Untold lives blog

47 posts categorized "Visual arts"

13 January 2020

Painting a Thousand Words: Timur and His Mughal Descendants

The Mughal Empire in India was founded in 1526 by Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur.  Babur was a Central Asian prince who boasted an impressive lineage.  On his mother’s side he was descended from the great Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, while on his father’s he was descended from none other than the conqueror Amir Timur.

Unsurprisingly, the Mughals were proud of their heritage and sought to clearly weave it into their imperial narrative.  An example of this is seen in a stunning Mughal miniature -
 

Timur, seated on a central raised couch, surrounded by his seated Mughal heirsTimur surrounded by his Mughal heirs: British Library - Johnson 64, 38

The painting depicts Timur, seated on a central raised couch, surrounded by his seated Mughal heirs: the first four emperors of the Mughal Empire.  To his right sits Babur, holding a book, and Akbar, while to his left sits Humayun, with his arm outstretched, and Jahangir.  Standing to Timur’s right is the poet Sa’di in white, while an attendant holding a state sword stands to his left.

It is notable that every imperial figure in the image bears a striking jeweled dagger on a golden belt, apart from Humayun.  This may be attributed to the fact that Humayun experienced the misfortune of losing his father’s empire and being forced into exile for a period of 15 years, before successfully reclaiming the empire with the support of Safavid Persia.

Humayun’s relative failure as an emperor therefore perhaps translates into not only his lack of dagger but the simplicity of his attire.  It would appear that in this miniature the strengthening of the empire corresponds with the richness of imperial attire.  We therefore see Babur with a jeweled dagger, Humayun plain, Akbar with a dagger and some jewelled ornaments and finally Jahangir, richly adorned with multiple jewels and pearls across his person.

This painting was created c.1650 during the reign of Shah Jahan, when such group portraits of Mughal ancestors were popular.  It forms part of the rich treasures of the British Library that can be viewed by appointment in the Asia and Africa Studies Print Room.  A well-worth trip to see some beautifully ornate illustrations of history!

Lubaaba Al-Azami
University of Liverpool

 

10 December 2019

Sarah Danby – JMW Turner’s lover

Sarah Danby was born Sarah Goose in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, probably in 1766, as she was christened, a Roman Catholic, in Baumber on 5 April in that year.  She was brought up in Lambeth and became a singer and actress.  On 4 April 1788, she married John Danby, a successful organist and glee composer, with whom she had five daughters and one son, two of whom died in infancy.  The Danbys first lived in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, and were near neighbours of the Turners, who lived in Maiden Lane. 

John Danby's death May 1798 reported in True Briton John Danby's death reported in True Briton 19 May 1798 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers

John Danby suffered with poor health, probably rheumatoid arthritis, and died, aged 41, at home on 16 May 1798, sadly just at the close of the benefit concert organised by his friends at Willis’s Rooms that very evening.  At that time the Danbys were living at 46 Upper John Street and Sarah was two months pregnant with their fifth daughter, Theresa.  John Danby was buried in Old St Pancras Churchyard but his grave was destroyed with the coming of the railway.  His name can be seen on the Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial.

 
John Danby’s name on the Burdett-Coutts Memorial SundialJohn Danby’s name on the Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial.  (author’s photo)

Sarah began a relationship with Turner and lived with him for short periods of time at various addresses but this was never a permanent arrangement and they never married.  Various reasons have been suggested and the truth may well be a combination of some or all of the following: 
Turner often made disparaging comments about matrimony, probably as a result of his observation of his parents’ troubled marriage and perhaps as the result of an early failed relationship.
Sarah was a Catholic; Turner was not.
Sarah was dependant on a pension from the Royal Society of Musicians, which would stop if she lived permanently with Turner.

Life study of a female figure, possibly Sarah Danby, from one of Turner’s notebooksLife study of a female figure c.1812-13 , possibly Sarah Danby, from one of Turner’s notebooks -  Tate Britain  Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

They had two daughters together; Evelina (1801–74) and Georgiana (1811–43) but Turner saw little of them and he spent his latter years mostly in Chelsea, with Sophia Booth.  After Turner’s death in December 1851, Sarah lived in poverty in William Street, Marylebone, with her unmarried daughter by Thomas Danby, Marcella, a music teacher, and her granddaughter Louisa Symondson.  Turner left Sarah nothing in his will and she was forced to sell various drawings and sketches that he had given her, just to survive.  She applied for an increase in the pension she received from the Royal Society of Musicians but this was refused.

Crossing The Brook - painting by Turner'Crossing The Brook' by Turner.  The two girls are thought to be his daughters, Evelina and Georgiana - Tate Britain Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported))


Sarah later moved to George Street, near Euston Square, where she died on 16 February 1861.  The Registrar recorded that she was 100 (she was probably 95) and that she had eaten beefsteak for her dinner the day before she died.  She was buried in a pauper’s grave in Kensal Green.

Sarah’s death was quickly followed by law suits involving her family.  In April 1861 Marcella was taken to court by her niece, Caroline Frances Lamb, and Caroline’s husband, Edward Buckton Lamb, over the administration of Sarah’s personal estate, which was valued at under £200.  Marcella then countered with a case against the Lambs to recover letters and documents relating to Sarah’s accounts and private affairs.  She also recovered the large sum of £1621 9s 7d which was paid into court by the Lambs.  Yet when Marcella died in 1863, her estate was valued at less than £100.  A mystery which remains to be unraveled!

David Meaden
Independent researcher

Further reading:
Anthony Bailey, Standing in the sun (London, 2013)
Stephen J May, Voyage of the slave ship, J.M.W. Turner's masterpiece in historical context (Jefferson, North Carolina, 2014)
Dictionary of artists’ models, edited by Jill Berk Jimenez (London, 2001)
Article on John Danby by Selby Whittingham in New Dictionary of National Biography
The life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A.; founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow academicians, Walter Thornbury, 1897.
 

Turner’s restored house in Twickenham will reopen on Saturday 11 January 2020.
Wednesday-Sunday: 12 –1pm: self-guided visits.
Guided tours Wednesday to Sunday at 1.00, 2.00 and 3.00pm.  Last entry 3pm.

Turner's House logo

 

 

25 April 2019

Crusoe embossed

Robinson Crusoe was published 300 years ago on 25 April 1719.  Daniel Defoe’s account of a shipwrecked English sailor cast away on an uninhabited tropical island for 28 years has universal appeal because it is so believable.  Defoe effectively put into print the archetypal shipwreck yarn spun by many an old mariner.  It capitalised on the popularity of travel books and many readers did not realise it was fiction. 

Part of the enduring success of Robinson Crusoe is the impact it makes on a reader’s imagination - the mind is stirred by adventure in exotic far-off places.  Illustrations have played an important role in the presentation and reception of Crusoe, whether cheap quickly executed woodcuts in chapbooks and penny novels, or coloured plates in fine bindings.  The primary topic has been the portraiture of Crusoe – John Pine’s frontispiece for the first edition sets a consistent tone.  Crusoe, the resourceful, stands with his guns looking determinedly at the prospect of surviving alone on the island, the lost ship in the background.  Supporting illustrations frequently emphasise pivotal points in the story such as the shipwreck, the discovery of the footprint and Friday’s rescue.

Portraits of Robinson CrusoePortraits of Robinson Crusoe. John Pine’s first edition frontispiece (C.30.f.6) is top left.  Later woodcuts from a variety of chapbooks can be seen to retain the composition. Noc

Portrait of Robinson Crusoe by Jules Fesquet and LegeniselThere have also been some quite ‘unique’ portraits like this fantastic effort by Jules Fesquet and Legenisel from 1877. Noc

The proliferation of editions in the 19th century saw illustrations dominated by traditional images that are typical of colonialist assumptions and the flawed belief in white Europeans’ superiority over people and places of the wider world.  Traditional style editions routinely show Friday prostrate before his saviour, Crusoe.  In a show of submission and gratitude, Defoe tells us that Friday put Crusoe’s foot upon his head.
 

Book binding showing Friday at the feet of  Robinson CrusoeWard & Lock’s publishers’ binding (circa 1879) consciously or unconsciously amplifies the depressing fact that the first word Crusoe taught Friday was, “Master”. Noc

Depiction of Friday’s rescue A perfect exemplar of the colonial-style depiction of Friday’s rescue can be seen in a Maori Language edition from 1852 (freely available via Explore the British Library) – the Preface by the ‘Native Secretary’s Office’ is very revealing. Noc

Artistic capabilities are often stultified by prevalent tastes and looking at the same type of images in edition after edition of Crusoe can be tiring.  Change came with the work of artists like JB Yeats and further possibilities were pursued in the early 20th century with Expressionist art like the work of Walther Klemm.

 J B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprintJ B Yeats’ depiction of Crusoe discovering the footprint (and looking all Kirk Douglas!) Noc


Lithograph of running figures by Walther KlemmLithograph by Walther Klemm in Das Leben und die ganz ungemeinen Begebenheiten des weltberühmten Engelländers Robinson Crusoe Leipzig, Verleg tbei Friedrich Dehne, 1919. (recent acquisition – awaiting shelfmark). Noc

Of course, it is all too easy for most readers to take for granted the added value and meaning to be gained from illustrations.  J R Biggs, whose wonderful wood-engravings decorate the Penguin Illustrated Classics edition of 1937, remarked that 'books without illustrations make the greatest force in the world: books with illustrations the greatest delight'.

But even though Crusoe is a particularly visual work, how might the visually impaired and blind experience such a novel?  Amongst the 600 or so printed editions of Crusoe held in the British Library, one of the most impressive items is a truly sensual edition: ‘visual’ and striking by both sight and by touch.

In the 1860s, the American Printing House for the Blind produced editions of books printed, or rather, embossed, with raised Roman Type letters.

Embossed edition of Robinson Crusoe

Embossed edition of Robinson CrusoeRobinson Crusoe. Presented to the American Printing House for the Blind (1873) Revolutionary for the blind.  But also aesthetically pleasing for people fortunate to be able to see the embossed type. Noc

The expansion of cheap print for mass readerships made great use of illustrations and it assisted rising levels of literacy.  The embossed type really adds a further dimension to the visual impression made by ‘printed’ words.  The invention of printing for the blind marked a new era in the history of literature.  It made the novel personally discoverable to readers unable to see traditional ink printed texts.  It is testament to the success and universal appeal of Crusoe that it was one of the very first texts selected to be printed by the APHB enabling the shipwrecked sailor’s adventure to become embossed on even more readers’ minds.

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
David Blewett, The illustration of Robinson Crusoe, 1719-1920 (1995)
Lists of books published by the American Printing House for the Blind and by other American firms [1896]
Edmund C, Johnson, Tangible Typography, or how the Blind read (1853)

Visit our free display about Robinson Crusoe in the British Library Treasures Gallery - available until June 2019.

 

15 February 2019

JMW Turner’s First and Last Loves (Part 2)

Our last post told the story of Elizabeth White, the first love of artist JMW Turner. Today we turn to his last love - Sophia Booth.

Sophia Caroline Nollte was born in Dover, in 1798, to German immigrant parents.  She moved to Margate when she married a local fisherman, John Henry Pound, in 1818.  Sadly, he drowned in 1821, leaving her with two sons, Joseph, who died before he was six, and Daniel.

In 1825 she married John Booth, who described himself as 'a gentleman of Margate'.  He was 37 years older than her.  They established a guest house on the seafront in Margate, near the harbour.  In 1826 Sophia gave birth to a son, John Pound Booth, who died of cholera in 1832.  John Booth also succumbed to cholera in 1833 and so, once again, Sophia was left a widow, with one surviving child, Daniel Pound.

Turner stayed in the Booth guest-house from about 1829, favouring the location because of the quality of the light.  After John Booth’s death he began a relationship with Sophia.  Turner’s friend, Charles Turner (no relation) described Sophia as being like a fat cook with no discernible education.  But Turner’s love for Sophia was romantic; he wrote her poems and gave her drawings.

Turner's A Sleeping Woman, perhaps Mrs Booth

Joseph Mallord William Turner, A Sleeping Woman, Perhaps Mrs Booth c.1830–40 Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

In 1846 they moved to Davis Place, Cremorne Road, Chelsea, which is now part of Cheyne Walk.  The house was rented in Sophia’s name and the neighbours assumed that Turner was Mr Booth.  He habitually wore a naval greatcoat and was known as 'Puggy Booth' or 'The Admiral' in the area.  Turner died in the house in 1851.

After Turner’s death, Sophia told his friend, David Roberts, that Turner never made any financial contribution to their life together but that he had composed verses in honour of 'herself and her personal charms' and had been jealous.  She claimed that he had told her that she was 'the handmaid of art'.

In December 1852, Sophia’s son, Daniel Pound, who had become an engraver, applied for a passport.  His travelling companions were named as his mother and Gustave Philip de Garlieb, a Danish-born engraver who worked at the Ordnance Survey. His address was the same street as Sophia, so he was either a neighbour or, possibly, a lodger.  Where did they go and what was the reason for their trip?  I am still looking for clues.

Sophia became friendly with John Ruskin, Turner’s artistic executor, and sold him some of Turner’s notebooks.  Ruskin gave her gifts, including the oval self-portrait miniature of Turner as a boy.  Turner’s first biographer, Walter Thornbury, portrayed Sophia as acting in a mercenary way after his death but Ruskin and other friends thought that this was unfair.  She had, after all, burned Turner’s letters to her rather than sell them and she gave away many of his other possessions.

In 1865, her son, Daniel Pound, sold some of the Turner paintings she owned for £4,000 and bought Haddenham Hall, in Buckinghamshire, for £1,000, where she lived until her death in 1878, aged 80.  She asked to be buried at St John’s Church, Margate, so Turner’s first and last loves lie in the same churchyard.

Grave of Sophia Booth at St John's Church Margate

Grave of Sophia Booth at St John's Church Margate Grave of Sophia Booth at St John's Church Margate - photographs by author

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Further reading:
Franny Moyle, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W.Turner (London, 2016)
Felicity Myrone , J. M. W. Turner and his World: John Platt (1842-1902), a Late Victorian Extra-illustrator, and his Collection Electronic British Library Journal

 

Turner's House logo

Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is currently open Wednesday-Sunday: 12 –1pm: Self-guided visits, and 1-4pm: Guided Tours (Last entry: 3:30pm)

 

14 February 2019

JMW Turner’s First and Last Loves (Part 1)

Valentine’s Day would seem to be an appropriate time to look at the romantic life of the great painter, JMW Turner.  There were many women in Turner’s life, at least one of whom bore him children, but he never married.  The disparaging comments he made about matrimony were probably formed by his observation of his parents’ troubled marriage and perhaps as the result of an early experience.

Today we look at Turner’s first love - Elizabeth White.

When things were difficult at home, and for the benefit of his health, the young Turner would often stay for long periods with relations, notably his maternal uncle, Joseph Marshall, who was a butcher in Brentford.  In 1787, the twelve-year-old Turner moved from Brentford to stay with friends in Margate, where he attended Thomas Coleman’s school in Love Lane.  One of his school friends was Edward White, whose sister, Elizabeth, was the same age as Turner.  Young William was strongly attracted to Elizabeth and, after he returned to London, he visited Margate frequently throughout the early 1790s and the relationship blossomed.  Turner’s problem was that he did not feel that the state of his finances made it possible for him to propose marriage.

Turner's Margate harbour from the sea 1786-87Joseph Mallord William Turner, Margate Harbour from the Sea 1796–7 Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

After his success at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1796, Turner felt himself sufficiently established to propose to Elizabeth and set off down to Margate, only to find that she had become engaged to a local man, Richard Wiles.  Some of Turner’s biographers describe Wiles as a builder – he wasn’t, he was a publican.  The marriage licence describes him as Richard Wiles of St John, Thanet, innkeeper, bachelor, and the newspaper report of the wedding, in 1798, describes him as of The Bull’s Head Inn.  The confusion is probably because his parents were also Richard and Elizabeth. There is still a Bull’s Head on the site, where, in 1952, Eric Morecambe (Bartholomew) had his wedding reception when he married the landlord’s daughter, Joan Bartlett.

Turner was devastated and his friends’ accounts suggest that he suffered some form of breakdown. Sadly, Elizabeth did not enjoy a long or happy life. Her son, another Richard, was born in October 1799 but died in February 1800.  Elizabeth herself died the following year, aged 26, but I have not been able to discover the cause of her death.

Elizabeth is buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist Church, Margate. 

St John's Church MargateSt John's Church Margate from New Ramsgate, Margate, and Broadstairs Guide (Ramsgate, 1855?)

Wiles family grave at St John's Church MargateWiles family grave at St John's Church Margate - photograph by author

I assume that Turner knew of Elizabeth’s death from her brother or one of his other contacts in Margate but I can find no record of this.  It is, however, a reasonable assumption that this early experience contributed to Turner’s jaundiced view of relationships and marriage in particular.

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Further reading:
Franny Moyle, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W.Turner (London, 2016)
Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal 27 November 1798 British Newspaper Archive
Felicity Myrone, 'J. M. W. Turner and his World: John Platt (1842-1902), a Late Victorian Extra-illustrator, and his Collection' Electronic British Library Journal

JMW Turner’s First and Last Loves (Part 2)

Turner's House logo
Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is currently open Wednesday-Sunday: 12 –1pm: Self-guided visits, and 1-4pm: Guided Tours (Last entry: 3:30pm)

 

17 January 2019

Isaac Robert Cruikshank – a life retold?

On display in the exhibition Cats on the Page at the British Library is the pamphlet The Pretty, playful, tortoise-shell cat published in 1817.  The illustrator is probably the caricaturist and portrait painter Isaac Robert Cruikshank, often known professionally as just Robert Cruikshank.

Portrait of Isaac Robert Cruikshank by Frederick William PailthorpeIsaac Robert Cruikshank by Frederick William Pailthorpe (1828) NPG D9318 © National Portrait Gallery, London    NPG CC

Isaac Robert Cruikshank was born in London in 1789.  He and his more famous younger brother George followed in the footsteps of their artist father Isaac.  Biographies of the two brothers tell of Isaac Robert venturing to sea as a teenager during the French Wars.  His parents are said to have secured their son a position as midshipman in the East India Company ship Perseverance.  The story goes that Isaac Robert was left behind at St Helena on the return voyage.  He had gone on shore in command of a boat’s crew, a storm arose, and he was stranded and reported to be lost.  After hiding from press gangs and suffering privations, he was befriended by the governor of the island and went home to England in a whaler.  On the way back, they met with a vessel which gave them news of the battle of Trafalgar.  His appearance on the family doorstep in London was greeted with astonishment as they were in mourning for his death.

