Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

Of the 8000 paintings in the Royal Collection, 65 of the best have been selected for the latest exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Many of these masterpieces have hung in the palace since George III (1738-1820) acquired the building in 1762. When George IV (1762-1830) came to the throne, he commissioned leading architect John Nash (1752-1835) to build a Picture Gallery, one of the state rooms in the palace, where these paintings have hung ever since. Unfortunately, they are displayed in two rows where it is difficult to see them all. Whilst the Picture Gallery is undergoing essential work, the public have the opportunity to view each of the chosen paintings at eye-level, where they can be examined and appreciated in detail.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, which look at paintings from different countries, such as the Netherlands, Flanders and Italy. Many were acquired by George IV, who had a good eye for art, but others have been in the collection since the reigns of Charles I (1600-49) and Charles II (1630-85). The paintings in the first gallery were all created in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) between 1630 and 1680. This was the heydey of the Dutch Golden Age, during which the Dutch Republic controlled much of the area now belonging to the present Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age are modest in scale and tend to depict scenes of everyday life. Artists usually worked alone in a studio, painting from memory rather than on-site or en plein air. The colours are vibrant, which is one of several identifying features of the style. With delicate, almost invisible brushstrokes, Dutch artists produced true-to-life paintings that often contained a comic element. George IV appreciated the artworks for the latter quality and purchased all but two on display for his London residence at Carlton House while he was still the Prince of Wales.

A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (c1660) is one of two paintings in this section of the exhibition not purchased by George IV. Instead, his father, George III, bought it in 1762 to hang in the King’s Closet at Windsor Castle. Nicknamed The Music Lesson, it was painted by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) in the early 1660s, although the King believed it was by Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-81) due to a misreading of the signature. The true identity of the artist did not come to light until 1866.

Only 34 paintings by Vermeer survive, and they are difficult to date, although some art historians estimate he produced A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman between 1662 and 1664. Vermeer paints in a grid-like manner, full of vertical and horizontal lines, which draw the eye to the back of the room where the scene takes place. A young woman stands at a virginal with her back to the viewer while her music teacher stands to the side with his right arm resting atop the instrument.

Vermeer has cropped many of the elements in the painting, suggesting the room is much larger than what is visible. In the mirror on the back wall, which reflects the lady’s face, Vermeer has also included a glimpse of an artist’s easel, suggesting he is in the same room. Yet, it is more likely that Vermeer produced the artwork in his studio.

On the lid of the virginal, an inscription reads MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], meaning “Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.” Art historians debate the meaning of this phrase, suggesting it relates to the two figures in the painting. Perhaps there is forbidden love between the two characters, breaching the teacher-student relationship. Yet, another element in the scene questions the type of love hinted at by the inscription. The framed painting hanging on the wall behind the tutor is an impression of Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero) by Dirck Van Baburen (1595-1624). The scene depicts the story of the imprisoned Cimon, who was breastfed by his daughter Pero to keep him alive. Whilst this is meant to symbolise the ideal of Christian charity, it also hints at a complicated relationship.

Most likely purchased for its comedic value, The Listening Housewife by Nicolaes Maes (1634-93) entered the Royal Collection in 1811. During the 1650s, Maes produced several paintings of domestic scenes with moralising themes, of which this is one. The young housewife, identified by the keys in her hand, engages with the viewer with a direct gaze and a conspiratorial finger to her lips. This gesture draws attention to the scene at the foot of the staircase, on which the housewife is eavesdropping. Two lovers are kissing, having abandoned their chores, but will soon be caught by a man approaching with a lantern. The playful smile on the housewife’s lips indicates she is not upset by the scene, but the older man may react quite differently when he discovers the couple.

Paintings of indoor domestic scenes tended to be quite dark due to the nature of Dutch buildings. Windows let in very little light, and the wooden interiors and furnishings created many shadows. Maes’ paintings are an example of this, as are works by Gerrit Dou (1613-75), a former pupil of Rembrandt. In The Grocer’s Shop (1672), Dou contrasts the darkness of the interior with the daylight outside, coming through an arched window. This creates the illusion that the viewer is observing the scene outside the building. Yet, the window is likely an element of Dou’s imagination.

The scene in the room is typical of a general store selling eggs, dairy products, bread and meat products. The style of dress is slightly different from the early paintings by Dou, suggesting the fashions from France had begun to influence the Dutch Republic. This is also evident in the sculpted relief of children playing with a goat on the window sill, which resembles the work of French artists.

Not all paintings from the Dutch Golden Age depicted interior, everyday life scenes. Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) is an interpretation of a traditional religious scene recorded in the Gospel of St John (20:11-18). The Bible passage records the moment Mary Magdalen visits the tomb of the crucified Christ, only to find it empty. A man, who she mistakes for a gardener, asks her why she is crying, and she appeals to him for information about the missing body. This is the scene Rembrandt depicts, shortly before the moment Mary realises the gardener is her Lord, Jesus Christ.

Similar to other artworks of the era, the painting is quite dark, particularly around the tomb. Rembrandt’s use of light in the background, which contrasts with the deep colours in the foreground, is symbolic. The darkness represents death and grief, whereas the opalescent dawn sky hints at hope and life. Jesus’ body is angled towards the background, suggesting he wishes to move on and embrace his post-resurrection role in the world.

At first glance, Two Sportsmen Outside an Inn (1651) by Paulus Potter (1625-54) may appear to be a typical everyday life scene, but George IV probably purchased it for its comedic value. Two professional hunters are being served beer from a small, remote inn. A barefoot young boy tends to one of the men’s horses while the other horse urinates on the ground. Whilst the horse’s action is natural, it is unusual for an artist to capture such a moment.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age typically depicted colourfully dressed, wealthy men and women. Poverty was rarely seen in Dutch paintings, yet Potter emphasised the impoverished state of the innkeeper, child, and drunken man sitting on a bench. Art historians liken the subject matter to a story told by Ovid about the Roman gods Jupiter and Mercury, who visit the elderly peasant couple, Philemon and Baucis. There is a stark contrast between the rich and the poor, both in the style of dress and attitude. During the 17th, 18th and 19th century, some viewers may have found this contrast amusing.

The artwork in the second gallery also come from the Low Countries, but they belong to more prestigious branches of art. All the paintings are significantly larger than those in the first gallery and depict narratives, religious subjects, landscapes and commissioned portraits. Three of the best artists of the 17th century dominate the walls: Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt.

Those fortunate enough to be visiting the exhibition at 12 pm or 3 pm have the pleasure of listening to a short talk about Milkmaids with cattle in a landscape, ‘The Farm at Laken’ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-18).

Peter Paul Rubens was perhaps the most accomplished and influential artist of the 17th century. He was born in Siegen, Germany but spent much of his early life in Antwerp, where he established himself as a painter. Rubens subsequently travelled all over Europe as a court artist and diplomat for Philip IV of Spain (1605-65) and Charles I of England (1600-49).

Rubens was a very versatile artist. In the exhibition are three of his landscapes, two portraits, and the Assumption of the Virgin. He was very well-known for his large scale history paintings, depicting scenes from mythology and religion. His landscapes are less known, which he painted towards the end of his life. These were produced for fun rather than for patrons and stayed in Rubens’ personal collection or within the possession of friends and family.

The Farm at Laken is one of Rubens’ earliest landscape paintings and was acquired by George IV in 1821 for 1500 guineas (just under £100,000 today) and has remained in the Royal Collection ever since. It is a panoramic landscape where the details in the foreground are very clear and viewers also have a view of the horizon on the left-hand side of the painting. Rubens’ used subtle changes in colour to differentiate between the different levels of the landscape. In the foreground, he used brown tones, which become greener in the middle ground before transforming to blue in the background. He also uses a picturesque line of trees to lead the eye from one place to another.

Rubens produced this painting during the Autumn. This is evident through the subtle use of orange in the trees to indicate the changing colours of the leaves. The fields also have an autumnal glow, but the most obvious indication of the season is the activities of the people in the foreground. It is the time of the harvest, and some farmworkers are digging up vegetables, such as the cauliflowers and onions seen in a wheelbarrow and the basket carried by a woman. The well-fed cows are being milked, which along with the produce suggests the farm has had a successful, fertile year.

Some art historians believe there are elements in the landscape that relate specifically to Rubens’ life. He painted the scene between 1617 and 1618, almost ten years after the signing of the Treaty of Antwerp. The treaty declared a truce between the Habsburg rulers of the Southern Netherlands (where modern-day Belgium is today) and Spain, and the Dutch Republic. The two sides had been at war for 41 years, the majority of Rubens’ life, but the 1609 peace treaty resulted in twelve years of peace. The abundance of this Flemish landscape may represent this time of peace. The figures and animals may also personify the allegories of Peace and Plenty. The woman carrying the basket represents Plenty, and the flock of doves in the centre represent Peace.

The title of the painting, The Farm at Laken, refers to the church in the background between the trees. Art historians believe this is an impression of the Our Lady at Laken church, demolished during the late 19th-century. The church was associated with the rulers of the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Albert VII (1559-1621) and Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1663), who made a pilgrimage to the site every year. So, the farm did not just thrive under the peaceful watch of its rulers, but it also had religious connotations. Religion was extremely important to people living in Flanders and the Netherlands, but Our Lady at Laken held even more value because it contained a relic associated with fertility. Many women visited the church every year in the belief it would help them conceive a child.

Similar to other landscapes by Rubens, such as A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning and The Rainbow Landscape that were recently on display at the Wallace Collection in London, the painting grew during the making. The majority of Rubens’ landscapes were painted on wooden panels (ironically, the other two landscapes in the exhibition are on canvas), which allowed him to produce finer details and disguise his brushstrokes. Rubens began this painting on a much smaller panel, which he later expanded by adding extra panels to the top (13 cm), left (7 cm) and right hand (15 cm) sides. Some art historians suggest this is because he could not contain the abundance of the landscape on such as small panel (72.9 x 103.9 cm).

Christ Healing the Paralysed Man (1619) is, admittedly, not one of Anthony van Dyck‘s (1599-1641) greatest works, but he was only 20 years old. At the time, Van Dyck was a student under Rubens, and the painting was likely designed by the elder artist. Sketches of figures similar to those in this painting exist in Rubens’ hand. The religious theme is more synonymous with Italian painters of the 16th century, but many Netherlandish and Flemish artists practised by copying these styles.

Van Dyck, with Rubens’ help, depicted the scene in Matthew 9:2-8, where Jesus healed a paralysed man. Some men brought the man to Jesus, who said, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Although this evoked outrage amongst the Pharisees, the man got up and walked home. The man in question is likely the poorly dressed, older looking figure on the left. He is thanking Christ for healing him – a scene not mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew.

Art historians have identified the young man near the open doorway as the recently called James, the Apostle that became the Patron Saint of pilgrims. All the characters seem to be heading towards the door as though about to start a journey or pilgrimage. The world outside appears bright and positive, which contrasts with the darkness of the interior. The darkness symbolises the sins of the man, and the light colours his salvation.

Visitors will recognise Rembrandt’s Portrait of Agatha Bas (1611-1658) ‘Lady with a Fan’ from the promotion materials and advertisements for the exhibition. It is considered one of the most beautiful portraits in the Royal Collection. The 29-year-old woman was married to the wool merchant Nicolaas van Bambeeck (1596-1661), whose portrait hangs in the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The couple were not particularly famous, but Rembrandt knew them personally. After their marriage, the Van Bambeeck’s lived with Nicolaas’ mother, diagonally opposite Rembrandt on Sint Anthoniesbreestraat in Amsterdam.

Agatha wears a black gown over a pink silk dress. The gold flower patterns, pearls and fashionable fan reveal she was of a wealthy standing in Dutch society. Rembrandt expertly painted the white lace around her collar and sleeves, making the painting feel three-dimensional, almost as though the viewer could reach out and touch the material. Rembrandt also engages with the viewer by adding an ebony frame upon which Agatha’s hand rests, giving the illusion that she could climb through the frame into the gallery.

Lord Yarmouth (1777-1842) bought the Portrait of Agatha Bas at an auction for King George IV. Yarmouth was an art collector as well as a politician, so understood what to look for in a painting. The sitter’s beauty combined with Rembrandt’s delicate brush strokes and detail makes the portrait particularly striking. Not only is the artwork pleasing to look at, but it is also the work of one of the most well-known artists of all time.

Almost out of place next to Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck is A Kermis on St George’s Day (1649) by David Teniers the Younger (1610-90). Teniers was a versatile Flemish Baroque painter whose work greatly appealed to George IV. This painting is the most expensive work by Teniers in the Royal Collection, costing the King 1500 guineas in 1819; the same price as Rubens’ Farm at Laken.

A Kermis is a summer fair held in towns and villages in the Netherlands, often organised by the parish church. Teniers painted several Kermis scenes, but instead of capturing fairs for posterity, he filled it with examples of vices for comedic effect. In this painting, lust, wrath, drunkenness, and general boorishness are abundant throughout the crowds. They are all in high spirits, leading to careless folly. George IV was a wild partygoer, and he may have recognised himself in many of these characters.

The third and final room of the exhibition displays paintings created in Italy between 1510 and 1740. During this period, art styles changed and developed, as did the themes. Ideal female figures contrast with sober male portraits, and large landscapes depict a range of views and weathers. The choice of colour also differs from artist to artist. Some use chiaroscuro to emphasise particular sections of the painting, and others stand out with bright, attractive colours. Whilst most of the previous paintings were purchased by George IV, many of the ones from Italy entered the Royal Collection much earlier.

In 1660, the States of Holland and West Friesland presented Charles II with Pallas Athene (c.1531-8) by the Italian prodigy Parmigianino (1503-40). Also known as Francesco Mazzola, he gained the nickname Parmigianino, meaning “the little one from Parma”, due to his youth. Parmigianino began painting as a child, and by the age of 18, had already completed several commissions.

Pallas Athene was the Greek goddess of wisdom and a skilled warrior. Most artists depicted her wearing some form of armour, and Parmigianino followed suit by including a golden breastplate. The green gown covering Athene’s shoulders, combined with her long, curly hair, emphasise her femininity. Athene’s appearance, particularly her long neck, was inspired by classical statues, descriptions by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74), and Mannerist ideals of beauty.

