Yesterday (30 March 2021) a distant view of the Giza Pyramids by Edward Lear sold at Sotheby’s (Lot 25) for £801,500, the second-highest price, we think, ever reached for a painting by this quite extraordinary man and artist.
It’s a wonderful painting – your eye focusing on the dot of light at the end of the road, before glancing right, to the Pyramids themselves. Thoughts of the Bents in Cairo come to mind, notably in early 1885 when Mabel climbed Khufu, the Great, on her birthday (Wednesday 28 January): “… After dinner we went out in the bright moonlight and Theodore… went to visit the Sphinx but I preferred to go up the Pyramid, as I had not done it on Monday… I scrambled up all alone… I wondered if ‘Fair Rhodope who as the story tells’ sat on the top of the Pyramid, delighting all beholders, was a poor creature whose clothes had got torn off in the ascent and who could not get down. I thought of the dangers and difficulties in ‘Murray’ and ‘Baedeker’ and determined to read about them and tremble tomorrow, and I banished scornfully a very passing thought of the silk elbows of the only smart frock I have with me, and joyfully and proudly reached the summit, a strangely dressed figure – Hat, silk and velvet brocade body, white lace fichu over it and a blue cloth petticoat with a wide scarlet band, which I quite vainly tried to conceal by tying a black lace scarf round it; the skirt had been discarded before starting… It was splendid being up there and I think it very very unlikely that any other person has been up by moonlight on his birthday before…
(It was on this same trip, we can reveal, that Theodore and Mabel actually excavated at Saqqara (near Ti’s tomb) – not a widely reported fact and their activities went unpublished, but for Mabel’s diary entry of a picnic there on 30th January 1885: “We improved our knowledge of the letters and were so delighted with the outer part that the old man rattled his keys much and often to try and attract us inside. When we did get inside we felt we should be there a long time so sent for our luncheon which we ate in the outer part, digging a hole for orange peels etc., that they might not offend the sight of future comers.“)
If you are curious, a search for the highest price paid for a Lear finds a sum of £938,400 in June 2007, at Christie’s, for another Egyptian view: Kasr-es-Saiyyad (Kasr es Saiad, El Qasr el Saiyad).
Astronomical prices indeed for an artist who had to work tirelessly in his lifetime to make ends meet and who eventually settled modestly in San Remo, Italy, where, in a manner of speaking, he met Bent: “Tozer of Oxford sends me a charming book… by Theodore Bent… all about the Cyclades. (Dearly beloved child let me announce to you that this word is pronounced ‘Sick Ladies,’ – howsomdever certain Britishers call it ‘Sigh-claides.’)…” (Lear to Chichester Fortescue, Lord Carlingford [30 April 1885, San Remo]).
Mabel Bent’s diaries are available from Archaeopress, Oxford.
“We cannot too much admire the persistence, courage, and cheerful endurance of hardships displayed by Mr. Bent and his plucky wife.” – The Manchester Guardian
“Mrs. Bent has compiled a work rich in information. Much is included of extreme utility. The volume with its good maps and illustrations and instructive appendices, will deservedly take its place in the category of recognized and authoritative books of travel.” – The World
“May we hope for more.” – The Outlook
In anyone’s list of the best twenty books in the English language on explorations in the Middle East you are likely to find Mabel and Theodore Bent’s Southern Arabia, published in London on 26 January 1900.
This ambitious work, compiled by Mabel from her ‘Chronicles‘ and the notebooks and articles published by Theodore before his untimely death in May 1897, a few days after returning from Aden, now commands high prices for its first edition, handsome as it is with its red cloth binding, sketches by Theodore, Mabel’s photographs, and numerous maps.
The book would have cost you 18 shillings, quite a sum in those days, over £40 now. However, you will need to find over £500, or as much as £1500, for a good original copy today (March 2021). On-demand editions, thankfully, are easy to find and there are also excellent, highly-recommended (and free) online versions (e.g. archive.org), and the Table of Contents is reproduced here from one.
The region absorbed Theodore Bent for the last few years of his short life and it is thus unsurprising that Mabel spent the next ten years or so, the first decade of the twentieth century, returning for lengthy stays in Palestine, making Jerusalem her base. It has to be said that these sojourns were challenging for Mrs Bent – she had no partner, she became involved in intrigue and controversy, she tried her hand at bookselling, at caring for Gordon’s spurious Garden Tomb (editing a guidebook to it in the 1920s); and there was the episode of her ride alone in the wilderness and her fall and broken leg, and then there is the mystery of the so-called Bethel Seal. And much must be seen within the context of her formative years – a difficult father, the painful death of her mother, the assumed suicide of her younger brother, the early death from typhoid of her elder brother… the need to be somewhere else can be well understood.
Strangest of all, was Mabel’s obsession – for such it seems – with the controversial movement, British Israelism, and she used her months in Jerusalem to research and write that tract of nonsense she published in 1908 under the title Anglo-Saxons from Palestine. However the book serves two good purposes, one is to illustrate just how absurd the concept was, and is, and the other is to provide, of all things, fourteen pages of reviews of her 1900 publication – Southern Arabia.
Next time you publish, try asking your editor if you can include fourteen pages of reviews of your last book, and a book on someone else’s list to boot! See what answer you get! But you are not Mabel Bent of course – she was something of an unmovable force, much respected for her courage and ‘pluck’, in mountains and deserts, and on horse, donkey, and camel.
Much of this is evident in what amounts to Mabel’s scrapbook of press cuttings on Southern Arabia, which we present for you via the link below. It is unlikely that they will have been read much since their publication. They are Mabel’s own selection, and she has judiciously edited them for negative remarks – a stinker (‘Man’, Vol. 1, 1901, 29-30) presumably by Arabist D. G. Hogarth, understandably, is not included, but he may well have had a pen in a couple of the others!
Reading them, with their focus on Aden, Bahrain, Yemen, Dhofar, Oman, Muscat, Sokotra, the Red Sea, etc., you could just as well switch the geography to the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Africa, Iran, the western seaboard of India, or Iran – those other theatres of exploration engaging the Bents for twenty years. And not lost on you, with the sense that Mabel is underscoring each, will be all the old adjectives of Empire – the review from the Illustrated London News is, well, illustrative: “That lady’s high spirit and courage, the tact and cleverness with which she managed to bear her position, as the only female traveller must have been a great help to her conjugal partner. This book is her memorial of him and will be acceptable to many readers.”
But no excuses are needed for drawing these lost glimpses of the Bents to your attention (the bibliographical references are incomplete, let us know if you want any specifically and we will try and help) – the notices will have reminded Mabel, of course, of her dead husband, and their fulfilled twenty years of adventures together, and, like all travel-addicts, her need to be somewhere else…
“The vivacity of her feminine humour, the keen observation of amusing little details, the lively recollection of droll anecdotes, and the brave wife’s spirit of comradeship in their frequent adventurous travels, grace with a peculiar charm the instructive revelation of much rare fresh learning which concerns the lore of historic antiquity, as well as the present condition of territories yet imperfectly known… That lady’s courage and high spirit, the tact and cleverness with which she managed to bear her position as the only female traveller, must have been a great help to her conjugal partner. This book is her memorial of him, acceptable to many readers who condole with her irreparable bereavement.” (The Illustrated London News, April 21, 1900, p. 556)
“[One] of the most notable and charming women of the day…” and her “museum” – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W1
Both Theodore and Mabel Bent liked to style themselves ‘archaeologists’, and at times a case can be made that they were… and at others that they were anything but. But there can be no doubting they were truly exceptional travellers and explorers, regularly facing uncertainty and considerable hardships over a period of almost twenty years – ‘excavating’ where they could, usually in line with whatever Theodore’s current hobby-horse happened to be – early life in the Cyclades, the Phoenicians, the Queen of Sheba…
The Bents are an amazingly addictive couple and ‘the archaeology of the Bents’ is very much part of what the Bent Archive is all about. And now and then, once in twenty years of research, something truly remarkable, unique even, comes to light. The late summer of 2020 produced just such a discovery, beginning with an insignificant alert from the British Newspaper Archive saying that a quality women’s magazine, The Gentlewoman, had been added to its list of digital holdings, most of which originate from the British Library. Straightaway the search term ‘Theodore Bent’ (which will turn up either Mr or Mrs J. Theodore Bent) went in, and, just like an excavator in an opening trench, you wait to see if anything comes up. Bingo! There it was – The Gentlewoman – The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen, Vol. VII, Saturday, November 11, 1893, pages 621-622, Article title: Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, No. CLXXV, ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent… at 13, Great Cumberland Place’.
