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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Artists Abroad: Gertrude Jekyll and Mary Severn Newton's 1863 Trip – Part 2 Rhodes


A medieval street with view of the Palace.
Ippoton Street, Rhodes Town, 2000

Most of the drawings are from their stay on Rhodes. Strangely I have an almost comic book account of Rhodes too, from when I went with my then boyfriend, now husband, in 2000. We couldn’t get a boat for a while as one had sunk but eventually made it to Kos and then Rhodes. I took a lot of photos and made a scrapbook while he drew cartoons of us.

 

N.B. I will be quoting some descriptions of race used by Gertrude Jekyll that are offensive today.

 

Gertrude and Mary continue drawing on the boat, though Jekyll also tried to explain to the Captain ‘Admiral Fitzroy’s theory of circular storms and system of storm signals’ which had been developed following a catastrophic storm in 1859. This was the same Fitzroy that captained the Beagle when Darwin made his journey and who was heading up what would become the Meteorological Office. On reaching Rhodes late on 31 October 1863, Charles goes about his business while Mary and Gertrude are left to draw and explore Rhodes Town.


Line drawing of Gertrude Jekyll in Rhodes
GJ in heavy marching order, Rhodes

On 3 November they play a visit ‘to a native family who are our near neighbours; a mother with three pretty daughters, Ermine, Zuleika and Fatma. Their faces are much painted, the eyebrows painted to meet between the eyes and their nails and finger tips stained red with henna.’ It is unclear if this is the image but it seems to match Gertrude’s description.



 The Jewish family they are staying with also sit to them that day and Jekyll writes that: The Rhodian Jews are a fine handsome people, tall and with clear-cut refined features and many of them have fair or reddish hair. She also records the enmity between Greek Orthodox Christians and Jewish people, with Mordecai being spoken of as ‘that Hebrew’.



Mordecai, who is looking after them, and the housekeeper Maria often struggle with getting food, though the breakfast is ‘always bread and honey with Kaimak’ (a kind of clotted cream). Gertrude admires the late medieval town of Rhodes Town, which was built by the Knights of St John in the 14th / 15th centuries and above all was impressed with the flowers when they went on a walk with the Biliotti brothers.*


I was very happy with the wild flowers – cyclamen, narcissus, crocus, iris, and whatever the rocks overhung and made cool places the beautiful bright green Maidenhair fern. . .

They have an escort called Panni, who seems like a dragoman, and gets them sitters to draw. On 8 November they travel by mule to Symbuli, just outside the town, and ‘ride sideways on pack saddles covered with a carpet’. Their muleteer was ‘a fine looking fellow called Photi’ who led the way with 5 mules.



On 11 November they visit ‘the house of a rich Turk, Hadji Hafiz, while Mr. Newton sat and smoked with him, Mary and I visited his wife.’ Gertrude describes the women’s quarter where they grind food and cook with an area for visitors to be received. Interestingly the way she describes their activities (or lack of them) is much like how middleclass / upperclass Victorian women are popularly described today:


One must pity these poor women. They have no education and are perfectly idle; they do nothing but eat and chatter, dress and undress themselves, and paint their faces. They have no furniture except the divan. A small room at the side used for sleeping has also no furniture, only a pile of mattresses and quilts that are unrolled at night.

Men also sat to them. The next day a Turk from Algiers – the town crier – sat and a former Janissary (soldier) sat in the afternoon. The two women later visit Mandraki with Charles, where they see the windmills and some excavations that are being undertaken.



Later that night there ‘was the slight shock of an earthquake’ and ‘the house cracked and some plaster came down’. They had been warned to run for a doorway as the lintel may protect them. The next day they hear that the Europa, the ship that brought them, had been wrecked, fortunately with no loss of life.

 


On 14 November they draw Mr Biliotti’s Turkish canvass, then a ‘young Negro’ who had asked Biliotti (the English Consul) for 600 piastres ‘to buy his freedom’ so would do him favours, including being drawn. They were visited by the Pasha (the Commander General a few days later, who asked that they draw some of his entourage. This was their last full day on Rhodes and in the cemetery Gertrude got up:

the root of some kind of Iris . . . It shall go home with me and I shall hope to make it grow.

On board the ship to Smyrna they meet the German doctor from their former boat, who was coming back to Trieste from the wrecked boat on Cyprus. They stayed with the Hansons in Smyrna, who were a Levant family with multiple generations and branches involved in British – Ottoman trade.


Part 3 will be Constantinople where Gertrude and Mary do a lot of work!

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