The artist’s model who left no trace

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An incident in the Revolutionary War of America (The Fraser Highlanders at Stone Ferry) – Robert Ronald McIan (1854)

Robert McIan probably thought he was doing someone else and himself a good turn when he ‘rescued’ John Coster from his perilous condition on the streets of central London. It was the dawn of the Victorian age – 1837 – and the comedian and artist was strolling near his home on Newman Street, off Oxford Street, he saw a man in ‘a wretched state of constitution and starvation’. He decided to take him home and feed him.

McIan would later admit that his motivation was more than just that of a good Samaritan; he recognized that Coster’s ‘picturesque appearance’ made him a perfect subject for artist study. Coster was an Indian from the Bengal, who had been born a ‘Mohametan’ but had converted to Catholicism. He spoke English, but with a heavy Indian accent.

He was treated with some compassion by McIan who made him a servant in his household but he was also a ‘curiosity’ and was shown to the artist’s friends, several of whom painted him themselves. Coster then was drawn and painted by no lesser figures than ‘Sir David Wilkie, Landseer, Etty, Ewins, and most of the celebrated painters of the day’.

In McIan’s head he had done the man a great service so it must have come a terrible betrayal of trust to discover that the man he had saved from the streets had robbed him. Yet in March 1840 that is exactly what he alleged. A pistol had disappeared from his painting room and, since Coster (who had also vanished) was familiar with the room and its contents, and the door had been forced open, suspicion fell on him.

A description of the missing servant and the gun – a ‘Highland pistol’ – were circulated and several months later both were recovered. The pistol had been pawned on Tottenham Court Road and it was easy to trace that back to Coster given his distinctive appearance as an Asian in London.

At his appearance at Hatton Garden Police court Coster was also accused of a second robbery. Since he’d quit McIan’s service he had been living in lodgings St Giles and his landlady deposed that he had plundered her rooms before running out on her as well. Coster admitted stealing the pistol but vehemently denied any knowledge of the other charge.

Mr Combe, the sitting magistrate that day, told Coster he would be remanded in custody while further enquiries were made and other witnesses sought. But he informed the prisoner that if he was convicted all of his luxurious long black hair would be shaved off.

‘No!’, Coster exclaimed from the dock, ‘da neber sall; me die first before da sal cut de hair off’.

Robert Ronald McIan (1802-1856) was a popular artist in the Victorian period known for his romanticized depictions of Highland life and history. He had trod the boards in the theatre in his youth (which may explain why he still described himself as a ‘comedian’ in 1840). He is most well known for his “Battle of Culloden’ and ‘A Highland Feud’ (both 1843) and in the same year he exhibited ‘An Encounter in Upper Canada’ which depicted the heroic fight between Clan Fraser and a larger French and American Indian force. The Highland pistol that Coster probably featured in some of these paintings and, who knows, maybe his former servant did as well in some way.

Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) also had his Scottish connections – his ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851) is one of the most famous images of nineteenth century art. In 1858 he was commissioned to create the four bronze lions that guard Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

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Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) was, famous for his historical paintings. Like McIan he was a Scot, born in Fife the son of a clergyman. Soon after the court case that involved Coster and his acquaintance McIan he travelled abroad, painting the portrait of the Sultan in Constantinople and various others on including Mehemet Ali in Alexandria, Egypt. He fell ill at Malta and died on the return voyage.

As for John Coster I’m afraid history doesn’t record what happened to him. There’s no record of a jury trial for this theft of an artist’s pistol or the robbery of a St Giles lodging house. Once again, the mysterious Indian with the ‘long black hair and dark piercing eyes’ vanished.

Above right: ‘General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib after having Captured Seringapatam, on the 4th May, 1799,’ by Sir David Wilkie (1839) – National Gallery of Scotland

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 10 March 1840]

German aggression receives short shrift from Mr Hannay

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Out of curiosity I’ve been following a few links in my own family history this year. One of these is a discovery that at some point in the early 1880s one of my ancestors married into a large German family that was living in Marylebone in central London. They seem to have been a family of traders, clerks and at least one dentist but, as yet, I’ve not found out when they immigrated to England from Germany. Today’s blog concerns three German migrants but not (as far as I am aware anyway) ones that were related to me.

