Friday 26 August 2022


 This is a bit of a rambling post but it's something that has always puzzled me, but I've never been able to put my finger on what the problem is.  Anyway, the point of this post is to try and unpick a very famous anecdote.  

It's a truth universally acknowledged that this is the first picture that Fanny Cornforth appears in...

Found (1854-1881) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To be exact, she appeared in a sketch for this unfinished piece, probably something like this one...

Study for the Girl's Head in Found (c.1858) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In Fanny's account, which has never been disputed, she said that after they met, Rossetti invited her to the studio where he put her head against the wall and drew it for what she called 'the calf picture' or as we know it, Found. The story behind Found is that a country chap comes to London and discovers his former beloved, who had abandoned him for the bright lights of London. She's been living a thoroughly sinful life that seems to have turned her green and she is very ashamed of herself.  Somehow, this account of an innocent country girl who becomes a sex worker in London has also become co-opted as Fanny's story. The simplicity of Found is in stark contrast to the utterly bizarre nature of Fanny's own alleged origin story, and there is just something about the details of that fable that have always bothered me. Let's start with a famous quote...

'He met her in the Strand. She was cracking nuts with her teeth and throwing the shells about: seeing Rossetti staring at her, she threw some at him. Delighted with this brilliant naivete, he forthwith accosted her to sit to him for her portrait' (Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott (1892) William Bell Scott)

This is the now infamous account about how Rosetti met Fanny.  It is, of course, utter bobbins, but was sort of backed up by William Michael Rossetti in his book on his brother, where he says 'I cannot recollect ever hearing anything about the nuts, but do not contest Mr Scott's statement on that point.' It has to be noted that William Michael did not like Fanny, especially around the time he was writing.  Also, William Bell Scott was not present at the alleged meeting in the Strand. Why William Bell Scott would make up such an elaborate lie is something that really interests me. The reasoning I always go for is this entry in William Allingham's diary, Sunday 26th June 1864: 

'Enter Fanny, who says something of W. B. Scott which amuses us. Scott was a dark hairy man, but after an illness has reappeared quite bald, Fanny exclaimed, ' O my, Mr. Scott is changed ! He ain't got a hye-brow or a hye-lash — not a 'air on his 'ead ! ' Rossetti laughed immoderately at this, so that poor Fanny, good-humoured as she is, pouted at last— ‘Well, I know I don't say it right,' and I hushed him up.'

From the diary entry, it doesn't seem it was at a party or said to anyone other than Allingham and Rossetti but I don't put it past Rossetti to have to told William Bell Scott this 'hilarious' anecdote. I also don't feel, from Allingham's record of the incident, that Fanny meant the remark maliciously, she was just exclaiming on the change in Scott's appearance. Scott, by reputation, was proud of his looks, but his sudden alopecia after his illness had caused him great embarrassment. Like Rossetti, he appears to have been a very good looking chap in his youth but not so much later on.

William Bell Scott (1850s) Arthur Hughes

Bell Scott, Ruskin and Rossetti in 1863

I also wonder about the fact that Bell Scott was born in 1811, older even than Ruskin, but in with a crowd  two or more decades younger than he was, with all that youthful energy.  Bell Scott is a great painter, wonderful landscapes and interesting genre pieces but never the most interesting man in the room. He is obviously allowed to dislike Fanny and I understand his problem with her, even before she made a comment on the one thing he didn't want commenting on. She had no qualities he seemed interested in.  She was not ethereal or quiet, she was not well-bred and titled (his mistress was Alice Boyd, the painter and sister of the Laird of Penkill Castle).  She was also Rossetti's mistress and not to be too judgemental, Rossetti could be an absolute git-weasel, so what does that say about her if she likes that?  In hindsight, with all the evidence we now have, we can see that Rossetti's behaviour is all coming from a very dark and sad place but that doesn't mean that he couldn't be a antagonistic to be with, especially for people who had no appreciation of the vagaries of mental health conditions. Anyway, in a way, I'm not surprised that William Bell Scott lashed out in memoir form, after all he was writing at the time when lots of people were claiming the narrative of the Pre-Raphaelites and Rossetti. What interests me is the story itself, and to be exact, the nuts.

Rebecca Davies in Desperate Romantics

In the BBC's Desperate Romantics, Fanny Cornforth cracks nuts between her teeth and spits the shells at Rossetti (‘Do you make a habit of spitting?’ ‘Depends what I have in my mouth at the time, sir…’). In Scott's account Fanny is cracking the nuts in her teeth and throwing the shells about, but that rapidly became spitting the shells, hands-free, which is quite impressive. I've always maintained that the cracking in the teeth is the important part, that Scott was labelling Fanny an animal, but I never considered the nuts themselves.  What do they symbolise?

Fanny Cornforth in the garden of Tudor House (1863) W & D Downey

Yes, well, we have the very obvious body parts.  Scott was judgemental of Rossetti's attachment to Fanny, which he obviously didn't approve of or understand, so it would be understandable that he'd think it was purely sexual and that Fanny had Rossetti by the nuts, as it were.  There is also the connotation of the 'nut' being the head, and possibly Fanny being a cause of the mental change of Rossetti, that she was 'cracking' his nut, damaging or lowering his IQ by her cheap, tarty presence. It's also interesting that the nuts are in her mouth, whether she spits them or not. She is not even cracking them in her hands. The nuts have become the words that she uses to communicate.  They come from her mouth and are either spat or thrown. Her non-verbal, semi-violent methods or attracting attention again make me think of animals but also of a lack of intelligence and threat. That Rossetti is 'delighted' with this 'brilliant naivete' says quite a bit about how Scott perceived him.  Was Rossetti that sophisticated that he needed a break from it? It does mark Rossetti as a man who enjoys simplicity, or put less politely, crudity. Seen with hindsight of his painting and poetry output of the 1860s, especially the more fleshly stuff (which involved Fanny), you could draw the conclusion that Rossetti liked pretty girls doing things with their mouths and that's all. It rather takes one of the great painter/poets of the nineteenth century down a peg or two.

Fair Rosamund (1861) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, nuts - why nuts? I did wonder if they had any significance and so turned to the language of flowers and the symbolism of food as I was interested to see that if you type in 'language of flowers' and 'nuts', many websites come back with 'stupidity'. It's not a massive shock if Scott intended the nut to represent Fanny's stupidity, especially when coupled with her brilliant naivete. In Mrs L Burke's 1865 The Miniature Language of Flowers, there are no nuts, but the Bladder Nut Tree symbolised frivolity and rather crude amusement due to the fact that the seeds make a rude noise when you squeeze them. For the Romans, nuts symbolised fertility and the shells were thrown before bridegrooms and brides. Taken with Fanny's perceived occupation as a sex worker, this symbolism would fit as well. Although she didn't have any children, Fanny is often seen as a bountiful, luxurious, extra woman, with her size and appearance.  In Theresa Dietz's 2022 The Complete Language of Food, various different nuts have interesting meanings, including brazil and pecans (hospitality), sweet chestnuts (luxury and interestingly, chastity) and macadamia (ingenuity). Scott didn't specify a nut, but subsequent writers have opted for walnuts which are often linked to Christianity (the shell being the church and the kernel, the congregation), but also of male virility and power, which would link to how forward and proactive Fanny is in the story of their meeting.  I especially liked the symbolism of walnuts as representing people who are tough on the outside and sweet and soft inside, which I think fits Fanny as shown by her actions, but I very much doubt that is what Scott intended unless I have misjudged him.

Woman Combing Her Hair (1864) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

If you fancy a really way-out reading of the nut story, I can offer you the Celtic Revival and Echtra Cormac (Cormac's Adventure in the Land of Promise), which Whitley Stokes offered in translation in 1891.  Within this tale of Irish mythology, there is a very interesting passage which goes something like this...
'Lo, it is custom for those who dwell in that city to break the nut with their teeth and swallow the fruit within. For others it is custom to break the nut and give food to those near them, who sate the hunger of others with the nuts which they are eager to take.' 

Okay, so it's a stretch, but the symbolism of the nut as knowledge or faith being learned, digested or shared, is an interesting one. Read in this way, Fanny's nut cracking and throwing is an act of sharing, but it is only the shell she throws. If her nut cracking and throwing is truly symbolic, then it is an act of sharing something useless, that she keeps the good things for herself and shares that which is no use to anyone. This sort of symbolic reading of Fanny is repeated in Violet Hunt's The Wife of Rossetti (1932) where she talks about Fanny's ancestor who would promise to share peaches and apricots when all she had was apples. Hunt learned her version of the Pre-Raphaelite drama from Scott, who was a family friend, so the use of symbolism might have come from him. 


