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: The Edinburgh Seven

At the British Library‘s exhibition Unfinished Business, the Edinburgh Seven featured as examples of women campaigning for the right to higher education. Whilst girls were welcome in schools during the 19th-century, universities did not permit women to enrol. The seven women, known as the Edinburgh Seven, began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 against the ruling of the Court of Session, but they were not allowed to graduate. 

Taking their name from the Greek mythological story the Seven Against Thebes, the Edinburgh Seven or Septem contra Edinam involved many women over their four-year campaign. The seven leaders were: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell. Jex-Blake instigated the campaign after applying to study medicine in March 1869. Whilst the Medical Faculty was in favour of welcoming Jex-Blake, the University Court rejected the application stating they could not change the rules “in the interest of one lady”. 

Jex-Blake’s application for matriculation

Determined to study at the university, Jex-Blake published letters in national newspapers asking women to join her. Two women, Thorne and Pechey, quickly joined her cause and by the summer, the number of women totalled five. Jex-Blake resubmitted her application along with the other women in the hopes that this time the university would grant her entry. While waiting for a response, two more women joined the cause, taking the total to seven. The University Court accepted the application so long as the women could pass the matriculation exam.

The matriculation exam involved English, Latin, mathematics and two subjects of the candidate’s choice: Greek, French, German, higher mathematics, natural philosophy, logic and moral philosophy. On 19th October 1869, 152 students took the exam, Jex-Blake and her friends being the only women. All of them passed with four women earning a place in the top seven. On 2nd November 1869, the University of Edinburgh opened its doors to women for the first time.

“It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn’t it?”

Sophia Jex-Blake

Who were the Edinburgh Seven?

Sophia Jex-Blake by Samuel Laurence, 1865

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912), the leader of the Edinburgh Seven grew up in Hastings where she received an education at home until the age of eight. After this, she attended many private schools including Queen’s College, London, which she started attending in 1858 without her parents’ permission. The following year, the college offered Jex-Blake a post as a mathematics tutor, which she accepted although did without pay.

In 1861, Jex-Blake travelled to the United States, where she met Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall, an American physician who inspired Jex-Blake to think about becoming a doctor. After working for some time as Sewall’s assistant, Jex-Blake wrote to the President and Fellows of Harvard University asking to attend the University’s Medical School. After waiting a month, she received a reply saying, “There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university”.

Jex-Blake’s father passed away shortly after this rejection, so she returned to England to support her mother. Yet, she still aspired to attend university and set her sights on Scotland, a country that already had shifting attitudes towards education.

Isabel Jane Thorne (Mrs Thorne)

Isabel Jane Thorne (1834-1910), nee Pryer, also attended Queen’s College, London. In 1856, Isabel married Joseph Thorne (1823-85), a tea merchant in China, and they spent the first years of their married life in Shanghai. The couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy, which inspired Thorne to help other women and children in China. Thorn believed women needed female doctors, so when she returned to England in 1868, she enrolled on a midwifery course at the Ladies’ Medical College in Fitzroy Square, London.

Disappointed with the inadequate teaching at the Ladies’ Medical College, Thorne eagerly responded to Jex-Blake’s letter. She won first prize in an anatomy examination but gave up her ambition to become a doctor to help other women access medical education. Her daughter May, who supported her mother’s dreams, later became a surgeon.

Edith Pechey

(Mary) Edith Pechey (1845-1908) from Essex already had connections with the University of Edinburgh through her father William, a Baptist minister who earned his MA in theology in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Pechey could not use this to her advantage because she was a woman. Pechey worked as a governess until she saw and responded to Jex-Blake’s advertisement. Although concerned she did not have enough knowledge of the subjects needed to pass the matriculation exam, Pechey achieved the top grade in the chemistry exam after only one year of study.

Matilda Chaplin (1846-83) moved to Kensington from France shortly after her birth. Her early education focused on art, but in 1867 she decided to study medicine instead. Two years at the Ladies’ Medical College only got her so far, until her gender blocked her ambitions to become a doctor. Chaplin jumped at the chance to join Jex-Blake’s campaign to study at the University of Edinburgh.

Matriculation Record

Helen de Lacey Evans (1833-1903), born Helen Carter, was an Irish woman who spent some time in India where she married cavalry officer Henry John Delacy Evans of the Bengal Horse Artillery Regiment in 1845. Their marriage was short and bittersweet, resulting in the death of their infant daughter Helen shortly followed by Henry’s death. After returning to Britain, Evans responded to Jex-Blake and joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Mary Adamson Anderson (1837-1910) from Boyndie, Scotland was the daughter of Reverend Alexander Govie Anderson and sister-in-law of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). Little information exists about Anderson until she joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Signature of Emily Bovell

Emily Bovell (1841-85), like Jex-Blake, attended Queen’s College, London and stayed on to teach Mathematics. She too responded to Jex-Blake’s letter, eager to continue her education.

Enrolling at the University of Edinburgh was only the first hurdle. In hindsight, it was relatively easy in comparison to what they later faced. The Edinburgh University Calendar for 1870 introduced a new section called the Regulations for the Education of Women in Medicine in the University. This stated men and women were to receive equal tuition and examinations. Despite this, women received their lessons separately from men and had to pay higher fees.

Thomas Charles Hope

In March 1870, all seven women passed their first exams in physiology and chemistry, four of whom received honours in both subjects. Edith Pechey won first place amongst all the candidates, which entitled her to the Hope Scholarship. This award, initiated by Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) chemistry professor Thomas Charles Hope (1766-1844) forty years previously, was usually given to the top four students. The present Professor of Chemistry, Dr Crum-Brown, on the other hand, thought giving the scholarship to women would undermine the male students.

Denying women the Hope Scholarship sparked further hostilities in the university. Many professors continued to argue that women should not be allowed to study with the men and expressed concerns that they may have ulterior motives for seeking medical careers. Pechey wrote to the papers to express her anger at being called “the foulest epithets”, most notably “whore”. Newspapers sympathetic to the women questioned why the professors did not have the same concerns about their male students, yet the professors maintained the women should “Become Midwives, not doctors!”

The male students, perhaps encouraged by their professors’ views, went out of their way to make the women’s lives difficult. As well as name-calling, the women received threatening letters and faced attacks in the streets. Vandals damaged their property and, on one occasion, Jex-Blake had a lit Catherine Wheel attached to her door.

Surgeons’ Hall

Despite the ongoing antagonism, the women persevered with their education. On 18th November 1870, their anatomy exam was due to take place at Surgeons’ Hall, but on their arrival, they faced a hostile crowd. After fighting their way through the masses while being pelted with mud and rubbish, they found the entrance to the hall locked. After enduring the hostilities, now known as the Surgeons’ Hall Riots, for several minutes, a sympathetic male student unlocked the doors.

After the riots, many of the male students changed their attitudes towards the women. Shocked by the abuse they witnessed, some of the men volunteered to act as bodyguards. They walked the women to and from their exams and their classes. The police fined three of the riot instigators £1 for “breach of the peace”, but Jex-Blake believed it was a member of staff who encouraged their behaviour.

Inspired by the Edinburgh Seven, other women joined the university and others established a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women. Over 300 people joined the committee, both women and men, including the well-known naturalist Charles Darwin. Despite this support and the excellent exam results the women received, the university refused to let them graduate. Not only did the university deny the women degrees, but they also ruled that women should no longer be allowed to attend.

School of Medicine for Women

Despite complaints, the university refused to back down, yet the Edinburgh Seven were not ready to give up on their dreams. In 1874, Sophia Jex-Blake helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with two other pioneering women: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Bristol-born Blackwell relocated to the United States as a child and experienced similar issues as the Edinburgh Seven when applying to American universities. She eventually found a place at Geneva Medical College in New York where, despite harsh treatment, she received a degree in 1849, the first American woman to do so.

Garrett Anderson, inspired by Blackwell, sought a medical education in Britain but received rejections from every establishment. After working for some time as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, she travelled to France, where she successfully earned a medical degree. Returning to England, Garrett Anderson eagerly agreed to help Jex-Blake establish the School of Medicine for Women and served as Dean from 1883 until 1903.

Shortly after the establishment of the school, Conservative MP Robert Gurney (1804-78) proposed changes to the Medical Act, which would allow both genders to attend and graduate from medical schools. Despite Queen Victoria‘s (1819-1901) objections to women working, she passed the new Medical Act in 1876. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland was the first establishment to implement these changes, but this was too late for Jex-Blake who by then was a student at the University of Bern in Switzerland. She successfully graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1877.

On returning to Scotland, Jex-Blake set up a clinic where she practised as Edinburgh’s first female doctor. In 1878, Jex-Blake established an outpatient clinic for poor women who could not afford the prices of most doctors. By 1885, it had expanded to include a small ward under the name the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women, Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed by women.

In 1886, Jex-Blake set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, but it did not prove as successful as the London school. Despite having the support of a handful of physicians, the school struggled to find funding. Unlike the London school, which had several teachers, Jex-Blake attempted to teach her students alone. Evidence suggests she was not as good at teaching as she was at being a doctor and the school closed in 1892. By this time, the University of Edinburgh allowed female applicants and Jex-Blake’s students continued their education at the university.

Jex-Blake continued to work as a doctor until 1899, when she retired to Windydene in Mark Cross, Rotherfield. Here she resided with Dr Margaret Todd (1859-1918), a doctor who coined the word “isotope” in 1913. Many assume Jex-Blake and Todd had a romantic relationship and, after Jex-Blake’s death in 1912 Todd wrote The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake

What happened to the other six women?

When the University of Edinburgh denied the women their degrees, Isabel Thorne gave up her ambition to become a doctor. Instead, she joined the London School of Medicine for Women as a teacher. When Jex-Blake travelled to Berne to pursue her medical education, Thorne took over as Honorary Secretary, which she held until 1908. Thorne committed herself to teaching and helping the school run smoothly, without which it would have floundered.

Thorne kept an account of her years at the school, which she published as Sketch of the Foundation and Development of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1905. Her daughter May followed in her footsteps, graduating from the school in 1895 and taking over as Honorary Secretary in 1908. Thorne passed away at home in October 1910, age 76.

Edith Pechey refused to give up on her ambition to become a doctor. After leaving Edinburgh, Pechey contacted the College of Physicians in Ireland who allowed her to take exams to earn a midwifery license. This led to a job at the Birmingham and Midland Hospital for Women, where she worked until 1877 when she, like Jex-Blake, travelled to Berne to earn her degree. In May 1877, Pechey became a fully licensed doctor.

For six years, Pechey worked as a doctor in Leeds, where she also advocated for women’s health education. When the London School of Medicine for Women opened, Jex-Blake invited Pechey to give the inaugural address. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson suggested Pechey may be interested in a new “medical women for India” fund and, in 1883, Pechey arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) to work at the Cama Hospital for Women and Children as Senior Medical Officer (SMO).

While in India, Pechey encouraged women to train as nurses and demanded they received equal pay. She gave lectures to student nurses and campaigned for social reform so that women could enter other male-oriented fields. Her reputation grew, and she received invites from several societies asking her to be their first female member. By 1888, she was on the Bombay Natural History Society committee.

H. M. Phipson

Pechey met the founding secretary of the society, Herbert Musgrave Phipson (1850-1936) and learnt he also had a hand in developing the “medical women for India” fund. With Phipson, who she married in March 1889, Pechey established the Pechey Phipson Sanitarium for Women and Children in Nasik, India. Unfortunately, five years later Pechey-Phipson suffered ill health, including diabetes, and resigned from hospital work. She continued to practice privately and proved invaluable during the bubonic plague and cholera outbreak.

