SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: With the discovery in the Minster archive of a century-old clipping from a magazine, DAVID MORGAN traces the Croydon woman who was the muse for the world-famous Woman In White
Opening up a folder in the Croydon Minster archives recently, a small piece of paper fell out onto the table. It had been cut from the edition of The Connoisseur magazine dated January 1926. The cutting contained the news of the death of Mrs Robert Hill on November 29 1925. Mrs Hill, who had lived on Tavistock Road, it turned out, was part of a very creative family.
She was born Mary Walker in Marylebone in about 1840. Her father, William, was a designer of jewellery who died when she was still quite young. This left her mother, Ann, struggling to bring up seven children on her own. Her mother completed pieces of embroidery in order to bring in money for the family.
Mary must have learned embroidery and stitching skills from her mother, as later in life she completed a lenten altar frontal for Croydon Parish Church. It was said to be one of the finest pieces of ecclesiastical needlework in any of the cathedral churches in England and was first used at a memorial service in the church held for the Duke of Clarence – grandson of Queen Victoria and the eldest son of the then Prince of Wales, who would become Edward VII – when he died in 1892.
The Minster still possesses an old altar frontal which is used for Lent and for Advent, but the origin of it is unknown. Might it be the one made by Mary Walker?
It was Mary’s brother Frederick who was the most creative of the Walker siblings. Mary did all she could to help and support him in his painting, including being a model for many of his works.
Frederick Walker gained a great reputation as an artist who gave a focus to the poor and to those less well-off in Victorian society. His early death from consumption, at the age of 35 in 1875, brought an untimely end to a career which has left behind a number of significant paintings and a description that he was “among the brightest lights of English Art”.
Mary stood for him, to use the correct terminology, for his 1863 painting The Lost Path. She saw this as a labour of love in a double sense. Love for him and love for the art which found expression through his hands.
This was to be his first exhibited oil picture. In his diary, Frederick wrote that he began putting the oil onto canvas on February 26 1863. He had made preliminary cartoon drawings on the “snow picture”, as he called it, a couple of weeks beforehand. The painting was of a young woman, head down, trudging through the snow, clutching a baby who was wrapped up beneath her shawl.
With no snow available, Frederick used quantities of salt for Mary to stand on while modelling for the picture.
There is a note in his diary that he went to Croydon to look for fir trees to sketch and add into the painting, but in the end decided there was no improvement to be had by including them and so they were not included in the finished work.
Typically of many artists, Frederick Walker was always anxious about his paintings and wouldn’t show them to anyone until they were complete.
On April 4 1863, the Saturday before he had to send the work to the Royal Academy, possibly with some degree of trepidation, Frederick showed the work to a meeting of the Langham group of artists. He later noted “that it seemed to be admired”.
Three weeks later, the painting was accepted for display at the Royal Academy and Walker’s career was on its way.
He started working with a group of artists who became known as The Idyllists, who painted nature outdoors. At the age of 24, Frederick Walker became a member of the Royal Water Colour Society and in 1867 he won a second-class medal at the Paris International Exhibition – which was virtually unheard of for a watercolour to be awarded such a prize.
This painting, entitled Philip in Church, was another one where a member of his family stood for him. A depiction of his mother appears in it.
In 1871, Walker became an associate of the Royal Academy – allowing him to use the letters “ARA” after his name – as well becoming an Honorary Member of the Belgian Society of Painters in Water Colours. His reputation was growing rapidly, even stretching across the Channel.
Many of Frederick’s letters to Mary can be read in an 1896 book by John Marks, The Life and Letters of Frederick Walker ARA. This includes little pictures and sketches of scenes from his daily life, which Frederick thought would entertain his sister.
Frederick wrote to her at the beginning of 1866. It was January 3, the day after her second wedding anniversary to Rev Robert Hill. The letter strikes a melancholy air, of an artists who is lonely, perhaps feeling isolated:
“I have begun this year with an earnest – well, prayer – that I may do my duty as regards to work. I will do my best, yes I will do my best even though I am more alone than I was two years ago. Never mind, I know I can still rely upon the good help of someone who has always had for me a word of genuine comfort. Bother I am getting sentimental and, as I live, it is almost one o’clock.