Found (study of a head of a woman) (1853-7) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, where does all this leave us? Honestly, I have no answers, as the reason why William Bell Scott would write down such an elaborate lie is mysterious.  Was the intended target Fanny or Rossetti?  He brands one a sex worker and the other a man who likes women with strong teeth and weird soliciting techniques. It does occur to me that Scott might have seen a sex worker perform such a trick (I'm guessing with peanuts rather than walnuts unless she had really sturdy false teeth) and kept that in mind for when he was writing up his memoir, but why bother? Had Fanny really upset him that much? Part of me is really doubtful that Fanny was the intended target as that is a lot of weird effort to go to in order to get even with a working class woman, who by that point had retreated to obscurity. I have a feeling a lot of the appalling things said about Fanny are actually about Rossetti - she becomes collateral damage in people getting even with Rossetti, who alienated a lot of people, if not actually infuriated them. By the 1890s, William Michael had actually done a fairly decent job in creating the myth of 'the great man' Rossetti, backed by various biographers who had piled on after Thomas Hall Caine's unctuous offering, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882). I can see people who may have felt aggrieved or felt that they had a different story to tell, getting in on the act. 

Woman with a Fan (1870) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So, we end up with nuts. Whether it is about the thrower or the target is unclear but the story only came to define one of the people involved. The fictitious Fanny with her strong teeth may symbolise strength, masculinity, emasculation, luxury, ingenuity or idiocy but that is not the woman who Rossetti approached in a dining alcove at a firework event in 1856 and pulled the pins from her hair. Let's hope we never forget that again.


Saturday 20 August 2022

#TeamPainting or #TeamPhotograph?

 If you have been known me for a while, you will recognise this photograph and its source material...

The Bridesmaid (c.1900) Unknown Photographer

The Bridesmaid (1851) John Everett Millais

Somebody, for reasons we don't know other than they quite fancied it, recreated Millais' The Bridesmaid in a photograph about half a century after it was painted. It might have been for a photographic competition, it might have been just for a laugh because they had a camera, extremely long hair and a spare afternoon. We shall never know.  While I'm used to seeing models posed in photographs that are the source material for paintings, such as Jane Morris' many photographs for Rossetti, and photographs that are sort of based on the same iconography as paintings such as this one...

The Blessed Damozel (After Rossetti) (c.1906) Sidney Carter

...which is based on Rossetti's Blessed Damozel poem and paintings, I've never really seen pictures where they go out on purpose to see which is better, painting or photograph. That was until I stumbled over a wonderful article in The Quarterly Illustrator, a magnificent publication from 1894. Imagine my relief that Will Hicok Low (1853-1932), an artist and writer, had taken time out of his busy day to compare images of semi-draped actress to semi-draped figures in paintings. The things we do for art...

His article, entitled 'Contrasts of Life and Art' starts by stating an obvious point but I'm still impressed that anyone in 1894 said it out loud - nine out of ten models in paintings are women. He quotes Robert Burns (and why not) saying Nature 'her prentice hand she tried on man, and then she made the lasses' giving a very academic explanation that women are a far superior aesthetic creation than men, rather than male artists just want to a job where they see boobs. Anyway, Mr Low goes on to say that the relationship between the beauty of women on the canvas and the beautiful model is down to the artist. If the artist is a realist, then the similarity will be great. If the artist works from 'the within outwards', then the image will be less portrait-like, for which he cites Rossetti as a perfect example. Anyway, his splendid idea was to get models (in this case famous actresses) to pose for the picture to measure how realistic the effect is. It's not to say that the model looks exactly like the model in the picture but how much the overall effect can be reproduced and what are the difficulties. I offer my apologies in advance - I've tried to find as many colour reproductions as possible for the paintings but some seem very obscure now so I've made do with the scanned copy from the article where no other is available.
Nydia (undated) Cuno von Bodenhausen

Caroline Miskel as Nydia

First out of the trap is Cuno von Bodenhausen's blind Pompeian girl, Nydia (which I'm guessing is pronounced like 'Lydia' but with an N). Mr Low announces it has 'as much grace and the original picture' and that Miss Miskel does a fairly decent job in matching the model. The only difference is in the poise of the head and that Miss Miskel is less 'divinely tall' (rude) but this is a universal problem - 'painters as a rule are more generous in the proportion of length in comparison to the size of the head than nature.' For critics of Rossetti who always go on about the weirdness of his models various body parts, he's just being as 'generous' as the rest of them, apparently...

