Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987)

The existence of the genre of the ‘woman’s film’ is a challenging one for feminist critics such as Doane, for while these films portray women in stereotypical feminised roles – mothers, lovers, hysterics, invalids or victims – they were hugely popular with female cinema-goers, who evidently enjoyed the films and identified (in some way) with the onscreen depictions of women’s experience. As a feminist, theoretical critic and psychoanalyst, Doane seeks to explain the anxieties underpinning these films and the ways in which filmmakers tried to get audiences to identify with the psychological behaviour of the screen characters.

 ‘‘before she dies she becomes pure gaze’ (p.122)

Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy, 1940)

Inevitably she is building on Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ which was published in Screen journal in 1975. (It was later revised for Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) pp. 833-44, which would provide a good background read for anyone approaching this topic.) Mulvey coined the term ‘male gaze’ to discuss the concept of ‘scopophilia’, the pleasure taken in gazing at the passive female as an object – a notion she pursued using the language of voyeurism and fetishization. These are also terms employed throughout Doane’s book, for even though the idea of the women’s film might suggest a ‘female gaze’ – women in the audience watching women on screen – it is important to grasp that Mulvey’s male gaze had three perspectives – that of the filmmaker, the screen character and the viewer – and was never intended to suggest binary distinctions between biological gender. As Doane makes clear, most of these ‘women’s films’ were made by men and reflect typically masculine anxieties about female agency during the wartime period; the way in which women were portrayed onscreen – she argues – was in keeping with a particular agenda that sought to increase female identification with passivity, suffering and neurosis.

Cat People Cats In Film Cinema Women And

‘the compatibility and substitutability of feline and female’ (p.51)

Simone Simon in Cat People (Lewton, 1942)

By choosing to focus on woman’s films in the 1940s Doane lines up a marvellous array of classics movies with some of the era’s greatest actresses. We have Bette Davis in The Letter (Wyler, 1940) and Beyond the Forest (Vidor, 1949), Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945), The Locket (Brahm, 1946), Humoresque (Negulesco, 1946) and Possessed (Bernhardt, 1947),Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own (Leisen, 1946), Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) and so on. Several of Max Ophuls’ films, including Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Deception (also 1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949) are included, as is Gaslight (the Cukor 1944 adaptation, rather than the Walbrook one, alas) Secret Beyond the Door (Lang, 1947), Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941) and many, many others – including Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1946) just to prove the Forties weren’t entirely monochrome. So what does the author have to say about these films?

‘her daydream of happiness turns into a nightmare when she is unable to say “I do”‘ (p.148)

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak, 1946)

At times, frankly, what the author wishes to say is not immediately clear, which is (sadly) perhaps what one should expect from a psychoanalytical theorist. Viewers who have watched these films many times and learned to relish Ophuls’ gorgeous cinematography, appreciate Tourneur’s masterly use of sound – or thrill to the soaring beauty of the music scores composed by Waxman for Rebecca or Newman for Leave Her to Heaven – may well feel disappointed by the downright ugliness of sentences such as ‘It is as though the historical threat of a potential feminization of the spectatorial position required an elaborate work of generic containment olation’ (p.2) that form much of the prose here. This is a shame, as the author has a great deal of perceptions observations to make, and readers who manage to persevere with the difficult language may find the author’s insights valuable in reshaping  attitudes towards this ‘golden age’ of movies.

For Doane, popular terms for women’s films such as ‘weepies’ and ‘tearjerkers’ indicate the narcissistic nature of female spectatorship and its over-identification with the emotional states portrayed onscreen. In most of these movies, women are only allowed to feel a passive form of sexual desire, and those who express – or worse still, act upon – an active desire are generally punished.  The author makes a forceful argument not only about the extent to which these films rely upon, and exploit, a range of psychical conditions associated with stereotypical femininity, but also the ways in which the actual visual imagery of these films and its effects are deployed in enforcing these constructs, and just how deeply these symbols are ingrained within the subconscious of both the watchers and the watched.

Related image

‘the victim of desires which exceed her social status’ (p.75)

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (Vidor, 1937) 

One trouble with the author’s emphasis on conceptual theorizing is that it seems to treat both the women in the cinema audience and those on the screen as ciphers of ideological concepts rather than real human beings. To me, the language of this sort of critical discourse is so far removed from everyday experience that it comes across almost as dehumanizing – achieving precisely the opposite effect of that intended by the author. Those seeking to learn more about women’s experience of cinema-going around this time might find Lisa Stead’s Off to the Pictures: Women’s Writing, Cinemagoing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2016) far more engaging and convincing, because it is so deeply rooted in real voices and material ephemera.

This is the penultimate post in this summer’s #ClassicFilmReading challenge

New Meat on Old Bones – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

This weekend I went along to see Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, the sequel to Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015) and the fifth in the franchise that began with Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) and continued with The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001). Although the film has Derek Connolly and Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow both returning as screenwriters, with Trevorrow and Steven Spielberg acting as executive producers, the introduction of Spanish film-maker J.A. Bayona as director gives this movie a welcome dash of Gothic horror that anyone who has seen his darkly atmospheric The Orphanage (2007) will appreciate. While in many ways the film retreads the familiar, audience-pleasing scenarios of the previous films, Bayona’s background brings some enjoyable Gothic frissons to the franchise and some elements that will please fans of classic British horror films of old. He directed a couple of episodes of Penny Dreadful too, including the frightening and surprisingly poignant ‘Séance’ episode, which surely should have earned Eva Green an Emmy.

There will be no spoilers here, or at least nothing that isn’t apparent from the trailers

The events of this film take place a few years after the first Jurassic World movie, as dino-trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and the former park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) return to Isla Nubar, a deserted ruin since the rampaging chaos of the first film. Claire’s career has changed tack somewhat, in that she is now leading a dinosaur-rights activist group, and the duo’s goal in returning to the island is to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from an imminent volcanic eruption and transfer them to safety. Their expedition is funded by the wealthy Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who – it is explained – was involved in the original dinosaur DNA experiments with John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough.) His granddaughter Maisie Lockwood (engagingly-played by newcomer Isabella Sermon) spends most of her time bounding around the huge mansion learning about palaentology, but despite her youth, there are hints of mysterious connections between her past and that of the dinosaurs amongst whose skeletons she plays.

Supervising Lockwood’s rescue project is Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), an old friend of Claire’s. Now Spall will always be for me the frighteningly unstable Jay Wratten from the 2011 BBC series The Shadow Line and it’s no surprise to find him a villain here, following in the footsteps of Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) from the first film. He is just one of a great supporting cast of British actors, including Geraldine Chaplin and the ubiquitous but always-watchable Toby Jones.

While previous films have been pretty-much island-bound (part of the terror trap), Fallen Kingdom sees the dinosaurs moved off the island to their new home at the Lockwood Estate, a vast Gothic mansion with the inevitable basement in which unspeakable things go on. Much of Jurassic World was filmed in Pinewood Studios, but the exterior of Lockwood Manor is actually just a façade, constructed on Hawley Common, an army training ground near the Hampshire village of Minley. Bayona draws on his experience filming The Orphanage, as well as much older films and visual representations to explore the terror potential of dinosaurs loose in an old dark house.

The moral message of the film is not subtle – contrasting Blue Planet’s ethos of preserving natural environments and endangered species with the unregulated self-seeking excesses of capitalist greed, private militias and the mad science that has been condemned from Frankenstein through Westworld to the previous Jurassic movies. Genetic engineering has rarely been portrayed in a positive light on the big screen, and neither the Indominus Rex of the last movie nor the Indoraptor of this one do anything to change the impressions made by watching Deep Blue Sea (Harlin, 1999) Black Sheep (King, 2006) Splice (2009) or any other Promethean fable. While there are a number of deliberate and rather obvious references to scenes from earlier films in the Jurassic franchise, viewers might also enjoy spotting gentle nods towards much older dinosaur films such as One Million Years BC (1966) and Valley of Gwangi (1969), about which I’ve written previously [see here] While watching, I was also reminded of the comic-strip story ‘Flesh’ which appeared in 2000 AD during the late 1970s.

Despite healthy box office returns the film has received mixed reviews from critics, some of whom appear oddly confused about the aims of the creators of the Jurassic franchise; while one party carps about Fallen Kingdom sticking too closely to the storyline of earlier movies, another group grouches about the folly of taking the franchise in a different direction. I think it’s fair to say that the film aims at – and achieves – a balance between nostalgia and novelty. Feverishly debating how silly it may or may not be is as pointless as the endless controversy about the correct walking speed of zombies. As some of the pics above illustrate, the film has some superb visual effects with Bayona knowing how to play with panoramic sweeps as well as atmospheric shadows and reflections. Audiences can feast their eyes while the dinosaurs feast on the baddies. Isn’t that what the franchise is all about?

Olivia de Havilland: ‘Lady in a Cage’ (1964)

When did the ‘Sixties really begin? In terms of popular culture, there’s a good case to be made for 1964 – certainly in terms of music and moral attitudes, the spirit of the ‘Fifties did not disappear with the change of decade. However, there is a watershed moment that can be dated to 1960, and that was the transformative impact on cinema brought about by the release of two film – Peeping Tom in the UK and Psycho in the US.  Both are superbly crafted yet disturbing movies that introduced audiences to a new form of horror, one that did not require actors to dress in scaly rubber suits or cardboard robot outfits in order to frighten.  The monster now could be the neighbour next door, and film-makers began trying to terrify cinema-goers by suggesting that appalling events could take place in realistic, contemporary settings. Although Lady in a Cage is a very different film from either Psycho or Peeping Tom, it could not have been made without them, and its central image – that of the caged lady, trapped and exposed to view – can be regarded as a natural extension of the voyeurism and scopophilia inherent in those two movies.

​It is a little unsettling, therefore, to realise that the lady in a cage is none other than Olivia de Havilland, an accomplished stage actress and one of the brightest stars of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, who c0-starred with Errol Flynn in no less than eight movies and received her first Oscar nomination in 1940 for her role as Melanie in Gone with the Wind. That era seems far, far removed from the unsavoury urban modernity of Graumann’s 1964 movie: but might one regard Olivia’s performance as a link between them? What could such a distinguished actress bring to a role like this? Before trying to answer these questions, it is necessary to have a look at the film.

The opening credits can be seen as a nod to Hitchcock, with the Saul Bass-style title sequence evoking memories of Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and of course Psycho (1960), but these scenes also serve to warn us of what is to follow. Against a backdrop of discordant jazz – superbly scored by Paul Glass – and broken up by the modernist text of the titles, we witness a series of disturbing, fragmentary scenes of urban life: car traffic, blaring horns, a young coloured girl running roller skates up and down a man’s leg, a couple necking in their car while an agitated woman shouts on the radio about the need for an ‘anti-Satan missile’, firecrackers blowing the lids off dustbins and – most disturbing of all – a dead dog lying in the road as cars drive past: a cruel indictment of the uncaring nature of urban life, as well as a hint of how the film will end.

It is clear from this raucous clash of sounds and images that all is not well in society. Lady in a Cage was filmed not long after the assassination of JFK and is permeated by the anxieties of the age – about Russia and Communism, the breakdown of social norms and traditions, the rebelliousness of the younger generation, civil disorder and racial tension…it’s all here, simmering under the surface, made worse by the sweltering summer heat that practically drips off the screen.  Our introduction to the main characters comes when the camera enters the house through the grille of an air vent – a voyeuristic point-of-view shot  that neatly introduces the imagery of bars. The film’s first word is ‘Darling’ – written and spoken by Cornelia Hilyard’s son Malcolm (played by William Swan), whose intimate relationship with his mother brings back memories of Mrs Bates. He is shown writing a letter to his mother for her to read while he is away. Although it begins with intense affection, we glimpse the phrase ‘kill myself…I can’t go on’, and began to suspect that all is not well here. With an audaciousness ahead of its time, the film makes numerous allusions to incest and homosexuality and – just in case anyone had missed the hint – a graphic allusion to the fate of Oedipus in the final frames.

When Mrs Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland) appears, it is clear at once that she represents an earlier, more civilized era. De Havilland was 47 when this was filmed, yet her dress and demeanour suggest someone older, as does her reliance on a walking stick, even if this is because her character is recovering from a hip operation. This house is filled with fussy trinkets and ornaments, such as the Lowestoft porcelain vase she is holding above. We just know that this genteel little world is going to be shattered.

The storyline can be sketched out in a few sentences. As everyone heads out of Los Angeles for the weekend of 4th July, Mrs Hilyard is left stranded inside her home, trapped inside the elevator cage between floors when the power fails. This is caused by Malcolm’s car clipping the edge of a ladder as he drives away from the house; the ladder then  falls against a power cable, tugging it away from the wires and breaking the connection. The fact that the ensuing series of tragic events has its origins in such a trivial and arbitrary occurrence underscores the chaotic, fragmented nature of the modern world. In the city, people can bring about each other’s undoing without being aware of the consequences of their actions, while – conversely – cries for help and alarm bells are heard but ignored by dozens of passersby: her attempts to ring the alarm for help only succeed in drawing the attention of a drunken hobo George (Jeff Corey), who proceeds to gain entry to the house and helps himself to drink and other items. George goes to tell his friend Sade, a blousy hustler (played sensitively by Ann Sothern) about the rich pickings available at the house, unaware that his sale of the stolen items at a pawn shop has been watched carefully by a trio of delinquent youngsters led by Randall (James Caan, in his first big film role.) This gang follows George back to the house, and proceed to wreak havoc, trashing the house and terrorising the helpless occupants.


