Carte-de-visite of the week #18. The Trappists of Staouëli and the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa, Algiers

Although most of my carte-de-visites are portraits, a number of them show landscapes, usually views of famous buildings or picturesque sites. Among these is the card below:

The Basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique (Our Lady of Africa) in Algiers

On the reverse of the card is this:

This cdv shows the Neo-Byzantine Basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique (Our Lady of Africa) in Algiers, designed by architect Jean-Eugène Fromageauand built between 1858 and 1872. The cdv seems to have been issued (and perhaps sold) by the Cistercian abbey at Staouéli, some seventeen miles away, which was founded in 1843 by French monks from the abbey of Aiguebelle. Although the Cistercians had a reputation for asceticism and austerity, the motives behind the foundation were not entirely spiritual, and were in fact closely associated with the French colonization of the country, which lasted from 1830 until Algerian independence in 1962.

The Coming of the French

The French invasion of Algiers was undertaken for a number of reasons, including a wish to end the attacks by Barbary pirates who operated out of Algiers and the need to distract the French population from their dissatisfaction with King Charles X. The immediate catalyst for the invasion was an altercation between Hussein Dey, the Ottoman ruler of Algiers, and the French consul Pierre Deval, during which Dey was alleged to have struck Deval with his fan. An armada of 600 ships sailed from Toulon and around 34,000 troops under General de Bourmont landed at Sidi Ferruch, about seventeen miles west of Algiers, on 14 June 1830.

The landing at Sidi Ferruch

Hussein Dey sent an army of around 24,000 soldiers to meet the French forces, who had encamped at the edge of the plain of Staouéli, which stretched between the Atlas mountains and the coast. The two sides clashed on 19 June and, despite having a few advantages, the Algerian forces were defeated at the ‘Battle of Staouéli’ due to French superiority in artillery power and military discipline. Further skirmishes followed on the 24 June but the French were soon able to begin marching to Algiers, where the city was taken on 5 July. Hussein Dey surrendered and went into exile, leaving Algeria to remain under French occupation for over 130 years.

The Battle of Staouéli, 19 June 1830

The Coming of the Monks

At first the French administered Algeria as a military colony with the focus on the regions around the coast, but over time this policy changed to one of colonial expansion and total control across the whole country. Land was seized and offered to French settlers, factories and businesses were set up, and those in the French army and administration were encouraged to make private investments into land speculation and agricultural production. The Algerians continued to resist throughout the 1830s and 1840s, however, particularly under the leadership of Abd Al-Qādir. After a decade of costly fighting, a French delegation was set up to review the future of a colony in Algeria, and their report concluded that the country ‘…would cease to be French if she was not Christian.’ It was thought that the presence of a religious community in the colony would help to establish Christianity in the region, encourage a more positive view of the French settlers, and bring about some peace and stability. The Cistercians were the ideal choice, given their agricultural expertise and reputation for austere holiness.

After a preliminary visit in September 1842 by Abbot Orsise Carayo of Aiguebelle and Abbot Hercelin of La Trappe, a plot of land was chosen on the Staouéli plain. The site occupied 1000 hectares of rough ground between Wadi Bridja to the east and Wadi Boukara to the west, covered in dwarf palms, mastic trees and wild myrtles. The first monks arrived here on 13 September 1843 and the foundation stone for the monastery, dedicated to Notre Dame de la Trappe de Staouéli, was laid the following day, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, by Dom François-Régis and blessed by the bishop of Algiers, Mgr Dupuch in the presence of General Bugeaud. The relationship between the monastery and the military remained close, with General Marengo using his personal wealth to stave off financial crisis in 1847 as the abbey farm had a disastrous year

The monastery church was consecrated on 30 August 1845 and raised to the status of an abbey the following year, as the community grew from 67 monks to around 120, bolstered by the addition of monks from the abbes of Bellefontaine and Melleray. One of the monks had actually been a soldier who had fought during the Battle of Staouéli. These early years were hard, however; the land was poor and unsanitary, with malaria claiming the lives of many of the monks. Over time, they gradually succeeded in establishing olive groves and mulberry trees, draining the marshes and planting hedges of cypress and bamboo to shelter their fragile crops from the strong sea winds. In 1853 the monks won first prize at the Agricultural Exhibition in Algiers, and when Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie visited Staouéli on 4 May 1865 they marvelled at what had been achieved.

