A Gay Old Time in Davos

1021_1

One of the topics up for discussion this week at Davos is unusual for the World Economic Forum. The issue of gay and lesbian rights for the first time is on the formal agenda. The WEF usually confines itself to the rich, famous and the bottom line. But this week LGBT issues have finally made it.

John Addington Symonds

John Addington Symonds

Davos owes its origin as a spa town to the district physician Dr. Spengler. He noticed that returning emigrants with pulmonary complaints quickly recovered in the mountain air. Soon patients arrived from all over Europe, as the scourge of tuberculosis racked and coughed through the nineteenth century. The English writer John Addington Symonds arrived in 1867 and spent his winters in the high Alpine air until his death in Rome in 1893.

Symonds was an art historian and man of letters. But it is as one of the first advocates of homosexual liberation that he is now remembered. I hope his contribution to LGBT history will be acknowledged in his home town among the sharp tailoring and sound of money this week.

Am Hof Davos

Watercolour of the garden, Am Hof, Davos, by Catherine Symonds, 1897. Library of University of Bristol

He lived in Davos with his wife Catherine and their three daughters. The Symonds family formed the nucleus of English and literary society in this narrow mountain valley.

Sketch of Am Hof, Davos, by Catherine Symonds. Library of Bristol University.

Sketch of Am Hof, Davos, by Catherine Symonds. Library of Bristol University.

Am Hof, their Davos house and garden with wonderful hollyhocks, has been preserved in Catherine’s sketches and watercolours, now in the archives of Bristol University. Catherine was aware of her husband’s roving eye for mountain menfolk, Venetian gondoliers and porters.

augusto

Augusto Zanon, 20, Symond’s Venetian porter, 1890.

Symonds’ Italian Byways (1883) includes a fair bit of high-flown art appreciation. It is dedicated to Christian Buol and Christian Palmy, “my friends and fellow-travellers”. These were two Davosers Symonds took up with, crossing the Bernina Pass to the Valtelline (Veltiner) wine country on the slopes of the Adda river valley in Lombardy. Fine essays on wine, “Bacchus in Graubunden” and “Winter Nights at Davos,” bear up well as journalism goes. In Our Life in the Swiss Highlands (1892) he waxes lyrical about Swiss gymnasts:

Bruisers like Milo of Croton, brawny, thick-set men, of bone and muscle, able to fell oxen with a fist-blow on the forehead. Most people think the Swiss an ugly, ill-developed race. They have not travelled with 600 of these men on a summer day, as lightly, tightly clad as decency and comfort allow. It is true that one rarely sees a perfectly handsome face, and that the Swiss complexion is apt to be muddy. But the men are never deficient in character;

Robert Louis Stevenson. Library of Bristol University.

Robert Louis Stevenson. Library of Bristol University.

Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in Davos over two successive winters, 1881 and 1882. He was there with his wife and stepson, Samuel Lloyd Osbourne, age 12, who brought with him a small portable printing press now on display at the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh. The press, a gift from Stevenson, had travelled from San Francisco to Silverado, to Edinburgh and Davos. It was used in Davos to print the programme for the weekly concerts at the Hotel Belvedere where the Stevensons were staying.

The Davos Press, exhibited at The Writers' Museum, Edinburgh

The Davos Press, exhibited at The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

The author of Treasure Island had a great affinity with children. “He brought a boy’s eagerness, a man’s intellect, a novelist’s imagination into the varied business of my holiday hours; the printing press, the toy theatre, the tin soldiers all engaged his attention,” wrote Lloyd many years later. Lloyd’s ex libris was designed by Stevenson.

Ex libris of Lloyd Osborne, designed by Robert Louis Stevenson

Ex libris of Lloyd Osbourne, designed by Robert Louis Stevenson

Medical treatment at Davos had a New Age quality, consisting of sitting all day long for three weeks on a gravel terrace of the Hotel Belvedere. Following this attractive rest cure, Symonds was slung in a hammock in the woods.

My manservant took me up in a little carriage, hung a hammock between two pine trees, carried and placed me in the hammock, and when the sun came near to setting fetched me again in the carriage.

