Childhood: A Visual Story

“Children should be seen and not heard,” says a 15th-century English proverb. That is certainly the case in a series of paintings featured on Google Arts & Culture. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna, which displays the modern art collection of Milan, Italy, teamed up with Google to produce an online exhibition of artworks depicting children in the 19th and 20th century. Titled simply Childhood, the exhibition explores a range of artists and styles that have one thing in common: the presence of a child.

It is interesting to see the different approaches to depicting a child. Some artists focused on the innocence of children, whereas others produced a maternal scene, emphasising the importance of motherhood. Many of the artworks in the exhibition were commissioned by proud parents who wished to capture the purity of their child before they grew up; it is much easier for parents to do this today with the development of the digital camera. Other artworks, however, contain a message or tell a story in which the child plays a vital role.

Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child – Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

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Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child (Oil on Canvas), by Francesco Hayez (1858)

This portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini is an example of a painting requested by a parent. Her father, Count Alessandro Negroni Prati Morosini, commissioned the Italian painter Francesco Hayez to produce a series of portraits of his extended family, including one of his four-year-old daughter.

Rather than just painting the child, Hayez brought the plain background to life with a still-life of a magnificent display of colourful flowers. To connect the two genres of painting together, Antonietta was posed with a bouquet of the same flowers.

Usually, commissioned portraits were intended to express the wealth and status of the sitter. Costumes, hairstyles and facial expressions were carefully considered, as was likely done in this case with Antonietta’s dress. Unfortunately, the clothing was a little on the large side, causing the sleeves to slip down and expose much of her chest. Hayez could have used his skill and artistic license to change the position of the sleeves, however, he opted for a realistic likeness.

Photography had already been invented at the time of this portrait, although not widely used and only in black and white, and several were taken of Antonietta to limit the amount of time she had to pose. Once again, Hayez could have chosen the happiest or sweetest facial expression but opted for the most realistic instead. As a result, Antonietta looks slightly awkward and confused, as any 4-year-old would when forced to pose for a portrait.

The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1858-99)

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The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1889)

The Two Mothers by Giovanni Segantini explores the relationship between mother and child. The Italian Symbolist artist, whose mother died when he was seven after a long illness, painted this genre scene for the inaugural Milan Triennale in 1891. The child, who is only a baby, lies asleep on its mother’s lap. Sitting on a stool, the mother has also drifted to sleep, suggesting it took some time to settle the child.

As the title suggests, there are two mothers in the painting, the other being a cow who stands over her sleeping calf. Both woman and cow are symbols of motherhood. Segantini has not represented motherhood as a glamourous role, as some portrait artists might, but rather as a humble, selfless task. The humbleness is emphasised by the lowly barn, dimly lit by a lantern. It is likely the same place the calf was born, therefore, the scene also represents the beginnings of life.

Segantini’s biography claims his paintings represent his pantheistic view of life. He did not recognise God as an individual entity but rather recognised divinity within all natural things. “I’ve got God inside me. I don’t need to go to church.” Farms and barns were a common feature of the landscape in the Alps where Segantini lived, however, someone unfamiliar with the area may derive a different meaning from the painting. Although it was not intended to have religious connections, a Christian may recognise Christ’s humble beginnings in the artwork.

Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life – Giovanni Segantini

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Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life- Giovanni Segantini (1894)

Segantini was not a church-going man, which makes Christian Goddess a strange title for one of his paintings. This canvas, however, was a commission from the Italian banker Leopoldo Albini to be hung in his extravagant home. The figures are supposed to represent the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus sitting in a barren tree. Some have interpreted this as being symbolic of both Jesus’ birth and death, the branches representing the crown of thorns.

On the other hand, the branches may relate more to the mother than the child. The Virgin Mary has on occasion been nicknamed the “rose without thorns”, suggesting she has lived a sin-free life. The analogy developed from the idea that roses did not have thorns before the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Despite the painting’s depiction of the relationship between mother and child, the figures were actually modelled on the artist’s nanny, Baba, and Segantini’s son, Gottardo. With this in mind, Christian Goddess, sometimes known as the Angel of Life, demonstrates the maternal instincts of women towards babies and young children regardless of their relationship.

Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1852-1920)

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Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1893-94)

Gaetano Previati was an Italian symbolist and contemporary of Segantini who also painted a representation of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Unlike Segantini, Previati painted many artworks on a religious theme, particularly involving Catholic ideals.

Madonna of the Lilies, which originally had the shorter title Madonna, shows Mary in a seated position with the baby on her lap. This religious iconography has been around since the 15th century, although the Virgin is usually shown seated on a throne. Whilst Previati was influenced by tradition, he used the Divisionist style inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Divisionism involved separating colours into dots or dashes, although slightly subtler than Pointillism.

The title Madonna of the Lilies has been used by other artists working on a similar theme. Although Previati’s painting contains the theme of motherhood, it’s Catholic connection is a stronger subject. Just as a thornless rose is used to describe the Virgin’s sinless lifestyle, lilies represent chastity and purity.

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish (Ring a Ring o’ Roses) – Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907)

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish is a copy of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s original painting Idillio primaverile (Spring Idyll) that was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1903. It is not certain why Pellizza chose to make a copy, however, it was left incomplete at his death in 1907. It was eventually finished by Italian Impressionist Angelo Barabino (1883-1950).

It is thought Pellizza was inspired by The Dance of the Cupids by Italian Baroque artist Francesco Albani (1578-1660), which depicts several naked cherubs dancing around a tree. In contrast, Pellizza’s children are fully clothed and playing Ring a Ring o’ Roses in a field beyond a blossoming tree rather than around it. Pellizza also included a couple of children playing together in the foreground.

The setting is based on the commune Volpedo in the Piedmont region of Italy where Pellizza lived for his entire life – hence the new title of the painting. The original painting belonged to a series representing the theme of love. On its own, however, the painting is a metaphor for life. The trees are blossoming after the winter, demonstrating the cycle of the seasons. The children also represent new life; people grow old and die but new generations keep on coming.

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1843-89)

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1874)

As can be guessed by the title, this painting was a commission by Prince Paolo Petrovich Troubetzkoy (1866-1938), a Russian diplomat and sculptor who the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) claimed was “the most astonishing sculptor of modern times.” The three boys, Pietro, Paolo, and Luigi, are shown with their dog in the family’s greenhouse at their villa on Lake Maggiore.

Despite being the portraits of children from a noble family, Daniele Ranzoni adopted an informal approach, which emphasised the children’s youth and energy. Ranzoni belonged to the Scapigliatura (Bohemian) movement and built up his paintings with splashes of colour, disregarding form and depth.

The painting was presented at the Brera exhibition in 1874 and is considered to be one of Ranzoni’s most successful works. Whether Troubetzkoy was pleased with this representation of his children is a different matter. The facial features are a blur, making the result a far cry from the realistic family portraits desired by the upper classes.

Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1871-1958)

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Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1912)

Giacomo Balla’s painting of his eldest daughter Luce running on a balcony can be interpreted as a unique depiction of childhood freedom. The Futuristic style, which borrows elements from Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Divisionism, Pointillism and Cubism, shows each movement Luce made as she ran from one side of the balcony to the other. The repetition of his daughter’s body also emphasises the speed in which she ran. This reflects what the Futurists believed, that everything is made up of dynamic forces and, therefore, everything is in constant motion.

The mosaic effect blurs the features of Luce’s face, making her the anonymous “Girl” running on a balcony. It was not Balla’s aim to capture his daughter or memory but rather study the movement of a child. The painting was also not intended to represent childhood, however, the artist’s meaning and the viewers’ interpretations can differ.

Some of the paintings included in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna’s Childhood exhibition have little or no explanation. This may be due to the artists being lesser-known or the true purpose of the paintings being lost. One example is Bambini e Fiori by Italian painter Armando Spadini (1883-1925). The title translates into English as “Children and Flowers”, which is an obvious description of the painting. An alternative title offers the names of the children as Anna and Lillo, however, nothing else is known of their identity.

Spadini was a Symbolist painter who moved to Rome from Florence in 1910 to focus on a career as a portrait and landscape artist. Despite being virtually unknown today, Spadini grew successful through his participation with annual exhibitions and, in 1924, had an entire room devoted to his work at the 14th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia.

The way Anna and Lillo are sat suggests they are posing for the painting, therefore, it could either have been a commission or a double portrait of Spadini’s own children. Rather than glamorising the children, Spadini captured the bored expression of the older child and the baby’s distraction with the flowers. Rather than create an unflattering image, it makes a sweet, contemplative picture of two siblings in a moment of quiet and demonstrates the love and tenderness of the older for the younger and the trust the baby has for its sister.

Plinio Nomellini (1866-1943), on the other hand, painted a spontaneous scene that captured the interaction between mother and child. Nomellini, whose work became increasingly Divisionist in style throughout his career, shows a child’s delight at reading, or at least looking at, a book. Rather than the mother reading to her child, the child is attempting it for itself. The mother, whose arm stretches towards the book, is eager to help the child with this latest development, demonstrating her love and care.

The identity of woman and child is unknown and the little information the internet has about Nomellini does not uncover any clues. Nomellini was born in Livorno but studied in Florence where he took part in several exhibitions. His later work got him in trouble with the law and he was arrested and accused of anarchism. Fortunately, he was acquitted and joined a group of Symbolist painters. He spent the latter years of his life between Florence and the Island of Elba. With no knowledge of his family, it is impossible to guess whether his painting is of his wife and child, friends or strangers.

Of course, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna is not the only art gallery with paintings of children. Londoners do not even have to leave the city to view an excellent example of a day in the life of a child. The Guild Hall Gallery, home to beautiful Victorian art, owns two paintings on the theme of childhood by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood co-founder, John Everett Millais (1829-96). Millais was very fond of children, particularly his daughter Effie who features in My First Sermon and My Second Sermon. The first was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863 and was warmly received by the Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley (1794-1868).

“Art has, and ever will have, a high and noble mission to fulfil…. we feel ourselves the better and the happier when our hearts are enlarged as we sympathise with the joys and the sorrows of our fellow-men, faithfully delineated on the canvas; when our spirits are touched by the playfulness, the innocence, the purity, and may I not add the piety of childhood.”
– Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury

My First Sermon was painted in a church at Kingston-on-Thames, which had high-backed pews. Effie is seated on one of the pews wearing a hat, muff, red stockings and a red cape, which adds a splash of colour to her dreary surroundings. Effie was born in 1858, which makes her five years old in this painting, yet she appears to be trying to pay attention to the sermon.

My Second Sermon, however, reveals the sermon may have gone over her head and she has fallen asleep. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, it would not have been surprising if the painting had not been received well by the Archbishop, however, Longely was just as enthusiastic. In a speech, the Archbishop referred to the painting, saying, “I see a little lady there, who, though all unconscious whom she has been addressing, and the homily she has been reading to us during the last three hours, has in truth, by the eloquence of her silent slumber, given us a warning of the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses. Sorry indeed should I be to disturb that sweet and peaceful slumber, but I beg that when she does awake she may be informed who they are who have pointed the moral of her story, have drawn the true inference from the change that has passed over her since she has heard her ‘first sermon’, and have resolved to profit by the lecture she has thus delivered to them.”

Other commentators at the Royal Academy exhibitions noted that Millais painted his daughter “con amore” (with tenderness), emphasising his love for her. The girl’s facial expression openly expresses the purity of her soul and the innocence associated with childhood.

Another artist noted for his paintings of children is Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), whose work was celebrated in an exhibition at the National Gallery last year (2019). Known as the “Master of Light”, Sorolla’s beach scenes are some of his best paintings and often featured children, whose movements Sorolla captured perfectly. He emphasised their carefree nature and unknowingly captured 19th-century Spanish beach culture, i.e. young boys wore nothing, whilst girls wore light cotton dresses.

Sorolla was a family man and adored his three children, María (1890-1956), Joaquín (1892-1948) and Elena (1895-1975). Although his artistic career was important to him, when Sorolla’s eldest daughter contracted tuberculosis, he put his profession to one side so that he could nurse her back to health.

The paintings by Millais and Sorolla demonstrate a paternal love for children, whereas, some of the artworks at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna illustrate maternal love. The love of a parent is an important factor in a child’s life, which some children sadly miss out on. Fortunately, the children in these 19th and early 20th century paintings had, or a least appeared to have had, a loving childhood during which they could maintain their innocence and enjoy a carefree life.

Of course, life is never as perfect as some of these paintings suggest and there will always be childish tantrums, pain and sadness. Yet, when looking back on life, it is these happier times we wish to remember. These artists have captured what many people associate with childhood and there is something more meaningful and personal seeing it in paint rather than the hundreds of photographs taken of children today.

To see more paintings from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Childhood exhibition, click here.

All images are in the public database.

Genre Master: The Sphinx of Delft

Genre paintings, also known as petit genre, depict scenes of everyday life. These artworks show ordinary people performing ordinary tasks. Unlike portraits, which were usually commissioned, and history paintings, which depicted well-known scenes, genre artists painted life as it truly was. This type of art gained popularity in the Low Countries, i.e. the Netherlands and Belgium, during the 17th and 18th century but many of the artists’ fame and reputations have dimmed over the years. That is, all except Johannes Vermeer, the man who gave us Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).

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A Lady Writing (1665)

Admittedly, Vermeer did go off the radar for a hundred years or so but was rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, more than 250 exhibitions about his paintings have taken place all over the world. It is estimated that one of his paintings, A Lady Writing (1659), has travelled a total of 250,000 kilometres. To put that in perspective, it is equivalent to travelling around the circumference of the earth five times or halfway to the moon. Today, Vermeer can be found in several galleries, including the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), Mauritshuis (The Hague), the Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh), the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Vienna), Gemäldegalerie (Berlin), the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Dresden), and The Frick Collection (New York City).

Relatively little was known about Vermeer’s personal life other than where he had lived, which earned him the nickname “The Sphinx of Delft” from French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1807-69). In more recent years, art historians have been able to piece together some semblance of a biography using documents in the city archives of Delft. Records reveal Johannes Vermeer, or Jan Vermeer van Delft, was born in October 1632 and baptised within the Reformed Church on All Hallow’s Eve.

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View of Delft (1660)

Vermeer’s father has been identified as Reijnier Janszoon (1591-1652) and was a middle-class silk worker. Vermeer’s mother was likely Digna Baltus (1594-1670), who Janszoon married in 1615. By 1620, the couple were living in Delft with their daughter Gertruy (1620-70). It is not known whether there were any other children within the 12 years between Gertruy and Johannes. By the time Johannes was born, Janszoon was an art dealer and proprietor of the inn The Flying Fox. Ten years later, Janszoon bought a larger Inn called Mechelen, from which he conducted his art sales. When he died in 1652, his son took over the family business.

It is unknown where and when Vermeer learnt to paint. Art critics have suggested several names of artists who may have trained the young painter but there is no written evidence. Another suggestion is he taught himself using the paintings his father sold, however, this is unlikely. If it were not for Vermeer’s baptismal records, it would seem as though he suddenly appeared, fully formed, in 1653 when he joined the Guild of Saint Luke and married his wife, Catharina Bolnes (1631-88).

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The Allegory of Faith (1670-72)

Catharina Bolnes was a Catholic and Vermeer likely had to convert from Protestantism before the wedding. Whilst there is no written record to prove this, a later painting suggests he had fully immersed himself in the religion. The Allegory of Faith, painted in the early 1670s, contains several examples of Catholic iconographies, such as a crucifix, crown of thorns, a chalice and a painting of Christ’s crucifixion.

At some point after marriage, Vermeer and his wife moved in with Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins (1593-1680), where he lived for the rest of his life. Catharina gave birth to 15 children, four of whom died before they could be baptised. Ten of the remaining children have been named Maertge, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina, and Ignatius in wills written by relatives, therefore, it can be assumed they survived infancy.

Life was hard in the Netherlands during the mid-17th century. Delft, in particular, suffered from an outbreak of bubonic plague, which coincided with the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), leading to an economic crisis. Evidence reveals Vermeer was unable to pay the usual admission fee for the Guild of Saint Luke but neither were several other artists. To add to the city’s hardship, half the city was destroyed in 1654 by the “Delft Thunderclap”, an explosion at a gunpowder store that killed 1200 people.

Vermeer may have been kept financially afloat by a patron, perhaps art collector Pieter van Ruijven (1624-74) who purchased twenty of his paintings. This money allowed Vermeer to remain a member of the Guild of Saint Luke. He was elected head of the guild in 1662 and reelected in 1670. From this honour, it can be ascertained that Vermeer was a respected artist amongst his peers and some art critics say his method of showing light in his paintings was an inspiration to other artists. Nevertheless, Vermeer was a slow painter, producing an average of three paintings a year.

Despite never earning much money, the 1660s were the highlight of Vermeer’s career. Unfortunately, life was about to get much harder. In 1672, King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France invaded the Dutch Republic, sparking the Franco-Dutch War. This worsened the economic conditions in Delft, especially as the Third Anglo-Dutch War was taking place at the same time. Theatres, shops and schools were closed in the ensuing panic, making it even harder for artists to earn money.

In 1674, Vermeer was enlisted as a member of the (voluntary) civic guard who was responsible for guarding the city against attack. As a result, his painting career suffered and Vermeer ended up borrowing money (1,000 guilders) from Jacob Romboutsz, a silk trader from Amsterdam. To do this, Vermeer had to use his mother-in-law’s house as a surety. Unfortunately, Vermeer was never able to pay back the loan. In December 1675, 43-year-old Vermeer fell ill and passed away. Despite having converted to Catholicism, he was buried in the Protestant Oude Kirk (Old Church) on 15th December.

…during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead.
– Catharina Vermeer (Bolnes)

Vermeer left his family with severe debts and Catharina had to ask the High Court for help to raise her eleven living children. In Vermeer’s will, 19 paintings had been bequeathed to Catharina and her mother, which they sold out of desperation. Two of the paintings were purchased by the baker Hendrik van Buyten (1632-1701) for 617 guilders, which was the same amount of money Catharina owed him for bread. He struck a deal that if she could pay back the money, he would return the paintings.

Despite the sale of his paintings, Vermeer remained unknown outside of Delft. He had only ever left the city to visit Amsterdam, therefore, never had an opportunity to make artistic connections. Over time, many of his paintings were misattributed to other artists, which almost erased Vermeer from history.

Vermeer had been a relatively slow painter and only produced between 50 and 60 oil paintings. Only 36 of the paintings survive today and are comparatively small to the majority of paintings in galleries. The frame that holds Rembrandt’s Night Watch (3.6 x 4.4 metres) could contain nearly all Vermeer’s paintings grouped together. In fact, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam displays a few of Vermeer’s paintings in the vicinity of Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

It has been difficult for historians to make a chronological list all of Vermeer’s paintings because he only included his signature and date on three. These were The Procuress (1656), The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669). Vermeer has become known for his use of colours, particularly lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, both of which can be seen in The Procuress. His use of ultramarine is rather surprising given his low financial status. The colour was one of the most expensive to buy and was made by grinding the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli into a powder.

The Procuress, which now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, features four figures, one of whom is looking out of the canvas at the viewer. It is believed by many that this is a self-portrait of Vermeer. Rather than depicting himself as an artist, Vermeer portrayed himself as a musician. It has been suggested the procuress was modelled on his wife, which may explain why the painting once hung in Vermeer’s mother-in-law’s home. The same woman has been identified in four of Vermeer’s paintings, however, he had many models, painting a total of 42 women and 13 men throughout his career.

The Astronomer and The Geographer feature the same male model who has been identified as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), “the Father of Microbiology”. Science was a popular topic for painters during the Dutch Golden Age. People were beginning to learn about the world and universe they lived in, although religion was still of great importance, hence the painting of the Finding of Moses in the background of The Astronomer.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

Of all Vermeer’s paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Meisje met de parel, 1665) is the most recognised. Now hanging in the Mauritshuis, the 44.5 cm × 39 cm canvas has had many names and only received its current title in the 20th century. More recently, however, the “pearl” earring has been contested by those who think it looks more like polished tin.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a “tronie”, which is Dutch slang for a painting of a head that is not meant to be a portrait. The unknown model, whose colouring suggests she is European, wears an oriental dress and turban. The story behind the painting, however, is unknown.

The painting’s fame is largely a result of Tracy Chevalier’s (b.1962) novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), which was adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johansson (b.1984) in the title role. Chevalier imagined the girl was a maid in the Vermeer household who had an eye for art. The author also expertly described the situation in Delft where people were suffering from an epidemic.

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The Milkmaid (1657-58)

Although Vermeer was growing in popularity before the publication of Chevalier’s book, the media attention increased his fame and drew attention to his other works, for instance, The Milkmaid (1657-58). Curators of the Rijksmuseum, where the painting is displayed, claim The Milkmaid is “unquestionably one of the museum’s finest attractions”.

Despite its title, the lady in the painting is a kitchen maid who is pouring milk into an earthenware bowl. She wears Vermeer’s favourite colours: lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, and goes about her work as though unaware she is being painted.

According to Walter Liedtke (1945-2015), a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this genre painting has a “Mona Lisa” effect. “There’s a bit of mystery about her for modern audiences. She is going about her daily task, faintly smiling. And our reaction is ‘What is she thinking?'” (Liedtke, 2009)

Whilst not as famous, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (1657-59) and Woman Reading a Letter (1663) evoke a similar reaction. What are they reading? Is it good or bad news? Who is it from? It is generally assumed the younger girl has received a letter from a lover, perhaps an illicit one. The open window may be symbolic of the girl’s desire to experience the world outside, away from the constraints of her family’s expectations.

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window was initially mistaken as a Rembrandt and it was not until 1880 that it was identified as a Vermeer. Recent x-rays of the painting reveal Vermeer had originally included an image of a putto – perhaps Cupid – which is another indication the girl’s letter is from a lover.

Woman Reading a Letter is very similar in composition, however, it is almost unique among Vermeer’s paintings of interiors. Unlike the others, there is no fragment of either corner, ceiling or floor. There are, however, other features common to Vermeer’s art: a table, a pearl necklace (on the table) and a wall hanging. The map is of Holland, which suggests the letter could be from her husband or a male relative who is either travelling or taking part in the various Dutch wars.

Today, people think the woman is pregnant due to the shape of her figure, however, it was very rare for a pregnant woman to be depicted in art. Some suggest the loose clothing, which was popular in the Netherlands at the time, makes the woman appear larger than she really is.

The Wine Glass (1660) is considered to be one of Vermeer’s first mature works. The brushwork is much smoother and the colours brighter. These qualities are obvious when comparing the painting to an earlier work set in the same room, The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659-60).

Since genre paintings depict scenes of everyday life, it is not always possible to decipher exactly what is going on. In The Wine Glass, the woman is finishing a glass of wine while a man waits to refill her glass. There is no way of knowing the relationship between the two figures but many assume some form of courtship is being played out. The man almost seems impatient for the woman to finish her drink so that he can pour more, suggesting he is trying to make her drunk.

There are many similarities between The Wine Glass and The Girl with the Wine Glass, most notably the colours of the dresses. The woman and the girl wear a similar style of dress and are both holding wine glasses. The girl, however, looks out of the painting as though aware of the artist’s presence. The floor, walls and window reveal the scenes were painted in the same room, however, there are small differences, such as the position of the table and the picture on the wall.

The Girl with the Wine Glass is just as hard to decipher as The Wine Glass. One of the men, who are similarly dressed, looks interested in the girl, suggesting there is a courtship or illicit romance between them. The other man, however, looks bored in comparison, which begs the question of his identity and purpose in the scene. Without Vermeer around to reveal what is going on, it is up to the viewer to use their imagination.

Many of Vermeer’s paintings only contain one figure, however, when there is more than one person, they are always interacting. Officer and a Girl Laughing (1657) show a couple conversing at a table. The girl, possibly modelled by Vermeer’s wife, is holding a glass of white wine, which was an expensive drink at the time. If the officer has a drink, it is hidden by his body, which has its back to the viewer.

The officer, a military man, is wearing a red coat and expensive hat, suggesting both power and passion. Many have interpreted the painting as an innocent courtship between two respectable people, however, others have read ulterior motives in the girl’s smile. Once again, it is impossible to understand the true nature of the painting.

To paint the room, Vermeer used a camera obscura, as he did in the majority of his work. The camera obscura, whose technology inspired the photographic camera, was a drawing device that became popular in the mid-16th century. The device consisted of a box with a small hole in one side through which light could travel. Inside the box, the light would transfer an upside-down version of the outside scene onto a surface. If the surface was a mirror, the image would then be reflected onto another surface, such as an artist’s canvas, this time the right way up. This technology was based upon the human eye: pupil, lens and retina. Vermeer used the reflected image to trace a geometrically correct perspective.

The camera obscura may not have been needed for Mistress and Maid (1667), which shows the interaction of the titular roles. Although the direction of light suggests the mistress is sat in front of a window, the painting is too dark to see any physical features of the room. The scene depicts two classes of Dutch society: the mistress, who is brightly lit and dressed in yellow, and the maid, whose brown dress blends into the dark background. The mistress’s wealth is emphasised by her fur-lined clothing, silk table cloth and a pearl earring.

Despite their difference in class, the two women are both interested in a letter the mistress has received. It has been assumed the message is a love letter and the maid is advising her mistress on the appropriate response. Although she would have been considered no more than household staff, the maid may have known many of her mistresses secrets and was thus treated as a trusted confidant.

Vermeer would have made good use of the camera obscura in The Music Lesson (1662-65) and The Art of Painting (1666-68), which shows two different artistic professions. The former, also known as A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, shows a young girl receiving a music lesson by a male tutor. The tutor, whose mouth is parted, is either singing along to the music or giving instruction to his pupil.

Vermeer’s geometric perspective aided by the camera obscura emphasises the depth and height of the room. Part of the room is obscured by a rug-covered table upon which a familiar jug sits. Vermeer often reused props in his paintings. Although the floor pattern is different, the room has a similar appearance to the setting of The Art of Painting.

The Art of Painting is the second largest of all Vermeer’s works and is the one that most closely resembles a scene in his own life. In fact, many assume the artist figure is a self-portrait, albeit from the back, and the girl, one of his daughters. This, of course, cannot be proven.

Thoré-Bürger, who gave Vermeer the “Sphinx of Delft” nickname, regarded The Art of Painting as the artist’s most interesting painting. Also known as The Allegory of Painting, art critics believe there to be far more to it than a typical genre painting. The model is presumed to represent Clio, the Greek Muse of History. She wears a laurel leaf and holds a trumpet and a book, which matches the description of Clio in the book Iconologia (1593) by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1560-1622).

There is thought to be political symbols hidden within The Art of Painting, such as a double-headed eagle within the design of the chandelier, which was the symbol of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, the former ruler of the Low Countries. The map on the wall also refers to earlier political divisions.

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Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655)

Vermeer’s largest painting, which is housed in the Scottish National Gallery, is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655). Religion was not a common theme in Vermeer’s work, however, he did occasionally incorporate religious icons into his work, for instance in The Allegory of Faith. This large painting, however, fully embraces Christianity and depicts a scene from the Bible.

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” (Luke 10:38-39, NIV)

Although Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is a religious painting, it does not leave the concept of genre painting far behind. Despite the halo and choice of clothing, the three characters could be anyone going about their daily life. The man (Jesus) is talking while one woman (Mary) listens. The other woman (Martha) is making preparations for a meal.

Given the size of the painting, it is likely it was a commission, which may explain Vermeer’s deviation from his usual style. On the other hand, when Vermeer first appeared on the artist scene, his paintings were larger and, on two other occasions, featured mythical scenes.

Diana and her Companions (1653-56) is believed by some to be Vermeer’s earliest known painting, although others think it was painted after Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. The painting shows the Roman goddess Diana having her feet washed by her attendants. Critics have commented on the serious mood of the scene and the contemporary style of clothing, which is unusual for a mythological painting.

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Saint Praxedis by Felice Ficherelli

Saint Praxedis (1655) is similar in style to Diana and her Companions, however, it is obviously a copy of a painting by Felice Ficherelli (1605-60). Saint Praxedis or Práxedes was a second-century Christian saint, about which very little is known. It is possible Vermeer came across this painting on the walls of his father’s inn and copied it for practice. He did, however, change a few details, such as the colour of the saint’s dress and added a crucifix in her hand.

With this copy of a painting in mind, Diana and her Companions may have also been inspired by an existing artwork. If this is the case, the style of clothing is likely Vermeer’s addition.

It is a shame so little is known about Vermeer’s life and that he never experienced the fame his paintings have earned. He had no apprentices, therefore his style of painting died with him. We are lucky that many of his paintings have been discovered, especially as some were signed by other artists to try and sell them for more money. Today, Vermeer’s paintings are some of the most popular attractions in art galleries and there are several online exhibitions about his works. The Sphinx of Delft is definitely the most loved, if not the greatest genre master the world has seen.

Online Exhibitions about Vermeer:
12 Things You Didn’t know about Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Life and Work
Rediscovering Vermeer
Basics of Technical Research
The Painting’s Journey to its Present Appearance
Vermeer’s Contemporaries in Delft
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

All images used are in the Public Domain.

Mata Hari the Dancing Spy

How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?

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Mata Hari, 1905

Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.

Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.

mata-hari-9402348-1-rawYet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.

Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.

On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways.  It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.

Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.

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Legong dance – Freeind Santosa

What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.

Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.

Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.

The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.

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Performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.

Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.

Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.

When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.

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Gabriel Astruc

On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).

Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.

In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.

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Émile Guimet in his Museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898

It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.

In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.

Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.

A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”

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In 1910 wearing a bejewelled head-dress

The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.

Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.

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Amsterdam, 1915

Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.

At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.

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Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.

Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.

Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.

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Painting of Mata Hari by Isaac Israëls, 1916

Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.

In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.

Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.

As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.

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On the day of her arrest

Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.

On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.

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Margaretha Zelle mugshot

Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.

During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.

A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!

— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.

 

Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.

Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014) 

Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.

Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. British reporter Henry Wales wrote, “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.

No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.

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Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.

Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.

Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.

It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.

Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.

A History of Handwriting

Have you ever looked at a piece of writing and instantly known it was written several decades or even centuries ago? What gives it away? The condition of the paper or parchment is a good indication; if it is stained, torn and fragile, it is unlikely to have been written yesterday. The use of language also hints at its time frame, however, so does the style of handwriting. Compare your handwriting with those in handwritten books in the British Library, British Museum or collections such as the one at the Derbyshire Record Office. Why do we no longer write like our ancestors 800 years ago? What changes occurred to result in the simplified letters of today? Handwriting, as you will discover, has a surprisingly interesting history.

The history of writing dates back further than the invention of paper and pen, however, the history of handwriting in the ways that we are familiar today, date back to around 1100 – at least in Britain. During this early Medieval period, which lasted until approximately 1485, there were very few people who could read and write. Only those with important jobs or children from rich families were taught to read but mostly, the “profession” of writing was left to the specially trained scribes.

Naturally, not many examples of writing exist from the Medieval period of Britain due to damage and loss, however, the samples that have survived tend to be legal documents, such as deeds of ownership. These were written in Latin as most deeds were before 1752. Unlike today where all important documents are signed and dated to avoid legal complications, these documents rarely mentioned the date and historians have only roughly worked out when they were written by the style of handwriting. There were, of course, handwriting styles that were preferred for other languages, for instance, Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic. These languages, however, were used in local areas, whereas, Latin could be understood by people in several countries.

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Carolingian minuscule alphabet

This Medieval style of handwriting has been named Carolingian minuscule or Caroline minuscule and was developed in c.780 AD by Alcuin of York (735-804), a Benedictine Monk of Corbie Abbey, France. Alcuin had been invited to France by Charlemagne (748-814), who had founded the Carolingian Empire, hence the name of the script.

Alcuin of York and his fellow monks were responsible for writing and copying religious documents, which they did in Carolingian minuscule. Soon, the style of handwriting was being used throughout the Holy Roman Empire for both Christian and Pagan texts. The Vulgate, a 4th century Latin translation of the Bible originally written by Jerome of Stridon (347-420; Saint Jerome) was copied in Carolingian minuscule to make it legible to literate classes across Europe.

Carolingian minuscule was a rounded, uniform style of writing based on the Latin alphabet, which has many similarities to the modern alphabet. It was easy to distinguish between upper and lowercase letters and there were clear spaces between each word. Whilst most of the letters are recognisable today, there were no tittles (dots) above the letters and j, however, other markings occasionally appeared above certain letters. Whereas in contemporary modern languages these markings would change the pronunciation of the letter, Carolingian scribes used marks to shorten a word. The first word in the deed of grant of the land of Greasby is Ric with a line above the c. This indicates the word has been shortened and should be read as Ricardos, the Latin form of Richard. The deed had been written on behalf of Richard de Rollos (1061-1130), who was giving the land of Greasby on the Wirral to the abbey of St Werburgh in Chester.

As time went on, gradual changes occurred to Carolingian minuscule, making the handwriting more decorative. These changes can be seen when comparing deeds written around 1100 with King John’s (1166-1216) royal charter to the Abbot and monks of Saint Werburgh, Chester, in 1215. Written in Latin and dated 11th January in the 16th year of the reign of King John, the same year the Magna Carta was signed, the royal charter granted the abbey the right of ‘infangthief’, which allowed them to arrest and try thieves caught within the land they leased from the King – all land in those days belonged to the reigning monarch. The charter states this grant was in exchange for the salvation of the souls of the King and of his ancestors.

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The medial ‘s’ in Old Roman cursive

The hand that penned the royal charter added flourishes to certain letters, which emphasises their difference from contemporary alphabets. The letter s, for instance, is known as an archaic “long s” and went on to inspire the Eszett (ß) in the German alphabet. The long s, in turn, had derived from the medial s in Old Roman Cursive.

When written as it was in the royal charter, the s could be mistaken for an l to the modern reader. Some scribes added a “nub”, which made it look like a lower-case f. Usually, if a word contained both an s and an f, the writer would refrain from adding the nub to save confusion, for example, ſatisfaction (satisfaction).

The long s began to decline in use during the 19th century, however, before then, several rules had been made about its usage. If the came at the end of the word, the writer was to use a round s. If the word contained a double s, the long s could replace one or both of the letters, unless it was at the end of the word, for instance, ſinfulneſs (sinfulness) and poſſeſs (possess).

In some words, the long s stuck out like a sore thumb, however, other letters, such as b, h, l and d, had long ascenders too. The descenders, on the other hand, such as p, y and g, were short. Drawing attention away from the tall characters were decorative capital letters, such as the elaborate H in the royal charter. These nuances gradually disappeared as people began to write faster. The fancy letters were reserved for important, official documents.

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Quitclaim from Alice le Waleys to Isabel de Cressy of land in Buxton © Derbyshire County Council 2020

During the 1200s, a new type of handwriting script emerged that was unique to England. Now known as Anglicana, the script has been referred to as charter hand, court hand, and cursiva antiquior over the years due to its use in the production of legal documents. Anglicana was written with a thick-nibbed pen and was much quicker to handwrite than Carolingian minuscule, thus allowing scribes to take on and complete more work. This also meant books could be produced more quickly and sold at cheaper prices than those written in a more laborious script.

Screenshot 2020-06-29 at 15.44.27The ascenders of certain letters were much shorter in the Anglicana script, often being bifurcated (divided) with a curl on either side. Evidence of this can be seen in the quitclaim from Alice le Waleys to Isabel de Cressy, which legally transferred land and property in Buxton, Derbyshire from one woman to the other. These ligatures also leant themselves to joining together two or more letters, which helped the scribe write faster, not needing to remove their pen from the page.

By the mid-1400s, the need for a scribe was reducing as more people were learning to read and write. Up until then, the majority of written texts had been in Latin, for which Carolingian minuscule and Anglicana had been purposely invented. As time went on, however, educated people began to write in English, a language which neither handwriting suited, therefore, a new style was needed. By the beginning of the 16th century, a form of handwriting called Secretary hand had been developed specifically for writing English, Welsh, Gaelic and German.

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How to hold a pen, from a Sixteenth-Century handwriting manual – John de Beauchesne

Secretary hand was so-called because the majority of the people who wrote it were indeed secretaries or scriveners. John de Beauchesne (c.1538-1620), a Parisian scribe and teacher of penmanship who moved to England in 1565, wrote a book about the new style of handwriting with the rather lengthy title A booke containing divers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, Chancelry and court hands. Also the true and just proportion of the Capitall Romae set forth by John de Beav Chesne P[arisien] and M[aster] John Baildon. Imprinted at London by Thomas Vautrovillier dwelling in the blacke frieres. The book explained everything from how to write each letter to how to hold a quill pen.

As time went on, this form of handwriting became less precise, making some pieces of writing difficult to read. Scribes of the Medieval period were carefully trained to write neatly and accurately. If they were unable to do this, they found themselves unemployed. By teaching the masses to read and write, penmanship became less focused on style; being able to write was considered more important than presentation.

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Detail from a list of Jewels given to Arbella Stuart (1608) © Derbyshire County Council 2020

A list of jewels given to Arbella Stuart (1575-1615) by Lord William Cavendish (1552-1626) is an example of the messier form of secretary hand. Blotted with spilt ink, the list records the “Pearle rings and other things” received by Arbella on “this xxiij daye of february in the fift[h] yeare of the raigne of our Soveraigne Lord King James 1607”. This date, however, is incorrect from a contemporary perspective because, until 1752, 25th March was considered to be the first day of the year. Had the year begun on 1st January, the date would have been 23rd February 1608.

Despite being written in English, albeit with old-fashioned spellings, the script is difficult to decipher. The letter e, for instance, often lacked a full loop, making it look like the letter c. To add to the confusion, the letter often resembled an x, making the world “pearle” appear to be written “pcaxle”.

Arbella Stuart was the grand-daughter of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury (c.1527-1608), more commonly known as Bess of Hardwick, who had died ten days previous to the penning of the list of jewels. Bess was the mother of William Cavendish, who was created Baron Cavendish of Hardwick due to his connections to his niece Arbella. Lady Arbella was one of the contenders for the throne after Elizabeth I (1553-1603) but lost out to her cousin James VI of Scotland (1566-1625). As part of the royal family of Scotland, Arbella was expected to marry someone of James VI’s choosing – Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox (1574-1624) – however, Arbella married her cousin William Seymour (1588-1660) in secret at Greenwich Palace in 1610. Subsequently, Arbella was considered a traitor and was imprisoned in the Tower of London where she died in 1615.

Secretary hand was not the only handwriting style in fashion during the Tudor and Stuart reigns in Britain. By the early 17th century, Martin Billingsley (1591-1622), an English writing-master and handwriting adviser, had identified six common handwriting styles in his book The Pen’s Excellency (1618). These were the Secretary (“the usuall hand of England”); the Bastard Secretary; the Roman; the Italian; the Court; and the Chancery. As early as the time of Henry VII (1457-1509), many writers had begun to use a cursive Italian style, from which the digital italic typefaces have developed. This style was often taught to ladies since they were not expected to write official or important documents, which required secretary hand.

For a while, the Italian style of handwriting was used to emphasise certain words within a document written in secretary hand. Playwrights, for instance, wrote character names and stage direction in an Italian script, and the dialogue in secretary hand. Eventually, secretary hand was phased out and our handwriting today stems from the Italian style.

John de Beauchesne, in his book A booke containing divers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, Chancelry and court hands… demonstrated the Italian hand. At the time it was written, secretary hand was the preferred style and it took another century before the Italian style became the dominant style.

Derbyshire poet Leonard Wheatcroft (1627-1707) was one of the first writers to fully adopt an Italian style of handwriting. Rather than conforming to the style as drawn out by Beauchesne, Wheatcroft used a mix of styles to form a unique italic handwriting. Born in Ashover, Derbyshire, Wheatcroft was also the village tailor and, later in life, parish clerk and school teacher. Although his poems and autobiography were not published until the 20th century, he was well known as an author and many may have been influenced by his handwriting.

A notebook found in Derbyshire dating to the early 18th century demonstrated the transition from secretary hand to a “Round Hand” based on the principles of Italian handwriting. It is not certain whether the notebook was written by one person, who decided to change their handwriting style, or by two different hands. Nonetheless, the Round Hand is far easier to read with carefully shaped letters that provided the basis for modern handwriting.

By the 1800s, nearly everyone was writing in a style inspired by the Italian hand. Paper was becoming more affordable, as was postage, resulting in an increase of letter writing. The act of writing was no longer an ability reserved for the talented minority, therefore, less attention was paid to the neatness of the handwriting. People began to write faster, resulting in a forward slope that made a mockery of the original “italic” style. To fit more on a page, letter shapes became small and less distinct, making them difficult to decipher.

Clara Palmer-Morewood’s recipe for Bakewell Pudding is an example of this rapid, slanted script. Written in 1837, this barely decipherable recipe disproves the legend surrounding the Bakewell Pudding, which was named after Derbyshire market town of Bakewell. The legend claimed that a maid working in the local White Horse inn during the 1860s made a mistake when making a jam tart. With no time to start the tart from scratch, the pudding was served to the guests who declared it a triumph. Not only has this legend been disproved by Palmer-Morewood’s handwritten recipe, but The White Horse was also demolished in 1803.

Illegible handwriting, such as Clara Palmer-Morewood’s, was unsuitable for professional purposes. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, clerks were required to have excellent handwriting and were responsible for writing up ledgers, wage books and minutes. This was particularly important in factories where everything and everyone needed to be accounted for; an error or messy handwriting could cause many problems.

Lumford Mill in Bakewell, Derbyshire, employed a clerk to document the wages of the employees. The cotton spinning mill was owned by Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-92) who invented the “water frame” in 1769. This was a water-powered spinning frame that helped to speed up the process of manufacturing cotton. Lumford Mill was one of several owned by Arkwright in partnership with Samuel Need of Nottingham (1718-81) and Jedediah Strutt of Derby (1726-97). The wages book is dated 1786 and records in neat columns the types of workers and their pay. From this book, we learn of “Youlgreave pickers”, who picked cotton in the nearby village of Youlgreave, and that the factory operated 24 hours a day.

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A sample of a copper plate engraving – George Bickham (1741)

The form of Round Hand used for business and professional purposes became known as Copperplate Script, which is also a style of calligraphic handwriting. Unlike Carolingian minuscule in the 10th century, there was no specific way of writing each letter since each individual’s handwriting would be slightly different. The name of the script refers to the fine nibbed pens used in the 19th century, which resulted in a similar style to engravings or copybooks created using Intaglio printmaking. In this printing method, a thin stylus known as a burin cuts the design into a metal plate.

At school, children often used copy books printed in this manner from which to practice Copperplate writing. The example above shows the handwriting practice of Mary Elizabeth Goodall when she was at Cubley National School in Derbyshire. Each page contained an example of a business receipt, which the students attempted to copy in the same style underneath.

The journey from secretary hand to Copperplate shows how handwriting developed when writing in English. Documents in Latin, however, were still being produced and there were some notable changes in the style of writing. Carolingian minuscule had led to the development of Anglicana, but the process did not stop there. On the continent, a specific style was used for business transactions in the 13th century, which eventually made its way to England after 1350. Known as Chancery hand due to its use in the royal Chancery at Westminster, all legal documents, patents and Acts of Parliament were written in Chancery hand until 1836.

Several examples of Chancery hand have been preserved in documents dating to the years after the English Civil War, such as the Pardon of Sir John Gell written on the authority of Charles II (1630-85). Sir John Gell (1539-1671) of Hopton Hall in Derbyshire supported Parliament during the war and subsequently became the Governor of Derby in 1643. After his appointment, however, he became disillusioned by Parliament and stepped down from his position in 1646. In 1650, Gell was imprisoned in the Tower of London for not revealing a Royalist plot to the authorities but was pardoned three years later. When Charles II came to the throne, he also pardoned Gell, which was recorded by an unknown scribe in Chancery hand.

Earlier examples of Chancery hand exist, such as the charter for the Queen Elizabeth School in Ashburn. Written in Latin, the charter was adorned with painted figures and motifs including a crown, Tudor Rose, a lion and a dragon. The painting in the top left-hand corner of Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have been produced by the English limner Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) who worked for the Queen and her successor James I.

This charter, which resulted in the founding of a Free Grammar School, was written with distinctively round letters in a broad nibbed pen. Ascenders, such as on the letters h, d and b are finished off with curls and loops, yet the script remains neat and even. Unfortunately, this evenness can make Chancery hand difficult to read, particularly with the letters m, n, u and i, which all have short vertical strokes. With characters written close to each other, words such as nominanimus become almost impossible to decipher at first glance.

Handwritten documents were often written several times before the final copy was produced. This allowed for any amendments and the correction of errors. The process of writing the final legal document onto official parchment was known as engrossing. Thus, the handwriting style became known as Engrossing hand. Whilst it was extremely similar to Chancery hand, the word spacing made it more legible and was also suitable for writing in English. Engrossing hand was commonly used throughout the 1800s once the legal language switched from Latin to English.

Up until the early 1900s, parents often created marriage settlements for their children and proposed spouses to detail how the assets owned by the bride and groom would be used after the marriage. Documents such as these were written in Engrossing hand, which by the 19th century combined elements of Chancery hand and secretary hand. The round, evenly spaced letters resembled the former, however, some of the letters had a more modern appearance. Like secretary hand, the letter c often looked like an r and an e lost its loop, so it resembled a c.

An example of Engrossing hand discovered by the Derbyshire Record Office is the marriage settlement between the explorer, John Franklin (1786-1847) and Eleanor Anne Porden (1795-1825). Eleanor was John’s first wife, who died not long after giving birth to their daughter, therefore it should not have been too difficult to establish a dowry. Unfortunately, both of Eleanor’s parents had died as had John’s father. As a result, the settlement was signed by Francis Bedford, an executor of Eleanor’s father’s will, and Henry Sellwood (1782-1867), John’s brother-in-law, who incidentally became the father-in-law of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).

