Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Living Colossus; the Surprising Irish Giant - Charles Byrne (1761-1783), the Hunterian Museum, London

HRH visits Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, at the Hunterian museum. The tiny skeleton  standing next
to Byrne belongs to Caroline Crachami  the Sicilian Fairy.

“June 1.  At London, aged 22, Byrne, the famous Irish giant. His death is said to have been precipitated by excessive drinking. His body was carried to Margate, in order to thrown into the sea, agreeable to his own request; he having been apprehensive that the surgeons would anatomise him. Byrne, in August 1780, measured exactly 8 feet; in 1780 he had gained 2 inches; and after his death he measured 8 feet 4 inches.”

The Scots Magazine, June 1783

“The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman and surround his house just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale.”
The Morning Herald, June 1783

Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, died of grief and gin at the age of 22 after his pocket was picked of his £700 life savings when he was out boozing on the London streets. £700 was a lot of money in 1783 and Byrne had amassed his small fortune exhibiting himself in freak shows. He was born in Drummullan in County Tyrone in 1761 the offspring of a mixed marriage between an Irish father and a Scottish mother. At the age of 20 a local huckster, Joe Vance, convinced his parents to let him start showing Byrne at local fairs and then travelled with him to London via Scotland (at Edinburgh “he alarmed the watchmen at the North Bridge one morning by lighting his pipe at one of the lamps without even standing on tiptoe,” according to the 1922 edition of the DNB).

In London he was a great success, exhibiting himself at Cox’s museum, living next door in an apartment with custom built furniture, above the cane shop in Spring Garden Gate. He was on show from 11am to 3pn and 5pm to 8pm six days a week and became, briefly, the talk of the town, visited by everyone from the King and Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. By November 1782 London was beginning to lose interest; Byrne moved from Cox’s in Charing Cross to the Hampshire Pig in Piccadilly and reduced the entrance fee to 2 shillings and six for Ladies and Gentlemen and 1 shilling for children and servants in livery. Byrne’s allure was further reduced when a rival Irish Giant, Patrick Cotter threatened to remove to London from his home in Bristol and then, even worse, a pair of 7 foot 2 Irish identical twins, the Knipes, also pitched up unexpectedly. The original Irish giant took to drink and was relocated again to Cockspur Street in Charing Cross where the price of admittance was reduced to 1 shilling for all.      

Charles Byrne in the company of the Knipe twins and various dwarfs and Lord Monboddo
In April 1783 disaster struck when Byre took himself on a “lunar ramble and was tempted to visit the Black Horse, a little public house facing the Kings Mews.” By the time he got home, and when it was too late to do anything about it, Byrne found that he had been robbed of the £700 in banknotes that he carried around with him under the impression that no one would dare to steal from a giant. The loss devastated him and made him drink even more. To add to his woes he had developed a serious cough which showed all the signs of being consumption. He managed to stagger on through May but died at Cockspur Street on the first of June.

Byrne's skull
Several noted collectors of anatomical curiosities had shown an interest in acquiring his body but Byrne was horrified at the thought of being butchered and displayed after his death. He left instructions that he was to be buried at sea in a lead coffin. John Hunter bribed one of Byrnes associates £500 to get the body for him. Byrnes friends seem to have been a mercenary lot – during the wake they displayed his corpse in its eight foot coffin to all comers for 2 and 6 (note that in death he commanded the same fee as at the height of his fame). At an overnight stop on the way to the Kent coast at Margate Byrne was removed from the coffin and dispatched back to Hunter in London whilst the empty casket was filled with rocks to imitate the weight of the dead man. Whilst the rock filled coffin was being dropped into the sea from fishing boat Byrne was back on his way to London where Hunter carefully sectioned his corpse before boiling it in a large copper vat to remove the flash.

