I often seem to be more interested in the former wearers of objects in our collection than the objects themselves. That is even more true in the case of former owners who seem to resist revealing themselves. The following (and I’m afraid there will be more than one instalment) could be the script of a silent movie, complete with over-made-up villain, deceivingly pretty villainess and impressively shocked bystanders, although the writer of the title cards for this one would have their work cut out.
Where to start? Well, it’s always good to begin with some lovely shoes. The image below shows a pair made by Ignazio Pluchino (who really deserves his own blog entry) that are part of a small collection of dress items from the 1920s donated to the Museum in 1968. The shoes are now on display in our Galleries of Modern London, as well as a black satin evening coat from Machinka given at the same time.
The objects came to the Museum not directly from their former owner, but ‘through’ someone else, who may or may not be significant (I’m still working on that one). According to the sparse notes in the object file, the shoes belonged to a certain ‘Countess N. de Hamong’. The short entry in our register reads: ‘All worn by the donor, wife of the palmist Count de Hamong, who died 1933.’ As we will see, you cannot believe anything in this story, not even a museum register entry.
As much as this goes against the feminist leanings of a woman of my age and background, let’s continue not with the Countess, but with her illustrious husband. You might want to take a moment to check his wikipedia entry. From this you will learn that Cheiro [pronounced ki-ro] was ‘an Irish astrologer and colourful occult figure of the early 20th century. His sobriquet, Cheiro, derives from the word cheiromancy, meaning palmistry.’ So far, so good. Let’s now turn to the gentleman’s obituary published in The Times on 9 October 1936:
DEATH OF “CHEIRO”
Count Louis Hamon, who was well known for his works on palmistry and occultism under the name of “Cheiro” died in New York yesterday at the age of 69, states Reuter. He founded L’Entente Cordiale in Paris in 1901, and was proprietor and editor of the Anglo-Colonial American Register from 1900 to 1914. He had been a correspondent in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, had travelled extensively, and was founder-member of the Pacific-Geographic Society. Of late years he had been in Hollywood as a scenario writer.
Much to my amazement, I found one of Cheiro’s many works in our library (once our librarian is back, I will find out, I hope, how it got there), namely Cheiro’s Memoirs – The Reminiscences of a Society Palmist published in 1912. In the chapter ‘On the Making of a Seer’, Cheiro, whose counterfeit from the book you can admire below, briefly turns to his noble ancestry: ‘On my father’s side I am of Norman descent, on my mother’s from a French family, born in Ireland, and I may say almost bred on books.’
In a later tome, Confessions: Memoirs of a Modern Seer, published in 1932 (and available on google books, if you really have nothing else to do), Cheiro elaborates:
On my father’s side I am of Norman descent, and come of a family who can trace their lineage back to Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy.
As he became a Christian in order to marry the daughter of the King of France, I will only mention en passant a Pagan ancestor, known as Hamon the Sea-king, who with one blow from his battle-axe struck of the head of St. Hellier to prevent his converting his sailors to Christianity. Historical records show that this incident took place on July 17th, A.D. 526.
I may, however, add that one of his descendants, the uncle of William the First, by joining “The Conqueror” with a fleet of four hundred ships and a large force of men, decided the invasion of England. He received for his reward six of the largest counties of England and was named Prince of Glamorganshire. Subsequently, this man, Robert de Hamon, became such “a good Christian” that he established the first monastery in Britain, laid the foundation of Tewkesbury Cathedral, and is to-day honoured by a procession of bishops that once every hundred years makes a pilgrimage around his tomb.
I thought it might be interesting to juxtapose this lovely story, that probably contains just the right mixture of truths, half-truths and outright lies, with an excerpt from an article in The New York Times of 7 January 1909:
Hamon’s life before he came to Paris was a mystery. It was known that he had been “Cheiro, the Palmist,” and this “Cheiro,” it was said, had acquired vast sums of money in England and America, but how he had acquired the title of “Count” was not known, nor did that fact cause much anxiety, though he claimed to have inherited it from his father, who had received it from the Pope.
Paris? The Pope? Vast sums of money? You see what we are dealing with here. It will take some time, and arguably a greater sleuth, to unravel the mystery of the “Count” and his “Countess”, but I will do my best to make sense of it over the coming weeks. As Chiromancer Cheiro also seems to have been implicated in some way in the Curse of Tutankhamun, don’t be surprised if you never hear of me again …