Soon Symonds was eyeing up the Tyrolese peasantry as it took a quick pee in a meadow.

He had probably taken too much wine, and there was licence in his gait. Desire for the Bursch [youth] shot through me with a sudden stab. I followed him with my eyes until he passed behind a haystall; and I thought – if only I could follow him, and catch him there, and pass the afternoon with him upon the sweet new hay! Then I turned to my Campanella’s sonnets, and told myself that these things were forever over.

The Buol boys and Symonds were also instrumental in establishing an English church in Davos, which opened its doors on January 28, 1882. He funded most of the cost of the Davos Gymnasium, founded the Davos Gymnastic Club, and hosted wine parties for its members. Very much the committee man. I think he would fit right in with the Economic Forum chappies.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The composer Tchaikovsky was another gay visitor. He came to Davos to see his former student and lover, Iosef Kotek, in November 1884. Soso Kotik (‘Joe the Tomcat’) was Tchaikovsky’s nickname for him. They had met when Tchaikovsky was teaching composition at the Moscow Conservatory. Kotik, a violinist, was the source of inspiration for Violin Concerto in D, composed at Nadezhda von Meck’s estate at Clarens in Switzerland. Kotek died in Davos in January 1885, aged twenty-nine.

Two gay old blades: Iosif Kotek and Piotr ilyich Tsychaikovsky

Two gay old blades: Iosef Kotek (‘Joe the Tomcat’) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Both Symonds and Tchaikovsky married in attempts to cover their homosexual tracks or to bring about a cure. Both carried on liaisons with men behind their wives’ backs, and expressed their true selves through music and writing.

But it was the German novelist Thomas Mann who made the most sustained use of Davos and its mountain amphitheatre. His long novel, The Magic Mountain, explores an invalid’s engagement with illness on the eve of the First World War. In 1911-12 he wrote what is perhaps the seminal gay love story of the twentieth century, Death in Venice. Mann had always had a soft spot for a sailor suit.

Katia Mann and the six nippers in 1919. Thomas must be off writing The Magic Mountain

Katia Mann and the six nippers in 1919. Thomas must be off writing The Magic Mountain

He was yet another of those old-style married homosexuals, with their Hellenic baggage, a clatter of children and a patient wife – proof perhaps of the ascendancy of hydraulics over chemistry. In 1912, towards the end of the writing of Death in Venice, Mann journeyed to Davos for three weeks to visit his wife, flush with the knowledge that he had just written a small masterpiece and feverish with his own demons.

Waldsanatorium in Davos

Waldsanatorium in Davos

Katia Mann was staying at the Waldsanatorium. A curious fact about her six-month stay emerges from her x-rays, which have been preserved. They do not present any evidence of tuberculosis, according to present-day experts. Perhaps she just needed a rest.

Tuberculosis patients at Davos

Tuberculosis patients at Davos

The Magic Mountain could be read as a bible of the spa class, where healing, money, splurge and purge meet. Spa people are not great readers, however, and The Magic Mountain is an uphill slog. The rich like to render their illnesses as exclusive, and Davos found ways of catering to them over the years – first the tubercular Russians, then the Germans, now the Russians again, the international economic tsars and their slush fund babes.

Mann’s pinched face with close-set eyes and bristly moustache stares out at us, not un-handsome but not forthcoming either. He had a Prince Charles way of handling a pocket, always anxious to look the picture of probity.

Thomas and Katia Mann with their grandchildren

Thomas and Katia Mann with their grandchildren

The Magic Mountain has what I think is the first literary description of sledding:

Steered by men and women in white wool and with sashes in various national colors across their chests, the low, flat frames came shooting down, one by one, at long intervals, taking the curves of the course that glistened like metal between icy mounds of snow. You could see red, tense faces with snow blowing in their eyes. There were accidents, too – sleds crashed and upended, dumping their teams in the snow, while onlookers took lots of pictures.

4.Davos_IPG

Towards the end of The Magic Mountain the main characters pay a visit to the village cemetery in Davos, where the tubercular dead are buried.

