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. 


  1. Dear Kirsty
    How frustrating not to discover the name of Mrs Donkin's cook, but your discovered lots of fascinating things on the way! She has the most beautiful profile - I wonder if there are any photographs showing her face on?
    Best wishes

  2. Fascinating as ever! Interesting that there were so many Alices around in mid nineteenth century England - and that so many of them were photographed by Lewis Carroll. Oenone was the previous lover if Paris of Troy who the latter abandoned to go off with Helen. Oenone is an early poem by Tennyson "There lies a vale in Ida, lovelier
    Than all the valleys of Ionian hills" and "The death of Oenone" was one of the last before he died.


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