Friday 23 September 2016

When Mary met Tenny...

As some of you will know, I have been researching and writing a biography of Mary Hillier, maid and model to Julia Margaret Cameron. 
Mary Hillier (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
As part of this I have been following the lives of Mary's siblings, seeing what they all got up to.  Out of her brothers and sisters, the one I was very interested in was her sister Sophia.  Sophia was just two years older than Mary, and also found work as a maid in a famous home in Freshwater.  In the 1861 census, Sophia is recorded as the kitchenmaid at Farringford, home of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Later that same year, her sister Mary would become parlourmaid at Dimbola Lodge, next door.

Daughters of Jerusalem (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Daughters of Jerusalem features (left to right) Mary Kellaway, an unknown woman who I believe is Sophia Hillier, and Mary Hillier, above an image of Percy Keown.  As I have said before on this blog, I believe that Julia Margaret Cameron was not above pinching the Tennysons' maid for her photographs.  Indeed in Lynn Truss' Tennyson's Gift, Cameron has borrowed 'the maid Sophia' for a photograph in the opening chapters.  Not only this photograph contains Sophia but also others, most persuasively Sister Spirits, again from 1865.

Sister Spirits (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Again, we have Mary Kelleway, Mary Hillier (in the middle) and Sophia Hillier (in profile, right).  This was the photograph that really tipped me off as to the identity of the woman on the right.  In front of her and Mary are the Keown sisters, Alice and Elizabeth, and given the title I was drawn to the resemblance between Mary and the woman next to her.  It might be just me that thinks this but I would bet you a tenner that it's Sophia Hillier, playing hooky from Farringford.

Alfred Tennyson (1865)
Anyway, all this wondering led me to Lincoln, and to the Tennyson Archive, in order to find out more about Sophia Hillier.  She is somewhat of an enigma, but as far as we can see she remained with the Tennyson family, bar a brief stint as cook for John Stapleton, MP in his Chelsea home (in the 1871 census), cooking for the family.  She had only been a kitchenmaid at Farringford, but became a cook, more important and better paid no doubt. Whilst a kitchenmaid at Farringford, she was paid around £2 per quarter, which isn't a great deal but she would have had her meals and lodging supplied, and unlike a lot of young girls in service, she was very close to home indeed (and her sister who was right next door).  When she returned to the Tennyson family, which she had done by the next census in 1881, she was the family's cook and a married woman.  She never seemed to live with her husband, John Page, but he also served in London for a while before living and dying in Newport on the Isle of Wight.  It is a bit of a mystery how she met him, possibly as servants in London, but then a 'Mr Page' appears in the Tennyson accounts during the 1860s, doing a regular job, so it isn't out of the question that John Page was connected to the Tennysons and met Sophia that way.  Anyway, it isn't really Sophia's time working for the Tennysons that I'm here to talk about, it's Mary's...

Emily Tennyson (c.1862) G F Watts
I trawled the accounts of Emily Tennyson, hoping to find more information about Sophia, as background to Mary Hillier. I found something a little bit more surprising than that.  It seems that for two months in 1863 Sophia was absent and so Emily Tennyson turned to her near-neighbour for the use of her parlourmaid.  In May and June 1863, Mary Hillier worked at Farringford, for Alfred and Emily Tennyson.

The Tennyson Family at Farringford (May 1863) Oscar Rejlander
There is no hint in Lady Tennyson's diaries as to what had happened that caused Sophia to take time off.  The Tennyson family were all vaccinated on 19th, but there is no mention of whether Sophia was ill afterwards.  In November 1868, Emily records that 'our poor kitchenmaid' had contracted typhoid fever which she feared would spread in the house.  Whether or not Sophia was still their kitchenmaid in 1868 (as she was in 1861) is unclear, but had Sophia been seriously ill in 1863 it is likely that Emily would have mentioned it.  What she did mention in her accounts was that on 23rd May Mary was paid 8 shillings 'in Sophia's absence'.  On 13th June, another payment, this time for 2 shillings and 4 pence was made to Mary, so it can be guessed that Mary covered for her sister for around 5-6 weeks.

