Untold lives blog

62 posts categorized "Visual arts"

20 September 2022

Henry Trimmer – JMW Turner’s Lifelong Friend

Henry Scott Trimmer was born in Old Brentford on 1 August 1778.  His mother, Sarah (1741-1810), was a prominent educationalist, whose writing had a marked effect on the style and content of children’s literature of the time.  It was in Brentford that Henry and his older brother, John, first met the ten-year-old William Turner, who had been sent to live with his uncle, Joseph Marshall, a local butcher.  William and Henry soon became firm friends.

Oil painting of Sarah Trimmer, evangelist and children's writer, sitting with pen and paper, with several books at hand  Oil painting of Sarah Trimmer, evangelist and children's writer by by Henry Howard - © National Portrait Gallery  NPG 796

Henry fell ill with consumption in 1792-3 but made a full recovery.  He gained a B.A from Merton College, Oxford in 1802 and in August that year was ordained deacon and appointed curate at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch.  In December 1802 he was ordained priest and in 1803 became curate in Kedington, Suffolk, where he met his future wife.  In 1804 he was appointed Vicar of Heston, near to where he had grown up, and remained there until his death in 1859. 

Photograph of St Leonard’s Church  HestonSt Leonard’s Church, Heston (photograph by author) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1805 Henry married Mary Driver Syer in Kedington.  They had three sons: Henry Syer, Barrington and Frederick.

Newspaper announcement of the marriage of Henry Scott Trimmer to Mary Driver Syer in 1805Bury and Norwich Post 10 July 1805 British Newspaper Archive

After Turner completed the building of Sandycombe Lodge, his Twickenham house, in 1813, he and Henry Trimmer spent more time together and it is thanks to the information that Henry Trimmer’s sons passed on to Turner’s first biographer Walter Thornbury, that we know so much about Turner’s life at Sandycombe Lodge.  Henry was also an occasional visitor at Turner’s studio and gallery in Queen Anne Street.  Thornbury suggests that the interior of a church depicted in Turner’s Liber Studiorum is St Leonard’s, Heston, but the original drawing dates from 1797, before Trimmer moved to Heston.

Turner felt that he needed to be better educated in the classics and Henry wished to improve his artistic skills, so they came to an arrangement whereby Henry schooled Turner in Latin in exchange for painting lessons.  They went out on sketching trips together, often with the Trimmer sons, and also visited art galleries, such as the one at nearby Osterley House.  Sadly, none of Henry’s paintings seem to have survived but there is an engraved print of one of them in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Seascape with rainbow - two sailing ships riding the waves.Seascape with Rainbow, 1837. Henry Scott Trimmer (artist), David Lucas (engraver).  © Victoria and Albert Museum 

In 1815, Henry was appointed Justice of the Peace and, in 1821, Deputy Lieutenant for Middlesex.  He was active in social reform and, in particular, campaigned for an investigation into the death of Private Frederick John White of the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, based in Hounslow.  In 1846, White had been court-martialled and flogged for insubordination and had died shortly after the lashes had been administered.

Grave of Private Frederick John WhiteGrave of Private Frederick John White  at St Leonard’s Churchyard, Heston (photograph by author) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

After Turner sold Sandycombe Lodge, in 1826, Henry saw less of him but, as Turner had appointed him as one of his executors, he was involved in the long-drawn-out dispute about Turner’s will, from 1852 to 1856.

Henry died on 20 November 1859 and his wife, Mary, only survived him by 48 hours. His son, Barrington, who had been his curate for 27 years, died the following year.

 

Newspaper announcement of the deaths of Henry Scott Trimmer and his wife MaryNorfolk Chronicle 3 December 1859 British Newspaper Archive

Henry Scott Trimmer’s tomb in St Leonard’s Churchyard  HestonHenry Scott Trimmer’s tomb in St Leonard’s Churchyard, Heston (photograph by author) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Newspaper article about Henry Scott Trimmer's will 1860Illustrated London News 14 January 1860 British Newspaper Archive

During his lifetime, Henry had amassed a fine collection of paintings by celebrated artists, many of whom were known to him personally. When the collection was sold, in 1860, it included works by Hogarth, Reynolds and Gainsborough. No mention is made of any Turners, although Henry certainly owned some.

