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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Artists Abroad: Gertrude Jekyll and Mary Severn Newton's 1863 Trip – Part 1

Updated: Mar 11

This is a blog or two on two female nineteenth-century artists to belatedly mark

A black and white drawing of a young woman in 19thC dress drawing.
Drawing of Gertrude by Mary Severn Newton (not in the sketch book).

International Women’s Day and celebrate March being Women’s History Month. Of course I'm returning to the artist Mary Severn Newton, who was friends with garden designer, botanist and artist Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). Gertrude had started studying at the National School of Art in 1861 and seems to have been mentored by Mary - she is recorded as drawing Mary’s husband Charles Thomas Newton and their mutual friend Austen Henry Layard at around this time. Gertrude was living at Bramley House in Dorking when Mary knew her – her later longterm home was at nearby Munstead Wood where she lived from the 1890s. the house and gardens was bought by the National Trust last year and I’m very excited about visiting it when it is opened to the public!

 

Mary asked Gertrude to accompany her and Charles Thomas Newton to Greece and Turkey (then in the Ottoman Empire) to be her companion while Charles carried out further researches on his travel journal Travels and Researches in the Levant (1865). Gertrude accepted as Mary was ‘one of the best and kindest friends I ever had’ and they kept a journal ‘illustrated by the two friends’.*  Gertrude’s words have been reprinted in her nephew Francis’ posthumous memoir of her, published in 1934, which used some of Mary’s sketches as illustrations - you can read it here.

 

Most of the sketches are published in the biography are in Mary’s Sketchbook 1, which has many more. Whether there are more in Jekyll’s journal, if it still exists, I do not (as yet) know and will need to visit more archives to find out. My friend Amara Thornton, who is currently working on the database of women archaeologists and historians Beyond Notability, suggested I could publish a zine or comic of Gertrude’s account using Mary’s sketches. . . So this is as near to that as I get on a blog.



We begin with Mary securing the enormous bags before they go, while Charles is indecisive about his hat (above): the 'typical' husband / wife roles reversed. They left London on 13 October 1863 travelling via train through Paris, Munich and Vienna and reaching Trieste on 20 October. Mary pictures Charles in Munich, presumably the Glyptothek where the restored sculptures from the Temple of Apollo in Aegina are on display, exclaiming 'Restorations!'.



Newton was tall and Mary’s drawings of their travels via train across Europe captured the cramped conditions in a carriage and that his long legs had nowhere to go



Jekyll recalls passing through Corfu as English troops are about to leave after a period of British occupation and a recent Treaty ceding the Ionian Islands to Greece. There had been a vote of unification with the Hellenic Kingdom only days before they arrived. There they were shown around by Lady Wolff, whose maiden name was Adeline ‘Douglas’ and was the illegitimate daughter of Isabella Robinson. Robinson married Walter Sholto Douglas, who was in fact Mary Diana Dods and so – being a woman – could not be her biological father but was credited as such. (More on Dods, who is fascinating, here).The couple were friends of Mary Shelley and lived in Paris in the 1820s. The party boarded another steamer on 24 October.

The captain had a chart brought and showed us where we were. We are now past the southernmost points of Greece and our course is north-east, steering for the Islands. About three in the afternoon we sighted Milo, a large island away on the right. (p. 42).

Newton clearly didn’t think much of this island spotting and Mary depicts him ignoring whether an island is Patmos or Delos or perhaps scoffing at the travellers’ ignorance, since Delos is in the Cyclades to the West and Patmos in the East near the coast of Turkey.

 

By 27 October they were the only European passengers on board the Austrian boat heading to Turkey, bar a German doctor who seemed taken with Gertrude and kept talking to her, she dismissed him as kindly but a ‘dreadful bore’. On October 29:

After breakfast the Captain got a group of Cretans to sit to us; they sat quite still and seemed to think it good fun. Early in the afternoon we got to Smyrna [Izmir]. The approach is beautiful, up a great arm of the sea, the southern shore especially fine – bold mountains plunging straight down into the sea.

A few days in Smyrna – modern day Izmir – and Mary captures Gertrude being ‘escorted through Smyrna by a poor relation of the Rothchild family’. Evidently this references the famous Jewish banking

family meant that the man was Jewish and the antisemitic sentence is endorsed by the picture, which shows him appearing to be trying to sell Gertrude fabric. The thriving trade port city of Smyrna had the biggest non-Muslim population in Turkey with quarters for Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Jews.

 

On 30 October they were ‘off by boat to the Railway station to go to Ephesus and I’ll quote Gertrude in full:

There is a railway just opened from Smyrna to Aidin and worked by an English company. At the station we had a light breakfast of coffee and bread sprinkled with sesame. Two stations on we were joined by Mr. Wood, who is conducting some excavations at Ephesus. The plain where he is at work is two miles from the station and is so unhealthy that no one can live there. It is rather a shock when an English porter opens the carriage door and says ‘Ephesus’.

The Mr. Wood is John Turtle Wood, who was a railway engineer who had been working on the same line that Mary and her party travelled along. He had only just started excavations at Ephesos in a bid to find one of the 'lost wonders' the Artemisium of Artemis. This was the beginning of a twelve year excavation.



Unfortunately, I have not (yet) seen an image of the ‘brigand’ who would only sit for Mary ‘if he might hold his sword in his teeth’ (p. 48). The next day they left Smyrna for Rhodes, after purchasing all they needed ‘as it is difficult to get anything in Rhodes’. Next stop / blog is Rhodes.

 

*References are to Jekyll, Francis (1934), Gertrude Jekyll. A Memoir, London.

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