By the 1900s, the concept of writing in a particular style was gradually disappearing from education and business. New technologies were being invented to make writing quicker and cheaper, therefore, people no longer felt the need to painstakingly copy Engrossing hand or Copperplate script. Before the 1800s, people had to make their own quill pens from feathers, usually goose, from which they fashioned a nib with a sharp knife. The quill was then dipped into ink and applied to paper. Metal nibs became popular from the mid-1800s, which were longer-lasting, therefore cheaper, than their predecessors.

Before the 19th century, paper was handmade and expensive. People were conscious about wasting paper and went to great efforts to make sure their writing was perfect. From around 1830, paper was being produced by machines, making it more abundant and affordable. Paper was no longer a precious commodity and there was less need to always write in a perfect hand.

Machine-made paper had a different texture to handmade paper, which meant, along with the new metal nibbed pens, the writing process was a lot smoother. As a result, handwriting became broader and less angular, however, this did not always mean it was easier to read. Look at the handwritten note from a governess to her employer from 1896; the writing is barely legible.

Messy handwriting was not an employable trait, however, the invention of the typewriter put an end to this problem. Businesses who had employed clerks for their neat handwriting were now employing secretaries for their typing skills. Handwriting was still considered important and today primary schools continue to have writing lessons. Legal practices and businesses, on the other hand, adopted the typewriter for speed, neatness and cost. Since the invention of the modern computer, there has been no need to use particular handwriting styles. All official documents are typed and it is not often we receive a handwritten letter.

The art of handwriting, for the styles before the 1800s should definitely class as an art, has become a thing of the past. Calligraphy, brush lettering, and the art of typography should not be confused with handwriting because they have their own origins – which would take three articles to explain. We do not get much opportunity to study the handwriting of our ancestors, so next time you come across an old letter or a handwritten book, take time to look at the style of handwriting. Notice the shape of the letters, the ascenders, the thickness of the ink, the uniformity of the words and appreciate this forgotten art.

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An Indefatigable Author: or An Idea in the Night George Moutard Woodward © Derbyshire County Council 2020

This blog was based on an online exhibition by the Derbyshire Record Office.
Image sources: Google Arts and Culture, Derbyshire Record Office, and Wikipedia 

 

Lady Jane Franklin

Last year, money was raised through a crowdfunding campaign called “Lady Jane’s Museum“, which provided the Derbyshire Record Office with the funds to photograph and catalogue objects in the Gell collection. The Gell baronets of Hopton Hall, Derbyshire, had become important and wealthy through lead mining and as Members of Parliament for the county, however, it was not this family that interested the Record Office. The Reverend John Philip Gell (1816-98) was married to Eleanor Franklin, whose step-mother, Jane, was the focus of this project. Married to the English explorer John Franklin (1786-1847), Lady Jane Franklin was “probably the most travelled woman of her time”.

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Copy portrait of Jane Griffin at the age of 22 – Amélie Munier-Romilly

Born Jane Griffin on 4th December 1791 to a family of Huguenot ancestry, Jane grew up in Bloomsbury, London with her sisters Frances and Mary. Her father, a silk merchant, was a wealthy man and made sure his daughters had the best education available, which involved travelling to countries on the continent. This included Switzerland, where Jane had her pastel portrait made at the age of 22 by Swiss painter Amélie Munier-Romilly (1788-1875).

Jane was good friends with the British Romantic poet Eleanor Anne Porden (1795-1825) who was the first wife of John Franklin. On 3rd June 1824, Eleanor gave birth to Eleanor Isabella, however, the stress of childbirth harmed her delicate health. Less than a year later, she passed away from tuberculosis. Her husband was away on an Arctic Land expedition and when he returned to England in 1828, he proposed marriage to Jane Griffin. They were married on 5th November 1828 and the following year John was knighted. During the first few years of marriage, however, Jane barely saw her husband while he served in the Mediterranean. Yet, this did not prevent Jane from doing some exploring of her own.

During the first half of the 1830s, Sir John Franklin was the Naval Captain aboard the HMS Rainbow. Left to her own devices, Jane decided to do some travelling of her own, presumably with a companion, visiting several Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Palestine, Syria and Egypt. From these countries, Jane brought back many souvenirs, including fragments of mummy clothes that are labelled “from Thebes”. This was Thebes in Egypt, known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, rather than the more famous Thebes in Greece.

Records reveal Lady Jane brought home sizeable objects from her travels, however, she also accumulated small, seemingly worthless items, such as nuts and acorns. According to the cards to which the nuts have been secured, Jane took two from St Catherine’s Garden and the Monastery Garden at Mount Sinai. Officially known as the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, the Eastern Orthodox monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. Built between 548 and 565, it was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria (287-305) who was martyred at the hands of Emperor Maxentius (276-312).

The two acorns, however, came from the garden of Christ’s College, Tasmania from trees that Jane had planted. In 1836, Sir John Franklin was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land, which would be renamed Tasmania twenty years later. After a long journey by sea, Jane and her husband disembarked from the Fairlie and began their life in Van Dieman’s Land.

From 1800 to 1853, Van Diemen’s Land was the primary penal colony in Australia during which over 73,000 convicts were transported. Male convicts served their sentences as labourers and the female convicts were either assigned to households as servants or sent to a female workhouse.

Lady Jane accompanied her husband on several tours of the island, often crossing over steep terrain. Her step-daughter Eleanor, who would have been around 16 years old, had also come to the island. When John was busy, Jane and Eleanor had the opportunity to meet the locals and acquaint themselves with the female convicts. Appalled by the living conditions at the female workhouses, Jane began a correspondence with Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), an English prison reformer who was considered to be the “angel of prisons”. With advice from Fry, Jane tried to ameliorate the women’s situation, providing them with sewing materials so that they could make clothes and quilts for themselves or to sell.

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Mathinna – Thomas Bock, 1842

Whilst living in Van Diemen’s Land, the Franklins adopted a young indigenous girl called Mathinna (occasionally spelt Methinna). Mathinna, originally named Mary, was born on Flinders Island, Tasmania to the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe. Her parents, Towgerer, and his wife Wongerneep were still alive when the Franklins adopted their daughter, however, the tribe had been “captured” by George Augustus Robinson (1791-1866), Chief Protector of Aborigines. Some historians argue Mary was unfairly taken away from her parents, however, John and Jane, who renamed her Mathinna because they liked the exotic sound, probably thought they were providing her with a better way of life.

Mathinna was six years old when she became the adopted sister of Eleanor, who also acted as Mathinna’s teacher, teaching her to read, write and sew. A pincushion made by Mathinna was brought back to England by either Jane or Eleanor and has been preserved ever since. An aboriginal doll is also part of the collection, which may have once belonged to Mathinna. Eleanor had recorded in her diary that Mathinna had been given a doll with a petticoat. Aside from these two items and a painting by Thomas Bock (1790-1855), only a scrap of paper remains with a couple of sentences written by Mathinna that give any indication of what her life was like with the Franklins:

I am good little girl, I have pen and ink cause I am a good little girl . . . I have got a red frock like my father. Come here to see my father. I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad.

Unfortunately, when John Franklin was recalled to England, he was advised that Mathinna would not survive the British climate, therefore, they had to leave her behind. They left her at the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart, however, reports state that she had great difficulty adjusting to her new situation and was sent back to her birthplace, Finders Island. At 16, she moved to Oyster Cove in southern Tasmania where she lived in poverty and died from drowning aged 17 or 18. Rumours claim she died in a puddle where she lay in a drunken stupor. A small town in the north-east of Tasmania has been named Mathinna in her memory.

