A Monk of Magdalen:   Abbot Oswald (David) Hunter-Blair O.S.B. (1853-1939)

Abbot Oswald in 1919

​One may be sure that when Gibbon wrote sarcastically of ‘the monks of Magdalen’ he never envisaged any real association between his Oxford college and those men who take religious vows according to the Rule of St Benedict. Yet just over one hundred years after Gibbon’s death a monastery was founded in Oxford itself, and this little Benedictine house of studies was known as Hunter-Blair Hall after the name of its Master. Oswald Hunter-Blair was not only a monk and a graduate of Magdalen, he was also a baronet, would later become an abbot, and stands out as one of the most colourful Catholic converts of his time.

David Hunter-Blair was born on the 30th September 1853, the eldest of thirteen children (nine sons and four daughters) of Sir Edward Hunter-Blair (1818-96), 4th Baronet of Dunskey, and Elizabeth Wauchope. Dunskey Castle is in Wigtownshire on the southwest coast of Scotland. His mother’s family, the Wauchopes of Niddrie, had remained Catholic for almost two centuries after the Reformation before going over to the Scottish Episcopalian Church in 1750, but although all his siblings were baptised by Episcopalian clergy the future Benedictine abbot received the sacrament from the Presbyterian minister of Portpatrick.

In 1854 his father’s elder brother was killed at the Battle of Inkerman and Sir Edward inherited the baronetcy and estates. According to the arrangements of the settlement he was obliged to divest himself of the estate of Dunskey if he was to possess Blairquhan. His eldest son David therefore became the laird of Dunskey at the age of four.

In the summer of 1863 the family left the country for Spa in Belgium where they were to live for over a year before moving on to Boulogne. David returned to Britain in January 1864 to attend prep school at May Place, Malvern Wells – a select establishment where almost every boy had a Duke or a Marquis for a father. From here he proceeded to the Upper IVth form at Eton.  He was a fifteen-year old pupil here in 1868 when he heard the sensational news of the conversion to Catholicism of the 3rd Marquess of Bute. A favourite uncle of his, Colonel David Hunter-Blair (1827-69) took the same step the following year. His own mind was already intrigued by the Catholic past through reading Walter Scott’s novels and he noted in Eton ‘the aura of Catholicism which still hung faintly about her venerable halls and cloisters.’

Hunter-Blair went up to Oxford and studied at Magdalen College from January 1872 to December 1876. For the winter term of 1875 he received permission to study music in Leipzig under Karl Reinecke (1824-1910), the pianist and conductor of the Gewendhaus and also Professor at the Leipzig Conservatorium.


WHF Talbot, ‘An ancient doorway in Magdalen College, Oxford.’ Salt print from a calotype negative, 9 April 1843

By this time the religious question was clear in his mind. With his fellow student Harold Willoughby he left Germany for Rome, arriving in time to see Manning receive his cardinal’s hat on the 15th March. Ten days later on Maundy Thursday, 25th March, 1875, he was received into the Catholic Church by Fr Edward Douglas C.SS.R. in the Redemptorist house on the Esquiline Hill. Fr Douglas (1819-98) was a kinsman of the Marquis of Queensberry and himself a convert. From Rome it was back to Oxford in April to begin the summer term: unlike Gibbon he was not forced to leave because of his apostasy. Instead of the High Anglican services of old he now walked over Magdalen Bridge each Sunday to attend Mass at the dingy St Clement’s Catholic Church. He also renounced membership of the Masonic Lodge, regarding this as incompatible with Catholicism. A number of students were especially interested in Freemasonry at this time because Prince Leopold – Queen Victoria’s youngest son and then a commoner at Christ Church – was also Grand Master of the Freemasons.

His friend and fellow-student Oscar Wilde had been initiated into the Masons just weeks before Hunter-Blair became a Catholic. Filled with a new convert’s zeal Hunter-Blair was determined that Wilde would follow him; the poet’s fascination with the Catholic Church was then at its peak. Wilde visited Italy in the summer of 1875 with staunch Protestants Professor Mahaffy and William Goulding, and on the 15th June he wrote the poem ‘San Miniato’ which was published in the Dublin University Magazine the following March. He had to break off the trip at Verona, leaving his friends to go ahead to Rome, in consequence of which he composed ‘Rome Unvisited’. Hunter-Blair thought highly of this poem, as did another Oxford convert, John Henry Newman, and when his friend returned for the autumn term he sought to carry Wilde over the threshold. Together they attended the opening of St Aloysius’ Church on 23rd November 1875, at which Cardinal Manning preached on the Oxford motto Dominus Illuminatio Mea, denouncing the university for its spiritual apathy and decay. Hunter-Blair kept on at Wilde, often sitting up all night talking to him about his religious views. During one heated discussion he hit him on the head and shouted ‘You will be damned, you will be damned, for you see the light and do not follow it.’ Their mutual friend William Walsford Ward, known as ‘Bouncer’ after a comic novel, was present during this debate; he had always opposed Wilde’s flirting with Roman Catholicism and persistently argued for the reasonableness of Protestantism. When he asked Hunter Blair’s opinion about his own salvation, he was met with the reply ‘You will be saved by your invincible ignorance.’


Oscar Wilde, Hunter-Blair and others, Oxford 1876. Photographed by Jules Guggenheim

The trio appears in a photograph taken the following year by Hungarian emigré photographer Jules Guggenheim (1820-89). The picture shows a group of students and friends gathered in Magdalen Cloister on the evening of 21st June: Hunter-Blair, Wilde and Reginald Harding are alongside William Ward and his younger sister Florence. Ward left Oxford that summer to become a lawyer and Wilde moved into his old rooms in December.

The following year saw the religious discussion continue without any further development. Hunter-Blair was joined in many of these conversations by another convert, Archie Dunlop, and in the spring they succeeded in bringing Wilde to Rome. Hunter-Blair and Ward travelled to Italy in March and made arrangements for Wilde to follow them, although Hunter-Blair had to send £60 after a series of delays and difficulties arose. Travelling through France and Genoa – where the Holy Week services inspired more poetry – Wilde caught up with his friends at the Hotel d’Inghilterra in Rome. Here they were joined for supper each evening by two papal chamberlains, J. Ogilvie Fairlie and Hartwell de la Garde Grissell (1839-1907). The latter was a close friend of Hunter-Blair who had come up to Oxford from Harrow in 1859, studied at Brasenose and became a Catholic in 1868. When Hunter-Blair made his first return visit to Oxford since graduation in the summer of 1890 he stayed at Grissell’s house in Long Wall Street, overlooking the deer-park and aged elm trees of Magdalen. There was even a private chapel where Hunter-Blair – by then a priest – was able to say Mass. Fairlie was another Oxford friend, a graduate of Christ Church, and had acted as Hunter-Blair’s godfather when he was received into the Church. A papal audience for Wilde was secured through Hunter-Blair’s acquaintance with Mgr Edmund Stonor, Rector of the English College. Hopes for Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism were high and he could be forgiven for frustration and disappointment at his friend’s prevarications.  Two incidents – small in themselves – revealed a sharp divergence in opinion between the two students. After the audience with Pope Pius IX they visited the English Cemetery where Wilde prostrated himself on Keats’ grave – an act of devotion which displeased Hunter-Blair. The following June Wilde again incurred his friend’s displeasure with his long poem Ravenna which brought Magdalen its first award of the Newdigate Prize since 1825: Hunter-Blair objected to the description of Vittorio Emmanuel II’s triumphant entry into Rome in 1870.  Wilde’s fickleness was evident. After the audience he wrote the sonnet ‘Urbs Sacra Aeterna’ which Hunter-Blair sent to Fr Henry Coleridge SJ, editor of the Jesuit journal The Month; it was published in September but Wilde seemed merely to be playing with moods and Hunter-Blair’s patience had worn thin.

