|Bertie (right) on his way to Cairo
|Bertie (centre with fez) and entourage in Capernaum
Upon their return from the royal tour, the photographer Francis Bedford displayed his work and even offered the collection for sale to the public. Cairo to Constantinople is a new exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in London showcasing about half these photographs, along with half a dozen paintings done during the tour, a few cases of artefacts bought along the way and – for the first time – the diary kept by the prince. It is a fascinating exhibition and no historian or writer of historical fiction should miss it.
I was particularly interested in this exhibition because it documents part of what was happening in the year 1862, the year my first two P.K. Pinkerton books are set. In the Eastern states of America, the U.S. Civil War was claiming thousands of lives in some of the bloodiest fighting ever seen. Out West, Americans were virtually untouched by the war. 1862 was the year a failed prospector named Sam Clemens walked into a Nevada mining town and decided to return to his first love, writing for newspapers. He soon became known by the pen name Mark Twain.
Meanwhile, Bertie was shooting quail on the banks of the Nile and enjoying multi-course banquets with sultans and pashas while Francis Bedford was taking landmark photographs. The Royal Tour of 1862 galvanised the western world and soon the rich of Europe were flocking to the exotic Middle East in the footsteps of the young Prince of Wales.
|USS Quaker City in which Twain sailed in 1867
|Mount Lycabettus, Athens 1862 by Francis Bedford
The book that resulted from Twain's letters home became The Innocents Abroad, one of the best selling travel books in the history of the world. Writing as a ‘the celebrated California humorist’ Twain had to be wittily critical of his fellow passengers and especially of ‘foreigners’, but in his accounts of the Holy Land he sometimes forgot humour to comment on the terrible poverty of the people and harsh conditions of animals. Everywhere there is dirt, everywhere there are fleas, everywhere there are lean broken hearted dogs. Every alley is thronged with people... (Innocents Abroad chapter 38)
|detail of Water Carriers by Bedford
He described how badly the horses were treated: sometimes ridden up to nineteen hours per day without ever being brushed down or even having their saddles removed at night. Soft-hearted Twain chose the only horse whose back he had not seen. The others all had dreadful saddle boils that had not been doctored in years. He reasoned his horse must be like the others, but I have at least the consolation of not knowing it to be so.
Twain also touched on the horrible deformities of the beggars of Constantinople and the packs of dogs lying in the streets or scavenging the outskirts of towns. Another striking aspect of his account is that, unlike today, parts of Greece and the area around Galilee were almost treeless. Flies, dirt, dust and poverty were everywhere.
|Water Carriers in Albania
The prince must have known his journal would be read, if only by his mother the Queen, but amid his mild descriptions of banquets and hunting there are a few clues to the squalor he must have glimpsed. He describes Tiberias on the shore of Galilee in terms Twain might have used five years later: Easter Sunday April 20th 1862 - we walked into the town wh. is the filthiest, the worst built & the most wretched heap of buildings I ever saw.
|Jemima Blackburn's 1862 watercolour of Bertie in Thebes
Jemima Blackburn was a talented English illustrator who happened to be travelling in Egypt when she and her party came across the royal entourage. She painted this watercolour of the Prince receiving the newly-discovered mummy of a child at an archaeological excavation in Thebes (Karnak). Her depiction is charming, but when I recall Twain’s description of horses in miserable agony and children’s faces with ‘goggles of flies’ clustering on their eyes, I wonder how idealised it is.
This raises an interesting question. Which medium most accurately shows us the Middle East in the 1860s: photography, painting or the written word? The answer must be that all three are able to hide aspects, but with careful scrutiny and comparison of sources, a good historian might be able to tease out the truth.
To paint or to click? Learning to look at portraits in photography and paintings is one of the sessions offered to pupils in Key stage 2 to Key stage 5. For more information, go here.
Cairo to Constantinople is on until 22 February 2015. Audio guide and study packs are included in the entry price.
Caroline Lawrence’s P.K. Pinkerton mysteries for kids feature Mark Twain and lots about photography. They are perfect for schools studying America at Key stage 3.