Posts Tagged Fanny Wilkinson
In January 2020 I gave a talk on Fanny Wilkinson, Britain’s first professional woman landscape gardener, to FOLAR (Friends of the Landscape Archive at Reading Unviersity).
The talk is now available to view online here.
Middlethorpe Hall, York
As part of Bloom! – a festival celebrating horticulture and flowers in York – I was invited give a talk yesterday about Fanny Wilkinson, Britain’s first professional woman landscape gardener, in Middlethorpe Hall, the home of her youth.
Middlethorpe Hall, now owned by the National Trust and run by the Historic House Hotels, is utterly lovely – from its panelled interiors, delicious food, kind staff – to its interesting and well-kept – and extensive – grounds. It retains an appealingly domestic atmosphere and it wasn’t difficult to think of Fanny Wilkinson living there in the 1880s with her mother and sisters.
Yet Fanny was not content with being a ‘daughter-at-home’ and enjoying these beautiful surroundings (although letters show she was delighted to return to Middlethorpe for short breaks) and it was while living here that she developed the ambition of becoming a landscape gardener. Wasting no time, she set off for London and enrolled at the Crystal Palace School of Gardening, run by Edward Milner who had been a pupil of Joseph Paxton. She was the only woman student- and an upper-middle class woman at that. All the others were male artisans – for whom the School was intended.
If you are interested in discovering just how many of London’s open spaces were designed by this one determined woman, you can read all about Fanny Wilkinson’s extremely successful career – and discover how it was intertwined with those of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett and Agnes Garrett, in Enterprising Women:the Garretts and their circle see https://francisboutle.co.uk/products/enterprising-women/
This painting was left to the City Art Gallery, Manchester, by Louisa Garrett (nee Wilkinson, sister-in-law to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett and Agnes Garrett.
‘Illusions’ would once have hung in Louisa’s home at Snape in Suffolk. Her house was named ‘Greenheys’ after the area of Manchester in which she and her sister, Fanny, grew up.
The way in which the Garrett circle did their best to ensure that Annie Swynnerton’s work was included in major public collections is discussed in my book – Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle- available online from Francis Boutle Publishers or from all good bookshops (in stock, for instance, at Foyles, Charing Cross Road).
In yesterday’s post I drew attention to Annie Swynnerton’s portrait of Millicent Fawcett. It was hardly chance that brought that artist and that sitter together; both were central figures in what I term ‘the Garrett circle’.
Today’s painting by Annie Swynnerton, The Dreamer, was originally owned by Millicent Fawcett’s sister-in-law, Louisa Garrett (nee Wilkinson) who for a while lived next-door-but-one to Millicent Fawcett and Agnes Garrett in Gower Street (the latter at no 2 and the Wilkinsons at no 6). The Dreamer was owned jointly by Louisa and her sister, Fanny, and may for a time have graced the walls of 6 Gower Street. Louisa only moved out of no 6 on her marriage to Millicent and Agnes’ youngest brother, George Garrett.
Fanny Wilkinson and Louisa Garrett did all in their power to ensure that, after their deaths, Annie Swynnerton was represented in public collections. In her will Louisa specifically left her share in this painting to Fanny and expressed ‘the desire that she will bequeath the said picture to the City Art Gallery, Manchester.’
Discover much more about the way in which the Garrett circle did their best to ensure Annie Swynnerton’s continuing reputation in my Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle- available online from Francis Boutle Publishers or from all good bookshops (in stock, for instance, at Foyles, Charing Cross Road).
In early 1885 Fanny Wilkinson, a recently qualified landscape architect – indeed the first woman in Britain to undertake a professional training course – moved into a flat at 15 Bloomsbury Street, just south of what is now New Oxford Street. Ten years or so ago, when I first wrote about Fanny Wilkinson – in Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle – I assumed that, as there was no trace now of that address, the building had been swept away in the various redevelopments that have taken place in the area over the last 100 years or so. Anyway, the exact site of Fanny’s first London home was not particularly important in the context of that book.
However, three or four years ago I undertook a little more concentrated research on the subject and, realising that 15 Bloomsbury Street had, soon after Fanny’s arrival, been renamed 241 Shaftesbury Avenue, discovered that the building in which she had lived is still there. Moreover, because the bus routes I use most frequently – the 38 and 19 – have been diverted (courtesy of CrossRail development at Tottenham Court Road) I now pass almost daily alongside Fanny Wilkinson’s former home.
The building – red-brick, with Queen Ann-ish windows and corner turret – faces onto an odd little triangle of land that had I long thought rather intriguing. The space is reminiscent of one of those Parisian squares (or triangles) that one may have seen – or imagined. It is rather dark – even in the summer – with lofty trees rising, close together, out of the pavement. In Paris one would add a cafe, waiters with long white aprons, an accordion etc. The London reality includes quantities of strutting pigeons and a peculiar raised concrete circle – ugly and serving no obviously useful purpose – probably something to do with underground systems of one kind or another – a useful shelf for discarded KFC packets, coca cola cans etc.
A little investigation revealed that the triangle had been formed when the final section of Shaftesbury Avenue was cut through St Giles Rookeries and that it was Fanny Wilkinson, in her capacity as landscape gardener to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, who ensured that it was not built over. She recommended that trees – London plane trees, as it happened – should be planted and seats made available for the public. The trees – although probably not the originals – are still there but the seats had only a short existence. They were removed c 1893 having attracted ‘dirty tramps, who make them a sleeping place in the day time and by loose women at night.’
Had the journalist who interviewed Fanny Wilkinson for the Women’s Penny Paper in 1890 ‘at her charming flat in Bloomsbury’, had to pick her way past sleeping tramps? Anyway, if she did, she put a brave face on it and assured her readers that ‘[Miss Wilkinson’s] rooms have a pleasant country air about them, and it would be difficult to imagine that one was in the heart of the big city in her pretty drawing room. It is the home of a lady, and instinctively one feels its owner must be a woman of refined taste.’ I do not know for certain, but would like to think that the drawing room ran across the first-floor, including the turret corner window, and that one would have looked down onto the leafy tops of the recently-planted trees.
Next door to the building is a pub – The Crown – which was there, under the same name, in Fanny’s day. It now does something to bring an approximation to the Parisian look by setting out tables on its frontage on the triangle. As the smokers huddle there we can be certain that not one – if they gave any thought at all to their surrounding – would imagine that the tiny section of urbanscape before them owed anything to decisions taken 125 years ago by a young Yorkshire woman. Nor, indeed, will the estate agents now attempting to lease the building in which she lived have any idea that what to them is merely so many square feet of office space was once the ‘pretty drawing room’ of a ‘woman of refined taste’. But now, as you walk up this section of Shaftesbury Avenue or inch past on the 38 or 19 (because the traffic is always jammed) – you, at least, will be aware of the layers of the past that hover around this odd little triangle.
For an article about Fanny Wilkinson and Bloomsbury click here
One day in 1898 Dr William Garnett, secretary to the Technical Board of the London County Council, called at 6 Gower Street, home of Louisa and Fanny Wilkinson, close friends of their next-door-but -one neighbours, Millicent Fawcett and Agnes Garrett.
Dr Garnett was there to assess whether Louisa Wilkinson could qualify as a professional bookbinder and, hence, be eligible to attend bookbinding classes at the recently-founded Central School of Arts and Crafts.
In theory, women were not barred from these classes, but as, so often, practical difficulties were put in their way. In this case, the powerful (male) bookbinding trade unions threatened to forbid their members to work at the School if women were allowed to undergo the training offered. They feared that the entry of women into the trade would drive down wages. The threat was sufficient; women were excluded.
Louisa Wilkinson, who had taken lessons from Douglas Cockerell and had exhibited two books bound by her at Goupil’s Gallery, had challenged the decision not to allow her entry to the bookbinding classes. If she could prove that she was a professional bookbinder, the School would find it rather more difficult to refuse her. Hence the purpose of Dr Garnett’s visit; he was there to discover, from observation of her surroundings, her status – whether professional or amateur.
Dr Garnett was kept waiting in the drawing room for Louisa to appear. He had time to make his judgment of the house, which he included in his report:. ‘Its appearance inside and out was that of a residence of a professional man with an income of not less than £1000 a year.’ In fact no man lived on the premises – 6 Gower Street was the home – and work place – of two women, although one, Fanny, was certainly a professional – a landscape gardener. Dr Garnett’s attention was particularly attracted to a portrait hanging in the room, so much so that he included mention of it in his report, noting that it appeared to him to be a ‘far above the average painting in oils.’ Once she had arrived, Louisa informed Dr Garnett that the painting was by Gainsborough. Perhaps the possession of such a painting was one more nail in the coffin of her hopes: could a woman who owned such an object be considered to be a trade worker?
This is the painting in question – a portrait of Mrs Sarah Walker – in 1936 given by Fanny Wilkinson to the Tate Gallery, associating Louisa, who had recently died, with the gift. .Sarah Walker, who looks an interesting, perhaps rather sardonic and stubborn woman, was their mother’s great-grandmother; born in 1714 she had died in Manchester in 1789. Sarah’s grandson, George Walker (1789-1838), apparently an ardent republican, had emigrated to the US, where, near Philadelphia, he had set up the first practical farm school in America. It may be that Fanny inherited her interest in horticulture from this grandfather, as surely she and her sister inherited something of their great-grandmother’s evidently strong character.
After George Walker’s death his daughter, [Letitia] Louisa, made the journey back to Manchester, where she married a prominent local physician, Matthew Eason Wilkinson, becoming the mother of several children, including Fanny and Louisa,. It is probable that the portrait of Mrs Sarah Walker had also criss-crossed.the Atlantic, to then spend 40 years or so gazing down on the company that assembled in 6 Gower Street – a company of female horticulturalists, educationalists and suffragists. Now, re-catalogued ‘in the manner of Thomas Gainsborough’ it forms part of the Tate Collection. Alas, there, Sarah Walker may well be confined to the darkness of a storeroom; I do not remember ever seeing her in the flesh, as it were. If so, she is in good company; the Annie Swynnerton’s portrait of Millicent Fawcett being another permanent fixture in the same store .
For more about Fanny and Louisa Wilkinson see Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle.