Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Blind Mary Gilbert (or life after Julia Margaret Cameron)

One of the most complicated things to work out when writing a biography of a model is what happens to your subject after they stop modelling.  Paull F. Baum famously said in his book Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Letters to Fanny Cornforth (1940) that Fanny without Rossetti was nothing, and so it is tempting to imagine that all models cease to exist once the eye of their particular artist moves on (or dies).  You will have noticed that I have been researching a biography of Mary Hillier, due out next year, and I was delighted to find further information about her that pertained to her life after Julia Margaret Cameron...

Mary Gilbert (c.1927) Ida Southwell Perrin
This was the last image we have of Mary Hillier (or Gilbert, her married name), drawn by artist Ida Southwell Perrin (1861-1953) in Freshwater, Isle of Wight.  I thought this was the only image in terms of later pictures of Mary, beyond her glory days of Cameron and Watts, but on my last trip to Dimbola Lodge I was shown this plaque...

It had been donated to Dimbola with some other Hillier family history and a couple of Cameron photographs, and it was obvious immediately that it was a bas relief portrait of Mary Hillier...

Mary Hillier (1873) Julia Margaret Cameron
The give-away was the profile with her strong nose and pouty top lip. I was delighted to see another image of Mary but who had made it?  I was left with the puzzle.

I thought of all of the sculptors that Mary might have known, connected to the Little Holland House circle.  I thought of Watts (both George Frederick and Mary), but it didn't seem to fit his work. I thought of Carlo Marochetti, who carved the figure of Princess Elizabeth in St Thomas' Church in Newport, but he was too early. I thought of other people she might have come into contact with but something was bothering me.  Most Victorian plaques seemed to be set in a circle or if they were in a rectangle they were much more 'fussy'...

The Mourners (late 19th century) Alfred Buxton
The lines of Mary's plaque were clean and sparce and it dawned on me (far later than it should) that it had a 'Deco' look about it.  So, Ida Perrin had met Mary in the twentieth century. A short search later showed that Perrin was also a sculptor, although the majority of entries for her online were for her botanical pictures.  I was led to the Bushey Heath pottery which Ida Southwell Perrin established in 1921...

Fred Passenger vase (c.1925) Bushy Heath Pottery
Ida employed an associate of the de Morgan's, Fred Passenger, to work in the relatively short lived pottery (it closed in 1933) and the pieces are beautiful.  Although I kept reading she was a sculptor I could not find any pictures of her work but in a short book on the Bushey Heath Pottery it mentioned that a good amount of her work had ended up at Leighton House Museum.  I had been led back to Little Holland House (well, next door to it)...

The Bushey Heath collection was no longer on display, but I contacted the curator to arrange a visit.  She confirmed the collection was still there and it had been catalogued in Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council pages.  Looking at Ida Perrin's entries I found this...

Blind Mary Gilbert (1910-1919) Muriel Ida Perrin
The piece is actually by Muriel Perrin, only daughter of Ida Southall Perrin, an artist in her own right, who died in the 'flu epidemic of 1919 shortly before her brother died in a flying accident. It wouldn't be my research if it wasn't bleak...

Sorrowing Angel by Muriel Perrin at St Peter's Church, Bushey Heath
The plaque of Mary Gilbert, blind and approaching 70, is so delicately rendered that it gives a reflection of the dignity that infused the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron.   It had been presented to Leighton House Museum as part of the Perrin Memorial Gift 1927-1929. After her daughter died, Ida Perrin offered to pay for an extension to Leighton House in memory of her daughter on the proviso that certain works by Muriel would be presented to the Council and shown occassionally.  There is a note on record that the sculptor might be Alfred Gilbert but the subject is so much like Ida Perrin's drawing that I suspect Muriel is the creator. I would also be tempted to re-date Ida's drawing to be contemporary with the sculpture.
Mary was 'rediscovered' by her community in the 1920s with an interview in the Isle of Wight Press and a sizable obituary when she died in 1936.  As her biographer, I appreciate each little fact and piece as they create stepping stones for her story, and to see her as an older woman is thought-provoking, especially as Mary avoided cameras after Julia Margaret Cameron left the Wight.  She even refused to be in the wedding photographs of her own son.  In Ida and Muriel Perrin's works we see 20th century Mary, Mary as a much-loved mother, grandmother and member of the Freshwater community.

The research continues...


  1. Dear Kirsty
    A fascinating post. Finding these links must be very satisfying.
    Best wishes for the rest of the research

    1. It keeps me out of mischief! Plus I love sharing what I find with you lot...

  2. Fascinating to read about Mary Hillier. My great grandmother Cyllena Wilson was also photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron and appears to have been adopted by her in about 1867. Her portraits are often confused with those of Mary Hillier.

    1. How wonderful! I love the photographs of Cyllena, she has such presence and beauty!

  3. when a friend and i saw the julia margaret cameron traveling exhibition in ghent, belgium, we were left with many questions as to why and when and how. i feel i need to come back here and check out your biography preps, to understand more. how wonderful! n♥

  4. Fascinating! It is amazing what your researches turn up. There must be so many artists like Ida Perrin and her daughter, who lived their lives, created beautiful works, and then passed away into obscurity. I wonder how the Perrins ended up doing the sketch and plaque of Mary. Do you think they just happened to be on holiday on the Isle of Wight, or they knew of her connection with JMC and sought her out? I suppose we will never know.

    1. I believe they lived for a while in Freshwater and obviously knew of the Cameron connection. It is interesting how certain people act as muses repeatedly in their lives.

  5. photo historian Blue Fire ( his real name) of Getty museum as well as
    history prof at SMC in Santa Monica, may be a good place to ask a few questions of~


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx