Bent in ‘Black & White’: Introduction

Black & White: A Weekly Illustrated Record and Review.

Theodore Bent had two articles published in the periodical Black & White on Lindos, Rhodes:

* ‘Lindos: The Living City of Homer’ – I (28 February 1891, pp. 109–10).
* ‘Lindos: The Living City of Homer – II’ (14 March 1891, pp. 173–4)

 

 

 

Black & White: A Weekly Illustrated Record and Review was a British Victorian-era illustrated weekly periodical founded in 1891 by Charles Norris Williamson. For the next decade or so it competed with other publications that vied with each other to exploit the new methods of printing (black and white) images, wrapped round with semi-consequential texts by, inter alia, celebrities. There were changes in direction as the market grew tougher, and the first issue of Black & White Budget appeared in October 1899 and it continued under that name until May 1903, after which it appeared as Black & White Illustrated Budget (until June 1905). There was one final issue on 24 June 1905 under the name Illustrated Budget. In 1912, it was incorporated with The Sphere and then disappeared. Ultimately it could not compete with the better-financed and more substantial organs, i.e. Illustrated London News, and The Graphic (to both of which Theodore Bent regularly contributed).

An image of Theodore Bent from the studios of society-photographers Elliot & Fry, probably taken in the early 1890s when Bent was in his late 30s.

But returning to its launch enthusiasm, we read in The Freeman’s Journal of Wednesday, 4 January 1891, that: “At the offices of Black and White [sic], the new weekly illustrated paper which is to appear in February, a large reception was held on Monday night [2 January 1891]. The offices are at the corner of Fleet Street and Bouverie Street. The guests were received by Mr. C.N. Williamson, the managing editor, and Mr. Spielman, the art editor, was also to the fore. Among those present were… Mr. Jerome K. Jerome [he of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) fame (1889)]… and Mr. and Mrs Theodore Bent…”

In all, Bent had three articles published in Black & White:

* ‘Lindos: The Living City of Homer’ – I (28 February 1891, pp. 109–10).
* ‘Lindos: The Living City of Homer – II’ (14 March 1891, pp. 173–4).
* ‘Pre-Mahomedan Relics – Excavations at the Great Zimbabwe’ (2 April 1892 , pp. 430–1).

At some time before the reception referred to above, Bent must have been signed up to contribute to Black & White (he would have known some of the other individuals involved with it perhaps – Oswald Crawfurd, Eden Philpotts, Arthur Mee), and the periodical boasted of him as their ‘Great Zimbabwe correspondent’. Back the previous summer (1890), the traveller was somewhat rudderless, having just returned with his devoted wife Mabel from a long tour, south-north, on horseback, of Persia, and the focus of his later research, Phoenician contacts either side of the Red Sea, had not yet become clear. Then fate took a hand in the extraordinary form of Cecil Rhodes, who part-financed Bent, for the season of 1891, to explore the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, present-day Zimbabwe. It was at this stage, feasibly, that Black & White approached Theodore to write dispatches for them (although they did not announce this until later in 1891, see below). By November 1890, preparations were in full swing, rushed and frantic, and the expedition duly set sail for Cape Town on 30 January 1891, just four weeks after the reception at the offices of Black & White.

Sir Frederic Leighton, ‘Lindos, Rhodes’, late 1860s (Google Arts & Culture).

And during all these preparations for South Africa, Bent was commissioned to pen a few hundred words or so on the famous polis of Lindos, Rhodes – a little odd as he never actually went there when the couple spent a few days on the island in early 1885. Bent’s piece must have been rattled off quickly (it probably nods to the work of others) over Christmas 1890. Black & White wanted to launch with a bang on the Arts, and there must have been some promotion (in 1890) of Royal Academy President, Sir Frederic Leighton’s striking (and hardly known at all today) illustrations of Lindos and Rhodes; Bent, known for his work in the Levant, and having published an article on Rhodes in 1885, found himself involved.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, by Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton (oil on canvas, 1872-1875) © National Portrait Gallery, London.

It is intriguing to think that Bent was perhaps angling for a portrait by the celebrated artist. Leighton had done a remarkable painting of another explorer, his friend Sir Richard Burton between 1872-1875, the years when Theodore Bent was studying at Oxford and thinking of his travels to come.

This Lindos/Leighton piece that he did for Black & White was divided into two instalments (an old journalistic trick) by the editors, wrapped around Leighton’s evocative pictures, and they appeared in the first issues. They are transcribed elsewhere on this site, and have probably not been much read since the 1890s; those who like Rhodes and Lindos will find them wide-ranging and valuable, if short.

“We await with interest the report of our correspondent, who, besides being a distinguished archaeologist, is also an excellent artist.” Bent’s watercolour of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe from his “The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland” (1892).

In an editorial (1 August 1891, p. 163), Black & White made an announcement with undisguised relish: “Mr. Theodore Bent, our special correspondent in Mashonaland, who is also exploring the grand, and as yet mysterious, remains at Zimbaye on behalf of several learned societies, has discovered images and pottery in the ruins which throw a new light upon their origin, and upon the nationality of the discoveries of, and settlers in, what is assumed to be the ancient land of Ophir. We await with interest the report of our correspondent, who, besides being a distinguished archaeologist, is also an excellent artist.”

In the end, Bent wrote just one article for Black & White, a rather muted one, “Pre-Mahomedan Relics – Excavations at the Great Zimbabwe” (2 April 1892), his best efforts being reserved for other publications, e.g. The Graphic. It is important, nevertheless, for some rare illustrations based on Mabel’s photographs, and is transcribed elsewhere on this site.

In the issue of 13 May 1897 (page 608), Black & White somberly concludes its relationship with the excavator of Great Zimbabwe, and much else: “Mr. Theodore Bent, the indefatigable explorer of South East Africa and Arabia, has passed in his prime at the early age of forty-four. The scenes of his wide travels embrace Greece, Asia Minor, Persia, Mashonaland, Abyssinia and Arabia, and various interesting volumes are left to attest the explorer’s learning and intrepidity.”

And tonight we have for you… Mr. Theodore Bent!

Lecturing with lantern-slides (Youtube: Victorian and Albert Museum)

There is no denying that Theodore Bent worked incredibly hard: if not travelling he would be planning the next expedition, fund-raising, researching, writing up, or lecturing. For the approximately twenty years of his travels (coming to style himself more and more as an ‘archaeologist’) he would return to London in the spring of each year (with the odd exception) and immediately begin to think of publishing and publicising his finds – he had always depended much on self-promotion and PR for the funding and support of his subsequent researches; he had good contacts with the press and would submit progress updates to them assiduously from far-flung outposts, via Reuters and other agencies.

An unscientific trawl through the press cuttings of the time shows how Theodore reached the peak of his ‘fame’ in 1893-4, after a trio of consecutive hits – Great Zimbabwe, Aksum, and Wadi Hadramaut. He and his wife were soon London celebrities and news and details of their adventures was syndicated widely at home and abroad.

Mabel was tasked with sorting out her photographs and ensuring that they were ready for transferal to lantern-slide or printer’s plate. There was also the constant process of unpacking and caring for case after case of acquisitions: archaeological, ethnographical, botanical, and zoological. The couple would quickly make decisions on what they wanted to keep for themselves, and exhibit in their London townhouse, and what they would offer to museums (for a remuneration if possible).

What is particularly striking is how quickly Theodore would settle to study and write up his monographs (frequently asking other specialists for contributions). His hard-pressed publishers (mostly Kegan Paul and Longmans) usually had them announced and on bookshop shelves within six to nine months of Bent’s return from the field.

Model of Bent’s ‘Elliptical Temple’, from R.N. Hall, ‘Great Zimbabwe, Mashonaland, Rhodesia’, 1905, opp. page xl.

And within short weeks of reaching home again – from the Levant, Africa, or Arabia – Theodore was ready to give talks and lectures, all over the UK, to the relevant grand institutions of the day, and before the great and the good (in the spring of 1892 even William Gladstone came along to hear). Mabel’s job was to have the lantern-slides ready, and any artifacts neatly labelled for display.

Other display aids might be needed – perhaps a 3D model (e.g. of his famous ‘Elliptical Temple’ at Great Zimbabwe), and then there was the commissioning of maps from the famous London cartographers Edward Stanford to be seen to.

Detail from a lantern-slide (1896) of Mabel Bent on her camel in the Sudan.

What follows here, taken from newspapers and journals, is a chronological list (with no claims to completeness) of Theodore’s talks and presentations, giving a very good sense of the explorer’s Yorkshire-bred proclivity for hard graft. An interesting additional discovery seems to suggest that there was even an attendance charge for his talks in the provinces! The Newcastle Daily Chronicle for 2 March 1892 records that to hear Theodore lecture in Tyneside would cost you the equivalent of c. £3 today for a seat in the main hall, or c. £1.50 in galleries – money well spent! At another event we hear that Theodore’s ‘remarks throughout were admirably illustrated with a large series of photographic and other views of the places which were visited on the tour. The photographs were the production of Mrs. Bent, and incidentally Mr. Bent mentioned, in apology for some of the views which were somewhat wanting in sharpness, that the technical difficulties of photography, on account of the intense heat and other causes in Arabia, were almost inconceivable.’ (Wharfedale & Airedale Observer, 19 October 1894). Complete sets of Mabel’s lantern-slides survived until the early 1950s, when they were discarded by the Royal Geographical Society, deemed too faded and damaged to merit keeping. A huge loss.

Bent lecturing locals at the the Mounds of Ali, Bahrain, in 1889 (opposite page 24, the Bents’ ‘Southern Arabia’, 1900)

It takes very little imagination today to see Theodore in front of the camera presenting a sequence of his own mini-series – The Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, The Persian Gulf, Africa North & South, and Southern Arabia. Let’s hope one day they will appear – on National Geographic perhaps!

 

 

Theodore Bent’s Talks, Presentations, and Lectures (some dates are approx) note 1 

1883 [The Bents make their first visit to Greece and Turkey in the spring]

1884 [The Bents in the Greek Cyclades]

  • 8th May: ‘A general meeting of the Hellenic Society will be held at 22, Albermarle Street on Thursday next [8 May], at 5 p.m., when Mr. Theodore Bent will read a paper on a recent journey among the Cyclades.’ [The Athenaeum, No. 2949, May 3, 1884, p. 569]

1885 [The Bents in the Greek Dodecanese]

  • 14th September: ‘At the meeting of the British Association in Aberdeen… in the Anthropological Section, Mr J. Theodore Bent read a paper to show that the study of tombs in the Greek Islands was conducive to a knowledge of ancient and forgotten lines of commerce.’ [South Wales Daily Telegram, Friday, 18 September 1885]

1886 [The Bents in the Eastern Aegean and Turkey]

  • 24th June: At the annual meeting of the Hellenic Society in London the Hon. Sec. read a short paper by Mr. Bent on ‘A recent visit to Samos’.

1887 [The Bents in the Eastern Aegean and Turkey]

  • 23rd June: At the annual meeting of the Hellenic Society in London, Mr. Bent gave a short account of his work on Thasos.

1888 [The Bents in the Eastern Aegean and Turkey]

  • 11th September: ‘At the meeting of the British Association at Bath… in the Anthropology Section, Mr. J. Theodore Bent contributed a paper on sun-myths in modern Hellas.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 12 September 1888]

1889 [The Bents in Bahrain and Iran]

  • 17th September: At the meeting of the British Association at Newcastle, ‘in the Geography Section Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on the Bahrien Islands, in the Persian Gulf, in which he dealt with the position and general features the two islands, character of the seas, and the pearl fisheries and other features.’ [Dundee Advertiser, 20 September 1889]
  • 2nd December: ‘The meeting of the Geographical Society on Monday at Burlington House [London] was one of exceptional brilliancy, and was fully attended. Mr J. Theodore Bent… read an interesting and exhaustive paper on the Bahrein Islands in the Persian Gulf. This was rendered the more interesting by some realistic photographs, thrown on a white screen as dissolving views, and taken by Mrs Bent on the spot.’ [The Queen, 7 December 1889]

1890 [The Bents in the Eastern Aegean and Turkey]

  • 30th June: ‘Royal Geographical Society. Mr. J. Theodore Bent read a paper at the fortnightly meeting of of this society, held last night in the theatre of the London University, on explorations he had made in Cilicia Trachea.’ [Daily News (London), 1 July 1890]
  • 22nd July: Theodore Bent reads his paper ‘Notes on the Armenians in Asia Minor’ to the Manchester Geographical Society [MGS, Vol. 6, 220-222]
  • 5th September: At the meeting of the British Association at Leeds, in the Anthropology Section, Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on the Yourouks of Asia Minor, who, he said, were the least religious people he had ever heard of; but the religion honesty was deeply implanted their breasts. No more polygamous people existed anywhere, a Yourouk regarding himself as a disgrace unless he had six or seven wives. As a consequence womanhood bad sunk very low among them.’ [Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 6 September 1890]

