Mabel’s Museum – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W1

“[One] of the most notable and charming women of the day…” and her “museum” – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W1

“The Gentlewoman – The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen”, No. 175, Vol. VII, Saturday, November 11, 1893.

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…

Theodore and Mabel Bent (the Bent Archive).

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 intriguing portrait of Mabel Bent in the “Gentlewoman” article reprinted here.

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.

43 Great Cumberland Place - missing its blue plaque
The Bents’ first home at 43 Great Cumberland Place. 13 Great Cumberland Place, alas, is no longer with us.

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 The Gentlewoman, 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’

 

In and out (just about) of the Wadi Hadramawt – Mabel of Arabia

In and out (just about) of the Wadi Hadramawt – Mabel of Arabia

Shibam – “Manhattan of the Desert”, host to the Bents in early 1894 (wikipedia).

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:

Mabel Bent’s own photo of the mud-castles of Shibam in the Wadi Hadramawt (1894).

“… 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…

Bent’s own map from ‘Expedition to the Hadramut’. The ‘Geographical Journal’, Vol. 4 (4) (Oct), 315-31 (private collection).

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.

The formidable Mabel Virginia Anna Bent, a detail from a society portrait (1890s?).

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.

This portrait of Theodore must have been one of Mabel’s favourites; she chose it for the frontispiece of her tribute volume to him, “Southern Arabia” (1900).

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…

Mabel’s photo of Al-Hajarayn (Wadi Dawan), western Hadramawt (1894).

“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]

“The castle of Al Koton rears its battlemented towers.” Mabel Bent’s own photo (1894) of Al Qatn in the Wadi Hadramawt.

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)

Cover photograph © Jane Taylor (Shibam, Wadi Hadramawt, Yemen).

 

 

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.

Available from Amazon and other sources.

 

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 in 1893, Abyssinia’s Aksum and the ‘Lioness of Gobedra’ enticed them too…   

‘The Lioness of Gobedra’, near Aksum (wikipedia).

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).

Possibly Theodore Bent kneeling by that symbol of Ethiopia – the lion – during the explorer’s 1893 visit to Gobedra. A plate from Bent’s ‘The Sacred City of the Ethiopians’ (1893, page 195), based on a photograph by Mabel Bent.

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’.

Aksum’s ‘stele 2’, photographed in 1893 by Mabel Bent in situ (Bent, ‘The Sacred City of the Ethiopians’, 1893, page 187).

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.

‘King Ezana’s Stela’ at Aksum, photographed by Mabel Bent in 1893 (from Bent’s ‘The Sacred City of the Ethiopians’, 1893, between pages 184-5).

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.

Mabel Bent: A rare photograph attributed

Mabel Bent: A rare photograph attributed

One of those things that itches has just been scratched.

The unattributed portrait of Mabel Bent appearing on page 61 of her husband’s notorious book “The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland” (1892).

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.

Celebrated society photographer, Henry Van der Weyde (1838-1924) (wikipedia).

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.”

Mabel Bent in obscurity, from “The Gentlewoman”, No. 175, Vol. VII, for Saturday, November 11, 1893 (after the British Library).

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 ?

 

“One in two” – Behold they are the same! (© Ben Heaney 2020).

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!]

Friedrich v. Vincenz assists Mabel Bent on Tilos in the Dodecanese: ‘All the women here are terrified at the idea of being photographed and my camera is rather a “white elephant”!’

‘Mrs Bent and her Camera. Photo by Russell & Sons, London, probably Spring, 1895’ (The British Library).

Although from 1885 Mabel Bent came equipped with the latest in cameras, and was appointed expedition photographer to the Bents’ explorations of the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and Southern  Arabia, very very few of her photographs are published or known – other than what have appeared in their books and articles, or have been transformed into the few Bent lantern-slides remaining in the Royal Geographical Society, London.  No doubt more will turn up eventually, e.g. a folder of prints dated to the Bents’ trip to Great Zimbabwe in 1891 seems to exist in the Zimbabwe National Archives, Harare (for those interested in the source, please contact the Bent Archive).

An old photograph showing Tilos fifty years or so after the Bents’ visit (and fifty years before its current tourist development).