I decided to dig into the East India Company archives to see if I could discover more about this interesting tale.  What I found was rather different!  Isaac Cruikshank appears in the crew list for the Perseverance as the purser’s servant, with the rank of seaman rather than junior officer.  The wage and receipt books show that he joined the ship in the Downs on 31 March 1804 for the voyage to China and was discharged on 17 September 1805 when the Perseverance reached England.  His wages were 45 shillings per month; after deductions he was paid £39 10s 6d for service of 17 months and 17 days.  Cruikshank collected and signed for his wages in person at East India House in the City of London on 15 January 1806, four months after arriving back in England.  Where had he been in the interim?  Was the St Helena story concocted to cover the young man’s absence immediately after the ship docked?

I did check the St Helena records to see if there were any clues there.  The Perseverance anchored there on 30 June 1805, and a muster of the crew was taken on 11 July 1805 just before the ship departed.  Cruikshank is in that muster list of crew members and I could find nothing to suggest that anything unusual happened to him.

So a cracking good yarn, but seemingly untrue.  Being told about Trafalgar by a passing ship is a nice touch.  The battle took place on 21 October 1805 but, according to the records of the Perseverance, Cruikshank had been discharged in England a month earlier. 

After Cruikshank’s death in 1856, George Daniel wrote a tribute which mentioned the time his friend had spent at sea. Daniel said that Cruikshank ‘was wont to recall those happy days, when he proudly walked the quarter-deck in the uniform of his sovereign; eager, in his exuberant pugnacity, to fight the battles of his country.  But he was born to be an artist’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/255D Journal of the Perseverance 1804-1805, with a crew list
IOR/L/MAR/B/255K Wage book for the Perseverance 1806-1806
IOR/L/MAR/B/255K2 Receipt book for the Perseverance 1806-1806
IOR/G/32/70 St Helena Consultations 1805
George Daniel, Love’s last labour not lost (London, 1863)
William Bates, George Cruikshank: the artist, the humourist, and the man, with some account of his brother Robert (London, 1878)
William Blanchard Jerrold, The life of George Cruikshank (London, 1882)


Cats on the Page exhibition supported by
 

Logo of Animal Friends, exhibition sponsor

 

25 September 2018

William Blake’s Grave

The Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds are the final resting place for around 120,000 people including Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, Susanna Wesley, and William Blake. Previously, Blake’s precise location in the cemetery was unknown but thanks to Carol and Luis Garrido’s investigation, the exact location has been determined. In celebration of the discovery, the Blake Society commissioned a new gravestone, and arranged for an unveiling ceremony 191 years after Blake’s death, on August 12, 2018. Philip Pullman, novelist of His Dark Materials trilogy, and heavy metal frontman of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson, came together, alongside other Blake devotees to celebrate the occasion.
 

Blake's grave at Bunhill FieldsWilliam Blake’s grave. Taken by Elizabeth Potter. September 2018. Noc

Another grave to visit for all things Blake, is Robert Blair’s The Grave, a Poem (1808). Blair belonged to what is often called the Graveyard School, a pre-Romantic group of poets in the eighteenth century that wrote about mortality, loss, and the afterworld.  Blake was commissioned to create designs to illustrate Blair’s popular poem for a new edition. Eventually, Blake was ousted from the position as engraver to be replaced by Louis Schivaonetti but twelve of his designs would populate the pages, and later would be Blake’s claim-to-fame in the nineteenth century.

An interesting plate by Blake is The Soul exploring the recesses of the Grave. The design is described in the book as: “The Soul, prior to the dissolution of the Body, exploring through and beyond the tomb, and there discovering the emblems of mortality and of immortality”.  The Soul, embodied as a curious woman holding a candle, ventures into the rocky, cavernous tomb that houses a corpse surrounded by flames. Atop the cave is a young man, with a crescent moon appearing behind and between his legs, bending towards the tomb with a confused, saddened expression.

  Image of The Soul exploring the recesses of the grave The Grave, A Poem by Robert Blair. C.39.k.11. Noc

Scholars Robert N. Essick and Morton D. Paley suggest comparing this design to another contained in The Grave, called Death’s Door. These two images function as opposites – The Soul Exploring conveys restriction and obfuscation, and the Death’s Door revealing the possibilities of regeneration after death. Blake’s departure from gloom and towards the opportunity of immortality and spiritual regeneration is epitomized in the pairing of engravings. As the description of the imagery asserts in The Grave (1808), “these designs, detached from the work they embellish, form of themselves a most interesting poem.”
 

Image of Death’s Door The Grave, A Poem by Robert Blair. C.39.k.11. Noc

 

Elizabeth Potter
PhD Research Placement Student from the University of York

Further reading:
Robert Blair's The Grave illustrated by William Blake: a study with facsimile by Robert N. Essick and Morton D. Paley (1982).

The Notebook of William Blake, page 70.

Carol and Luis Garrido’s efforts to find the exact location of Blake.

 

01 May 2018

May Day in the Olden Time

Today we bring you another surprising discovery from the India Office Records.  In a volume of correspondence for the Surveyor’s Department in 1868 is a report on a watercolour painting entitled May Day in the Olden Time by Henry Stacy Marks. 

Panel of a triptych watercolour painting by Henry Stacy Marks entitled May Day in the Olden Time, 1867Panel of a triptych watercolour painting by Henry Stacy Marks entitled May Day in the Olden Time, 1867 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London  FA.677

The appraisal is the subject of a letter written by Matthew Digby Wyatt, India Office Surveyor, to Henry Cole, director of the South Kensington Museum.  Cole had asked Wyatt to visit the Dudley Gallery to inspect Marks’ painting because the Department of Science and Art was interested in reproducing it as a mural decoration for the Museum.  The procession of 16th-century figures in May Day in the Olden Time was described by one contemporary critic as ‘a favourable example of Mr Marks’s transition manner –a  manner which lies halfway between an easel-picture and a wall-picture, which reconciles a figure composition to the conditions of architectural construction and the requirements of mural decoration’.

Not everyone who viewed the painting at the Dudley Gallery was appreciative.  The London Daily News wrote of ‘general quaintness and affected imbecility’.  Wyatt reported to Cole : ‘In my opinion its artistic merit is considerable as it is well composed and with the exception of a few faults in proportion of parts of some of the figures, carefully drawn in a somewhat conventional manner, while the subject is cheerful, suitable as a picture for a private room of moderate dimensions, and treated with less caricature than this Artist is generally in the habit of introducing into his work’. 

Wyatt did not think the asking price of £168 was excessive and went on to consider two aspects of the painting’s suitability: the subject matter and the technical fitness for reproduction.  Wyatt was struck by ‘the want of harmony between the subject and the scope of such an institution’ as the Museum.  He thought a ‘graver aim’ would be more desirable.  However he believed that the painting was technically ideal for copying onto earthenware slabs or plaques, indeed it ‘seemed expressly intended for some such object’.  In conclusion, Wyatt suggested that Marks should be commissioned to design a composition in the same style but limited to a much smaller number of figures.

Triptych watercolour painting by Henry Stacy Marks entitled May Day in the Olden Time, 1867 Triptych watercolour painting by Henry Stacy Marks entitled May Day in the Olden Time, 1867 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London  FA.677 

The Department of Science and Art did purchase May Day in the Olden Time and it is now in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The painting was copied onto three porcelain panels by a student from the South Kensington Art School.  The panels were then incorporated into a decorative buffet placed in the Green Dining Room of the Museum.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
India Office Surveyor’s Department correspondence IOR/L/SUR/2/7 ff.28-31, letter from Matthew Digby Wyatt to Henry Cole 6 February 1868.
English painters of the present day – Essay on H S Marks by  by J Beavington  Atkinson (London, 1871)
British Newspaper Archive e.g.  London Daily News 8 February 1868

 

Image from The Life of the Buddha

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