Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Ballerina, Her Mother And The Genteel Art of Forgery.

* This story is perhaps my most obscure yet. But the idea of  a genteel daughter of the Anglo-Irish peerage pulling off one of the most brazen art-frauds of the early 20th century appeals to me. Also, the fact that her daughter was the great, ferocious Doyenne of modern English ballet - Dame Ninette De Valois also adds a bit of colour. I really think Ealing Studios, or perhaps P.G. Woodehouse could have had a lot of fun with this one .........

* The gentlemen of Sotheby's Auction House on New Bond Street in London were in something of a pickle.

They had been consigned one of the greatest collections of antique Irish and British glass ever put together, the famous Harding Collection, for sale in their venerable auction rooms.

Ninette - 1925
But the collection of 17th and 18th century glass, previously estimated to be worth in the region of £16,000 (just over £1m in today's money) had failed to generate any excitement amongst the buyers. In fact, the Harding Collection was under something of a cloud. There had been whispers in the showrooms on New Bond street, dark mutterings about pedigree and provenance. Some had even gone so far as to utter the one word that could send a shiver of fear through the genteel staff of the world's greatest auction house, a business which had traded on its impeccable reputation since 1744.

That one word? "Fake!"

There was a huge sum of money on the line. The reputation of the great auction house, the ridicule facing a gullible, sadly departed philanthropist and millionaire. There was also the scandal that could wreck the career of the greatest ballerina and choreographer of the age, the fierce Irish dancer who had starred under Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes, worked with WB Yeats at the Abbey in Dublin and charmed the British Royals.

Dame Ninette de Valois was about to create one of the great dance dynasties, the company that would become The Royal Ballet. But in the early 1930s, one lady could still wreck all of that.

And that lady was her mother.

Elizabeth (Lilith) Graydon-Stannus, born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy at a country house in Lacken, Co Wicklow in 1876 was an artist, entrepreneur and star of the British Art-Deco movement. She had become an expert in highly-collectible antique Irish glassware, established her own glass-works in amongst the post-war bohemians of Battersea in London and watched her daughter Ninette become one of the most celebrated prima-ballerinas and choreographers in the world. Ninette had changed her name from Edris Stannus to the more French sounding Ninette de Valois when she made her professional debut in London in 1911. Aged 13.

Ninette Aged 16 - Already a Seasoned Pro

 Ninette was a child prodigy. But also fiercely determined. She went from child dancer to prima-ballerina to Godmother of British dance through the 20th century. The Irish woman made a star of Fonteyn and sensationally brought Nureyev to London.

Her mother Lilith was, if one contemporary is to be believed; ""The greatest villain in the manipulation of the history of Irish Glass"

Ms Graydon-Stannus might have begged to differ.

To her mind, she was not copying or faking rare and highly valuable antique glass - heaven forfend! She was merely "creating" and "improving".

Or as she once declared herself; "My endeavour is to create. Not to copy!"

And if the buyer, usually very rich but perhaps not expert collectors, were under the impression that they were actually paying for the real thing, well, these things happen, darling!

What Elizabeth Stannus did - as far as we can tell - was mix straight up forgery with very clever and sophisticated "reproduction" and "improving".

In some cases, she would take genuine old Irish glass pieces - decanters, goblets, etc - and "improve" them by getting her highly skilled workmen to do additional engraving and cutting, turning a commonplace, boring piece of glass worth £10 into a rare jewel worth £100.

Or, she would find old moulds, the ones used to produce the original pieces, and use them to churn out scores of new-old copies.

Elizabeth even went so far as to melt down old Irish glass to use its unique look and qualities to create highly convincing "reproductions" (even if that particular word was nowhere to be seen on the label).

It was clever, sophisticated and totally against the rules of the antiques business. It was fraud.

The real kicker is that Graydon-Stannus was something of a great artist herself - her highly colourful, beautifully designed Art-Deco pieces were very popular in their day and are hugely desirable to collectors today (look for the Gray-Stan mark in your local junk-shop).

She could produce modern classics - but she also had the skills and the, er, nerve to copy, fake and fool. And in her marvellously genteel way, charming the American visitors to London, hob-knobbing with the artistic elite of 1920s London, she set out to rake in the cash.

There has also been speculation that Lilith didn't stop at forging Irish antiques - she may have also tried her hand at famous contemporary names such as Lalique.

Strangely, it was the lady herself who gave the game away. In a speech to the Royal Society of Arts in 1926, she vehemently rejected growing claims that she was faking. But admitted that she owned old Irish moulds and had been working on reproducing the look and design of Old Irish Glass.

Lilith had literally written the book on Old Irish Glass - her handbook of that title had been considered at the time to be the bible on the subject, but today, the copy in the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford has a sticker on the front that says; "Use With Caution! Contains Many Factual Errors!"

The errors contained inside are mostly images and drawings of old Irish glass pieces, that had either been hacked-about or "created" by the lady herself.

Her reputation went into sharp decline. But it was too late for well-heeled buyers like Walter Harding, who visited her shop in Battersea in the 1920s and bought up almost her entire stock of "Old" Irish pieces.

When Harding - a millionaire philanthropist from Liverpool - died in the mid-1930s, his collection came up for sale in Sotheby's in London. Expected to fetch at least what he had paid for it, £16,000 (or almost £1m in today's money) - it sold for just £900 (£57k). Word about Elizabeth and her creative ways had obviously got around.

It should have been a huge scandal, perhaps resulting in legal action. Curiously, it was not. Some have speculated that her daughter Ninette - using her connections at the very top of British society - had the affair hushed up. There were rumours of some of the more irate customers being paid off, of favours being called in and mother being quietly packed off down the country.

The affair quickly died down. Sotheby's went on making money, Ninette went on building her Ballet empire and Lilith? Well, she is accused of many things, including creating such a mess of the history of Antique Irish Glass that many of her fakes may still be doing the rounds as the real thing.

But where's the harm? After all, new, old, fake or "improved", aren't they all simply lovely things?

Now, would you be interested in a lovely Jacobean wine goblet, at all? Fresh in from a gorgeous old Irish house..... so perfect! It looks as if it could have been made yesterday, darling!

**HEY! THANKS FOR READING!******* And by the way, if anybody is interesting in paying me to make a doc/write further about this, I will work for food. Also, antique glassware.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Easter 1916 - The Gorgeous Wrecks & The Cricket Bat That Died For Ireland.

* This is a piece I wrote for the Irish Independent newspaper - a personal take on the events of 1916 - the Easter Rising or Rebellion that hit loyal, peaceful Dublin like a thunderclap on a sunny Easter Weekend. I learnt about it in school - at the hands (and sometimes fists) of the Christian Brothers. But in recent years, I have tried to approach the events from a different angle.......

Captain Jack White - Free Lovin' Irish Revolutionary 

 * The Christian Brothers who taught me about Irish history presented Easter, 1916 as a heroic epic, the founding myth of our Republic.

They were muscular men, a generation or so on from the Rising, the War of Independence and our brutal Civil War, the latter being a subject that was still too raw to even mention in the classrooms of Cork in the 1980s.

They revered Pádraig Pearse, a teacher and strict disciplinarian after their own hearts, and believed in his doctrine of blood sacrifice, linking it to the men of 1798 and even further back to our original muscular Christian, brave, martyred Brian Boru.

Brian Boru - the High King of Ireland and scourge of the Vikings! - was presented in the same way we learnt about the early Christian martyrs, the Roman Legionnaires put to death for refusing to chuck their fellow Christians to the lions. 

In many ways, in their admiration for Pearse and mania for discipline, they were the paramilitary wing of the Catholic Church.

To my young, over-active imagination, Pearse was a cross between the hot-tempered Brother who tried to “bate” Irish into us and John Wayne at the Alamo, running his young volunteers through the tuiseal ginideach even as he fired his rifle from the burning wreck of the GPO.

In our homes, Michael Collins was revered, his portrait hanging alongside a picture of John F Kennedy and the Pope, Cork’s own Blessed Holy Trinity. DeValera was mentioned only in dark whispers, a bogey-man.

