Vulcana, La Milo and the Miniature Lady Hercules

Vulcana (Figure 18.1), with support from her trainer, publicist, stage ‘brother’ and common-law husband ‘Atlas’, alias William Hedley Roberts (1864-1946), wove these four traditions together. There is no evidence to suggest that Vulcana was especially elegant in her movements, but in the emerging mass entertainment industry, she still followed Hamilton and Duncan by elevating her artform as belonging less to the world of gritty corporality consisting of muscle, sawdust and animal sexual attraction than to ethereal realms of marble, beauty and the sublime. By referring to the classical world, via name, costume and poses, she pitched herself and her performance in that large and profitable sweet spot of mainstream culture between the unappealing poles of crass triviality and elitist prudery. To achieve and maintain success in the bawdy but conservative 19th-and early 20th-century music hall, a strongwoman act like Vulcana’s could not afford to risk displays of excessive eroticism or brute strength, although both were more than welcome in moderation. The façade of Greekness tended to reassure audiences that what they were watching was more or less ‘serious art’, and therefore culturally and morally valid, as well as being ‘just good fun’.

Like Sandow, Vulcana learned to market herself (with Roberts’s guidance) as a figure of beautiful perfection and strength, rather than simply appearing either excessively strong or naturally beautiful, both of which extremes could all too easily slide into vulgarity or austerity. For women, it was even more important than it was for men to perform their miraculous feats of strength without

Vulcana in pose similar to ‘Dying Gaul’, reproduced by courtesy of Jane Hunt. Courtesy ofVulcana’s great granddaughter,Jane Hunt—

FIGURE 18.1 Vulcana in pose similar to ‘Dying Gaul’, reproduced by courtesy of Jane Hunt. Courtesy ofVulcana’s great granddaughter,Jane Hunt—

showing the signs of exertion which would risk appearing either proletarian or unfeminine. The male Sandow, who at all times affected the gentleman, had been known to perspire in an unnaturally hot auditorium, but never simply because he was bent pressing a horse." This was to ensure he passed as a gentleman, but for a strength athlete to pass as a lady was far more difficult. According to the heteronormative standards of the time, a female with developed musculature was quite as transgressive and challenging to morality as the muscle man’s appeal to Wildean aesthetes.12

Roberts wrote all Vulcana’s advertisements and press endorsements, including this effusive notice of 1904:

All Ladies should see Vulcana ... the only known woman of absolutely Correct Measurements, who is able to demonstrate to modern times the beautiful proportions of the female form divine as depicted by the Ancients.13

At the turn of the 20th century, many Britons, especially in Nonconformist communities, would have deplored any female flaunting her all-but-naked body on stage. It is in anticipation of the kinds of accusations that were levelled at the more risque purveyors of ‘living statues’ that Roberts has emphasised the scientific (‘correct’, ‘measurements’) and classical (‘divine’, ‘ancients’) aspects of Vulcana’s performance. The publicity calls explicitly to ‘All Ladies’, in an attempt to appeal to a potentially lucrative female audience: Sandow did succeed in attracting ‘a considerable sprinkling of the fair sex’ to his performances.14

Vulcana’s biography is sparse and inconsistent. Her real name was Miriam Katherine Williams (1874-1946). Born in Bristol but bred in Glamorgan, Williams worked alongside Roberts (‘Atlas’). Both on and off the stage they pretended to be siblings, although they were essentially husband and wife. Roberts was married when they met, and a divorce was not an option. When Atlas and Vulcana were not travelling, the whole extended family with children born to both women lived contentedly, it appears, together.1’ We learn from the few newspaper interviews Vulcana gave that she and Atlas were the children of an Aberdare churchman. This is likely to be fiction created by Roberts in order to provide a more respectable and relatable journey to stardom: ‘My father was a clergyman ... a Welsh Baptist of a very pronounced order. But he was an ardent athlete, and I suppose we inherited our athletic tastes from him’.16 Roberts’ real father, when he was not pretending to be Vulcana’s brother, was James Roberts, a Welsh ironmonger and tinplate worker.17 There are conflicting accounts of where Williams spent the 1890s. One has her living with her father, a Baptist priest, in Aberdare, South Wales, and possibly even working in a tannery in Abergavenny.18 But this account is unlikely because it is based on a source that proves Vulcana to be the daughter of the well-known Baptist minister and poet, Robert Ellis Williams (1848-1911), alias ‘Twrfab’, of which we might expect Atlas to have made much in his hyperbolic marketing materials.19 The tannery in Abergaveny would also be too far from her home in Aberdare to be a credible workplace. It is difficult to disentangle fiction and reality, but we can be sure that both Vulcana and Atlas were born into families with, at best, a modest workingclass income; their performances were designed to enable them to break away from their origins, to make money and to see the world.