Next best, in the absence of Mabel’s own work, are those images taken by other photographers more or less synchronously. There are several to choose from, but a favourite must be from the Greek Dodecanese, the island of Tilos, between Kos and Rhodes, and a wonderful group of Tilian girls and women taken in the late 1890s, just a dozen years after Theodore and Mabel visited Tilos and the Dodecanese in 1885. The photograph (see below) appears in an article entitled ‘Ein Besuch auf der Insel Telos’ by one Friedrich v. Vincenz (possibly based at the time in Smyrna/Izmir) and published in the popular German magazine ‘Globus’ in January 1900 (pages 46-8). The original article has been scanned, but a comprehensive (and now possibly inactive ?) Tilos website also has a fine page or two reprinting the article (in German, but an English translation is available via the site – which, incidentally, has much else to enjoy: articles, photographs, and an Italian-era map that is not much reproduced). Vincenz’s article will be of interest generally, although some comments are inappropriate today, with antisemitic overtones – such a common feature of the turn of the century, and here and there also in the writings of the Bents. The author does not feature much on-line; he may have been residing at the time in Smyrna/Izmir, but he seems not to have written much, if anything, else, and no images of him pop up.

‘Frauern von Telos in alter Tracht’, a photograph by Friedrich v. Vincenz from his article ‘Ein Besuch auf der Insel Telos’, published in ‘Globus’ in January 1900 (pages 46-8).

Focusing now on the evocative Vincenz group photograph, infants to adults, dated around 1900 remember, the women and girls show off their distinctive island finery. The elder ones might easily have met the Bents (perhaps some viewer is related to them? Do write in if you are…), but in 1885 the inhabitants of Tilos were camera-shy, as Mabel records in her diary: ‘… all the women here are terrified at the idea of being photographed and my camera is rather a “white elephant”’.  Friedrich v. Vincenz had more luck (his article also features a photo of a local priest).

Mabel was always passionate about costumes and local dress. Her description of Tilian attire fits so well with the photo (as she writes in her diary at the end of February, 1885): “The men dress the same as all the other islanders we have seen, but the women look very like Laps. They wear a very rational dress. A shirt which comes a little below the knee, embroidered all round with red and green. Over this a light brown coat is wrapped by a scarlet belt. The shirt has a small square sailor collar of yellow and the open front of the shirt is filled with a piece of coloured embroidery, almost hidden by the great number of necklaces of different colours composed of numerous strings of glass beads, reaching nearly to the waist. On their heads they wear red pointed caps of red cloth with a bit of gold braid straight up the front and down the back. A handkerchief with the point turned up is tied across the front, and the hair, which is plaited rather high in front, is brought low over the ears and behind below the cap. Over all they tie a towel by its 2 front corners and sometimes also by the 2 back ones…” (Mabel and Theodore Bent, ‘The Dodecanese, or Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks’, Oxford, 2015, page 114).

‘Three ‘trahilia’’, after ‘Die Trachilia von Stamata Orfanou, oder der Kraplap von Tilos. Text und Fotos: An Moonen – Mit Dank an Frau Papantoniu (Athen) und Frau Dina Vagianou (Rhodos)’.

Mabel’s reference to the ‘open front of the shirt… filled with a piece of coloured embroidery’ is noteworthy. This piece of embroidery is the τραχηλιά (‘trahilia’), presumably developed and designed to facilitate breastfeeding. Friedrich v. Vincenz also describes it: ‘Auf der Brust befindet sich ein vom Halse mehr oder weniger tief herabreichender Ausschnitt, der durch bunte kunstreiche Stickerei, meist in Schwarz, Rot und Grün, ausgefüllt ist, auf dem die mit großer Vorliebe getragenen Schaumünzen, sowie bunten Halsgehänge in Glas und Bernstein hängen.’

The Tilos website already mentioned above also has a delightful page (several years old now and perhaps no longer updated?) describing the three examples shown above, as well as photographs and stories of venerable matriarchs. [If any of the site’s contributors would care to get in touch, we would be delighted to acknowledge them, rectify any errors, and thank them for such interesting material (July 2019).]

Those interested in the Bents and Tilos are directed to ‘The Dodecanese, or Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks’, Oxford, 2015 (locals [2019] can hop on a ferry and get a copy from Rhodes’ Akademia Bookshop).