An astonishing discovery, and for us as intriguing as anything the Bents brought home to London from the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, or Arabia. And what makes the article so appealing is that it is the only piece unearthed so far that goes into any detail about the Bents’ archaeological and ethnographic finds that they had out on show in their London townhouse (an invitation and victim to the Blitz), 13 Great Cumberland Place, just a few hundred metres from Marble Arch. A further discovery is that the article also contains a very rare portrait of Mabel (which our research shows is by Henry Van der Weyde); there are also three unique photographs, sadly very dark, of the interior of their house.
This revelatory article from The Gentlewoman is now transcribed below and we make no apologies for its length – you can return to it as often as you like, and it is probably the first time for a hundred years it will have been re-read. Its context (and once more we have archaeology), reinforces the aura of celebrity the Bents had acquired following their 1891 trip to ‘Great Zimbabwe’, with Cecil Rhodes scheming behind him – and in a sense the great ‘Colossus’ made a minor one of Theodore, and Mabel too.
The last few paragraphs of the piece make reference to the 1893 scandal involving the controversy of whether women should continue being elected Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society – Mabel was in the proposed second cohort (22 or so had been elected thus far), but the RGS hierarchy managed to ban them from applying. It was a sorry story, not put right until 1913.
It is also worth noting that some of the dates mentioned in the article are inaccurate for some reason – perhaps Mabel’s memory let her down during the interview with the editor.
Nor does the article always make for happy reading – there are inclusions and stray finds that are unwelcome today, but which were the matrix of the day – the discovery that two ikons from the Patmos’ ‘Cave of the Apocalypse’ were removed is a shock (although Mabel in her diary records that at least one was ‘purchased’). Mabel died in 1929 and a few years previously she donated some of the artefacts she held most dear, those that reminded her most of happier times before Theodore’s early death in 1897, to the British Museum. All her remaining assets were bequeathed to her nieces, and her collections divided up, dispersed, sold off, reverting to anonymous items, and now in the main contextless, provenances lost. And the Patmos ikons? Where they are today, we don’t know. Let’s hope some future archaeologist turns them up and sees these little treasures returned to the Dodecanese…
… but let’s make a start on the transcription, and hand you over to Theodore and Mabel, in one of their cluttered drawing rooms, carriages rattling along in the street below, being interviewed by the editor of TheGentlewoman, Joseph Snell Wood. It is Autumn in London in 1893, an empire’s heyday, and the leaves in Hyde Park are changing colour…
Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent… at 13, Great Cumberland Place’
A throwaway line in Mabel Bent’s ‘Chronicle’ of Monday, January 25th, 1897, written off the beaten track in Socotra, arouses curiosity and links us tangentially to her husband’s friend, Nigel Gresley: “All the booted portion of the party are now in anxiety about their foot gear, as to how it will hold out till Tamarida. We apply the gums of various trees to retard consumption. At last, instead of going over a precipice we (turned to the left) reached a river and on the other side of that we encamped… I was not tired. I am sure our legs will be in good training for our bicycles [our italics].” (Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 3, p. 300)
Bicycles? Yes indeed… The Bents were bikers by the 1890s, if not before.
Around the early 1880s, soon after the Bents’ wedding in fact, bike designers were looking for ways of getting their riders nearer the ground (think ‘Penny-farthing’ here), i.e. safer. It was a British engineer, it seems, who cracked the problem – John Kemp Starley (1855-1901), with his 1885 ‘safety’ bicycle (coincidentally the year Theodore was also making a name for himself with his famous guidebook on the Cyclades). A revolutionary feature of this new invention was that now both wheels (with pneumatic tyres ) could be the same size, thanks to its chain drive mechanism.
The Starley ‘Rover’ (the polymath designer was involved with the founding of this famous brand) and other models soon started a craze for biking, and thousands of clubs sprang up all over Europe. Also revolutionary was the speedy acceptance of biking by women (suitably attired), and these bike clubs can be said to have played a proud and early role in gender equality! The only reference we have so far by Theodore himself to the sport comes in a letter of 13 September 1896 to the renowned cartographer H.R. Mill, from the house of Bent’s Irish in-laws in Co. Carlow: “We are having it miserably wet over here and biking is at a discount” (Mill Correspondence, RGS RGS/CB7/Bent, T&M).
But a few weeks later, in England once more, the clouds had mostly blown away and Bent was back in the saddle – this time not with Mabel (and we don’t have her opinion on this separation), but with his very old friend the Rev. Nigel Walsingham Gresley of Dursley, Gloucestershire (UK). Cairo to Cape Town (Bent knew them both)? No. Aden to Shibam (ditto)? No. What we have is an energetic week in gentrified East Anglia, eastern England – eating, drinking, fishing, sketching, brass-rubbing, and church-going.
Clearly Bent’s trip with his old school and college friend was well prepared in advance, as there were prearranged stops to visit some of Theodore’s acquaintances, including the great novelist Rider Haggard (fellow enthusiast for Great Zimbabwe) and Sir Elwin and Lady Palmer, the former at the time was Financial Secretary to the Khedive in Egypt. In the record of the tour, we read that the friends ‘dined’ with the Palmers, raising the question of clothes! Gresley packed his fishing rod it appears, and what else did they pack for a week and how was it all carried? There are old photographs of fardels strapped to the fronts and backs of bikes, and others of knapsacks.
The map below itemizes where they lay their weary selves after each day’s ride and the major sights they took in along the way. East Anglia comprises the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, the name deriving “from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the East Angles, a tribe whose name originated in Anglia, in what is now northern Germany”, as Wikipedia informs us. In Bent’s day, as now, the region was a most pleasant recreational area – the location of the brisk Norfolk Broads, the birthplace of the great Nelson, and the site of a royal residence at Sandringham, among many other attractions.
We don’t have the actual dates of this biking ‘week in East Anglia’, but it must have been the autumn of 1896. Gresley’s (privately) published account is dated October 28, 1896, and it informs that the pair “starting from Dursley one Monday morning” reached Norwich that night by train; the following Tuesday they caught the midday train from King’s Lynn back to London. Sadly we don’t know what bikes they had, but, interestingly, Dursley later had its own bicycle factory! As they made several boat journeys during the week (in this watery landscape of lakes and twisty rivers – the Waveney, Bure, and Ant), it is not easy to estimate the miles they covered, and of course we have no way of knowing which roads they took then, but it must have been over the 200 miles Gresley claims (and where he makes specific references, or the routes seem relatively clear, a distance in miles has been inserted into his text.)
As for the cost of a bike in those days (1890), we are talking £12 – £20; this seems most reasonable, but remember a pound then would cost you £50 now – so for your new bike: £600-£1000 – rather like today.
And a glance at any map of Suffolk and Norfolk will tell you how labyrinthine the area can be. What maps did our tourists take one wonders? We know Bent had his expedition maps prepared for him by the famous Edward Stanford of Charing Cross. Perhaps from them they ordered a set of the beautiful Ordnance Survey One-Inch maps of England and Wales (the Revised New Series of 1892-1908), a crucial feature of which is the word INN, found in most villages! As for how many times we would have seen the tourists’ bikes propped up against a thatched pub we are not apprised, but opening hours would have been observed no doubt: “… an uncommonly good luncheon of sausages, fried potatoes, and excellent cheese and butter (it is astonishing how hungry bicycling and sight-seeing make one!)”, writes Gresley.
During Gresley’s tale, one can imagine Theodore Bent chatting away, as the bike wheels click, of the lands and landscapes he had passed through over the last twenty years – Africa, Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia, the Sudan – and what a contrast to the benign byways of Norfolk and Suffolk. Of Bent’s cycling chum, the Rev. Nigel Walsingham Gresley, we know not much, other than what a few online references can provide (and should you have a photograph of him please let us know). He was born in 1850, probably in Ashby de la Zouche, and attended Repton School, beginning his friendship with Theodore Bent there. His father was a keen amateur archaeologist. He took an MA from Exeter College, Oxford (Bent was at Wadham). Having several ecclesiastical roles, he was rural dean of Dursley, Glos., at the time of this bike tour of East Anglia with Bent. He married Jane Drummond in 1878 (the year after the Bents’ nuptials). He died in 1909. There is no doubting he was a close and trusted friend of Theodore’s, being left £1000 in the latter’s will in 1897, tragically just a few months following the carefree tour of England’s eastern counties, which we are to let you read any minute now.
Jerome K. Jerome published Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) in 1889, and N. Walsingham Gresley peddled after the former, alas without the critical acclaim (and justly so), with his A Week on Wheels in East Anglia: Dedicated to the Cyclists of Dursley, a mere seven years later – you can spot the similarities, only for three men, change to two, and boat becomes bike… there is no dog, of course…never was.
“A Week on Wheels in East Anglia: Dedicated to the Cyclists of Dursley”
In and out (just about) of the Wadi Hadramawt – Mabel of Arabia
A recent Aljazeera feature on the mud-castle skyscrapers of the Hadramawt diverts and transports instantaneously. These castles strung along Yemen’s Wadi Hadramawt, bewildering CGI confections all, still miraculously exist – at risk equally from age-old threats of internecine wars, and new ones, such as mud-dissolving floods, initiated by climate change.
But if we want, we can fade to sepia and go back and look at these castles through the eyes of cavalier Victorian travellers of the 1890s:
“… the only possible way of making explorations in Arabia is to take it piecemeal… by degrees to make a complete map by patching together the results of a number of isolated expeditions. Indeed, this is the only satisfactory way of seeing any country.” (writes Mabel Bent in 1900)
Hands up then if you’ve heard of Theodore and Mabel Bent (1852-1897 and 1847-1929 respectively)? Ok – a couple of you. Chances are you met them in the Greek Cyclades, right? – over a copy of Bent’s great 1885 guide to the islands (by the way, still the best English introduction to them).
But these Victorians travelled further, much further. For instance? – well, e.g., they were paid by Cecil Rhodes in 1891 to explore the remains of Great Zimbabwe; they also rode, south–north, the length of Iran in 1889; and trekked the Ethiopian highlands in 1893; etc., etc…
Perhaps, though, their greatest folie à deux comprised the three attempts they made on the Wadi Hadramawt, in the Yemen, ‘Arabia Felix’, between 1894 and 1897. Where? Picture Aden on a map, wiggle your finger east along the coast for a few centimetres, move the same finger inland, northish, for a couple more, and you about have it – in all, 200 km or so of the most spectacular valley-landscape you will ever see.
But of course you would be mad to try (check out the UK Foreign Office’s latest advice). Yemen is dangerous – in 1894 as now. In all probability, Mabel Bent, red-haired and no-nonsense, was the first western woman, voluntarily at least, ever to ride from the port of Mokulla up and into the Wadi Hadramawt, with its oases and fabulous cities of mud towers. An extraordinary adventure for an aristocratic Irishwoman, of the trout-brown Slaney River, Co. Wexford. (Theodore’s objectives for the expedition are beyond the scope of these short paragraphs, but they had something to do with the Queen of Sheba. Suffice it to say… his last trip killed him – Mabel got him home alive, somehow, in May 1897, to their house near London’s Marble Arch, where he shivered to death a few days later of malarial complications. He was 45, his wife was 50.)
Mabel’s diaries (she called them her ‘Chronicles’) have all been published (except for a missing volume – her trip to Ethiopia in early 1893). Here she is on her way east, to ‘the castle of the Sultan of Shibahm at Al Koton’ (al-Qatn); she took the photo you see here too.
Friday, 12th January 1894: “[Theodore and I] still proceed among limestone cliffs along the wadis … Our journey was seven hours, always along the valley, more like a plain it was so wide. We intended to go on to Al Khatan, where the Sultan of Shibahm lives, but a messenger came saying he expected to see us tomorrow and we were to encamp at Al Furuth. So when we reached that place, where there is a very beautiful well, shaded by palms and with four oxen, two at each side, drawing up water, we set up our five tents in the smoothest part of a ploughed field. Towards evening came two viziers, gaily dressed on fine horses, to welcome us: Salem bin Ali and Salem bin Abdullah, cousins.
“[The viziers came to greet us] about 7.30 next morning. We had all stayed in bed till it was quite light and they brought two extra horses… While the camels were loaded a lot of women came to see me and I sat in a chair and took off my gloves at their request and let them hand my hands round. They asked to see my head, so then they got my hair down, dived their fingers down my collar, tried to open the front of my dress and take my boots off and turned up my gaiters…
“We principal personages set out, leaving camels, etc., to follow… in ½ hour we arrived and were delighted with the appearance of this town of towers in the morning light, and the tallest, whitest and most decorated, shining against the precipitous mountains, was pointed out as our future home, and we all wondered what should next befall us and whether this was the farthest point of our journey or if we could get onward…” [The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol 3, Arabia, p.165 ff]
A few years later, after Theodore’s death, Mabel writes up the same event in her tribute book to her husband – Southern Arabia: “Like a fairy palace of the Arabian Nights, white as a wedding cake, and with as many battlements and pinnacles, with its windows painted red, the colour being made from red sandstone, and its balustrades decorated with the inevitable chevron pattern, the castle of Al Koton rears its battlemented towers above the neighbouring brown houses and expanse of palm groves; behind it rise the steep red rocks of the encircling mountains, the whole forming a scene of Oriental beauty difficult to describe in words. This lovely building, shining in the morning light against the dark precipitous mountains, was pointed out to us as our future abode.” (Southern Arabia, 1900, p. 111)
There we have it then, not Ludwig of Bavaria, but Mabel of Arabia, and the fantasy castles she wondered at some 130 years ago, and still, miraculously, standing.
Coda: “This war has to end” said President Biden the other day (Feb 2021), and “we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen”. What will this mean and how can it end? Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling in this extraordinary region in the 1890s, as a recent post in writer Jen Barclay’s blog outlines…
“And now I think we are among the most remarkable people in this world. Fancy going all the way to Bombay and departing thence without ever landing!” (from Mabel Bent’s Chronicleof 1889)
We begin our essay on Theodore and Mabel Bent and India not at the Taj Mahal, nor the Ellora Caves, but in leafy Brookwood Cemetery (Surrey, UK), an hour from London, on May 24, 1904:
“And why, it may be asked, were so many Indian and English friends gathered… in such a place on a dismal day in a downpour of rain? The day was dismal, and rightly so, for the obsequies were being performed of Mr. Jamsetdjee Nusserwanjee Tata, the foremost citizen, taken all round, that India has produced during the long period of British rule over the most cultured and civilised people east of Suez…”
For it seems, indeed, that Mabel Bent, and perhaps Theodore too, although dead and buried himself these seven years, was a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of the extraordinary Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904), the pioneer Indian industrialist who founded the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate company (as at 2021).
And in the same periodical that reports the industrialist’s funeral – the Voice of India, Saturday, 18 June 1904 (p. 583) – we have an image of Mabel, bearing flowers, her long red hair tucked under a black hat:
“From Mr. N.J. Moola I have received the following list of inscriptions attached to the wonderfully beautiful and choice flowers that were an eloquent expression of the affection in which Mr. Tata was held…”
And included in this list we find: ‘With deep sympathy, from Mrs. Theodore Bent,’ and Mabel remained friends with the family, as a cutting from the Belfast Evening Telegraph of Monday, June 28, 1913, indicates: “Mrs. Theodore Bent’s recent evening party was as great a success as her other functions have always been, and was particularly noticeable for the number of distinguished foreign and Colonial guests present. The suite of beautiful rooms, which form a perfect museum of curios from all parts of the world, were looking their best, and were crowded with guests of many nationalities, many of the ladies wearing diamonds in the form of tiaras and other ornaments, some of the handsomest being displayed by a Parsee lady, Mrs. Ratan Tata, who had splendid sapphires set into diamond frames as a necklace, and also for securing her white saree.”
To be able to associate Mabel, the archetypal Victorian, with the legendary ‘Father of Indian Industry’ seems somehow an unusual but fanfaring introduction to the Bents and India, with all the dynamics and symbolism in play between the nations at the end of the 19th century. India meant something, and meant adventures in and around the region for the Bents.
In all, our couple made three trips to India – not the London, ten-hour flight to Mumbai of today, but then, of course, traversing several seas (the Suez Canal was opened to navigation on 17 November, 1869). Let it be known, Theodore never expressed any sustained interest in exploring or excavating regionally in India, nor to travel and write about its culture; it seems the idea of the land was just too big for him to provide any focus or purchase, and there was something, too, in his psychology, that did not fit. And yet, such was the meaning of India, it would have been extraordinary indeed were he never to have set foot on the Asian continent. Thus, concisely, we can condense their trips to India into: one business meeting (1895), two transit stops (1889 and 1894), and one brief tourist excursion (1895).
But it was India nevertheless.
Theodore wrote no articles directly relating to these visits, the name ‘India’ appearing in just one title. For Mabel, her diary entries are strangely muted (as we shall read in a moment): there is no colour, no sensory Indian overload, as if British control of the ports they landed at and left from, without much exploration, had thrown an odd English and subfusc wash over everything.
Their first Asian visit was in December 1889 – in a dramatic volte face and characteristic burst of energy and enthusiasm from Theodore that was to launch the couple out of their Eastern-Mediterranean orbit – having been denied further rights to ‘explore’ in either Greece or Turkey – and project them thousands of kilometres eastwards, for Bahrain, then under British and India Office protection, and with Theodore at relative liberty therefore to shovel-and-pick his way there through the ‘Mounds of Ali’. His fuel for this foray was an interest he had by the end of the 1890s in various long-standing theories and Classical references that seemed to link Bahrain with the Phoenicians, and in turn to the movement of early peoples around the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond – perhaps the theme that could be said to be the pivot of his short life’s work; his means of taking himself and his wife to Bahrain was via a slow boat from Karachi, then in India and under the British Raj. But their first port of call was to be Bombay.
The summer of 1888 was taken up, as usual, with Theodore conducting a busy schedule of talks and lectures in England and Scotland, as well as a non-stop programme of article-writing and publishing. Late summer was the time for extended holidays in Ireland and northern England, seeing family and friends, and so it was not until after Christmas 1888 that Theodore and Mabel had everything in place to leave London. Through Suez, and changing at Aden, they reached Mumbai (then Bombay) after three weeks, and immediately left for Karachi and a cruise up the eastern side of the Persian Gulf; making a brief halt at Muscat, before crossing to Bushire, arriving there on 1 February 1889. From there they crossed the Gulf once more to reach Bahrain. (Their finds there, now in the British Museum, were modest and the couple spent only two weeks on the island.) By the end of February 1889 the couple are leaving again for Bushire, Mabel adding in her diary: ‘having passed 40 days and 40 nights of our precious time on the sea, we then and there made up our minds to return over land…’ And with this throwaway remark, Mabel announces the couple’s epic ride of some 2000 km through Persia, the first leg of their journey home to Marble Arch.
But let us now peer over Mabel’s shoulder and read her ‘Chronicle’ while she writes on the “British India S.S. Pemba, January 21st 1889, Monday. Passing Gujarat, India”
“I now for the first time [Monday, 21st January 1889] feel tempted to bring forth this book, as I am so soon to get off the beaten track. Theodore and I left London on December 28th (Friday) in the P.&O.S.S. Rosetta, not a very comfortable or clean ship and landed at Naples (Saturday) on the way and changed at Aden (Monday), with no time to land, to the P.&O. Assam, which, though smaller, is wider and has much better passenger accommodation and was very clean.
“We reached Bombay on Sunday 20th [January 1889] after a roughish time in the Indian Ocean, passing on Saturday the American racing yacht Coronet going round the world. There were few passengers on the ‘Assam’. And now I think we are among the most remarkable people in this world. Fancy going all the way to Bombay and departing thence without ever landing! We found the tender of the British India waiting hungrily for us and were carried off with the mails at once. This [i.e. the ‘Pemba’] is a very small ship and only one passenger for Kurrachi 1st class, but quantities of odd deck passengers dressed and the reverse. We have a cabin next to the little ladies’ cabin and their bath and all in communication, so Theodore has a dressing room and we are most comfortable. We are to call at several places on our way to Bushire. The sea is very calm and it is nice and cool and we are passing a coast like Holland with palms, or rather coconut trees.
“We reached Kurrachi on Wednesday 23rd [January 1889] about 2 o’clock, and being tempted by the thought of 2 nights ashore, landed. We were surprised at the immense fleet of huge sailing boats which surrounded the ship instead of the usual little ones, but we were a good way out. They are building a new lighthouse further back and on lower ground but higher in itself, as the present one is being shaken by the guns on Manora Point.
“On landing on the bunder, or quay, we took a carriage for Reynold’s Hotel. After leaving the bunder, where various shipping buildings are, we drove for a mile or more along the bund, or embankment, across water and in about 6 miles we reached our destination. All around is arid and sandy but they are making a fierce fight to rear up some dusty plantains, palms, pepper trees, etc. The hotel was a great disappointment as the establishment is just a one-storeyed bungalow with a veranda all round and everyone’s door opening on to it and most with no kind of blind to prevent the inmates being beheld by outsiders. We found ourselves, when night came, in this case and so without ceremony flitted to a suite next door with imitation coloured glass. There was a dressing room behind and a built bath cemented in a bathroom beyond. All was very untidy and wretched and when night came we wished ourselves on board the ‘Pemba’.
“The cantonment road was near, also many others intersecting the sandy plain all 40 feet wide and one with footpaths fully 20. This led past the bungalows of officers, each in a compound, which made the road very long and dull, and it was very hot too. On Thursday [24th January 1889] we drove to the city about 4 miles off and nearer the sea and discovered the native town and wandered up and down narrow streets full of people intermixed with cows and passed several baths where people were washing themselves outside the buildings.
“We departed at dawn on Friday [25th January 1889] and drove down to the bunder and were off after breakfast, now the only 1st class. Friday night we stopped 3 miles out from Gwadar in Beloochistan, so of course saw nothing, and on Sunday morning, 27th [January 1889] early, found ourselves at Muscat in Arabia.”
Five years on – Karachi revisited: Bound for India a second time
For 1895, the Bents have decided to make a second attempt to penetrate regions of Yemeni Hadramaut, this time approaching from the south-east, via Muscat again and the coast of modern Oman. Their first trek into the Wadi Hadramaut, in 1894, was only partially successful, and on their return they soon made plans to try again. Mabel’s previous Chronicle had ended in an upbeat tone with ‘and if we possibly can we’ll go back’. In any event they only had a few months (and, as said before, they normally took a break in mid-summer to visit family and friends in England and Ireland) to seek backing and make all the necessary preparations, including informing the ‘media’. Ultimately Theodore was ready to issue a ‘press release’ to The Times (31 October 1894): “Mr. Theodore Bent informs Reuter’s Agency that he and Mrs. Bent are about to start another scientific expedition to Southern Arabia. Leaving Marseilles by Messageries steamer on November 12, they will proceed to Kurrachee, whence they will tranship to Muscat.”
For a first-hand account, we have an extract from Mabel’s classic book on their Arabian adventures – Southern Arabia (1900) – in which she explains (p. 228 ff):
“My husband again, to our great satisfaction, had Imam Sharif, Khan Bahadur [expedition cartographer of note on their last trip], placed at his disposal; and, as the longest way round was the quickest and best, we determined to make our final preparations in India, and meet him and his men at Karachi.”
But let’s at this point switch back to Mabel’s diaries, and her entry for: “Saturday 15th December, 1894. The Residency, Muscat. As it is now nearly a fortnight since I have seen a white woman, I think it time to start my writing. We left England [Friday] Nov. 9th  and after 2 nights at Boulogne embarked at Marseilles on [Monday] the 12th [November 1894] on board the M.M.S.S. ‘Ava’. We had a good passage and warm, seeing Etna smoking on the way, and about 2 days after had a great white squall; I daresay in connection with the earthquakes. We transshipped at Aden to ‘La Seyne’, Theodore going ashore to see about the camp furniture left there 7 months ago.
“We reached Kurrachee on the morning of [Thursday] the 29th [November 1894] and a letter came on board from Mr. James, the Commissioner, asking us to stay at Government House, saying he was going to the Durbar at Lahore, but his sister, Mrs. Pottinger, would entertain us – and so she did, most kindly. She is so pretty and charming, I do not know which of us was most in love with her…
“We remained at Kurrachee till Monday night after dinner. We drove out every evening and one morning went to the bazaars. I bought a lot of toe rings of various shapes, silver with blue and green enamel. They were weighed against rupees and 2 annas added to each rupee. One day we went to call on 2 brides and bridegrooms, Mr. and Mrs. McIver Campbell and Mr. and Mrs. Thornton. The ladies, Miss Grimes and Miss Moody, had come out to our steamer, been married that day, and were passing their honeymoon together at Reynold’s Hotel, amid the pity of all beholders. We embarked [Monday 3rd/Tuesday 4th December 1894] on the B.I.S.N.S.S. Chanda with a little plum pudding Mrs. Pottinger had had made and mixed and stirred by herself and us, and Mr. Ireland, a young invalid officer who was being taken care of at Government House, and her young nephew, Mr. A. James. We were 3 days on the Chanda, a clean little ship with a very clever nice Captain Whitehead, and on Thursday morning [6th December 1894] we reached Muscat…”
A third and final return to India
Alas, this expedition along the Oman coast also turns out to be less than successful – although the couple made some remarkable discoveries. The fastness that was the ‘Wadi Hadhramout’ again resisted the Bents’ advances and the party found itself stranded at Sheher, on Yemen’s south coast, in late January 1895, in vain hoping to strike northwards into the Wadi area, or, failing that, to return to Muscat to explore further there.