1891 [The Bents are away all year exploring the remains at Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes]

  • February (uncertain date): Theodore Bent lectures on the Castle Line Garth Castle on his way to Cape Town. [As recorded in Mabel Bent’s diary, 10 March 1891. Mabel does not give the title of the lecture]

1892 [The Bents return early in the year from South Africa, leaving for Ethiopia at the end of it]

  • 22nd February: ‘At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, held in the theatre of the University of London last night, Mr. J. Theodore Bent read a paper entitled “Journeys in Mashonaland, and Explorations among the Zimbabwe and other ruins”’. [London Evening Standard, 23 February 1892]
  • 2nd March: ‘Although Lord Randolph Churchill declined the [Tyneside Geographical] society’s invitation to lecture on Mashonaland, Mr. Smithson was fortunate enough to secure the services of Mr. J. Theodore Bent, one of the Council of the Royal Geographical Society and of the British Association. Mr. Bent and his wife embarked on an adventurous journey into Mashonaland, and conducted excavations and explorations among the Zimbaybe [sic] ruins —the supposed “Land of Ophir”. Mr. Bent will deliver his lecture on the subject next week – on Wednesday, March 2nd.’ [Lovaine Hall; admission charged is to be 1 shilling (c. £3) in main hall, and sixpence (c. £1.50) in the galleries!] [Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 26 February 1892]
  • 23rd March 1892: ‘At the meeting of the Anthropological Institute to be held to-morrow evening, Mr. Theodore Bent will read a paper on the archaeology of the Zimbabwe Ruins, illustrated by the optical lantern [i.e. Mabel’s photographs]. I hear that Mr. Gladstone has expressed his intention to be present, and that Mr. Bent will on this occasion make special reference to the manners and customs of the early inhabitants of these remote regions of South Africa.’ [Birmingham Daily Post, 22 March 1892]
  • Before 13 April: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent’s party was successful and interesting [at their London home]. Her sister, Mrs. Hobson, and few intimate friends assisted Mr. Bent and his fellow-traveller, Mr. Swan, in explaining the relics [of Great Zimbabwe] to the learned and unlearned, to the latter of whom the trophies… might otherwise have seemed just so many rudely carved old stones, instead of being silent witnesses of the ancient civilisation and worship traced out by Mr. Bent in the wonderful walled fortresses of Central Africa.’ [Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 13 April 1892]
  • 5th August: At the meeting of the British Association at Edinburgh, in the Anthropology Section, Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on ‘The Present Inhabitants of Mashonaland and Their Origin’. [St. James’s Gazette, 6 August 1892]
  • 7th September: At the 9th International Congress of Orientalists (opened in the theatre of the London University, Burlington-gardens), ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent [in the Council Room of the Royal Geographical Society] gave an account of the more recent discoveries among the ruins of Zimbabwe and its neighbourhood.’ [London and China Express, 9 September 1892]
  • 19th October: At a gathering of the Manchester Geographical Society in the Cheetham Town Hall, Mr. J Theodore Bent gave a talk on the Zimbabwe Ruins in Mashonaland. [Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 20 October 1892]
  • 13th November: ‘Mr. Theodore Bent will deliver a lecture on “Mashonaland and the Ruins of Zimbabwe”, at the South Place Institute [Finsbury, London].’ [Colonies and India, 12 November 1892]
  • 1st December: Mr. Bent lectured in Gloucester Guildhall, for the Literary and Scientific Association, on Mashonaland. [Gloucester Citizen, 7 December 1892]
  • 7th December: ‘… at the Royal Spa Rooms, Harrogate. Mr. Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., lectured on “The ruined cities of Mashonaland”, his interesting remarks being illustrated with excellent limelight views.” [Knaresborough Post, 10 December 1892]

1893 [The Bents in Ethiopia until early spring, leaving for the Yemen at year end]

  • 19th June: At the annual meeting of the Hellenic Society, ‘Mr. Theodore Bent spoke of his researches in Abyssinia.’ [The Globe, 20 June 1893]
  • 18th September: At the British Association meeting in Nottingham, Mr. J. Theodore Bent reported ‘to the Committee on the Exploration of Ancient Remains at Aksum.’ [Nottingham Journal, 19 September 1893]
  • 20th October: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent, the African traveller, delivered an address before the members of the Balloon Society, at St. James’s Hall [London].’ [London Standard, 21 October 1893]

1894 [The Bents make their first foray into the Yemeni interior, being home in the spring. They return to the region (via Oman) at the year end]

  • 21st May: ‘There was an overflowing meeting last night… at the Royal Geographical Society [London] to welcome back Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent from their journeys in Southern Arabia.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 22 May 1894]
  • 10th July: ‘At the London Chamber of Commerce, in the Council-room, Botolph-house, Eastcheap… Mr. J. Theodore Bent delivered an address on the expedition which he and his wife made last winter to the Hadramut Valley, South Arabia.’ [Home News for India, China and the Colonies, 13 July 1894]
  • 14th August: At the meeting of the British Association in Oxford, ‘Mr. Theodore Bent read a paper on the natives of the Hadramaut in South Arabia.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 15 August 1894]
  • 2nd October: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent lectured at a meeting of the Balloon Society on the subject of the explorations which he and Mrs. Bent made a few months ago in South Arabia, and the occasion was taken advantage of to present Mr. Bent with the Society’s gold medal.’ [Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore), 25 October 1894]
  • 11th October: ‘Mr. Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., who formerly resided at The Rookery, Low Baildon (now the residence of Alderman Smith Feather), delivered a lecture… at the Bradford Mechanics’ Institute, before the members of the Bradford Philosophical Society, upon his recent travels in Arabia.’ [Wharfedale & Airedale Observer, 19 October 1894]
  • 25th October: ‘There was a numerous attendance at a meeting [of the Liverpool Geographical Society] held in connection with this society, at the Royal Institution, in Colquitt-street, last evening, when Mr. J. Theodore Bent, F.S.A., F.R.G.S., gave an interesting lecture on “The Hadramaut: a journey in Southern Arabia,” which was illustrated by a series of photographic slides.’ [Liverpool Mercury, 26 October 1894]

1895 [The Bents return from the Hadramaut coast in the spring and leave for the Sudan at the year end]

  • 6th June: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent read last night a paper on “Journeys in Southern Arabia” in the Lecture Hall the University of London.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 7 June 1895]
  • 12th June: ‘Lord and Lady Kelvin received a brilliant and distinguished company last night in the rooms of the Royal Society in Burlington House’, when the Bents presented photographs and finds from Southern Arabia. [St James’s Gazette, 13 June 1895]
  • 1st July: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent delivered a lecture at the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, at Hanover-square… The lecturer dealt with the Hadramaut, and Dhofar, the frankincense and myrrh countries.’ [Globe, 2 July 1895]
  • 18th September: ‘At the close of the British Association meeting at Ipswich, Mr. Theodore Bent gave a paper on “The Peoples of Southern Arabia”.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 19 September 1895]
  • 7th November: The Royal Scottish Geographical Society – Glasgow Branch. The Anniversary Address will be delivered in the Hall, 207 Bath St… at 8 o’clock , ‘by Mr. J. Theodore Bent, on “Southern Arabia”. Sir Renny Watson Chairman of the Branch will preside. Admission only by Ticket, two of which have been forwarded to each Member of the Branch.’ [Glasgow Herald, 6 November 1895]
  • 8th November: ‘In connection with the Royal Geographical Society, a lecture was delivered… by Mr. Theodore Bent, in the National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street [Edinburgh]. The subject of the lecture was Arabia, and it was illustrated by lime-light views. There was a good attendance.’ [Edinburgh Evening News, 9 November 1895]

1896 [The Bents return from the Sudan in the spring and leave for their last trip together, to Sokotra and Aden, at the year end]

  • 1st June: Mr. Bent read a paper on the Sudan to the Royal Geographical Society, London.
  • 13th October: Mr. Bent lectures on Arabia at the Royal Victoria Hall, London. [South London Press, 17 October 1896]

The above, it seems, was Theodore Bent’s final lecture. The lantern flame flickers and disappears.

 

Note 1: See Bent’s Bibliography for the texts of many of these talks/lectures.
Return from Note 1

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 Archaeopress 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.

 

For more on the Bents in Africa, see The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 2

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). It also features in the Irish periodical ‘The Lady of the House’, 15 September 1893, p. 19.

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).

Mabel Bent’s collected Greek and Turkish Chronicles are available via Archaeopress, Oxford.