A great schoolmaster

I have recently read, pretty much in one sitting, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, by (you guessed) H.G. Wells.

(For those of you thinking I’m sitting a lot on my sabbatical, well, that’s by design. And sometimes I lie down instead, because I know sitting a lot is bad for you.)

Published in 1924, it is the story of F.W. Sanderson, and his role as headmaster at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, which he reformed in the 1890s:

The world is changing so rapidly that it may be well to say a few words about the type of school Sanderson was destined to renovate. Even in the seventies and eighties these smaller ‘classical’ schools had a quaint old-fashioned air amidst the surrounding landscape. They were staffed by the less vigorous men of the university-scholar type; men of the poorer educated classes in origin, not able enough to secure any of the prizes reserved for university successes, and not courageous enough to strike out into the great world on their own account. (p28)

(I know it’s presumptuous of me to mention it, but Wells seems to be sporting a superior attitude here, having himself won some scholarships and prizes in the 1880s, and being courageous enough to strike out on his own as soon as he could during his early years. By 1924, however, he was a successful author of fiction rather than a successful headmaster, so I find his approach here a bit condescending.)

Wells met Sanderson in 1914, when he was looking at Oundle School as a possibility for his own sons George Phillip (“Gip”) and Francis (known as Frank, I assume after H.G.’s brother). According to Wikipedia, Gip did attend Oundle, so I assume Frank did also. Certainly it’s evident that once their father saw what Sanderson had done with the school, he was filled with admiration for his modern views and methods. It was these methods I found most interesting (and also Sanderson’s death, which I’ll get to in a minute).

Sanderson developed what we would today call “active learning”, and group active learning at that. Most of it is described in Chapter III: The Replacement of Competition by Group Work. Having noted that Sanderson believed that boys should be doing active scientific work, and that they were more involved and interested when they did, Wells then shared a mini history of education. He claimed that “there have been three chief phases in the history of educational method in the past five centuries, the phase of compulsion, the phase of competition, and the phase of natural interest” (p46). These aren’t necessarily discrete, but he sees medieval teaching as motivated largely by compulsion, and balancing rote learning with corporal punishment. The second phase was the age of the class-list (that is, the lists of students passing exams — or not). He referred to this era as “slightly more enlightened” (p46):

The school of the rod gave place to the school of the class-list. An aristocracy of leading boys made the pace and the rest of the school found its compensation in games or misbehaviour. (pp46-47)

He noted that during this time the curriculum was Greek, Latin, and formal mathematics, none of which were of any intrinsic interest to a boy. By the end of the 18th century, there was a shift, and attention to subjects that were more interesting. He briefly mentions Pestalozzi and Froebel as pioneers of the third phase. Wells had written an essay on Froebel, which I have been unable to find, to earn the Doreck Prize, so he did know about these things. He had himself been a product of the class-list phase. Both the thrills and sorrows of competition, as he saw it at the Normal School of Science, appear in several of his novels.

Sanderson began his career at Oundle using the old class-list methods, but in mathematics he started to create instead “clusters of boys surrounding an attractive problem” (p48). A “Science Conversazione” developed of small groups of pupils working on a particular problem, at first in their free time. A surprisingly large number of students joined voluntarily, in focus groups of various scientific subjects. Experiments were assigned or developed, and as the “Speech Day” approached, class time was replaced by work time on the projects. The school would look chaotic at such times, but all the pupils were completely engaged in developing solutions to the problems emerging in their work:

Concurrently with this steady replacement of the instructional-exercise system by the group-activity system, the mathematical work became less and less a series of exercises in style and more and more an attack upon problems needing solution in the workshops and laboratories, with the solution as the real incentive to the work. (p52)

What do we call this now? Applied learning, constructivism, cooperative learning, maker spaces, design thinking, flipped classroom, growth mindset, scaffolding — it’s all there in 1898.

Sanderson’s success in science led to his application of the technique to literature and history, doing away with

…the lesson that was a third-rate lecture, the note-taking, the rehearsal of silly opinions about books unread and authors unknown, the horrible annotated editions, the still more horrible text-books of literature

and replacing them with plays, with the boys taking the parts, to teach literature, to bring the pupils “into the most active contact possible with the reality of the work they studied” (p54). For history the school library was the laboratory, with content divided among the groups, who prepared maps and quotations for presentation and argued with each other about historical approaches (pp54-55). (This all sounded so exciting that I began to mourn our old college library, with its many shelves of books that could be physically browsed. Now the books are in a small section, with most of the room taken over by computers. More information? Yes, indeed. A space for enthusiastic searching for information in noisy groups? No.)