The Abbey

The main monastic buildings were built on two storeys around a cloistered courtyard garden, with the chapel occupying one wing, the kitchen and refectory on the ground floor, and the dormitories and infirmary up above. on the first floor. The farm lay on one side of the abbey, and on the other side a complex of workshops and other outbuildings, including a bakery, laundry, dairy and forge. It was a far simpler building than the magnificent basilica that was being constructed in Algiers. There is no mention of a photographic darkroom among the workshops in descriptions of Staouéli that I can find, and it is not clear if these cartes-des-visites were bought in commercially for resale as souvenirs at the abbey, or if they were in fact taken by a Trappist monk. There is no doubt that other such images were in circulation, as I have another cdv:

Dom Marie-Augustin Charignon OCSO (1818-93)
2nd Abbot of Staouëli 1856-1893

This cdv also has the abbey’s name printed on the back, but in a different font, and with some decorative work around the letters. Someone has helpfully added a pencil note to identify the portrait as that of Dom Marie-Augustin Charignon.

A merchant’s son, he was born Flavien Charignon on 21 February 1818 in Peyrus (Drôme), and entered the novitiate at the Cistercian abbey of Aiguebelle in 1845. After ordination, he rose to become the monastery’s prior, after which he was sent to Staouëli where he served in the same role.

 When Abbot François-Régis de Martrin-Donos was transferred to Rome as Procurator-General in 1854, Dom Augustin took over the running of the abbey. He was consecrated as Abbot of Staouëli in December 1856 by the Bishop of Algiers, Louis Pavy, who was the man responsible for the construction of Basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique. Work began on the cathedral, which was designed by architect Jean-Eugène Fromageau, two years after Abbot Augustin’s consecration. Louis-Antoine-Augustin Pavy (1805–1866) was the second bishop of Algiers, but he died without seeing the cathedral completed.

Dom Augustin, on the other hand, remained Abbot of Staouëli for almost four decades, until his death at the abbey on 29 December 1893, just a few months after celebrating the abbey’s golden anniversary on 21 July 1893. He was succeeded by Abbot Louis de Gonzague Martin (1893-1898), who was the superior when Charles de Foucauld (then a Trappist novice at Akbés ) stayed at Staouëli for a few weeks between 25 September and 27 October 1896. The abbot had been one of the co-founders in 1882 of the Syrian monastery of Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Cœur (La Trappe de Cheïkhlé) in Akbés near Aleppo, which became a dependent house of Staouëli in 1894. After his death in 1899 he was succeeded by Dom Louis de Gonzague André (1898-1904), the fourth and final abbot of Staouëli. By the early 1900s the abbey’s prospects were not looking good: there were no local vocations and the French government was enforcing strict separation of Church and State that threatened the confiscation of church property and the expulsion of religious orders from France. It was in sharp contrast to the close relationship between the monks and the French authorities that had flourished at the time of Staouëli’s foundation. To pre-empt the possible seizure of the abbey, Abbot Louis sold Staouëli in 1904 and transferred the entire community (apart from one monk) to Maguzzano on the shores of Lake Garda in Northern Italy.

Postscript: Staouëli and the Atlas martyrs

The monks remained at Maguzzano for over thirty years before the monastery closed in 1936. Their last abbot had been another monk of Aiguebelle, Bernard Barbaroux, who had been appointed Abbot of Maguzzano in 1930. The buildings were sold off in 1938, around the same time as another group of Trappist monks were starting a new foundation in Algeria. Our Lady of Atlas was situated at Tibhirine, some 20 km from Médéa and 100 km south of Algiers. In 1947 it was granted abbatial status, and Dom Bernard Barbaroux was consecrated as the first abbot on 26 September 1947, using Abbot Augustin Charignon’s old crozier from Staouëli. Several monks from Staouëli were members of this community, which continued its quiet life of work and prayer throughout the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), although numbers decreased over the decades and in 1984 Our Lady of Atlas was demoted from abbey to priory status. That same year, Dom Christian de Chergé OCSO was elected prior.

Ever since independence in 1961, Algeria had been governed by the National Liberation Front (FLN) and was a one-party state until the mass riots of October 1988 forced a reform of the constitution. The new democratic system was tested by local elections in June 1990 when the FLN lost heavily to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). When it became clear that the FIS were going to win the parliamentary elections following the first round of votes in December 1991, the army moved in to halt the electoral process and declare a state of emergency, precipitating a civil war that would last for over ten years. There were two main Islamist groups that took up arms to fight the government, the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). On 27 March 1996 members of the GIA arrived at Our Lady of Atlas and kidnapped Dom Christian and six other monks. They were held for two months with the offer that they would be released in exchange for a captured GIA leader. Negotiations failed, and the seven monks were executed on 21 May. A funeral Mass was said for the monks on Sunday 2 June at the Basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique.

These two cdvs thus represent scenes from the long, complex and troubled history of French monastic involvement in Algeria. I have some other old photographs and postcards that can add to this story, but will keep them for another time.