Fabiola (undated) Jean Jacques Henner

Theresa Vaughn as Fabiola

One of the difficulties I had with the article is that Will H. Low keeps getting everyone names wrong, so he calls the model for Fabiola Teresa Vaughan, but I think he means 'Theresa Vaughn'. Low rightly points out that the most simple subjects like Fabiola are the most difficult to reproduce as there really is only the head and no two heads are likely to be of the same type. He also states that painters habitually show an arbitrary and somewhat unnatural light effect.  In Fabiola, the shadow under the chin is so dark that it blends with the drapery into shadow.  By contrast, 'Miss Vaughan's fair complexion - very properly, one must admit - refused to descend' to such darkness. Well done to Miss Vaughn on being able to glow in the dark...

Magdalen (undated) Bartolome Esteban Murillo

Estelle Clayton as the Magdalen

Theresa Vaughn as the Magdalen

Low starts to get over-ambitious at this point, and brings us a two-for-the-price-of-one on Magdalens. According to Low, both models, and we welcome Miss Estelle Clayton to the party for this one, appear at the disadvantage of this image in terms of character, modelling and realism.  He complains that the painted Magdalen is too pretty and softened. Murillo's a 17th century, no doubt Catholic religious painter, I'm not sure what Low was looking for in terms of brutal realism. Possibly Low would have preferred this corking piece of restoration of one of Murillo's works, here. Lovely.

Cynthia (no date) Frank Dicksee

Estelle Clayton as Cynthia

I really regret that I couldn't find the Dicksee in colour as his stuff is always gorgeous. Low is very harsh and almost refuses to compare them as Estelle inclined her head in the wrong direction and ruined the comparison, which is a bit harsh.  Again, a bit like Fabiola, when it is a close up comparison of two women, one painted and one real, it's hard to compare especially when the artist romanticises the subject.

The Greek Girl (no date) Oskar Begas

Marguerite Cortillo as The Greek Girl

Now, I have not managed to find a damn thing about the lovely Miss Cortillo (no, Google, I didn't mean Michael Portillo, that's not helpful) so I don't know if she died horrifically young or ended up in an asylum or anything. Low loves this picture and states 'the living quality of the photograph from nature, not to insist on more evident superiorities to the original in point of beauty, make Begas's painting seem commonplace to the last degree.' I think he likes the photograph, but he does have a long winded way of saying that Begas's Greek Girl is a bit bland. The photo is possible the most lovely of all of them, I agree.

Lydia (no date) Joseph Lieck

Caroline Miskel as Lydia

 Oddly, Low didn't have a lot to say about this one and it's not a bad comparison, although the painting is absolutely gorgeous. He does clarify his previous comment about Miss Miskel not being 'divinely tall' by add she is 'divinely fair'. I'm sure Miss Miskel was delighted to hear that...

The Pompeiian (no date) Nathaniel Sichel

Theresa Vaughn as The Pompeiian

Caroline Miskel as The Pompeiian

Again, we have a double bill of ladies for Sichel's The Pompeiian (that feels like it has too many 'i's) and Low, running out of steam just seems to be complimenting the women, possibly hoping one will read it and get in touch - 'the painter would have been fortunate had he found such models to his hand.' Low, you old smoothie. Both actresses have a look of 'How long do I have to balance this on my head?!' about them...

Judith (1887) Charles Landelle

Theresa Vaughn as Judith
This was the reason I ended up on the article as Charles Landelle's magnificent Judith is going to be part of the exhibition I am working on in the Autumn. Imagine my utter delight to find Miss Vaughn's version, especially when I read she was hot from her success in '1492'.  I thought that was a serious play about the founding of America, but no, it's a smashing romp where she plays her banjo. According to Low, Holofernes would have nothing to fear from Miss Vaughn (unless she got her banjo out) and that the emotion present in the painting is not in the photograph. I think it is a bit unfair to get the actress to give us smouldering and passionate murder without good lighting.  She just looks a bit fed up by this stage, to be honest.

Listening to the Fairies (no date) Cuno von Bodenhausen

Caroline Miskel is Listening to the Fairies
So, to the last of the experiment and the one that Low announces the most successful. A bit like Nydia this is a picture from a distance, and Miss Miskel is not required to look exactly like the painting, just have the same whimsical energy, which I think she pulls off.  Low concludes that single figures in a landscape are easier than up close work, and the lighting is always going to be a tricky thing in reality. Groups are a nightmare for lighting, as are individual, separate figures, but 'with time, patience, a studio capable of affording a variety of lights, and, above all, that quality of genius which we name taste, the task would be an alluring one.' He signs off by saying 'think for yourself: and then - and only then - let the camera "do the rest".' So that's fine then, all I need is a camera, a studio, expert lighting and genius...

The Mona Barbie/Barbie Lisa, from an article here...

I really love seeing people recreate paintings, with themselves, dogs, dolls or whatever is to hand.  It says a lot about the life of the painting and what it means to people that they try and reproduce it as a living thing. It shows that art has a life beyond the artist and the canvas, that it lives in the minds of everyone who sees it as a spark to make something of our own in response. Low's idea of comparing a photograph with a painting is, by his own admission, flawed because it is hard, especially in 1894, to recreate the impossibilities of an artist's vision. The paintings he uses are not meant to be realistic so attempting to make a photograph, which is by its very nature a realistic thing, be 'painterly' is a difficult task. What is interesting is when it actually comes close, as in Nydia or actually arguably improves it, as in The Greek Girl. I hope to uncover more photo/painting images to bring you but I will conclude with our lovely models. as I said, I could find nothing about Michael Portillo, I mean Marguerite Cortillo, but here are the others...

Theresa Vaughn (and banjo)

Theresa Vaughn (1867-1903) was a singer and comedian on the American stage, specialising in music with her banjo. Her first success was in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers in Boston.  She married her manager William Mestayer, but after his death in 1896, her performances suffered.  Following the death of her brother soon after, she was committed to an asylum due to her overwhelming grief, where she died in her 30s.

Estelle Clayton

Estelle Clayton (1867-1917) made it to the grand old age of 50 before dying which is quite an achievement.  She was also a writer, producing plays and libretti, but I can't find much more than that.

Caroline Miskel

Lastly, we have the splendidly brief and tragic Caroline Miskel (1873-1898) who manages to pack in a career, a come-back and a marriage into 25 years before popping off due to kidney issues after the birth of her son (who also died). She became famous at 18 and retired after her marriage at 21. She made a come-back in 1897 but by the beginning of 1898 she was pregnant and that was that. Her husband died less than two years later, on which cheerful note I'll be off to see if Michael Portillo really did perform on the Victorian stage...

Friday 12 August 2022

Constance Smedley's Cat

 Well, this is an ramble-y post.  It all came about because I'm in love with Irene Smedley-Aston...

The Blessed Irene, in a photograph by her husband William

This photograph is in the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum catalogue, The Victorian Radicals and I've been besotted ever since. If I ever get round to studying formally again, I'd want to find out everything I can about the Smedley family, especially Irene, and their wide social circle, but I digress.  In my researching everything Smedley, I obviously included William's cousin Constance and her husband Maxwell Armfield...

Self Portrait (1901) Maxwell Armfield

I wrote a post on Maxwell here and so knew who Constance was, but wasn't aware that she too was an artist, not to mention a novelist, playwright, feminist and all-round firecracker. That's how I ended up buying her cat. We better start at the beginning...

Miss Anne Constance Smedley was born in Handsworth in the West Midlands in the summer of 1876. The oldest of three, she had a younger sister Ida, born in 1878 and brother William, born in 1884. Their father was a chartered accountant, so the family were very comfortably off which might explain why, despite walking with crutches and using a wheelchair all her life after possibly contracting polio as a child, Constance was able to attend the Birmingham School of Art.