Making themselves at home 1: George and Sade in the Hilyard kitchen
Mrs Hilyard’s predicament is worst of all, not only because her vulnerable immobility exposes her to the sadistic torments of the gang, but also because of her shocked incomprehension at their wanton behaviour. Her appeals to their humanity are rejected by Randall’s statement that he is ‘all animal’, and the only way she can understand their conduct is by presuming that ‘The world must have ended – someone on one side or the other must have pushed the button.’


New kids on the block: the arrival of home invaders Elaine (Jennifer Billingsley), Essy (Rafael Campos) and Randall (James Caan)


In contrast to the wanton destructiveness of the young delinquents, Mrs Hilyard is presented as a lady of some culture, who enjoys reading books and writing poetry.
Mrs Hilyard’s fear about the breakdown of civilization are played out in her own disintegration during the film. De Havilland portrays her as a fussy, possessive and overpowering woman at the start of the film. She is wealthy enough to invest in the stock market, and even considers that the current Cold War tensions might make this a good moment to buy shares in the arms industry. She has literary pretensions too, being something of an amateur poet. After the elevator breaks down she assumes someone will swiftly come to her aid and settles down to read her book (above.) But as time passes and no help comes, and as the temperature soars without air conditioning, her composure quickly unravels – she recites poetry inside her head and out loud, composes an ode to the great but fickle god ‘Kilowatt’, sings Alouette with feverish gusto, descends into hysterical laughter, and – finally – confronts her own potential for violence as she desperately seeks a way to escape.


De Havilland gives a full-bodied performance in portraying Mrs Hilyard’s physical and mental deterioration as the film progresses.


Making themselves at home 2: Elaine and Randall in the Hilyard bathroom

Some viewers felt shock and disappointment that Olivia de Havilland would involve herself in a film like this, but anyone familiar with her career would be aware that she was no stranger to difficult material. In Dark Mirror (Siodmak, 1946) and Snake Pit (Litvak, 1948) her characters wrestled with mental illness, while more recent ventures such as Light in the Piazza (Green, 1962) and the Broadway hit Gift of Time dealt with mental disability and terminal illness respectively. For an actress willing to embrace roles such as these, the part of Mrs Hilyard presented the intriguing challenge of playing a woman confined in a small space for almost the entire film, deprived of opportunities for expressive movement or interaction with other actors.It is possible that these unusual elements of the role made it an attractive prospect for Olivia, but I’ve often felt that the title Lady in a Cage would be an apt description of the plight of many Hollywood actresses as they enter middle age. Studios tend to lose interest in their leading ladies as the years grow on, limiting the number and quality of the roles offered to them, narrowing their prospects, and forcing them to accept parts that would have been considered unworthy of their talent in a previous decade.  In saying that, the early 1960s saw a series of films starring actresses from Hollywood’s Goolden Age, such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich, 1962), Strait-Jacket (Castle, 1964 – written by Psycho‘s Robert Bloch) and Hush..Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Aldrich, 1964) which brought together Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis and Agnes Moorhead. These films share many common themes and a web of personal connections, not least the fact that De Havilland replaced Joan Crawford in both Lady in a Cage and Hush..Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Where Lady in a Cage differs from these films is in its gritty urban realism and distinctive visual style.

The film’s reception, however, was far from enthusiastic. Following its American release on 10 June 1964, a critic in Time magazine waspishly claimed that the film ‘adds Olivia de Havilland to the list of cinema actresses who would apparently rather be freaks than be forgotten. (Time, 19th June) and others expressed disgust at what they regarded as ‘a sordid, if suspenseful, exercise in aimless brutality.’ (New York Times, 11th June.) The British Board of Film Classification refused to issue the film with a certificate, effectively preventing it from being seen by British audiences until it was released on video with an 18 certificate in 2000. When it came out on dvd five years later, it was reclassified as a 15. After forty years, audiences had become inured to scenes of wanton cruelty and sadism.

It could be argued that the film’s treatment of mindless violence prefigured the direction taken by many subsequent film-makers. When Randall tells George that the gang are going to kill everyone in the house, he asks ‘Why us, what have we done?’, to which the young man replies ‘You’re here.’ This exchange reappeared in another ‘home invasion’ movie, The Strangers (Bertino, 2008), which again features a trio of masked criminals, whose response to a similar question from frightened occupants was ‘Because you were home.’ Such an attitude reveals a total absence of moral conscience, and the somewhat laboured imagery of Lady in a Cage indicates that the film was playing on genuine fears at this time that the age of moral certainties and social cohesion was under siege, facing the same level of threat as Mrs Hilyard. It is, however, far from clear what we are meant to learn from her response about any possible solution to society’s problems. Her final realisation ‘It’s all true, I’m a monster’ is followed by her anguished cries at Elaine and Essie as they try to flee the scene – ‘Murderers, monsters!’ – suggesting that she has sunk to their level.

She has lost her son and her precious belongings, but worse still, she has lost the moral dignity that set her apart from the iconoclastic youths.  If she has gained anything, it is a degree of insight into her own character flaws,  an awareness of her previous indifference to the sufferings of others, and the appalling effect that her suffocating love has had on her son.

There may be something rather distasteful about the tendency of films like Lady in a Cage to push ageing actresses into the role of ‘monsters’, and it is pleasing to observe that Olivia de Havilland not only outlived this particular movie genre, but has just celebrated her 100th birthday. This post is part of a special blogathon to mark the occasion, and you can read all the other blogposts here.

’I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Box for You’ – Premature Burial, Postcards & Poe


Premature burial is no laughing matter. In fact many people found the idea of being buried alive so terrifying that they went to great lengths to ensure it couldn’t happen to them. Before his death in 1912 Archdeacon Thomas Colley specified in his will that his body was to be sent to a hospital for dissection in the aid of medical science, ensuring that any signs of life would be noticed by doctors in the event that he was still alive. A few years earlier, the  Third Marquess of Bute requested that doctors wait for unmistakable signs of decay before removing his heart, which was then sent for burial in Jerusalem. (See Rosemary Hannah, The Grand Designer: Third Marquess of Bute (Birlinn, 2012) p. 354. ) Aware of these and many other instances, I was intrigued to find the concept treated with great lightheartedness in the postcard below, which I purchased last week from an antique shop.
My hopes that a closer look at the card would make more sense have since been dashed. Is there any significance in the name on the gravestone? While pondering the images on the card, I was reminded of Harry Clarke’s chilling illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s tale The Premature Burial (below.)


“The Premature Burial” (1919) by Harry Clarke (1889-1931)
Dublin-born Clarke was a leading light of the Irish arts & crafts movement and provided the illustrations for a posthumous edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: George Harrap & Co. 1919.) This was later adapted for the cinema as the third in Roger Corman’s ‘Poe Cycle.’


Poster for ‘The Premature Burial’ (Roger Corman, 1962)


Poster for ‘The Oblong Box’ (Gordon Hessler, 1969), based very loosely on Poe’s tale of the same name.


This poster for the first of Corman’s Poe adaptations – ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1960) echoes of Clarke’s drawing, with the vertical orientation and the sinister tree.


Although this poster shifts the layout, the premature burial is still placed in the foreground. The screenplay for the movie was written by Richard Matheson.
I’ve just been teaching Poe’s Corman cycle to film adaptation students which is why these images were so much in my mind, and why the comic postcard seemed so incongruous. It took on a slightly different hue when I realised that the words ‘I would’nt leave my little wooden hut for you-oo’ are actually the refrain from a popular song, written in 1905 by Londoners Tom Mellor (1880-1926) and Charles Collins (1874–1923.)
Although Mellor and Collins are almost totally forgotten now, they were both prolific songwriters whose comic ditties were hugely popular in Edwardian music halls.  Their work received recognition in the film I’ll be Your Sweetheart (Val Guest, 1945), starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Rennie – who appeared together the same year in The Wicked Lady. The film opens with the words ‘This film is dedicated to those grand old song writers of yesterday whose melodies are the folk songs of today. Their battle against the music pirates who robbed them of their just rewards, is the inspiration for this story.’ This is a reference to the absence of proper copyright protection for songwriters at the time ‘I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut for You’ was written.
As you can see from the lyrics, the song is about an unsuccessful courtship on a desert island and has absolutely nothing to do with premature burial. However, the association of ‘wooden box’ with ‘coffin’ was clearly suggestive, and my postcard was not the only one to use the phrase with in a macabre context:


Although this was clearly the work of a different artist, the idea is similar.


This early 1900s postcard comments upon current fears about badly-preserved foods, due to an ongoing scandal about malpractice in the American meatpacking industry.
If anyone knows of other examples of old postcards using this song title, or can cast further light on the graveyard humour of the first image, I’d be very pleased to hear of it.

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.