Saturday, January 16, 2010

Rolfe in Oban

To add to the collection of related-to-one-of-my-authors-but-otherwise not-very-valuable vintage photos these two came to me a little while ago. Albumen print photos from the studio of the prolific photographer and postcard publisher James Valentine. They are photos of Oban in Scotland where Frederick Rolfe spent a particularly unhappy few months. The then Marquess of Bute decided, with a converts zeal, that he wanted to found a choir school for the putative catholic cathedral, yet to be built, in the town. It was a foolish idea but when Rolfe was offered the mastership the combination of boys, catholic religion and noble patronage made it impossible for him to refuse. It went badly wrong.

It is always tempting to put most of the failures of Rolfe's life down to his paranoid and abrasive personality but there are a couple of examples, and this is one, where his paranoia may have had some grounds and the mastership of the choir school, although doomed from the beginning by the bizarre nature of the idea, was one of these moments. He was undermined and unsupported and when an odd assortment of clergy turned up at the school they failed to acknowledge Rolfe's authority over the boys and the school and Rolfe accuses them of drunkenness and general bad behaviour. I have copies here of the letters the clergy wrote to the Bishop complaining about Rolfe and it is clear from the handwriting, let alone the content, that the writer was very much in their cups. Rolfe's position quickly became unfeasible and he left. These photos show Oban for the slightly scraggy Scottish town that it was at the time: almost contemporary with Rolfe's stay there.

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