Sarah Brown, 19th Century Supermodel

Moulin Rouge poster from 1891 by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Four years after the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris in 1889, it hosted an event which was so scandalous that four of the performers were prosecuted for outraging public decency.

The Bal des Quat’z-Arts featured a procession of floats, banners and models dressed as famous historical characters from Ancient Rome and Greece. The famous Cancan dancer La Gouloue (‘The Glutton’) was there in the guise of an ‘Indienne’.

But the highlight of the show was undoubtedly the artist’s model Sarah Brown as the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, held aloft by men clad only in white loincloths.

The red-haired model Sarah Brown, purportedly in the Bal des Quat’z-Arts costume

Her performance has since been described as ‘the world’s first striptease’ although descriptions of her costume vary wildly – some say she was completely naked while others describe a black velour g-string, stockings and a black shirt. Georges Montogueil, writing in Paris Dansant (1898), says:

The parade covers a long space. Here is part of the triumphal procession of Cleopatra. On a palanquin, she appears, dressed in a few rows of pearls and gold nets, the world-conquering beauty, it is the model Rochegrosse painted in the Death of Sardanapalus, the stunning redhead Sarah Brown. The people cheer. She welcomes the delirium with Oriental nonchalance.

When Sarah Brown was hauled before the court, she said she was only wearing the what she had posed in for the artist Georges Rochegrosse:

‘I had on a belt, large necklaces and sequins.’
‘Did you have on tights?’
‘No, why would I? I was dressed.’
‘Did you walk about the ball with your bust naked?’
‘I only appeared in the procession; during the entire ball I was in a loge.’
‘Who gave you the idea for that costume?’
‘Nobody, I am a model. I’m the one who posed for Rochegrosse’s Cleopatra. I naturally chose that costume.’

Sarah Brown was found guilty and fined 100 Francs or face six months in prison.

A few hours later as many as 2,000 of her student fans marched through Paris in protest wearing a symbolic fig leaf on their hats. The demonstration began peacefully but ended with street battles with the police and four days of riots.

Sarah, still only 24 years old, was celebrated as ‘one of the most notorious women in Paris’. The English painter William Rothenstein later wrote: ‘Sarah was fair, and her figure, small bosomed, had the creamy unity of a Titian’, while the author W.C. Morrow recalled: ‘She was the mistress of one great painter after another, and she lived and reigned like a queen. Impulsive, headstrong, passionate, she would do the most reckless things. But no one could resist Sarah.’

Her exploits were legendary: she asked for an audience with the poet Paul Verlaine only to faint in shock at the sight of his ‘terrifying’ face; she fell in love with a black model called Bamboulo, who claimed he could eat a whole rabbit alive, fur, bones and all; she liked to flounce out of the studio before the artist had finished his masterpiece; she changed her costumes at will and deliberately knocked down the painters’ easels for kicks; she was the model for Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s Lady Godiva and Clemence Isaure.

Clemence Isaure by Lefebvre

Lady Godiva by Lefebvre (1890)

But the Bal des Quat’z-Arts was to be the high point of her career and it is said she lost her looks and lovers as her wild life took its toll. Three years later on 12 February 1896 the Daily News in London reported her death from consumption.

Sarah Brown was once before the courts and everybody wondered at the reputation she won in the studios for in a bonnet and ladylike clothing she looked commonplace and indeed vulgar. Models generally are well-behaved girls and many live like anchorites for fear of spoiling their plastic beauty and losing the power to exact high fees. But Sarah Brown lived the life of a bacchante.


Links / Sources:

Marie Lathers, Bodies of Art: French Literary Realism and the Artist’s Model (2001), p243

Lela Felter-Kerley, The Art of Posing Nude: Models, Moralists and the 1893 Bal des Quat’z-Arts, French Historical Studies, volume 33, number 1, p69-98. Sarah Brown’s performance is said to mark a ‘shift in sexual attitudes’.

Quotations from Paris Dansant (apologies for my poor French translation) and Rothenstein’s Men and Memories. Robert Henri is quoted in His Life and Art as saying ‘Paris has two Sarahs; one is Sarah Bernhardt, the other is Sarah Brown, the model, who is one of the most notorious women in Paris.’

For more on La Goulue (and some very racy pictures of her), see The Burns Archive blog

There is another photograph, said to be of Sarah Brown, included in the book ‘Victorian Life in Photographs’. The caption describes her as a music hall dancer and says she was jailed for indecency. It seems almost certain that this is not the Sarah Brown, and most likely is someone else posing in a similar costume for her own pleasure. See my blog for The Victorianist on Sarah Brown in August 2012.


Professor Baldwin, the Victorian Daredevil

In the summer of 1888 Londoners flocked in their thousands to marvel at the feats of a dashing American daredevil calling himself Professor Baldwin.

The adverts placed in the Times promised it would be ‘the greatest scientific sensation of the age’ but only hinted at what was planned:

Professor Baldwin has succeeded in making an umbrella with sufficient surface resistance to land passengers from an aerial ship at any height.

Baldwin’s act was in fact the Victorian equivalent of Felix Baumgartner’s skydive earlier this week, albeit only from a few thousand feet rather than 120,000ft.

Like Baumgartner, he ascended in a balloon before jumping off and parachuting down to safety. This being 1888, the modern parachute was still in its infancy, and illustrations from the Illustrated London News reveal how ‘amateur’ the stunt was compared to Baumgartner’s.

Professor Baldwin

First the balloon is filled with hydrogen gas, while kept weighted to the ground

Professor Baldwin

The parachute is fixed to the side of the balloon

Professor Baldwin

Professor Baldwin kisses his wife goodbye. I bet that moustache tickles.

Professor Baldwin

The moment before Professor Baldwin is lifted up into the air by the balloon. Note how he is sitting on a trapeze, holding the balloon with one hand and the cords of the parachute in the other.

Professor Baldwin leaps

Baldwin (inset) leaps from the balloon holding on to the parachute. The force of his fall snaps the tie holding the parachute to the balloon.

Professor Baldwin floats down to earth

The parachute fills with air and Professor Baldwin floats down to the ground

Baldwin, who had perfected his act in America before travelling to England, made his first jump at Alexandra Palace on Saturday, July 28, 1888. As The Times reported:

The aeronaut, who went up alone, and was dressed in tights, held on by the ring, with his feet resting on the ropes of the balloon and the umbrella hanging by his side. The balloon speedily attained a great height and then the aeronaut leaped or dropped away from it. A moment afterwards he was seen at some distance from the balloon high up in the air beyond the racecourse of the Palace, gracefully, steadily, and quickly descending with his umbrella opened out above him like a monster mushroom.

After landing Baldwin returned to the Palace to be ‘enthusiastically cheered by the thousands of spectators in the Palace grounds and the adjoining fields.’ Although the Times reporter doubted whether Baldwin reached the height of 1,000ft being claimed, he noted that ‘it was certainly one of the most extraordinary and successful sensational feats of modern times.’

Thomas Scott Baldwin is now remembered as ‘The Father of the Modern Parachute’ (previous versions having ribs like umbrellas) and its worth was proved 23 years later when Grant Morton made the first successful jump from an aeroplane in California in 1911.

One-hundred-and-one years later Felix Baumgartner did this:

Half Way Round the World in 30 Days

In 2012 it takes just under a day to travel from Australia to the UK thanks to long haul flights, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the journey was much more of an adventure in itself. Passengers must have felt a little like the fictional character Phileas Fogg as they boarded the steam-powered ships that would carry them half way round the world, often in conditions that would reacquaint even the hardiest seaman with his breakfast.

One of these vessels was the Ormuz, forged in the Glasgow shipyards in 1886 and capable of reaching London from Sydney in just 30 days (although it usually took six weeks with passengers). Its owners, the Orient Line, were so proud of it that they mounted an inscription above the entrance to the first class saloon: ‘Were the world a ring of gold, Ormuz would be its diamond.’

Photo of the RMS Ormuz

On November 21, 1887, it was described by The Melbourne Daily Telegraph as ‘The Fastest Ship in the World’ on the basis that it had ‘placed the metropolis of the world within twenty-seven days six hours of its antipodes.’

Nearly everybody who reads what is written here will remember the days – not a long time ago at all – when merchants, everybody, stopped on another in the street  – “Fine passage, sixty days from London. Wonderful ship the Thermopylae.” But then they had been used to seventy, eighty, and ninety days, a whole three months of waiting for their English letters.’

So what was it like to travel 10,000 miles on this smoke-belching monster of the seas? One passenger, a Mrs Eliza Cripps, kept a diary of her voyage on board the Ormuz from Sydney to Plymouth in 1888. It was surprisingly eventful, involving injury and death, shipping accidents, seasickness, and extreme weather conditions.

The Ormuz left Sydney on April 10th, stopping off at Melbourne on the 13th, Adelaide on the 15th and Albany on the 19th before heading across the Indian Ocean towards Aden and the Red Sea.