‘I don’t want to see them [sonnets]. It is useless to talk of your weakness and want of principle – truly a strange reason for turning your back on what alone will make you strong…and as for your want of faith and enthusiasm, you cannot pretend to believe that the God, who has given you grace to see His truth, will not also keep you firm when you choose to embrace it.’ Almost ten years later Wilde called on Hunter-Blair in Edinburgh; the meeting was brief and lacked the warmth of their student days. Wilde finally fell on his knees and said ‘Pray for me, Dunskie, pray for me.’ As Hunter-Blair walked out Wilde knelt on the floor and kissed his hand, and that was the last they saw of one another.

Hunter-Blair obtained his MA in 1876 and in the same year was appointed Captain in the Prince Regent’s Royal Ayrshire Militia. His convert’s zeal was not restricted to trying to draw Wilde into the Catholic Church and over the next two years Hunter-Blair poured a fair amount of his wealth into the Diocese of Galloway and other Catholic causes. A number of new churches were built with his financial support. Donations were made to the churches at Girvan, Stranraer – to which he would cycle from Dunskey for Sunday Mass – and it was he who paid for the new church at Newton Stewart, opened on the 7th December 1876 and dedicated St Ninian. His connections with the area remained, and when the church at Stranraer was refurbished in the early 1920s he returned to preach at the grand re-opening. Between 1877 and 1879 he donated a total of £72,677 to Fort Augustus and was largely responsible for the fine monastic library. On the 9th May 1877, along with Robert Monteith (whose relative Anne Monteith paid for a window at Newton Stewart) and his old friends J Ogilvie Fairlie and Rev Archibald Douglas, he was in Rome to present Pius IX with £2,000, a chalice and vestments, as a consolation for the loss of the papal states. A good many ladies had their eyes upon this wealthy young bachelor heir, and in the elegant whirl of high society a series of débutantes were introduced to him in the hope that a brilliant match would be made. To the disappointment of many mothers, if not to him, his vocation lay elsewhere.

St Benedict’s Abbey, Fort Augustus 


The canal locks at Fort Augustus, with the abbey visible in the background

The monastery at Fort Augustus was housed in a former military garrison at the south end of Loch Ness and had been given to the Benedictines by the Catholic landowner Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. The foundation came about through the vision and enthusiasm of Dom Jerome Vaughan OSB in 1876 but was still finding its feet when Hunter-Blair first visited in February 1878. He was evidently impressed and returned in September for the inauguration of the boys’ school. The foundation stone of the monastery was laid by Lord Lovat on 15th September, that of the school by the Marquis of Ripon, and that of the guest-house jointly by Mr Maxwell-Scott of Abbotsford and Robert Monteith of Carstairs. After this, Prior Jerome Vaughan took the 25-year-old on a tour of English monasteries and cathedrals. Returning to Scotland to settle his affairs, he entered Fort Augustus at the end of October and began his postulancy on 11th November, donning for the first time the black tunic and belt of the postulant. When he was clothed as a novice he took the religious name of Oswald. By then the building work had advanced enough to justify a solemn opening ceremony on the 16th October, but the community remained small: in August 1879 there were still only six other monks besides the Prior. In those days the English Benedictines had a common novitiate at Belmont Priory in Herefordshire and he duly set off south at the end of the month. He made his simple profession on 3rd July 1880 and travelled up to Fort Augustus for its long-awaited solemn opening in August, planned to coincide with celebrations for the 1400th anniversary of the birth of St Benedict in 480.

Behind the jubilation, however, tensions were rising within the community with regard to monastic observance. The English Benedictine Congregation (EBC) has a unique history and character: although claiming continuity with the pre-Reformation monks of England, its traditions and structures grew out of the 16th and 17th century experience of monk-missionaries trained on the continent to minister to Catholics in England. This strong pastoral emphasis meant that EBC houses undertook to run parishes and schools outside their monasteries, and individual monks lived far more ‘in the world’ than their counterparts in other Benedictine congregations. Many remained outside their monasteries for years on end, returning only for the annual retreat. Even if few were baronets like Hunter-Blair, most came from privileged backgrounds, something reflected in the general ambience, culture and standard of living within the houses. One of the objections made in 1880 was that claret should no longer be served in the refectory, and more abstinence was demanded two years later, along with greater silence and the exclusion of schoolboys from the monastic cloister. In part, this reflected the influence of monastic reform movements then gathering momentum on the continent; it was also a manifestation of national tensions. The Third Marquess of Bute was pushing for the establishment of a Scottish Benedictine Congregation, and on the 30th September 1882 Lord Lovat wrote to the Archbishop of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh that his land had been intended for ‘an entirely Scotch foundation’. There was also the problem that the Prior, Dom Jerome Vaughan, was not popular within the community.

Matters came to a head and a Papal Brief, formally separating Fort Augustus from the EBC, was read out at Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany, 7th January 1883, by John Strain, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.  Members of the community currently elsewhere left their EBC houses and returned to the Fort. Vaughan invited Dom Leo Linse, Prior of St Thomas’ Abbey in Erdington, to give the annual retreat to the monks at Fort Augustus, and at the end of the retreat a unanimous petition was sent to the Holy See by all the professed monks asking that he be appointed their Superior. Dom Jerome was deposed by the EBC and left shortly afterwards, to be replaced as Prior by Fr Kentigern Milne. Although the community’s request was not granted at this time, Linse was installed as Prior on 4th April 1886 and finally blessed as the first Abbot of Fort Augustus on 15th July 1888.