In contrast to the beautiful Athene is Artemisia Gentileschi’s (1593-1652) Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), purchased by Charles I. Unlike the bright colours in Parmigianino’s work, Gentileschi used dark, earthy tones, showing the viewer an alternative interpretation of beauty. According to Iconologia by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1555-1622), Painting is personified as “a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought”. Gentileschi captured the essence of this description, but as a woman, she did not intend to present herself (for it is also a self-portrait) as a man’s ideal beautiful woman.

Artemisia Gentileschi came to London at the request of Charles I, suggesting he respected her as a painter despite her gender. Successful female painters were unheard of during the 17th century, but Gentileschi was very much in demand. Naturally, collectors were attracted by her unusual status as a female artist, but she also had outstanding artistic abilities.

Titian’s (1488-1576) portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) is an example of the sober-style paintings of men from the 16th and 17th century, a stark contrast from those depicting women. Painted early in his career (c.1514-18), Titian used a restricted colour range, making the sitter look like a sensible, respected member of society.

Jacopo Sannazaro was an Italian poet best known for his humanist classic Arcadia, a poem that influenced the likes of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and John Milton (1608-74). Sannazaro claimed to come from a noble family, and this portrait reflects that. He sits with an air of importance, demanding respect from his viewers. In his right hand, he holds a book with one finger marking his place. Some art historians suggest it is a Bible, thus emphasising Sannazaro’s piety. 

Claude Lorrain’s (1604-82) Harbour Scene at Sunset (1643) is one of several landscapes in the latter part of the exhibition. It was first recorded at Buckingham Palace in 1785 but may have been purchased earlier by Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-57), the father of George III. The scene depicts the harbour at the Arco degli Argentari in Rome at sunset. The low sun creates a path of sunlight across the sea, providing enough light for the workers to unload goods from the ships.

The ancient Roman arch, yellow sky, and the “wine-dark sea” create an idyllic landscape, suggesting peacefulness, warmth and harmony. Yet, “Arco degli Argentari” means Arch of the Money-Changers and was located in a squalid corner of Rome. Lorrain used artistic licence to create an idealised version of the harbour. He did not aim to capture an accurate scene; instead, he worked to his strengths: his command of perspective and use of colour and tone.

In 1762, George III acquired The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day by Canaletto (1697-1768), which is a complete contrast to the landscape by Lorrain. Canaletto’s precise drawing and painting style create a perfect depiction of the Bucintoro, the state barge of the doge of Venice, returning to the city on Ascension Day. The annual ceremony celebrated the Sposalizio del Mar (the Wedding of the Sea), which symbolised Venice’s reliance on the sea. Several boats accompanied the Bucintoro, as seen in Canaletto’s painting.

Canaletto’s skill at architectural drawing is evident in his paintings because the buildings are precise and finely detailed. From a distance, the artwork looks like a photograph, but up close, the individual brush strokes are visible. He used the same technique for the ripples on the water and the boats. Although the canvas is fairly large (76.8 x 125.4 cm), the details are minute, suggesting Canaletto used a very fine paintbrush to painstakingly draw each line and flourish.

On display are four more paintings by Canaletto, which George III acquired in the same year. On a grander scale, these depict views of Venice away from the water’s edge. As a result, they lack the fine details seen in the water in The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day, but they are still impressive pieces of art. It is easy to see why the King liked Canaletto’s work, and visitors spend longer looking at the details in the landscape than they do in some of the other paintings in the gallery. In total, the Royal Academy owns over 238 paintings and drawings by Canaletto, making it one of the largest and most important art collections in the world.

Whilst the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace evolved from an opportune moment – the Picture Gallery undergoing essential work – the curators have thought carefully about what paintings to display and where. Rather than placing them in chronological order, they are divided into three groups, which helps visitors compare artworks of similar styles. The exhibition provides details about each painting and encourages visitors to question what makes them so important that Britain’s previous kings wanted them in their collection. There is no right or wrong answer. The appreciation of art is a subjective topic, and what appeals to one person may not to another. The aim of the exhibition is not to educate but to provide visitors with the opportunity to think and reflect.

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace is on display at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until Sunday 13th February 2022. Tickets cost £16.00 per adult but discounted tickets are available for over 60s, children and students. Get your ticket stamped, and you can return as many times as you wish throughout the year. 


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Reuniting Rubens

For the first time in over 200 years, two landscape paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) have found themselves in the same room. Painted as a pair, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning parted ways in 1803, eventually ending up in the Wallace Collection and National Gallery, respectively. In partnership with VISITFLANDERS, the two paintings are temporarily on display at the Wallace Collection until 15th August 2021, after which they will separate once more. Attracting the likes of Jon Snow, who filmed his visit to the exhibition for Channel 4, the paintings have captured the attention of art lovers and tourists alike, providing what may be a once in a lifetime experience.

The name Rubens is usually associated with historical and mythological paintings, full of action and voluptuous women, rather than the idyllic landscapes shown at the Wallace Collection. Yet, landscape painting had intrigued Rubens since his youth and one of his first teachers specialised in the area. To succeed as an artist, Rubens needed to paint what his commissioners and buyers wanted. Landscape painting was not a respected theme where Rubens lived in Antwerp, so he focused on fleshy figures depicting historical moments in the typical Flemish Baroque tradition.

Towards the end of his career, Rubens moved away from the busy city lifestyle to devote himself to landscape painting. The majority of these Rubens produced as a hobby rather than for profit. Not many knew about the extent of his artistic talents until after he died in 1640.

In 1592, Rubens was serving as an emissary for the Spanish crown. At 53 years old and a widower, he longed to settle down in his homeland. Unlike many artists of his day, Rubens had a considerable amount of money, having worked for the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Charles I of England, Philip IV of Spain and Queen Marie de Medici of France. After completing his negotiations in England on behalf of Spain, Rubens returned home to Antwerp, where he married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment (1614-73).

Following his marriage, Rubens contented himself by painting his young wife and growing family, whilst spending time in his large garden. Rubens enjoyed painting for pleasure, unrestrained by commissions and deadlines. Throughout his career, Rubens was restricted to the preferences of his patrons and buyers, but in his retirement he had the freedom to choose his subject matter. His love of landscapes resurfaced and he longed for the countryside, away from the pressures of commercial and city life.

In 1635, Rubens purchased an eight-acre country estate in Elewijt, Flemish Brabant. The house, known as the Castle of Het Steen, cost Rubins 93,000 florins and gave him the right to the title of Lord of Het Steen. A three-hour ride (half an hour by car) took Rubens from his home in Antwerp to his “manorial residence with a large stone house and other fine buildings in the form of a castle.” It also had a garden, an orchard, a lake and extensive grassland. The family used the estate as their summer home, returning to the city during the autumn.

Built in the typical Flemish style, the manor house had gabled roofs, red-bricked walls and a crenellated tower. The latter has since been demolished, and the house has also undergone remodelling and renovation over the past centuries. Rubens captured the building as it looked during his day in the paintings, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning. 

The extensive views around Het Steen provided Rubens with the perfect backdrop for many landscape paintings. Although he had produced many landscapes before moving to the estate, his nephew Philip admitted Rubens made the purchase intending to study and paint the landscape. Rubens kept most of these artworks, displaying them at Het Steen. As a result, not many knew of the extent of his oeuvre until after his death.

“Having bought the seignory of Steen, between Brussels and Malines in the year 1630 [sic] he took great pleasure living there in solitude, in order to paint vividly and au naturel the surrounding mountains, plains, valleys and meadows, at the rising and setting of the sun, up to the horizon.” – Philip Rubens

After producing many landscapes, which explored composition, figure and animal placement, light and darkness, and so forth, Rubens finally painted his two most famous landscapes. The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning represent Rubens zenith of his achievements in landscape painting, evidenced by their sheer size and panoramic content.

A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning

In A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, usually shortened to Het Steen, the house is set to the far left, making the extensive open plains the main focus of the painting. The colours suggest it is late summer or early autumn on a sunny morning, although puddles and clouds hint at a recent rainstorm. Whilst the house is a faithful representation, Rubens elevated the view of the land between the foreground and the horizon to produce a continuous panoramic sweep.

On the left, a man drives a cart away from the house, carrying a woman and a trussed calf. Closer to the building is a group of people, which many believe represent Rubens’ family. In the foreground, a hunter and his dog hide behind a large tree stump, keeping a steady gaze on a bevy of partridges. This activity, combined with the altocumulus clouds, gives away the time of day, as does the cart, which is presumably on its way to market. In the distance, maids milk the cows in the pastures.

The Rainbow Landscape

Het Steen sits in the far distance in The Rainbow Landscape, which provides a view of the estate from the other side of the fields. Once again, Rubens raised the level of the viewpoint to encompass the many topographical features. The scene in this painting takes place later in the day after farmhands have already had time to create two haystacks. Yet, the cart carrying more hay in the left-hand corner suggests their workday is far from over. Some art historians propose Rubens based the appearance of the cart driver on his likeness, although it is unlikely he ever contributed to the farm work.

The cart driver greets two milkmaids, one who is balancing a pitcher on her head. Their smiling faces suggest happy workers, which compliments the idyllic landscape. Meanwhile, a herdsman goes about his work, herding cows along a path beside the stream, contrasting with the lively ducks playing in the water. Both the ducks and cows are similar to those in other paintings by Rubens, suggesting he did not paint them from life but memory or imagination.

Whilst there is a lot of activity in the lower half of the painting, it is the sky that captures the viewer’s attention. Spanning the width of the landscape is a double-arced rainbow, which is an unusual feature in artworks from this era. Artists were discouraged from depicting rainbows because their fleeting appearances were difficult to portray accurately. Rubens attempt is impressive, yet it is not true to nature. He chose not to represent its full-colour spectrum, obscuring sections with clouds instead.

The rainbow hints at the recent storm, whose dark clouds are still visible in the distance. The phenomenon also had religious connotations, symbolising God’s divine blessing. In the Bible (Genesis 9:11-15), God made a covenant with his people, promising never to flood the world again. This promise followed the well-known story of Noah’s Ark.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. (Genesis 9:12-15, NIV)

Art historians believe Rubens produced Het Steen and The Rainbow Landscape to be displayed together because they are linked by their subject matter, scale, size and composition. The English landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837) agreed, saying some years after the two paintings were separated: “When pictures painted as companions are separated, the purchaser of one, without being aware of it, is sometimes buying only half a picture. Companion pictures should never be parted…”

Both paintings have similar motifs, such as milkmaids, wagons, cows and fowl. These, along with the inclusion of the manor house, albeit almost unnoticeable in The Rainbow Landscape, suggests the landscapes depicts the same area from different perspectives. Although the paintings represent different times of day, when hung together, they complete a cycle of a late summer’s day.

Another connection between the two paintings is the way Rubens constructed the landscapes. Using X-radiography and infra-red reflectography, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection have discovered that Rubens produced the paintings in three stages. Rubens began both compositions on a medium-sized panel, upon which he depicted the middle ground leading to the horizon. Rubens then added or commissioned someone to add extensions to the bottom and sides of the panel. Upon these, he extended the landscapes, making them more panoramic. A final extension to the top, bottom and sides, gave the landscapes a dimension of 136 cm x 236 cm (54 in x 93 in).

Careful analysis of the two paintings has revealed images below the top layer of paint, which indicates Rubens developed the composition gradually. Unlike his commissioned work, Rubens did not need to rush and had no deadline. X-rays show Rubens included a seated milkmaid and herdsman on the original panel of The Rainbow Landscape but painted over them after extending the boards. A half-rainbow decorated the sky, which tells us Rubens always intended to include it in the landscape. After increasing the size of the work, Rubens repainted the trees and added the herdsmen and cattle by a river. The ducks, horses and wagon joined the scene after the final extension.

With more space above the horizon to play with, Rubens expanded the rainbow to sweep across the sky. Although it remained a double-arced rainbow, only a section of the second arc is visible in the top right-hand corner. Rubens added touches of blue, pink and yellow to the trees, river and ground to suggest a reflection of the rainbow, although, in reality, the rainbow would make no such impression.

The construction of A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning has similar paint handling and attention to detail as its companion. During the first stage of the painting, Rubens filled the space with open pastures interspersed with trees. As the boards grew, so did the landscape, incorporating a bridge, stream, tree trunk and hunter. Only in the final stage did Rubens paint the house and add the other figures and cart to the composition.

Unlike The Rainbow Landscape, which developed gradually with the expansion of the boards, the painting of Het Steen changed dramatically in the final stages. During the first two stages of the painting process, the composition was typical of Rubens’ landscapes, revealing idyllic farmland and a peaceful environment. When he began the painting, he had no intention of including his house, yet it became a key feature during the latter stages. This element, with the suggestion of the building in the background of The Rainbow Landscape, is what convinces many art historians that the paintings belong together.

Shortly after Rubens died in 1640, the two paintings appeared in a sales catalogue with 312 other works of art from his collection. A version of the catalogue translated for Charles I describes the landscapes as “A great landschap after the life, with little figures in’t uppon a board,” (Het Steen) and “A great landschap where it raines with little Cowes in it” (The Rainbow Landscape). Since they were listed one after the other suggests Rubens’ family intended them to stay together, which they did for many years.

In 1691, both paintings hung in the palace of Juan Gaspar Enríquez de Cabrera, the 10th Admiral of Castile (1625-91) in Madrid, after which they appeared in Genoa in the early 18th century. Records state they belonged to a Genoese banker to the Spanish Crown, Bartolomeo Saluzzo (1651-1705), who bequeathed his art collection to his sons. Constantino Balbi (1676-1741) purchased the landscapes in 1706 and hung them in the Palazzo Balbi. In 1802, art dealers William Buchanan (1777-1864) and Arthur Champernowne (1767-1819) purchased the paintings and brought them to London, where they were displayed at an Oxdenden Street gallery. They quickly became the talking point of the artistic circle in the capital.

Despite attempts to sell the two landscapes as a pair, Buchanan and Champernowne were unsuccessful. Instead, they sold Het Steen to Lady Margaret Beaumont for £1500 in 1803. Little did they know the paintings would not appear in the same room again until 2020. Lady Margaret gave the artwork as a present to her husband Sir George, who pronounced it the “finest landscape I believe [Rubens] ever painted.” On his death in 1823, George Beaumont bequeathed Het Steen and other paintings in his collection to the National Gallery.

In 1815, Champernowne sold The Rainbow Landscape to art collector George Watson-Taylor (1771-1841), who, in turn, sold it to Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1783-1858) for 2,600 guineas. Walpole hung the painting in the Principle Dining Room at Wolterton Hall in Norfolk, where many people admired it. Allegedly, George IV (1762-1830) attempted to purchase the painting from Walpole shortly before his death in 1830. The landscape remained in Lord Orford’s possession until he decided to sell it in 1856.

Sir Charles Eastlake (1793-1865), the first Director of the National Gallery, attended Lord Orford’s sale intending to reunite Rubens’ landscapes. Unfortunately, one of the wealthiest collectors in Europe, Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-70), was also in attendance and outbid the director. Lord Hertford paid £4,550 for The Rainbow Landscape, which he hung in his London residence, Manchester House. After his death, his son Sir Richard Wallace (1818-90) inherited the house and its contents, thus becoming the new owner of the painting. Wallace extended the house to create a large gallery where he installed the landscape and other notable paintings. After his death, the collection was bequeathed to the nation. The house opened to the public as the Wallace Collection, and The Rainbow Landscape has hung here ever since.

Thanks to the collaboration between the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection, the public have once again been able to view both landscapes in the same room. Unfortunately, the exhibition is ending soon, and the paintings will separate once more. There is speculation that Rubens’ two great landscapes may be reunited permanently in the future. Hopefully, we will not need to wait 200 years to make this a reality.

It is a shame that the exhibition coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer people than expected have visited the Wallace Collection to see the two landscapes in situ. Yet, the display made the national news, proving that the story of two landscape paintings, reunited, at last, has touched the hearts of thousands of people.

Het Steen, now known as Elewijt Castle or Rubenskasteel, still stands. It was briefly used as a prison in 1792 before being abandoned. In 1955, the current owner restored the building, although the tower seen in Rubens’ painting was unsalvageable.

RUBENS: REUNITING THE GREAT LANDSCAPES is open until 15th August 2021 at the Wallace Collection, London. Tickets are free with a suggested donation of £5.


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The History of Postcards

It has probably been a while since most of us have sent or received a postcard due to the Covid-19 restrictions across the world. Also, the increased use of smartphones has reduced the need to send “wish you were here” notes in the post when it is easier and cheaper to upload a photograph or message onto social media. Yet, as deltiologists (also known as postcard collectors) will tell you, postcards have an interesting history, which blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many cards purchased as souvenirs in the past are now collector’s items and have appeared in auctions since 1896.

Penny Penates postcard

The earliest known postcard was received in 1840 in Fulham by the composer and writer Theodore Hook (1788-1841). Known for his practical jokes, Hook likely sent the card to himself, either as an experiment or to poke fun at postal workers. The card, which bears a Penny Black stamp, features a hand-drawn caricature of postal clerks holding large pens. They are seated around an inkwell labelled “Official” with the words “Penny” and “Penates” on either side. Penates, or Di Penates, were household deities in Ancient Roman religion responsible for guarding the storeroom. Hook’s illustration suggests the post workers either looked after their pennies or the Penny Black stamps.

In 2001, a collector discovered the Penny Penates postcard and the British Philatelic Association confirmed it is the oldest documented postcard in the world. It is also the oldest card sent with a Penny Black stamp, which was only used between May 1840 and February 1841. In 2002, Penny Penates made history again, becoming the most ever paid-for postcard at auction, selling at £31,750 to a collector in Latvia.

Lipman’s Postal Card

The first commercially produced postcard appeared in 1861 in the United States of America, although manufacturers saw no need to decorate one side of the card with an image. Instead, the card, patented by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, was plain on both sides – one for the message and the other for the recipient’s address. After selling the rights to Hymen Lipman (1817-93), the man credited for making the first pencil with an attached eraser, they added a border to the message side.

In 1870, commercial postcards began selling in the United Kingdom. These were also blank on both sides but featured a printed stamp, which the Post Office included in the price of the card. Only the Post Office had permission to sell postcards, which they sold in two sizes. The larger of the two eventually fell out of use in favour of the smaller due to ease of handling. Eventually, the Post Office introduced a standard size of postcard at 5.5 by 3.5 inches.

Other European countries adopted postcards slightly earlier than the United Kingdom, although the Prussian government worried about privacy issues. In 1869, the Austria-Hungary post office issued blank postcards, of which approximately 3 million were used in the first three months. When the Franco-Prussian war began in July 1870, soldiers saw the benefits of this inexpensive method of writing to people back home. Soon, post offices throughout Europe and further abroad agreed to the sale of postcards.

The claimed first printed picture postcard

In 1870, postcards began featuring a picture on one side with a small space to write a message. The reverse remained blank for the recipient’s address. Historians continue to debate over the origins of this idea, with the majority agreeing the first picture postcard was created by a soldier at Camp Conlie. Léon Besnardeau (1829-1914), the alleged inventor, resided at the training camp during the Franco-Prussian war, where he developed a lithographed design to print on postcards. This particular illustration featured two piles of military equipment topped by a scroll and the arms of the Duchy of Brittany. In French, the inscription reads, “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany.”

Meanwhile, others argue the first picture postcard appeared in Germany three days before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. August Schwartz, a bookseller from Oldenburg, is regarded as the illustrator of this card, which bears the postmark 16th July 1870. Yet, neither of these cards resemble the souvenir postcards of today, the earliest of which appeared in Vienna in 1871.

North Bay, Scarborough

In the United Kingdom, the first picture postcards appear in 1894 at the beginning of the “Golden Age of Postcards”, which lasted until 1914. The Post Office permitted other publishers to print the cards, which led to a rise in postcards of landscapes and scenic views. ETW Dennis and Sons of Scarborough were the first company to print postcards outside of the Post Office. Edward Thomas West Dennis (1847-1923), a Quaker, saw a commercial gap in the market and began producing postcards for seaside resorts, which consumers purchased as mementoes of their holidays or sent home to friends and family.

Despite permitting others to print postcards, the Post Office provided strict rules about the design. Regulations stated the back must only contain the address, and publishers could print up to five words on the front as well as an image, as long as they left space for the sender to write a message. Society thought it unseemly to write personal messages where anyone could see, so the limited space prevented people from divulging too much information. Nonetheless, some people tried to get around this by writing along the edges of the illustration as well as in the space provided.

When talking about postcards, the historian Steve Hillier likened them to “the text message of their time”. Due to the small message space, households often received several postcards from the same sender. This prompted the Post Office to reconsider its regulations. The outcome, released in 1902, was the Divided Back postcard, which allowed people to write a message on one half and the address on the other. On the front, the picture took up the entire space.

With the rate of sending a postcard at half a penny, many continued to favour postcards over letters. Whilst today postcards are generally received from people on holiday, early 20th-century publishers produced cards for villages and towns across the United Kingdom. For example, in 1910, an inhabitant of the village of Upminster in Essex sent a postcard to a friend in France, asking them if they had recovered from their recent cold. The postcard contains a photograph of The Bell Inn, which dominated the crossroads at the centre of Upminster for 200 years before its demolition in 1963.

During the First World War, postcards helped boost the morale of soldiers, but also remained an effective form of communication with friends and family in Britain. Some postcards contained lengthy updates, whereas others simply said, “meet me off the train at 2 pm tomorrow”, or something equally mysterious. Whilst today we cannot guarantee next-day delivery, even with a first-class stamp, postmen once delivered letters to houses twice a day, providing a near-instant method of communication.

Whilst the war halted the production of seaside and holiday postcards, the industry saw a rise in military postcards. Some of these contained photographs of regiments or individual soldiers, which are now collectors’ items. Publishers also printed humorous cards to keep people’s spirits up, particularly those on the front lines or the injured. These postcards usually featured a cartoon rather than a photograph and saw a revival during the Second World War.

After the end of the First World War, postcard production picked up once more, although it never achieved the popularity of the Golden Years. The price of postage increased to one penny in 1918, then one and a half pence in 1921. The latter caused public protest, so the price reverted to one penny the following year.

The 1930s saw a rise in cartoon-style postcards, many of which were labelled bawdy or saucy. These illustrations shocked those with strong British morals, but others thoroughly enjoyed the innuendos and double entendres. Cartoonists often poked fun at stereotypical characters, such as vicars, large women and unfortunate husbands. They also made inappropriate jokes about the private lives of the average person.

Synonymous with the saucy postcard genre is the English graphic artist Donald McGill (1875-1962), who eventually received a fine for breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1857. His career as a postcard designer began unintentionally in 1904 after drawing a humorous get-well card for a sick nephew. McGill’s family encouraged him to produce more illustrations, and within a year, he had a full-time occupation. He started taking risks with the content of his drawings, noting the more vulgar they became, the better they sold.

McGill earned the title “King of the Seaside Postcard”, but after the outbreak of the First World War, he produced anti-German propaganda postcards instead. His illustration style remained consistent, with bright colours and caricature figures, but the messages focused on bolstering British morale and insulting the enemy. As a child, McGill lost a foot after an accident playing rugby, so he could not physically fight. He saw his humorous postcards as his contribution to the war effort.

Throughout the war, McGill designed approximately 1,500 postcards. His early war illustrations focused on the soldiers but later turned to the Home Front, wives, families, female munitions workers and the Red Cross. McGill often included puns in his work, for example, a soldier hanging up his laundry with the caption, “A blow on the Hindenburg Line!” The Germans built the Hindenburg Line or Siegfriedstellung from concrete, steel and barbed wire as a form of defence, which after several attacks, broke in September 1918.

Whilst the majority of McGill’s wartime postcards involved humour, he also produced sentimental cards featuring poems, which soldiers sent home to their sweethearts. Yet, linking all his postcards together is British patriotism, which inspired other artists and printers to produce similar illustrations.

After the war, McGill began designing postcards for the International Art Company, formed by Robert and Louisa McCrum. For 17 years, McGill produced his usual standard of work, but as time went on, new rules and censorship issues put pressure on the artist. The company prevented McGill from drawing people with red noses or women with exaggerated cleavage, which he found ridiculous rules to follow. Eventually, McGill resigned and worked on a freelance basis for other companies. In retaliation to the censorship issues, McGill’s outcomes became more saucy and shocking.

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939 put a halt to postcard production. With paper in short supply, McGill took a temporary job as a clerk for the Ministry of Labour, but he could not refrain from drawing for long. In 1944, McGill started drawing for D. Constance Ltd, but the newly elected Conservative government of the early 1950s grew concerned about McGill’s immoral illustrations.

Although McGill was not the government’s only target, he was required to attend a trial in Lincoln on 15th July 1954. In his defence, McGill’s lawyers claimed he had no intention of creating innuendos in his postcard designs, of which he produced over 12,000 during his career. They also claimed the “double meanings” needed pointing out to the artist after the production. The court did not believe these arguments and fined McGill £50 for breaking the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Whilst this does not seem a large sum, McGill also lost his income source because no reputable company wished to print his postcard designs.

Postcards of a similar nature to those by McGill also suffered from the government’s intervention. They issued strict rules about taste and decency in art and literature and censored approximately 167,000 books. Many protested against this censorship and appealed for an amendment to the Obscene Publications Act. In 1957, McGill supplied evidence before the House Select Committee, saying he felt “a national system of censorship would be open to the vagaries of individual interpretation.” The appeal resulted in the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which allowed the printing of McGill’s postcards and the publication of controversial books, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930).

The revival of saucy postcards inspired bawdy films, such as the Carry On franchise, which ran from 1958 until 1978. McGill’s illustrations regained popularity, and by his death in 1962, surpassed 200 million sales. Printers continued producing McGill’s postcards until 1968 after phasing them out in favour of modern designs.

Postcards never regained their post-war popularity but continued to be a cultural aspect of the British seaside. Colour photography replaced illustrations, which allowed souvenir shops to sell depictions of resorts and towns, often in unrealistically sunny weather conditions. Photographers developed their careers in the postcard trade, for instance, John Hinde (1916-97), who found success in Ireland. In the 1960s and 70s, Hinde teamed up with Billy Butlin (1899-1980), the British entrepreneur, to produce postcards for the many Butlin Holiday Camps around Britain. Hinde employed three men, Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nägele and David Noble, to help capture idealistic views of Butlin locations.

Hinde often enhanced some of the colours in his photographs to create the optimistic tone Butlin desired. He meticulously planned the snapshots to depict images of a fun-filled family vacation. Typical scenes included large swimming pools, amusement parks, recreational activities and indoor dining. Today, these overly bright postcards are considered kitsch by collectors and cost much more than the few pence Butlin’s charged.

Modern seaside postcards usually feature more than one high-quality photograph of the area. Developments in technology allowed photographers to capture realistic images of the resort without the need for enhancements. Postcards are available in most locations and countries, which thousands of tourists purchase to send home to their family and friends. Contemporary postcards have no value in collections, yet in the future, they may prove of some worth.

In the Smartphone Age, holiday postcards are fast becoming something of the past, but printing companies are fighting to keep them fresh and alive. Many online companies allow people to personalise postcards to send on a variety of occasions. People can chose generic images or upload digital photographs and include text in a variety of typefaces. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in the history of postcards?

Postcards from Donald McGill’s era may have no relevance in today’s world, but for deltiologists, they are worth hundreds of pounds. Some consider saucy postcards a form of art, and we can thank the artists for breaking censorship boundaries and allowing us to be more open and accepting of people’s lives. Whilst some people may dislike lewd comments and foul language used in television and literature, the amendment of the Obscene Publications Act has allowed people to discuss sexual health, mental health and other taboo subjects.

So ends the brief history of postcards in the United Kingdom. Who knows what the future holds for this method of communication?


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Lady Godiva

Famed for her naked ride through Coventry, Lady Godiva has inspired many artists and storytellers, but how much of the legend is true? According to Anglo-Saxon legend, Lady Godiva or Godgifu rode through the streets of Coventry covered only by her long hair in protest of the taxes imposed by her tyrannical husband. Today it is uncertain whether this event really occurred or if a pagan myth became medieval propaganda. Nonetheless, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry owns dozens of artworks on the subject, suggesting Lady Godiva is one of the most popular figures in ancient British history.