Today Oundle School still exists (with boys and girls), and Sanderson is mentioned here as its most famous headmaster. It is now primarily a boarding school, although it has day students, with ages starting as young as 11 years old, although the usual is 13. I’m sure it’s a wonderful school, but I must admit to queasiness at the very idea of having a child that age live at a school. But that is neither here nor there.

I am these days wrestling with the idea of biography as history, and it helps that Wells didn’t mean to just write a biography — his work makes a point about Sanderson:

To tell his story is to reflect upon all the main educational ideas of the last half-century, and to revise our conception of the process and purpose of the modern community in relation to education. (p2)

Sounds like a good idea now as well as then.

I noted in the book a natural sympathy, as there often is between a biographer and his subject. Apparently, like Wells, Sanderson went round on a bicycle, but wasn’t great at outdoor games (Wells was asked to participate on cricket teams, but wouldn’t play even when he agreed to sign up). As a young man, like Wells, Sanderson was slender and serious. And he always went his own way.

Sanderson died in 1922 after completing a lecture where he was introduced by Wells. He suffered a heart attack during the Q&A which followed the talk, and Wells had to go tell his widow. Wells tells the story, and reprints the lecture in its entirety, for the last chapter.

A review of the book from the Journal of Education* claimed that Sanderson being the first subject to stir Wells into writing a biography would make “The Story of a Great Schoolmaster the most famous educational book of the decade, probably of a quarter of a century”. More effusiveness followed: “We have seen no book on education from Solomon, Socrates and Comenius to Edward Eggleston and William Hawley Smith whose every paragraph has a human touch that throbs.” I think that is perhaps overdoing it, but it’s a very good book, especially for those looking to support efforts toward enlivening curriculum.


*The Journal of Education, Vol. 99, No. 18 (2478) (May 1, 1924), p. 499, retrieved via JSTOR 15 Nov 2018.

(Clever readers will notice that I’ve counted this small review as Student Learning Outcome 5: cultural expression as evidence of a historical theme. This is because the book is a literary work, even though it is non-fiction, and such a book is a cultural expression of its time: 1924. It could be used to represent the interest in education, and/or the popularity of Wells’ writings, during that era. It isn’t as popular now, I think, since I purchased at good price what I just realized is a first edition.)



About Carlyle

In the mid-1880s, during his time at South Kensington, when he was supposed to be studying for his science examinations, H.G. Wells was instead educating himself. In his autobiography, he noted Thomas Carlyle as part of his self-required reading:

I was reading not only a voluminous literature of propaganda but discursively in history, sociology and economics. I was doing my best to find out what such exalted names as Goethe and Carlyle, Shelley and Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Pope—or again Buddha, Mahomet and Confucius—had had to say about the world and what they mattered to me. I was learning the use of English prose and sharpening my mind against anyone’s with whom I could start a discussion.

Wells considered it a treat to read Carlyle’s book on the French Revolution, a break from his other reading. He also noted that England as a whole was influenced by Carlyle in a nationalism that was “consciously Teutonic”. Later on in the 1890s, Wells claimed, every writer was considered to be a “second” someone, and that at one time Wells himself was called a second Carlyle.

Although Wells was about twenty then and I am, shall we say, at least twice as old, I am also educating myself, in Victorian culture and literature as well as education. I cannot read all the things Wells read, but I did want to take a look at Carlyle, since I had only read Signs of the Times (then, in a move I have regretted more than once,  I assigned it to students). I bought a copy of Past and Present a couple of years ago, and tried to read it. I say “tried” because I never made it through – the prose seemed awful, like a combination of Wordsworth on drugs and Kipling on a very bad day (one more exclamation point and I would have crawled under the sofa).

So shopping at Skoob on my last trip to the UK, I picked up a short biography on Ruskin (for obvious reasons – readers know how much I both dislike him and am trying to understand his influence). Next to it, in the same paperbound series (Past Masters, by Oxford University Press), was one on Carlyle, by A.L. LeQuesne. I read the whole thing in one day (I won’t say “in one sitting” because I had to get up for tea and chocolate…ok, more than once).

It was brilliantly written. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect that. Biography can be quite dull, and Carlyle himself was hardly exciting. LeQuesne’s thesis (I didn’t expect a clear thesis either) was that Carlyle’s best work took place in only a few years of his very long career: 1837-1848. Before this, Carlyle wrote poorly (I am apparently not the only one to notice this), and afterward he was behind in worldview and no longer speaking to the current generation.

I do not like biographies that explain in detail the personal lives and clinical ailments of their subjects. Some things seem relevant to me (like Holmes’ noting in his biography of Wellington that the Duke put bars on the windows of Apsley House because he feared the rabble) and others do not (like the many biographies detailing Wells’ sexual proclivities, either known or imagined). LeQuesne had just the right amount of personal detail. It was important to know how witty and endearing Carlyle’s wife was, and how charming their marriage (at least to outsiders), to help explain why their house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea was appealing to many intellectuals as a place to meet and converse.  His dyspepsia and sensitivity to noise was mentioned a few times, mostly as a distraction to his writing that needed to be overcome, but not, thank goodness, in detail. Similarly, his religion was discussed only as it influenced his work.

