Friday 19 October 2018

The Rich American, the Travelling Captain and a Phallic Quest By L.J. Trafford

It hangs in a glass case in dimmed lighting: a small phallus carved in white with wings
made from bronze.
The label informs me it comes from Pompeii and that such items were symbols of fertility and strength. I could easily churn out 2,000 words on the subject of phallic imagery and objects in ancient Rome. There’s a lot of them. But that’s not what I’m writing about this month. For my second thought after, “Wow that’s beautiful." Was “I wonder how it got here?”

I found I couldn’t shake that thought. Just how did a tiny phallic amulet from the lost city of Pompeii end up in a gallery on London’s Euston Road? I suspected there might be a story there.
I was right. It is quite a story. One involving an eccentric American millionaire, a dashing ex naval captain with a love of fast cars & hobnobbing with grandees, and a quite extraordinary collection.

The American

Henry Wellcome courtesy of  Wellcome Collection.
If there is a better example of the self made man than Henry Wellcome I've yet to find it. He began life in a wood cabin in the slowly forming United States of America, the son of a travelling preacher.
This was proper frontier country. Aged eight Henry's home town was attacked by the Sioux. The young boy assisted his uncle in caring for the wounded.

Aged 15 he created and marketed his own version of Invisible Ink. Aged 19 we find him at the Chicago School of Pharmacy. A promising and developing career as a salesman for a drug company was interrupted when his friend Silas Burroughs suggested Wellcome follow him to London. Burroughs had in mind a British pharmaceutical company, but run with American panache, drive and most importantly American style marketing.
Henry took the leap to London and in 1880 Burroughs, Wellcome and Co was founded.

To say Burroughs, Wellcome and Co was successful is a gross understatement.
Burrough’s sudden and untimely death in 1895 left Wellcome as sole proprietor and enormously wealthy. What to do with all this money piling up?

Well there was partying for a start.
Henry Wellcome in fancy dress.
Courtesy of  Wellcome Collection

There was travel. 
Wellcome in Sudan.
Courtesy of  Wellcome Collection

And then there was collecting.

Wellcome had a dream, a grand ambition with his collecting. It was to;
“Trace the history of the human body in sickness and in health throughout the whole broad sweep of history.”
He intended to create a museum called the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (and succeeded, the WHMM opened in 1913) and set about acquiring the objects that would articulate this aim.
Gentleman collectors in the Victorian era were ten a half penny but the way Wellcome went about collecting was something entirely different: it was industrial.
Partly this was born of his innate curiosity. Partly his American drive that had taken him from a wood cabin in frontier country to a multi-millionaire living within the fashionable London set. But mostly it was driven by the huge resources he had at his disposal.

Reading about Wellcome’s collection is jaw dropping and ultimately a little dispiriting. How was I to find a record of my little phallus in this lot? To give you some idea of just how much Wellcome collected you need only know that they measured it by the ton.
There was 3 and a half tons of swords, five tons of photograph albums, 2 and half tons of guns and cannons and shields.
There were 110 cases of Graeco-Roman objects.
In all a million plus objects made up Wellcome’s collection. Somewhere in this million was my little phallus.

Though Henry Wellcome travelled extensively seeking objects for his museum (Much to the disgust of his wife Syrie “Ever since our marriage, the greater part of our time has been spent in places I detested collecting curios” - they later divorced) he did not take sole responsibility for acquiring objects for his museum. He did have a company to run after all, but also because he recognised that his presence at auctions was likely to push the price up of his desired object. To overcome this he was known to effect disguises, as he told a friend:
 “I usually put on very plain clothes. A top hat usually excites the cupidity of the dealer and the higher the hat the higher the price."

Alongside his own undercover missions he also employed a team of agents to travel the globe to find suitable objects for his museum. A bit of internet research brought me to one Captain Johnston Saint, one of Wellcome’s agents who undertook a tour of Europe on behalf of Wellcome. I wondered if he might be the man who purchased my little white phallus. I wondered how I might find out whether he was.

The Captain

Peter Johnston Saint.
Courtesy of Wellcome Collection
Peter Johnston Saint was born in 1886. He had served in both the Royal Flying Corp and the Indian Army. Well connected, (one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters was a childhood friend), he adored socialising, travel and fast cars.
He joined the, now named, Wellcome Institute in 1921 and had soon impressed Henry Wellcome. Within a very short time he was given the title of Foreign Secretary. The sole purpose of this role was to travel and buy up objects suitable for the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. It was a job Johnston Saint was well suited to involving, as it did, much hobnobbing with Ambassadors, Cardinals, Directors of key museums and other such notables.
A friendly member of staff at the Wellcome Collection (thank you Ross!) pointed me towards the papers they hold on Peter Johnston Saint. There were letters to Henry Wellcome, reports on his activities as Foreign Secretary and (joy!) his travels diaries.
Somewhere in these diaries I might find my little white phallus. Hoping he had decent handwriting I began to read about his trip to Italy.

Johnston Saint began his Italian quest on Saturday 19th January 1929:
“Arrived in Rome 8pm. Found thick snow here also, which I am told, is almost unheard of"

His diary is an interesting insight into how objects were sourced and brought for the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. Some of the work involves making contact with the right people. Such as on Monday 21st January when Johnston Saint meets with Cardinale Gasquet, the Prefect of the Vatican archives. The Cardinal is presented with a gift:
“The Cardinal was very interested in the research studies and medical history which we sent them through the foreign office and he says he has placed these at the Vatican library on behalf of the Duce (Mussolini).”

Johnston Saint also meets with the Ambassador and secures a letter of introduction to the Heads of Italian Museums. But alongside hobnobbing with Directors, Ambassadors and Cardinals, Johnston Saint spends a great deal of time browsing through the small shops of Rome:

“In a shop near Forum Romano I found some very interesting objects. Several very interesting Roman large surgical instruments…. A Greek pornographic vase in terra cotta in perfect condition…. A small bronze amphora and a Roman votive foot in bronze. Also a very curious object which may be an amulet or perhaps a form of pomander.
I purchased all the objects above for £21. The pornographic vase being worth half this sum.
I then visited the shop where I saw this collection of 99 phallic objects.”

I thought for a moment that within those 99 phallic objects might be my phallus but as Johnston Saint drily records:
 “The price asked is a very high one and I do not think the collection worth it”

He did not purchase them.

But later that same day he is to be found in further small establishments:
 “At another a shop I found a fine Roman lancet, a bronze stigel with unusual form of handle – a weight decorated pornographic subject and a Roman bronze probe. Price £4.”

To put this in some context the average annual wage in 1929 was £200 per year. Johnston Saint spent £25 in a single day and this compared to some days was a low amount. Later this same week he spends £64 on a single drawing. Henry Wellcome's pocket was swimming pool sized, however, as we have seen Johnston Saint is very much using his own judgement on artefacts. Several he rejects as inadequate or over priced but not:
"A huge terracotta Priapus from Pompeii"

Which he snaps up. Priapus is the Roman God of Fertility and is usually represented with a grossly oversized erect penis.
A Priapus from Pompeii. Not
the one JS purchased.
Attributed to Aaron Wolpert

It's not all buy, buy, buy though. Johnston Saint takes the time to visit the sites. A trip to the Vatican Library on Friday 25th January impresses him much:
 “This marvellous collection particularly rich in manuscripts,.. And housed in the most luxurious surroundings. What impressed me most was the excellent state of all the books and manuscripts... although the library consists of some 300,000 books there was sufficient room for 4 times that number”

The baths of Caracalla have him recording wistfully:
 “Their magnificence, their luxury and their marvellous efficiency are only one of the many wonders of ancient Rome.”

 Writing Roman based Historical Fiction I have visited Rome numerous times for research and I found it quite fascinating to read Johnston Saint describing the exact same sites I have visited only eighty years before.

What I found really special was his description of a day trip to the nearby Lake Nemi on Sunday 27th January

“I was anxious to see the Largo di Nemi, the Lake in the Alban hills which the Italian government are draining in order to recover the two Roman galleys which were sunk there in the time of Caligula. The level of the water in the lake has already been reduced by ten feet,exposing the small Roman habour….. The bad weather and the recent heavy falls of snow have more of less held up the work for the present.
..... I think when these galleys are recovered we might be able to get hold of something. At this moment it is not possible to do anything nor there anything to be found.”

Bad weather might have prevented the work that day but work did continue and these massive ships were eventually exposed.

The now lost pleasure barge of Caligula. Look
at the man to the left to see the huge awesome scale
of this boat.
Sadly they were destroyed during the second world war. All that is left of them is a few artefacts recovered and displayed in Rome’s National Museum and photographs that show the epic scale of these ships. They were truly awe inspiring and to think that Peter Johnston Saint was so close to seeing these epic pleasure barges revealed from the water!

On Tuesday 29th January Johnston Saint reveals that he is leaving for Naples. Would he visit Pompeii? Would he stumble across a certain small white phallus, and hopefully write down that he did? Or did the phallus not come from Pompeii at all? Was it maybe discovered in one of those small shops by the Forum selling phallic objects by the hundreds?
There was only one way to find out. I kept reading.....

Those letters of introduction obtained from the Ambassador come in handy now as they gain him access to the Director of the Naples Archaeological Museum and a very famous cabinet:
“I also inspected the Pornographic Cabinets which is ordinarily closed. Here they have many friezes and stuccos found in various houses in Pompeii - a collection of lamps, phallic objects.”

The Pornographic Cabinet of Naples Museum was where some of the most extreme (to Western eyes of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries) were housed. It contained, as Johnston Saint mentions, many phallic objects and imagery. As well as a truly stupendous statue of the God Pan having it away with a goat.
From Naples Museum's famous cabinet. Photo attributed Kim Traynor.

It’s probably worth me pointing out, if you hadn’t already gathered, that Wellcome was very much interested in acquiring erotic/sexual material. The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum contained 300 sexually themed Roman objects. They were very much in keeping with his ambition of a museum dedicated to human kind and biology.

