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19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In the middle of the nineteenth century, oil and gas lamps replaced candles as the main source of indoor illumination.  At the same time, chemists and industrialists were rapidly bringing numerous new dyes and pigments to market.  Because of these innovations there was a great change in interior decorating: gone was the era when walls had to be pale-colored to keep rooms from being gloomy.  There was a tremendous revolution in color! Paints, dyes, and wallpapers became available in shades never seen before. Thanks to the nineteenth century British love of green, few colors were more popular than Scheele’s green, a beautiful yellow green which became the color de rigueur for fashionable bedrooms, studies, and dining rooms during the 1850s and 1860s.  The color was unimaginatively named after Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist who discovered the pigment in 1775.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Unfortunately, the compound which lent the distinctive and vivid color to Scheele’s green was an acidic copper arsenite (which contains the highly poisonous heavy metal arsenic).  Soon rich and modish people throughout Great Britain were falling sick of headaches, nausea, tremors, and other symptoms of arsenic poisoning.  Numerous children died outright (particularly since sick people were confined to their poisonous rooms by medical norms of the day).  In addition to being poisonous, arsenic is a potent carcinogen so wallpaper which did not kill a person outright (or was replaced by newer fashions) might still shorten its owner’s life by decades.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Cheap wallpaper released toxic powder, but even expensive well-made wallpaper could be colonized by various fungi when the paper became damp.  As the fungi metabolized the Scheele’s green dye, arsine gasses were produced.  In case you are not alarmed enough at the idea of people coating their walls with arsenic, Scheele’s green was also used as a food color for candies and sweets (and as a potent insecticide).

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the lengths to which merchants and manufacturers went in order to prove that Scheele’s green was perfectly safe.  Craftsmen and wallpaper sellers would earnestly lick the walls and vigorously swear that nothing was wrong with the color.  Even when the link between Scheele’s green and morbid toxicity was firmly established, some artists and artisans were difficult to constrain.  To quote  suttonplacedesign.com, “The famous artist and designer, William Morris,only removed green arsenic pigments from his wallpapers under protest, writing in 1885: ‘….it is hardly possible to imagine….a greater folly…than the arsenic scare.’” To celebrate Morris’ strong feelings, I have illustrated this post about a horrible toxin entirely with his beautiful designs.

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

In our era, there is a pervasive sentiment that the stuff in our walls, food, and air is gradually killing us.  At least we can take comfort we do not live in the Victorian era when the word “gradually” was not a part of that sentence!

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

19th century wallpaper by William Morris

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

If you wander through the beautiful landscape of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you will encounter many lovely sights: vistas of pastoral splendor will open before you filled with fields, trees, forests, streams, and lakes. There are stately statues, Victorian villas, gazebos, and landscaped gardens aplenty in the huge park–but there oddities too. Beside the Beaux Arts boathouse which floats above the lake like a huge elegant wedding cake, you will come upon a strange sight.  Completely bounded within a gothic ironwork fence, a horribly twisted and mutated tree is held together with bolts, crutches, and wire.  Although the tree’s trunk and limbs are monstrous, it is only 4 meters (twelve feet) tall and it is covered with lovely deep green hand-sized leaves in summer.

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The tree is a Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) a bizarre mutant elm brought as a graft from the old world.  It was planted in 1872–the year that Ulysses S. Grant was reelected president (and also the first year that Arbor Day was celebrated). This particular tree has survived Dutch Elm disease, which wiped away America’s splendid elm-lined avenues, and the wizened tree somehow stayed alive during the urban decay of the 1960s-1990s (indeed its limbs are carved with obscure yet strangely familiar graffiti).  The wires, crutches, and supports are the work of gifted tree surgeons, brought in by the Prospect Park Alliance to keep the ancient tree alive.  It remains bonsai-like in its own little yard, a testament to the vigor of trees.

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The story of how the weeping elm was discovered is likewise a strange trip into the past.  Between 1835 and 1840 David Taylor, who was the forester for the Earl of Camperdown, discovered a bizarre mutant branch of what seemed like an elm tree growing along the floor of the forest outside the Earl’s huge Greek revival manor house in Scotland.  The forester grafted the branch onto a normal Wych Elm and discovered that the resultant tree was a twisted weeping mutant.

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

During the Victorian age, there was a trend towards interesting and bizarre specimen plants in aristocratic gardens and arboretums (the perplexingly self-referential name of the aesthetic movement emphasizing such specimens was “gardenesque”).  Prospect Park’s Camperdown elm tree rode this movement across the ocean to Brooklyn where Olmstead and Vaux were putting the finishing touches on their masterpiece park.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by Wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

The Mohonk Mountain House looms over Mohonk Lake

The Mohonk Mountain House looms over Mohonk Lake


The Mohonk Mountain House is a monstrous Victorian castle built between 1879 and 1910 on Lake Mohonk in upstate New York. I was there this weekend to attend my friends’ wedding in the sprawling gardens, and I was forcefully struck by the Ghormenghast grandeur of the house and properties which are simultaneously beautiful and cheerful yet exude a haunting wistfulness.
Mohonk Mountain House Gardens

