Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Tom Taylor, dramatist, editor of Punch

NPG Ax7534; Tom Taylor by Southwell Brothers

by Southwell Brothers, albumen carte-de-visite, 1863

I was intrigued to learn that the house opposite ours, at 84 Lavender Sweep, contains a fanlight over the door which came from the demolition in 1880 of the house which had been owned by Tom Taylor and it had been called Lavender Sweep. Tom Taylor had quite a CV. He was a playwright, critic, editor of Punch, Professor of English Literature at London University, a barrister, a civil servant and friend to many writers and theatrical people who visited him in Lavender Sweep.  He was busy man.

I don’t think this house will get a blue plaque but nevertheless we should remember Tom Taylor, his connection to Battersea and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which I tell any visitors to our house.

 

Probably his most famous play was Our American Cousin being the play Abraham Lincoln was watching the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre, Washington D.C by  actor and Confederate  sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14th 1865. He also injured Major Rathbone who had accompanied the President and his wife.

Taylor, who previously satirised Lincoln in PUNCH wrote a poem  about the assassination  in tribute to him.

Abraham Lincoln foully assassinated

You lay a wreath on a murdered Lincoln’s bier,
You, who with mocking pencil wont to trace,
Broad for the self-complacent British sneer,
His length of shambling limb, his furrowed face,

His gaunt, gnarled hands, his unkempt, bristling hair,
His garb uncouth, his bearing ill at ease,
His lack of all we prize as debonair,
Of power or will to shine, of art to please;

You, whose smart pen backed up the pencil’s laugh,
Judging each step as though the way were plain;
Reckless, so it could point its paragraph
Of chief’s perplexity, or people’s pain:

Beside this corpse, that bears for winding-sheet
The Stars and Stripes he lived to rear anew,
Between the mourners at his head and feet,
Say, scurrile jester, is there room for you?

Yes: he had lived to shame me from my sneer,
To lame my pencil, and confute my pen; —
To make me own this hind of princes peer,
This rail-splitter a true-born king of men.

My shallow judgement I had learned to rue,
Noting how to occasion’s height he rose;
How his quaint wit made home-truth seem more true;
How, iron-like, his temper grew by blows.

How humble, yet how hopeful he could be:
How in good fortune and in ill, the same:
Nor bitter in success, nor boastful he,
Thirsty for gold, nor feverish for fame.

He went about his work, — such work as few
ever had laid on head and heart and hand, —
As one who knows, where there’s a task to do,
Man’s honest will must Heaven’s good grace command;

Who trusts the strength will with the burden grow,
That God makes instruments to work his will,
If but that will we can arrive to know,
Nor tamper with the weights of good and ill.

So he went forth to battle, on the side
That he felt clear was Liberty’s and Right’s,
As in his peasant boyhood he had plied
His warfare with rude Nature’s thwarting mights,—

The uncleared forest, the unbroken soil,
The iron-bark, that turns the lumberer’s axe,
The rapid, that o’erbears the boatman’s toil,
The prairie, hiding the mazed wanderer’s tracks,

The ambushed Indian, and the prowling bear; —
Such were the deeds that helped his youth to train:
Rough culture, — but such trees large fruit may bear,
If but their stocks be of right girth and grain.

So he grew up, a destined work to do,
And lived to do it: four long-suffering years’
Ill-fate, ill-feeling, ill-report, lived through,
And then he heard the hisses change to cheers,

The taunts to tribute, the abuse to praise,
And took both with the same unwavering mood:
Till, as he came on light, from darkling days,
And seemed to touch the goal from where he stood,

A felon hand, between the goal and him,
Reached from behind his back, a trigger prest,—
And those perplexed and patient eyes were dim,
Those gaunt, long-laboring limbs were laid to rest!

The words of mercy were upon his lips,
Forgiveness in his heart and on his pen,
When this vile murderer brought swift eclipse
To thoughts of peace on earth, good-will to men.

The Old World and the New, from sea to sea,
Utter one voice of sympathy and shame!
Sore heart, so stopped when it at last beat high;
Sad life, cut short just as its triumph came.

A deed accurst! Strokes have been struck before
By the assassin’s hand, whereof men doubt
If more of horror or disgrace they bore;
But thy foul crime, like Cain’s, stands darkly out.

Vile hand, that brandest murder on a strife,
Whate’er its grounds, stoutly and nobly striven;
And with the martyr’s crown crownest a life
With much to praise, little to be forgiven.

NPG Ax30385; Tom Taylor by John & Charles Watkins

Tom Taylor 1864 by John and Charles Watkins

TAYLOR, TOM (1817–1880), dramatist and editor of ‘Punch,’ was born at Bishop-Wearmouth, a suburb of Sunderland, on 19 Oct. 1817. His father, Thomas Taylor  was self-educated, having begun life in early boyhood as a labourer on a small farm in Cumberland. By thrift, industry, and intelligence he became  head partner in a flourishing brewery firm at Durham, and, on that city being incorporated, was one in the first batch of aldermen in the new municipality. Tom Taylor’s mother (1784–1858), though born in Durham, was of German origin.

Tom was educated first at Grange school in Sunderland, and afterwards at the university of Glasgow, where he carried off three gold medals. Finally, in 1837, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. There he graduated B.A. in 1840 as junior optime in mathematics and in the first class of the classical tripos. In 1842 he was elected a fellow of Trinity, and proceeded M.A. in 1843. For the next two years Taylor pursued the career of a ‘coach’ at Cambridge, and met with great success. In the interests of his younger brothers he declined the ample annual allowance hitherto placed at his command by his father, and resolved thenceforth to support himself on his fees as tutor and upon the income of his fellowship.

During 1842, Taylor, together with his Cambridge friends Frederick Ponsonby who was Earl of Bessborough. (Fred Ponsonby, a Battersea Labour Party member was the fourth Baron but is now a life peer. He sings with the Festival Chorus that Dave sings in), Charles G. Taylor and William Bolland, formed the Old Stagers, which is recognised as the oldest amateur drama society still performing.

tom-taylor-editor-punch

Taylor left Cambridge and in 1845 was appointed professor of English literature and the English language in the London University. He held the post for two years. Meanwhile, having kept his terms as a law student at the Inner Temple, he was called to the bar in  November 1846. For a while he went the northern circuit. But a new opening was offered him in 1850, when, consequent on the passing of the Public Health Act, the board of health was called into existence, and Taylor was appointed assistant secretary under the presidency of Sir Benjamin Hall.

He married,  Laura, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Barker, vicar of Thirkleby in Yorkshire on 19 June 1855. Mrs. Tom Taylor, a skilled musical composer, contributed the original overture and entr’acte to her husband’s ‘Joan of Arc. They had two children Lucy and Wycliffe, who became an artist.

In August 1854 he was promoted to the position of secretary. When the board of health was absorbed in the local government board his post became that of secretary to the sanitary department. He eventually retired 1871, when his office was abolished.

But Taylor owed his fame and the greater part of his income to other occupations. From his first settling in London he had engaged in journalism working on the ‘Morning Chronicle’ and the ‘Daily News’ as a leader-writer. He had also started his lifelong connection with ‘Punch,’ and until 1874 he was an active member of the staff becoming editor in that year he succeeded Shirley Brooks as editor, and he held that office till his death six years later.

 

tom_taylor_by_spy_in_vanity_fair_1876

Caricature of Tom Taylor by Sir Leslie Ward

In art criticism Taylor also made some mark, and for many years was art critic for the ‘Times’ and the ‘Graphic.’ He numbered C. R. Leslie, W. P. Frith, and other artists among his closest friends, and among his miscellaneous works was a valuable biography of Benjamin Robert Haydon . He also edited ‘Charles Robert Leslie’s Autobiographical Recollections’, completed Leslie’s ‘Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ and edited as ‘Pen Sketches by a Vanished Hand’ (1879) the essays of his friend Mortimer Collins. He had already translated ‘Ballads and Songs of Brittany’ from the Barsaz-Breiz of Hersart de la Villemarqué, and in 1874 he published an entertaining volume called ‘Leicester Square: its Associations and its Worthies’ .

NPG x18489; The Green Room by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company

The Green Room cast signed copy. Tom is seated right.

Taylor, however, found his true vocation as a playwright. From his early boyhood he had written and acted plays, and as soon as he settled in London he worked assiduously for the theatre. A self-confessed populist, his intention was to create plays his audiences would enjoy, and many of his works were adaptations of existing French plays, or dramatisations of the novels of Charles Dickens or other popular novels of the time. He was also a prolific writer of dramatic works and in thirty-five years he supplied more than seventy plays to the principal theatres of London. His mastery of stage-craft was great, and many of his pieces still keep the boards; but he lacked dramatic genius or commanding power of expression.Taylor was fond of theatrical life in all its aspects. He played several parts as an actor, and is said to have been successful as Adam in a performance of ‘As you like it’ at Manchester.