Robert Tait, A Chelsea Interior (The Carlyles at Home with their Dog Nero at 5/24 Great Cheyne Row, London), 1857-58


Carlyle had roots in an agricultural family in Scotland, and lost some of his youthful religious beliefs when he left. As a young man, he wrote many reviews of books, and since Wells did some of this too it helped me understand the culture that had writers enter the market by writing such reviews. Rebelling against the Enlightenment emphasis, philosophically and intellectually, at university in Edinburgh, Carlyle began studying German romanticism. His Sartor Resartus is described as “a weird Romantic masterpiece which defies either classification or summary” (p19). His style was sometimes “rambling, turbulent, ejaculatory, vastly self-indulgent and metaphorical” (p21). In this work, he apparently developed a theme of the material expression of life requiring a spiritual or super-natural foundation. Earnest work, he thought, made possible the glimpsing of the spiritual beneath the material (Ruskin would have understood this, I think). The book apparently fit the Romantic idea, common among people like Wordsworth (duh) of the superiority of the imagination over the dullness of cold rationality.

Reading this sort of thing now, when rationality is so sorely missing in our culture, and imagination has gone awry into nightmares of duplicity and cruelty, is difficult. But as he continued, Carlyle turned himself into a historian, using that imagination to enliven deep primary research into the past, particularly the French Revolution and the English Civil War. LeQuesne claims he replaced a faith in religion with a faith in history (p33). This was not a faith in materialism, like that of Karl Marx, but of providential judgement. The horrors of the French Revolution seemed to be divine punishment of some sort, revealing God’s purpose. Carlyle thus opposed previous historians of the 1830s, who looked back on the revolution as a horrible deviation from the natural order and a warning about a possible uprising. Carlyle’s analysis instead provided a “cause of hope rather than fear; for it was a sentence of divine justice on a corrupt society” (p35, a page dog-eared by a previous reader of my copy).

Of even more interest to me was the analysis of Carlyle as a historian in professional terms. According to LeQuesne:

Carlyle did not believe that the historian’s function was to provide a smoothly flowing narrative for the entertainment of his readers, nor that history could be treated as an experimental science from which inductive laws of human behaviour could be derived, nor that rigid objectivity and detachment were either possible or desirable qualities in a historian.

This seems similar to the re-emergence in recent years of imaginative historical writing. Under what circumstances, I wonder, do historians appear who value the imaginative over the rational? Despite the rejection of narrative noted by LeQuesne, the passages quoted from Carlyle’s books show, as with Dickens, a deep-seated sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. And he showed it in such a way as to condemn beourgeois complacency, often in stirring prose (and prose that I could actually read). In one passage he makes the reader grieve for the dying Dauphin in prison, then jabs at a conscience which can lament this but ignore the conditions of “poor Factory Children” that perish while no one cares (p43).

The difference between mid-19th century social reformers and Carlyle was that as Carlyle’s career continued, he saw the answer to social inequities to be the rise of heroes, and sometimes a heroic nation-state. LeQuesne says several times in the book that Carlyle was “no democrat”. He claims that Carlyle’s work on the French Revolution won the “ears of a generation”, but that his work after 1850 lost it (p55). LeQuesne calls him a “prophet” (and spends a chapter or two attempting to prove that this title is appropriate) but his work became preachy and grumpy. By then people were actively involved in reform acts of many kinds, and Carlyle’s vision of providentially-guided history and heroic leadership seemed out of place. Moreover, his work began treating the downtrodden soldiers, colonials, and workers with derision rather than understanding. LeQuesne claims this transition is masked by his focus on hero-worship (p85), but the hero is needed to guide people precisely because people are so inadequate to the task.

Thus Carlyle lost his readership, and certainly my interest — it was this sort of writing I encountered in Past and Present. LeQuesne sees his later approach as a rejection of humanity and an increase in impatience with slow progress, but it also seems to me a good foundation for dictatorship and all sorts of other nasty mechanisms that don’t trust people even with a republican system, much less a democratic one.

So in this biography, if not in Carlyle’s own works, I have gotten an idea of what Carlyle had to say and why it mattered — the goals of H.G. Wells’ own reading of him. Unfortunately, I have found myself with little sympathy for any of his ideas except those designed to help readers understand the lives of those less fortunate. Much of the rest (including anti-rationalism, imaginative historical writing, and hero-worship) I find to be at the foundation of much that is wrong with society now, as well as then.


