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]

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’: One woman’s brave but foolish intervention

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Violence was topic for most of the cases reported in the evening Standard newspaper on 13 October 1877. Just as modern readers are shocked by hearing of stabbings and attacks on defenseless elderly people and children, our ancestors must have shaken their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.

Of course the accounts of assaults and domestic violence were both real and relatively unusual; it was this that made them newsworthy. So we do have to be aware that when we read the nineteenth-century papers we are looking at a selection of ‘crime news’ that the editor thought his readership would ‘enjoy’. Plenty of less sensational news was generated by the ‘doings’ of  the metropolis’ police magistrate courts.

But let’s return to October 1877.

The first report that evening was of ‘an unprovoked assault’ on Mrs Jane Nash. Jane was walking out with a friend to meet her husband for Friday night drinks. As she made her way along Newington Causeway a drunken man collided with her, and ‘nearly knocked her down’. Jane gave him a piece of her mind, telling him to watch where he was going.

The man turned round, punched her in face twice, and would have started kicking her as she lay on the ground if two men hadn’t intervened and pulled him off her. At Southwark Police court he was sent to prison for 14 days by Mr Benson.

Staying south of the river Edward Richards surrender his bail and appeared at Wandsworth Police court charged with ‘a gross outrage’. He was accused, along with three other men not in custody, of attacking a man at a farm in Merton. John Ebliss, a ‘native of Bengal’, was sleeping at Baker’s End farm when Richards and the others hauled him out in a blanket and threw him in a ditch. Whether this was a prank or they had discovered Richards sleeping rough on their property wasn’t made clear in the report. The magistrate, Mr Paget, remanded Richards for a week so that the other men could be apprehended.

At Marlborough Street George Webster was charged with assaulting William Bowden, one of the surgeons attached to St John’s Hospital in Leicester Square. Webster had been making a disturbance in the hospital, probably drunk, and was thrown out. This sort of behavior still happens in hospitals today and every  night NHS are abused and assaulted by members of the public who’ve had too much to drink. Webster had come back into the hospital and in an argument with the surgeon he punched him in the ear. Mr Cooke warned him that behaviour like that could get him a prison sentence but on this occasion, and with the surgeon’s agreement, he merely bound him over to keep the peace for a year.

The final case was the worse. At half past midnight on the previous Friday (the 5 October) Emily Withers was passing the corner of Cannon Street Road when she saw a street robbery in progress. Four young men had set on another. When they discovered he had no money that started beating him up and Emily, unwisely decided to intervene.

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’, she cried, drawing the attention of one of them.

‘What is it to do with you?’ Robert Martin asked, moving over to her.

He kicked out at her, landing a blow on her knee. As the young man struggled free of his attackers and ran for help Martin now kicked Emily in the stomach. The violence knocked her off her feet and ‘she was in such agony that she could neither move nor speak’. It took some moments before a policeman came running up and arrested Martin.

Emily spent four days confined to bed as a result of the attack but recovered sufficiently by the following Friday to give evidence against her abuser in court. Mr Chance, the presiding magistrate at Thames Police court sentenced the 17-year-old lad to six month’s hard labour.

So here were four acts of violence to unsettle the readers of the Standard as they digested their supper. It would remind them that while crime had fallen considerably since the early decades of the century there was still plenty to fear on the capital’s streets. However, the reports were also reassuring  in that in each case someone was in custody or was being punished for their acts of violence. They were off the streets and no threat any more.

Today I think we operate in a similar way. I live in London and stabbings are reported weekly, sometimes more.  Every death is a tragedy, a young life cut short, and a family bereaved.  It is made worse because the culprits are rarely caught and so remain at large, as an ongoing danger. But are they are a danger to me and my life? The news reports suggest that this sort of violence – knife crime committed by teenagers on each other – is unlikely to affect me directly because I am a white man in my fifties. That said local reports suggest that there was a stabbing just up the road from us, and several muggings (by youths on scooters) had also been reported.

London can be dangerous; anywhere can be dangerous, just ask the victims of the recent assaults in Manchester. But violence is still rare and reported because it is rare, and therefore newsworthy. As Nick Ross always used to say, ‘don’t have nightmares’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 13, 1877]