Sunday, 19 March 2017

Piltdown Man, Charles Dawson and Harry Price




Miles Russell Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson & the World’s Greatest Arcaheological Hoax (2003)

An absorbing study that concentrates on Charles Dawson, the man who found the so-called Piltdown Man ‘missing link’ in a gravel pit near the hamlet of Piltdown in West Sussex.  Having read this book most readers will have little doubt that Dawson was solely responsible for the Piltdown Man hoax, despite the fact that many others have been accused over the years, most ridiculously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (although according to this book his novel The Lost World, published in 1912, may have played a part in inspiring the deception).  Russell lays out his case carefully and methodically, cannily preparing the ground with a lengthy and detailed examination of Dawson’s ‘antiquarian’ collections, parts of which he exhibited in the years before Piltdown.  Almost every piece examined is found to be a fake, of dubious provenance, or a (deliberate?) misinterpretation – tellingly some of these pieces were claimed by Dawson to provide a ‘missing link’ between species or advances in technology.

There are many connections with Hastings (about thirty miles from Piltdown) - Dawson lived in St Leonards as a boy and many of his remarkable ‘finds’ were supposedly dug up in the surrounding area.  He wrote a detailed history of Hastings Castle and worked on a dig that cleared and mapped the ‘secret’ tunnels under the castle.  Yet again, all was not what it seemed: Dawson claimed that as an eight-year-old boy he had seen strange shadowy marks on the walls of one of these tunnels when he had been shown round by the proprietor.  

Much later in life he recalled that the marks strongly resembled the shapes of two men standing against the tunnel walls in close proximity to metal staples to which they could have been manacled (he made a drawing), thus his conclusion was that these tunnels had to be ‘dungeons’, a name which has stuck to this day (rather than the cellars and storage areas which they most likely were).   Dawson was fond of dungeons and had one constructed at his Lewes house, Castle Lodge, which he acquired in 1904 from the Sussex Archaeological Society (he was a member) in highly dubious circumstances, resulting in his being virtually ostracised (remarkably, the massively publicised Piltdown discoveries were not mentioned in the society’s journal). 

It does seem surprising these days how readily Piltdown Man was accepted by the scientific community – there were some naysayers at the time, but they received little support.  Russell explains how Dawson had motive and means – one witness claims to have discovered him one day in his solicitor’s office experimenting with discolouring bones (!).  Palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward would appear to have been a ‘useful idiot’ (rather than part of the hoax) for Dawson in the authentication of the remains.  There is also the hoaxer’s standard modus operandi: he conveniently produced what the scientists of that time were eagerly hoping to find.  Nationalism also entered into events, as previous finds of early man had been on the continent.  Finally England could claim its own spectacular discovery – it’s significant that Woodward’s book was called The Earliest Englishman (not published until 1948 – the hoax was only uncovered in 1953).

For me, an intriguing aspect of the story is Dawson’s possible links with Harry Price (see previous posts), who began his quest for recognition and publicity through a series of apparently important archaeological finds within a short distance of his house in Pulborough.  According to Richard Morris in Harry Price The Psychic Detective (2006):

‘It is absolutely conceivable that Dawson and Price worked together.  They had plenty of opportunities to meet each other, as both were active in the Sussex Archaeological Society and were members of the Royal Societies Club, that most prestigious social club of scientists and industrialists.  Furthermore Price and Dawson would have shared patrons and supporters. (p.32)

Unfortunately, Morris does not produce any evidence, such as correspondence, for their friendship or cooperation.

