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How the Islamic world influenced Western art: British Museum

At university, I loved medieval art and architecture, but it was 100% Christian in patronage and in iconography. There had to be more! It wasn't until my first trips to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey that I discovered (and collected) Islamic, Jewish and other Oriental art forms. Even better, my sons married women whose parents came from Damascus and Alexandria.

The British Museum’s special exhibition is called In­­s­pired by the East: how the Islamic World Influenced Western Art. Until the end Jan 2020, it is examining how West­ern visual arts have been inspired by the Islamic world for centuries. Known as Or­ientalism, this rep­res­entation of the East in Western art oft­en blurred the line between fantasy and reality. In paint­ing, decorative arts, interior design and arch­it­ecture, the works depicted or referred to subjects and styles from the Orient.

The Orientalist art movement peaked in the C19th and was best known for its production of impressive oil paintings and works on paper. But this movement had started back in the C15th and continued to be referenced in art. It influenced the production of a wide range of works of art inc­lud­ing ceramics, metalwork and photography, and extended more widely to include theatre, architecture and music.

Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s influential text “Orientalism” brought critical attention to the subject in 1978, questioning the ways in which the West saw and misrep­resented the East in culture. In it he criticised the over-romanticised and inaccurate views the West presented of the Orient, particularly through literature. He defined the Orient as being the place of Europe’s greatest, richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilisations and lang­uages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. This exhibition, however, focuses only on the art movement of Orientalism.

The Dice Players. oil, 1859, 
Painted by the Czech artist Rudolf Weisse
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

Stanislaus von Chlebowski,
a Polish painter with Russian and Turkish connections.
At Prayer in Hagia Sophia, 1879

Engage with such critiques by recognising misrepres­entations ... while identifying a long, rich his­t­ory of influence and exchange in both directions. Indeed from c1500, as Europeans became both increasingly curious and aggressive in their dealings with outsiders, there was a sust­ained awareness of the empires of the Middle East. These Eastern neighbours were the Safavid Empire (1501–1722), cent­red around modern Iran, and the Ottoman Empire (c1300–1924), which comp­ris­ed modern-day Turkey, most of SE Europe and the Arabic-speaking lands. Likewise, European traders and dipl­om­ats were considered an "exotic other" by people in the Middle East. At a time when relations between Europe and the Middle East were more evenly balanced than in later periods, this was a period marked by exchange and fluidity.

This can be seen in the imitation of certain styles in Iznik plates from the C17th, a centre for high-quality pottery prod­uction for centuries. The distinctive floral designs were also popular on tiles that decorated the inside of buildings during the Ottoman period (14th–C20th) eg see tiles made by English designer William De Morgan in the C19th. He was influenced by Middle Eastern ceramics and designs, creating floral motifs that appeared in fashionable ceramics, stained glass and furnishings. 

Enamelled glass mosque lamp,
inspired by late medieval Mamluk originals
Made in France in 1877 by French glass master Brocard
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Alhambra vase, Spain late 1800s.
Glazed ceramic with lustre decoration
British Museum/Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Bottle in the Persian late Safavid style, glazed and lustre-painted ceramic,
Made in France, late 1800s.

As Europeans increasingly looked out to the Americas, Af­rica and Asia from the 1500s, they developed new ways of id­entifying and disseminating information about the people they met. Costume books became a popular way of classifying diff­er­ent groups according to their dress, from sultans and mystics to dancers. But these portrayals were often based on stereotypes that only helped perpetuate the mistakes in Europe. 

The best-known artistic output of the Orientalist art movement was a huge body of paintings by Western artists. Many of the artists travelled to the places they depicted: Const­ant­inople aka Istanbul, Jerusalem, Cairo or Marrakesh. Others trav­elled no further than Paris or Vienna, but used a mixture of photo­s and imagin­at­ion for inspiration. Recurring im­ag­es incl­uded everything from images of daily life to imagined scenes of the har­em. Int­er­est in Orientalism developed toget­h­er with European col­onial interests in the Middle East, which gave soldiers, trad­ers and artists ready access to the region. 

This exhibition reveals that Orientalism convered many typ­es of visual and decorative arts with origins in Europe, North America, Middle East and North Africa. These arts high­light the old tradition of influence and exchange between West and East, whether gained through diplomatic en­counters, spoils of war, or travel to the Holy Land and beyond.

Although Orientalism remains a highly charged and contested term, with Orientalist arts and crafts rapidly declining in popularity since the 1940s, its visual language remains a pot­ent resource for artists today.


Forced sterilisation in the USA, for the community's good!

The term eugenics originated with English scientist Francis Galton. In Hereditary Gen­ius (1869), Galton advocated a sel­ective breeding programme among humans, to ensure that upper class char­act­er­istics eg high intelligence, were passed down.

Galton’s theories significantly shaped American policies. His ideas inspired Charles Davenport, a prominent American biologist, to es­t­ablish the Eugenics Record Office/ERO NY in 1910. Davenport app­oint­ed eugenics resear­cher Harry Laughlin as the first director, and the two men then hired field workers to collect defect­ive fam­ily traits from the public eg poverty, intellectual disability and criminal behav­iour. ERO campaigned for stringent imm­ig­ration controls; the pre-WW1 law denied entry to anyone judged ‘mentally or physically def­ect­ive, if it may affect the ability to earn a living.’ The first sterilisation law, in Indiana, stopped some dis­ab­led people from having children. Then they help­ed to pass legisl­ation in 28 other U.S states, allowing sterilis­ation of the unfit.

Fitter families competition
Eugenics Buildings
Topeka Kansas 1925

The 1920s was the era when eugenic science was thrust into popular American culture; later The Great Depression years became the Am­er­ican era of maximum eugenic sterilisation.

But it wasn’t until Hitler read and admired the writings of Amer­ic­an Harry Laughlin that the 1935 Nuremberg racial hygiene laws cop­ied the American experience. The Nazi party encouraged scient­ists to implement a formal sterilisation prog­ramme; in this German society, national health could take precedence over individual health.

At first, leading U.S eugenicists were thrilled to see what the Nazis had accomplished using an American model. But the Americ­ans eventually real­ised that Hitler’s persecution of Germans and neigh­bours could seriously under­mine support for sterilisation back in the USA. While the full horror of Hit­ler’s plans had not yet been made known to the world, the dictator had already become un­popular among Americans. For the first time, U.S eugenicists retracted their racial integrity and race betterment language, needing to describe the noble work of their movement differently.

Eugenics in the Depression were driven by a philosophy of soc­ial engineering that had been warmly backed by Pres Woodrow Wilson, Supreme Court Just­ice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood founder.

Young women’s apparent capacity for mother­hood was the critical issue when it came to the right to ever have babies. The requirement to demonstrate a woman’s unfitness for motherhood was even lower than it had been when defective genes had been the focus. Prev­iously eugenicists had to produce evidence of degeneracy based on the family tree or on intelligence tests. Now they only needed to establish that a young woman’s own mother was negligent. It was a shift in emphasis from heredity to maternal care, separating the Americ­an programme from Germany’s horror. Yet Calif­ornia’s Hum­an Bet­ter­ment Foundation (1928-42) focused on minor­ities.

Physicians usually recorded the procedures as voluntary, that pat­ients were motivated by a sense of responsibility. They no longer saw parenthood as a individual’s right, but instead as a “res­pons­­ib­ility to be exercised by a certain few and avoided by oth­ers”. And the community agreed. A 1937 survey found that 66% of citizens favoured compulsory sterilisation; only 15% opposed the pract­ice. 

Better Babies Contest
Judged by doctors from the American Eugenics Society
State Fair in Washington DC, 1931

By 1936, eugenics science was uncertain - genetic resear­­ch­ers were realising that the inheritance of traits ext­ended well beyond one generation. Even if all of the feebleminded persons in the country were sterilised, it could take many generat­ions to decrease the proportion of those traits in the population. This was because nor­mal people could be carriers of the trait. And environment was ignored.

Of the many cases in the literature, here is one. When inventor and entrepren­eur Peter Cooper Hewitt, he left two-thirds of his estate to his young daughter Ann and one-third to his wife Maryon. But his will stated that Ann’s share would revert­ back to her mother if Ann died child­less. Knowing this, and fearing that her daughter was im­bec­il­ic, moth­er paid two doctors $9,000 each to remove the teen’s fallopian tubes, without Ann’s knowledge. Shortly after Ann filed her civil suit in 1936, the San Franc­isco prosecutor charged Maryon Cooper Hewitt and the two doct­ors respon­sible for Ann’s sterilisation with a felony. The phys­icians were arrested and released on bail.

In the San Francisco court, Ann claimed her mother paid doctors to sterilise her during an app­end­ectomy, to depr­ive her of her rich father’s estate. Mary­on claimed that her daughter was act­ually morally degener­ate, addict­ed to sex; that she was mere­ly pro­tecting her feeble minded daughter, and society, from Ann’s pregnancies. But Ann wrote fluently in French and Italian. She had read books on Shakespeare, French history, Napoleon Bonap­arte and Marie Antoin­et­te. A nurse who cared for Ann post-operation exp­lain­ed that she’d been hired to look after a mental case but found a totally bright girl! Ann was just suffering from maternal abuse.

The doctors’ lawyer had negotiated with the Human Bet­ter­ment Foundation and the American Eugenics Society. Once he understood eug­enic arguments in favour of sterilisation, his exp­erts insisted that it didn’t matter whether Ann’s abnormalities were genetic; she WOULD make an unfit mother. They also discounted her nurse’s testimony as only physicians were qualified to detect feeble mindedness. The judge, convinced of Ann’s promiscuity and the wisdom of her doctors, dismissed the doct­ors’ charges.

Ann was being tried as Unqualified For Motherhood; she was ster­ilised because of environmental rather than genetic defects; she was the product of bad parenting, rather than bad genes. And the invol­un­tary procedure occurred in a private practice, not in an institutional setting. So she decided to settle the civil suit for $150,000 in an out-of-court settlement in June 1936.

Despite widespread coverage of the Cooper Hewitt case, there was no public uproar. The Great Depression had con­vinced Americans to cr­eate a citizenry with discipline and indus­t­ry, virtues to be cul­t­iv­ated in a good home. And the Cooper Hewitt trial set a legal pre­cedent that it was a woman’s moral responsib­ility to surr­ender her biol­ogical capacities for the public good.

The Eugenics Board of North Carol­ina operated from 1933-77 as an experiment in genetic engin­eer­ing; back then it was a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool. 31 other states had eugenics programmes, but no programme was more aggres­sive than North Car­olina who gave social workers the power to select the victims… via IQ tests!

The doctor signing this card guaranteed a perfect physical and mental balance, and strong eugenic love possibilities, in his patient.. but was the card serious?

By the time most of the programmes were closed down, 64,000+ people nationwide had been sterilised by state order. Even so, it took dec­ades before California (1979) and North Carolina (2003) formally repealed laws authorising sterilis­at­ion.


The real Peaky Blinders, Birmingham 1890

With fine camera work and classy performan­ces, the Peaky Blind­ers series on BBC2 attracted both viewers and critics from 2013 on. It told of the rise to power of Tommy Shelby and his fash­ionably dress­ed Birmingham criminal gang. But what proper historical information is available about Victorian Birm­ingham’s urban gangs of the late C19th?

The Rough Fleet Gang of Hanley, led by Mad Jack Wilson, was notor­ious decades earlier. Many members of the Rough Fleet Gang may even have been former soldiers, demobbed after the Napoleonic wars.

Next, consider Birmingham’s Park St Irish quarter that was largely demolished during the rabble-rouser Protestant William Murphy Riots in June 1867. The anti Irish-Catholic rioting may have pred­ict­ed the gangland feud­ing that was to fol­low. Yet concern at youth viol­ence in Birmingham’s indust­rial districts did NOT prompt Council action.

The lads did not belong to a single gang. In fact opposing gangs threatened each other on the city streets and in late-night confrontations outside music halls. Clashes between these rival youth gangs inten­sified in the early 1870s. Anti-Irish sentiment offered a target for the frustrations of inner city youths which became institutionalised in gang warfare.

The recession that followed the early 1870s boom threw thousands of unemployed and disenf­r­anchised lads onto the streets, particularly in 1873–74. How ironic, then, that police clamp­­downs on drunkenness and street gambling were resented in working-class districts. I can only shake my head at the indifference shown by the city authorit­ies to the welfare of a powerless section of the community.

Birmingham street gang, 1890s
Photo credit: StokeonTrentLive

So Birmingham’s sloggers became more territorial, sparking gang-conflict that attracted intense loyal­ties in adjacent dist­ricts. Most of the feuds reported in the press in the 1890s spread, ext­end­ing from the central slums to areas out­side the jurisdiction of the Birmingham police in 1890. Each gang jealously guarded its turf; the Peaky Blinders, for example, were embedded in areas like Small Heath and Bordesley.

By the 1890s, the gangs had adopted their distinctive unif­orm. It was a style shared by the sloggers’ counterparts in Manch­es­ter & Salford, and in London, but more fashion conscious. It was always a working-class pastime, ref­lect­ing the honour attached to displays of working-class toughness. Middle-class youths, with greater opp­or­t­unities and better prospects, had no incentive to risk injury and gaol.

Bell-bottomed trousers secured by a buckle belt, hob-nailed boots, brass-lined button jackets, gaudy scarfs, cravats and billycock-bowler hats with long elong­ated brims. The bowler-style hats, made of hard felt, had a rakish, curved rim. They shaped the hat brims into a point, worn on one side of the head and tilted over one eye. The hair was prison-cropped all over the head.

Peaky Blinders’ girls would be of a similarly distinctive style, with lavish pearl buttons, long fringes down to the eyes and gaudy-coloured silk handkerchiefs covering their throats. The elab­orate hats were large and decorated with feathers and poppies. The men wore these fancy fashions to pot­en­t­ially strike fear (?) when they roamed the streets. The women wore them in order to be noticed.

In the film, the gang was named after the weapon they were supposed to have used in fights: safety razors were sewn into the peaks of their flat caps! The razors were slashed across the oppon­ents’ foreheads, causing blood to pour into their eyes and to blind them. But blades were too expensive for gang-members. Most gang events record­ed by the police related instead to illegal betting, theft and Actual Bodily Harm, not razor slashing. Court reports back then called the gang foul mouthed young men who stalked streets in drunken groups, insulting and mugging passers-by. Very nasty and violent to be sure, but mostly not deadly.

Peaky Blinders arrested by Birmingham Police
Photo credit: Sparkhill’s West Midlands Police Museum

Why were so many young, working-class men drawn to the glam­our and the brutality of the Peaky Blinders. I could have understood pick­pocket­ing or robbery because of the potential gains. But I wouldn’t have underst­ood insulting elderly pedestrians in the street. So it seemed to be more a statement of how these lads would not accept City or Police auth­ority! The more the Birmingham press railed against the brutality and violence that confronted the city on a daily bas­is, the more the new working class gen­er­ation reached manhood without acknow­ledging any authority whatever. 

Manufacturer Arthur Matthison lived in Summer Lane in the early 1890s. Most Peakies belonged to a slogging gang, he said, as the product of poverty, squalour and slum environ­ment. With slums all around, it was clear to Matthison that youth violence grew out of harsh social and economic conditions, and unemployment.

Alternatively letters to Birmingham Weekly Post insisted that the Peaky Blind­er was just an ordinary working man. He could always be found at work during the day in some brass foundry at the lathe. His actions were mostly focused on rival gangs and the police, not on the general public.

By WW1, Birmingham’s Peaky Blinders faded from view. Philip Gooderson attributed the decline of slogging gangs and the concomitant disappearance of the Peakies to a number of fact­ors, ranging from the growth of football as an al­ternative source of excite­ment for working-class youths to a belat­ed clampdown by the police and courts. And in any case, by the time Birmingham’s ex-servicemen returned after 1918, the world had greatly changed. 

The Peaky Blinders were back­street criminals in Birmingham during the 1890s and turn of the C20th, known for two defining passions: natty streetwear and violence. The Peaky Gang was brought down before WW1 by a com­b­ination of strong policing, more severe sentencing and social changes. So the tv series was set in the wrong era and used the wrong weapons, but Birmingham citizens loved the film’s strong sense of place.

Perhaps read The Gangs of Birmingham: The True Story of the Peaky Blinders by Philip  Gooderson (Milo Books, 2010). Or visit West Midlands Police Museum in Steelhouse Lane Birmingham


Most beautiful bookshops in the world

Since reading literature on Kindle and buying books via the Net are easy, normal bookshops seem less frequent now. However book lovers argue that a tradit­ional temple of books has a special atmosphere that promotes discovery, entertainment and quiet. This post has found some great book­shops in 30 Most Beautiful Bookshops Around The World; they encourage readers to ignore technology and enjoy the pleasures of real books. Plus I have added a couple of my own favourite bookshops.

1. Polare, Maastricht, Holland This C13th Dominican church became an ornate, classy book­shop. Con­verted in 2006 by architects Merk X, Polare is a temple of books that raises reading to a religious exp­erience. The 3 storey bookshelf, with staircases, elevators and walkways, is massive.

2. First built as the Teatro Grand Splendid in 1919, then a cinema in 1929, Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires in Argentina appeals to the dramatic reader. With frescoed ceilings, ornate carvings and plush crimson stage curtains, it has its original glamour; customers can sit in the theatre boxes which operate as reading rooms.

Ateneo Grand Splendid,  Buenos Aires

 3. Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice’s location along the beautiful Italian canal means rubber boot-wearing work­ers have to move books from the floor to higher shelves during reg­ul­­ar flooding. In Nov 2013, people were wading along the streets under water and the buildings were boarded up. But it was still open for business.

