Category Archives: Connections

The ‘Monna Lisa’ of Ancient Egypt

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Recently, HV Morton Society member Tony Brett mentioned he had been researching into a small statue at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The full account of his search makes a gripping tale and Tony’s detective work would rival Hercules Poirot himself!

The story begins almost exactly a century ago…

On page sixteen of his excellent biography “In Search of HV Morton”, author Michael Bartholmew tells us about HVM’s eagerness to go on an assignment for the Daily Express, to report on the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun, in 1923. The origins of this eagerness are, says Bartholomew, “… traceable to the Birmingham art gallery, where he was intrigued by a little statue”.

He quotes from Morton’s memoirs where Morton reports “My interest settled, for a reason I can offer no explanation, upon an ancient Egyptian bust about half the size of life which I took to be – indeed it may have been so labelled – a priestess of Isis… The work obsessed me and I began writing about it, trying to describe it, and in a moment of recklessness I posted one of these to… The Connoisseur… they printed the article and sent me a cheque for thirty shillings or two guineas. And then, of course, my fate had been cast. To realise while still at school that you can make money while writing is a most dangerous thing.

Incredibly, it is this very statue that Tony has tracked down and, what is more, he has also managed to locate the article which Morton wrote for The Connoisseur magazine.

When Tony began his enquiries by contacting Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, he was informed by Adam Jaffer (Curator of World Cultures) that the statue itself was most likely a piece known as the Limestone New Kingdom Bust donated to the museum in 1896. Adam told Tony two articles had been written about the bust, both in 1914.

The dates of the articles came as somewhat of a surprise to Tony, given Morton, born in 1892, had suggested in his memoirs he was at school when his was published. If one of these articles was actually Morton’s, this would make him a very late developer – still at school at the age of twenty two!

Undaunted, Tony set to work tracking down the relevant editions of The Connoisseur magazine. The Birmingham Library had, unfortunately, mislaid their copies in a recent move but they put him onto Birmingham University who in turn referred him to the Barber Institute who, at last, came up with the goods.

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Tony got browsing and, sure enough, to his great relief, in the May 1914 edition he came across an article entitled “The ‘Monna Lisa’ of Ancient Egypt”, featuring a picture of the Limestone New Kingdom Bust – without question this was the article referred to in Morton’s memoirs!

Incedentally, by virtue of a little detective work of my own, I have discovered that the May 1914 edition of The Connoisseur is available online courtesy of the Internet Archive, here (Morton’s article is on page 27 of the pdf).

But what about the apparent discrepancy regarding Morton’s age when he wrote the article – just how long was HVM at school? Well, Morton’s memoirs were written towards the end of his life, while living in South Africa, and it is likely advancing years and possibly a little harmless artistic license accounted for this minor inaccuracy. It bears mentioning that the statue which, in his memoirs, is referred to as “a priestess of Isis”; was assumed by the younger Morton, in the original article, to be a representation of the goddess Isis herself.

The article is fascinating for a number of reasons in addition to being the original work which helped determine Morton’s future career. For one thing, it is certainly the earliest published work of HV Morton I have ever come across, but the Morton we know and love is there to be seen in his writing style, particularly his evocative and lavish descriptions.

The title of the article too, is interesting – the “Monna Lisa” of ancient Egypt. This isn’t a mistake; Morton is using the authentic Italian spelling of the title of Da Vinci’s work, to which he is comparing his ancient carving.

The thing that threw me completely for a while though was at the end of the article – the initials HCM. Had Tony fallen at the final hurdle I wondered; is this article even by Morton at all?

It is possibly because I am a veterinary surgeon that my confusion lasted as long as it did – the acronym HCM describes a particularly nasty heart condition suffered by cats! So I hope I can be excused for not realising at once that, although this wasn’t our familiar “HVM” (Henry Vollam Morton), it was the much less frequently (if ever) seen “HCM”, or Henry Canova Morton.

In an article by HV Morton’s niece, Jo Walters, she informs us Morton family legend holds that while Maggie, HVM’s mother, was expecting her first child in 1892, she bought some heather from a gypsy-woman. As she was leaving, the woman turned and said; “The child you carry is a boy, and if you call him ‘Canova’ he will be famous in one of the arts”.

Apparently HVM didn’t share his mother’s enthusiasm for the name Canova, (it came from a Venetian sculptor) and always said he did his best to keep it secret. But on this one occasion he has used it, albeit just the initial, and I don’t think anyone could deny that it did indeed help him on his way to becoming “famous in one of the arts”. Perhaps the prophecy of the gypsy lady was correct! Young Harry clearly wasn’t convinced however as, having this once appeased the fates, he thereafter dropped the “Canova” moniker in all future writings.