The events of 1916 didn’t seem real to us, even though they happened when our grandfathers were alive. And there was no connection made to the Troubles, to the nightly news reports about the Hunger Strikers, names such as Bobby Sands, heard as we sat around the table for our tea.

It is only in recent years, having gone back and looked at the events of 1916 for myself, that I have been able to find a way into the Easter Rising via some of the small, forgotten stories behind the Great Myth.

As a history nut, and having written a book about long forgotten Irish men who did everything from run the French slave trade to invading Imperial China, I see the small stories of individual men and women as a valuable way to approach Great Events from a different angle.

And 1916 has a wealth of small stories which can give us a sense of what it must have been like to live through those times, the sudden chaos, the trauma and the conflicting emotions and loyalties.

(The video below is only six minutes long and sets the scene well.)

One episode, a tragic side-show to the doomed struggle on O’Connell Street, gives us a striking picture of the confusion and tragedy of Dublin, Easter 1916.

It is the story of The Gorgeous Wrecks, how, on Easter Monday, April 24, a small party of volunteers occupying Clanwilliam House by Mount Street Bridge fired on a detachment of Home Defence Force volunteers.

The Home Defence men were a sort of Dad’s Army, mostly elderly Dubliners, loyalists, veterans of the British army and colonial wars. They wore armbands with the inscription “Georgious Rex” (King George) and their creaky, grey-haired ranks were known affectionately to Dubliners as “The Gorgeous Wrecks”.

The Wrecks had been out on an Easter Monday parade in full uniform and just stumbled into the volunteer strong-point. The 17 volunteers in Clanwilliam house opened fire, killing four of the Wrecks and wounding others before they realised, to what some later said was their horror, that these were not British Army regulars, but the Dad’s Army that Dubliners were accustomed to seeing parading on high-days and holidays. The jolly old Gorgeous Wrecks.

We could hardly find a better snapshot of a peaceful, loyal city of the Empire suddenly overwhelmed by sudden, shocking violence and confusion.

I am also drawn to the story of The Cricket Bat That Died For Ireland.

The Bullet Still In the Cricket Bat That Died For Ireland

This bat – now in the National History Museum – was in the shop window of Elvery's Sports in Sackville Street when it stopped a bullet from a British gun (the spent bullet still lodged in the bat is a .303). To me, this strange, very Anglo-Irish memento vividly represents the destruction and chaos of the Rising.

Contemporary accounts tell of street urchins looting bats, balls, lacrosse sticks and polo mallets from Elvery's and parading them like trophies around the edges of the fighting. One of the many surreal sights of a battle being fought in the heart of a busy, mercantile city.

Recently, I also came across the story of Captain Jack White, the son of an Ulster-born British Field Marshall and a decorated hero of the British Army himself.

Jack followed a strange path from Winchester Public School and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, fighting in the Boer War and then throwing in his commission to embrace radical socialism, free-love and the cause of Ireland.

It was White who brought his military experience to organising The Citizen’s Army. 

He did not fight in 1916 but when he heard his great friend James Connolly would be shot, he tried to organise the Miners of South Wales to come out on strike to put pressure on the British Government to commute the sentence.

White, who later went on to fight for the Republicans in Spain, battled sectarianism at home and tried to organise a socialist party in Ulster, was (in his own words) a miss-fit, one of the many men and women who saw the ideals of Connolly and brotherhood turn to dust in the years after 1916.

In the stories of Jack White, The Gorgeous Wrecks and the Elvery’s Cricket Bat, we can see past the epic myth, the cold revisionism and the strange, current need to treat 
Easter 1916 as some sort of profound, teachable lesson for modern Ireland.

Thanks to the internet and the great efforts of historians (academic and amateur) to put a wealth of history online, we can all now go back and look at the events of 1916, and look at the people and smaller events that never made the history books or the heroic myth.

These are the stories that I would tell about The Rising.

*** You can read more about the cricket bat Here - an excellent blog about its history and significance.