Pechey-Phipson and her husband returned to England in 1905 and she quickly involved herself with the suffrage movement. She took part in the famous Mud March but soon after became critically ill. Diagnosed with breast cancer, Pechey-Phipson sought treatment. She underwent an operation led by the surgeon May Thorne, the daughter of Isabel Thorne, but passed away while in a diabetic coma on 14th April 1908. Her husband set up a scholarship at the London School of Medicine for Women in her memory.

William Edward Ayrton

When the University of Edinburgh closed to women, Matilda Chaplin travelled to France to complete her education at the University of Paris. After gaining a Bachelier ès-Sciences and Bachelier ès-Lettres, Chaplin married her cousin William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), a physicist and electrical engineer who studied under Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Back in the United Kingdom, Mrs Ayrton qualified as a midwife then moved to Japan with her husband.

While her husband taught at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, Ayrton established a school for Japanese midwives. In 1875, she gave birth to her daughter Edith (1875-1945) who would go on to play a role in the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Unfortunately, Ayrton developed tuberculosis, which prompted her return to Europe in 1877. After recovering, she moved to Paris to take the Doctor of Medicine exams, which she passed in 1879.

Child Life in Japan

Ayrton continued to study, taking exams at the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, after which she moved to London to study diseases of the eye at the Royal Free Hospital. A recurrence of tuberculosis prompted her to seek warmer climates during the winter months. When not working in hospitals, Ayrton contributed to The Scotsman newspaper and wrote a book entitled Child Life in Japan, which she illustrated. Matilda Chaplin Ayrton passed away in London on 19th July 1883, age 37.

Helen de Lacey Evans decided not to pursue her medical career after leaving the University of Edinburgh, but she did remain in touch with Sophia Jex-Blake. In 1871, Evans remarried to Alexander Russel (1814-76), the editor of The Scotsman. Evans and Russel had three children, including Helen Archdale (1876-1949) who, inspired by her mother, went on to organise the Sheffield branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Although she did not become a doctor, Evans advocated female doctors and emphasised the importance of education for girls. Sadly, her husband died suddenly of angina pectoris in 1876, making her a widow for the second time. With three young children to bring up, Evans had limited time to spend on promoting women’s health education, yet she remained passionate for the cause. Later, in 1900, Evans became the vice-president of the committee of the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children. Unfortunately, she did not hold this position for long, passing away on 4th October 1903 after a surgical procedure.

Little is known about Mary Anderson‘s life after she left the University of Edinburgh. Records show she earned a medical doctorate from the Faculté de médecine de Paris in 1879. She married a man named Claud Marshall and worked as a senior physician at the New Hospital for Women in Marylebone, London. She died in 1910.

Emily Bovell also moved to Paris to continue her education, qualifying as a doctor in 1877. That year, she met the future personal physician for Queen Victoria, William Allen Sturge (1850-1919), who she married later that year in London. Together, they set up a practice in Wimpole Street, and Bovell returned to Queen’s College to lecture on physiology and hygiene. She also ran classes for female paramedics.

Her husband supported Bovell’s work and also campaigned for women’s medical education. Unfortunately, in 1881, Bovell began complaining of breathing problems, which made it difficult to focus on her medical career. The couple moved to Nice in the hopes the climate would help Bovell’s condition. Rallying a little, Bovell set up a practice in Nice as their first female doctor. Sadly, her lung problems worsened in 1884, and she passed away the following April. In her honour, her husband established the Bovell-Sturge laboratory at Queen’s College.

Edinburgh Seven Plaque

Despite the University of Edinburgh refusing to allow the women to graduate, each member of the Edinburgh Seven went on to achieve things despite their gender. Due to their determination, universities opened up for women, and today it is as common to see a female doctor as it is a male. Sadly, no one apologised to the women for the treatment they received during their education but, in 2015, Edinburgh University unveiled a plaque in their honour as part of the Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaques Scheme. In 2019, Edinburgh Medical School went one step further, posthumously awarding the Edinburgh Seven with an honorary Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB).

Usually, the Suffragists and Suffragettes receive the credit for changing lives for women, but this is not entirely true. The Edinburgh Seven were instrumental in changing the medical world for women and should be recognised accordingly. The Unfinished Business exhibition at the British Library only named Sophia Jex-Blake in a brief paragraph, but all seven women deserve far more attention. 

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau

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Pre-Raphaelite Sisters

Most people have heard of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young British artists active in the nineteenth century who aimed to return to the style of art produced in Italy before the High Renaissance – i.e. before Raphael (1483-1520). Their artworks are recognised by the use of bright colours and young women with long, (usually) red hair dressed in flowing garments. The question is, who were these women and how did they come to be models for the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers? What were they like in real life? How were they related to the painters? What were their lives like? This year, the National Portrait Gallery decided to find out, resulting in a major exhibition that looks at the lives of twelve women who fulfilled various roles including model, muse, studio manager, housekeeper, wife and even artist.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters examines the type of role the women depicted in paintings and how this compared to their status in real life. A Pre-Raphaelite wife tended to assist her husband in a variety of ways, both at home and in the studio. Some men looked for women elsewhere to inspire them, often resulting in romantic affairs. On the other hand, a few men became supporters of wives or sisters who worked as artists alongside the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The National Portrait Gallery looks at each of these women in turn, celebrating their importance.

Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, Wife, Manager

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Effie Ruskin by Thomas Richmond

The first woman in the exhibition is Euphemia (Effie) Gray who was born in Perth, Scotland and was encouraged by her father to marry family friend John Ruskin in 1848. Unfortunately, the couple’s personalities clashed and Effie was often ignored by her husband who preferred to concentrate on his solitary studies. To relieve her boredom, Effie modelled for the artist John Everett Millais (1829-96) who used her for the Scottish woman securing the freedom of her wounded Jacobite husband in his painting The Order of Release 1746. She had previously modelled for the artist Thomas Richmond (1802-74) at the request of her father-in-law. As a result, Millais was invited to visit the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he and Effie became close friends.

After five years of marriage, Effie Ruskin was still a virgin, her husband having put off consummating the marriage to allow him to concentrate on his studies. Due to the lack of common ground, Effie decided to have their marriage annulled and eventually married Millais in 1855. She became Millais’ business partner, which involved sourcing clients, costumes, locations and keeping a record of payments. She also dabbled in watercolour painting.

Millais and Effie had a happy marriage, which resulted in eight children: Everett (1856), George (1857), Effie (1858) Mary (1860), Alice (1862) Geoffrey (1863), John (1865) and Sophie (1868). Their youngest son John went on to become a notable artist. Throughout the marriage, Effie also sat for many portraits.

Due to her annulment from Ruskin, Effie and Millais were barred from any event involving the presence of Queen Victoria. Being a rather socially active couple, they were disheartened by this, however, when Millais was dying, the Queen relented and awarded him a baronetcy, thus giving Effie the title Lady Millais.

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet, Sister, Model

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Christina Rossetti – Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti is a fairly well-known poet in her own right who was also connected to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London to the Italian poet Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), Christina was brought up in a creative atmosphere and her two older brothers went on to become founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her most famous brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) is known for the typical paintings associated with the Brotherhood. William Michael (1829-1919) Rossetti, on the other hand, was a writer and critic who ran the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ, in which Christina had several poems published. Christina’s older sister Maria Francesca (1827-76) was also a writer but became a nun in later life.

Christina sat for many of her brother’s artworks, including a quick sketch when she was sixteen and, most famously, as the Virgin Mary in Ecce Ancilla Domini! Dante also produced a cartoon based on one of his sister’s tantrums, which were quite frequent as a child.

In 1858, Christina began working at a home for girls who were considered to be sexually “at risk”. The experience inspired her famous poem and masterpiece Goblin Market, for which Dante provided a couple of illustrations. Christina also produced a handful of illustrations herself, designing some of the pages of poems and devotional writings she had written.

From her thirties onwards, Christina spent most of her time looking after family members whilst also suffering from a thyroid disorder. Dante needed a lot of attention, often suffering from mental ill-health. During his worst periods, focusing on drawing portraits of his mother and sister aided his recovery and return to the art world. Whilst Christina was a blessing to her family, her health began to deteriorate rapidly after a near-fatal heart attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and, although the tumour was removed, she died the following year.

Elizabeth Siddal 1829-62 Model, Artist, Poet

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Ophelia [detail] – John Everett Millais

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Eleanor Siddal is mostly recognised for her portrayal of Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ painting of the same name. She is also remembered as the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and for being an influential poet. After leaving school, Lizzie began working at a dressmakers and millinery shop in Cranbourne Alley, London and produced drawings and poems in her spare time. On one occasion whilst at work, Lizzie’s drawings were seen by a man who put her in touch with his son, Walter Deverell (1827-54). As a result of this meeting, Lizzie became a model for Deverell who introduced her to other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She became a model for a couple of other artists, including Millais, eventually becoming Rossetti’s model and muse.

As well as helping Rossetti with his paintings, Lizzie practised art alongside him, producing a handful of sketches, drawings and paintings. John Ruskin subsidised her art career by paying her £150 per year in exchange for all the work she produced. Her artwork was inspired by a variety of different poets, including Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

During this period, Lizzie also wrote many poems, often on the theme of heartbreak. For Lizzie, however, heartbreak was far from her mind when Rossetti, who particularly admired Lizzie’s verses, proposed and married her in 1860. Besotted with each other, the couple became rather anti-social, however, Lizzie’s health soon began to deteriorate. There are several suggestions for the cause of her frailness, such as tuberculosis, an intestinal disorder, anorexia or addiction. Another idea is the prolonged effects of pneumonia, which she contracted after posing for Millais in a bath of cold water for his painting Ophelia.

Whether as a result of her poor health, Lizzie gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1861, which led to severe post-partum depression. In February the next year after overdosing on laudanum, Lizzie passed away. Shortly after her death, Rossetti discovered several draft poems that may have been an indication of the state of her mental health leading up to her suspected suicide.

O Mother, open the window wide And let the daylight in;
The hills grow darker to my sight
And thoughts begin to swim.
And Mother dear, take my young son, Since I was born of thee
And care for all [its] little ways
And nurse it on your knee.
And Mother, wash my pale pale hands And then bind up my feet;
My body may no longer rest
Out of its winding sheet.
And Mother dear, take a sapling twig And green grass newly mown,
And lay it on my empty bed
That my sorrow be not known.- At Last, by Elizabeth Siddal

Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model, Muse

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Annie Miller – Rossetti

Annie Miller was a popular model for the Pre-Raphaelites who first posed for William Holman Hunt at the age of 18 for his The Awakening Conscience. Before she began modelling, Annie was a barmaid and had a fairly lowly upbringing as the daughter of a wounded soldier and a cleaner. As well as providing Annie with a job as a model, Holman Hunt planned to marry her and arranged for her to be educated in literacy. During this time Holman Hunt needed to travel to Palestine and left Annie under the care of other artists, such as Millais, who she could sit for in his absence.

The Pre-Raphaelite artists loved using Annie as their model, however, Holman Hunt believed she had become frivolous and wilful, so broke off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Annie became engaged to Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Heron Jones, 7th Viscount Ranelagh (1812-1885) who she married in 1863. The couple had two children, Annie Helen and Thomas James, and moved to the south coast, thus ending her time as a model with the Pre-Raphaelites. She lived to the age of 90 and is a prime example of someone who had risen significantly on the social scale, beginning in poverty and ending in comfort.

Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model, Lover

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The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sarah Cox, who renamed herself Fanny after her sister who died in infancy, was the daughter of a blacksmith from Surrey. Whilst visiting the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London, Fanny met Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) who took a liking for her appearance. She became Rossetti’s model in 1856 and there are rumours she may also have been his mistress. Fanny married Timothy Hughes, a mechanic, in 1860 but the marriage did not last long. For reason’s unbeknownst to anyone, she adopted the surname of her ex-husband’s step-father, Cornforth.

When Rossetti’s wife died, Fanny moved in as his housekeeper and lover. For over a decade, she sat for Rossetti’s paintings, often posing as a fallen woman. Rossetti was also able to support Fanny financially during this period, however, after he became seriously ill, she was forced to move out by his family. Fortunately, Rossetti was well enough at the time to purchase a house for Fanny and gave her several of his paintings.

No longer Rossetti’s lover, Fanny married the publican John Schott who ran the Rose tavern in Jermyn Street, Westminster. After Rossetti’s death, she and her husband opened a gallery in his honour to sell some of the works he had given her. After John’s death in 1891, Fanny lived with her stepson until he died in 1898 when she moved to Sussex to stay with her in-laws. Unfortunately, Fanny was soon diagnosed with dementia and forced into a Workhouse in West Sussex against her will. Following this, she was admitted to the West Sussex County Lunatic Asylum where she remained for the rest of her life.

Joanna Boyce Wells (1840-61) Artist

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Elgiva – Joanna Boyce Wells

As the name of the group suggests, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were predominantly male artists, however, there were a couple of female painters who were just as accomplished. Joanna Boyce Wells became a successful artist after her painting Elgiva, which was modelled by a family friend, was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1855.

Joanna was the sister of the watercolour painter George Boyce (1826-97) and the wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Tamworth Wells (1828-1903). Despite these connections to the art world, Joanna worked hard to become an artist in her own right, studying at Francis Cary’s (1808-80) art academy at the age of 18 before studying at the atelier of Thomas Couture (1815-79) in Paris.

Although Joanna and her husband created an artistic partnership in Britain, many considered Joanna to be the head of the firm. She painted emotional scenes, such as a mother bidding farewell to her young sons as they leave on a crusade to Jerusalem, and exquisite, imaginative portraits, such as a child depicted as an angel.

Joanna gave birth to three children, the first Sidney (1859-69) whose portrait she painted during his first year. Sidney did not live past the age of ten, however, Joanna never got the chance to see any of her children grow up, having succumbed to obstetric fever after the birth of her third child, Joanna Margaret.

Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

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Portrait of Mrs Fanny Eaton – Simeon Solomon

Considering the period the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was active, it is unsurprising that there was a lack of black women in their paintings. Fanny Matilda Eaton née Entwistle is the only black woman featured in the exhibition. Originally born in Jamaica, Fanny came to England with her mother during the 1840s where they found work as domestic servants. At some point, Fanny met the London horse-cab driver James Eaton who she married in 1857. They had a long and happy marriage, resulting in ten children.

The Eaton family were not well off, which led Fanny to seek modelling work to take on alongside her job as a charwoman. Her distinctive features and ethnicity were sought after by artists wanting to depict female characters from the Bible or Egyptian, Indian and other “exotic” scenes. Her children often featured in paintings alongside Fanny, for example, as baby Moses in The Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905).

In her later years, Fanny worked as a seamstress and a domestic cook until around 1911 when she settled in Hammersmith with her daughter Julia and her family. She eventually passed away in 1924 at the age of 89 from dementia and syncope.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Model, Artist, Wife

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Georgiana Burne-Jones with Philip and Margaret – Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones née Macdonald became engaged to Edward Burne-Jones at the tender age of fifteen. As well as being a model for her husband, Georgiana became an artist, studying briefly at the Government School of Design in South Kensington before having lessons from Ford Madox Brown. Her artwork mainly consisted of small illustrations and woodcuts and she was never as successful as her husband.

Georgiana put her art to one side after the birth of her son Philip in 1861. Her daughter Margaret was born in 1866, which coincided with her husband’s affair with one of his models. Nonetheless, Georgiana focused on being a good mother and continued to help run the home and studio until her husband repented and returned to her.

As well as being focused on her home life, Georgiana assisted the local community by supporting the South London Art Gallery, voicing her opposition of the Boer war and working as a parish councillor in Sussex. She also made major contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, writing a biography of her husband and helping her son-in-law put together the Life of William Morris.

Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, Muse, Sculptor

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Study for Head of Cassandra – Burne-Jones

Maria Zambaco, born Marie Terpsithea Cassavetti, was the model with whom Edward Burne-Jones conducted an affair. Maria had been born into a wealthy Anglo-Hellenic family and was the niece of the Greek Consul patron of art Alexander Constantine Ionides (1810-90). In 1861, Maria married Paris-based physician Demetrius Zambaco and moved to France, however, the marriage had broken down by 1866 despite having two children. On her return to London, her mother arranged for her to pose for Burne-Jones, which sparked a three-year affair.

Despite her pleas, Burne-Jones refused to leave his wife and their affair ended. Following this, Maria threw herself into her artwork, studying at the Slade School under the French painter Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) and the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Some of her most successful works include portrait medallions, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.

Although she was working as an artist and no longer in a relationship with Burne-Jones, Maria still modelled for some of his paintings. Some of Burne-Jones’ biggest and well-known paintings feature images of Maria, for example, The Beguiling of Merlin and The Tree of Forgiveness.

Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, Muse, Craftsperson

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Study for ‘The Hour Glass’ – Evelyn De Morgan

Jane Burden is best known for being the wife, model and muse of the British painter and craftsman William Morris (1834-96). Born into poverty in Oxford, Jane did not have much of a future ahead of her until she met the Pre-Raphaelite painters who were decorating a chamber at Oxford University. She quickly became the prized model of many painters and was considered the embodiment of beauty.

Jane and Morris married in 1859 and she became a partner in the decorative arts firm known as Morris & Co. She undertook a few embroidery commissions for the company and experimented with calligraphy and bookbinding.

After the birth of her daughters Jenny and May, Jane began modelling again, particularly for Rossetti, with whom she embarked on an affair until his mental breakdown in 1876.

Since she was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ favourite models, Jane appears in many artworks and has posed as a whole range of literary and mythical characters including Iseult, Queen Guinevere, Pandora, Beatrice and Proserpine.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model, Artist

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Marie Spartali – Madox Brown

Marie Euphrosyne Spartali is another female painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. She was born to a wealthy Greek family in London and was introduced to the art world by the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) who wished to take her photograph. Marie then set her sights on painting and became the student of Ford Madox Brown in 1864. By 1867, her artworks were already being exhibited and she began to pursue painting as a professional career.

Against her parents’ wishes, Marie married the American journalist William J. Stillman (1828-1901) who worked for The Times. His career meant the couple needed to travel regularly to Greece and Italy whilst also bringing up their three children and the three from Stillman’s previous marriage.

Despite the unsettled lifestyle, Marie was able to keep in contact with her Pre-Raphaelite friends and developed a distinctive style of painting. Her artwork featured mainly female figures from the writing of Shakespeare, Petrarch and Dante as well as Italian landscapes. She took part in several exhibitions and also sent some of her work to the USA.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

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Jenny Morris – Evelyn De Morgan

As the granddaughter of the Earl of Leicester, Evelyn Pickering did not need to worry about earning a living, however, she was determined to become a professional painter. Following in the footsteps of her uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite painter J.R. Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), Evelyn became a prize-winning art student and exhibited works alongside Marie Spartali.

In 1887, Evelyn married ceramicist William De Morgan (1839-1917) and used her earnings to support her husband’s pottery business.

Evelyn’s works were typically figural and brightly coloured, often resembling Baroque-style art. She focused on a range of subjects, including medieval and classical legends, allegories and the afterlife. Her passions and experiences were often reflected in her artwork, for example, her support of the suffrage movement and life during the First World War.

Arguably, Evelyn De Morgan is one of the best Pre-Raphaelite painters, although she is constantly overlooked on account of her gender. Particularly impressive paintings include Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund, which is based on a medieval legend about Henry II and his lover, and the allegorical piece Night & Sleep.

“YET if you should forget me … do not grieve …
Better by far you should forget and smile,
Than that you should remember and be sad”‘Remember’ by Christina Rossetti

The National Portrait Gallery successfully provides an alternative insight into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In recent years, the PRB has come back in favour and their paintings have proved to be popular at other exhibitions in which they have featured. Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, however, reveals there is far more involved with the artwork than meets the eye. The female artists have every right to be remembered and respected as their male counterparts. The other women in the exhibition deserve to be commended for tirelessly standing by the artists whilst they drew, painted and attempted to establish themselves.

With many famous paintings on display, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is a fantastic exhibition for art lovers, particular fans of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Alongside the well-known works are the lesser-known paintings by women and visitors are almost certain to leave with a new favourite painting in mind. Coinciding with the recent centenary of woman’s suffrage, this exhibition is the perfect way to celebrate the women who did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved during their lifetime.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is on display until 26th January and tickets are priced between £17 and £20. For more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery website.

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Hitting the Right Note

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Situated in North-West London, the Royal Academy of Music, founded in 1822, is the oldest music school in the United Kingdom. With the aim to promote knowledge, taste, skill and new music to whoever wished to pursue it, Lord Burghersh, 11th Earl of Westmorland (1784-1859), a composer, organised the establishment with the help of the harpist Nicolas Bochsa (1789-1856). Situated in Tenterden Street, Mayfair, the new academy was open to both boys and girls aged between 10 and 15 years who boarded at the school during term time. With William Crotch (1775-1847) as the first Principal, pupils were expected to focus on their music studies from 7am until 9pm.

Today, the Royal Academy of Music can be found in Marylebone Road, City of Westminster where it relocated in 1911. Right next door, a smaller building contains the Academy’s museum, with permanent and temporary galleries and exhibitions that explore unique instruments and the history of one of the leading UK conservatoires.

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Although known as the Royal Academy of Music, for the first eight years of its existence, the institution had not officially been recognised by the royal family. In 1830, just days before his death, King George IV (1762-1830) signed the Academy’s Royal Charter, and his successor, William IV (1765-1837) continued to support the school by establishing four King’s Scholarships.

The opportunities and cosmopolitan ethos of the Royal Academy attracted a growing number of students, including, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75), who later became the school’s Principal, and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. To this day, famous names are emerging from the Academy and past students include the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle (b.1955), Sir Elton John (b.1947) and Annie Lennox (b.1954).

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Franz List playing at the RA by Oswald Barrett

During the latter half of the 19th-century, the Royal Academy of Music began to struggle as rival institutions began to crop up in London: the Guildhall School (1880) and Royal College of Music (1882). Despite suffering a chronic financial crisis, Principal Bennett, whose conducting baton can be viewed in the museum, helped to turn the situation around. This was helped further by a visit from the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-86) who received Honorary Membership of the Academy shortly before his death.

Due to the centenary of the emancipation of women in 2018, the Academy’s museum focused on the lives of female students, professors and musicians connected with the school in a temporary exhibition Hitting the Right Note: Amazing Women at the Royal Academy of Music, which ended on 18th April 2019. Although this exhibition concentrated more on the physical way these women have been portrayed, it contained an eye-opening history of the Academy from the point of view of women.

Music has always been enjoyed by both men and women alike, however, from ancient times to the 15th century, musicians tended to be slaves, servants or prostitutes, forced to entertain the rich in order to make a living. As a result of this, during the 17th and 18th centuries, respectable women would never be seen performing outside the home. Women were even banned from playing the organ in churches or singing with the choir. It was not until the 19th century that it was no longer deemed immoral for a woman to perform on stage. The number of female opera stars increased rapidly, eventually ousting male castrati.