Roberts set up a gymnasium in Abergavenny in the 1880s. He said in an interview that he had previously been in ‘the shipping trade, and lost £1,000 in it. I thought there might be a chance of recovering myself on the stage’.20 It is true that he had worked in a shop on Cardiff docks,21 but to say that he lost £1,000 makes him sound like a shipping tycoon. Again, Roberts has found a way to appeal to the respectable classes by claiming to have been one of them, whilst engaging his working-class fans by sharing their penury. There is a cross-class appeal in the notion of making, or winning back a fortune by performing feats of strength. At around this time Atlas started performing with his elder sister, Hannah Almira Roberts, as ‘Atlas and Atalanta’. Atalanta was soon to step aside for the beautiful and talented teenager Vulcana, who began training with her brother.

From the beginning Roberts committed to the classical brand. In publicity shots, both Vulcana and Atlas wear gladiator sandals and pose in front of neoclassical architectural features (Figure 18.2). In a photograph titled ‘Vulcana, the Society Athlete’ she wears a ‘Grecian’ costume and shows off her powerful legs (Figure 18.3). These branding tricks were all learned from Eugen Sandow. In the early 1900s Vulcana even put her own stamp on the ‘Dying Gaul’, a pose identified explicitly with Sandow (Figure 18.1, above). To imitate it was a major statement because it is hard to display muscle definition while reclining, as if injured and dying. This was one of Sandow’s greatest assets, because he was not in fact a large man. Vulcana was also the first woman to adopt Sandow’s ‘Tomb of Hercules’ act. Two horses and a handler mounted a large board which was balanced on her shoulders and thighs, as she braced herself in a supine position on her hands (behind her) and feet.

From 1890 Vulcana and Atlas performed in music halls, fairs, vaudeville shows and circuses across Britain, the Continent and the Empire. The music halls in industrial cities were their bread and butter. It was a crowded market-place and they were constantly adapting their act to distinguish themselves from the competition. In the same interview quoted above, Roberts claims that Williams was the pioneer of the classical pose:

It was Vulcana who set the example some years ago of classical posing, and she still continues this form of work, though her methods are not the same as those adopted by La Milo, |Yvette] De Laabe [“Electric Queen”], and others seen in Hull.

It is simply not true that Vulcana invented, or even ‘set the example of’, classical posing. It had been popularised, as mentioned above, by Emma Hamilton in the

Atlas and Vulcana, reproduced by courtesy ofjane Hunt. Courtesy ofjane Hunt—

FIGURE 18.2 Atlas and Vulcana, reproduced by courtesy ofjane Hunt. Courtesy ofjane Hunt—

1780s, and there had been imitators ever since. It was important, however, for Vulcana to distinguish her act from competitors. The Australian ‘La Milo’ and French Madame Yvette de Laabe were the best ‘living statues’ in the world, but their performance was currently mired by scandal. Both young women were striking famous poses, from classical, Renaissance and more modern classicising sculptures and paintings, covered in ‘enamel’ paint.22

Around the time of the interview, between 1906 and 1908, tensions had been rising in certain northern English communities against the profanity of ‘Living Statues’. In 1907, Yvette de Laabe’s performance in the Hull Hippodrome was closed down by the police.23 Madame de Laabe, who argued that she was not nude because there was a ‘fine covering’ beneath the enamel, gave the following response:

We people on the Continent look on things differently from you English. We look at living representations of statuary as only artistic. We think the human form is artistic in the highest sense of the word. I cannot understand it, but, if the police say it must not be, I go.24

Vulcana, the Society Athlete, reproduced by courtesy of Jane Hunt. Courtesy of Jane Hunt—

FIGURE 18.3 Vulcana, the Society Athlete, reproduced by courtesy of Jane Hunt. Courtesy of Jane Hunt—

