Saturday, 07 December 2019 10:53

W.M. Akhurst Portrait: is it or isn’t it?

Written by Allister Hardiman

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London-born William Mower Akhurst (1822-1878) is best remembered as a writer of pantomimes and burlesques, and though feted as a writer and raconteur, no authenticated portraits of him survive. As a collector of nineteenth century physiognomy, Allister Hardiman spends a lot of time studying the faces of the sitters, and has turned his attention to a lithograph sketch on a piece of sheet music that is purported to be of the elusive Akhurst. Or is it?

I’ve been a little concerned about the sheet music portrait that is starting to not only do-the-rounds, as it were, but multiplying itself on the internet without any accompanying commentary about the issues concerning it attribution. I say that I am confused because there are many issues, in my mind, that need to be looked at before baptising the charming lithographic sketch, hither and yon, as William Mower Akhurst. This article then, is simply just a setting down of the elements for consideration so that they no longer gnaw at the bones of my brain.

William Mower Akhurst died in 1878, leaving a large family, a large reputation, and a large credit which we, his creditors, have not yet paid to him. I won’t even begin a biography of him as most who read this will already know of his importance of his contribution and the usual details of his life. We only have, as far as I know, one physical description of him that comes from some recollection of the printing industry written in a trade paper, I think it was. I found the meagre description by consulting the State Library of Victoria’s Biographical Index card catalogue which had been transferred to microfiche. The description, from memory, was that he had been very tall, and had red hair. Nothing else was mentioned, and I don’t have the direct citation in body or location, but it can be easily found and fetched from the “stacks”.

Of interest here is the cover of the sheet music of his popular song “Beautiful Swells” whose cover states: ‘… the celebrated duet sung by Miss Docy Stewart and Miss Marion Dunn in Mr. W.M. Akhurst's burlesque extravaganza King Arthur, performed at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne.’ The full title of the burlesque was King Arthur, or, Launcelot the Loose and it first saw limelight on the 31st of October 1868, the sheet music being printed not long after by Charles Troedel. It was sold for the first time in early December, with a free sample sent to the Herald who mentioned:

‘We have received from the publisher, Mr. C. Troedel, of Swanston Street, a copy of the now celebrated duet. ‘Beautiful Swells’ as sung in Mr. Akhurst's burlesque, at the Theatre Royal, by Miss Marion Dunn and Miss Docy Stewart, whose carte-de-visite portraits appear on tbe Front page. The music as arranged is easy, and very pretty. From the popularity of the piece, the copies will no doubt command a large sale.’ (The Herald, 2 December 1868, p. 2)

‘Mr. Akhurst's burlesque was repeated last evening to an excellent house at the Theatre Royal, and it went very smoothly throughout. Mr. Harwood's local song on a Victorian political celebrity was encored three times, and he added an additional verse, giving a tip for the Cup. A repetition of Mr. Stewart's “Cantering Cad of Collins-street” was also insisted on, and the pretty duet, “Beautiful Swells” sung by Miss Marion Dunn and Miss Docy Stewart, which was similarly favoured, is rapidly becoming as popular as the famous “Pal o' Mine” duet.’ (The Argus, 5 November 1868, p. 5)

‘King Arthur, at the Royal, is proving as complete a success as “The Siege of Troy.” The boys encore the Jones song four times—perdition catch their insatiable souls for doing it—and the duet of “Beautiful Swells” seems equally in favour.’ (Jaques, The Australasian, 14 November 1868 p. 18)

It was a hit. And within the frame of the burlesque Marion Dunn was King Arthur, and Docy Stewart, Lancelot, and one can be easily imagine Arthur and Launcelot acting like a couple of stylish mashers about town. Incidentally, the word ‘swell’ to describe a wealthy, elegant person first appeared in 1724 arising out of the metaphorical observation of the puffing out of a gentleman’s lace covered chest bearing comparison the swelling of the sea, and came to mean a fashionable person about town. By 1810 ‘swell’ meant a stylish person, and was well into use by 1868, even having crossed the Atlantic where it survives today in American slang as a synonym for satisfaction. Swell, baby, swell.

The cover has a faded albumen photograph of Miss Marion Dunn and Miss Docy Stewart posed in a classic late 1860s day dress, both posing their fingers in their dimples. The photograph is pasted onto the cover—an expensive endeavour that speaks to the popularity of the song and the anticipated sales of the sheet music—and, in two rustic cartouches drawn by Charles Stewart, a portrait of two gentlemen—or perhaps the same man—one, in a three-quarter view with centre part in his hair and two large forks of sideburns known as Dundreary’s (they used to be called Piccadilly Weepers before Dundreary came along, and for those who liked to avoid the whimsical vernacular, ‘French Fork’ was the description); and the second, a profile version with a top hat, cigar and delicate plume of smoke. Both wear a monocle.

The lyrics of the song itself are short and simple, but once you read them they seem to have a great bearing on the attitude of the gentlemen on the cover.

Like you, I’ve witnessed better days
But now, by fate, I’m beat
Once I was the crême de la crême
The’elistest of the elite
An individual of rank
I dressed extremely well and
With a balance in the bank
I was a topping swell.

Beautiful Swells with glasses in eyes
Never evincing the slightest surprise
Languidly glancing at the belles
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful Swells.

My birth is noble and unstained
My crest as is mine own.
Let this attest as Thaddeus
Exclaims in dullest tone
When other lips and other hearts
Their tales of love shall tell
Is language whose excess imparts
That I once a swell.

Beautiful Swells with glasses in eyes
Never evincing the slightest surprise
Languidly glancing at the belles
Beautiful, beautiful beautiful Swells.

So what are the options regarding the lithographed figure(s) on the cover by Charles Turner? There are, I think, three principal choices:

The first alternative is that it is a portrait of the composer itself, which is to be expected in line with common practice. Usually, sheet music of this period features either the performer, the composer(s) or a stock/generic character. The argument for rests upon Akhurst’s celebrity, his long standing association with the literary and theatrical worlds of Melbourne, and his personal manner. Walter Akhurst, William’s son, was fourteen at this time and ended up working with, and later going into partnership with both Charles Turner, and Troedel. The argument against this being a portrait of W.M. Akhurst rests upon the generic manner of the portraits, and what is, for me, a very theatrical portrayal of the “character”. A portrait of “the author” is not usually disguised in this manner, and tries to represent a composer with a singular, accurate depiction, and not a thin cartoonish portrait. This theatrical regard of the image may be quite normal if Akhurst was a larger than life figure—he may very well have been. Its theatricality though is not a excluding quality, but one needs to be aware of it.

The second alternative is that it is a portrait of the character ‘Lord Dundreary’ from Tom Taylor’s 1858 play Our American Cousin. Edward Askew Sothern was the original Dundreary and further widened the reach of his fame in the role of the charming, idiotic aristocrat by a portrayal which was so successful that it produced cartes-de-visite by the thousands; even today you can always find one on eBay. Lord Dundreary became part of 1860s iconography by its components: the large centre-parted hair, the humourously wide sidebeards, and the monocle, all became the iconographic stock of every cartoonist that wished to illustrated a generic ‘swell’ or monied society fool. The argument for rests upon the faithful artistic quotation of the icons parts in Turner’s drawing: centre part, flowing whiskers, monocle. If this was the intent, it was a shameless grab for sales by linking to an already famous image, or it may have been a clumsy lithographic whimsy. The argument against is obvious: there is no good commercial reason to put a character wholly unconnected with play or its author, on the cover. Anent Dundreary, one must note with interest that on the 11th of December 1868 at the Theatre Royal, Mr Richard Stewart was given a benefit, with a medley bill that began with Craven’s Meg’s Diversion and Handy Andy after which Mr Stewart performed as Lord Dundreary in the famous letter scene (funny because of it phonetic mis-placement—‘I have aweady wead the wetter’ etc.), and it was advertised as ‘his own creation’ meaning his delineation of it; and Docy Stewart and Marian Dunn performed ‘Beautiful Swells’. (The ad of 10 December 1868 also mention a young ten year old John Kruse, for the violin historians). The Dundreary idea is too close for comfort, but which came first? the chicken or the egg.

The third alternative is that it is a portrait of the two characters and that the illustration embodies the attitude of the ‘swells’ enacted by the Misses Dunn and Stewart. The argument for rests upon the accurate depiction of a swell, and the attitude of the drawings; however plain the skill is behind them, the humourous intent is there, and is a reflection of the burlesque’s lyrics. The argument against rests upon the lack of costume as the gentlemen are in plain evening clothes. No mention is made of the costume in the papers, but it is hard to imagine that the illustrator would use evening dress when a more jolly image could be had with the burlesque costumery that would have been present. The portrait on the left too, lacks animation, is posed and gives a gravitas that one would expect from a portrait of the author.

We know that the girls dressed en traverstie, as a later advertisement for special appearance in another concert programme was at pains to state that the two ladies would appear in feminine attire for the song. When they performed as Arthur and Lancelot, did they wear evening dress? Possibly. Burlesque has very wide margins for breaking rules: in fact, it depends on it.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a game of odds. The likelihood is, that it is Akhurst, though the accurate visual quotation of a ‘swell’ is unsettling. Artistic analysis to follow.

  • Akhurst 05

    The portraits by Charles Turner of the perhaps William Mower Akhurst. On the left, note the theatrical ‘look’ with monocle but the serious, posed nature of it; the right has the same dichotomy, but still feels like a portrait rather than the visual report of a fictional character.

  • Akhurst 05

    A carte-de-visite photo from eBay, France taken in Melbourne during the 1870s by Timothy Noble of Bourke Street, a photographer of many theatrical personalities. I place it here as proof that the ‘swell’ iconography was based upon real persons, albeit it a small number. Probably ten-percent of male cartes-de-visite show this degree of dramatic divisions of a beard, known as a French Fork. This photo was found in Montesquieu-des-Albères, a long way from Melbourne. I purchased it 5th October 2019.

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    A sample from London Punch, 10 May 1862 p.186, of the oft repeated Dundreary iconography, and right, from Melbourne Punch of 7 Jan 1869.

  • Akhurst 05

    Three images: (a) E.H. Sothern as Dundreary, the icon that launched a thousand cartoonists’ pens, (b) a gentleman dressing up as Dundreary for a lark, and (c) a man whose personal toilette just happened to reflect the convention quoted by whomever decided how Dundreary was to be represented in the play. Both are blank-backed.

Read 555 times Last modified on Sunday, 08 December 2019 11:02