Sunday 9 November 2014

To paint, click or write... by Caroline Lawrence

Bertie (right) on his way to Cairo
Early in 1862, Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, went on a royal tour of the Middle East.  Known to his friends as Bertie, the future King Edward VII was sociable, charming and diplomatic. He loved hunting and eating, and already at the age of twenty had a reputation as a playboy. Bertie and his entourage took the train to Cairo and from there went up the Nile and back down, over to the Holy Land, then onto Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece before returning home by royal steamer. It was one of the first times a trip to such exotic regions had been so thoroughly documented by photography, in those early days a laborious, expensive and time-consuming process. 

Bertie (centre with fez) and entourage in Capernaum
Cameras were large and heavy, the photographs themselves were on A4 sized sheets of glass. Imagine trying to developed these in makeshift darkrooms containing dangerous chemicals in blistering heat, dust and wind. Imagine transporting a couple of hundred sheet of glass several thousand miles on horseback or by sea. Subjects had to remain still for 12 seconds, but if they did their faces came out beautifully sharp and detailed. 

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
Five years after the prince’s four month sojourn, the American Civil War was over and rich Americans had also started travelling to Europe in unprecedented numbers. In 1867, Mark Twain finagled a place on a steamer full of wealthy and pious protestants called the Quaker City. The cost of a place on the five month voyage to Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Holy Land was an eye-watering $1250 per traveller. Normally, Twain could never have dreamt of paying this amount but he went as a guest of three newspapers on condition that he send back regular reports.  

Mount Lycabettus, Athens 1862 by Francis Bedford
Aged 32, Twain was relatively young and fairly wild. For example, when the passengers of the Quaker City found Athens closed to them on account of a cholera outbreak, Twain convinced some of the more daring souls to sneak ashore and make their way from Piraeus to the Parthenon... by night and on foot! 

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
Like Bertie, Twain and his party often travelled on horseback when moving from town to town. In the Holy Land, Twain tells how hoards of men, women and children would pour out of villages, stretching up their hands and begging for food or ‘bucksheesh’. At a fountain in Syria he bemoaned the wretched nest of human vermin about the fountain—rags, dirt, sunken cheeks, pallor of sickness, sores, projecting bones, dull, aching misery in their eyes and ravenous hunger speaking from every eloquent fibre and muscle from head to foot. (Innocents Abroad chapter 44) 

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
Things must have been very similar on the Royal Tour of 1862, but at first glance there is no sign of this desperate poverty, either in Bedford’s photos or Bertie’s journal. But on closer examination you can see hints of something bleaker. Have a look at the water carriers in this photograph. Some of them are literally dressed in rags. 

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
I saw no dogs or beggars in Bedford’s carefully composed photos, (every non blurry figure must have been told to ‘hold still’ for at least 12 seconds), but there is a dog in this watercolour by Jemima Blackburn that gives an idea of the sort of cur Bertie and Twain might have come across.

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. 


Carol Drinkwater said...

This looks like a fascinating exhibition. Thank you so much for writing about it, Caroline. I would never have known about it otherwise, but can now visit when I come to London.

Sue Purkiss said...

It sounds like an interesting exhibition, and you add so much to it with the context you provide. Interesting too, to compare the photographs with the words and the paintings and with the reality of poverty.