Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian naturalist and explorer who explored much of Central and South America. Humboldt and his friend, the French botanist Aime Bonpland, explored the coast of Venezuela, the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, and much of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico (1799-1805).
Charles had been an avid follower of these explorers as England entered the Victorian era, exploits that took Charles through his youth until in 1838 he found himself on board a vessel bound for Peru following his hero Humboldt exactly forty years to the day.
Peru was beyond imagining and a fresh eighteen year old with adventure in his blood had his first real taste of the unknown the very first night the expedition decided to set up camp in a pineapple grove.
As he lay down to sleep he felt a sharp stabbing pain down his back, like a thousand needles, which made him jump up startled. It was dark so he fetched his oil lamp and pulled away the bed clothes. Through the gloom he could see hundreds of tiny spikes, so small they could only just be discerned in the fading light. Quickly reaching for his magnifying glass he gazed closer.
The spikes were actually small sharpened sticks, and on each one, carefully skewered, were what appeared to be a selection of foraged food. Clearing away a bigger area revealed that the sticks eventually diminished into empty piles of sticks with curvy trails leading away in all directions. A faint noise sounding like a toot-toot came from his bedroll and out popped a Peruvian Party Python, brightly coloured and resembling a slinky line of sausages it stithered, or stagger-slithered away into the night before Charles could catch it guided by it’s glittery rotating tail.
Charles first true experience of the unknown which we now know was the start of something great.
The painting itself has a more mysterious history, it disappeared into the private collection of a Charles Forster in 1858 and remained hidden from public gaze until 1869 when it appeared in the offices of a newly formed toothpick manufacturing factory. Owner of the toothpick manufacturing machine and patent was Charles Forster prompting speculations that the Peruvian Party Python had a significant influence in events. It’s one of only several paintings that remain in private hands and occasionally it is loaned out for exhibits and in some cases to be used as stylised period props in dramas.
In September 14th 1945 the painting resurfaced as part of London’s Thanksgiving week, celebrations after the war were frugal and simple fare such as food skewered on a simple toothpick become increasingly popular. It reached a peak with record toothpick sales in the mid 70’s, again the painting mysteriously appeared in the background of the television adaptation of ‘Abigail’s Party’ along, unsurprisingly, with simple fare skewed on ‘cocktail’ sticks as they had now become known.
The painting passed back into the museums hands only recently after being found at the back of a prop cupboard at the BBC.