The travels of 19th century European women artists in 'the Orient'
Painting the Nile follows the journey of my PhD as I research the art of European women who travelled to the Orient in the nineteenth century. My research is concerned with both amateur and professional women artists who travelled to the Orient either in the company of their husbands, or as independent travellers. Some of them were incredible adventuresses, defying societal pressure to conform and overcoming great physical obstacles, their work rarely received the critical acclaim afforded to male artists.
The December Gallery, a beautiful new addition to Perth’s private galleries, at 8/100 Stirling Highway, North Fremantle, is now open. Jan Mullen and Annie Shelley exhibit new work in textiles and drawing. 10am till 5pm 2nd-3rd, 6th-10th, 13th-17th, 20th-22nd December, 2017.
The best part for me about having an exhibition is the install – all the artworks arriving at the one site and immediately starting to talk to each other, arranging and rearranging, painting, cleaning – it’s so full on – the physical labour, the decisions, final hang. Three days to install…
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All that hard work pays off and then Jan’s beautifully layered, stitched and assembled textiles working with textures, hues and tones, speak beautifully to the black and white of my tonal drawings.
Then a big party on the fourth day for the opening, the champagne, and then it’s on…
Click on the hyperlink above to see new exhibition details.
In July this year a friend and fellow textile artist Jan Mullen invited me to join her in the inaugural exhibition of The December Gallery in North Fremantle. She gave me a wonderfully open brief. Since then my weekends and evenings have been filled with drawing, drawing and more drawing…This body of work returns to my love of portraits. Working mainly from old nineteenth-century Orientalist photographs and paintings I’ve encountered during the course of my PhD, I have played with charcoal, pencil, tone and scale to explore the experience of those from another time and place.
My drawings will sit alongside Jan’s beautifully executed and gently rhythmic latest works. Her work experiments with an intriguing mixture of media and process. Using found objects, printing, assemblage and stitch, she pushes the boundaries of textiles whilst still referencing the domestic, her love of family and her Swan River surrounds. Subtle gradations of colour and repetitive processes contribute to the calm strength of her new work. Our two collections will sit well together, the charcoal tones of my drawings highlighting the quiet pastels of Jan’s layered assemblages.
In the mid to late nineteenth century, if you were British and travelling through the Orient on your way to India, or exploring the Nile or the antiquities of Egypt, chances are you would have stayed in the shabbily grand, quintessentially imperial, Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo.
Prior to 1869 whenThomas Cook began his organised tours up the Nile, travel in the Orient was fraught with various dangers and frustrations. There was always the fear of bandits and disease, and the discomfort of culture shock, heat and insects. In Cairo at least, there was Shepheard’s Hotel for weary travellers. Situated on the boundary between the European and Arab quarters and overlooking the busy Ibrahim Pasha Street, the hotel was in an ideal location for English travellers.
Originally known as the Hotel des Anglais and later named after its owner, Samuel Shepheard, the hotel made up in charm and slightly risque reputation what it may have lacked in high-class luxury. British travellers, “wanted Shepherd’s to be a little piece of England, like the British Consulate. In the end it did become a cocoon for them in the heart of Cairo…” 
The comfortable dining room with English-style food and guest accommodation with full-length baths became home away from home to British and European explorers, travellers, artists, writers, scientists, and later the civil servants, traders and tourists that flooded to Egypt as it became more accessible. British army officers of the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Boer and both World Wars helped to give Shepheard’s long bar its legendary status. The explorers Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley were guests, so was Kitchener, Churchill, T.E.Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and the writers Mark Sawyer, Lance Thackeray and Agatha Christie.
But the real hub of the hotel, the best place to discuss politics and military tactics, to exchange stories about trips up the Nile or being fleeced by local dragomans, to socialise, gossip or to simply see and be seen, was the famous terrace.
British, Scottish, Australian, Free French, American pilots and soldiers and civilian patrons relaxing on terrace at Shepheard’s Hotel while on leave from WWII. (Photo by Bob Landry//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Amelia Edwards wrote about walking into the packed dining room at Shepheard’s after the long dusty journey from Alexandria (see post Thankyou dear Amelia Edwards) but the terrace was the epicentre for people watching.
“As diversified amusement nothing quite takes the place of “the Terrace” at Shepheard’s in the height of the season,” wrote Blanche McManus in 1911 in her book An American Woman abroad, “say about February, when the chairs before the little wicker tables under the gay Oriental hangings are all taken, and a crowd, clothed in all colours, and of all degrees of brilliance, is gathered to hear the band play, gossip and watch the multi-coloured population of this most cosmopolitan of Oriental cities drift ceaselessly past…”
Many of the women artists of my study stayed at Shepheard’s and would have spent hours on its terrace watching the world go by, talking with companions, planning their travels, perhaps recovering their health, negotiating their next adventure and in several cases sketching what they saw before them.
 Sattin, Lifting the Veil : British Society in Egypt, 1768-1956, 180.
Studying a PhD is a time-consuming business, and so is writing a blog. The PhD won out and the blog was put aside these last six months to make way for more academic writing…
But a welcome interlude this year has been organising Twenty-One+ – a juried exhibition of contemporary Australian textiles at the wonderful Spectrum Gallery in Mount Lawley. With a lot of deliberation and hard work we decided on an on-line catalogue, which can be accessed here http://waftatwentyoneplus.com.au/
Sponsored by WAFTA, for the last 18 months Jan Mullen, Louise Wells, Gail Hawes and Joy Keith and I have met and planned and organised. Finally one week in June we prepared the gallery and with Spectrum’s wonderful Donna and our curator Alison Hayles, we installed the twenty-one artworks chosen by the jurors.
My piece was originally conceived of as a frame to glue to the wall, a colonial frame for the women of my study, a frame with nothing in it – to show their invisible presence in history.
But with the curatorial process it became an installation, and subsequently conveyed the journeys the women made and the faint threads of stories they left behind them.
Porcelain Threads, that Alana McVeigh and I made is a collaboration, combining textiles with porcelain. We have many more ideas to follow up on, combining the histories of both media to come up with something new.
A. McVeigh and A.Shelley, Threads of Porcelain, 2016, (photography Josh Wells)
The opening is always the best, and a great end to the hard work. Jan Mullen needs to be commended for her vision with this exhibition, her hard work and the wonderful precedent she has set for textiles in Western Australia. Twentyone+ has been well received and we hope it establishes the tradition of a biennial exhibition here in Perth which showcases contemporary Australian textiles.
Lady Anne Blunt was an intriguing and romantic Englishwoman captured by the romance of Arabia. The daughter of the first Earl Lovelace and his wife Ada, and grand-daughter of Lord Byron, she was born in 1837. With her wandering travels in India and the Orient and passion for all things Bedouin, she certainly lived up to her romantic heritage. She had travelled extensively as a child with her father and was fluent in four languages. In 1862 she married Wilfred Blunt and the two of them travelled extensively throughout the East. He was absorbed by the politics of the East and was profoundly anti-Imperial, she followed in his thinking but her main interest lay with Arabian horses. Lady Anne was responsible for bringing the Arab horse back to England and established an Arab horse stud at their home in Sussex, Crabbet Park.
The Blunts were the opposite of Alexine Tinne. In contrast with her massive entourage they travelled light, sleeping on blankets on the sand, in the company of and emulating the Bedouin they idolised. They claimed the Arabs were the purest race and lived the purest life and Imperial powers should be giving their lands independence. A prolific writer and sketcher, Lady Anne made three trips to Arabia with her husband. Her notes and drawings became the basis for her two travel writing books, Pilgimage to Nedj and Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates.
Lady Anne Blunt died in Egypt on December 15, 1917. Two weeks later, on December 29, her obituary ran in the London Times. Here are some of the excerpts
“A distinguished and well-beloved personality has just passed away in the person of Baroness Wentworth — better known as Lady Anne Blunt. It is now half a century since she and her brother Lord Wentworth (afterwards second Earl of Lovelace), attracted much interest in London society as grandchildren of the poet Byron. A few still remember her charm as a girl. Her face, with its exquisitely delicate features, dark brown eyes, and expression of high intelligence and warmth of heart, was attractive at all ages….
She learnt drawing from Ruskin. Her gift for sketching was unequalled, especially as regards horses, and the rapidity of her pen-and-ink drawings could never have been guessed from their minute perfection. … That her artistic and literary gifts are not better known to the world at large is due to her retiring nature and love of self-effacement; she always preferred to enjoy the triumphs of her friends. She was a first-class chess player, mathematician, and linguist, being a most distinguished Arabic scholar….
…and for years moved in the best literary and general society of her day, always holding her own and distinguished among the best of company. But her heart was not in drawing-rooms. She worshipped the sun and the wind and the hills and the freedom of outdoor life, happiest always in the saddle, or caring for the welfare of her numerous family of Arab horses, so well-known to all her visitors both at Crabbet and at her Egyptian home at Sheykh Obeyd, near Cairo.
…For those whom she has left here it is a tragedy. For herself, no. She lies for ever under the Eastern sun, in the land of her heart, and her memory will not soon fade. To the end of her life she had the heart of a child, the brain of a scholar, and the soul of a saint….”
Lady Blunt meticulously recorded and drew the places she travelled and her exquisite sketchbooks are in the British library, just round the corner from St.Pancreas station. A huge modernist building housing many of the country’s incredible treasures it requires a considerable amount of “procedure” to access the sketchbooks in the manuscripts room on the third floor. But once through that and seated at the big wooden desks with the works in cushioned trays before you, again, it is worth the wait.
Small, leather-bound and sometimes with wafer thin paper her sketchbooks contain dozens and dozens of exquisitely drawn scenes of their travelling life, camels stopped to water, distant vistas of desert passes and tents pitched for gatherings of tribes. Pencil, watercolour and ink, she has captured a time that has long since gone.
All my life I have wanted to visit the Van Gogh and the Rijk Museums in Amsterdam, but in the end I found the experience strangely underwhelming. Of course Van Gogh’s Irises and his Almond Blossom are divine, and nothing can lessen the impact of Vermeer’s Milkmaid and Rembrandt’s sensational The Nightwatch, but there are a lot of other things for an art enthusiast to contend with, finding them for one! The crowds are huge, throngs of people flood everywhere, the multiple gift shops and cafes are almost as big as the museums, and the floor plans (in the Rijk Museum in particular) require more than a good sense of direction. I suppose I’m not used to anything on that kind of scale, and it takes a bit of acclimatising: it’s a type of culture shock maybe.
Amsterdam itself surprised me with how huge and grimy it is, though my introduction to it was the Central Station and a bewildering hour of dragging my luggage round and round in circles to find my hotel. One can’t blame Amsterdam for that…On my second day I discovered the beautiful, small-scale Jordaan district with its watery light, little bridges and cafes, and always the beautiful windows of tall, tall houses giving you glimpses of other people’s lives.
And the shop windows are amazing….
And then at the Botanical Gardens I came across the awe-inspiring, warm, felt textile installations of Claudy Jongstra.
She has another one which I found in the Amsterdam Public Library. Seeing those was alone worth me coming to Amsterdam.
Anyway, after three days in Amsterdam, in a slightly dubious hotel with unusual fellow guests, a basement shoebox for a bedroom and a loo up two flights of steep stairs (the STAIRS in Holland, and such a flat country!) I find myself at the lovely and luxurious home of my dear friend Cal in Wandsworth town, London.
There is something so familiar and comforting about London, and so polite. Despite the crowds and the crush and the incredible amount of people that can fit onto a bus, it’s all very civilised…and what’s more there is a lovely dog who lives at Alma Road as well. Let me introduce you to my friend Stanley…
Had Alexine been around today, I feel sure she would have loved Instagram and her account would have had many followers… Totally comfortable in front of the camera, she left us many photos of herself, her world and her travels, in much the same way as a young woman now does with her iphone 6.
During a second day in the National Archives in the Hague, I was lucky to spend the morning with the curator of her photographs. Beautifully preserved and stored with mind blowing order and precision, Alexine’s life and adventures unfolded before me in photographs on the huge modernist desks in the archives. These photographs. along with several I had seen earlier in the Hague Historic Museum, are adding more to the picture of her.
