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The American West in London

Traces of transatlantic fascination



 



On May 9, 1887, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show made its debut in London before a crowd of 28,000 in the first-ever performance at the outdoor arena at Earls Court.
 

The extravaganza – and it really was – featured “cowboys, sharpshooters, musicians, 97 American Indians, 180 horses, 10 elk, 10 mules, five Texas steers and the old Deadwood stage coach.”

The show caused such a sensation that the reclusive Queen Victoria, in mourning since the death of her husband a quarter of a century earlier, requested a private performance.

Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux warrior who would survive both Little Big Horn in 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, noted, “She came to the show in a big, shining wagon, and there were soldiers on both sides of her.” Sitting in the royal box with an entourage of 25, “We stood right in front of Grandmother England. She was little but fat and we liked her.”

At the start of the show, a horse and rider galloped into the arena carrying the American flag. The ringmaster announced that the flag represented peace and friendship. And then something remarkable happened: the queen rose to her feet, and bowed in front of the flag.

An amazed Cody recalled, “Then – we couldn’t help it – there arose such a genuine heart-stirring American yell from our company as seemed to shake the sky. It was a great event. For the first time in history, since the Declaration of Independence, a sovereign of Great Britain had saluted a star-spangled banner.”

One hundred thirty years after that event, only the spirit of that day lives on. Earls Court Exhibition Center was knocked down last year, and the plaque that was placed there to commemorate the hundreds of performances by Buffalo Bill and company has been lost to history.

Glimmers of the American West, however, survive in the English capital – if you know where to look.

 

Past the suits of armor and ancient lances, within the mighty stone walls of the Tower of London, visitors wander centuries-old passages worn smooth by the feet of those who plotted royal intrigue, wore the crown jewels, devised torture chambers and pronounced doom on the luckless prisoners who would never again see the world beyond the castle walls. But as tourists turned a corner in a darkened room, an unexpected relic, brightly lit and encased behind plexiglass, held a place of honor against a bright blue background: an American Indian war bonnet.

I was one of those tourists, startled to come across the relic in 2015. It looked authentic, a little weathered and old. Back in Oklahoma, I’d sometimes think of the headdress and wonder how it went from the Great Plains to London’s most famous fortress. Was it taken in battle? Given as a ransom? Presented as a gift? It turns out that it was nothing as romantic as I’d imagined.


Returning to London earlier this year, I found the piece no longer on display. In its place was a wooden statue known as the Lumley Horseman – a carved depiction of King Edward III on horseback, commissioned in the 1580s, thought to be the oldest surviving English equestrian statue.

But what happened to the headdress? Bridget Clifford, Keeper of the Tower Armouries, was able to shed some light. Known now as Inventory Number M.61, the headdress was purchased at the Birmingham-based auction house Weller & Dufty in 1994.

“It was described as a feathered war bonnet, and has eagles’ feathers with four ermine skins hanging loose at the brow,” she says. “It was displayed with six arrowheads said to have come from Blackfoot Indians, given to the great aunt of the donor in about 1900 while traveling the Ohio trail. They were presented in 2002 to the museum. We have other American material in the Collection, but little of native origin.”

As the Lumley Horseman glistens on display, the headdress has now been returned to storage in the museum collections, far from curious eyes and the towering skies of the Great Plains.

 

A bison paws the ground in Kensington Gardens, holding down one of the four corners of the world at the Albert Memorial, Queen Victoria’s elaborate salute to her beloved husband. Planning began a month after his death from typhoid at the age of 41, and took nearly 15 years to complete.

At the center of the universe is Albert, glistening under a golden canopy, surrounded by statues representing the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and America. The charging bison anchors an allegorical tableau of indigenous Americans in various states of undress, created by the sculptor John Bell.

“The Spirit of America,” wearing a Native headdress, rides the bison side-saddle, spear in her right hand, shield in her left. She is flanked by two women representing Canada and the United States, with two men representing Mexico and South America seated behind them. Alone among the continental groups, the Americas were infused by Bell with an expression of “present progress and general onward movement,” led by an armed woman “mounted on a bison, charging through the long prairie grass.”


Meanwhile, back in the American West, during the 1862-1875 span of the memorial’s planning and construction, the slaughter of the bison was in full force. Their numbers plummeted from a population estimated as high as 60 million to near-extinction, with only 300 remaining by the turn of the century. At the same time, the Native Americans idealized in marble were engaged in losing battles for their homelands west of the Mississippi.

Nevertheless, back in London, the depiction of the Americas with a Native flavor pleased Queen Victoria, who had the last say about the hundreds of components in her husband’s elaborate memorial. The America group went through several changes, based on her preferences. One of her notes on Bell’s early sketches disapproved of the animals that were included: “I don’t think much of the Beaver.” By the next version, the beaver had disappeared, leaving in its place a poetic version of the wild Americas, memorialized in marble.

 

Tucked away down an arched alleyway called Pickering Place, not far from St. James Palace in the heart of London, a plaque in the shadows marks the former location of an outpost of the American West.

The 60-foot-long alleyway leads to the smallest square in Great Britain, where it is said the last public duel was fought. Its seclusion made the tiny courtyard a natural choice for shady enterprises including bear-baiting, gambling and houses of ill repute. But the location also was convenient, near the Palace of St. James, and many rented space in the building, owned then and now by Berry Bros. & Rudd – wine merchants and makers of Cutty Sark Scotch Whiskey.

Among the tenants was the Embassy of the Republic of Texas, one of two established in Europe by the independent nation. (The other was in Paris, at the Hotel de Vendome.) But they were not to last. The Texas representative, Dr. Ashbel Smith, skipped town as it became clear the Republic was about to join the Union, leaving behind an unpaid rent bill of $160.

In 1963, former Gov. Price Daniel attended the unveiling of the historical plaque at Pickering Place, sponsored by The Anglo-Texan Society, which had been founded a decade earlier by author Graham Greene.

In 1986, to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Republic, 26 Texans traveled to No. 4 St. James Street to pay the overdue bill. The men dressed in buckskins and paid the $160 — in Republic of Texas bills. 



► American West for Sale

Littered among the clothing stalls, antique shops and food vendors of Portobello Market in Notting Hill is memorabilia of the American West, real and imagined: faded vintage U.S. flags, Easy Rider posters, well-worn cowboy boots, mass-produced dreamcatchers, replica Route 66 signs and tinny Indian Territory sheriff badges made in China.

At Harrod’s, the five-acre luxury department store on Brompton Road now owned by the nation of Qatar, high above the specialty foods and nestled among the upper-floor restaurants is the Disney Wild West Cafe, featuring Woody, Jessie, Bullseye and Monument Valley vistas.

Even on the London Underground, travel posters beckon with images of abandoned highways stretching to the horizon, and dusty mountain bikers pausing amid the red rocks of the Southwest.

 

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August 2017

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Telephone: 405.478.2250
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Cost: $75-$160

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Cost: $5 for Non-Members, Free for Members

Where:
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415 Couch Drive
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Sponsor: Oklahoma City Museum of Art
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Telephone: 405.235.4458
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More information

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Where:
Santa Fe Depot
200 S Jones
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View map »


Telephone: 405.307.9320
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More information

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Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
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Telephone: 405.478.2250
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More information

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Cost: $10-12

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Cost: Free

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View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.604.0042
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Expand your skills and explore your creativity this summer. Enrollment is open for our four- and eight-week classes designed for artists at any level. Under the guidance of experienced instructors,...

Cost: $75-$160

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary
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View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

Oklahoma Contemporary’s second edition of Guerrilla Art Park features six Oklahoma artists, ranging from emerging to well established. This year, many of the artists chose to focus on the...

Cost: Free

Where:
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View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.604.0042
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

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Cost: $35

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Where:
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13230 Pawnee
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View map »


Website »

More information

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Where:
Santa Fe Depot
200 S Jones
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View map »


Telephone: 405.307.9320
Website »

More information

Married, divorced, remarried to other people ... now a pair of wealthy socialites are thrown into a new old affair in this Coward comedy.

Where:
Myriad Gardens
301 W Reno
OKC, OK  73102
View map »


Telephone: 405.235.3700
Website »

More information

Play ball! OKC's warriors of the diamond get set to host Omaha.

Where:
Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark
2 S Mickey Mantle
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View map »


Telephone: 405.218.1000
Website »

More information

This portrait of early Oklahoma revolves around photography from the decades of shots archived by Land Run settler Henry Wantland.

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 NE 63rd
OKC, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Website »

More information

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Telephone: 405.406.7484
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Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
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Telephone: 405.236.3100
Website »

More information

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic presents an overview of the artist’s career including around sixty of his oil paintings, stained glass and sculpture. The exhibition...

Cost: $10-12

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
Contact Name: Becky Weintz
Website »

More information

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Where:
OK Hall of Fame Museum
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View map »


Telephone: 405.235.4458
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More information

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National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 NE 63rd
OKC, OK  73111
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Telephone: 405.478.2250
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Christopher Sergel's adaptation of the Harper Lee classic is an engrossing reminder of the importance of doing right in the face of whatever comes.

Where:
Jewel Box Theater
3700 N Walker
OKC, OK  73118
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Telephone: 405.521.1786
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This summer, Oklahoma Contemporary is kicking off Showroom|Showcase, a series of installations by local artists in the Showroom, located at 11th and Broadway. Our first featured artist is Rachel...

Cost: Free

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary's Showroom
1146 N. Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
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Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.604.0042
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
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Expand your skills and explore your creativity this summer. Enrollment is open for our four- and eight-week classes designed for artists at any level. Under the guidance of experienced instructors,...

Cost: $75-$160

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary
3000 General Pershing Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK  73107
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Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
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Departs Exchange Landing | Saturdays (May  – August) | 11:40 am Experience history as you never have before. Colorful Oklahoma characters will reenact history through the eyes of...

Cost: $6-15

Where:
Exchange Landing
1503 Exchange Avenue
SW, over the bridge from Farmer's Market
Oklahoma City, OK  73109
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Telephone: 405.702.7755
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Oklahoma Contemporary’s second edition of Guerrilla Art Park features six Oklahoma artists, ranging from emerging to well established. This year, many of the artists chose to focus on the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary's Showroom
1146 N. Broadway
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
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Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.604.0042
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
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Saturday cartoons aren’t just for the children anymore. Share the classics with your crew every Saturday on an Oklahoma River Cruise. Kids 6 and under ride free.

Cost: $15 (free for kids 6 and under)

Where:
Exchange Landing
1503 Exchange Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73109
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Telephone: 405.702.7755
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Shake your groove thing! Rock the boat, but don’t tip the boat over! Disco atmosphere, party mix and adult beverages all are awaiting you - view the ferry schedule online for evening...

Cost: $15

Where:
All OK River Cruise Landings
Oklahoma City, OK  73109


Telephone: 405.702.7755
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TRC presents its 6th annual nighttime black-light race! On-site registration and vendor booths open at 6 p.m., so bring out your friends and family for a great event, with all proceeds going to The...

Cost: $20-$40

Where:
Mitch Park
1501 W Covell Rd
Edmond, OK  73003
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Sponsor: The Recovery Center
Telephone: 405.525.2525
Contact Name: Ky Humble
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The City Cabaret OKC presents group numbers, trios and duets, oh my!

Cost: $25

Where:
The Paramount Theatre
11 N Lee Ave
Oklahoma City, OK  73108
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Rockin' vibes with Oklahoma's Adam Miller. NOIR serves craft cocktails, delish food, and brunch after 10:30 p.m. Smoke and Vape-free  

Cost: Free

Where:
Noir bistro & Bar
701 W Sheridan Ave
Oklahoma City, OK  73108
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Going up? This colorful event includes live music, carnival rides, pop-up shops and food, but the main draw is the phalanx of 40 beautiful hot-air balloons.

Where:
Chisholm Creek
13230 Pawnee
OKC, OK  73114
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Play ball! OKC's warriors of the diamond get set to host Omaha.

Where:
Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark
2 S Mickey Mantle
OKC, OK  73104
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Telephone: 405.218.1000
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A trip to the amusement park becomes even more tempting with a set from the infectious boy band.

Where:
Frontier City
11501 N I-35 Service
OKC, OK  73131
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Telephone: 405.478.2140
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A joint exhibition of Western portraiture and iconography from Oklahoma Hall of Fame artists Mike Larsen and Harold T. Holden.

Where:
OK Hall of Fame Museum
1400 N Classen
OKC, OK  73106
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Telephone: 405.235.4458
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Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic presents an overview of the artist’s career including around sixty of his oil paintings, stained glass and sculpture. The exhibition...

Cost: $10-12

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.236.3100
Contact Name: Becky Weintz
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Artists, crafters and musicians in multiple genres - all of them female - help demonstrate the crowd-pleasing and inspirational power of creativity, XX-style.

Where:
Automobile Alley
NW 9th and Broadway
OKC, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.810.6977
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Family aid organization Parent Promise hosts its 21st annual fundraiser, offering auctions, music and fun in a Monopoly-themed evening.

Where:
OKC Golf & Country Club
7000 NW Grand
OKC, OK  73116
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Telephone: 405.232.2500
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Married, divorced, remarried to other people ... now a pair of wealthy socialites are thrown into a new old affair in this Coward comedy.

Where:
Myriad Gardens
301 W Reno
OKC, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.235.3700
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Christopher Sergel's adaptation of the Harper Lee classic is an engrossing reminder of the importance of doing right in the face of whatever comes.

Where:
Jewel Box Theater
3700 N Walker
OKC, OK  73118
View map »


Telephone: 405.521.1786
Website »

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This portrait of early Oklahoma revolves around photography from the decades of shots archived by Land Run settler Henry Wantland.

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 NE 63rd
OKC, OK  73111
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Telephone: 405.478.2250
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A slice of American (and Oklahoman) history retakes the spotlight in this exhibition of works created under the New Deal's Federal Art Project.

Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
OKC, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.236.3100
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