Last year – 2015 – was such a ‘suffragette year’ that my various other interests were sadly overlooked. Now, at the very beginning of 2016, I would like to make amends and bring once more to the fore Mariana Starke, my favourite lady of the late-18th/early-19th centuries.
For at the very end of 2014 I had the great good fortune to meet Gerlof Janzen, who had just published a most interesting collection of letters written in the mid-1820s by Mariana to a Surrey gentleman, Edgell Wyatt Edgell. We know of Mariana as the ‘celebrated traveller’, the author of Letters from Italy, which over the years transformed itself into Travels on the Continent –the guidebook to Italy – and to Europe – but the newly-discovered letters to Edgell Wyatt Edgell reveal her in another light entirely – as a businesswoman.
Travels on the Continent was revered – and sometimes mocked – for the painstaking detail with which Mariana itemised the cost of travels – from washing petticoats in Venice to sending out for a meal in Rome. In the Edgell letters we see how such preoccupation with practical details was second-nature to her, although, in this instance, her concern was the business of acquiring copies of celebrated paintings, suitably modified in size and shape, to adorn the home of a Surrey gentleman. Thus we find her busy with measurements, with artists and framers, and with the cost and method of arranging for the safe carriage of the goods from Rome to England.
Among the paintings that she shipped to Edgell were copies of ‘Schidone’s Charity, Titian’s sacred & profame Love, & the Battle of Constantine; all of which will be properly stretched, varnished, packed, & sent by sea to Leghorn…'[p57]. She detailed how, to save money, she would be ‘packing the pictures myself, by the aid of the carpenter employed to make the packing-case & then consigning them to the care of Lowe – the Wine Merchant – to be, by him, conveyed to the Ripa Grande; thence to Leghorn; & thence to Messrs Calrow, London…’. She then accounted, in a most complicated fashion, for all the costs.
In addition to her labours on Edgell’s behalf a letter to him of 13 April 1825 recounts how, at the last minute, she had included in the shipment one other painting destined not for Edgell but for ‘Mrs Shelley’. This was ‘a small portrait of Mr Shelley, Lord Byron’s great Friend, who was drowned near Pisa…’ She explained that ‘the extreme anxiety expressed by Mrs Shelley to have this picture sent to England, has induced me to give you this trouble, instead of waiting to take it myself.’ This portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley was that painted in Rome in 1819 by Mariana’s friend, Amelia Curran. Mary Shelley was desperate to have this only likeness of her beloved husband – even though the artist herself was less than satisfied with it. This painting, the only one done in his lifetime, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London and, when you stand and view, give a thought to Mariana Starke labouring with the carpenter to fit it into the packing case. What a subject for a student of ‘material culture’.
Edgell Wyatt Edgell was clearly a friend of Mariana’s; she had known his wife in Surrey in the early 1790s, before their marriage. So – was the service she provided in finding copies to decorate Edgell’s mansion peculiar to this friendship, or did she do so for others? I suspect that she did act as an informal agent general, capitalizing on her knowledge of the Roman art scene and on her reputation as a practical woman of the world. Just as the Edgell Wyatt Edgell letters eventually hove into public view, nearly 200 years after they were written, perhaps there is another cache of ‘Mariana’ letters yet waiting discovery which will throw further light on her activities.
Gerlof Janzen’s edition of these Mariana letters – published as Buy a Copy – is wonderfully readable, bringing Mariana to life and, in his essays and notes, illuminating her world – Rome, Sorrento and Exmouth.
The book – with numerous illustrations – can be obtained from its publisher,
Nieuwe Spiegelstraat 48
1017 DG Amserdam