A Chat with a Wig-Maker: 1893

A WIG-MAKER AT HOME

I am assured that to the well-regulated mind Bluebeard’s chamber could never have presented half the horrors suspended, like Damocles’ sword, above my devoted head as I passed through the room sacred to “commerce” in the establishment of Mr. Clarkson, the wig-maker, at 45. Wellington Street.

In the aforesaid receptacle of Lord Bluebeard. only the capital portions of exceedingly charming young ladies seem to have been on view, while in Wellington Street all the visages of all the terrible beasts which have ever disported themselves in Dreamland. after overindulgence in Christmas pudding, confront the beholder.

They leered, they glowered, they smiled, suggesting pantomimes and Covent Garden balls, as I hastened beyond their realm into the sanctum sanctorum of Mr. Clarkson.

A cosy, oddly shaped little room is this sanctum, with all its walls which are not hidden by mirrors covered with rare old prints and photographs of celebrities. Here the stage beauties of past and present are to be seen in a collection begun by Mr. Clarkson’s father, full forty years ago. Most of the portraits are signed, and among the signature are those for which many a member of the jeunesse doree would gladly pour forth a golden shower.

This little boudoir of mirrors is the magic mill into which totters old age, to emerge later blooming with beaute du diable (in all outward appearance. at least), and Mr. Clarkson is the miller.

He is a small, fair-haired young man, of pleasant manner, looking even less than his twenty-eight years, despite the beard, which is evidently intended to confer a semblance of maturity, and he assured me that, including his studies in Paris, he had been in his present business since the early age of twelve.

On a pleasing and expansive background of necktie played a diamond surrounded with pearls, presented, together with a large frame of photographs to Mr. Clarkson by the Queen, in token of her appreciation of his various services. As Mr. Clarkson, “Perruquier and Costumier to her Majesty,” informed me of these honours his eyes travelled to the photographs of royalty in question, and mine followed his, not ceasing their peregrinations until they rested in amazement upon a large glass case, filled. apparently, with numerous gentlemen’s very prettily curled scalps. I threw a glance of horrified inquiry at my host.

“Hundreds of men in society wear things like these.” said Mr. Clarkson. “I could mention some names which might surprise you. Women have by no means a monopoly of the false-hair market. although they are so fond of pinning on artistic little fringes, and making their back hair look as though it must rival Godiva’s if it were let down. See,” he continued, indicating a radiant golden object which made me feel dazedly that Mr. Clarkson had been guilty of scooping some lovely female’s face out of the back of her head and throwing the former detail away.

“See, that is intended for a rather well-known woman of society, who has ruined her hair by constantly bleaching it. Natural, isn’t it?”

Half-tearfully, I admitted that it was, and changed the tenor of my thoughts by asking Mr. Clarkson if he had as many interesting anecdotes to relate as he had hirsute adornments to display.

“Come upstairs, where we will not be interrupted,” he returned mysteriously. “B__, the detective, will be wanting this room to get up a disguise in presently.”

Feeling that I was walking straight into the pages of a “shilling shocker,” I followed my host to an apartment above the precincts devoted to business, and which was, he informed me, the scene of his nativity. “I‘ve plenty of anecdotes,” he announced. “but first I’ll show you a few things which may interest you.”

The room was filled with Covent Garden ball prizes and souvenirs of regard from various celebrities, from which I found it hard to distract my attention, until Mr. Clarkson placed in my hand a large silver-clasped volume presented by Wilson Barrett. “This is my autograph album,” said he. “Unluckily. it never occurred to me to start one until a couple of years ago.”

I opened the book at random upon a delightful sketch by Bernard Partridge. representing, under the heading “Before and After Going to Clarkson,” a hideous skeleton and a dapper individual on the right side of middle age.

Mr. [W.S.] Penley had written “I don’t like London,” and Mrs. Langtry addressed her “Willie” Clarkson as “the only comfort of her declining years.”