It is difficult to write of Lady Godiva’s life to any degree of accuracy since much remains uncertain. According to records, Godiva married Leofric, an Earl of Mercia, who established a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Evidence suggests that Leofric and his wife, whose name meant “gift of God” in Old English, donated generously towards religious establishments and they are listed as benefactors of several monasteries. English monk and chronicler John of Worcester, who died in c.1140, wrote about Coventry, “He and his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of St Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession.”

Leofric had nine children, including Ælfgar, who succeeded him as Earl of Mercia. Whether Lady Godiva was the mother of these offspring is unknown but records state she was a widow when she married Leofric at Ely Abbey. Godiva allegedly encouraged her husband to construct the monastery at Coventry, at least according to the 13th-century monk Roger of Wendover (d.1236) and appeared on the deeds of land belonging to other religious buildings. Reports of Godiva’s generosity are abundant, particularly in the form of jewellery, which she donated to the people of Coventry, Evesham and St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, all traces of these gifts became lost after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Lady Godiva lived for some time after the death of her husband in 1057. Her name appears on a survey taken shortly after the Norman Conquest, which lists her as the only woman to remain a major landholder. Yet, her name is missing from the Domesday Book compiled in 1086, suggesting she died before the “Great Survey”. The whereabouts of her body are still under debate. The Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham, a medieval chronicle about Evesham Abbey between 714 and 1539, insisted Godiva rested in the Church of the Blessed Trinity, which no longer stands. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography disagrees, saying, “There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Coventry.” Leofric’s burial took place at St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral.

The surviving documents from Lady Godiva’s lifetime mention nothing of her alleged naked ride through Coventry. The story first appeared in writing in the 13th-century book Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History), created by Roger of Wendover and continued by other medieval historians. According to the story, Lady Godiva felt sorry for the people of Coventry, who suffered under the oppressive taxes imposed by her husband. Given the records of Leofric’s generosity, this claim is suspect. Nevertheless, in the tale, Godiva appealed to Leofric to lower the taxes, but he refused. Godiva continued to plead until her husband, growing weary of the argument, agreed to her request, but on one condition: Lady Godiva must remove all her clothes and ride a horse through the town.

If the legend is true, Leofric did not expect his wife to take him at his word. Yet, according to the typical version of the story, after issuing a proclamation instructing everyone to stay in their houses with their windows closed, Lady Godiva rode through Coventry with only her long hair to protect her modesty. Roger of Wendover’s record, on the other hand, states people filled the streets to watch Lady Godiva. Presumably, the outcome remained the same, and Leofric lowered the taxes.

Not included in early accounts of the legend is the character of Peeping Tom. He first appeared in written narratives during the 18th-century but the people of Coventry included Tom in verbal and dramatic versions of the story much earlier. When Lady Godiva instructed “all Persons to keep within Doors and from their Windows, on pain of Death”, everyone obeyed except a tailor named Tom. This “Peeping Tom” could not resist looking at the naked woman and, according to the historian Paul de Rapin (1661-1725), was instantly blinded by God. Other writers suggest the Coventry natives blinded the man for his insolence.

Many historians dispute the reality of Godiva’s naked ride and relate the incident to a pagan fertility rite where the participants led a maiden to “Cofa’s Tree”, from which Coventry got its name. The history of this ritual is undetermined, but a similar tradition, known as the “Godiva Procession” began in 1678. A woman dressed in flesh-coloured clothing reenacted the Lady’s legendary ride, while a grotesque wooden effigy represented Peeping Tom. In an 1826 article by W. Reader, Tom wears a style of armour dating to the time of Charles II (1630-85).

There are many alternative tellings of the legend of Lady Godiva. One suggestion is she did not ride naked but rather in her underwear. At the time the event purportedly took place, the Church instructed penitents to prove the purity of their soul by publically appearing in their “shift”, a sleeveless white garment. At the time, seeing someone in their underwear was akin to nudity. The name of Peeping Tom also differs between storytellers. A 17th-century letter, for instance, suggests his name was Action or Actæon, Lady Godiva’s groom.

In 1586, the County of the City of Coventry commissioned Flemish artist Adam van Noort (1561-1641) to produce a painting of Lady Godiva. The artist, famed for teaching the influential Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), depicted Godiva as a voluptuous woman with long golden hair sitting upon a white horse. In the background, which the novelist Dame Marina Warner (b.1946) describes as a “fantastical Italianate Coventry”, a figure peers out of an upstairs window. This could be the earliest reference to Peeping Tom.

Adam van Noort’s painting is the earliest artwork of Lady Godiva, but the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum contains many more on the theme, which Warner described in an article for The Times as “an oddly composed Landseer, a swooning Watts and a sumptuous Alfred Woolmer.” The majority are by Victorian artists who took inspiration from Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem Godiva, published in 1840.

A painting of Lady Godiva by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Collier (1850-1934) portrays Godiva as a romantic heroine rather than an Anglo-Saxon woman. Her slender body is typical of the Pre-Raphaelite style, as is the red-tone of her hair. Despite her nudity, Lady Godiva conceals her modesty by the placement of her arms and riding position. Traditionally, women rode side-saddle, but Collier depicts Lady Godiva sitting astride her horse. She appears young and shy, although no one is on the street to see her pass by.

In contrast to the nude woman, Collier decorated the white horse with a silk cape and decorated reins. Although Lady Godiva wears no jewellery to mark her as a member of the upper class, the luxuriousness of the horse’s “clothing” indicates her wealth. These elements add to the romantic heroine appearance of Godiva and emphasise her purity. Leofric did not expect his wife to agree to his challenge due to the shamefulness of the task, but there is no sense of humiliation in this painting.

Marshall Claxton (1811-81), a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, painted Lady Godiva as she mounted her white horse to ride naked through Coventry. Similarly to Collier’s painting, the horse is covered with an ornate red blanket, indicating Godiva’s wealth. Claxton painted the lady from behind, wrapped in a white sheet from the waist down to protect her modesty. Although the legend usually indicates Lady Godiva removed all her jewellery, Claxton’s Godiva wears a gold crown on her head and a gold armband.

Whilst there is no one else in the painting, Godiva glances over her shoulder as though fearful of being caught. The dog in the painting, is the “barking cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem, but the small animal is also a symbol of marital fidelity. Nudity is often associated with sexual relations, but in this story, nudity is a sign of purity.

Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922) took inspiration from a different section of the story. The English painter decided to depict the moment Lady Godiva pleaded with her husband to abolish the taxes. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum does not own Leighton’s painting but rather a copy by Frank Albert Philips (1831-1905). Nonetheless, it shows that Leighton paid close attention to Tennyson’s poem and tried to make the painting historically accurate. He dressed Lady Godiva and Leofric in authentic clothing, or at least what he believed Anglo-Saxons wore. Leighton also made the setting look convincing, basing it on medieval English architecture.


Alfred Joseph Woolmer (1805-1892), on the other hand, did not attempt to make his painting historically accurate. Inspired by the 16th-century artist Titian (1488-1576), Woolmer used rich colours, emphasising the animal furs and silks of Godiva’s clothing as well as the sunset in the background. The half-dressed Lady Godiva, who Marina Warner describes as “sumptuous”, takes on the appearance of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, thus presenting her as an object of desire. This is a stark contrast to the woman in the story who wished no one to see her ride through Coventry.

Woolmer’s paintings typically portrayed the concept of “ut pictura poesis“, which means “as is painting, so is poetry”. He wanted people to interpret his work as they would a poem. Although the image is static, it tells the story of Lady Godiva undressing before her ride through Coventry. No one else is in the painting because she has instructed everyone to remain at home. Unfortunately, Woolmer’s depiction of Lady Godiva evokes eroticism rather than her pious nature.

A plaster sculpture by John Thomas (1813-62), of which the museum owns a miniature copy by Philip Pargetter, depicts the naked woman sitting side-saddle on a horse. Walking on a cobbled ground, the horse, a stallion, is caught mid-step with its head straining forward. The visible veins on its body are suggestive of his exertion.

Upon the horse, Lady Godiva bows her head in modesty, obscuring one side of her face with her loosely braided hair. This meekness gives off an air of piety rather than shame and embarrassment, which along with her youth and natural beauty, matches the Victorian ideal of femininity.

John Skinner Clifton (1822-89) attempted to illustrate a faithful representation of a verse of Tennyson’s poem. “…he laid a tax Upon his town, and all the mothers brought Their children, clamouring, ‘If we pay, we starve!’ She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode About the hall, among his dogs, alone, His beard a foot before, and his hair A yard behind…” Clifton depicted Leofric as a large man with similar hair to his wife in length and colour. His blond beard rests on his chest, and one of his large dogs sits at his feet. Beside him, the pale Lady Godiva stands with a crowd of mothers and children on whose half she pleads.

Clifton used bright coloured paint made from aniline dyes, a relatively new invention at the time. Whilst these colours are historically inaccurate, they emphasise the difference in classes. Lady Godiva and her husband are dressed in rich colours, whereas the poor women and children wear dull, dirty tunics. The vivid dyes also contrast with Godiva’s pale skin, emphasising her beauty and purity.


Lady Godiva’s Prayer by Edward Landseer (1802-73) introduces another character to the story: Lady Godiva’s maid. The scene depicts Godiva sending up a prayer before setting off on her journey. In the background is the spire of St Michael’s Church, the cathedral of Coventry, which unfortunately makes the painting historically inaccurate because the church was built in the 14th century. During Lady Godiva’s life, St Mary’s Priory, of which she was a benefactress, was the only cathedral in the city.

Critiques suggest Landseer took inspiration from Marshall Claxton’s painting of Lady Godiva because there are some similarities. Landseer protects Godiva’s modesty by depicting her from behind, and he included the dog or “cur” mentioned in Tennyson’s poem. The horse, whilst not white, is draped with material, but this is where the similarities end. Landseer may have added the ermine drape at a later date after Queen Victoria (1819-1901) viewed the painting at his studio in 1866. The artist was the Queen’s favourite, so the ermine likely honours her visit.


The actress Eliza Crowe, better known as Madame Wharton, posed as Lady Godiva for Landseer. In 1848, Crowe played the part of Godiva in the annual Godiva Procession in Coventry, so she was an obvious choice of model.

English oil painter David Gee (1793-1872) produced several paintings of Lady Godiva but based these on the processions rather than Tennyson’s poem. One artwork from 1829 shows Lady Godiva starting on her journey. Unlike other paintings on the subject, the lady wears white, and several people carrying banners follow in her wake. The identity of the actress in this painting is unknown, but presumably, she is a woman. In earlier processions, a boy played the role of Lady Godiva.

Gee’s paintings reveal the Godiva Processions were popular events attended by crowds of people. The processions often became rowdy and, on several occasions, ended with riots. Whether the legend is true, the people of Coventry take great pride in their history. Processions still regularly take place in the form of a carnival on Dame Goodyver’s Daye. Coventry also organises a Godiva Festival, offering three days of music, food and drink, and a funfair.

It is impossible to prove the myth of Lady Godiva. Whilst there is no evidence of the famous ride through Coventry, the legend must stem from some form of truth or story. Coventry do well to honour a woman who may (or may not) have saved their ancestors from extreme poverty, but the legend is likely much altered and embellished since its first telling several centuries ago.

Mentioning Lady Godiva today raises a few eyebrows. She is often associated with scandal and eroticism, which those familiar with the story know is not the case. Lady Godiva is one of several legends that people have passed down through generations, but we cannot rely on them for historical accuracy. Evidence suggests Godiva existed, but did she really ride naked through the city? We will never know.


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A Dog’s Purpose

“It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful : it is the best friend man can have.”

Voltaire, 1764

Apart from a brief respite in the autumn of 2020, museums and galleries have remained shut for a year. Fortunately, in the digital era, we do not need to travel to places to enjoy exhibitions and admire artworks. Many public establishments have online presences, through which they connect with those who cannot visit in person. Google Arts & Culture assisted these organisations by amalgamating online exhibitions into one place. This allows individuals to take virtual trips to museums and galleries all over the world. Not only this, Google developed some digital displays too, such as Paw-some Paintings, which celebrates canine companions in art.

As Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86) once said, a dog is a man’s best friend. The creatures have appeared in artworks for thousands of years, including on the walls of caves. Since the 19th century, artists depicted dogs as loving, gentle creatures, symbolising protection, loyalty and faithfulness. Before then, “dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Until dogs became pets and companions, they were bred for hunting, tracking and guarding. Nonetheless, Google Arts & Culture has found ten artworks spanning several centuries that show humans have always loved these furry creatures. 

Marble statue of a pair of dogs

During an excavation of Civita Lavinia, an ancient city near Rome, Italy, archaeologists discovered two similar marble statues of a pair of dogs. Although it is not possible to determine the date of production, the British Museum estimates it between the 1st and 2nd century AD. Gavin Hamilton (1723-98), a Scottish artist and archaeologist, discovered the dogs where he believed a palace belonging to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 86-161) once stood. Recent discoveries have disproved this theory, but Hamilton sold one of the statues to English antiquary Charles Townley (1737-1805) under this impression. After Townley’s death, his family sold the dogs and other items in his collection to the British Museum, where they remain today.

This pair of dogs, thought to be male and female, portray a tender, loving embrace. Compared to other statues found in the vicinity of Civita Lavinia, they represent peace rather than violence. A sphinx with a dog’s body and a statue of Greek hero Actaeon attacked by hounds are two examples of typical canine sculptures from the Roman Empire. The man’s best friend concept came much later, but this marble statue proves sculptors did not only view the animals as predators trained to hunt but as loving, caring creatures.

Portrait of a Noblewoman – Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of an unknown Bolognese noblewoman emphasises her ability to depict luxurious clothing and jewellery in exquisite detail. Although the sitter is the main subject of this Mannerist painting, the eye travels to the small dog in the left-hand corner. Presumably a lap dog, due to its size, the animal has significance in this portrait aside from being the lady’s animal companion. During the 16th century, dogs represented marital fidelity. During this era, brides tended to wear red, so the noblewoman’s wealth, clothing and pet are suggestive of a recent marriage.