Newspaper article about the sale of Henry Scott Trimmer's art collection in 1860Morning Post 19 March 1860 British Newspaper Archive


David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive
Brentford High Street Project 
Franny Moyle, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W.Turner (London, 2016).
Anthony Bailey, Standing In The Sun – a life of J.M.W.Turner (1997).
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A. founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow Academicians, (London, 1862).

 

Turner's House logo

Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is open to visitors.


16 June 2022

Birds, Landscapes, and Letters: Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras

In 1802, Mary Symonds wrote to her sister Hester James from Madras (now Chennai), 'I hope now we are settled that I shall be able to send something for the curious by every opportunity'.

Painting of the coast near Madras showing the beach with small wooden boatsMary Symonds, Coast Near Madras, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album PIC106.78

Mary had accompanied her sister, the talented ornithologist and painter Elizabeth Gwillim, and Elizabeth's husband Henry Gwillim, a judge in the new Supreme Court of Madras.   The materials the sisters sent home provide a uniquely detailed picture of their work and lives between 1801 and 1808.  In the British Library, four thick volumes contain the sisters' 77 long letters; at McGill University, 164 zoological and botanical paintings represent their scientific work; at the South Asia Collection in Norwich, 78 landscapes and portraits depict their surroundings.

Ink sketch of Elizabeth Gwillim at her writing deskElizabeth Gwillim at her writing desk, sketch in a letter to Hester James, 7 February 1802 Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 33r-38v, f. 36v.

Elizabeth Gwillim was the first to record the avian life of Madras in detail.  Decades before John James Audubon, she painted birds from life and to scale, even the large birds of prey and waterbirds which dominate her collection.  Mary's descriptions and paintings document Elizabeth's artistic process and reveal the crucial role of the Indian bird-catchers who secured the living birds.  Elizabeth's paintings pay unusual attention to the placement of the bird's features and reveal a taxonomical rather than purely artistic interest.  A similar attention to detail is evident in the watercolours of fish, most by Mary Symonds.  The fish paintings reveal a collaborative process of information gathering and several are inscribed with the fishes’ local names.

Two Indian birdcatchersMary Symonds, Birdcatchers, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album, PIC 106.66

Black StorkElizabeth Gwillim, Black Stork Ciconia nigra (Linnaeus 1758) McGill University Library, CA RBD Gwillim-1-010

Painting of Moon wrasse fishMary Symonds, Thalassoma lunare (Moon wrasse, labelled Julis lunaris), McGill University Library, CA RBD Gwillim-2-5

In 1805, Elizabeth wrote 'without some little knowledge of Botany it is impossible to read the Hindoo languages'.  Like her contemporary, William Jones, Elizabeth regarded linguistic and botanical studies as intertwined.  Elizabeth studied Telugu, translating a local temple legend.  She was part of the circle of missionary and medical botanists who linked Madras and the Danish settlement of Tranquebar and she sent plants and seeds back to a nursery garden in Brompton where several grew and were depicted in Curtis' Botanical Magazine.  One of her most detailed botanical images, of the Magnolia coco, remains in the Linnean Society herbarium. 

Magnolia coco'Gwillimia Indica' (Magnolia coco) by Elizabeth Gwillim, Linnean Society Herbarium (LINN-HS 981.10. Magnolia indet. (Herb Smith)), by permission of the Linnean Society of London

Apart from their scientific pursuits, the sisters' letters and paintings provide a wealth of details about food, clothing, and the lives of Madras' inhabitants, from Governor Edward Clive to Elizabeth's maidservant, whose biography she relates in detail.

A Lady’s Maid - an Indian woman dressed in white carrying a basketMary Symonds, A Lady’s Maid, A Pariah Woman, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album, PIC106.75


The early 19th century was a turning point in the East India Company's regime in India.  The Company was completing its conquest of Mysore, the Carnatic, and the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom.  However, the tenuous nature of British rule was dramatically highlighted by the uprising at Vellore in July 1807, in which Indian soldiers killed their British commanders and took over the fort, raising the flag of Mysore before the uprising was brutally repressed.  Elizabeth and Mary collected first-hand accounts of the event, for which they blamed Company policy.  By the time of Elizabeth's death in 1807, the Gwillim household had been drawn into conflict with the Company regime in Madras, which Henry Gwillim denounced as 'despotic'.  This prompted Henry's recall to Britain, where he and Mary made new lives.  The story of their time in Madras has remained largely untold until now.

Anna Winterbottom
McGill University

To learn more:

• See the exhibition 'A Different Idea of India: Two Sisters Painting Southern India, 1801-1808', opening on 15 June at the South Asia Collection.  
• Visit the Gwillim Project website for transcriptions, case studies, webinars, and more.
• Read the original letters in the British Library manuscript India Office Private Papers Mss Eur C240/1-4.
• Read more about Elizabeth's botanical work on Kew's blog.
• Look out for the forthcoming book, Anna Winterbottom, Victoria Dickenson, Ben Cartwright, and Lauren Williams eds., Women, Environment and Networks of Empire: Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras (McGill Queen's University Press, 2023).

 

19 May 2022

Hugh Danby – JMW Turner’s Phantom Son

According to his first biographer, Walter Thornbury, Turner had four illegitimate children, at least one of whom was a boy.  He provides no evidence for this, except for this piece of hearsay.
“‘I once,’ says a friend, ‘heard Mr Crabb Robinson (the friend of Wordsworth) casually mention a remark dropped by the late Miss Maria Denman, when the two were out for an excursion with Rogers (I think), and had put up at an inn in a village near London. ‘That’, said the lady, pointing to a youth who happened to pass, ‘is Turner's natural son.’”

Portrait of JMW Turner standing in his studio, with paintings, a palette of paints and brushes, and a propped umbrellaJ.M.W. Turner by Charles Turner, engraving published 1852 NPG D6997 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

In his 1938 book about Turner’s hidden life, Bernard Falk says that there were, in fact, only three children, two girls and a boy named Hugh; all the result of Turner’s relationship with Sarah Danby. Turner acknowledged his daughters, Evelina and Georgiana, but never made any mention of a son, which, if he had had one, would have been unusual, given Turner’s general attitude towards women.

So, who was Hugh Danby?  Falk suggests that he was seen from time to time helping Turner’s father 'Old Dad' at the Queen Anne Street studio but, although some of Turner’s friends reported seeing a girl who resembled him, I can find no mention of a boy.

Falk also says that Hugh’s name appears in the list of people who contested Turner’s will in 1852 but not in the list of benefactors when the will was finally settled in 1856, because he had died in the interim.  However, I can find no record of a Hugh Danby who died between those years nor of a Hugh amongst the family of Sarah Danby’s husband, John.

Interior of the Court of Chancery showing the law officials in black gowns and white wigs and the people appearing in court to give evidenceCourt of Chancery, Lincoln's Inn Hall, from Microcosm of London (1808-1810)

I think that the answer lies in the litigation documents for the original case in the Court of Chancery.  In the list of claimants, the only Danby I can find is Turner’s housekeeper, Hannah Danby, who is then mentioned in the final settlement as ‘since deceased’.  However, immediately preceding Hannah’s name is that of Turner’s executor, Hugh Andrew Johnston Munro.  I believe that someone transcribing the list, possibly for a newspaper report, elided the two names, thus creating Hugh Danby.  Again, some later reports just refer to H. Danby (since deceased), making it possible to assume, erroneously, that this refers to Hugh Danby.

List of cases relating to the will of Mr. Turner, R.A. showing the names of the parties involved - Hannah Danby is listed, but not Hugh DanbyList of cases relating to the will of Mr. Turner, R.A. showing the names of the parties involved - Return to an order of the House of Lords 11 July 1861

It is my strong belief that Hugh Danby never existed.

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Further reading:
Bernard Falk, Turner the Painter: His Hidden Life (London 1938).
Franny Moyle, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W.Turner (London, 2016).
Anthony Bailey, Standing In The Sun – a life of J.M.W.Turner (1997).
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A. founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow Academicians (London, 1862).
Documents for the case in the Court of Chancery are held at The National Archives


Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is open to visitors.

Turner's House

12 April 2022

The early life of painter Sarah Biffen

Sarah Biffen was a celebrated Georgian painter.  At the height of her career, she was patronised by royalty and commended by the Society of Arts.  She was self-taught, and her achievements are all the more laudable in consideration to the circumstances of her birth: born to a Somerset farming family with no arms nor hands, and only vestigial legs.

Miniature self-portrait by the artist Sarah Biffin, set in a gilt-metal frame and with a little eye for a chain, which would allow the owner to wear it like a piece of jewellery.Miniature self-portrait by the artist Sarah Biffin (1830) Scottish National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons CC by NC

At the will of her parents, Biffen spent her formative years travelling from town to town as the subject of public exhibition.  She was bound to her ‘conductor’, Emmanuel Dukes, with whom she toured fairs where curious punters would pay to watch her sew, draw and paint using her mouth.  The young artist’s life during these years is chronicled by handbills and ephemera, many examples of which survive in the British Library collections.

Handbill for Wells Fair featuring Miss BeffinHandbill for Wells Fair featuring Miss Beffin from Lysons’s Collectanea  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The greatest density of this material can be found among Lysons’s Collectanea, several scrapbooks compiled by the antiquarian Daniel Lysons during the early 19th century.  Lysons was fascinated with a variety of topics including the people whom he encountered at fairs and exhibitions, and he accumulated a wide selection of printed ephemera on this subject.  Lysons’s Collectanea offers a glimpse into the touring life of Sarah Biffen, providing handbills from Tetford, Sheffield, Wells, Rochester, and Lyson’s own hometown, Gloucester.  These handbills advertised the opportunity for members of the public to observe Biffen for an admittance of 1s or 6d for children, servants and ‘working people’.  These advertisements highlight Biffen’s exceptional artistry as a selling point, and challenge doubting readers with a wager: ’if she cannot [do as claimed], and even much more, the Conductor will forfeit one thousand guineas’.  Touring the fairs was big business and there was money to be made.  Her miniatures often sold for three guineas each. However it is believed that Dukes compensated Biffen as little as £5 a year.

Handbill for Barton Fair, Gloucester in 1810, where Miss Beffin was advertised as ‘the eighth wonder!!!’  Handbill for Barton Fair, Gloucester in 1810, where Miss Beffin was advertised as ‘the eighth wonder!!!’  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Lysons most likely met Biffen at the Barton Fair, Gloucester in 1810, where she was advertised as ‘the eighth wonder!!!’.  This encounter sparked a correspondence between the two, which Lysons pasted alongside his printed ephemera in the Collectanea.  The letters illustrate that Lysons wrote to Biffen, asking questions about her life and experiences.  Biffen subsequently provides Lysons with a short biographical note.  Interestingly, in one of her responses, dated 25 March 1810, she explains: ‘I feel wonderful pleasure in being exhibited and will go so far as to say I think it my duty’.  Yet sixteen years later, her sentiments are changed.  In 1826, Lysons received a proposal for a new print of Biffen’s work.  In the printed matter, she recounts her time on tour with Dukes unfavourably: ‘the result was by no means equal to the expectations raised, and fourteen years of my life thus passed away without any substantial benefits to me’.  Between those years Biffen’s life had changed considerably, and so too had her opinion of her early life as a touring exhibition.

Lysons’s collection of printed and manuscript materials relating to Biffen opens a unique insight into how the artist lived and felt during her early life, and also how her own opinion of her early life changed.  It is rare to gain such an intimate glimpse into the life of one such as Biffen, yet countless similar stories can be uncovered throughout the rich pages of Lysons’s Collectanea.

Alex Kither
Cataloguer, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Lysons’s Collectanea (C.103.k.11.)
Obituary for Sarah Biffen Gentlemen’s Magazine. vol. xxxiv. new series, 1850, p. 668.

 

22 March 2022

Revealing prints at the British Library

I joined the British Library as a Curator of Prints and Drawings in January this year to work on a research project led by Felicity Myrone.  This aims to improve records for prints at the British Library, focussing on works held both by the Library and our sister organisation the British Museum.

I match books or albums at the Library with the relevant print records at the Museum, and an ingenious spreadsheet system devised by my colleague Victoria Morris creates draft MARC records for me to edit.  We are able to create quickly a high volume of print-level records for images within the British Library for the first time.

I examine each book, album or set of prints and alter and augment the relevant British Museum data to cover the history, condition and make-up of the Library’s copies.  The records will be uploaded to our online catalogue in due course, and in the meantime I plan to blog regularly, highlighting interesting items.

The first album of prints I catalogued was Venationes ferarum avium, piscium... [shelfmark: 1899.cc.71.], a set of engravings after Stradanus (1523-1605) depicting intriguing hunting techniques.

Crane Hunt Using ConesDetail from ‘Plate 40: Crane Hunt Using Cones’, from Venationes ferarum avium, piscium... Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The stamping and an inscription on the first page of this album confirms that it once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose collection became one of the foundations of the British Museum and Library.  Tracing the ownership, or provenance, of the prints in the British Library is crucial as it will help shed light on how these objects were assembled and collected.

I was able to utilise the British Museum’s records [numbers 1957,0413.37 to 1957,0413.123] to identify that our album did not contain the full set of engravings from the Venationes, but a selection of 38 plates taken from different editions.  Our album shows many signs of use, with three different numbering sequences added in pen to the pages, a doodle, and some details which were pricked for transfer.

Doodle of a chicken and an owl

Doodle of a chicken and owl on the verso of plate 8 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Detail of a dog pricked for transferDetail of a dog pricked for transfer on plate 60 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The album also includes a print which does not belong to the original series.  It is a fragment of a woodcut map pasted on the first page.  Thanks to the lettering on the fragment, I was able to identify it as a section of the Mappe-monde nouvelle papistique, a satirical world-map published in Geneva in 1566.  The full map is made up of sixteen woodblocks, and the fragment preserved in this album is roughly half of one of the blocks which make up the map’s lower right section.

Fragment of the Mappe-Monde Nouvelle Papistique Fragment of the Mappe-Monde Nouvelle Papistique found pasted in the Sloane copy of VenationesPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Only five examples of this map are known to have survived. One of those is preserved in the British Library [shelfmark C.160.c.7.].  It is missing a couple of woodcuts, but unfortunately not ones that match our fragment.

Who assembled and used the album?  Does this fragment belong to one of the five known examples, or to another now lost copy?  Was it also part of Sloane’s collection, or was it perhaps mistakenly added to the album at a later date by a binder or conservator?  If it was part of Sloane’s collection, did he paste it in this album himself, or was it already there when he acquired it?  Attempting to answer these questions would require further research and technical analysis of the material.

There are undoubtedly many more exciting discoveries to be made during this project and I look forward to sharing them.

Alice-Anne Tod
Curator, Prints and Drawing

 

04 January 2022

Early modern Iran seen through the eyes of G. Hofstede van Essen

As a well-travelled physician, scholar and Royal Society fellow, Hans Sloane had an interest in foreign places, their people and customs, which also fed into his collection of drawings, such as those kept in Add MS 5234.  This album is one of more than 4000 manuscripts from the Hans Sloane Collection at the British Library, about which you can learn through the collection guide.  It contains miscellaneous notes and drawings collected by visitors to Europe and Central Asia.  Among them is a remarkable but little known series of 30 Indian ink and wash drawings of sights and monuments in Iran, signed by 'G. Hofstede van Essen'.

The Great Mosque at Isfahan, standing in the market place, with camels in the foregroundAdd MS 5234, item 8: G. Hofstede van Essen, The Great Mosque at Isfahan, c. 1693-1703. Indian ink and wash on paper. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Much of this artist’s life and work remains shrouded in mystery, including his full name.  Presumably from Germany, Hofstede is documented as travelling in present-day Syria, Iran and Turkey between 1693 and 1703.   His best-known work is a painting of the ruins of Palmyra, made in 1693, and soon after shipped to historian Gisbert Cuper in The Netherlands, where the painting remains to this day

How did Sloane acquire Hofstede’s drawings?  Sloane may have learned about Hofstede’s work through Gisbert Cuper, from whose library he bought manuscripts at auction.  The Royal Society in London provides another link to Hofstede.  As editor of the Society’s Journal, Philosophical Transactions, Sloane would have read accounts written by fellow members concerning a 1691 expedition to Palmyra organised by the British Levant Company and in which Hofstede possibly took part.

In these drawings, Safavid Iran is seen through the eyes of a European draughtsman, who may have had little understanding of the local language and traditions.  Nevertheless, Hofstede was keen to demonstrate his direct experience of the terrain.  This draughtsman sitting on a hill whilst sketching Soltaniyeh stresses Hofstede’s role as first-hand witness.

A view of Soltaniyeh from a hill with a draughtsman sitting sketching in the foreground

 

Close-up of the draughtsman sketchingAdd MS 5234, item 17: G. Hofstede van Essen, A view of Soltaniyeh from a hill, and a close-up of the draughtsman sketching, c. 1693-1703. Indian ink and wash on paper. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Hofstede’s drawings display an interest in recording local traditions – from games to burials – and an antiquarian appreciation for monuments and buildings, evident in the depiction of details from their decoration like this bas-relief from Persepolis.

A bas-relief in Persepolis - a seated man with two attendants, one with fly-whisk, one with sunshade.Add MS 5234, item 6: G. Hofstede van Essen, A bas-relief in Persepolis, c. 1693-1703. Indian ink and wash on paper. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The inscriptions on these drawings make the many individuals who must have handled and observed them more tangible.  There are notes in Dutch, with spelling mistakes that suggest a non-native speaker like Hofstede, as well as inscriptions in English and French by different hands.

The red-bordered labels pasted on the folios offer a glimpse into how the drawings were ordered and displayed before coming to the British Museum Library.  Whether the labels were added during Sloane’s lifetime or by somebody rearranging the collection after his death is another open question.  Similar labels appear in other albums from Sloane’s collection (Add MS 5253, 5255 and 5256), that include drawings with a similar ethnographic focus.

Persian caravan - long line of men on horseback and pack animals proceeding downhill along a winding road
Label accompanying drawing of Persian caravanAdd MS 5234, item 25: G. Hofstede van Essen, a Persian Caravan and a close-up of the label accompanying it, ca. 1693-1703. Indian ink and wash on paper. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Much about the provenance, historical accuracy and interpretation of Hofstede’s drawings, as well as their relation to other items in Sloane’s collection, remains unclear.  Yet it is certain that Hofstede’s drawings have many fascinating, so far untold, stories to tell.

Alice Zamboni
PhD candidate, The Courtauld Institute of Art

Further reading:
-Add MS 5234 contains many other works on paper, some of which are discussed and illustrated in Kim Sloan, "Sloane’s ‘pictures and drawings in frames’ and ‘books of miniature & painting, designs, & c.” in From Books to Bezoars. Sir Hans Sloane and his Collections (London: The British Library, 2012), 168-189.
-One letter sent from Gisbert Cuper to Sloane survives in Sloane MS 4041, fol. 95. Sloane’s printed books collection includes a copy of the catalogue of Cuper’s library, auctioned in 1717 (General Reference Collection S.C.147).
-Hofstede’s painting of the ruins at Palmyra now belongs to Allard Pierson  (University of Amsterdam Special Collections), and was on display at Museum De Waag, Deventer (The Netherlands), on the occasion of an exhibition about Palmyra in 2016-2017.
-An engraving closely related to Hofstede’s painting of Palmyra was published in Philosophical Transactions 218 (1695), after p. 175.
-Add MS 5024/1, also from Sloane’s collection, is a view of Istanbul seen from the water depicted in ink and blue wash and mounted on a roll. It bears the name of Hofstede van Essen penned in ink on the verso, but more research would be needed to confirm the attribution.
-In the transcript of the catalogues listing the contents of Sloane’s library, drawings by Hofstede van Essen are mentioned in three different albums, which suggests they would have been rearranged in what is now Add MS 5234 at a later date. Transcript of ‘Mins’ BL Sloane MS 3972 C vols 1-8 

 

03 November 2021

Unexpected items found cataloguing Hans Sloane’s natural history drawings

All manuscripts are unique and cataloguing them often leads to unexpected findings.  The 73 albums of natural history drawings recently selected for cataloguing as part of a PhD placement project undertaken in the Modern Archives and Manuscripts Department at the British Library are no exception.  Bird feathers, prints obtained from plant leaves, the wings of a dragonfly, a dried fish skin – at first, these objects seem to have little in common.  In fact, they all belong to the same remarkable early modern collection of natural history drawings. So how do they fit within it?

The albums of drawings catalogued during this project were bequeathed by the physician and Royal Society fellow Hans Sloane (1660-1753), who kept them in his library alongside prints, manuscripts and printed books.  You can learn more about Sloane’s legacy and his manuscripts through our collection guide.  Plants and animals easily come to mind as subjects of natural history drawings, but in Sloane’s lifetime, this category encompassed a broader range of topics, all of which are represented in his collection. There are studies on human and animal anatomy, maps and charts, sketches of fossils and minerals, costume albums and architectural drawings, all executed in a range of techniques.

Paper is not the only material found in the albums: parchment, cardboard and canvas were used for watercolours, and a series of studies of butterflies was even executed on small veneer panels, pasted on the folios of an album.

Study of a yellow butterfly on a dark green backgroundAdd MS 5271, item 162: Monogrammist ‘d.v.’ (Nicolaes de Vree?), Study of a butterfly, late 17th century. Oil on veneer panel, 47 x 87 mm.

There are not just albums in this collection.  As the drawings vary significantly in size and format, they were housed differently.  Pictured below is an example of a roll, filled with nature prints obtained from inking different leaves.  A team effort was necessary to measure this more than 5 metres long roll, which will not fit on any Reading Room table!

Paper roll filled with nature prints obtained from inking different leavesAdd MS 5026: The roll with nature prints, partly unrolled. Ink and watercolour over 14 sheets of paper pasted together and laid down on canvas; 33 x 552 cm.

A renowned collector, Sloane received donations and acquired works from many collecting enthusiasts, so that reconstructing the drawings’ provenance remains challenging.  How this dried fish skin made its way into an album of miscellaneous fish drawings is unclear, but the accompanying inscription tells us that the fish was ‘from Gibraltar by the persons sent from the King of Poland to collect natural curiosities in Africa, 1732’.  Sloane’s botanical specimens are now in the Natural History Museum, but some ‘organic matter’ remains in the albums.

Dried fish skin with an eye made of cardboard, accompanied by an inscription in pen in brown ink

Add MS 5267, item 99: dried fish skin with an eye made of cardboard, accompanied by an inscription in pen in brown ink.

In Sloane’s drawings collection, art and nature come together in fascinating ways.  In a series of watercolours of birds by the naturalist George Edwards, the iridescent wings of a dragonfly were pasted around the drawn body of the insect.

Dragonfly - the iridescent wings of a dragonfly were pasted around the drawn body of the insect.Add MS 5264, item 139. Detail from a watercolour of birds and insect by George Edwards, with real dragonfly wings pasted on paper.

In Sloane’s ambitious project to understand the variety of the natural world through arrangement and classification, specimens and artefacts were studied alongside images of the same.  Could this help explain why a watercolour of a crossbill includes two real feathers from this bird pinned onto the sheet?

Watercolour sketch of a crossbill. pencil and two bird feathers on paper.Fig. 5. Add MS 5264, item 73: Unknown artist, sketch of a crossbill. Watercolour, pencil and two bird feathers on paper.

These are just some highlights from a multifaceted drawings collection, which we hope many British Library readers will be keen to explore and help research further. The descriptions of these albums will become available on our online catalogue in early 2022.

