Guest Post, Rodney Rigby: THE FABULOUS FINCH BROTHERS, or Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Siamese Twins

Photo by Rodney Rigby

One of the first drawings I ever exhibited was titled Siamese Twins Jogging. It was, according to the gallery at the time, ‘modest in scale, and modestly priced.’ It sold for the princely sum of £25 and looked much like this (see photo on left).

It was one of six drawings I had in the show, all of which would later become the inspiration for my first book, There’s a Building on Sixth Avenue. A collection of humorous drawings and verse, though alas, the Siamese Twins did not make the final cut. Proving too sensitive a subject for younger readers and older editors.

Fast forward to more recent times.

I was playing around with an idea for a drawing, repeating the image of a bird, over and over. Then one bird became two. Goldfinches to be specific.

We have feeders and coconuts outside the window that I sit at to work. On any given day I can see Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Robin, Woodpecker (Woody), Blackbird, Goldfinch (constantly squabbling), Pigeon ( Common and Wood), Starling, Collared Dove, Thrush and all manner of Tits. A constant ebb and flow feasting on sunflower hearts and mealworm. Yum.

Occasionally, we even get Parrots. Apparently they escaped from their cages years ago, settled in the park just a stone’s throw away, and bred. Now there’s a whole company of them, living quite happily with the wind and the rain and cold.

Oh, and come spring we get the ducks visiting. They stay about 6 to 8 weeks while the female decides which of her many suitors she prefers. At least she can rely on a good meal until she makes up her mind. We’ve been feeding them for years, and not the popping candy as I once suggested. That was a joke. Just for a second though, I’d love to see their faces.

Where was I?

After some time playing around with the bird drawings, I had the thought to recycle the Siamese Twins idea. And so, the Finch Brothers were born, or hatched to be more precise. Soon after they would become the Fabulous Finch Brothers. They too were joined at the head, but would not be joggers, a term I always took to be an invention of the 1970s and the keep fit fad, but Richard Jefferies, a 19th century English naturalist, wrote of ‘joggers,’ describing them as quickly moving people who brushed others aside as they passed. Sounds about right.

The Finch Brothers, I decided, would amaze audiences with their magic and trickery.

I’ve always been fascinated by the world of Circuses and Sideshows, in particular the antique posters, handbills and pamphlets, produced to advertise such attractions as Albinos, Bearded Girl 7 Years Old, the Two-Headed Lady, the Skeleton Woman and Balloon-Headed Baby. Images that today are about as politically incorrect as one might imagine, but more often than not, wonderful examples of early graphic art.

Now they read more like a list of Charles Burns’s graphic novels.

Such Sideshows, or Freak Shows, as they were more often called, were a popular pastime as far back as the mid 16th century. One example was the exhibition at the court of Charles I, in England, of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, conjoined twins from Genoa, Italy. By accounts, Lazarus was handsome and functioning, while his brother dangled before him from his chest. Lazarus, when not exhibiting himself, would cover his brother with a cloak to avoid attention.

In the 18th century, Matthias Buchinger, born without arms or legs and only 29 inches tall, astonished crowds with his many talents. Known as “The Little Man of Nuremberg,” Buchinger was an expert musician, artist, calligrapher, inventor, and magician.

Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, born in 1811 in Siam, now Thailand, were no doubt the most famous attraction of their day. They were joined at the torso. Encouraged to exercise by their mother, they would run and swim. Today they could easily be separated, but in the 1800s it was a risky operation. Though as one surgeon of the time remarked, they were worth more together than apart. Chang and Eng were astute businessmen, and with 21 children between them to support, they needed to be.

After three years with Abel Coffin as their manager, they took over their own careers as a touring curiosity. Admission to view them was 50 cents, or one shilling in England. Posters clearly stated: ‘No readmission to the room on one ticket.’ Books could be purchased, some featuring a full length portrait.

P.T. Barnum and the Finch Brothers

Photo by Rodney Rigby

P.T. Barnum, that genius of self-promotion, displayed a wax figure of the twins in his American Museum in the 1840s, published a pamphlet of their lives in 1853, and hired them for a 6-week engagement in 1860. They even embarked on a European tour, sponsored by Barnum, in 1868. Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum in 1841, re-opening as Barnum’s American Museum on Jan. 1, 1842, a museum that was part zoo, lecture hall, theatre, and freak shows. It also displayed a hat worn by Ulysses S. Grant for good measure. Admission was 25 cents and attracted as many as 15,000 visitors a day. When Barnum noticed people were lingering too long at the exhibits, he posted signs indicating, This way to the Egress. Not realising it was another word for Exit, they quickly found their way outside.

Like Chang and Eng, the Finches were worth more together than apart, to me at least.

After further reading about P.T. Barnum and his ventures, which included meeting Queen Victoria and visiting Lincoln at the White House, I thought it prudent to introduce him to the Finch Brothers. I gave them names, Felix and Cornelius, and changed them from Goldfinch to Greenfinch, for no other reason than the single use of colour seemed more aesthetically pleasing. Posters were printed, or rather drawn. As too, was P.T. Barnum, standing before a packed house.

Gently, he removes his top hat to reveal the Conjoined Twins, Felix and Cornelius Finch perched atop his balding head. He puts his finger to his lips as a sign of ‘quiet.’ To his left another sign reads, ‘Please Applaud With Hands Only.’

INTERMISSION (Already!? Hucksters!).

I actually saw a picture of just such a sign when researching old theatre photographs. It reminded me of being a kid at Saturday cinema club. Every week without fail, as soon as the cavalry charged to the rescue, 300 of us would kick and clap so loud, the building shook. As did the theatre manager’s nerves. He would immediately stop the picture until everyone was quiet and he, and the building, had stopped shaking.

I’m sure some weeks we registered on the Richter scale. A nine at least.

Finch Brothers Show

Photo by Rodney Rigby

END of INTERMISSION.

Barnum positions the brothers on the red velvet-covered table before him, then proceeds to blindfold them. As he steps away they begin their act. Starting with the Blindfolded Juggling.

Knives!..

One. Two. Then three. Two more, five! Seven! The audience can barely watch. Not nine surely? No, not nine…10! Keeping them in the air with consummate ease, until at the given moment, the knives fall with a thud. Landing point down into the table, forming a perfect circle around Felix and Cornelius.

The audience react with respectful applause.

Next, the Ball of Ribbon (Good for the digestion).

Followed by the Water Tank (Do not try this at home).

And, for one night only, the Pit of Cats (Not for those with a fear of heights, or cats).

The finale, and most dangerous of all, the Sawing in Half (Definitely not for the squeamish).

The curtain falls. The show is over.

Though, as with any work in progress, there is more to come. There is even, in true Hollywood style, a love interest and a good twist at the end, though obviously I cannot say what because that would spoil the surprise.

And that is where this was to end, with me telling you, that I cannot tell you the ending.

That is, until a recent serendipitous encounter.

An hour’s drive from where I live now, there sits a typical English seaside town, Southport, which is neither in the south or a port. My father was born there. A Sandgrounder. The town boasts a fine Victorian art gallery and museum, The Atkinson, and it was here, while strolling through the newly refurbished galleries, that I chanced upon a small, dimly lit display case. Inside was an old, rather faded, top hat.

I glanced at the caption. Top Hat belonging to P.T. Barnum.

P T Barnum's hat

Photo courtesy of the Atkinson

I was like a kid at christmas. My wife came over to see what the fuss was about, and together we read on. It seems P.T.Barnum was an advisor to the Botanic Gardens Mueum, which opened in Southport in 1876. He liked the museum so much, he donated his hat to it. Following the death of his first wife, Barnum had married Nancy Fish two years previously. She was born in 1850 in Southport. Another Sandgrounder.