Before her husband’s recall, Jane undertook some exploring on her own. In 1839, Jane became the first European woman to travel between Port Philip (Melbourne) and Sydney. Whilst in Melbourne, she encouraged the founding of secondary schools that both boys and girls could attend. A letter signed by 63 members of the new settlement in Melbourne referred to Jane’s “character for kindness, benevolence and charity”.

In 1841, without her husband, Jane travelled to New Zealand. Whilst there, she met the German physician and naturalist Ernest Dieffenbach (1811-55), who was the first trained scientist to live in New Zealand. Jane also met William Colenso (1811-99), a Cornish Christian missionary and botanist who was responsible for the printing of the New Testament in the Māori language. Colenso also made a detailed record of native flora and named a rusty filmy fern Hymenophyllum frankliniae in Lady Jane’s honour.

Before returning to Van Diemen’s Land, Jane visited South Australia where she persuaded the governor Lieutenant-Colonel George Gawler (1795-1814) to erect a monument to Matthew Flinders (1774-1814). When James Cook (1728-79) had circumnavigated the land in 1770, he had named it New Holland. Flinders was an English navigator and cartographer who led the second circumnavigation of New Holland and proposed that it be renamed “Australia or Terra Australis” and identified it as a continent. Flinders and his crew also confirmed that Van Diemen’s Land was an island, which would later be Tasmania after Abel Janszoon Tasman (1603-59), the Dutch seafarer who was the first European to discover Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand and Fiji.

Back in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land, Lady Jane Franklin proposed the building of a temple, which she hoped to serve as a museum that would focus on the colony’s cultural aspirations. Unfortunately, although the temple was built, there was a reluctance to open a museum and the building was used for some time as an apple shed. In 1949, it eventually became the home of the Art Society of Tasmania who rescued and repaired the building, renaming it the Lady Franklin Gallery.

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Sir John Franklin

The Franklin’s left Australia in 1843 and made their way home to London. Before the family could settle down, however, Sir John Franklin was assigned his next position as leader of an Arctic exploration. Setting off from Greenhithe, Kent on 19th May 1845 aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the expedition headed towards Canada to explore the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage.

Rather than sit around waiting for her husband to return like a modern-day Penelope waiting for Odysseus, Jane was keen to go on an expedition too. Firstly, she took her step-daughter Eleanor to France, then went on to the West Indies and the United States of America. In hindsight, it may seem odd that Jane decided to travel abroad whilst her husband was on a dangerous expedition, however, there was nothing she could do for him whether she was at home or not. The expedition was due to take at least two years, so there was no need for Jane to stay in England.

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The Arctic Council planning a search for Sir John Franklin – Stephen Pearce, 1851

It was not until 1847 when Jane had not received word from her husband for some time that she began to worry a disaster had occurred. Once again, Jane did not sit around like Penelope, she actively urged the Admiralty to send out search parties for the expedition and travelled to Out Stack or Ootsta, an island in the Shetland Islands considered to be the “full stop at the end of Britain”, to be as close to her missing husband as she could. The Admiralty was oftentimes reluctant to send out a search party, however, with Lady Jane’s sponsorship, at least seven search expeditions were launched between 1850 and 1875.

When the Australian colonies found out about Sir John Franklin’s uncertain fate, they provided support through monetary donations. Over £1671 was raised in Van Diemen’s Land alone, which helped to launch the steamship Isabel in 1852.

On one of the first search expeditions that took place in 1850, Erasmus Ommanney (1814-1904), the captain of HMS Assitance, called in at Greenland where he met a young Inuit man named Qalasirssuaq who offered to guide Ommanney to the rumoured sight of Franklin’s massacre. The rumour turned out to be false and the ship returned to England in 1850 with Qalasirssuaq still on board. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel suggested Qalasirssuaq be placed in St Augustine’s Missionary College, Canterbury, to be taught to read and write and learn about the Gospel. Whilst there, Qalasirssuaq also trained to be a tailor.

In 1853, Qalasirssuaq was baptised Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua and Sir John Franklin’s daughter Eleanor Gell was invited to be his godmother. Eleanor had married Reverend John Philip Gell in 1849 and there are a couple of letters in the Lady Jane Museum addressed to Eleanor Gell from her godson, along with a couple of drawings of ships and polar bears. In 1855, Qalasirssuaq travelled to Newfoundland, Canada to further his religious studies at Queen’s College at St John’s with the intention of starting a missionary career. Unfortunately, he passed away the following year.

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The Victory Point Note ©Derbyshire County Council 2020

Meanwhile, ships were still being sent in search of Franklin and his crew. In 1959, Francis Leopold McClintock (1819-1907), aboard the steam yacht Fox, found evidence for the death of Sir John Franklin in 1847. McClintock unearthed a written document frozen in the ice at Victory Point on King William Island that stated:

H.M. ships ‘Terror’ and ‘Erebus’ were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69˚ 37′ 42″ N., long. 98˚ 41′ W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.

The letter also stated the surviving men would try to make their way to North America, however, they were never seen again. A couple of skeletons wearing European clothes were found in the area but their identity remains unknown.

Lady Jane Franklin was finally able to grieve for her lost husband but she was convinced there was more to discover about their fate. She publicly scorned rumours that Franklin and his crew had turned to cannibalism in their final days and wished to find further documents or diaries about their expedition. Jane was not the only one interested in the failed polar expedition; Henry Grinnell (1799-1847), an American merchant who had funded the first rescue mission, was equally keen to know the facts. In 1860, Jane travelled to America to meet Grinnell in New York. Whilst there, she sought support for a final expedition before travelling the world herself. After the United States, Jane visited Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the Sandwich Islands, Hawaii, Japan, China and India, returning to England in 1862.

The final Arctic exploration in search of Sir John Franklin’s body was not ready until 1875. Meanwhile, Jane, aged 70, continued to tour the world, stopping in Spain, France, Switzerland, India, the Canary Island, north-west Africa, Alaska and Portugal. Due to her celebrity status as the widow of a famous explorer, many hotels waived her fee and treated her as an honoured guest. Jane finally stopped travelling when she reached the age of 80 and spent the rest of her life at home where she passed away on 18th July 1875, aged 83. The final expedition had set off the same year but she did not live to discover it had been fruitless.

Not all the objects in Lady Jane’s Museum belonged to her but rather the Gell family with whom she was connected via her step-daughter. Items include fans, medals, letters and coins, such as two commemorative world’s fair medallions, one from 1862 and the other from 1882. Whilst the early could have been Jane’s, the latter medallion was produced after her death.

The Gell’s had a small collection of decorative fans, which may have been purchased on trips abroad or received as presents, potentially from Jane. One painted oriental fan dating to the early 18th century shows a possible representation of the story of Dido and Aeneas. The woman seated on a divan may be Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who is being crowned by two putti in the company of a female attendant and two children. In the distance is a sailing ship, potentially carrying Aeneas, the Prince of Troy. Another fan, this time from early 19th century Europe, is made from intricately carved ivory.

Thanks to the successful crowdfunding campaign by the Derbyshire Record Office, these items and more have been preserved in individual containers – they were originally jumbled up in one box – and photographed so that the world can experience them. Not only has this project saved fragile items, but it has also saved a bit of history about a woman who would otherwise be forgotten. Whilst Sir John Franklin remains in the history books due to his fateful journey to the Arctic, Lady Jane Franklin would have disappeared without the preservation of these artefacts. She may not have done something as remarkable as captain a ship – women were not allowed anyway – but she was certainly the most travelled woman of her time.

Photo credits © Derbyshire County Council 2020
This blog was based on an exhibition by the Derbyshire Record Office

[Disclaimer] not all photographs in this article belong to the 
Derbyshire Record Office. Some have been sourced via Wikipedia.