“Yes, the wood block is done and I took it down on Monday to Swain’s in a cab, quite like old times. I call it Vagrants or Wanderers.
“I expect to be elected into the Garrick in less than a fortnight and then I shall be able to buttonhole some RA’s quietly, after dinner.”
London’s clubs, such as the Garrick, and meeting and influencing senior figures within the all-powerful Royal Academy was as much a part of a Victorian artist’s endeavours as his work in his studio.
Years later, when Mary had her own family, Frederick was still seeking her help.
In June 1871 he wrote:
“I want you to come and help me again. I came up last night, bringing with me a watercolour with a figure in it, of a woman knitting – nearly back view, black frock with white spots (or rather little circles) all over it, the frock quite plain in make – that is plain gathers or plaits up to the waist – and the sleeves like ordinary coat sleeves, rather full at the shoulder, with large white collar. This is my idea of the figure which is only just put in…
“Now could you, without too much inconvenience, come tomorrow and stand for it? I say ‘much inconvenience’, dear, for I know it will bother you but then I know you have offered to help me whenever you can, and I want to get this off my hands as soon as possible.
“The drawing isn’t much, a bit of a garden belonging to a farm with tulips and beehives.”
As always, Frederick downplayed his work. The finished painting, entitled The Old Farm Garden was exquisite.
Mary did help with the modelling, and she wore a black and white dress, standing in the garden knitting. The detailed observation of the plants, the cat poised to spring after the ball of wool and the wisteria in the background all make it a memorable scene.
Yet probably Frederick Walker’s most remembered picture, and one again in which Mary modelled for him, was produced to be used for an advertisement!
The writer, Wilkie Collins, was a friend of the family, and he asked Frederick to produce a poster for his play The Woman In White, which opened in the Olympic Theatre London in October 1871.
Collins wrote the script based on his enormously successful mystery novel of the same name, which was first published in 1859.
The poster was life-sized and the female figure was a representation of the actress from the play, Anne Catherick, flinging open a church door to step out into a graveyard at night.
It is widely accepted to be the first occasion when a recognised artist designed a theatrical poster.
The original is now part of the Tate Collection with the following description: “It combines a Pre-Raphaelite beauty with black and white graphic design. Sweeping lines pull the viewer’s eye to the woman’s mysterious and inviting expression.”
Frederick Walker was often unwell throughout his life, with lung disease, consumption, as TB was known at that time, as were others in the family. One of his brothers, Henry, died aged 22, and his sister Fanny, who had also modelled for him, died when she was in her 20s, too.
In 1873, Walker travelled to Algiers for the warmer, drier climate, but he was often homesick and remained only briefly. The final flare up of his consumption occurred when he was in Scotland. His favourite pastime away from his studio was fishing and it was his love to fly fish in the Scottish rivers.
He died in St Fillans in Perthshire after catching a severe cold. His body was brought to Cookham in Berkshire, to be buried in the church there, a place later made famous by the 20th Century artist Stanley Spencer.
Frederick Walker was buried with his brother and his mother.
His sister, Mrs Mary Hill, the wife of a vicar, was blessed with much better health. Described in The Connoisseur article as “beautiful and deeply religious”, she lived out her final years in Croydon. And her image lives on, thanks to her brother’s remarkable gift.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- When Minster was the venue for an Anglo-Saxon peace treaty
- Tudor vicar who stood with Thomas More against Henry VIII
- Croydon dowry proved not enough for heroic General Wolfe
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
To read all his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
- Inside Croydon – as seen on TV! – has been delivering local community news since 2010. 3million page views per year in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
- If you want real journalism, actually based in the borough, you should consider paying for it. Please sign up today. Click here for more details
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Our comments section on every report provides all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content. Our comments policy can be read by clicking here
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named among the country’s rottenest boroughs for a SIXTH successive year in 2022 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine
Another great, great piece from IC’s top contributor. Thanks.