25 October 2014

Dutch pottery, tulips, British royalty and an Australian gallery

Early in the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company really did have a vigorous trade with the East and imported beautiful and very expensive Chinese porcelain. Of course only the richest of the rich could afford the early imports.

The Dutch potters did not know about kaolin and could not create porcelain themselves. So they began to imitate Chinese porcelain with whatever technology they had, particularly after the death of the Wanli Emperor in 1620. This was when the supply from China to Europe was interrupted. Delftware was never going to be as fine as real porcelain, but the Dutch tin glazed earthenware pottery was impressive in its own right. It must have worked - by the late 17th century there were 30+ substantial pottery works in Delft alone.

Even middle class Dutch homes in the 17th century aspired to having fresh flowers on their hall stand. If they couldn't afford a constant supply of fresh flowers, they could commission a beautiful painting of fresh flowers in a pottery vase, and put the painting on their hall stand instead. Ambrosius Bosschaert paintings from the 1620s included gorgeous tulips and other flowers in proud display.

Earthenware vase from Delft, 1695
1 metre tall.
Commissioned by Queen Mary II
Acquired by the NGV in Melbourne

In any case by Feb 1637 that tulip traders could no longer find new buyers willing to pay increasingly inflated prices for the precious bulbs. As this realisation set in, the demand for tulips suddenly collapsed and prices plummeted. Tulip Mania ended but the passion for fresh flowers did not.

A tulip vase, that is a vase with spouts that could hold tulips, could actually hold any flowers in an exuberant display. Let me cite Amanada Dunsmore (Gallery Magazine May-June 2014), who is the senior curator of International Decorat­ive Arts in Melbourne’s most important state gallery, the NGV. She described a very important object, newly acquired by the NGV, as a magnificent seven piece pyramidal flower vase. One metre high, the vase was made in the 1690s at one of the famous earthenware potteries in Delft in the Dutch Republic. This is one of those factories’ most technically and artistically stunning works of art.

The vase stood on a hexagonal base moulded as a columned, classical pavilion, topped with recumbent frogs that supported the six tiers above. Each tier comprised a water reservoir adorned with six open-mouthed, animal headed spouts intended to hold a variety of cut flowers, including tulips and roses. The blue and white palette was inspired by imported Chinese porcelain, yet the decoration on this vase was a mix of European and Chinese motifs, Chinese characters and birds on rocks amid flowering plants, a common decorative motif on 17th century Chinese porcelain.

Stadtholder William of Orange and his wife Mary moved from the Netherlands to Britain and began their joint reign as King William III and Queen Mary II in February 1689.

The many amazing vase-structures reflected Queen Mary II’s great patronage of the Delft potteries and their increasingly exuberant product­ions inspired by Chinese porcelain. Queen Mary’s collection of Chin­ese-style pottery at Kensington Palace numbered almost 8,000 pieces. Her china-mania, as Daniel Defoe referred to it, fed the productions of the Delft factories and encouraged the development of pyramidal vases with spouts. They became increasingly grander in scale towards the end of the century and were commissioned by royalty and nobility all over Europe. The vases became symbols of wealth and prestige at the most elite level.

Earthenware vase from Delft, 1690
1 metre tall.
Commissioned by King William III
Royal Collection, Hampton Court

There are several points I would like to raise, not covered by the NGV description. Firstly why were the earlier 17th century tulip vases small­er and less spectacular than those from the 1680s and 1690s? Pottery skills had not advanced throughout the century and passion for pottery vases had, if anything, marginally gone down with the passing decades.

Secondly why did the nation continue to pour money into monumental flower vases, decades after the tulip sensation ended in the Netherlands? And why did the pottery makers have to wait for Queen Mary II for endless royal patronage? Earlier rulers in the newly independent Dutch Republic must have surrounded themselves with both fine art and decorative arts de jour.

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that by the end of the 17th century, Delft faience became very, very popular in the Netherlands. Queen Mary was not alone. Delft potteries were also commissioned by King William III to make impressive tulip pieces to decorate the palaces of his new kingdom across the Channel. Examine (photograph above)  a large tulip vase that was made in the Delft pottery De Grieksche for the stadholder-king, as we can tell from the royal arms.

Earthenware vase from Delft, 1691
1.1 metre tall.
Commissioned by King William III
Royal Collection, Hampton Court

My personal favourite was another tulip vase with the arms of Wilhelm III, 1691. As the photograph shows, it too was made from blue painted faience, is 1.1 m high, and can be found at the Royal Collection, Hampton Court. This vase was more aesthetically pleasing because the spouts were arranged around the vase in horizontal rather in vertical bands, and because the top section resembled a beautiful crown.

21 October 2014

Boer War - anti German sentiment in Australia

Your Brisbane tells a sorry tale. Karl Ernst Eschenhagen (born 1850) was a baker who emigrated from Germany in the 1880s and established one of Brisbane's best hospitality businesses. He started in a George St bakery, opened branches in Edward St and Fortitude Valley and lastly opened a Queen St restaurant that could seat 500 diners.