– on the whole these life spans had been strikingly short, the difference in years between birth and demise averaging little more than twenty. The field was populated exclusively by youth rather than virtue, by unsettled folk who had found their way here from all over the world and had returned now for good and all to the horizontal form of existence.

When the delegates this week at the World Economic Forum sit down to discuss LGBT issues, perhaps they might pause for a moment to recall the nellies, pansies, poofs, nancy boys and assorted fairies who came here before them, many of whom are six feet under the snow in that “horizontal form of existence”.

Siam through the Lens of John Thomson

Siamese youth, photo by John Thomson. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Siamese youth, photo by John Thomson. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

An exhibition of John Thomson’s photographs of Siam is running at the National Gallery in Bangkok. Thomson was a Scottish photographer, born in Edinburgh in 1837. He apprenticed to an optical and scientific instruments manufacturer and in 1856 followed evening classes at the Watt Institution and School of Art. His older brother was a photographer in Singapore, and in 1862 John followed in his footsteps. They were part of that diaspora of Scots, Irish, second sons and convicts who made up the rump of the British Empire.

Chests John Thomson used to carry his photographic equipment. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Chests John Thomson used to carry his photographic equipment. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

The nautical instruments business in Singapore led to his own photography studio, capturing the ex-pats of the day in their imperial finery. But John Thomson had that quality so few people retain beyond childhood: curiosity. Ten years travelling in the Far East followed. His lens took in a broad spectrum of human life that had never seen a camera: kings, princes, mandarins and beggars.

He travelled to Siam in September 1865. The 65 photographs on show at the National Gallery in Bangkok date from a time when you could probably count on one hand the cameras in the country. Thomson used both full plate and stereo cameras, and a method called ‘wet-collodion’ to produce a negative on glass. The cumbersome cameras (made from hardwoods) and equipment, including chemicals, made his travels across difficult terrain all the more awkward. In Petchaburi he had six men to carry the equipment for him.

A group of monks and novices, 1867.

A group of monks and novices, 1867.

Thomson is an early street photographer and anticipates the photojournalism of the twentieth century. At the same time, his photographs formed the Victorian image of the Far East. Behind the coloniser is the missionary, the mapmaker and the photographer. Thomson’s endeavour was to record and classify with the eye of nineteenth-century social anthropology. In his later publications this orientalising tendency became more pronounced.

Frontispiece of John Thomson's The Straits of Malacca (

Frontispiece of John Thomson’s The Straits of Malacca (1875). Image courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book  & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Writing from Brixton in 1874 – the year of the Japanese invasion of Taiwan – Thomson thought that “at last the light of civilisation seems indeed to have dawned in the distant East”. He took a number of photographs of men in the infamous Cangue punishment, a wooden board around the neck which prevented the person from eating or drinking unaided.

imageserver

Two men punished with the Cangue in China. Photo by John Thomson.

His arrival at Paknam on the mouth of the Chao Phraya River is still vivid and full of detail, immediately recognisable to any old Thai hand:

The Menam, or Mother of Waters, is for some miles above its entrance a broad, sluggish, and uninteresting stream, flowing between low banks, and flat alluvial plains. When I visited Siam in the steamer ‘Chow Phaya,’ I went ashore at Paknam, the first town on the river, and made the acquaintance of a native officer who had charge of the customs station, and who honoured me with an audience at his residence. There I found him surrounded by a group of crouching slaves, by half-a-dozen children, and by as many wives … nor were tokens of refinement wanting, in embroidered wedge-shaped cushions, couches covered with finely-plaited mats, wrought vessels of gold or silver, and robes of silken attire. The cool and peculiar fashion of dressing the hair, adopted by both sexes, alike resembled an inverted horse-brush laid upon the crown of the head.

A Siamese boatman with his oar, photo John Thomson, circa 1865. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

A Siamese boatman with his oar, photo John Thomson, circa 1865. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

A Siamese nobleman, photo by John Thomson, circa 1865. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

A Siamese nobleman, Racha Chaya, photo by John Thomson, circa 1865. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

On journeying upriver to Bangkok, he enquired about the building materials of the many temples. “I learnt to my disappointment that these temples are nothing more than brick and mortar embellished with gilding, foreign soup plates, and bits of coloured glass.”

