Monday, 16 September 2019

Shhh! Happens

Today's post is about one of my favourite things.  I have a hypersensitivity to sound and so I retreat into silence whenever I can.  I am also rubbish at gauging sound so a common complaint I often get is that I talk too quietly or too quickly as I have difficulty working out how my noise is working for other people.  Let's pretend I'm talking at a normal level now, so read this slower and...hang on... should I talk a bit louder?  
How's this? 
No, you're right, that's too loud.  We'll stick with this.  Anyway, all this rambling got me thinking about depictions of silence in paintings...


Voice of Silence (1907) Viktor Zarubin
You'll be unsurprised that silence was seen as a virtue in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  More than that actually, it was spiritual, akin to Godliness (that that, Cleanliness!) and images like the one above reflect that.  The wise and spiritual will always find their wisdom and spirit in the soaring majesty of silent nature.  I like how the huddle of black clad figures are echoed in the grooves and cuts in the white of the cliff.  The men are just another grouping in the landscape, but I notice that they have built their own bench making it a little man-made rest-stop in the scenery.

Silence (1903) Mikhail Nesterov
Two fishermen and their boats bob on a silent lake.  Again, the humans have brought their own means to exist in the landscape, man-made crafts to carry them on the water.  I like to think the silence in this picture is because the two men are not talking to each other.  They used to share a boat, but then fell out over a particularly attractive turbot.

Winter's White Silence (1923-4) Lucy Kemp Welch
I particularly like the silence that comes with a snowfall.  All sound becomes muffled; I won't say 'deadened' even though it's technically correct because I find that glimmer of snow and the fresh 'crump' when you walk on it, to be the beautifully alive.  I think the idea of Lucy Kemp Welch (or the Notorious LKW, as I like to think of her) and her 'silence' is the effort of hard work in bitter conditions.  The two men are in no mood for conversation and the horses are getting on with their work but I find the scene singing with the hoof crunches in the snow, the ringing of the bridles, the huff of the horses.  Maybe the idea behind the painting is that the snow has silenced the normal voice of work, brought the conversations internal.  No-one is lingering in the cold as it penetrates everyone and everything.  The first horse has turned into an ice-horse and may well just blend into the landscape, becoming yet more snow for the others to wade through.

And All the Air a Solemn Silence Holds (1900) Joseph Farquharson
Farquharson goes that one step further and takes those annoying humans out of the landscape and leaves only a couple of discreet rabbits who I can't imagine are that noisy.  Again, snow is linked to silence, possibly also with the idea of sleep.  Linking with this is the mythology around the goddess Demeter, whose search for her daughter Persephone causes all of nature to stall and cease without the warmth of her love and attention.  The silence of the colder months could be seen as signs of this misery, this dying.

Silenced (1905) John Seymour Lucas
Talking of dying, a very human side of silence is death.  Heaven knows what our chap in white did to anger the retreating figures but his glowing costume alludes to the fact that he is an innocent party in all this.  I like the fact that our chap seems to have strayed in from the sunny corridor, his foot extending into the beams of light, but the shadows have claimed him.  The red and black of his attackers tell a very simple story of the evil lurking in the darkness, striking at the good, light figure but maybe it isn't as simple as that.  The black hat, now discarded on the floor, could hint that our angelic, glowing victim had another side, something more shadowy.  People don't get murdered in front of tapestries for no reason, you know.

The Silence of Pure Innocence Persuades Where Speaking Fails (1855) Thomas Brooks
Taking a quote from The Winter's Tale, we have a domestic scene where a widow points to her cute children in order to appeal to the better nature of the bloke in the top hat.  At first I wondered if it was a relative, but maybe her landlord is more likely?  The dead husband is shown above the fireplace as a noble soldier, cut down in his prime (I'm guessing recently as the baby isn't that old).  The trouble stems from the now sudden poverty that has struck the family because respectable women are unable to support themselves.  Are all the children girls?  It's hard to tell as all children seem to be dressed in dresses until the trousers kick in.  It doesn't look good, but we come across the important link between women and silence...

Silence (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
This is the image that set me going on the whole subject of silence actually.  I remember writing a post on the theme of how weird it was to have a picture of people playing music because you couldn't see sound (well, you can, it's called synesthetes.  Kandinsky apparently had it which means his paintings are actually pieces of music, or something).  It is therefore equally as interesting to have a picture, which is by its very nature a silent thing, of a silent thing, as its point.  It feels like over-egging the pud, if you know what I mean.  However, what's going on with all the women..?

The Hour of Silence (1907) Henri Meunier
When you start looking for it, there are an awful lot of women being quiet in pictures.  Lots of ladies keep 'mum' in these images - there's another thing, why 'mum'? Is keeping 'dad' something different?  It's from a Middle English word, where we also get 'mumming' and 'mummers' who act without speaking.  I'm sure it's only a coincidence that 'mother' also gets shortened to a word that means to keep quiet.  The mum who lives next door to us keeps anything but.  She has an impressive range and volume and wonderful ennuciation.

Mollie: In Silence I Stood your Unkindness to Hear (1882) George Dunlop Leslie
From the poem, 'Wapping Old Stairs', poor old Mollie puts up with all manner of nonsense from Thomas, who cheats on her with Sal or the very dubious 'Susan from Deptford'.  Yet she entreats him to stop sleeping about because she washes his trousers and makes his grog.  Mollie, love, you can do better.  Also, don't stand there in silence, I know a few choice words for your precious Thomas, one of which is Gitweasel.

Wings of Silence (undated) William Shackleton (1872-1933)
Even when women are together, we keep our mouths shut, apparently.  Even little water sprites don't disturb the beauty of nature.  I love the little bird just causing tiny ripples on the surface of the pool with its wing tip.

Musicienne du Silence (1900) Arthur Hacker
Maybe, and I might be a tad suspicious here, there could be a link between the press for female suffrage and the depiction of women as silent.  A number of the images I've used today come from the early twentieth century, just as women were finding their voice of protest.  The idea that a woman would be a silent figure, taking the abuse of her unworthy husband, or a sad widow allowing her dignity to do the talking, grows more abstract with Symbolism.  They become voiceless beauty, paragons of silent perfection, examples and fantasies.  Are all women meant to aspire to this hushed perfection?  What of men, are they meant to follow the example set by these goddesses or like poor Mollie's Thomas, use their silent partner as a scapegoat for all the wrongs of life?

The Silence (1965) Carel Weight
Finally then, Carel Weight painted this family group in the 1960s, but I include it because, a bit like Stanley Spencer, I often get a feeling of purposeful antiquity or timelessness in Weight's scenes of modern life.  Of course, the woman in the middle could well be a Victorian as she sits in splendid isolation on her (possibly Morris & Co) throne.  One side is a figure that could be construed as her son, the other, possibly her grandson, but to my mind it does not seem to be a companionable silence.  Despite being penned together by the garden wall, the upright strokes of the fence and plant supports separate the figures.  Is this modern life?  Not keeping quiet out of dignity or feminine ideals, just not having anything to say, not even to our children.  I'm not sure that's progress...

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Review: Charlotte Bronte's Devotee

One of the funniest parts of the Harry Potter Studio Tour is when you see a video of the (then) very junior assistant at Warner Bros talk about taking home the novel of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and coming back in all buzzing about this book which she felt would be massive.  And it was.  Well, imagine the publishing assistant who came in the morning after with the manuscript from Charlotte Bronte clutched in their hot little hand? Say hello to William Smith Williams...

I had the very great pleasure to meet Philip Hamlyn Williams at the Lincoln  Literary Festival and heard how he was writing a biography of his great, great uncle William Smith Williams.  The result is Charlotte Bronte's Devotee, a thoroughly researched and entertainingly written book about one of the best-connected men in mid Victorian Britain.  I struggle to think of anyone who wouldn't be interested in this story because so many people seem to be connected to him.  Do you have an interest in the Bronte family? Ruskin? Rossetti? Thackeray? Lawrence Alma-Tadema? George Eliot? Mrs Gaskell? All crop up in this tale of publishing and friendships, with a healthy dose of sudden death and dodgy marriages thrown in to boot.

Thomas Carlyle
I love how much detail there is in here.  I was tickled by the fact that in the early years of the nineteenth century, the road between Westminster and London was beset with highwaymen so MPs had to travel in groups for their own safety.  From the first, Williams was a man of connections, counting John Keats as a schoolmate and from his first foray into publishing could count Thomas Carlyle amongst his friends with correspondence from Dickens.
Charlotte Bronte (unknown date) J H Thompson

Of course, it's for his friendship with Currer Bell (or Charlotte Bronte, as she is more usually known) that we acknowledge Williams today.  His recognition and encouragement of Charlotte's talent from the first builds a close and lasting friendship.  Reading her letters to him (treasured and preserved by the family) are a treat and make you wish that his letters had also been kept.  Indeed, the one we have reminded me of the treatment of the one letter from Fanny Cornforth quoted in Paull F. Baum's book of Rossetti's letter to Fanny.  The Bronte Encyclopedia suggested that this letter from Williams to Charlotte showed Williams to have 'no great skill in writing and that the ambitions which frustrated him so were based more on fantasy than fact' which is a sweeping statement for one letter, especially one written on the occasion of Emily Bronte's death.  It is obvious from Charlotte's responses to his other letters over many years that his letters brought her joy.


One of the unexpected joys of the book are Charlotte's comments on being a woman at the time, many of them offered while Williams still (on the face of it) believed he was corresponding with a gentleman.  On the subject of female further education, Charlotte was enthusiastic - 'Whenever I have seen families of daughters sitting waiting to be married, I have pitied them from my heart.'  I absolutely loved the comments she got back from Poet Laureate Robert Southey after sending him some of her poems - 'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be ... the daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind.' Well, he's a keeper.

This is an easy read because the tone of the narrative is so friendly and conversational from a writer who obviously loves his subject and wants you to love it too.  I feel I know figures in literary history just that bit better after reading this and my opinion of Charlotte Bronte has risen greatly.  I knew pretty much nothing of Williams beyond his part in Bronte's publishing life but found his achievements as fascinating as his personal life.  The friendship he shared with Charlotte was not all plain sailing especially with Mrs Williams (at least in the perception of Charlotte) and one quote from Charlotte on friendship really struck a chord with me:
'In the matter of friendship I have observed that disappointment here arises chiefly - not from liking our friend too well - or thinking of them too highly - but rather from an over-estimate of their liking for and opinion of us.'
In these times of on-line, written friendships, I find that to be unfortunately true and wise words indeed.

I cannot recommend this book enough as it is a treat and a gem.  Autumn is when we should be gathering books to see us through the winter months and let this be one of them.  Charlotte Bronte's Devotee by Philip Hamlyn Williams is available from Amazon UK (here) and US (here).

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Book News! Light and Love

This is the sort of post I adore writing because it is to do with a forthcoming book.  For a while now I have been working on my research on Mary Hillier, maid and model to Julia Margaret Cameron and the part that she played in Julia's photography.  I have also been fascinated with Julia's spirit, her attitude to life and her work, and so I am now delighted to announce that I will be publishing a biography of Julia and Mary in 2020, entitled Light and Love...

The Kiss of Peace (1869) Julia Margaret Cameron
I had intended to write a straightforward biography, but the more work I did, the more I found that Julia's life before Mary foreshadowed the impact that the two women would have on each other.  I wanted to explore the path that brought the two together and what happened when the two women parted.  As is ever the case with models, it has often been expressed that Mary's life only had interest when she was in front of the lens, but her life after the photographs was as eventful as the years she spent posing.  

Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die! (1867) Julia Margaret Cameron
In my book I want to explore the tension of 'celebrity' in Freshwater, the impact of the influx of the mainland into the village and how royalty and money, as well as bankruptcy and criminality, followed.  Mary, barely into her teens, combined the role of domestic maid with being the epitome of beauty for an artist and became the face of the inception of the blending of art and photography.  What brought Julia to that point, what informed her ideals of beauty so that they could be fulfilled by a girl from an island village?

Mary Hillier (1860s) Julia Margaret Cameron
When Julia returned to Ceylon, what became of Mary?  What impact did her life in front of the lens have on her later life?  Mary Hillier's life after Julia demonstrates the creative process and its legacy in all it touches in both wonderful and tragic ways.  She lived long enough to see her face rediscovered for a new generation, healing after the First World War, and to have her life interpreted for the amusement of the Bloomsbury set. 

Light and Love (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Lushly illustrated with Julia Margaret Cameron's beautiful photographs, this will be a book as beautiful as both women deserve.  This is the biography of two lives, clashing cultures, dangerous chemicals, triumph, tragedy and an awful lot of love.

Light and Love will be published by Unicorn in Autumn 2020.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Flappers Travel Fast

We'll begin today slightly earlier than normal, but then we finish up in the 1930s so it all balances out.  Anyway, today's ramble-y post starts in 1773, and Gottfried August Burger's poem Leonore...

Frank Kirchbach illustration for a translation of Leonore
I'm sure you are all very familiar with the tale, not to mention the many, many translations of the poem, including one by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but for those who need reminding, the storyline is thus:

An 1860s translation of Burger's ballad
Our sad ballad begins with lovely, pouty Leonore wondering where the heck her boyfriend William has got to.  He's been off, fighting in Prague (I blame all the stag weekends) and the rest of his soldier-friends have come home but William hasn't.  Instead of taking this fact quietly, Leonore decides to take it up with God who she blames entirely and points out how unfair it all is because she's been a good girl and everything.  Leonore's mother, hearing her daughter ranting at the Almighty, decides to put in a good word for the otherwise blameless Leonore with God because honestly, you really shouldn't be arguing with God, that sort of thing goes down badly with Him and gets you sent to Hell.  Also, I'm guessing being known as the mother of the woman who shouts at God isn't a great look either.  To make her daughter feel better, Leonore's mum says 'well, look, he might not be dead, he might have just shacked up with another woman.' Thanks Mum.

Leonore illustrated by Joseph Louis Leborne (1796-1865)

Anyway, one night there is a knock on the door and it's William!  Hurrah says Leonore and gleefully jumps on the back of his suspiciously large black horse ready to be carried off to her marriage bed.  They go awfully fast and Leonore begins to suspect that everything is not entirely right.  When they arrive at a cemetery, things begin to look even more unromantic.  Their marriage bed is in fact an open grave, already containing William (who indeed had not shacked up with another woman, Mum) and Leonore crumbles into the ground while God says 'That'll teach you.'



Whilst overblown and bonkers, this ballad was not only translated by a bevy of contemporary writers and a few since, but also influenced many writers with the tale of a lover rising from the grave to claim a partner and the general supernatural-ness of it all.  The phrase 'The dead travel fast' which is spoken by Dead William to Leonore as they gallop to the grave, cropped up in books such as Dracula and (after a fashion) A Christmas Carol.  My interest in the story came through Julia Margaret Cameron who published a translation of the tale in 1847.  Her version was illustrated by Daniel Maclise, who also provided some of the illustrations to the famous Moxon Tennyson, a decade later, including one of my favourites...

Extraordinarily camp King Arthur gets the sword of his dreams!
Anyway, Julia Margaret Cameron's translation is just that, a translation.  Being devote in her faith, she adheres to the tale of Divine retribution for cheeky daughters and being galloped to the grave.  As you might have gathered, and as I will explain in a forthcoming post, I am currently writing a book about Julia Margaret Cameron and so read her version of the tale with interest.  I also read this book...


For those that don't know who Lady Troubridge is, here's a reminder...

Laura Gurney (1872) Julia Margaret Cameron
Laura Troubridge, nee Gurney, was the grand-daughter of Sara Prinsep, sister of Julia Margaret Cameron.  

Alice Prinsep Gurney and her daughter, Laura
Her mother was Alice Prinsep, who married Charles Henry Gurney, but the marriage was not overly successful.  This led to little Laura and her sister Rachel being shipped back to Grandma Sara Prinsep and the excitement of Little Holland House.  Inevitably, this happened...

Rachel and Laura Gurney (1872) Julia Margaret Cameron

Not to mention this...

Rachel and Laura Gurney (c.1875) G F Watts
Laura married Sir Thomas Troubridge in 1893 and embarked on a career as a writer.  Her book Memories and Reflections is an absolute treat and it was while seeking a cheap copy of this memoir that I came across one of her novels called The Story of Leonora.  How could I resist?

My battered copy of Lady Troubridge's novel...

Lady Troubridge's novels are often dismissed as Mills and Boon-type stuff and on the face of it The Story of Leonora from 1930 doesn't exactly sound like an adaptation of a somewhat gothic poem. Quoting from the back cover:

In the 'eighties the power of the parents was supreme.  In marriage the giving or witholding 
of their consent was decisive.  The Story of Leonora is the story of a girl whose
 mother's passionate nature and insane jealousy could not bear the thought 
of her daughter's happiness with a former admirer of her own.  From this situation, 
pregnant with tragedy, Lady Troubridge traces the subsequent life of Leonora 
against a fascinating background of the vanished social conditions of the 
late Victorian and Edwardian eras

Well, blimey, that all sounds like an emotional roller-coaster.  Never one to say no to something 'pregnant with tragedy', I plunged right in...

Leonora Stanniford is a beautiful and privileged little girl with a nightmare of a mother.  From the beginning of the novel you are left in no doubt that Caroline 'Carrie' Stanniford will not be wasting any time pleading with God to spare her daughter from Hell as she is too busy having it away with most of the handsome gentlemen in 1880s London. Leonora has her cousin Theodora for company, who is as dark as fairy-like Leonora is fair and utters such brooding lines as 'Brunettes are always wicked'.  In fact on page 34 there is a complete run down on what men find attractive in a woman which is most helpful, thank you.  Apparently, don't be too smart, men don't like that, and don't be too 'forward and fast' because men really like that but have to pretend they don't.  That's cleared that up.

Anyway, Leo and Theo have a childhood in Versailles with various relatives that bears rather a resemblance to Julia Margaret Cameron and her sister's upbringing with their French Grandma, just round the corner from the palace of Versailles.  When Leo, now a pretty young woman returns, Carrie Stanniford is horrified to discover that she has grown up to be (gasp!) as pretty as her! But younger! The horror.

As a child, Leonora caught sight of a handsome young soldier that, oddly enough, Carrie hadn't slept with (even though he apparently wanted to) and fell in love with him.  When she reached the dizzy heights of 17 she meets him again and he falls in love with her (because she looks like her mother, but lets not dwell on that).  Lord Denzil Lynford, our dashing soldier with a frankly preposterous name, is apparently 'too soft for this wicked world' but Leonora's mother cannot bear to see them together so she hatches a plan to separate the lovers when Denzil is summoned off to the Sudan on a camel, for War reasons. When he does not return, Leonore begins to wonder...

Okay, so that's a bit round the houses, but it's loosely the plot for Leonore by Burger.  What Troubridge does is give us a version without galloping horses and with actual decisions.  Leonora has to marry someone apparently and she marries her mother's choice, a man with ambition and position.  Lord Matthew Carlingford could easily have been a panto baddie, crushing the hopes and dreams of little Leonora while she pines for her one true love, but actually, he's quite nice.  So what happened to Denzil?  Go on, find a copy of the book and find out. It's brilliant.

Laura Troubridge's childhood shines through the narrative.  We met with Lord Tennyson, who is described, I'm guessing, rather accurately, and is peppered with quotes from his poems.  I also loved details like how Leonora's hair is dressed (in a 'Langtry knot') and what you get to eat at a debutant's buffet.  It's romantic, a bit torrid, but Leonora's life, although rocky, has a much fairer ending than her namesake.  She's not dragged to Hell, rather she reclines on a bedstead in Mayfair.  Far more dignified.  While Laura Troubridge seemed to specialise in Victorian glamour, this balances the sensibilities of the modern age with the romance of the past.  Leonora strays off the appropriate, moral path but she isn't really damned for all eternity.  For all Troubridge's comments on what makes a good wife and a decent woman, she allows commentary on what the Victorians got wrong in terms of morals to slip into the story subtly.

If you are feeling romantic and wonder how the readers of Flapper-Lit would reimagine an eighteenth century ballad of Divine punishment, this is definitely the novel for you.  I really love the way that Laura Troubridge writes and so will now seek out her other novels.  And remember, as it says on page 63, 'to deceive your mother is surely the worst crime a girl can commit', even when your mother is Carrie Stanniford.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Dropping in on Tennyson (again) (properly this time)

Those of you who have read this blog for a while might be able to cast your minds back to 2014 (when we were all so young and beautiful) when I wrote a post on visiting Farringford, home to Alfred Lord Tennyson.  At that time the hotel was under a great deal of restoration and the such-like but in recent years a transformation has occurred and now common folk, like what I am, can pay their shilling and have a good old shufty around the majestic home of the Laureate.  So I had a damn good wash and got on a ferry...

When I visited half a decade ago I was tempted to lurk in a hedge like a Tennyson groupie, but this time you are directed to a nicely appointed car park at the other end of the garden.  Having got myself booked in to my tour (there are a few every day and I went for the lunchtime one) I got to potter around a beautiful garden where some bumble bees were getting lushed on giant thistles.

Bumble bee, getting plastered in pollen and rightly so

Making my way towards the house, I skirted round to find the Watts sundial.  Designed by Mary Seton Watts as either a gift and/or a memorial, it reminded me naturally of the chapel at Compton.

One side of the wonderful sundial...
Oh look, it's time for my tour!
Well, that's just splendid and nestles in a little cutting just off the main path to the house.  I was fortunate that the day I visited was hot and sunny (unlike the rest of the week) so I got to see the garden in all its glory, but onwards I tramped, up towards the house...

Massive important tree!
I had to wait a bit before being collected for the tour and so I made my way onto the lawn rolling down from the front of the house and visited the massive Wellingtonia tree opposite the front door which bears a very battered plaque...


When Giuseppi Garibaldi, illustrious military leader and biscuit, visited in 1864, he planted the tree and now it towers grandly out the front, well part of it anyway.  I got to have a bit of a lounge on the front lawn before being admitted to the house itself...


You are let in as part of a small group so that you are neither hurried nor crowded.  We were escorted through to a small room by the conservatory in order to collect our audio guide and be relieved of bags and coats.  There is no photography in the house, so the photos of the interior below come from Farringford's own site...

Tennyson's study, with two globes, one terrestrial and one celestial
Actually, it's a bit of a relief not to have a camera because you are not worrying about taking images, nor getting in the way of anyone taking their own snaps. You are free to just immerse yourself and have a good wallow because what has been achieved in the interior of the house is stunning.  The first room you visit on the tour is a room of such breath-taking blue that it is almost overwhelming.  Seriously, the price of entrance is worth it for that room alone. Around the top is the Parthenon frieze from Julia Margaret Cameron, a fragment of the original still clinging on for dear life.

Precious fragment of the classical frieze
The Tennyson family lived in the house from 1853, when they fled London and the interest from growing groups of celebrity hunters, until Tennyson breathed his last in 1892.  Within the walls poems such as Maud were penned, children grew up and friends were entertained.  While this is undoubtedly the house of one of the 19th century's most imposing figures, it is also the home of a family who weathered a fair few tragedies.

Maud (1875) Julia Margaret Cameron

You tour the house with a little audio guide which gives you a description of each room with the option for more information if you want it.  A team of lovely guides shepherds you discreetly from one room to the next, at your own pace and you are never hurried, which is a blessing as the walls are absolutely covered in art.  Paintings by G F Watts and photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron are everywhere, not to mention the furniture, books and details such as Tennyson's pipes and smoking hat (I do love a smoking hat).  The poet's famous billowing cloak and 'wide awake' hat (it has no nap) are tucked in a little nook that scared the life out of me as I caught sight of a figure out of the corner of my eye, stood in shadow.

Yes, but which of us hasn't sidled up to a hot chap only to discover it was only a hat and cloak?
After going up and down stairs and ending up in the most magnificent study, I really felt I had an insight into the home life of the Poet Laureate and his family and it was a rather sweet and lovely insight too.  Rather than being left with the impression of an imposing but distant establishment figure, Tennyson came across as a devoted husband, delighting in games with his sons and being joyfully bullied by his rambunctious neighbour.  The fact that he seemed to have been liked immensely by people who came to his house was also telling.  He also didn't overpower the narrative of the house either with Emily's story coming through clearly as well as that of Hallam and Lionel (poor Lionel), and Audrey, Hallam's first wife.  I was delighted to find May Prinsep represented strongly as well as Watts and Mrs Cameron.  This is a house not of a single man but a series of relationships, all fascinating.  It is also a house in which you feel welcome, something I also suspect the Tennyson family would have approved.

The house is open during the season from April to October and pre-booking is wise as it is popular.  Information can be found here and I can't recommend a visit enough.  I certainly shall be returning.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Looking for Mrs Donkin's Cook

It is no secret that I love knowing the identities and lives of models.  Often, the lives of the models surpasses that of the artist in terms of ups and downs, joy and tragedy, and I think that if we are to admire a work of art then it is good manners to acknowledge the people who created it both in front of and behind the canvas.  However, you and I both know that the path to finding the identity of certain sitters is rarely a smooth one and today's post is the tale of Two Alices, two Greek cooks and a Professor of Astronomy...

Oenone (1870) Julia Margaret Cameron
Reprinted in many of Julia Margaret Cameron's biographies is the story of how Mrs Cameron found the model for her 1870 photograph Oenone.  Mrs Cameron was walking the 'High' in Oxford when she came face to face with a beautiful young woman.  She immediately asked the blushing young lady to come and model for her, which is very Rossettian of her.  As it transpired, the young lady was 'Mrs Donkin's cook', so permission was sought from Mrs Donkin and granted, and Mrs Donkin's cook was whisked away to feature in not only Oenone, but also Rebecca (twice) and A Greek Ianthe.  What is not recorded is her name, so off to the research cave!

Alice Emily Donkin (c.1866) Lewis Carroll
If I am facing a lot of research, there is no finer ally than a slightly unusual surname. 'Donkin' is not bad at all, especially when you narrow down that Mrs Donkin had to be rich enough to employ a cook.  As it turns out there was really only the one load of Donkins in Oxford at that moment.  William Fishburn Donkin (1814-1869) was an astronomer and mathematician, and held the post of Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.  He had married Harriett Hawtrey in 1844 and had five sons, and one daughter named Alice Emily.  I include her middle name as this is Oxford and we are never short of Alices, as you will see.  The Donkin family, unsurprisingly, knew Lewis Carroll (possibly via mathematics and pretty daughters) and so young Alice Emily appears in a couple of Carroll's photographs, as does her equally lovely cousin Alice Jane...

Alice Jane and Alice Emily Donkin (c.1867) Lewis Carroll
Possibly it should have been pointed out to the good people of Oxford and the environs that there are other names in the world, but here we have two Alices.  Alice Jane, niece of Professor Donkin (daughter of his brother Edward), also had her photograph taken by Lewis Carroll, possibly whilst staying with her cousin...

The Elopment (c.1862) Lewis Carroll
It's this sort of photograph that makes people uneasy, Mr Carroll - here we have the eleven year old Alice Jane, making off down a rope ladder to marry her beloved.  As it turns out, when Alice Jane did finally marry, less than a decade after this image, it was to Lewis Carroll's brother, Wilfred Dodgson, who was quite a bit her senior, but probably not in Victorian terms, let's move on swiftly...

Portrait of an Unknown Girl (1920) Alice Emily Donkin
Alice Emily never married and was an artist of some considerable and charming talent.  You can still find her pictures at auction and very lovely they are too, but I'm a sucker for between the wars portraiture.  However, none of this helps find Mrs Donkin's cook!

Rebecca (1870) Julia Margaret Cameron
Despite my rambling, we can be fairly certain that this is the Donkin household that Julia Margaret Cameron inquired to.  Taking the age of the model in the photographs to be around 20-ish, then it is unlikely she would have been employed in the 1861 census, and in fact the Donkins are a little illusive, what with Professor's ill health, which took them overseas for rest cures.  However, it would be almost definite that, as the photographs were taken in 1870, the cook would be there in the 1871 census.  Unless something awful happened. Or in fact had already happened shortly beforehand.

Professor Donkin died in November of 1869.  The household that Cameron therefore visited would have been in mourning.  Furthermore, had their house been tied to Professor Donkin's job then it would have been in the process of moving and dispersal.  By that time, the children of the Donkin family were all grown and some had households of their own.  By the time of the 1871 census, Mrs Donkin and the unmarried children were staying with her brother in Berkshire.  So what became of her cook?

A Greek Ianthe (1870) Julia Margaret Cameron
I had hoped that maybe one of the children had taken the cook into their household, but none of that mapped out.  In theory then she was one of the countless cooks, working in the Oxford area.  Or maybe she had moved away, moved back to her family? Such is the lot of unmarried, unknown, working class women in history.  Then I noticed that Julia Margaret Cameron, in her whimsical way, had labelled the Oenone photograph with another title, that of A Greek Ianthe.  Looking at our girl I wondered if she could be Greek.  Were there any Greek cooks in Oxford in 1871?  Yes, two, in the same house.

Brightwell Park, demolished in 1948
Elizabeth Phillips of Brightwell Baldwin near Oxford, was a widow of some considerable means.  In 1871, she had 10 servants including a footman, a coachman and two kitchen maids, both Greek.  Mary Maton born in 1852, hailed from Greece, as did Maria Nuom, born in 1851.  The census returner seemed to struggle as he listed Mary as from 'Mestley' and Maria from 'Mannington' or something which was a scrawled version of what he heard.  Could either Mary or Maria be Oenone?  Possibly.  Sadly, nothing is known of either girl before or after the census, and it could be that their surnames don't bear much relevance to what their actual surnames were, such is the hazard of census returns. 

The whole episode brings home to me the peril of women in history, as if we didn't know by now.  Mrs Donkin left her household on the death of her husband, and any hope I had that she would settle back down with her Greek cook in her old age was stuffed when she died in 1876.  Mind you, Mrs Donkin left records as a wealthy, married mother.  There are people to remember her.  Alice Emily and Alice Jane likewise survive because of money.  Alice Emily's artistic career might not have been groundbreaking, but it leaves a trail to follow.  Alice Jane married into a well-known family and had children, all of which makes her eminently find-able. In the photographs of them they are named as they are important, they are the subject of a picture. Mary or Maria, if it is them, have no such advantages.  No name is recorded save that of 'Mrs Donkin's Cook'.  I am taking a leap by grasping the Greek connection, but we know Mrs Cameron liked to add a biographical slant, and had a sympathy/empathy with people from foreign lands, so I don't think it is there by accident.  What became of either girl is currently a mystery, but just acknowledging that mystery is a start. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Review: Queen Victoria and the Men Who Loved Her

As you might recall back in 2014, Robert Parry published a book of biographical sketches of Queen Elizabeth I (reviewed here) and now I have the pleasure of reviewing a second such book, this time concerned with the gentlemen in the life of Queen Victoria...


I think most people will feel that they have grown rather more familiar with Queen Victoria over the last couple of decades, what with this...

Her Majesty Mrs Brown (1997)
...being followed by this...

The Young Victoria (2009)
...not to mention this...

Victoria and Abdul (2017)
...and endless quantities of this...

Victoria (2016-present)
...so what else can we be told about Queen Vic and her loves?  Well, often it's not what you're told, but how you are told it and Queen Victoria and the Men Who Loved Her provides a perfect dip in and out of the various characters in the Queen's long and eventful reign.  

Sir John Conroy (1836) Alfred Tidey
'Love' is quite a complicated term; some of those mentioned in the book did indeed love Victoria in the traditional sense, but some, like the odious John Conroy were in the Queen's life, arguably, because they loved themselves.  Did he have the Queen's best interests at heart? He would have no doubt argued so, but history has not been kind to him or Victoria's mother who allowed the interference (I am reminded somewhat of Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour).  Life and love is contradictory sometimes, and Conroy was certainly as important to Victoria as some of the men she thought kinder of, but by including him it is possible to see the impact he had in her life and find echoes in some of her later, and happier, relationships.

Benjamin Disraeli (1868) W. and D. Downey
I'm not sure why I have such a soft spot for Disraeli but I'm in good company as Queen Vic liked him too, apparently.  Maybe we both share a thing for a man in a velvet jacket.  Either way, his wit and charm is something we sorely lack in politicians at the moment so enjoy a bit of escapism to when our Prime Minister was also a novelist, and people liked him.

John Brown and Queen Victoria (1868) W. & D. Downey
Much has been made since the release of Her Majesty Mrs Brown back in the late 1990s, of Queen Victoria's 'love affairs' with men after the death of her beloved Albert.  What those episodes tell me is that even though she was Queen, the most important person in the country, people felt that they could challenge her about who she spent time with, as if any man, even a servant, would somehow exert power over her, a mere woman.  I don't for a moment assume that Queen Victoria was impervious to folly, but echoes of Conroy's control over Victoria must not have been lost on the Queen, and I wonder if that was part of the reason she dug in her heels.

Queen Victoria (1887) Alexander Bassano
Despite this being a book about her relationships, I was struck by how solitary her life was, because in the end, she was Queen, alone.  This is reflected in the narrative conceit of the book, a traveller alone, seeking company in a group of talkative, knowledgeable strangers.  Many of the relationships in the book are ones that were not exactly of Victoria's choosing, for example Conroy, but also those of her Prime Ministers.  Others were ones that happened by accident, especially so in the case of her servants.  The love of her life was only in her life for a small amount of time in proportion to the time she spent mourning him.  Her relationships with her children and grandchildren is reflected in her position as not only a mother, but also the Monarch, and perhaps she gets as harsh a judgement as working mothers seem to still receive.  We still, it seems, are fascinated in Victoria, the Queen and the woman, and how exactly she managed to be a figure of such power and still subject to such mixed and tender emotions.


Queen Victoria and the Men Who Loved Her is available now from Amazon UK and USA