Letter from London, June 2001

Those of us who are Anglophiles can put up with the "occasional" downpour of rain, having to negotiate traffic patterns that are opposite our own, and creatively deal with plumbing details that defy explanation the first time through. It is all worth it because of the many pleasures England--and especially London--has to offer.

There are three exhibitions in London that should be of interest to ephemerists. One is fairly permanent and is at the Public Record Office (PRO) and the other two are special shows, one at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the other at the British Museum.

The PRO is the United Kingdom's national archives, home to official records and state papers, including the Domesday Book of 1085, considered the UK's earliest public record. The PRO is in a modern facility that was built to serve researchers with highly automated record indexing and ordering, as well as comfortable reading rooms.

There is also an exhibition room that highlights the kinds of materials at the PRO. Judging from what the Encyclopedia of Ephemera... tells us, much of what is shown is ephemeral in nature.

Apart from the Domesday Book the earliest item on display is a letter from King Richard III to the Bishop of Lincoln in 1483 and the most recent piece is a legal document that certifies that Reginald Kenneth Dwight is now Elton John. Also exhibited is a letter to Dr. T.H. Openshaw from someone claiming to be Jack the Ripper. Written On October 29, 1888, the PRO released in April 2001, making it the most recent Jack the Ripper item made available to the general public. In the same vein and from the same time period is a photograph album of Victorian-era prisoners confined to the Oxford Goal. Quite different in nature but also from the late nineteenth century is an uncut sheet of paper dolls and their costumes, fashion plates to be sure.

Finally, the PRO exhibit includes such disparate things as Nazi cigarette cards with images of Adolph Hitler, the manuscript confession of Guy Fawkes on November 17, 1605, and the trial record of Charles I from 1649. Each of these items in its own way is instructive of a society at a certain time and particular place.

English society at a certain time and particular place is impressively chronicled at the V&A in "Inventing New Britain, the Victorian Vision." This exhibition marks the centenary of Queen Victoria's death and offers new assessments of the achievements of what its organizers call "the most adventurous and dynamic period in recent British history."

Divided into six sections: Royalty, Society, Nature, the World, the Army, and Technology, the exhibition features the work of such well known artists as Charles Robert Leslie, John Singer Sargent, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edwin Landseer. As well, there are impressive three-dimensional artifacts, including the Eglington trophy of 1839, marble hand casts of the royal children from 1843, pieces of jewelry, and furniture.

And, there is ephemera. Board games are represented by "A Tour through the British Colonies and Foreign Possessions;" Kate Greenaway's lithograph "Garden Party" is shown; the cover of the April 4, 1891 issue of Illustrated Police News contains a vignette asking "Is marriage a failure?"; there is a poster advertising Swift bicycles and another Barnum & Bailey's Circus; a greeting card of the day wishes its recipient a Merry Christmas and there is a New Year's card depicting boys playing rugby; a postcard illustrates entertainers who worked on piers along British shorelines; and Beeton's Book of Household Management, from 1859, reminds us that advice literature is not a recent phenomenon.

A catalog of the V&A exhibit, also called The Victorian Vision, edited by John M. MacKenzie, is available through the museum and online via http://www.vandashop.co.uk/books.

At the British Museum, the Wharton-Tigar collection of trade cards is featured in an exhibition entitled "Paper Assets: Collecting Prints and Drawings, 1996-2001." Edward Wharton-Tigar (1913-1995) bequeathed his collection of about 1 million trade cards to the British Museum, and to commemorate the bequest, museum curators selected a small sample for exhibition to highlight the collection. Among the items on display is a selection of eighteen photographic trade cards advertising chewing tobacco and featuring late nineteenth century actresses in quite beguiling poses and costume. In addition, sports fans will delight in seeing one of the few surviving cigarette cards issued by the American Tobacco Company containing the likeness of baseball player Honus Wagner.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

P.S. Congratulations are due to the Ephemera Society of the UK! Its book, Encyclopedia of Ephemera..., was recently judged to be one of the best reference books of the year by the American Library Association.

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

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