Imagine trekking through the desert in Egypt, towards St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. It’s 35ºC, you’re riding a camel… and as it’s 1892, you’re wearing – like any other Edwardian lady – boots, a corset, and a very large hat!
Our Sisters of Sinai, the benefactresses of the College, made no fewer than nine trips to Egypt, Greece, and the Holy Land between 1868 and 1906; and just like more modern tourists, they took plenty of photographs of their travels.
Following a project to digitise our collection of their travel photographs, high-quality digital images have just been made available via the Digital Library at CUL. There are almost 300 photographs of landscapes and people taken by the Sisters on their visits to sites of Biblical interest – mountains and monasteries, tombs and temples – across Egypt, including Sinai and the Nitrian Desert, and also to Jerusalem, modern-day Syria and Jordan, and Greece.
And they show the people the Sisters travelled with – academics, cooks, monks at St Catherine’s – and provide fascinating glimpses into what travelling in Middle East was like for intrepid ladies in the 1890s.
The originals are lantern slides, which the Sisters used to illustrate their books and talks – just over 3 inches square, they are two pieces of glass sandwiching a photographic image. As well as the travel photographs, Westminster also holds a further collection of over 250 lantern slide images, and 22 albums, of the Sisters’ photographs of manuscripts.
Not much is known about the provenance or history of this portrait, belonging to the Cheshunt Foundation at Westminster College. The painting – by a painter of the English School, but unsigned and undated – is known as ‘Girl in a Blue Dress’, and is of Lady Selina Shirley, wearing a blue dress with a pink rose in the bodice, with flowing lace cuffs and pearls in her hair, and holding a book.
311 years ago today, on the 24th August, Selina Shirley was born in 1707 at Astwell House in Northamptonshire. The second daughter of Lord Shirley, Earl Ferrers, in 1728 she married Theophilus Hastings, the ninth Earl of Huntingdon, and became the Countess of Huntingdon. Rather amazingly for a woman of the time, the Countess of Huntingdon went on to found her own College for the training of ministers at Trevecca, in Wales, in 1768; and it is the descendant body of that college – Cheshunt College – which joined together with Westminster College in 1967 and which owns this portrait today.
But isthis a portrait of the Selina the Foundress? There’s a question raised by the book she is holding.
If you look closely, you can just see the title on the spine: it reads “Hervey Medita…”, or (presumably) “Hervey’s Meditations”. (The colours in this smaller image have been adjusted to make the writing clearer.) James Hervey, author and clergyman, was a member of ‘the Holy Club’, a nickname for a small group of students in Oxford in the 1730s, led by John and Charles Wesley (and including, amongst others, George Whitefield and James Hervey) who met to talk and pray. Hervey’s Meditations Among the Tombs was published in 1745.
By 1745, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791) was nearly 40 years old – far older than the subject of this portrait! – and had had seven children. Moreover, if this portrait was painted after the publication of Meditations in 1745, she had been married to Theophilus for a good seventeen years and was now, of course, Lady Selina Hastings, rather than Lady Selina Shirley.
Is it a portrait from the 1720s, with the title of the book perhaps added later? The Countess was much influenced by the Wesleys and corresponded with John and Charles; George Whitefield was her personal chaplain; could “Hervey’s Meditations”, written by a fourth member of the Holy Club, have been painted in as a suitable title for her to be holding?
Or might it be a portrait of one of the Countess’s daughters, and be ‘Lady Selina Hastings’ rather than ‘Lady Selina Shirley’? Selina’s second daughter was called Selina, too (1737-1767). Perhaps it is her elder daughter, Lady Elizabeth Hastings (1731-1808), later Countess of Moira?
Or maybe it is a painting of a completely different sitter… and if so, who might she be?
–To see more of our paintings, visit the College page on the fantastic ArtUK website, which aims to make images available online of all art in public ownership in the UK (and art in the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges too).
–To read more about Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and her life,
In this, the centenary year of women’s suffrage, the Cheshunt Foundation has been asked to join in with a fascinating celebration of influential women from the 1720s and 1730s- the 21 ‘ladies of quality and distinction” who helped philanthropist Thomas Coram set up his Foundling Hospital in London. Long before women were given the right to vote, these ladies were influential in helping Coram secure a Royal Charter for his Foundling Hospital, which was set up to support and care for some of London’s abandoned ‘foundling children’.
One of the ladies was Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who also founded Trevecca College for young men to train for ministry- which later moved to Hertfordshire and became Cheshunt College.
These marvellous ladies are being celebrated this Autumn with a remarkable exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London. The Collections Manager, Alison Duke, came to visit the College recently to look at the painting in situ, and to discuss how best to transport it to London for the exhibition. Alison has written about her visit for Art Funding here .
We look forward to seeing the Countess surrounded by her peers- or, strictly speaking, her Peeresses- on September! The exhibition opens to the public in September and will run through into January 2019.
To find out more about the exhibition at the Foundling Museum, have a look at the Foundling Museum website
…And to find out more about the 21 Ladies, and about Thomas Coram, visit the website of Coram, the charity which continues their work today.
I recently happened upon an interesting image from 1877 entitled “Shark Attacking A Boatman”, in our series of The Children’s Messenger in the library here. It’s an illustration from one of a series of articles by Rev. Archibald Hewan, describing the journey to the Old Calabar Mission, and this one is specifically about “the sharks at Lagos”.
The Children’s Messenger was a monthly magazine produced by the Presbyterian Church of England for young members, and, as well as moral stories and Bible studies, it included many letters from missionaries describing life in far parts of the world – and the Messenger tried to accompany its articles with illustrations. Nowadays, television and photography and zoos and the internet mean that we are familiar with wildlife from around the world; but it seems pretty clear, looking at this picture from 140 years ago, that it was drawn by someone who had never actually seen a real shark.
This shark has a pointed snout and (rather strangely placed) gills, but the eyes and head are more like those of a seal. Its fins are reminiscent both of the fins of a bony fish, and of the flippers like a sea lion or a walrus- but are nothing like the smooth cartilage fins of a shark. It has a leaf-shaped tail straight out of a Mediaeval bestiary, and strangest of all, it has fur!
Archibald Hewan (1832-1883) was a Jamaican medical missionary to Calabar in Nigeria, appointed in 1854; but the artist is unknown.
The anatomical descriptions in Hewan’s text are very vague, if you don’t already know what a shark looks like: it only says “Look at his flat head. You can’t see his mouth; that is quite under” and later refers to his “great eyes”, “great fins” and “great tail”…though if you look closely, you can see that someone has also told the artist that sharks have more than one row of teeth.
However, if the artist had only heard or read descriptions of sharks before beginning his illustration, then he’s not alone in the task of trying to draw an animal he’s never laid eyes on. Albrecht Durer’s woodcut of an enthusiastically-armoured rhinoceros from 1515 is one of the best known pictures of an animal by an artist who has never seen his subject. Another famous example is George Stubbs’s portrait of a kangaroo, with a very long tail and no pouch, held at the Royal Museums Greenwich, which was based on descriptions given to the artist by Joseph Banks on his return from voyaging with Captain Cook in 1771, and painted soon afterwards. So our shark is in illustrious company!
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