Thomson describes Wat Saket just outside the old walls of Bangkok, and site of the ‘yellow-shirt’ protest movement of last year when thousands sat hectoring, trying to remove the ‘red shirt’ Prime Minister.

The principal building at Wat Saket is a huge unfinished pile of bricks and mortar – intended, as I suppose, to symbolise Mount Meru, the centre of the Buddhist universe – the summit of which commands an extensive view of the palm groves, and house roofs of Bangkok …a court at the rear, where the bodies of the dead, who have no friends to bury them, are cast out to the dogs and the vultures to be devoured … in the centre stood a small charnel house, while the pavement round about was covered with black stains and littered with human bones, bleached white by the sun.

'Photography and Exploration', a wood-engraving from Gaston Tissandier, History and Handbook of Photography (1876) edited and translated by John Thomson).

‘Photography and Exploration’, a wood-engraving from Gaston Tissandier, History and Handbook of Photography (1876) edited and translated by John Thomson.

Soon he had an audience with Rama IV, King Mongut, who reigned from 1851- 1868. King Mongut is best known outside Thailand for his portrayal in the film The King and I, based on a fictionalised account of Anna Leonowens’ diary as a tutor at court. Leonowens is notoriously unreliable with the truth. Authenticity is a tricky subject, and nowhere more so than in Thailand where the written record can be sketchy. Historiography and hagiography are in dire need of disentanglement. Leonowens was in court attendance from 1862 to 1867 so she might have run into the young photographer in the gilded halls of power.

His Majesty was pleased to appoint a day on which I should take his own portrait as well. The King requested me to visit his abode on Monday, October 6, in the company of the Krummun-alongkot, a nobleman holding the position of chief astronomer, that is, head of the astrologers attached to the palace.

Siamese monk, 1865.

Siamese monk, 1865.

Thomson gives us a wonderful description of the interior of the Krummun’s room – a mix of East and West – at a time when Siam was looking to modernise but also to fend off the competing colonial powers of France (Cochin China) and England (Malaya & Burma).

In one corner there was a telegraphic machine, backed by a statue of Buddha. In the lap of the image there was a Siamese flute (the idol was off duty and under repair), and an electro-plated coffee-pot, which had evidently been forced into some unnatural use. There were also watch-tools, turning-lathes, and telescopes, guitars, tom-toms, fiddles, and hand-saws; while betel-nut boxes, swords, spears, and shoe-brushes, rifles, revolvers, windsor-soap, rat-paste, brass wire, and beer bottles, were mingled in heterogeneous confusion.

Rama IV, King Mongut, in royal attire on October 6, 1865. Photo by John Thomson. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Rama IV, King Mongut, in Siamese regalia on October 6, 1865. Photo by John Thomson. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Having photographed the king in two different attires – Siamese court robes and “a sort of French Field Marshal’s uniform” – Thomson was all the rage among the princelings, nobility, khunyings and assorted courtiers.

Rama IV, King of Siam, in European attire, 1865. Photo by John Thomson.

Rama IV, King of Siam, in European regalia, 1865. Photo by John Thomson.

The king invited him to attend the So-Kan or tonsure festival of the heir-apparent, Prince Chowfa Chulalongkorn, who “was deprived of the top-knot of his boyhood for the first time”.

Among the other photographs which I took on the spot, one represents his majesty as he receives his son and places him on his right hand, amid the simultaneous adoration of the prostrate host. Mrs. Leonowens, who ought to have known better, has made use of this photograph in a work on Siam which recently appeared under her name, and described it wrongly as ‘Receiving a Princess.’

Presentation of a prince (heir-apparent Prince Chula?) to Rama IV, 1856.

Presentation of a prince (heir-apparent Prince Chowfa Chulalongkorn?) to Rama IV, 1856.

Thomson witnessed a number of these topknot-cutting ceremonies performed with full Brahmanical rites. I attended a royal-sponsored rite of tonsure myself back in 1988, in the Brahmin temple near the Giant Swing. It’s a delightful ceremony. You can read about it here.

Siamese teenager with the traditional topknot. Attributed to John Thomson.

Siamese teenager with the traditional topknot. Attributed to John Thomson.

Thomson’s description of corruption in Siam reminds us that little has changed and that graft has deep roots.

I remember visiting a magistrate’s court in Bangkok, where a case of some importance was under investigation, and I noticed the same agencies at work there as in China, only that in the latter country the system of corruption is managed … with a degree of subtle polish and refinement.. the prisoners were shut up in a sort of cattle-pen in front, while their friends and supporters, laden with gifts of fruits, cakes, or other produce, crawled through the court in a continuous procession and presented their offerings for inspection as they passed the judge’s chair.

As I write, the former Prime Minister is being arraigned for ‘financial negligence’ by the current military regime. It’s a Siamese cat and mouse game.

thai00160

Wife of minister at the court of Siam, 1865.

L0055544 Brother of the 1st king, Siam, [Thailand]

Thomson travelled to Petchaburi, a town I have been in and out of for a quarter century now, and for which I retain a particular affection second only to Ratchaburi. I didn’t know that Petchaburi benefited from an injection of English town planning, as Thomson explains:

The chief town, unlike Bangkok, was mainly built on land, and in some parts bore quite an English look. Thus, there were rows of well-built brick cottages, and a stone bridge across the river, broad enough and strong enough to sustain the traffic even of a metropolitan thoroughfare. The builder of this new town was a very clever young noble, who had visited England with the Siamese embassy, and who, at the time of my visit, was the deputy-governor of Petchaburee.

I wonder what happened to that lovely English bridge and the stone it was made from. I suspect the coming of the railways did away with it.

The river and bridge at Petchaburi, 1857. Photo by John Thomson.

The river and bridge at Petchaburi, 1867. Photo by John Thomson.

Thomson went on to photograph Angkor Wat in Cambodia, China and the East End of London. He clearly had an observant eye, an affinity for kings and ordinary people alike, and a sharp technique. His Siamese photographs capture the country and its people as they were at the dawn of the modern world, as they will never be again.

The monk and the prince.

The monk and the prince.

Monks and novices.

Monks and temple boys.

A Siamese prince, heir-designate Prince Chowfa Chulalongkorn, 1865.

A Siamese prince, heir-designate Prince Chowfa Chulalongkorn, 1865.

Bauhaus & Art Deco Thailand: Karl Siegfried Döhring

Karl Siegfried Döhring (1879 – 1941) was a German architect, resident in Thailand, who designed a number of buildings with Art Deco or Bauhaus influence. I’ve long admired the palace he designed for King Chulalongkorn in Petchaburi, built between 1910 and 1916 in the Art Deco style. Sun coming through stained glass, putti with cornucopia, curved staircases and exquisite tiling make it wonderful to visit. You feel you’ve walked into turn-of-the-century Vienna transported to the tropics.

Phra Ram Ratchaniwet Palace in Petchaburi, architect Karl Siegfried Döhring 1910-1916

Phra Ram Ratchaniwet Palace in Petchaburi, architect Karl Siegfried Döhring 1910-1916

Until today I didn’t know he had also designed the former Thonburi railway station, sometimes called Bangkok Noi station, from which I used to take the train on visa runs south, every three months in 1985-6. It was always a hike to get to, but pleasant taking a ferry across the Chao Phraya early in the morning. The train to Malaysia was grimy and rackety and took forever. Vendors came down the aisles selling chicken wrapped in greaseproof paper, rice dishes and desserts wrapped in banana leaves. My destination was usually Penang, so there was Indian curry and sea air in the offing. I never paid the Bangkok Noi station any heed then, but I do now.

Former Bangkok Noi Railway Station, designed by Karl Siegfried Döhring in 1900.

Former Bangkok Noi Railway Station, designed by Karl Siegfried Döhring in 1900.

