THE MAN WHO MADE LISTS – GUEST BLOGGER JO MANNING – Part Two

Peter Mark Roget

So, then, after all this, how did he come to compile that outstanding reference work, Roget’s Thesaurus? It seems like such a departure from what his life was.It seemed, though, that ever since his childhood, Roget was fond of making lists. Kendall opines that this gave order to an otherwise confused, if not chaotic life, with its moves across continents, the death of one parent and the mental instability, in a family prone to severe depression, of another. Making lists, sorting things into categories, making sense of a world that was puzzling and no doubt upsetting to him, was a source of satisfaction and provided a modicum – or more than a mere modicum — of stability.

I believe that Kendall rightly describes Roget as an obsessional personality, but I would venture even further. It’s interesting, this making of lists, when taken into consideration with Roget’s intelligence, his genius with science and mathematics, plus the strains of mental illness in his family, and his inability to communicate well with other human beings. Perhaps something else was going on. It was said of Peter Mark Roget that he got along with words much better than he ever got along with people, and there is probably a great deal of truth in that surmise. Imposing order on words, categorizing things –whether space, matter, affections, et al. – seemed to settle his perhaps too-active mind. And this made me wonder if he might have had a form of high-functioning autism now called Asperger’s Syndrome. (This condition was not described until the mid-20th century, too late for Roget to have been diagnosed.)

The symptoms of autism are many, but consider as one example, the problem of not being able to recognize how severely depressed his uncle was in his last days. Was Roget unable to relate to him – a prime “tell” for autism sufferers – and did that lack of empathy play a large role in his uncle’s doing away with himself? Was he constitutionally unable to read the signs of a soul in distress, even one who had been so very close to him? This constant list-making, this never-ending attempt to impose order on a world that confused him, this outward manifestation of his restless intellect, was this perhaps another “tell”? Impossible to diagnose from so far way in time from Roget’s world, but other incidents in his life confirm his continual problems with social interaction.

Kendall does not deal with the possibility of autism; it is my own notion, for whatever it is worth, but he does make a forceful case for OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. He discusses Freud’s 1913 paper on the condition, noting the psychiatrist’s finding that “obsessions, which tend to first appear between the ages of six and eight, serve the function of helping people ward off intense and painful emotions such as anxiety and hate… [and that] obsessionality…is remarkably consistent over the life span.”

The author goes on to state: “That was certainly the case for Roget; some eighty years after he started his notebook, he was harnessing the same obsessive energy to churn out new editions of his Thesaurus.” Whatever psychological condition(s) Peter Mark Roget might have had, his genius was in his ability to compile words brilliantly into his many lists, in notebook after notebook, starting at the tender age of eight. Roget was in a long tradition of word-compilers, but he was the very best. His contribution to anyone who struggles to find the right word is unparalleled.

As Kendall notes: “For Roget, the careful use of language depended on understanding not only the meanings of individual words but also the relations between them.” Further, “These neighboring lists of opposing ideas, he believed, opened up all kinds of new vistas for readers.” One of the intriguing aspects of Kendall’s book is his clever use of these lists throughout the text, and also in chapter headings.

For instance, Chapter 7, Mary, which introduces Roget’s wife, lists synonyms for Marriage:

…MARRIAGE, matrimony, wedlock, union, match, intermarriage, coverture, vinculum matrimonii.

A married man, a husband, spouse, bridegroom, benedict, neogamist, consort.

A married woman, a wife, bride, mate, helpmate, rib, better half, feme covert.

(Bet there are a few words here you haven’t come across!)

And in what was apparently a time-honored tradition in the Roget-Romilly clan, Mary Hobson was rich, the daughter of a wealthy Liverpool merchant, and considered beautiful. Kendall notes that she was also, “Roget’s opposite…with a lively sense of humor… [and she] exuded warmth.” He married her in 1824, when she was 29 and he was 45; he was sixteen years older. She seems to have been the ideal wife for someone like this obsessive polymath. She even attended all his lectures and took notes! Her diaries show her pride in the success of these public events featuring her husband. As Kendall comments: “Though Roget couldn’t always connect with others one on one, he never failed to dazzle his audience.”