Mabel’s expedition Chronicle of around this date is haphazard and, understandably, rather depressed. Something happens, and, as in nowhere else in her twenty years of diary-keeping, the detailed notes of the couple’s travels disappear. We get a few lines from the Yemeni south coast before moving with her on board the Imperator for Mumbai:
“[About Wednesday, 30th January 1895, Sheher] … The next 2 days there were great negotiations and plannings as to our future course. One plan was to go hence to Inat in the Wadi Hadhramout, down to Kabre Hud and Bir Borhut and thence to the Mosila Wadi; eastward and back by the coast to this place and then try to go westward. But the other is to us preferable; to go along the coast, first up Mosila and into the Hadhramout and then try to go west, without coming here again. Of course there are so many delays of all sorts that we shall be here some days yet. The one pleasure we can enjoy is a quiet walk along the shore covered with pretty shells and birds…
“A good long time has elapsed since I wrote and I resume my Chronicle. Sunday, February 17th . And hardly can I write for the shaking of the very empty Austrian Lloyd S.S. ‘Imperator’ bound for Bombay. After a good deal of illusory delay, the Sultan Hussein declared he could not answer in any way for our safety if we went anywhere and so we at first thought of going to Muscat in a dhow and going to the Jebel Akhdar, as we had intended if it had not been for Imam Sheriff’s illness, but with the wind blowing N.E. it would have taken fully a month. We then must have gone round by India to get home and all our steamer clothes were at Aden. So as soon as we could we hired a dhow and embarked thereupon at about 1 o’clock for Aden…”
Back on dry land, we know the Bents were in Aden again by Wednesday, 13 February 1895. On that date Theodore wrote a ‘press release’ via the Royal Geographical Society, which was published in The Times of 1 March, announcing that ‘The party… went on to Sheher… Last year the people were very friendly to Mr. Bent’s party and promised to take them on a tour into the interior, but the season was too far advanced. To Mr. Bent’s surprise, however they received him and his party very coldly, absolutely refused to let them go outside the town, and told them that for the future no European would be allowed to enter the Hadramaut… Although it is evident Mr. Bent has not been able to carry out what would have been an expedition of the first magnitude, still it would seem that his journey will not be without interesting and novel results. His latest letter is dated from Aden, February 13, and he expects to be home about the middle of April.’
And they will come home via India; and Mabel’s few lines above are all we have of the Bents’ last trip there. Why did Mabel not keep up her diary? They would have reached Bombay on the Imperator (a lovely ship of 4140 tons, launched in September 1886 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Austrian Lloyd Shipping Company) by the end of February 1895, and we know the two of them were back in London by the end of April.
The Manchester Guardian of 25 April 1895 carried another report: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent have returned to London after spending the winter in exploring some of the little known or entirely unknown valleys of Southeastern Arabia. The flying trip which Mr. Bent made to India to see Colonel Holdich, the head of the Indian Survey, as to some unexpected difficulties, presumably of official origin, thrown in the way of the realisation of his plans for visiting the Eastern Hadramaut Valley, was unfortunately unsuccessful, as Colonel Holdich was absent on frontier business…’
Allowing for a two- or three-week journey back to England, Theodore and Mabel would have remained three or four weeks in India. As we have read above, one mission Theodore had in the country was to try and find his friend the great ‘Superintendent of Frontier Surveys in British India’, Colonel Sir Thomas H. Holdich, intending to elicit his support for one further expedition to the Hadramaut.
But Mabel’s above note, about needing Aden again to collect their personal effects, including ‘steamer clothes’ prior to making for Bombay, leads indirectly to one last bit of classic tourism and sightseeing – the fabled Ellora Caves. It looks, however, as if Mabel never went along; indeed, the only reference we have to the trip comes after Mabel’s death in 1929; prompted by her obituary in the Times, a letter appears in the same newspaper a few days later. This letter, of 6 July 1929, is from Mrs Julia Marie Tate, of 76 Queensborough Terrace, Hyde Park, London, widow of William Jacob Tate, in which she wistfully recalls:
“… a vivid picture of a moonlit night as clear as day off Aden, watching Arabian ‘sampans’ unloading tents and quantities of camp ‘saman’ [personal effects]. Presently their owners climbed up, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent. A few months before [i.e. the winter of 1894/5] we had called at their [London] house in Great Cumberland-place to learn their whereabouts, but the butler knew nothing, only that they were ‘somewhere in the Indian Ocean.’ This improvised meeting brought about the fulfilment of a cherished desire of theirs when my husband took his old schoolfellow to see the wonder caves of Ellora. This was their last reunion on earth.”
It is remarkably odd that Mabel makes no mention of this trip to the ‘wonder caves’ – was she ill? Or prevented somehow from going? Did it cause such resentment that she refused to chronicle the stay in Mumbai, and the long journey home by sea? Her regret at missing out on this excursion – then as now one of India’s greatest tourist attractions – can be imagined, for she was not easily denied. Also unusual is the fact that Theodore also wrote nothing about the visit to the caves (a trip that would have necessitated several nights away from his wife) – he did have much else on his mind, but perhaps also he had no desire to bring up the matter again and avoid any breakfast-table ill will!
And his companion? William Jacob Tate (1853-1899) was at Repton School with Theodore in the late 1860s. He joined the Indian Civil Service but had to retire early on account of his health and died just two years after Theodore in December 1899, at the age of 46. Mabel and Mrs Tate perhaps remained in town while Theodore and his old school friend visited the Ellora cave complex of monasteries and temples carved in the basalt cliffs north of Aurangabad (Maharashtra State), some 300 km north-east of Mumbai – “Reached from Nandgaon (G.I.P. Railway) by tonga, holding three passengers… Visitors are advised to take a sufficient supply of provisions and liquors for the trip.’ (Thomas Cook: India Burma and Ceylon : information for travellers and residents (1898, p. 79)
As for Mrs Tate, she can be forgiven her unseen tears in her letter to the Times. A stone in the Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery Heuvelland, Belgium, is inscribed: ‘Tate, Lieutenant, William Louis, 3rd Bn., Royal Fusiliers. Killed in action 13 March 1915. Age 24. Eldest son of the late William Jacob Tate, I.C.S., and of Mrs. Julia Marie Tate.’ And the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial has this: ‘Tate, Captain, Frederick Herman, Mentioned in Despatches, 10th Bn., King’s Royal Rifle Corps. 11 August 1917. Age 22. Son of Mrs. Tate… the late W.J. Tate.’
The old steamer on her westward bearing leaves Bombay in her wake. No amount of meditation in the Ellora Caves, or anywhere else, will ease such wounds, be it for Tate or Tata: ‘With deep sympathy, from Mrs. Theodore Bent.’
Perhaps to most readers, the Bents are associated mostly with Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the Cyclades (based on their bestseller on the region published in 1885).
But Theodore and Mabel are remembered too, by those with time to explore the explorers, for their expeditions to Southern Arabia and Persia (including their astonishing ride, south-north, the length of Iran in 1889), and Africa (a dangerous trek down the west coast of the Red Sea in 1896; and extraordinary work for Cecil Rhodes at ‘Great Zimbabwe’ in 1891).
And in 1893, Abyssinia’s Aksum enticed them too, not to mention the mythical ‘Lioness of Gobedra’.
It’s no secret that the BBC’s World Service is full of secrets – waiting for adventurers to discover: adventurers like Theodore Bent. Currently (December 2020) in its treasure of a series, ‘The Forum’, there is an episode on the enigmatic stelae of Aksum – erstwhile capital of an Abyssinian region dated to some 2000 years ago, and frantically explored by Bent and his wife in 1893. The fact that the Bents are not referenced, however, is a serious academic omission (modern archaeologists are still condescending towards them), especially since the nearby and important site of Yeha was first identified by Bent.