Hallam Tennyson (May 1863) Oscar Rejlander
 It was an interesting 6 weeks.  In early May, Oscar Rejlander came to Freshwater to photograph the Tennyson family and work with Julia Margaret Cameron (see this post about the Idylls of the Village).  I always thought it was funny that, although working at Dimbola Lodge at this point, Mary Hillier doesn't appear in any of the photographs.  Then the idea struck me that possibly she was assisting behind the camera.  When her sister required leave from Farringford, and the Swedish photographer arrived at the Tennyson's home to take pictures, Mary Hillier arrived as well.

I Pray (1865) Oscar Rejlander

Mary Hillier (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
 Looking at some of the images of Oscar Rejlander's wife (who often appears in his photographs, such as I Pray above), I am reminded of images of Mary by Cameron.  It seems surprising that he didn't use her in the Idylls of the Village as she is his 'type', but then if she was naturally skilled as a photographic assistant, he might have valued her help behind the lens and in preparing the plates.  If Julia Margaret Cameron collaborated on the images Rejlander took in 1863, then Mary might have been at her side and then at Rejlander's disposal at Farringford. Furthermore if Cameron was preparing to have a camera herself, she might have appreciated Mary being trained to assist behind the camera, as well as being its subject in front of the lens.

Alfred Tennyson (1863) Oscar Rejlander
The descriptions of life at Dimbola always give quite a laid back impression.  Guest such as Henry Taylor comment on the hectic atmosphere, the lack of meals, the somewhat casual housekeeping (not that there is anything wrong with that), all for the creation of the photographs.  Working at Farringford must have come as a bit of a shock for Mary.  In many ways the ethos of the households were similar: the art was all.  I had the particular pleasure to read through Emily Tennyson's handwritten 'General Order for Domestic Staff'.  These orders cover everything from the order of rooms to be cleaned, remaining quiet and not chattering, to personal hygiene and hair brushing.  To modern eyes being told to brush your hair seems a tad insulting but considering publications like Mrs Beaton's manual, to tell your servants exactly what you expect from them and when saves any confusion.

The Three Graces (1863) Oscar Rejlander
If it is true that Julia Margaret Cameron hired Rejlander to come and photograph Tennyson and his family, maybe she too arranged for Mary Hillier to be there, to assist the photographer and be of service to her beloved neighbours.  Whilst the reason for Sophia's absence is unknown, Mary is definitely there to replace her sister for a short period, as recorded by Emily Tennyson.  In her local newspaper interviews when she was an old lady, Mary Hillier claimed to have known Tennyson, and I had always presumed that was because of her service with Mrs Cameron, but I'd love to know more about her six weeks working for the Tennysons at Farringford.

I do hope she brushed her hair...

Friday 16 September 2016

Slippery When Wet

In a vain attempt to tone up, I recently took up aquafit at my local swimming pool.  In my mind's eye I look like this...

I admit that is Esther Williams but the effect is the same, honestly.  During my graceful/frenzied kicking, jumping and general thrashing about, I got to thinking about Victorian swimming. As you do...

Bathers at Asnieres (1884) Georges Seurat
Actually more to the point, I thought about Victorian women swimming.  We all know they did it, even Judi Dench does the doggy paddle as Queen Victoria in the film Mrs Brown,  but actually finding images of women in water turned out to be more problematic than I expected.  After all, why wouldn't a painter want to show a lady in her wet scanty costume...?

The Bathers (1888) Henry Tuke
Okay, so Henry Tuke had his own reasons for concentrating on the beauty of the male form and produced some gorgeous images of swimming that are so bright and airy, you feel the summer breeze on your skin and can smell the salt in the air.  The Bathers above is a good case in point, as is Ruby, Gold and Malachite, both of which show young chaps having a lark near water, all without costumes (although Tuke was always careful about how much you saw).

The Bathers (1899-1902) Henri-Edmond Cross
If you have a look, there are images of women swimming but more often than not the women are stark naked.  Whilst I can just about believe that men shed their clothes to leap willy-nilly into any body of water (if you excuse the phrase), I find it a little harder to believe women easily shed the many layers of clothing just to do likewise.  A corset is not something you quickly pop in and out of.  Well, not intentionally anyway.

The Bathing Pool (1916) Harold Knight
In the first part of the twentieth century, especially between the wars, there are some gorgeous images of women in swimsuits or posing by glimmering pools, all in a very 'health and efficiency' kind of way, all part of the new aesthetic of the active woman.  Although the Knight is utterly gorgeous, my favourite of these has to be this one...

