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Tuesday 9 July 2024

Great-Grandma: Another Painter

In writing recently about my wife’s eccentric great-aunt, who spent her life painting, I might have mentioned that her mother, my wife’s great-grandma, was also no mean artist. She travelled with her second husband to European “Grand Tour” locations in the twenties and thirties, which inspired several paintings. This Venetian scene hangs on the wall above my desk. It is difficult to photograph behind glass.  


I wondered whether I could identify the location. The street name on the wall to the right is “Calle Di Mezzo” but the name on the street ahead is indistinct. After some time on Google Maps and Street View fruitlessly clicking up and down the Calle De Mezzo (with an E), which is different, I found this building at the junction of the Calle Di Mezzo (with an I) and Piscina Sant’Agnese. I think this is the place, although she seems to have altered the layout of the streets and buildings. It was probably painted back home in England from a sketch made at the scene. Presumably, a market stall once stood in the corner at the side of the building, or did she invent that too?    


The painting could date from a trip to Venice in 1929. To state the obvious, it was not usual to be able to travel around Europe and Egypt at that time. This was the English wealthy classes on holiday. My own ancestors were then at sea, on canal boats, or labouring in paper and sugar mills. We could not travel abroad until decades later. My wife’s great-grandma was able to do so because of her second marriage. 

Her life was twice touched by tragedy and good fortune. Born in the early 1860s, her father died when she was three months old. Her mother remarried a high official and relative by marriage of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, who was forty years her senior. Great-Grandma therefore grew up in Ireland, comfortable, educated, and well-connected. 

At the age of eighteen, she too married a much older man, a divorced London solicitor twenty-four years her senior, who ruthlessly packed the children of his first marriage off to Canada. There were three further children at wide intervals over the next twenty years, but the marriage does not seem to have been close. It ended when she was widowed in her mid-fifties, receiving just a small income from an insurance policy. The Will contained the following diatribe against her: 

I exclude my wife ... the implied obligation on her part that she would be a true and faithful wife during our married life and would love honour and obey me which she observed for some two years only after which she persistently disobeyed my proper and reasonable requests neglected her home and children and was frequently guilty of shameful conduct with divers men making my life miserable and my home unbearable 

Within less than a year she was remarried to a wealthy bachelor of her own age. This was the source of her new good fortune. I suspect they had known each other a long time, possibly from her days in Ireland. She still had a fifteen-year-old daughter at home, who her new husband brought up as his own. The rest of their lives were spent in enviable privilege, painting, writing, and travelling. 

Our family histories contain some fascinating stories that would once have been well-known, but are barely remembered now, if at all. I have been researching my own and my wife’s families for over thirty years, from the days when it was a painstaking process, when you had to visit archives, search through microfiche, and send away for documents. I helped transcribe parts of FreeBMD, my own contribution to making things as easy as they are now. I have many more stories where this one came from. 

33 comments:

  1. That is the sort of life that novels are based on. Mind you someone once said to me that real life is more interesting than fiction - written fiction has to be within the range of what is believable......

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    1. My wife could have a whole series of Who Do You Think You Are? just to herself.

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  2. Oh and I wonder if such diatribe would be permitted in wills these days. It doesn't give the "accused" much right of reply (I wonder how lovable he might or might not have been)

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    1. He sounds to have been a cantankerous old sod. I think it would still be permitted. I hope that does not give you mischievous ideas.

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  3. I can only wonder at his 'proper and reasonable requests' - it seems she earned her comfortable second marriage.
    How clever to track down the original location of her painting, and if she did add (or omit) things from her work, that is surely artistic licence and perfectly acceptable.

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    1. I guess he was a strict Victorian father who wanted his to be like another servant. It took me quite some time before I found the building on StreetView.

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  4. What a great post. Such lives! The nasty swipes in the will say more about the writer than the subject. There's serious talent on your wife's side of the family.

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    1. They do say more about the writer. He would have been 42 and divorced, and she would have been 18 when they married - not an equal relationship.

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  5. Sounds like you have got the bones of a good family memoir Tasker.

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    1. It would be hard to decide what to miss out - see first response above.

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  6. Oh, I do love to read about a good scandal.

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    1. You mean like a "Birkenstock" one?

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    2. And I thought it was me that had problems with reading.

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  7. I too wondered about those 'proper and reasonable requests'. It sounds as if he might have been a bit of an autocrat. Fascinating story, and one that you could create a book around. I had a friend, a teacher. Her husband was a teacher too. They went to the mideast and bought a car and drove all through it. They loved Egypt. At nearly a hundred years old, she was remembering it to me, and I listened fascinated, trying to imagine a time when borders did not matter so much, when people could move between countries with ease. I just could not imagine driving through that part of the world now.

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    1. He almost certainly was a archetypal Victorian autocrat - they were 42 and 18 when they married.
      Only the privileged could see Egypt in the 1920s. It must have been very different.

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  8. Your wife's great-grandmother was an accomplished painter. She was lucky that her first husband died relatively young and that her second marriage was much happier. Women's lives were so completely at the mercy of men in those days.

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    1. Especially in this case. As mentioned above, they were 42 and 18 when they married, so he was quite old when he died. Although he had divorced his first wife, and divorce was rare then, I doubt a wife would have been able to do it. Equality depended on the persons concerned.

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  9. There is also a book to be written about the ancestors, even if it is only for the family. According to Lillie's work on who's who, they are related to Earl Grey on their great granny's side.

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    1. They truly can be some fascinating stories and surprising in our genealogies.

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  10. I certainly like her painting and it looks like you have the right spot. It must be interesting to have such a wealthy relative, and she seems like she was or is very interesting too research.

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    1. It was a beautiful building in an ordinary location, and she was quite clever in re-interpreting it to draw the viewer into wondering what lies just out of view, and what is for sale on the stall. The picture is brighter and clearer than it looks in the photograph.

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  11. I applaud your detective work with regard to the Venetian street scene. Of course, it is not the duty of artists to record accurately - as you concede in this blogpost.

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    1. See response immediately above. She spotted the building and re-interpreted it.

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  12. Family history is interesting research. I enjoyed the balancing parts of it. As much as I despaired at understanding the marriage of my Irish grandparents, it was balanced by my German grandfather, a horologist who donated his lathe to the army at the onset of WWII, and they gave it back to him to keep making time recorders to keep the army moving. He was part of Standard Time, a pioneering time recording company.

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    1. I must have spent several thousand hours researching family history over the years. I find it very rewarding, but it can take you over.

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  13. First I must say that painting is beautiful, your relative had a true talent. You did a lot of research and imagine finding that your relative had been cut out of the will and for those reasons. The man sounds unpleasant!

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    1. It is a lovely picture, from someone with a talent who learned to paint when young and continued throughout life. Yes, I think her first husband was unpleasant, fortunately not a trait passed down to my wife's family.

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  14. It really sounds like something out of a book or a film. But true life always surpasses any book or film anyway.
    I don't know what FreeBMD is; it sounds like a rapper's stage name.

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    1. FreeBMD is a transcription of the births, marriages and deaths indexes for England and Wales. It was carried out by thousands volunteers, mainly between 2000 and 2010. Ancestry and other genealogy sites now include this information on condition they allow free access to it.

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  15. The London solicitor's note regarding your great-grandma's exclusion from the will was something else! -glad that she was able to have a happier connection with her second husband. That you were able to find the probable source for her painting is really a treat.

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    1. Lots of detective work, both then and now. The legal documents for his divorce from his first wife shows more of his character.

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  16. Hello tasker.

    I enjoyed reading this blog. I also went to google maps and searched for this pathway. I think there a lot of very striking features. I think it's more than likely that you've identified the spot. The windows are accurately painted. She probably didn't want to recreate everything. I suspect there was a stall. Seems likely, but the people browsing is a charming device.

    As for the will, yes, that is quite typical. I don't know what he was expecting to be honest. a 20-year difference is enormous and she probably found a fella who could speak the same language. Different times. You couldn't divorce so easily or socially; esp. with children in the mix. I am glad she found some happiness with her new gentleman.

    Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed doing some detective work.

    Take care

    Liam.

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    1. Thank you. He was actually 24 years older, and she was 18, practically child abuse. I have altered the post to show the ages. I wish I could give more identifying detail, but that would invade privacy.
      I am sure the location is correct because of the street name in the painting. It was a beautiful building in an ordinary location, so she was clever in rearranging things. What she missed out is also telling. I think most many have wanted to include the St Agnese piscina. She knew what she was doing.

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