The episode does refer to Aksum’s ‘stele 2’, removed by Mussolini for Rome in the manner of former despots and now happily returned, but not that it was actually photographed some 50 years earlier in situ by Mabel Bent and reproduced in their most readable adventure – ‘The Sacred City of the Ethiopians’. Despite this, the programme (with contributions by Niall Finneran, Solomon Woldekiros and Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga) is a must, as is the Bents’ account, easily findable for free on-line.
Our recent post (13 Oct 2020) on the hundreds of items in the British Museum collected by Theodore and Mabel Bent, was ultimately about things – their contexts, consequences, associations, the meanings of value…
It will probably come as no surprise that Mabel Bent’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Hall Dare (née Grafton, 1793-1858), also had a great many things (the wider family units being landowners in Essex and with interests in the sugar plantations of British Guyana)… including, it seems, a towel, a drinking-horn, a bell, a thermometer, and, oh yes, a quantity of butter, two and half pounds in weight in actual fact.
Oddly, let’s move at this point to that lowering fortress of justice, the Old Bailey in London in 1840, as recorded in The Weekly Dispatch (page 507) of Sunday, 25 October, with reference to a petty case that was tried on the 19th of that month and year.
We read in the said tabloid, obiter dicta: “Christopher Johann Frederick Auguste Struve, described as a dealer, was… indicted for burglariously entering the dwelling house of Mrs. Elizabeth Hall Dare, and stealing therefrom a towel, a drinking-horn, a bell, a quantity of butter, and various other articles. Mary Humby, servant to the prosecutrix, a widow lady, residing on Streatham-common, stated that on the night of the 11th of September  she fastened the doors and windows previous to retiring to bed. She left the larder-window open, but secured before it an iron grating, which, on the following morning, between five and six o’clock, she found broken down, and a number of articles, named in the indictment, were taken away; there was also a thermometer taken from the side of the window.”
We need more evidence, clearly, and the verdict – although it rather seems an open-and-shut case, doesn’t it? The Weekly Dispatch obliges: “Inspector Campbell stated that on the 15th of September he went to the prisoner’s lodgings, and on searching his room discovered various property, and amongst it all the articles stolen from Mrs. Dare’s. Eleanor Evans said the prisoner had occupied a room in her house for about a month previous to his being taken into custody. He always locked his door when he went out, so that nobody had access to it. When called upon for his defence the prisoner said he purchased all the articles sworn to by the witnesses of a person in the street. The Recorder having summed up the evidence, the Jury returned a verdict of Guilty. The Recorder told the prisoner that he appeared to be an experienced and systematic robber. He had been convicted of two burglaries committed within three or four days of each other. It was quite impossible that he could be allowed to remain in the country. The sentence of the Court, therefore, was that he be transported beyond the seas for the space of ten years.”
For the location of the house concerned, we refer you at this point to our second source for this abominable crime perpetrated on Elizabeth Hall Dare, Mabel Bent’s grandmother, i.e. the Central Criminal Court, Minutes of Evidence(1840, Vol 12, p. 1059), which informs us that the property was in South London’s fashionable Streatham parish, an enclave of well-heeled souls in Victorian times.
The facts and characters of the case are a cross between Tom Jones and Much Ado About Nothing. It is worth extensively quoting, if for nothing more than a reprise of ‘burglarously’ – a word it’s doubtful you will encounter three times in your life, and for the true value of things:
“Christopher Johann Frederick Auguste Struve was again indicted for burglarously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Elizabeth Grafton Hall Dare, at Streatham, about twelve o’clock in the night of the 11th September, with intent to steal, and stealing therein, 1 towel, value 1s.; 2½ lbs. weight of butter, value 2s.; 1 bell, value 5s.; 1 butter-mould, value 6d.; 1 plate, value 1d.; and 1 cup, value 6d.; her property.
“Mary Hamby: I am single, and am cook to Mrs. Elizabeth Grafton Hall Dare, widow, of Streatham Common, in the parish of Streatham. On the night of the 11th of September the larder window was open, but there was a wire-guard inside before it, which must be broken to get at anything. I saw it safe a little after ten o’clock – it opens into the garden – the grating was secured by four large nails – the next morning I went down into the larder before six o’clock, and found the wire pushed quite round behind a milk pan, to prevent it going back to its place. I missed the articles stated. A person could get through the wire place – he had then opened a door out of the larder, and taken a white jug, bell, and drinking-horn – I lost a thermometer from outside the window.
“Prisoner: I bought these things of a man in the street.
“Eleanor Evans: I am the wife of John Evans and live in Church-street Minories. The prisoner lived with us four weeks and three days until he was apprehended – the policeman came to me, and I showed him his room – they found this jug, the bell and other articles there – nobody but him could have put them there, as the door was locked – I did not see the articles there till they were found – I had missed him two or three days before that, but did not know he was in custody.
“Samson Darkin Campbell: I am a police-inspector, of the V division. On the 15th of September I went with Pitcher to No. 51, Church-street. Evans showed me a room, and I found this towel, with the name of Hall Dare on it, a thermometer, a butter-strainer, two files, a pair of pliers, and some skeleton-keys, some of them unfinished.
“Thomas Pitcher (police-constable P 167.) I accompanied Campbell, and found these articles in the room – the prisoner was in custody at the time. (Property produced and sworn to.)
“GUILTY. Aged 41. Transported for Ten Years.” (‘Central Criminal Court, Minutes of Evidence’, Vol. 12, 1840, p. 1059)
Researches are continuing into the life of Christopher Struve -could he have been a black sheep in the noble Struve family we can read about online? His convict records inform us simply that he was 41, married to Maria, had two girls, and was a Lutheran. We are still researching, too, exactly where in London’s fashionable Streatham it was that Christopher Struve decided to enter and remove therefrom a towel, a drinking-horn, a bell, a thermometer; and a quantity of butter – the most expensive thing in his swag, worth over £10 in today’s money. Wherever it was, it was a long way from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), something Christopher Struve wasn’t when he arrived in Hobart on 4 October 1841, transported in the yare David Clarke with 308 or so other men, one of whom (John Timbers, 19) died on the journey.
Probably in some form of restraint, it is unlikely that Struve met with the captain, William B. Mills, or saw that much of the Sound when they sailed from Plymouth on 7 June 1841 on that four-month voyage to Tasmania’s prison colony. Unloading her human cargo, the David Clarke sailed away again “for Bombay in ballast on 17 October 1841”; Christopher Struve remained, and we can imagine him coming ashore, almost exactly a year after his trial, contemplating the true value of a towel, a drinking-horn, a bell, a thermometer; all in all, it was a long, long way to come for a plate of butter.
We don’t know where these things are now, but they are not in the British Museum with the collections of Theodore and Mabel Bent.
On 24 April 1885, British explorer Theodore Bent wrote from Syros in the Cyclades to Charles Thomas Newton, famous traveller himself and now Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum (BM): “We returned from Karpathos yesterday and had hoped to catch a steamer which would have brought us and our things straight to England. Unfortunately we shall have to wait a week at least, and as we have so much plunder we cannot take the Marseilles route. I had hoped to have been in time for the Hellenic meeting, but of course now we shall not reach England till the middle of May. We were fairly successful in Karpathos, finding a large number of rock cut graves unopened which have produced pottery, etc., which, if not of the highest order, offer a good deal which I believe to be of a new character… Of quaint manners and customs I have got a fine collection, also of old Karpathiote dresses and jewelry… We had rather a rough time of it, Karpathos being very far behind the world in comforts, and decidedly we enjoyed ourselves best when living in our own tent. Mrs. Bent survives and is well and begs her kind regards. Yours very truly, J. Theodore Bent.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 123, fn. 74)
To draw attention to, and thank the BM for their great and newly re-vamped online database, and make a nod to Neil MacGregor’s seminal TV/radio series, and subsequent exhibition, at the same time, the Bent Archive is selecting four significant objects to feature from the several hundreds of items (752, no less, the BM claim, though some are duplicated) either donated to or sold by Theodore and Mabel Bent to the Museum over a period of five decades or so from the 1880s, beginning with the artifacts Bent brought home from the Cycladic island of Antiparos, then an almost abandoned islet, today a hipster destination for some of Europe’s silliest teenagers; the Bents would be amused. The fifth item, as we shall see, is one that got away… but it should be there.
