Saturday, 24 January 2015

A moving discovery in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Father and Son by Edmund Gosse is an account of the author’s difficult relationship with his father, the distinguished Natural Historian Philip Henry Gosse. It is regarded by many as an important work of English literature, despite Edmund’s reputation for inaccuracy, and is available as a Penguin Classic. The different personalities, and beliefs, of the two men caused a rift between them, but Edmund acknowledges that there was a time when they were very close.

After the death of his wife, Emily, in 1857, Henry Gosse moved to Torquay with Edmund on 23rd September, two days after the boy’s eighth birthday. They lived in a new villa, named Sandhurst, and this had the advantage of being close to the sea and in an area with which Henry had become familiar on previous visits. If the grief of bereavement wasn’t enough to bear, there was also the hostile response to Henry’s book Omphalos, published in November 1857. This was an attempt to reconcile the developing ideas of geological time scales with the account of Creation in the book of Genesis in The Holy Bible, and it pleased neither the religious, or scientific, communities. It is little wonder that the two were drawn closely together and they spent much time collecting animals along the shore, many of which were brought back to Sandhurst and kept in tanks. As Ann Thwaite writes in her biography of Edmund [1]:

Day after day,..the middle-aged widower and the small boy combed the rock pools at Anstey’s Cove, at Oddicombe, at Petit Tor, or took longer excursions to Maiden Combe northwards or Livermead to the south. Edmund was ‘his constant and generally his only companion’.

When Henry was away from Torquay giving lectures, there was a loving correspondence between them, with hugs and kisses sent by both [2]. Then, on Henry’s return, the visits to the shore could re-commence. Once material had been collected, Henry became absorbed in studying them and in making illustrations that would lead to further books. While Henry was busy, Edmund used a small room at the top of the house as his own “study”. He modelled himself on his father and this is what he wrote [3]:

I, the son of a man who looked through a microscope and painted what he saw there, would fain observe for myself, and paint my observations. It did not follow, alas! that I was built to be a miniature-painter or a savant, but the activity of a childish intelligence was shown by my desire to copy the results of such energy as I saw nearest at hand.

In the secular direction, this now took the form of my preparing little monographs on seaside creatures, which were arranged, tabulated and divided as exactly as possible on the pattern of those which my Father was composing for his Actinologica Brittanica. I wrote these out upon sheets of paper of the same size as his printed page, and I adorned them with water-colour plates, meant to emulate his precise and exquisite illustrations. One or two of these ludicrous pastiches are still preserved, and in glancing at them now I wonder, not at any skill that they possess, but at the perseverance and the patience, the evidence of close and persistent labour. I was not set to these tasks by my Father, who, in fact, did not much approve of them. He was touched, too, with the ‘originality’ heresy, and exhorted me not to copy him, but to go out into the garden or the shore and describe something new, in a new way. That was quite impossible; I possessed no initiative. But I can now well understand why my Father, very indulgently and good-temperedly, deprecated these exercises of mine. They took up, and, as he might well think, wasted, an enormous quantity of time; and they were, moreover, parodies, rather than imitations, of his writings,..

Of these efforts by Edmund, Ann Thwaite writes [2]:

It was his greatest pleasure to imitate his father and produce little learned treatises of his own. They were for his father, as is obvious in one of his booklets on butterflies, written and illustrated when he was ten. Under the ‘Green veined White’ he has written: ‘It is common in most places in England, and has been taken in Newfoundland, (by yourself), Europe generally and Siberia.’

While examining the collection of art works by Henry Gosse held by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Holly Morgenroth and I discovered one of the sheets of butterfly illustrations made by Edmund (see above). On the reverse, several of the butterflies are named in Edmund's handwriting and, at the bottom of the sheet, Henry wrote “By EWG in the spring of 1859”, so we know that Edmund was 9½ years old when the illustrations were made. They copy the style of unpublished work by Henry Gosse in Entomologia Terra Novae [4], a page from which is shown below. Henry made these paintings in 1833, when he was 23 years old, and they show well his accuracy and love of settings, in this case vegetation. Edmund is likely to have seen these illustrations and they probably formed the basis for his own efforts. Did Henry label, and keep, the sheet by Edmund because it reminded him of his early days, despite his reservations about its quality?

When looking at Edmund’s illustrations in the Museum in Exeter, it was impossible not to feel close to the story of Henry and Edmund in the late 1850s. In October 1859, Edmund was baptised as a member of the Brethren, fulfilling the last wish of his mother and an ever-present wish of his father, both being devout believers. In many ways, this marked a turning point, for it was the rigidity of Henry’s Christian faith, together with developing personality differences, that began the breakdown of the relationship between father and son. The sheet that Holly and I found in the Gosse collection at RAMM is a memento of an earlier, warmly affectionate, time and it is painful to know what was to come.

[1] Ann Thwaite (1984) Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. London, Secker and Warburg.

[2] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

[3] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A Study Of Two Temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

The illustration of the sheet by Edmund Gosse is reproduced with permission. ©The Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. Thanks to Holly Morgenroth, the Curator of Natural History, for letting me see the works by Henry and Edmund Gosse that led to this blog post.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Brilliant illustrations of organisms

Anyone fortunate enough to see the illustrations in First Editions of books by Philip Henry Gosse will be amazed by their accuracy and beautiful colours. I certainly remember my reaction to many of his book plates and admit to being one of Gosse’s avid admirers [1].

Recently, I visited the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and met Holly Morgenroth, the Curator of Natural History. Together, we looked at the materials by Henry Gosse in the museum collections (some of which can be seen by searching for “Gosse” at In addition to illustrations in pencil, pen and ink, and watercolour (see above for examples), there were several boxes of chalk drawings on large sheets of black paper, some being collages, and these are masterpieces of their type. They are attributed to Gosse, but yellow writing on some sheets appears to be in a different hand, although earlier white lettering on others is almost certainly by him. Each sheet has two loops of material glued to the rear of the upper margin, secured by strips of paper. Six of these beautiful illustrations are shown below:

They are certainly visible at a distance and may have been used in talks or on the field courses that Henry ran. In his biography of his father, Edmund Gosse wrote [2]:

Between 1853 and 1860 my father lectured on several occasions in various parts of England and Scotland, with marked success. He was perhaps the earliest of those who, in public lecturing, combined a popular method with exact scientific information. He was accustomed to use freehand drawing on the black-board, in a mode which was novel when he first began, but which soon became common enough. He gave up lecturing mainly because of the extreme shyness which he never ceased to feel in addressing a strange audience. Had he not expressed this sense of suffering, no one would have guessed it from his serene and dignified manner of speaking on these occasions. His fondness for romantic poetry, and his habit of reciting it at home with a loud, impressive utterance, naturally produced an effect upon his manner in public speaking and lecturing [2].

I imagine that the production of meticulous new illustrations at each lecture would be a labour too far and I think the many chalk drawings that we examined in the Museum in Exeter may have supplemented the “free-hand drawing on the blackboard” to which Edmund refers. They may even have been these drawings. Of course, this is speculation, but who would not be impressed with a series of them, accompanied by Henry’s oratorical style. It is no wonder that he was so admired as a communicator about Natural History in the mid Nineteenth Century, a time when visual aids were very much more limited than those of today.

Ann Thwaite, in her brilliant biography of Henry Gosse [3], wrote that lectures were well-received and she quotes from a newspaper report that they “made what would have been otherwise a dry and uninteresting subject to the larger portion of his auditory, popular and attractive”. The lectures could not fail to add to his already established reputation and, although they were agonising to present, Henry knew that they were both a chance to inform his audience and also promote sales of his Natural History books [3]. It is fortunate that the sheets of drawings that (probably) accompanied his lectures have survived for over 150 years and left us a further legacy of Henry Gosse's wonderful skills.

[1] Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

[2] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the  Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, Heinemann.

[3] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

All images reproduced with permission  
© 2015 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Monday, 12 January 2015

David Attenborough and the John Frum cult

As a child, I was fascinated by Natural History, and visits to the shore and to the countryside were supplemented by watching programmes on our newly-acquired Radio Rentals black-and-white TV. David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest series were among my favourites, but it was another Attenborough programme that had the strongest effect on me: this was People of Paradise 2. Cargo Cult, first broadcast on 28th April 1960 [1]. I was thirteen years old when I first saw the programme; at a time when I was questioning my religious beliefs. Our family had always attended Winner Street Baptist Church in Paignton but, by April 1960, I had left the church as I found it too parochial. My father insisted that I should still attend some form of Christian worship, so I became a regular attendee at the local Crusaders Union sessions on Sunday afternoons in Paignton YMCA.

People of Paradise 2 focussed on the John Frum cult on Tanna in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and Attenborough began by interviewing an Australian copra trader. He recalled an uprising of the John Frum cult members who carried bamboo models of carbines, complete with bayonets, and had USA painted in red on their chests (both practices continuing today, see below). As we travelled across the island in the programme, we were shown many clearings with red crosses surrounded by fences and near Sulphur Bay, a centre of the cult, a strange enclosure containing a statue of John Frum, a large model of an aircraft with four engines and a cage containing a crudely carved model of a winged rat. There followed an interview with “Nambas”, the chief of the community at Sulphur Bay who was the leader of the John Frum cult on the island. “Nambas” said that he was in contact with John Frum by radio and he had been told that Attenborough and his colleague would be arriving by fast ’plane. The radio was not like white-man’s radio as it did not have wires, but Attenborough was not allowed to see it. “Nambas” then explained that John Frum would come with cargo and this would be “everything” that white people had, the precursor being that all money had to be thrown away, which they had done. When asked about the cross on the lip of the active volcano, “Nambas” said that this was erected because there were many men (soldiers) inside the volcano and these were mostly white, but also contained some red and some black people (the crosses presumably acted as guides and the red colour was of the clothing, replicated among followers of the cult).

As someone living a small-town life in South Devon, the TV programme made a strong impression on me and I was not alone, as Richard Dawkins refers to the interview between David Attenborough and “Nambas” in The God Delusion [2], giving some details that were not included in the original broadcast. I was amazed at the imagination shown by my fellow humans. They had borrowed some ideas from Christianity - the imagery, the idea of John Frum as a saviour who would bring rewards - and superimposed them on the cargo cults that arose in Melanesia after native peoples saw traders coming with ships and, latterly, aircraft.

Since re-viewing that programme on BBC iPlayer - I had not seen it since the first broadcast in 1960 - I have had the chance to read more about the John Frum cult. It was given its strongest boost by the building of an airstrip on the neighbouring island of Éfaté as a staging post in the Second World War battles in the Pacific. Men from Tanna were involved in constructing the airstrip and they observed all the materials that were offloaded, stockpiled and distributed by the US military. It was a powerful reinforcement of the ideas of a Cargo Cult and provided the origins of the physical appearance of John Frum, the use of tall masts to convey radio transmissions, and the need for clearings to allow aircraft to land. It is likely that the red crosses over the island were an amalgam of the Christian symbol and the Red Cross that appears on medical supplies. All of the men’s observations were translated into the forms seen on Tanna and the idea of the US military in the volcano tagged on another layer of invention. The cult that developed was thus a mixture of Christian religious traditions, observation of something that was not understood, and existing tribal culture involving kava drinking in special clearings near villages (it should be pointed out that another group on Tanna have Prince Philip as their equivalent of the John Frum character).

According to scholarly research, the first major uprising of the John Frum movement was in May 1941 following a desertion from the Presbyterian Mission [3,4] and Guiart reports that “a new leader was having an aerodrome built in the name of John Frum to enable the new god’s planes to land with their cargoes of soldiers” [3]. Although John Frum is/was white, it is important to note that the residents of Tanna who had helped in the construction of the airfield on Éfaté had seen African Americans [5] and this explains the multi-ethnicity of the soldiers believed by some to inhabit the volcano. How easy it seems to have the basic idea of a supernatural being and then create myths that believers will be rewarded. We know that has happened with the John Frum movement and this still endures, with the cult being used in advertising by the tourism industry [6]. The movement has thus been in existence for over 70 years, with information being passed down from the original elders to a succession of new leaders.

As a thirteen-year old, I found the Attenborough programme so fascinating that I started to question how religions were founded, what ensured their longevity, and what controlled their imagery. There were no easy answers, but those thoughts marked a turning point, as I moved away from Christianity and towards atheism of a reflective, and non-proselytising, variety.

[2] Richard Dawkins (2006) The God Delusion. London, Bantam Press.

[3] Jean Guiart (1956) Culture contact and the “John Frum” movement on Tanna, New Hebrides. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 12: 105-115.

[4] Jean Guiart (1952) John Frum Movement in Tanna. Oceania 22: 165-177.

[5] Daniel J Crowley and Magdelen L Crowley. Encounters with folklore. Journal of Folklore Research 33: 155-163

P.S. I give “Nambas” in quotes as this is also the name of the penis sheath traditionally worn by men on Tanna. It have been a pseudonym.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Biblical birds, reptiles, and .......dragons.

The King James’ Version of The Holy Bible [1] was published in 1611 and remains the most widely-read form of the book. It assumes that readers have a knowledge of different plant and animal types of the Middle East, Northern Africa and Southern Europe (the locations for the narrative) and this is especially true of birds and reptiles. Here are just a few examples of each (with references to Book, Chapter and Verse - there are multiple references to some birds):

Bittern - Isaiah 34:11
Cormorant - Zephaniah 2:14
Dove - (= Feral Stock Dove?) - Matthew 10:16
Gier Eagle (= Egyptian Vulture) - Deuteronomy 14: 17
Great Eagle (= Golden Eagle or Imperial Eagle?) - Ezekiel 17:3
Heron - Deuteronomy 14:18
Lapwing - Leviticus 11:19
Little Owl - Leviticus 11:17
Ospray (= Osprey) - Leviticus 11:13
Ossifrage (= Lammergeier) - Deuteronomy 14:12
Ostrich - Lamentations 4:3
Partridge - Jeremiah 17:11
Peacock - Job 39:13
Pelican - Psalms 102:6
Quail - Exodus 16:13
Screech Owl (= Barn Owl) Isaiah 34:14
Sparrow (= House Sparrow?) - Psalms 102:7
Stork - Psalms 104:17
Swallow - Psalms 84:3
Swan - Deuteronomy 14:16

Perhaps because they are not as easy to identify, or are less visible, there are fewer references to reptiles:

Asp (= Saharan Horned Viper?) - Deuteronomy 32:33
Chameleon - Leviticus 11:30
Lizard - Leviticus 11:30
Tortoise - Leviticus 11:29
Turtle - Jeremiah 8:7
Viper - Acts 28:3

Dragons are also referred to in The Bible and I wondered whether these were real creatures, like those listed above, or whether they were mythological inventions. My first thought was that dragons could be Nile Crocodiles, as evidenced by the following verses:

....Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers.... Ezekiel 29:3

And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. Isaiah 35:7

Both references suggest freshwater habitats are preferred by dragons, yet they are also found in the sea:

....he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea. Isaiah 27:1

Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou breakest the heads of the dragon in the waters. Psalms 74:13

The reports of dragons in the sea are reminiscent of sightings of sea serpents, the source of much speculation in the Nineteenth Century [2]. As no specimens were captured, discussion centred on the reports of sailors and shore observers, with special weight being accorded to the descriptions provided by naval officers. No satisfactory explanation could be agreed upon and that is true of the aquatic dragons described in the excerpts above.

It appears that dragons are also terrestrial, with a liking for undergrowth, and they have the ability to vocalise:

And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons.... Isaiah 34:13

And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness. Malachi 1:3

And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon. Revelation 13.11

These descriptions take us further away from believing that the author is referring to recognisable animals in the way that he/she did with birds and with reptiles. Indeed, we know that dragons are not just found on Earth:

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels.... Revelation 12:7

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. Revelation 12:3

This presents us with one of the problems facing all readers of The Bible - sorting out the factual from the fantastic and allegorical. Unfortunately, I conclude that all records of dragons in the holy book are in the latter categories. 

(By the way, how are ten horns arranged on seven heads?) 

[1] King James’ Bible:

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J. Nisbet and Co..