Portrait of a Noblewoman (c.1580) is not Fontana’s only painting to feature a canine friend. During her career, she produced over 100 paintings, including mythology and genre paintings, but mostly portraits of wealthy men and women. Portrait of a Lady with Lap Dog (1595) suggests smalls dogs represented the wealth of the sitter. For hunting and guarding, men needed large, fast dogs, whereas a tiny dog had little to contribute to the family other than provide comfort and companionship. Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (1584) depicts a senator sitting at a table with his daughters and son-in-laws. On the table sits a dog of similar size and appearance to the dog Fontana painted in other portraits. Portrait of the Maselli Family also features the same dog, this time in the arms of the mother.

The Painter and His Pug – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

The Painter and His Pug is a self-portrait by the English artist William Hogarth. Although not completed until 1745, x-rays reveal the artist began painting during the 1730s. Many alterations took place through the process, including a change of clothes and the addition of books by Shakespeare (1564-1616), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and John Milton (1608-74). Critiques suggest these volumes indicate Hogarth’s attitudes towards literature, drama and poetry. One of the last things added to the portrait was Trump, Hogarth’s pet pug whose features resemble those of its owner. Some suggest Hogarth intended the dog to represent his pugnacious character. 

The pug, named Trump, was one of many owned by Hogarth during his lifetime. Records state the artist once named a dog “Pugg”, but the names of any others are unknown. Pugs frequently appear in Hogarth’s paintings, including group portraits of the Fountaine (1735) and Strode (1738) families. It is unlikely the pugs belonged to either family, instead, Hogarth included it as a trademark, thus earning him the nickname the “Painter Pugg”. A pug featured in one of the scenes of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-34) plus in a portrait of Lord George Graham (1715-47), a Scottish officer of the Royal Navy. 

So synonymous was Hogarth with pugs, French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-62) produced a terracotta model of Trump to accompany a statue of the artist. In 2001, Ian Hislop (b.1960) and David Hockney (b.1937) unveiled a statue of Hogarth in Chiswick. Made by Jim Mathieson (1931-2003), the sculpture features the artist in a similar outfit to his portrait with Trump sat at his feet.

A young lady holding a pug dog – François Boucher (1703-77)

A stark contrast between A young lady holding a pug dog by François Boucher with Hogarth’s painting is the physical features of the dog. Today, the breed is recognised for its distinctive wrinkly, short-muzzled face and curled tail. Trump’s face does not fit this description, suggesting that either Hogarth could not draw pugs or the animal was a cross-breed. Alternatively, until the 18th-century, when it became popular to own a pug, many people referred to ugly canines as pugs. It is for this lack of beauty that Boucher included a pug in his portrait of a young lady.

“The little Pug dog or Dutch mastiff has quitted London for Padua, I perceive. Every carriage I meet here has a Pug in it.” So said Welsh author Hester Piozzi (1741-1821) during a trip to Italy in 1789. Bred as lap dogs, pugs became the most desired companions of wealthy women across Europe. Rococo painter Boucher used the animal to contrast with his sitter’s beauty in A young lady holding a pug dog (c.1740). The lady in question is Boucher’s wife Marie-Jeanne Buseau (1716-96), dressed in the silks and fashions of 18th-century France. The paleness of skin accentuated with rouge, a beauty spot, and powdered hair was the epitome of beauty, but to emphasise this further, Boucher included her ugly pug as a contrast. At this time, dogs also had sexual connotations in paintings, but critics do not believe this to be the case in this portrait. 

Nude Woman with a Dog – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

An example of a dog representing sexual relationships is Nude Woman with a Dog (1862) by Gustave Courbet. The nude model, Courbet’s mistress Léontine Renaude, leans towards the dog as though to give it an affectionate kiss. At the time of its first exhibition, critics described this painting as highly erotic. 

The woman’s body echoes the works of Titian (1488-1576), but her face is plain and ordinary. Courbet tried to bring the classical nude to the modern-day by removing the goddess-like beauty from the image. In Titian’s day, a small dog symbolised fidelity, but the model’s interaction with the animal breaks this definition. Although the painting does not suggest that she is in love with the dog, the signs of affection erase the innocence from the picture, replacing it with the metaphor of sensual love. Responding to the attention, the dog represents a complicit lover.

Still Life with Three Puppies – Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Whilst living with experimental painters in Brittany, Paul Gauguin painted Still Life with Three Puppies (1888). The canvas is divided into three parts: a still-life of fruit, a diagonal barrier of wine glasses, and three puppies drinking from a large pan. This artwork marks Gauguin’s transition from Impressionism to the experimental style of his contemporaries, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). 

Whilst still-life paintings tend to depict the scene in front of the artist, the inclusion of the wine glasses and puppies suggest Gauguin painted this particular artwork either from his imagination or from several sources. The wine glasses are disproportionate to the scale and perspective of the image, and the puppies appear to be on the table, suggesting they are doll-size creatures.

Gauguin’s new style is more evident when looking at the puppies rather than the other elements. He painted them with a blue outline, and their fur appears to be the same texture as the table cloth. Gauguin declared art is created “from nature while dreaming before it.” This observation explains the unrealistic qualities of the three animals. Gauguin also drew inspiration from Japanese art, which tended to have a two-dimensional viewpoint.

Howling Dog – Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Paul Klee goes a step further with his unrealistic painting of a Howling Dog (1928). Rather than depicting an accurate appearance of a dog, Klee focused on sound. With meandering lines, Klee drew the shape of a dog howling at a moon. The dog’s howl is also visualised in the same manner and accentuated by swirling colours. 

The howl, rather than the dog, is the dominant feature of the painting. Although painting is a visual medium, Klee tried to combine another of the senses. Life is both a visual and aural experience, and Klee is inviting the audience to try to hear his work as well as see it. A painting of a dog is usually static and posed, but in reality, dogs are full of movement and noise. While looking at Howling Dog, people can imagine the baying sound breaking the silence of the night. It is as though the dog is telling the world he is there, that he exists.

Children with taco – Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Mexican artist Diego Rivera created many murals for the Secretariat of Public Education. Children with taco (1932) is a lithograph of one section of a mural, which Rivera wished to save in case of any damage to the original. The print shows a young boy eating a taco while a hairless dog sits patiently waiting for a crumb to fall. This dog, a Xoloitzcuintle, receives attention for its hairlessness and wrinkles, and since 2016, it is a cultural heritage and symbol of Mexico City.

Both Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo (1907-54), depicted the Xoloitzcuintle in their artwork. As well as being popular pets, the history of the breed dates back to the Aztecs. The name Xoloitzcuintle comprises Xolotl, the Aztec sun god, and “itzkuintli”, which means both “dog” and “slave”. According to Aztec religion, a Xoloitzcuintle accompanied the deceased along the path to the afterlife. For this reason, the Aztecs kept dogs as pets, which they then slaughtered and buried with their masters.

While their masters lived, Xoloitzcuintles served as guard dogs. Rather than guarding houses against intruders, the dogs protected their owners from evil spirits. The Aztecs also believed Xoloitzcuintles aided healing and often allowed the dogs to sleep in their beds. In some instances, this is true because a dog’s warmth can help relieve pain from arthritis and bring comfort to the distressed. There is also evidence of a dog’s presence normalising blood pressure. The more obscure health properties of a Xoloitzcuintle included curing toothache, headaches, asthma, and gastrointestinal problems.

Dogs – Hashimoto Kansetsu (1883-1945)

The peonies in a painting by Hashimoto Kansetsu are typical of nihonga (20th-century Japanese paintings). The dog, on the other hand, is inspired by western cultures. The artwork belongs to a series called Dogs from Europe, in which the artist combined traditional Japanese art with modern animal themes. In Japanese art, peonies and lions usually featured together, but Hashimoto daringly replaced the wild animals with dogs.

In Japan, peonies are known as the King of Flowers and represent bravery, fortune and honour. In China, where Hashimoto spent some time each year, the flowers represented wealth and were a favourite of past Emperors. Lions symbolise power, protection and strength, but the meaning of dogs is more ambiguous. In Japanese folklore, a racoon dog is a mischievous creature and a master of disguise. By replacing a lion with a dog, Hashimoto not only introduced elements of the western world to his artwork but also moved away from long-standing Japanese traditions.

Hashimoto fell in love with Europe after a trip in 1921, including a love of European animals.Throughout his career, Hashimoto owned up to 50 dogs, which he studied carefully for his paintings. Many breeds came from Europe, which made his artworks unusual to Japanese spectators.

Puppy – Jeff Koons (b.1955)

The final artwork Google Arts & Culture included in their online exhibition is a 40-foot high West Highland terrier made from flowers. Jeff Koons produced Puppy (1992) for the Kaldor Public Art Project in 1995, where it stood outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Today, the floral sculpture stands guard outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where it fills viewers with awe.

Koons intended the public sculpture to instil confidence and security, plus entice and create optimism. Others have derived alternative meanings from the artwork, including references to past and present eras. Koons used a computer to design the giant model, whereas the flowers resemble an 18th-century garden. It is also a combination of high and low brow culture, topiary and dog breeding being high and greeting card images low.

West Highland terriers are not the usual choice for guard dogs, but they are known for their loving heart and loyalty. They are typically small, making them an ironic choice for a large sculpture, but they are also friendly-looking and comforting. Today, most people identify the artwork as a symbol of love and happiness.

As Google Arts & Culture proved, dogs have been part of human culture for centuries. Whether serving as hunters or companions, dogs appear in artworks across the world. Other animals also appear in paintings, but it is typically dogs that sit patiently at the feet of their masters or on the laps of their mistresses, providing protection and love. Admittedly, not everyone is keen on dogs yet, in the United Kingdom, there are over 10.1 million pet dogs, suggesting 24% of the population own one, which is more than any other animal. So, was Frederick the Great of Prussia right when he stated a dog was man’s best friend? Perhaps we should ask a dog. Woof!

To view the Google Arts & Culture exhibition, click here.


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The Most Beautiful Girl in the Midwest

Hazel, Lady Lavery

“The most beautiful girl in the Midwest” is how the Irish historian Dr Sinéad McCoole (b.1968) describes Lady Lavery, an American woman who became the face of Ireland in the 20th century. Married to a painter, Lady Lavery sat for over 400 paintings, including one reproduced on banknotes for more than 50 years. How did an American woman become the most recognisable face in Ireland?

Lady Lavery was born Hazel Martyn in Chicago on 14th March 1880. Her father, Edward Jenner Martyn, was a descendent of a Galway tribe that dominated the Irish county between the 13th and 16th century. Hazel and her sister Dorothea Hope (1887-1911) grew up in relative comfort due to their father’s success as a businessman. Sadly, Edward passed away when his eldest daughter was only 17 years old, but his wealth allowed Hazel to attend finishing school in the city. She earned a reputation in Chicago high society circles for her beauty, which attracted many suitors, including Edward “Ned” Livingston Trudeau Jr, the son of the doctor who made progress with tuberculosis treatment.

Hazel and her sister enjoyed the arts and, whilst Dorothy aspired to be a playwright, Hazel set her sights on becoming a painter. She regularly visited Europe in pursuit of her dreams, while her fiancé Trudeau waited for her return. On one trip, Hazel attended an artists’ retreat in Brittany, France. Here, she met the Irish painter John Lavery (1856-1941), famed for his portraits and landscapes. Writing home to her mother, Hazel described Lavery with great fondness. Her mother disapproved of the relationship because of their 24 year age difference and urged Hazel to return home to her fiancé.

In 1903, Hazel and Trudeau married in New York. Sadly, five months later, Trudeau tragically died, leaving behind his widow and unborn child. On 10th October 1904, Hazel gave birth to Alice, but it was not an easy pregnancy, and she took several months to recover. In June 1905, Hazel and her mother travelled to the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England, to aid her recovery. While there, she received several visits from Lavery, with whom she had regularly corresponded since her husband’s death.

On one visit, Lavery painted his first portrait of Hazel and made his affections clear. Hazel’s mother continued to oppose the match and rarely let the couple spend time alone. On a trip to Italy in 1906, Hazel accepted a marriage proposal from Leonard Thomas, a wealthy diplomat, but the relationship did not last. Meanwhile, Hazel remained in contact with Lavery and, after her mother passed away in 1909, they married and moved to London. For a brief time, Hazel divided her time between England and America. After her sister died in 1911 from anorexia nervosa, Hazel cut ties with her birth country.

John Lavery

Whilst born in Belfast, John Lavery grew up in Scotland where he associated with the Glasgow School of art. Lavery launched his career as a society painter after receiving the commission to paint Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition. After moving to London in 1889, Lavery befriended artists such as James Abbott Whistler (1834-1903) who greatly influenced his work.

In London, Lavery married Kathleen MacDermott with whom he had a daughter, Eileen (1890-1930). Sadly, Kathleen passed away from tuberculosis shortly after the birth of her daughter. By the time Lavery met and married Hazel Martyn, he was a well-established artist in the capital city.

Mrs Lavery sketching, 1910

During their early years of marriage, Hazel acted as a London society hostess, welcoming prestigious guests to dinners and soirees or her husband’s studio for a portrait sitting. Whilst Hazel sat for the majority of Lavery’s portraits he also took on commissions. Flirtatious in nature, Hazel enjoyed being the centre of attention, particularly around male guests. Lavery tolerated this vice, but others gossiped about rumoured affairs.

There is no evidence that Hazel did conduct an affair, although she did correspond with many men. Amongst those to whom she regularly wrote are the authors Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). She also knew many politicians due to her husband’s position as an official artist for the British government during the First World War. Future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) famously asked Hazel to teach him to paint during his portrait sittings.

The Artist’s Studio: Lady Lavery with her Daughter Alice and Step-Daughter Eileen

In 1918, John Lavery received a knighthood, making him and his wife Sir and Lady Lavery. The same year, Hazel and John took an active interest in their Irish roots, particularly after the Sinn Féin election victory. Churchill mentioned in his letters to Hazel about his concerns over the growing tensions between Britain and Ireland. The Lavery’s had many social and political contacts in both countries and wished to help bring peace between the nations.

The Laverys lent their house at 5 Cromwell Place in South Kensington as a neutral location for negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) led the British side with Churchill as Colonial Secretary. Michael Collins (1890-1922), an Irish politician, headed the Irish delegation. Both Churchill and Collins were regular visitors to the Lavery’s house and were grateful to Lady Lavery for her hospitality.

Collins grew fond of Hazel and rumours flew about a potential affair. Some biographers claim Hazel loved Collins, whereas others say there is no proof of a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, members of the delegation questioned their closeness, fearing Hazel to be a spy. She appeased them by calling herself a “simple Irish girl” and converting to Catholicism.

Due to their connections with both British and Irish politicians, the Lavery’s home became a safe place for discussions away from the hostile environment of the courts. Hazel’s presence often diffused bitterness, allowing peaceful talks to take place. Many letters written by Hazel reveal her organisation skills and a gift of persuasion, which helped the negotiations run smoothly. Although Hazel came from America and lived in England, her Irish roots bridged the gap between the warring nations.

Michael Collins: Love of Ireland by John Lavery

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6th December 1921, thus ending the three-year Irish War of Independence. Ireland gained its freedom, although arguments regarding the status of Northern Ireland continued. Civil War broke out in Ireland and, despite attempts to talk peacefully, Michael Collins was assassinated on 22nd August 1922. Rumours of an affair between Collins and Lady Lavery flew once more when a letter addressed to “Dearest Hazel” was found on his body. Yet, the gossipers were silenced at his funeral when Collins’ fiancé Kitty Kiernan embraced Hazel as though a close friend. As the Irish biographer Anita Leslie (1914-85) put it, Hazel and Collins were “soul mates rather than bed mates”.

Until 1922, Ireland used the British pound; after gaining independence, they wished to create a new currency. Many discussions took place within the Irish government until September 1927, when they publicly introduced their idea of a “Saorstàt Pound”. (Saorstàt is the Irish word for “free state”.) The government planned to issue new coins and banknotes but needed to think carefully about their design. Joseph Brennan (1887-1976), the Chairman of the Currency Commission, set up an advisory committee to discuss design proposals.

Lavery’s portrait of Hazel for the Irish banknotes

The committee approached several artists and printers before commissioning John Lavery to paint an “emblematic female figure” to appear on the new notes. They chose Lavery due to his ongoing support during the war and peace talks as well as his artistic ability. Whereas British notes featured the reigning monarch, the Irish government wanted “an archetypical Irish Cailín or Colleen, symbolic of Irish womanhood.” (Cailín is the Irish word for “girl”.) As the committee expected, Lavery asked his wife to sit for the portrait.

“I really feel that you are too kind and generous when you suggest that my humble head should figure on the note, and you know I said from the first that I thought it wildly improbable, unlikely, impractical, unpopular, impossible that any committee would fall in with such a suggestion. Indeed apart from anything else I think a classic head, some Queen of Ireland, Maeve perhaps, would be best, someone robust and noble and fitted for coinage reproduction …”

Lady Lavery in a letter to Thomas Bodkin on the advisory committee

Having her portrait painted by her husband was not a new thing for Hazel, but knowing she would soon be on every banknote in Ireland was a little unnerving. Nonetheless, Lavery produced a faithful likeness of his wife with her arm resting upon an Irish harp. In the background, he included an Irish landscape. The shawl Hazel wore was also typical of the country. The government paid Lavery 250 guineas for the painting, and the first notes featuring Hazel’s face arrived in September 1928.

The public automatically assumed the portrait on the new notes was Hazel Lavery. Not only had John Lavery painted it, but the likeness was evident. The government attempted to protect Hazel’s identity by openly denying that she was the sitter. They worried people would not accept the notes because of Hazel’s reputation as a flirt and the rumours surrounding her relationship with the late Michael Collins. Fortunately, the public readily accepted the new notes, and the identity of the sitter remained anonymous.

Following the success of the new banknotes, John Lavery received the Freedom of Dublin. Despite this, the Laverys decided to remain living in London, although they frequently visited Ireland. Initially, Hazel remained involved with Irish politics, but changes within the political parties distanced her from those in charge. Lavery continued to paint portraits of his wife and produced other artworks for exhibitions. During this time, Hazel’s health, which had never been good, began to deteriorate.

After a routine operation to remove a wisdom tooth, Hazel passed away on 1st January 1935, aged 54. Her funeral took place at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Knightsbridge area of London, followed by a simple burial in Putney Vale Cemetery. In Ireland, her death received more attention, and the government arranged a memorial service.

Lady Lavery by John Lavery

Although many portraits survive of Lady Hazel Lavery, the paintings she produced during her lifetime are missing. As Churchill’s cousin Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971), said, “Had it not been for Hazel’s portrait as the colleen of Irish banknotes, her features and even her name would now be forgotten in a land which has never accounted gratitude amongst its theological virtues”. Without the banknotes, which Ireland used until the introduction of the Euro in 2002, Hazel’s involvement with the Anglo-Irish Treaty would remain unknown.

In many cases, women are written out of history, not out of malicious intent, but because society did not consider them important at the time. It is with thanks to historians who wondered about the identity of the Irish Cailín on Ireland’s old banknotes that we know anything at all about Lady Lavery. As a result, we have an intriguing story about an American woman who became the face of Ireland. It is a great shame Hazel’s paintings are lost, and that we know little else about her personal life. Hazel’s story contains many unanswered questions but also opens our eyes to the possibilities of many more hidden histories.


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The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Grace Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy

Grace Darling became a national hero after rescuing the survivors of a shipwreck off the coast of Northumberland. Living with her father in a lighthouse, Grace often experienced stormy weather, dangerous seas and damaged sailing vessels. Her life, in comparison to the average Victorian, was far from normal, but it was her daring act of bravery that brought her to the attention of the nation.

The Darling family lived on the Farne Islands, a group of 15 or 20 islands within 5 miles of the mainland. Today, they are uninhabited except for the National Trust rangers who look after the remaining buildings. Grace’s grandfather, Robert Darling (d.1815), moved to Brownsman Island, one of the largest islands in the group, in 1795 to look after the lighthouse. Robert prepared his youngest child and only son, William (1786-1865), to take over the job when the time came.

During his teens, William worked as the assistant lighthouse keeper. He also worked as a labourer in Bamburgh on the mainland where he met his future wife, Thomasin Horsley (1774-1848) whose father, Job Horsley, worked in the gardens of the Bamburgh Castle Estate. Aged 31, Thomasin was an unlikely match for 19-year-old William, but she agreed to his marriage proposal and move to Brownsman Island.

The Darling family cottage on Brownsman Island

In 1806, Thomasin gave birth to her first child, William (1806-69), nicknamed “Laddie” to differentiate him from his father. Soon, five more children came along: twins, Thomasin (1808-86) and Mary Ann (1808-43); Job (1810-30); Elizabeth Grace (1812-44); and Robert (1814-77). On 24th November 1815, Thomasin gave birth to her fourth daughter, naming her Grace after her twin sister, who died at birth. Shortly after, Robert Darling passed away, making his son the new lighthouse keeper. The large family made the lighthouse their home and soon welcomed two more sons, twins George Alexander (1819-1903) and William Brooks (1819-70).

The children paid regular trips to the mainland to visit their maternal grandfather. They enjoyed exploring the gardens he looked after, helping him sow seeds and pick fruit. Although their father grew vegetables on the island, fruit did not regularly appear in their diet. Surrounded by water, the Darling family usually ate fish and the eggs of local wildfowl. Eider ducks and puffins were among the creatures that inhabited the islands.

Victorian children typically played in the streets or countryside, but not the Darling children; the water was their world. They learned to row from a young age, frequently accompanying their father on fishing trips. Fearless of the waves, the siblings often ventured out on their own, visiting the other rocky islands, searching for eggs and shells while investigating caves and climbing rocks.

For running the lighthouse, built as early as 1795, the keepers earned £70 per year (the equivalent of £6,300 today). Whilst the job did not pay particularly well, the family made do with the simple accommodation that came with the role. Whilst the responsibility for working the lighthouse fell to their father, the Darling children frequently helped out when needed, for example, when a ship failed to miss the warning about nearby rocks. The boys accompanied their father in the lifeboat to rescue sailors and salvage goods, whilst the girls helped their mother prepare food and warmth for the sodden men, plus keeping the lantern burning.

Although many ships crashed into the rocky islands, the lighthouse provided safe passage to the majority of sailors. Statistically, the most shipwrecks occurred around the easterly rocks, and William Darling noted the lantern failed to reach that area. He attempted to make some beacons to place on these rocks, but they frequently fell into the sea during storms. Soon Darling approached Trinity House, the official authority for lighthouses, and warned them of the danger. Architects drew up proposals for a new lighthouse, and construction began on Longstone Rock in 1825.

Longstone Lighthouse

The Darling family moved into the new lighthouse, then known as the Outer Farne Lighthouse, in 1826. A second lighthouse was soon built on one of the inner islands and managed by another keeper. Longstone Lighthouse reached a height of 83 feet and contained five floors, three of which the large family used for bedrooms. Grace, then aged ten, shared the third floor with her sister Elizabeth. The family used the ground floor of the lighthouse as their living room, kitchen and dining room.

Whilst the lighthouse on Longstone provided a more visible warning to sailors of hidden rocks, the surrounding land was desolate and unsuited for growing crops. William Darling sought permission from Trinity House to continue using the land on Brownsman Island as an allotment and place to keep animals. He and the children regularly rowed back and forth between the islands, collecting vegetables and bird eggs for their meals.

Some of the older Darling children decided to move to the mainland, rather than live on a barren rock. William Jr found an apprenticeship in Alnwick. Here, he met his future wife Ann Cobb, who he married in 1837. William did not forget his former life and regularly returned home on visits. In 1839, the Duke of Northumberland appointed William as the first lighthouse keeper on Coquet Island, one mile from the coast of Amble. He lived there for the rest of his life with his wife and six children.

Job Darling followed in his older brother’s footsteps and found an apprenticeship in Newcastle. He began training as a joiner at the age of 15 and wrote to his father about the enjoyable experience. He planned to return home in 1830 to celebrate Christmas and his 20th birthday but succumbed to an illness a few weeks before.

Thomasin Darling

Thomasin Darling, Grace’s favourite sister, believed she would never attract a husband on account of her cleft lip. She moved to the mainland to set up a dressmaker’s business in Bamburgh. She kept in touch with her family, regularly writing to Grace. She later wrote the book Grace Darling, Her True Story. Thomasin’s twin sister, Mary Ann, also moved to Bamburgh, marrying George Dixon Carr in 1832. After four children died in infancy, Mary Ann finally conceived a healthy baby. Unfortunately, George died at the age of 32 before the birth of his daughter Georgiann. Mary Ann moved back to the lighthouse following his death but passed away three years later, leaving her orphan child with her grandparents. 

Elizabeth “Betsy” Darling shared a room with her younger sister Grace when they first moved to Longstone. Betsy was 14 at the time and a year or so later moved to North Sunderland to work as a maidservant. She married a draper, John Maule, and had two children: James and Thomasin.

Unlike the other children, Robert Darling attended boarding school at Bamburgh Castle. In 1831, he apprenticed as a stonemason in Belford but moved to Newcastle after marrying Elizabeth Pye (1803-1881). Like his other siblings, Robert often returned to the lighthouse for family celebrations. He had one daughter, Elizabeth Grace.

Grace never went to school but received an education at home from her father. William taught her to read and write and gave her lessons on arithmetic, geography, history and the bible. Whilst the family were religious, they could not all leave the lighthouse to attend church. Instead, William read from the scriptures and wrote sermons. The history of the Farne Islands frequently cropped up in Grace’s lessons. This included the names and lives of saints and monks who once lived on the islands. William taught his children that Christianity first arrived in England on the nearby shores of Northumberland. He also gave them musical instruction and wrote marches and airs for them to perform. The Darling children, but particularly Grace, had fine singing voices.

By the age of 15, only Grace and her younger twin brothers remained at the lighthouse with their parents. As the only girl, Grace spent the majority of her time helping her mother with domestic jobs. She felt unable to leave the island as her older siblings had done because she believed her parents would need her in their old age. She learnt to maintain the lighthouse lantern, mend fishing nets and watch the sea for signs of ships and danger. Grace also helped to look after the garden and livestock on Brownsman Island, often rowing there alone.

William Brooks Darling

In 1834, George Darling left the family home to work as a ship carpenter’s apprentice in Newcastle. Allegedly, George, his twin and his father rowed from the islands to the city. With George away, William relied heavily on Grace and William Brooks to help out around the lighthouse. Having lived on the islands her entire life, the sea was Grace’s world, and she knew the tides like the back of her hand. She could detect changes in the weather and climate by intently studying the surrounding waters and happily spent hours watching the horizon for ships with a telescope.

In the early hours of 7th September 1838, Grace woke during a storm. Peering at the waves from her bedroom window, she saw a dark shape in the distance near one of the rocks. Believing it to be a ship, Grace woke her father, and the pair kept an eye on it through the telescope. There did not appear to be any sign of life.

SS Forfarshire, circa 1835

The ship was the SS Forfarshire, a paddle steamer belonging to the Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company. Built in 1834 by Thomas Adamson, the Forfarshire carried passengers along the North Sea Coast from Hull on the River Humber to Dundee on the River Tay and back again. SS Forfarshire held at least 40 passengers and crew each trip, as well as animals and cargo.

On 5th September 1838, the SS Forfarshire set sail from Hull at 6:30pm and reached the open seas three hours later. During the night, one of the boilers sprang a leak, which the crew hastily repaired. In the morning, the crew discovered further issues with the boilers and the frightened passengers urged the captain to dock in the nearest port. Captain John Humble assured them the ship was safe and continued the journey.

The ship continued to face problems, but the captain encouraged his crew to keep sailing. The Forfarshire could have reached its destination if the weather had not at that moment changed from a gentle breeze to gale-force winds. The added pressure on the ship caused more leakages in the boilers. They could not produce enough steam to travel forward. At 11 pm, the captain, realising his mistake, stopped the engines and the ship began to drift south.

