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!]

VIDEO – Manolis Pelekis: A lament for the great tsabouna player from Anafi

Circa 1885 map showing Anafi, east of Santorini. It is a detail from the map illustrating Bent’s 1885 classic – ‘The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks’. Anafi was home to the great tsabouna player, Manolis Pelekis.

VIDEO – Manolis Pelekis: A lament for the great tsabouna player from Anafi.

The Bent Archive has been slow with its tribute to the late Manolis Pelekis (†2019) – legendary Anafiot citizen, musician and tsabouna player; for many decades no Anafi island event (Greek Cyclades, east of Santorini) was ever complete without his plaintive accompaniment…

Manolis Pelekis playing on Anafi one Easter (photo: The Bent Archive)

Theodore and Mabel Bent, tsabouna serenaded, travelled in the Cyclades in 1883/4, recording many occasions of musical evenings in their writings; here is Mabel in her diary in early 1884 making reference to an Anafi ball (probably hearing somewhere the skirls of the tsabouna):  “After dinner a fine tall handsome niece of Matthew’s called Evtimia Chalaris [appeared], dressed in a beautiful old costume of silk, violet flowered brocade skirt, green velvet bodice, gold embroidered stomacher and a short pink satin jacket edged round the cuffs and down the front with pink fur… There was a regular ball and the Demarch danced most actively.”

The Matthew referred to is the Bent’s long-serving assistant Matthew Simos, who was born on Anafi.

Theodore Bent’s tsabouna, now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

A year later, 1885, Theodore Bent acquired a tsabouna of his own – it is now on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. The couple were great collectors of things to make music with – wherever they  travelled to. The British Museum has some of their instruments from Zimbabwe, and  the Pitt Rivers also holds a lyra from Karpathos and various Cycladic pipes made from eagle bones, and other items. It’s time for a themed display with musical offerings for enthusiasts.

The main difference to the instrument played by Manolis Pelekis (over 100 years later) is that Bent’s Oxford tsabouna lacks the poignant brass cross on the chanter…

RIP Kyrie Manolis; listen to him play…

(The video of Manolis is an excerpt from a longer YouTube film you can see here.)

The tsabouna has a special place in the repertoire of the Cyclades and greater Greece; its history and etymology are fascinating. Take a look at our video exploring Theodore’s relationship with the instrument.

Coincidentally, on Santorini, just two hours east of Anafi (although it took the Bents close to twenty), you will find the musician Yannis Pantazis who crafts his own instruments and demonstrates them in his artisan workshop in Santorini, at SYMPOSION by La Ponta, in the traditional village of Megalochori.


Mortimer Wheeler follows Theodore Bent to Great Zimbabwe, 1958

Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1956 (Wikipedia).

Unmissable (if you can access it) – this 1958 episode of the BBC archaeology series ‘Buried Treasure’, in which  Sir Mortimer Wheeler scrambles over the site of Great Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). The 1891 explorer of this still-astonishing monument, Theodore Bent, is unfairly (only for this blog, of course) dismissed in Wheeler’s exposé as a ‘gullible antiquary’: Bent was paid to give some sort of explanation, and he did. ‘No ancient site in the world’, mutters Wheeler lugubriously through his pipe, ‘unless maybe for the Pyramids and Stonehenge, is more clogged than Zimbabwe with sticky romance…’ Wheeler explores the awe-inspiring stone ruins in the controversial company of Roger Summers, then Chairman of the Southern Rhodesia Historical Monuments Commission. The title of the episode is unhelpful – King Solomon’s Mines – but the programme is a delight for the fabulous black and white filming, and the sight of Wheeler in shorts chasing hippopotami. For modern interpretations of the Great Zimbabwe site, you must, of course, look elsewhere.

 

Greek Dress at the Hellenic Centre, London – 4 February until 2 March 2014 – with Bent references!

Greek Dress at the Hellenic Centre, London – 4 February until 2 March 2014 – The Bents’ acquisitions and their stories!

Although Theodore and Mabel Bent lived not so far away, Marylebone, in Central London, might seem an unlikely place for an exhibition of Greek costume, but it is the home of the Hellenic Centre, a focus for philhellenes and London’s Greek community. From 4 February until 2 March 2014, there was a rare opportunity to see an impressive range of Greek dress outside its native land. As part of the event (on Friday 28 February, 7.15 pm), Ann French, Textile Conservator at the Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester, used selected embroideries from the 1914 pioneering  embroidery exhibition (click for the online catalogue) at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London, to trace their individual collecting histories and reveal the different contexts, interpretations and values placed on them within UK based collections and museums.  This exhibition, which drew on the leading collections of the day, primarily from the collection of Theodore and Mabel Bent and the archaeologists R M Dawkins & A J B Wace, of Greek Embroideries displayed, for the first time in the UK, historic Greek Embroideries as an art form. There is a short, but wonderful, promotional video on YouTube (April 2021).

