Louisa Garrett Anderson

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917), the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon, is a well-known name in the history of women’s rights. Lesser renowned but still important is her daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, who followed Elizabeth into the medical profession and Suffrage campaigns. Whilst her aunt, Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), belonged to the Suffragist movement, Louisa joined the more militant Suffragettes.

Born on 28th July 1873 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Louisa was the eldest of Elizabeth and James George Skelton Anderson’s three children. Elizabeth was a co-founder of the London School of Medicine for Women and later Britain’s first female mayor. Louisa’s father co-owned the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, more commonly known as P&O.

As a child, Louisa attended St Andrews School for Girls Company, a boarding school in Scotland, later renamed St Leonards. Founded in 1877, the first headmistress, Louisa Lumsden (1840-1935), believed “a girl should receive an education that is as good as her brother’s, if not better.” The school advocated for higher education for women, which paved the way for Louisa to receive her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1898.

In 1900, Louisa received her Doctor of Medicine and enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the United States for post-graduate studies. Despite her academic achievements, Louisa could not find a hospital willing to employ a female doctor. Instead, she returned to England, where her mother had founded the New Hospital for Women, now renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Obstetric Hospital. Louisa began working as a surgical assistant in 1902 before working her way up to a senior surgeon. Her role involved gynaecological and general operations, including hysterectomies and uterine cancer surgeries.

Louisa joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1903, which used democratic and non-militant tactics to protest in favour of female emancipation. The NUWSS was led by Millicent Fawcett, the sister of Louisa’s mother. Despite the family connection, Louisa felt frustrated with the NUWSS’s lack of progress, so she became a member of the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907.

The WSPU, led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her daughters, Christabel (1880-1958) and Sylvia (1882-1960), were known for their acts of civil unrest, including breaking windows, heckling politicians and holding loud demonstrations and marches. Many members of the WSPU, or Suffragettes as the Daily Mail called them, frequently found themselves arrested for their actions. Regardless of this risk, Louisa devoted her time to the union.

On Friday 18th November 1910, Louisa and her mother joined 300 women to march to parliament and petition Prime Minister Asquith (1852-1928) for voting rights. Louisa and Elizabeth were in the first group to arrive in Westminster, with Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (1876-1948). They were taken to Asquith’s office, but the Prime Minister refused to see them. After leaving the building, they witnessed a violent clash between the demonstrating women and the police.

Nicknamed ‘Black Friday’, the marching women were met by lines of policemen who subjected them to violence and, in many cases, sexual assault. Male bystanders felt encouraged to join in the melee. Several women suffered injuries, and the police arrested four men and 115 women, including Louisa. The remaining protestors and the families of the women in prison created a public outcry about the unnecessary actions of the police. To keep the peace, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the Home Secretary, ordered the release of all prisoners, stating “on this occasion no public advantage would be gained by proceeding with the prosecution.”

Louisa spent time in Holloway prison in 1912 after throwing a brick through a window and participating in other Suffragette activities. HM Prison Holloway was the largest women’s prison in western Europe until its closure in 2016. Many Suffragettes were imprisoned during the years preceding the First World War. In protest, several women went on hunger strike and were subjected to force-feeding. One of Louisa’s fellow window-smashers, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), composed the official anthem of the WSPU to words by Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952), which they performed during their stay at Holloway in 1912.

In 1914, Louisa left the WSPU to form the United Suffragists, which allowed men and non-militant Suffragists to join former Suffragettes in the ongoing campaign for the right to vote. Supported by the artist Patricia Woodlock (1873-c.1930), Louisa ran the Edinburgh branch of the United Suffragists. They adopted the Votes for Women newspaper, which formerly belonged to the WSPU.

Not much information exists about Louisa’s private life, but her friend, Dr Flora Murray (1869-1923), is frequently described as Louisa’s partner, suggesting a lesbian relationship. Murray, originally from Dumfries, Scotland, started living with Louisa in 1914. Before then, she and Louisa established the Women’s Hospital for Children at 688 Harrow Road, London, in 1912. The hospital provided treatment specifically for children of working-class families. They adopted the WSPU motto, “Deeds not words”, and allowed female doctors to gain clinical experience in paediatrics, which they could not receive anywhere else.

When the First World War broke out in July 1914, Louisa and Murray founded the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC), which they equipped with female staff. The couple suspected the British War Office would reject their help, so they offered their assistance to the French Red Cross instead. The French provided the women space in a Parisian hotel and appointed Murray as Médecin-en-Chef (chief physician) and Louisa as the chief surgeon.

The Women’s Hospital Corps expanded to set up another military hospital in Wimereux on the coast of the English Channel. They treated both French and British soldiers, the latter of whom were greatly surprised to find a hospital run by British women. Noting the successfulness of Murray, Louisa and their medical team, the British claimed it as their auxiliary hospital rather than a French one. When casualties were evacuated to England in January 1915, the War Office invited Murray and Anderson to run a hospital in London.

Overseen by the Royal Army Medical Corps, Louisa and Murray started running the Endell Street Military Hospital (ESMH) in May 1915. Constructed in the former St Giles Union Workhouse in Covent Garden, the hospital had space for an operating theatre and most of the equipment from Wimereux Hospital, which closed following Louisa and Murray’s departure from France. Initially, the ESMH opened with enough beds for 520 men, but the number of wounded continued to grow, forcing them to squeeze in another 53 beds. Additional Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospitals were established to allow doctors and nurses to treat up to 800 wounded soldiers at a time.

The ESMH saw 50,000 patients between 1915 and 1919, with 80 soldiers arriving each day. Louisa and the other surgeons conducted around 20 operations per day. The majority of staff were women, including drivers, dentists, pathologists, doctors, surgeons and nurses. Other women came in daily as librarians and entertainment officers to boost morale among the patients, particularly those who never had visitors from family or friends. Whilst the majority of wounded soldiers were British, at least 2000 Canadians received treatment, plus a handful of Australian, New Zealand, American, Russian and French troops.

Reluctant to give the women full control of the hospital, the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) regularly checked up on the staff and patients. The RAMC was sceptical about the women’s ability to work professionally and felt they were not properly trained for the job. Louisa, Murray and the other women proved the RAMC wrong when they received positive feedback from the patients. Soldiers even commented on the “feminine touches” around the hospital, such as flowers, colour and proper lighting, which benefited their psychological health, unlike the other drab, gloomy military hospitals.

At the ESMH, Louisa worked closely with the pathologist Helen Chambers (1879-1935) to pioneer a new method of treating septic wounds. James Rutherford Morison (1853-1939), a surgeon stationed at Northumberland War Hospital, introduced BIPP (bismuth iodoform paraffin paste) to treat contaminated wounds. Louisa and Chambers tested the product on some of their patients and reported the positive results to Morison, who asked them to continue with a larger trial of BIPP throughout 1916. Louisa published her report on the product in the weekly medical journal The Lancet, in which she praised its effectiveness, both in healing the wound and limiting the patient’s pain. The antiseptic properties allowed dressings to remain on for longer, reducing the use of bandages by 80%.

In 1917, King George V founded the Order of the British Empire to honour those who served in non-combatant roles during the First World War. The Order consists of five classes: Knight/Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight/Dame Commander (KBE/DBE), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). For their work in the hospital, Louisa and Murray became one of the first people awarded a CBE in August 1917.

Louisa and Murray continued working in the ESMH hospital until the end of the war, when they received orders to evacuate and close the building by December 1919. Both women returned to the Women’s Hospital for Children in Harrow Road, renamed the Roll of Honour Hospital. While working as doctors and surgeons, Murray wrote the memoir Women as Army Surgeons: Being the History of the Women’s Hospital Corps in Paris, published in 1920. She dedicated the book to “Louisa Garrett Anderson / Bold, cautious, true and my loving companion.”

As well as celebrating the end of the war, the Suffragists and Suffragettes celebrated the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which allowed women over the age of 30 the right to vote. The NUWSS and WSPU disbanded and formed the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), which fought for the same voting rights as men, equal pay, fairer divorce laws and an end to discrimination against women in employment.

Lack of funding resulted in the closure of the Roll of Honour Hospital in around 1921, so both women decided to retire and move to a cottage in Penn, Buckinghamshire. Sadly, Murray discovered she had rectal carcinoma and died shortly after surgery to remove the tumour, with Louisa by her side. Murray left everything to Louisa in her will and was buried at the Holy Trinity Church near their home.

Following Flora Murray’s death, Louisa lost her radicalism and joined the Conservative Party. In 1934, she became a justice of the peace and later the Mayor of Aldeburgh, Suffolk. When the Second World War began, Louisa came out of retirement to work as a surgeon at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, named after her mother.

In 1943, Louisa discovered she had developed cancer, which quickly spread throughout her body. She spent her remaining days in a nursing home in Brighton, where she passed away on 15th November 1943 at the age of 70. Her brother, nephews and nieces arranged her funeral and scattered her ashes on the South Downs. They also commissioned a new headstone for Flora Murray, featuring the inscription:

To the dear love of comrades and in memory of
Flora Murray
CBE, MD, BS Durham, DPH. Cambridge
Daughter of Com John Murray RN
Murraythwaite, Dumfriesshire
Born 8 May 1869
Died 26 July 1923
She commanded the military hospital Endall Street London with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel RAMC 1915 -1919
God gave her the strength to lead, to pity and to heal
And of her friend
Louisa Garrett Anderson
CBE, MD, Chief Surgeon Women’s Hospital Corps 1914–1919
Daughter of James George Skelton Anderson and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson of Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
Born 28 July 1873
Died 15 November 1943
WE HAVE BEEN GLORIOUSLY HAPPY

Louisa Garrett Anderson is one of 55 women whose names and photographs appear on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Erected in 2018 to celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, the statue pays homage to several people who supported the suffrage campaign. Many notable Suffragettes appear on the plinth, including Emmeline, Christabel, Sylvia and Adele Pankhurst, and four men: Laurence Housman (1865-1959), George Lansbury (1859-1940), Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961) and Reverend Claude Hinscliff (1875-1964).

Flora Murray did not make it onto the shortlist of names on the Millicent Fawcett statue, but she is due to appear on the new polymer £100 Scottish banknote in May 2022. Dr Murray will feature on one side and the poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) on the other. Speaking about the decision to include Murray, the chief executive of the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust said, “Almost a century since her death, Flora’s story is a reminder of the huge debt of gratitude we owe to those early agitators who refused to accept the limitations imposed by a society that didn’t believe women could or should be doctors, physicians and surgeons. Then and now, we embrace the pioneers, the innovators, and the game-changers.”


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The Woman Who Flew

Declared dead in 1939, Amelia Earhart became famous for her mysterious disappearance somewhere over the central Pacific Ocean. As of March 2022, no one knows what happened to the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and her navigator, Fred Noonan (1893-declared dead 1938). Despite her early death or disappearance, Earhart set many aviation records and helped promote commercial air travel, upon which the world heavily relies today.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born on 24th June 1897 in Kansas, where she developed a tomboy spirit of adventure, frequently climbing trees, collecting insects and hunting rats with a rifle. On one occasion, the girls’ uncle helped them construct a rollercoaster out of a ramp, which inadvertently gave Earhart her first taste of flying. After crash landing, tearing her dress and bursting her lip, Earhart exclaimed, “It’s just like flying!” Ironically, the first time Earhart encountered an aeroplane, she described it as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”

Throughout Earhart’s childhood and teenage years, she kept a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about inspiring women aspiring to become one herself. In 1917, Earhart trained as a nurse’s aide with the Red Cross, which mostly entailed preparing food and prescribing medicine to wounded American soldiers. In 1918, while working at the Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, Earhart caught the Spanish flu, which developed into maxillary sinusitis. The chronic condition frequently returned, which made travelling in aeroplanes challenging. She often needed a drainage tube to remove excess fluid from her sinuses.

