Friday, 23 May 2014

Philip Astley and the Microcosm of London

Collectors of old magic books will know the name of Philip Astley because of his book Natural Magic, published in 1785. Astley’s career, however, was not as a magician. He was an equestrian and a one of the pioneers of the modern circus. His fame was such that Astley was briefly mentioned in Emma by Jane Austen (chapters 26 and 27), Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens (referring to Astley’s the circus at least ten times) and in The Newcomes by Thackery (a character is mentioned who is supposedly “secretary to Mademoiselle Caracoline, the lovely rider at the circus of Astley”).

A scan of an illustration of Astley’s “circus” can be easily found on the internet but some details are usually lacking when the picture is given. First of all, the illustration is of Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster bridge. The artists were Rowlandson and Pugin; art lovers should recognise both those names. The illustration appeared in a wonderful publication called The Microcosm of London (1808-1810, published by Rudolph Ackermann), which is written like an amiable guided tour to all the interesting parts of London be they poor or rich. Below I give the full text on Astley and, although it’s available in plenty of other places, the illustration by Rowlandson and Pugin. The text is believed to be by William Henry Pyne.


The Amphitheatre at Westminster bridge has, within these twelve years, been twice destroyed by fire; and the expense of rebuilding, &c. &c. to Messrs. Astleys, the two proprietors, has been estimated as amounting to nearly thirty thousand pounds. The present theatre is the most airy, and in some respects the most beautiful, of any in this great metropolis. The building is one hundred and forty feet long; the width of that part allotted to the audience, from wall to wall, sixty-five feet; and the stage is one hundred and thirty feet wide, being the largest stage in England, and extremely well adapted to the purpose for which it was built, the introduction of grand spectacles and pantomimes, wherein numerous troops of horses are seen in what has every appearance of real warfare, galloping to and fro, &c. &c. The whole theatre is nearly the form of an egg 5 two thirds of the widest end forms the audience part and equestrian circle, and the smaller third is occupied by the orchestra and the stage. From this judicious arrangement, the whole audience have an uninterrupted prospect of the amusements. It is lighted by a magnificent glass chandelier, suspended from the centre, and containing fifty patent lamps, and sixteen smaller chandeliers, with six wax-lights each. The scenery, machinery, decorations, &c. have been executed by the first artists in this country, under the immediate direction of Mr. Astley, jun. who made the fanciful design.

A very good idea of its general appearance, company, &c. is given in the annexed print. ­For a looker-on to describe some part of the amusements would be difficult, perhaps impossible; and luckily it is not necessary, for in an advertisement published November 1807, Mr. Astley himself has described one of them in a manner so singularly curious, that we think it ought to be transmitted to posterity; and have therefore inserted it in this volume. ­

­  "SIR,
­     "Having been strongly requested to give some explanation of the utility of the country dances by eight horses, to be performed this and tomorrow evening, I request you will be so obliging as to insert the following hints. ­
     "First, I humbly think that a thorough command and pliability on horseback, is obtained by such noble exercises. Secondly, that in executing the various figures in this dance, the rider obtains a knowledge of the bridle hand, also capacity and capability of the horse, more particularly at the precise time of casting off and turning of partners, right and left, &c. &c. Thirdly, I also conceive that the horseman may be greatly improved when in the act of reducing the horse to obedience on scientific principles!!! and not otherwise. Fourth, as a knowledge of the appui in horsemanship is highly desirable, whether on the road, the chase, or field of honour, I expressly composed the various figures in the country dance for this desirable purpose ; and which my young equestrian artists have much profited by, as some of them three months since were never on horseback. It was from this observation, during forty- two years practice, that I gave this equestrian ballet the name of L'Ecole de Mars; and I am strongly thankful that my humble abilities have afforded some little information, as well as amusement, to the town in general. ­
     "I am, with respect,
     "The public's most humble and faithful servant,
          "Pavilion, Newcastle-street, Strand"

­From all this, a spectator would be almost tempted to think, that, notwithstanding the numerous and learned dissertations of philosophers to exalt their own species, horses rival man in his superior faculties. I have heard a story on this subject, which I believe has not found its way into Joe Miller; but be that as it may, it is a good story, and in a degree illustrates this subject, and I think my reader will not be displeased at the insertion of it. ­
Some years ago, a very learned and sagacious doctor of the university of Oxford, composed and read a long lecture on the difference of man from beast; and when describing the former, asserted that man was superior to all other animals; because there was no other animal, except man, who either reasoned or drew an inference, as the inferior order of beings were wholly governed by instinct. ­