For about twenty years, Theodore and Mabel Bent travelled to regions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia, on the look out for things of archaeological and ethnographical interest (usually linked to Theodore’s current bonnet-bees and theories). Occasionally the British Museum contributed to the Bents’ travel costs on the understanding that the institution would get first refusal. We know that the museum also paid Theodore for certain acquisitions, but there were also donations from the Bents – in particular the large assemblage given by Mabel in 1926, a few years before her death (Theodore, alas, died early, in 1897).
The Museum’s archives (and elsewhere) contain much correspondence between Bent and their various curators and associated scholars, such as William Paton, Edward Lee Hicks, David Hogarth, Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, Charles Newton, Arthur Smith, Alexander Stuart Murray, Cecil Smith, William Henry Flower …
Good examples of these interactions include a letter from Theodore to the Keeper at the British Museum, dated 30 May 1884: “Dear Sir, Do you care to make me an offer for my figures, vases, ornaments, etc., from Antiparos? It occurs to me that a collection of this nature is rather lost in private hands. Yrs truly, J. Theodore Bent.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 46, fn. 49)
The BM archives also include the Museum’s day books and accession registers, fascinating records that bring you closer to collector and curator, in contexts of mutual scholarship, curiosity, and wonder.
This is not the place to comment on the history of the Museum, collectors’ activities, or the acquisition policies current in the late 19th century. You will have your own thoughts and opinions.
The objects collected by the Bents are featured below, in a sort of virtual ‘The Bents at the BM’ mini-exhibition, by the date they were acquired by the Museum, and representing the main regions of the Bents’ fields of studies, as already mentioned – the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia, over a period twenty years following their marriage in 1877. In most cases the BM item number consists in part of the year the piece was acquired from the Bents, i.e. Af1892,0714.144, denotes 1892 – in this instance when Theodore and Mabel returned out of Africa.
Thus, without further ado… “The Bents and the BM: in Five Objects”
Let’s make a start in the Greek Cyclades – the scene of Theodore’s first (1883/4) substantial ‘excavations’ (although his modus operandi bears little resemblance to the science of today and raises eyebrows, if not ire, still among archaeologists).
[Basic inventory details are provided, but there seems little point in repeating the detailed information on the artefacts given by the Museum, click through yourself to access it if you wish. We thought however that readers might like to get a little detail on the objects provided by the Bents themselves, either via Mabel’s diaries (her Chronicles), or Theodore’s publications.]
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 1: Parian marble figure from Antiparos in the Greek Cyclades, 2700 BC-2500 BC“. The Cyclades provided Theodore Bent with his first theatre of operations and he ‘excavated’ at two sites on Antiparos, off Paros, in the winter of 1883/4. He brought home with him, and then sold to the BM, a largish assemblage of items, including a few of the iconic, now ubiquitous, and haunting, marble figurines. (There was skeletal material, too, now in the Natural History Museum.) Bent’s work on Antiparos paved the way for the realization that there was a distinct ‘Cycladic’ culture. Here is Mabel Bent’s diary entry at the time of their first dig: “Tuesday [18 December 1883]. Rode 1½ hour to the nearest point to Antiparos carrying only our night things and a card of introduction from Mr. Binney for Mr. R. Swan who has a calamine mine on this island. Crossed in about 10 minutes… Met Mr. Swan who more than fulfilled our warmest hopes. He took us to his house, and after resting told us that in making a road he had come upon a lot of graves and found a marble cup, broken etc. So, we manifesting a great wish to dig too, he got men and we opened 4. They were lined and paved with slabs of stone and the people must have been doubled up in them, they were so small; we only found, besides bones, 2 very rough marble symbols of men and women, little flat things and some broken pottery.” (Mabel Bent 2006: 21ff.)
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 2: Limestone female figure from the Greek island of Karpathos. Possibly Neolithic.” The Bents spent several of the early months of 1885 in the island group now known as the Dodecanese, then Turkish, in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mabel refers to them as the ‘Sporades’. On Karpathos the couple acquire an extraordinary stone figure without parallel in Greece to this day, and she found her way to the British Museum in 1886. She was intact when she left the island; she is now in two halves but has been restored. Recently (2019) she was an extra, a stand-in, for the BM’s travelling exhibition linked to Neil MacGregor’s TV/radio series. Alas she never made a starring role in the English series; she would thus have returned the favour to the Bents, making them minor celebrities once more. But she would also have raised questions as to her pedigree best left in her boudoir. Are those arms not highly problematic? The BM may have assumed that she came from a tomb around Vrykounda in the north of the island, although elsewhere Theodore links it to Pigadia and Mabel’s diary seems to confirm this; what is for certain is that she is both fantastic and fantastical and deserves more study – if not a series of novels! “[Monday, 20 April 1885] The next excitement was getting the things at Pegadhia [Pigadia, Karpathos]… Manthaios [the Bents’ dragoman] set off to run to the house where was a very hideous statue, more than the size of a baby, half a mile off… At last I saw M tearing back with the burden on his shoulders and very soon they reached the ship and all was on board… When M appeared, Theodore could see that the statue showed behind and told him so, but he said ‘No matter’ and rushed on to the boat and then came back to say goodbye to the Turks. T saw them spot the statue and whisper together and shrug their shoulders, so now we are in possession of the most hideous thing ever made by human hands. We mean to deposit it in bond at the customhouse of Syra with all the cases and things we do not want…” (Mabel Bent 2006: 119ff.)
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 3: Cast; sculpture, made of plaster; in form of a bird sitting on top of a pedestal. Late 19th-early 20th century copy of medieval? African original.” When Greek and Turkish lands became too tricky for the Bents to wander and wonder over, they set off in other directions, south and southeast. In 1889 they were to be found digging in the ‘Mounds of Ali‘ in Bahrain, before returning to London via a south-north ride the length of Persia. At the end of 1890, Bent came under the inescapable gravitational pull of Cecil Rhodes, and by the summer of 1891 he and Mabel were thousands of miles away south, exploring the fabled ruins of ‘Great Zimbabwe‘, from where they shipped hundreds of artifacts back to London, mounting an exhibition of the choicest things in their home near Marble Arch in early 1892. Included were a few of the iconic black soapstone birds which would grace any museum, anywhere. Rhodes had other plans for the best items, however, and he had maintained rights to them; after the exhibition they were repackaged and sent to him in Cape Town. Some of the things, especially the mesmerizing, totemic birds, he took immediately to his house at Groote Schuur, but they later flew to museums in South Africa and Zimbabwe. It seems the Bents, or the BM, had casts made of one or more of the original soapstone ‘beams’ on which the elegant birds perched, and Mabel kept it before giving it to the BM again in 1926, in all likelihood. The original is now back in Africa, and although just a cast, the artifact is unique and significant enough to merit a place in this assemblage now. The Bents’ Great-Zimbabwe-tour finds (largely ethnographic) represent the largest element of the collections they sold or gave to the BM, literally hundreds of things now in store, as much bric-à-brac as anything else. Mabel waxes lyrical on first seeing one of these beams: “[Friday, 5 June 1891]. After breakfast we hurried to Zimbáboe as they pronounce it, also Zimbágowe. I rode Beauty [her horse] with a trooper’s saddle, as my saddle was packed. I was glad to get dry through the dewy grass, which came high above the top of my parasol. We left two wagons to follow. First we climbed up the hill, or rather the principal hill near, full in every cranny and on every detached rock, of huts and a large quantity of people. There are ruins all over the top; all the ends of the walls are rounded, both up on the hill and down in the round ruin. I mean to abstain from a description of the ruins, for they will be described elsewhere when we have worked at them a little. Our souls were gladdened by some long stones carved over and one with a strange bird at the end…” (Mabel Bent 2012: 85)
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 4: Painting depicting the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and scenes from the life of Bishop Selama. Painted on cotton, hand-woven in two sections, stitched together centrally top to bottom. Ethiopia, Adwa: Church of the Saviour of the World. 19th. c. copy ?” In London once more, via Lisbon, from Mashonaland and South Africa, in early February 1892, Theodore was a minor celebrity. He had come home with crates of finds from ‘Great Zimbabwe’ and a theory that no one for the moment could gainsay about prehistoric Southern Arabian influence, trade and power. Research by Theodore in London and in the Lisbon archives, and correspondence on inscriptions and possible architectural similarities between features in Mashonaland and Marib (Yemen), introduced Theodore to the little-explored interior of Ethiopia, and its evocative ‘capital’ Aksum (Axum).
