THE VESTRIS HAMS
Last week I had the good fortune to be given a little guided tour of the Garrick Club in Covent Garden. It is really gorgeous. Despite, and in fact probably because of, its seven year waiting list, it has always seemed to be the most interesting of the old-style London clubs to join (plus for good measure, they turned down Jeremy Paxman).
It was founded by theatre lovers and actors in the 19th century and is still generally thespian in character. It has an amazing collection of theatrical books, ephemera and portraits. Whilst examining these, we were talking with Marcus the archivist about ‘The Vestris Hams’. If you’re a treasure hunter or keep a list of lost arcane London ephemera as I do, you may want to add this item to it.
Eliza Vestris was a very talented actress and later a rather astute theatre manager who was regarded as one of the most beautiful English women (and indeed men) of her day:
“two-thirds of Madame Vestris’s notoriety has arisen from the facility with which she can un-sex herself, and the confident boldness with which she makes her bow to the audience in breeches.“
These breeches encased her legs which were of international renown and generally regarded as being virtually divine:
“There is another particular in which Vestris is unrivalled, though, from the extraordinary notions of delicacy prevalent in the western hemisphere, I almost despair of making myself understood. I mean as regards the symetry of those portions of the human frame which are situated between the knees and ankles.. I think them, as far as my judgment goes, perfect in every point.”
The fame of said legs alone was able to fill a theatre and such was their allure that a Mr Papera of Marylebone, an Italian plaster worker, made casts of them for one of her many wealthy gentleman-admirers. The casts only extended to “a little above the knee, and included the foot’ – rather modest by today’s standards but they excited so much attention at the time that copies were made available to other wealthy fans in a strictly limited-edition. In fact they were so valuable that Mr Papera took one of his apprentices to court for secretly making unapproved copies and selling them privately – an early example of copyright infringement I suppose.
Sadly, none of the official orginals have survived – mainly because it is thought they were were carressed to oblivion by their infatuated owners. But, as is the way with these things, rumours have long circulated that certain of the, ahem, bootleg versions do still exist in the place they were secreted by their maker as future treasure trove before he was caught . But if so they were either lost to him or he failed to leave a record before his death because their whereabouts are now unknown.
So despite occasional reported sightings, ‘the Vestris Hams’ as they were called now remain objects only of desire. But their erotic charge was rumoured to be so powerful that they would undoubtedly fetch a significant sum from todays connoisseurs of erotica and and aficionados of London obscura (see the image above).
The single leg found in a private collection at the end of the century was allegedly ground up and sold as an aphrodisiac and so was never able to be verified as genuine.
This all put me in mind of the rather wonderful “The Girl with the Pre-Fabricated Heart” from The Real Tuesday Weld’s ‘Dreams That Money Can Buy’ score featuring those other delightful hams David Piper and Cibelle
It is still a favourite of mine and I trust they will perform it again very soon.