\u201c...a photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a
trace, something directly stencilled off the real\u201d (Sontag, Susan 1982 The
I love old photographs. Perhaps it\u2019s because they give us a glimpse of what
people thought was interesting or important at the time they were taken. They
pique our curiosity and perhaps evoke a nostalgia for a time we can never
again experience. Maybe they also depict a \u201creality\u201d without the problems and
difficulties, the fears and discomforts, of confronting \u201creality\u201d in the here and
So when I discovered a bunch of photographs that had been collected in the
very early years of the last (20th) Century they piqued my curiosity greatly. I still
have no surety which of my relatives collected these pictures but I think it might
have been my great-aunt Mina and her husband, the Rev Gerrit du Plessis.
Great-aunt Mina was my paternal grandfather\u2019s sister and she and her
husband made a few trips to Europe, at least one of them before the Great War
of 1914 to 1918. The subject matter of the photos, at least those that I can
identify or which have labels, reminded me of the concept of the \u201cGrand Tour\u201d
and I\u2019m sure that the Du Plessis collected them much in the spirit of the
original \u201cGrand Tourists\u201d and, being good Calvinists, in the spirit identified by Susan Sontag in her great essay On
\u201cThe method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic \u2013 Germans, Japanese and Americans.
Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and
supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.\u201d
The Du Plessis did not take photographs, as far as I know, but would have collected them at every stop along their \u201cGrand
Tour\u201d as a justification for their being there, \u201ca friendly imitation of work.\u201d
These photos are mostly commercial, though there is no indication of the identity of the photographer on any of them.
The \u201cGrand Tour\u201d undertaken by upper class young men from the UK followed a fairly set pattern or itinerary: they went, via
Dover and Calais, to Paris for some learning and experience in matters of government and diplomacy; thence to
Switzerland, where mountaineering was eagerly practiced; thence to Italy for some tastes of classical art, especially in
Florence, Venice and, of course, Rome (with a side-trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum for the more adventurous \u2013 many
attracted, no doubt, by the titillating thought of the \u201csecret\u201d art to be found there) to see the Forum and the classical
From southern Europe the return trip was usually made through Germany and Holland. For some a side trip would also be
made to Spain. And then back to the UK to uplift those who were not fortunate enough to make the Tour with accounts of
the travels and explanations of the many artefacts and artworks brought back home.
My unknown forebear took in some sights in the UK, such as Bournemouth and
Paignton Pier was opened in 1879 in the Devon resort town of Paignton and
became famous for its entertainment, including a performance in 1880 of
Gilbert and Sullivan\u2019s HMS Pinafore. The pier was destroyed by fire in 1919,
so the photograph at left must date from before then.
My unknown relative presumably was there before the fire.
The pier was redeveloped in the 1980s to offer more modern entertainments.
Another photograph in the collection is of Bournemouth Pier. This Pier was
opened in 1880. It was 838 feet long (about 255 metres) when opened but
extensions in 1894 and 1909 took the length to more than 1000 feet (about 305
The photo of Bournemouth Pier was taken from East Cliff. It\u2019s difficult to put a
date to the photo but cars and a bus are visible so my guess would be just prior
to the First World War (perhaps around 1910 or so?).
The last English photo in the collection is of the Great Doward in Herefordshire,
site of the Doward Caves, one of the places in which King Arthur and his
knights are said to be waiting until England should need them again. The town
of Great Doward is on the River Wye, which can be seen in the photo. I\u2019m not
sure where King Arthur\u2019s Cave might be relative to this photo.
The legends of King Arthur are still reverberating in popular culture as they
have done since the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth\u2019sHistoria Regum
German and French literature of subsequent Centuries. Indeed the French
writer Chretien de Troyes started the whole romanticisation of the Arthurian
legend by adding, among other things, the quest for the Holy Grail into the
story, which brings us right up to Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, by way of
Thomas Mallory\u2019sMorte D\u2019Arthur and Tennyson\u2019sIdylls of the King.
Along this long and winding trail a great many accretions have been added to
the story, from beautiful damsels in distress, adulteries, murders, and even
\u201cjoyous sprites\u201d as recounted inIdylls of the King:
\u201cAnd still at evenings on before his horse
The flickering fairy-circle wheeled and broke
Flying, and linked again, and wheeled and broke
Flying, for all the land was full of life.\u201d
The picture of the sprites is by Gustave Dor\u00e9, the French artist, who illustrated
Tennyson\u2019s epic poem in the late 19th Century. Dor\u00e9 was highly successful as
an illustrator because his engravings were completely in tune with the romantic
outlook of the Victorian era, the era of the Grand Tour par excellance.
As Graham Phillips writes in a recent book about Arthur: \u201cTravelling the length
and breadth of the British Isles, we discover a wealth of Arthurian legend; in
every part of the land the great king lives on in folklore. Tales tell how he was
born here or died there; that he fought a dragon in this valley, or killed a giant
on that mountain. There are Arthur's Hills, Arthur's Stones and Arthur's Caves.
King Arthur features in more legends attached to ancient sites in England and
Wales than any other character.\u201d
Phillips adds, somewhat sardonically: \u201cThe world over, King Arthur is a
But back to our tour \u2013 next stop, Paris!
And what could more excitingly symbolise the City of Light than the Eiffel
The Eiffel Tower has become the quintessential sight that tells you that you are
in Paris, for so long the centre of culture and all that was modern in the world.
The modernism of the Eiffel Tower was and is not accidental, after all was built as the entrance to the Exposition Universelle
held to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, \u201cthe best of times, the worst of times\u201d, which brought politics
into the modern era much as the Industrial Revolution forced the processes of production into modern modes.
And the Eiffel Tower was, with its 7 300 tons of \u201cpuddled iron\u201d in 18 000 pieces, held together with more than two million
rivets, built by some 300 workers, a potent symbol of industrialisation. It was at the time of its building (it was completed in
March 1889) the tallest tower in the world, a distinction it held until it was overtaken in 1930 by the Chrysler Building in New
York City. The Tower is still, however, the tallest structure in Paris.
In spite of the relatively primitive safety precautions available at the time of the building of the Tower, remarkably only one
worker was killed during its construction. This was due to the extraordinary efforts made by designer Gustave Eiffel to
ensure safety on the open construction.
As with most modern cultural artefacts, the Tower was not well-received by all. Novelist Guy de Maupassant is said to have
so hated it that he lunched every day in the restaurant in the Tower, because it was the one place in Paris from which he
The next stop on this Grand Tour is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Basilique du Sacr\u00e9-C\u0153ur)on the summit of
Montmartre, the highest point in Paris and the source of the name of the locale of the birth of much modern art. Here many
artists whose names became synonymous with modernism in the arts, lived and worked: De Jonking, Pissarro, C\u00e9zanne,
Manet, Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Derain, Villon, Duchamp, Dufy, Susanne
Valadon, Utrillo, Toulouse Lautrec, and Gen Paul.
New art movements flourished here, many were born here, in the exciting creative buzz that was happening in the suburb
below the hill on which sat the Basilica: Impressionism flourished here, as did synthesism and symbolism. Cubism was born
here in the tenement known as Le Bateau-Lavoir (the laundry-boat). In this run-down building Picasso painted the famous
Gargallo, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre Reverdy (1912-1913), Andr\u00e9 Salmon, and Endre Rozsda.
And it was not only painters who made the place famous: writers and actors and ballet dancers and composers all made
their homes below the Basilica, which sat like icing on top of a cake, glistening white in the sunshine. The area became
famous also for the clubs and restaurants that flourished there in the creative ferment of the late 19th and early 20th
Centuries: Le Chat Noir, the Moulin de la Galette, and, of course, the Moulin Rouge.
The Basilica glistened white (and still does) because the travertine stone of which it is built constantly exudes calcite which
overcomes even the ravages of weathering and pollution. Construction of the church was begun in 1875, but only completed
in 1914, by which time the First World War interrupted progress so that the consecration of the church to the Sacred Heart
only took place in 1919.
The church has a rather ambiguous place in history as it was built to "expiate the crimes of the communards"according to
the decree of the Assembl\u00e9e nationale of 24 July 1873. The communards were those citizens of Paris who resisted the
Prussian advance into the city and formed their own city government in defiance of the central national government which
had capitulated to the Prussians. This was a rebellion of the people, who demanded "la r\u00e9publique d\u00e9mocratique et sociale!"
("the democratic and social republic!"). The commune existed for a few weeks, from 18 March to 28 May 1871.
The rebellion was brutally suppressed by the provisional government headed by Adolfe Thiers, who was concerned that the
Prussians would be provoked by the alternative government which the Paris Commune represented. An estimated 30 000
people died in the final week of the commune, known as La Semaine Sanglante. Tens of thousands of communards were
subsequently executed. In one incident central government troops dynamited the entrances to caves where communards
had taken refuge, sealing them, alive, in their tombs.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?