Elaine Lennon is a film historian. She is the author of ChinaTowne: The Screenplays of Robert Towne and is widely published in international film journals. She has a background in television production and film financing and was a lecturer for a decade in film studies and screenwriting at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology.

Unicorn Horn

By Elaine Lennon

There is a house in Oxford’s leafy Wimpole Road which has an unsung but fascinating collection of objects. More commonly referred to as a cabinet of curiosities, that term typically used to describe an array of rare and esoteric artefacts spanning worlds from archaeology and ethnography, to ancient religions and contemporary pastiche, its owner was doubtless inspired by Ashmole and desired to have a museum named in his honour. [1] He was following a practice of acquisition originating in the sixteenth century when rich people spent lots of money in foreign countries to prove they could afford to go on a Grand Tour and bring back eclectic souvenirs and arcane detritus of dubious origination: the aristocrat as a hunter-gatherer. An array of oddities, a cornucopia of random trinkets, speculative enquiries into civilisation or the passing fancies of a dilettante? You will not find in the collection items of geopolitical significance of the kind that gave rise to the great institutions but you will find a story about time.

The property in question was undistinguished until a dark night in October 1987 when that unheralded weather phenomenon known as The Great Storm supposedly caused an elm to fall through its Georgian walls, cracking them open to expose a gaping maw of darkness quite unprecedented in such a sedate locale. The Wunderkammer at the centre of the building remained intact, untouched by the mysterious flames that engulfed the house while all around it decayed upon the tree’s impact, with the many stained glass windows which held fast to their black metal frames dispersing an eerie light across the secluded, now overgrown, garden.

The house’s owner, transplanted Frenchman Ludovic Faber, has never been seen since that date, his origins obscured by the mists of time, misinformation and rumour, his presumed death a matter for speculation. The only visual evidence of the man is a personal photograph.

The image is a medium close up of a saturnine, beautifully groomed and handsome aesthete with a pencil moustache. His hair is swept to the left and his eyes have a slightly distorted quality as if suppressing his true feelings even as a smile creeps about his generous lips. Perhaps it was just irritation at the smoke discreetly curling from his black Sobranie (Russian: Собрание, Gathering, Collection, Assembly). There is an indented inscription in the right hand corner of the print but the faded ink makes it tricky to decipher. On close inspection the subject looks for all the world like the actor Anton Walbrook.[2] Despite Faber’s seeming ubiquity in twentieth century British society (circa 1919-1973), and his mention in several biographies and memoirs, [3]  this ageless social gadfly, theatre goer, antiquarian, gourmet, philanthropist, traveller, Olympic pole vaulter, flautist, mountaineer, gallerist, reporter, backgammon player and sometime painter, a veritable combination of Leonard Zelig and Tintin, has left surprisingly few, if any, traces, save for the objects in this room.

What is that drives an individual to collect? The thrill of possession? The amassing of the unusual? Assigning the intrinsic value of rare finds via their positions in a whimsical hierarchy of significance? Is the intoxicating pursuit a sign of discernment or a correlative for an unravelling mind as the collection spirals in size and uselessness? Perhaps it is a special type of madness. It is nonetheless an indication of character, inclination and history.

The dark chamber is typical of the genus, its foreboding oak-clad walls and vermilion glass suggestive of a sulphurous atmosphere. This dedicated room on the first floor of the building, filled with heavily laden shelves, glass-covered displays and wooden catalogues, hints at the circumstances of Faber’s demise. While not an officially recognised library, Faber proposed a card system to identify the inventory in the conventional manner of attribution:  Archive; Taxonomy; Classification; Record; Index; Notation – a bibliophile’s delight. An accompanying notebook from the mid-twentieth century (name: R. Miles, Archaeologist) contains several sections, separated by ribbons, describing field discoveries in keeping with the contemporary manner, material contents being listed and illustrated with sketches. The categories are arranged as animalia, mineralia, mollusca, medicine, religious relics (an emphasis on anorectic saints), sculpture and so forth. Here is a representative sample:

Geology: some splendid rocks which Faber gathered while dangling from the end of a rope suspended in a volcano, or so it is claimed. Fossils. Crystals. A Nautilus Shell (nautilus testa), used as a container – a grail! – holding a curved bone (provenance unproven) with a mound of grey ash, the latter possibly scooped from the room itself following the fire. A potential interest in bestiaries might be inferred from a copy of Historiae Animalium by Gessner, Conrad (1516-1565), inspiring the misguided belief that this bone is a narwhal tusk

Natural history: a piece of putrefied Patagonian brontosaurus skin. A crocodile egg. A three hundred-year old Mermaid (syreni) [fake], formed from those parts of a horny fish deemed sufficiently non-odorous to be reconstituted as the mythical creature. The scales still pong a bit.

Esoterica: includes the javelin (tenebat lanceam) that impaled Richard Burton’s face. [4] A pair of tweezers (forcipe) stippled with mildew and a lump of mould: from the trousseau of Queen Anne. A multi-coloured feather (pluma), plucked from the head dress of Pocahontas (or a fancy dress box. Or a pea hen.) A pig’s bladder used as a prophylactic by Hadrian. Or his close friend. A rusty hinge removed from the door of St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day 800.

Ethnography: other than some skulls from PNG, principally twentieth century, and pardon me, but what is this excursion into what might charitably be described as celebrity memorabilia – a momentary lapse of taste, the indication of an unsound mind or a form of unworldly sensual obsession? These items resemble the sort of juxtaposed bric-à-brac a woman would rescue from a charity shop rather than the measured selectivity of a scholarly male mind, yet they possess their own fascination. For instance, a used lipstick (labia lignum) in an imitation gold tube. Colour: carmine. Owner: a dead film star (mortuus film stella), possibly Jennifer Jayne, a minor English actress. A shredded swatch of stained (blood?) fabric partly authenticated as the scarf (pictus strangulatus) that killed Isadora Duncan (previous owner: Gertrude Stein). A length of faded ivory silk embossed with crystals and pearls from Queen Elizabeth II’s Primavera-inspired wedding bustier, produced in the atelier of Royal Designer Norman Hartnell. A letter from the David Cassidy fan club.

Faber wasn’t moving in his glorified circles from the early 1970s onwards, but  occasional glimpses of him in local hostelries and supermarkets (where he purchased his subsistence diet of gin and corned beef) might have given people pause: did he have a disintegrating portrait in the attic? [5]

Age did not wither him. An emerging pattern in the collection points towards a preoccupation with the practice of alchemy in this period. Alchemy, schmalchemy. On the one hand we might summarise the mythical process of transmutation in the triadic form of crystallisation – distillation – sublimation;  on the other it could be described as  purification – longevity – immortality. The one is chemistry, the other is magic of the blackest variety. A short iron bar labelled Daemon tool x, demonstrates a sympathy for noxia medicamenta, as proposed by Pliny in Natural Histories (which expands on the idea that this material could assist as a form of curative. As if!). A copy of Charles du Fresne du Cange’s Glossarium Mediae et Infirmae Latinatis offers more variations on this theory. [6] A consuming fascination with demonology is given weight by copies of that Elizabethan favourite John Dee’s Enochian Dictionary; Fludd’s catchily-titled 1616 bestseller  Apologia Compendiaris Fraternisatem de Rosea Cruce Suspicionis et Infamiae Maculis Aspersam, Veritasis quasi Fluctibus abluens et abstergens; Isaac Newton’s journals (all one million words on alchemy, the discovery of gravity not being enough for him); and Nicolas Flamel’s 1612 opus Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques. The further one delves into alchemy the more one realises that it’s a lot of hot air. Boys will be boys though and Faber’s Greek tendencies meant he was never content to satisfy his desires with a nude woman.  All the chemistry experiments in the world can be short circuited with that sly biological urge coitus, whose dizzying erotic effects the act of changing base metal to gold and bodies into light – and the elimination of time itself! – is formulated to mimic.