Meanwhile Dom Oswald was ordained deacon on March 25th, the same day that his Rule of St Benedict was published. This edition was printed at Fort Augustus by the Abbey Press and contained the Latin text of the Rule accompanied by Fr Oswald’s English translation and notes. It proved popular: a second edition came out in 1906, reprinted the following year, with a third edition in 1914. His ordination to the priesthood took place a few months later, on the 11th July; he was ordained with Dom Adrian Weld-Blundell, a brother of Lady Lovat. It is intriguing to note that the name of another celebrated Magdalen graduate, Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas (1870-1945), was entered in the Abbey Visitor’s Book just a few weeks earlier. By this time Fr Oswald was engaged in translating Geschichte der Katholiken Kirche in Schottland (2vols, 1883) by Alfons Bellesheim, Canon of Cologne Cathedral.  The result was a History of the Catholic Church of Scotland, from the introduction of Christianity to the present day published by William Blackwood & Sons in four volumes between 1887 and 1890. It is much more than a straight translation. Fr Oswald added copious notes, expanding and explaining Bellesheim’s text. Few of these are mere glosses; many are highly instructive and extremely useful to historians. He showed himself a gifted translator, turning Bellesheim’s German into easy-flowing harmonious English prose. The book was well-received by critics and remains the most outstanding scholarly achievement of all his literary work.  It was an important step in establishing the abbey’s reputation for intellectual and spiritual vitality. Over the next decades this was consolidated by other publications and works of art produced by the community.

During that summer of 1886 he came into contact with the enigmatic Baron Corvo, about whom I have written in A Carnal Medium.  Hunter-Blair’s old friend Lord Bute was then engaged in setting up a cathedral choir on the west Highland coast at Oban, but finding it as difficult to locate suitable boy choristers as it was to employ a reliable choirmaster. Four youngsters were eventually chosen and sent to the abbey school at Fort Augustus to learn the rudiments of Gregorian plainchant from the monks. For a choirmaster Lord Bute obtained the services of Frederick Rolfe, ‘Baron Corvo’, who had just been dismissed from the Scots College in Rome – a fact unknown to His Lordship. Rolfe called at Fort Augustus to collect the boys on his way to Oban and met Fr Oswald, who subsequently came to stay in Oban on 13th September. The three months had not been happy ones and Rolfe poured out a litany of bitterness and complaints about his treatment from other Catholics and locals. He abandoned the post in October and left for Aberdeen where he set up as a photographer. Between then and 1898 Rolfe moved through a number of jobs and as many friends. That autumn the Daily Free Press published a series of three anonymous articles on Rolfe – 8th, 12th and 26th November – containing both intimate accurate details as well as stinging accusations. Who was the author? Hunter-Blair was one of those suspected, but it is doubtful if this will ever be confirmed. Another shady character who visited the abbey around this time was Ada Goodrich-Freer. She mentioned her intended visit to Fr Oswald in two letters written on 15th August 1894; one to Lord Bute, the other to Frederick Myers who had put her into contact with the monk.  He describes this month on page 203 of A Medley of Memories without reference to her.


Lord Bute, wearing the gown he had designed himself for his installation as Rector of St Andrews University in 1893; the resemblance to a monastic cowl was intentional.

He was headmaster of the school until 1888 when Abbot Leo appointed him master of scholastics i.e. newly professed monks studying for the priesthood. By the autumn of 1894 several of them were within a few months of ordination, emphasising the problem of providing studies. At one point it seemed that a hall might be opened at St Andrews University: the 3rd Marquess of Bute was then Lord Rector and was eager – for patriotic and romantic reasons – to open a Scottish seminary there. Fr Oswald met Lord Bute several times to discuss the plan, even reaching the stage of opening negotiations with the Dean of Faculty there, but it came to nothing. In the autumn of 1896 he returned to Oxford again as guest of Hartwell Grisell and found the university community full of interest over the new hall for Jesuit students about to be opened with Fr Richard Clarke SJ as its Master. An 1882 statute allowed any individual with an Oxford MA to open a Private Hall in his own name, and the Jesuit house of studies was opened as Clarke Hall. This development would turn out to be of direct relevance to Fr Oswald’s future career, but for the time being his eyes turned elsewhere, for in (April) 1896 he embarked on a steamer for South America.

The Beuronese congregation, to which Fort Augustus was affiliated from 1883 to 1911, had accepted a request for help from moribund Benedictine communities in Brazil by sending out a small party of monks in April 18957. Fr Oswald had been asked to assist in the restoration by Dom Gerard van Caloen who had been Rector of the school at Maredsous when he visited the Belgian monastery in 1883. Brazil had been a Belgian colony until the collapse of the Empire in 1889, by which time the entire Brazilian Congregation comprised barely a dozen monks. Fr Oswald was sent to the oldest Benedictine monastery in the country, St Benedict’s, Olinda. The Anglican chaplain here, curiously enough, had been a chorister at Magdalen while Hunter-Blair was an undergraduate. He married in 1895 and returned to Scotland for a three-month honeymoon on Loch Tay. His chapel at Pernambuco was a barn-like structure of corrugated iron. Macray died of yellow fever soon after Fr Oswald returned to England in time for Easter 1897.

That summer saw the purchase by his old friend Lord Bute of Pluscarden Priory, a partially-ruined monastery near Elgin. The Marquess acquired the property for his youngest son but hoped that the buildings could be restored and possibly returned to their original purpose. He invited Fr Oswald to celebrate Mass in the prior’s chapel at Pluscarden, and this took place on 5th May 1898. The scene was later painted by an artist, Horatio Walter Lonsdale, with whom Lord Bute was then working closely.

Return to Oxford Later in the year Fr Oswald returned to his old college to attend the Magdalen ‘gaudy’. In June he was back at Fort Augustus after an absence of almost eighteen months, but his sojourn there was to last barely a year, for in at the end of August he left the Highlands to return to Oxford.

The Benedictine hall in Oxford owed its origin to the Prior of Ampleforth, Fr Anselm Burge. The decision was made at a meeting of the Prior’s Council on 22nd July 1897 and twenty-six-year old Fr Edmund Matthews OSB was appointed superior. Along with three young postulants Fr Edmund arrived in Oxford early in October 1897, moving into premises at 103 Woodstock Road opposite St Philip and James Church. The foundation foundered however in that Fr Edmund was not a Master of Arts, and this degree was required by the university for anyone wishing to maintain a private lodging hall of undergraduates. As no-one at Ampleforth had an MA the future of the hall looked uncertain until Fr Oswald offered his services.  He was not just a Master of Arts but also a graduate of Oxford; furthermore, his social skills provided a means of gaining acceptance for the monks within the Oxford community. To satisfy the university rules he had to reside for a short period before he could be granted a license, and he moved in accordingly on 1st September 1898. License to open a Private Hall was obtained on the 29th May and Hunter-Blair Hall opened in October 1899 with himself as Master; Fr Edmund took care of general management until his recall to Ampleforth in 1903. In these early years the hall received much help from Hartwell Grissell.

