Thursday, September 22, 2011

ABC of the Western Mysteries

A basic GLOSSARY for British children reading the Western Mysteries who might not know what a Desperado or a Stagecoach is... or where Nevada and Utah are.

America in 1862

A is for America - the country across the Atlantic Ocean where people speak English with funny accents. It is also known as the United States, but in 1862, the states only went halfway across America with a few on the west coast. A great chunk of land in the west was called "Territory". Towns in the Territories were often lawless and wild.

Is P.K. a Desperado?
B is for Ball & Blackpowder - this is what old-fashioned bullets were made of. You also needed lint and a tiny little metal cap that you put on the back of each hole in the cylinder of your Revolver to make a spark which set off the powder and get the ball flying towards its target. Later on they put the cap and ball and powder in one metal case called a cartridge. This is what we now call a Bullet.

A Chinese Youth
C is for Chinese (not Cowboys) - in the early 1860s, when The Western Mysteries are set, there were far more Chinese out west than Cowboys. Cattle drives did not begin in earnest until 1866.

D is for Desperado - a desperate person who is usually on the run after committing murder, robbery or other serious crime.

E is for Emigrants - most of the people who flooded to America in the 1800s were emigrants from Euorpean countries like England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, Russia, etc. And, of course, the thousands from China.

F is for Frontier - the place in the American West where settled land gave way to wilderness populated by wild animals and Native American tribes.

A Gunslinger
G is for Gunslingers - almost everybody carried a firearm in the 1860s out west, even women & kids.

H is for Horses - The West in the early 1860s was a world mostly driven and powered by animals with hooves: horses, mules & oxen.

An Indian Tomahawk
I is for Indians or Native Americans - the tribes of people already living in North America when the emigrants arrived were as varied as the people from European countries, sometimes more so.

J is for Jackrabbit, also coyote, grizzly bear, prairie dog, buffalo and all the other unique wildlife found in the West.

A Kerosene Lamp
K is for kerosene or coal-oil, which is what folk used to light their lamps. They used candles, too. In 1862 gas had not quite reached Virginia City.

L is for Lincoln - who was president between 1861 and 1865 when America was fighting a terrible Civil War over slavery and freedom.

26-year-old Mark Twain
M is for Mark Twain - his real name was Sam Clemens and he was one of America's greatest authors and humorists. He joined the Civil War for about two weeks then headed west to Nevada Territory with his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary to the governor. After trying his hand at prospecting, Mark Twain became a reporter in Virginia City where he remained for two and a half years. Many years later he wrote Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn, among others.

N is for Nevada - then a "Territory" and now the triangular state to the right of California, (see maps). It is full of deserts, mountains and minerals.

O is for Ore - rock and/or dirt containing precious metals or minerals. The Gold Rush in 1849 brought a huge wave of people to California, then ten years later the Silver Boom brought thousands Nevada, to the Comstock Lode beneath Mount Davidson.

P is for Pinkerton - the first detective agency in the world. The founder, a Scotsman named Allan Pinkerton, coined the phrase "Private Eye". Their head office was in Chicago, Illinois (one of the high-up states in the middle).

A Quartz Stamp Mill
Q is for quartz stamp mill - a machine with heavy iron pistons that crushed quartz so that silver and gold could be extracted.

R is for religious revival - America was going through a great Christian revival in the 1860s and almost everybody was deeply devout.

S is for stagecoach - a large, closed carriage pulled by four to six horses; it was used to carry passengers, goods and mail on a regular route. Sometimes you could ride on top.

T is for tobacco - like religion, almost everybody had tobacco. They either smoked it, sniffed it or chewed it. Those who chewed usually spit their tobacco-tinted saliva into vessels called spittoons. Ew.

A Stagecoach

U is for Utah - now the state to the right of Nevada on a map, then it was a "Territory", a part of America which did not yet have the full rights of the other states.

Nevada Territory 1862
V is for Virginia City - the mile-high city on a steep mountain above a buried "ledge" of silver called the Comstock Lode.

W is for Washoe - the region around Virginia City, named after a lake to the west (see map) and also a tribe of Indians who lived there.

X is for "X marks the Spot" - Prospectors were people who prospected or "looked out for" areas where gold or silver could be found. Then they "staked their claim" i.e. announced it as theirs. They guarded their claims with bowie knives, revolvers, rifles... and their lives.

Y is for Yankee or Yank - slang for somebody from the northern states or on the Union side of the Civil War. A person on the other (Confederate) side was often called a Reb or Rebel.

Washoe Zephyr
Z is for Zephyr - by definition a warm and gentle breeze. In Virginia City, a Washoe Zephyr was what people jokingly called the gale force wind that sometimes swept over the mountains and threatened to uproot trees and houses.

If you would like to read a book with all these words and a heck of a lot of adventure, get The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence. It is available in hardback, Kindle and unabridged audiobook format. Suitable for children aged 9+. Perfect for American history at Key Stages 2 & 3.

Thanks to Richard Russell Lawrence, who did the maps & drawings, all based on primary sources... 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Adonis from Fulham


In 2009, London's Royal Academy put on an exhibition called J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite. I went not once, not twice, but thrice. I was – and still am – working on a book about the most beautiful boy in the Roman Empire in the year AD 96.

The Siren c. 1900
The paintings were glorious. Waterhouse was inspired by classical writers to paint passionate, luscious scenes from Greek Mythology. Full of jewel-like colours and beautiful models, my favourites were the ones based on passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Each of these paintings tells a rich, dense, symbolic tale full of love, pain and transformation.

I was so inspired that I went home an wrote an ode about Orpheus called Thracian O.

That almost never happens. I rarely write Odes.

But that is what great art does. It inspires you.

Ovid inspired Waterhouse and Waterhouse inspired me.


When I was studying Classics at Cambridge, I had the poster of Hylas and the Nymphs on my bedroom wall. I loved the fact that Waterhouse seems to have used the same girl model for all the water nymphs. He only deepened or lightened the chestnut tint of the hair. It makes them look like divine clones.


did the same girl pose for all the water nymphs in Hylas & the Nymphs?

But as I was walking around the  Royal Academy exhibition, studying the beautiful young men in the paintings, I noticed that they all looked similar, too. Adonis, Narcissus, Hylas... even the doomed young sailor in Waterhouse's painting of The Siren.

Could it be that the same male model posed for all of them?

If so, who was he? I wanted to know. A Google search quickly took me to this excellent article by art historian Scott Thomas Buckle. While looking through some old sketchbooks in the V&A, he found a notebook with the names of some of Waterhouse's models. On the top of one page was the sketch of a young man and the notes: Harry Beresford, 19 St Olafs Rd, Fulham, SW, age 16 June 1896... dark hair

One of J.W. Waterhouse's sketchbooks

Scott Thomas Buckle did a bit of sleuthing and found an 'artist's model' aged 21 by that name living at that address in the 1901 census, so it all fit perfectly. Young Harry was living with his 42 year old widowed mother. Buckle thinks Harry might have been of Italian descent like several other Italian artists' models in Fulham.

Harry Beresford & flipped sailor
Henry Beresford was born in 1880, so he would have been 16 when he modelled for Hylas; 19 years old for Adonis; 20 for the doomed Siren-enchanted sailor (up above); 20 for the head of Orpheus and 23 for Narcissus. But wait! The man in the sketchbook looks a bit bloated, doesn't he? Not really an Adonis, is he?

There is a stern warning in the form of a small print note about Hylas & the Nymphs in The Royal Academy Catalogue: It is dangerous to speculate on the models for Waterhouse's figures; not only did he generalise and idealise the features of his models; so that the resulting figures conform to a small number of types, but he may also have used his well-trained visual memory to import reminiscences of favourite types into drawings made from other models.

St. Olaf's Rd, Fulham, London
Having taught art for ten years at primary level, I'm not sure I agree. My mantra in every lesson was: "Draw what you see, not what you know." Watch David Hockney sketching, for example. He spends 90% of the time looking at his subject and only 10% of the time looking at the paper.

Instead of having a small number of types, might not Waterhouse have had a small number of favourite models?

So I am going to blithely ignore that caveat and claim that Waterhouse liked Harry Beresford so much that he used him over and over. Without any expertise on the subject, I choose to believe that just over a hundred years ago a beautiful Adonis/Narcissus/Hylas/Orpheus lived in Fulham, just a few miles from where I am sitting now.
The Decameron 1916

One evening last week I did a mini-pilgrimage, to see if there was a blue plaque (a kind of historical marker put on houses where famous people have lived). I found a long street of post-Victorian apartment blocks. Not only was there no blue plaque, but Harry's house was no longer there. His street had been redeveloped, probably in the period between WWI and WWII.

I like to think that maybe Harry posed for the man with the lute in this 1916 painting called The Decameron (right). If it was Harry, he would have been 36 years old. It would mean that he collaborated with Waterhouse for twenty years, off and on, right up to the end.

J.W. Waterhouse died in 1917, a year after The Decameron was painted.

But what happened to Harry Beresford, the Adonis of Fulham? I would love to know.

P.S. You can see my blogs about some of Waterhouse's other paintings:
AdonisAriadneCirceHylasNarcissusOdysseus and Orpheus.

P.P.S. I know much more about the Greeks and Romans than I do about J.W. Waterhouse. I write The Roman Mysteries, a series of history mystery books aimed at children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greek Myths. The glossy BBC Roman Mysteries TV series did adaptations of some of these books. The DVDs are available in the UK and Europe. 

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Ugly Cleopatra

Liz Taylor as Cleo
by Caroline Lawrence
author of the Roman Mysteries

Contrary to what we would love to believe, Cleopatra VII (i.e. the famous one) was probably not a stunning beauty like Elizabeth Taylor.

Nefertiti
Cleopatra is associated with Egypt, so many modern film-makers and book cover designers use the beautiful portrait of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti as their inspiration.

This portrait bust of Nefertiti, who lived around 1350 BC, was probably idealised (i.e. made to look nicer than the real woman).

But even if Egyptian Nefertiti was that beautiful, remember Cleopatra was not Egyptian. She was a Macedonian Greek, a descendant of Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's commanders.

When I was researching the 14th book in my Roman Mysteries series, The Beggar of Volubilis, I was shocked to see contemporary depictions of Cleopatra on coins. These portraits showed Cleopatra as a frizzy-haired, bull-necked hag with a hooked nose and jutting chin. And a man's Adam's apple! She looks like a transvestite, for goodness sake.

Scholars tell us she had herself shown like this because the "masculine" features reminded people of her power and lineage. In other words, it was a kind of political propaganda.

BM exhibition catalogue
But what did she really look like?

A 20th century French writer named André Malraux said this: "Nefertiti is a face without a queen, Cleopatra is a queen without a face." What he meant was that we have a perfect idea of what Nefertiti looked like, but we know almost nothing about her. Whereas we know tons about Cleopatra but nobody can agree what she looked like.

In the glossy catalogue accompanying a 2001 British Museum exhibition about Cleopatra, scholar Guy Weill Goudchaux suggests that Cleopatra was probably slender. Why? Because she had to be light enough for one man to carry her rolled up in a sleeping mat along corridors of the palace and into Caesar's presence. But she probably wasn't too petite or she wouldn't have been able give birth to four children with no problems.

OK. She was slender and not too tall. But what did her face look like?

There are two other famous quotes about Cleopatra that relate to her looks.

The first one is by Plutarch, a Greek historian who was born around AD 45, about 75 years after she died. In his biography of Mark Anthony he writes this about Cleopatra (and I paraphrase): "Her beauty was not exceptional enough to instantly affect those who saw her, but she had a charming way of conversing, and an invigorating presence. Her sweet voice was as well-modulated as a lyre, and she could speak whichever language she pleased."

So she was melodic, intelligent, charming and charismatic. But not a jaw-dropping beauty, like Elizabeth Taylor up above.

The other famous quote is by a French philosopher named Blaise Pascal who lived in the 1600s. He had a big nose himself and was certainly familiar with the startling coins showing big-nosed Cleo. He wrote this: "If Cleopatra's nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world might have been changed."

This statement has intrigued generations of scholars since, and even the creators of Asterisk refer to it in their own witty way.

witty nose reference by Julius Caesar in Asterix and Cleopatra

But Monsieur Pascal knew that in the ancient world – and many periods since – a strong nose showed strength of character. If her nose had been weaker, maybe her character would have been weaker, too. Maybe her strong nose was one of the things that attracted Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, two of the most powerful men in the world, to fall in love with her and marry her.

bust of Cleopatra in Berlin
In the 21st century, everyone wants babyish good looks, with big eyes and a button nose. Women will pay good money to have a strong nose made smaller, to fit in with modern conventions.

But at the time when Cleopatra and Anthony were struggling with Octavian for control of the entire Roman Empire (c. 37 - 30 BC) a big nose did signify strength of character and power. This marble bust, now in Berlin, is accepted as one of the few accurate depictions of Cleopatra VII. It shows that she did indeed have a strong nose, even if it wasn't the eagle's beak depicted on the coins.

To my mind, the most inspired portrait ever done of Cleopatra is the one painted in 1888 by J.W. Waterhouse. I am going through a bit of a Waterhouse phase, and have blogged about his fabulous paintings of AdonisAriadneCirceHylasNarcissus and Orpheus. Waterhouse was famous for painting dewy-eyed nymphs and nubile girls.

His Cleopatra is quite a departure from his usual type.

But what a departure. He shows a woman sitting on a throne, with her head down. This reminds me of a phrase from the Iliad: hypodra idon, looking out from beneath her eyebrows. The phrase is usually applied to the great warrior Achilles.

Waterhouse has shown us a woman with frizzy rather than glossy black hair. Her face is in shadow so we have to get right up close to see her features and read her expression. She has a low, heavy forehead and a monobrow. Dark, smouldering eyes, full of intelligence and ambition with a hint of regret. A strong nose, sensuous lips and a firm, rounded chin.

Cleopatra by J.W. Waterhouse (1888) sadly in a private collection

Her posture speaks volumes, too. She is seated on a throne to represent power. One arm akimbo, a gesture of authority often seen in parents, teachers and police when enforcing their rules. Her left arm rests on a lioness arm-rest of her throne, another symbol of power. But one of her mannish fingers is almost gouging out the lioness's eye. This reminds us that she was ruthless when she had to be.

What Waterhouse has done is to combine the two contrasting personae of Cleopatra: the slender charismatic charmer who held men in her thrall and the power-craving, ruthless ruler who was not afraid to have herself portrayed as a man in drag.

a Waterhouse nymph
I called this post "Ugly Cleopatra" to gain your attention. In fact she was the woman of her century. Brilliant, witty, charismatic, courageous, fluent in several languages and – most unusually – politically ambitious.

I think Waterhouse totally got Cleopatra.

Compare his soft, watery nymphs to the smouldering, tortured despot above and I think you will agree that in her own way Cleo is just as beautiful as any of them.

Only a hell of a lot scarier!

[Two of my Roman Mysteries feature references to Cleopatra VII, the famous one. In The Beggar of Volubilis a plain, frizzy-haired, big-nosed girl claims to be her great, great granddaughter. In The Scribes from Alexandria Cleo makes a "guest appearance" at a Roman banquet. The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans, Greeks or Egyptians as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]