The artist’s model who left no trace

robert-ronald-mcian-an-incident-in-the-revolutionary-war-of-america-(the-fraser-highlanders-at-stone-ferry)

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.

9f4352fded9adbb11e527c940dc41e84

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]

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

c9f2660899a14b630a8f499008e73466

In October 2007 the charity Help for Heroes was launched. On its front page its makes this powerful statement:

‘Today, seven people will be medically discharged from the Armed Forces and their lives will change forever. In an instant, these highly-trained individuals will lose the camaraderie, purpose and career which has been their life’.

This is not a new phenomenon of course, but has perhaps been given greater focus and attention since the Gulf War and growing number of related experiences of men and women who have served in the armed forces and come home with both physical and mental injuries. This has permeated all levels of society, and become a topic for film and TV dramas (such as the most recent BBC series, The Bodyguard ).

Between October 1853 and March 1856 Britain was at war in the Crimea, battling with France and Turkey against the Russian Empire and its allies. Ultimately Britain and France prevailed but there was a high cost in lives lost and others altered forever. This war is often remembered as one in which more soldiers died of disease than of wounds sustained by enemy action; its symbolic ‘hero’ is Florence Nightingale, the ‘lady with the lamp’ and not Lord cardigan, the officer that led the doomed charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava.

alamy-MA

During the Crimean War the island of Malta served as a hospital base for British casualties returning from the front. Given the huge numbers of men needing care the Valletta Station Hospital (one of four military hospitals on Malta) was quickly overrun and deemed inadequate. Sadly the necessary reform and rebuilding required to upgrade Malta’s institutions to cope with the numbers wounded in ‘modern’ conflicts  didn’t open until after the Crimean war was over.

Nor was there adequate support for veterans who returned from the Crimean carrying the scars of their involvement with them. When Henry Arlett was discharged from the Royal Artillery at Christmas 1857 he had been given a sovereign and sent on his way. Henry had served in the Crimea and had been invalided home after spending  time at a military base on Malta  recuperating.

Back in Lambeth he had struggled to find work as his back pain continued to make manual work all but impossible. Without an obvious trade and deprived of the support of his regiment all Henry could rely on for money was his wife. She took in laundry, one of the lowest paid domestic trades, and in the summer of 1858 even that work was scarce.

Faced with grinding poverty Henry donned his uniform (which he’d kept in pristine condition) and went out on to the streets to beg. He did quite well by comparison to the usual run of vagrants that infested the capital. According to an officer of the Mendicity Society (which campaigned against begging and brought private prosecutions against  those that practised it) ‘in a short time he got as much as half-a-crown in coppers’.

The officer had him arrested and brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth Police court where the magistrate asked the former artilleryman to explain himself. Henry told him of his service and his discharge, of his family’s troubles and his reasons for begging but instead of sympathy or charity he received only the scorn of the man on the bench.

Mr Norton told him that if he was unable to support himself through work then he should go to the workhouse to be relieved. On discovering that Arlett was born in the City and had no settlement elsewhere he instructed him to return there with his wife; in effect washing Lambeth’s hands of any responsibility for his care.

You must be a mean-spirited person to disgrace the uniform of the finest corps in her Majesty’s service by begging in it’, he told him. ‘I shall give you a light sentence of seven days and on the termination of your imprisonment you must go to your parish, and if you are caught begging again your punishment will be much more severe’.

Arlett was unfazed by the magistrate’s condemnation of him:

This uniform suit is mine, and while there is a single shred of it together I shall not cease to beg’,

he declared before he was led away.

Just over 100,000 British and Imperial troops went to the Crimea. Of these 2,755 were killed in action and a further 1,847 died of their wounds. A staggering 17,580 died of disease. Henry Arlett was one of 18,280 British troops wounded in the conflict. In total then, of the 107,865 on the British strength 22,182 didn’t come home (around 22%) and another 18% were directly wounded in some way. That means that 40% of those sent to fight the Russians were casualties in some way or another.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 10, 1858]