Ernst Eschenhagen had become a famous baker, restaurateur and caterer. His surname was surmounted on the turret, was painted on both windows and was sunk in brass letters into the footpath. Anyone passing could not help but be impressed. Even the inscription "By Special Appointment to His Excellency" above the door was not a commercial boast but a statement of Vice-Regal fact; his restaurant had catered scores of Government House receptions.

Things turned nasty for Eschenhagen at the turn of the century. As a result of Australia's involvement in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, anti-German sent­iment ran rampant, leading to a boycott of the Esch­enhagen business. Before this war started, there was no more popular and prosperous caterer to be found in Brisbane. After the Boer War, his shop was a desert. The business did slowly recover, but Ernst Esch­enhagen took his own life in 1906.

Who knows what part was played by the hatred endured during the war years. During the Second Boer War, there were certainly attacks on Germans in the press, in shops and on public transport in Great Britain, but clearly it happened in Australia as well.

Major FWR Albrecht 
ex Prussian Guard Artillery of Berlin 
leading the artillery unit of the Boer republic of the Orange Free State 
photo credit: Blankwaffen Forum

The 2nd Boer War was a major and very bloody conflict to which Britain and her colonies send 450,000 troops. The 16,500 Australian troops made up over half of the number of troops from participating British colonies. I know quite a lot about the connection between the British, the Australians and the Boers, but nothing about the relationship between the South African Boers and Germany.

By 1884 there were German Imperial colonies in Africa, for example in present day Ghana, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Namibia and Botswana. Perhaps that partially explains why, during the second Boer war, there was great German support for the Boer struggle. As The Soldier’s Burden has shown, the Boers were armed with weapons made by Mauser and Krupp. Major FWR Albrecht, the officer commanding the Orange Free State artillery, was a German army man. And note that the German Freikorps of Volunteers and officers fought on the Boer side.

There was no official monetary aid from the German govern­ment. However Boer emissaries toured Germany during the war, collecting funds for Boer soldiers and later for their widows and orphans. Pro-Boer associations met in bars and meeting halls like The Burenwirt, M√ľnchen. I am assuming they were raising money, as well as raising beer steins. Countless postcards were printed in Germany during the war, both to raise funds for the Boers and to make fun of the British. Many books were published during and after the war; Pro-Boer associat­ions, German volunteer combatants and novelist wanted to publish their version of history in the German language.

Boers armed with German made 1896 Mauser rifles posing behind a small mortar
photo credit: The Warfare Historian

In the latter stages of the war, the Kaiser's support waned as he recognised that alienating the British by supporting a small nation on the tip of Africa was potentially more trouble than it was worth. Nonetheless once the war ended, Boers still chose to flee to German South West Africa to avoid surrendering to the British. 

Even if we agree that German support (financial, equipment and volunteers) was vital to the Boer effort, we still have to ask vital questions:

1. How did Australian citizens, going about their daily business in Melbourne or Brisbane, know about semi-secretive German activities on behalf of the Boers? Aus­t­ralian newspaper journalists in South Africa did send back articles that mentioned German soldiers but was that enough to incite anti-German behaviour 10,000 ks away?

2. There was no shortage of Boer supporters in France, Netherlands and Belgium, so why did Australian citizens not seem to develop an antipathy towards these nations and their vast overseas colonies? The nationalistic Transvaal Irish Brigade marched into South Africa to support the Boers and to oppose the British. How did Australians react to Irish immigrants in Australia?

3. Did Australian citizens target all people with German surnames, regardless of how many decades they had been in Australia and whether they were Australian citizens or not? How widespread were the anti-German feelings spread around Australia, particularly in the large communities of German-speakers near Adelaide?


I still wonder about the surviving Boer fighters and their ongoing relationship with Germany. Note that at the outbreak of WW1, only a decade after the Boer War ended, the Germans equipped the Burenfreikorps and supported Manie Maritz when he went into open rebellion to topple South Africa's Union Government. Even in the 1920s and 1930s there was still a strong Boer force waiting for the moment that South Africa would shake off British influence. Certain sections of Boer society were involved in Right wing organisations that were loosely copied from the Freikorps.

18 October 2014

British ex-servicemen fight against Fascism - at home!

In this blog I have discussed the Fascists’ activities in Britain in the 1930s, in particular their infamous battle against London’s East Enders in Cable St in 1936. And I would have expected that Fascism could not continue at home, once Britain, France and their allies declared war against Germany. Indeed most Fascist and pro-Nazi parties in Britain voluntarily closed down immediately at the outbreak of hostilities. But the government was taking no risk. Defence Regulation 18B, dated September 1939, allowed the authorities to detain without trial those believed to be working against the nation!

Yet for some reason, the Home Secretary seemed unprepared to gaol every active Fascist in the country. So Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists continued its so-called Peace Campaign activities, organising mass meetings throughout the Phoney War from Sep 1939 to Ap 1940. And Mrs Diana Mitford Mosley (and her sister Unity) met Hitler as often as possible, soon adopting the policies of the Nazi Party with warm enthusiasm.

enormous Fascist rally at Earl's Court, London 16th July 1939.
War against Germany was declared on 3rd September 1939

It was the collapse of Norway, France and the Low Countries in May 1940 that changed Britain's kid-glove handling of home-grown Fascists overnight. The Home Secretary became particularly concerned over the activities of the rabid Right Club. So in May 1940, Mosley and 747 other BU members were arrested and interned without charge. A number of Fascists were eventually moved to camps on the Isle of Man where they were housed in segregated camps, but Mosley and wife remained in Brixton prison.

Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley were released in November 1943, and spent the rest of the war under house arrest.

Graham Macklin* wanted to know what happened after Oswald Mosley was int­erned in 1940. Did his devoted followers keep the Sacred Flame of British fascism alight? Did his arrest kill off the movement? Was Mosley so humiliated after his Fascist friends in Germany lost WW2 that he never showed his face again? Yes, no and no. There was such a strong spiritual link between Mosley and his followers that gaol during the war years only made them more loyal.

Just after WW2 ended, Victoria and Alexandra Park in London and many other sites across the country were still POW camps for German soldiers. British soldiers and military nurses were flooding home, working class soldiers to bombed-out East London, Coventry, Liverpool, Bradford and Birmingham etc. Many of them had seen the horrors of Fascist regimes in Europe first hand and prayed they would never see Fascism again.

Yet Mosley had no trouble at all reforming his old party into the newly-named Union Movement. As in the 1930s, Mosley and his men whipped up a frenzy of race hatred, aimed at first against the local Jewish population and then against the local black popul­ation.

But this time there really was organised opposition to the British Fascists. Ex-servicemen, who had fought Fascism in Europe and survived, were being demobilised back in Britain by late 1945. They who had sacrificed so much were horrified to see the Fascist movement at home regrow in strength. Worse still, the police seemed to step aside and let the Fascists terrorise ordinary British citizens.

Morris Beckman's book The 43 Group: Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism.
first published in 1993.

In early 1946, 38 recently demobilised men and 5 women met at Maccabi House in Hampstead and founded The 43 Group. These people tracked the activities of the Fascist groups and turned up at every anti-Semitic mass rally, defended families against attacks on Jewish homes & shops, infiltrated Fascist groups and attacked the Fascists in street fighting. The 43 Group had no weapons other than knives.

Soon hundreds of non-Jewish soldiers, who had fought to bravely against the Fascist powers during the war, joined The 43 Group to fight Fascism at home. At first just in London, by 1947 they had a thousand members and opened branches in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. Vidal Sassoon (1928–2012), not yet famous for his hairdressing, was active in The 43 Group in his local East End of London. Working against the blackshirt thugs who marched through his neighbourhood, Sassoon was still a teenager when was stomped on in pitched battles.

Morris Beckman (born 1921) told how they would attend a Fascist rally and wait for a signal to storm the speaker’s platform. They were, after all, ex-soldiers and were used to tight discipline. Beckman estimated that two thirds of Britain's post-war Fascist rallies were closed down in chaos.

Despite being occasionally successful, especially in Dalston Hackney in 1947, Mosley’s Union Movement no longer had carte blanche to do wherever they wanted. Their defeat at the hands of The 43 Group taught Mosley that there was little prospect of success in Britain. British Fascism might not have to disappear, but it would have to change.

Macklin showed how the old nationalism of the British Union of Fascists gave way to the concept of a European Fascist super-state, a global force connecting right wing Europe and the USA. The work was based on racial values drawn from Europe’s vast, white-ruled, colonial empires. The sacred flame of the new Fascism, explained in Mosley's 1947 book The Alternative, became more involved in stopping black immigration from the old British Empire countries.

So Mosley took his message to Europe. German POWs in Britain were invited to attend British Fascist meetings; on their return to Germany, they agreed to promote Mosley’s books in translation. In June 1949, Mosley went to Spain, where his sponsor was General Franco‘s brother-in-law. Mosley’s books were then translated into Spanish. By 1950, Mosley was in Italy, as a guest of the Fascist Party there. Mosley’s endless funds and personal support were given to bolster Fascist groups in many countries. Germany, Spain and Italy!

Once the Mosley Fascists disbanded in Britain in 1950, The 43 Group disbanded as well. The soldiers were tired - years of fighting against Fascism in Europe and then 5 long years of fighting against Fascism in Britain.

Oswald Mosley decided in 1951 to leave England forever, so he moved first to Ireland and then later to France. He was very busy writing his biographical books until he died December 1980 in France aged 84. His papers are housed at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.

Why did the British government not protect its own citizens from the Fascist thugs from 1946 on? Why do we know far more about Mosley’s values than The 43 Group’s values? Have the opponents to British Fascism been air-brushed out of history? I have cited the following books in this debate and recommend reading them:

Beckman Morris The 43 Group: Untold Story of Their Fight Against Fascism, Centerprise Publications, 1993.

*Macklin, G Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism After 1945, International Library of Political Studies, 2007.

"The 43 Group" in The History Girls