Saturday, 22 December 2018

Saturday 22nd December: Eugenie Sellers Strong

Today's post is brought to you courtesy of my other job.  When I am not fighting my way out of a pile of Pre-Raphaelite books I am actually wrestling with books about archaeology as I manage a small specialist library for Historic England's archaeology teams.  Recently I have been engaged in finding books about lady archaeologists of the past and found one that fitted in the middle of the Ven diagram of my work-life.  Say hello to Eugenie Sellers Strong...

Eugenie Sellers (1890) Constance Phillott
Oh for a subject who not only has a wikipedia page about her but actually a mighty fine biography which I thoroughly recommend, by Stephen L Dyson.  Miss Sellers was born in 1860, the eldest daughter of Frederick Sellers, a wine seller.  She had a fairly European schooling in both France and Spain before ending up back in Cambridge, at Girton College where she obtained her degree in the classics in 1882.  She taught for a year in St Andrews in Scotland before heading back down south to London in order to study archaeology.  Not that Eugenie Sellers Strong isn't a fascinating woman in her own right, but in regards to this post it was while in London she joined in amateur dramatics and moved into the circle of people that we're interested in...

Oscar Wilde who met her during this period called her a 'young Diana' and there was a rumour that she had to deliver her lectures from behind a screen because her beauty was so distracting.  Certainly the painters of the period thought so and there was a kind of cross-over between the classical paintings of Lord Leighton and Alma Tadema and Eugenie's studies.  For a dramatic performance such as 'The Tale of Troy', in which Lionel Tennyson played Ulysses and Eugenie was Helen, Leighton was one of the artists brought in to advise on costume (all that draping!) and scenery.  The 'tableau' (which are just poses plastiques but respectable because everyone is rich) were reported in the newspapers in glowing terms of how marvellous it all was, and as they did it in both Greek and English, the almost-nudity was intellectual.

Eugenie Sellers Strong's book plate
It was during this period that Eugenie Sellers was close friends with Jane Harrison who had taught her at Newnham College.  It is an interesting point of biography that until recently, attempts had been made to write Eugenie out of Jane Harrison's biography and vice versa, and the reason for this is probably that they had a romance that ended badly.  However, in books such as Mary Beard's The Invention of Jane Harrison and Sandra J Peacock's Jane Ellen Harrison: The Mask and the Self such nonsense is being put to one side.  It's bad enough that women are written out of history by men, we really don't need to be doing it to each other, for heaven's sake.

Anyhow, I feel a bit guilty, when faced with such an important subject to only be interested in her face, but that's me and this is why she's been included in Blogvent...

Eugenie Sellers (c.1895) William Holman Hunt
In 1888, William Holman Hunt wrote to Eugenie requesting to paint her, although it is uncertain whether she took him up on his offer at that point.  What we do know was when Holman Hunt was working on his oil paintings of The Lady of Shalott from the 1880s until his death, he was in need of a model.  As quoted on the Maas Gallery site, in 1893 he wrote to F J Shields saying he needed a woman over five feet seven and a half inches tall (which is what I am on a good day and must have been really tall at the time).  Hunt used professional models for the standing around side of business, but for faces he liked to use women of his own circle, and so Eugenie was suggested.  She had a long neck and strong features (which judging by the photograph in Dyson's book, Hunt made stronger and more dramatic) and so she appeared in both of the finished oils from this time...

It's like playing spot the difference, isn't it?

Lady of Shalott (1886-1905, as is the above) William Holman Hunt
Eugenie married Sandford Arthur Strong, fellow academic and archivist for the Duke of Devonshire, in 1897, but he died in 1904.  Eugenie continued his work in the archives until the Duke's death in 1908.  She received a CBE in the 1920s and from 1909 she was assistant director of the British School in Rome, where she lived until her death in 1943 in the Polidori Clinic (cue tenuous Rossetti link).  Another reason why she has been a bit of a difficult figure to talk about is that she was a strong supporter of Mussolini, allegedly because of his devotion to archaeology and visions of the past.  It is an unedifying fact that when it comes times to general elections and I scour the political manifestos that are thrust upon us, the party that claims to support Heritage the most are right wing because they are 'tapping into' (I'll refrain from saying 'exploiting') notions of a glorious past, a nostalgia for the lost values that they can preserve.  As Eugenie's life was her work, it is easy (if not excusable) to see how her priorities could be with any political figure who would value her work.  It's not our business to 'like' people in the past or agree with their choices, so I suggest you all buy yourself a Christmas pressie of Stephen L Dyson's book and learn more about this fascinating archaeologist/doomed Arthurian woman because, well, any excuse for a new book.

See you tomorrow...


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