The first piece of Taylor’s that signally attracted the public was ‘To Parents and Guardians,’ a farce at the Lyceum.  ‘The Fool’s Revenge,’ an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi s’amuse,’ ‘’Twixt Axe and Crown,’  ‘Joan of Arc’ ,‘Lady Clancarty,’ and ‘Anne Boleyn,’ which was produced at the Haymarket in March 1875, and was Taylor’s penultimate piece and only complete failure. Other successful plays by Taylor ‘Diogenes and his Lantern’, ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ , ‘The Philosopher’s Stone.’, ‘Our Clerks’, ‘Wittikind and his Brothers,’ ‘Plot and Passion’  ‘A Nice Firm’,‘Two Loves and a Life,’ in conjunction with Charles Reade,‘The King’s Rival.’  ‘Helping Hands’, ‘Retribution,’ from Bernard’s ‘Loi du Talion’,’Going to the Bad’ . ‘Barefaced Impostors’, ‘Nine Points of the Law,’ ‘Up at the Hills’, ‘The Babes in the Wood’  ‘Sense and Sensation’ , ‘Henry Dunbar,’ ‘The Sister’s Penance’  ‘The Hidden Hand’,‘Settling Day’  A collection of his early pieces appeared in 1854. He published a collected edition of his historical dramas in 1877.

tom-taylor-editor-punch

Photograph taken By Lewis Carroll

Much of his archive material is now housed in the V and A collection thanks to Jack Reading (1916-2004)  who pursued an interest in theatre and theatre history. It includes original working drafts and final drafts of play-texts, notebooks, sketchbooks, images and scrapbooks and personal ephemera. Jack was a founder member of the Society for Theatre Research and the International Federation for Theatre Research and helped to spearhead a campaign for the establishment of a Theatre Museum in the UK and later became a trustee of the Theatre Museum Association.

Tom Taylor’s home which he had built was one of four grand houses between Lavender Hill and  Battersea Rise.Among his friends and visitors to Lavender Sweep were Dickens, Thackeray, Henry Irving and Lewis Carroll , who took a number of photographs of the house.Ellen Terry, who was another of the many visitors to the house, ‘to us he was more than this he was an institution‘. In her autobigraphy she said ‘it clearly became the home from home for the people from all the walks of literary, artistic and theatrical life that Taylor was part of”. 

ellenterry

Ellen Terry

Lavender Sweep was a sort of house of call for everone of note…At Lavender Sweep, with the horse-chestnut blossoms strewing the drive and making it look like a tessellated pavement, all of us were always welcome…Such intimate friendships are seldom possible in our busy profession, and there was never another Tom Taylor in my life….The atmosphere of gaity which pervaded Lavender Sweep arose from his kindly, generous nature, which insisted that everyone could have a good time….I have already said that the Taylor’s home was one of the most softening and cultural influences of my early life…his house was a kind of mecca for  pilgrims from America and from all parts of the world….. Yet all the time occupied a position in the Home Office and often walked from Whitehall to Lavender Sweep when his day’s work was done….lavender is still associated in my mind with everything that is lovely and refined. My mother nearly always wore the colour and the Taylor’s lived at Lavender Sweep.This may not be an excellent reason for my feelings on the subject, but it is reason good enough.   

Taylor died at his home Lavender Sweep on 12 July 1880.That was when Lavender Sweep and surrounding roads were developed.

Laura died in March 1905 and had gone to live in Porch House Coleshill Berkshire with Lucy and two servants, Barbara Nugent and Jane Elizabeth Blake, both of whom had worked for the Taylors in London before the family moved to Coleshill. Lucy Taylor died in 1940. Apparently, in 1962 Mary Ure, who had been married to playwright John Osborne, lived here with her second husband actor Robert Shaw where they entertained their theatrical friends. A nice bit of serendipity.

porch-house-1962

Porch House Coleshill where Laura and Lucy Taylor lived after Tom died

porch-house-laura-and-lucy-taylor

Laura and Lucy Taylor at Porch House

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2 Responses

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  1. bitofanactor said, on May 23, 2017 at 12:45 am

    Great to find someone who is apparently even better acquainted with my great great grandfather than I or other members of my family. Have never seen some of these pictures before. Thanks.

  2. Jeanne Rathbone said, on May 24, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    It is always gratifying when you get a response to a post, especially if it is the great, great grandson of the fascinating, multi-tasking Tom Taylor, civil servant, barrister, playwright Punch editor, poet, charming host and resident of the house Lavender Sweep.
    I do hope that Rupert, actor and playwright, stages Our American Cousin in Ireland where he now lives or does a show about his illustrious forebear.


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