Published — Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education

My journal article “Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education” has just been published in the Fall 2018 issue of The Wellsian, the peer-reviewed journal of the H.G. Wells Society in the UK.

My pre-publication paper is here, and further info on The Wellsian (including how to obtain copies and back issues, and to join the society) is here at the society’s website. Citation information:

Lisa M. Lane, “Cram and Criticism: H.G. Wells and Late Victorian Education”, The Wellsian, 40 (2018) pp. 28-42.


NACBS sessions

More session reports! (I know, you’ve been waiting — but I do this so I remember the sessions.)

Petitioning and the Politics of Nation, Gender, and Empire shows the problems with titling panels, as it was really more about the process of petititoning the government, not so much politics or any of the sub-factors.

Laura Stewart’s “Petitioning Practices in Early Modern Scotland” looked at how political petitioning (petitioning in order to criticize the government) and ordinary supplications interact, in this case as regards the Covenanter government of Scotland in the 1640s, an era surrounding the English Civil War. Although it’s hard to quantify the total number of petitions, case studies provide a variety of significances, including whether a petition can be considered libel, what language supplicants used in their petitions, and how government critiques can provide a foundation for a petition.

Richard Huzzy and Henry Miller’s “The Rise and Fall of Petitions to the House of Commons, 1780-1918” was a good example of the kind of research you can do with a grant, in this case from the Leverhulme Trust. They were able to sort and recategorize thousands of petitions and numbers of signatures. Between 1833 and 1918 Parliament received 950,000 public petitions on 29,500 different issues, and their charts showed spikes in certain years. The categories included colonies, ecclesiastic, economic, infrastructure, legal, social, taxes, war. They had broken down colonies but I was sad to see that “education” wasn’t its own category, as that might have been helpful for my work. They noted certain politically organized pushes for petitions, which were clearly used to mobilize support on certain issues.

Ciara Stewart’s “Petitioning against the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain and Ireland: A Comparative Perspective” helped me understand the foundational idea of many papers. It’s important to narrow the focus to a single argument with depth of sources. To me, petitioning against the CDA would have been its own paper, but it’s clear now that I’ve attended the conference that this is not the best way. By focusing closely on the Ladies National Association in Ireland and its composition, then comparing it favorably to the English LNA, Stewart was able to prove that the Irish branch should be taken more seriously. The paper avoided the usual discussion of whether the CDA was a good idea or not, though it did mention the reasons for supporting petitioning against it: the double standard it promoted by not examining men, the fact that the examinations were forced, and the arguments about the likelihood of police grabbing women to examine even if they had committed no crime (“protect your wife and daughters”). Previous historiography had sidelined the Irish LNA, and I recalled that the purpose of most papers is to oppose previous historiography. I tell students that this is an “although” thesis (“although we’ve been told that the Irish LNA was just a side branch, it was actually significant”).

In my case, then, an example might be “although the focus of historical study for higher education in the Victorian age has been on universities, extension courses, and the examination system itself, correspondence courses for degree exams were a significant means of advancing education among the lower middle classes…”

The session I was looking forward to the most was next: The Educational Institution as a Category of Analysis in Modern British History. The chair, Peter Mandler, noted that education has been a missing element, long neglected in British social history, although it is well-served now. Emily Rutherford’s “Opposition to Coeducation in British Universities 1880-1939” had a thesis that I would summarize as “although the historical focus of gender in universities is based on women trying to gain access to higher education, there are important elements in resistance to it, particularly personal comfort levels and administrative constraints”, including the role of donors. The wishes of donors (she cited donors who wanted to support single-sex institutions) could be at odds with the wishes of administrations. In some cases, like that of Queen Margaret College at the University of Glasgow, it was wasteful to teach women-only classes, and the argument was made that biases against women would mean lower marks for them than if their exams were mixed with men’s. (Later in the Q&A a concern was raised about the cost to working-class boys of middle-class girls dominating classes.) The speaker also introduced the interesting case of Edward Perry Warren, an art collector and scholar of the idealized male Greek life cycle of homosexuality, who funded a male lectureship on the condition that the lecturer live at the college and there be a passage between his house and the boys’ lodgings.

Laura Carter’s “Locating Self and Experience in the History of Secondary Education in the UK: The View from 1968” discussed a project that followed baby boomers and their perceptions about their education into adulthood, and meant to extract education from the history of social change. Many of the students, as adults, regretted missing opportunities while they were in school, but none regretted attending a modern secondary school. Although when asked about moving up socially, those from manual worker families cited money and luck as primary factors, and non-manual labor families cited education, all named education as the key to self-improvement. Also interesting was that among those who didn’t go to university, men cited external reasons (like jobs), while women cited family responsibilities which prevented them.

Sussex University Chapel

William White’s “‘A Symbol of all this University Doesn’t Stand for’? The Place of Religion in Post-war University Life” had an implied thesis, of course: “although historians cite the removal of religion from student life during the 1960s, conflicts over chapels and religious buildings on campus show much student interest in Christianity”. We should be asking why new chapels were being built all over if religion was in a downturn. White wisely printed out his slides, rather than projecting them, to demonstrate the modernist architecture to which many students objected on aesthetic grounds. He also noted that the student body was changing in the 1960s from more local attendance to students who were more mobile, national in their  perspective, and residential since they came from elsewhere. Thus residence halls were another architectural feature of the era. The new welfare state was, in effect, taking over from local churches, with chaplains in the NHS and religious programming on the BBC. Christianity saw a resurgence after the war, and there was an ecumenical movement.

Commentator Laura Tisdall noted that we need to take school out of the “history of education”. The history of education is not seen a real history, and needs to be integrated into modern history. It’s been neglected, she said, because the subject is embedded in teaching training colleges and departments of Education rather than History, that there’s a sense that we know it already since we’ve all been to school, and that it is associated mostly with the history of childhood (which has seen a proper resurgence). University history is even more neglected, and further education is positively marginalized. So although I enjoyed the papers, the commentary was even more important in sorting out where my work fits in History as a discipline. I have struggled with History of Education societies, which seem to be composed of educators who dabble in history. What I’m doing, as I’ve mentioned, is more traditional history — education just happens to be the subject.

Dorothy L. Sayers by Granger

The last session I attended (other than my own) was just for fun: Aspiring Writer and Aristocrats: Renegotiations of Elite and Mass Cultures, 1890-1940. Abigail Sage’s “Print Media and the Aspiring Writer in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries” examined periodicals like Young Man and Young Woman which encouraged potential fiction writers with advice columns. She even quoted HG Wells as saying he was  part of a whole generation of aspiring writers. Mo Moulton’s “Murder Mysteries, Socialist-Utopian Science Fiction, and the Mediation of Elite and Popular Cultures in the 1920s-1930s” looked at Dorothy L. Sayers and Muriel Yeager as representative of conservative modernity, both reflecting pessimism about human nature. I learned a lot about the character of Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I’ve seen on TV but never read), and about Yeager’s relationship with Sayers, and about Sayers’ interest in Christianity. Wells was mentioned here too, as a utopian author, with Yeager saying she opposed his views, but certainly The Time Machine is as dystopian as anything she wrote, so she must have meant his later work on socialism. I am, however, beginning to wonder whether one can present a paper on writing during the 1890s without mentioning Wells!

The very last session (last session, last day, and I was the last speaker) was the one I was in: Popular Culture and Popular Education in Victorian England. Anne Rodrick’s “‘Lectures Both Scientific and Literary’: Organizing Mid-19th-Century Lecture Culture” discussed the General Union of Literary, Scientific, and Mechanic’s’ Institutes and how they debated the best ways to provide lectures to the public. She compared their efforts unfavorably to the American Lyceum system, and showed how particularism and provincial concerns prevented a well-organized lecture culture. Martin Hewitt’s “Providing Science for the People: The Gilchrist Turst 1878-1914” explored how the Trust developed and promoted popular science lectures, and also noted some problems with development. While the lectures were highly successful due to their high quality, low ticket price, friendly connections with local authorities, and massive advertising campaigns (even door-to-door) to get people to attend, in the long run it was difficult to sustain. There was also some question as to how many attendees were actual rural or manual laborers, and complaints that the low cost made it difficult for other lectures to get an audience. My own paper, “‘Preposterous and Necessary’: H.G. Wells, William Briggs, and the University Correspondence College” focused on the development of the UCC as a viable method for lower-middle-class people to study for the University of London examinations and earn their degrees. I argued that distance education like that offered by the UCC was essential to the success of the examination system, although I need to work further on that approach. I was asked no questions, and got the sense that my paper was too broad, more like a class lecture rather than a research report (I had, in fact, written it for presentation rather than publication). I made slides but there was no adapter for my iBook to connect to HDMI, and tech support didn’t show, so I was glad I’d made sure my visuals were illustrative rather than essential. I came out feeling I have a great deal of work to do to get close to the quality of the other papers I saw, but that’s a good reason for going, yes?



Historiography and tracking backward

Some of my research posts are password protected. Students, colleagues, and friends are welcome to email me for the password at lisa@lisahistory.net.

Self-portrait with mahl stick

We interrupt the sabbatical work for a combination of art, feminism, and technology.

