Tag: Maud Gonne

Mass media, High Society and the invention of Celebrity

These days a great deal of the popular press is locked into a reciprocal and lucrative relationship with a wide variety of celebrities. The press needs stories (and above all else, photographs) of celebrities in order to sell their publications, while most celebrities need press coverage in order to maintain the public profile without which they would not be celebrities. In recent years this closed loop has reached its logical conclusion, resulting in complaints about celebrities who are ‘famous for being famous’, apparently having no public life or career beyond the pages of tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines.

Celebrity is a complex cultural concept (there is for an example, an entire academic journal, Celebrity Studies, dedicated to it), which takes different forms at different moments. However, in all its forms it has a specific history, and one which is inherently tied to the development of mass media. Celebrity in any recognisable form requires a mass media in order to create fame and instant recognition, as there can be no celebrity without an audience. Equally, before mass media and its creation of that audience, there was no real need for celebrities – they were an invention of the popular press and its need to appeal to segmented audiences who must be persuaded to buy each new issue. Celebrities whose star personae were carefully tailored to a particular audience proved to be an exceptionally successful and long-lasting way to attract regular buyers.

Late 19thC mass media – in Ireland and elsewhere – provides an opportunity to watch modern celebrity develop, as publications, advertisers, readers and the proto-celebrities themselves negotiated its form and purpose. The earliest category of famous individuals whose names (and later photographs) could sell newspapers were of course aristocrats. This was entirely logical, as they already possessed many of the characteristics which would later become associated with the celebrity format – they were drawn from a demarcated group whose very names, in the form of their titles, differentiated them from ordinary readers in a parallel fashion to the way that very famous modern celebrities’ very names are also brands. Aristocrats also lived lives of barely imaginable glamour (at least in theory, on the pages of newspapers and magazines), in castles and palaces, with carriages, servants, jewels and other luxuries. Perhaps most appealing of all to those following their lives in the press, they lived a life of permanent leisure. If the earlier Victorian period had struggled with the moral implications of leisure (and how it might be differentiated from idleness, which in the more religious times of the mid-19thC was of course a sin), then the late 19thC had fully resolved that struggle in favour of leisure as something to enjoyed at every opportunity. This could be seen in the rise of music halls, department stores, day-trip tourism and of course the media itself, which were all forms of entertainment which required leisure-time to enjoy. The reality for most people however was that their opportunities for leisure were still extremely limited. The majority of the population left school by 14 at the latest, the working week was typically still 6½ days, paid holidays were unusual, and the old age pension wasn’t introduced until 1909, so even retirement wasn’t a common experience. So fin-de-siècle culture was saturated with leisure activities which most people had a very limited chance to enjoy. The aristocracy’s life of total leisure, only emphasised by the ways they invented to fill it – moving from their country estate to their town-house and then on to the south of France according to the season, and attending court, country house parties, racing meets, grouse shooting or regattas as they went, all the while changing their clothes several times a day – was therefore a source of fascination in itself to over-worked readers of the popular press.

Women’s magazines and society papers, not surprisingly, were the most avid reporters of aristocratic celebrity. In Ireland, these included Lady of the House and Irish Society, among others. The two papers were different from each other in many respects – Lady of the House was more firmly positioned as a women’s magazine, and one which often expressed quite progressive social views, as well as catering to a slightly broader readership. Irish Society’s name probably speaks for itself – it focused entirely upon the activities and interests of the social elite, although it would have been read more broadly too, and that broader readership would have been specifically attracted by the high society lifestyles and individuals it reported on. Both magazines participated in the use of the aristocracy as proto-celebrities however, devoting considerable column inches to news of their lifestyles, fashions and travels. Although the activities of British (and even sometimes continental European) royalty and aristocrats featured fairly regularly, the Irish press tended to give much more attention to Irish aristocrats and the other upper-classes, with much of the narrative centring around the social life of Dublin Castle. In February 1903, for example, Lady of the House reported on the opening of that year’s ‘season’, which always began with the presentation of debutantes at the Castle. Under the headline ‘The First Dublin Drawing Room of the Season’, they printed a double-page photo spread of debutantes in their regulation white ball gowns. In the same issue there were reports of some of the ancillary social events of the season, including the information that ‘Mrs Garrett-Walker gave a ball at her residence, 38 Fitzwilliam Square. She is a daughter of Canon Leeper.’ Often there were minute descriptions of the precise gowns and jewels worn by each of the most important guests at these parties, along with general fashion commentary such as ‘The old-fashioned cut-work, which formed such an important Irish industry during the 1850s, is once more a la mode, and placed more prominently en evidence than of yore’. As the season wore on, and high society marriages were arranged, magazines such as Lady of the House and Irish Society covered those too. In January 1902, Irish Society informed its readers that ‘Miss Kathleen Blake Squires, youngest daughter of Mr WA Squires, of 61 Dartmouth Square, was married on Thursday last, the 2nd, to the Rev FC Day-Lewis, BA, senior curate of Stradbally, Queen’s County…’. As well as these local (and less illustrious) announcements, the magazine concerned itself too with events in the very highest circles, such as its announcement in the same issue that the Marquis of Bute was expected to come into his fortune (estimated at £6m, an immense figure) in that year.

Castle Season

Although publications which gave importance to high society would have actively monitored events such as the presentation of debutantes at the Castle court, it is worth noting that most of the information they published giving details of private parties or engagements and marriages – let alone formal photographs of debutantes and socialites in ball gowns – were supplied to the editors by the subjects themselves. Not that long before the end of the 19thC, the upper echelons of Irish (and British) society would have resisted publicity of this kind, especially for women, and seen it as a severe failing of etiquette and good breeding, but by the start of the 20thC it was becoming increasingly common for members of the upper class to be profiled in magazines, or even to endorse specific products in advertising. In women’s magazines in particular, profiles of and interviews with ‘notable women’ were a regular and popular feature. For example Lady of the House opened the new century with a series of aristocratic profiles under the remarkable title ‘Some Men’s Wives’, and just a few years later in 1904 produced an article on ‘The Ladies of the Guinness Family’, lavishly illustrated with photographs of Lady Gwendoline, Lady Evelyn and the Hon Mrs Ernest Guinness, all of whom frequently appeared in press as a result of their social position and philanthropic activities. Indeed, the increased public profile of many upper-class women by the turn of the 20thC was often predicated on their involvement in heavily-publicised charity events to raise money for good causes – another aspect of contemporary celebrity culture which can be traced to this era. In the 1890s a series of grand-scale ‘charity bazaars’ were held in Dublin in order to raise money for a range of hospitals in the city. These were lavish affairs (mainly held at the RDS) with music, performances, cafes and above all else, stage-set ‘villages’ in which each house was a stall selling souvenirs and goods, all of which were managed and staffed by society girls in full costume. Of these the most famous is the ‘Araby’ bazaar held in 1894 and immortalised in James Joyce’s story of that name. Staged over a week and attended by 80,000 people, ‘Araby’ was a significant popular event in the city from numerous perspectives, but at the time there is no doubt that most of the enormous free publicity it received from magazines such as Lady of the House was a result of its very public display of marriageable young women from the upper-middle-classes and aristocracy. The magazine covered ‘Araby’ obsessively, profiling each stall and its ‘lady stallholders’ in the run-up to the bazaar’s opening, and afterwards published many photographs of them in costume. Given that ‘Araby’ attracted a great many members of the public to buy tickets and attend it, it is not surprising that the press was able to use the bazaar’s proto-celebrity society girls to sell magazine copies.

Interviews with well-known women were also common in both women’s magazines and society papers. In 1902 Irish Society published a series of interviews collectively titled ‘Gentlewomen at Home’, including one with Lady Nixon, who was the wife of Sir Christopher Nixon, then the president of the Royal College of Physicians. Defined primarily by her husband, Lady Nixon was nevertheless interviewed also as the mistress of her grand home at 2 Merrion Square, and praised for her roles as a hostess, mother and philanthropist, the interview mentioning in some detail the charities whose committees she was a member of. An interviewee such as Lady Nixon was beyond reproach as a paragon of upper-class femininity, but many magazine interviews with ‘notable women’ were keen to emphasise their ladylike qualities – all the more so if the women were active beyond the domestic sphere. This tension, between the need to create a public profile for aristocratic women in order to mobilise their celebrity for sales, and the competing concern that publicity and a public life might undermine their respectable femininity, became more and more visible as the years went by and the categories of female celebrity expanded beyond the real aristocracy, whose rank alone provided considerable protection to their reputations.

