Jan/Feb 2003 Book Reviews

Banvard's Folly

Paul Collins
Picador Press 283 pages
ISBN: 0 330 48689 6

reviewed by David Skea

I can understand why Paul Collins had difficulty in finding a publisher for this book. He tells thirteen stories about people whom once made a mark on society and then for various reasons were forgotten. So, who were these folk he writes about? What did they do? Well, some were artists, some writers, others showmen, scientists, horticulturists, forgers or tricksters. All in their time were well known, some exceptionally so, and all, for various reasons, have passed out of history's ken.

There's the story of John Banvard (1815-91), perhaps the first artist to become a millionaire in his own lifetime. In the 1840's he explored the Mississippi River, and then he sketched and painted a "three mile" panorama of it which he exhibited as a moving panorama with commentary and piano accompaniment: a two to three hour performance and a sort of early cinema. He made a fortune and retired to Long Island, NY, where he built a replica of Windsor Castle (Banvard's Folly) and could have lived in comfort for the rest of his life. But he didn't (you'll have to read the book to find out why).

There's the story of William Ireland (b 1775), who started out life as muddle-headed boy unable to apply himself to anything. He was sent home from one school with a note saying that "he was too stupid to be taught and to collect any further tuition fees was little better than robbing his father of his money." His father eventually prevailed upon a lawyer friend to take him on as a clerk. His duties were not onerous, and in his spare time he turned to forgery. Not that he tried to embezzle or steal. No, he "found," for his father's collection of old manuscripts, documents signed by William Shakespeare and then two lost plays, Vortigern and Henry II. There was even one performance of Vortigern put on at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.

Then there's John Symmes (1780-1829), who thought that the Earth was made up of concentric spheres each inhabited by beings and all accessible via holes at the north and south poles. And Professor René Blondlot, who became famous for the discovery of N-rays in 1903 only to have the whole house of cards fall in a year later. There's François Sudre (d.1862), who invented a universal language, Solresol, based on musical notes. And Ephraim Bull (1806-95), who bred the first Concorde grapes only to have more commercially-minded entrepreneurs make their fortune while he gained nothing.

A story I particularly liked concerns Scottish born Thomas Dick (1774-1857), who believed that every celestial body was inhabited. In 1835 the New York Sun reported that Sir John Herschel had set up an immense telescope in South Africa and could detect life on the moon—initially a field of poppies and then animals and finally "a sort of people." Alas, it was all a hoax created by a brash young British expatriate Richard Locke, who found the works of Dick and his ilk, then being reprinted in the US, too tempting to pass up. It is stated that Dick was "unamused."

The saddest story in the book concerns Delia Bacon (1811-1887), who in about 1845 became convinced that Shakespeare could not have written the many works attributed to him. She spent the rest of her life trying to prove this, herself impoverished and finally gone mad, ending her days in an asylum.

Thirteen stories in all: thirteen ghosts briefly resurrected and their achievements again put on display. Perhaps what intrigues is the fact that someone, somewhere, cared enough to find out and follow up these old stories and to give, once more, a moments glory to a few that the world once knew and now has forgotten. No matter, I read them all.


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