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]

The painted lady and a ‘most impudent fellow’.

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Miss Elizabeth Cox was disturbed by sounds outside her front door in late August 1831. She opened the door which was next to Mr Ryder’s Yard, Queen Street on Cheapside and was confronted by a young man dressed as a painter and decorator.

Miss Cox looked him up and down and said (rather unnecessarily) ‘You are painting my door’. The painter agreed and added that he would happily paint her as well if she wanted him to. ‘Ay, do’, she supposedly replied.

Incredibly the painter did just that. He dipped his brush into his pot and painted her face.

Was that enough Madame, he asked, or did she want more?

‘Go on, sir’ the lady told him.

So he did, applying paint to her bonnet and dress and, when he’d finished, demanded 3payment for the ‘work’ he’d completed!

But Miss Cox refused to pay and said she’d take him before the aldermen magistrates at the Guildhall instead. In response the man told her to do her worst, and he’d paint them as well.

The next day he was up before Sir Claudius Hunter at the Guildhall Police court and Miss Cox appeared (holding her bonnet and dress, both of which were covered in paint, as evidence). Naturally, she had washed the paint from her face.

The defendant gave his name as John George Barrett Gill (a ‘high-sounding name’ as the reporter remarked) and came across as an ‘extraordinary’ individual. He brazened out the encounter with the bench, seemingly unaware that he’d acted badly in any way whatsoever.

‘You are a very impudent fellow’, Sir Claudius told him, ‘and I’ll paint you in another way before I have done with you’.

The court now heard from several people that knew of Gill and doubted his sanity. One testified that just the other evening he’d invited a fellow workman to supper but that when he’d arrived he’d discovered the table and chairs, set for a meal, but outside the opposite house in the street!

Clearly Gill was eccentric but was he properly ‘mad’? Sir Claudius decided to bail him on the charge of damage (or possibly assault) but insisted that the surgeon at Wood Street compter (a small City gaol) examine him for signs of mental illness.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 20, 1831]

Echoes of Saddleworth as arsonists set Wimbledon Common on fire

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At the beginning of the week the Fire Serve in Greater Manchester declared that they had finally put out the fires that have devastated Saddleworth Moor in the past few weeks. Although they warned that the continuing hot weather might precipitate further outbreaks of fire, the situation is now under control.

The exact cause of the fire hasn’t yet been confirmed but there were sightings of men or youths on the 24 June apparently deliberately setting fires. Of course it goes without saying that anyone who starts a fire that might endanger people, homes, wildlife and the environment is either completely devoid of morals or intelligence, or is in need of psychiatric support.  It remains to be seen whether any prosecutions will follow.

Sadly arson is not that uncommon an offence, nor is there anything particularly new in what those people did in the north west of England. In July 1881 four men were charged at Wandsworth Police court in South London with ‘wifully setting fires’ on Wimbledon Common.

Now, readers of a certain age may associate Wimbledon Common with much more positive examples of outdoor activity but it is fair to say that Frederick Deverell (a porter), William Grain (a lighterman), William Booth (a plumber) and Alfred Byrant (a painter) were no Wombles. SHOWBIZ Wombles 1

Deverall and Grain were seen lighting matches and throwing them into the furze on Sunday evening (the 17 July, 1881), while Booth and Bryant were sighted doing exactly the same on the Monday. The common had been set on fire several times that month and so the offenders could expect to be dealt with severely if they were caught.

All of the parties denied any deliberate wrongdoing, claiming it was an accident. Mr Shiel, the presiding magistrate, didn’t believe them however and fined Booth and Bryant £5 each, with a month in prison if they were unable to pay the fines. He clearly deemed that Deverall and Grain’s crimes were the greater however, as he indicted them to stand trial in front of a jury where they might be given a longer custodial sentence if convicted.

The pair were lucky. They were tried at the Old Bailey on 2 August and acquitted. Both were young, just 17, and the situation on the common was confused with lots of visitors and some people camping out in the summer holidays.

Nevertheless there does seem to have been sufficient witness testimony from the police (who were there in plain clothes) and the head keeper of the common to have convicted them so perhaps the fact that they received good character references saved them from a lengthy spell in gaol. I hope those responsible for setting the fires on Saddleworth Moor are not afforded such generosity if they ever come before a jury.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, July 20, 1881]

Officer down! Two policemen are stabbed with a sword stick by a crazed revolutionary

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Giuseppe Mazzini

A crowd had gathered outside 7 Hardington Place, Portman Market in Marylebone. It was about 10.30 at night and a man was at a first floor window in a highly agitated state. He was hurling ‘bricks and missiles in all directions’ and several policemen were soon on the scene.

Two officers, PC Robert Dobell (237D) and PC Thomas Tice (40D) entered the building and rushed upstairs accompanied by some others, possibly from the ‘mob’ outside. The door to room in which the man had been seen was locked so they put their shoulders to it, and broke it down.

At this the man came charging towards them brandishing a walking cane which he thrust at them. PC Dobell cried ‘I am stabbed’ and then fell in front of his colleague. PC Tice was also wounded but in the chaos and with his adrenaline pumping he didn’t realise this at first.

The policemen shouted for help and the man was soon overpowered. The weapon, a sword stick, was picked up from the floor where the attacker had dropped it. PC Dobell was taken to hospital and the prisoner to the station. When he removed his uniform top coat PC Tice discovered his injury, a stab wound to the ‘fleshy part of my right arm, between the elbow and the shoulder’.

The following morning PC Tice was in court at Marylebone to give his evidence in front of Mr Long, the sitting magistrate. He showed the court his bloody coat and testified that PC Dobell was still gravely ill, and not yet out of danger.

Their attacker was also in court and gave his name as John Phillips, occupation – painter. He’d been brought to court in a cab, handcuffed with two other officers guarding him. He was clearly a dangerous man.

Not only was he dangerous it was also evident that he was suffering from a mental illness or, as the court reporter described him, demonstrating ‘unsoundness in his intellect’. He raved in court, shouting out:

‘Kossuth, Mazzini, let me have justice. It was not a Roman dagger or a poisoned dagger, and I stand upon the liberties of my country. Had Prince Albert have been there at the time his blood would have flowed, and so would yours (alluding to the magistrate), had you been there’.

Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian revolutionary who briefly ruled his nation in the tumultuous period of 1848-9, he was widely revered amongst British radicals and so may have been an inspiration for Phillips. Similarly Giuseppe Mazzini was a well known Italian political activist who was driving force in Italian Unification.

Philips was eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey but his ‘madness’ was deemed too great and the jury found him unfit to plead. He was therefore found not guilty by dint of being non compos mentis. I believe that PC Doble survived the attack but he was lucky if he did, because the stab wound was very close to his heart. Philips, one imagines, was confined to an asylum.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 14, 1853]