In early 1885, Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling in the islands we now refer to as the Dodecanese (in the Eastern Mediterranean), but were then in Turkish hands. Their main interest was Karpathos, but before sailing there the couple spent time on Rhodes, Nisyros, and Tilos, looking for items of interest to them – antiquities, textiles, ceramics – as well as making notes of traditions, folklore, and customs, and taking photographs and sketching.
Avid collectors (and dealers) of textiles, the Bents acquired a number of articles of clothing and domestic embroideries on their journey around the Dodecanese in the first quarter of 1885. It was a competitive field, as illustrated by an (unpleasant) note by Theodore regarding a fellow passenger, the following year, to the nearby island of Asytpalaia: “Another passenger, too, turned up, whom we soon learnt to be a little red-haired Jew from a bazaar in Constantinople, who took this opportunity to make a descent on Astypalaea for embroideries and plates; he was our bête noire in the island: whenever we tried to effect a bargain he was always to be seen hovering around, ready to offer more if our price was low, and to chuckle if we gave too much.” (‘Astypalæa’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 262 (Mar), 253-65) (NB Mabel never refers to this merchant in her diary and Theodore may well have made it up to pander to the prejudices of the day.)
The Bents explored Nisyros from 21–24 February 1885, and seem to have bought there eight or nine garments/textiles, as Mabel notes in her diary for 23 February: “The women here wear a very pretty dress, and now we know why ‘Turkey red’ is called Turkey red, i.e. because all the women in this Turkish island wear an open sleeveless gown of it with a very full skirt a good deal shorter than the thick cotton shirt with handsome silk embroidery round the tail, 1½ yards round. The sleeves are splendidly embroidered. We have bought 5 of these underdresses, 1 pair of sleeves, a pillow cover, and a bed valance for £3.15.0.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1, 2006, Oxford, p.73.)
The sterling sum Mabel mentions (taking £1 in 1885 for £150 today) equates to nearly £600. In 1886 Theodore offered three dresses acquired from Karpathos (visited in the same season as Nisyros) to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for £15 (£2250).
Two of the Nisyros items are today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – a red overdress (T.166-1931) and a cushion cover/pillowcase (T.149-1930). These were sold to the famous London retailers Liberty & Co. after Mabel’s death (1929), or shortly before, by her nieces (who were her beneficiaries). Liberty’s then donated them to the V&A in the early 1930s.
As for the other items Mabel refers to (‘underdresses’, the ‘sleeves’, ‘bed valence’), we can only guess as to which collections they might now be in. A search of the V&A’s online collections reveals several unprovenanced items, including bed valences, and it is possible that some of the Bent textiles were bought and then donated to museums around the world. For instance, the ‘sleeves’ (bodice?) Mabel Bent refers to could easily resemble those illustrated by V&A item CIRC.628-1928, said to have come from Tilos, the next island south from Nisyros, and donated by Professor and Mrs Percy Newberry, whom we know were in contact with Mabel Bent. Did she sell to them perhaps? All pure conjecture of course.
At the end of 1885, the Bents gave a lecture to the Anthropological Institute, London, entitled ‘On Insular Greek Customs’, and Mabel Bent curated a small exhibition of her embroideries for it, including the Nisyros valence she referred to above: “A sindhoni of Niseros worked in brown, light yellow, and blue”. Another exhibit featured the red overdress also mentioned and illustrated above: “A figure dressed as a woman of Niseros, in a short narrow dress of white cotton, embroidered round the tail and round the square neck, and with wide sleeves, embroidered in stripes of various coloured silks, and with silver embroidery on the shoulders; over this a very wide dress of turkey-red, half a yard shorter, and sleeveless. A black kerchief across the forehead, and a yellow one over that, hiding the mouth.” (J.T. Bent, ‘Insular Greek Customs’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 15 (1886), pp. 391-403. [With an Appendix by ‘Mrs. Bent’, p. 401-3])
Mabel exhibited three of her Nisyros ‘underdresses’ (as well as several other possessions) at an event hosted in 1914 by the Burlington Fine Arts Club (BFAC Catalogue Nos. 44, 66, 83), Exhibit No. 44 included her Nisyros red overdress, the catalogue entry of which begins: “Overskirt of red Turkey twill and Frock embroidered in cross-stitch in coloured silks, of which black is dominant, on linen.” (Catalogue of a collection of old embroideries of the Greek islands and Turkey by Burlington Fine Arts Club (eds A.J.B. Wace et al.), London, 1914, p. 12)
Other items acquired by the Bents on their tours of the Dodecanese and now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, include a ‘stomacher‘ from Astypalaia and dresses from Karpathos.
“A sort of bib is worn in front, 5 or 6 inches wide, and down to the waist, embroidered and spangled and sometimes covered with gilt coins and a bit of white calico sewn to the end, which looks as if meant to tuck in but is not.” (Extract from Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.155-6)
For ten years at the end of the 19th century British explorers Theodore and Mabel Bent travelled around Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, always on the lookout for fabrics and costumes to bring back to London (either for their own collection or to sell on).
The couple were on Astypalaia (the Greek Dodecanese) in March 1886 and bought one of these stomachers (also plastron) that Mabel Bent is describing; it remained in her private collection until the end of her life, when her nieces sold it to the famous retailer Liberty & Co., who gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 1930 (inv. no. T.150-1930). It is not on display.
“The women here wear a beautiful dress. Their heads have a long yellow scarf wound round and hanging in loops below the waist, behind and in front, over a little cap covered with beads and spangles and very large earrings of silver; a shirt with embroidery round the tail and very large sleeves like those of Nisiros. These they tie up to their shoulders when at work. Their dress is made of a fine cherry-coloured cloth; a full skirt, echoing the embroidery of the skirt, down the front is let in about half a yard of blue cotton. Round the tail of the skirt is turned up about 8 inches of course white flannel and above that about 8 inches of the blue, so really there is not so very much red. The jacket is of the same red, square backed to the waist, where it branches out to 2 points which are left open and above the slit 3 big silver buttons all tight together. A sort of bib is worn in front, 5 or 6 inches wide, and down to the waist, embroidered and spangled and sometimes covered with gilt coins and a bit of white calico sewn to the end, which looks as if meant to tuck in but is not.