The Bents’ 1883 tour of the region was ultimately unsuccessful due to local unrest, exacerbated by the colonial ambitions of the Italians. By far the most interesting of the artifacts Bent brought back was this large painting of the Crucifixion, he bought for ‘Ten pieces of silver’ from the Church of the Saviour of the World, Adwa. Bent describes the transaction in the book that resulted from the journey: “It was here… that I espied a picture cast on one side, for the colours were somewhat faded, which I faintly hoped to acquire. At first our offers were received with contempt, but again and again we sent our interpreter, and with him ten pieces of silver, the sight of which eventually overcame the priest’s dread of mutilation, and the evening before our final departure from Adoua the picture was ours. Our interpreter himself was terrified at what he had done, ‘We must not breathe a word of the transaction, even to the Italians,’ he said ; ‘we must bury the treasure at the bottom of our deepest bag ‘ ; and to all these regulations we gladly acquiesced, for we knew the great difficulty of acquiring these things in Abyssinia, and the danger to which we all should be exposed if our transaction should be discovered, and I am pretty nearly sure that this picture which is now in the British Museum is the first of its kind which has reached Europe…” (The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, 1893, pp. 129-33)
[Cultured female voice, slow, musical, dark, clear] “Object No. 5: A pottery stamp/clay seal from the Wadi Hadramaut, Yemen, aka ‘The Bethel Seal’? Used presumably by a merchant for designating ownership, or contents, of traded merchandise. Date uncertain.” It must be quickly said that this is a deceit; it is a mystery object that should have been given by Mabel with a few other artifacts from the Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen) in 1926, but was not, and thereby hangs a tale worth the telling.
The Bents are admired for their three attempts to traverse the dangerous Wadi Hadramaut in the Yemen, from west to east and down to the Gulf of Aden, from 1894-7. The final trip cost Theodore his life. The couple were travelling on horses and camels and were restricted in what they could bring away with them and the largest collection consisted of hundreds of botanical specimens, reasonably light, now in the Herbarium, Kew.
Mabel has left us in her diary some idea as to how acquisitions were made along the way: “On Saturday the 13th [January 1894], the day after our arrival, at 8 o’clock, the Sultan, Theodore, Saleh and a groom on the four horses, and I on [my horse] Basha, and a vizier on a camel with a soldier, and the soldiers on foot, rode about five miles to a good old ruin (Al Gran), but embedded in an inhabited house so that excavation would be impossible; from a very well cut scrap of ornament we thought it to be a temple, and it is perhaps from this temple that a kind of small stone trough has been brought, with a dedication, rather long, in Sabean, which Theodore has nearly deciphered – a trough with a spout coming to England. Two stones have been brought us by camels at the Sultan’s orders.” (Mabel Bent 2010: 167)
The Bents returned in 1894 from the Hadramaut with the modest lump of clay – the stamp/seal in question. It featured with a small collection of other items on page 436 of the Bents’ great book on Southern Arabia (1900), including the ‘trough’ Mabel mentions above. Then, rather like a great ring, the seal disappeared from view – until it reappeared in an archaeologist’s shovel in the late 1950s at a site at Beitin, Biblical Bethel, Palestine, and the scene of Mabel Bent’s accident in the early 1900s, when she broke a leg in the wilderness, riding, unaccountably, on her own.
But was it the same modest lump of clay, or another, identical artifact? Today it (or both?) is/are lost, and a debate has waxed and waned over the mystery ever since. A strong argument is made that Mabel, distressed, widowed, mourning her late husband and her lost life as an explorer, ceremoniously placed the stamp in a deposit at Bethel in the early 1900s as a tribute to Theodore – not caring if it were ever found again or not – the significance of the site being that it marked the end of a frankincense route (the resin being one of his passions) that began thousands of miles away in the Wadi Hadramaut – and thus Theodore could rest easily, his journey over; the love of a grieving widow.
As a coda, perhaps the Bents’ acquisitions no longer quite justify the hyperbole appearing in Mabel’s interview to The Hearth and Home (2 November 1893) before leaving for Arabia: “Gifted with great artistic taste, Mrs. Bent’s personal collection of curiosities include many beautiful things brought from abroad, and, as our readers are doubtless aware, ‘The Bent Collection’ in the British Museum is one of the most interesting in that venerable building.”
Other finds: Very much smaller collections of the Bents’ acquisitions can be found in: the V&A, London; the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford; as well as in Cape Town, Harare, Istanbul, and elsewhere.
Don’t overlook, too, the wonderful, though small, collection of dried plants in the Herbarium, Kew Gardens. Most of the specimens were collected by Kew’s William Lunt, who travelled to the Hadramaut with the Bents in 1894, but there is some additional material from their later expeditions. Kew’s super online catalogue (with some illustrations) makes a great start.
It should also be remembered that in the late 19th century London’s Natural History Museum legally remained a department of the British Museum with the formal name ‘British Museum (Natural History)’. Thus the select assemblage of molluscs, insects and reptiles the Bents collected was gradually transferred to their care, e.g. we know that Mabel presented her collection of 186 “land and freshwater shells from the island of Socotra, including several new species”. (For publications on the shells, see, e.g. J.C. Melvill, Journal of Molluscan Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 5, 224-5).
Very importantly, the skeletal material Bent removed from two sites on Cycladic Antiparos in 1884, believed lost but now rediscovered, is stored in the National History Museum, awaiting further study.
(In 1926, a few years before she died (1929), Mabel had a sort out of the things she still treasured in her London home. This explains why many of the inventory numbers in the above museums have a 1926 date.)
One of those things that itches has just been scratched.
Theodore Bent’s ground-breaking monograph on Mashonaland – The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892) – the volume that appeared following the year (1891) spent in ‘Rhodesia’ investigating the ruins of ‘Great Zimbabwe’ for Cecil Rhodes, and the work that was in effect to make Bent’s name, and him and his wife minor celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic, contains a charming portrait (page 61) of Mabel Bent – really charming actually, although adapted from the original photograph via the processes in those days required for printing; the image, however, has no attribution.
Charm? Yes, and obvious, in the professional lighting and a lightness of touch, almost modelling; and Mabel’s wild, long red hair (that famously captivated the villagers of Mashonaland (page 271)) is tamed, just, and her embonpoint sealed with an ‘M’; her dress is picturesque. It is a society portrait (we are talking London in the 1890s here), by a society photographer – but which one? This is the itch that needs scratching.
Then a surprise. Almost illegible, or whatever the word is for a photograph too dark to make out, the promise of a picture appears on page 621 of The Gentlewoman – The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen, No. 175, Vol. VII, for Saturday, November 11, 1893, within an article entitled “Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, no. CLXXV, Mrs. Theodore Bent”. We clearly read the sitter is Mrs. Theodore Bent. And, serendipitously, the photographer is a famous one – Henry Van der Weyde (1838–1924), the Dutch-born English painter and photographer, celebrated for his photographic portraits of the great and the good in the late 19th century; his studios equally fashionable, at “183 Regent-street, W.”
And there is something about the promise in this photograph – the outlines, vague suggestions in the almost ectoplasmic patches of the blacks and the whites. Surely, this photograph of Mabel Bent and the one in The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland are the same? The Bents had commissioned the colourful society photographer Henry Van der Weyde, the David Bailey of his day, hadn’t they, whose work Theodore and Mabel would show off in Bent’s bestseller ?
At this stage, both images go to Ben Heaney at Archaeopress, Oxford, to put Photoshop through its paces. This is his report: “To compare the two images identifiable reference points were taken – these were the neckline of the dress, the position of the earring and ear, the top of the hair and the ruffles of the dress sleeve. This allowed the images to be matched in size by lining up the reference points on separate layers in Adobe Photoshop. The higher quality image was on the top layer, the darker, poorer quality, image on the bottom layer. When the top layer was ‘faded out’ by adjusting the ‘opacity’ of the top layer, the two images clearly matched up.” (Ben Heaney, pers. comm. 21/09/2020)
Thus it can be revealed, the unattributed photograph of Mabel Bent on page 61 of The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland is based on an original by Henry Van der Weyde, the leading London portrait photographer of the period.
The itch scratched, we can let the Bents continue on their way, the E. Med. and Africa behind them, towards Arabia Felix and the last cycle of their odyssey together…
[A complete transcription of Mabel’s interview with The Gentlewoman will appear soon as two further posts – look out for them!]