Alas, the bad luck of the Rogets when it came to their physical and mental health was to run its appointed course. In 1833, his 38-year-old wife died of cancer. They’d been married just under ten years. Kendall notes: “Roget’s immediate reaction was the same as the one that followed his uncle’s suicide: emotional paralysis.” Although his in-laws were kind to him in his loss, they immediately stopped the monies they’d been regularly sending to Roget since his marriage to their daughter. (I found this startling and have to wonder what sort of dowry arrangement Roget had made with the wealthy Hobson family, but there is no further explanation.)

A few years after his wife’s death, Roget hired a new governess for his two children, a Margaret Spowers, the daughter of a wealthy Hampstead businessman. (Always these wealthy women! Is a pattern emerging here?) During the summer of 1840, Roget and the governess were to begin to live together as man and wife, but never to marry. The nature of their relationship apparently so embarrassed Roget’s family that they “would do everything they could to cover [it] up,” according to Kendall.

The relationship no doubt contributed to the emotional breakdown of Roget’s fragile daughter Kate, who was made to leave their home, eventually residing for some years with her former governess, the botanist Agnes Catlow. (When Margaret Spowers died – leaving nothing of her considerable wealth to Roget – oddly harkening back to being cut off financially by his wife’s relatives– Kate returned to her father and was his companion until his death.More drama was to come. In the mid- to late-1840s, Roget was involved in a series of “alleged missteps” at the Royal Society and perhaps forced to resign his prestigious post as Secretary, though he “refused to take responsibility for any of his questionable behavior.” Were these “missteps” and “questionable behavior” further manifestations of his problems in dealing with others? It was 1847, he was now 70 years old, and his life-long issues with insensitivity, coupled now with challenges to his scientific credibility, were coming under close scrutiny. He did resign.

Like the crisis with his uncle’s death, this was not a good time for Roget. But, as Kendall writes: “As the curtain fell on his academic career at the end of 1848, Roget wasn’t quite ready to pack it in. His mind was sharp as ever, and he was still teeming with ambition.” Taking a look at other works then available that dealt with English synonyms, Roget decided at long last to publish his lists, which he felt were superior to anything in print. The first edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, 1,000 copies published in the spring of 1852 by Longman, quickly sold out. Reviews, Kendall notes, were “glowing.” It has remained solidly in print for over one hundred and fifty years. After Roget’s death in 1869, future editions were edited by his son John Lewis Roget and his grandson Samuel Romilly Roget.

1935 Grosset & Dunlap American edition, edited by Roget’s heirs

His contract for the first edition was ½ of the profits from all sales; with later editions it was to be 2/3 of the profits. He did very well financially from his lists of words! And what about Roget and Dr Johnson, the maker of that formidable dictionary of the English language? What further parallels and similarities might lie between these two geniuses of the written word? Dr Samuel Johnson’s genius lay in defining words, and his Dictionary – the first real dictionary of the English language — broke new ground; his was an altogether different category of genius. But it is tantalizing to note that Johnson also had an obsessive personality and was prone to tics and strange behavior. (At one point there was a theory bruited about that he exhibited the symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome.)

Johnson did have a strange routine of counting his steps when he came to a door so to enter by the correct foot, and, like the fictional detective obsessive character Monk in the American television series, with his need to touch light poles and mailboxes, Dr Johnson apparently needed to touch all the lampposts on the street as he walked to and from his house on Gough Square. Word nerds are interesting and amusing folk, to be sure.

Postscript: Simon Winchester, who was at the time writing a book on the OED (Oxford English Dictionary)* launched a scathing attack on Roget’s work a few years ago, declaring that it was “a serious force for bad” as “uncritically offering up lists of alternative words” leads to poor writing habits, to “our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity” and to a language that is “decayed, disarranged, and unlovely.” He continued on this track for 15,000 furious words – none of which, he said proudly, had been assisted by the use of any thesaurus. He also went on to disparage folks who dare to use the book to solve crossword puzzles, insisting that using a reference book of any kind to complete a puzzle is “simply not done”.

Oh, dear, I do admire Winchester’s writing – I think I own most of his very well-written books – but I do not think it’s possible to disagree more with him on all these points. Speaking as a reference librarian and as a wordsmith, I do not – and will not, ever – hesitate to say that reference books are a great help in finding answers to all kinds of questions and clarifying one’s thoughts, and that using a thesaurus to find the right word(s) teaches us a great deal.

Reference books are not crutches, but sturdy ladders to higher learning and understanding. Rather than being – as Winchester says – a kind of vulgar substitute for thinking – they are stimuli to thinking. We owe Roget, and Webster, Johnson, James Murray, and other lexicographers/word nerds a great deal; I, for one, am willing to acknowledge that, and to express my eternal gratitude to these giants who loved words as much as I have loved them every day of my life.

The End

THE MAN WHO MADE LISTS – GUEST BLOGGER JO MANNING – Part One

I browsed recently through a biography I picked up at the public library, Joshua Kendall’s The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008).

Happily having used Roget’s Thesaurus – that incomparable list of synonyms and antonyms — throughout my writing career, I realized I didn’t know anything at all about its compiler, Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869). I’d never even wondered why someone with a French surname had written a book on the English language. Neither did I know when it was first published. Roget’s was simply a book of synonyms that was always there, that people knew, and used – especially when solving crossword puzzles or writing essays — and that was that. Right? I was also grateful to him, very grateful, because he so alleviated (whew!) my monologophobia (the fear of using the same word twice in a piece of writing).

But, seriously, who was this lexicographer who’d produced such a seminal work?

Author Joshua Kendall, a journalist who describes himself as a “word nerd”, tells a fascinating and dramatic story, one well worth reading. (His current project is the biography of another word nerd, America’s Noah Webster.)

Roget began his career as a medical doctor, but went on to many accomplishments, among them his invention of the slide rule, his role in nitrous oxide/laughing gas experiments with Thomas Beddoes, developing filtration systems for London’s sewers, posing the first chess problems for newspapers, his work on optics (that led some to link his name in a later century with moving pictures), his popular lectures on anatomy and other scientific subjects, and his wealth of writings on physiology and health. In 1834 he became the first Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution and he was a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge.

My curiosity having been aroused, I began to read the book, especially interested in the tantalizing promise of the love and madness part, as a writer of romantic fiction and as the biographer of a famous courtesan.

First, his ethnicity. The Rogets were French-speaking Swiss from Geneva. Jean Roget, his father, was the minister of a Protestant church in the Soho neighborhood of London, which had a large Huguenot (French Protestant) population in the 18th century. His mother was from a wealthy middle-class Huguenot family; her mother Margaret Garnault, was an heiress, and her father Peter Romilly was a well-off jeweler. His mother’s brother, the highly respected Sir Samuel Romilly, had a distinguished career in government.

Sir Thomas Lawrence painted that great man circa 1806-1810:

Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818)

But there were serious health problems – mental as well as physical – in the Roget and Romilly families. The mental illness was in the Romilly family; Roget’s maternal grandmother, Margaret, was an unstable personality who needed constant supervision. Roget’s father’s problem fell into the physical realm: he developed tuberculosis. This necessitated a move back to Switzerland, where treatments for the condition were considered better. The infant Peter was left with his maternal grandparents, and when just a toddler he was taken to Switzerland by his uncle Samuel to be with his parents and new baby sister Annette. But all was not well with his parents. His mother may have been suffering from post-partum depression after Annette’s birth, and when his father finally succumbed to TB after four years, she fell into a sharp mental decline.As Kendall observes, “Madness ran in the immediate family. [His maternal grandmother] … suffered from an unidentified mental disorder – probably severe depression or schizophrenia – that left her in an almost vegetative state for most of her life.”

Roget’s mother, who was described as “temperamental and emotionally demanding,” lapsed into paranoia in her old age.Alas, it didn’t end there. Roget’s sister Annette – and, later, his daughter Kate – also suffered from severe bouts of depression. And his kind uncle Sir Samuel Romilly, longtime Member of Parliament and internationally renowned reformer of the system of British criminal law, among many other legal triumphs, fell into a deep depression and committed suicide in 1818.

By this time, Peter Mark Roget, almost 40 years of age and unmarried, had a thriving medical practice and had become a member of the Royal Society; he was the one called to his uncle’s bedside. Sir Samuel had slashed his throat with a razor, inconsolable after the death of his wife, whom Roget had attended in her last, fatal, illness. (This incident is described in tragic detail in the opening pages of the Kendall biography.Sir Samuel’s demise was a great loss to his family and to the nation. A good part of the blame for his suicide, alas, was attributed later to the insensitivity of the medical treatment of his nephew, Peter Mark Roget. This blame, unfortunately, may well have been warranted.Kendall states “no one questioned Roget’s concern for his uncle” but “a consensus emerged that he had failed to grasp the full extent of Romilly’s emotional agony” upon the loss of his wife. But, again, severe depression ran in the Romilly family, and perhaps no physician could – at that time – have done anything to alleviate Roget’s uncle’s grief and deterred him from suicide.

Samuel Romilly’s suicide unhinged Peter Mark Roget for a good long while.
According to Kendall, the tragedy – and the guilt — caused Roget to undergo what Kendall dubs “a midlife crisis.” He left the medical profession and pursued a second – and hugely more successful — career as a lecturer at the Royal Institution.

Roget’s Royal Institution Medal, 1819

 

Part Two Coming Soon!

REMEMBERING HESTER DAVENPORT

How many times has Hester Davenport’s name passed my lips since we lost her on  September 23rd, 2013 – five years ago? Too many to count, as we at Number One London have so many memories of our beloved friend, sharing them often. If we’re not speaking of Hester amongst ourselves – Kristine, Victoria and Jo Manning – we’re sharing stories of Hester with other friends and acquaintances. She is never far from our hearts.

Victoria, here. I find it difficult to express my sense of loss at the news of Hester’s passing. We will miss her terribly. Wherever she is, I am sure she is organizing everything with her gentle touch and genial good humor.

Kristine and I (and Kristine’s daughter Brooke) thrust ourselves upon Hester one day in June, 2010, full of excitement for our upcoming trip to see the reenactment at the 195th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  She had invited us to spend the day with her at Windsor, but little were we prepared for the depth of her welcome and her plans for our visit.  We started at the Windsor Guildhall, where she showed us around the upper floors. Then we went into the lower level where the archives were in the process of being moved to make way for the new museum that Hester masterminded.

Hester thoroughly charmed and surprised us by showing us the accounts of the news of the Waterloo victory as they were received and celebrated, as reported in the Windsor and Eton Express.  The original newspapers had been bookmarked for us and there probably had never been two more thrilled readers of the Windsor Gazette than Kristine and I were.

We read about how and when the news was received and the celebratory plans for the royal family and the community.  It was such a thoughtful thing for Hester to do, and greatly added to our enjoyment of our Waterloo visit.  After giving us the latest 195-year-old news, Hester asked us if we’d like to go see the Queen.
That is a QUESTION???  We jumped at the chance.  Off we hiked to the drive from the Castle up the long walk toward Ascot.  Hester told us that the royals went most of the way in autos then changed to open carriages to enter the race course.  A small group had gathered to await the parade of black limos, and we had a glimpse of Herself as she passed by.
 We went on to lunch in a quaint cobbled street-café, all the while chattering a mile a minute, telling each other about various projects underway, observing the locals and tourists, and basking in Hester’s erudite presence.  Of course we talked about the royals, Waterloo, the new Museum about to be created in the Guildhall, then on to persons of interest to all of us, celebrities such as Mary Robinson,  Fanny Burney, Mrs. Delaney, Dr. Johnson, and Queen Victoria (and Prince Albert).  Exactly the kind of celebrity small talk everyone enjoys, right? Well, at least those of us who indulge in the fantasy of  living in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Eventually we moseyed off to the Castle and did the tour.  We were certain Hester had walked that route a million times but she gallantly assured us she loved it every time.  Every step of the way, she told us  “inside” stories, all about the fire in 1992 and what was restored.  And how!

 

On other visits to Windsor, Hester showed us all around the new museum, where she had also welcomed Her Majesty (see below).  She always had the most interesting details to impart without in any way taking credit for all the things she had accomplished.  As head of Dr. Johnson’s House, as an excellent biographer, and as the head of the Frances Burney Society (in addition to many other endeavors and awards), Hester had a role in the most esteemed of British scholarly organizations. But she always had time to chat with amateurs like us.  So we will greatly miss a wonderful friend and favorite companion. All our best to her dear husband, Tony, gardener extraordinaire, and to their daughters.  RIP, Hester.

Victoira at the Guildhall Museum
Kristine here, still unable to process the fact that Hester is gone. Hester and Windsor will forever be linked in my heart. So many memories and so many good times, most arranged by Hester, who was a respected historian, accomplished writer and also very funny. Below is a photo taken by Victoria of Hester and I looking at the grave of Mary Robinson in Windsor, which Hester tended faithfully.
You won’t believe me, but on several occasions Hester related the funniest stories about Mary’s grave to Jo, Victoria and myself. I think my favorite was the time that Hester was showing a group Mary’s grave and while she was giving her talk, became distracted by the fact that Mary’s grave boasted several fresh sprays of flowers. Who could have left them? Where had they come from? It wasn’t till she’d finished that Hester realized she’d taken the group to the wrong grave.

I remember the email we received from Hester telling us that she was doing a truly daring thing – bidding on an original print of Rowlandson’s Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, above. A broker would be phoning in her bids during the live auction. We girls kept our fingers crossed across the pond and were dead chuffed to learn that Hester had submitted the winning bid. Next time I was over, of course I saw the print up close and in person. What a treat.

Hester always good naturedly carried out my commissions with patience, like the time I mailed her a twenty pound note and asked her to buy me the Oyster card issued to commemorate the wedding of William and Kate, which she purchased at Windsor station and mailed to me. (I’m still using it)

Hester was instrumental in the founding of the Guildhall Museum and was appointed to welcome Her Majesty and take her around the exhibits when the Museum first opened.

Of course, the Guildhall figures largely in my memories of Hester. And the Queen. Hester and the Queen – could anything be more perfect?

As most of you know, Hubby and I recently spent two fabulous days with Hester when we were over in January. Firstly, Hester drove us to Oatlands, now a hotel, but once the home of Frederica, Duchess of York. The three of us had tea and then Hester helped me to search the grounds and find Freddy’s pet cemetery. Below is a photo of Hubby, Hester and some guy they picked up at Hampton Court, where we went afterwards. Next day, Hester and I toured the kitchens at Windsor Castle together, had lunch and took a stroll by the river.

Hester was to have spoken to our group when Victoria and I go over to Windsor in September 2014 for the Wellington Tour.  How everyone in our group would have enjoyed meeting Hester – and how much fun we’d have had.

I am convinced that Hester is now spending her days in a well appointed drawing room with the likes of Brummell, Fanny Burney, Mrs. Fitzherbert, the Duke of Wellington and the Duchess of York. I only pray that she’s keeping my seat warm.

From Jo Manning

The last time I saw my dear friend and colleague Hester Davenport was when I waved goodbye to her as she drove back to Old Windsor after dropping me off at the railroad station in Windsor. It had been a glorious day, but all days with Hester were glorious, despite the often mercurial English weather.