It seems that Constance did extremely well at the school, winning lots of prizes and special mentions that were reported in the press.  My favourite has to be the 'highly commended' she received for her design for a fancy dress costume in 1895 which was reported in the Gentlewoman paper. If I'm ever attending a fancy dress party in the future I'll definitely go as The Yellow Book, thanks to Constance (if I'm not going as Evelyn De Morgan's tube of paint, which won the heart of William De Morgan).

Another of Constance's prize winning illustrations from 1895

In the meantime, she was getting quite a reputation for her written work. In 1895, she received great reviews for her play The Lay Figure which was performed at the School of Art, described as 'brilliant and witty in dialogue and strong in situation' by the Warwickshire Herald. In 1898, the Birmingham Mail reported that the Edgbaston Assembly rooms had hosted 'a large and fashionable audience' who had come to watch On the Road to Englefield, Constance's new play, starring her sister Ida in a leading role. The piece was declared 'delightful and cleverly written'.

Mrs Patrick Campbell reading the Kelmscott Chaucer (1904) William Smedley-Aston

It was only a matter of time before Constance got ambitious enough to head for London. She provided the frontispiece illustration the souvenir programme of the 60th performance of King John in 1899. I'm not sure if she reworked her play On the Road to Englefield or simply retitled it Mrs Jordan, but this is the play she sent to one of the best respected actresses in the country in 1900. Beatrice Campbell, better known on stage as Mrs Patrick Campbell, was a theatrical force to be reckoned with. Mr Campbell was a soldier and was away fighting in the Boer War (dying in 1900). I think it says a lot about both women that Mrs Pat (as she was known) thought the play was marvellous and it was performed at the Royalty in Soho and it was declared 'the brightest and cleverest curtain-raiser seen in London for many a long day' by the Clarion in February 1900.

As well as writing plays, Constance had a brisk trade in novels and short stories, including 'Jerisan: A Romantic Story' which was illustrated by Byam Shaw and appeared in The Graphic in 1905. Previous to this, Constance had felt there was a gap in the market for a club for literary women. The boy's clubs that existed were, well, full of boys, and that was not really what anyone wanted so she devised, with some writing chums, to set up a jolly fine place where women could meet, entertain outside of their homes and be with like-minded women. The Truth newspaper spoke to her in October of 1903 about the setting up of the 'Lyceum' club. The following was recorded in the 'Girls' Gossip' column:

'There are to be rooms where members can write in privacy and quiet. A library containing standard books of reference and a cosmopolitan collection of magazines and newspapers will be available, and it is to be furnished with every convenience for writing and dispatching MSS etc. The bedrooms are to be furnished with writing materials and tables, so that the occupants may be able to work in absolute privacy and peace. Such a boon to the hundreds of writing women in London who have to run about with their work like a dog with a bone, in search of a quiet corner wherein to dispatch it in peace.'

The piece goes on to record that the Lyceum would be open to international members, making the bold claim that London was the 'headquarters of European intellectuality' (in the opinion of London) so that members would be flocking from all over to avail themselves of the facilities because 'Women, as a rule, hate hotels' so would rather stay at the Lyceum. Anyway, despite writing to all of her literary female chums, Constance found it hard to get members, so they extended the invitation to all professional women and the wives and daughters of prominent men (I suppose because they would have all had decent educations). Constance's mother joined and became known as 'the mother of the Lyceum' (as was recorded in her obituary). Lady Frances Balfour became the first chair of the club, serving for 15 years. 

Lady Frances Balfour (1919) Bassano Ltd

Blimey, I would not mess with her, she looks handy in a scrap (as indeed she was). You probably know her from this picture...
Lady Frances Balfour (1880) Edward Burne-Jones

So in June 1904 the new Lyceum Clubhouse at 128 Piccadilly opened as the first gentleman's club for women with an initial membership of around 1000 women. Constance was also a pacifist, christian scientist and suffragist, not to mention a powerhouse of writing. I particularly like her book Woman: A Few Shrieks! from 1907...

Then something disastrous happened.  She got married...