After recovering from the flu, Earhart visited the Canadian National Exhibition, where she watched a flying exhibition. In an attempt to scare her, the pilot dived at Earhart and her friend, but Earhart remained fascinated by the vehicle and felt no fear. In 1920, Earhart had the opportunity to experience flying with Frank Hawks (1897-1938), a WW1 pilot. From that moment, Earhart knew she wanted to become a pilot. After saving $1,000 for lessons, Earhart began training on 3rd January 1921 with Neta Snook Southern (1896-1991), the first woman accepted at the Curtiss Flying School in Virginia.

After six months of gruelling training, Earhart purchased her first plane, a secondhand bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane, which she nicknamed “The Canary”. The Kinner Airster was designed by Bert Kinner (1882-1957) in 1920. It seated two people and could reach speeds up to 85 mph (137 km/h). In 1922, Earhart flew her plane to 14,000 feet (4,300 m), breaking the women’s world record. The following year, she became the 16th woman in the USA to be issued a pilot’s licence.

In 1927, American aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-74) made the first solo flight across the Atlantic ocean. Female aviator, Amy Guest (1873–1959), expressed interest in becoming the first woman to achieve the feat but decided it was too dangerous. Instead, Guest offered to sponsor the project and Earhart was nominated as the pilot. Inexperienced with aircraft suitable for flying such long distances, Earhart accompanied Wilmer Stultz (1900-29) on a flight from Newfoundland to Wales. Realising she knew little about the plane, Earhart felt like a passenger rather than a co-pilot.

Although Earhart needed a lot of training before taking on the solo challenge, her flight with Stultz gained attention in American newspapers and magazines. Dubbing her “Lady Lindy”, in reference to the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, the press elevated Earhart to celebrity status, nicknaming her “Queen of the Air” and following her training progress. Soon, Earhart was giving lectures, publishing books and advertising merchandise. Cigarette, clothing and luggage brands paid Earhart to advertise their products stamped with her initials, A.E.

The money earned through advertising helped Earhart finance her flying. She encouraged other women to enter the field and became one of the first aviators to promote commercial air travel. Earhart invested both time and money in setting up flight services between New York and Washington D.C. and acted as Vice President of National Airways, which flew between states in the North East of America.

In August 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent and back. Following this, she entered the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women’s Air Derby, nicknamed the “Powder Puff Derby”. Earhart finished third in the “heavy” division after the woman ahead of her crashlanded.

In 1930, Earhart joined the National Aeronautic Association and persuaded them to separate women’s and men’s records to give women a chance to set their own. Subsequently, Earhart set the women’s world record for altitude at 18,415 feet (5,613 m). Although some of these flying stunts were dangerous, Earhart proved flying was not just an activity for men. She became the first president of the Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots, which provided mentoring and flight opportunities for women.

Between 1929 and 1930, George P. Putnam (1887-1950), the American publisher that nominated Earhart for the first female solo transatlantic flight, asked her to marry him six times. Despite refusing his many proposals, Earhart gave in, and they married on 7th February 1931, on the condition that they both have “dual control” of their relationship. Earhart also insisted on keeping her surname, causing newspapers to jokingly refer to her husband as “Mr Earhart”.

Finally, the day arrived for Earhart to attempt her first transatlantic crossing. With the help of her technical adviser Bernt Balchen (1889-1973), a Norwegian aviator, Earhart prepared her plane and plotted a route from Newfoundland to Paris. Earhart chose to fly a Lockheed Vega, which could usually carry six passengers. With a wingspan of 41 ft (12 m), the bright red plane could reach a top speed of 185 mph (298 km/h).

The flight, which lasted 14 hours, 56 minutes, did not go exactly as planned. Due to strong winds and mechanical problems, Earhart did not make it as far as France. Instead, the conditions forced her to land in a field in Culmore, near Derry, Northern Ireland. Two farmers witnessed the landing and asked, “Have you flown far?” To which Earhart replied, “From America.”

Following the successful flight, Earhart received many awards as the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. The US Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross, officially a military badge given to those who distinguish themselves “by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” The French government gave Earhart the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor, and President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) presented her with the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society.

Earhart’s flight increased her celebrity status, and she became acquainted with many notable people, including Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), who became the President of the USA in 1933. The White House invited Earhart and Putnam to dinner, where Earhart developed a close friendship with the First Lady, Eleanor (1884-1962). During the meal, Earhart spontaneously suggested she and the First Lady take a flight to Baltimore and back, which they promptly did, still wearing their formal gowns.

Earhart continued to conduct solo flights, becoming the first aviator to fly solo from Hawaii to California in 1935. Later that year, she flew solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City, then Mexico City to New Jersey, where crowds turned up to watch her land. She also participated in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, finishing 5th after a journey of fog and thunderstorms. By the end of 1935, Earhart had set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records and fixed her eyes on her next challenge: circumnavigating the globe.

Aviators had already flown around the world before, but Earhart planned a longer route that followed the 29,000 miles (47,000 km) equator. In 1936, Earhart ordered a Lockheed Electra 10E to her exact specifications. Earhart asked Captain Harry Manning (1897-1974) to be her navigator. Manning was a mariner as well as an aviator and had captained the President Roosevelt. After a test flight, Earhart’s husband persuaded her to take on a second navigator, so room was made in the plane for Fred Noonan (1893-1937) to join the crew.

On 17th March 1937, Earhart, Manning and Noonan flew the first leg of the journey from California to Hawaii. Also on board was a technical advisor, Paul Mantz (1903-65), famous for his Hollywood plane stunts. After landing in Hawaii, the aircraft needed servicing due to problems with the propellor. After three days, the team were ready to continue their voyage, only for the landing gear to collapse during take-off. Earhart thought the tyre may have blown, but Mantz stated it was a pilot error.

After shipping the damaged aircraft back to the mainland, Manning and Mantz ended their association with the project, leaving Earhart and Noonan to make plans for a second attempt. Unfortunately, they discovered too late that neither was a skilled radio operator.

On 20th May 1937, Earhart and Noonan set off on their second attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Due to weather conditions, they chose to follow the plotted route in reverse. After setting off from California, they travelled to Arizona, Louisiana and Florida before leaving the States and landing in Puerto Rica. From there, they visited Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil, then headed to Senegal in Africa. In Africa, they stopped in French Sudan (now Mali), French Equatorial Africa (Chad), Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (Sudan), and Italian East Africa (Eritrea).

From Africa, Earhart and Noonan made the first-ever non-stop flight from the Red Sea to India. The journey continued to go well as they travelled through Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), the Straits Settlements (Singapore) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). A monsoon delayed them for a few days before travelling to another part of the Dutch East Indies. Unfortunately, Earhart fell ill with dysentery on 25th June, so they did not fly that day. Instead, repairs were made to the plane, ready for their trip to Australia.

After landing in Darwin, Australia, where they made further repairs and removed the parachutes to lighten the plane, Earhart and Noonan travelled to Lae in New Guinea (Papua New Guinea). With only three more stops before reaching home, they set off to Howland Island, just north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. They never arrived.

No one knows for certain what happened to Earhart and Noonan. During the flight, Earhart contacted the United States Coast Guard stationed at Howland Island, but it soon became clear she could not hear their response. The last message they received from the plane said, “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait… We are running on line north and south.”

An hour after Earhart’s final message, searches were made in the vicinity of Howland Island for the missing plane. The information Earhart provided suggested they were flying North North West of the island, but the Coast Guard found nothing and extended the search to the North East and North West. After three days of searching, the US Navy arrived to assist. Believing Earhart must have been mistaken about her location, the search and rescue team directed their attention to the Phoenix Islands south of Howland Island. One theory was that the plane landed on or near Gardner Island (Nikumaroro), an uninhabited island, but the naval aircraft sent to scout the area found no signs of life.

After spending $4 million searching for Earhart and Noonan, the search and rescue mission was deemed too expensive and abandoned. They were “declared death in absentia“, but Earhart’s husband refused to give up. Putnam financed a private search of the Pacific ocean and its islands, including the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island (Kiritimati), Fanning Island (Tabuaeran), the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands. No trace of the plane or its occupants were found, and Earhart was declared legally dead on 5th January 1939.

The disappearance of Amelia Earhart remains a mystery. Several theories about her fate have developed. The crash-and-sink theory suggests the plane ran out of fuel and plummetted into the sea. By the time search and rescue teams reached the area, the plane may have been deep beneath the surface.

One hypothesis suggests the plane landed on Gardner Island, and the search team failed to notice them. Unfortunately, future searches of the island have not found any evidence to prove this theory. Conspiracy theorists propose the Japanese captured and executed the pair after landing on Saipan in the North Mariana Islands. Again, there is no evidence of this.

Another theory suggests Earhart turned back to Papua New Guinea but crashed before reaching the airfield. A more ludicrous idea is Earhart survived, returned to the United States and assumed a new identity. For a brief time, Irene Craigmile Bolam (1904-82) of New Jersey was accused of such allegations due to similarities of appearance, but after Bolam took legal action, the claim was dropped.

Due to her celebrity status, Earhart’s disappearance shocked the world more than the unknown fate of her flight partner. Following her death, Earhart has received more honours than during her short life, including being listed as a posthumous member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1968) and the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1973). Several places are named after Earhart, including the Amelia Earhart Centre And Wildlife Sanctuary in Northern Ireland, the SS Amelia Earhart (since wrecked), the Amelia Earhart Airport in Kansas, the minor planet 3895 Earhart, Amelia Earhart Bridge in Kansas, the Amelia Earhart Dam in Massachusetts, and the North Hollywood Amelia Earhart Regional Library.

Since Earhart attempted to circumnavigate the Earth, several people have completed the circuit in her honour. Ann Dearing Holtgren Pellegreno (b. 1937) completed the planned route in 1967 and dropped a wreath in Earhart’s honour over Howland Island. Linda Finch (b. 1951) followed suit in 1997. In 2013, the aptly named Amelia Rose Earhart (b. 1983) followed the flight path in a single-engine plane. In the same year, the young pilot established the Fly With Amelia Foundation, which grants scholarships to girls ages 16 to 18.

Earhart’s mysterious disappearance remains one of the world’s top unsolved mysteries. There is every chance her remains may be found in the future, but this will not end the world’s fascination with the pilot. Earhart’s achievements were not just for herself but for women as well. She proved that women could be pilots, could fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, could fly non-stop from one side of America to the other, and could circumnavigate the globe. Although she did not achieve the latter, she encouraged other women to attempt the feat. Jerrie Mock (1925-2014) became the first woman to do so in 1964, although following a different route.

Amelia Earhart will be remembered for her disappearance and achievements, whether in books, films or memorials. She remains an inspiration for female pilots around the world. Women make up only 9.02% of pilots and other aviation personnel. Yet, with encouragement from organisations, such as the Fly With Amelia Foundation, this number is destined to rise.


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Paula Rego

RIP Paula Rego
26/01/35 – 08/06/22

This Sunday (24th October) marks the end of the UK’s largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Paula Rego. Thousands of people have visited Tate Britain to view the exhibition, with tickets regularly selling out each day. Yet, Paula Rego is not a well-known name amongst the average Londoner, so the popularity of the temporary display of work was surprising. Rego is a Portuguese-British visual artist whose work style has evolved from Abstract to Representational over her sixty-year career. Her imaginative power has revolutionised how women are represented in art, and her work often reflects feminism alongside folk themes from her native Portugal.

Paula Rego was born on 26th January 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, the Estado Novo (New State) controlled the country, suppressing political freedom and drastically limiting the rights of women. Rego’s anti-fascist father and mother moved to England in 1936 for work, leaving the young Paula in Portugal with her grandmother. Rego learned many Portuguese folk-tales from her grandmother, many of which later made their way into her artwork.

Rego’s parents returned to Portugal in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. They had become Anglophiles during their time in England and sent their daughter to the English-speaking Saint Julian’s School in Carcavelos. Rego attended Saint Julian’s from 1945 until 1951, after which her parents sent her to England to a finishing school in Sevenoaks, Kent.

Noticing Rego was unhappy at the finishing school, her British guardian, David Phillips, helped her gain a place at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, which she attended until 1956. Rego had started drawing as a child, but this marked a turning point in her life. Through her studies, Rego developed her skills as an artist. She also began an affair with a fellow student, Victor Willing (1928-88). Rego allegedly had several abortions during their affair because Willing, married to Hazel Whittington at the time, threatened to abandon her and return to his wife if she kept the child.

Following the conclusion of her studies, Rego moved to Ericeira, Portugal, in 1957, where she decided to carry her latest pregnancy to full term. Willing eventually joined her after the birth of their child and officially divorced his wife in 1959. The couple married the same year and had two more children. They divided their time between Portugal and Britain, where Rego purchased a house in Camden Town, London.

Rego’s art career officially began in 1962, when she began exhibiting with The London Group, an art society based in London. Founded in 1913, many British artists have joined as members, including Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Sir Frank Bowling (b. 1934), Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), David Hockney (b. 1937), L. S. Lowry (1887-1976), and Walter Sickert (1860-1942). In 1965, she took part in the Six Artists exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.

During the 1960s and 70s, Rego produced collages made from fragments of newspapers, magazines and drawings. She looked at newspaper articles, proverbs and children’s stories for inspiration, but also focused on her experiences. The Firemen of Alijo (1966), for example, was inspired by a group of firemen she saw in Alijo, Portugal, while staying with her parents in 1965. It was winter, her father was terminally ill with cancer, there was no heating in the house, and everyone felt grumpy. While wandering around the town, Rego noted how poor the area was and saw a group of firemen huddled together to keep warm. They were unpaid volunteers with soot-stained skin and no shoes on their feet. She produced The Firemen of Alijo in homage to them.

Most of the collaged fragments of The Firemen of Alijo are drawings, which Rego cut up and stuck onto a painted canvas. The abstract firemen have strange body features, such as a badger’s head and a seal’s tail. Bird-like figures represent fighting angels, which Rego included to represent the medieval history of the town of Alijo. For many people, the artwork looks like an abstract assortment of shapes and lines, but for Rego, it depicts human emotions, nightmares and desires. Rego paints “to give terror a face”.

Between 1971 and 1978, Rego produced artwork for seven solo shows in Portugal. These included a series of illustrations of traditional Portuguese folk tales. She continued the surrealist tradition of combining fragments, fine art and popular culture to create abstract scenes, which meant more to the artist than the viewer. Around this time, Rego experienced Jungian therapy, which made her more aware of the influences on human behaviour. Through her collages, she tried to show the emotions the characters were feeling as well as why they felt that way.

Rego abandoned collage in the 1980s and started making bold paintings with thick outlines. Many artworks from this era feature animals with human characteristics. Whilst the caricature-like figures appear more playful, they explore the darker, emotional side of human relationships. Several of Rego’s paintings from the early 1980s reflect her childhood and experiences.

Paula Rego once stated, “to do a picture I always need a story to start with, although as I go along the story may change or the picture may change.” Nanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman (1982) is based on the autobiography of Elias Canetti (1905-94), a German author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. Canetti wrote about his childhood nanny, whose boyfriend threatened to cut out Canetti’s tongue. In Rego’s painting, the bogeyman, on the left, is the boyfriend, and the young Canetti is the small bear. The nanny holds the small bear, preventing him from escaping. Rego interpreted the nanny as the evil character in the story because she did nothing to protect the little bear from her boyfriend.

In 1984, Rego made independent and rebellious girls the main subjects of her artwork. Women in Portugal had very little freedom of expression under the fascist dictatorship of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970). Rego depicted these women, some more subtly than others, rebelling against the oppression. She also expressed female sexual desire, which may stem from her husband’s many affairs during their marriage. During the 1980s, Victor Willing became increasingly unwell with multiple sclerosis and could no longer provide Rego with physical love.

During the 1980s, Rego had a series of solo exhibitions in London, Bristol and Portugal. Her paintings of rebellious women were featured in retrospectives at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon and the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1988. In the same year, Victor Willing passed away, and Rego completed one of her largest artworks, The Dance. Rego hoped to include The Dance in the exhibitions but, due to circumstances beyond her control, did not finish it on time.

As well as The Dance, Tate Britain displayed several preparatory drawings, which Rego donated to the gallery when they purchased the painting in 1989. Rego experimented with several combinations of dancing figures, including seven women jubilantly jumping around. The final composition features eight figures of various ages dancing on a moonlit beach. Several critics have developed explanations for the scene, including the cycle of femininity and Portuguese folk festivals. The fortress-like structure resembles a military fort on the Estoril coast in Caxias, used as a prison and torture site during the rule of Estado Novo.

In 1990, Rego became the first Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London. Eight years after her residency, the gallery asked her to produce something that responded to a painting in the National Gallery. Rego chose a cycle of paintings by William Hogarth (1697-1764) called Marriage-A-la-Mode, which told a tale of arranged marriage, betrayal and death. Rego reworked the story to resemble the Portuguese culture and memories of her youth. Whilst Hogarth’s narrative contained six canvases, Rego limited herself to three, creating a triptych for the National Gallery’s Encounters: New Art from Old exhibition in 2000.

The first panel of the triptych, The Betrothal, shows two mothers discussing the future marriage of their young children. The adolescent boy clutches at his mother as though scared about the prospect of marriage. The little girl, on the opposite side of the painting, slouches in her chair, bored with the conversation. Neither boy nor girl has any say in the matter about their future. The middle panel, Lessons, is based on Hogarth’s fourth panel, The Toilette. Instead of a dressing room, Rego painted a beauty parlour where the girl, now a teenager, watches her mother have her hair done. Rego described the scene as an apprenticeship in femininity, a lesson about how to be a woman.

The final panel, The Shipwreck, represents Hogarth’s fifth scene, The Bagnio. In Hogarth’s story, the husband falls to the ground after being shot by his wife’s lover. In Rego’s version, the boy, now a married man, has frittered away all his money. He is literally being supported by his wife, the girl in the previous paintings, whose meagre belongings are scattered around the room. The woman stares into the distance, contemplating an uncertain future as this destitute man’s wife.

Before appropriating Hogarth’s narrative paintings, Rego based many of her work during the early 1990s on nursery rhymes and stories. Her Nursery Rhymes series of prints was later published as a book. Following the traditions of earlier artists such as Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Rego created a fantastic realistic illustration for each nursery rhyme, often dressing animals up as humans. Yet, as is the nature of some rhymes, there is a hint of the sinister in her drawings. Rego produced prints of 26 nursery rhymes, including Three Blind MiceBaa Baa Black SheepHey Diddle DiddleLittle Miss MuffetThe Grand Old Duke of York, and Polly Put the Kettle On.

As well as nursery rhymes, Rego explored the darker side of fairy tales, such as Pinocchio, Peter Pan and Snow White. When Rego watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as a child, she described it as “like discovering a new world”. Yet, it is also a frightening story for young viewers, where good and evil coexist in a disturbing atmosphere. Whilst the seven dwarfs are playful, the evil queen plots murder.

The stories of Pinocchio and Peter Pan are equally disturbing. Rego took inspiration from Disney’s version of The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1826-90), in which unruly children are punished, transformed into donkeys and sold into slavery. In Peter Pan, written by J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), lost children wind up on a desert island where pirates wish to kill their eponymous leader. Rego also produced artwork based on adult works of fiction, such as Haunted by Joyce Carol Oates (b.1938) and The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

In 1994, Rego started focusing, once again, on female figures. Her style had drastically changed since the 1970s, going from collages to almost realistic paintings. With pastels, Rego painted independent women who broke stereotypes and did not cater for the male gaze. Rego began working with the model Lila Nunes and produced a series called Dog Women, in which the sitter demonstrated primal needs and emotions.

Another series, Bride, focused on the sexual side of a marital contract. Instead of Nunes, Rego used her daughter Victoria as the model. The paintings show a less aggressive emotional state than Dog Women. Still wearing her wedding dress, the bride waits for her husband after the wedding ceremony but with no sense of joy or anticipation.

Without collage or surrealism to hide behind, Rego’s artwork became more shocking and raw. In 1998, she painted an untitled series depicting women in the aftermath of illegal abortions in Portugal. At the time of painting, women were not allowed to have abortions except for medical reasons; those who did faced up to three years in prison. Around the same time, Rego painted a series based on The Crime of Father Amaro by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz (1845-1900), which portrayed women as the victims of abuse at the hands of men.

In the 2000s, Rego’s art style changed again. Using props, live models and handmade “dollies”, Rego set up scenes in her studio, which she then drew in pastel. Many works from this period return to Rego’s memories of Portugal, particularly dictatorship, war, and the treatment of women. Others were inspired by contemporary news items, such as the war in Iraq, which began in 2003. A photograph of a screaming girl in a white dress running from an explosion published in the Guardian newspaper at the beginning of the war inspired one of Rego’s paintings.

“I thought I would do a picture about these children getting hurt, but I turned them into rabbits’ heads, like masks. It’s very difficult to do it with humans, it doesn’t get the same kind of feel at all. It seemed more real to transform them into creatures.” Simply titled War, Rego transformed the Guardian‘s photo into a scene of rabbits and other hybrid creatures. This echoes some of her previous work, for instance, Nursery Rhymes, featuring anthropomorphic characters.

War was first shown at the Marlborough Gallery, London, as part of an exhibition called Jane Eyre and Other Stories, in October 2003. The following year, Royal Mail commissioned Rego to create a set of Jane Eyre stamps. These saw a return to the style of prints Rego produced in the early 1990s.

Rego’s most recent works focus on abusive acts, such as the trafficking of women, female genital mutilation, and other appalling news stories. These artworks are hard to look at and study for any length of time, which reflects people’s reactions to reading and hearing about such abuse. It is difficult to understand why people commit these horrific acts, and Rego wishes to open the public’s eyes, hoping someone, anyone, will do something about it.

The exhibition at Tate Britain is the largest and most comprehensive retrospective of Paula Rego’s work to date. Yet, at 86, Rego is still producing art, so there could well be a larger exhibition in the future. As a result of her work, Rego has received honorary degrees from the Winchester School of Art, the University of St Andrews, the University of East Anglia, the Rhode Island School of Design, the London Institute, the University of Oxford and Roehampton University. In 2010, Rego was made a Dame of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.


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The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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The Enchantress of Number

Contemporary computers have a history that dates back five millennia to the abacus. Great minds, such as the Greek mathematician Archimedes (c.287-212 BC), developed theories that led to modern calculus and, eventually, to the invention of the computer. The devices we are familiar with today emerged during the 20th century, but the first “computer programmer” lived a century earlier. Not only does that surprise many, but the gender of this programmer also raises eyebrows. Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, or “The Enchantress of Number”, as the polymath Charles Babbage (1791-1871) called her, went against social norms to study mathematics and receive the accolade of the first computer programmer.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, circa 1840,

Generally, but incorrectly, known as Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer is gradually earning recognition in the 21st century. In 2009, the non-profit organisation The Ada Initiative marked the second Tuesday of October as the annual Ada Lovelace Day. The goal of this event is to “raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths,” particularly those written out of history. Whilst their achievements are significant, it is also important to learn about their lives and the obstacles they overcame as women to fulfil their ambitions.

The Honorable Augusta Ada Byron was born on 10th December 1815 in London to Lord and Lady Byron. Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), the renowned poet and politician, expected a “glorious boy” and did not hide his disappointment when Lady Byron gave birth to a girl. He named his daughter after his sister Augusta Leigh (1783-1851), but insisted on calling her by her middle name Ada. Just over a month after the birth, Lord Byron commanded his wife to leave and set about organising a legal separation.

Ada Byron, aged four

Happy to escape from her immoral husband, Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron (1792-1860), moved to her parents home in Leicestershire with her 5-week old daughter. She refused to let Byron see his child, not that he protested, and Ada never knew her father. Although Ada lived with her mother, she did not have a loving relationship and spent the majority of her childhood in the care of her grandmother, Lady Judith Milbanke. When in public, Lady Byron acted like the perfect mother, but in private, she did not even mention Ada’s name. In a letter to her mother, Lady Byron wrote, “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.”

Ada was a sickly child, often confined to her bed due to migraine-like headaches. At 14, she contracted measles, which paralysed her legs. In the year that followed, Ada spent her time in bed but kept herself amused by reading about and practising mathematics. Although usually reserved for male students, Ada’s mother insisted she receive lessons in maths and science. Lady Byron feared her daughter becoming an “insane” poet like her ex-husband.

During one of her long bouts of illness, Ada dreamed of flying. Using both her imagination and logic, Ada studied the anatomy of birds, analysing the right proportions between wings and body. She even went as far as to consider suitable materials and wrote about her experiments in a book called Flyology. Ada also envisioned a winged flying machine containing a steam engine for power. Little did she know that 76 years later, the Wright Brothers would take their first flight in a similar construction.

Ada Byron, aged seventeen

At 16, Ada regained the use of her legs, although she relied on crutches for some time. Evidence suggests she was fully mobile by the age of 18 when she attempted to elope with a male tutor. Since Lady Byron covered up the scandal, the name of the tutor is unknown. Ada had many tutors for mathematics and science, including the English clergyman William Frend (1757-1841) and British physician William King (1786-1865). Augustus De Morgan (1806-71), a mathematician and logician, encouraged Ada’s passion for numbers and noted she had the potential to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”

Ada’s favourite tutor was Mary Somerville (1780-1872), the Scottish researcher and scientific author, who introduced her to many notable people, including Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and Charles Dickens (1812-70). She also met lots of people at Court after she was presented at the age of 17, where she met her future husband Lord William King-Noel, 8th Baron King (1805-93).

Intrigued by Ada’s mathematical prowess, Babbage invited her to view the prototype of his Difference Engine: a type of calculating machine that is described today as the first computer. Fascinated by his work, Ada persuaded Somerville to take her to visit Babbage as often as possible. Ada liked to watch Babbage work while taking notes but soon started to voice suggestions.

Portrait of Ada by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1836)

Meanwhile, Ada’s social life continued at Court, where she attended many functions and events. Enamoured by her brilliant mind, men considered her “a popular belle of the season”. She caught the eye of the 8th Baron King, whom she married on 8th July 1835, thus becoming Lady King. They honeymooned in Somerset and ten months later welcomed a son, Byron (1836-62). The following year, Ada gave birth to a daughter, Anne Isabella (1837-1917), but became unwell with “a tedious and suffering illness, which took months to cure.” Her third child, Ralph Gordon (1839-1906), was born on 2nd July 1839.

In 1838, Ada learned she was a descendant of the Barons Lovelace, of Hurley in the County of Berks, the last of whom passed away in 1736. The Peerage of England decided to revive the title, making Ada’s husband the Earl of Lovelace and Ada the Countess of Lovelace. It is due to this title that Ada is often mistakenly referred to as Ada Lovelace.

After the birth of her youngest child, Ada returned to working with Babbage. In 1842, the English scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) commissioned the countess to translate an academic paper from French into English. This was a transcript of Babbage’s talk at the University of Turin written by Luigi Menabrea (1809-96), the future Prime Minister of Italy. The papers introduced Babbage’s proposal for another machine, the Analytical Engine, which he described as a simpler version of the Difference Engine.

Lovelace’s diagram from “note G”, the first published computer algorithm

As well as transcribing Menabrea’s transcript, Ada added notes to the article. She explained what made the hypothetical Analytical Engine different from the Difference Engine and demonstrated how the machine could calculate a series of Bernoulli numbers. These numbers are the result of a complicated formula that only the elitist mathematical brains could fathom. After writing both an explanation and a demonstration of the Analytical Engine’s potential output, Ada’s notes were three times longer than the original article. Although the Analytical Engine has never been built, Ada’s work is regarded as the world’s first published computer programme.

Ada also argued that “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis, but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.” In other words, a machine or computer can only work with the input provided by its maker and cannot surpass the knowledge or intelligence of the collective human race. This idea computer scientists continue to debate today during their strive to develop Artificial Intelligence.

As well as numbers, Ada believed the Analytical Engine had the potential to “act upon other things besides number”, for instance, music. Babbage’s machines only used numbers, but Ada believed these digits could represent other entities, such as music tones and letters. The Analytical Engine was never constructed, although British software engineer John Graham-Cumming is determined to build it, so Ada’s theory has not been tested. Yet, 100 years after Ada expressed the idea, computer scientists developed the modern computer using a similar approach.

Despite being a woman, many mathematicians respected Ada, particularly Michael Faraday, who described himself as a supporter of Ada’s work. Unfortunately, science journals published Sketch of the Analytical Engine containing Ada’s translations and appendices under her initials rather than her full name. For decades after her death, the initials hid Ada’s true identity, and many assumed the mathematician was a man.

Painting of Lovelace seated at a piano, by Henry Phillips (1852)

In 1852, Ada was diagnosed with uterine cancer, with which she suffered in agony for several months. During this time, her mother forbade visits from friends, including Babbage, and encouraged her daughter to turn to religion. On 30th August, Ada confessed something to her husband, which upset him enough to abandon her bedside for the remainder of her life. To date, no one knows what Ada said to cause such a reaction. She eventually passed away on 27th November 1852 at the age of 36. As per her final strange request, she was laid to rest next to her father, a man she never met, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

After her death, people remembered Ada more for a series of scandals rather than her mathematical genius. During the 1840s, several rumours of extra-marital affairs surrounded Ada, but more scandalous was her love of gambling. After forming a syndicate with her (male) friends, Ada lost more than £3,000 by betting on horse races. In 1851, she attempted to create a mathematical formula to guarantee successful bets but failed and lost thousands of pounds.

Rumours of Ada’s romantic affairs resurfaced after the reading of her will. Rather than leaving the Byron family heirlooms to her children, she left them to John Crosse, the son of British scientist Andrew Crosse (1784-1855). Most correspondences between Ada and John were destroyed after her death, so the truth of their relationship will never come to light.

Ada’s eldest son Byron became the 12th Baron Wentworth after his grandmother’s death in 1860. Unfortunately, he did not have long to enjoy it before his sudden death two years later, aged 26. The barony passed to Ada’s youngest child, Ralph, who also became the 2nd Earl of Lovelace after his father’s death in 1893. Ralph avoided public life as much as possible and spent his 22nd year in Iceland learning about Icelandic and Norse literature. He also enjoyed mountain climbing and became an accomplished linguist. Rather than becoming a mathematician like his mother, Ralph preferred to write and, shortly before his death, published Astarte: A Fragment of Truth concerning George Gordon Byron, first Lord Byron, which divulged his grandfather’s incestuous nature.

Lady Anne Blunt, in Bedouin dress, and her favourite riding mare, Kasida 1900

Lady Anne Blunt, Ada’s middle child, married the poet Wilfrid Blunt (1840-1922), with whom she co-founded the horse breeding firm Crabbet Arabian Stud. She travelled extensively around the Middle East purchasing Arabian horses, many of which she brought home to England despite her husband’s protests that the horses preferred warmer climates. After Anne’s death, her only child, Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957), continued the horse breeding business. A descendant, John Lytton (b.1950), is currently a crossbencher in the House of Lords.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, did not regain her reputation as an extraordinary mathematician and computer programmer until the 1970s with the production of Childe Byron by playwright Romulus Linney (1930-2011). Unfortunately, this play focused more on the non-existent relationship between Ada and Lord Byron than on her career. Ada’s mathematical genius came to the fore in William Gibson (b.1948) and Bruce Sterling’s (b.1954) 1990 steampunk novel The Difference Engine, and in the 1997 film Conceiving Ada. Other plays and books include Ada and the EngineThe Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, and The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency. The Countess of Lovelace also appeared as a character in an episode of Doctor Who in 2020.

An illustration inspired by the A. E. Chalon portrait created for the Ada Initiative

Dying at such a young age, Ada did not have the opportunity to receive praise for her work, nor did she know how much it would change the future. As a woman, it is unlikely she would have gained adequate recognition at the time, as is the case for many of her sex. She finally received the long due commemoration over a century after her death. In 1980, the United States Department of Defense named their computer language “Ada” in her memory, and the following year, the Association for Women in Computing inaugurated its Ada Lovelace Award. Also named after the mathematician is the Lovelace Medal for the British Computer Society, Ada College in Tottenham Hale, the Ada Initiative, and the Ada Developers Company.

Blue plaque to Ada Lovelace in St. James’s Square, London

In November 2020, Trinity College Dublin announced the plan to add four busts of famous women to their library, which until now has contained only statues of men. Ada Countess of Lovelace will make history once again alongside Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97).

It is a great shame that Ada Countess of Lovelace died before she could develop more groundbreaking theories in computer science. It is an even greater shame that, for a hundred years, her gender was hidden behind her initials, leading thousands to believe technology a man’s science. Although she did not build a machine or get the chance to test her hypothetical programme, Ada’s genius ideas greatly assisted the development of modern computers.

“They say behind every great man there’s a woman,” and this is indeed true in the professional relationship between Babbage and Lovelace. Ada’s “poetical science” mindset asked questions about Babbage’s machines, and she developed visions that none of the top scientists in the industry could imagine. Whereas they saw what was in front of them, Ada realised the potential of such machines and, as we can confirm today, she was right.


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Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

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

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Unfinished Business – Harriet Martineau

“The progression or emancipation of any class … takes place through the efforts of individuals of that class. All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position.”

Harriet Martineau

The British Library displays a banner of Harriet Martineau’s portrait and a brief description as part of their Unfinished Business exhibition. Focusing on women’s rights, the library reveals Martineau, a British author, was the fore-mother of sociology. Her works were widely read in her day but have since fallen off the radar. Martineau wrote from a feminine perspective at a time when it was rare for a woman to express her opinion so publicly. Not only that, she earned enough money from her works to support herself entirely, a rare feat for a Victorian woman.

Born on 12th June 1802 in Norwich, Harriet Martineau, the sixth of eight children, grew up in the vicinity of Octagon Chapel where her father, Thomas (1764-1826), was deacon. The Martineau family was of French Huguenot descent and were prominent Unitarians. Harriet’s grandfather, David Martineau II (1726-68), purchased the Bracondale Woods near Norwich in 1793 where he built a “handsome mansion with pleasure grounds delightfully laid out”. His fifth son, Thomas, was Harriet’s father.

Thomas Martineau married Elizabeth Rankin (1772-1848), the daughter of a grocer, and had their first daughter in 1794. Named after her mother, Elizabeth (1794-1850) married Dr Thomas Greenhow (1792-1881). The Daily Telegraph recently reported that if Greenhow were alive today, he would have “led the fight against Covid 19”. Through the marriage of their daughter Frances (1820-92) to Francis Lupton (1813-84), they are related to the present Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Harriet’s eldest brother Thomas (1795-1824) became a surgeon, founding an eye infirmary, which is now part of Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Another brother, Robert (1798-1870), became the Mayor of Birmingham in 1846, but it was with her younger brother James (1805-1900) that Harriet felt closest. James was a religious philosopher who Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) regarded as “the mastermind of all the remarkable company with whom he engaged.” Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) maintained James was “beyond question the greatest of living thinkers”.

Few records about Harriet’s childhood survive other than what she mentioned in her later writings. Her mother supposedly lacked affection for her children and abandoned them to wet nurses. Harriet expressed this lack of nurture in her book Household Education (1848), although their relationship improved later in life. Elizabeth wished her daughters to have a conservative education. Whilst she desired them to read well, anything unfeminine, including writing, was strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, her daughters flourished academically and Harriet’s sister Rachel opened a Unitarian Academy, attended by ancestors of Hollywood actress Helena Bonham Carter (b.1966). 

At a young age, Martineau started to lose some of her senses, beginning with taste and smell, then hearing. By adulthood, she was profoundly deaf and required an ear trumpet, an old form of hearing aid. Determined not to let her disabilities get the better of her, Martineau went against her mother’s wishes and started to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical concerned with the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the reform of the Church of England. These articles led to the publication of Martineau’s first book in 1823, Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.

In 1826, Martineau’s father passed away. His grave rests in Rosary Cemetery, the first non-denominational burial ground in the United Kingdom. His textile business, which none of his children seemed particularly keen to run, began to suffer, eventually closing in 1829. Martineau, then 27 years old, went against traditional gender roles to make a living for her family. She began to publish articles in the Monthly Repository under her real name, earning her a salary and three prizes from the Unitarian Association. These accolades helped to establish her as a freelance writer. 

Although she never wished death upon either of her parents, Martineau admitted the resulting failure of her father’s business was “one of the best things that ever happened to us”. Until then, Martineau going to work was not an option, and she felt she was vegetating at home rather than living. Whilst her brothers were earning, they had families of their own and could not afford to provide for their mothers and sisters as well. Financial responsibility fell to Martineau, which, ironically, gave Martineau her long-desired freedom.

At the beginning of the 1830s, Martineau received her first book commission. Martineau wrote Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, as a work of fiction intended to help readers understand the capitalist ideas of ”The Father of Economics” Adam Smith (1723-90). The publisher, assuming it would not sell well on account of her gender, only printed 1500 copies. Very soon, the public demanded more copies and the book eventually surpassed the sales of works by Charles Dickens (1812-70).

Illustrations of Political Economy was an international success, spreading Smith’s visions of a free-market throughout the British Empire. At the publisher’s request, Martineau wrote a series of fictional tutorials about other political economists, including James Mill (1773-1836), the father of the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73); Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832); and David Ricardo (1772-1823). Martineau also wrote about her thoughts on population control, inspired by the economist of demography Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).

As well as writing these Illustrations, Martineau continued producing articles for the Monthly Repository, where her work caught the eye of the editor Reverend William Fox (1786-1864). The Unitarian minister of South Place Chapel, in Finsbury, London, invited Martineau to London to join his circle of progressive thinkers. On her first visit, Fox introduced her to Erasmus Alvey Darwin (1804-81), the brother of Charles Darwin (1809-82), who proved to be a vital connection.

Around 1832, Martineau moved to London and became a regular attendee of meetings held by Fox. Her social circle instantly grew to include well-known writers and thinkers, such as Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Later, she made the acquaintance of Dickens, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Charlotte Brontë (1816-55) and George Eliot (1819-80). Yet, Martineau kept in close contact with her younger brother James, who assisted her with the Illustrations series. She also penned four stories expressing her support for the Whig Poor Law reforms.

Charles Darwin, while exploring the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, received a copy of Martineau’s Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation from his sisters. They described Martineau as a “great Lion” and encouraged Darwin to read her books in his spare time. By this time, Martineau’s popularity had spread to the United States, which spurred her trip to the country in 1834 where she met with former President James Madison (1751-1836).

Martineau received a mixed reception in the US. As a strong supporter of abolitionism, she angered many Americans who remained against the movement. Martineau likewise supported women’s rights, which also caused controversy. On visiting some of the very few girls’ schools in the country, she expressed her anger at the “unjustifiable restriction of education.” In comparison to the educational opportunities for boys, girls had limited choices. On her return to England, Martineau wrote, “The choice is to either be ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.”

Martineau’s return to London coincided with the completion of Charles Darwin’s expedition. In 1836, Darwin went to stay with his brother Erasmus who spent much of his time “driving out Miss Martineau”. Rumours that Erasmus and Martineau were an item unsettled Darwin who believed his brother would not survive a marriage to “so philosophical & energetic a lady”. Their father Robert (1766-1848) also had concerns that Martineau was too politically minded, despite sharing her Unitarian and Whig views.

On the other hand, Charles Darwin enjoyed discussing ideas with Martineau, commenting that “She is a wonderful woman”. While writing her book Society in America, Martineau discussed both the social and natural aspects of the country with Darwin. In a letter to his sisters, Darwin remarked: “She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects.” Princess Victoria (1819-1901) was also a fan of Martineau’s work and invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838.

Deerbrock

Fears of a marriage between Martineau and Erasmus came to nought after Martineau fell ill during a tour of Europe. Rather than return to London, she moved to Tynemouth near Newcastle to be near her brother. Martineau explored the fateful romance in her novel Deerbrook (1838), which features a failed love affair between a physician and his sister-in-law. Fortunately, Martineau and Erasmus remained on good terms, writing to each other frequently.

Doctors diagnosed Martineau with a uterine tumour, which confined her mostly to her home. She received frequent visits from her brother-in-law Dr Greenhow, who helped to relieve some of her symptoms. Unable to walk or stand well, Martineau’s mother cared for her until they found a suitable nurse. Not only did Martineau suffer physically, both from the tumour and deafness, she found herself in the position she had campaigned against, enacting the social constraints of women.

To assert her independence, albeit, with the help of a nurse, Martineau moved to Mrs Halliday’s boarding-house on 16th March 1840, where she resided for five years. The building later became a guest house, renamed “Martineau Guest House” in her honour. Whilst living there, Martineau continued to write, particularly about her illness. Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, published in 1844, is an autobiographical work that explores Martineau’s thoughts during her confinement. She dedicated the book to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, declaring it was “an outpouring of feeling to an idealised female alter ego, both professional writer and professional invalid- and utterly unlike the women in her own family”.

Despite her weakened state, Martineau took control of her situation. She often disagreed with doctors and told them what to do, rather than the other way around. Many readers of Life in the Sickroom declared Martineau mentally unwell, presuming her sickness had addled her mind. They were also concerned about the unfeminine hobbies Martineau took up, for instance, astronomy, although it was not only the stars she looked at through her telescope.

“When I look forth in the morning, the whole land may be sheeted with glittering snow, while the myrtle-green sea swells and tumbles… there is none of the deadness of winter in the landscape; no leafless trees, no locking up with ice; and the air comes in through my open upper sash brisk, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes… And at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver!”

Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sickroom, 1844

In 1844, Martineau’s health improved with the help of a new form of alternative medicine called mesmerism, named after the German doctor Franz Mesmer (1743-1815). Also known as animal magnetism, the treatment is a “loosely grouped set of practices in which one person influenced another through a variety of personal actions, or through the direct influence of one mind on another mind. Mesmerism was designed to make invisible forces augment the mental powers of the mesmeric object.” (Alison Winter, 1995) Martineau recorded her progress in a series of sixteen letters, which she eventually published under the title Letters on Mesmerism

In her new-found health, Martineau designed a house called The Knoll, which she oversaw the construction of in Ambleside, Lake District. Although she spent most of her later life in this house, she lived with her elderly mother in Birmingham during 1846. After this, Martineau set off on a tour of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, which inspired her book Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). In her writing, Martineau established a connection between the ancient beliefs of the Egyptians with 19th-century Christian beliefs. Once again, she caused controversy with many readers branding her an infidel.

As well as her book about the Eastern world, Martineau published Household Education in 1848, expressing her disdain for the lack of female academia. Although she agreed that motherhood and domesticity were worthy virtues, they did not prevent a woman from receiving a well-rounded education. Martineau proposed that young girls should receive the same schooling as boys, but if they chose to become a housewife, that was their decision rather than command and obedience. 

Eager to change the ways schools taught, Martineau conducted lectures at local schools for both children and their parents. She told them of her trip to America and the Middle East, as well as focusing on British history. The publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873) encouraged Martineau to convert her lectures into books, resulting in The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816–1846.

Martineau’s lectures and books spread to other topics, earning her the reputation of a “progressive” woman. Most of the subjects she tackled were not expected of a woman, making her appear to have a masculine nature. One of her books, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes, replaced William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) guide of the Lake District and remained popular for over 25 years. She also become a regular contributor for the Daily News and the Westminster Review.

Despite coming from a strict religious family, Martineau’s ideas bordered on atheism, causing irreparable rifts between her family and some friends. This was principally a result of the spiritual practice of mesmerism, which she credited for her “cure”, although medical doctors had different theories. Not only did her uterine tumour no longer cause her any problems, but Martineau also found it easier to cope with her deafness and lack of taste and smell. Unfortunately, her good health did not last for long; she received a heart disease diagnosis in 1855.

Concerned that she would not live long, Martineau hastily wrote her final autobiography, instructing her publisher to print it after her death. As it turned out, she need not have rushed. Meanwhile, she involved herself with political activism, particularly the Married Women’s Property Bill and women’s suffrage.

In 1859, Erasmus Darwin sent Martineau a copy of his brother’s book On the Origin of Species, which she thoroughly enjoyed. It was one of the first books about the world that did not have a theological premise. Having gushed about what a great book it was, Martineau wrote, “In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished.” Unfortunately, this opinion pushed her even further away from her profoundly religious brother James. 

Throughout the 1860s, Martineau signed petitions for women’s suffrage and continued to write her controversial books. Despite her poor health, she lived to the age of 74, passing away on 27th June 1876 after a bout of bronchitis. Although she lived in Ambleside, her burial took place in Birmingham alongside her mother in Key Hill Cemetery. The publication of her autobiography went ahead the following year.

Over time, Martineau’s books fell out of favour as the increasing number of women fighting for equal rights overshadowed them. Only recently has her work resurfaced in debates about the founder of sociology. Some praise Martineau for being the first sociologist to study issues related to women, such as marriage and children. She also taught that society must include all religions, races, cultures and politics.

Naturally, sociology has developed considerably since Harriet Martineau’s time, but there is clear evidence she pointed sociologists in the right direction. It is thanks to radical women like Martineau that Britain has seen so many changes concerning gender equality. Harriet Martineau features on the Reformers memorial at Kensal Green Cemetery amongst the likes of William Morris (1834-96), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and other radical thinkers.


Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley

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Unfinished Business – Vesta Tilley

Shortly before Lockdown 2.0, the British Library opened an exhibition about the fight for women’s rights. Displays about the Women’s Suffrage Movement were popular in 2018, celebrating the centenary of women voting for the first time. Unfinished Business explores other areas of life where women have been given or continue to receive unfair treatment. 

The exhibition explores three areas: body, mind and voice. For years, media has dictated how women should look, what they should wear and how they should appear in public. Magazines are full of airbrushed photographs, showing the (usually male) ideal of the female body. Models appear thinner on paper than in real life and their complexion perfect; the only time a woman appears fat or ugly is in gossip magazines where articles express horror at how she “has let herself go”.

Menstruation continues to be a taboo subject. Not only do men not wish to hear about periods, but they have led women to believe they are disgusting and unnatural when the complete opposite is true. After 48 years of campaigning, sanitary products will be tax-free from 1st January in the United Kingdom, although the Welsh government were recently in trouble when they deemed tampons as non-essential items. 

For hundreds of years, men considered the female mind to be inferior, resulting in limited education and career opportunities. Women were not allowed to attend university until 1868, yet their choices were limited and degrees unattainable. The first woman to receive a degree from the prestigious Cambridge University was Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) in 1948. Even then, it was only an honorary degree.

Until the 20th century, politics was a man’s world. Today, just over 23% of people in national governments are women, and the United Kingdom only has a proportion of 33.8% of women in management roles. Women broke parliamentary barriers in 1924 when Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) became the first woman to be appointed as a minister. Barriers were broken again in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) became Prime Minister, and in 1987, Diane Abbott (b.1953) became the first black woman to serve as an MP.

The final section of the exhibition explores women’s voices and their determination to be treated equally. One of the most notable campaigners for women’s rights is Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue now stands in Parliament Square in 2018. The British suffragist leader played a vital role in winning women the right to vote.

A century before, novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) pushed gender boundaries by publishing her books under the name “A Lady” rather than taking a male pseudonym. Most publishers rejected novels written by women, so to advertise her gender, if not her name, was radical for the era.

Women continue to speak up about their unfair treatment, making use of the media, music and protests. In 2018, British activist Stella Dadzie (b.1952), a founder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, designed a board game called “Womanopoly”. Loosely based on the familiar Monopoly, the game exposes the gender stereotypes that continue to plague modern society. Each square has an instruction for male and female players, for example, “Man – you are very aggressive and competitive – seize an extra turn. Woman – so are you. Take a sedative and stop being unfeminine. Lose a turn.” Yet, Dadzie does not only focus on women’s struggles: “Woman – your husband agrees to share all the housework … Take an extra turn. Man – you are ridiculed by your men friends. Back 2.”

The Unfinished Business exhibition acknowledges many women’s voices. As well as notable names, quite a few remain unknown. Going around the displays, visitors discover women who need their stories told. Having noted a few of these names, I plan to dedicate a blog to each individual. 

Vesta Tilley (1864-1952)

Vesta Tilley featured in the exhibition for being one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. Typically playing fops, dandies or principal boys, Tilley became England’s highest-paid woman of the 1890s, yet continued to scandalise people by wearing trousers.

Born Matilda Alice Powles on 13th May 1864 in Worcester, Tilley was the second of thirteen children of Henry and Matilda Powles. Her father, known as Harry Ball, was a musician and the master of ceremonies at the Theatre Royal, Gloucester. With his encouragement, Tilley first experienced life on stage at the age of three and, by six, was singing songs while dressed as a man.

From 1869 onwards, Tilley worked as a professional stage performer. Her first named role was Pocket Sims Reeves, a spoof of the opera singer John Sim Reeves (1821-1900). Tilley performed many of Reeve’s songs, including the traditional piece, The Anchor’s Weighed. Audiences found the young Tilley’s performances sweet and amusing, but Tilley continued to impersonate men throughout her teens and adulthood, including the role of Robinson Crusoe at the age of 13.

“I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.”

Vesta Tilley

Between 1815 and 1918, British Music Hall entertainment flourished, providing audiences with a variety of acts, often on the bold and scandalous side. Vesta Tilley fit the bill perfectly, quickly gaining fame. In 1872, Tilley’s father ceased working to become his daughter’s manager. This meant Tilley was the family’s chief income source.

In 1874, Tilley performed in London for the first time. Due to popular demand, the “Great Little Tilley” attended three different venues every night. Whilst audiences loved her, Edward Hyde Villiers (1846-1914), the manager of the Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, worried about the gender ambiguity of her act. “Great Little Tilley” neither suggested she was male or female, which Villiers feared was misleading.

After some thought, Tilley’s father decided on a new name for his daughter’s act: Vesta Tilley. Tilley was a diminutive of her real name, Matilda and Vesta referred to the Latin word for “virgin”. In April 1878, Tilley performed under her new name, Vesta Tilley, for the first time at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn.

Tilley typically performed as a dandy or fop, but also embraced other characters, such as clergymen and police officers. By the 1880s, Tilley was the favourite performer at music halls, resulting in an increased salary. At this time, her favourite character was Burlington Bertie, a young aristocratic man who aspires to a life of leisure in the West End of London.

Dressed as the Burlington Bertie, Tilley sang the song of the same name written by Harry B. Norris. The song has since been parodied several times, particularly under the title Burlington Bertie from Bow. Dame Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins fame performed a rendition of the song while dressed as a man in the 1968 film Star! 

In 1888, Harry Ball passed away, but this did not impact on his daughter’s successful career. Two years later, Tilley married the British theatre impresario Abraham Walter de Frece (1870-1935). The pair met when 25-year-old Tilley starred as the principal boy during the pantomime season at Frece’s father’s Gaiety Music Hall in Liverpool. Frece instantly fell in love with Tilley, but there was a lot of romantic competition amongst other theatre workers. Eventually, Frece managed to take Tilley out to a dance where he expressed his feelings, which she reciprocated. He married “the London Idol” on 16th August 1890 at Brixton Register Office in London.

With her husband as her new manager and songwriter, Tilley completed an extensive tour of Britain followed by six visits to the United States of America. Although she performed within the American vaudeville circuit, Vesta Tilley’s acts were usually family-friendly. By this time, Tilley was the highest-earning woman in England, and in America, theatres offered her $600 a week.

Despite taking on farcical characters, often mocking the upper-classes, Tilley paid a great deal of attention to her attire. At the time, there were no unisex clothing, and female items, particularly underwear, tended to draw attention to a woman’s shape. Not only did Tilley wear male costumes, but she also wore male underwear. She complimented her suits with a wig under which she hid her long, plaited hair.

When Tilley first began acting, music halls were a place for gentlemen only. Her biggest fans, therefore, were men, but during the 1870s women were permitted to attend performances too. The majority of these women delighted in Tilley’s shows, enjoying her sense of independence. Protests for women’s rights were underway, and Vesta Tilley became a prime example of a woman succeeding in a man’s world.

In 1898, Vesta Tilley made one of the first sound recordings in England. She continued to record some of her songs for radio broadcasts throughout her career, including It’s part of a policeman’s duty, I’m the idol of the girls and Following a fellow with a face like me.

By the 1900s, Tilley’s fame was equal to that of music halls in general. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), several “Royal Command Performances” were held at Windsor Castle each year to celebrate the talents of leading actors in London theatres. These performances tended to exclude music hall acts, perhaps because of their bawdy nature, but the growing popularity called for the inclusion of the entertainment.

In 1912, an all-star Royal Command Performance took place at the London’s Palace Theatre in aid of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, the first of an annual event later renamed the Royal Variety Performance. His Majesty King George V (1865-1936) and Her Majesty Queen Mary (1867-1953) attended the show starring Vesta Tilley and other great performers of the time, including, singer Harry Lauder (1870-1950), comedian Harry Tate (1872-1940), ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) and the ‘White-Eyed Kaffir’ G. H. Chirgwin (1854-1922). Whilst the royals enjoyed the acts, Mary hid behind her programme at the sight of Tilley wearing trousers. She was scandalised to see a woman dressing as a man.

When the First World War began, concerts became less frequent, but Tilley continued to act and sing where she could. Along with her husband, who by this time owned 18 theatres, Tilley organised charity events where she performed dressed in military uniform. Frece composed many of the songs for his wife, but she also sang war songs, such as Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier, and Your King and Country Want You (also known as We Don’t Want to Lose You but We Think You Ought to Go).

During her wartime shows, Tilley encouraged young men to enlist in the army, earning her the nickname “England’s greatest recruiting sergeant”. Within a week, Tilley managed to recruit an entire army unit, known as “The Vesta Tilley Platoon”. Despite encouraging the soldiers to fight, Tilley also acknowledged the horrors of war. In the song I’m Glad I’ve Got a Bit of a Blighty One, for example, she sang about a soldier who was happy to be injured in battle so that he could return to Blighty (England).

As a result of the war, music halls declined in popularity, and Tilley felt it was time to step down. At 55, her health was deteriorating, which also contributed to her decision to retire. For her farewell tour, which lasted a year, all proceeds were given to local children’s hospitals. On Saturday 5th June 1920, Vesta Tilley performed for the last time at the Coliseum Theatre in London and lived out the rest of her life as Lady de Frece. Her husband had received a knighthood in the 1919 King’s Birthday Honours List.

 It was a “wonderful night” and at the end Vesta Tilley was “gradually being submerged under the continuous stream of bouquets”.

The Times, writing about Vesta Tilley’s final performance

Tilley’s retirement coincided with her husband’s decision to go into politics. In 1922, Sir Frece became the Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester and 1924, the MP for Blackpool. Despite holding these positions, Frece was rarely in the country. Frece relocated to Monte Carlo on the French Riviera to aid his wife’s ailing health and only returned for parliamentary meetings.

In 1931, Sir Frece retired from politics and made the French Riviera his permanent home. During this time, Tilley penned her autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley, which she published the year before her husband died in 1935. Frece was 64 at the time of his death; his body lies in Putney Vale Cemetery, southwest London. 

Despite her frail health, Lady Frece continued to live in Monte Carlo for seventeen years. While on a trip to London in 1952, Tilley fell ill and passed away on 16th September at the age of 88. After her funeral, Tilley was reunited with her husband in Putney Vale Cemetery. Many famous people have been buried or cremated in the cemetery, including, Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874-1939), sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Formula One driver James Hunt (1947-93), actor Kenneth More (1914-82) and Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee (1919-96). 

Five years after her death, Compton Bennett (1900-74) directed a biographical film about the life of Vesta Tilley. Starring Pat Kirkwood (1921-2007) as Tilley and Laurence Harvey (1928-73) as Walter de Frece, After the Ball told the story of “the life and loves of Music hall singer Vesta Tilley, who married into the nobility.” Unfortunately, the film failed to please the critics: “It’s incomprehensible how director Compton Bennett … could have made such a yawn out of such a good true story.” (TV Guide, 1957)

The British Library used Vesta Tilley as an example of a woman who was unafraid of controversy. She was an inspiration for women keen to challenge convention, and yet not many people remember her name today. Daring to go against gender norms, Vesta Tilley should be an inspiration to all feminists fighting for equality.

She Sells Seashells

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

This tongue twister, written in 1908, is believed to be based on the life and discoveries of one woman, the unsung hero of fossil discovery, Mary Anning. Living and working along the Jurassic Coast, Anning unearthed important finds in the marine fossil beds, changing the way scientists thought about prehistoric life on Earth.

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Mary Anning and her loyal companion, Tray

Mary Anning was born on 21st May 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset where her father, Richard (c.1766-1810) worked as a cabinetmaker and carpenter. To supplement his income and support his large family, Richard combed the beach for “curios” to sell to tourists. Richard and his wife Mary “Molly” (1764-1842) were parents of ten children, only two of which survived infancy. These were Mary, who was named after a deceased older sister, and an older brother Joseph.

The Anning family were religious dissenters and attended a small chapel of “independents” who later became known as Congregationalists. Dissenters were faced with discrimination and were not allowed to study at university, serve in the army or take up certain vocations. As a result, the family was very poor and lived in a cottage so close to the sea that it was often flooded. On one occasion, the Anning’s were forced to climb out of an upstairs window to avoid drowning inside.

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1842 sketch of Anning’s house

Despite being poor, Mary Anning was well-known in the village from a young age. In 1800, when Anning was only 15 months old, she was being held by a neighbour under an elm tree, which was suddenly struck by lighting. The neighbour and the other people under the tree were all killed, however, Mary miraculously survived. Superstitious neighbours later attributed Anning’s intelligence, curiosity and personality to the event.

Schooling was limited for females at the beginning of the nineteenth century so, combined with her parents’ lack of money, Anning could not receive a normal education. Instead, she relied on the Sunday School at the Congregational chapel for lessons in reading and writing. Many Congregational churches at that time concentrated on educating the poor than traditional Sunday School lessons.

Anning’s interest in fossils came primarily from her father, however, she was also inspired by her pastor, the Reverend James Wheaton. In the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, Wheaton had published two articles; one arguing that God created the world in six days and the other urging the congregation to study science and geology.

As soon as she was old enough, Anning’s father allowed her to accompany him and her brother Joseph on fossil-finding expeditions. Mary and Joseph likely did the majority of the work for, by this time, their father was suffering from tuberculosis. He was also suffering from injuries after falling from a cliff. By November 1810, Richard Anning was dead and the family were left with significant debts, forcing them to apply for parish relief.

Meanwhile, Anning and her brother continued collecting and selling fossils to tourists. They set up a stall near the coach stop to draw the attention of people visiting the seaside resort. Labelled as “curios”, the Annings sold significant fossils, possibly without being fully aware of what they were.

Although Mary Anning eventually became famous for her finds, it was her brother Joseph who found the first significant fossil. This was a 4-foot ichthyosaur skull. An ichthyosaurus, meaning “fish lizard”, was an extinct marine reptile from the Mesozoic era. It is estimated they first appeared 250 million years ago and disappeared 90 million years ago. They are likely distant ancestors of the modern-day whale and dolphin.

Ichthyosaur specimens had been discovered before but this skull was the most complete. Yet, what makes this find all the more impressive is what Anning discovered a few months later. At only 12 years of age, Anning found the rest of the skeleton.

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Ichthyosaurus communis specimen

Some people thought Anning had dug up a monster and others thought it was the skeleton of a crocodile, however, Anning’s mother Molly realised it was something special and sold it to Henry Hoste Henley of Sandringham House, Norfolk, for £23. Eventually, the fossil ended up in the British Museum, now the Natural History Museum, where it created a lot of attention. Most people in England believed in the Biblical creation, which when taken literally, implied the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Claiming that Anning had found a skeleton that could potentially be 200 million years old, went against many people’s beliefs.

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Mary Anning’s sketch of her first plesiosaur

In 1823, Anning made another discovery: a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus. This creature, meaning “near lizard” in Greek, was a large marine reptile that lived during the Jurassic Period. It had a small head on the end of a long, slender neck. Its body was like that of a turtle with a short tail and elongated legs or flippers. Once again, this discovery went against the traditional story of creation.

The outrage following the discovery of the fossil caused people to claim it was a fake. Even the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) disputed its authenticity and a special meeting was organised by the Geological Society of London to examine the fossil properly. Cuvier eventually admitted the skeleton was real, however, the society was hesitant to record that is was Anning, a mere girl, that had made the discovery. It was not until the early 20th century that women were accepted by the society.

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Sketch of Mary Anning at work by Henry De la Beche

By 1825, Anning was more or less running the family fossil business alone. Her brother Joseph was training to be an upholsterer and, although he remained an active fossil hunter, his career took up the majority of his time.

Anning continued to sell the fossils to tourists but rarely made more than a few shillings at a time. This was a mere pittance and did not take into account the time, effort and danger it took to extract the fossils from the sea bed and rocks. In 1823, Anning had barely escaped from a landslide, which killed her black and white terrier, Tray.

“Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.”
– Mary Anning to a friend, Charlotte Murchison

Despite only selling fossils for a small amount of money, there were so many small invertebrate fossils in the area, such as ammonite shells, that Anning managed to save enough money to purchase her own home in 1826. The 27-year-old’s new home included a glass store-front window, which she used for her shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot.

Due to her previous discoveries, Anning was well-known in the area and soon she was attracting customers throughout Britain, Europe and even from America. Geologists and fossil collectors regularly visited Anning’s shop, which had an ichthyosaur skeleton on display. This was later purchased by King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (1797-1854) in 1844 for the modest sum of £15.

The British-American Geologist George William Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866) was another keen visitor to Anning’s Fossil Depot. In 1827, he purchased many fossils from Anning for his New York Lyceum of Natural History, now known as the New York Academy of Sciences.

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Anning’s first pterosaur

In 1828, Anning discovered the fossil of a ray-finned fish that lived in the Early Jurassic period. Whilst this garnered interest from the Geological Society, it was her discovery at the end of the year that hit the headlines. What at first seemed to be a jumble of bones turned out to be a partial skeleton of a pterosaur.

A pterosaur was, as its Greek name suggests, a winged lizard. With wings reaching over 30 ft, it is estimated these creatures could rival the giraffe in height. They existed during the Mesozoic Era, which occurred between 252 million and 66 million years ago.

William Buckland (1784-1856), a theologian and later Dean of Westminster, was the president of the Geological Society of London at the time of Anning’s discovery. Buckland was one of the very few people who credited Anning in their papers. As well as the pterosaur, Buckland praised Anning for her skill in dissecting cephalopods, a type of squid, and for solving the mystery of coprolites, which Anning suggested correctly were fossilised faeces.

Despite being more knowledgable than most of the people who purchased her fossils, Anning was never allowed to attend any meetings at the Geological Society, not even when it was her finds that were being discussed. A friend of Anning’s, Anna Pinney, reported, “She says the world has used her ill … these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.” It was mainly through people like Buckland that Anning kept abreast of the discussions occurring in London. Buckland was a lecturer on geology at Oxford University, however, he often spent his Christmas holidays in Lyme, assisting Anning in her hunt for fossils.

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Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset

Another good friend of Anning was the palaeontologist Henry De la Beche (1796-1855) who had moved to Lyme when he and Anning were teenagers. De la Beche often helped Mary and Joseph on the beaches and continued to keep in touch after moving away to establish himself as one of Britain’s leading geologists. In 1830, De la Beche was inspired to paint Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset from which he produced and sold prints. This example of palaeoart was the first of its kind, representing prehistoric life based on fossils. De la Beche gave the money raised from the prints to Anning, who, despite being a successful fossil hunter, continually struggled to make ends meet.

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Front piece of The book of the Great Sea Dragons

Gradually, as well as purchasing from her shop, geologists visited Lyme to collect fossils under Anning’s instruction. On one occasion, Anning led Buckland and two other geologists, William Conybeare (1787-1857) and Richard Owen (1804-92) on a fossil-collecting excursion. She also helped the fossil collector Thomas Hawkins (1810-89) search for ichthyosaur fossils. Hawkins went on to write many books, including Memoirs of Icthyosaurii and Plesiosaurii and The Book of the Great Sea Dragons.

Louis Agassiz (1807-73), a Swiss geologist, was so thankful for Anning’s help when he was searching for fish fossils in Lyme Regis in 1834 that he named two specimens after her. These were the Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae, which became extinct around 54 million years ago.

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Cast of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus found by Mary Anning in 1830

Anning’s final major find was a skeleton of a new type of plesiosaur, which she discovered in 1830. She sold the skeleton for £200 but lost all her savings five years later due to a bad investment. It is not certain whether she entrusted her money to a conman or whether the man died suddenly before the investment was finalised, however, there was no way Anning could retrieve the money.

Concerned for her welfare, William Buckland went to both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British government to persuade them to award Anning a civil list pension in return for her contributions to geology. Although it was unusual for a woman to receive such an annuity, Anning was granted a £25 annual pension, which gave her a certain amount of financial security for the rest of her life.

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Gravestone of Anning and her brother Joseph in St Michael’s churchyard

Anning’s career as a fossil collector was hindered by breast cancer. When the Geological Society learnt about her diagnosis in 1846, they raised money to help her cover the expenses of her medical treatment. Unfortunately, she passed away on 9th March 1847 at the age of 47.

Henry De la Beche wrote a eulogy, which was read at a meeting of the Geological Society and published in the society’s quarterly transaction. This was the first time a woman had been honoured in this way. Later, in 1865, Charles Dickens (1812-70) wrote about Anning’s life in his magazine All the Year Round. He commented on the difficulties she faced as a woman and concluded the article with, “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

Anning was buried at St Michael’s Church on 15th March 1847. Although Anning had attended the local Congregational church as a child, attendance began to dwindle after the beloved pastor and fossil collector left in 1828. Anning decided to leave the church and its new, less likeable pastor for the Anglican church. Some of her regular customers, including Buckland, Conybeare, and Sedgwick, were members of the clergy and supported Anning’s decision. The move also earned her more respect since the Congregationalists were still distrusted by the locals.

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Mary Anning’s Window, St Michael’s Church

Shortly after her death, members of the Geological Society raised money for a stained-glass window in Anning’s honour, which was unveiled at St Michael’s Church in 1850. “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The window shows the six corporal acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners and visiting the sick.

Despite her early death, Anning’s discoveries continued to help geologists and led to the creation of the discipline palaeontology. Although the finds initially caused controversy with the strict teachings of the Church, people were now aware that there had been an “age of reptiles”. They also provided evidence for extinction, which was another thing that caused outrage amongst the devoutly religious. People protested that extinction would imply that God’s creation had been imperfect.

Gradually, people began to adapt to the new ideas and realise they did not evidence that God did not exist and accepted them as new information about God’s creation. Throughout the 20th century, authors began to publish books about Anning’s life, for instance, The Heroine of Lyme Regis: The Story of Mary Anning the Celebrated Geologist by H. A. Forde.

Unfortunately, Anning’s name gradually faded from the history books and science books until she was almost forgotten. Whilst schools taught children about dinosaurs, they did not cover the people who discovered the skeletons and fossils. Fortunately, those working in the field of palaeontology remembered her, holding an international meeting of historians, palaeontologists, fossil collectors, and others interested in Anning’s life in Lyme Regis to mark the 200th anniversary of her birth.

The Natural History Museum credits Anning with many of the fossils in their collection. They have also named the members-only area the Anning Rooms in her memory. The Rooms include a restaurant, lounge and study area.

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In 2018, it was announced that Kate Winslet would play Mary Anning in an upcoming British-Australian romantic drama film called Ammonite. The film is scheduled to be released in 2020. Another film currently in the post-production stage is Mary Anning and the Dinosaur Hunters. This film, unlike Ammonite, which starts later in Anning’s life, is a biopic spanning from her birth into adulthood. Jenny Agutter is cast as Anning’s friend and mentor Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857).

Philpot was an amateur fossil collector who, like Anning, collected fossils in Lyme Regis. She befriended Anning when she was only a child and, despite the 20-year age gap, they remained close for the rest of their lives. Although it was Anning who made the most significant discoveries, Philpot was the person that encouraged Anning to read about geology and understand the fossils she collected.

It is hoped that these films will boost knowledge and interest in Mary Anning and her contributions to science. More and more women are being acknowledged for their achievements during a time when women were not allowed to be credited. Since the anniversary of the Women’s Rights campaign led by the suffragists and suffragettes, more determination has been exerted to discover the women who have been erased from history. Mary Anning is just one of many women who deserve to be remembered.


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The Real Cindy Sherman

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Until 15th September 2019, the National Portrait Gallery is exploring the photography of Cindy Sherman in a retrospective that explores the development of Sherman’s work from the mid-1970s to the present day. With over 150 photographs on display, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s manipulation of her own appearance and range of cultural sources, and investigates the balance between façade and identity.

Despite investigating four decades worth of work, the NPG fails to tell visitors much about the photographer herself – a little personal digging is necessary for those wishing to know more. Cynthia Morris Sherman was born on 9th January 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, although shortly moved to Huntington Beach, Long Island. She was the fifth and youngest child of Dorothy and Charles Sherman. Her father was an engineer for Grumman Aircraft and her mother taught handicapped children to read.

From an early age, Sherman loved to dress up, particularly in clothing dating from the 1920s. As she got older, she enjoyed searching for costumes in second-hand shops and experimenting with make-up. She quickly learnt that by combining the right clothing and make-up, one could change one’s appearance entirely. This realisation was the starting point in Sherman’s career. Rather than photographing other people, she uses herself as a model wearing remarkably convincing costumes and inventing numerous personae.

The earliest works in the exhibition date from around 1975 during her university days. From 1972 until 1976, Cindy Sherman studied in the visual arts department at the State University College at Buffalo, New York. Initially, she began working with paint but felt frustrated with the limitations of the medium and soon abandoned it in favour of photography.

“[T]here was nothing more to say [through painting] … I was meticulously copying other art, and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead.” – Cindy Sherman

It was during her time at university that Sherman’s interest in manipulating her appearance and creating alter egos took flight. Taking a photograph of herself impersonating the American actress Lucille Ball (1911-89) showed her the potential of transforming herself as a work of art. Rather than imitating other people, Sherman began inventing fictitious individuals, both female and male, practising with exaggerated use of make-up. The idea was to draw attention to the deceptive nature of appearance.

One of Sherman’s university works was inspired by murder mystery plays. After writing a plot for an 82-scene play involving thirteen characters, Sherman dressed up and photographed herself as each individual in a number of poses. Each character had a particular style of dress and she used make-up and wigs to create distinct appearances. For one character, she donned an apron and held a tea tray to transform herself into a maid, and for another, a blonde wig and heavy make-up changed her into an overexcited actress. Other characters included a detective, a butler, and a photographer amongst a range of suspects. The photos were originally cut out and stuck together to create a scene, however, the exhibition shows a handful of the original frames.

Sherman produced several series of similar works during her time at university and also experimented with film. Three short, grainy films show her acting the part of different personas. In one, she is an ambiguous young woman mouthing the words “I hate you” and eventually shedding tears. In another, she is dressed as “an unattractive prostitute that nobody finds appealing”. The third is a more successful stop-motion animation that depicts Sherman as a cut-out doll that dresses up and admires herself in a mirror.

After moving to New York in 1977, where she still lives and works, Sherman began working on a series called Untitled Film Stills. Continuing to be fascinated with her ability to change her appearance and create fictional personae, Sherman took 69 black-and-white photographs that resembled shots taken on film sets of stereotypical female roles in 1950’s and 60’s Hollywood, Film Noir and B Movies. Characters include librarians, office girls, housewives, seductresses and so forth in a variety of settings, including Sherman’s apartment and locations around the city.

Cindy Sherman never titled the individual photos, wishing to preserve their ambiguity. The model – Sherman herself – is always looking away from the camera, suggesting an unspecified narrative open for individual interpretation. In a reflection of her work, Sherman discussed her intentions, thoughts and feelings:

I was wrestling with some sort of turmoil of my own about understanding women. The characters weren’t dummies; they weren’t just airhead actresses. They were women struggling with something but I didn’t know what. The clothes make them seem a certain way, but then you look at their expression, however slight it may be, and wonder if maybe “they” are not what the clothes are communicating.”

Shortly after graduating from art school, Sherman created a series of works known as Cover Girls, which were displayed on the inside of the top deck of a bus in November 1976. The series incorporates the front covers of five women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle. Each magazine was represented by three similar covers; the first was the original but in the second, Sherman replaced the model’s face with her own, using cosmetics to make it look as similar as possible. The third cover also featured Sherman, however, this time, she pulled a “goofy face”.

Take, for example, the cover of Vogue. The original shows the heavily made-up model Jerry Hall (b.1956) staring into the camera. On the second cover is Cindy Sherman looking remarkably like Jerry Hall, replicating the same pose. In the third, however, Sherman pulls a face and winks, thus making a mockery of the original photograph. The idea was to emphasise the artificial nature of magazines, which constantly try to convey an impression of beauty, glamour and sophistication.

In the 1980s, Sherman began working with coloured photography. Similar to her Untitled Film Stills from the previous decade, Sherman produced a series of close-up photographs that appear to show an actress in a film against a projected background. The actresses, of course, are all pictures of Cindy Sherman with cosmetically altered features. Her idea was to show how artificial some films can appear, enhanced further by the inclusion of herself as a “fake” actress.

In 1981, Sherman was commissioned by Artforum magazine to produce photographs to spread across the centre pages. Rather than portraying sensual female models as the magazine expected, Sherman photographed herself in the guise of vulnerable-looking women. She tried to make it appear as though the (male) magazine readers were intruding on someone’s personal pain, sadness or reverie. The magazine eventually declined to publish the photographs.

Over time, Cindy Sherman has worked for a number of fashion magazines. This has involved working with various designers, such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs. In 1983, Sherman was commissioned by the New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce the photographs to be used in advertisements for clothes by Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Whilst Sherman did provide photos of the clothes worn by her personal model (i.e. herself), she created images that parody fashion photography. Her invented characters wear stylish designer-label clothes, however, they appear upset, unstable and absurd.

“I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful … I was trying to make fun of fashion.” – Cindy Sherman

Sherman’s aim was to expose designer labels who claimed through fashion photography that their clothes could make you look elegant. As Sherman proved, this is not the case. Her photographs show that the clothes have not made her look particularly attractive; fashion photography is merely an illusion.

The following year, Sherman took this idea further when she was commissioned by the French fashion company Dorothée Bis to provide photographs for Vogue Paris. Again, she dressed her characters in designer outfits, however, she deliberately made herself look ugly, dishevelled or depressed. Despite her actions and dislike for the illusions of fashion, magazines continue to employ Sherman.

By the end of the 1980s, Cindy Sherman changed direction and looked to the past for inspiration. By this time, she was married to the French photographer Michael Auder (b.1945) and was the step-mother of Alexandra and Gaby Hoffman (b.1982). During the late eighties, Sherman spent two months in Rome where she turned her attention to the visual language and style of Old Master paintings.

Although prosthetics are now a common feature in Sherman’s work, her series of Historical Portraits was the first time she really employed such an extravagant range. By combining false noses, false breasts, wigs, make-up and costumes, Cindy managed to transform herself into over thirty women and men. Characters included aristocrats, ladies of leisure, royalty and the Virgin Mary. Whilst she was inspired by the Old Masters, Cindy tended to create completely made up portraits of fictitious people rather than replicating paintings she saw in Rome. There was, however, one exception.

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Madame Moitessier – Jean-Auguste-Dominique

Cindy particularly admired a painting by the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Madame Moitessier (1865) is a portrait of Marie-Clotilde-Inès Moitessier (1821-97), the wife of a rich banker and lace merchant. The sitter is dressed in detailed fabric and decorated with jewels. Her pose makes her appear graceful and is typical of the era.

In Cindy Sherman’s version, the sitter adopts a similar pose using a different hand and is dressed in silky material and jewels. Corresponding to the setting of Ingres’ painting, Sherman is sat in front of a mirror, so the back of her head can be seen. It is this same mirror that breaks the illusion of a historical painting because a piece of paper can be seen in the reflection.

Sherman’s deliberate parodies of historical paintings draw attention to the potential illusion of people’s appearances. Looking at Sherman’s photographs, we know she is wearing wigs and prosthetics and does not look that way in real life. The question is, how reliable are paintings from the pre-camera era? To what extent is the appearance of Ingres’ model truthful? How many inventions did Ingres add to the painting? Was Madame Moitessier really wearing that dress; did her cheeks really contain that much rouge; has her appearance been altered slightly to conform with social preferences about beauty? Sadly, we will never know.

As well as historical portraits, Sherman used fairy tales as inspiration for her work. For these, her style became more nightmarish and grotesque. Using prosthetics, Cindy created characters from the more sinister side of children’s stories, for instance, a man with a pig’s snout and a woman with dark eyes and sharp, pointed teeth.

Cindy Sherman and Michel Auder divorced in 1999 but this did not prevent Sherman from continuing with her photography projects. Between 1991 and 2005, she lived in a fifth-floor co-op loft in Manhattan until she bought two apartments overlooking the Hudson River. Today, she lives in one and uses the other for her studio. The National Portrait Gallery has recreated her studio in one of the rooms of the exhibition in order for visitors to understand how Sherman works.

From the mid-90s, perhaps developing on from her Fairy Tale series, Sherman produced numerous photographs that incorporated the use of masks. Some of the characters appear entirely artificial with, perhaps, one feature that reveals it is really Cindy Sherman. Whereas her previous work has dealt with the idea that appearances can be deceptive, the use of masks completely removes the opportunity to establish identity and other personal attributes.

Sherman was also interested in the appearance of clowns whose costumes and make-up create a whole new identity. The application of make-up or facepaint can completely change the demeanour of someone’s face. A natural expression can be transformed into a sinister-looking face or an overtly happy one.

As Cindy Sherman gets older and enters the new millennium, her photos become increasingly engrossed in the issues of age and social status. Whilst Sherman alters her appearance to appear ten or twenty years older, her characters are resorting to cosmetics to maintain an illusion of youthfulness. Despite their make-up, the women look their age, failing to appear any younger. They are also desperate to preserve their social status and appear sophisticated and wealthy.

These portraits are taken against elaborate backdrops to further enhance the impression of affluence and elegance. The attempt of these characters to appear youthful backfires and suggests they are full of insecurities about their age and position in life. Their haughty demeanour seems forced and fake, which is the opposite of their intentions.

Of course, these women are fictitious and Sherman is not yet as old as they appear. Nonetheless, as a photographer, Sherman is confronting an issue that will affect everyone in the future.

Cindy Sherman returns to the past in her most recent series of work. Taken between 2016 and 2018, Sherman experiments by dressing up as what she terms “flappers”. This term refers to young women after the First World War whose appearance and attitude went against convention. They cut their hair short, smoked in public, wore copious amounts of make-up and generally went against the norms of feminity.

Being a feminist herself, Sherman was drawn to these women, adopting hairstyles, make-up and fashion worn by women in the 1920s. The key difference is Sherman’s characters are clearly a lot older than the so-called “flappers”. This gives them the illusion of Hollywood grandes dames, desperately trying to hold on to their youth.

These latest photos also show Sherman’s professional development from a grainy, black-and-white camera to a full-colour, digitally-manipulated photograph. One image is made up of four portraits of Sherman in different costumes, grouped together as though posing for only one photograph. Again, the costumes date back to the 1920s and the similarities in appearance suggest the characters are sisters. Family acts were in vogue between the two world wars, although, in this instance, the sisters have aged considerably.

The theme of actresses runs throughout Cindy Sherman’s work, which is an apt metaphor for her own life. Despite there being hundreds of photographs of Sherman, none of them reveals her true identity. Whilst we can build up a visual appearance, we do not learn anything about her life or personality.

Having expressed her contempt for the “so vulgar” social media platforms, there is little to learn about Sherman’s true identity online. Wikipedia tells us she had a relationship with Scottish-American singer-songwriter David Byrne (b. 1952) between the years 2007 and 2011 and she enjoyed regular holidays in the Catskill Mountains.

Cindy Sherman currently serves on the artistic advisory committee of the dance firm Stephen Petronio Company. In 2012, she joined 150 artists, including Yoko Ono (b.1933), in the founding of Artists Against Fracking. This is in opposition to hydraulic fracturing in order to remove gas from underground deposits.

Despite detesting social media, Sherman has an Instagram account that documents her latest works and ideas. Other than this, there is very little insight into her life. Whilst Cindy Sherman appears in every photograph shown at the National Portrait Gallery, visitors ironically come away knowing very little about her.

The Cindy Sherman exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London is open until 15th September 2019. Tickets are priced at £18 for adults. On Fridays, under 25s can visit for £5 but be aware some images are unsuitable for children.


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