“I photographed a bride. Her head was covered with a sort of mitre of gold and seed pearls and gauze scarf; dress velvet, silk shirt, jacket fringed with immense silver buttons and big blobs of glass which looked crystal, and on the back there was a quantity of silver. 3 pairs of silver gilt and pearl earrings larger than bracelets. She had 2 holes in her ears. I took 6 photographs.” (Extract from Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford, pp.155-6)
Incidentally, we have here a good example above of how Theodore relied on Mabel’s notebooks (her ‘Chronicles’) for his own writings. Here is an extract from his 1887 article on Astypalaia: “In front a sort of bib is worn down to the waist, embroidered and bespangled, and sometimes covered with gold coins. At the end of this is sewn a bit of white calico, which looks as if it was intended to tuck in, but it never is.” (Theodore Bent, 1887, ‘Astypalæa’. The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 262 (Mar), 253-65)
The photographs Mabel mentions have not been traced, but her stomacher/plastron was to feature in the Burlington exhibition of Greek/Turkish embroideries in London in 1914 (item 81, pp.19-20 in the catalogue), where it is described thus: “There is no embroidery round the neck or down the V [of the dress], but the opening is covered by a separate garment. This is an oblong plastron embroidered in silk and wool on linen with a pattern of pairs of leaves. At the top is a border of beads and gold thread, and the whole surface is covered with sequins of coloured tin.”
Mabel’s collection is now dispersed, but perhaps the star exhibits are back in Athens – some iconic dresses from Karpathos – in the Benaki Museum. The V&A in London has a representative selection of the embroideries and there are also a few other items in the Harris Museum, Preston, UK.
At the end of the 19th century, between western ‘Christmas’ and the New Year, Mabel and Theodore Bent could be waved to embarking on their imminent winter/spring campaign, or putting last preparatory touches to its details; packing all their necessaries into dozens of bags and boxes, and trunks, mixed in with the travel books, and clothes; very important… the clothes, the books. One essential volume, for example and of course, would be a Murray: his Handbook for travellers in Greece…, the 1884 edition is referenced reverentially in Mabel’s travel diaries for 1885 (the Dodecanese).
And explorers (of all genders) into the Levant in 2023 should heed and endeavour to follow the dress code as stipulated by Murray; it was religiously adhered to by the Bents:
“Clothes. — These should be such as will stand hard and rough work. They must not be too light, even in summer; for a day of intense heat is often followed by a storm, or by a cold night. As some indication of the requirements of the case, we may observe that the traveller is not likely to err greatly if he selects for travel in Greece and Turkey much the same outfit that he would take for shooting in the Highlands. Let his dress at all times be obviously that of an Englishman, which he will find the most respectable and respected travelling attire throughout the Levant… Carelessness about dress in travelling, even in remote districts, cannot be too severely reprobated, especially in towns, however small.” [Handbook for travellers in Greece… 1884, John Murray, London, p.24]
A decade later, July 1895, the Bents gave an interview to The Album, and Mabel opens the Bent wardrobe doors for us: “And have you any views on the best travelling costume?” [The interviewer enquires]. “Yes, inasmuch that we do not alter or modify our travelling costumes, wearing the same kind of clothes in both Africa and Asia. [Theodore] finds a Norfolk jacket and breeches the most practical and pleasant form of dress for either riding or actual exploring work. My travelling dress consists of a tweed coat and skirt, a pith hat, with breeches and gaiters. The skirt is made in pleats, and is so arranged as to act as riding habit when I am on horseback. When actually in camp, that is to say, during the heat of the day – for early morning and evening are the only safe hours to travel – I put on a linen shirt or blouse and ordinary skirt.” [The Album: A Journal of Photographs of Men, Women, and Events of the Day (8th July, 1895, Vol. II, No. 23, pp.44-45)]
In July 1895 Mabel and Theodore Bent gave an interview to The Album: A Journal of Photographs of Men, Women, and Events of the Day (8th July, 1895, Vol. II, No. 23, pp.44-45). Published by Ingram Brothers (Strand, London), it was a short-lived venture (the market was extremely competitive); a browse through a collected volume gives an unsurprising but fascinating glance back to Victorian Britain at its zenith.
Zenith can equally well be applied to the fame of the Bents in 1895 – they were celebrities. They had more or less covered the Eastern Mediterranean by the end of the 1880s; ridden south-north the length of Persia (1889); had famously explored the ruins of Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes (1891); become entangled in the Italian debacle in Ethiopia in 1893; and were now (1895) obsessed with Southern Arabia – their work in the region was to provide the data for Theodore’s great quest of a history linking both sides of the Red Sea over three millennia. This was not to be however – within three years of the article you are about to read, Bent was dead, a victim to feverish malevolence, east of Aden, in the spring of ’97.
Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent
Since the days when Sir Walter Raleigh returned from the West Indies laden with good things, down to our own unromantic time, there have always been a large number of large-hearted Englishmen who have devoted their lives, fortunes, and too often their healths, to exploring the little-known corners of the earth with a view to increasing our knowledge of far-off climes, and of adding to the instructive contents of the British Museum and of the other vast treasure-houses possessed by the nation. note 1
Mr. J. Theodore Bent has played a leading part among latter-day travellers. Accompanied by his plucky and charming wife – nee Miss Hall Dare of Newtonbarry, Co. Wexford – note 2 he has explored in turn many pathless portions of the uncivilised world, to say nothing of his valuable researches into the bygone civilisations of Greece, Asia, and Africa.
Each one of Mr. and Mrs. Bent’s expeditions has hitherto resulted in a valuable addition to geographical and archaeological literature, and the former’s book, dealing with the famous ruins of Zimbabwe, was the first and in many respects the best, account of Mashonaland published.
The well-known explorer and his wife have lately returned from their second journey into Arabia, and I found them, (writes a representative of The Album), settled for the season in their museum-like London home, a house filled with momentoes of my hosts’ many years of travel, from Greek antiques to the barbaric, if splendid, gifts of his Arab Sheikh friends. note 3
“What do we consider to have been our most interesting and perilous expedition?” echoed Mr. Bent, in answer to a question. “Our last, undoubtedly, for when one comes to think of it, there is scarcely anything known about the land which gave Europe Algebra. There is practically no modern literature dealing with the country. In the old days, when geography was written merely by hearsay, historians and travellers were more reckless as to what they said, but it is wonderful to note how often they arrived at right conclusions. Ptolemy, for instance, wrote about Arabia, and my wife and myself were able to identify several sites mentioned in his works. note 4 In modern days, certainly, no country has been so little explored. When it was announced that we were going there, the Indian Government placed a surveyor at my disposal, and we hope to complete our task of surveying the whole of the country from Hadramout to Dhofar, and so on.”
“And what were the practical difficulties in the way of an Arabian expedition?” “Owing to the slave trade the Arabians are not at all anxious to have their dark ways made light. Each district is governed by a Sheikh, and the country is in a wild a lawless state. Indeed, Arabia was far more civilised before the rise and spread of Mahommedanism. I traced many of the ancient Sabæan fortresses and towns, and found most interesting inscriptions. We entered Arabia by Merbat, and thanks to the European resident in Muscat, got on fairly well, but of course in the interior our means of getting about was by the help of camels only used to carry frankincense.”
“And what did you take in the way of provisions, and so on?” “I always leave the commissariat side of our journeys to my wife,” answered Mr. Bent, smiling. “She sees after everything of the kind; but as to food, there is one point I should like to mention. I am a thorough believer in tea, and do not advise anyone to explore on spirits, although on this last expedition we took a little rum much over proof to dilute. Then, of course, quinine is the best travelling medicine in the world.”
“Our exploration larder”, added Mrs. Bent, “is quite varied enough for all reasonable requirements; desiccated soups, corned beef and beef essence, potted meats, condensed milk, and last but not least, some sackfuls of dry bread, are all included, for long experience has taught us both what to avoid and what to add to our travelling impedimenta. note 5 We always try to be as comfortable as possible when journeying, and so take plenty of sheets and towels; but, of course, the lack of water is a great annoyance. By-the-way, we always travel with one of Edgington’s green fly-tents, with double flaps, the whole made of the green Willesden canvas which does not get mouldy when folded up wet.” note 6
“And are you accompanied by a large party?” “During our last journey we were eleven in all; my husband and I were the only Europeans among them. There is no use in taking English servants. Of course this increases danger in uncivilised countries. Constantly on our travels the Bedouins with whom we have been travelling have turned against us, and on one occasion we seriously thought of trying to find our own way to the coast alone.”
“And have you any views on the best travelling costume?” I enquired. “Yes, inasmuch that we do not alter or modify our travelling costumes, wearing the same kind of clothes in both Africa and Asia. My husband finds a Norfolk jacket and breeches the most practical and pleasant form of dress for either riding or actual exploring work. My travelling dress consists of a tweed coat and skirt, a pith hat, with breeches and gaiters. The skirt is made in pleats, and is so arranged as to act as riding habit when I am on horseback. When actually in camp, that is to say, during the heat of the day – for early morning and evening are the only safe hours to travel – I put on a linen shirt or blouse and ordinary skirt.” note 7
“And on the whole, what is your verdict on the various countries you have so successfully explored?” “South Africa is, undoubtedly, the land of the future,” answered Mr. Bent decidedly. “Perhaps you know that in 1891 we explored the ruined cities of Mashonaland, the Royal Geographical Society and the British South Africa Company aiding us in paying the expenses of the expedition? note 8 Our experience while in the interior taught us something of the possibility of Rhodesia, and I think that an energetic emigrant has as a good chance there as anywhere else; but of course opinions differ. I myself fell a victim to South African fever, but I have noticed that this kind of disease disappears with civilisation, and my views have been thoroughly borne out in the case of Kimberley.” note 9
Note 9: In fact the start of Bent’s demise can be traced back to the Cycladic island of Andros in 1884, and the malarial coastal hamlet of Gavrio on the north-west (Mabel Bent, Chronicles, Vol. 1, Oxford, 2006, pp. 50-51). The malaria he contracted there was to return many times in the years to come, and he died at 45 of complications from it in May 1897, on his return from Socotra and Aden. Return from Note 9
“Like most travellers, this lady has found that the less she and her nomad husband see of spirits and wine the better, and so with the exception of a little brandy for medicinal purposes, the whole party travel on tea, beef essence, and condensed milk…”
To mark Mabel Bent’s birthday (28 January 1847) this year (2022), let’s read more from a rare article on her from an arcane newspaper – The Newry Telegraph, 3rd January 1895, published by an unknown publisher in Newry, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It seems that it is an original editorial by an unknown author and not a piece syndicated from any other contemporary English source. There is every chance that it was written, or co-written, by Mabel’s sister Frances Maria Hobson, wife of the Rector of Portadown (a corner of that devout triangle, Newry, Portadown, Armagh. The wagging finger to the intemperate above is a clue perhaps, ironic rather as Theodore’s fortunes derived in part from brewing!).
The featured photo, probably from Cape Town in 1891, shows Mabel in her prime and on her way to explore the ruins of Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes. Mabel’s confident air presages the Bents’ imminent fame as they join the cadre of the nation’s most popular and best-known adventurers. Their work in the Eastern Mediterranean is behind them, their celebrated Arabian expeditions ahead. Thus this article in TheNewry Telegraph that follows reflects this prestige awaiting Mabel in 1895 perfectly, as well, of course, as the attitudes and jingoism of the day. And no excuse is ever needed for an oblique reference to another extraordinary traveller, Raymonde Bonnetain.
So, without further exposition, we join parlour-readers, heads and arms on their antimacassars, of The Newry Telegraph for Thursday, 3rd January 1895:
“Mrs Theodore Bent – The Queen of Explorers: Curious as it may seem, foreign exploration is one of the paths where the most feminine women have followed the example set them by their husbands and brothers. Of course, this has been especially the case in every kind of missionary enterprise, and one has only to recall the achievements of Lady Baker, Lady Burdon, Mme Dieu la Loy [sic], Mrs Peary, and more recently Mme Bonnetain note 1 , to prove that even great explorers have not hesitated to take with them on their perilous journeys those whom they had chosen for their life companions.
The subject of our sketch, Mrs. Theodore Bent, is a striking example of all a woman can do in the way of cheerful endurance and intelligent observation. Her name is less well-known than that of her husband, one of the most distinguished Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, for, as she sometimes observes, ‘There is not ink enough in a family for two’, but the valuable additions to exploration literature published by Mr Bent owe not a little of their interest to his wife, for she keeps careful notes of everything that occurs during their journeys note 2 , and, when any excavations are to be done, generally takes charge of one party whilst her husband looks after another.
Mrs Bent, who is a light, graceful-looking woman, well-known in the cultured portion of London Society, belongs to an Irish family, famous in the annals of County Wexford, the Hall-Dares of Newton-Barry; she rode almost before she could walk, and early displayed remarkable pedestrian powers.
During the last ten years Mr and Mrs Bent have together achieved twelve exploration expeditions in some of the roughest and least known corners of Southern Asia, that vast and mysterious domain of which the world even now knows little. They began their travels by an expedition to the less well-known islands of Greece, and while there made some interesting archaeological discoveries; this first attempt taught them a great deal, and now Mr H M Stanley himself could not rival Mrs Bent as organiser and manger of an exploration party, for long experience has shown her what to avoid, and narrowed down her list of absolutely indispensable necessaries to a small compass.
It is interesting to note that Mr Bent’s book on Mashonaland was one of the first works published on that now much-debated portion of our Colonial Empire.
Of late years Arabia has become to both husband and wife the most interesting portion of the universe. There is probably no place in the world of which so little is known, and which is more full of practical dangers to exploring Europeans, for the native population, though civilised after a fashion, are extremely cunning and dishonest, and have a great hatred and contempt for anything they don’t understand.
Nowadays so much is talked about rational dress, cycling costumes, and the relative value of a divided skirt and knickerbockers, that it is interesting to know that Mrs Bent’s ideas on the subject are simple and the result of long experience. Her costume never varies, for she has found the same kind of dress equally useful in South Africa, Arabia, and the Isles of Greece. Her outfit, which is very pretty and even conventional, consists of a tweed coat and skirt coming down below the knees, breeches, gaiters, and stout shoes. The skirt is full, being pleated; and by a clever arrangement invented by the wearer herself it can be altered accordingly as to whether it is wanted for riding or walking. With this costume is worn a pith hat and gause veil.
Mrs Bent, whenever it is possible, rides on horseback, and she cannot speak too highly of the intelligence and faithfulness of the horse as compared to that of a camel or mule.
Every detail concerning the outfit and internal economy of their expeditions is left by Mr Theodore Bent to his wife, and so on her hangs the heavy responsibility of keeping in health and making comfortable a larger or smaller party, which often includes guides and servants belonging to the country which is to be explored.
Like most travellers, this lady has found that the less she and her nomad husband see of spirits and wine the better, and so with the exception of a little brandy for medicinal purposes, the whole party travel on tea, beef essence, and condensed milk, while quinine is the most important item of the medicine chest.
It should not, however, be thought that Mr and Mrs Bent spend their whole life in travelling through wild and inaccessible regions; they generally pass the season in their delightful London home, which is a veritable museum, full of curious and beautiful things gathered together during the course of their owners’ many expeditions. Mr Theodore Bent has generously presented many of his most precious archaeological finds to the British Museum, but his own store is extremely valuable and curious. Mrs Bent makes a point of collecting anything specially feminine in the way of ornaments or habilaments, and some of the shawls and face veils presented to her by Arabian magnates throw a strange light on the manners and customs of the East.
The subject of our sketch was at one time proposed for election to the Royal Geographical Society, but she little values official recognition of dignities, and the matter has remained in abeyance note 3 .”
“[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’
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!]
Just before (Western) Easter 1888, the tireless British explorers Theodore and Mabel Bent, on an extended cruise down the Turkish coast, had reached the small, thriving island of Kastellorizo – one more location to add to their twenty-year gazetteer; not a lot of people know that…
Wikipedia (03/09/2020) has plenty by way of introduction to this, perhaps the remotest of Greek islands one can step on via scheduled services:
“Kastellorizo or Castellorizo (Greek: Καστελλόριζο, romanized: Kastellórizo), officially Meyisti (Μεγίστη Megísti), a Greek island and municipality of the Dodecanese in the Eastern Mediterranean. It lies roughly 2 kilometres (1 mile) off the south coast of Turkey, about 570 km (354 mi) southeast of Athens and 125 km (78 mi) east of Rhodes, almost halfway between Rhodes and Antalya, and 280 km (170 mi) northwest of Cyprus.”
The previous year (1887), our explorers, Theodore and Mabel Bent, had been excavating way up north on Thasos, finding some important marbles (including a fine statue they were not allowed to take home), which are now in the archaeological museum in Istanbul. Denied their rightful gains (as they saw them), and never a couple to give up easily, the pair spent a good deal of the summer and autumn of 1887 trying to drum up enough support to have these marbles rescued from the Turkish authorities and cased up for London. Letters exist from Bent to the British Museum requesting their kind interventions (it all sounds very familiar): “We have indeed been unfortunate about our treasure trove but I have hopes still. I sent to Mr. Murray [of the BM] a copy of two letters which recognize the fact that I had permission in Thasos both to dig and to remove. These I fancy had not reached Sir W[illiam] White [our man in the City, see below] when you passed through Constantinople. Seriously, the great point to me is prospective. Thasos is wonderfully rich and I have some excellent points for future work and … I am confident we could produce some excellent results.”
In January 1888, Theodore did receive a further grant of £50 from the Hellenic Society to return to Thasos to excavate, and the couple duly left for Istanbul. Unsurprisingly, the implacable, very capable Director of Antiquities in the Turkish capital, Hamdi Bey, refused Bent a firman to carry out further investigations, not only on Thasos, but also implying that the Englishman was not welcome to use unauthorized picks and shovels on Turkish lands in general.
Despite various appeals to canny career diplomat, the Ambassador, Sir William White, he and Mabel were forced to change their plans. Theodore may well have been expecting this. In the Classical Review of May 1889, his friend E.L. Hicks reveals that when Bent was first digging on Thasos in 1887 he had employed a local man to “to make some excavations in the neighbourhood of Syme” (far down the Turkish coast, north of Rhodes) on his behalf. Obviously satisfied with the results, the couple, after an excursion to Bursa to see the fabled Green Mosque, decided to return to Cycladic Syros, where they chartered for about fifty days the pretty yacht Evangelistria (the Bents refer to her as “the ‘Blue Ship’ from the gaudy colour with which her sides were painted”), with “Kapitan Nikólaos Lambros” and her crew, under Greek papers; and they embark (Wednesday, 29 February 1888) on this fall-back plan that will take them with the winds and currents as far south as Levantine, if not Oriental, Kastellorizo, frozen just off the Turkish coast, as a map will show you, like a mouse under a cat’s paw.
