A Movie Star Album: Commemorating Rudolph Valentino

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The elaborate title page of an album made by a dedicated admirer

Ninety years ago, at 12.10pm on 23 August 1926, Rudolph Valentino died at the age of just thirty-one. At the time, he was probably the biggest star in the world – he was certainly the brightest – and an outpouring of public grief followed his untimely death. 

Every 23 August, I spend time remembering Rudolph Valentino – watching a film or two, reading about his work, and reflecting on the impact he had on the filmgoers of the 1920s. Watching his films on television courtesy of Channel Four Silents (when I was a lot younger) awakened my lasting passion for silent film, so I feel I should honour his memory.

I may have my private “Rudolph Valentino Memorial Day”, but back in the day, the Shepherds Bush Pavilion in London held a “Rudolph Valentino Memorial Week”, with revivals of Monseiur Beaucaire, The Eagle, Blood and Sand and Beyond the Rocks. Mr Forsyth, the General Manager of the Pavilion, seems to have taken care over the event, hiring an Italian singer to perform a special “In Memorium” prologue, publishing one of Valentino’s own poems, and giving a detailed synopsis of what he considered the main draw, Monsieur Beaucaire.


Today, Monsieur Beaucaire is one of the lesser-known Rudolph Valentino films. I have seen it just once on the big screen – about eighteen years ago – and I loved it. The costumes are beautiful, Valentino is witty, and the swashbuckling is excellent. It also seems to have been enjoyed by a mysterious Valentino fan who put together a beautiful Rudolph Valentino album between 1924 and 1926 to express some of their feelings about what they were seeing at the cinema.

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The mysterious album maker was definitely dedicated to creating something lovely. The album is beautifully made. Some pages are covered in black paper, the better to create a dramatic effect. Black and white pictures, cut from magazines, have been painstakingly coloured with inks. Blue skies have been cut out and pasted behind a picture of a captured Valentino in The Son of the Sheik. Poetry and prose is carefully written in stylised lettering, some in gold paint.Tiny flourishes are used to highlight the text.

The maker selected poetry with which to honour Valentino. I identified three poems as being by Rupert Brooke: Not With Vain Tears, When We’re Beyond the Sun; The Great Lover; and Beauty and Beauty.

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Another poem – When Thou Art Dead – had me at a loss. The words were used by Erich Korngold as the basis for his song Tomorrow in The Constant Nymph but this was not written until 1943, far too late for a 1920s album. Eventually, I tracked down a song with the same lyrics that had been popular during the First World War by Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens.

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A further poem appeared to have been copied from Valentino’s own book Daydreams. But when I checked the album version against the original words, I realised that the maker had adapted the words. Valentino’s “You are the History of Love and its Justification / The Symbol of Devotion / The Blessedness of Womanhood” seemed to have become slightly darker.

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Sadly the album was never finished. The last dated entry is from October 1926. There are then a few pictures cut with great care from magazines, ready to be pasted on to blank pages. An unfinished page, with illustrations drawn in ink and a poem traced out in pencil, shows how carefully the maker prepared their pages. The pencil marks are faded and just the ghost of a poem remains. I suspect it was written by the maker, who had graduated from copying out poetry, to adapting it, to writing their own.

Perhaps the maker lost interest in the album or found a new object of desire. Maybe the lack of new films and fewer and fewer opportunities to see Rudolph Valentino on the screen made the album feel less important. However, the album wasn’t thrown away. It was kept, and kept in very good condition. We can’t tell who made it, we don’t know what they did after 1926, where they lived, or how old they were.

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I hope very much that the maker wouldn’t have minded their album being shared. It is such a beautiful object that it seems a shame to keep it sitting on my shelf to be taken out once a year on 23 August. We know very little about silent film audiences, but this album tells us that at least one cinemagoer in the 1920s found the inspiration to create something beautiful from what they saw at the picturehouse.

