Many of these Victorian souvenirs, which are only decorated on the front so they can sit on a mantelpiece were on display at Hove Museum this year.
They were usually of famous and sometimes infamous people in the Victoria era who we would now call stars or celebrities. The hearth, the centre of the home, provided an ideal space for the flatback as a conversation piece inspiring discussion and fascination among family and visitors alike.
Novelty and dramas to entertain the family
In the museum’s collection we also have some flatbacks, not necessarily associated with specific iconic individuals or events but still full of novelty or amusement, sure to arouse interest and discussion today.
The large figure group entitled ‘Courting under Difficulties’, c1840 portrays an amusing scene of a would-be lover climbing up the wall to embrace a woman through an open window. Both seem oblivious to the angry father standing below with a pitchfork, ready to preserve his daughter’s honour and prevent any elopement.
One can only imagine the sorts of family conversations and stories that may have gone on using the piece as a moralising lesson.
Another intriguing Victorian figure group shows a man wrestling with a grey lion. Whilst previously identified as various lion trainers performing during the later nineteenth century, the identity of the man is now believed to be Samson. According to the Bible Samson was blessed with immense strength, and once ripped apart a lion with his bare hands. Whilst the colour of the lion introduces an element of fantasy, the figure appears to be succeeding in opening the jaws of the lion with his hands, so his strength cannot be disputed.
Lion-taming was not a common profession and I imagine was unlikely to be encouraged by families. Regardless, some women did perform with lions despite the inherent peril. One such performer Nellie Chapman performed her act with a tiger and lion in front of Queen Victoria in 1847, shocking the Queen with her flagrant disregard for danger. Possibly intoxicated with the excitement of having a royal audience, she inserted her head into the jaws of the ‘noble’ lion Wallace in a mesmerising finale. Although she survived her successor Ellen Bright, known as ‘The Lion Queen’ made a fatal mistake one day, rapping the tiger on its nose. On turning her back the tiger mauled her to death, and consequently ladies were forbidden by law to become lion-tamers.
So, these are some of the Staffordshire flatbacks on display at Hove Museum. Although many speak of the heroes and icons of the day, they also remind us of the everyday and the ordinary. It is the people who bought, kept, displayed and enjoyed them that enabled this particular type of celebrity culture to flourish.
Follow our Cultural Icons series as we explore some of these fascinating flatbacks and discover of these early celebrities.
Cecilia Kendall, Curator, Collections Projects