Yet, when it came to playing instruments, women were expected to only play the piano in the privacy of their own homes. After the industrial revolution, however, the production of pianos increased meaning that “ordinary” working class people could also learn to play. Middle-class ladies, not wanting to be seen playing something “common”, began taking up other instruments instead, particularly the violin.

The Royal Academy of Music was slightly ahead of its time, admitting an equal amount of male and female students from the get-go. It was not until the 1870s, however, that the Academy began training older, professional musicians. The Academy was also the first establishment to admit women on orchestral instruments, beginning with Julia de Notte and Adria Moore on violins in 1872.

Earlier in 1844, the Royal Academy of Music had welcomed Kate Loder (1825-1904) as their first female professor of harmony. Born with perfect pitch, Kate won the King’s Scholarship at the age of 13 and had the opportunity in her final year at the Academy to play G Minor Concerto to its composer, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47).

At the age of 18, Kate became the first female professor at the Academy as well as the youngest female elected to the Philharmonic Society a year later. Unfortunately, her marriage to Henry Thompson (1820-1904) in 1851, put an end to her teaching career.

The exhibition included a number of women who had strong connections with the Royal Academy of Music. Two of these women have been honoured with busts, including one made by the American- British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). These were Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) and Dame Moura Lympany (1916-2005).

Myra Hess enrolled at the Academy as a piano student when she was only 12 years old. By 17, she had given her public debut and become one of the most famous pianists in Britain. Her fame today, however, stems from her wartime contributions. During the Second World War, Hess proposed that live music should be performed in the empty National Gallery, whose treasures had been removed in order to avoid damage during the Blitz. Five days a week, classical lunchtime concerts were performed, providing music and food for the people of London. In total, 1698 concerts were performed, 146 of which Hess participated in herself.

Dame Moura Lympany, on the other hand, studied at the Academy much later than Hess. With a full scholarship, Lympany was a student from 1929 until 1934 after which she became a notable concert pianist. She was the first person to make a complete recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes and, in 1940, she gave the British premiere of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto in D Flat.

Like Myra Hess, some of the other women who studied at the Academy had musical roles during the Second World War. Elizabeth Poston (1905-87) was one of the performers in the National Gallery concerts, however, her war legacy goes much further than that. In 1940, Poston joined the BBC Music Department and within three years had been promoted to European Music Supervisor. Part of her role involved sending coded musical messages to the Polish resistance on the continent. This code system was known as Jodaform, which had been devised by Czesław Halski, who became a student at the academy after the war. Well-known Polish tunes and folksongs were given different meanings and it was Poston’s job to play the correct piece of music to signify whether there was to be an air-drop in Poland or any other form of activity.

The exhibition displayed items belonging to a handful of the women who had passed through the Royal Academy of Music. On loan were Janet Craxton’s (1929-81) oboe reeds, many of which she collected from famous oboists. Craxton was an oboist herself, in fact, one of the leading players of her day. She was the only daughter of Harold Craxton OBE (1885-1971) who was a pianist and professor at the academy.

Also on loan were a snare drum, drum sticks and practice pad belonging to Dame Evelyn Glennie (b.1965), the virtuoso Scottish percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12, yet has taught herself to “hear” using other parts of her body. The snare drum was the first instrument Glennie owned. She has since gone on to amass one of the largest percussion collections in the world.

Hitting the Right Note mentioned many firsts for the Royal Academy of Music beginning with the first female violin students (1872) right up until the first female timpani student (1954) and saxophone student (1980). Surprisingly, the more major firsts have occurred more recently and go to show how difficult it has been for professional female musicians. A breakthrough transpired in the mid-20th century when Florence Hooton (1912-88) became the first cellist to play on national television. Yet there were still many milestones for female musicians to reach.

In 1984, Odaline de la Martinez (b.1949) became the first woman in history to conduct a complete concert at the BBC Proms. Born in Cuba, Martinez studied in New Orleans until she earned a scholarship to study piano and composition at the Academy. Her secret dream was to conduct, however, women were rarely given the opportunity. Nonetheless, her determination saw her achieve her goal.

The violinist Clio Gould (b.1968) reached another milestone for women when she became the first woman to lead a symphony orchestra in London. Shockingly, this feat did not occur until 2002 when she played with the Royal Philharmonic. Gould has since performed with a number of other orchestras but specialises in contemporary solo repertoire. She is currently a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum has two floors devoted to the history of string instruments and the piano. The Academy owns some 250 string instruments of which only a handful are on display to the public. Amongst the collection is a Renaissance lute, a Parisian five-course guitar, and a British-made piccolo violin. With instruments from various eras and countries, the String Gallery helps visitors to understand the development and styles of music over time.

One of the first instruments visitors see on entering the String Gallery is Kai-Thomas Roth’s three-stringed double bass which he made using maple wood in 2006. Despite being a fairly new instrument, it is based on the baroque three-stringed bass, which itself was based on a double-bass produced by Domenico Montagnana (1687-1750) in 1747. Montagnana was working in Venice at the same time as the violin virtuoso and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), therefore, it is likely Vivaldi or members of his orchestra had instruments made by him.

Intriguingly titled an English guitar, the convex lute-like instrument with six pairs of strings belongs to the cittern family, a Rennaisance term for wire-strung instruments plucked by a plectrum. This is one of the surviving pieces from John Preston’s (active 1724-98) workshop and was produced around the time that guitars were becoming popular. Interestingly, this style of guitar was most popular with females who considered it to be elegant and easy to play.

One of the most beautiful instruments in the Strings Gallery is the 19th-century lacquered green Irish harp. Decorated with shamrocks and a gilded winged female bust representing the figure of Hibernia, this harp was made by John Egan, an Irish “Maker by Special Appointment to His Most Gracious Majesty George IV”. Tuned in E-flat major, this harp is extremely rare, being one of only two known surviving harps in the style.

“Violins are the lively, forward, importunate wits, that distinguish themselves by flourishes of imagination, sharpness of repartee, glances of satire and bear away the upper part in every consort.”
– Richard Steele, The Tatler, 1710

The String Gallery could not be complete without the instruments that make up the majority of professional orchestras: violins. These, of course, are not just any string instrument, they have been made by some of the most famous violin makers to have existed. Nicolò Amati (1596-1684) and his pupil Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) created some of the most wanted stringed instruments, which are now part of grand collections, for instance, this one, rather than being played.

The Nicolo Amati violin of 1662 is a well-preserved example of his largest and most favoured instrument. Known as the “Grand Amati”, this violin demonstrates Amati’s greatest achievement. With exemplary purfling (ornamental border), broad black strips of ebony have been inlaid around the edge of the instrument to reinforce the delicate curves of the outline. There are still traces of honey-brown varnish on parts of the maple wood body.

The 1709 ‘Viotti ex-Bruce‘ violin by Antonio Stradivari is one of the best-preserved examples of his workmanship to have survived. It was produced during his “golden period” when Stradivari was at the height of his powers. The dramatically figured maple wood was covered with a deep red varnish, the majority of which remains on the body due to preservation. The violin has been named after Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) who once played for Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-93). Viotti was a fan of Stradivari’s instruments, however, his collection had to be sold to settle his exorbitant debts. The last owners were the Bruce family, hence Viotti ex-Bruce, before it was acquired by HM Government.

Also on display is another of Stradivari’s instruments, the “Archinto” viola of 1696. During his long and productive career, Stradivari did not produce a large number of violas and, today, only ten survive. The slender corners and purfling evidence the influence Amati had on his pupil, however, there are some elements that are unique to the maker. Stradivari fashioned his violas with cello-like peg boxes and is varnished in such a way that the instrument appears to change colour when viewed from different directions.

“A man of brains is like a virtuoso who can give a concert all by himself. Or he is like a piano which is in itself a small orchestra.”
– Schopenhauer, Maxims, 1851

The Piano Gallery shows the evolution of keyboard instruments from the early 17th century until the early 20th century. The gallery contains several instruments from the piano, harpsichord and virginal families that are kept in playing condition, however, visitors are not permitted to touch the keys. Gallery assistants, however, are more than happy to give a demonstration of the different sounds and explain how the instruments changed over the years.

Unlike the piano, which is believed to have been first created by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) in the early 18th century, whose complex mechanism involves hammers, which strike the strings to provide dynamic notes, virginals and harpsichords create sound by plucking strings with a plectrum. A couple of models demonstrate these differences.

Typically, the instrument visitors are drawn to first is the “Model A” Grand Piano produced by Steinway and Sons. Made in 1920, the Steinway is almost 100 years old, yet it is still regarded as a “modern” piano. Steinway has become synonymous with pianos of this calibre and is usually the most sought-after in the world. The company was established in New York in the 1850s by German immigrant Henry E. Steinway (1797-1871). Along with his sons, Theodore (1825-89) and William (1835-96), Steinway’s unique pianos were produced from one piece of wood, which supposedly enhances the sound of the notes. Also, Steinway ensured that little energy is lost through the vibration of the strings, therefore maximising the generation of the sound.

If approaching the instruments in chronological order, the first is a polygonal virginal or spinetta made in Italy some time between 1600 and 1650. A virginal is a type of small harpsichord and is the earliest string keyboard instrument to survive. They are dated back as far as the 16th century, evidenced by their presence in paintings from that time. Virginals were built without stands, implying they could be moved from place to place for performances.

Although the newest instrument in the room, Arnold Dolmetsch’s (1858-1940) clavichord is a copy of a much older instrument from the 17th or 18th century. Dolmetsch built copies of almost every kind of instrument from the 15th century onwards, which has helped musicians and historians to understand those that are now lost. Whereas a harpsichord uses a bird’s quill to pluck the strings, a clavichord produces sound by striking the brass or iron strings with a metal blade known as a tangent. The vibrations caused by this produce the sounds, however, they are not very loud. It is thought clavichords were primarily used for practice rather than performance.

“The harpsichord has its own peculiar qualities … precision, clearness, brilliance; and compass.”
Francois Couperin, The Art of Playing the Harpsichord, 1716

Virginals and clavichords were more suitable for domestic settings, as were most harpsichords. A fine example is a harpsichord produced by Jacob Kirkman (1710-92) in 1764, which would have been familiar to the likes of Handel (1685-1759). Although a harpsichord may have a pure brilliance of sound, the dynamics are less modifiable in comparison to a piano and, therefore, not so good for public performances.

The Gallery has a number of grand pianos that progress through the years, revealing how the design and mechanisms were gradually improved. As the pianos became more modern, pianists were able to mesmerise their audiences with their playing, just as Franz Liszt did during his visit to the Royal Academy of Music.

Music was no longer limited to royal courts, churches and domestic settings, instead, people could listen – for a fee – in concert and recital halls. Pianos became physically large to emphasise their importance within orchestras and solo performances. Whilst older pianos were produced almost entirely from wood, piano makers began to use metal tubes or bars to increase the potential sound of the strings.

For some visitors, the temptation to try these instruments for themselves may be great, so they are relieved to know that they can play a particular, upright piano in the String Gallery. There are also a couple of ukeleles for the curious to try.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum is the ideal place to visit for anyone with an interest in music. Not only is it fascinating to look at all the precious instruments, but the history of the Academy is also worthwhile reading about. Throughout the year, the museum holds various exhibitions, however, they are all free to enter. Whilst there, why not check out the music shop at the front of the building, which contains a huge number of sheet music amongst other things.

Many of the collections displayed are Designated and the Museum itself is Accredited, chartermarks of quality awarded and administered by Arts Council England (ACE). The Museum opened in 2001, supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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