It’s this self-portrait by Catherina van Hemessen, whom I had not heard of till today (by way of a reference from a community college art history class):

Catharina van Hemessen, Self-Portrait (1548)

In that context, I was told that it’s the first self-portrait by a female artist. But on the Wikipedia page about her, it claims it may be the first self-portrait of anyone at work at an easel, and references a book by Frances Borzello. So I went off looking for her. Yup, she’s qualified and literally wrote the book on female painters and their self-portraits.

So I looked at the book with Amazon’s search. There are images of women painting their self-portraits in Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women (c. 1402-4) on page 20 of the book. Borzello also claims that an illustrator named Claricia drew herself into the letter Q in medieval manuscripts. What Borzello actually says, on page 40, is that Hemessen’s “has been claimed as the first self-portrait showing an artist of either sex at work at the easel”.

Oh, ok, then. Not quite as grand as the first self-portrait ever, of man or women, and limited by “at work at the easel”. When did easels start? And what’s that rod in her hand?

It’s a mahl stick, still used to keep the painter’s hand steady and prevent smudging. I found out about it here (well, I’m not an artist, obviously).

And, according to this Victorian book, easels have been around since at least Roman times.

Under what circumstances is a story “untold”? If I’ve never heard of either van Hemessen or Claricia, that doesn’t mean their stories aren’t there. Over and again, things that are forgotten re-emerge. The current focus on feminist history and heritage is a case in point. While I am not in favor of anything that separates humans from each other, or sets them in opposition, the histories of particular groups of people do tend to generate the re-emergence of essential knowledge. It is this re-emergence, particularly in the Internet Age, that makes it possible to find information, and more importantly, other sources of information, like Borzello’s book. And sites about mahl sticks.

Art, but for history

If it were my main subject, of course, I’d try harder. But searching for information about an artist whose work I discovered has been too difficult. Is it possible to look at art from a historical persepctive without knowing much about the artist? I think so.

I saw this painting posted on Twitter by longvictorian2:

John Atkinson Grimshaw, A moonlit country road (1877)

I thought it was stunning, so I looked up more of Grimshaw’s works.

He seemed to enjoy fall, and that season just when winter was starting.

Stapleton Park near Pontefract Sun (1877)

There are a lot of roads with one person, or just a few, and often a house.

A Wintry Moon (1886)

He also was into fairies, sometimes floating above a town.

Spirit of the Night (1879)

But I like just as much his many townscapes, including this one very near where I was looking for Work.

Hampstead Hill, Looking Down Heath Street (1881)

So I looked up the artist on the web. I found very little.

Wikiart referred me to Wikipedia, which told me there was only one book about this artist, by an Alexander Robinson in 1988. I’d like to buy a copy, but there are so few that they’re expensive. The cheapest I could find was over $50. Supply and demand.

Wikipedia also directed me to a now defunct page from 2007 (that’s 50 years ago in internet years), which said that Robinson’s book was pretty much it, and that it’s a shame such a talent died of cancer. It had the same wording as a site that has taken his name, selling reproductions. Except that Wikipedia says he died of tuberculosis.

Apparently Grimshaw left no written works, diaries, letters. We don’t have much on him.

So to a certain extent we have to take the art on its own terms, which makes sense since Whistler admired Grimshaw’s work, and he’s the “art for art’s sake” guy. Grimshaw’s style is pre-Raphaelite in its photographic realism in some paintings and attention to detail in others. I also noticed a connection to earlier traditions. Here we seem to be channeling Vermeer:

Vermeer, Woman with a Water Jug (~1662)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Summer (1895)

If we were analyzing his work as evidence for a historical theme (which I do ask my students to do), we have a number of things to look at. Usually it’s best to look at just one work, but this site makes it possible to look at some of Grimshaw’s in chronological order. Most of his work seems to be about place, rather than the conditions of people or the ravages of industry. Domestic buildings are important in the rural scenes, and they are nice middle class houses, likely reflecting his clientele. There are many works that are similar, also suggesting a clientele who wanted certain things. We cannot really separate the artist’s work from those who were buying it.

Which suggests a time when art like this was in demand, for its beauty and, possibly, its refusal to deal with quotidian problems of the 1870s and 1880s. Instead, there is loneliness, and loveliness, and all the connotations that go along with the changing to autumn and winter. There is a focus on roads, and people traveling on them, moving away from the viewer. There is warmth within coldness in all his work, which people might find comforting.

These are larger themes that go beyond just the era in which the work was created. It would be possible, in other words, to find works from earlier or later times which are also representations of these ideas. We might find that certain themes or styles tend to appear in art at certain times in history, perhaps when there is social change, or political strife. We do this as historians, although art historians also appreciate context and the influence of historical setting on the works of artists.

Because it’s easy to misinterpret art (perhaps Grimshaw liked his paintings of women better than the townscapes, and I’m projecting that he liked the townscapes more because I like them more), historians consider them as evidence. I can appreciate their aesthetics as a viewer, but as a historian I may be more concerned about their use. In that sense, the story of the artist has less value than the art itself.

