Friday, 29 August 2014

Effie Gray and Scottish Independence

Over the past weeks I’ve been trying to work out how Effie and her family would vote in the Scottish referendum.  Of course, the very idea of voting on a national issue would be alien to her – Effie died two decades before women won the right to vote for their Westminster MP.  But I’m sure she and her parents, and brothers, and daughters, would have debated the question over the dinner table.  Their letters show that the Grays were a vocal clan, and willing to squabble and then resolve their disagreements.  They didn’t bear grudges.  They kept talking through their differences even when they were cross with each other. 

George Gray, Effie’s father, c. 1865

So, what would Effie think about Scotland as an independent country?  She was staunchly loyal to the place of her birth.  And she returned home to Bowerswell, her family house just outside Perth, when she knew she was dying.  She always relaxed in the Scottish hills.  The Trossachs held special associations for her.  It was at Brig o’Turk that she came to realise that her first marriage, to John Ruskin, was over.  Ruskin ‘had no intention of making her his Wife’. Here she began to wrestle with the possibilities for her future. The young pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais, fell in love with Effie on this Scottish holiday.  He drew her obsessively in the cramped cottage he shared with Effie and Ruskin throughout the wet summer months.

 John Everett Millais, Highland Shelter, 25th July 1853

After Effie left her husband, she went straight home to Perthshire.  Back in Scotland, she swam, and strode out along the coast, regaining her strength and pondering.  Eventually, in July 1855, she quietly married again.  She and her second husband, Millais, spent their honeymoon on Arran, where Effie admitted, ‘they were very comfortable’, waking each morning to clear skies and rowing out into the bay in the cool of the evening.  In August 1855 Effie and Millais settled in Bowerswell, safe from the wagging tongues of the London art world.  Millais grew to love Scotland.  His most sensitive paintings, including ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘The Vale of Rest’ were set against the Scottish sunset, with Bowerswell as a backdrop and local girls as models.


John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1855-6

Effie was sure of her Scottishness even when she moved back to South Kensington in the autumn of 1861.  She kept in touch constantly with her parents, and went home as often as she could.  Her father had shares in the Dundee-London steamer service, so Effie and her children made the journey several times a year.  And every summer Millais joined them, decamping to the Highlands to fish and shoot.  Effie’s young family wrote longingly about holidays with their grandparents, when the perpetual hum of London traffic was replaced by the hum of bees.  The children associated these visits with the taste of fresh cream and honey on porridge, with music and parties, with bicycle outings, with family. 

So Scotland was a place of personal refuge.  But Effie was also well aware of its political and judicial differences from England.  She was married (twice) in her father’s house.  As a Scottish wife, she understood that her legal status was a little better than a woman married in England.  She was entitled, for instance, to defend herself against accusations of infidelity. And she could demand financial support from her husband.  Unlike English brides, she retained some of her own property after marriage – at least her clothes and ‘paraphenalia’ remained hers and not her husband’s.

Effie came from a family of lawyers and bankers.  She recognised and applauded the autonomy of the Scottish legal system.  She also benefited from the self-reliance that characterised her family.  Her father, George, was an entrepreneur.  Sometimes he made the wrong call.  His investments in French railway stock at a time of political turmoil on the continent brought the Grays to the brink of financial disaster in the Spring of 1848. But he recovered, and by the 1860s was a pillar of the banking establishment in Perth.    

And here, in a nutshell, lie the answers to Effie’s reaction to Scottish independence: self-reliance, and the Establishment.  Effie and her family were conservatives.  They wanted to be accepted by their neighbours and their colleagues.  George Gray worried about the gossip in the golf-club when his girls got themselves into romantic scrapes. His reputation mattered. He made himself indispensable as manager of the Perth branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland for many years.  He founded the Standard Life Assurance Company in the town, and threw parties for the directors of the Gas Light Company, with ‘as much champagne as they could drink’.  After a few shaky speculations in the 1840s, George Gray was a substantial figure by the time Effie married her second husband.  This security, this sense of having arrived financially and socially, was underpinned by a strong political conservatism.

Effie shared her father’s aspirational attitude, and his conservative political outlook.  She was a social-climber, unashamedly marrying money.  She only had one possible career path, and that was a good marriage.  John Ruskin offered her security, family connections and the chance to make a splash in Society.  She could provide the social skills he lacked, and smooth his path through London soirées.  Effie expected to be presented at Court as Mrs Ruskin.  When she made her debut on 20th June 1850, she was admired for her dress and her poise as she curtseyed and kissed Victoria’s hand.  As Mrs Millais, she was barred from the Queen’s presence – because she had 2 husbands still alive. This did not stop her becoming good friends with Constance, Duchess of Westminster, and later, Princess Louise, the sculptor-daughter of Queen Victoria.  These friendships mattered.  They signified that the scandalous failure of her first marriage had not blighted her life.  But Effie could not afford to be politically radical. Her reputation was too fragile. Yes, she and Millais enjoyed the company of Louise Jopling, the dazzling artist, Suffragist and teacher.  But Effie did not agree with Louise’s forthright campaigning for ‘Votes for Women’. 


John Everett Millais, Louise Jopling, 1879

In fact, Effie’s only overtly political act was to join the Primrose League.  This organisation had been established in 1883 in memory of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.  When Effie enrolled as a Dame of the League in July 1885, she vowed to ‘uphold and support God, Queen and Country, and the Conservative cause’.  Effie was a staunch Tory.  By the summer of 1885, she was also a Lady herself, since Millais had just been made Baronet. 

In these circumstances, it seems unlikely that Effie would countenance the break-up of the Union.  Disraeli and his Tory party were staunchly Unionist when it came to the question of Ireland.  They would never have dreamt that Scotland might seek independence.  Effie was a Scot who came to London to seek her fortune.  And she was successful.  Scotland was home, but London was where she shone. 

And so finally we come to the element of self-reliance.  Effie Gray was prepared to stand up for herself when her marriage became intolerable.  She learnt to thrive and think independently as a teenager – she kept house when her mother was confined by childbirth.  Her brothers and cousins, and sons and nephews all demonstrated that they could flourish in adversity.  They were flung across the Empire, to farm and fend for themselves.  Their letters home, from Melbourne or Dunedin told how they ‘were getting the wool off the sheep’s backs to send to London to convert into coin.’  Effie’s daughter Mary made the crossing from England, to Cape Town, to New Zealand and then on to Australia in 1885-6, visiting family as she went.  Mary linked the scattered outposts of the Gray clan together.  Her correspondence and her photographs show how Effie’s family embodied the idea of Empire.  They took the opportunities that were given by a Greater Britain, and they prospered. 

Walter Crane, Imperial Federation Map, 1886

It is this idea of a Greater Britain that made sense to Effie and her daughters.  They saw the virtues of thinking big.  They loved their Scottishness, but they were not limited by it.  I think Effie would vote for the Union. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

Please contact me on for more details about booking arrangements.

Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.