Dawson and Price both craved academic credibility: Dawson was the more impressive in that, despite having never attended university and holding down a job as a solicitor in Uckfield (the firm is still there), he possessed a lively and inquiring mind and could lecture on a wide variety of subjects well beyond archaeology; he was a member of the Society of Antiquaries.  Much of Price’s knowledge of archaeology was bluff or plagiarised.  Price enjoyed incredibly good fortune with his archaeological discoveries, many of which were found on the surface, so he didn’t even have to get his hands dirty.  An unusually well-preserved Roman statuette of Hercules was pulled out of the river bank at the end of his garden.  He was eventually caught out after a Roman silver ingot, ‘which I picked up in 1909 on the surface of a ploughed field on top of park Mount, Pulborough’ was proved to be a fake.   It bore a mark which indicated that it may well have dated from the period of Honorius at the very end of Roman occupation, making it even more significant.  Coincidentally, Roman bricks found by Dawson at Pevensey Castle and exhibited in 1907 also bore a mark of Honorius – they too were later proved to be fakes.


If anyone reading this is aware of closer links between Price and Dawson I would be interested to know.

The Visitors' Book




Jon Lys Turner The Visitors’ Book, In Francis Bacon’s Shadow: The Lives of Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller (2016).  After a shaky start the book gains momentum and I found it very interesting, but then I would, as it features the usual  Soho and Fitzrovia suspects - many mentioned in these posts - such as John Minton,  Nina Hamnett (a good friend of Wirth-Miller) and the Two Roberts, who  frequently stayed with them.  Jankel Adler’s name keeps cropping up in many of the biographies I’ve read recently – he seems to have been influential on many of the London artists of this period and his reputation may be in need of resuscitation.   His influence on the Two Roberts, for example, is clear.  See here and here.

Wirth-Miller was from a very humble background and suffered in early life for his German ancestry – the book hints that his artistic influence on Francis Bacon may have been greater than previously recognised, the two certainly worked together in the Wivenhoe studio.  Lucian Freud hated him (he referred to him as ‘Worth Nothing’) see here.  Nevertheless, Wirth-Miller and Chopping mixed in highly privileged circles and had influential friends and acquaintances (not least Ian Fleming in Chopping’s case), one of whom was avid social climber and interior designer David Hicks, who included Wirth-Miller’s art in his designs - financially useful, but this made him perilously tied to fashion, that inevitably changed.

There is an entertaining account of Hicks’ wedding to Lord Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela:  the weather was freezing blizzards – fortunately for the many guests, they had the use of a private Pullman train back to London.  Chopping narrowly saved one of the guests from being run over by a skidding bus – it turned out to be Noel Coward, who became a friend.  Hicks and his wife had a honeymoon cruise on the QE2, the only passengers apparently, which seems incredible.  Winston Churchill’s son Randolph comes across as a truly horrible individual and as with many wealthy people expected the artists to produce work for him for nothing.


Wirth-Miller was probably Bacon’s best and most loyal friend.  There is a terrible episode where WM has an exhibition in a local gallery - Bacon arrives drunk and proceeds to go round savagely criticising every picture.  This had such an effect on WM that he gave up painting from that point.  The book says that this traumatic incident didn’t affect their friendship, which again is hard to believe.  In later life WM seems to have been a drunken monster and the kind of foul-mouthed outspoken boor you would avoid sitting close to in a restaurant or pub.   His artistic reputation is not high these days.  Looking at the auction prices for his paintings, they are not valuable and are almost in my price bracket.  Despite some strange neologisms (infirmed?) and misspellings (tenor Peter Piers?) the writing carries you along and I enjoyed reading it.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Mummified Cats

While reading Jon Lys Turner’s The Visitors’ Book (London: Constable, 2016), a biography of the artists Richard Chopping (designer of the striking early trompe l’oeil covers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers) and Denis Wirth-Miller, I came across a ‘mummified cat’ tale.  The artists lived as a gay couple for sixty years in an attractive eighteenth-century wooden building known as the Storehouse (formerly a public house and later a sail store) next to the river Colne in Wivenhoe, Essex.

At some point in the early 1960s: ‘When a group of builders dismantled part of the roof of the Storehouse in order to convert an attic space into a new bedroom, they discovered the body of a blackened but otherwise preserved cat.  One of the contractors recalled a story his grandfather had told him: when buildings were topped out in eighteenth-century Wivenhoe, a live cat would be released into the roof before it was sealed – it was believed that the trapped animal’s spirit would ward off fire.

Wirth-Miller examined the mummified cat and said, “It’s rather beautiful – like a feline Modigliani.”  Chopping reported that he was warier of its supposed supernatural powers.’ (The Visitors’ Book p.260)

Wirth-Miller and Chopping were good friends with fellow artist Francis Bacon and in November 1963, after an afternoon’s heavy drinking, at the famous Colony Room in Dean Street, Wirth-Miller, Bacon and his then boyfriend George Dyer, decided to take a taxi back to Wivenhoe to continue the party.  Following a late night dinner they returned to the Storehouse very drunk.  A while later Bacon came back from the toilet saying that the house was on fire.  The storeroom at the rear of the house used to store ‘canvases, paperwork, old books and junk’ was ablaze.  The fire engines that were summoned used water from the river to dowse the flames, but the storeroom and kitchen had been badly damaged. 

The cause of the fire was never determined, although it was suspected that George Dyer had drunkenly flicked a cigarette butt out of the toilet window situated above the storeroom. 

Of course, the way in which the narrative unfolds implies that the earlier disturbance of the desiccated feline may have been in some way responsible for the blaze.

While some valuable works of art were lost in the fire, the artists were fortunate in securing the services of a young and then-unknown Terence Conran (he taught at the Royal College of Art, with Chopping) who agreed to design a chic new kitchen in exchange for a Wirth-Miller landscape. 

‘One object that did survive was the mummified cat, which would end up in a drawer in a guest bedroom.  Wirth-Miller, who was fond of a practical joke, was amused by the idea of visitors discovering the artefact as they unpacked.’ (p.263)

Mummified cats are also the subject of a chapter in my book The Folklore of London.  See here and here.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Is She a Lady?




Nina Hamnett wrote a second volume of autobiography Is She a Lady?  (1955) which picks up her story from 1926 when she returned from France to Fitzrovia.  Compiled might be a better word, as the book is really just a string of anecdotes, many rather inconsequential, probably of the kind with which she would regale a visitor to the Fitzroy or Wheatsheaf after asking them to 'Buy me a drink deah'.  It does, however, cover the period when I believe my drawing was made and the book sheds more light on her interest in boxing – another way of socializing and meeting young men and staving off the boredom of Sundays.


On Premierland, a boxing venue in East London (see here) ‘by far the most amusing and entertaining show in London.  The hall held about two thousand people and a battle nearly always raged near the ringside.  The audience never ceases to scream out insults and vulgar jokes at the unfortunate boxers who are unpopular from opening to closing time.  The payment is terrible.  There is any amount of talent to be discovered, but, as they all have to work, they never have sufficient time to train unless, by some extraordinary stroke of luck, someone pays for their training.’(p.51)  She mentions making drawings on many occasions.

Prof Newton’s Academy of Boxing 241 Marylebone Road: 'I went down one Sunday to see the boys training and to meet the great Professor.  Sunday morning is the best time, as most of them have to work during the week, many as navvies.  Nipper Pat Daly was then in his prime.  He was a funny little boy of fifteen and a half, and a very fine boxer.  If ever there should have been a champion it ought to have been Nipper.’ (p.49)  One of the book’s illustrations is a signed photo of Daly, who was a bit of a local celebrity at the time, a photo of Daly with the Professor and more information here.

She also mentions staying at the Hotel l'Etoile: (p.12) ‘I invited people to lunch and dine with me at my hotel, not worrying much about the future, as I had been paid for the drawings in Seymour’s book   [Seymour Leslie The Silent Amen (Jonathan Cape 1927]. '  Perhaps the list of names on the back of the drawing are those she entertained there.  She also illustrated The People's Album of London Statues - with droll commentary from Osbert Sitwell, it is the source, as I discovered, of his description of William Huskisson's statue in Pimlico as 'boredom rising from the bath'.  Illustrations of both books above.

Many characters acquainted with Aleister Crowley pop up in the book including Nancy Cunard, Lord Tredegar and that strange individual William Seabrook.  She produced a portrait of the speedboat racer 'Joe' Carstairs , who I'd never heard of before, but seems interesting (can't trace the picture).