Spray Harold Williamson
Dating from around the 1920s, Spray  is possibly the most popular image at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, more so than even Venus Verticordia (which seems like blasphemy, but Spray is just so damn likeable!) and perfectly captures that jolly, healthy vibe.  It's not hard to image that either of the two women above is about to do some swimming then have a scotch egg and some ginger beer after a rough towelling off.  That might just be me.  I do make a great scotch egg.  Anyway, my point is that women swimming seems a natural (in many ways) pastime by this point, but what of Victorian women?

 A bathing suit from 1858. Gentlemen, control your ardour immediately!
The Victorians were in favour of women learning to swim, or at least in favour of them wearing swimsuits.  The Sevenoaks Chronicle from 1881 reported that 'Ladies ought to learn to swim as much as their brothers or their cousins, and when in the water they may be privileged to wear pretty costumes small and light enough to display their graceful forms to advantage...'  It went on to report that the popularity of swimming competitions at Southsea in Hampshire might be healthy and Christian but 'where is feminine delicacy?' Looking at the above costume, I'd be surprised if you could find her feminine delicacy unless she has a special pocket for it.

The man is apparently saying 'Don't be afraid'.  Be afraid, be very afraid...
The Star reported in 1880 that 'ALL WOMEN SHOULD SWIM' and said that although children of both sexes are timid of the open water, it was almost seen as a natural state for women to remain on dry land - 'swimming among the fair sex seems to be regarded as a most difficult and dangerous science'.  Half the problem, the paper observed, was the costume which was seen as restrictive.  The lady emerging from her bathing machine above shows how the earlier bathing costume lost its sleeves and rose to the knees in order for women to be freer in the water and swim without difficulty.  Yet still images of women in water did not tend towards the realistic...

A Race with Mermaids and Tritons (1895) Collier Smithers
For the Victorians there was only one reason for a woman to be in water.  Mermaids, selkies, sirens - all of them lurked in the shallows, called to men from rocks and generally led you a merry old dance before drowing you.  No wonder women were not encouraged into the water to swim, look at the mayhem they cause once you get them wet!

Diana and her Nymphs (1850) John Naish
Ironically, mythological women in water are everywhere in Victorian art.  Look at Edward Burne-Jones and his mermaid fetish (see my post on the subject).  I would argue that there seems almost to be a distrust of women swimming, as if they are up to no good.  Do the artists fear being drowned as they are tempted to follow them?  Do they fear that if the women get fit and strong they might start asking for things like the vote and internal organs in the correct position?  Whatever it is, Victorian men seemed to want to treat Victorian women by the same rules as Gremlins.

A Favourite Custom Lawrence Alma-Tadema
If you are classical and all you want to do in water is splash your friend whilst you are both naked, I suppose that's allowed as long as we can all have a good look at you doing it.

The Capture Charles Shannon
The moment that you look like you can outswim us or that you are not terrified in the water, it will be assumed that you are up to no good. Shannon's pair look a bit suspicious, but he does do awfully good water, in such a tempting colour.

The Wave (1887) Jan Van Beers
So, in conclusion, never trust a woman who can swim.  No, hang on, that's not right.  The Victorians seem to display a fear of women swimming but that might come from many different places.  The figure of the mermaid (other water-based temptresses are available) is an attractive and popular one and so the idea of laced up Victorian women being unlaced in order to bathe may have been seen as transformation.  Also, there is a degree of liberation, at least in terms of clothing, that has to happen in order for women to swim, and that has connotations of lax morals.  Yet again the person who is being stared at is blamed for drawing attention to themselves, and it is amazing how much power is projected onto the watery temptresses, for example Van Beers femme fatale above.  For the male artists of the Victorian period, women remained as mysterious as the oceans, neither of which could be fathomed. 

Who know what would happen if you brought them together...

Friday 9 September 2016

The Beauty and Sadness of Beatrice Offor

As I use a wide array of images in these blog posts, I often end up using multiple paintings by certain artists without knowing a lot about them, or even at times connecting the images together.  So then is the case with Beatrice Offor (1864-1920), whose beautiful portraits of women, known as 'Offor Heads', filled the latter part of the nineteenth century.  I thought I'd have a bit of a dig about and find out more about her.  I warn you now, you'll need a tissue or two...

Nude with Roses (1886-1917)
Beatrice was born in 1864, one of 11 children born to George and Emma Offor.  The family were well-off enough to be able to afford that many children because George was a ship broker and various other things that seem to fill up countless lines on census returns.  'Liberia' seems to be mentioned at one point. In the 1911 census he is listed as the 'Director of Public Companies' which seems far simpler.  He also lived until 101 years old which is very impressive, especially in the context of this story, as you will see...

Beatrice Offor c.1890
Beatrice was born somewhere in the middle of her sibling group, which ranged from Emma, born 1851 to Evelyn, born in 1873.  Surprisingly, all the children but Gertrude (1860-1862) survived childhood, and so Beatrice, her seven other sisters and two brothers all grew into adults.  Also interestingly, only Beatrice, Evelyn and Frederick married (although I suspect George married too as he died in Heidelberg, Australia and I think there are members of the Offor family still living down under, in which case, hello to the lovely Australian Offors!)

Aglaie (c.1907-1920)
Beatrice trained at the Slade School of Art, and after graduation showed her paintings in exhibitions including the Royal Academy.  With such a big family, she was never short of models and it is reported that many of her female portraits are of her sisters. The pictures are beautiful and easy on the eye which is why once they were turned into engravings, they were enormously popular with the public, in much the same way as Henry Ryland was for the same reason.

Old Chelsea (1880s) William Farran Littler
In 1892, Beatrice married Irish painter and sculptor William Farran Littler, who was living at the time in Cheyne Row in Chelsea. The couple had two sons - Ralph, born in 1893, but died a year later, and Eric, who was born in 1896 but did not survive the year.  It might have been this that resulted in Littler's journey to the asylum, and in 1899 he too died of 'chronic brain disease' which is one of those handy terms which means everything and nothing.

A Melody (c.1886-1906)
Beatrice was not the only Offor to suffer such heartbreak.  Her brother Frederick got married and had a daughter, but Grace Offor died at only 10 years old. By the turn of the century, now alone, Beatrice continued to paint at her home in King's Road, Chelsea.   In 1908 however, there is a pause in the misery, as Beatrice married for a second time.  The lucky chap was James Beaven, a dried fruit importer who must have done very well out of dates as he left £30,000 when he died in 1926.  He was a widower with four adult children, coincidentally including a daughter called Beatrice.  The couple married and moved to live in Tottenham, North London.

Esme Dancing (c.1907-1917)
Beatrice continued to produce pleasing paintings that were commercially popular, but public taste was beginning to turn away from pretty Victorian maidens to more modern matters.  Whether that fall from public notice contributed to her ill health isn't clear, but in 1919 she suffered a nervous breakdown.  Illness ravaged her and affected her ability to paint.  She tried to throw herself out her a window but was prevented from doing so.  The second time she tried, they were too late.

The Love Potion (c.1890)
In the summer of 1920, Beatrice Beaven, a fruit importers wife who used to be famous for painting young women, was found sitting on her bedroom window sill.  Before she could be stopped, she jumped the 40-feet to the road below.  As the nurse reached her, she pleaded 'let me die'.  All of this was reported in the newspapers covering the inquest of her death, including the verdict of 'Suicide whilst of unsound mind'.  What is interesting, if rather grim, is the number of newspapers who ascribe her suicide to the loss of her looks.  In the Nottingham Evening Post, Beatrice's depression had 'played havoc with her personal appearance' and she had worried she would never paint again after illness.  There is definitely a feeling that the loss of her looks had been the cause of her suicide, especially when coupled with the pathos of her beautiful female paintings.  The Gloucester Echo is very plainly of this view, headlining the inquest with 'DIED BECAUSE SHE LOST HER BEAUTY'. She is buried at Ladywell Cemetery in Kent, along with the rest of the Offors, her second husband, and William Farran Littler and their two baby sons.

Circe (1911)
Over 40 of her pictures are housed in the Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham, and are shown on the ArtUK site in all their glory.  Her vision is very serene and beautiful, it's just such a shame her life was not blessed with the happiness she gave others through her work. Hopefully, Bruce Castle Museum will do another exhibition of her works again soon.  I'm always up for a revival...