Her self portraits in front of a backdrop rigged up in the garden are a delicious blend of amateur and serious. Her earliest photographs date from 1859, a time when photography was still very new and a revolutionary tool with which to record the world. The fact that a young girl should take up this craft (according to the curator she is possibly the earliest known Dutch female photographer) is even more extraordinary. Experimenting with the new medium Alexine photographed herself and her family in and around the garden of their home in Lang Voorhout.
She had a carriage converted to a darkroom and would move about the Hague taking photographs of streetscapes and then develop them immediately in the carriage.
She captured the interior of the house in the most informal and to my mind contemporary manner. Interiors were not subjects for photography, but Alexine obviousy wanted to experiment with technique and record the daily life around her. The results are insightful: the natural informality of the composition give you the feeling that you have just come into the room and glimpsed the interior – and that someone has just left…
But it’s the photographs of her travels that interest me the most. They tell us she is observing, recording and involved. Most noticeably for my study’s purposes, they show an involvement with her servants, her staff and the locals she gathered around her into her household.
Some are not necessarily taken by her, but have been staged in photography studios in Algiers, Cairo and then later Malta and Naples when she took her household sailing. But even so, one feels Alexine is in the wings. It is she who has arranged for them to be photographed. It is she who has written their names on the surface; Abdullah, Abiba, Jasminah, Biija and Aiisha, she who has paid for the photographs, kept them and stored them. And intriguingly, many have pin-holes from where they’ve been pinned to the walls. Someone has really enjoyed, used and valued these images.
But what really proves to me that Alexine is not your typical Imperial, class-conscious traveller concerned only with the differences between Europeans and those she encounters in the Orient, is her entrancing portrait of Habiba.
Habiba was the wife of her faithful servant and companion, Abdullah and she appears constantly in Alexine’s photographs. She is strikingly photogenic and there are many studio portraits of her as well, as if to say she is always there and nearby in Alexine’s presence. But the portrait Alexine has taken of Habiba holding her new-born baby in her lap, as if just caught resting on the stairs in the house they took in Algeria, is proof to me of their friendship. The baby’s name Abd-el-Kader is written in Alexine’s hand-writing on the bottom of the picture. There is a gentleness to the pose, nothing staged, as if Habiba is totally content in her presence and all is at peace with her world. The informality of the photograph is very telling, and is years ahead of its time.
In the industrial area on the outskirts of The Hague is a massive hi-tech storage warehouse. A James Bond-like set-up with electric fences, laser beams and doors you are buzzed through, it is a state of the art storage facility for museums and galleries in The Netherlands. In it lie Alexine TInne’s sketchbooks and a few photographs taken by her. (Must be a few Rembrandts in there as well I think!)
The curator of the Hague Historic Museum, Lex, was there to meet me and we spent a couple of hours unfolding grey storage files and looking at the drawings and sketches Alexine made in the East. Surprisingly sturdy, the pages are thick and soft, with evocative rubbed edges, like what happens when a notebook has been shoved in and out of bags too often.
Some of the drawings are “finished” and make complete pictures in their own right. Others are quick outlines, the beginnings of drawings she’s never come back to. Some are “studies” of an object or a person, without a setting for context. Sometimes she repeats the same image as if shé’s practising it, getting it better each time. And unfortunately all of them, with the exception of one or two, are unlabelled and undated. So we don’t know exactly when or where they were drawn, just that were of her travels in the late 1850s to 1860s in the Orient: Egypt, The Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Libya. (A good lesson for those of us who are making and drawing things – always date them…)
So what do Alexine’s drawings and sketchbooks tell us about her? about what she thought of the East and the places she saw and the people she met?
Obviously they tell us that she, like all upper class women of her time was taught to draw and paint: that she understood how to render perspective and to create tone. They tell us she had a feel for “views” as do most serious travellers then and now. They tell us she was interested in depicting the details of facial features and dress and that she was interested in the daily life: camels resting with their cameleers, the textiles on the bed in her rooms, the baskets women held, the dresses they wore.
The jumble of them in her books and the random use of front and/or backs, with pages skipped and some images upside down is in keeping with her hand-writing. Impulsive? unconventional? not concerned with order? It is tempting to make up the story, but academic study unfortunately won’t let me do that. And we have to consider, are these the only images? Were there others that have been lost? There is not a lot to work with, but by piecing together her sketches, reading her letters, and seeing what others wrote about her, a picture is emerging; that of an fascinating figure: headstrong, intelligent, possibly indulged, practical and with supreme self-confidence. And given the era she came from, quite extraordinary.
