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Celebrity Crushes in the 19th century: Eugen Sandow, queer friendship, and postcard mania

Writing by Ruby Hann. Illustration by Polly Burnay.

A few days ago, a friend forwarded me the Instagram post of a celebrity we both admire. The accompanying message simply read “Fit ???”, to which I responded “VERY.” Upon first glance, this interaction might seem quintessentially 2021: a form of communication impossible to imagine just a few decades ago, that will inevitably seem dated in a few decades time. However, the emotions evoked by this interaction – the bond that comes with sharing a celebrity crush with a friend – are far from new.

In December 1899, Robert Browning, arguably one of the most famous poets of the English-speaking world, was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. Amongst the audience of the memorial service was the poet, author and critic Edmund Gosse. Despite being a friend of Browning’s, Gosse would later describe the memorial as “tedious” and admit to finding himself distracted. The object of Gosse’s diverted attention was a series of postcard photographs of the Prussian bodybuilder and showman Eugen Sandow, which he had snuck into the service.[1]

When I first learned of this anecdote, I was struck by the similarity between Gosse’s secretive postcard-viewing and scrolling through thirst traps on Instagram. After all, the postcards of Sandow, the work of photographer Henry Van der Weyde, are undeniably sexy. In one image from the series, Sandow imitates a classical statue: posed on a plinth, muscles flexed, his modesty barely covered by a fig leaf.[2] Sandow is also arguably the grandfather of modern-day fitness influencers: he was a shrewd businessman who capitalised on admiration of, and attraction to, his body in order to flog postcards, books, and magazines across the British Empire. By constantly releasing new images of himself, Sandow inspired his fans to build dedicated collections. The poet and writer John Addington Symonds even admitted to his obsession with collecting “copies of all the nude studies which have been taken of this hero.”[3]

Following the funeral, Gosse sent at least one of his Sandow postcards onwards to Symonds. This was not a one-off occurrence: postcards of bodybuilders were repeatedly exchanged within a network of upper-class London gay men, including including not only Gosse and Symonds, but also Lord Alfred Douglas and Marc-André Raffalovich. [4] The cultural historian Bjarne Rogan describes sending postcards as a form of “activity-orientated” communication, the purpose of which is to “confirm, mobilize, or strengthen social relationships”. One of the ways in ways in which postcards achieve this is through their acknowledgment of a shared knowledge, or set of common references, between sender and recipient. [5] The exchange of this postcard strengthened the relationship between Gosse and Symonds, as it acknowledged their shared attraction to men. Upon receiving the postcard, Symonds gushed that he could “hardly venture to write what I feel about the beauty of this photograph”, safe in the knowledge that Gosse felt similarly. [6]

Whilst Gosse and Symonds were clearly attracted to Sandow’s physical appearance, that attraction was intensified by Sandow’s celebrity. Bodybuilders like Sandow cultivated public identities, beyond those of simply athletes, but as performers, personalities, and idols.[7] Gosse and Symonds were not simply appreciating an anonymous body, but were infatuated with a public persona. Symonds’ quest to collect all available photos of Sandow suggests an idolisation of Sandow as an individual, rather than a desire to simply amass as many nude photos as possible. This is another aspect of Gosse and Symonds’ interaction which feels timeless to me: when my friend sends me the Instagram post of a celebrity, it provokes different feelings to if they had simply sent me a photo of an attractive stranger. Part of the fun of celebrity crushes is imagining the personality behind the carefully-curated image and wondering if you would get along if you ever met.

I admit that the comparison between my Instagram DMs and a 19th century postcard exchange is not a perfect one. If I wanted to, I could access far more images of my favourite celebrity than even the most devoted Sandow-worshipper could ever. My friend and I are also able to be open about our shared attraction: we can comfortably leave a like or a comment on the post before passing it on. Still, there is something endearingly relatable about Gosse and Symonds. The thrill of an impossible infatuation, shared gleefully with a friend, is an experience recognisable across centuries.

[1] David Waller, The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2011), 71. Cited in Fae Brauer, ‘Virilizing and Valorizing Homoeroticism: Eugen Sandow’s Queering of Body Cultures Before and After the Wilde Trials’, Visual Culture in Britain 18:1 (2017), 46.

[2] Brauer, ‘Virilizing and Valorizing’, 40.

[3] Bryan E Burns, ‘Classicizing Bodies in the Male Photographic Tradition’, in A Companion of Classical Receptions, eds. Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 443–444. Cited in Brauer, ‘Virilizing and Valorizing’, 47.

[4] Brauer, ‘Virilizing and Valorizing’, 46.

[5] Bjarne Rogan, ‘An Entangled Object: The Picture Postcard as Souvenir and Collectible, Exchange and Ritual Communication’, Cultural Analysis 4 (2005).

[6] John G. Younger, ‘Ten Unpublished Letters by John Addington Symonds at Duke University’, The Victorian Newsletter 95 (1999), 2. Cited in Brauer, ‘Virilizing and Valorizing’, 46.

[7] Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: gay male eroticism in photography and film from their beginnings to Stonewall(New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 178.

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