On the conclusion of this philosophical discourse, two of the students, who were not quite satisfied of the fact, walked out to converse upon it, and seeing a house with "WISEMAN, DRAWING MASTER," inscribed upon the sign, went into the shop, and asked the master what he drew? "Men, women, trees, buildings, or anything else," was the reply. "Can you draw an inference?" said one of them. The man took a short time to consider it, and candidly replied, that never having seen or heard of such a thing before, he could not. The students walked out of his house, and before they had proceeded far, saw a brewer's dray with a very fine horse in it. "A fine horse this," said one of them to the driver. "A very fine one indeed," said the fellow. "Seems a powerful beast," said the other. "I believe he is indeed," replied the fellow. "He can draw a great load, I suppose?" said the Oxonian. "More than any horse in this county," answered the drayman. "Do you think he could draw an inference?" said the scholar. "He can draw any thing in reason, I'll be sworn," replied the drayman. ­

The scholars walked back to the lecture room, and found the company still together; when one of them, addressing the doctor with a very grave face, said to him, "Master, we have been enquiring, and find that your definition is naught; for we have found a man, and a wise man too, who cannot draw an inference, and we have met with a horse that can."
­Besides the Amphitheatre, Messrs. Astleys have a very elegant Pavilion, for exhibiting amusements of a similar description, which they have lately erected, and fitted out in a most complete style, in Newcastle-street in the Strand, and named ASTLEY'S PAVILION. ­

At this place the horses have displayed some feats of so wonderful a description, as could not easily be conceived unless they were seen. In this place eight horses have lately performed country dances, &c. in a manner that has astonished all the spectators. To this have been added divers horsemanships, the twelve wonderful voltigers, &c.

The annexed print, which is ­


gives a very good idea of the scene. Mr. Rowlandson's figures are here, as indeed they invariably are, exact delineations of the sort of company who frequent public spectacles of this description ; they are eminently characteristic, and descriptive of the eager attention with which this sort of spectators contemplate the business going forward. Small as the figures are, we can in a degree pronounce upon their rank in life, from the general air and manner with which they are marked. ­

Mr. Pugin is entitled to equal praise, from the taste which he has displayed in the perspective and general effect of the whole, which renders it altogether an extremely pleasing and interesting little print.

­With respect to teaching horses to perform country dances, how far thus accomplishing this animal, renders him either a more happy or a more valuable member of the horse community, is a question which I leave to be discussed by those sapient philosophers, who have so learnedly and so long debated this important business, with respect to man.
The school of Jean Jaques Rousseau, who insist upon it, that man, by his civilization, has been so far from adding to his happiness, that he has increased and multiplied his miseries, will of course insist upon it, that a horse in his natural state must be infinitely happier, than he can be with any improvements introduced by man ; that all these artificial refinements must tend to diminish, instead of increasing his felicity ; and that, as a horse, he had much better be left in a state of nature, than thus tortured into artificial refinement.

­The advocates for Swift's system of the Houyhnhnms, in Gulliver's Travels, admitting a horse to be superior to a man, even in his natural state, will unquestionably be of the same opinion; and we must seek farther for the advantages to be derived by introducing a teacher of dancing, and a master of the ceremonies, to this noble and dignified animal. ­

It is recorded, that at a much earlier period, a right worshipful mayor of Coventry wished to teach his horse good manners. Queen Elizabeth, in one of her progresses to that city, was met, about a mile before she arrived there, by the mayor and alder- men, who desirous of declaring the high honour which they felt she would thus confer on their city, employed the mayor to be their speaker. The mayor was on horseback, and (as the record saith) the queen was also on horseback, behind one of her courtiers. A little rivulet happening to run across the road where they stopped, the mayor's horse made several attempts to drink; which the queen observing, told his worship, that before he began his oration, she wished he would let his horse take his draught. "That, and please your majesty, he shall not," replied the mayor, "that he certainly shall not yet. I would have him to know, that it is proper your majesty's horse should drink first, and then, he shall."  

Friday, 16 May 2014

Pompeii in 3D

The first thing to say is that if you like a moderately okay action film then go see Pompeii. Now for the ‘however’ part.

This is partially a spoiler so don’t read on if you want to remain oblivious to certain points before seeing the film.

The film has no specific connection with previous Pompeii films, such as The Last Days of Pompeii – which has been remade more than once. So don’t expect a particularly solid plot. The male lead, Milo (Kit Harrington), has a background story of Conan the Barbarian mashed with Gladiator. Yes, it’s partially a revenge story. Like Gladiator, Milo has an African gladiator friend Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and they support each other and fight side by side. The female lead, Cassia (Emily Browning), is caught up in a ‘the bad guy wants to marry her’ plot that has been used in thousands of previous films – and this one doesn’t fail to use the majority of clichéd moments associated with such a plot device. As to Vesuvius, the build up to the disaster is slightly along the lines a la Dante’s Peak.

If all that doesn’t seem very promising then consider that the review ratings for the film given on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB are not exactly positive.
What the film boils down to is moments of action in spectacular 3D. This is not the first film recently in which grand visuals appear to have been given more thought than plot and dialogue. It’s a shame really considering that talented actors have been cast in these films and if they were given decent dialogue and a more substantial (and less clichéd) plot, then that alone would have made these films far better than any 3D action scenes.    

I’m not against 3D films, I’m all for them – but a balance has to be struck in making them. Filmmakers appear to making the same mistake that was during the previous incarnations of 3D films. They’re concentrating on the novelty of 3D to the point of neglecting the quality of storytelling in a film.

If they would put as much money into the script as they do the special effects…

Tuesday, 6 May 2014


I recently watched the new film Pompeii. I’ll leave my views on that for a separate blog post. I thought, for those that have seen the film or about to do so, that it would be interesting to read an eye-witness account of the eruption of Vesuvius by the Roman writer Pliny the Younger. A small section of his account is quoted at the beginning of the film. I give below the full version, which was written in two letters to Tacitus – who was writing a history. Sadly, Tacitus’ history is now missing the section that gives his research on the disaster.   

From pp.193-198 and  200-204 of: The Letters of Pliny the Younger, Volume II, Books VI-X, Literally Translated, with Notes. Melmoth’s Translation, Revised by Bosanquest. Published in 1900 by Hinds, Nobel & Eldredge, New York.

LETTER XVI. To Tacitus.
Your request that I would send you an account of my uncle's death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, deserves my acknowledgments; for, if this accident shall be celebrated by your pen, the glory of it, I ­am well assured, will be rendered for ever illustrious.

And notwithstanding he perished by a misfortune, which, as it involved at the same time a most beautiful country in ruins, and destroyed so many populous cities, seems to promise him an everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding he has himself composed many and lasting works; yet I am persuaded, the mentioning of him in your immortal writings, will greatly contribute to render his name immortal. Happy I esteem those to be to whom by provision of the gods has been granted the ability either to do such actions as are worthy of being related or to relate them in a manner worthy of being read; but peculiarly happy are they who are blessed with both these uncommon talents: in the number of which my uncle, as his own writings and your history will evidently prove, may justly be ranked. It is with extreme willingness, therefore, that I execute your commands; and should indeed have claimed the task if you had not enjoined it.

He was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun, and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give 'you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches ; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.

This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him.  I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened he had himself given me something to write out. As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance.

He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carries out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being a-ground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, ‘Fortune.’ said he, ‘favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is.’

Pomponianus was then at Stabiae, separated by a bay, which the sea, after several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead in-shore, should go down.  It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it.

Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. But my uncle, in order to soothe the apprehensions of his friend, assured him it was only the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames: after this he retired to rest, and it is most certain he was so little disquieted as to fall into a sound sleep: for his breathing, which, on account of his corpulence, was rather heavy and sonorous, was heard by the attendants outside. The court which led to his apartment being now almost filled with stones and ashes, if he had continued there any time longer, it would have been impossible for him to have made his way out. So he was awoke and got up, and went to Pomponianus and the rest of his company, who were feeling too anxious to think of going to bed. They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction.

In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration. They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them. It was now day everywhere else, but there deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go farther down upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed.

As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead. During all this time my mother and I, who were at Misenum — but this has no connection with your history, and you did not desire any particulars besides those of my uncle's death; so I will end here, only adding that I have faithfully related to you what I was either an eye-witness of myself or received immediately after the accident happened, and before there was time to vary the truth. You will pick out of this narrative whatever is most important: for a letter is one thing, a history another; it is one thing writing to friend, another thing writing to the public. Farewell.

LETTER XX. To Tacitus.
The letter which, in compliance with your request, I wrote to you concerning the death of my uncle has raised, it seems, your curiosity to know what terrors and dangers attended me while I continued at Misenum; for there. I think, my account broke off:

­'Though my shock'd soul recoils, my tongue shall tell.' [here Pliny is quoting Virgil’s Aeneid]

­My uncle having left us, I spent such time as was left on my studies (it was on their account indeed that I had stopped behind), till it was time for my bath. After which I went to supper, and then fell into a short and uneasy sleep. There had been noticed for many days before a trembling of the earth, which did not alarm us much, as this is quite an ordinary occurrence in Campania; but it was so particularly violent that night that it not only shook but actually overturned, as it would seem, everything about us.

My mother rushed into my chamber, where she found me rising, in order to awaken her. We sat down in the open court of the house, which occupied a small space between the buildings and the sea. As I was at that time but eighteen years of ago, I know not whether I should call my behaviour, in this dangerous juncture, courage or folly; but I took up Livy, and amused myself with turning over that author, and even making extracts from him, as if I had been perfectly at my leisure. Just then, a friend of my uncle's, who had lately come to him from Spain, joined us, and observing me sitting by my mother with a book in my hand, reproved her for her calmness, and me at the same time for my careless security nevertheless I went on with my author.

Though it was now morning, the light was still exceedingly faint and doubtful; the buildings all around us tottered, and though we stood upon open ground, yet as the place was narrow and confined, there was no remaining without imminent danger: we therefore resolved to quit the town. A panic-stricken crowd followed us, and (as to a mind distracted with terror every suggestion seems more prudent than its own) pressed on us in dense array to drive us forward as we came out. Being at a convenient distance from the houses, we stood still, in the midst of a most dangerous and dreadful scene. The chariots, which we had ordered to be drawn out, were so agitated backwards and forwards, though upon the most level ground, that we could not keep them steady, even by supporting them with large stones. The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left upon it.

On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger. Upon this our Spanish friend, whom I mentioned above, addressing himself to my mother and me with great energy and urgency: ‘If your brother,' he said, ‘if your uncle be safe, he certainly wishes you may be so too; but if he perished, it was his desire, no doubt, that you might both survive him: why therefore do you delay your escape a moment?' We could never think-of our own safety, we said, while we were uncertain of his. Upon this our friend left us, and withdrew from the danger with the utmost precipitation.
Soon afterwards, the cloud began to descend, and cover the sea. It had already surrounded and concealed the island of Capreae and the promontory of Misenum. My mother now besought, urged, even commanded me to make my escape at any rate, which, as I was young, I might easily do; as for herself, she said, her age and corpulency rendered all attempts of that sort impossible; however she would willingly meet death if she could have the satisfaction of seeing that she was not the occasion of mine. But I absolutely refused to leave her, and, taking her by the hand, compelled her to go with me. She complied with great reluctance, and not without many reproaches to herself for retarding my flight.

The ashes now began to fall upon us, though in no great quantity. I looked back; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud. 'Let us turn out of the high-road,' I said, ‘while we can still see, for fear that, should we fall in the road, we should be pressed to death in the dark, by the crowds that are following us.’ We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out.

You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men ; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.

Among these there were some who augmented the real terrors by others imaginary or wilfully invented? I remember some who declared that one part of Misenum had fallen, that another was on fire; it was false, but they found people to believe them.

It now grew rather lighter, which we imagined to be rather the forerunner of an approaching burst of flames (as in truth it was) than the return of day: however, the fire fell at a distance from us: then again we were immersed in thick darkness, and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to stand up to shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap. I might boast that, during all this scene of horror, not a sigh, or expression of fear, escaped me, had not my support been grounded in that miserable, though mighty, consolation, that all mankind were involved in the same calamity, and that I was perishing with the world itself.

At last this dreadful darkness was dissipated by degrees, like a cloud or smoke; the real day returned, and even the sun shone out, though with a lurid light, like when an eclipse is coming on. Every object that presented itself to our eyes (which were extremely weakened) seemed changed, being covered deep with ashes as if with snow. We returned to Misenum, where we refreshed ourselves as well as we could, and passed an anxious night between hope and fear; though, indeed, with a much larger share of the latter: for the earthquake still continued, while many frenzied persons ran up and down heightening their own and their friends' calamities by terrible predictions. How-ever, my mother and I, notwithstanding the danger we had passed, and that which still threatened us, had no thoughts of leaving the place, till we could receive some news of my uncle.

­And now, you will read this narrative without any view of inserting it in your history, of which it is not in the least worthy; and indeed you must put it down to your own request if it should appear not worth even the trouble of a letter. Farewell.