In October 1857, the artist Ann Mary Severn was staying with Rev. Wharton Marriott, a housemaster at Eton, to make sketches of some of the schoolboys. While there, she was commissioned to make a portrait of Princess Victoria, the Duchess of Kent, who was Queen Victoria’s mother and lived at Frogmore on the royal estate of Windsor. She also drew Queen Victoria’s half cousin Ernest, Prince of Leiningen (1830-1904), who was staying at Windsor. Both of these paintings are still in the Royal Collection, though the portrait of the Duchess of Kent has been copied by another artist in 1861, presumably around the time of the Duchess' death.
The title of this blog comes from Eleanor’s excitedly scribbled letter to their mother Elizabeth (Eliza) Severn in the Birkenhead Family Archives. Eleanor was Mary’s younger sister and one of a twin with Arthur. From a young age Eleanor accompanied her older sister as a chaperone, staying with her on her professional excursions and visits to various country houses. On this occasion she was also a scribe as:
Mary is very busy so I am going to write you an eloquent letter. Mary received a commission from a cabman in the form of Lady Augusta Bruce which will take her to court to * at 9.30 to see the QUEEN. – Fancy!!!
The capitals and exclamation marks are Eleanor’s. Lady Augusta Bruce was the daughter of the 7th Earl of Elgin – the same one who took the sculpture from the Parthenon and other items from the Acropolis – and was one of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting. Mary had been drawing Lady Elgin, presumably Augusta’s sister in law Mary Louisa Bruce, in Bath in the summer. Mary was to meet the Queen the next day and Mary could not come home as the Court had come to Windsor and Mrs Marriott is throwing a party. Mary would also be commissioned for her biggest job so far. . .
On 5 November, Queen Victoria, wrote in her journal:
In the afternoon we walked down to Frogmore to look at a water colour picture of Mama, painted by Miss Severn, which is very good.*
She then commissioned Mary for portraits of her eldest son Bertie on his sixteenth birthday, princesses Helena and Louise as well as copies of old masters for Prince Albert. She also, of course, painted the watercolour of ten month-old Princess Beatrice that so entranced me when I first saw it, almost 150 years later – see my earlier blog.
Mary was paid 30 guineas and money was mainly what was on her mind when writing to her mother on 15 November to tell she will be home Tuesday ‘for tomorrow I go to Frogmore for the last time’. She records drawing H.R.H. (presumably Prince Edward the Prince of Wales aka Bertie) in the drawing room at Frogmore and ‘he has been so civil every time I have come’. Now she needed to sort out the frame as the Queen had forgotten all ‘about it’ and was very ‘distressed’ and so she has asked a local frame maker to ‘frame it by Friday’. However, she needed some money to pay for this until she had the commission payment. There's a sense that the royals, being royal, had no idea of how much things - like a frame cost - and that she was cash strapped until she had her commission payment.
Mary also asks her mother advice for the charges – 10 guineas for H.R.H as ‘it is only a sketch’ and 20 for the others. She then records buying gloves, stockings and giving Eleanor money as she needed to look presentable at court and her expenditure on pencils and paper. Basically she has overspent but is hoping the Queen will give her the commission in money rather than a cheque. The emphasis on household expenditure rather than the sketches she was doing (and hiding them under the bed) gives an insight into the importance of Mary’s earnings to the family and that it is her mother whom she asks for advice not her impecunious father, though an artist, Joseph.
*Queen Victoria, Thursday 5 November 1857.