“Embroidered tunic and skirt of linen crepe with square sleeves, embroidered in tent and long cross stitches with various repeating patterns of debased floral and other forms arranged geometrically.” Now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (no: 346-1886; from Karpathos in the Dodecanese, acquired from the Bents (in 1886) after their visit to the island in early 1885) (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

The exhibition features several  of the Bent’s finest pieces and Ann refers to them in the last five minutes or so of her talk in a fascinating account of how, on Mabel’s death, one of her Karpathos frocks found its way back to Greece! (One other is in store at the V & A, and two more from Nisyros are untraced – if you have them, let us know!)

Another of the dresses acquired by the Bents on Karpathos in 1885. After a long journey, this exquisite cotton costume of the 18th century returned to Greece and is now in the Benaki Museum, Athens (EE 923).

Click here also for the small collection of ‘Turkish’ embroideries once owned by the Bents and now in the Harris Museum and Gallery, Preston, UK, and here for dresses from Anafi in the Cyclades.

Theodore and the Tsabouna (video)

The sound of the tsabouna, or the Greek bagpipe.

The strains of music from this instrument would have been very familiar to Theodore and Mabel as they journeyed from island to island. At the time of their travels, the tsabouna (sometimes sambouna and various spellings) was still one of the most popular folk instruments for the islanders. Its prominence probably linked to some degree with the goats and sheep the islanders were raising.

Every part of the animal was used. The milk was used to produce the delicious mizithra cheese enjoyed by the Bents, while the meat formed the key element of many local dishes that we still enjoy today – even the entrails were used for the ubiquitous dish, kokoretsi, and the Easter soup, magiritsa. The wool and hide, of course, found many uses.

Maybe somebody, hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago, scratched their head searching for other uses for the goat’s inedible skin. With a gurgling, a squealing and a wailing, the tsabouna was born.

Theodore was never too adoring of the melancholy sound of the instrument. ‘that wretched Grecian substitute for the bagpipe’ he wrote on Anafi, and in Karpathos he describes it as ‘a species of bagpipe, being a goatskin with the hairs left on, which palpitates like a living body when filled with air. These instruments are romantic enough when played by shepherds on the hillside or in the village square as an accompaniment to the dance, but they are intolerable in the tiny cottages where women tread their flannel.

Theodore Bent’s ‘sabouna’ from Karpathos in the Collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (1903.130.23).

Despite his apparent dislike for the tsabouna, one does wonder whether he really had a sneaking admiration for it. While in Karpathos, he acquired his own tsabouna and brought it back to England where, after his death, it eventually found its way to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Mabel has left quick note of the instrument as they heard it in Olymbos, Greek Easter time 1885: “We then went all together to a ball in the outer room of the church. We sat in a heap of people in the middle and round the edge sat mothers, each with a babe and a string of men screwed round in the narrow space left, preceded by the sampouna, pronounced sambouna, or bagpipe…” (From Mabel Bent’s Greek Chronicles, Vol 1, 2006, page 105)

Did Theodore ever learn to play this wretched Grecian substitute for a bagpipe – we’ll never know – but it would be nice to think he at least tried!

During the 20th century the tsabouna’s popularity faded and it’s only in recent years that a small number of traditional musicians has embraced the instrument and is bringing about its revival. One of these musicians is Yannis Pantazis who crafts his own instruments and demonstrates them in his artisan workshop in Santorini. Yannis is an outstandingly versatile musician who fell in love with the tsabouna on first hearing before he even knew what it looked like. Ever since, he has devoted his life’s work to the plaintive-sounding Greek bagpipe and the other instruments in his collection such as the lyre, the panpipes and the flute as well as traditional percussion instruments. Pop in and see him if you’re in Santorini – you will undoubtedly end up ‘gigging’ with him as he demonstrates and enthusiastically talks about the history and mythology attached to each instrument.

There’s a final twist in this tale of Theodore and the tsabouna. On the 11th January 1884, he and Mabel came ashore in the south of Santorini having travelled by sail-boat from the neighbouring island of Anafi. They landed near the small church of Aghios Nikolaos, ‘a little white thing under a red rock’ wrote Mabel. Taking a rough track, after some difficulties, they finally reached the hill-top village of Akrotiri just before dusk. Eating only what they’d carried from Anafi, they slept the night in the tower of the Venetian castle.

That very tower, known as La Ponta, was the first workshop of Yannis Pantazis where he constructed and played the instrument seemingly both loved and abhorred by Theodore. Yannis had never heard of the Bents but he believes Theodore’s accounts of the tsabouna are some of the earliest records we have in modern times of the playing of the instrument.

La Ponta has cast a powerful spell over the course of the past 130 years, bringing into its orbit, two key figures, generations apart – one who experienced and documented the popularity of the tsabouna in its heyday, the other spearheading the vanguard of the renaissance of the instrument today.

One hopes Theodore would have approved!

Discover more about Yannis Pantazis, his workshop and performance space

SYMPOSION by La Ponta Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/symposionsantorini

SYMPOSION website at https://www.symposionsantorini.com