With the wind forcing the ship further south, the captain decided to turn around and search for shelter. Using a makeshift sail, the crew pointed the SS Forfarshire in the direction of the Farne Islands. The wind, rain, darkness and choppy sea made it extremely difficult to navigate. Finally, in the distance, the captain spotted a light. He steered the ship towards what he believed to be the Inner Farne Lighthouse, but he had widely miscalculated. It was Longstone Lighthouse which, unlike the Inner Farne, is surrounded by sharp, dangerous rocks.

The wind shunted the ship into Big Harcar Rock, one mile from the lighthouse, causing the vessel to split in half. The front became wedged into the rock, but the aft and lower deck swept away into the sea. Many passengers were thrown overboard or drowned in their cabins, including the Captain. Those on the deck managed to avoid a watery fate, but the gale threatened to blow them into the sea. The ship’s carpenter, John Tulloch, decided to jump from the deck onto the rocks. Steerage passenger, Daniel Donovan, followed suit and encouraged a few others to jump to safety, including a woman and two children. Soon, all the surviving passengers were on the rock, plus the body of Reverend Robb, who had died while in prayer.

The Rescue of the SS ‘Forfarshire’ – Francis Sebastian Lowther

Back at the lighthouse, Grace and her father sat at the telescope searching for signs of life. For hours, they saw nothing. Around 7 am, Grace finally spotted some movement on one of the rocks. The storm was still raging, and William knew it would be too difficult for the lifeboat in North Sunderland to sail out to sea. Grace pleaded with her father to do something, suggesting they take their rowing boat, which they had with them at the lighthouse. Before he could refuse, Grace was already getting into the boat.

Father and daughter rowed towards the wreckage, taking a long way round to avoid getting crushed against the rocks. In the gale, the mile journey took a long time to complete, but they persevered. On reaching the rock, they found nine survivors, too many to fit into the rowing boat. Positioning themselves as close to the rock as possible, William jumped ashore while Grace fought to keep the boat in place. William spoke to the men and argued about who he should rescue first. Eventually, William helped the only woman, Sarah Dawson, into the boat after forcing her to part with her children, James and Matilda, who had died during the night.

An injured man joined Mrs Dawson in the rowing boat and William enlisted John Tulloch and another crew member, John Nicholson, to help him row back to the lighthouse. The remaining survivors waited on the rock for their return. On reaching the lighthouse, Grace helped Mrs Dawson and the injured man into the lighthouse where she and her mother cared for them. William returned to the rock with the two crewmen to rescue the other survivors. They left the dead bodies behind, planning to collect them when the storm abated.

When William and Grace set out on the first trip to the rock, Thomasin Darling tried to contact the lifeboat station in North Sunderland, fearing that her husband and daughter would perish during the rescue mission. William had been right about the harsh weather making it difficult for the lifeboat to sail, and they did not arrive until 9 am, by which time the rowing boat had brought everyone to safety. With the storm raging on, the lifeboat team sheltered at the lighthouse until safe to leave. Grace’s youngest brother William Brooks was one of the lifeguards that day.

Grace Darling at the Forfarshire by Thomas Musgrave Joy

Since the event, people conducted several attempts to name everyone that perished at sea. The Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company kept no passenger list, so it is uncertain how many people were on board the SS Forfarshire. Reports list at least 43 casualties but some remain unnamed.

As soon as the press found out about the disaster, the list of survivors appeared in the newspapers. For a while, these men and woman were famous throughout the country. The Darling’s rescued five crewmen, all coincidentally named John: John Tulloch, John Kidd, John Nicholas, John MacQueen and Jonathan Thickett. The other four survivors were passengers: Thomas Buchanan, a baker; Daniel Donovan, a fireman, James Kelly, a weaver; and Sarah Dawson, the “wife of a labourer, formerly of Dundee, but then working in Hull”.

Unbeknownst to the Darlings at the time, eight crewmen and one passenger managed to escape the ship on a quarter boat. As soon as they reached the shore, they reported the incident but believed they were the only survivors. Before long, word spread about the men and woman rescued by the Darlings and journalists rushed to the scene to interview them. One man told a reporter that a young woman in a rowing boat saved his life.

“Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?”

The Times

The news story spread like wildfire with accounts in local and national newspapers, such as The Times. The articles emphasised the storm, the dangerous rocks, and the fate of the ship and its passengers. Many people declared Grace Darling a heroine; not only did she put her life on the line, but she did so for strangers. Although Grace’s father did the majority of the rescue, rowing back to collect the rest of the survivors, the media focused on Grace’s involvement. 

The public believed Grace should be rewarded for her actions and sent her presents and monetary donations. Even the young Queen Victoria (1819-1901) sent £50 to express her thanks. Hundreds of letters addressed to Grace arrived at the lighthouse, each one hoping for a reply. Some asked her to kiss the paper and return to the sender. As well as letters, visitors arrived en masse to get a glimpse of the heroine.

The fate of the SS Forfarshire spread across the continent, eventually reaching people as far as Japan, Australia and America. Now a celebrity, everyone wanted to read about Grace Darling. They yearned to know what she looked like and, unsatisfied with the written descriptions in news articles, commissioned artists to paint her likeness. Although William Darling gave his consent, he soon put a limit on how many times Grace would sit for portraits.

Grace Darling by Henry Perlee Parker

Some artists became friends with the Darling family, for instance, Henry Perlee Parker (1785-1873), who named his daughter Grace after Grace Darling. John Wilson Carmichael (1800-68), a maritime painter who visited the Darlings with Parker, continued to send them presents of books after finishing the painting. The sculptor, David Dunbar (1792-1866) travelled from Newcastle to produce busts of Grace and her father.

Other artists preferred to paint the rescue scene with Grace in the rowing boat and the waves rising above her. Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812-1866) lodged with the Darlings for several weeks to paint as accurate a painting as possible. He quizzed William Darling about the position of each person in the boat and on the rock. He also requested details of their appearances. Pre-Raphaelite artist William Bell Scott (1811-90) produced a mural of the rescue, which now hangs in Wallington Hall.

As well as letters and requests for paintings, Grace received numerous invitations, many of which she rejected. Theatres across the country invited her to act out her heroic rescue on stage. The Adelphi Theatre in London offered her £10 a week to act in The Wreck At Sea. She refused, and an actress took her place. Grace accepted an invitation to visit a circus, but when she learned they wished to make her the highlight of the show, she declined. 

Grace Darling – Heroine of the Farne Islands by Eva Hope

Songs, poems and souvenirs quickly appeared around the country in celebration of the young heroine. They continued to crop up long after her death, including a poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who lost his brother in a shipwreck. All this attention may have been nice, to begin with, but Grace soon hated all the attention. Marriage proposals arrived from men of all stations, all of which Grace rejected. She did not wish to leave the lighthouse and did not understand why they celebrated her actions. The nation hailed her a heroine, but all she was doing was her job.

On a visit to relatives in Alnwick, Grace met Hugh Percy, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland (1785-1847) who insisted on becoming her guardian. He wished to protect Grace from the people who wanted to exploit her, for example, the circus owners and theatre managers. William Darling readily agreed to this proposal and the Duke appointed trustees to look after Grace’s affairs. The Duke provided the Darling family with regular gifts. He also ordered and paid for the construction of a lighthouse on Coquet Island, of which he appointed William Darling Jr as the first lighthouse keeper.

Even with the Duke’s protection, life became difficult for Grace. As a celebrity, she found it impossible to go to the mainland without someone recognising her. Initially, Grace did not wish to leave the lighthouse, but her home no longer resembled a peaceful place. Her youngest brother and his family moved into the lighthouse, as did her widowed sister, making it a noisy, bustling place.

In March 1842, Grace braved a trip to Coquet Island to spend time with her eldest brother. News of her voyage spread fast, and crowds turned up to see her off on the steamer ship. After her break away, she visited her cousins in Alnwick before returning home. During the trip, Grace caught a virus and developed a persistent cough. She wished to rest at home, but frequent visitors, letters and money matters needed her attention. Gradually, Grace withdrew into herself, becoming weak and unwell.

The Darling family thought the atmosphere at Longstone Lighthouse contributed to her poor health, so sent her to stay with friends in Wooler near the Cheviot Hills. During her stay, she rallied a little and decided to risk the journey home via her cousins in Alnwick. Soon after her arrival, her health rapidly declined, and the Duke of Northumberland sent his physician to attend to her. The doctor diagnosed Grace with tuberculosis, and she became sicker as the days went by.

William Darling decided to move his daughter closer to home, hoping that familiar surroundings would revive her. Grace moved in with her sister Thomasin in Bamburgh Village, but her health did not improve. She had frequent nightmares and hallucinations about people watching her, and constant visits from well-wishers upset her. Grace understood the seriousness of her illness and asked for her family during her final days. Grace Darling passed away on Thursday 20th October 1842, aged 26, in her father’s arms.

Monument in St Aidan’s churchyard, Bamburgh

“…at the hour appointed, 3.o’clock p.m. the village was crowded with strangers, both rich and poor, many of whom had come a long way…the coffin being carried by four young men belonging to Bamburgh…followed by ten of her relatives…and a young man from Durham, who wore the mourning emblem of intimate friends of the family.”

The Berwick Advertiser, 24th October 1842

Grace Darling’s funeral took place four days after her death at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh. As reported in the Berwick Advertiser, hundreds crowded into the village to watch the coffin process from the cottage to the church. The young man wearing a mourning emblem has not been identified but may have been one of Grace’s many marriage proposals. 

The family plot in St Aidan’s churchyard contains Grace’s coffin, with some of her family members. Within a few days of the burial, donations began pouring in to raise a monument to the young heroine. They commissioned an architect to design and build a stone structure containing a life-size figure of Grace lying with an oar by her side. Rather than erecting the monument over her grave, they placed the structure at the west end of the churchyard where it can be seen by passing ships. Over time, the weather damaged the figure, and the village raised funds to make another with more durable stone. The original now lies inside the church building.

Memorial window to Grace Darling

The village raised more than enough money to replace the statue of Grace Darling, so the Reverend of St Aidan’s Church installed a stained-glass window in her honour. Situated in the North Transept, the window features three female figures, each representing the virtues charity, fortitude and hope. They hold a heart, oar and anchor as symbols of Grace’s heroic act. Below these women, three angels hold banners containing Grace’s name, date of birth and death, and the date of the wreck of the SS Forfarshire.

Even in death, Grace Darling has not escaped fame. In Bamburgh, the RNLI Grace Darling Museum tells the story of her short life, focusing on rescuing nine shipwreck survivors. Artists and writers have produced fictionalised versions of the story, leading to images of Grace as “the girl with windswept hair”. Many poems about Grace Darling appeared in the 19th century and, in the 20th century, songwriters took inspiration from her life. The English rock band Strawbs released a song called Grace Darling, which contains the lyrics “You are my saving grace/Darling, I love you.” Further honours include an RNLI lifeboat, which holds her name; and the Grace Darling Hotel in Melbourne Australia, which opened in 1854, thus emphasising the extent of her fame.

When Grace Darling begged her father to rescue the SS Forfarshire survivors on 7th September 1838, she did not imagine the fame that could follow. Grace did her job as an assistant lighthouse keeper, putting aside thoughts of herself as she put herself in danger to save the lives of others. Becoming a celebrity overnight may have been exciting, at first, but the constant attention it brought eliminated any privacy. Even before she contracted tuberculosis, Grace struggled to live in the public eye. Fame destroyed the quiet girl who grew up only knowing her family and the sea.

Should we continue to remember Grace Darling as a hero or respect her wishes to be treated as a “normal” Victorian woman? Her fame emphasises the rift between men and women in the 19th century. Her father, who did twice the work, received little recognition. Rescuing stranded sailors was William Darling’s job – a man’s job. No one expected a woman to do the same, and it is for that reason that Grace reached celebrity status. Both William and Grace should receive recognition for their heroic actions, but through Grace, we should remember the detrimental effects of fame.


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Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


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Victor Hugo

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

Victor Hugo
Hugo by Étienne Carjat, 1876

When Victor Hugo sat down to write one of his novels, little did he know it would inspire the greatest musical of our time, Les Misérables. He did not intend his novel for the stage, but as the above quote suggests, Hugo understood the importance of music. During his literary career of over six decades, Hugo wrote lyrics, poems, satires, essays, speeches, funeral orations, letters, diaries, plays and novels. As well as Les Misérables, Hugo is famous for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which Walt Disney Pictures transformed into an animated musical in 1996. Through musical adaptations, millions of people know Victor Hugo’s work; it is time to learn about the author.

General Joseph-Leopold Hugo, father of Victor Hugo

Victor-Marie Hugo, born on 26th February 1802 in Besançon in Eastern France, spent his first year travelling from place to place due to his father’s career in the Napoleonic Army. Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774-1828) enlisted in La Grande Armée at the age of 14 and had worked his way up the ranks to General by the birth of his youngest son.

Sophie Trébuchet (1772-1821), a French painter, gave birth to two sons before Victor: Abel Joseph (1798-1855) and Eugène (1800-1837). His father claimed Victor’s mother conceived him on a peak in the Vosges Mountains in Eastern France on 24th June 1801. Victor Hugo later used this date as the prisoner number of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables: “24601”. After Victor’s first birthday, Sophie grew tired of the frequent upheaval of army life and settled in Paris with her sons. While there, Sophie regularly met with her youngest son’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie (1766-1812), with whom she may have had an affair. She soon learnt her husband, now a Colonel, also had a secret liaison, although he returned to the family in 1807. 

Joseph Léopold spent less than a year with his sons before being called to Spain to fight in the Peninsular War. Sophie and her sons moved into an old convent at the edge of Paris. Victor’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie, lived in hiding in a chapel on the estate from the Revolutionary Army who wished him dead due to his political beliefs. Sophie, who secretly shared these ideas, allowed Fanneau de La Horie to mentor her sons until they moved to Spain in 1811. The Spanish king Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) had honoured her husband with the title Count Hugo de Cogolludo y Sigüenza.