“I am forty-seven to-day, but, thanks to your Lillie powder, my complexion is equal to a youth of seventeen,” wrote Arthur Williams; while sprinkled about over the classic pages I saw the chirography of the Kendals [William and Madge], the two De Reszkes, the Countess of Ailesbury [Louisa Elizabeth Horsley-Beresford], Ally Sloper [probably W. Fletcher Thomas, who drew the eponymous comics], Professor Pepper [of Pepper’s Ghost fame], and hundreds of brightly shining luminaries from Sarah Bernhardt to Lottie Collins, who, by-the-bye, send all the way from Paris and America to Clarkson for their wigs.

“Now you shall see some of my dearest possessions,” said Mr. Clarkson. Thereupon he summoned a “myrmidon” in the shape of a boy, who obeyed his behest, returning bearing several large objects, among which was visible a huge and wonderfully curled black wig. “That was worn by Louis XIV. at his coronation, and was secured by my father,” he explained. “Here is the original wig worn by Fred Leslie as Rip Van Winkle; here is a wax model of Mr. [Joseph] Jefferson in the same part, given me by himself, and the wig is made of his wife’s hair.”

Again the youth appeared, this time staggering under the weight of a figure clad in an extremely curious costume, mostly composed of feathers.

“This dress was given to Edmund Kean when he was created a chief of the Huron Indians,” Mr. Clarkson observed with pride. “He presented it to Miss Foote, the mother of the celebrity who became the late Countess of Harrington. She in turn gave it to Leigh Murray, the comedian, whose wife preserved it for upwards of forty years, before passing it on to Mr. [A.A.] Gilmer, of the Alhambra, who finally gave it to me.”

Having gazed at these most interesting relics, and also seen all that was mortal of Mrs. Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt’s “Cleopatra” back hair, as well as a trailing mass of golden locks used by Miss [Violet] Van Brugh, Miss [Ellen] Terry’s understudy, in the part of Fair Rosamund, I reminded Mr. Clarkson of the “anecdotes.”

“Well, I could tell you many, which would make you believe truth stranger than fiction,” said he. “Scarcely a day passes which doesn’t bring some queer experience or acquaint me with a secret, for you know, not only is my work among stage people and professional detectives, but with those who wish to see a bit of life, or amuse themselves in an eccentric way, or discover a mystery, or satisfy jealous suspicions, without being recognised. I ’m often asked, also, to conceal disfigurements, from black eyes to tattooing. Speaking of the latter, when the King of the Maoris was in England he used to frequent the Alhambra, and the difference in the actors‘ appearance on and off the stage puzzled him tremendously, until the mystery of ‘make-up’ was explained, and my name was incidentally mentioned to him.

The very next day he came here with his interpreter, saying he desired to be made up. It then transpired that his Majesty was fond of walking in Piccadilly, but that his pleasure was marred by the attention his dark face and plentiful tattooing excited. Could I hide both? Of course, I could, and did, much to the satisfaction of the king, who could hardly tear himself away from the mirror. The following day he returned, radiant with delight over the success of his experiment, purchasing enough grease paint and powder to last the remainder of his life. Just as he was departing, he rushed back to say very sternly that if his chiefs should come inquiring for articles of make-up I was on no account to let them have any.”

“Do women of society ever come to you for other purposes than to be made beautiful?” I inquired.

“Sometimes with precisely the opposite desire. For instance, only a few days ago a coroneted carriage drove to my door, and a woman over whose beauty London has raved for several seasons entered with a request to see Mr. Clarkson alone. I’d often made her up for private theatricals, so we were not strangers. She had a wager, she informed me, that she would be able to sell flowers for two hours in Piccadilly during the most crowded time of day without being recognised, and she expected me to help her win the bet. It looked a shame to hide that lovely face under a rough, dark make-up, change the shape of the straightest nose in England, and put stones in the pretty mouth to alter the contour of the cheeks. But I did it, added a frowsy wig, a common frock, a torn straw hat, and sent for a basket of violets. Instead of the stately beauty who had swept into my shop in her Parisian gown, away went a Cinderella without Cinderella’s fairness. But the experiment was successful, I learned next day, and the wager fairly won.”