Frederick Rolfe contacted him in 1901, hoping to enlist his help in finding a publisher for Chronicles of the House of Borgia. For some reason Rolfe turned on Hunter-Blair and directed a furious onslaught of invective against him. In 1904 Hunter-Blair moved the Benedictine house to new premises in Beaumont Street in the former Grindle’s Hall. Students included Justin McCann, who was the first monk from the Hall to obtain a First. Fr Oswald became a well-known and popular figure around Oxford, but by 1908 his health was causing concern and it was revealed that he would need a major operation. This effectively ended his term as Master. He returned to Oxford to spend a year as assistant Catholic chaplain and then embarked for Brazil to help at the monastery of San Bento in Sao Paolo.

Back at Fort Augustus Abbot Leo’s health had also deteriorated, so much so that he returned to Germany to be treated for diabetes: he did not return until the autumn of 1909. In his absence Prior Kentigern Milne had been in charge of the monastery, but the Abbot’s condition was so poor that it was evident he could not resume responsibility. He moved to the monastery’s “holiday home” St James’, at Letterfourie near Buckie, where he died on the Feast of St Benedict, 21st March 1910. The monastery ceased to be an independent abbey affiliated to the Beuronese Congregation and instead rejoined the EBC. Prior Hilary Wilson of Ampleforth was appointed claustral Prior during the inter-regnum which ended with the election of Fr Oswald as the second Abbot of Fort Augustus.


The abbatial blessing
His abbatial blessing took place on 9th April 1913. A photograph in the Benedictine Almanac and Yearbook for 1914 (above) shows him seated alongside Bishop George Smith of Argyll & the Isles, with Abbot-President Aidan Gasquet and Abbot Oswald Smith of Ampleforth. ​


The new abbot in 1913

He announced his determination to complete the abbey church, which still lacked a choir, and made this one of the priorities as abbot. The community then numbered about forty with some of the monks serving parishes outside the monastery. The school had been closed in Christmas 1894 as part of the Beuronese reform, continuing in a much-reduced scale as a junior seminary for around twenty boys considering a vocation to the priesthood or monastic life. He had been abbot for just over a year when the First World War erupted. Although it was not yet apparent,  the society that he had known had ceased to exist.  The college buildings were handed over for use as a military hospital and occupied by wounded Belgian soldiers. Several monks left to serve as chaplains in the army or navy; some, like Frs Odo Blundell and John Lane-Fox, distinguished themselves. It was a challenging time to be abbot. Many local families lost fathers, husbands and sons in the war. Resources were scant and his own health poor. The horrors of modern warfare ended the confident carefree Edwardian era, confronting mankind with proof of its own inhumanity. The introduction of airplanes and tanks was frightening enough, but submarine warfare was the most sinister development in the eyes of many – including Pope Benedict XV who considered their attacks on shipping as beyond even the laws of war. In 1911 Abbot Oswald had noted the arrival of two naval submarines – ‘weird, wicked-looking brown things’ – in Loch Ness. The modern world was breaking in. After the war even the grandest celebrations were more sober. The vast social balls at country mansions that he had known in his youth, with processions of carriages and footmen in livery, were not to be repeated. His memoirs contain much that seems redolent of the 18th and early 19th century, belonging to an era that ended with the coming of the railway rather than the submarines.

He resigned as abbot in November 1917 just after the solemn blessing of the Blessed Sacrament chapel by Bishop Aeneas Chisholm of Aberdeen. The choir had just been finished, although the entire church was not to be complete for another half-century. The retired Abbot followed the usual practice of moving away from his abbey for a while in order to give breathing space to his successor. As it happened there was another two-year interregnum during which Fr Hilary Wilson was again claustral prior. The EBC have a tradition of granting retired abbots the titular abbacy of an old pre-Reformation monastery and Abbot Oswald became – for the time being – titular Abbot of Abingdon. The suggestion of spending his retirement at the Benedictine House of Studies in Oxford was quashed by his former pupil Dom Justin McCann, appointed Master in 1920. He therefore moved at the age of 66 to Caldey Island off the coast of South Wales, the home of a Benedictine community of former Anglicans who had joined the Catholic Church in 1913. Their journal PAX carried his Rome Forty Years Ago: some rambling recollections in their autumn 1917 issue, with the second part of the article appearing in the winter number.

The community was in fact struggling with financial and personal difficulties, and the Superior – Dom Aelred Carlyle – left in December for a fund-raising tour in America. As he had still not returned by Easter 1918 Abbot Oswald officiated at the Holy Week services and preached on Easter Sunday. His presence was a welcome one. His gifts as a raconteur were appreciated by most (but not all!) of the community, which he also served as acting librarian. Much of the time was spent on literary work, a biography of Lord Bute as well as his forthcoming memoirs. Chapters from the latter were read to Br Richard Anson who provided the illustrations. Extracts were published in PAX. Abbot Oswald remained on Caldey Island for two and a half years, albeit with occasional journeys for important functions. He returned to the Highlands for the blessing of his successor, Abbot Joseph McDonald on 27th August 1919. While at Harrogate on the way home he heard that his titular abbacy was to be moved from Abingdon to Dunfermline – the only old Scottish abbey associated with the English Benedictines.

A Medley of Memories, the first of three entertaining volumes of memoirs, was published in 1919. (The other two came out in 1922 and 1936). Amongst all the thousands of books and articles written by Benedictine monks over the last 1,500 years there is nothing quite like Hunter-Blair’s trilogy. His gifts as a raconteur were obvious, but the never-ending litany of country houses, famous names and exotic locations presented an extraordinary picture of monastic life. Publication coincided with Abbot Cuthbert Butler’s Christian Monachism, an erudite, convincing and influential work that quickly became a classic. Comparing the two, one critic commented that Butler wrote about monastic life as it should be, while Hunter-Blair’s book showed it as it is. His trilogy of Medleys says little about mysticism but a great deal about high society. The abbot’s human failings may have included excessive concern with worldly affairs, yet this should neither obscure his achievements as a monk nor be presumed to imply lack of religious devotion or disregard for prayer. Most of a monk’s life is hidden, known only to God. While some monks may have worn silk-lined hair shirts Abbot Oswald could not be accused of hypocrisy, for he was extremely candid about his extra-mural activities; so much so, in fact, that it appears almost as a smokescreen. He was an intelligent man. Few abbots are fools.