Alice Zamboni
PhD placement student, Modern Archives and Manuscripts Department and PhD candidate, The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Further reading and links to online resources:
Reconstructing Sloane projects website Reconstructing Sloane – Welcome to Reconstructing Sloane.
Kim Sloan & Felicity Roberts, partial transcript of the handwritten British Library catalogue of Additional Manuscripts, vols 20-21, for Sloane’s albums of drawings (entries Add MSS 5018-5027 H and 5214-5308).
Sloane’s manuscript catalogue listing his albums along with books and printed ephemera, MS 3972 C vol IV 

Some of Sloane’s Additional Manuscripts have been digitised thanks to funding by the Oak Foundation and Trinity College Cambridge and can be consulted online

 

18 May 2021

Introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Hans Sloane

One day in early August 1735, a woman arrived at the London home of Sir Hans Sloane, letter of introduction in hand.  Social networking etiquette required such a document when approaching a new acquaintance.  And, Elizabeth Blackwell hoped to connect with Sloane, who was linked with numerous networks of knowledge, and acquire his support.  Some 280 years later, that letter is held by the British Library and identified as Sloane MS 4054, f. 90.

Letter written by physician Alexander Stuart introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Sir Hans SloaneThis letter, written by physician Alexander Stuart, introduced Elizabeth Blackwell to Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane MS 4054, f. 90

One of Sloane’s close colleagues, a Scots-born physician named Alexander Stuart, had written it on Blackwell’s behalf.  But even before stating the reason for her visit, Stuart assured Sloane that 'Mrs. Blackwell' merited his consideration. She was, he wrote, the 'Niece of Sir Wm. Simson, one of the Barons of the Exchequer, whom you know; & first Cousine to My Lady Cook Windford, whom you also know'.  She was, then, a gentlewoman who could be linked to persons familiar to Sloane.

With those salient points covered, Stuart explained why Blackwell wished to see him.  She was working on a project, and Sloane’s endorsement would be of great help.  A 'very ingenious person', Blackwell wanted to draw a set of about 500 plants from the most up-to-date (1721) edition of the Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians.  Blackwell also had with her a proposal for the project. In all likelihood, it was similar to those drawn up by persons who were writing books that they wanted to sell by subscription.  Its wording probably resembled the text of an advertisement that ran in the London Evening Post on 9-11 October 1735: 'This Day are publish’d PROPOSALS For PRINTING by SUBSCRIPTION, A Curious Herbal'.

Botanical drawing of a dandelionElizabeth Blackwell’s illustrations include this Dandelion. Plate 1 of Joseph Banks’ copy of A Curious Herbal (London: Samuel Harding, 1737). 452.f.1.

Stuart’s letter also noted that the document had space at the bottom for signatures of endorsers – akin, perhaps, to the page that is found in volume one of effectively every copy of A Curious Herbal.  The apothecary Isaac Rand had composed the proposal for Blackwell and, along with the illustrious Dr Richard Mead, had promised to sign it.   Would Sloane also 'be so good as to sign the recommendation'?

Page of Publick Endorsements from A Curious HerbalThis page of Publick Endorsements likely resembled the one that accompanied the proposal that apothecary Isaac Rand wrote for Blackwell. A Curious Herbal (London: Charles Nourse, 1782), vol. 1. 445.h.6.

As it happened, no.  But Sloane would help Blackwell in other ways, which were cited in the dedication that she composed to him – one that was engraved and printed on pages found in various copies of A Curious Herbal.  Likewise, Blackwell would compose dedications to Stuart, Mead, Rand, and six other men who contributed to her undertaking.

Elizabeth Blackwell's dedication to Sloane in A Curious HerbalSloane didn’t sign Blackwell’s recommendation but he helped her in other ways, as noted in this dedication. Joseph Banks’ copy of A Curious Herbal (London: Samuel Harding, 1737), vol. 1, after plate 96. 452.f.1.

What other insights might Stuart’s letter provide into A Curious Herbal and Elizabeth Blackwell?  If nothing else, its references to Blackwell’s uncle and cousin (whom, research indicates, lived in or near London) cast some doubt on claims that she was from Aberdeen.  Without wishing to wound Aberdonian pride, the possibility cannot be discounted.

Janet Stiles Tyson
PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London

 

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