We’d had tea and pastries – the biscuits a culinary treat – in the back garden with her husband Tony, enjoying the spring flowers and exquisite green swathe of lawn. I was sorry to have to leave, as I always was, because good company is rare anywhere in the world and theirs was sublime.

 

Hester, after her long and arduous string of medical treatments, looked so well! And she was chipper,  too, looking forward to her next adventures in writing and editing. She was skilled in both, such a talent. Her prose was smooth and readable, eminently so.

 

We “met” online in 2005, when my publisher forwarded to me Hester’s comments on the biography I wrote on the 18th-century courtesan and memoirist Grace Dalrymple Elliott. It’s a small world:  Hester had recently completed a well-researched, beautifully-written biography of Grace Elliott’s rival in love – or what passed for it in the Georgian era amongst the aristocrats and royals – Mary Robinson aka Perdita.

 

Hester’s remarks about my writing were so very kind…and thoughtful. She took issue with some interpretations I’d made but acknowledged that so much of the conclusions we drew concerning the lives of these ladies were interpretive, at best.  We loved our subjects, those so-called soiled doves so ill-used by wealthy and powerful men…tough women who sometimes triumphed over social adversity but most times did not.

 

We were thoroughly engrossed in our research and subject matter and it was so delightful to find each other…someone to talk with and reflect and whose company was thoroughly enjoyable. Yes, we most assuredly would have bored the trousers off the majority of people with what we talked about, so being together was a treat beyond the ken of most. We also bonded over biographers who came after us and used our research, claiming it to be their own. We each had a specific bête-noire!

 

 We actually met face-to-face in early 2006, over a delicious meal and white wine at the restaurant atop the National Portrait Gallery. The talking was even more delicious than what we ate or drank  Hester was witty…and wise…and a wonderful companion.

 

We always had something to discuss, somewhere to go – museum exhibition (the Thomas Lawrence show stands out here), Jane Austen’s haunts – the memories are fabulous and Hester’s energy was unflagging as she drove me around the English countryside. I will also never forget the wonderful day we had at Windsor Castle with my two eldest granddaughters, Zoe and Esme Winterbotham. She introduced us to Windsor Castle – what a superb guide! – and the girls introduced her to Wagamama. (A restaurant she said she very much enjoyed getting to know.)

 

A highlight of our day at Windsor was our side visit to St George’s Chapel, where Hester thoroughly scandalized the docents  — and delighted me and the girls – by stomping fiercely on the earthly remains of King Henry VIII, an historical character we found revolting to the max. I will never forget that scene.

 

I miss her. I will always miss her, although I continue to have an ongoing dialogue with her in my mind. I truly believe that people are only really gone when you forget them, when memories disappear. I will never forget my kind, wise, wonderful, clever, witty, darling friend Hester Davenport…and I will bless her memory so long as I live.

 

 

THE WRETCHED LOVE LIFE OF SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE – Part Four – Jo Manning

Now for a closer look at this National Portrait Gallery retrospective… There are some surprising portraits here, not the least the paintings of the Waterloo generals, Wellington, et al., and an amazing capture on canvas of the saintly William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery crusader. But although it is the beautiful, sensually painted women who draw the eye, it is the eye-stopping portrait of a young man who may hold a clue to the centuries-old puzzle of Thomas Lawrence’s sexuality.

In her review of the National Portrait Gallery exhibit in The Observer (October 24th, 2010), Laura Cumming asks the viewer to “consider Lord Mountstuart of Bute in Spanish costume, his manhood barely concealed in skin-tight trousers. Silhouetted against a stormy sunset in his Byronic black cloak (Lawrence arguably pioneered the look, Byron was only seven at this time), Mountstuart treads upon the toy landscape below. His body is wildly elongated, his face more or less Hispanicised and yet all these implausibilities are somehow swept aside by the sensuous conviction of the paint.”

That depiction of the young lord’s “manhood” caused quite a stir at the time. Lawrence thrusts Mountstuart’s thrusting hips and bulging thighs, encased in skin-tight trousers, right into the viewer’s face. It’s not subtle, not by any means, and this reproduction hardly does it justice, for seeing it up close and personal is an entirely different experience, one that stops the viewer dead in his tracks, and my feeling is that it is intentional, that Lawrence wanted the viewer’s face rubbed into that young buck’s manhood.

Or was it his own face that he wanted to rub into Mountstuart’s crotch? It’s unsettling. And it’s also revealing that the 1923 Grieg edition of Farington’s diaries censures what Farington said about this portrait in May of 1794. Luckily, the editors of the Yale edition had no such qualms.

Lord Mountstuart of Bute (1767-1794)


Farington wrote in his diary on the 5th of May, 1795, that King George III “started back with disgust” when he saw the portrait on display at the Royal Academy exhibition for that year. From the exhibition catalog (edited by A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell and Lucy Peltz), a comment and quote from an early 19th century book of anecdotes has more to say on this painting: The unbridled sexuality of this portrait, led another critic to sarcasm: ‘We wish he had been a Bishop, as then his Cassoc [sic] might hide those eccentricities…at which delicacy must blush, and modesty turn aside.”

The editors kindly enlarge that part of the portrait — “those eccentricities” in question — for the further edification of the reader on page 124 of the catalogue. Pretty blatant, this, and, to me, it’s significant that Lawrence was never so blatant in his painting of dashing young trousered men again.

In Lawrence’s later years one woman in particular appeared to provide him with companionship, Isabella Wolff, who first met him when she sat for her portrait in 1803. Isabella was the daughter of Norton Hutchinson, a prominent East India trader and the estranged wife of Jens Wolff. A merchant, shipbroker, merchant, and collector who served as the Danish Consul, Jens Wolff was of Anglo-Danish heritage.

The couple had separated after 18 years of marriage and had one son, Herman St. John Wolff, who may have been born any time between 1810 and 1814 (or perhaps before those dates). The lack of certainty as to the correct birth date of Herman Wolff has led to speculation that he was the son of Isabella and Thomas Lawrence. Is there anything to back this up? Lawrence did appear to be fond of the boy and went on trips to the continent with him, but is that enough to make a case for paternity? It is also possible that Herman was Wolff’s son by another woman, not his wife Isabella. The jury is still out on this one.

Lawrence and Isabella Wolff knew each other for at least twenty-six years. She’d sat for a portrait in 1803, while she was still married to Jens Wolff, and they’d become close, even intimate, friends. Indeed, the artist John Constable, writing to his wife in 1824, simply stated what was being said at the time in London art circles: “A Mrs. Wolfe came in the evening. She is very pretty; & talks incessantly of all the arts & sciences… She is quite an intimate of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who has often drawn her. Her husband, from whom she is parted, in the Danish consul & in every sense of the world a Wolfe.”

Very odd, that comment, that Jens Wolff is “in every sense of the world a Wolfe,” because there was gossip in a newspaper, the Literary Gazette, very shortly after Lawrence’s death that he had been involved with a “Mrs. W, the wife of a foreign minister, whose brutal treatment [had thrown] her upon the protection of Sir T. Lawrence.” Had Jens Wolff been a wife beater? Was that what Constable was alluding to?

They were definitely close, as evidenced by this letter to her that survives, written from Rome in late June of 1819, when Isabella was about 50 and Lawrence only a couple of years older. He wrote:

My Bed Room Window is so small that only one Person can conveniently look out of it, but it looks over the Pope’s garden and St. Peters, Monte Mario &c., and as sweet Even’g closes I often squeeze you into it tho’ it does hurt you a little by holding your arms so closely within mine.

It reads real. Real and affectionate. This is not the Lawrence so many described as a manipulative social climber, overly charming, out to seduce by the sweetness of his words and the timbre of his voice. Isabella Wolff and Lawrence were definitely close, but how close is still a matter for conjecture. The bulk of their correspondence, unfortunately, was apparently censured both by his first biographer and by Lawrence’s relatives. Richard Holmes, however, dismissed her role in the painter’s life as simply “maternal.”

Isabella Wolff, 1803-1815, now at the Art Institute of Chicago

Contemporaries agree that Isabella Wolff was a great source of inspiration for him; she seemed to serve him as a beloved muse. (As perhaps, Sarah Siddons had, so many years before?) The portrait above was one that Lawrence could not seem to give up. He worked on it for over twelve years. (He also drew her many times.) At the Royal Academy exhibit in 1815, this portrait held pride of place. It was his only painting at that exhibition of a female subject.

The philosopher and critic William Hazlitt called it “a chef d’oeuvre of style…enough to make the Ladies vow that they will never again look at themselves in their glasses, but only in his Canvasses.” The critical reaction at the time to the portrait of Isabella Wolff was uniformly positive.

Mrs. Wolff’s is a classical pose, Grecian inspired, and, indeed, she is shown studying a book open to an image of the Delphic Sibyl. There is something of the Greek priestess in her attitude, with her hand on her head, and critics have suggested that being cast as a sibyl, as one of those priestesses who looked into the future and passed judgments, may fit with the role she played as mentor and muse in Lawrence’s life. It is an eye-catching portrait fraught with feeling.

Isabella Wolff died in 1829; Thomas Lawrence died unexpectedly – he had not been ill — very soon thereafter, in 1830. Whether or not their relationship was sexual in nature – whether they might have had a child together – whether he was heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual — is irrelevant to the obvious closeness of their friendship. I would not hesitate to say she most probably meant a great deal to him and that the shock of her death no doubt hastened his demise. And that, at the end, is what is important, that his life, as it neared its end, at long last, did have what anyone would not hesitate to call love. It was surely about time.

The End

THE WRETCHED LOVE LIFE OF SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE – Part Three – Jo Manning

Lawrence achieved a knighthood in the spring of 1815, thanks to Prinny’s patronage, and was sent by him to the continent to paint portraits of the heroes and distinguished others of the recent battle of Waterloo – which greatly enhanced his prestige and stature amongst his fellow artists — and he became president of the officially-sanctioned society of artists, the Royal Academy, in 1820, when Prinny ascended to the throne. (The artist arrived back in London in March of 1820 to find that he had succeeded Benjamin West.) Lawrence’s reign as head of the RA was to last only ten years, however; he passed away in 1830, only sixty years old, at the height of his powers.

Like a number of other 18th-century artists, Lawrence’s popularity waned during the Victorian era, but his reputation has revived in the 20th century. The lack of public access to most of his work might have been one of the reasons for his lack of recognition. Nonetheless, several striking portraits have since firmed up his reputation. One of them is of the actress Elizabeth Farren (a full-length portrait in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, seen below). Farren was a cold and calculating woman of low origins who parlayed her looks and popularity as an actress into aristocratic gold, snagging the wealthy Earl of Derby as her prize. The portrait is stunning; it’s difficult to take one’s eyes away from the tall, willowy woman commanding the space on that canvas.

Elizabeth Farren, later the Countess of Derby, circa 1790
Sarah Barrett Moulton aka Pinkie, 1794, at California’s Huntington Library


Arguably his most famous portrait – in terms of recognition by the general art-loving public – is probably the one dubbed Pinkie, which, along with Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, has been much reproduced. (Indeed, they could be veritable bookends, that boy in blue, this girl in pink.) The iconic portrait of this young girl, Sarah Barrett Moulton, was painted in 1794, when Lawrence was in his mid-thirties.

Jonathan Buttal (or Buttall) aka The Blue Boy, circa 1770, was painted by Gainsborough and is also in the collection of the Huntington Library

Lawrence was a wonderful painter of very small children as well as of adolescents like Sarah Moulton. One painting many people recognize – though they probably would not be able to identify the artist – is The Calmady Children, painted in 1823, seven years before his death. A charming image much reproduced in greeting cards, it is in this current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

The Calmady Children, 1823, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

Part Four Coming Soon!