Constance and Maxwell Armfield (unknown photographer)

I love Maxwell Armfield and it seems they had a splendid marriage (he was gay and she was busy) but the reason I call it a disaster is that she very quickly becomes Mrs Maxwell Armfield in accounts of her and their lives. It's not their fault but history does tend to tuck women in behind their husbands, even if that is the last thing anyone intends (see also Evelyn De Morgan's sister's book on Evelyn and William entitled William De Morgan and His Wife (1922) Wowser...)

Constance Smedley (1907) Maxwell Armfield

For a jolly fine account of the pair you can do no better than reading Tessa West's book A Pageant Truly Play'd and reading her piece on ArtUK. I was lucky enough to get a cheap first edition of the couple's joint work The Armfields' Animal-Book from 1922 which was written by Constance with illustrations by Maxwell...

Frontispiece by Maxwell for 'How the Turtles Learned to Differ'

Illustration by Maxwell for 'How the Eagle Made Friends'

Illustration by Maxwell for 'How the Swallows Learned the Song'

The couple wrote and illustrated other books, including The Flower Book, Sylvia's Travels and Wonder Tales of the World, proving that they were an equal and productive partnership as well as a happy marriage. In 1911, the couple organised a Pageant of Progress in Stroud, forming the Cotswold Players, a theatrical company, to produce the show. The headline in the Illustrated London News article covering the pageant was that progress was 'No Less Renown'd than War' which is telling. After a few more years in Chelsea, forming a theatre company and anti-war views, the couple moved to America in 1915.

Music in New York, Homage to Johann Sebastian Bach (1946) Maxwell Armfield

America held a lot of attraction for the dynamic duo which lasted well beyond their return in 1922. One of my favourite of Maxwell's paintings is this one from after Constance's death, when he obviously returned to visit. Maxwell became a naturalised citizen 1917 but it didn't stop the pair returning to the Cotswolds, even though Constance apparently found it a wrench. I can imagine that for a woman as driven as her, the freedom offered by 1920s America was exactly what she wanted, but it was not to be as Maxwell craved a quieter life. Constance wrote her autobiography, the magificent Crusaders, published in 1929 and described as 'spirited' in various reviews (which must be a euphemism for something) it described all the things she had done in her first 50 years, which amounted to so much. 

Constance Smedley with a violin (1900s) Maxwell Armfield

In the early 1930s she formed the Grace Darling League intended to raise awareness of the heroic young woman in the years before the centenary of her death in 1942. She raised funds for the Grace Darling museum in Bamburgh which opened in 1938, and wrote three books and a one-act play on the National Treasure. You can still visit the museum which claims that Darling was 'Victorian Britain's Greatest Heroine' which is a bold claim indeed. She certainly has the most Victorian name I have ever heard, which is an achievement indeed.

Constance 'in her favourite role - The Wild Man of Borneo'

In old age, her health suffered. She was blind for six years then received an operation in 1940 which restored it. She was recorded as saying 'It was almost unbearable exciting'.  Not letting a small thing like blindness slow her down, her first job after the operation was arranging a wedding anniversary party at the Dorchester Hotel for Queen Victoria who would have been celebrating her 100th wedding anniversary, apart from the fact she had been widowed in 1861 and she had been dead for 39 years. Constance found any excuse for a party. Unfortunately, she would not live long enough to enjoy the celebrations for Grace Darling. The Liverpool Daily Post announced her death in March of 1941 praising how 'despite disability' (a phrase that hasn't aged well) where she had to walk with crutches or use a wheelchair, she had been an artist, writer and orator, a leader of her sex.

Maxwell managed to keep going after Constance's death, continuing to work, then settling down with a nice chap, finally dying in the 1970s. I am struck how utterly dynamic Constance was, and what a smashing partnership they made. I have read accounts that brand their marriage 'lavender', both parties being gay and married for convenience, but I wonder if they hit upon a combination that worked. Goodness knows I've told you about relationships that were appalling, so finding one that was productive and positive is such a joy.

Oh, before I forget, the actual point of this post was that I own Constance's cat. It's signed 'Constance Smedley' so I'm guessing it's from her art school days and it is gorgeously hideous. I bought it for a few quid ages ago and now feel sad that it didn't fetch more. I think it is a reflection that Constance is not as well known as she should be and it's up to us to celebrate her. 

I think a massive party at the Dorchester is called for...