As gruesome as it may seem today, during the Victorian era there was a widely accepted trend for taking photographs of the deceased. Some pictures even showed the dead as if they were still living, being washed and clothed in their Sunday best, arranged in a naturalistic pose with their parents or their siblings.

Such a concept may seem disturbing to our modern sensibilities, but for many poorer families this was the one occasion when they could justify the cost of employing a professional photographer; with that single post-mortem image being the only visible record of what had once been a cherished life.

The VV will post one image here: a poignant scene in which two living children stand beside the bed in which their sister's body lies. The living appear to be brave and resigned, and yet they also look quite blurred, almost 'ghostly' in their forms, which has come about as the result of not remaining completely still during the time it would have taken for the film to be exposed.

Ironically, their sister is completely focussed and clear to see because, unlike the living her corpse remained immobile.



Ada Lovelace 1815-1852

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke. However, Ada never knew the father who deserted his wife only a month after her birth and who died when his daughter was nine years old.


As a child, Ada was often ill and suffered complications following a bout of measles. After that her domineering and hypochondriac mother kept her in isolation while also attempting to allay any trace of ‘immorality’ or inherited 'poetic tendencies'. She insisted her daughter be tutored in music and mathematics, no doubt relieved when Ada proved to be gifted in such areas ~ even producing a design for a flying machine.

Charles Babbage 1791-1871

Ada’s talents really came to fruition when, at the age of seventeen, she met with Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. There, Babbage had already begun his work on mechanical computers, even though his machines were never made with parliament refusing to sponsor plans submitted for the ‘Difference’ and ‘Analytical’ Engines. 

Ada Lovelace

Babbage did find sympathy abroad and was aided by the Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea. When he then returned to England again, Ada  ~ his little Enchantress of Numbers  ~ helped with translating Menabrea’s notes. From these she formed an algorithm: a code to enable the processing of the machines her mentor had in mind, even though they were never constructed during the inventor's lifetime. But, for this work she is now viewed as being the first computer programmer. There is also evidence that Ada suggested punch cards for use with the Analytical machine, even suggesting that its scope might aid the composition of music.

Ockham Park in Surrey

Ada married the 1st Earl of Lovelace, afterwards residing at Ockham Park in Surrey where the couple produced three children. Sadly, she died at the age of only 37, after suffering from uterine cancer, and perishing from an excess of medicinal blood-letting ~ at the same age, and from the same cause as her father had before. She was then buried at Lord Byron's side. The daughter reunited with the father never known in life.

Finally, if you like the idea of ‘steampunk’ Victorian fiction, then why not try reading The Difference Machine, an alternate historical novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In their story, the Analytical Engine has actually been built, changing the balance of world power. Babbage has great political influence. The Prime Minister is the scandalous Lord Byron (still living, rather than dying in Greece) who heads the Industrial Radical Party: a party in which his daughter, Ada, is also a prominent figure. Also, her computer ‘punch cards’ have been developed to enable a gambling ‘modus’ – betting having been a penchant of our heroine in real life.
The VV would like to end this post by sharing something seen on the Datamancer website; a wonderful hybrid laptop encased in a Victorian music box ~ something that Ada Lovelace would surely have loved to own herself.



I found this fine fellow one day when searching for the image of a monkey, wearing a monocle and cravat, and holding a copy of Charles Darwin's 'Origin of Species'. I'm sure I saw something just like it once, and subsequently used the image in my novel, The Somnambulist...

'On a whatnot pushed into a corner, a stuffed monkey was sitting on its haunches, wearing a monocle and a cravat, and holding a copy of Mr Darwin's book clutched in its wrinkled fingers. A good thing Mama had not seen that. One more thing to consider as blasphemous!"

While searching, I did find other things I later wished I hadn't  - and what some might find offensive. For example, I have no idea as to what on earth is going on in the photograph posted above, though it looks like some form of dentistry...while the kittens in the bar below are clearly having a lovely time.

But, the finest collection of taxidermy I've yet had the 'pleasure' to see first hand, as opposed to via photographs, was when I went to dine one night in a restaurant in East London. Sadly, Les Trois Garcons is no longer open to the public, but it used to be gloriously camp; a unique baroque experience, though the decorations may perhaps have dampened down the appetites of more delicate constitutions.

Still, you've got to love the winged stuffed dog in the photograph below... 

And, finally, speaking of stuffed dogs, you might like the tale of Owney...

Owney, who looks like a type of terrier, wandered into the Albany post office in New York in 1888 where he was later found to be fast asleep upon some mailbags. Soon, he was riding on the trains that ferried mail across state and country. By 1895 he was also travelling around the world, sailing on mail steamships to Asia and to Europe.

Owney was thought to bring good luck. No train or boat he travelled on had ever crashed or been damaged. After every successful trip he made another lucky charm was then attached to a collar that he wore. But, eventually, the postmaster had to have a special jacket made to take the weight of all those medals.

Despite all this, poor Owney was doomed to a rather tragic end. In old age, he grew bad tempered and following an incident when a newspaper reporter was rather badly bitten, it was decided that Owney should be put down, shot with a bullet from a gun.

However, the mourning mail workers then decided to raise the funds to have their much loved mascot permanently preserved. To this day Owney is on display in the American Smithsonian Institute, where he looks to be nothing of a threat, though perhaps less shaggy and perky than he ever looked when living. 



During the Victorian era there was a flourishing market for all manner of women's magazines. The public's imagination was caught by lavishly illustrated periodicals that offered a more or less constant supply of thrilling, serialised fiction, alongside more practical features on fashion and home-making, even the latest sheet music to be played on the parlour piano.

In 1852, the husband and wife team of Samuel and Isabella Beeton achieved great success with their own creation of Beeton's Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. 

For this, Isabella provided recipes and articles that covered household management. However, the magazine offered a great deal more than that, for apart from the usual fashion and fiction there were biographical features, instruction on gardening and medicine, and also a regular letters page. 

Initially priced at 2d a copy, by 1856 the magazine boasted a circulation of 50,000 copies.

Such commercial success inspired the couple to think of other formats. In 1861, they produced the society newspaper with the title of The Queen ~ another success that continued to run until the year of 1970.

Fashion plate from 'The Queen' circa 1890

The first edition of The Queen cost 6d, and that contained a specially-commissioned photograph of Queen Victoria. The paper also specialised in the latest Parisian fashions, providing paper patterns and directions for elaborate needlework. And, although it may not have gone as far as publications such as The Female's Friend  (a short-lived magazine with the worthy aim of campaigning against the scourge of prostitution), it did not shy away from offering its readers intelligent debate on politics and the place of women in society.

The English Woman's Journal (1858-1864) was another paper that sought to educate its readers on politics, at home and abroad. And then, from 1892-1900, Shafts was a radical magazine with features on birth control contributed by Marie Stopes, as well as other articles that ranged from the reporting of sporting achievements to news of the latest activities of the Independent Labour Party.



The story of four women who shared the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites

Kate Forsyth’s novel, Beauty in Thorns, is set in the Victorian era where, as its central theme, it explores The Sleeping Beauty fairytale.

This fairytale has long-inspired aspects of Forsyth's written work, and here the idea is reprised within the artwork of Burne-Jones, the exquisite creation of which is strongly woven through the novel’s plot.

Spanning fifty years and almost 500 pages, the story explores the Pre-Raphaelites, concentrating most specifically on four women the artists knew and loved, revealing how those women sought to find their own autonomy, or else submitted to the passive female roles expected then.

Lizzie Sidall, by Rosetti

Kate Forsyth gives an honest, sometimes brutally exposing view of the life of Lizzie Siddal, the tragic muse and lover of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who longed to be an artist too, who was brave and bold and passionate, despite the demons gnawing through the beauty of her fragile soul ~ as illustrated in this poem by Rosetti’s sister, Christina ...

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream

Jane Morris, by Rosetti

We meet the stunning Jane, an Oxford slum girl of fierce intelligence who married William Morris, the man who paid to have her tutored in acceptable speech and manners, in music, and embroidery, so as to elevate her in his world with the least embarrassment. What pain his wife's infidelity with a fellow artist must have caused, although she never left him, eventually forced to chose between Rosetti (who as time went by was tortured by insanity, due to his enduring guilt over poor Lizzie Siddal’s fate), and devotion to her children.

 Margaret Burne-Jones, as painted by her father.

Kate Forsyth also brings to life the complex life of Georgie, the long-suffering wife of ‘Ned’ Burne-Jones, along with that of Margaret, their daughter, and the muse who posed as the subject of his greatest works: a monumental series inspired by The Sleeping Beauty tale ~ though rather than becoming enslaved for a hundred years or more, Margaret did eventually escape Edward's obsessive hold, defying her father to marry and live with the man she truly loved.

In this satisfying novel Kate Forsyth does not shy away from the culture of drink and opiates that pervaded this artistic group. She shows the heartbreak of the women who are now enshrined in works of art but, who, within constrictions of their time were often deemed as unconventional, or ‘fallen’ in a morally rigid society where anything the least bit free or decadent was frowned upon.  

Meticulously written and researched this novel is a gripping read. Compelling, also heartbreaking. A must for every fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, and those they loved.

For more about Kate and Beauty in Thornsyou can find her author website here.



This painting of Una and the Wood Nymphs by Caldesi and Montecchi, was photographed by W E Frost. He then submitted it to be displayed along with some 1009 other images created by fellow photographers at the Victoria and Albert museum (then known as the Kensington Museum) for an exhibition in 1858.

Such a method of reproducing great art was softer and truer than that achieved by the older method of engraving. It was soon to become a commercial success with many people buying prints of art works to show in their own homes.

However, some photographers preferred to go a step further, using real human models when recreating their own scenes from literature or history. For instance, the albumen print below, photographed by William Lake Price, shows Don Quixote in his Study ~ surrounded by all the requisite props to fully reconstruct a scene from the novel by Cervantes.

The new science of photography was thus exploited as an art form. But, it was also used as a method of recording industrialisation. 

In the image below Robert Howlett showed work on the SS Great Eastern (also known as The Leviathon) which was then the largest steam ship to have ever been constructed. Symbolising the Empire's greatness it was, nevertheless, a commercial failure. The ship was scrapped in 1888. 

Still, it is an astonishing print because it really does convey the scale of Victorian ambition in invention, and engineering design. And, as an added bonus, dwarfed below the ship itself, is the engineering 'giant' of the times ~ the top-hatted Isambard Kingdom Brunel.


Photography was also used as a record of place and travelling ~ another aspect of Victorian Empire. 

Below is the Rameseum of El-Kurneh, Thebes, as photographed by Francis Frith, which is a fine example of how the wet collodian negative process allowed for exquisite detail to be captured in shadow, light, and texture. This scene surely captures everything that entranced the Victorian public regarding the myths, the exotic romance, and the fallen grandeur of the East.



Edward Linley Sambourne first began his working life as an apprentice draughtsman in a marine engineering works in Greenwich. His artistic career was to blossom when his cartoons came to the attention of the editor of the satirical magazine, Punch ~ for which the cover shown above is a fine example of his style.

However, his talents did not end with illustration work. He also developed a passion for photography, growing rapidly as an art form in the second half of the nineteenth century. Very soon, one of the attic rooms in his home in Stafford Terrace was converted into a studio. A bathroom became his dark room, the walls of which were covered with many examples of his work ~ with images of his family, and also of the household staff who he asked to pose as models.

Below, you can see his coachman dressed as the Emperor Nero while plucking away on a fire screen lyre ~ a pose that later on became the basis of a political cartoon...

When he was commissioned to illustrate Charles Kingsley's story, The Water Babies, Linley Sambourne used his daughter Maude to pose for the character, Ellie. His son, Roy, became the model for Tom, Charles Kingsley's child chimney sweep.

Now and then Sambourne's wife, Marion, was also persuaded to model, though she was said to be more concerned with the running of her household than playing at such frivolities. And then there were occasions when she took the children off from home for seaside trips and holidays ~ when her husband was far 'too busy with work' to think of leaving London ~ when he used his freedom in the house to acquire professional models.

For his portraits of naked females, Sambourne was always careful to use the plainest, non-descript backdrops and to hide his models' identities ~ many of whom he lured away from the local Kensington Camera Club. But, in one somewhat provocative pose a girl is clearly sitting in Marion's favourite armchair, her face masked and, somewhat ironically, holding a puppet of Mr Punch.

Whether or not Marion ever saw that particular photograph, she was most certainly aware of her husband's racey activities, very often referring to 'Lil's secrets' when writing in her diaries.

Edward Linley Sambourne, looking a little bit guilty and glum! (1844-1910)



The Virtual Victorian has been a little subdued of late during the long hot summer months. But, fizzing now with the efficacious cure of Dr Robert's Constitutional Powders, her spirits are rapidly rising ... and she has been persuaded to let you peek at this rather blurry photograph, in which, if you look closely enough, you may see the face of Essie Fox when she first began her Adventures in London ~ engaged at the time as a parlour maid in that racy Linley Sambourne's house, exposed for all the world to see on the front of the Telegraph Sunday Magazine.

More on Mr Linley Sambourne to come ...



This somewhat shabby canine gentleman is known as Station Jim. From 1894-1896 he collected funds that went towards charities for needy railway workers, or the orphans of those employees who were killed in the days of steam trains.

Based at Slough Station in Berkshire, on the Great Western Line from Paddington, Jim can be found on Platform 5 where his glass case has a collection slot ~ still raising funds from doggy heaven. 

This noble fellow is London Jack. He worked at Paddington Station from 1894-1900. 

Jack raised more than £450 during the course of his lifetime. Like Jim, he went on to collect even more when he was dead and his body then stuffed. Today, Jack can be seen on display at the National History Museum in Tring which contains many other examples of nineteenth century taxidermy.



Five minutes walk from Mile End Tube in Bow you will find Tower Hamlets Cemetery; a hidden gem of calm green space in the bustling heart of East London. Agreed, it is nowhere near as grand or as large as Highgate cemetery, but it's certainly worth a visit ~ to see a Victorian graveyard surrounded by natural wildnerness.

The first internment took place here in 1841. The last in 1966. Essentially, the graveyard was provided for the working class, but over the 27 acres of consecrated ground are many ornate monuments, with obelisks and angels dedicated to trade unionists and other champions of workers' rights,  as well as philanthropists, merchants, sailors, and shipbuilders from the nearby docks.

Some of the tombstones are listed with English Heritage. Sadly, too many of them are scarred with shrapnel after the cemetery was bombed during the second world war. But there is still great beauty to be seen in this eerie and inspiring place that found a place in the VV's heart and even went on to feature in The Somnambulist, which was her first Victorian gothic novel.

As the cemetery appears in scenes from The Somnambulist 

 The VV ~ Essie Fox ~ discussing The Somnambulist on Channel 4's Bookclub