But it was not only the English who had a problem with ‘living sculptures’. In 1908, ‘The Correctional Tribunal of Paris’ sentenced ‘to a month’s imprisonment and a fine of £8 the manager of a restaurant in Montmartre, who had organized dinners, during which displays of living statuary were given. The women were each sentenced to a fine of £2’.25

Neither de Laabe nor ‘La Milo’ could have lifted half what Vulcana could lift. They were not heavy athletes, but former chorus girls, who preferred a more natural femininity than did the self-sculpted Vulcana. ‘The Modern Milo’, or Pansy Montague (b.1885) (Figure 18.4), was named after the famous ‘Venus de Milo’ statue in the Louvre, which her body shape matched particularly well and which became her trademark performance piece. With clever lighting and wellhandled black velvet she embodied the famous amputee.26 Although she could not have lifted Vulcana’s bar-bell, part of the wonder of Montague’s act was its blatant physicality, and this was perhaps why Sandow championed her as a model of the female physique and featured her in his magazine.27 Viewers marvelled at her stillness, how it was almost impossible to tell if it was a statue or not, unless she smiled (as she sometimes did). Her hair and body, pasted with some form ofi>a mho


‘La Milo’, the “Human Statue”, Sandow Magazine, 1907. Courtesy of the British Library

FIGURE 18.4 ‘La Milo’, the “Human Statue”, Sandow Magazine, 1907. Courtesy of the British Library.

paint, made her look like a statue, rather than a person posing.28 Like de Laabe’s, Montague’s repertoire included a mixture of classical and classicising artworks. These included paintings by Diego Velazquez (‘Rokeby Venus’ [c.1650]) and John William Godward [The Tambourine Girl, 1906), several famous statues (the Venus de Medici, Bertram Mackennal’s Circe [c.1902-1904], Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave [1847], Antonio Canova’s libation-pouring Hebe, Edgar George Papworth Junior’s Maidenhood [1860], Harriet Hosmer’s Oenone [1854-1855] and Nelson Illingworth’s Bacchante) and representations which have not been identified of Electra, Psyche, Diana, Andromeda and Sappho.

According to her publicity,

La Milo claims most nearly to approach in figure the ideal of classical sculpture. She is at present giving representations at the London Pavilion of some of the best-known statues. La Milo ... is an Australian, the daughter of an English army officer, and art, not commerce, is admitted to be the motive of her stage career.29

We do not know if she actually was the daughter of an ‘English army officer’, but she began her career as a chorus girl in Melbourne in around 1898, which is not the standard occupation of the daughters of the officer classes. Her class position, like the other performers discussed in this chapter, is obscure and her biography is unreliable. We do, however, know that she made the princely sum of around £5,000 a year for the four she was in Britain.30

Her act was described as a ‘fac-simile of Ancient and Modern Statuary and Sculpture’.31 The newspapers tended to follow the legitimising publicity, at first. If you are not ashamed to take your wife to see classical sculptures, the story ran, you should not be ashamed to see La Milo. Montague’s act was even sold as educational, since it was introducing the audience to mythological figures and other women from classical antiquity.32 She arrived in Britain in 1906 and toured the British Isles causing a ‘living statue’ mania wherever she went. In 1907 the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London called for there to be a ban on ‘living statues’.33

The journalist William T. Stead, whom we have met above publishing popular classics books and campaigning against child prostitution (pp. 61-4 and 352), considered Montague’s act to be an oasis of beauty in the cultural desert of the Music Hall,34 always a place where ‘posh’ people felt uncomfortable. Neither its comic turns nor the rowdy conduct of his fellow audience members was to his taste, but La Milo was:

As to the suggestion of indecency that is a fraud, and I fear that those who sell tickets on the strength of it are open to an accusation of obtaining money on false pretences. La Milo is indecent as statues are indecent, no more, no less.

Stead juxtaposed the beauties of her classical act with the ‘uglinesses’ of their surroundings:

The contrast to the Venus of Milo was a sandwichman carrying a contents bill of the Tribune, which announced “A French Attack upon C. -B.” “Maidenhood” was set off by a bowed-down old crone, who limped to a seat on the left of the statue, and so forth.35

Stead’s observation shows that, however prurient their motive, workers were accessing the myths these statues and paintings enact in their own cultural domain. It also shows how brilliantly Montague’s act succeeded, as only Sandow had before her, in providing a product that appealed equally to distinct social groups, represented respectively by Stead and the ‘old crone’ at the London Pavilion.