Mohonk Mountain House Gardens


Located just beyond the southern boundary of the Catskills, the hotel features multiple ornate turrets and towers festooned with finials and oddly shaped weather vanes (squids maybe?). The inside is a baffling labyrinth of hallways, sitting rooms, libraries, and porches. Outside, numerous rustic gazebos and folly buildings are spread through gorgeous gardens and vertiginous meadow rambles. Beyond the hotel, lovely forests stretch up into the mountains or down into the spooky wooded fens which feed the mighty Hudson.
A fen (or carr, or tarn, or bog?) by New Paltz, New York

A fen (or carr, or tarn, or bog?) by New Paltz, New York

Speaking of spooky, the hotel and the surrounding hills have amassed all sorts of reports concerning specters of varying temperaments and classes, from giggling children, to poltergeists, to wispy flames, to lurking drown victims, to dark toothy shadows in the hedge maze: the Mohonk seems to have every sort of ghost story.

Mohonk Mountain House (photo by cindy from rPhotosOnline.com)

Mohonk Mountain House (photo by cindy from rPhotosOnline.com)

It is said that a young, poor Stephen King visited the house and that shadows of the building linger in The Shining, The Regulators, and The Talisman. The Mohonk was also used as the set for the Victorian Sanitarium in the movie The Road to Wellville.
Marbletown-20130831-00305
Apparently there were once a great many lumbering Victorian edifices like the Mohonk spread through America, but almost all of them have now burnt down. The Smiley brothers, who constructed the building, were early advocates of safety and environmental awareness, so their huge flammable heap was equipped with all sorts of sprinklers and fire hoses. We should probably feel that the big burned-up spots where the other hotels used to be are haunted and celebrate the lovely Mohonk as the safest and least disaster-prone resort of its era.

Hooray for Safety!

Hooray for Safety!

Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter.  From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy.  He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time.  Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals.  Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners.  These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.

Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals (Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839, oil on canvas)

In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness.  Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards.  In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance).  Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness.  Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society.  A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage.  A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag.  This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together:  there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.

Portrait of Mr. Van Amburgh, as He Appeared with His Animals at the London Theatres (Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1847, oil on canvas)

Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad.  As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars.  Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus.  The huge felines are once again the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].

There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well.  He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter.  In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum.  Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s initial emotional breakdown.  I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is every bit as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.

Three days ago, on August 1st, 2010, a great mass of plasma was ejected from the sun.  The cloud of protons and electrons reached earth last night where it collided with the planet’s magnetic field to produce a series of spectacular aurora lights.  Because of the strength of the coronal flare, the dancing streamers of red and green fire were visible across much of the temperate part of earth and not just near the poles.  A second coronal mass ejection is due to arrive tonight.  These are the first big coronal flares which have headed towards earth for quite a while so, unless you are a jaded Inuit or world-weary arctic explorer, you should keep an eye towards the nearest pole.

An animation of Aurora Australis sweeping over the South Pole.

The sun is entering an active portion of its eleven/twelve year sunspot activity.  The peak year is projected to be in 2013.  Solar activity was mild throughout the twentieth century, but our star has not always been so quiescent.  At 11:18 AM on September 1st, 1859, a British astronomer, Richard Carrington, was observing a projection of the sun on a yellow glass and illustrating the sunspots he saw.  Suddenly, in the midst of a great boiling mass of spots, two kidney shaped points of light formed and grew intensely bright.  Here, halfway down the page,  is Carrington’s hilariously Victorian description of the event taken from NASA’s website.

Carrington was the first to directly witness a coronal mass ejection, when the sun’s opposing magnetic fields rip great hunks of plasma into space. After traveling 93 million miles, the particles from the 1859 ejection created spectacular aurora lights visible as far south as the Caribbean.  Blood colored light shone across the night skies of the world. The solar storm played havoc with telegraph wires and the telecommunication system of the day was rendered completely unusable.  Parts of the system burst into flame.  Keep in mind this was 1859 so telecommunications consisted of ponies, men with semaphores, and a handful of telegraph wires.  If a storm of such magnitude struck today, it would fry our communication satellites like chicken livers and do horrible, horrible unspeakable things to our electric and fiber optics grids. From beryllium deposits in polar ice cores we know that solar storms of the magnitude of 1859 are rare.  They usually occur once every five centuries or so.  However the sun is famously unpredictable.

A 2002 Solar Flare

These days we do not have an Englishman sitting in a study looking at a bright circle on a straw-colored sheet (or maybe we do, but he is unimportant and rather silly). Humankind now has a fleet of spacecraft which continuously monitor the sun (perhaps you might take a moment to reflect on how remarkable that sentence is).  Here is movie taken by the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) of a coronal mass ejection which occurred in 2001.  The sun is behind the opaque dot in the middle. Notice how the exotic radiation from the flare’s peak addles the craft’s movie making ability.

TRACE is a mission of the Stanford-Lockheed Institute for Space Research, and part of the NASA Small Explorer program

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