Biography has its limits, and not just with art. More coming soon on that.

Stumbling upon Wells and killer octopuses

Reading HG Wells has become something of a pasttime. I don’t have any scholarly need to read much of his fiction, and none to read anything after The Time Machine. At least, not for my research. But a few years ago I fell in love with these books, Penguin Little Black Classics:

Of course, it’s easy to fall in love with anything one discovers at Blackwell Bookshop in Oxford. (Side note: I was at Barnes and Noble here buying a book for a child, and somehow the worker wrapping my gift got to talking how she’d also just returned from England, and it turned out we’d both been to Oxford recently, and both been to Blackwell’s. She loved Tolkein, so I asked if she’d eaten at the Eagle and Child and she said no, but she’d found the Turf Tavern. On this trip, I too found the Turf Tavern — it is down a narrow alley and you kind of have to know it’s there — though I didn’t eat there.)

At the time I first found these lovely little books, they cost 66p. They are now £1. I always have one with me, because although I tried reading on my phone (I got through The Island of Dr Moreau but that was it), I don’t like it. And don’t get me started about Kindles and other backlit means of reading for pleasure. Backlit is for work.

So I happened to be carrying HG Wells’ The Sea Raiders in my purse last month, and while waiting at a pub for the West Sussex Records Office in Chichester to reopen after lunch, I read the story.

It was terrifying. I forget, since I’ve mostly been reading Wells’ romances (Ana Veronica, Tono-Bungay, Mr Britling Sees it Through), that his work can be scary. The last time I was this scared was reading The Invisible Man, which isn’t at all surprising.

The Sea Raiders, I thought from the title, would surely be a pirate story. I envisioned scenes of derring-do. But it was a story of nasty tentacled creatures coming up from the deep to kill people, grabbing them off the beach and even taking a whole boat of them, including a child. I finished the story and my lunch, admired the craftsmanship of the story (not so much the lunch), and moved on.

Then today, I was cruising through my Twitter feed looking at Victorian artworks, and came upon this from @longvictorian2 (you can also find it on Wikipedia):

The date is 17 October 1896. If this blog post is correct, Well’s story was published in December 1896. Could it be that Wells’ horror story was based on an actual event?

According to this tour guide, the Illustrated Police News was voted ten years earlier as the worst newspaper in England by readers of the Pall Mall Gazette (another place Wells liked to publish, though I’ve had trouble finding anything in the Gazette files at the British Library). So how accurate this is may be subject to question (or more likely derisive scoffing). But the story appeared. Which may mean that Wells’ reading habits at 30 years old were far from elitist.

[NB: For those who know I’m a serious historian, you might be surprised at my accepting homegrown blog posts and Jack the Ripper tour sites as valid sources. But since we’re talking here about killer octopuses, I don’t have a problem with it. And yes, it’s octopuses, not octopi, since it’s Greek, not Latin.]

On this site

There is nothing more basic to history than the idea that things change. Buildings are torn down to make way for what society needs at the time, or what business decides it needs. In Britain, buildings can be saved by being “listed” as Grade I, II*, or II. Grade I is for places like Buckingham Palace. Listed buildings cannot be torn down or altered without permission, so people often complain when they want to make upgrades on their listed house. The idea goes back to a monument protection act in 1882.

Not all places that are lost were torn down, of course. The Great Fire of London in 1666 did a number on the whole city, destroying many buildings. Commemoration of these places is also part of history. Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire began in a bakery is commemorated on the site:

It’s almost as if the bakers themselves have taken responsibility. Around the corner is Christopher Wren’s enormous monument to the fire, somewhat hidden by modern buildings.


This always strikes me as a monument to the resilience of an extraordinary city. But in the Museum of London is the other part of the monument, a reminder of the ability of humans to blame each other for their differences.


Put up in 1681, it blames Catholics for the fire. Another example of how monuments are interpretive objects, not just memory, as I’ve written before about Confederate monuments in the American Civil War. The British get the idea of putting objectionable history in a museum so people can think about it, not just pass it on their way to work.

In my own research, removed and altered buildings are more of an issue. The University Correspondence College in Cambridge looked like this:

This trip I stopped by Parker’s Piece, which the College overlooked. It was, appropriately, Freshers’ Day on the Piece, with a festival to welcome incoming students to the University of Cambridge. And here, where the UCC used to stand, is the carpark I’d heard about.

Isn’t it lovely, with the cars hidden by white slats? When I mentioned to a Cambridge resident and distance education expert over coffee that it was a shame that one had to tear down such a beautiful building, his remark was, “for those who like that sort of thing”. We agreed it had been a Victorian monstrosity. I just happen to like Victorian monstrosities.