The photographs she made are another thing, and add a whole lot more to the story…
Being in The Hague is a bit like walking around inside a Dutch Painting. The mood is gentle, the scale is human, the light is beautiful and the details are small and exquisite. Nothing at all is open on a Monday, even shops are shut until after lunch. So, that meant an enforced day of wandering, doing nothing much except exploring on foot and trying not to get lost in the maze of old streets.
The Hague was the home of Alexine Tinne, the young Dutch adventuress who went up the White Nile. She missed it desperately when she was marooned in Khartoum, trying to sort her affairs out after the tragic deaths of her mother, her aunt and her two devoted servants. But she declared she could never return to the Hague, it would cause her too much pain to be in the town, let alone the house of her now deceased mother.
I went looking for Alexine’s house and found it easily on Lange Voorhout, number 32. Strangely enough I recognised the street and the avenue of trees it overlooks before I realised where I was. It was entirely familiar to me from her photographs of it she took in the 1850s, which I have been studying this year.
The National Archives in the Hague hold an extensive collection of letters written by her and her family and documents, and clippings relating to her time in the East. There are files and files of them, and their yellowed paper, faded ink and general fragility is at odds with the uber modern and efficient environment in which they are stored.
To see them requires a bit of bureaucracy: emails, on-line ordering requests, document sighting and the issuing of a visitor’s pass. No bags can be taken in and any objects have to be in a clear plastic bag. No pens, only pencils for note taking…I am the only person without a laptop, (I couldn’t face carrying it right across town to get it there). So there is a feeling of freedom when at the request desk you are handed your two cardboard boxes, and you can go to your big work table, open them as you please and take out file after file of delicate documents. No rules about how you handle them, nobody rushing you, they are yours for the day. And the bureaucracy is worth it…
Luckily for me, upper class Europeans at the time spoke French to each other and Dutch only to the servants. And because Alexine’s half-brother was English, her and her family’s correspondence is in English and French. My schoolgirl French comes in handy yet again. Madame Smetana and Madame Stuckey would be proud of me!
Deciphering the handwriting is a bit harder, but Alexine’s handwriting is a language in itself. It has little lyrical control and repetition of a typically beautiful nineteenth century copperplate hand, so evident in the writing of her mother and various aunts, uncles and officials in the files. Instead it is strong, and at times messy, frequently written with a nib of uneven ink strength and peppered with ink-blots. I can relate to it! There are crossings out and words squashed in as asides. They seem to speak of her impulsiveness and her direct manner; it seems like she wants to get the words on the page in a hurry and does not care for convention or the niceties of the time. A disposition in keeping with a girl who would charter a boat to go up the White Nile…
As objects they are in themselves beautiful regardless of whether or not you can read them. Wafer thin, patterned with text, they link us to another world and are about much more than the words they convey.
And then with just enough time to spare, on the way home I pass the beautiful Mauritius Museum. Again, very small, human scale. And in an upstairs room on the left, with two other Vermeers to keep her company, she looks out from her frame at me. “The Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
What would my nineteenth century women travellers have thought of Doha airport? Travelling to the East for them involved days of sea travel, camel trains, boats up the Nile and more camels and donkeys if they were to venture further south to The Sudan or east to Arabia. It involved weeks of preparation, contracting local guides, hiring of guards, wearing of local costumes, risking heat, dust, sand and disease.
For me it involves 11 and a bit hours on a plane from Perth. (Strangely at the time it feels like forever). Landing in Hamad Airport, Doha with its twenty-first century futuristic glass and steel feels alien and surreal to me, and would have been incomprehensible to them… Full of glossy products (mainly perfumes) and what feels like kilometres of designer shops and strange futuristic sculptures, it is another world from the one they experienced.
From Doha, it is 7 hours on a plane to Amsterdam, twenty minutes on a train to The Hague, a half hour walk through cobbled streets in November sunshine to my little hotel and I have reached my destination. it feels like a long ordeal, but in less than 24 hours I am here…