Carte-de-visite of the week #16

This week’s carte-de-visite continues the religious theme, in that the subject of the photograph – a young boy, apparently named Alfred – is shown carrying a prayer book and a Rosary, suggesting that this was taken on the occasion of his First Holy Communion. In one of Baroness Orczy’s ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ novels, Sir Percy Strikes Back (1927), she describes the young lad Amédé wearing for his First Communion ‘an exquisite cloth coat with brass buttons, a silk waistcoat, buckled shoes and a white ribbon sash on his left arm.’ The significance of the large white pole held in his right hand is unclear to me, however. It looks rather like a narwhal tusk, although perhaps it could have been a processional pole for a banner – but why show the pole and not the banner? Perhaps a reader can help?

The Catholic population on Jersey increased rapidly following the French revolution as thousands of Catholic clergy and emigres fled to the island in the wake of persecution. Further secular legislation in 1880 forced another wave of members of religious orders to leave France, and in October of that year two priests from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were among those who came to Jersey. Over the next few years they raised funds to build a church for the Catholics of St Helier, and St Thomas was opened in October 1887, possibly not long after this photograph was taken. Despite the large influx of French emigres, St Helier was a predominantly English-speaking town, and certainly the name ‘Alfred’ suggests that the boy was of English rather than French background.

The photographer, Ernest Baudoux (1828-1897), was  a French emigre, although he had been running a photographic studio in St Helier since 1869. He was joined by his son, also named Ernest, in 1885, so the inscription ‘E. Baudoux & Son’ on the reverse of the card dates this image to somewhere between 1885 and 1887, when Baudoux sold his business to an English photographer named John Stroud. The latest known negative number listed on the excellent historical website relating to the Channel Islands, ‘The Island Wiki’  ( is 36532, whereas this cdv is numbered 37548 – suggesting that this must be one of the very last photographs taken by Baudoux before winding up business.

The front of the card proudly states that the photograph was taken using the chromotype process, and was ‘printed in carbon.’  There were various versions of this process, patented by Joseph Swan and others, and practitioners needed to pay for a license in order to do so. Although it was therefore more expensive, the results were worth it, as the use of carbon instead of silver gave the chromotype a deeper, richer purplish colour and a hard, glossy, metallic finish. Unlike the sepia toning produced by silver, the carbon prints did not become yellow and faded with age, which explains the sharp tones of this image. For more details, see Audrey Linkman’s article ‘The stigma of instability’ in Photographica World 91 (Winter 1999/2000).


Carte-de-visite of the week #15

This week’s carte-de-visite is actually a cabinet card, the larger format version (typically ​4 14 by ​6 12 inches) which gradually displaced the smaller cards during the 1870s and 1880s. Over the following decade or so, the popularity of both forms declined as Kodak and others made amateur photography more accessible, thus reducing the reliance on studio portraiture.

This portrait follows on naturally from the previous carte-de-visite image of Canon Vavasour, as it also depicts a scene from Catholic religious life. The back of the card is blank and there is no information to provide any details about the location or the date. A few observations can be made nonetheless.

The portrait shows a young nun sitting with – presumably – her parents, and it is therefore likely that this was taken on one of two special days – either her admission to the novitiate, or the occasion of her simple profession.  There are various stages in religious life, the length and name of which varies between the different religious orders and congregations, but the normal sequence runs along the lines of:

  1. Postulancy (from the Latin postulare, to ask or seek.) Lasts a few months, in which the postulant lives in the community and learns the basics of religious life. This period not only gives them the opportunity to decide if they feel a genuine commitment to such a life, but it also lets the community observe them and decide if they are suitable. When the period of postulancy ends, the community vote on whether or not the postulant should stay, if that is what they wish.
  2. Novitiate. This period usually lasts a year, sometimes too. In female communities, entrance to the novitiate is usually marked by the ‘taking of the veil’ and often a change of name, i.e. the adoption of a religious name, usually that of a saint.
  3. Simple or temporary vows (obedience, poverty and chastity) – this period may last three years or so, sometimes more. Nuns in simple vows are sometimes called ‘juniors.’
  4. Solemn vows. These are lifelong and irrevocable.

The nun in the portrait is wearing a Carmelite habit and the white veil indicates that she is either a novice or in temporary vows. Those in solemn vows wore black veils. There is no difference, I think, between the habits worn by Carmelite novices and those in simple vows, which makes it hard to determine what the occasion was. In the 19th century Carmelites were strictly cloistered and contact with family was extremely rare. When visits were allowed, these would take place in the parlour with conversation conducted through a wooden grille. The fact that this nun is sitting with her family underscores the special nature of the event.

The backdrop is clearly artificial, and at the bottom of the photograph it can be seen that they are actually seated outside, on grass. They were likely photographed in the convent garden, although whether or not the family were actually allowed inside the enclosure is hard to judge.

One interesting feature of this image, however, is that none of the sitters are looking at the camera. This might have been deliberate – an attempt by the photographer to make the scene look natural, as if they were captured in conversation rather than staring fixedly at the lens – or it may have been accidental, the sitters being momentarily distracted by a chance remark just before the shutter clicked.

With regard to the location, there is something about the parents’ dress that suggests they are European, perhaps French. The man appears to be wearing a military jacket, with heavy horizontal braiding reminiscent of the uniform of a hussar. The significance of the white (?) sash and the pinned badge are unclear, so any comments on this would be most welcome.


Close-up of the uniform

Carte-de-visite of the week #14 Philip Vavasour, Canon of Leeds

Canon Philip Joseph Vavasour (1826-87)

As a change from most of the cartes-de-visite featured previously in this series, this week’s CDV is not a studio portrait but rather a nicely-composed photograph that has been taken outside. It shows a clergyman in cassock and biretta, standing by an open door, possibly of a church building. A pencilled scrawl on the back records the name of ‘Revd. Philip Vavasour’ but no other details. However, I am not short of books on Victorian church history, and a little bit of digging soon unearthed some more information about the subject of this portrait.

Philip Joseph Vavasour (1826-87) was actually born Philip Joseph Stourton, but only had this surname for one day! Philip was born on 26 February 1826, the eighth child, and fifth and youngest son of Hon. Sir Edward Marmaduke Joseph Stourton and his wife, Marcia Bridget Lane-Fox.  The following day his father changed his surname to Vavasour by royal license, in line with a testamentary injunction from his late cousin, Sir Thomas Vavasour, 7th Baronet, who had died the previous month. Although the baronetcy became extinct with the death of Sir Thomas, his estate of Hazelwood in the West Riding of Yorkshire, passed to Sir Edward, who was created 1st Baronet Vavasour of Hazelwood in 1828. Sadly, his wife did not live to see this, as she died in June 1826, possibly from complications following the birth of her eight child.

They were a deeply pious family, spending much time in religious devotion and acts of charity. Two of Philip’s sisters became nuns. Tragedy struck again when Sir Edward died while making a pilgrimage to Rome, collapsing on 16 March 1847 at the village of Chanceau in France, where he was buried.

Philip at this time was studying for the priesthood at Ushaw College, and was ordained in 1850. The same year he travelled over to France and spent a week at Chanceau, a journey he made several times to visit his father’s grave. In 1876 he made one final trip, and brought his father’s remains back to be reinterred at Hazelwood.

Philip was chaplain of St Leonard’s, the medieval chapel at Hazelwood, but held another posts around the diocese and was instrumental in raising funds for the construction of St Wilfrid’s Catholic Church in Ripon, where he became the first parish priest in 1862. He would hold this position until his death.

He also helped raised funds to construct a new Catholic church at Tadcaster – near Hazelwood – on land donated by the Vavasour family. A temporary chapel opened there in 1865 with Cardinal Manning presiding at the opening of St Joseph’s Catholic Church four years later. a more permanent structure opening. There is a memorial to Fr. Philip Vavasour there in the form of a stained glass window by the altar.

St Anne’s Catholic Cathedral in Leeds had been established in 1838 on a site in Park Terrace, at the junction of Cookridge Street and Guildford Street. Fr. Vavasour was made a canon of the cathedral sometime in either the late 1860s or early 1870s.

He was elected a member of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society in 1862, and was possibly also a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute, as he exhibited an embroidered medieval chasuble at one of their meetings in 1874. In addition to these scholarly interests, he was well-known in the area for his charitable work, and was prominent among the social events of the local Catholic gentry and aristocracy, including the Marquis of Ripon. He was of course related to many of the well-known Catholic families.

Canon Vavasour travelled down to London in the company of Lord Ripon on Monday 18 April to attend a meeting of the Catholic Poor Schools Committee and also a reception with Cardinal Manning. To everyone’s shock, he collapsed and died the next day while visiting his relative, Miss Langdale, at 52 South Street, Park Lane. He was 61 years old. His body was interred at Hazelwood, where the funeral was carried out by the Bishop of Clifton. A memorial window was installed at St Wilfrid’s, Ripon, the following year.

Where was the photograph taken? The two most probable places would seem to be either a side door at the cathedral, or – more likely – St Wilfrid’s Church, Ripon. Verifying the first option is difficult, as the old cathedral was demolished and replaced by the present building in 1904. I stayed overnight in Ripon some years ago and went to Mass at St Wilfrid’s, but cannot recall this doorway. If anyone can confirm the location, I’d be interested to hear from them. One of the things that struck me about the portrait was the way Canon Vavasour is standing on the step, one foot crossed over the other, leaning back against the pillar of the door. The casual self-assurance, and disinterest in adhering to the stiff formalities of ecclesiastical portraiture, possibly reveal a little of the character of the man.

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

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

Background and Stage Career

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

Lord Dunlo

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

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

The Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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