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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Finding Ann Mary Severn Newton

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

In June 2023, Lucia Patrizio Gunning, Thomas Kiely and I hosted a Study Day on the Life and Work of the diplomat, archaeologist and curator Charles Thomas Newton. (I blogged a *save the date* here). A month later my chapter on a 19thC artist and Newton's wife called 'The Ghosts of Mary Ann Severn Newton: Grief, an imagined life and (auto)biography' was published in Life Writing in the History of Archaeology: Critical Perspectives edited by Gabriel Moshenska and Claire Lewis. The chapter contains a fair amount of speculation about how her work went in a different direction after marriage and that

A portrait of a young white woman with dark hair and eyes holding a portfolio
Mary Severn, Self Portrait (1863)., National Portrait Gallery

Newton and she had more of a partnership in their marriage, rather than Mary being oppressed or submissive. The chapter details that much of the information about Mary is derived from Sheila Birkenhead's biographies of her father Jospeh Severn and brother Arthur Severn, which in turn was derived from the Furneaux family papers. A chance tweet (now x) about the study day led to an introduction to the Birkenhead Archive. Finally, last week, I visited it with Thomas and we skimmed it's tantalising surface. If ever there was an example of why its good to work collegiately and share information it is this! I'm also really grateful to the family for lettting me take photos and blog about them here.


The fuller Severn archive itself is fascinating, with letters, birth certificates, a diplomatic passport and even a dancecard. Here, and in any other posts though, I will concentrate on Mary's work (and perhaps later a moving acccount that Charles himself wrote on his early life), essentially examining the idea of how can we know a life? Particularly one from the Victorian period about which so much is presumed. . . Mary was clearly not an 'angel in the house'.

Cartoon of a man and woman reading
CTN an MN become so wise. He has taught her to read Greek!

Her cartoons of her and Charles' marriage rather laugh at that ideal and poke fun at the notion Charles had of her being able to do sums or lock up Greek vases when she is so easily distracted by art. In fact, her line drawings rather do the work of Virginia Woolf's pen and imagination in The Room of One's Own and kill the Angel dead. Equally, Charles is shown as easily distracted by Greek sculpture or wanting an amusing book (throwing away history & Greece) but all Mary can find are histories or archaeological surveys of ancient Greece in their library. The cartoon I refer to in my chapter showing Charles teaching Mary to read Greek, which I had only read about but not seen, is there. Another cartoon shows Mary teaching Charles to draw and Charles teaching Mary philosophy.


I have uploaded the line drawings and cartoons in Mary Severn's Sketchbook 1 into a webpage that lets you share photo albums here. The opening page giving initials of the main people says it has put together after Mary died as they are not in date or much of an order. I will just pull out a few pages as a bit of a guide to the album. The earliest drawings date from 1859 and show Mary Palliser, Mary's great friend and fellow artist, and Mary drawing the sculptures from the

Cartoon of a woman in bed surrounded by the things she has drawn.

Mausoleum of Halicarnassus when they are at the British Museum. In fact they draw them so much that they begin to have dreams about lions and fragmented sculptures, such as this cartoon (on the left) in which lions are surrounding Mary's bed.


Then there are touching cartoons of their courtship in 1860 and in their subsequent marriage showing daily life at home and in the museum. One of the funniest depicts Charles and. Mary out for a walk near Charles' family home in Brewardine, Herefordshire, where they fall asleep but are accosted and eaten by a hungry pig leaving Mary's crinoline, keys and watch behind: a picture showing delicious wit and macabre humour.



Perhaps of most interest are the cartoons of Mary's and Charles' trip to Greece and Turkey in November and December 1863 with a young Gertrude Jekyll who acted as Mary's companion, while Charles went to inspect excavations at Rhodes, Ephesos and research at Constantinople. Gertrude's travel journal is republished in a biography of her by her nephew Francis Jekyll, who himself worked at the British Museum and was a folklorist.* It would be wonderful to somehow put the pictures with the text. For example, I wonder if the pictures below come from their visit on 3 November to a family in Rhodes - a mother with three daughters: Ermine, Zuleika and Fatma. As women Mary and Gertrude had access to spaces that men did not - they had an othering gaze of course. Yet, it is fascinating how much Mary depicts Gertrude drawing (and herself) alongside the men and mostly women she observes: acknowledging her gaze but also in the tradition of Nicholas Revett on the original Society of Dilettanti expeditions published in the 1760s, which she would have has seen in Charles' Library.



*Francis Jekyll (1934) Gertrude Jekyll: A Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 41-76.


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