4. China’s most beautiful bookshop, Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing was built inside a former government carpark. To find their way into the 4,000 sq m Wutishan Stadium’s under­ground space, visitors follow a yellow-striped road; inside, a replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker” decorates a cash-till made out of old books, and pillars with famous literary verses carved into them.

5. Libreria El Pendulo, Mexico City offers a cultivated way to avoid Mexico’s heat. Customers can scan shelves spanning two stor­eys. Besides browsing through the shelves, visitors can enjoy stand-up comedy or can listen to live music at the café-cum-bookshop.

6. Livraria Lello e Irmao, Porto, Portugal opened in the former Chard­ron Library in 1906. Its Art Nouveau space was dom­inated by a curving staircase with ornate wooden carvings, intric­ate wall panels and columns. Stained glass windows and a skylight, showing the monogram of the shop’s founder José Lello, add to the churchlike appearance. It featured several times in the Harry Potter series.

7. Bart’s bookstore, Ojai, California A great outdoor facility was set up in 1964 by Richard Bartinsdale who left street-side book cases to sell unwanted titles. Visitors left money in a tin. Now, the shop has a million books, many of which are still sold through an honour system, as well as a courtyard & apple trees for chess-players.

Livraria Lello e Irmao, Porto

8. Book Now, Bendigo, Australia Old books are packed tightly onto shelves, laid on tables and cat­eg­orised into little alcoves; timber floorboards and stairs lead up to a book-filled mezzanine. The 60,000 pre-loved books, special­is­ing in Australian literature and history, are housed in a rural Victorian building.

9. Honesty Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye, Wales is a centre for bibliophiles. 30+ bookshops line the narrow streets, the most striking being a set of shelves around the town’s Norman castle. Cust­omers admire crumbling Medieval architecture while perusing second-hand titles; all proceeds go to the castle restoration.

10. Built in the early C17th, the Paris building was originally a French mon­astery, La Maison du Mustier. Sylvia Beach was an American book­seller who moved to Paris and founded the original Shakespeare & Company Paris in 1919. Her bookshop was frequented by Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce in the 1920s. And it was where Beach published James Joyce's cont­roversial book, Ulysses (1922).

American George Whitman opened his new Le Mistral bookshop in 1951 at a differ­ent part of Paris, renamed Shake­s­peare and Company in 1964 in honour of the late Sylvia Beach. It was a gathering place for expat and Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and James Baldwin. Whitman even allowed impoverished art­ists and writers to sleep on small beds that doubled as benches in the day, and to borrow his English language literature books. A sense of community was very imp­ortant; he referred to his shop as a socialist utopia masqu­erading as a bookshop.

In 2002 George’s daughter Sylvia Whitman returned to Paris to spend time with her elderly father in his book-kingdom; she int­ro­d­uced the first lit­erary festival in June 2003.

Polare, Maastricht

11. Munro’s Books, Victoria, Canada. In 1963, Jim and Alice Munro set up shop in a long, narrow space on Yates Street, near Victor­ia's cinemas. Proper book shops were rare then, but the location was convenient for younger cin­ema goers, and the staff's interest in new writing trends built a loyal clientele. The shop relocated to larger premises on Fort Street in 1979 and then located in the centre of Victoria’s Old Town location since 1984.

The fine neo-classical Old Town building was first designed for the Royal Bank of Canada in 1909 by Thomas Hooper, architect of many provincial comm­ercial & public buildings. The beaut­iful coffered high ceiling resembled the porch ceiling of the great C2nd library of Ephesus. Jim Munro restored the building to its former glory, with its heritage architecture and striking artwork.

12. The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland is the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland, with 2 ks of shelving supporting 100,000 books. In 1998 Wigtown was designated Scotland's Nat­ional Book Town and this has led to a general revival in town, with many buildings refurbished and new businesses opening. The former Customs House and Bank is now home to another of Wigtown's book shops, The Old Bank Bookshop, has five large rooms to browse through.

Munro's Books, Victoria, British Columbia

Book Now bookshop, Bendigo 
in C19th wine and spirit mer­chants' premises


The best state premier ever: Don Dunstan (Sth Australia)

Fiji born Don Dunstan (1926-1999) did Law-Arts at Adel­aide Univer­s­ity, joined the Socialist Club and became deeply comm­it­ted to soc­ial justice, cultural div­ersity, democracy, human rights and resp­ect for Indigenous people. If I’d been old enough by 1950 to app­reciate Dunstan’s commitments, he would have been my absolute hero.

Dunstan was nominated as the Labour candidate for Norwood at the 1953 election, seeking the support in particular of the large It­al­ian migrant population who’d previously been op­pressed. Dunstan won and was duly elected to the State House of Assembly.

As the State Premier of South Australia from 1967-68 and from 1970 -79, his reforming influence reached far beyond his home state. He was seen as the architect of a new kind of Australian soc­­iety, and was one of the few state premiers make a lasting mark on Australian life, the man who might have one day led Australia as prime minister.

In Don Dunstan: The Visionary Politician who Changed Australia 2019, author Angela Woollacott noted that the new Premier was re­sp­onsible for the state being the first in Aust­ralia to decrimin­al­ise homo­sex­ual­ity, making him a hero in Adel­aide's gay com­munity and in much of the straight world as well. He reformed Abor­iginal land rights, abolished capital punishment, introduced con­sumer prot­ect­ion laws, supported women's rights, relaxed censorship and drink­ing laws, promoted environmental protection and child protection reforms, and was an ardent supporter of the arts.
Angela Woollacott's biography
Photo credit: Amazon

He was rec­ognised for his role in reviving the social, art­ist­ic and cultural life of South Australia during his 10 years in office, remembered as the Dunstan Decade. He was a friend of Australia’s brilliant prime minister Gough Whit­lam, participated in national ALP social polic­ies of the Whitlam era, and worked against the obnoxious White Aus­tralia Policy. The Dunstan Decade meant South Australia saw the greatest slab of sig­nificant reforms under one premier, defining Dunstan as one of the most pro­gressive politicians Australia has ever seen. As premier, Dunstan overhauled the drinking laws that closed pubs at 6pm, and because of his love of food and wine, he later opened his own re­staurant, Don’s Table. Woollacott said Dunstan singlehandedly encouraged the emergence of a new rest­aurant cul­t­ure that made Adelaide a foodies’ delight. 

Dunstan was also a passionate patron of the arts and was respons­ib­le for cultivating a thriving live theatre scene. The Dunstan Play­house is one of Adelaide’s largest theatre venues and was named to honour his contribution to the performing arts.  In many ways the battle lines of the modern culture wars were drawn by Dunstan.

Alth­ough much loved by the public, Dunstan's career was marked by scandal about his own sex life. Journ­al­ists and photographers saw the meaning of the premier’s wearing of the pink shorts in public, as a clear act in defiance of sexual conservatism. The shorts fixed their place as the symbol of the premier’s integral role in South Australia’s democratic history, and continued with Australia’s civil rights debate about marr­iage equality. During his tenure, Dunstan’s sexuality was rumoured to be ambiguous, although he was married with children of his own. Out of office, Dunstan spent the last decade of his life in a gay relationship with Stephen Cheng. They are an important part of the history of South Australia, where people were allowed to have more freedom. His relation­ship withCheng, which began in 1988, gave personal context to his much earl­ier act of legalising homosexuality. 

Dunstan's life story helps us to appreciate just what a watershed era the 1960s and 1970s were in Australia, and to see how one small state could, for a time, lead a nation. Dunstan fought for decades against the entrenched gerrymander, ending conservative rule and introducing his vision of social democracy in one state. Dunstan captured the mood for reform, and led the way politically.

Dunstan was, and remains, remembered for his humane act for margin­alised groups. He remained a South Australian cultural icon because after a career of fighting for others that ended suddenly in 1979, he remained an outspoken campaigner for progressive social policy. He lived for 20 more years, dying in 1999.

Woollacott sugg­ested how much a biography has to offer, such as showing how growing up in racially-stratified colonial Fiji shaped his strong sense of racial justice, and his drive for policy and legislative re­f­orm, including prohibiting racial discrimination, and pioneer­ing Aboriginal land rights. I am not surprised that Bob Hawke (Aus­t­ralian great prime minister 1983–91) later said that Don Dunstan was Australia's most influen­tial Austral­ian politician in the C20th. For those of us born when our fathers returned from WW2, Hawke was definitely correct; I wept when Dunstan died.

This year David Penberthy reviewed the Woolacott biography. He asked how did such a staid state as South Australia, with its roots in Methodism and Luther­an­ism, and ruled for decades by a gerrymandering rural squattocracy, sign up with such enthusiasm for the Dunstan Decade? Dunstan did so because he stuck to his principles and brought the public along with him. It was a combin­ation of his strong convictions and a very clear agenda, and the fact that he was so good at enacting that agenda, that won. Today so many people express jaundice with the political system because politicians often seem to be driven by rivalries or by self-interest.

Thank you Angela Woollacott. 


Have a reflective Remembrance Day. Remember WWI's young teens

When the book Russian ANZACs came out in 2005, I was sitting in an outdoor coffeeshop, discussing the subject with my neighbour-cousin. I knew our two grandfather had sailed together to Australia in Jan 1914, but I had no idea that the two teens had later run away to enlist in the army together. They had no car, no parents to sign consent, no savings and little English. So they hitch-hiked interstate where they were not known, and forged each other’s parental signature.

Today, Remembrance Day 2019, a new book was launched that suggested our two grandfathers were far from the only under-age boys who en­list­ed. In The Lost Boys: The Untold Stories of the Under-age Sold­iers who Fought in the First World War,  the author Paul Byrnes told their stories. I haven’t seen the book yet, so I have relied on The Sydney Morning Her­ald review.

In the 1914–18 Great War, the Australian Army's enlistment age was 21 years, or 18 years if there was parental consent. Boys under 18 could only enlist as buglers. In New Zealand, the govern­ment’s National Regis­tration Scheme required men aged 17-60 to reg­is­ter with the govern­ment.

The book captured the incredible and previously un­told stories of 40 boys and one girl from Australia and New Zealand who fought in the Great War, from Gallipoli (1915) to the Arm­is­tice (11th Nov 1918). Gallip­oli was the most horrific war site, since 8700 Australians and 2700 New Zealanders died on that rocky beach.

A unique perspective on WW1, The Lost Boys was military history made deeply personal, a homage to youthful bravery and a poignant reminder of the horror of war. The Lost Boys was fully illustrated throughout featuring stunning portraits from the Aus­tralian National War Memorial archives, photo­graphy, exquisite writing and very moving stories.

In The Lost Boys: The Untold Stories of the Under-age Sold­iers who Fought in the First World War, by Paul Byrnes, 2019 

In WW1 of 1914–1918, thousands of boys across Australia and New Zealand lied about their age, forged a parent’s signature and left to fight on the other side of the world. The book featured haunting images of the boys taken at train­ing camps and behind the lines, telling tales that were both heart breaking and rousing, full of daring, ingenuity, recklessness, random horror and capricious luck. With this unique perspective on WW1, The Lost Boys made military history that was a deeply pers­on­al,  a powerful homage to young brav­ery and to the sacrifice of war.

Les Shaw was the youngest known Anzac enlisted to go to Gallipoli, at 13.5! The former Kings School Parramatta student lied about his age and signed up when he was only 165 centimetres tall and weighed only 53.5 kilograms, to fight against the Germans. What was the Australian Army thinking?? Thankfully Shaw was discharged at 17 when it was discovered how young he had been. But after a few post-war exploits in Sydney, some prison stays and two childless marriages, he died a drunk in 1947 at 46.

William Jackson, a farm boy from the NSW plains near Hay, had never seen a train until he went to Sydney aged 16 to sign up in the Army. Jackson, who lost a hand in June 1916, still went back out into No Man’s Land to rescue mates with the severed hand tied up with string. Jackson was the young­est of the 100 Australians to be aw­arded a Victoria Cross for brav­ery. But he too had a horrible post-war life of drunkenness and police records, dying in 1959 at 61.

Now I want to know what the motive was, urging adolescents to leave home and join the army:
To serve their country in war-torn Europe?
To leave their rural home for the first time in their lives?
To earn a regular living, albeit a skimpy one?
To get away from a brutal father or an alcoholic mother?
To test their manhood?
To learn some employable skills?
Something else or some mixture of motives?

Author Paul Byrnes felt moved to write the book when he learnt some of the untold stories of the many young lads who left for battles abroad. The idea came to him while he was on a battlefield tour in Belgium and dis­cov­ered 150 graves of under-age soldiers. So he began a two-year quest which took him through Belgium, France, Sydney's State Lib­rary and Canberra's War Memorial, RSL archives and, tracking families of under-age WW1 soldiers. Many had tragic stories. Even of those who did arrive home alive, many suffered shell shock, all forms of addictions, broken marriages, shattered family relationships and early deaths.

Let me repeat, what was the Australian Army thinking? What a waste of young lads' lives! It was no insult to the memory of the lost boys to say they should never have been there at war, and no justification to recognise that they fought well and bravely.


Sir Stamford Raffles: a scholarly exhibition at the British Museum

Young Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) was first employed as a clerk at the British East India Company in 1795 and ten years later he was posted to Malaya with the Company. Lord Minto, governor-general of India, appointed Raffles as an agent to the governor-general of the Malay States in Oct 1810. Very quickly Java was seiz­ed from the Dutch, and Raffles was appointed Lt-Governor of Java.

As governor of Java, Raff­les might have slipped back into tradit­ional colonising behaviour, but no! Instead he int­roduced partial self-government, ban­ned the slave trade, restricted the opium trade, led an exped­it­ion to re­build Borobudur and other important local sites, and ended the hat­ed, exploitative system of Dutch land management.

Raffles’ views were modern. As well as being anti-slavery and against the cap­italist exploitation of rural workers, he disliked cock-fighting and gamb­ling, distrusted missionary proselytism and despised capit­al pun­ishment. He was sensitive to, and interested in local cult­ure. Raffles went out of his way to learn the local languages, esp­ec­ially Malay. And he was a passionate collector of Javanese cul­t­ural artefacts and manuscripts. Raffles was a free trader and imperial­ist, but not an exp­loit­er of loCAL populations.

So why did he eventually lose his position in the East India Co? Raffles’ unilateral abolition of slavery in Indonesia was not going to go down well with the men. The Company forced Raffles to return to Britain in 1817, to vindicate his reputation at the end of his term as Governor-General of Java. Still, he used the time wisely, writing and pub­lishing a scholarly book: History of Java. He was no lightweight; the collections of scholarly relics and records that Raffles brought back from the East were hugely valuable.

In Dec 1818, Raffles went in search of a new British settlement to replace Malacca. Malacca was one of the many British territories that had been returned to the Dutch under the Treaty of Vienna (1815). Raffles feared that without a strategic British trading post located within the Straits, the Dutch could gain control of trade again. Raffles arrived in Singapore on board a ship in Jan 1819, accompanied by William Farquhar and a sepoy.

Javanese puppet, with ornate head-dress and costume
and limbs manipulated by horn rods. 
Photo credit British Museum

So why did he choose Singapore as the centre for the East India Co’s empire? A] The small island was geographically half way between India and China. B] There were no dreaded Dutchmen on the island of Singapore. C] Raffles believed that Singapore had once been a fine city in the original, pre-Muslim Malayan civilisation.

By 1819, the area had been little more than a village with fishing nets and some indig­en­ous Malays. So it was only when Raf­fles signed an off­icial treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah in Feb 1819 that the British East India Company had the right to set up a trading post in the new British settlement. The Sultan was handsomely paid, of course.

Raffles wanted a plan to remodel Singapore into a modern city. His plan comprised separate clusters to house the diff­erent ethnic groups and the provision of facilities: roads, schools and government buildings - Arab St, Chinatown and Little India all survive. Originally a swamp land, the areas grew into a thriving business district in the 1800s when traders brought spices, coffee, gold dust and pearls.

Raffles also devised a set of regulations for Singapore’s harbour, helping to establish the settlement as a free port. Raffles also instituted a court system and magistrates, to ensure order in the settlement. Finally one of Raffles’ priorities was the formation of an institution of higher learning to educate the sons of the Malay chiefs; to teach the native languages to officers of the East India Co; and to collect the literature on the laws and customs of the country. Raffles laid the foundation stone of the Singapore Instit­ution Free School in June 1823.

Soon after he returned to Britain in 1824 and with the Singapore mat­ter settled, Raffles turned to his passion for botany and zool­ogy. This talented man was a founder and first president of the Zoological Society of London, in 1825.

Decades later, Singapore had grown as a crucial cross­­road for trade and shipping. The British used the position as a tactical tr­ading outpost along the spice route. Established 1886, Raffles Hotel grew as one of the last great colonial-style hotels, well known for its lux­urious accommod­ation and fine food. Raffles hotel still houses a tropical garden court­yard, museum and Vict­orian style theatre.

Portrait of Raffles
painted by George Francis Joseph. in 1817
National Portrait Gallery London.

The Raffles Hotel complex also includes a Museum where artef­acts of various types are disp­lay­ed. In 1987 the government declared the hotel a National Monument and two years later, the hotel was totally renovation.


Unfortunately most of Raffles’ treasures from Sumatra, and his official and personal papers, were lost. The ship intending to take them back to Britain in 1824 sunk, along with much of its precious treasure trove. Fortun­ately, the objects that did not drown are now in the British Museum. So while not much is known about Raf­f­les’ collecting practices in Sumatra, the objects now on display provide a vital record of the art and court culture of early-modern Java. While the purpose behind Raffles’ collection related to Enlightenment concepts, the objects themsel­ves provided glimpses of the relationships between colonisers and locals. Raff­les collected wonderful cultural objects during his years away, ob­jects that may otherwise have disappeared from the history books.

Raden Andaga mask; Dewi Bikang Mardeya mask; A high-ranking monkey mask; Demon Denawa Kecubung mask.
All masks made of wood and gold. All from early 1800s.
Photo credit British Museum

This year, until mid Jan 2020, the British Museum Exhibition is presenting Sir Stamford Raffles: Collecting in Southeast Asia, the rich variety of objects from Java and Sumatra collected by Sir Stamford Raffles. From theat­rical puppets, masks and musical instruments and scul­p­ture, his collection explores C19th Javanese soc­iety and its earlier Hindu-Buddhist traditions. The show investigates how Raffles assembled his coll­ection, shedding more light on collecting and colonialism in this part of the world. And it reveal how Raffles understood S.E Asian cultures.


Russian ANZACS who fought for Australia in WW1

Federation came to Australia on 1/1/1901. The Australian & New Zealand Army Corps were formed in Egypt in 1915 out of the 1st Aus­tralian Imperial Force/AIF and the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Soon after the birth of the nation, the Anzacs became best known for their bravery at the Battle of Gall­ip­oli; for gener­at­ions, it was commonly accepted that the Anz­ac tradition was in­separably identified with British Australians.

Yet in WW1, 1037 Russian men enlisted in the AIF, and most went on active service over seas. As the book Russian Anzacs in Australian History by Elena Govor (UNSW Press, 2005) says, they constituted the biggest non-Anglo national group in the AIF. The accompanying website has a page dedicated to the family- and service-history of each soldier.

During WW1, Russia was an important ally of the British Empire. So it made sense that Russian emig­r­ants to Aust­ral­ia would be expected to return to Europe for the war. The tough Baltic seafaring peoples — Finns, Latvians, Estonians, Baltic Germ­ans and Lithuanians were particularly well adapted to the armed forces. The remainder con­sist­ed of Ethnic Russians, Catholic and Jewish Poles, Ukrain­ians, Belarussians, Caucas­us Ossetians, and Russian-born West­ern Europ­eans who were al­ready flocking to Australia.

Australian Embassy exhibition "Russian Anzacs: Threads of a Buried History" 
Tsarskoe Selo State Museum, Saint Petersburg

Russian émigrés had diverse reasons for enlisting early in the AIF: 1] some had fled their nat­ive land owing to ethnic or rel­igious pers­ecution in Eastern Europe, 2] others were lab­ourers seeking quality jobs, 3] some had patriotic sentiments towards their new country, 4] many felt pressure exerted by the Russian consulate, 5] some to be with their mates or 6] the unemployed had few alternatives. 

But their acceptance into the famous Anzac brother­hood was often hard-won. A lack of English was one stumbling block. In battles fought togeth­er, a comradeship with their Aust­ralian friends was forged. Major Eliazar Margolin grew up in the Jewish part of Belgorod, south of Moscow, near present-day Ukraine. While commanding the 16th Battal­ion at Gallip­oli, Margolin and his thick Russian accent fought relent­lessly for the lives of his boys. Plus he won official ack­nowled­ge­ment of his bravery with the Distinguished Service Order.

Later enlistment of Russian émigrés was due to the pressure exerted by the Russian government from Jan 1916 on; it demanded the consc­ript­ion of all its subjects, at home or overseas. My grand­father, who arrived in Australia in Jan 1914 was desperate to go home to Russia; by the time war broke out in Sep 1914 he was prep­ared to lie about his age and to fake his late parents' signatures. He spoke little English, but he was very welcome in the Australian army because of his fluent Rus­sian, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German, average Hebrew and poor Polish. As did his brothers & first cousins. 

In 1916 the Australian official historian Charles Bean wrote that Pozières ridge in France is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth. During the Pozières Battle, an entire section of the 9th Battalion was made up of Russians who became Australian soldiers.

Michael Toberoff
Born Ukraine, 1890

Alec Cohen Croot 
Born Latvia 1899 

Pinchas Komesaroff 
Born Ukraine, 1898

We can see how the Anzac legend worked for someone who was different, had little English or spoke with a thick accent; how mate­ship was forged in battles, how suspicions ruined lives. Their stor­ies were also stories of the unsung heroes of the war – the Aus­t­ralian women, those landladies who sent parcels to their Russian boys and the widows who married ex-servicemen post-war.

1 in 5 Russians died, a ratio similar to that of Australian sold­iers across the board in WW1. But were Russians totally trusted in Australia? The decision by Aust­ralian soldiers not to question a fellow sold­ier because of some politicians in a distant country of origin was a relaxed attitude that was always cherish­ed.

Some racism continued. Peter Chirvin from Sakhalin fought at Gall­ipoli and on the Western front for 4 years, being wounded twice. Risking his life, he carr­ied the wounded from the battlefield, for which he was awarded the Mil­itary Medal. He returned to Australia on the troop­ship Anchises in 1919, and when soldiers on board ship started abusing him as a dreaded Russian-Orthodox Bolshie, their comm­and­ing off­icers did not intervene. Chirvin committed suicide on the ship, the last Australian victim of WW1.

Favst Leoshkevitch, on the other hand, was a seaman who learned English in the trenches from his Australian mates. After the war he told his son “what wonderful people our army people were just ord­in­ary sol­diers. When the revolution erupted in Russia nobody spoke to me about it and I thought that was wonderful”.

Integrating the Russian Anzacs into Australian life AFTER the war was no easy process either. Just like their Australian-born mates, these men rarely told their families about the horrors of the war. Some of them never spoke about their Russian past to their child­ren, who grew up not speaking Russian with their fathers. This was the case for the daughter of Norman Myer, a lieut­enant on the West­­ern Front and heir to Austral­ia's largest depart­ment store, Myer Emporium. Some of these men had burned all bridges with their homeland. A few returned home to Russia.

Russian Anzacs Memorial, 
Shrine Reserve Melbourne

On­ly since the 1917 Revolution has Russia come to be seen as an enemy, rather than a friend of Australia. So we have to ask if each new generation of Australians reinvested the Anzac legend with its own anti-Russian perceptions. Could the many émigré communities be able to fully engage with the nation’s Anzac past? Only now, 100+ years after the Anzac legend started, the true div­ersity behind this national legend now incl­udes Russia's heroic contribution.

During the centenary year of  1918, the Australian War Mem­or­ial is projecting names onto the façade of the Hall of Memory. Every night they recorded the names of all the fallen men, includ­ing the 162 fallen Russian Anzacs. Now the grandchildren of the Russians must preserve the memory of the soldiers. Film-maker Alex Spektor made a documentary, Anzacs from Russia, inspired by Elena Govor. Spektor explained that WW1 in Russia is remembered intensely and tragically, but do the Russians even know that their own citizens were fighting for Australian survival? 


History of Venetian glass from Murano. Now in a special Melbourne exhibition

The origins of glassmaking in Venice go back to the times of the Roman Empire when moulded glass was used for illumination in bathhouses. Blending Roman experience with the skills learned from the Byzantine Empire and trade with the Orient, Venice emerged as a major glass-manufacturing centre as early as the C8th. One of the earliest furnaces for glass was found on a Venetian island!

By the late 1200s, high quality glass objects became the city’s major industry. So the Glassmakers Guild laid out craftsmen’s rules, to safeguard the trade secrets and en­s­ure the in­dustry’s profits. A 1271 law prohib­it­ed the imp­ort of foreign glass or the employment of foreign glass workers. An even more rad­ical law was passed in 1291, requiring that all furnaces used for glassmaking be moved from Venice to Murano Island, to avoid the risk of fire spreading onto over-populated Venice’s wooden structures. A law passed in 1295 forbade glassmakers from leaving the city.

 Venetian cristallo glass, 1580 

Perhaps because of Venice’s location at the crossroads of trade, as the cultural bridge between East and West, the city’s glass reached the peak of its popularity in the C15th and C16th. In the C15th, master Angelo Barovier discovered the process for making clear glass/cristallo that allowed Murano glass mak­ers to become the only mirror makers in Europe. And the popularity of Chinese porcelain among European nobility fuelled discovery and production of the white glass mimicking porcelain/lattimo.

New glassmaking techniques became popular eg enamelling and gild­ing glass, which originated in the Middle East, filigrana glass which is made using glass rods with inner threads of white, golden or coloured glass that twisted or ice glass which appeared finely crackled. Shapes and colours increased in variety.

But Murano glass went into a gradual decline in the C17th. As Venetian power on the trade routes reduced, so did its mon­­opoly power in glass­making; new centres of the craft emerged in Bohemia and France instead. Yet the C17th was also a period of strong baroque trends that spread via European architecture, painting and interior decoration.

Venetian (C16th revival) amber glass carafe 
made by Salviati in c1880
with applied floral paterae to either side 

Brightly coloured, intricate glass decorations with floral and an­imal motives became popular. New glass techniques included metal flecks embedded for sparkles and illusion of semiprecious stones, raised decorations on glass and millefiori beads. These new tech­niques were so success­ful that royal courts like King Frederick IV of Denmark ordered glassware from Murano artisans.

In the C18th, there was a worsening political climate and increased competition from Bohemian and French glass makers. New techniques were introduced eg engraving on glassware and mirrors, but they made little impact. The industry reduced further with Napoleon’s con­quest of Venice in 1797 and his abolition of Venice’s guilds.

In 1814, the transfer of Venice from France to the Habsburg Empire created another crisis for Murano glassmaking as Habs­burg rulers preferred their native glassmaking centre in Bohemia; they passed laws making it expensive to bring neces­sary raw materials into Murano and export the final product. As a result, only 5 furnaces in Murano continued to produce blown glass by 1820.

The industry didn’t die completely. But the breakthrough didn’t come until 1854 when six Toso Brothers opened the firm Fratelli Toso that produced household glass items. Five years later Antonio Salviati moved to Venice to open a factory dedicated to tradit­ional Murano glass. He wanted to produce tiles that could restore old Venet­ian mosaics and he hired the best Murano masters to work in his factory.

Venetian authorities signed a 15-year contract with Sal­viati’s firm for restoration of the mosaics in St Mark’s basilica. In 1861, Venice’s mayor Antonio Colleoni built an Archive ded­ic­ated to both the writings and the objects of art prod­uced in Venice. Building the archive caused renewed interest in Venice’s history and its glorious past. And prompted officials to set up a proper school for glassmakers.

There was an Archive Exhibition (1864) and then internat­ional shows followed eg the highly successful Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867 where Salviati exhibited 500+ works made by his firm and received international acclaim. This publicity led to com­­plete revival of Murano, employing 3,500 people by 1870. And the well attended Murano and Ven­ice Exhibition of Choice Glass and Glass Objects was staged in 1895 inside Murano City Hall.

The first Venice Biennial Ex­hib­ition (1895) showed new works of art in the Art Nouveau style. This highlighted the gap between the modern trends gaining strength in Europe then and the works of Murano artisans who were somewhat foc­used on the past. This gap became even more obvious at the Univ­er­sal Exposit­ion in Paris in 1900, followed by Expositions of Decorative Arts in Turin in 1902 and Milan in 1906. The Art Nou­veau style was becoming more popular.

In the 1920s, Art Nouveau was replaced by more modern styles with simpler and more functional designs. Art Deco gave more focus on glassware as part of an overall interior design, not as a piece of art in itself. A new company, founded in 1921 under Vittorio Zecchin as its head designer, championed the style.

Sommerso glass vase, tricolour
c1950, 11” high. 

Important 1930s innovations were production of glass stat­ues of female nudes, classical figures of gods, and eng­raving on glass and modern lighting fix­tures. During WW2 the glass industry did not thrive, but after the war the Murano makers returned & created pieces reflecting modern interior design trends: minimalism, funct­ionality, simplicity. Sommerso i.e sub­merged was a technique used to create several layers of glass with contrasting colours inside a single object. It was and is beautiful.

Liquid Light: 500 Years of Venetian Glass draws upon the National Gallery of Victoria’s extensive holdings of Venetian glass, rang­ing in date from the C16th-20th. The NGV’s Collections are very rich in material from the C19th revival of the glass ind­ustry on Murano Island. This Melbourne Exhibition continues un­til 12th July 2020.



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