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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Biography to Autobiography and Back: More on Mary Severn Newton

UCL Press will be publishing Life Writing in the History of Archaeology: Critical Perspectives edited by Gabriel Moshenska and Claire Lewis on July 10. I have a chapter in it on a 19thC artist called 'The Ghosts of Mary Ann Severn Newton: Grief, an imagined life and (auto)biography’. It is also now a week away from a study day I have co-organised with colleagues at the British Museum and UCL on her husband Charles Thomas Newton on 12 June – places are only available online. Those who attend will see the bust and some of the illustrations I refer to in this piece and blog. This is the second of three blogs I'm sharing to accompany the publication on Life Writing that concentrate more on my personal story with more detail on the history of reproduction and the impact of involuntary childlessness for women. Most the work below is drawn by Mary.

In the 1850s, art critic and social commentator John Ruskin took an interest in Mary Severn’s work, sometimes accompanying her when she sketched in the National Gallery. It seems likely that Ruskin introduced Mary to the archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton, or at least recommended her work to him. The drawing she made (below) of them copying work in the National Gallery shows Mary's mischievous sense of humour - the great man minutely 'works' at Bacchus' nose, while Mary 'dashes impudently at Titian's blue hills'.

Cartoon showing a man and woman copying paintings.
A drawing by Mary Severn of Ruskin and her at work on copying in the National Gallery, late 1857/8.

Ruskin and Newton had known each other since their days at Christ Church College, Oxford. Newton had worked at the British Museum but in 1852 became a diplomat posted to the Greek islands of Lesvos and Rhodes (then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire). Between 1856 and 1858 he was at Bodrum in modern-day Turkey, leading the major archaeological expedition that unearthed one of the Seven Wonders of the World - the Mausoleum of Halicarnassos. Ancient Greek sculptures were excavated, then transported to London for display in the British Museum, where they remain. In 1858, Mary was employed by Newton to draw the sculptures as they were unpacked at the museum - a copy of her depiction of Mausolus from Newton's 1865 Travels and Discoveries is below..

In 1859, before he returned to Rhodes, Newton proposed marriage to Mary. He was ambitious, with a caustic sense of humour. In her biography, Sheila Birkenhead depicts him as a sardonic romantic hero like Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre:

The door opened and he came in. He was tall and held himself well. He was forty years old and his body was spare and strong. With his stern face and unconscious air of distinction the whole impression given was one of austerity, until you noticed the rather grim lines of humour around the mouth and piercing eyes.[1]

A portrait bust of Charles Newton by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm used to sit in amongst other head and shoulders busts of ‘great men’ in the Victorian galleries of the NPG. Unusually, his was a dark plaster cast showing Newton with a full beard and luxuriant flowing hair flowing. A copy was later made for the Halicarnassos galleries of the British Museum. Aptly, the museum’s bust of Newton now sits outside the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. Newton is positioned against a wall near to Mary’s large drawings of the sculptures of Mausolos and Artemisia, spectacular sculptures that Newton had seen excavated from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassos. Their romance in the museum and amongst ancient sculpture on show for those few people who know of them.

Mary refused Newton’s offer of marriage. Accepting it could have made her family destitute. Marriage for a woman at that time meant giving up economic independence - a wife’s earnings and any lease in her name became the property of her husband. Mary would have been well aware of this because the rights of married women (or lack of them) were fiercely debated in the 1850s. The first Married Women’s Property Act, allowing women some ownership of property and right to their own income, was not passed until 1870. In addition, she lived at home, where her mother ran the household. If Mary married Newton, she would be expected as a respectable middle-class to oversee domestic duties. At that time Mary was keeping her family financially afloat.

After a year as Consul in Rome, in 1861 Newton was appointed to a new post as Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum. Despite being decades older than the required age for a diplomatic appointment, Mary's father the artist Joseph Severn was appointed Consul in Newton's place. This was a tactical manoeuvre, as it meant Joseph could now provide for his wife and household - freeing Mary from that burden. Mary married Newton on 27 April 1861. She was 29 years old - the same age as me when I had started trying to conceive.

In 2008 the hospital to which I was referred for fertility treatment carried out blood tests, ultrasound scans and then a ‘dye’ test (or hysterosalpingogram), which squirted iodine through my fallopian tubes and to my womb to check that the ovaries weren't blocked. It was painful and felt humiliating. Our introduction to reproductive technoscience was bleak. My body was assessed, and spoken of, purely in terms of its ‘baby-making potential’. I tried not to care how much it offended me, and hurt me, to be discussed as if I were a faulty breeding machine. I needed these people to fix me.[2] The test showed that one side was obstructed, possibly from endometriosis lesions, but the other appeared to be clear, meaning that it was feasible that I could ovulate.

A sketch by Mary of her trying to copy the Parthenon sculptures and Newton's disparaging 'a tolerable mud pie' comment.

Meanwhile, S was also being tested, dutifully producing sperm samples in various dank hospital cubicles. We’d sit together waiting for our appointments in the clinic, almost always under the blare of a TV mounted high up on a wall, almost always showing ‘talk' shows where couples yelling at each other about sex, having a baby and questions of paternity. The waiting area was also next door to the antenatal clinic, so I could wretchedly watch all the women who had been successful and fertile waiting to get their bumps checked. The only positive of all that time spent waiting for tests and appointments was that, if I could ignore the blare of the TV, I could lose myself in the drafts and, later, proofs of my first book: a study of nineteenth-century archaeology and the politics involved. It involved some of the work of the woman with whom I already felt such affinity. In those weeks of anxious tests, I escaped into the company of Mary Severn.

No longer required to produce portraits to support her family, she moved into genre painting and

A sketch by Mary of Gertrude Jekyll in Rhodes.

archaeological illustration. In this, Mary took advantage of the opportunities she now had to travel - initially with her husband to France and Italy and then, also with Gertrude Jekyll as her companion, to Greece and Turkey in 1863. These lengthy excursions gave Mary new subjects and experiences to paint. According to Birkenhead, this freedom was overshadowed by anxiety; Mary was ‘very happy with Charles, but she was worried that, so far, there was no sign of a child.’[3] As a childless married woman, Mary would have been unusual as in 1874 only 8.6% of marriages were childless. The longer she went without getting pregnant, the more the pressure would have mounted. J Matthew Duncan, a specialist on female fertility at the time, analysed birth registers and reckoned that if a woman had not conceived within three years of marriage, she would probably not have children at all. His views were hugely influential - his book, Fecundity, Fertility, Sterility and Other Topics (1866) was widely cited in medical texts until 1920.[4] If there were few options for contraception in the nineteenth century, there were even fewer solutions to problems with conception or having multiple miscarriages. There were at least options for me.

After ever more tests I was put on chlomid, or chlomiphete citrate: a fertility drug that induces ovulation so that eggs would be released for conception. It felt, at last, like we were moving forward, that the problem was being tackled head on. We were positive as I started the treatment – though that feeling didn’t last long. A few days after taking the tablets, I became a ‘chlomid crazy’, a term that I later found on an internet forum describing the mood swings and rage induced by this treatment. As well as the cramps, hot flushes and headaches I got each month anyway, there was now a mist that descended over my mind in the day and got worse through the evening. My cognitive ability shut down and my brain became mush.

A 5th Century BCE lion possibly from Athens that Charles Newton examined when he visited Venice on the way to Lesvos.

When the drug was first tested in the 1950s and 1960s, the hot flushes and blurring of vision were noted but then so were its ‘miracle’ properties at being able to stimulate ovulation.[5] Chlomid has been regularly prescribed in Britain since 1968 and is responsible for far more assisted conceptions than IVF. Every month, I returned to hospital for a blood test to check my hormone levels. After my book was published, I worked on a conference paper on the influence of John Ruskin on the work of Mary Severn. Sitting in yet another waiting room, I’d work on drafts of that paper or anything else that might distract me from the howls of ‘Whose baby is it?’ on the TV overheard, or the bellies straining with new life on the other side of the corridor. Then I went to Venice to present my paper at a conference on Ruskin. I also managed to visit the lion at the Arsenal - outside the main tourist part - that Newton visited in 1852.

The irony was not lost on me that I needed to take this drug in the midst of a conference about a man who, if known at all today, is infamous for not having sex with his wife. The non-consummation of the marriage between Effie and John Ruskin was much debated at the time, and in subsequent studies of the period. Effie wrote to her father that at first Ruskin told her he did not like or want babies, then that he ‘was disgusted with my person’.[6] When the relationship finally broke down, Effie was compelled to undergo an invasive physical examination to prove she was still a virgin, after which the marriage was annulled. She was then free to marry the artist John Everett Millais, with whom she had eight children. Whatever went on, the story reveals a lot about tensions around control of women’s bodies, fertility and sex.

Albumen print photograph by Lewis Carroll from 21 July 1865 depicting Effie Gray, John Everett Millais, and their daughters Effie and Mary at 7 Cromwell Place, signed "Effie C. Millais"

The matter was, predictably, debated at the conference with, as ever, champions of Ruskin or of Effie or neither giving their views. When an undergraduate, I vividly remember a lecturer mocking Ruskin’s ‘strange’ attitude to sex while not mentioning Ruskin’s enormous influence as a critic and writer. Ruskin was held up as an emblem of everything that was wrong with Victorian sexual repression as he was disgusted by women’s bodies and preferred pubescent girls. (I ignored most of the lecture since the male academic also contended that women’s sexual liberation came from the contraceptive pill and penises rather than the pleasure we find in our own bodies.) I had mostly ignored Ruskin’s personal life when researching, but at this conference I felt the implications of the physical examination made on his wife Effie. I hoped that she enjoyed having eight children.

When I returned home, I had an appointment with my consultant. Blood tests that I took around day 21 of my cycle showed that the drugs appeared to be having a moderate impact. I was finally ovulating - a bit. The consultant doubled my dose. Of course the side effects got worse. I struggled through my part-time job and freelance work but stopped going out socially. I gave up pretending I could carry on living as normal and only saw a few close friends, at our home where I felt safe. After another three hellish months we went to see the consultant. Blood tests showed that not only had the double dose had no effect, my body had produced even fewer hormones indicative of ovulation. Even the consultant, who had always been so coldly to the point about the failures of my body, expressed sympathy for what he referred to as my ‘unexplained infertility’. He added me to the waiting list at another hospital for an assessment for In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). It was the worst news but at least I had my brain back.

I had two cycles of IVF and in 2010, fourteen days after an embryo was inserted – I called it highlander as my eggs had only produced one - I had a late painful period. Devastated yet relieved, I could move on. I had already moved on from Mary Severn. At some point in the IVF treatment, I distanced myself from her. For all my attempts to be objective, to be professional in my research, I felt deep affinity for Mary across that gulf of one hundred and sixty years. I couldn’t help wondering how she must have felt watching everyone else become pregnant, or how much she had been faced with the same glut of ‘helpful’ advice on potential remedies from well-meaning people. I imagined Mary haunted, as I was, by the faces of the many children she had drawn, particularly the winsome Princess Beatrice.

Ann Mary Severn (Lady Newton) [1832-1866]- Children in a WInter Landscape with pet bird; Sister with their sketch book; A lost brother a group of three, each signed and dated Mary Severn 1857/1862

I think this affinity I felt for Mary was an attempt to express the grief I felt in being involuntarily childless. It took therapy for me to recognize that I was grieving for the birth children I would never have. Such loss is acknowledged even less than the death of a new-born baby or a still birth. There are, after all, only your imaginings and hopes to mourn. That intangibility makes it especially difficult when facing assumptions made by others about why you are childless. People are, I now know, more tactful round the matter of a dead baby. Loss through involuntary childlessness is largely unmarked, unseen and unnoticed. But Mary, I felt, would have understood and shared my feelings of grief.

There was also the burning injustice I felt in how Mary would have been judged for any failure to conceive. My research had shown that, around the time Mary was apparently trying for children, the medical establishment had started taking interest in infertility - and identifying who was to blame. American physician Edward H. Clarke argued in Sex in Education, or, a Fair Chance for Girls (1873) that women studying or working professionally in their adolescence or twenties damaged their changes of

A photograph of John Ruskin, National Portrait Gallery

bearing children. ‘The [bodily] system never does anything well at the same time,’ he said[7], so these young women impaired the development of their reproductive organs by making the blood flow instead to their brains. Clarke drew on a selection of his own case histories, supported by the 1858 ‘Lectures on the Diseases of Women’ by the London-based physician Charles Wise, as well as the psychiatrist Henry Maudsley’s 1870 lectures, ‘Body and Mind’. These medical authorities would surely have seen in Mary’s hard work and independence the cause of her childlessness. I felt their judgment sorely.

We don't know if Mary Severn knew of these theories specifically. Then, as now, there were many different assumptions about why women could not or did not have children. In his 1864 lecture ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’, Mary’s friend John Ruskin countered the idea that study was bad for girls and young women. Instead, he said they should be ‘let loose in the library’ and run free, so as later to be queen of their own homes.[8] Ruskin was no feminist, but his views on giving young women a good intellectual and physical education influenced the women’s movement in schools and higher education. Perhaps Mary found comfort and support in her friend’s ideas. Who knows? I like to think so.

References [1] Sheila Birkenhead (1965), Illustrious Friends. The Story of Joseph Severn and his Son Arthur, London: Hamish Hamilton, 126 [2] Donna J. Haraway (1997) ‘The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order’, Feminist Review, 55 (1), 22-72. [3] Birkenhead (1965), 149. [4] Naomi Pferrer (1993), The Stork and the Syringe. A Political History of Reproductive Medicine, Cambridge: Polity Press, 31. [5] Pfeffer (1993), 150. [6] Robert Hewison (1979), John Ruskin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 201. [7] Edward H. Clarke (1873), Sex in Education or A Fair Chance for Girls, Boston: James Osgood and Company, 39. [8] John Ruskin (1907), ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’, Sesame and Lilies, London: Everyman, 48-79, 67.


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