As a result of this, many interviews with and profiles of famous women worked hard to emphasise their domesticity and traditional femininity. Subjects were typically interviewed in their own homes during ‘afternoon tea’, which prompted the commonly recurring headline for female celebrity interviews, ‘Over the Teacups’, a phrase used for decades by many different magazines to conjure a cosy domestic tone. These highly-staged domestic interviews not only worked to underline their subjects’ femininity, but also allowed readers a pleasing glimpse into their homes. This concern about the effect of a public life upon the private reputation of female celebrities was especially evident in 1892 when Lady of the House included Maude Gonne in a society news column called ‘What Women Are Doing’ and added rather anxiously that, ‘Whatever may be said against Miss Gonne’s politics and methods…no man or woman can otherwise breathe a word against her…she has never been known for a moment to lose or jeopardise her self-respect as a woman’.

As time went on, the categories of women profiled and interviewed in women’s magazines expanded to include more and more non-aristocrats. As women began (very gradually) to enter higher education and the professions, relatively progressive magazines like Lady of the House began to profile some of them, and interviews ‘over the teacups’ appeared with ‘lady graduates’ and ‘lady doctors’. Stage performers such as Lillie Langtry or Nellie Melba also achieved a very modern form of celebrity in the pages of popular magazines, as their glamorous lives were profiled and ever-more photographed. Famed now for their beauty, talent and lifestyles rather than for their birth and breeding, they slowly began to edge out the aristocratic celebrities, a process which was rapidly accelerated by the arrival of film as the dominant leisure culture which would create ‘stars’ of actresses who no longer needed to emphasise their domesticity or traditional femininity. New publications dedicated to film star news, photographs and gossip had begun to emerge by the end of World War One, the forerunners of today’s magazines dedicated to celebrity culture.

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Ramsay Colles, 1862-1919

After the Christmas festivities of the last post, this one will begin the New Year in an appropriately dyspeptic fashion by focusing on Ramsay Colles. One of the oddest characters of Irish publishing in the early 20thC, Colles is now almost entirely forgotten except when it is (occasionally) recalled that in 1900 he was literally horsewhipped by Arthur Griffith in order to defend the honour of Maud Gonne. This was undoubtedly the most sensational moment of his career in journalism, but it wasn’t entirely out of character for a man who appears to have thrived on conflict.

Ramsay Colles

Ramsay Colles was born in 1862 in Bodh Gaya in India, where his Anglo-Irish father was serving in the Indian Civil Service. However he was brought up in Ireland, and attended Wesley College in Dublin. In 1896 he married Annie Sweeny, who was also a journalist and editor, and who will be the subject of the next blog post here. They had one son, Edmund, in 1898 and lived for some years on Wilton Terrace in Dublin. Like a great many journalists of his generation (including Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, the editor of the Irish Packet) Colles combined journalism with the law, having qualified and practised as a barrister. It’s hard to determine exactly how wealthy Colles was – his background and some aspects of his life strongly imply a private income, but just how much is unknown, and both the length and variety of his career in journalism and publishing suggests that he may have needed to earn money to supplement his inherited wealth. His politics are a great deal easier to determine however – Colles was a hard-line Tory, who loathed every aspect of Liberalism, the Home Rule movement, the literary revival (and all figures associated with it), the Irish language, public libraries, Dublin Corporation, and most of modern life in general.

By 1896 he was working as a journalist for the Dublin Daily Express – and although he was already 34 by then, this may have been his first journalism work, because it was not until that year that he joined the Institute of Journalists, a London-based organisation founded in the 1880s as a forerunner to the National Union of Journalists, and which had many Irish members prior to Independence. Colles worked for the Express for just two years, however, before moving on to edit the Irish Figaro – a society and cultural review paper he had bought earlier in the decade and with which he and later his wife Annie would be associated for several years. The Figaro had begun in 1892 as Irish Life, changing its name after just one issue to the Dublin Figaro, before changing again to Irish Figaro in 1895. In 1901 it became the Figaro and Irish Gentlewoman for its remaining years (it appears to have ended sometime in or around 1904). If this seems a rather chaotic number of name changes for a publication which only lasted just over a decade, this was fairly in keeping with Colles’ general editorial tone and style, which was distinctly less than professional on occasion.

The Figaro was a weekly society paper costing one penny, which published theatre and musical reviews (Colles appears to have been a genuinely enthusiastic supporter of popular theatre and music in Dublin), reports on high society events and marriage announcements, and other occasional columns, for while including a women’s column called (appallingly) ‘Topicalities Femina’. It always contained numerous advertisements, typically for major food and household brands as well as a wide range of up-market Dublin businesses, such as department stores, restaurants and hotels. The Figaro has also been identified as the publisher of advertisements for the real Alexander Keyes, whose fictional advertisement designs Leopold Bloom is working on during the course of Ulysses. However, many of its 16 weekly pages were taken up with a long, wide-ranging and typically splenetic editorial column entitled ‘Entre Nous’ (Colles appears to have had a genius for awful column titles). These editorials were, throughout the paper’s existence, signed by ‘Sydney Brooks’. However it is most likely that this was a pseudonym, and that Colles not only wrote the editorials, but was widely understood to do so by the Figaro’s readers. Not only is the writing style very similar to that of his memoir, In Castle and Court House: Being Reminiscences of 30 Years in Ireland (1911), but more importantly he was frequently identified as being the Figaro’s editor in the various legal cases he was involved in.

The most sensational of these cases – and the only reason Colles’ name is ever remembered these days – were in the aftermath of Arthur Griffith bursting into the Figaro’s offices in 1900 and literally horsewhipping Colles in defence of Maud Gonne’s nationalist good name. The Figaro had just published an article claiming that Gonne was in receipt of a British Army pension inherited from her father, and was therefore a hypocrite for being actively involved in opposing a British Army recruitment campaign for Irishmen to fight in the Boer War.   Rather disappointingly, Griffith only appears to have inflicted damage to Colles hat (and presumably his dignity), but he was nevertheless prosecuted for assault (a charge he did not contest), fined one pound and bound over to keep the peace. Immediately after this however, Maud Gonne sued the Figaro for libel, a case which Colles settled (by issuing a formal apology to Gonne) some way into a trial which was being gleefully reported by the press. Both protagonists returned to this incident in their later memoirs. For his part, Colles claimed that he had evidence to prove the truth of his story about Gonne’s military pension, but did not produce it because his source had been the John Mallon, the Assistant Commissioner of Police, and to have revealed this in court would have been too politically-sensitive – although he did not explain why, only a decade later, he now felt free to share this information in his memoir. Even more remarkably, he also claimed that Gonne had only sued him at all because she was suspected by Michael Davitt of being a British double-agent and (it was implied) may therefore have been in fear for her own safety. Gonne, on the other hand, claimed in her 1938 memoir A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences, that not only was the Figaro ‘…a little rag….subsidised by Dublin Castle’ but also that Colles’ barrister had later admitted to her that his legal costs in the libel case were paid by the Castle (in his own memoir, Colles ambiguously describes them as having been met by a subscription list contributed to by ‘friends’). Gonne provides no evidence for her claim about the Figaro’s subsidy from the Castle (and it is made well after Colles’ own death), so it is impossible to determine its accuracy. To put it mildly, neither Colles nor Gonne was a trustworthy source about the other, but Gonne’s allegation is certainly not impossible to believe – and it would help to explain how the Figaro could afford to publish a weekly paper on good quality paper and with frequent photographs for only a penny, when the other penny weeklies (such as the Irish Packet) were published using the very cheapest paper with few illustrations and certainly no photographs.

Throughout the 1900 libel trial however, Colles was consistently identified in court as being both the proprietor and editor of the Figaro, meaning that the regularly apoplectic six-page editorials produced on a weekly basis were his own work. These ranged widely in topic, apparently governed purely by Colles’ grievances of the week, and only leavened by regular theatrical and musical reviews of performances taking place at the Gaiety or Queen’s theatres. Each instalment of ‘Entre Nous’ was headed by the rather aggressive statement that ‘Any of my readers who disagree with any statements which appear in Irish Figaro are invited to correspond with the Editor’. Colles’ own disagreements with daily life in Ireland ranged far and wide. The key figures of the Literary Revival and the Abbey Theatre (especially WB Yeats and George Moore, who he once called ‘puff-created mushroom men’) were the individuals most frequently attacked – sometimes it has to be admitted with a certain degree of comic effect. He described Yeats as ‘an utter literary fraud’ whose work had ‘an utter lack of sense’, and once quoted the music critic John F Runciman’s assessment of Yeats’ distinctive system of ‘singing’ poetry, ‘Having superfluously stated that he [Yeats] knew nothing of music, he proceeded to reveal his new musical art…and I have scarcely yet recovered from my extreme surprise’. On another occasion a Figaro editorial expressed regret at the news that George Moore was not learning Irish (an enterprise Colles generally disapproved of) because ‘readers would be much benefitted if Mr Moore betook himself to learning Irish and wrote in future exclusively in that language and ceased to sully the English tongue with his filthy tales’. If figures such as Yeats and Moore were frequently the subject of derogatory remarks in Figaro editorials, Colles’ expressed views on broader social issues could be even more aggressive. In 1900 he felt that the Poor Law Guardians in Dublin were being far too generous to the city’s poor, commenting nostalgically that ‘The old idea was merely to give shelter and food to the destitute, and neither in too pleasant a form, in order not to encourage idleness’. He was predictably opposed as well to the Land Acts, arguing that, ‘Leaving aside the very great doubt whether your peasant-proprietor, when you have got him, could be made a flourishing and contented citizen, purchase means the exodus of the upper class from the country’.

Colles was an active member of the Freemasons in Dublin, and in 1900 he established a periodical specifically for the organisation in Ireland, called Irish Masonry Illustrated. It isn’t clear how long this ran – only a couple of years’ worth of issues are extant in the National Library of Ireland, and it may well only have been in publication for a short time. Colles mentions the magazine with some pride in his memoir, but does not indicate how many issues were published. In what may have been a unique combination of interests, he mixed his enthusiasm for Freemasonry with an interest in Buddhism – according to his memoir this was inspired by knowing he had been born at one of its most important shrines in India, and it led to his becoming the official Irish representative of the Maha-Bodhi Society in Ireland in 1901 (and indeed he is listed as such in Thom’s Directory for several years).

In January 1901 he formally transferred the editorship (and possibly ownership) of the Figaro over to his wife Annie, who continued to publish it until it ceased publication sometime around 1904, by which time Ramsay Colles himself was living in London, where he appears to have remained until his death in 1919. In fact one interpretation of the information available about his life and career after 1901 is that he and Annie may have been unofficially separated, because she remained in Dublin until after his death, and there is no indication that they lived together after 1904 at the latest. In the 1911 Irish census, for example, his name does not appear at the family home in Morehampton Terrace and Annie Colles is described as being the ‘head of household’. This is a speculative interpretation, but such arrangements were not unusual as a solution to marital breakdown (especially for people of their social class, who had the resources to live separately) and it would explain why they do not appear to have lived together for the final 15 years of Colles’ life.

After his move to London, Colles continued to work as a periodical editor (and proprietor) for a number of years. Given his rather splenetic editorial tone, it is slightly surprising that he appears to have specialised in editing women’s magazines. In 1904 he founded and ran Chic: A high-class ladies’ illustrated paper, (which was wound up owing its printers money) and then from 1905-1910 he edited another London women’s magazine called Madame, which described itself in a publishing trade journal as ‘an illustrated magazine, devoted to the interests of women, containing articles, stories and social news’. He also published several literary and historical books during his later years – editing both The Poems of Thomas Lovell Beddoes in 1907 and The Complete Poetical Works of George Darley in 1908, before publishing The History of Ulster from Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1919, the year of his death.

Colles was only 57 when he died in London in February 1919. He received brief obituaries in the Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent, but in both cases this was largely in order to recall his confrontation with Arthur Griffith and court case against Maud Gonne. He was only ever a minor figure in Irish journalism, if undoubtedly a colourful one. A century later, he remains difficult to fully understand – a belligerent Tory and Freemason, fulminating against perceived liberal outrages as varied as Home Rule, the Irish language and public libraries, he was also fascinated by Buddhism and spent much of his career writing and editing ladies’ magazines. And despite the likelihood that he and his wife lived separately for much of their marriage, he does seem to have been actively supportive of her journalism career, a surprise in itself from someone of his deeply conservative social and political views. Her career was also varied and sometimes colourful, and needs its own post, which will appear here very shortly.

References

Ramsay Colles, In Castle and Court House: Being Reminiscences of 30 Years in Ireland (London: T Werner Laurie, 1911).

Maud Gonne, A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences (London: Gollancnz, 1938).

Mary Power, ‘Without Crossed Keys: Alexander Keyes’s Advertisement and The Irish Figaro’, James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3/ 4, 1995, pp. 701-706.