In conclusion on Hamnett I should also direct those interested to the always excellent Strange Flowers resource.  A film was made about her starring Siobhan Fahey out of Bananarama.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

February Reading


David Hepworth 1971 Never a Dull Moment (2016)  By Mark Ellen's partner-in-crime in the magazine world and co-presenter of Whistle Test.  An enthusiastic month-by-month account of the musicians, the music industry and most importantly, the long players put out during one year that Hepworth wants to claim as the most significant in the history of rock and roll.  He's probably right when you look at some of the exhibits he puts forward: There's A Riot Going On, Tapestry, Led Zeppelin IV, Tago Mago, Loaded, Sticky Fingers, Aqualung, What's Going On, Electric Warrior (first lp I bought), Master of Reality, Fog on the Tyne, Fragile, Inner Mounting Flame, Meddle, American Pie etc.  I get the impression that Who's Next and Hunky Dory are probably his favourites, but he makes good cases for many more.  He's not a fan of progressive rock, but that year saw the appearance of such genre classics as Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, The Yes Album, Fragile and Nursery Cryme.

It's interesting to be reminded of prices and the way of life at a time when I was alive: eg. pint of bitter 15p, house in North London £20,000, very little obesity.  He has some insightful observations, most notably about the beginnings of 'heritage rock' and its absorption into show business even at that point, although he does describe the unpleasant condition at the majority of music festivals and it's easy to forget that until relatively recently some rock concerts could be pretty violent and dangerous.

Edward Lucie-Smith Symbolist Art (1972)

Paul Strathern The Knowledge: The Periodic Table (2015) Another bargain from The Works.

Michael Oliver Benjamin Britten (1996)  Thought I should vary my diet of music biographies.

H G Wells The Time Machine (first published 1895)  Always worth rereading, now and again.

Denise Hooker Nina Hamnett, Queen of Bohemia (1986)  See posts below.




Nina's Friends


It turns out that the drawing mentioned in the post below was made on the reverse side of notepaper from the Hotel et Restaurant de l'Etoile where Nina was staying.  On the side with the hotel's address she has written a list of notable literary and artistic figures of the time - with the intention of inviting them to a dinner or party?  Possibly - if this event ever took place, one would certainly have met an interesting group of people.  The list is below.  I've inserted the full names that I assume are intended, going by friends and acquaintances mentioned in her biography and in Laughing Torso; I'm pretty confident that most of them are correct.  ODNB indicated that they appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

'Davies'   W H Davies (1871-1940), poet and writer, ODNB; NH painted his portrait.

'Strachey'  (Giles) Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), biographer and literary reviewer, ODNB, NH drawing of him c1917.

'Sickert'    Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), painter, ODNB, painted NH and her husband Roald Kristian in 1915-16 (now in the Tate, see here and above).

'Edith S'   Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell (1887-1964), poet and biographer, ODNB; sat for NH on at least three occasions.

'Osbert S'   Sir (Francis) Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, fifth baronet (1892-1969), writer, ODNB, portrait by NH c.1918 above.

'Leonard Merrick'   (1864-1939), novelist, almost forgotten today, ODNB

'Frank Harris' (crossed out)   James Thomas [Frank] Harris (1856?-1931), journalist and rogue, ODNB - see my Decadent London book.

'Clive Bell'   (Arthur) Clive Heward Bell (1881-1964). art critic and writer, ODNB

'Goossens'   Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens [?] (1893-1962), composer and conductor, ODNB, and see here.  Although mostly based in the USA in the late 1920s, he regularly returned to London for conducting engagements.

'Nancy'   Nancy Cunard [?]  (1896-1965), poet and political activist, ODNB

'Iris'   Iris Tree [?] real name Iris Winifred Reine Daphne Beerbohm-Tree, married name Moffat, Ledebur (1897-1968), poet and actress, ODNB, lived for a time in Fitzroy Square.

'Dorothy' nee Millar, wife of Sir Eugene Goossens, divorced in 1928, friend of NH