Two posts in two days is unusual for me, but as I was writing yesterday’s post about Susanna Gale I was discussing the fictional story I’ll be working on as a result of the research for that post. In doing this I realised I hadn’t written anything about my recent win at the Scarlet Stiletto Awards. The Scarlet Stiletto Awards are a prize offered by Sisters in Crime Australia for Australian women writing crime short stories with a female protagonist. This year I entered my story The Gospel of Cecily and was lucky enough to take out the Cross-Genre Prize and third place overall.
So why is this relevant for Historical Ragbag? There’s a few reasons. One is because I’ve spoken about writing fiction here before and I wanted to give an example, a second is because the word limit for the story was 5000 words and I was right on the word count so I didn’t get the chance to write an historical note and thirdly because the story is about a real medieval woman.
So a little about the story first: The Gospel of Cecily takes us to Hereford in the Welsh Marches in the year 1200. Cecily, formerly Countess of Hereford, is reading when she is interrupted by shouts of a body in the library. What follows is an exploration through time, story and sorcery as Cecily and her friend Marcus trace the body, which inconveniently keeps reappearing, through Hereford’s illuminated manuscripts in the hope of saving a life.
As you can see from the description, there’s a fair bit beyond a straight historical narrative. What excited me most in writing it was putting Cecily front and centre and exploring the very real illuminated manuscripts that would have been at Hereford Cathedral at the time.
Not much is known about Cecily. She was the daughter of Pain FitzJohn a middle rank Anglo-Norman Baron and Sybilla who was probably a de Lacy- an important Marcher family (the Welsh Marches are the lands on the border of England and Wales). Cecily married Roger Earl of Hereford firstly then when he died in 1155 she probably married twice more. There really isn’t a great deal more known about her. If you’ve ever read Elizabeth Chadwick’s books she appears as a minor character in Shadows and Strongholds. In this book she’s a young woman, but when I appropriate her for my narrative in 1200 she is in the last years of her life, she probably died in around 1204. I have no proof she was in Hereford in 1200, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. So she became my lead character.
The main reason I wanted to write about Hereford in 1200 was to include the illuminated manuscripts. I started with the Hereford Gospels (something I’ll write a longer post about on another day) which are magnificent 8th century illuminated gospel books probably made in Wales. They’re one of the treasures of the Hereford Cathedral Library. You can see some of the illuminations below.
But the collection of manuscripts in Hereford Library is much more extensive and I had a lot of fun using the catalogue to work out exactly what books would have been there in 1200 so my characters could explore the illuminations. Below are the illuminations that are specifically featured.
These are just some of the specific illuminations that inhabit the world of the story. While the books were why I set the story in Hereford I have also done my best to be faithful to the history of the cathedral itself. In 1200 the cathedral was in a bit of a state of flux as it was between Bishops. I have appropriated Dean Richard (the Dean was the head of the chapter of the Canons who were the ruling body of the cathedral), as he would probably have been the figure of authority without the presence of a Bishop. Nothing is known about him, so I’ve made his an overly officious antagonist to Cecily, that’s one of the nice things about fiction you can fill in gaps as you wish. I have also stayed as true as possible to the lay out of the cathedral. The story is set within the cathedral complex, and I’ve imagined the cathedral school as closer and slightly more organised than it probably was (again there isn’t a lot of information available), but the new Bishop’s Hall is based on early descriptions. You can see Hereford Cathedral as it stands now, below.
What you see now is partly 19th century as the west tower collapsed catastrophically in 1786 and major restoration works were undertaken in the early 1800s. They were based on the previous layout of the cathedral though. Really the room I have taken the most liberty with is the library, as it is unlikely that there was a room dedicated as a library in 1200, the books would have been stored in the places they were being used. I have tried to reflect this, by having some of the books in different areas of the cathedral and the complex, but narratively I needed a library so I’ve also had the library irretrievably damaged by sorcery which can of course explain its absence from history. Again there are many advantages to fiction.
I just wanted to finish with a brief mention of my other main character Marcus, he’s not an historical figure but does feature as a main character in my as yet unpublished historical fantasy novel set in 1185. So you may see him pop up again in the future.
I did want to include the chained library and the mappa mundi which Hereford Cathedral are rightly famous for, but sadly they were too late (chronologically) for my purposes.
This blog post takes me out of my comfort zone (era wise) as I know very little about the mid 18th century and I’ve never written about an artwork before. But in many ways it is also right in my wheelhouse, exploring the lives of women in history to bring them out of the shadows. But before I introduce you to Susanna Gale, I need to go back to the beginning.
One of my favourite places in Melbourne is the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s an amazing bluestone building with the ambience of the ancient cathedrals. It’s also home to Leonard French’s stained glass ceiling- the largest in the world. It is Melbourne tradition to lie on your back on the carpet and look up at it when you visit the gallery. You can see the view below.
Anyway, as soon as we were allowed out again after lockdown the NGV was high on my list of places to visit. I started with the medieval section, best place to see reliquaries in Melbourne, and then headed for Tiepolo’s magnificent (if incredibly historically inaccurate in just about every conceivable way) Banquet of Cleopatra. It’s one of the NGV’s stalwarts and it’s nice to visit.
On my way, I noticed a new hang from the last time I’d been in the gallery, including one painting that literally stopped me in my tracks. Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Miss Susanna Gale. Reynolds is a master painter, which is one of the reasons it stood out, but I was also enthralled by her, by Susanna. And I wanted to know more. The information on the picture didn’t tell me much other than her name, the artist and the fact it was painted in c. 1763-1764 so I did some digging. I write fiction too and originally I was intending to just use the research for a short story. I am currently working on a story about Susanna, memories, a rose and Debussy, but she captivated me enough that I thought she deserved her own post. So in all the finest traditions of Historical Ragbag here she is.
So who was Susanna and how did her painting come to be at the National Gallery of Victoria?
Let’s start with Susanna, as she is the subject of the painting and the point of this post. Susanna was an heiress, the daughter of Francis Gale and Susannah Hall. Francis Gale was a wealthy British sugar planter from Jamaica. Susannah Hall was an heiress in her own right, her father James Hall was a silver mine owner also from Jamaica. You can see what is thought to be a painting of Francis Gale below. It dates to 1763 and interestingly was also painted by Reynolds. It is held by the National Trust in the UK at Montacute House.
I want to pause here to examine something that must immediately come to mind when we’re looking at British commerce in areas like Jamaica in this era, especially sugar plantations: slavery. When I started writing this post, I only had the supposition about the time and place. I have since found the Gales listed in the database of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. When Francis Gale died in 1775 his probate indicated that he owned 45 people: 28 men, 17 women and 8 children. In all honesty when I found this, I wondered whether I should continue writing about Susanna at all, as she definitely profited directly from slavery. When I thought about it though, I decided to continue because history should be explored in all its complexities and dark places, and her life should be acknowledged in all its parts. There is scant information about Susanna, but her family’s past is part of the tapestry of her life.
So as an heiress Susanna came to London to finish her education. And this is the moment when Reynolds painted her. She’s fourteen or fifteen in this painting, but for me it’s her face that is most intriguing. She looks like she’s poised on the edge of taking steps into a new world, a child trying to be an adult. That is certainly how she is styled, her clothing and posture very much reflect a contrast to her youthful face, there are reasons for this which I will return to later. She didn’t stay in England for long. The painting dates to 1764 at the latest and we know she married a man called Sabine Turner by 1765. There is very little known about Sabine, they were married in Jamaica but he failed to make any mark. Sabine was dead by 1766. We don’t know what Susanna did in the immediate aftermath of his death, but in 1769 she married the promising navy captain Alan Gardener in Jamaica. This proved to be a good match for Susanna as Alan would go on to become Vice-Admiral Lord Alan Gardner, he was a contemporary of Nelson’s and almost as well known in his own time. The title of Baron Gardner was created for him. You can see his portrait below.
As usual there is a Wikipedia article about her husband and his accomplishments, but very little about Susanna after their marriage. We know they had ten children, nine sons and one daughter, and that Susanna became Lady Gardner. Of those children, the eldest Alan inherited his father’s titles and followed him into the navy, the second Francis-Farrington became an admiral in the navy, the third William-Henry became a major general, the fourth Henry-Cossley died young, the fifth Herbert didn’t do anything remarkable, the sixth Edward was a resident at the Court of the Rajah in Nepal, the seventh Valentine died young, the eighth also Valentine was a captain in the Royal Navy, the ninth Samuel-Martin didn’t do anything remarkable and the tenth and only daughter Susannah-Hall married well.
With such a large family and with so many in the military we can presume that Susanna’s life was much taken up with bearing, raising and in fact burying her children, she outlived at least five of her children and her husband. Lord Alan died in 1808 and Susanna lived until 1823. As the wife of the Baron Gardner she would have had property to help manage, especially with her husband away at sea often. From this scant information we can extrapolate a life similar to most of her station in this era. But we can add no detail. Looking at the painting, it’s hard to imagine the girl depicted as a twice widowed mother of a dynasty, a military wife, and an old woman with scores of grand-children. She is captured on the cusp of a life she couldn’t have known. Which brings us neatly back to the painting itself. It is the reason Susanna is remembered at all. Which comes back to the central question, what is it doing in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia, a world away from its origins?
Unlike the details of Susanna’s life, this is a question that can actually be answered. But before I do, I want to talk a little about the composition of the painting and how it came to be painted. I preface this with the disclaimer that I am not an art historian, so please forgive any errors.
When Susanna came to London, Joshua Reynolds was the painter de jour, especially of portraits. He painted up to 150 sitters a year. With this in mind he had a streamlined process of generally three sittings of about an hour and a half each time. This would be sufficient to complete the face then as Reynolds described it in 1777 “the rest is done without troubling the sitter”. Everything else was modelled by his servants and pupils, from clothes to the hands. This might have been efficient, but does mean that you do see similarities between portraits. The best comparison in the case of Susanna’s painting is Reynolds’ portrait of Mrs Thomas Riddle painted in 1763. You can see it below and the parallels are obvious even to a completely untrained eye.
Reynolds was also drawing on a long artistic tradition, especially the work of van Dyck and specifically his painting of Elena Grimaldi, from 1623. You can see it below.
Susanna is cast into a role demarcated by more than century of artistic tradition, and I’d like to return to her specific portrait. Interestingly, the painting at the NGV is not the only version. It is the original, but there is a copy held by the National Trust in the UK in Clarendon Park. It was painted after 1763, but before the original was cut down. You can see it below.
The really interesting bit about this is ‘before the original was cut down’. The painting was taken to sea by Lord Alan on several of his voyages (I like the thought of him wanting the portrait of his wife with him-maybe it’s an indicator of a happy marriage?) and it was damaged so much that the dimensions had to be reduced. It also suffered some kind of injury when it was in transit on the Midland Railway, necessitating restoration. Close examination of the painting in 1956 by the NGV noted evidence of the painting having many skilfully mended cuts and tears especially across the top. It had also been relined and possibly re-stretched. So the painting has not lived a comfortable life gathering dust on the wall of the family mansion. And this brings us back to the question of how did it end up in Melbourne?
Once Lord Alan died Susanna gave the painting to her daughter Susannah Cornwall and when she died in 1853 it passed down to her descendant Reverend Alan Gardener Cornwall. The painting remained in the family until 1872 when it was sold and came into the possession of banker Bertram Currie you can see him below.
When he died in 1896 it was inherited by his son Laurence Currie. Laurence died in 1934 and the painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria from Christies as part of the Felton Bequest. The Felton Bequest was set up by Alfred Felton who was a successful Melbourne businessman. You can see his portrait below.
Felton began collecting art from the late 1880s onwards, he lived with his art collection at the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda. He donated paintings to the gallery during his life time, but it was his will that really shaped the gallery’s collection. The bequest continues to this day and is responsible for purchasing 80% of the NGV’s finest artworks that are valued at over 2 billion.
The will was drawn up in 1900 with trustees of a committee of five to administer the funds. The income was divided equally between donations to charity and to purchase art works for the NGV. The committee was able to appoint art advisors in Europe and around the world and the only stipulations for purchasing was that the works had “to have an artistic and educational value and to be calculated to raise or improve public taste” The overseas advisors were key to the purchasing of art under the bequest and Randall Davies was appointed the London advisor in c.1928. He presided over the bequest until 1934, and one of his final recommendations was Joshua Reynolds’ Miss Gale which was bought for 3500 pounds. The Argus newspaper at the time printed a photo of the newly hung portrait.
The Argus reported:
Referring to the picture and its history, Sir Charles Holmes, the English painter and critic, says that it bears no trace of the two accidents which overtook it-once, when Admiral Gardner took it to sea with him, and once in a railway smash. At Christies, while under a darkened varnish, the picture still left a delightful impression of dignity combined with youthful grace. After cleaning, the picture revealed an unexpected richness and glow of colour in the rose-red dress and russet background, coupled with a freedom of brushwork, anticipating the magnificent ease and breadth of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s maturity “I cannot help feeling,” Sir Charles Holmes says, “that on this occasion Sir Joshua had in mind some work by his great rival Gainsborough, an inspiration reflected in the free brushwork, the transparent colour, and, above all, in the sensitive refinement, the gentle distinction, with which the young lady is invested other works by Reynolds maybe more profound, more imposing, but I know of very few indeed that would be so desirable a possession”
She was hung on Tuesday the 7th of August 1934 and has remained at the NGV ever since.
So that brings us to the end of both Susanna’s story and the story of how a Joshua Reynolds portrait of a Jamaican British heiress painted in 1763-64 came to be hanging on the walls of the National Gallery of Victoria in 2021 to enthral me. I’ll leave you again with the painting, and if you’re ever in Melbourne, maybe go and visit her.