Meanwhile Mabel, on Syros before embarking, can be candid for her diary – they are to don pirate gear, “Theodore at once took to visiting ships to put into practice our plan of chartering a ship and becoming pirates and taking workmen to ‘ravage the coasts of Asia Minor’. Everyone says it is better to dig first and let them say Kismet after, than to ask leave of the Turks and have them spying there.” All, of course, reprehensible behaviour today. The couple also meet up here with their long-term dragoman, Manthaios Símos, who has sailed up from his home on Anafi , close to Santorini, to lend a hand.
Thus, on a sort of early tourist ‘gulet’ cruise (“There is a dog called Zouroukos, who was at first terrified… and the little tortoise, Thraki”), the couple’s investigations along the Asia Minor littoral (in particular the coastline opposite Rhodes) turned out fairly fruitful, and some of Theodore’s ‘finds’ from this expedition are now in London (see below). He briefly wrote up his discoveries of ancient Loryma, Lydae, and Myra for the Journal of Hellenic Studies (Vol. 9, 1888 – but a lengthier account was provided by E.L. Hicks (Vol. 10, 1889)), including transcriptions of over forty inscriptions and passages of text from Theodore’s own notebooks.
No doubt his notebooks were to come in handy when, a few years later, Bent is editing his well-known version of Thomas Dallam’s diary for the Hakluyt Society (1893), recounting the latter’s adventures in these same waters: ‘The 23rd [June, 1599] we sayled by Castle Rosee, which is in litle Asia.’ (Incidentally, musical-instrument maker Dallam’s Gulliver-like exploits below the gigantic walls of Rhodes, not so very far away northish, are highly recommended.)
But back to the Bents, a popular account of the their 50-day cruise in 1888 – well worth a read for those who get off on the rugged coastline from Symi to Kastellorizo – was written by Theodore for The Cornhill Magazine, (Vol. 58 (11), 620-35), and entitled ‘A Piratical F.S.A.‘ (Bent had recently been made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and was indulging in shameful hubris.)
(For the rest of Bent’s articles on this coastal meander, see the year 1888 in his bibliography.)
After various adventures, the Bents reached the Kastellorizo offing on 30th March 1888. Theodore sets the scene: “Great preparations were made for the arrival of the ‘Blue Ship’ at the first civilised port she had visited since leaving Syra. One of the ‘boys’, it appeared, understood hair-cutting, and borrowed Mrs. F.S.A.’s scissors for that purpose; beards were shaved, and shaggy locks reduced with wonderful rapidity… Castellorizo was the port, and it is a unique specimen of modern Greek [sic] enterprise, being a flourishing maritime town, built on a barren islet off the south coast of Asia Minor, far from any other Greek centre – a sort of halfway halting place in the waves for vessels which trade between Alexandria and Levantine ports; it has a splendid harbour, and is a town of sailors and sponge divers.”
Half thinking of home, the Bents are in need of some fancy paperwork to ensure their acquisitions thus far are protected from the prying eyes of both Greek and Turkish customs officials. Mabel’s ‘Chronicle’ gives us a little more, beginning with a sketch of their plans:
“First to go to the island of Kasteloriso, where there is a Greek consul, and have a manifesto made that we came from Turkey so that the Greeks may not touch our things in Syra… Now all was preparation for this civilized place. Theodore assured himself that his collar and tie were at hand. I hung out my best Ulster coat and produced respectable gloves and shoes… We really made a very tidy party when we reached our goal… We had a calm voyage. An average time from Myra to Kasteloriso is 6 hours; we took about 26. We did not land in the regular harbour. The captain said questions would be asked as to why there were 18 people in such a boat. We landed about 8. It is a flourishing looking little town, divided by a point on which rise the ruins of a red castle. The name should be Castelrosso, but first the Greeks have made it ‘orso’ and then stuck in an ‘i’. The Genoese or Venetians made it. Kapitan Nikólaos was greeted wherever he went by friends. He did not seem anxious to be questioned much, and once when asked where he had come from gaily answered, ‘Apo to pelago!’ (from the open sea). I was delighted at this answer and so, when some women, sitting spinning on rocks, called out, ‘Welcome Kyria,’ to which I answered, ‘Well met!’ and then asked, ‘Whence have you troubled yourself?’ ‘Apo to pelago!’ I smilingly replied and swept on round a corner where we could laugh, and who more than Kapitan Nikólaos…”
There is nothing in Mabel’s diary to suggest the couple made any sort of tourist excursion around the island, not even to the famous blue caves, which is a shame. Surprisingly, too, Theodore makes no mention of perhaps the most iconic ‘snap’ on the island, the Lycian rock-cut tomb (4th century BC), unique on Greek soil.
Mission accomplished, the next we learn is that the Evangelistria has reached the ancient site of Patara on the mainland: “Yesterday morning, Good Friday [March 30th], we had a very quiet voyage hither…”
Within days, Theodore and Mabel will be casting off for Syros once more, but, after 50 days in their gulet, they have had enough of open waters and decide to return to London the long way, overland, via Smyrna – Istanbul – Scutari – Adrianople – Plovdiv – Istanbul – Nicea – Istanbul – Odessa – Berlin. All a far cry from ‘civilised’, Levantine Kastellorizo… and one wonders of their dreams.
“We stopped 2 nights in Berlin at the Central Hotel”, writes Mabel, “We had travelled from Saturday night to Monday night, the 14th, and nearly always through forests. We crossed from Flushing and on Thursday [17th May 1888] we safely reached home… All our marbles reached England soon after, and after spending some weeks here are housed in the British Museum.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent’, Vol 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 260)
‘Here’ is the couple’s smart townhouse near Marble Arch, a vast magpies’ nest, with every tabletop, bookcase and cabinet showing off souvenirs from 20 years of travels in Arabia, Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean, perhaps, too, some embroideries and large, distinctive chemise buttons (from the women Mabel chatted to on Kastellorizo), just arrived back in rough, pine crates, recently unloaded from the decks of the Evangelistria:
“The women here all wear the dress of Kasteloriso: long full coloured cotton trousers, then the shirt fastened down the front with… large round silver buckles, and then married women wear a gown slit up to the waist at the side. The 2 front bits are often tied back as they become mere strings. Then a jacket with sleeves ending above the elbow and very long-waisted, and very low is wound a scarf. The girls do not wear the gown. They have a fez on the head and a turban round it or not…” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent’, Vol 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 246)
Indulge us – we digress over a slice of wedding dress, the size of a large postage stamp.
Sulgrave Manor is a modest Tudor house not far from Oxford (UK), built in 1539 for the wool merchant Lawrence Washington, a direct ancestor of George Washington, the future first President of the United States. The house was sold out of the family in 1659 and gradually substantial alterations were made as it became home to a succession of tenant farmers. The old manor was at last rescued from dereliction in 1914 after being purchased by the Anglo-American Peace Centenary Committee as part of the commemorations of the Treaty of Ghent, which established peace of sorts between Britain and the USA in 1814. The house and gardens were restored by arts and crafts architect Sir Reginald Blomfield and eventually opened to the public in 1921. In the same year, the Sulgrave Manor Board (now Sulgrave Manor Trust) was established to preserve the estate for the public and promote its historic and symbolic role in Anglo-American relations. It is open as a museum (with luck, reopening to the public from 20 July 2020).
Meanwhile, by the mid 1920s, Mabel Bent, impressive widow of the explorer Theodore Bent (1852-1897), was nearing the end of her own travels and disposing of some of her most significant and prized possessions. Presumably knowing of the great Washington work at Sulgrave, Mabel sent the Board a packet with a letter (dated 23 February 1925 and addressed from her London home, 13 Great Cumberland Place, W1); it would have arrived out of the blue, containing an amazing object-the subject of this digression. The letter reads:
This bit of Mrs. Washington’s wedding dress was given to me in Florence by Mrs. Elizabeth Dickenson Rice Bianciardi from Boston, in 1878. Mrs. Bianciardi was born Rice and her mother’s name was Dickenson. Mrs. Bianciardi told me that Mrs. Washington had given it to her mother. It was cut from a larger piece.
Mabel V. A. Bent
And this ‘bit of Mrs. Washington’s wedding dress’, was thus wrapped up, together with a small unlabelled photo (see below) and two US half penny coins (now lost), and posted off to Sulgrave, where it remains – one of the star exhibits of the museum, neat in its frame, and protected from the light by its own small, theatrical curtain. (All the Sulgrave Manor information and images have been most kindly provided by Laura Waters, House & Collections Manager.) Presumably the fragment was mounted at Sulgrave, as the frame’s inset caption infers: “Fragment of Mrs George Washington’s wedding dress (1759), of a fabric woven in silk and silver. Given to Mrs Theodore Bent in Florence, in 1878, by Mrs Bianciardi, whose mother had it from Mrs Washington. Presented to Sulgrave Manor by Mrs Theodore Bent in 1925.”
Martha Custis (née Dandridge, 1731 (?) – 1802), famously married (age 27) George Washington (26) on 6 January 1759, at the White House plantation. According to the Mount Vernon website “Their attraction was mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was charming, accomplished, and, of course, wealthy. George had his own appeal. Over six foot two inches tall (compared with Martha, who was only five feet tall), George was an imposing figure whose reputation as a military leader preceded him. After his half-brother Lawrence and his widow died, Washington would inherit Mount Vernon, a beautiful 2000-acre estate located high above the Potomac River in Northern Virginia.”
It seems that the first publication of Mabel Bent’s involvement as a footnote in American history is recorded in “Sulgrave Manor and the Washingtons. A History and Guide to the Tudor Home of George Washington’s ancestors” (Jonathan Cape: London, 1933), a fine and charmingly illustrated account of the manor by H. Clifford Smith F.S.A; on pages 135-6 we discover: “A relic of Mrs. Washington consists of a small fragment of her wedding-dress, presented in 1925 by Mrs. Theodore Bent. It was given to Mrs. Bent when in Florence, in 1878, by Mrs. Bianciardi, whose mother had received it from Mrs. Washington herself.”
And Mabel in Florence in 1878? No riddle. Theodore and Mabel were married in southern Ireland in August 1877 and embarked on a (very) extended honeymoon to Italy thereafter. Theodore had read modern history at Oxford and felt inspired to begin a trio of monographs on aspects of the ‘Risorgimento’, including a biography of Garibaldi – not much consulted today if truth be told. The Bents, thus, and of independent means, made frequent Italian trips over a number of years in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Florence, of course, was on their itinerary, and, in 1878, Mabel must have become close enough to Mrs Elizabeth Bianciardi of Boston (more on her in a moment) such that the latter would give the former a special keepsake – a fragment of Martha Washington’s wedding dress, ‘woven in silk and silver’. (And seemingly no question of any sale, the Bents were great acquirers of costumes on their travels; Elizabeth must have retained a larger piece, as the last line of Mabel’s letter suggests.)
Elizabeth moved in literary circles in and around Florence and was herself a busy writer; both she and Theodore were working on their biographies of Garibaldi at the time (Elizabeth’s (1882) entitled “The Personal History of Garibaldi”): Florentine society would surely have had them gravitate towards each other. And Mabel came away with a piece of Martha Washington’s wedding dress, the size of a large postage stamp. This fragment Mabel somehow kept safely (her London home was itself something of an ethnological museum, with curios from Africa, Arabia, the E Med, etc., etc.) for the next 50 years, and at the end of her life wanted to ensure its conservation – it was not to go to her acquisitive nieces – and where better in England than the home of Washington’s ancestors; and where you can see it still.
And of Mabel’s friend? The (controversial) Unz Review lists 15 articles by E.D.R. Bianciardi: ‘A Vintage Song’. The Century Magazine, October 1877, p. 852; ‘Siena – The City of the Winds’. The Harpers Monthly, April 1878, pp. 653-664; ‘The Village Church’. The Century Magazine, April 1880, p. 859; ‘Serenade’. The Century Magazine, September 1880, p. 732; ‘Luca Della Robbia and His School’. The Harpers Monthly, April 1880, pp. 692-698; ‘A Florentine Family in the Fifteenth Century’. The Atlantic Monthly, November 1881, pp. 672-681; ‘The Personal History of Garibaldi’. The Century Magazine, August 1882, pp. 495-502; ‘Life in Old Siena’. The Atlantic Monthly, June 1883, pp. 782-788; ‘Under the Olives’. The Century Magazine, August 1883, pp. 552-557; ‘Vallombrosa’. The Harpers Monthly, August 1883, pp. 347-353; ‘Dum Vivimus, Vivamus’. The Century Magazine, January 1884, p. 418; ‘The Haunts of Galileo’. The Atlantic Monthly, July 1884, pp. 91-98; ‘A Lovers’ Pilgrimage’. The Harpers Monthly, April 1884, pp. 659-670; ‘A Pisan Winter’. The Atlantic Monthly, March 1884, pp. 320-331; ‘The Warrior’s Quest’. The Harpers Monthly, September 1884, p. 584.
