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Postcards from Agnes

Figure 8. Hallstatt

One of the areas of our Absolutely Agnes exhibition (in the People of the World gallery) where Agnes Fawcett Barden (née Hallenstein) starts to feel real is the selection of postcards she wrote to, and occasionally with, family members.  

We borrowed a small group of these points of clan contact for display from the Hocken Collections | Te Uare Taoka o Hākena. There are still many more there, among Charles Brasch’s papers. We wanted to show some of the places that Agnes visited or mentioned, a range of recipients, and a few communal missives to illustrate how members of the family holidayed together at times. 

Her handwriting isn’t always particularly tidy. I know better now than to assume that people born in the 1860s would have been taught an orderly copperplate script that they maintained throughout their life. When we were working on transcribing the messages, sometimes deciphering individual words depended on learning more about the images on the front of the card, or the location from which they were posted. During that process, I learned a number of randomly connected (or not), minor and major facts about situations and events.  

Here are my ten picks:  

1. Most immediately sobering was a black-and-white postcard showing metres-high rubble piled around destroyed buildings with a few horse-drawn carts, and the words Terremoto - Messina del 28 dicembre 1908 Avanzi del Duomo. There was a massive earthquake in Messina, southern Italy, in December 1908. Some researchers have described it as the most powerful recorded earthquake to hit Europe, with a magnitude of 7.1 and a main shock lasting for more than 20 seconds. Casualties were estimated to be between 80,000 and 100,000 peopleAgnes sent the card to her nephew, Harold Hallenstein Fels (18911917), the son of her oldest sister, Sarah, and Willi Fels. Harold would have been about 18 years old when he received it.  

A quick online search shows a number of earthquake postcards from the early 20th century1906 in Valparaíso, Chile; 1907 in Kingston, Jamaica; 1910 in Costa Rica;1923the Great Kantō earthquake in Japan; 1931 in Napier, Aotearoaand 1933 in Long Beach, CaliforniaIt’s not always easy to remember the limited means available to communicate images of such devastation without our current technology and media.  


Figure 1. Messina 1908 Gloeden Wilhelm
Figure 1:
Wilhelm von Gloeden (18561931). Consequences of the earthquake of Messina, 1908.  


2. Avenel was the name of the house in Royal Terrace, Dunedin, where Sarah and Willi Fels were living when Agnes sent the Messina postcard to Harold. It was where their oldest daughter, Helene Fels, was married to Hyam Brasch in September 1908. The house seems to have been owned by the Hart family. Earlier in the decade, David and Marie Theomin lived there while they waited for their home, Olveston, to be built. There’s also a small town named Avenel in Victoria, Australia, just north of Melbourne, apparently named for the titled Derbyshire family. Ned Kelly’s family moved there around 1860. There’s an Avenel in Central Otago, too, not far from Millers Flat. 

3. Thanks to Emeritus Professor Robert Hannah, and Dr Pat Hannah, we know that via Barberini is a street in Rome, well-known for the piazza Barberini at one end, centred on sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s seventeenth-century Triton fountain. Agnes had a holiday address of 51 via Barberini, which is nowadays a jeweller’s premises (Aldo Msellati l’Orologiaio) on the ground floor, under six storeys of what look like apartments. The building’s current façade might not have been renovated since Agnes stayed there. 


Figure 2. Map of Rome
2: Street map showing via Barberini, Rome.
 Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies


4. The Antonia Fortress was built in Jerusalem by King Herod in 35 BC and named for his patron Mark Antony. It stood at the north-western corner of the Temple Mount. Flavius Josephus (a Roman–Jewish historian and military leader) wrote that it was built on a rock 50 cubits high (26.25m). It had apartments, cloisters, baths and courtyards, and was garrisoned at times with 600 Roman soldiers. It’s the image on a postcard that Agnes sent to Charles Brasch in March 1928. She was in Jerusalem then, about to move on to Petra, then Damascus   


Figure 3. Tower of Antonia
3: Tower of Antonia/Antonia Fortress. Purchased with the support of the Mondriaan Stichting, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, the VSBfonds, the Paul Huf Fonds/Rijksmuseum Fonds and the Egbert Kunstfonds.


5. The Jebel Akhdar or Al Jabal Al Akhdar is one of the Hajar Mountains in Ad Dakhiliyah Governorate of Oman. It is famous for its complex of wadis and terraced gardens/orchards of pomegranates, apricots and roses. In 1935, Agnes wrote to Charles Brasch, then in Istanbul, that she had a good view of it as they drove to Beirut; that the fig trees were in leaf; and that she would be leaving for Haifa the next day 


Figure 4. Jebel Akhdar view
4: Terraces in Jebel Akhdar (Oman). ©Philipp Weigell;


6Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation (1818–19) is a poem written over 181819 by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and published posthumously in 1824. It takes the form of a conversation between two men with different outlooks on life: Julian, an English atheistand Maddalo, a Venetian nobleman, but is at heart an autobiographical work exploring the relationship between Shelley and his friend Lord Byron. Agnes wrote to Charles Brasch that she had just been reading it and thought it very beautiful.  

Shelley was only 29 when he drowned in a boating accident in Italy in 1822. He is also the author of the better-known Ozymandias and To a Skylark 


Figure 5. Shelley
5: Percy Bysshe Shelley. Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Mrs A.G. Macqueen Ferguson Gift 1950.


7. The Salzburg Festival of classical music and the performing arts was founded in 1920 in Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartby Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Max Reinhardt and Richard Strauss. It is held each European summer, starting in July. Agnes sounds as if she was a regular attendee. When she sent a postcard to Charles Brasch with an image of the large medieval Hohensalzburg Fortress atop the Festungsberg mountain, she wrote she was about to hear Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).  


Figure 6. View of Salzburg from Modern Museum
6: View of Salzburg. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.


8. Lonely Planet describes Austria’s Salzkammergut asa dramatic region of alpine and subalpine lakes, deeply carved valleys, rolling hills and rugged, steep mountain ranges The popular Hallstätter See is arguably the most spectacular of the lakesYear-round inhabitants of some small Central Otago towns might sympathise with Hallstattwhich apparently has only 750 permanent residents but attracts more than 70,000 visitors a year. Agnes was one of a group of family members who signed the postcard of Hallstatt to Peter Fels in Dunedin, though it may have been Kate Fels who described the lake as “almost as good as Wakatipu but not so big”. 


Figure 7. Hallstatt
7: Hallstatt. © C.Stadler/Bwag; CC-BY-SA-4.0.


9. Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (11 December 1892 – 17 March 1979) was an Italian tenor with a lyric voice of exceptional range and technical facility. He performed throughout Europe and the Americas for more than 40 years but was particularly famous in the years between WWI and WWII. Agnes wrote from Rome to Charles Brasch in Oxford that she had heard him sing in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, presumably as the troubadour and army officer, Manrico. It’s a role he first sang in 1926, in Buenos Aireswith the soprano Claudia Muzio as Leonora, who is in love with Manrico. This site has links to a couple of his recordings:  



10. Val Gardena is a valley in the Dolomites, in northern Italy, known as a centre for mountain sports. I’m not sure if Agnes skied, though at least some of her nieces and their friends did. She might, however, have been writing in her summer (the card is not dated) when she told Charles Brasch she was going to visit Hazel there. If sothe attraction could have been the dramatic alpine scenery, for which Val Gardena is renowned. It is surrounded by the Dolomites, which were declared a UNESCO World Natural Site in the year 2009. It’s also had a flourishing woodcarving industry since the 17th century. 


Figure 9. Val Gardena
Figure 9
:  Gardena Valley (Grödnertal), Dolomites, South Tyrol, Italy.Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.