And now here we were, in true Barnum’s American Museum style, staring at his top hat. The very same hat that was removed to reveal the Fabulous Finch Brothers, Felix and Cornelius.

My wife walked on while I stood a while longer, nose to the glass, trying desperately to see beneath the top hat. I tried every which way, without success. I was still trying when the gallery assistant politely asked if I would care to see the Egress.

“It’s this way,” she said.

 

 

Guest Post, Rodney Rigby: The Reincarnation of Annie Larsen

Some time back, playing cricket, I slipped, injuring my neck. A slight muscle strain, at worst, or so I thought. Within days I was in agony, acute muscle spasms, unable to sleep and a redundant left arm. After a prescribed dose of hallucinatory pain killers failed to have the desired effect, I ended up in hospital, and eventually, on traction.

Before being strapped up to it, I was informed by the physiotherapist that the machine was rarely used. I later discovered he actually had to dust it down and read up on how to use it.

It was, in medical terms, a last resort. Several intensive weeks, and much stretching later, it had worked a treat. Not only did I feel better than I had for a long time but I was also five centimetres taller.

I was told the height thing wouldn’t last. As it turned out, neither did.

Rodney RigbyFast forward to this past November. After struggling for three days with a painting that should have taken me three hours, I woke with the same pain I had until then completely blanked from my mind. I was immediately referred for another course of physiotherapy.

When I suggested traction, the doctor could not have looked more surprised if I had told him I was the Marquis de Sade.

I don’t think they still do that, he told me. He was right, they don’t. I resigned myself to what would be a lengthy healing process. Deep massage and stretching, hand work this time, and a list of exercises a page long. Pain killers if I couldn’t sleep. Which I couldn’t.

For a while, at least, painting was out of the question. I had to find something else to occupy my mind and time. Then it was, on a dark December day, that Annie Larsen came into my life. Squirreling through the dusty shelves of a second hand book shop I came across a wonderful, antique collection of song sheets and black and white lithographs. Images of a romantic, idyllic, rural England.

The music I didn’t recognise either. Unfortunately the pages were badly water stained and beyond repair, but the gilt card covers had a lustre and patina that only comes with being around for the best part of 200 years. I have always loved antiquarian books, old papers and ephemera, antique toys and photographs or just about anything that looks like it has a story to tell. Increasingly, I’ve been using such things in my art.

This would be the perfect addition. I parted with my £3.

Leafing through the pages further, I found the name Annie Larsen, inscribed in faded blue ink. The book was published in the early years of the nineteenth century, in London, though I had no way of knowing where Annie Larsen came from.

The name Larsen, a Danish-Norwegian patronymic surname, pronounced ‘La:sn, literally meaning, ‘son of Lars’. Though the most famous, or infamous, Annie Larsen I could find, certainly up to the mid twentieth century, was an American three masted schooner. Born in 1881 and dying an ignominious death when she ran aground in the South Pacific in 1918.

Might this explain the water stains?

There is record of a Annie Sophia Larsen being born June 29, 1847, in Denmark and entering the US through Canada, in 1881 or 1882. Though there is no record of her musical tastes, if any. The 1910 census data for Mishawaka Precinct, Clatsop Co. Oregon, lists a Annie Larsen together with her brother Willie and her sister Maggie, children of a farmer, John Charles Larsen and his wife Elizabeth. There even exists a Real Photo postcard of the three children, though I have yet to find it. Perhaps Annie, right there in the photograph, is holding her beloved book for all the world to see. What the world didn’t see was Annie dropping it some time after. Into a puddle. Or perhaps the duck pond. I can almost hear little Annie’s cries.

Overactive imagination.

Overaktiv fantasi.