Friday 20th April. Another fine day, ship going along splendid. Making 304 miles this afternoon, she commenced to roll very much, one lady passenger was hurt with the vessel giving a lurch.

Four days later, as they headed north towards the equator, Mrs Cripps noted that it was so hot and stuffy in her cabin ‘that I feel as bad as if I was in a bath, and come out wet through.’

One solution to the hot weather was to sleep on the promenade deck, which was usually ‘nice and cool’, particularly at night.

The Promenade deck of the Ormuz

But even the hot weather doesn’t appear to have put people off enjoying themselves.

Wednesday 25th April. We passed a terribly hot night, passengers lying about in all directions. Ship made 344 miles today. Singing and music every day.

Two days later the mood on board changed dramatically.

This morning there is quite a gloom laid over the ship. A gentleman by the name of Mr Lisbet broke a blood vessel and died in about half an hour after, poor fellow. Only the other night he was playing the violin while his sister played the piano. He was buried at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. A very solemn projection there has been 3 or 4 accidents on board.

One feature of the journey were religious services every Sunday given by the Captain in the first class saloon. There were also services in the afternoon and evening on the deck – although on 29th April the Rev Mr Reblard was interrupted by ‘a sudden squall which sent everything flying.’

The following day the weather decided to interrupt a more secular activity.

We have 2 violins and harps playing on the second saloon deck 3 times a day. Tonight while dancing was going on, it rained so suddenly it was just like a sheet of water, it send the people in all directions down below, it’s a regular piece of fun to see them.

Other activities included fancy dress balls and lectures on astronomy. Some, like Mrs Cripps, found pleasure in simply getting up early to watch the sun rise.

It is one of the beautifulest sights I ever saw… the sun reflects on the water which makes it look like land, the clouds rise up and seem to stand like castles and trees – all looks like a green valley.

The ship arrived at Aden on 5th May, to be greeted by naked Arab boys shouting at the passengers ‘throw down a shilling, you got big ship, you got plenty money.’ Some of the passengers obliged, just to see the boys dive into the water ‘like so many rats after a bait.’

At this point the ship took on passengers rescued from another steamer which had sunk after a collision with a P&O ship called the ‘Garonne.’ Two people drowned in the accident.

Then it was off towards Suez and the canal (opened in 1869) which would take them to the Mediterranean. There was plenty of opportunity for sightseeing from the deck, with ducks, camels, donkeys, well-dressed Egyptians and dozens of other steamers making the same journey in the opposite direction.

After leaving Suez and passing Crete the Ormuz stopped off at Naples on May 14th and Gibraltar three days later before beginning the final leg to Plymouth.

Friday 18th May. This morning is what most of the passengers called rough. A great number are absent from the tables which shows they are sick. Now we will be getting into the Atlantic Ocean which makes the ship roll a little.

Mrs Cripps spent her last evening on the ship at a religious service in the second class saloon, where there was ‘a subscription on behalf of three motherless children in the third class.’

The Second Class Saloon

The Second Class Saloon

The contrast between second class (tickets £30 to £40) and first class (£70) is made clear by the opulent appearance of the first class saloon and drawing room. Third class cost between £15 and £18 (according to the National Archives currency calculator, that roughly equates to £1,000.)

Dining in First Class on the Ormuz

The Drawing Room and Library

The Drawing Room and Library

The cheapest way of travelling on the Ormuz was as a stowaway, who once discovered were usually put to work as a member of the crew. One such stowaway was James McKill, a 22 year-old chemist’s son making his way back home to Hamilton in Scotland in August 1888.

For the appropriately named McKill, the drama really began when he disembarked at Tilbury Docks and travelled to St Pancras station to catch a train to Glasgow with a group of fellow passengers, including a 39 year-old engineer called John King.

Mr King was found dead by the side of the track in Haverstock Hill (Belsize) Tunnel the following morning and it was at first thought he had fallen from the carriage by accident. But a few days later two passengers told police that McKill had confessed to pushing him out the door during a fight. He was charged with murder and went on trial at the Old Bailey the following month. McKill was acquitted by the jury after explaining he was drunk when he made the supposed confession and that Mr King probably fell from the train trying to retrieve a bottle of whisky from another carriage.

Excepts from the diary of Eliza Cripps, and photo of the RMS Ormuz, courtesy of David Cripps. The other pictures are courtesy of Chris Tyrer, who has a fine collection of ship postcards on his website.

The story of John King is told in the recently-published book 1888 London Murders in the Year of the Ripper.