June 1st, 2011

Fancy that

Illegal leg-copying: a warning from history

Here's a trivial-but-true tale that I chanced upon during some recent work-related research.

You may imagine that tacky celebrity merchandising, illegal copying, and obsessive fans with more money than sense are modern phenomena. However, you'd be very, very wrong.

Eliza Vestris, in around 1835

Madame Eliza Vestris: she's got legs, and she knows how to use them.

Picture it: London, 1831. The celebrity in question was a renowned singer and actress called Eliza Vestris. She was especially famed for playing male roles, and thus having an excuse to wear tight trousers that shockingly revealed that she possessed actual, genuine LEGS. Not surprisingly, this attracted a lot of public attention of a lecherous variety, and poems were even written in her honour:
"What a breast! What an eye! What a foot, leg and thigh!
What wonderful things she has shown us!
Round hips, swelling sides, and masculine strides
Proclaim her an English Adonis!

So she caused a commotion when people saw her in the daringly attired flesh, but how could her fans be kept interested after they'd seen the show? It's not as if they could buy a DVD or watch her flashing her ankles on YouTube, after all. A sculptor and model-maker called James Papera* came up with an answer: make and sell copies of her legs! The lady herself agreed to have her lower limbs moulded, and any fan who could cough up the necessary cash could go to Mr Papera and place an order for a beautifully crafted set of replica plaster legs, "to a little above the knee and including the foot", to do with as they desired.

Unfortunately, Mr Papera soon discovered that suspiciously similar legs were "exhibited for sale in the shop windows of various artists about town, and on an inspection of these legs, he immediately recognized them as his property". Shock, horror! The case went to trial and Joseph's cousin, Thomas Papera, who worked for him, was accused of stealing the original casts and selling copies to other stores. Thomas, however, was found not guilty. The case was reported in the Times and elsewhere, and also became the subject of a satirical cartoon.

Alas, history does not record what people actually DID with the legs once they owned a pair. Laid them on the mantelpiece as an icebreaker at parties, perhaps? Or arranged them in the garden as a stylish alternative to gnomes? No, I suspect they were mostly purchased by gentlemen for their own kinky private use. They were certainly the cause of a lot of rude joking: the poet Thomas Moore noted in his journal that the casts of Madame Vestris's legs were "said to be better than the originals in as much as they could be kept together". (I think Mr Moore may have demanded a rimshot at this juncture.)

By the way, if you couldn't afford the official legs, OR the cheap knock-off legs, you could always opt for a collectable porcelain figurine. At least it would have taken up less space on the mantelpiece.

So, as you watch the ravening hordes queuing up to get their hands on a 12-inch Justin Bieber doll, just remember that there's nothing new under the fandom sun. And by the way, my exclusive and extremely classy range of collectable hand-cast Cumberbatch cheekbones will be in the shops shortly, just as soon as I can persuade him to turn up for a casting session and get him on the couch...

* A respected businessman in his day, and not just a 19th-century answer to Cynthia Plaster-Caster.