He left Caldey on March 23rd 1920, having accepted another invitation to assist in Brazil. On his way to Southampton he stopped over at Bristol with Dr Tetley, the Archdeacon of Bristol and an old Magdalen man whose daughter had become a Catholic. At a Magdalen gaudy Hunter-Blair had met a previous Archdeacon of Bristol (and chaplain to Bishop Samuel Wilberforce) Alfred Pott. From Southampton he sailed for Brazil, arriving back at San Bento on April 19th 1920. He left in August and by the autumn was back in Fort Augustus where he completed the final pages of Life of the Third Marquess of Bute. Early in 1921 he sailed back to Brazil and reached San Bento on February 10th 1921. He left in November and reached England mid-December. The Beuronese encouraged artistic work and the abbey had its own Arts & Crafts school which made a rosewood screen for the Blessed Sacrament chapel at Fort Augustus.

From then on he was never able to settle. He travelled about, acting as chaplain to noble families, writing prolifically for books and magazines, and residing for some years at the New Club in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. He was constantly in demand as a speaker for church events, jubilees, weddings, radio broadcasts, dinners, and social functions, at which he was always the life and soul of the gathering.

Hunter-Blair took part in the abbatial blessing of Dom Edmund Matthews, his former Oxford colleague, on 12th March 1925. In 1927 he was on the BBC broadcasting on the subject of ‘Scottish Monasticism’ before leaving for Brazil again in the winter months. On December 8th 1928 he kept his Golden Jubilee, marking fifty years since he began his novitiate.


Abbot Oswald in 1929

In noting the occasion the Benedictine Almanac and Guide for 1930 acknowledged that ‘English Benedictines are especially indebted to him as the first Master of the Benedictine Oxford House of Studies, for whose help in an acute emergency, and in many years of service, we can never be sufficiently grateful.’ (p.15. Photograph above.)

On 7th January 1935 he took part in the inaugural meeting of the Fort Augustus Old Boys’ Association at the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh, presiding over their London dinner at the Rembrandt Hotel in London the following month. He told the gathering that he was shortly travelling to Rome to see Pope Pius XI and would ask the Pope for a special blessing for them all, at which point the audience burst into singing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’  A few weeks later he was back in Oxford, for the Scottish Catholic Observer reported on 9th March 1935: ‘The Lord Abbot of Dunfermline, Abbot Hunter Blair, gave a lecture last week in the Society’s rooms at the Old Palace (now the residence of Fr Ronald Knox) on the famous Monster of Loch Ness. Many distinguished members of the University attended.’ He was off to Rome next where he stayed with the Abbot Primate on the Aventine and had a private audience with Pius XI on March 27th. The two men seemed to have got on well together. Eschewing the formality of his predecessors, the Pope asked Abbot Oswald to sit next to him. The monk showed him a picture of the monastery’s setting by Loch Ness and Pius XI cried out in delight ‘Enfin, nous l’avons – l’habitat du Monstre! It turned out that the Pope had long been fascinated by the Loch Ness monster and had been unsuccessfully quizzing Scottish bishops and priests for details. Once Hunter-Blair admitted that he had in fact seen the creature, it proved impossible to steer the conversation onto any other subject.


Hardly an ascetic figure: Abbot Oswald in 1932

By his early eighties his health – never strong – had begun to deteriorate and he suffered much from rheumatism, gout and failing sight. Despite this he remained active, with neither his brain nor his pen lying idle for long. Even if his “unwillingness to let the monastic life interfere with his social engagements”11 had led him to spend most of his time outwith the cloister, his heart remained in the monastery where he made profession. Lying ill in St Mary’s Hospital, London, he knew that death was drawing near and asked to return to St Benedict’s Abbey. He was taken on train back to Fort Augustus where he died on September 12th 1939, and buried in the abbey cemetery.

To monks today he cuts a rather comical figure, seeming to belong more to the pages of a novel by Trollope or Dickens than to the Vitae Patrum. Since the beginnings of Christianity monks have made their dwelling in deserts, mountain caves, on remote islands and even atop pillars, none of which seems as incongruous as Edinburgh’s New Club – but this image he himself presented, and it is easy to be fooled by the impression.  His aristocratic connections and evident enjoyment of them may seem out of keeping with the renunciation of his monastic vows, but these were deliberately employed for higher ends. In an era when the establishment tended to identify Catholicism with Irish navvies and foreign Jesuits, the charms of this literary baronet were a revelation. The fact that he was a monk – and a highly capable one – added to his effectiveness in making Catholic religious life acceptable. There were still violent attacks being made on the presence of a Roman Catholic monastery in Scotland in newspapers in 1888. The ease with which he glided through the upper classes enabled him to advance Catholic causes that might otherwise have been obstructed: his success in gaining a foothold for the Benedictines in Oxford is just one instance. Abbot Oswald may sometimes have acted the clown, but his mind was more shrewd than he let on.  Despite the huge amount this colourful and flamboyant figure wrote about himself, one suspects that it was always less than the full story. This monk of Magdalen continues to fascinate, to entertain and to confound; in being a sign of contradiction, even to himself, he stands firmly in the monastic tradition. ​​​

Dr Phene’s House of Mystery


Although I don’t normally collect postcards of old buildings, this one caught my eye in an antique shop late last year – and with a title like ‘Dr Phene’s House of Mystery, Chelsea’, I simply could not resist.

At first glance I (mis)read the caption as ‘Dr Phibes’, the vengeful protagonist played by Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr Phibes (Fuerst, 1971) but there’s a good case to be had for making an equally memorable film about the man who built the House of Mystery.

Dr John Samuel Phene FRIBA, FRGS (1824-1912) – architect, property developer, traveller, collector, scholar and antiquarian –  studied at Kings Lynn Grammar School, Durham University and Trinity College Cambridge before being articled to the firm of an architect by the name of Hardwic​k.
He seems to have inherited some property in Chelsea sometime before 1850, and in the following years he had constructed a number of buildings in what would become Oakley Street, Margaretta Street and Terrace (both named after his wife Margaretta Forysth, whom he married in 1850), Phene Terrace and Upper Cheyne Row. The Phene Arms was built in 1853 and is still a popular pub to this day. Phene had it built to provide a social hub for local tenants and he seems to have been a progressive thinker, planting trees on both sides of Oakley Street ‘to purify the air and help prevent epidemics.’

From his house at 32 Oakley Street he supervised the construction of ‘The House of Mystery’ on the corner of Upper Cheyne Row. Work seems to have begun in the early 1900s, and its curious appearance led locals to call it the ‘Gingerbread Castle.’  Phene, however, called it ‘The Chateau’ and a close-up of the lettering above the doorway reveals the words: ‘Renaissance du Chateau de Savenay’ – rebirth of the castle of Savenay – in honour of the area in France’s Loire valley that Phene claimed as his ancestral home.

