about his 1913 set of twelve postcards showing the monastic buildings and other scenes on Caldey Island.  He did those drawings while staying on the island with Bede Camm, who had assisted the Anglican monks in their mass reception into the Catholic Church in March of that year. For various reasons, not least of which were the effects of World War One and the withdrawal of support from High Anglican donors, the community struggled in the years after the ‘Caldey Conversions’. Although Aelred Carlyle was blessed as Abbot of Caldey in 1914, he resigned in 1922 and was replaced by Dom Wilfrid Upson as Prior. I have written elsewhere – in A Monk and His Movies – about Dom Wilfrid’s time in Hollywood. Eventually the monks left Caldey in December 1928 and moved to Prinknash in the Cotswolds. Caldey then passed from the Benedictines to the Cistercian Order, as it became the home of Cistercian monks from Scourmont Abbey in Belgium. This monastery is home to the Chimay brewery, where the monks produce three ales: Chimay Rouge, Chimay Bleue, and Chimay Blanche. While staying in Brittany last summer I was able to pick up a few bottles of Chimay ale in the local supermarket, but a new venue has opened up in Exeter – the South Street Standard – that serves Chimay on draught, which I would definitely recommend. Anyway, I digress – the point of this post was that I recently picked up the postcard above, which is obviously been printed for French-speakers interested in the abbey, and reveals that the Trappist monks of Caldey re-used Joseph Pike’s postcards after 1929. They have printed additional French text in the border space at the bottom and appear to have given the card a deeper sepia tone than the original. I wonder if the artist continued to receive payment for the reproduction of his artwork on the same terms as he had arranged with the Benedictines?

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Anton Artefact #6

It’s a delight to have my Anton blog back up and running again after a long hiatus, beginning with the next in the Artefact series, a programme for a screening of Michael Strogoff at the Stoll Picture Theatre in London.

 

Opened as the London Opera House in 1911, it was taken over by Oscar Stoll and converted to use as a cinema in 1917. As befitted a grand opera house, it had a spectacular design and lavish interior, replete with pillared galleries, carved facades and groups of sculpted figures depicting Melody, Harmony, Inspiration, Composition, Comedy, Tragedy, Dance and Song. Although Michael Strogoff is not a hugely popular film among Anton fans, watching the movie in such a setting must have been quite an experience.

We tend to forget sometimes that the 1930s moviegoers’ experience was quite different from our modern Odeons and multiplexes. This programme is for the week beginning Monday 9th August 1937, when Michael Strogoff was shown four times a day. As the page detail below illustrates, the film was not watched in isolation, but was an integral part of a twelve-hour continuous programme that included a live organ recital, orchestral music with comic performances and skaters, news bulletins and trailers, concluding with the National Anthem. (It was common for most people to make a dash for the exits during the end credits so they wouldn’t have to stand to attention for the anthem.)

 

Royal affairs were much on AW’s mind at the time, as filming of Victoria the Great had finished in May and everyone was getting ready for the premiere in September, which was held in Leicester Square. The Stoll Picture Theatre closed in 1940 and despite some postwar use as a theatre, was demolished in the late 1950s.

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Joseph Pike: the ‘happy Catholic artist’

 

Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist

My latest book, Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist (Kibworth: Matador, 2018) is a detailed biography of a master of the art of pencil drawing. Joseph Pike (1883-1956) produced evocative sketches and illustrations that were commissioned by authors, architects and publishers, reproduced in books and on postcards, sold as prints and exhibited on the walls of the Royal Academy.

It was due to his postcards of Caldey Island – drawn in 1913 – that I became interested in Joseph Pike, and you can read all about this on my original blogpost here. After reading this, one of the artist’s grandsons contacted me, and we began discussing the idea of my writing a short memoir about the artist. What began as a fairly modest project ended up being rather larger than originally intended, but the Joseph Pike’s friendship and collaboration with Benedictine monk Bede Camm meant that I was able to incorporate some of my PhD research on visual culture and monastic life. With access to family papers and photographs, augmented with my own collection of Joseph Pike artwork and knowledge of the Catholic literary revival, there was ample material for a detailed and illuminating biography.

Further research in various archives uncovered more little-known details and rare illustrations, and I was able to show how developments in the publishing world and printing technology impacted upon his work, as well as exploring the importance of the Catholic faith side in his personal and professional life – his acquaintance with Bede Camm and other leading figures in Catholic cultural life, such as Ronald Knox, played a key role in shaping his career as an illustrator.

Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist (Kibworth: Matador, 2018) – ISBN 9781788037778 – is available from various outlets, including direct from the publisher here 

An e-book is also available, ISBN 9781788034746

I would love to hear comments and feedback from anyone who has read the book or wishes to share their thoughts on Joseph Pike and his art.

 

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