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