Thursday, 1 February 2018

"I was a few years back a slave on your property..."

 ... and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me.”
Thus opens a letter written in 1809 by Mary Williamson, recently discovered in a family archive. 

It's the subject of a lecture by professor Diana Paton at UCL on Friday 9 February:

’Mary Wiliamson’s Letter, or: Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery’
Prof. Diana Paton (Edinburgh)
according to the blurb, the lecture will reflect on the history and historiography of ‘Brown’ women like Mary Williamson in Jamaica and other Atlantic slave societies. Mary Williamson’s letter offers a rare perspective on the sexual encounters between white men and Brown women that were pervasive in Atlantic slave societies. Yet its primary focus is on the greater importance of ties of place and family—particularly of relations between sisters—in a context in which the ‘severity’ of slavery was increasing. Mary Williamson’s letter is a single and thus far not formally archived trace in a broader archive of Atlantic slavery dominated by material left by slaveholders and government officials. Prof Paton asks what the possibilities and limits of such a document may be for generating knowledge about the lives and experiences of those who were born into slavery.

this single piece of correspondence raises far more questions than can be answered, as Diana Paton elaborated.
Its substance is that Mary Williamson, a freed woman on the estate of Haughton James in western Jamaica, asked the absentee owner in London UK to order the restoration of her house and provision ground that the overseers had destroyed, leaving her homeless and unable to provide food for herself and two sisters, still enslaved.
According to Paton, this and other complaints of harsh treatment coincided with the abolition of the slave trade, the ending of new imported labour and declining income from the estate.
In the archive where Mary Williamson's letter was discovered there is no surviving evidence of a reply from Haughton James, He was aged 71 and of course may have instructed a relative or agent to do so.  The scanty details suggest that Mary W was resourceful, but one would so like to know how she and her sisters fared.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

What's Dido Belle wearing?

This is a   heads-up
 for BBC4  at 20.30 on Wednesday  24 January  when the clothes Dido Belle wears in this famous painting will be analysed, unpicked and re-created by historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila in the series A Stitch in Time presented by costume historian Amber Butchardt.  At least that’s what is promised, so I hope the programme does concentrate on Dido’s diaphanous gown  which is pictorially obscured by the bowl of exotic fruits she holds to signify her own tropical origins.  
A Stitch in Time is a good series that has not received the attention it deserves.  As with Lucy Worsley’s efforts, there’s much prancing and smirking and dressing up, overlying more serious historical presentation, but the latter prevails, packed into a useful half-hour.  Especially informative was the programme devoted to the vast green gown worn by Signora Arnolfini in Van Eyck’s painting, where she looks pregnant but is in fact clasping a whole fistful of fabric in order to be able to walk forward.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

May Morris 'like icy fire'

Will Rothenstein, May Morris, 1897, NPG 
For a long while now, I've been quoting the description of May Morris as 'like ice and fire' by a contemporary without being able to give the correct citation.  Now the WMG exhibition is coming to its close [many thanks all who have visited and commented, it has been highly successful] I have finally located the source:
Selected Letters of Arthur Symons 1880-1935, Univ Iowa Press 1989, 158
The comment comes in a passage about the never-resolved question as to whether Janey Morris and Gabriel Rossetti were lovers in the legal sense.  Symons writes
"it is difficult to believe (and few people do believe) that [DGR's] relations with Mrs. Morris were purely platonic.  Rossetti was the most passionate and the most magnetic of men; I don't know Mrs. Morris, but I know her daughter, and she has a temperament like icy fire, and has always gone the way of her temperament quite frankly."
In context, the words appear to signify ardent, not frosty, but they are ambiguous if not obviously contradictory; one infers however that Symons viewed May's nature as vehemently passionate, and unlikely to be constrained by propriety.
Another quotation emerged from the same file but a quite different source:  May's description of daily life at Kelmscott Manor in 1910, which led into memories of the past:
"In the old days, all the family used to assemble at night in the Tapestry room.  Work was put away, logs in the fire, games played, long talks ...  When the family went to bed, Father often worked.  I have waked sometimes and lain watching his room at right-angles to mine and his figure passing the window; listening to the chanting which accompanied the poetry-making.  How the sound seemed wedded to the fragrance of the night in that enclosed garden!
And he is here constantly. I never lose the sense of it: at a turn of the garden I hear his footstep on the gravel - and hear it without surprise; the shock is, to come back to the present.  Looking up at the windows, I've been conscious of him there in the room, and hear his voice too-  always without surprise..."




the Windrush Foundation is formally asking the Department of Communities and Local Government  to consider making 22 June WINDRUSH DAY. 
The day would be an occasion to remember not only WINDRUSH passengers, but also all other migrants who have made and continue to make significant contributions to the prosperity of Britain. The day could be devoted to local social history and to celebrating its heroes and ‘sheroes’. Schools could annually feature and highlight them, and it would a means of fostering greater social understanding and cohesion. It could be a way in which young people, especially from minority ethnic backgrounds, develop a better sense of identity as the histories and contributions of their parents, guardians and friends are appreciated and celebrated.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

William Morris Seasonal Thought

(this more like a tweet, really)

"THE GREAT advantage and charm of the Morrissian method is that it lends itself to either simplicity or to splendour.  You might be almost plain enough to please Thoreau, with a rush-bottomed chair, piece of matting and oaken trestle-table; or you might have gold and lustre (the choice ware of William de Morgan) gleaming from the sideboard, and jewelled light in your windows, and walls hung with rich arras tapestry".

-  Walter Crane, William Morris to Whistler, 1911, pp.48-9

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

A glimpse of Maria Zambaco

When Maria Cassavetti Zambaco returned to London from Paris in 1866 after leaving her husband, her mother is said to have arranged for her to sit to Burne-Jones for a portrait - hence the start of the notoriously disruptive romance that involved an abortive elopement and suicide pact.   The subject of the portrait was the legend of Cupid & Psyche, which EBJ  had been illustrating for a few years in relation to William Morris's project for an illustrated Earthly Paradise - eventually issued without pictures.  It's not entirely clear which of the several existing images was done for Maria's mother, but of course this was also the start of a very long sequence of obsessional images based on Maria -  drawings, oils, portraits -  which testify to her emotional impact on EBJ and imply long sessions in the studio. 
Perhaps from the start, although later obscured by  friends' reluctance to stir the scandal publicly, the arrangement was for EBJ to also teach Maria to draw, so she was not only sitting to him but studying and working alongside in his studio - a realm from which Georgie BJ was firmly excluded [and had been from the early days of their marriage].  The evidence indicates that artist and model were together  here twice  week for several months, maybe over two years, and that to limit the gossip, Ned's other friends were discouraged from dropping in on those days.
It seems that nevertheless, fellow artist Charles Keene snatched a swift sketch of Maria at the easel, which he later used for a small etching, showing her drawing (was she left-handed, as shown?).

  It's unclear how many prints were made by the artist from the original - the British Museum and BMAG have copies, and in 1902 it was included in a published portfolio of Keene's work.  And although its date of execution is unrecorded, it can be compared with a thumbnail sketch of Maria by EBJ, evidently also done in his studio. Here she is reading, not drawing, but her garments and unbound hair are very comparable:

In letters and memoirs are occasional references to Maria's own artworks, allegedly derivative
  copies of EBJ's style (as would be expected from a student).  They all seem to have vanished from view however so one can't tell if this is true or slanderous; it would be good to see an example. 
Some good few years later Maria forsook drawing for sculpture,  studying with Alphonse Legros at the Slade and with Rodin in Paris.  She produced and exhibited firstly portrait medallions including one of her cousin Marie Spartali, and then at least one free-standing desktop bronze piece, which she exhibited in Paris under the name of Cassavetti, presumably because her hated husband was now a celebrated medical expert in the city.  The only image shows that rather poignantly it is a figure of Cupid or Eros stringing his bow, entitled L'Amour irresistible, the subject zooming right back to the Cupid & Psyche and the outcome of her earlier encounter with Burne-Jones.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Edith Holman Hunt

Edith Waugh was Holman Hunt's second wife, who married him after the death of her sister Fanny Waugh,  in bold defiance of British law against marriage with a deceased wife's sister and of her family's fierce disapproval.  The Hunts' granddaughter Diana wrote about her in a  great book My Grandmothers and I,  which is being re-issued by Persephone Books.  Check it out here