Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A Cabinet of Curiosities and Some Eccentrics

If  museums stuffed full of quaint and curious old objects intrigue you as much as they do me, then surely this episode from 'A Cabinet of Curiosities' by Lucinda Lambton, will interest you.  This is the only episode, from this fascinating series, to find at this time, and her enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious; though some of the strange things in this are well, rather strange!

Some of the stuffed animals are somewhat unnerving.  Many years ago I was visiting family, and in a certain uncle's house, he had amassed a number of stuffed creatures, I believe he had killed them all himself (which doesn't surprise me, but I'll say no more on that...) and I found it rather creepy with them all standing about in various poses, as if they were watching, you always expect their eyes to follow you.

Watching this brought to mind a truly odd book I read a few years ago, 'English Eccentrics', by Edith Sitwell, first published in 1933.  Mine is a vintage Penguin paperback, and the cover will not be shown here, as the photographic portrait of Miss Sitwell is ghastly, and I always made sure to turn it face down when reading it, if you've seen it, you will know what I mean.  The book is highly unusual, and often bewildering.  Some of the people described in the book were possibly more insane than eccentric.  The back cover describes this curious tome as such:
An incomparable museum of history's weirder figures- ornamental hermits, charlatans, quacks, adventurers, misers, and men of learning, including:  The aged Countess of Desmond, who climbed an apple tree at the age of 140.  The amphibious Lord Rokeby, whose beard reached his knees and who seldom left his bath.  Mad Jack Mytton, the squire who drank eight bottles of port a day, spent half a million and set fire to his nightshirt to cure the hiccups.  Curricle Coates, the Gifted Amateur, whose stage performances always ended in uproar.  Irascible Captain Thicknesse, who left his right hand, to be cut off after his death, to his son Lord Audley.  Inebriate Professor Porson, the great Greek scholar, who used to 'pounce with his terrible memory' and sometimes with the poker. Pathetic Princess Caraboo, the servant-girl from Devon who stole the heart of Napoleon on St. Helena.  Saintly Squire Waterton, the nineteenth-century Gerald Durrell, who rode a crocodile bareback. 
 Amongst many others also mentioned are Ancients, Alchemists, Wits, and Travellers, as in this fascinating passage:
Even though the phrase, the romance of Commerce is now a cliché, the maps in a commercial atlas neatly cut up, coloured, analysed and diagrammed, are a rich feast for the fancy.  To see where not only castor, camphor, colocynth and cocaine come from, but whence also the emerald, the chrysoprase, the topaz and the tourmaline; where impregnable forests brood, and the yellow fever skulks, and the Buddhist abounds; where those tempests called cyclone, hurricane, typhoon rise up and travel and pass away; what Penang lawyers, supple-jacks, bdellium and carambola may be; and what precise delicacies have their origin in Jipijapa, Rosario and Trebizond - all this can scarcely be acquitted of a romantic flavour.
Thus wrote that great traveller of the mind and of the spirit, Walter de la Mare, in Desert Islands.  The soul needs, not only a resting, but a distance land where it may find romance, and those truths that are not clothed in the accustomed, dusty garb of every day.  In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the Grand Tour was the fashion, in the later nineteenth century, when the exploration of savage lands was the most chivalrous of all deeds, travelling, if not in the body, at least in the spirit, was not only a pleasure, it was a necessity. 
Many of those world travellers brought back extraordinary mementoes from their travels, and created their own cabinets of curiosities, thus many museums were begun.
 There is also 'In Search Of The Great English Eccentric' with Dave Allen, which I found and watched last year, it looks like it was made in the 1970s.  Eccentrics aplenty here, some more odd than others, but at least many of them seemed happy and weren't just spending all their time sitting in front of the television! I believe that being individualistic or idiosyncratic (which indicates intelligence to not just follow the crowd) doesn't necessarily mean that one is eccentric, I think people too easily confuse them.  But I think the world would be a more interesting place if there were a few more gentle and imaginative eccentrics, opposed to just obvious weirdness without intelligence, or just obnoxiousness, that is so much present now.   I like the highly enthusiastic inventor, who was overflowing with ideas: