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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Party Like a Victorian: Pianos, Pipes and People

Last Friday (17 May) I was honoured to be invited to speak at a really interesting day on Jealous Laws: a conference on collecting, studying and managing antiquities in the Ottoman Mediterranean during the long 19th Century at the University of Durham. After I gave my paper on Gertrude Jekyll's and Ann Mary Severn Newton's travels with Charles Thomas Newton in Greece and Turkey, some one asked if the images were shared and whether they had a more public audience. My sense of those images (as previously blogged) was that Mary and Gertrude drew / wrote the images as kind of journal. I speculated that when in Rhodes Mary drew them to show her husband Charles what they did, as he was spending most of his time on the excavations there and not with the two women. It may also be why there are none (so far found) of their time in Athens and Istanbul as Mary and Charles spent most of the time together.

I tried to describe how Mary and her family kept sketches of what they had got up to and inserted drawings into letters. No surprise really given her father was the artist Joseph Severn, and her brothers Walter (elder) and Arthur (younger) were also artists, though Walter also worked in the civil service

As part of this I mentioned drawings they had made for William S. W. Vaux, an assistant curator at the British Museum, who held soriees, amateur dramatics and 'batchelor parties' at home (see above). This invitation is drawn by Walter Severn, Mary's elder brother, who combines Assyrian sculptures, that were recently taken from what is now Iraq to the British Museum, with scenes of music and above all men smoking. The title 'Vaux at home' is in a haze of smoke. Walter was good friends with Arthur J. Munby, who describes one of Vaux's parties at Gate St, Lincoln's Inn Fields in his diary on 25 May 1859:

A very enjoyable bachelor's party: the rooms-uncarpeted and lined with books and pictures- were full of groups of men more or less known or distinguished: music in one room, food in another, and cigars and pipes in all. Some admirable partsinging by members of Leslie's choir: songs, serious & comic: piano-sonatas, and duets and trios with violin and violoncello, all splendidly played. Everything as pure and refined, too, as if there had been women there: whose absence was more than made up for by the freedom of dress and of smoking which it made possible. (Hudson, 1972: 33)

 This invitation combined with Munby's description gives a really good sense of what Vaux's 'bachelor' parties were like. Munby, Severn and Vaux were members of a well-connected middle-class bohemian social set around John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and other people who worked at the Working Men's College, where munby taught Latin. Like Walter, Munby was clerk in the civil service who combined creative pursuits, in his case poetry and photography, in his spare time.

Not all of Vaux's parties were bachelor ones as this invite drawn by Mary shows with a pastiche of a scene from the Parthenon Frieze (East side) in the middle with goddeses drinking coffee surrounded by bookcases, readings by men and women, talks on art and musical entertainment.

Munby describes another party on 27 June 1860 that takes place at the Working Men's College to which he invites Walter and Mary as his guests there they had a tent for tea in the garden, sang:

Some capital photographs of Maurice, Ruskin, Hughes & other teachers including my unworthy self, were exhibited. I read Miss Severn some of the best passages out of Ruskin's new volume and had a good deal of walk and talk with her . . . (Hudson, 1972: 63).

Munby is better known for his secret marriage and photographs of Hannah Cullwick, a working-class maid, as well as his photographs of colliery girls in Wigan and voyeuristic obsession with working-class women more generally. Sarah Edge has pointed out that Munby - and thus the Severns, Vaux and their social circle - were at the centre of a group that discussed and formed ideas (perhaps ideals) of bourgeois masculinity and femininity (Edge, 2020: 53). Munby himself championed the rights of women and later supported suffragists, such as the artist and activist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodicon.

One of the few women of his own class that he romantically admired was Ann Mary Severn, who on first meeting he describes as 'a sweet unaffected girl, loving and impulsive - an exquisite artist' (Hudson, 1972: 33). It is clear that Mary admires Munby's poetry - he published Benoni in 1852 a book of poetry about love that - among other things - explored masculine identity and constraints of social class. Mary admired this book, though it did not do well sales wise and in 1860 Munby write that he:

Found one of Miss Severn's charming notes, so sincere and yet so flattering: about a lady who wishes to meet me and knows my unhappy book by heart and about what she herself thinks of that book.

It may be Munby's book that Mary is quoting from and refers to - it certainly looks like Munby in the script - in this humourous sketch of her mother attempting to listen to her younger sister Eleanor read humours parts of Dickens' The Pickwick Papers involving the cockney lad about town Sam Weller, while Mary reflects on romantic poetry at the same time:

Eliza (Mama) Severn has my sympathy as some one who often has my son show me a fight on Fortnite while my daughter explains a cat drawing / story she has written at exactly thr same time, talking between and over each other.

This takes me, though, back to where I began with in this post: who were these sketches were for? Mary's second album (pictured on side) combines sketches by Mary and her brothers Walter and Arthur with some photographs and print. I have uploaded the photos I took of it into an online album available here:

There are a few humourous sketches - notably one which shows Mary and her best friend and fellow artist Mary Palliser attempt to dress in the Pre-Raphaelite style but cannot as it is too impractical to paint in. (This reminded me of my various attempts when 17/ 18 yo to dress in diaphanous drapery like the Parthenon sculptures only for it to fall off, come apart or get wet and trail on the floor on my walks to school or into Bolton). The invites to Vaux's party are included in this album. There are also touching sketches of family life and I will finish the blog with this one by Mary from 1853 of her younger sister Eleanor with her baby niece (the daughter of Mary's older sister Claudia Gale):


Edge, S. (2020). The extraordinary archive of Arthur J. Munby : photographing class and gender in the nineteenth century. Routledge.

Hudson, D. (1972), Munby, Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby, 1828- 1910, Abacus.


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