Campaigners are currently trying to get the Royal College of Surgeons to surrender Byrne's skeleton in order to fulfill his last wishes and bury him at sea. In December 2011 Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary, University of London, and Thomas Muinzer, a lawyer at the School of Law, Queen's University, Belfast, wrote to the British Medical Journal calling for the skeleton to be buried at sea "as Byrne intended for himself". Dr Sam Alberti, director of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, rejected the call, saying "The Royal College of Surgeons believes that the value of Charles Byrne's remains, to living and future communities, currently outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne's apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

Charles Byrne's wake from the University of Warwick website

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Exquisite corpse – Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957), Brompton Cemetery

“Quite suddenly and simply by chance, I once met a bizarre lady while taking tea with some friends in London. She arrived wearing black velvet from head to foot, her mouth painted blood red, and carrying a very tall umbrella with a decorated handle. And, you must understand, this ensemble was being worn in the middle of the day. This picturesque ruin of a woman was very tall and thin, and gave the impression of formidable strength. It was then I was introduced to the Marchesa Luisa Casati for the first and last time. She had made her entrance into that room looking wonderful and saying very little. She wasn’t beautiful—she was spectacular. Here was a woman possessing a presence one would never forget.”

Quentin Crisp

Luisa Casati in Paris,
photographed by Man Ray
Once fabulously wealthy and a member of all the most elite European social and artistic circles,  the Marchesa Luisa Casati lived in London after the war in relative poverty, moving from one rented flat to another and only just keeping one step ahead of her creditors. Her belongings once filled mansions and townhouses across the continent but were now reduced to a tattered collection of frocks and fripperies; a stuffed lions head, a broken cuckoo clock, a fragment of finger, supposedly a relic of St Peter, amongst other worthless junk. She dressed only in black, someone once described her late London outfits as resembling 'the plumage of a shabby raven'. She rummaged in the bins outside the Chelsea Palace Music hall and came away with scraps of monkey fur,  fabric and feathers to tart up her outré costumes. Because she could no longer afford kohl she ringed her eyes with boot polish. Towards the end of her life all her old friends were dead but she stayed in touch with them through séances conducted in her flat. In time she came to believe she had powers of telepathy and stopped contacting even her living friends, preferring to rely on thought transference to communicate.

Another Man Ray portrait of the Marchesa
When she died of a stroke in 1957 Harrods handled the funeral arrangements, laying her out in their chapel before the interment at Brompton Cemetery. Her funeral finery consisted of her best black dress, a leopard skin coat that had seen better days and a new pair of false eye lashes. An old friend for former days, a stuffed pet Pekingese, joined her in the coffin. The day of the funeral was unseasonably cold and there were few mourners Her memorial is modest for a woman who once amassed debts amounting  to millions of dollars and her name is misspelled Louisa as though she were English.


Luisa by Augustus John
Luisa Amman was born in January 1881 in Milan, the youngest daughter of a father who, when he died in 1896, reputedly left the 15 year old Luisa and her older sister the richest women in Italy. She married Camillo, Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino in 1900  and became the Marchesa Luisa Casati. The couple had one child and then lived apart until the Marchese died in 1946. Luisa became a celebrated society hostess, muse and patron to innumerable artists, the lover of Gabriele d'Annunzio, an eccentric and femme fatale. She commissioned portraits or sculptures of herself by Giovanni Boldini, Paolo Troubetzkoy, Romaine Brooks, Augustus John (whose judgement on his patron was “Luisa Casati should be shot, stuffed and displayed in a glass case”), Kees van Dongen, and Man Ray. Before the First World War she took up residence in at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice where she held fabulous parties with gold painted servants, mechanical birds in gilded cages, a pride of white peacocks and a pair of cheetahs with jewelled collars that she took for walks along the canal side. According to one of her biographers  “for a summer of drug abuse on the island of Capri, she packed a wardrobe of black Morticia gowns, dyed her hair green, and paraded through the village streets with a crystal ball, followed by a retainer in gold body paint.”

Her clothes were as eccentric as their owner and she has become something of a fashion icon, influencing designers such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen and even has a fashion house, Georgina Chapman and Keren Craigs ‘Marchesa’, named after her. High living destroyed Luisa’s fortune and by the 1930’s she had debts amounting to $25 million dollars. She was forced into bankruptcy and the houses, villas, paintings, jewels, exotic animals, and haute couture were all sold off to pay her debts. Her only daughter had married into the British aristocracy and  a penniless Luisa had to live in London as the only alternative to starving in Paris, Rome or Milan.   