Dr Jen Grove of Exeter University has written a very thorough account of the collecting of sexually themed materials in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is what she has to say about Wellcome’s collection:

“In the large, richly bound accession registers which the museum used to record acquisitions, a member of Wellcome’s staff entered the term 'PHA' next to each of these items. This stood for 'Phallic Worship' and this label would also be given, almost uniformly, to each of the hundreds of objects featuring phallic and other sexual imagery in Wellcome’s collection from across world history. This tells us that Wellcome was interested in an anthropological theory, first developed in the Enlightenment period, which looked for the origins of religion in the worship of procreation. “

He also collected images and objects outside of this sex/religion theme including materials dealing with the pleasure aspect of intercourse:
“Objects which seem to indicate an interest in sexual pleasure for its own sake include a collection of historical and cross-cultural sex aids.”

This was why Johnston Saint was dutifully examining and purchasing statues of Priapus and other phallic related materials. Although Johnston Saint cannot purchase anything from the pornographic cabinet he does buy an extensive range of photographs of the objects it contains.

One of Peter Johnston Saint's photographs from his 1929 trip to Rome. Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

The next day on Thursday 31st January Johnston Saint is given a tour of Herculaneum. His mood is greatly different from the interest and excitement at securing his photographs from Pompeii. To see the theatre at Herculaneum he had to walk down through 60 feet of lava (this is still the case today).

“One proceeds down a tunnel to the excavated portion and it is here that one can realise to some degree what a tremendous catastrophe the eruption of 79AD was.”

He is deeply moved by what he sees. One description he gives is particularly poignant and evocative:

“In one of the bedrooms on the first floor I saw a lamp, a glass bottle, and other objects including the marble table on which these things stood exactly as they were in AD 79”

That afternoon after his tour of Herculaneum he’s taken to see a local Hotel Proprietor. The hotelier's estate borders the Pompeii site and he has excavated his own grounds and found some objects he wishes to show off (and sell).   The hotelier had the permission of the Italian Government to offer these objects for sale, but with 50% of the receipts going back to the government. A fact that does not please Johnston Saint, as he notes;
 “So naturally there were no great bargains to be picked up.”

However what the hotelier shows him is so impressive that he cannot hold back the bucks:

“I brought some interesting objects. The following are the details. Excavated at Pompeii 1927. A Roman bronze lancet, a bronze probe on spatula handle decorated, a fine pair of tweezers in bronze and two surgical needles both fine in bronze. Then a terra cotta figure of a woman which is very interesting anatomically”

Also he buys a votive leg and foot. And records one final item of purchase:
”A marble phallus about 4 inches long with bronze wings, a chain and ring for suspending – perfect -used against the evil eye.”

A marble phallus you say? 4 inches long? Bronze wings? And a chain for suspending?
A bit like this one then?

Miraculously I had found it! I had found my phallus! It had been excavated in 1927 by the proprietor of a hotel that stood on the Porta Marina gate into Pompeii. He met Peter Johnston Saint on Thursday 31st January 1929 and showed him his collection of artefacts. Johston Saint purchased several of these objects on behalf of Henry Wellcome, including the phallus.
And that folks, is how my little white phallus ended up in a gallery in London’s Euston Road!


For some reason I feel this piece needs an epilogue. So here it is.
Henry Wellcome and Peter Johnston Saint
Courtesy of  Wellcome Collection
Henry Wellcome died in 1936. He left quite a legacy. Not just for his vast collection of curios (of which a very small slice can be viewed today in London’s Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection which stands on Euston Road) but also for science. His will set up a charity named The Wellcome Trust. He wanted the profits from his business to advance medical science.

The company Henry founded with Silas Burroughs went through several incarnations (including Glaxo Wellcome) before it was finally sold off and GlaxoSmithKline one of the largest pharma companies on the planet was formed. The money from this sale was ploughed into the charitable Wellcome Trust. Today the Wellcome Trust has assets worth £20 billion and in 2017 spent £1.1 billion advancing medical science.

And as for that small marble phallus? Well 700,000 people visit the Wellcome Collection each year and let’s assume absolutely all of them stare at that little white phallus and think firstly “Wow” and then secondly “I wonder how it got here?"

Further Reading

I'd highly recommend Frances Larson's "An Infinity of Things: How Henry Wellcome collected the World." if you are at all interested in Henry Wellcome and his mania for collecting. This book gave me much of the material for this article.
Special thanks also to Dr Jen Grove and Ross Macfarlane for their assistance.

L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors Series set in ancient Rome. She also runs the hashtag #phallusthursday on Twitter, which examines the use of  phallic imagery in ancient art and has a bit of a puerile snigger about it all. 


Carol Drinkwater said...

Quite a story, indeed, thank you.

Carolyn Hughes said...

A fascinating article! The Wellcome Collection is one of our favourite places. They have a wonderfully intriguing collection, and put on some terrific exhibitions. Well worth a visit if one happens to be in London. So your article about Wellcome and his collecting was of particular interest! Thank you!