Döhring was born in Cologne and died in Darmstadt. He worked from 1906 for the Siamese Royal State Railways. Besides Bangkok Noi station, he designed other railway buildings around the country – Phitsanulok, Phichit, Phichai, Uttaradit and Sawankhalok. One day I shall have to do a tour and have a look at them. They have in common a mix of European and Siamese tropical influence that is hard to describe but immediately recognisable.

Clean lines and bricky front restored.

Clean lines and bricky front restored.

The Bangkok Noi station originally served Petchaburi and only later the southern line to Hat Yai and onwards to Malaysia. The Allies bombed the original building during the Second World War, when it was used as a Japanese logistics base. It was rebuilt according to the original plan and reopened in 1950. What is remarkable are the clean, spare lines which anticipate by twenty years the Bauhaus signature style. The Deutscher Werkbund was already emphasising practicality and severe industrial lines in advance of the Bauhaus. This style of architecture dates from the end of the First World War until the rise of the Nazis in 1933. Döhring’s work is interestingly astraddle the two styles of his day – Art Deco and the Werkbund’s geometric expressionism. Bangkok Noi station is a good example of the latter.

Minimalist detail, ornament abjured.

Minimalist detail, ornament abjured.

The station was decommissioned in 2003. It sits on a spit of land at the junction of Bangkok Noi canal and the Chao Phraya River, former site of the Rear Palace (วังหลัง wang lang), where the vice-regent lived. The last person to hold this post was Prince Anurak Devesh, a nephew of King Rama I, until his death in 1806. You can still see remains of the foundations of his former palace behind the station.

Foundations of the Wang Lang Palace, dating from the Rattanakosin period, 1700s.

Foundations of the Wang Lang Palace, dating from the Rattanakosin period, 1700s.

The Bangkok Noi station is now a museum and the spit of land has been transformed into one of those reverential parks – all marble and topiary – the Thais go in for. In a city where shade is at a premium, such parks are like microwaved wedding cakes. This one has a fine pagoda commemorating King Chulalongkorn. The contrast between Siamese glitter and gold and the austere Germanic building behind is food for thought. There’s a boat stop on the express line and an S&P coffee shop.

Pagoda commemorating King Chulalongkorn.

Pagoda commemorating King Chulalongkorn.

Döhring’s Petchaburi palace for King Chulalongkorn is in a different style. Curvaceous, with mansard roofs and fine detail, it creaks as you walk through it in bare feet on the polished parquet. Siamese royalty were in thrall to the trappings of European modernism. I don’t know how much of the detail Döhring was responsible for, or who the craftsmen were who carried it out. Many of the designs for the ceramic work, the spacious cupola and courtyard as well as the sweeping staircase have a Viennese elegance.

Exquisite glazed tiling, Ban Puen Palace, Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

Exquisite glazed tiling, Ban Puen Palace, Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

Fountain in the courtyard, Ban Puen Palace, Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

Fountain in the courtyard, Ban Puen Palace, Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

Another putto, Ban Puen Palace, Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

Another putto, Ban Puen Palace, Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

A portrait of Karl Siegfried Döhring, in the palace he designed in Patchaburi.

A portrait of Karl Siegfried Döhring, in the palace he designed in Petchaburi.

Staircase with Viennese (Koloman Moser) influence, Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

Staircase with Viennese (Koloman Moser) influence, Ban Puen Palace, Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

A view from the river: Döhring's railway station sandwiched between the King Chulalongkorn pagoda and buildings of Siriraj Hospital.

A view from the river: Döhring’s railway station sandwiched between the King Chulalongkorn pagoda and buildings of Siriraj Hospital.

Here and there in Bangkok and throughout the Kingdom are fine examples of Portuguese Tropical, Art Deco, Bauhaus and what I like to call Seaside Ice-cream Modernism. Sadly, a number of the old buildings along the riverfront and elsewhere are in serious need of restoration. There is also a good deal of Corinthian kitsch. Karl Siegfried Döhring’s contribution to Thailand’s architecture ought to be better celebrated and detached somewhat from the royal icing so that its architectural lines can be clearly seen.

An Art Deco putto in the Ban Puen Palace in Petchaburi, 1910-1916.

An Art Deco putto in the Ban Puen Palace in Petchaburi, 1910-1916.