Friday, 2 January 2015

Barbe Maria Theresa Sangiorgi (1834-1893), Brompton Cemetery

“Sculptural interest: a marble tomb featuring a sculpture of a youth strewing flowers on the grave, finely sculpted in a dramatic and emotive fin-de-siècle style rarely seen in English cemeteries * Historic interest: the portrait medallion and the wording of the dedication, as well as the style of the monument itself, express the Italian identity of those commemorated and reflect the cosmopolitan character of late-C19 London….The monument would not look out of place in the famous Cimitero Monumentale Di Staglieno in Genoa, but it is highly unusual in an English context.”

Barbe Maria Theresa Sangiorgi was the widow of Auguste Kettner a Frenchman who allegedly had been Napoleon III’s chef during the second empire (but before the Emperor was forced to live in exile in the suburbs of south-east London at Chislehurst).   In 1867 Kettner opened a modest restaurant in what was then Church Street (now Romilly Street) in Soho.  According to Nathaniel Newnham-Davis in his “Gourmet’s Guide to London” (1914), it “was the first small restaurant that dared to show its kitchen to all comers at a time when the kitchens of most foreign restaurants were places of horror.” The restaurant was discovered and publicised by a correspondent of The Times and became successful enough for Kettner to expand by leasing 3 neighbouring properties and knocking down party walls to create a large public dining area and converting the upstairs into private dining rooms.  “In 1877 two events of great importance to M. Kettner happened,” says Newnham-Davis, “he wrote his ‘Book of the Table’ and he died….”  Kettner’s ‘Book of the Table’ was in fact written by the journalist Eneas Sweetland Dallas with Kettner’s name used as a marketing device.  The name of the restaurant was so established that there was no question of changing it following Kettner’s death; in fact it is still open today, at the same address under the same name.  

Barbe Kettner seems to have continued running the business alone following her husbands death but “when her days of mourning had passed,“ says Newnham-Davis, she “married M.  Giovanni Sangiorgi, who became her partner in the business, a kindly man who keeps a watchful eye on the restaurant.”  The couple married in Edmonton in April 1880.

Giovanni was, according to his naturalisation certificate of 1883 a “native of Imola in the Kingdom of Italy, of the age of 34 years, a Restaurant keeper and is married but has no children.” Giovanni would have been 31 at the time of the wedding, Theresa a wealthy widow of 46 so it is perhaps not surprising there were no children.  By the time of the 1891 census the couple were living in Church Street with Giovanni’s aged parents and his younger sister Giacomina.


Barbe died in 1893 leaving a fortune of £10, 431 7 shillings and 6 pence solely to her husband. The restaurant received a good deal of unexpected publicity in 1895 at the trials of Oscar Wilde. Kettner’s was a favourite restaurant of Wilde’s and he frequently entertained friends and acquaintances in the private dining rooms on the first floor. These friends were often good looking young men, and included Bosie, Alfred Taylor (who was convicted of sodomy along with Wilde and sentenced to two years hard labour), the Parker brothers, William and Charles (who were male prostitutes), and Sidney Mavor (who may also not have been averse to charging for his favours at the time but later became a C of E clergyman). Any notoriety seems to have only added to the allure of Kettner’s and it continued to do very good business and attract a very exclusive clientele including Edward, Prince of Wales, who entertained Lillie Langtry in another pf the first floor private dining rooms.  In 1897 Giovanni made the shrewd business move of forming a company to control the restaurant and floating it on the stock exchange. The adverts for the stock release show that the owners of the company hoped to raise £50,000 in £1 shares and £30,000 in debentures which would have released very tidy sum in ready cash to Giovanni. He died at the age of 62 on May 10, 1909. His body was shipped to Lugano in Italian speaking Switzerland for interment but his sister Giacomina added his details to Barbe’s monument even though he had chosen not to be buried with her.  

1930's advert for Kettner's.