A Visit to Green Knowe 

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The Manor, Hemingford Grey

I have a large collection of books about sewing. This collection has changed over the years: to begin with when I first started learning to quilt, I bought books that focused on technique, that set out rules about thread type, dictated strict seam allowances and hinted at the correct way to press fabric. As my quilting developed and I stopped following patterns – and gained the confidence to dispense with the rules that didn’t work for me – these books were given away and replaced with books about quilt histories and culture. But one book has stayed with me from the start: The Patchworks of Lucy Boston by Diana Boston.

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I knew that Lucy Boston (1892-1990) was the author of the children’s Green Knowe series and I remember reading The Castle of Yew years ago. But discovering that she was a stitcher meant that I looked at her work with new interest. The names of her quilts intrigued me: The Babes in the Wood Patchwork, The Patchwork of the Crosses and – most exciting of all – The High Magic Patchwork. These names give the quilts additional depth, for the naming of quilts is an important way of conveying the intention of the maker. Lucy Boston may have described the occupation of patchwork as “disorderly and messy, the room littered with snippets of paper, cotton and lengths of thread, and a maelstrom of materials,” but from disorder and mess comes beauty and deliberation.

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Tolly “saw the head of a giant stone man, carrying a child on his shoulders.”

Last week I visited the Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, Lucy Boston’s house and the setting for the Green Knowe books. It is a beautiful house, with the oldest parts dating back to the 12th Century. Its situation by the river Great Ouse makes it very easy to imagine the floods that open The Children of Green Knowe when the boy Tolly approaches the house by boat in the evening when “the windows were all lit up, but it was too dark to see what kind of a house it was, only that it was high and narrow like a tower.” To Tolly it is like a castle, and he wants to know “Do things happen in it, like the castles in books?” And of course they do.

I don’t actually remember reading the Green Knowe books as a child, but I must have done because, when I went into the room at the top of the house, “a room under the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof and all the beams showing,” there was Toby’s Japanese mouse and I knew him straight away.

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“On the chest of drawers Tolly had seen two curly white china dogs, an old clock, and an ebony mouse, life-sized with shiny black eyes. It was so cleverly carved that you could see every hair, and it felt like fur to stroke.”

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And there was more – “a beautiful old rocking-horse … a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.” The creak-croak of the rockers was almost audible. It was The Children of Green Knowe come to life – perfectly.

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As well as the joy of finding Tolly’s room, I had the pleasure of seeing Lucy Boston’s quilts. I was especially privileged to be able to touch them, as, wearing white gloves, I helped our guide, Diana Boston, turn them out for viewing. The quilts are made from an eclectic range of fabrics – from wartime dusters to silk, from needlecord to embroidered wedding dress cotton, from heavy furnishing fabric to Liberty prints. Many pieces were fussy cut – with the sort of precision that I admire but never have the patience to achieve – and the piecing is extraordinary. There is a stunning Mariner’s Compass quilt – with twelve of that most complicated of blocks (which I have never dared attempt). When making it, Lucy Boston experienced a feeling known to all quilters: “My patchwork is proving very difficult indeed. It has large circular patterns that will not lie flat. They all heave up like rising tea-cakes.” The Babes in the Wood was a triumph of applique, as owls, birds and squirrels wandered amongst leaves and flowers in autumn colours. My favourite was the High Magic Patchwork: a mass of stars, suns and the phases of the moon. Lucy Boston made this piece when she was writing An Enemy at Green Knowe and noted that it “served to keep my thoughts moving.”

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The Manor is open all year round and can be visited by appointment. The photography policy is very generous and visitors can take pictures all over the house and gardens. However, it isn’t possible to photograph the quilts. Instead, Diana Boston’s lovely book The Patchworks of Lucy Boston can be purchased from the Manor along with cards featuring some of the quilts (and proceeds go towards the upkeep of the house and garden). And the Patchwork of the Crosses, probably the most well-known of Lucy Boston’s quilts, can be seen here thanks to the British Quilt Study Group of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

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