Johannes Etskitt (22), Dominians Etskitt (20) and Ernst Carl Otto Brauer (45) were all charged, in August 1874, with assaulting Elias Hawkins, a tramcar conductor. The Etskitts were both wine merchants and Brauer described himself as an artist. The trio had hailed Hawkins’ tram and hopped on as it stopped.

Brauer was smoking and so when he sat down inside the tram the conductor asked him to go upstairs (and thus outside). The artist who, like his companions, had been drinking that evening, refused. Hawkins brought the car to a standstill with the intention of either making the three men comply with his request or, presumably, throwing them off.

This backfired rather badly as Dominians Etskitt decided to get his retaliation in first and launched a violent assault on the conductor. The tram driver, Frederick Claxton, watched in horror as the younger man started to hit his colleague with a stick, beating him several times over the head. The attack was so fierce that it was Hawkins who was forced off the tram, not the unruly passengers.

The two other men joined in the attack and when Claxton went to help his conductor they turned on him as well. Brauer and the older Etskitt were not as violent as Dominians and this was taken into account when they later all appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court in front of Mr Hannay.

The Germans were represented in court by a solicitor but the evidence presented was fairly damning. Their violence was not excused by their drinking and Mr Hannay was not about to sanction the abuse of the North London Tramway Company’s employees, who were also represented by the firm’s lawyer.

Since Dominians was the obvious aggressor he received the most severe punishment being sent to prison for a month at hard labour. His older brother got off with a warning and Brauer (who was older and supposedly wiser) was given 14 days to reflect on his loss of control.

By the early 1860s there were about 15,000 German-born Londoners, and small groups of Germans had settled in other British cities like Manchester and Bradford. On the eve of the First World War the number of Germans in Britain had risen to a peak of about 54,000 but this fell considerably after the conflict. Not surprisingly the Great War led to suspicion falling on German migrants and many were interned during the war, some of those living in London being held at Alexandra Palace for the duration. German businesses were attacked and German speakers made the target of ‘patriotic’ abuse.

Two world wars have contributed to a generally negative view of Germany that has persisted despite the incredible changes that German society has undergone since 1945. In reality of course we are very close to each other as peoples and perhaps this closeness was more obvious in the nineteenth century than it is today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 05, 1874]

The ‘extraordinary conduct’ of an artist

Edward Hawker had a peculiar obsession, or fetish. At least that’s how we might view this case that reached the Marlborough Street Police Court in early August 1860.

Hawker was an artist ‘and modeller’ and he took a very proactive interest in securing the perfect model for his work. Sadly for him his attempts to create the perfect sculpture of the female form were not appreciated by two ‘respectable’ ladies he approached separately that summer.

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Elizabeth Dolby was promenading along Duke Street (near Manchester Square) when Hawker stopped her. He informed her that her bootlace was undone and then drooped to one knee, took up her foot and placed it on his knee. The magistrate asked Elizabeth if her lace was indeed undone: ‘no Sir’, she replied.

She told the court that Hawker explained that he was a shoemaker and that she ‘had very high insteps’. She asked him to let her go, and he did. But when she reached Edward Street he did same thing again, and this time she called for a policeman had had him arrested.

Charlotte Neale had had a very similar encounter with the artist. She had been out in Cavendish Square (not very far from where Hawker accosted Elizabeth)  when the stranger also approached her and took hold of her leg using the same excuse.

In court the magistrate was told that Hawker had a previous history of behaving like this and had been prosecuted and punished before. His excuse was that he had once been walking in Regent’s Street when a lady asked him to tie her bootlace. When he lifted her leg he saw that it was ‘so beautifully formed that immediately upon his return home he made a model of it from memory’. Ever since he had been trying to discover ‘if another  leg was to be met with in the world’.

Quizzed about his actions in court Hawker denied all of it and said he was merely stopping the women in the hope of having ‘a little conversation with them’, he meant no harm. The magistrate didn’t see it that way and called his behaviour ‘shameful’. It was the duty of the court, he continued, to protect women from the likes of him. Hawker was fined 20s for each of the two offenses or 21 days in the house of correction. He paid the fine.

Edward Hawker may have been an innocent if misguided man who found it hard to approach women in more ‘normal’ circumstances, but he might also have a been a ‘sex pest’. I suspect also that his love of the female foot and leg suggests that he was a fetishist, possibly harmless but in these case certainly disturbing or at the least, annoying.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 3, 1860]