And what of the audience’s reaction? Stead revels in his snobbery. Even mortals ‘who grin over coarse allusions’, he wrote,

are capable of responding to something higher. Until then I had regarded them as something like the fishes in the mammoth cave in America, whose optic nerve has perished from long sojourn in the regions of eternal night. They seemed to have lost all consciousness either of morality, or beauty, or intelligence. But these fishes of the Pavilion have not gone totally blind. It was sufficient to display a picture instinct with a soul of beauty to elicit an immediate, although it might be but a transitory, response.36

Classical art, then, is a potential palliative to cultural poverty. But those ‘fishes of the Pavilion’, and many more Stoll theatres and fun palaces besides, swam out en masse to witness the 22-year-old Pansy Montague ride through the streets of Coventry in 1907 as Lady Godiva (Figure 18.5).37

Vulcana and the Atlas girls neither drew such crowds, nor made such astonishing amounts of money as La Milo. But they were bringing the classical into realms where people like W.T. Stead considered it alien. Vulcana also made a mystery of her background and early years, and harnessed the legitimacy of the classical idiom to elevate her transgressive talents into a product both desirable and acceptable to contemporary tastes and morality (Figure 18.6). In Figure 18.6, although we cannot pick Vulcana out individually, the women in the background of the cartoon represent the old guard of living statues. The cartoonist’s depiction of a one-tonne bar-bell, cleverly and a little crudely reduces the

La Milo in Lady Godiva procession, Coventry, 1907, by unknown artist, reproduced by courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia. © National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia

FIGURE 18.5 La Milo in Lady Godiva procession, Coventry, 1907, by unknown artist, reproduced by courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia. © National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia.

performance of Vulcana’s equivalents to a crude and old-fashioned type of show. All those performers who wore fleshings were condemned to history with the arrival of the Australian classical beauty, whose resemblance to ancient statuary was undeniable.

La Milo’s act was, however, not difficult to imitate for any woman with a particular body shape and a pretty face. The same could not be said for Vulcana’s weightlifting abilities. On 29th May 1913, Vulcana performed at Haggar’s Theatre, Llanelli, in Wales. She had put out an open call, saying she would present £50 to any woman ... who can lift her Bar-bell, lifted by her Nightly at Haggar’s’.38 Questions were sometimes raised about the weights being lifted on Vulcana’s stage, but here was an occasion when Vulcana could silence her detractors.

The challenge was met by none other than ‘Athelda the Great’, or the ‘Miniature Lady Hercules’, born in Manchester around 1880 under the name of Frances Rheinländer. Typically, little else is known of her early life, family or class status. Her name implies that she was from a family of German immigrants who came to Manchester in large numbers in the 19th century, and found their new home economically challenging. The ‘Society for the Relief of Really

The Performer, December 27th, 1906, a cartoon of La Milo, reproduced by courtesy of the British Library

FIGURE 18.6 The Performer, December 27th, 1906, a cartoon of La Milo, reproduced by courtesy of the British Library. Cartoon of La Milo (in photographic form) compared to ‘old guard’ of living statues. Cruickshank (fellow performing artist, lighting sketcher) and Marinelli (agent) look on. Reproduced by courtesy of the British Library.

Deserving Distressed Foreigners’, founded in 1847, gave aid to the large German minority.39 Given Athelda’s occupation, we can be confident that she was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

Rheinlander, 170 cm tall and weighing only 60-75 kg herself, could lift 25 kg with her little finger. Her act predominately consisted of lifting weights and people in front of music hall audiences. She was not as widely promoted as Vulcana but had a long and celebrated career. In 1916 Athelda created and toured a fusion of variety acts, consisting of several women in classical poses, who also sang and performed acrobatics,40 about which we know sadly little. Back in 1913, Athelda, it was reported in the Llanelly Mercury, attempted to lift Vulcana’s enormous bar-bell for 25 minutes without success.41 She later complained of foul play and invited Vulcana for a rematch. But here the evidence trail goes cold.42

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >