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The Hunt for the Lady in the Picture


Is this a portrait of Mrs Gaskell? and was it commissioned by the rich philanthropist, Miss Angela Burdett Coutts, either for her own collection or perhaps for Dickens' office in Household Words - a journal which Miss Coutts founded?

An important clue to the provenance of this painting appears in Angus Wilson's book The Word of Charles Dickens. "Dickens was tireless in raising funds to help actresses who had fallen on hard times or educating the children of actors who had died suddenly in a precarious profession."

The painting was owned by a daughter of a famous actress whom Dickens, Coutts and, it now appears, Mrs Gaskell all assisted.

Interesting presentation of Gaskell pictures:
(Right click image to replay)
(unfortunately this won't work in Opera)

The following is my account of the trail to confirm the painting's provenance. It was originally printed in The Times Literary Supplement, 21st November, 2003

Portrait of a lady

An unattributed painting of Mrs Gaskell?

In July 1987, at an antique fair in Amersham, I bought a watercolour of a woman in a black dress, blue striped shawl and white bonnet. The painting is signed Herbert L. Smith and is dated 1850 (or 1851 - the figures are not clear). The woman is seated in front of a window, next to a writing desk which bears a quill pen, books and a sheet of paper. The artist has taken delight in the detail of the costume: the blue silk ribbon trimming each of the three bows of the woman's bonnet, the ruffle on the cuffs, and the pattern of the lace on the collar. The face is carefully painted. The grey-haired sitter appears handsome, intelligent, reserved - and looks almost alarmingly observant. I was told by the dealer that this was a portrait of Mrs Gaskell the novelist, and had been bought at an auction in Colchester in late spring or early summer 1974. Identified by another dealer as Mrs Gaskell, it had come from the family of a "Mary Warner".

I checked to see if the painting had been used as a frontispiece for one of Mrs Gaskell's books. It had not. I also searched Mrs Gaskell's letters and the biographies of her for a mention of the portrait. There was a promising lead Mrs Gaskell and Her Friends (1930) by Elizabeth Haldane, which had a passing reference to a "movement to have Mrs Gaskell's portrait painted" - "but the scheme did not mature". The date given was "sometime after Jan. 1850". Unfortunately, Haldane did not provide a footnote and an appeal for information printed in the Gaskell Society Newsletter drew a blank.

I hoped I might have more luck with the artist. Herbert Smith was cousin and apprentice to Sir William Charles Ross, Queen Victoria's favourite miniaturist. Smith was "much employed as a copyist by the queen" and had painted a full-size oil of her in 1847. I could not trace a sitter's book for Smith, and none of the lists of paintings exhibited by him at the Royal Academy, British Institute or the Royal Society of Arts includes a painting of Mrs Gaskell. The National Portrait Gallery has no record of the painting, and there is not enough evidence for them to say that the portrait is of Mrs Gaskell. However, I liked the painting and for years I was happy to leave it at that.

Mrs Gaskell's daughter presented the Bronte Museum with a large framed portrait of her mother in 1909. I would be interested in any reports of visits to the Bronte Museum which date from 1909-1922.

I am also looking any paperwork which concerns Henry Houston Bonnell's Bronte collection. If you can help please contact Elizabeth Rye (01509 232365)

A comparison of the lists of portraits exhibited by Ross at the Royal Academy against the index of names in the collection of Mrs Gaskell's letters produced a match. Angela Burdett-Coutts, who is mentioned in three of Mrs Gaskell's letters from 1850, was a wealthy philanthropist who might have provided the money to pay for the portrait. Miss Coutts also has an important art collection that included portraits of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byton, Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Dickens and Miss Coutts were in the process of launching Household Words as a platform for social reform, and Dickens was acting as her almoner over Urania Cottage, the home for fallen women in Shepherd's Bush, and Columbia Square in East London, which provided affordable housing for a thousand workers. He also handled her post and read the piles of begging letters that came every day. Mrs Gaskell wrote to Miss Coutts for the first time in January 1850, sending via Dickens a letter about a sixteen-year-old girl, Pasley, who had been imprisoned for prostitution . Dickens forwarded Mrs Gaskell's letter to Miss Coutts, with a brief note, assuring her that Mrs Gaskell was "perfectly discreet and modest". Miss Coutts replied almost by return of post. On March 30, 1850, Mrs Gaskell's first published contribution to Household Words was Lizzie Leigh a sympathetic story of a prostitute, a subject of particular interest to Miss Coutts. Had she requested a story on this subject and at the same time offered Mrs Gaskell access to the resources of her charitable network? Had Mrs Gaskell, who as the wife of a Unitarian minister in a poor district of Manchester was often called on for charitable help, found a patron in Miss Coutts?

We do not have a copy of Miss Coutt's letter, which Mrs Gaskell returned to Dickens, but a letter to Mrs Gaskell from Tom Taylor, dated one day after her letter from Miss Coutts, promises a "whole nest of good ladies" prepared to help in cases like Pasley's. In return, Mrs Gaskell was asked to help with another charitable project - a subscription for a painting by G. F. Watts of the "Good Samaritan". This was not the sort of project which she would normally have taken on - her charitable work was generally of a more practical nature - but given what was at stake, how could she refuse? The Watts painting scheme brought Mrs Gaskell into contact with Sir James and Lady Kay-Shuttleworth, both of whom were part of Miss Coutts's inner circle. This was to prove an important association for Mrs Gaskell, because in August of that year Sir James introduced her to Charlotte Brontë.

Having had no success in chasing the inventory for the Coutts art collection, I decided to see what could be done with the Mary Warner connection. The Mary Warner listed in the Dictionary of National Biography was a Shakespearean actress, famous for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. On December 10, 1853, partly as a result of her husband's improvidence, she went before the Insolvency Court. A fund, to which the Queen and Miss Coutts contributed, was raised, and a benefit at Sadler's Wells brought in £150. Charge of her children, a boy and a girl, was taken by Dickens's friend, the Shakespearean actor William Charles Macready and Miss Coutts. After a long agony, Mrs Warner died on September 24, 1854, at 16 Euston Place, Euston Square

As I had suspected her association with Miss Coutts and knew that Mrs Gaskell's work often involved children, I wondered whether she might have been involved in this case? Though the name Warner is not mentioned in Mrs Gaskell's letters, Mrs Gaskell had two meeting with Macready shortly before and after the date of Mrs Warner's death. And only three weeks after Mrs Warner's death, in October 1854, a letter from Mrs Gaskell to a Mrs Ouvry provided the details requested of a private school for girls in Hampstead. Mrs Ouvry was the wife of Miss Coutt's solicitor. Could this information have been for the benefit of Mrs Warner's daughter, Ellen, who was thirteen when her mother died? It seems possible that the heavily committed Miss Coutts might have given a portrait of Mrs Gaskell to Ellen in order to encourage her to contact her if she had any problems. Mary Warner had three children: Richard, who joined the legion, John Lawrence, who became an actor, and Ellen. According to this theory, it made sense to try to trace Ellen's family first to see if any of them remembered the picture.

Ellen married the Vicar of Widdington, Essex (not far from where the painting was first sold ) in 1866, and had ten children. I traced Ellen's granddaughter, an elderly woman then living in sheltered accommodation in Brixton who wrote a beautiful letter, full of details about Ellen's children, confirming that she clearly remembered the picture. The Warner family's financial difficulties persisted after the insolvency hearing and worsened after Mrs Warner's death. The Warners had borrowed money from Walter Watts, a clerk from the Globe Insurance Company, who was convicted of "defalcation" - the extent of the fraud was said to be in excess of £80,000. Watts was given "ten years involuntary transportation", but hanged himself before the sentence could be carried out. The Warners' debt had to be repaid. The creditors took all the money that had been raised for the children by private and public subscription and by the benefit of Sadler's Wells. Members of the committee set up to help the Warners were outraged and even considered washing their hands of the whole situation. We know from Dickens's correspondence, and can infer from the letters written by Ellen's granddaughter, that this did not happen. Ellen's children were well educated. One attended the Slade School of Art and became a successful artist. Another was one of the first women to be admitted to Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. Miss Coutts honoured the promise she made to Mrs Warner to provide for her children's education. A letter of thanks to Miss Coutts, preserved in Dickens's archive, was written by Mrs Warner shortly after she returned from America, at a time when she was terminally ill.

16 Euston Place
Euston Square
July 53
Madam, This morning has conveyed to me the purport of your letter to Mr Macready. Words are so utterly powerless to express my feelings of deep, of heartfelt gratitude that I will make no vain attempt - The peace of heart, the calm security such prompt, such noble hearted sympathy has afford me, baffle all powers of appreciation. The agitation I have experienced at such blessed tidings is almost more than I can bear and I am so strictly enjoined perfect tranquility that I restrain myself even in offering these poor thanks - but you Madam, who can so feel will understand and pardon the inadequacy of all set phrases -
May God for ever bless you.
Dear Madam
Every gratefully yours
Mary Amelia Warner
Research by Elizabeth Rye who would like to thank Alan Shelston, Christine Lingard, Secretary of the Gaskell Society, and Dr Ruth Coldwell.
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