Everything I Don’t Know About Selika Lazevski

Everything I Don’t Know About Selika Lazevski

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This blog post is about the research behind an essay I published on Paris Review Daily on 9 February 2018 (accessible here).

I first blogged about Selika when her image went viral in 2012. The best source of information was a commenter called Marie (her profile has since been deleted), who pointed out the source of the six images we have of Ms Lazevski: the French Ministry of Culture’s Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine. I dug around a bit and found out about L’Africaine, the Meyerbeer opera that was likely the source of Selika’s first name. A book about photographer Félix Nadar was published in 2015, and I excitedly assumed that he had taken the images of Selika. First lesson of research: check your sources. I was wrong, but by the time I realised that, people had copied the error and it even turned up in the publicity material for a fictional short film about her, The Adventures of Selika (2017).

So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to research Selika properly. This is a pretty detailed account of where I looked. I had a tremendous amount of fun – for all the long boring slogs through identical newspaper small ads, there were sudden surges of adrenalin as I’d think I’d made a breakthrough. If you, too, want to have fun with archives, Selika and adrenalin, I’ve marked opportunities for further research. Here’s the Culture Ministry’s records and the photographs.

I was informed by an archivist that the information with the photographs of Selika in the dark habit is as follows:

date: 1891
Mlle Lavzeski (Selika), écuyère
Mlle Lavzeski, Nouveau Cirque
Mlle Lavezeski
Mlle Lavzeski

and in the light habit as:

date : 1891
Mlle Selika Larzewski, écuyère de Haute-Ecole
Mlle Selika Laszewski, écuyère
Mlle Lasvezski

And that’s it! So, on with the hunt.

Who photographed Selika?

So, not Félix Nadar but “Studio Nadar”. Félix was no longer working in the Paris studio in 1891. His son Paul was in charge. Dr Jillian Lerner of the University of British Columbia told me that it was likely that “Studio Nadar” meant the images were shot by an anonymous photographer working within the studio. I went to the Bibliothèque Nationale and ordered Paul Nadar’s visitor book, but although it was full of visiting cards featuring names like Monet, Dreyfus, Rothschild, Dumas, Zola and the Comtesse Greffulhe, it was too late for the photographs of Selika. I didn’t order the handwritten letters between Paul and Félix because I didn’t have the time nor the ability to decipher that much nineteenth-century French cursive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]
I wasn’t aware of any other collections of the Nadars’ paperwork but I did check Paul Nadar’s photographic journal, Paris-Photographe, first published in 1891, and there was no sign of Selika.

Where does her name come from?

Selika is the name of the heroine of L’Africaine, an opera partially completed by Giacomo Meyerbeer (who is buried in a cemetery near my home in Berlin) at the time of his death in 1864. Meyerbeer had intended to call the finished work Vasco de Gama, and it tells the story of a Hindu princess who is first enslaved by Vasco da Gama and then becomes the mistress of his fate. She frees him to be with his love and kills herself nobly by inhaling poisonous blossom. Somehow the Hindu princess became an African princess when Meyerbeer’s friend, François-Joseph Fétis, repackaged the unfinished opera as L’Africaine for its first performance in Paris in 1865.

L’Africaine was a huge hit. I know this because I typed the name Selika into Gallica, the BNF’s digitised collection, and got 442 hits. I trawled through them all. Not one is a reference to Selika Lazevski, but they did testify to the popularity of Meyerbeer’s heroine. I found not just mentions of performances of L’Africaine, but also a dog, a ship, a horse, a scarf colour, some (white) anti-heroines (a lady lion tamer in 1890’s Papa la Vertu by Réné Maizeroy, Le Pays du Mal: Palotte by Emile de Molènes, and a character in Le Sphinx aux Perles by Gustave Haller), a camel in Aristide Bruant’s Les Bas-Fonds de Paris, and an ice cream bombe all named after her. In another book, L’Enfance de Georges Aymeris, a child has a black doll from America called Selika. I also learned that the first African-American soprano to perform in the White House, Marie Selika Williams, had adopted the name.

So I started to think of Selika as a stage name, chosen either for its exoticism or as resonant of a noble Black woman (depending on who chose the name). I used lots of different search terms to try to find this missing Black horsewoman, and nothing turned up. I also discovered that Félix Nadar photographed Meyerbeer, but this is just the sort of tantalising coincidence that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing and makes one long to write fiction.

(Selika is also a village near Lake Malawi, another name for Seleucia in Iraq and a Hebrew name for a woman; a bellydancer at the Jardin de Paris in 1893, and a few other things I managed to stop myself adding here).

Who were the Lazevskis?

At last count, I’d uncovered twelve different spellings of the name Lazewski: Lazevski, Lazevski, Lavzeski, Lavezewski, Larzewski, Laszewski, Lauzevski, Laszewski, Laschewsky, Lasjewski and Laczewski.

Imagine the fun! Well, there was a Lazewski associated with circus horsemanship. Better still, there were three. One was found for me by the Winkler Circus Archive in Berlin. He’s a gentleman amateur mentioned in Oskar Justinus’ Vom Cirkus (published 1888) riding a full-blood Arab from the empress’ stable. I’ve focused on the French circus scene in my research but, my goodness, the German scene is more than its equal. Who knows what I could have found if I’d expanded my research? I was very lucky that the Winklers looked this up for me. And that the librarian at the Spandau circus collection instantly located more information for me in “Signor Saltarino’s” lexicon of circus artistes:

“Laszewski, Lucian von, haute-école rider and trainer, born on 9 May 1864 in Riga, died young on 20 March 1888 in Riga from consumption.”

So he was dead three years before Selika was photographed.

Now, here’s where you realise that circus research is like the crack of research. So good, so tempting, but it will break you. Names change. People adopt new ones. Dates and places get tricky. Because it turns out there’s another Lazewski, and he’s a much better bet for us. Valli di Lazewski was working at the Nouveau Cirque in the same period that the Ministry of Culture notes said Selika was there.

Here’s Valli, I believe, from a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. He’s spelled “Laschewsky”.

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According to circus historian Paul Haynon’s notes, Valli was born in Poland on 29 August 1864 (a few months after Lucian so I guess they’re not brothers) and married on 16 February 1888 in Riga (a month before Lucian died). He was trained by E Wulff and made his Paris debut at a hippodrome in 1887. Were he and Lucian related? Were they, as Dominique Jando, the circus historian who runs Circopedia, suggested to me, the same person (the more work you do with nineteenth-century sources, the more you see how errors creep in and slip ups are made)? Again, the dates and locations are tantalisingly close, but I can’t afford to go to Riga to hunt for whatever records might have survived the twentieth century. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]

I have more material on Valli though. He crops up in the papers at Olympia in London and tracking down a runaway horse on a Paris street. For Paul Haynon, he answered a brief questionnaire about his career, which I was enchanted to find in the Paris archives. Haynon also collected the notes of his wife, who was called Laure/Laura/Lara (forgive my bad reading of the handwriting). She was clearly not Selika although she was an écuyère of haute école. A librarian at Bibliothèque Nationale told me she had found a “Mlle Lazewski” in Gallica and I thought for one glorious moment that it was Selika. Then, mindful of my mistake with Félix, I cross-checked it. The Mademoiselle Lazewski was “Madame Lazewski” in other papers that day. It was Laure, not Selika.

Here she is, also from a photograph album in the Fonds Soury at the French Ministry of Culture. She’s spelled “Lasjewski”.

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I wildly wondered whether Selika could have been adopted by them, but there’s a strike through the query about them having children in Paul Haynon’s notes. But there was something: Dominique Jando told me that it was common for performers to take the surname of their teacher – so perhaps Valli taught Selika.

Much of this could have been answered if I had been able to find an article called “Valli de Laszewski et son Epoque” by Paul Haynon from 6 March 1937 in L’Inter-Forain. There should be a copy in the Fonds Paul Haynon in the Paris Archives, but after spending a couple of days checking every dusty box in the collection on two separate trips to Paris, I couldn’t find it. I contacted the current publishers of L’Inter-Forain and they don’t have it, and neither do the Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty or the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield. I would love to get my mitts on it. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]

Did Selika perform at the Nouveau Cirque?

The Nouveau Cirque opened in February 1886 at 251 rue St Honoré in the heart of Paris. It was originally intended to have a dual purpose: from October to May it would be a very grand circus indeed. From May to October it would be a swimming pool. The ring sat on top of the 25m-diameter pool, and sometimes the carpet was peeled back and the cover removed so that circus performers could frolic about in the pool as part of their act or the pantomimes that made up the last half of each show. Here’s a poster for the Nouveau Cirque in its summer incarnation:

Selika swimming at the Nouveau Cirque

Yes, as you can see, it mainly seems to be about white men getting massages from Black men. So here’s a thing: there does seem to be a theme of sorts connecting the Nouveau Cirque to Black performers. Joseph Oller, who founded the circus, was an early adopter: in the 1870s he ran a café-concert venue that featured a series of Black animal tamers, starting with a man called Delmonico. In 1891, three years after Oller departed, one of the Nouveau Cirque’s stars was Rafael Padilla, aka Chocolat, a Black clown. Padilla was probably born a slave in Cuba and travelled with his “owner” to Spain where he was freed, later working for a clown who brought him to Paris and the Nouveau Cirque, where he teamed up with the English clown George Foottit as a hit double act. He also starred in Nouveau Cirque pantomimes which seem to have been written as vehicles for him, albeit massively racist vehicles. If you want to know more about Chocolat, the French historian Gérard Noiriel has written a biography which was adapted into a film (see trailer here). Here’s some footage of the real Chocolat and Footit in action:

In the Fonds Paul Haynon I found a hand-drawn plan of the circus at this time, with a note made even of the horses’ names in some of the individual stables. I went through all the advertisements for the circus in Gallica in 1891 and found no trace of Selika. Both the Fonds Paul Haynon and the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Département des Arts du Spectacle have handwritten lists of some performers in the shows, but I couldn’t find Selika, unless she was there under another name. Nor does she appear on a poster, although I did see an advert for a horse-riding seal at the Nouveau Cirque which was worth the trip in itself.

Maybe Selika performed there under another name? I couldn’t find any references to Black women performing there until the twentieth century, and then as dancers. I made some lists of the names of the Nouveau Cirque’s “clownesses” but there are few pictures and none of them look like Selika.

Selected sources

Chocolat: La véritable histoire d’un homme sans nom (Gérard Noiriel)
Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914 (Ghislaine Bouchet)
“Le Reve de Chocolat” (Sylvia Chalaye) in Africultures, 2013/2 (n° 92-93)
“‘Race’ As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture” (James Smalls) in French Historical Studies 26.2 (2003)

Was Selika a haute-école écuyère?

If Selika ever did ride haute école in the circus, she had no impact on critics, writers or artists. Several other Black circus performers of the nineteenth century did, and I had some wonderful sidetracks into their life stories. There was the strongwoman Miss Lala (dizzyingly painted by Edgar Degas), British horseman Pablo Fanque, horseback acrobat Sara l’Africaine (whom I’m currently writing about), Chocolat, and Delmonico to name a handful. But there’s nothing in the press or in the books I’ve checked about Selika.
This doesn’t mean she didn’t ride in the ring, however, as plenty of écuyères performed in quadrilles of twelve or more riders where they were as good as nameless – again, I have a small collections of names that appear once and never again. Perhaps Selika did this, but the surviving lists of performers at the Nouveau Cirque are scant and she’s not mentioned – by that name – on any of them. She didn’t need to be especially talented for this. While some écuyères trained their own horses, others with less riding skill were simply bundled onto a very highly prepared horse and had to do little more than stay on board and give their mounts the right cues.
I did find one reference to a Sélika riding haute école, but it’s fiction and she’s described as Basque, blonde and blue-eyed. It’s a story or extract called “Les Baisers” by J H Rosny, published on 11 January 1908 in Comoedia.

Was Selika American?

Miss Lala and, very possibly, Sara L’Africaine were from America. A careful combing of circus records in the USA might reveal some results. [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY HERE]

Was Selika an artist’s model?

Nigel Gosling’s Nadar (1976) captioned Selika as “Mlle Lauzeski, model” (she appears on the same page as another Nouveau Cirque écuyère of the period, about whom I’m also currently writing). This suggests she was posed as a circus écuyère rather than actually being one – something I think is a very real possibility given the nature of her “nom d’écuyère”. I did some digging into the world of artists’ models and found nothing, although I’m sure someone with more familiarity with the terrain could perform a better search [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY]. Félix Nadar and Paul both photographed a Black woman known as Maria “l’Antillaise”, a servant in their household from the Antilles. Félix photographed her bare breasted, and I’ve seen some claim she was his mistress. For Paul, she posed fully dressed. But she is not Selika.

Selected sources

Dictionary of Artists’ Models (Jill Berk Jiminez)
The Black Female Body: a Photographic History (Deborah Willis)

Selika Dahomey Amazons rifle drill

Selika Dahomey behind the scenes

What about the Dahomey “Amazons” and Paris’ human zoos?

There is absolutely nothing to link Selika as an individual to what was going on in the Jardin d’Acclimatation but the contrast between her image and the portrayal of the Dahomey women just struck me. There were in fact troupes of Black women performing in European and Russian circuses as Dahomey Amazons (whether they actually were or not I don’t know). I didn’t manage to fit them in the essay, but you can read about them in Irina Novikova’s article, listed here.

Selected sources

La France Noire (Pascal Blanchard)
“Imagining Africa and blackness in the Russian empire: from extra-textual arapka and distant cannibals to Dahmoey amazon shows – live in Moscow and Riga” (Irina Novikova) in Social Identities, September 2013, vol 19, issue 5
Guerrières et guerriers du Dahomey au Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation (Fulbert Dumonteil) February 1891
Le Monde Illustré, 21 February 1891
Le Voleur Illustré, 26 February 1891
Le Figaro, 8 February 1891
Dances with Darwin 1875-1910, Vernacular Modernity in France (Rae Beth Gordon)

Conclusions?

Well, there are still many threads to pursue. Selika was real. She existed. I’ve flagged opportunities for further research. If I can pursue them (time and finances willing) I will, but meanwhile, if you are able to research any of these leads, please do get in touch with me. Perhaps she never performed, either because she lost interest, couldn’t ride well enough or met some other mishap or better adventure. Perhaps the circus owners lost their nerve – it was one thing to have a Black clown, acrobat-strongwoman or animal tamer, but another to have a Black woman dressed in the ultra-respectable riding habit, performing the highest equestrian art and wearing a Jockey Club top hat not, like Chocolat, as a joke, but with dignity and aplomb.

Archives and Records Considered

I received incredible kindness and help from archivists on this quest. They let me walk in off the streets and into their stacks, rolled out trolleys full of goodies and searched collections to give me armsful of print outs. They were peerless. So huge thanks to:

Gallica
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, especially the Département des Arts du Spectacle
Paris Archives/Fonds Paul Haynon
Sammlung Variété, Zirkus, Kabarett at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
Bibliothèque Musée de l’Opéra, Paris
Théâtrothèque Gaston Baty, Université Paris 3
Zirkusarchiv Winkler, Berlin
National Fairground and Circus Archive, University of Sheffield

One small boo to the Archives de la Préfecture de Paris, whose receptionist told me emphatically that they had no circus records. I was back in Berlin before I realised that they housed part of Tristan Rémy’s archive [RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY].

Thank you also to circus historians alive and dead, from Paul Haynon to Tristan Rémy and Dominique Jando. You’re a unique and dogged breed of scholars. My (top) hat goes off to you.

Quotations in the Paris Review Daily piece:

– “two great seductions, woman and the horse,” is Baron d’Etreillis but I’ve temporarily lost my notes re the source and translator.
– “the troubling beauty of a woman on a horse, this plastic coupling of two curvilinears that are the most perfect creation: the stallion, aggrandizing woman in all her majesty; woman on the creature she rides, posed audaciously like a wing” is Hugues le Rouxin Les Jeux du Cirque et la Vie Foraine (1889) translated by Hilda Nelson in The Écuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus.

A Street Filled with 102 Horses

 

From Tom Crewe’s review of A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain in the London Review of Books:

“At 11am on 22 November 1827 Francis Place, the reformer and radical, stuck his head out of his bedroom window in Charing Cross and put down on paper the activity he could see outside:

Horses/Carriages

8 – 2 stage coaches with 4 horses each

8 – 2 ditto standing at The Ship

4 – 1 ditto [standing] at the Silver Cross

2 – 1 dray delivering ale

6 – 1 wagon coming along loaded with Swedish turnips, drawn by six horses

14 – 7 hackney coaches and cabriolets…

It goes on, until he has counted 102 horses and 37 carriages in a single street. We have a semi-miraculous view of a vanished world about its business, watched without realising it, made visible just for a moment.”

 

May 2017 Bring You Obedient White Horses

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Therese Renz of the famous Renz circus dynasty, c. 1895. I’ve seen wonderful pictures of her in action (have you see the one where she and her horse are jumping rope?) but didn’t realise that she was a Berliner, and is buried just up the road from me in St Hedwig’s cemetery in Weissensee. She died in 1938More essential to know, she used to tame elephants and was known as “the lady in white” when she performed at the Wintergarten variety theatre, which was destroyed by bombs just six years after Therese left this mortal sawdust ring.

Horse Nation have a brief biography, which makes her sound like a tough old bird, despite a difficult life:

Just as Therese was getting back to business, World War I would disrupt her comeback and leave her penniless, begging on the streets not for her own food, but anything people could spare to keep her two beloved elephants alive. After one died of starvation, she sold the second, her prized elephant “Dicky”, to another circus just to prevent him from suffering the same fate. Therese would yet again be starting over.

When the war ended in 1918, Therese was 60 years old, but that wasn’t going to stop her. She joined a troupe in Vienna in 1923, and continued performing well into her seventies on a mare named “Last Rose”, a fitting final partner.

 

Expert Lady Jockeys Wish You a Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

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Haunted by Horses in St Petersburg

Last weekend I travelled to St Petersburg to start research on a new book and I thought I’d share my equestrian shots. I was only in this fascinating, complicated city for two and a half days and did not venture out of the very heart of it but I still found some horse history of interest – and some living horses too. There aren’t many hours of sunlight at 60 degrees north in December, so the photos are a bit brooding and murky – be warned. Also murky, the information in this blog post as my Russian is very, very limited and I can’t find guidebooks that really meet my horsey needs. Anyone with local historical knowledge is welcome to step in and correct what I’ve managed to tap out here!

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This (above) is St Petersburg’s most famous horse. He carries “the Bronze Horseman”, a statue of the city’s founder, Peter the Great, erected by Catherine the Great in 1782. The French sculptor Etienne Falconet intended it to be more allegorical than your average equestrian statue – the horse is Russia and under its feet it tramples a serpent that represents any treasonous opponents to Peter’s sweeping reforms. The repercussions from Peter’s rule and the subsequent history of the city have been embodied in references to the Bronze Horseman in literary works by great writers from Pushkin to Anna Akmatova. Quite often the horseman in these stories pursues deranged literary heroes through the city.

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You know that the Hermitage was the Russian royal family’s palace and is now an enormous compendium of a museum. You maybe didn’t know that its stables are still standing and currently under restoration. This is Konyushennaya Ploschchad or Stable Square, about ten minutes walk away along the Moyka river on icy, sloping pavements. It once housed a “stables museum” featuring the family’s carriage and sleigh collection as early as the 1820s. According to this piece on the Hermitage’s website by Igor Arsentyev, there are now over 40 vehicles in the collection and the ceremonial harness to go with them:

A coupé acquired from [leading carriage builder Johann Conrad] Buchendal for Catherine II in 1793 was reproduced in miniature in 1897 by craftsmen working for the firm of Carl Fabergé; this little gem was then placed inside an Easter egg commissioned by Nicholas II for his wife, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. A sledge for ten passengers, also made by Buchendal in 1793, was intended for trips around the park by the imperial family during the cold Russian winters. Eight horses were required to pull it and as well as the coachman required postilions riding on the first two pairs.

One charming piece is a mechanical droshky made in Nizhny Tagil between 1785 and 1801 by the craftsman E.G. Kuznetsov. Its mechanism includes a little organ that plays six melodies as the wheels turn and a verstometer (to measure distance) of ingenious construction (a similar principle underlies the speedometers used in modern forms of transportation).

I cannot work out if these carriages are currently on display in the main museum or will go on display in Konyushennaya Ploschchad. This site says the stable building is currently being decontaminated (having housed a petrol station) and converted into “a place for interaction between the city and its citizens, including a public communication centre, an exhibition hall, shops, cafés and a Start Up Center” but a word of caution – I was unable to verify this information or find much else in English about the old stables. What’s more, I’m not entirely sure that they are the Hermitage’s stables. Bear with me.

About five minutes walk from the Konyushennaya Ploschchad is the Mikhailovsky Palace, now a branch of the Russian Museum (which is not the same thing as the Hermitage). Construction began on it for Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich in 1819, and the German traveller Johann Georg Kohl, who described it in a book published in 1841, was impressed by not just the building but its surroundings, including a nearby stables and riding arena:

this quarter of the city might almost be called [the Grand Duke’s] kingdom. Here are the dwellings of his officers, his stables, his riding-school, etc. The latter deserves particular mention, as the finest of the kind that exists any where. In the establishment fifty young people are instructed in riding and in all arts that have the remotest reference to horse or rider; for this object, and for the carousels in the fine riding-house, at which the count is often present, a number of the finest horses are kept, and both horses and riders are so well lodged and fed, that it is a pleasure to pass through the range of clean and elegant sleeping-rooms, sitting, and school rooms, saddle-rooms, stables, &c. All these apartments have double folding-doors in the centre, which stand open the whole day. A long carpet is laid along all the floors down to the stable, and the inspector at a glance can overlook every thing; can satisfy himself whether the beautiful white Arabian Asir, so celebrated for his silken hair and broad forehead, and the fiery Haimak of English blood, out of a mare from the Orloff stud, are in good condition; at the same time he can see what the young cadets, who value themselves so much on their rosy cheeks and sprouting beards, are doing in their chambers. It is wonderful how pure the air is kept in spite of this slight separation; it is as if the stud were perfumed with eau de Cologne, as well as the cadets.

The riding school contained six mirrors large enough for horsemen to see their entire position. While, as Kohl proudly notes, it was Germans who brought the art of riding to Russia, the Russians had recrafted it in their own form. It took six years to prepare each cadet to become a riding master in the army. However, the high standards required were brutal on the horses themselves, who, though dazzling in quadrilles, were soon broken down by keeping up “parade paces”.

Kohl then writes about the “colossal Exercising-house”, and the description makes me wonder if it’s under that rounded roof on the Konyushennaya Ploshchad:

This manege covers a space, unbroken by a single pillar, of 650 feet long, and 150 wide; a regiment can go through its evolutions there with perfect convenience; a battalion may manoeuvre there, and two squadrons might fight a battle there. This establishment originated, as did nearly all such places in St. Petersburg, in the time of Paul. Sixteen giant stoves warm the buildings and the walls are lined with thick woollen-cloth. The roof with its appendages presses on the thick walls with a weight of 300,000 hundred weight; the iron rods alone weigh 12,840,000 pounds, and to this must be added 3000 great trunks of trees made use of in the woodwork, and 2,000 square fathoms of iron plates with which the whole is covered without. The Circassians may be generally seen here busied in their feats of horsemanship, or shooting at a mark, at which times a student in acoustics may make many interesting observations. A pistol-shot awakens so prodigious an echo, that heard from the street one might fancy the whole building falling in one crash.

At this point, anyone who can sort out this mess of the Hermitage and Mikhailovsky Palace stables for me is begged to step forward and save me in the comments. Meanwhile, here’s a more easily identifiable manège:

dsc07501This is the old Horse Guard’s Manège (Konnogvardeyskiy Manège), now an exhibition hall. It was built between 1804 and 1807 and is guarded by twin statues of Castor and Pollux of the “youth trying to stop a rearing horse” variety. They are copies of originals that stand at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, and according to this site they had to be moved to the rear of the manège for a long period after the priests at St Isaac’s cathedral (just over the road) complained about their nudity and pagan nature. You can see some shots of the interior as it is today here, along with a potted history of the building and some earlier images.

It looks as though the facade has lost its more elaborate decorations in the course of the twentieth century. I am not sure if this was the cavalry school at which the famous English écuyer James Fillis taught after Grand Duke Nicholas poached him from the Ciniselli Circus but it seems highly likely. As for non-military riding in the city,  Mrs Alice Hayes, one of my favourite sidesaddle authors, spent some time in Russia later in the nineteenth century than Kohl and was unimpressed. In The Horsewoman she comments:

Although the riding schools of Paris are not to be compared to those of Berlin, the worst of them is far superior to the two miserable civilian riding schools in St. Petersburg, where riding is almost entirely a military function. Very few Russian women ride, although history tells us that Peter III. kept a pack of hounds, and that his wife, Catherine II., according to her memoirs, listened to the loving solicitations of Soltikov while they were riding together “to find the dogs.” A saddle belonging to this amorous lady, which I saw at the Hermitage, was like an Australian buck-jumping saddle, with large knee rolls and a high cantle. It was covered with red velvet and decorated with cowrie shells. The side saddle appears to have been first used in Russia by the daughters of the Emperor Paul.

So where were the civilian riding schools? Where did people ride in summer? Where were the horses kept? And what about the ordinary working horses rather than the fancy parade horses and hunters? The standard housing unit appears to be a series of courtyards, as in Berlin (I wrote about these buildings here in a post on Clever Hans) – could there have been stable buildings in the courtyards? How did people keep horses of all kinds in such low temperatures? How did they cope with the slippery winter conditions?

Had I the Russian I could have asked someone. There are still horses in the very heart of St Petersburg – trotting smartly across terrain that I needed hiking boots and much concentration to cover. Before I caught a glimpse of one, I saw here and there piles of horse manure left neatly on the pavements – once even in a plastic bag, as if it were dog poo (I guess if the manure freezes on the road itself it becomes a hazard). The horses themselves appeared in due course, albeit in a rather more romantic fashion than their road apples.

The time difference of two hours between St Petersburg and Berlin is not large but it is annoying. Combine it with overexcitement about being in a city you’ve dreamed of visiting since you were a teenager and, well, not much sleep is had. My hostel room looked out over the Griboyedov canal – also frozen and much frequented by skating hooded crows – at the Kazan Cathedral and was just around the corner from Nevsky Prospect, which is the Oxford Street of St Petersburg. Despite that I woke groggily early on Saturday morning to the sound of hoofs on icy road, and got to the window in time to see a dark horse trot by pulling a battered black droshky with a bale of hay in the foot well.

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I caught up with the droshky horse that afternoon in Konyushennaya Ploschchad – he’s on the left of this photograph, in the background. Squint and you can make out a little red square over the grey horse’s neck. That’s a prop banner being used to film a crowd scene in a period drama. I’m not sure if the droshkies were involved or just hanging out, but they didn’t get hustled behind the cordon with the rest of us when filming began, and they were also patiently standing in a fog or pall of smoke being generated by the film crew’s machines.

I haven’t had the chance to look into many Russian equestrian sources for the nineteenth century, but even my scanty reading of Russian literature suggests that horses of all kinds were just as culturally important there as in Europe. What about the infamous horse race in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or his tale of Kholstomer, the talking horse? The most disturbing literary set piece is Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment, written some twenty years after Kohl’s account of the city. In it he revisits a childhood scene in the town where he was born:

He always liked looking at those great cart-horses, with their long manes, thick legs, and slow even pace, drawing along a perfect mountain with no appearance of effort, as though it were easier going with a load than without it. But now, strange to say, in the shafts of such a cart he saw a thin little sorrel beast, one of those peasants’ nags which he had often seen straining their utmost under a heavy load of wood or hay, especially when the wheels were stuck in the mud or in a rut. And the peasants would beat them so cruelly, sometimes even about the nose and eyes, and he felt so sorry, so sorry for them that he almost cried, and his mother always used to take him away from the window.

As the child-Raskolnikov watches in the dream, the sorrel’s driver begins to beat her as more and more bystanders climb into the cart, laughing. As the old mare struggles, her driver hits her harder, and soon loses all control – eventually battering her to death with an iron bar (I did warn you it was awful). The mare’s death foreshadows Raskolnikov’s later murder of the elderly money lender Alyona Ivanovna. I should have read Crime and Punishment before I travelled as it turned out that I was staying on the same street where the novel was both set and written – the Griboyedov canal outside my hotel winds its way south west through Kolomna, where Ivanovna, Raskolnikov and Doestoevsky all lived.

Our German traveller Kohl saw peasant horses bought and sold at “Zimnaia Ploshchad” at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Though less literary than Dostoevsky, he also made a parallel many critics have made between the sorrel in Crime and Punishment and the beleagured peasants of the empire:

The horses sold in this market are duly imbued with the national character. Like their masters they are small, but active and supple; with long manes and beards, ragged hair, delicate joints, and iron constitutions. In the stable they are dull and heavy, but in harness full of spirit, unwearied in the race, and even after the hardest labour tricksy and playful. Cold, heat, hunger, and thirst, they endure with a patience truly admirable, and often receive their dirty straw with more apparent relish than their German brethren do the golden corn. Yet after all, there is but little energy in the Russian horse. He knows not how to husband his force, and if unable to clear the hill at a gallop he remains hopelessly fixed in the mud.

He noted that well-to-do Russians preferred Tartar coachmen – indeed, a visiting Duke of Devonshire even took one home as a souvenir – and that much of the vocabulary for coaching and driving was Mongolian or Tartar. These full-bearded men dressed typically in “a fine blue cloth caftan, fastened under the left arm with three silver buttons, and girded round his middle by a coloured silk sash.” Their postillions were “pretty boys, from twelve to fourteen years of age”. Kohl later comments that literacy was gaining pace in Russia and many servants aspired to learn the alphabet and read, for “even the little postilions may often be seen in a corner of the stables diligently forming the letters with their frozen fingers.”

Mrs Alice Hayes might not have been impressed by Russian ladies but she has nothing but praise for Russian cab men – quite something when one considers the reputation cab horses had for suffering:

… the Russian ishvoshik (cabman), treat their equine charges with far greater sympathy and kindness than our English grooms and cab-drivers do. … When passing through London on my return from a visit to Russia, we put up at an hotel in Oxford Street, where the night was rendered hideous to me by the brutal slashing of cab horses; for one hears nothing of that kind in Russia, and yet we English people pride ourselves on being a horse-loving nation! The speed of Orlov trotters is very great, but no whip is used in driving them; the coachmen drive with a rein in each hand, like the drivers of American trotters, and shout after the manner of firemen to clear the road, for these animals seem to require a good deal of holding. The Russian cabby uses a small whip like an ordinary dog-whip, which he tucks away somewhere under his seat, and when his horse is taking things too easy, it is only necessary for him to show it him, for he is driven without blinkers, to cause him to at once hasten his pace. Very often the man is unprovided even with this toy thing, in which case he obtains a similar result by abusing the animal’s relations! During the whole time that I was in Russia, I never once saw a cabby hurt his horse with the whip. Russia is the last country to which one would go to learn anything about the treatment of human beings, knowing what we do of her past and present history; but we certainly should emulate the Russian coachmen in their kindness to horses, and not shock our neighbours by exhibitions of brutality which may be seen daily in the London streets.

Kohl had a more nuanced take on this:

The Russian cannot be said to illtreat his horse. He rarely flies into a rage against his animal, and expends at all times far more words than blows upon it; on the other hand, however, he bestows but little care upon it, and spoils it as little with over-cherishing as he is himself spoiled with kindness by those in whose school he has been trained and broken in.

So this was a hasty little insight into Russian horses high and low in St Petersburg. As I wrote the bare bones of it I began to Google and turn up more sources that required cross-matching and confirming, and the whole piece began to spiral out of control, so it’s best if I stop now before I accidentally write 10,000 words and forget to write up my notes on the research I actually flew there to do. I’ll leave you with a final Petersburg scene.

At 3am on the Sunday morning I was awake again. The couple in the room next door had argued for hours and were now snoring. Outside, young men were screeching along the Nevsky Prospect in cars whose booming stereos rattled the window just above my head. Women were screaming at their boyfriends and drunks were raging. And then there was a brief lull and I heard hoof beats again – nippy, trotting hoof beats. I hauled myself up to the window sill and poked my head through the curtains.

The road was covered in patches of brown ice two inches thick. On it, trotting south along the Griboyedov canal towards where the droshky horse had come from and the homes of Dostoevsky, Raskalnikov and Alyona Ivanovna, was a bare-headed man with a heavy hood hanging down his back, mounted on a dark horse that moved without fear or hesitation past the neon-lit bars and kiosks and away into the pitch-black early morning.

Horses in the Wings

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The theatrical and circus historian A H Saxon is the don of hippodrama history. I bought an old library copy of his Enter Foot and Horse when I was working on The Age of the Horse because I knew it would be the key to nineteenth-century equestrian theatre. I wasn’t disappointed.

Hippodramas were, to quote Saxon himself, plays “in which trained horses were considered actors, with business, often leading actions of their own, to perform.” They grew out of the very early equestrian circuses and were generally light on serious content, heavy on melodrama and chock full of sensational sets, scenes and galloping horses.

Saxon’s work is invaluable because the hippodrama is not exactly popular with theatrical historians and it also fell from fashion fairly rapidly, thus ensuring that few traces of it lingered in popular consciousness. I was delighted to find the facsimile of a script for one on Archive.org. It’s called

The Blood-Red Knight

or

The Fatal Bridge

A Grand Melo Dramatic Romance

In Two Acts

 

It was created by George Male for John Astley in 1810, just as the genre was taking off and getting steadily more spectacular. The plot is a classic piece of melodrama. The Blood-Red Knight, Sir Rowland, is hellbent on challenging the chastity of his brother Alphonso’s wife, Isabella, and begins the first act by chasing her and her son Henry through a sinister wood and up and down mountains.

When he finally gets his mitts on Isabella, he gives her a choice – give in to him or her son will be killed. Alphonso (earlier reported to have died in “the Holy Wars”) interrupts at the crucial moment but is bundled away to his death, forcing Isabella to agree to marry Sir Rowland. Luckily Alphonso wasn’t dead at all, and he and some friends storm the castle and launch into a stirring sword fight followed by a cavalry assault across a falling bridge.

At its climax, Isabella shoots Sir Rowland just before he can chop Alphonso in two, and it all ends happily ever after.

The full script at Archive.org is later, US edition, which you can browse here. It’s just 24 pages long. As A H Saxon points out in Enter Foot and Horse, this is not much of a script for a performance that lasted an hour and forty minutes. Not for nothing are the directions so long, although sadly they contain none of the minute moves that must go into coordinating a stage fight. Just how possible was that level of planning if horses were involved in a mêlée? Or did everyone just muck in and aim to get to the right spot at the right moment?

I have found, thanks to Caroline Hodak’s paper on hippodrama, information from the playbill about the special effects. I don’t have the original, so please forgive this re-translation of Hodak’s French translation:

The castle is attacked, the surrounding river is covered with boats filled with warriors while the walls are violently attacked […] Men and horses are represented injured and dying, in all positions, while other soldiers and their horses emerge from the river, forming an effect [sic] completely new and unprecedented in this country – and elsewhere – all ending with the complete defeat of the Blood Red Knight and the reunion of Alphonse and Isabelle.

Hodak quotes one report from the French writer Louis Simond, who saw the play and compared it unfavourably to performances in France:

Astley is a show of equitation and one naturally forms an advantageous notion of this type of spectacle as performed in England, which is something of an island of Houyhnhms . I expected something far superior to what I had seen in other countries, but I found the horses moderately well-trained: the men did no tricks that were out of the ordinary. Instead of equitation, we had drama and harlequinades, battle and fights. The characters were Moors and Saracens, and the horses were there like actors, as at Covent Garden; they ran in to the pit, and climbed onto the boards of the stage – all was covered in earth.

He goes on to say that between each act acrobats performed in the pit (at a guess this is the ring in front of the stage), sending up clouds of dust and tearing their trousers. Those is the cheap seats roared while respectable looking middle-class Londoners sat in the boxes. There was, Simond concluded, “a little corner of barbarity in most English popular amusements.” He moves on swiftly to Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a contemporary image of The Blood-Red Knight from the British Library’s archives. It had a first run at Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London of 175 performances, making an eye-watering £18,000 for Astley and company, and was introduced to New York in 1823.