In addition there is a short series of books, including “At Home in Italy” (1885), and a collection of (sentimental) verse. Academic and enquiring in nature, a fair example of her style can be found here: ‘A Florentine Family in the Fifteenth Century’. Further research is required in terms of how she married and moved to Florence – the Bianciardi family is one of note. As for ‘Professor Carlo Bianciardi’, we must keep looking; it would be romantic to learn that Elizabeth left America to marry the actor/dancer who pops up with that name. (Any photos would be most welcome – if you have any info to share, please contact us.)
Returning to the slice of wedding dress, the size of a large postage stamp, given by Bianciardi to Bent, and by Bent to Sulgrave, it seems appropriate to leave the last words to the Washingtons’ spiritual home, Mount Vernon, VA, and Amanda Isaac, Associate Curator (George Washington’s Mount Vernon/Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, personal communication, June 2020):
“The fragment appears to be of the same type as several in our collection, that is, a cream color ribbed silk woven with very flat think strips of metal plate (likely tarnished silver), of the type of fabric known as “silver tissue” in the eighteenth century. According to Martha Washington’s granddaughters (Eliza Parke Custis Law (1776-1831), Martha Custis Peter (1777-1854), and Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852)), the fragments were cut from the petticoat of the gown she wore at her marriage to George Washington on January 6, 1759… We do not know what Mrs. Washington’s full wedding outfit looked like, though the grandchildren described it as a gown of yellow damask, with a silver petticoat, and purple silk and silver trimmed shoes. The purple and silver shoes do survive, and are quite rare in the American context… Likewise, the silver tissue fragments are extraordinary, and one of the few provenanced examples of this type of costly fabric being used by the British colonists. All together, Mrs. Washington’s wedding ensemble bespoke her position as a leading member of the colonial gentry.
“It is wonderful to know about this particular example and the exchange between Mrs. Bianciardi and Mrs. Bent… [We] do wish we could track down Mrs. Bianciardi’s mother, Mrs. Rice. It is most likely that the fragment was distributed by one of the grandchildren mentioned above, and that Mrs. Rice received it from one of them, or from an intermediary who had received it from the grandchildren.”
The fragment was obviously much valued by the Bents, and in July 1893 exhibited it at a prestigious event in London. This from The Gentlewoman of 8 July 1893, page 53: “The summer sale of the Ladies’ Working Guild was opened on Wednesday [5 July 1893] by H.R.H. the Princess Beatrice, at 35, Dover-street, the house of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Smith. The loan exhibition, held under the presidency of the Princess Frederica included… [from] Mrs. Theodore Bent a very fine lappet in needle point, and Mr. Theodore Bent a little piece of George Washington’s wife’s wedding gown, and a curious painting on wood of Allah, the face not painted in as being too holy to depict…”
Did the Bents ever doubt the authenticity of the heirloom one wonders? Hard to tell, yet there is a very casual remark made off camera by Theodore in an article he wrote about a journey home via the Balkans in 1887: “The relics of a new country are always amusing. An American once gave me a scrap of Mrs. Washington’s wedding-dress, treasured, and doubtless as often reproduced, as portions of the true cross.” (A New Overland Route to India, Macmillan’s Magazine, 1887 May/Oct, p. 290)
And there is a postscript… Remember the little anonymous photo Mabel also sent to Sulgrave in 1925? Amanda informs us that it “is a romanticized portrait of Mrs. Washington that was published in the mid-nineteenth century”.
And with that, this digression ends, well, nearly – for, as a coda, in one of those serendipitous flashes, it happened that a female descendant of Mabel’s brother Robert Hall-Dare (1840-1876), married a direct descendant of the Washington family from Sulgrave Manor – Elsie Washington.
‘In the long term, the following areas of the collection have been identified as under-researched areas, but these would only be tackled in the context of potential for use and visitor engagement … […] Theodore Bent’s Turkish embroidery bequest.’
This casual aside makes the Harris Museum one of only three public collections in the world, to our knowledge, to hold a collection of textiles originally acquired by Theodore and Mabel Bent over the 20 years of their travels, the other two being the Benaki Museum, Athens, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. (We are not including here the few clothing and other items, some made of bark, that the Bents brought back from Great Zimbabwe that are now in the British Museum.)
‘Theodore Bent’s Turkish embroidery bequest’ at the Harris Museum consists of four items (we are assuming they represent the entire ‘bequest’), and, thanks to the kind assistance of curator Caroline Alexander, we believe that this is the first time they have been ‘published’.
The museum’s Accession Book refers to the pieces as ‘Turkish Embroideries’. In the 1880s, the decade the Bents spent mainly in the Eastern Mediterranean, the islands off the Turkish west coast belonged to Turkey, taken and held by the Ottomans from early medieval times until the early 20th century. The Dodecanese islands were only returned to Greece in the 1940s. Thus the Bents’ acquisitions of fabrics and costumes (some with the intention of selling on to British collectors and institutions) reflect a wide blend of styles and influences – the distinctions between ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ being generally moot points. Beautiful things, made painstakingly, to be given, worn, or displayed, remain beautiful things irrespective.
The four items (1970.1; 1970.2; 1970.3; 1970.4) in the Harris Museum were donated in May 1970, rather mysteriously, by someone who introduced herself as ‘the great-niece’ of Theodore Bent. There seems to be no mention of the gift in the museum’s Donation Book, an interesting fact, nor does any name appear in the museum’s accession records unfortunately. The museum’s Accession Book includes the following handwritten note stapled to the relevant entries: ‘Query re T. Bent’s niece [sic]. No details of this donation in the donation book. Contact V & A to whom T. Bent donated embroidery.’
Enquiries are under way (December 2019) to try and find out who the donor may have been, and why the Harris should have been chosen as the recipient.
Theodore Bent had no siblings, but several cousins, who in turn had issue. There is a chance that one of these might be our donor, and there is a local connection. Theodore Bent himself had property just outside Macclesfield , and his uncle John was Lord Mayor of Liverpool in 1850. The family were influential local brewers, and, indeed, Theodore was born in Liverpool (1852). Bent’s Brewery Co. Ltd remained in business until the 1970s, as part of Bass Charrington. The Bents can be traced back to the Liverpool region in the 1600/1700s, and were potters and brewers – one, a medical man, was the famous surgeon who amputated Josiah Wedgwood’s leg!
Thus perhaps it was a member of this energetic and successful family who donated the embroideries in 1970; but somehow we doubt it. The Bents were great collectors (and dealers) in embroideries, etc., on their travels in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey in the 1880s, the period, we assume, when the four pieces now in the Harris were acquired by the exploring couple. On Theodore’s death in 1897 all his estate went to his wife Mabel, and they had no children. Just over thirty years later, on Mabel’s death (1929) all her belongings, including her textiles, went to her surviving nieces – they, in turn, had daughters, who would thus have been the ‘great nieces of Mrs Theodore Bent’. Of these, it seems only Kathleen Prudence Eirene Bagenal (1886-1974) was alive in 1970. (For the Anglo-Irish Hall-Dare family click here.)
We may, therefore, tentatively, and for now, propose Kathleen Bagenal (or her agent) as the donor of the Bent textile bequest to the Harris. The mystery remains why the Harris? Kathleen’s family home was in Scotland (Arbigland, on the Solway Firth), and we know that she was actively selling off her great-aunt’s textiles from the 1930s. We will, of course, update this theory if more information comes our way.
In her lifetime Mabel exhibited some of her fabric collection – we know of two events, but neither seem to have included any of the four items donated to the Harris in 1970.
A lecture Bent gave to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1886, during which his Mabel displayed a range of their textiles. These are published in ‘Insular Greek Customs’. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 15 (1886), 391-403. [With an Appendix by ‘Mrs. Bent’].
At the 1914 embroidery exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London, Mabel Bent showed a good part of her collection (see later in this contribution).
The Bent textiles in the Harris Museum, Preston
PRSMG: c1970.1 [Headed ‘Turkish Embroidery’ in the museum’s Accession Book]
Accession Book entry: ‘Embroidered with silk and gold plate thread, at both ends. Repeating pattern of formal plant motifs. Pink, blue, gold and brown on natural linen.’ Acquired from: ‘The great-niece of Theodore Bent’. Acquisition dated: ‘April May 1970′.
Digital catalogue entry: ‘Fine linen cloth [dimensions not provided] embroidered at both ends with intricate floral pattern of mainly peach and blue silk embellished with gold. Probably embroidered using a tambour. Possibly Turkish. Note: 2015, Asia from British Museum visited, said possibly Turkish with the use of flattened gold thread.’
PRSMG: 1970.2 [Headed ‘Turkish Embroidery’ in the museum’s Accession Book]
Accession Book entry: ‘Short strip embroidered at ends with formal design of cyprus tress and flowers in urns. Embroidered patch appliquéd on.’ Acquired from: ‘The great-niece of Theodore Bent’. Acquisition dated: ‘May 1970′.
Digital catalogue entry: ‘Embroidered panel [dimensions not provided] of fine linen. Embroidered both ends with motifs of pinecones and eight-petalled flowers in pots worked in blue, dark brown beige and cream threads. Probably machine worked as no evidence of starting or finishing. Machine worked down two edges. Also central panel later addition in pale blue, beige and cream floral motifs.’
PRSMG: 1970.3 [Headed ‘Turkish Embroidery’ in the museum’s Accession Book]
Accession Book entry: ‘Long strip embroidered with flower motif repeated seven times. Red, brown and blue silk embroidery with blue border on three sides.’ Acquired from: ‘The great-niece of Theodore Bent’. Acquisition dated: ‘May 1970′.
Digital catalogue entry: ‘Embroidered panel of fine linen [dimensions not provided]. Embroidered with floral motifs along length. Motif of red and blue flowers in repeated and alternating pattern. Appears to have been the edge of a larger panel. Believed Turkish c 19th century.’
PRSMG: 1970.4 [Headed ‘Turkish Embroidery’ in the museum’s Accession Book]
Accession Book entry: ‘Red silk cloth square extended at corners. Two embroidered panels joined to form centre piece, with blue silk strips on two sides. Floral design.’ Acquired from: ‘The great-niece of Theodore Bent’. Acquisition dated: ‘May 1970’. [This entry in a different hand]
Digital catalogue entry: ‘Embroidered panel [dimensions not provided] of floral motifs on fine linen comprising two pieces joined in the centre. Primarily terracotta red, blue, green and mustard thread working arabesque floral design. Panel has terracotta coloured narrow lace edging. Panel has been mounted on dark red silk backing panel with sleeves top and bottom for hanging. Possibly Turkish. c 19th century.’
The 1914 embroidery exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, London
As mentioned above, Mabel Bent showed a good part of her collection at the 1914 embroidery exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London. There is an an online catalogue. The prize exhibits were a collection of fine dresses from the Dodecanese, now in the Benaki Museum, Athens, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The exhibition cabinets displayed a wide range of Mabel’s other textiles, but none of the four items now held in the Harris Museum seem to have been shown to the public in 1914, but more research is needed to confirm this (i.e. future access to the exclusive photographs of the exhibits). Readers may be able to identify the Harris pieces in the catalogue (search ‘Bent’ in the online catalogue search box that appears on the page), and if so we would be delighted to hear from them. Similarly, if any Preston readers can provide information on the four Harris pieces before they entered the collection in 1970, we would also be most interested.
Mabel Bent’s diaries are, occasionally, a useful primary source for information on the thousands of artefacts the couple returned with to London during the twenty years of their travels in the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia. There are hundreds of references to dress, costume, embroideries, fabrics, etc. Unfortunately, Mabel does not always give precise details of gifts and acquisitions and it has not been possible to identify the four textiles in the Harris bequest in her notebooks.
“This afternoon we have been to the doctor Venier, of a Venetian family. Dr. Venier showed us the hangings of a bed, in which King Otho slept when he visited Pholégandros. All gold lace, silver lace and the most beautiful silk embroidery on linen. The curtains were striped silk gauze with gold lace insertion. The pillows gold edged real silk. We were also shown lace-edged sheets and gold embroidery. It was a really splendid sight and ﬁt for a museum.” (February 1884, Folégandhros in the Greek Cyclades; ‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent’, vol 1, page 44, 2006, Oxford)
In conclusion, the four textile pieces discussed, once in the collection of Theodore and Mabel Bent and donated to the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, represent an important revelation, and are published, it is thought, for the first time here. If you have any comments on any aspect of this content, including the origins, or technical/stylistic features of the four textiles, do please write in.