The circumstances of Faber’s exit hint at the involvement of the aforementioned scrivener and alchemist Flamel (1330?-1418?), reputedly immortal due to his discovery of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir vitae, last reported eating frîtes mayonnaise at the Paris Opera in the 1870s. Not content with being a sidekick in a series of popular children’s books, he was also name checked as a member of the Priory of Sion in a thriller that sold an unholy number of copies to twenty-first century Judaeo-Christians seeking salvation in armchair tourism.  [7]

Curator’s note:  A corrective to the above. The facts are as follows. A solitary individual passing the Wimpole Road house on the evening in question allegedly observed a flash of light followed by a puff of smoke, reflected in the windows. Whether these occurrences were caused by Heavenly Fire, an experiment in weird science, or a commingling of Faber with Flamel, we will never know.  Did the world’s greatest magic trick take place without witnesses in that locked room? The severed sleeve of a Charvet shirt, a curved white bone and the cubic end of a cuff link, are all that remains of one of the lesser-known alchemical brothers, who seemingly fatally fuelled his own Roman candle (lucerna Romanum) in an explosion of ecstasy that caused him to burst at the seams and enter the fiery furnace of eternity. Did Faber then attain what the scientific greats never did – oneness with the cosmos? Spontaneous combustion at the highest peak of orgasm, while widely debunked, is thought to be the most likely explanation for his disappearance. [8] Follow that!

Thus the most fascinating and bizarre specimen in this particular cabinet of curiosities is Faber himself. Curiosity killed the collector, as it were, whether by philosophical, sexual, expressive or accidental means, he was never seen again. However the spectral figure of Flamel downed a pint of bitter at the Pie and Flag before closing time on the 15th October 1987. Had Flamel absorbed Faber’s essence? Was he continuing his journey through time? Did Faber ever have independent existence? For now, the accidental alchemist’s celestial status is unknown. Ashes to ashes and all that. By his collection shall we know him – the ultimate collectible: a unicorn horn (unicornis cornu.)

© 2020

[1] Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) for whom the eponymous museum is named was a classic English eccentric – politician, antiquary, officer of arms, astrologer and dabbler in alchemy.

[2] Simula simulacrum! Does nobody do their picture research?! It is Anton Walbrook, that gay old Austrian smoothie who took up residence in London when Hitler jackbooted his hometown. How many other heavily accented gorgeous Mitteleuropȁischer homosexual thespians were there hanging around London in 1939? And the inscription clearly reads, All my love Big Boy! A. Accompanying the photographic studio stamp on the back is a bold scrawl in purple, I’ll toot your flute any time, dearie. L.

[3] cf. Ivor Novello, Aleister Crowley, Noël Coward, Julian West, Conan Doyle, Cecil Beaton, Edward James, Diana Mitford, Eddie Chapman, Somerset Maugham, Coccinelle, Alexander Korda, Jayne Mansfield, Kim Philby, L. Ron Hubbard, Roger Vadim, Stephen Ward, Jimmy Page, Kenneth Williams, John Stonehouse, HRH Princess Margaret, Reggie Kray, Dirk Bogarde, Laurens van der Post, Mary Whitehouse, et al. The usual suspects.

[4] The nineteenth century derring-doer, not the Welsh actor.

[5] No. But a signed first edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890) occupies pride of place on Faber’s desk.

[6] An odd bod if ever there was one, commemorated by a grotesque statue in Goblet Square, Amiens.

[7] One look at the Mona Lisa would sicken anyone. The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown makes no mention of Faber.

[8] Another theory is that this was an episode of sex magick in which an abortive attempt at exploring the three major sexual orientations in one act of inglorious copulation came to a juddering halt following the injurious combination of heat source, wand and fleshly crucible.