In other places, buildings remain but have been repurposed.

Up on Kilburn Road in London is the site of the old Henley House School. Here J.V. Milne was headmaster, and H.G. Wells was a schoolmaster. But it’s A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, who gets the plaque. And the buildings are now flats.

The old site of the laboratories at South Kensington, where Wells learned biology with T.H. Huxley, has been absorbed into the Victoria and Albert Museum photographic archive and library which, unfortunately, has no photos of the original labs. These might be at what South Ken became, the Imperial College, but that’s a search for another trip. Outside, however, the building remains.

Sometimes historic sites are uncovered in the process of creating new sites. There are several rivers under the streets of London (the Fleet comes to mind). Walbrook River was the water supply for an ancient Roman site which included a temple to Mithras. According to the publicity, it was discovered in the 1960s and reconstructed hastily at a nearby site. I certainly never knew it was there, and I couldn’t find anything on the internet about its existence prior to now.

Michael Bloomberg, creating his European headquarters on the old site, had the temple moved back to near where it had been, and gifted the City with a tourist destination. You can now see the Mithraeum below his building. Extraordinary amounts of money have been spent. It is free, but timed tickets are required, and only 20 or so people are allowed in for a timed visit. The steps down to the temple mark the archaeological eras on the wall. Sound and lighting effects (wonderfully cheap LED lighting effects — I couldn’t have done better in my days as a theatrical lighting designer) make it an “experience”. 600 of the items they excavated are in a case in the waiting area.

Having spent a number of years in the theatre myself, it always intrigues me when history becomes theatre. Sometimes people’s imaginations need to be encouraged in order to engage the past at all, and of course Bloomberg and others employed archaeologists and historians, which is always a good thing. However, I remember being at a conference on visual history in Durham, and hearing a historian who had worked in Stratford-upon-Avon. They were creating Shakespeare’s schoolhouse as a tourist attraction, and had hired historians to verify the details. The trouble is, there is no evidence at all of which school Shakespeare attended, whether the school would still exist, or whether he even attended school there or elsewhere. This has not stopped it from becoming an attraction, refurbished as accurately as possible to the period.

As well as including things that may not have happened, artistic license for history can also leave things out. The Mithraeum, while noting the slaying of a bull as sacred to the proceedings there, does not mention the gay orgies that were an integral part of the religion. I suppose that would be a bit much for the tourists.


Finding HG

One may have thought, for all the tourist things I’ve been doing, that I’m not doing my research. But it’s easy to show I’m working on HG Wells, since he is everywhere. I bought a copy of Christina Alberta’s Father at a second-hand bookshop. I have a copy of The Sea Raiders in my purse. And, of course, there are the plaques:

HG Wells plaque, Chiltern Court, Baker Street

This one is right next to the entrance to the Baker Street tube.

According to The Independent, HG hosted a book club here in a flat, and a lot of other famous people are associated with it as well. Apparently Wells lived here between 1930 and 1936 (not a period I’m studying).

And then, of course, there’s the rabbit hole of information they call the British Library. They have a tendency to be open till 8 pm, making it possible to miss dinner (always a crime in my opinion). Since you cannot bring water or food into the reading rooms, I easily dehydrate since I get too absorbed in my work to leave my table and go outside the area, taking my card to get back in, to get a sip at the drinking fountain or have a meal at the lovely restaurant.

British Library restaurant

I suppose if I dessicate completely, they can just cart me down the road to the British Museum and put me with the mummies.

My task yesterday was to take a peek at a few journals, to see if a periodical research project is viable. But while flipping through one of them, I noticed an item mentioned that in another journal, HG Wells had recently written a piece on text-books. Now, I thought I had all of his pieces on textbooks. I ordered it, meaning I’ll have to return in two days, the day before I leave, just to scan it.

After leaving the reading room (it had been six hours with only one tea break), I went to the News Room, because I couldn’t remember where one could access the British Newspapers Archive. They told me you could access it in all the reading rooms, but theirs was the best, because obviously it was the News room.

You can search the newspaper database online, but unless you pay you cannot access the newspapers. Except at the British Library, where it’s free. And you can print, for 28p per page.

Ah, search terms. “H.G. Wells”. Funny, doesn’t seem like enough came up — only a few dozen items. “H. G. Wells”. What a difference a space makes! And you can limit the search to years: 1880-1899.

Now: “University Correspondence College”. Just the same articles on Briggs’ legal tangle that I saw last time. “Correspondence study”. A few items of interest. “Correspondence college”. A few more. “Samuel J. Tildesley” (I’ve seen him in ads before, for a correspondence college in Edinburgh). Oh! He went bankrupt, even before the ads I’ve seen. The only thing more fun to research than a successful business venture is one that was unsuccessful…