Abel Joseph, Eugène and Victor were sent to the Real Colegio de San Antonio de Abad in Madrid for a proper education, but Sophie wished to return to France. Joseph Léopold overruled his wife’s wish to take the boys with her, so she returned to Paris alone, officially separated from her husband. Whether she returned to her lover, Fanneau de La Horie is uncertain, but records state the Revolutionary Army arrested and executed him in 1812. To prevent his sons returning to their mother after their schooling, he enrolled them at a private boarding school in Paris where they remained for three years.

Adèle Hugo as a young woman, by Louis Boulanger

During his time at the school in Paris, where he also attended lectures at Lycée Louis le Grand, Victor Hugo developed a passion for writing. In 1817, he received an honourable mention for a poem he had written, and many Academicians refused to believe he was only 15 years old. After leaving school, Hugo moved in with his mother and started attending law school. Going against his mother’s wishes, Hugo began dating his childhood friend, Adèle Foucher (1803-68). A year after his mother died in June 1821, Hugo and Adèle married.

Hugo started his writing career with his brothers who established the periodical Le Conservateur littéraire (“The Literary Curator”). The magazine allowed writers to express their royalist views but had little success in liberal France. In 1822, the year of his marriage, Hugo wrote a book of poems, which earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII (1755-1824), and the following year, he published his first novel, Han d’Islande.

Victor Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine on the day of her first communion.

Hugo and Adèle celebrated the arrival of their first child Léopold in 1823, but sadly he died before his first birthday. The following year on 28th August, they welcomed their second child Léopoldine (1824-43), followed by Charles (1826-71), François-Victor (1828-73) and Adèle (1830-1915). His children did not hinder Hugo’s career, and he published five volumes of poetry between 1829 and 1840. The year before his youngest daughter’s birth, Hugo wrote his first mature novel, Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (“The Last Day of a Condemned Man”). The story expressed Hugo’s negative feelings toward the death penalty in France. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81) praised the book as “absolutely the most real and truthful of everything that Hugo wrote.” The story also influenced British writers, such as Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

Victor Hugo in 1829, lithograph by Achille Devéria

By the late 1820s, Hugo had a reputation as the figurehead of the Romantic literary movement. Several plays boosted his popularity and, in 1831, he published the hugely successful Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”). Set in 1482 during the reign of Louis XI (1423-83), the story focuses on the deformed character Quasimodo, who rings the bells at the Catholic cathedral. The novel prompted the City of Paris to repair the neglected Cathedral of Notre-Dame and appreciate the other pre-Renaissance buildings in the city.

Whilst Hugo experienced success in his career, his family life suffered. Both he and his wife conducted affairs, although they continued to live with each other and never divorced. Between 1830 and 1837, Adèle had a rendezvous with Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), a French critic and friend of the Hugo family. Possibly in retaliation, Hugo began seeing the French actress Juliette Drouet (1806-83) in 1833. As well as his mistress, Drouet acted as Hugo’s secretary and travelling companion. It is evident from letters that Drouet devoted her life to Hugo, but he did not treat her with similar respect.

Hugo’s celebrity status earned him friendships in many circles, including amongst composers and musicians. Hector Berlioz (1803-69) and Franz Liszt (1811-86) were among his closest companions and the latter regularly played for Hugo in private concerts. Liszt also taught Hugo to play his favourite piece by Beethoven (1770-1827) on the piano, albeit with only one finger. Another musical friend, Louise Bertin (1805-77) based an opera on Hugo’s Notre-Dame de ParisLa Esmeralda premiered in 1836 but closed after its fifth performance. Despite the flop, Hugo’s various works have inspired thousands of musical compositions, including over 100 operas. Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Rigoletto, for example, is based on Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, and Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86) based La Gioconda on the historical work Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.

As well as writing for pleasure, Hugo used his skills to tackle political issues. He joined the Académie française in 1841, but briefly withdrew from the scene in 1843 following the death of his eldest daughter. At just 19 years old, Léopoldine drowned in the Seine after a boat overturned, leaving her father devastated. He did not learn of her death straight away because he was travelling in the South of France. The first he knew of the incident was in a newspaper that he read while sitting in a cafe. He expressed his grief through poetry and used his daughter as the subject of many of his future works.

Hugo returned to the political scene in 1845 when King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) nominated him for the Higher Chamber as a pair de France (Peerage of France). He took the opportunity to speak out against social injustices and the death penalty. His strong opinions were known across Europe, especially after joining the National Assembly in 1849. Around the same time, he began an affair with the author Léonie d’Aunet (1820-79), which lasted approximately seven years. Due to his peerage, Hugo avoided punishment for his adultery. Unfortunately, d’Aunet faced two months in prison and a further six in a convent. Hugo promised to support her financially for the rest of her life, but he continued to conduct affairs with other women. 

When Napoleon III (1808-73) seized power in 1851, Hugo openly called him a traitor for his anti-parliamentary ideas. As a result, Hugo gained many enemies, prompting him to flee to Belgium and then the Bailiwick of Jersey, the largest Channel Island. Hugo’s politics caused problems in Jersey, most notably his support for an anti-Queen Victoria newspaper. In 1855, Jersey expelled Hugo from the island, and Hugo spent the next 15 years in exile on the Bailiwick of Guernsey. His family joined him the following year at Hauteville House in Saint Peter Port.

Portrait of “Cosette” by Emile Bayard (1862)

While in exile, Hugo continued to attack Napoleon through political pamphlets, such as Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d’un crime. France banned these works, but many copies found their way into the country, smuggled in bales of hay and tins of sardines. Hugo also produced three poetry collections while on the island, but his most notable work from the period is his novel, Les Misérables. Although published in 1862, Hugo started planning the story as early as the 1830s.

“My conviction is that this book is going to be one of the peaks, if not the crowning point of my work.”

Victor Hugo, 23rd March 1862

The inspiration for the main character in Les Misérables came from an incident Hugo witnessed in 1829. Hugo saw a policeman arrest a man for stealing a loaf of bread. At the start of the story, the protagonist Jean Valjean is in prison for stealing bread. Hugo also took inspiration from the ex-convict Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1557) for Valjean’s character. Vidocq’s criminal actions had landed him in prison, but on his release, he changed his ways. Vidocq became the father of modern criminology and was also the world’s first private detective.

Hugo’s diaries record many scenes that he later wrote into Les Misérables, including the attempted arrest of a prostitute. Hugo stepped in to defend the girl and recorded his speech in his diary, which, in turn, made it into his novel. This scene inspired the character Fantine, whose only means of earning money to look after her daughter Cosette was prostitution. Many real-life figures Hugo met or observed appear in the story. Examples include a street urchin (Gavroche) and French republican students fighting during the 1848 Paris insurrection (Enjolras and Les Amis de l’ABC). 

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables as though he is narrating the story rather than a character. He includes factual information to make the story seem less fictional, often referring to recent events. At one point, he even addresses the reader: “The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself…” Hugo also hid personal information in the novel. Examples include, the date his parents conceived him for Jean Valjean’s prison number “24601” and the date of (spoiler alert) Marius and Cosette’s wedding night is 16th February 1833, the same day Hugo first met his mistress Juliette Drouet. 

Due to his popularity as a poet, many people had high expectations for Hugo’s forthcoming novel. Hugo forbade his publishers from summarising the story before its publication. Instead, he asked them to focus on his past successes as a means of publicity. For example “What Victor H. did for the Gothic world in Notre-Dame de Paris, he accomplishes for the modern world in Les Misérables.” Rather than printing the entire novel, the publishers released Les Misérables in five volumes, the first of which they released in Brussels on 30th March 1862. The second volume appeared the following day, but sales of the remaining volumes did not start until 15th May.

Compared to Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo’s new novel received a lot of criticism. Many found the subject matter immoral, artificial and disappointing. Some people expressed contempt about Hugo’s support of revolutionaries. On the other hand, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) praised Hugo for drawing attention to social problems of the time. Despite the initial criticisms, Les Misérables sold well and remains a popular book today. During the same year of its publication, copies appeared in other languages, including Italian, Greek and Portuguese. Before long, people all over the continent knew the story.

Les Mis Poster

Since its publication, Les Misérables has been adapted for eight films, a radio production, three television programmes and an anime series. Of course, the most famous adaptation is the 1980 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg (b.1944) and Alain Boublil (b.1941). Although originally performed in French, Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in the West End, running continuously since October 1985.

After the publication of Les Misérables, Hugo turned his attention to other social matters, particularly slavery. Although he believed colonialism would help to civilise “barbaric” nations, he called for an end to the slave trade.

“Only one slave on Earth is enough to dishonour the freedom of all men. So the abolition of slavery is, at this hour, the supreme goal of the thinkers.”

Victor Hugo, 17th January 1862

As well as campaigning against slavery, Hugo called for the abolition of the death penalty. Before his exile, Hugo declared “You have overthrown the throne… Now overthrow the scaffold.” Whilst he successfully influenced Geneva, Portugal and Colombia, he had little impact on the French government. In 1859, Napoleon III granted amnesty to all political exiles, but Hugo refused to return to Paris until Napoleon fell from power in 1870.

Shortly after his return to the French capital, the Siege of Paris began. This resulted in the capture of the city by Prussian forces. During this time, Parisians, including Hugo, were reduced to “eating the unknown” meat supplied by the Paris Zoo. Following the siege, Hugo temporarily moved to Brussels where he observed the goings-on in Paris through newspapers. Between March and May 1871, radical socialists created a short-lived revolutionary government. Writing for the Belgian newspaper l’Indépendance, Hugo expressed his support for the rebels, which angered many people. That evening, a mob of sixty men attempted to break into Hugo’s home, shouting “Death to Victor Hugo! Hang him! Death to the scoundrel!”

In 1872, Hugo attempted to encourage Parisians to re-elect him to the National Assembly, stating in his diary, “Dictatorship is a crime. This is a crime I am going to commit.” Despite people hailing Hugo as a national hero, he lost his bid. Nonetheless, he continued to express his views, prophesying that by the 20th century there would be no more war, no death penalty and no hatred. He believed Europe should unite as the “United States of Europe” to make the continent a peaceful place.

Avenue Victor-Hugo in Paris

Victor Hugo’s health started to go downhill from the mid-1870s after he suffered a mini-stroke. By this time, his wife Adèle had died, and his sons passed away soon afterwards. His remaining daughter Adèle lived in an insane asylum, so it fell to Hugo’s mistress Juliette Drouet to care for him. In 1878, Hugo suffered another mild stroke, yet he continued to inspire the people of Paris. For his 80th birthday, the city presented him with a Sèvres vase, an item traditionally reserved for sovereigns. Following this honour, the longest parade in French history took place, lasting 6 hours. Hugo watched the paraders from his house on the Avenue d’Eylau, soon renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo.

In 1883, Juliette Drouet passed away. Although they lived as lovers since the death of Hugo’s wife, they never married. On 22nd May 1885, at the age of 83, Victor Hugo breathed his last after suffering from pneumonia. The whole of France mourned his death and, although he requested a paupers funeral, he received a state funeral attended by over two million people and his final written words, “To love is to act”, became immortalised. His body rests in the Panthéon along with the writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-70).

“I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be buried in their hearse. I refuse [funeral] orations from all Churches. I demand a prayer to all souls. I believe in God.”

The Will of Victor Hugo
Town with Tumbledown Bridge, Victor Hugo, 1847

After his death, it came to light that Hugo drew and painted as a hobby. He produced over 4000 drawings but never revealed them to the public for fear they would detract from his literary work. His family and close friends knew about his artistic skills and often received handmade cards from the author, particularly during his exile. A few painters of the time tried to encourage Hugo to seriously consider working as a professional artist, including Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who believed Hugo had the potential to outshine the artists of their century. Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) also admired Hugo’s work.

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin

Hugo’s legacy lives on in many ways, not just through the award-winning musical Les Misérables. In Guernsey, Jean Boucher (1870-1939) erected a sculpture of the author to commemorate his stay on the island. Several shops and cafes in Paris honour Hugo’s name, as does the school Lycée Victor Hugo, founded in the town of his birth. Hugo’s fame also spread across to America where he is remembered by street names in Quebec and San Francisco, and a city in Kansas. In 1929, the Vietnamese religion of Cao Đài venerated Hugo as a saint. 

Who is Victor Hugo? Most people answer “the author of Les Misérables“, but his biography proves this is just one of his many achievements. Victor Hugo was a poet, novelist, dramatist, politician, peer of France, drawer and painter. He has hundreds of works to his name and, in France, he is remembered for his radical thinking and opinions. As the crowds at his funeral show, Victor Hugo had many fans and his greatest works will live on through modern adaptations forevermore.

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Happy Christmas!

To all my followers, I wish you a happy Christmas. Whether you are with family and friends or isolating, I hope you can enjoy the day. Thank you for your support over the past year, it means a lot to know you are reading my blog. Writing has given me a sense of purpose during this strange year. Usually, I write about exhibitions I have visited in London, but this year I had to think of many of the topics myself. I hope you have found them informative.

Covid-19 has made life difficult for everyone, but it is important to look back at the positives. I have compiled a list of my achievements; perhaps you could do the same.

  • Blogs Written: 52
  • Word Count: approximately 171,254 (not including this post)
  • Visitors to My Blog: over 14,000
  • Most Popular In: USA (over 8000 visitors) and UK (over 7000 visitors)
  • Most Popular Post Written This Year: Unicorns: A True Story
  • Most Popular Post of All Time: Christian Angelology
  • New Followers: 13 (as of Christmas Day)
  • Books Reviewed: 15 (as of Christmas Day)
  • Books Read: 71 (as of Christmas Day)
  • Cities Visited: 2 (York and Bristol)
  • Commissions: 2 posters for the Haderian Medical Centre
  • Websites “looked after”: Gants Hill URC and Heath and Havering URC
  • Instruments practiced: Flute and Piano

I have set up a Patreon account for anyone who wishes to sponsor my work. I also have a Ko-fi account for small donations (think of it like a tip jar).

Those who have followed my blog for some time will know I originally used it as a portfolio for my graphic design and illustration work. Whilst I have not focused on my art this year, I have produced a few drawings for greeting cards, including the drawing above.

My favourite drawing this year is:

Other drawings include:

I also experimented with watercolour paint. The following are pre-drawn cards, which I “coloured” in.

Thank you for reading my blog this year. I wish you a healthy and happy 2021. See you next year!
Love from Hazel x