There is one, last point of interest about the article, not at all obvious from reading it, but which Tony has also uncovered in his researches. It turns out, the “Monna Lisa” of Ancient Egypt isn’t all she appears to be – that “weird smile”, which so entranced our young author, keeps a secret; one which, even to the end of his days, Morton remained blissfully unaware of. Read on to Part Two (below), where the secret is revealed!

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“The ‘Monna Lisa’ of Ancient Egypt” part two… a Twist in the Tale
In which we discover that HV Morton has been labouring under a slight misapprehension!

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Tony Brett first came across a possible reference to the statue, referred to by HVM as “The ‘Monna Lisa’ of Ancient Egypt“, when he wrote to Adam Jaffer for advice. Adam is Curator of World Cultures at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) and clearly knows his onions because he recognised the statue from the brief description in Morton’s memoirs as being a piece known as the Limestone New Kingdom bust and so put Tony on the trail.

As a bit of background Adam kindly provided an article (sections of which can be seen below) written by Philip Watson – then principal curator in the Department of Human History – for “World Art”, a Birmingham Museum book published in 1999 and edited by Martin Ellis; a show-case for what BMAG considered their best pieces. This article proved most revealing:

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World Art cover

EGYPT, NEW KINGDOM, LATE 18TH DYNASTY, 1400-1300 BC

Limestone Height 30cm (11 3/4 in.) Presented by Miss Hanson, 1896 (1896 A 69)

Despite being broken and unkindly treated by the ravages of time, this head is the finest piece of sculpture in Birmingham’s Egyptian collection. It is carved out of a hard limestone that unfortunately contained patches of softer rock, which have weathered away to produce the current pitted appearance. The piece was highly, polished and originally would doubtless have been painted, as was customary for Egyptian sculpture.

It was presented to the museum in 1896 and two accounts of the bust (both published in 1914) extol its charm and beauty. One of them calls it the “Mona Lisa of ancient Egypt” and interprets it as a bust of the goddess Isis. The unknown author is “astonished by her beauty“, comments on her “weird smile” and finally asserts that “all the beauty, all the mystery and all the culture of dynastic Thebes blossom on the lips of this strange, stone woman“…

Despite such eulogies, the head is, in fact, that of a man. The rather feminized breast is typical of Egyptian sculpture from the reign of Amenophis III, and the gracious, rather soft physiognomy recalls later eighteenth-dynasty statuary. The figure also wears a distinctly, male duplex wig; the top and back of the wig have wavy strands of hair tied into ringlets at the ends, and these seem to be superimposed over a second wig composed entirely of ringlets, which drop forward over the shoulders. This style is common in the late eighteenth dynasty… [PW]

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So, wonderful detail about the statue and clear links to Morton’s Connoisseur magazine article, but unfortunately for HVM, and in spite of his reputaion as someone with an eye for the ladies, it turns out his “Monna Lisa” is a bloke!

In fairness, even looking again in the light of this information, the statue’s masculinity is far from obvious and, according to Watson, our man (the “unknown author” of the first 1914 article mentioned above) wasn’t the only one to have made the mistake.

In his memoirs, Morton was still referring to the statue as “she”, suggesting he probably went to his grave without realising his faux pas; but for us this footnote is an another entertaining facet of the life and works of Henry Canova Vollam Morton.

World Art” is for sale in the Birmingham Museum shop and, although the Limestone New Kingdom Bust is currently “off display” (as the Egypt Gallery is closed due to building work for the new Staffordshire Hoard Gallery)*, it will be back on view once again in May, for all to enjoy.

I would like to express my thanks to Tony, on behalf of the HV Morton Society, for the tremendous job he has done in unearthing this early treasure to add to our archives.

Niall Taylor

*This item was originally circulated as HV Morton Literary Notes – No.123 parts 1 and 2, in March 2014

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Call me a cab

In Search of London 2008

While reading HV Morton’s 1951 “In Search of London”, reader Peter Dron came across this quote in section 6 of chapter 10:

The men who drive the taxi-cabs of London are naturally a race apart. I have known them, and have admired many of them, for years. Some of the old stagers used to drive horse cabs, but that generation is now vanishing…

The other day I struck an old driver who might have been a thin relative of Bairnsfather’s “Old Bill”. I sat looking at the nape of his aged neck, his greying hair, the way he dodged in and out of the traffic and wondering what age he was. When we parted I gave him an unusually large tip because I liked him and because he was old. He looked at the money in the palm of his hand, smiled and winked at me and said:

“Thank yer Guv’nor. Don’t often meet a toff these days, and that’s a fact!”

What a strange conversational throw back to a dead age! He remembered the age of “toffs”, “swells” and “nobs”.

“You see this ‘ere,” he said, still gazing at the money. Do you know what I’d rather ‘ave than this ‘ere? I’ll tell yer… a blinkin’ fat rump steak and a pint o’ porter.”

He then leaned towards me and deplored the age in wich we live. He was an old snob. He loved toffs. He liked “a gentleman”. You could always tell a “real gentleman” from the other kind. Not ‘arf you couldn’t! But nowadays, driving a “keb” in London, blimey what a queer collection of odds and ends you meet. Not ‘arf you didn’t! But in the old days… Ah, the old days, when you could get a rump steak and a pint o’ porter… them was the days, guv’nor, them was the days, and we shan’t see them again. Not ‘arf we shan’t…

And away he went.

Peter was reminded of an article he had written for the Telegraph in 2001 about the London taxi (the TX1 apparently) and, in particuar, those mysterious little green huts which act like docking stations – little taxi Shangri-Las – across London where black cabs and their drivers congregate to be among their own kind for a while, out of the public eye. Had his wish been granted, it is likely that Morton’s driver would have enjoyed his “blinkin’ fat rump steak and a pint o’ porter” in one of these.

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Peter informs us they are something of an endangered species, with considerable provenance and great historical and cultural significance; while at the same time possessing a rather amusing air of having been dropped down, more or less at random, from somewhere above, just like Dr Who’s police box.

They are certainly captivating and when I came across one during a recent family visit to the capital something told me I had to photograph it, and I’m glad I did. Having read Peter’s article I heartily agree with him – it’s rather splendid and surprising that so many of those cabmen’s huts have somehow survived wars and ‘planners’ – not ‘arf it ain’t!

Niall Taylor 20 May 2014

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An unusual HVM connection

HVM Society Snippets – No.163
(originally circulated to the HV Morton Society 25 January 2014)

“Jo went leaping down the stairs…”

An unusual HVM connection

Dear Fellow Mortonites,

Some time ago I received an email from someone who described themselves as “a middle-aged Welshwoman living in the English Midlands” who went by the name of Molly. She had spotted the HV Morton website and made contact.

Molly wrote, “I came to Morton initially because I was on a quest to read all the books referenced in  the Chalet School series, where a character is reading ‘In the Steps of St Paul‘. So I read this, loved it, told my 86 year old father, and it turned out that Morton had been a great favourite of his family in the thirties. Further, I found a cache of books on his shelves… I continued with ‘In the Steps of the Master‘, ‘In Search of England‘ (which I found just a little self-conscious at times) and am now thoroughly enjoying ‘In Search of Wales‘.

Chalet School is a series of 60 books set in a girls’ school, written by Elinor Brent-Dyer between 1925 and 1970. According to wikipedia the original school was located in Austria then, following the rise of Naziism, relocated (rather rashly, with hindsight, even for a fictional establishment) to the Channel Islands before moving to the British mainland and then finally back to the continent, this time to Switzerland. Although modern-day reprints are available they are often heavily revised and altered (presumably in the name of “political correctness“) and, as a result, many of the original editions are highly sought after and change hands for considerable sums of money.

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As one would expect these days, these books have an internet presence including the polished and informative “Friends of the Chalet School” and “insanity sandwich” (now no longer updated) which has a web page listing every one of the books & plays mentioned in the Chalet School series – there is an enormous number of them, Molly certainly has her work cut out.

Molly informed me the passage in question was from “The Highland Twins at the Chalet School“. To give a little context, Jo (the ongoing heroine of the CS) has gone off to collect the eponymous highland twins from the station. She is going to look after them because the Admiralty have commandeered their Scottish Island for the duration. (it’s set in 1940).  Robin, who is roughly 17 years of age and ridiculously angelic – she is later to enter a convent – is reading Morton. The excerpt is as follows:

Jo went leaping down the stairs, and Robin, left to herself, glanced at her wristwatch which was lying on the bedside table. ‘Twenty to six. Jo will have to buck up if she means to be at Armiford station by half-past six. Not that I think it will do any good. Well, I’ll just have another chapter or so of “In the Steps of St Paul“, and then I’d better get out. But it’s not worth while going to sleep again.’ She pushed up her pillows, pulled a woolly round her shoulders, for her nightgown was sleeveless, and the morning air coming through the wide-open window was sharp, with just a touch of frost, and settled down to a half-hour of enjoyment.

As to why Brent-Dyer chose to have one of her characters reading “In the Steps of St Paul“, Molly has a theory: “My guess is that she hadn’t actually read it herself, and thought it was more  – shall I say – religious and less political/travel-ly/generally contemporary than it is…“. Seen that way, Morton’s work would be ideal reading material for the “ridiculously angelic” Robin, seeking a literal path to enlightenment by following in the steps of one of Jesus’s disciples.

I hope this has been of some interest to Morton completists such as myself. If anyone enjoys this sort of thing you might be interested in a previous article listing a few more quirky links, including the wonderful “Hackney Podcast“.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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