“And now, won’t you give me something with a spice of mystery?”

“As much as you like. Well, then, one morning a closed brougham drove to my shop, and the footman handed in a letter which contained a request that one of my people should be sent out for the purpose of disguising a lady. That was all. We were given no means of knowing whether she was young or old, or what sort of disguise was wanted, however, one of my best men was packed off, with a variety of materials in his disguise box, and was driven rapidly all the way to Richmond, or, at least, within half a mile of the town. There he was asked to alight, and provided with a cigar, which he was ordered to continue smoking until he should see a gentleman, wearing a red carnation in his buttonhole, advancing along the left-hand side of the road. Then he was to throw his cigar away, as a species of signal. He obeyed his instructions, met a gentleman, well dressed and of fine appearance, who explained the programme which was to be carried out by my man at the hotel, with extreme precaution in keeping his purpose secret. Unfortunately, however, the proprietor of the hotel, who was a great frequenter of the Alhambra and other theatres where my people are employed, recognised the man and called out ‘Hullo, Clarkson!‘ The poor fellow was quite frightened, lest in some way his object should thus have been defeated, but, luckily, the office was nearly empty. and he was allowed to proceed towards the room mentioned in his directions without being molested. The door was opened by a pretty young girl, who seemed agitated and hysterical, and who nervously entreated to be disguised as an old woman with as little delay as possible. After that day, the same man was sent for once or twice a week, during a period of three or four months, ordered to proceed to different hotels in different places, and usually to have a new disguise ready. At last we learned that the young lady was an important ward in Chancery, who had been secretly married.

“The ‘black eye’ episodes are sometimes very funny to us, though usually annoying enough for those most nearly concerned. Not long ago, for example, a young lady went out for a quiet walk the day before that set for her marriage, and was struck between the eyes with a stone thrown by a small boy. She was to have a large church wedding, and was horrified to find both her orbs assuming a deeply mourning tint. At last some sagacious and sympathetic friend suggested me, and I had the honour of making up her eyes an hour before the marriage. The work was triumphantly accomplished, and the bride went to the altar a ‘thing of beauty and a joy for ever’ to her bridegroom and her relatives.”

“Haven’t I heard your name in connection with the discovery of some famous criminal or other?”

“Perhaps you are thinking of the Strand abduction case. Yes, it was through our disguises that Newton was arrested. I am rather proud of that affair,” Mr. Clarkson smiled intelligently, and I was waiting in breathless expectation for a thrilling reminiscence, when the door opened to admit the head of the previously-mentioned “myrmidon.”

Mr. Beerbohm Tree has sent down about that wig of his for ‘A Woman of No Importance,’” was the announcement.

And Mr. Clarkson was obliged to make his adieu more abruptly than I could have wished, leaving me in a condition of some bewilderment as to whether it was the wig. or the woman, or matters in general which were of “no importance,” or whether in reality they were all very important indeed. A. L.

The Sketch 16 August 1893: p. 129-130

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  We have met the illustrious Mr Clarkson previously, in a recent story of a fancy dress ball, where he drew his costume inspiration from a whiskey bottle. It is said that he was an accomplished black-mailer and insurance arsonist: eleven out of the twelve premises he occupied burnt down. It was also rumoured that he had made disguises for Jack the Ripper. He certainly was an inveterate name-dropper, but with such an illustrious clientele, who could blame him?

The Strand Abduction case was a sordid affair: Edward Arthur Callender Newton abducted Lucy Edith Pearman, the 15-year-old daughter of a Strand tobacconist, passing her off as his daughter Rose.

One wonders if the society beauty who won her wager impersonating a violet seller, inspired Mr George Bernard Shaw to write about the opposite transformation in Pygmalion.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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