Another Annie Larsen, born about 1879, in Utah Territory to Oluf Christian Larsen and Anna Maria Pederson, had no less than eight siblings. Orson, Oluf, Niels, Emelia, Johanna, Olevia, Olivia and Caroline. Though to date no known carriers of Annie’s ancestors’ mitochondria DNA have taken an Mt DNA test and no close relatives have taken a 23 and Me, Ancestry DNA or Family Tree DNA test.

Is the book the only link left to Annie Larsen of Utah Territory? Disappearing Object Phenomenon. Or DOPler Effect. In this case, Annie. There is also the Larsen Effect. A positive feedback which occurs when a sound loop exists between an audio input and an audio output. First discovered by the Danish scientist Soren Absalon Larsen, 1871-1957. Incidentally, the first use of feedback on a rock record is believed to be the introduction of ‘I Feel Fine’ by the Beatles, recorded in 1964. Another Beatles related fact, my son’s school is just across the road from the original Strawberry Fields.

I digress.

Jeg sidespring.

More research turned up a newspaper headline for October 22, 1930.

ANNIE LARSEN PASSES AWAY.

Spanish Fork – Mrs Anne M Larsen, 68, widow of Marinus Larsen died. Sunday night at the family home after an illness of several weeks from a complication of troubles.

Rodney RigbyOf course, the Annie Larsen who dipped her pen and wrote her name with such a sure hand, could just as easily have lived within a two mile radius of where I sit now. Though I do like to picture her down on the family farm, beneath a big old tree, or better still, in a big old tree, over hanging the duck pond, singing like a meadowlark, imagining the country I call home. Maybe it’s because when I was a child, I too lived on a farm. Though we didn’t have a duck pond or for that matter, ducks. But we did have chickens, and lots of them. Which is odd, as my dear Mum had a life long fear of feathers and particularly birds.

It wasn’t the birds themselves she feared so much, as the thought of one getting inside the house. Mum was Dublin born and bred and as superstitious as they come. She would take great delight in telling how a bird flying in to the house was a sure sign of a death.

So any windows were kept firmly shut. But people still died. My Mum being one of them.

Strangely, on the drive home from the hospital, in the middle hours of that night, an owl flew right across the path of the car, staring clear in our direction, before disappearing into the darkness.

That was odd, my wife said.

I said, do you think it was Mum?

Reincarnated as a bird. And not just any bird but the one most associated with death. Do things work that fast in the afterlife? And if so, with such perverse humour?

Actually, not all owl stories are bad. Afghanistan legend states it was the owl that presented humans with flint and iron to make fire. In return man gave owls their feathers. To the Inuit of Greenland, the owl is a symbol of guidance and help. And my favourite, the Aborigines of Australia believe owls are the spirits of women and are therefore sacred.

Perhaps Annie Larsen had a fear of birds and never went near a duck in her life. Maybe it was a bird landing in the tree she was sitting that caused her to drop her book in the pond. Though why she would be sitting in a tree if she were afraid of birds, I do not know.

Surprisingly, to me at least, I read that Anatidaephobia is the fear that you are being watched by a duck. Individuals believe that no matter where they are, or what they are doing, they are being watched by a duck. Hard to imagine, I know, unless one’s earliest memory is being woken by an Eider pecking at one’s eyes. That could be one reason, though I am sure there are many more, much too horrible to contemplate.

Maybe ducks too have phobias. Sitiophobia is a fear of food though the Greek root suggests it ought to be fear of bread or grain. I can not imagine a worse phobia for a duck to have. Except perhaps Pteronophobia, a fear of feathers.

You weren’t alone Mum.

I digress again. Jeg sidespring igen.

So, Annie Larsen. Annie ‘La:sn. Of the faded blue ink. Farm girl. Daughter. Sister. Postcard subject. Who sang from tree tops. Pioneer spirit. Wife. Widow. With your complication of troubles.

What would I have done without you? And your precious book. Which I confess, I cut up. Its gilt, stained covers a blank canvas. And you, my inspiration.