Despite the murkiness surrounding facts about his ancestry, it is clear that Dr Phene maintained an interest in the traditions of old France, for in 1885 he was one of the founders of the Huguenot Society of London. Despite the wealth of (often) apocryphal stories that circulate regarding this mysterious man, he was a serious scholar who published numerous research papers and gave both his services and artefacts to museums around the country. He was managing director of the Royal Polytechnic Institution before being succeeded by John Henry Pepper (of Pepper’s Ghost fame), and when Sir Peter Coats presented the town of Paisley with a Museum and Library in September 1870 it was Dr Phene who gave the inaugural address. Nonetheless there is often a tinge of eccentricity clinging to his publications, such as the pamphlet On Prehistoric Traditions and Customs in Sun and Serpent Worship (1875), an illustration from which is given below:

It’s a curious (albeit impressive) piece of work that examines the links between diverse traditions of sun and serpent worship around the world, from the Scottish Hebrides (where Phene spent several years and considerable expense looking for carved stones depicting serpents) to Egypt, America, Mexico, Greece and the west coast of Africa. The insights into ancient history might (or might not be) valuable, but the paper reveals some intriguing details about contemporary events: a footnote on p.4 informs us that ‘A curious illustration of fondness for serpents exists at Chelsea at the present time, which has led to alarm in the neighbourhood.’

A full list of his published work would be too long to detail here, but as a Life Member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he presented papers at a number of their annual meetings, including ‘On some Evidences of a Common Migration from the East’ (Brighton, 1872) and ‘On the District of Mycene and its early Occupants.’  (Plymouth, 1877.) The British Library lists five publications:

Reptile Tumuli. A lecture … Reprinted from the ‘Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette.’              [16 pages]
​      Paisley : J. & J. Cook, 1871

Records of the Past. A lecture.             [16 pages]
Paisley : J. & J. Cook, 1873

On the Causes of Art: with an outline of the origin and progress of art from prehistoric to modern times … A discourse … Reprinted from ‘The British Architect.’       [19 pages]
Manchester ; London ; Glasgow, 1874

Victoria Queen of Albion : an idyll of the world’s advance in her life and reign.
London: Blades, East and Blades, 1897.          [165 pages]
This was written in verse, with twelve pages of plates, plus  an appendix carrying article on Roman London – presumably by Phene – which appeared in several newspapers and magazines in 1896

Exhibits by Dr. Phene in the Ecclesiastical & Educational Exhibition in the Imperial Institute, Kensington, October 7th to 14th 1899.  [8 pages]
London, 1899.

His long-standing interest in Scottish antiquities confirmed by a ‘Photograph of wooden idol from deep peat in Scotland’  taken by Phene in 1900 and registered with the Copyright Office. At the same time he also registered his  ‘Photograph of the Great Stone Ship Temple in Minorca. (Plate 1 of group of ten)’ and ‘Photograph of remains of pre-Roman and Old Roman London, sculptured masonry now in the Guildhall Museum, to illustrate Mr Roach Smith’s discovery of Sculptured Masonry in the foundations of the old Roman wall of London, testifying to a Pre-Roman stone built city of the Trinobantes (Plate 5 of group of five)’ – further evidence of his fascination with ancient stones.

Although sometimes referred to as a reclusive character, there seems to be plenty of evidence of social activities, including a photograph of him taken by Sir Benjamin Stone outside the House of Commons on 2 July 1907 in the company of Mark Twain and other gentlemen. His membership of numerous activities actually suggests a gregarious nature, and he was also an active member of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature; following his death tribute was paid to him by Sir Edward William Brabrook (1839–1930) that offers further proof of his diverse interests:

‘I must first mention my dear old friend Dr. John Samuel Phene, who had reached his eighty-ninth year. He had been a member of the British Association since the year 1863 was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1872, and Joined our Society in 1875. In the year 1892, when Lord Halsbury became President, Dr. Phene and I were added to the list of Vice-Presidents, of which list, as it then stood, I am now the last survivor. His deep interest in the Society was manifested by his contributing not fewer than eight papers to our Transactions, in which he brought great erudition and shrewd observation to bear upon a variety of subjects, viz.: ‘Linguistic Synonyms in the Pre-Roman Languages of Britain and of Italy’ (vol. xv), ‘King Arthur and St. George’ (vol. xvii), ‘Ethical and Symbolical Literature in Art’ (vol. xviii), ‘ δενδροϕορία or Tree Transporting’ (vol. xix), ‘Place Names in and around Rome, Latium, Etruria, Britain, etc., with Earthworks and Other Works of Art illustrating: such Names’ (vol. xx), ‘The Rise, Progress, and Decay of the Art of Painting in Greece’ (vol. xxi), and ‘The Influence of Chaucer on the Language and Literature of England’ (vol. xxii). There was thus, in recent times, hardly a year in which he did not make some communication to our Society: he was regular in attendance at our Councils up to the last year of his life.’
                              –   Report of the Royal Society of Literature, (1912) pp.12-13.

The stories about his reclusiveness may have some truth, for it seems that the doctor began building Cheyne House for his wife, and after her death he lost interest in the project and began to spend more time alone. He rarely left his Oakley Street residence after this, while the House of Mystery and Cheyne House in Upper Cheyne Row – now a storeroom for his collection of stones  – were both boarded up and abandoned. The four acre garden behind the house was strewn with large statues and other curios.

For those interested in reading more about Dr Phene, there’s an article on him in the July 2013 edition of Fortean Times (which I must confess I have not yet read), ​and also a nicely-illustrated blog post here.

Barbara Stanwyck in ‘The Bitter tea of General Yen’ (Frank Capra, 1933)

There are many reasons to love and admire Barbara Stanwyck, not least of which is her versatility as an actress – in a film career that stretched beyond five decades she appeared in screwball comedies, melodramas, noir thrillers, musicals and westerns. Whatever the genre, she was at her best when playing a certain type of character – feisty, strong-willed women, who are prepared to think independently and defy convention when required.  Megan Davis, the heroine of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, is such a person.

This was her fourth film with Frank Capra, who had already directed her in Ladies of Leisure (1930),  Miracle Woman (1931) and Forbidden (1932.) (Their fifth and final film together, Meet John Doe, followed in 1941.) It is clear that Capra had a deep affection for the young actress, but how much she reciprocated his feelings in less certain. By the time Bitter Tea was made they were both married to other people, and it is tempting to read a poignant subtext into the film’s central theme of forbidden love.  Reducing the film to this would do it a great disservice however. Capra, hoping to obtain his first Oscar, strove for high artistic standards and created a world of opulent oriental glamour, with lush sets gorgeously lit and photographed by cinematographer Joseph Walker, whose specially designed patent lenses captured Barbara’s face in radiant close-up:

Set in China during the civil war of the 1920s, the story is simple enough. Childhood sweethearts Megan Davis (Stanwyck) and Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Strike (Gavin Gordon) are engaged to be married, but haven’t seen each other for three years. Megan belongs to the ‘finest oldest Puritan family in New England’ and the film opens in Shanghai as the American mission community await her arrival, which is to be followed immediately by her wedding. They have barely had time to greet one another before news arrives of endangered orphans in nearby Chapei – and gallant Bob declares the wedding postponed as he dashes off to save the children. Megan accompanies him, but after being ‘roughly handled’ in a crowd she is knocked unconscious and wakes up on a moving troop train in the company of the notorious General Yen, played by Swedish actor Nils Asther in heavy oriental make-up.

The rest of the film follows events in the general’s sumptuous palace over the next few days, a situation that is further complicated by the actions of the general’s concubine Mah-Li (played by Japanese actress Toshia Mori). Neither of the female leads was the first choice – originally, Constance Cummings played the part of Megan with Anna May Wong in the role of Mah-Li. Capra too was a late arrival: despite the fine reputation enjoyed by Herbert Brenon for silent movies such as Peter Pan (1924) and Beau Geste (1926), he couldn’t work well with Columbia executive Harry Cohn and was dropped from the film in June. The poster below shows the original line-up:

The film was based on Grace Zaring Stone’s recently published novel, which – rather like Edith Hull’s The Sheik (1919) that inspired the 1921 Rudolph Valentino movie – explored what might happen when a morally upright white woman is plunged alone into a dangerously exotic eastern setting. There was no suggestion in the book of any sentimental feelings between Megan and the general, but Hollywood must have romance, and this requirement raised the difficult issue of miscegenation which was then still illegal in many American states; it was also one of the  scenarios prohibited by the Motion Picture Production Code. This being the ‘Pre-Code’ era, Capra was able to be more daring – which is not to say that no-one objected, nor that the film (in both content and production) broke free from the inherent racism of the time.

​What is intriguing about Bitter Tea is the way in which it puts forward some provocative and subversive ideas at the same time as reinforcing a number of embarrassing racial stereotypes. Both consciously and unwittingly, the film raises a series of fascinating questions about the clash of civilizations, cultural superiority, racial stereotypes, sexual politics, gender and power.

Over the space of the next few days and nights Megan and Yen engage one another in a battle that is both cultural and personal, spiritual and sexual. While Megan seeks to preach the gospel of forgiveness and mercy to the general, he rises to the challenge and announces that he will ‘convert the missionary’ to his own philosophy. Stanwyck captures the gradual shift in Megan’s attitude, as haughty defiance and courageous pleading give way to doubt about her own beliefs and emotions, and – finally – the revelation of her innermost feelings. It might not rank among her very best roles, but her performance here is curiously overlooked and – arguably – underrated. Megan may be a missionary but she’s no angel, and Stanwyck’s reputation as a strong personality gives her character’s inner conflict a believable depth that might not have been portrayed so effectively by the other actresses considered for the part.


Not your average Puritan missionary

The reality of this inner conflict is depicted most memorably in a remarkable dream sequence. Megan dozes off in her chair after enjoying a cigarette out on the balcony, where she has been watching soldiers and girls kissing and flirting in the gardens below. The frame dissolves into a montage of superimposed images – the ‘cherry moon’, rippling water – as she drifts into sleep to the sound of soft pipe music. The mood is shattered as a threatening figure smashes down the door and forces his way into her bedroom – it is a diabolical version of Yen, resembling an oriental Nosferatu with pointed ears, fang-like teeth and nails as long as talons.  Just as he forces her down on the bed and runs his hands over her breast, she is rescued by a masked hero in western dress who pulls off his mask to reveal….General Yen. As is the way with dreams, she registers no surprise at the conundrum, but kisses him passionately. It’s an extraordinary sequence, made even more unforgettable by the skewed camera angles and the sight of General Yen floating backwards – an effect achieved by mounting him on a dolly. It’s brilliantly effective, both visually and psychologically, offering a highly expressive insight into Megan’s subconscious desires.


Chinese whispers

Her wavering between attraction and repulsion hinges, at least partly, on the racial barrier that separates them, and there is no shortage of orientalist stereotypes in the film: China is shown as a place of chaos, sensuality and cruelty, where human life is cheap and everyone conceals their inner selves behind masks of ‘inscrutability.’ Yet western culture is far from idealised. The American missionaries are shown from the outset to have little understanding of, or sympathy with, the Chinese society in which they live. Apart from Megan the most prominent western character is General Yen’s financial adviser Jones (Walter Connolly), a cynical and mercenary individual, a self-confessed ‘renegade’ who is indifferent to killings all around him as long as he makes money for (and from) his employer.


You might not guess from this poster that Barbara Stanwyck was 5’5″

When General Yen asks Megan if she has ever read Chinese poetry, listened to his culture’s music or studied their painting, her silence proves his point. Jones slyly points out to Megan that the treacherous Mah-Li was raised in a mission school, effectively undermining the value of the work done by the likes of Dr Strike. The ruthlessness of General Yen has its own logic too: in response to Megan’s protest about shooting prisoners for whom they have no food, he asks her ‘Isn’t it better to shoot them quickly than to let them starve slowly?’ ​Sunday School has not prepared her for this. She has no answer. Inch by inch, all certainties about the superiority of her culture and religion are taken away.

​Despite her education and social status, Megan is clearly no match for Yen in theological debate, and indeed the film seems to support his accusation that her fine-sounding words are false. When she urges him to change his mind about Mah-Li she ends with a heartfelt appeal: ‘I promise you, for the first time in your life you’ll know what real happiness is.’ His decision to do what she asks leads instead to his downfall – a result that he accepts with Stoic equanimity. Megan, by contrast, is shown to be totally out of her depth, in a complex world she does not understand; her well-meaning but misguided actions will result in the deaths of those she sought to save.

As a final indictment of Megan’s Christianity, the document that betrays Yen is disguised as a prayer for forgiveness – her ignorance of Chinese script means that she is blind to the true meaning of the words.


Already dressed in Chinese silk, Megan finds her certainties increasingly undermined

This incident mirrors an earlier one when Bob Strike’s inability to read the same script meant that he believed General Yen’s mocking message was actually a pass guaranteeing safe conduct for him and Megan. There are several such recurring motifs in this carefully-crafted movie, which was filmed in the summer of 1932 and cost around $1 million to make. The Bitter Tea of General Yen was Columbia’s most expensive film to date. The studio was uneasy about its prospects, however, sensing that the taboo subject matter could prove problematic. Its planned opening date of 20 December was postponed until 11 January 1933, when it was screened at the revamped Radio City Music Hall in New York:

This was the first ever movie to play at the vast hall, which had opened as a high class venue for vaudeville entertainment two weeks earlier. Unfortunately this was the at the height (or rather low point) of the Depression, and few could afford the $2.50 tickets. Poor attendances forced the owners to hastily reconstitute the building as a movie picture palace, and for their prestigious re-opening they paid $100,000 to rent Capra’s new film. It was scheduled to run for two weeks, but disappointing box office returns led the owners to pull the picture after  only eight days, leaving them with a loss of over $20,000. Both Stanwyck and Capra later expressed their belief that the film’s poor reception was due to racist attitudes, not just in America but in Britain and other Commonwealth countries. A cursory skim through contemporary reviews suggests they were correct.

​What can the film offer to modern audiences? To be fair, the use of ‘yellowface’ make-up and negative Chinese stereotypes is bound to jar with many contemporary viewers, but hopefully this should not distract from the sincere efforts made to challenge prejudices about the taboo of interracial romance. Despite its mixed messages, there is no denying the visual pleasure to be found in watching The Bitter Tea of General Yen: thanks to the designs of art director Steven Goosson, Joe Walker’s camera work and the costumes of Edward Stevenson and Robert Kalloch, the film looks stunning. Few things in Capra’s later work compare with the beautifully-lit, opulent interiors of General Yen’s palace, the carefully-orchestrated crowd scenes and the feverish expressionism of that erotic dream.  Capra succeeded in making the arty-looking film he wanted, even if it failed to bring him his much-coveted Academy Award. He’d have to wait another two years for that.


Capra, Asther and Stanwyck on set, summer 1932

As for Stanwyck, well she could make any film worth watching, raising even the most humdrum storyline up by the sheer vitality of her performance, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen gives her a great deal of material to work with.  Her opening scenes are rather weak, perhaps because she couldn’t quite square with the notion of Megan as the girlishly eager young saint the script desired. Once Yen appears onscreen, she grows into character, responding powerfully both to the general’s words and to her own conflicting feelings. Watching her face after she awakes from that dream, it is possible to see her expressions capture successively the subtle, intoxicating ripples of shock, guilt, pleasure and confusion as she remembers what has passed through her mind. Although not as provocative as Babyface, the daring sensuality of Bitter Tea would be impossible to screen after strict enforcement of the Code began the following year.  In more ways than one, the film is a prisoner of its age; but no imprisoned missionary ever looked more radiant or alluring than Barbara Stanwyck does here.

This post is part of the ‘Remembering Barbara Stanwyck blogathon’ and you can find all the other wonderful posts by clicking here.

The British Monarchy on Screen

AW as Prince Albert and Anna Neagle as Queen Victoria in ‘Victoria the Great’

Today I had my first glimpse of the cover of The British Monarchy on Screen, the forthcoming collection of conference papers that will include my own contribution, ‘Walbrook’s Royal Waltzes: Anton Walbrook as Prince Albert in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938.)’

This was presented as a paper at The British Monarchy on Screen conference which took place at Senate House, University of London on 23 November 2012, and was accompanied by clips from the two films mentioned above, as well as from Walzerkrieg (1933) – in which AW stars as Johann Strauss – showing a waltz scene at the court of Queen Victoria. Below are some of the other images used to illustrate my paper:

The ISBN has been confirmed as 978-0-7190-9956-4 but it looks like the book won’t be published until February 2016. In addition to my paper, there are some fantastic contributions covering a range of topics, including Dr Steven Fielding on ‘The heart of a heartless political world: screening Victoria’  (which also discusses the two AW films), Professor Ian Christie on  ‘A Very Wonderful Process’: Queen Victoria, photography and film at the fin de siècle’, Victoria Duckett on ‘Her Majesty moves: Sarah Bernhardt, Queen Elizabeth, and the development of motion pictures’ plus studies of more recent screen portrayals of monarchy such as The Queen (Frears, 2006), the Showtime cable TV series The Tudors (2007-2010) and The King’s Speech (Hooper, 2010.)

Most critics agreed that Neagle’s performance was eclipsed by that of her on-screen husband – an impression supported by much of the publicity material, including this post-war German programme.

An issue that arose several times during the conference was the way that the monarchy and film-makers use each other’s power for their own gain: royalty looks to prestige films to enhance public image, while cinema promotional materials (such as this advert) display lavish regalia suggesting the seal of royal approval.

A wedding scene from ‘Sixty Glorious Years’

Exeter in 1912 – Watercolours by E W Haslehurst

Recently I came across these beautiful watercolours by Ernest William Haslehust (1866 -1949), which provide the illustrations for Sidney Heath’s book Exeter (London: Blackie & Sons, 1912.) Unlike many watercolours, these are full of deep shadow, strong contrast and vibrant colour. His paintings present a vivid sense of how these landmarks appeared just over a hundred years ago.
This 16th century building was originally used by the cathedral clergy but after the Reformation it was the Customs House, a haberdashery shop, a coffee house (1726-1829), and art gallery. From 1878 to 1958 it was known as Worth’s Gallery, being the premises of Thomas Burnett Worth and his son, who used the picturesque building for printing and selling guidebooks, postcards and other ephemera for tourists. Worth ensured that  ‘Mol’s Coffee House’ became a tourist attraction itself, concocting various legends about its links with Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada. It is currently an upmarket gift shop.
This is the view from inside the courtyard of Rougemont Castle, with the old gatehouse and entrance to Rougemont Gardens on the right: another scene that has changed little since Haslehurst painted it.
Here’s St Mary Steps Church, with West Street rising up in the background and the entrance to Stepcote Hill tucked away to the right. The famous ‘Matthew the Miller’ clock is clearly visible on the front of the church tower. The area to the left and behind the viewpoint was swept away for the construction of the Western Way bypass in the 1960s.
A lovely view of the cathedral, showing the bishop’s palace to the right. As I explained in an earlier post, Bishop Phillpotts disliked the idea of living here and had his own residence built near Torquay.  At the time of Haslehurst’s painting the palace was the home of the scholarly Bishop Archibald Robertson. The painting below looks like a courtyard behind one of the buildings in Cathedral Close.
Another pre-reformation building, this lodge also stood in Cathedral Close and was once the property of the Benedictine abbots of Buckfast. After the dissolution of the monasteries it passed to the Crown and then through the hands of lawyers and clergymen before becoming the home of the Choristers’ School headmaster. Both the lodge and the school were completely destroyed by a German bomb in May 1942.

I walked along this very stretch of water just two days ago and can confirm that little has changed: Topsham remains one of the most attractive spots on the Exe, with tangible evidence of its sea-faring importance all around. After the river became inaccessible to shipping higher upstream, Topsham became a prosperous port and the hub of the area’s maritime trade.

The closure of the River Exe to shipping was due to the construction of a weir in the 12th century. According to the story, this was at the behest of  Isabella, Countess of Devon, which provides the derivation for the name ‘Countess Wear’ which is given to the area painted by Haslehurst below – although, like many such stories, the evidence and dates aren’t quite consistent.  Behind the housing in Countess Wear the Exe meanders slowly, in long wide arcs, through flat grassy meadows that still provide grazing for cattle today, as well as being a popular route for cyclists and walkers.