My title is a bit unfair. The Essex Girls I’m going to talk about are not those caricatured on TOWI or in popular comedy but two aristocratic young ladies from the county who not only created gardens there but also travelled the world and wrote and illustrated a series of travel books. These were mainly about gardens and introduced a touch of the exotic and colour, to their British readers.
Aristocratic women in the 19thc were conventionally taught to paint and draw but few made a living out of it. That would have been thought shocking. But one woman who did was Ella Du Cane. The daughter of a Tory MP and colonial governor, after the death of her father, she set off with her elder sister Florence to travel the world.
Ella and Florence were two of the children of Sir Charles Du Cane and his wife Georgiana, the granddaughter of the Anglo-American painter John Singleton Copley. The Du Canes were descended from Huguenot merchants who had done well in Britain, and had moved into the landed elite, buying and then enlarging Braxted Park near Maldon in Essex in the mid-18thc. Sir Charles became a Tory MP in 1852 but in 1868 was appointed Governor of Tasmania, and in fact both girls were born in Hobart, Florence in 1869 and Ella in 1874.
Both their parents were interested in gardening and there is a letter at Kew asking for plant idents of some Australian pressed flowers. Sir Charles and his family returned to Braxted at the end of his 5 year term in office and he eventually died there in 1889 when Ella was just 14 and Florence 19. Braxted was inherited by their brother while the rest of the family moved to Mountains a former farm house nearby, which “commands extensive views of the surrounding country, and the creeks and bays of the ocean” [White’s Directory of Essex 1848]
Ella taught herself paint but she had little by way of formal artistic training, apart from a few informal lessons from family friend Sir James Linton. This connection maybe how she managed to have a picture accepted in 1893 at an exhibition of the Society of Painters in Water Colours of which Linton was a leading member. The same year she was presented at court. This was a significant step for her art as well as socially. There are newspaper reports of other paintings of hers being shown in amateur or society charity fundraising shows, including one from 1896 about her sketching the gardens of Windsor, Frogmore and Osborne for Queen Victoria. The queen must have become a became a big fan of Ella and her work since she bought 26 paintings between then and 1898. Some of these were used as gifts, 4 entered the official Royal Collection while others are thought to be in the ‘private’ collections at Windsor, Balmoral or Sandringham.
Ella Du Cane’s first formal exhibition was at Graves Gallery in Pall Mall where she showed 57 watercolours. It was visited by the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family, who also bought some of the pictures. A report of the exhibition says “she first began to use her pencil seriously only three years ago.”
In an interview in 1902 for Girl’s Realm where she was described as “essentially an Essex girl” [which is my excuse for using that in my title!] Ella explained that she didn’t have a studio and preferred to paint outdoors wherever possible.
The list of the British gardens where she mentioned working was impressive: Chatsworth, Holland House, The White Farm at Crichel, Broughton Castle, Hinchinbrooke, Haddon, Cawdor, Hartrig, Carbery, Drummond Castle and Gwydyr Castle. Unfortunately I’ve only been able to trace a few images of her British work.
But it was foreign gardens that already attracted her attention, with southern Italy as her “favourite painting ground.”
Travel on the continent was obviously part of the family routine and Florence once said that before the First World War she hadn’t spent a winter in Britain for more than 20 years.These trips gave Ella opportunities to paint on the Riviera, Madeira, and in Italy before her next exhibition in 1900.
But the sisters also travelling further afield than standard European destinations. The spent six months one winter in the Caribbean and in 1902 Ella exhibited paintings done there, but also in Algiers as well as Italian and English gardens. They went east too because in 1904 she exhibited ” about 100 paintings of flower-bright Japan” and Ceylon. This was a sell-out and she earned £2000. Of course she was not the first western artist to visit Japan and work – Alfred Parsons, whose work she greatly admired, had gone in 1893. Like Ella, he too produced sentimental tranquil images that drew little from any authentic Japanese traditions.
The success of these early exhibitions gave Ella a lot of freedom and in 1906 she moved out from Mountains, leasing Beacon Hill, a small cottage on the estate, where she was also able to establish her own garden. [Next week’s post will be about the gardens of Mountains and Beacon Hill].
In that 1902 interview she spoke about her ambition to publish a book of garden paintings, and it wasn’t long before her wish was fulfilled. Her exhibitions must have attracted the attention of someone at the firm of A&C Black who were well established travel publishers. In the high day of empire in the years leading up to WW1 they published dozens of books about the far-flung corners of the world including Tibet and Nepal, Burma, Kashmir and China as well as better known haunts.
Ella’s first major commission was to illustrate Richard Bagot’s The Italian Lakes published in 1905. Her paintings “radiated sunshine and their subtle colouring stirs the imagination” crooned one reviewer. [Belfast Newsletter, 31 October 1905]
Next, several of her paintings were used to illustrate John Finnemore’ s 1907 book on Japan in their “Peeps at Many Lands” series.
The success of this, and presumably the continuing popularity of Japanese culture and design in Britain inspired another commission. Ella and Florence returned to Japan that year to put together a book on Japanese gardens. They appear to been there for about a year all told, although than at some point they also visited China.
On their return Ella exhibited nearly 100 paintings in 1908 at the Fine Art Gallery, most of which were sold during the private viewing, including several of which were bought by Edward VII. However not all the critics were favourable as can be seen from the tart comments from Illustrated London News.
The Flowers and Gardens of Japan was published in 1908. Florence’s text was light, and made no pretence of being a full botanical or horticultural account but merely some stories about those plants “most remarkable for their beauty and profusion and which are most associated with Japan.” It contained the popular and obvious favourites such as wisteria, iris, bamboo and spring blossom.
Nor did Florence attempt much explanation of Japanese garden design, partly owing to want of space” and partly because it was the most complicated form of gardening int he world” and she did not wish to “weary the reader with technical information” which, if they really wanted it, “could be found in Mr Conder’s volume on Landscape Gardening in Japan.”
Josiah Conder was an English architect who had been invited to work in Japan in 1877. He fell in love with the country and remained there until his death in 1920. He was probably the first European to make a proper study of Japanese garden and landscape design which he wrote about in Landscape Gardening in Japan published in 1893. It became the biggest single influence on western understanding of Japanese gardens. The sisters clearly had read his work and I think it’s quite likely they would have met him on when they were in Japan.
Florence certainly absorbed a lot of Conder’s sensitivity to the profound differences between western and Japanese garden thinking, and had clearly done a lot of garden visiting, and question asking. She understood that “no western gardener could ever hope to construct a garden representing a portion of the natural scenery of Japan – which is the aim and object of every good Japanese landscape garden however small – because however long he might study the original scene he would never arrive at the japanese conception of it or realise what it conveyed to the mind of a Japanese.”
Reviews were mixed. Burlington Magazine [Dec 1908] saying that “greater artists have given us more forcible impressions of Japanese life and colour; more learned authors have described them in print; yet we don’t remember any instance in which author and artist have come together with a more attractive result.” However others were more critical. The Evening Standard, saying that Ella’s paintings while “clear and decorative” did not display ” the special palette… of the country ” and that “more of the inner spiritual comprehension of the subject is to be found in the letterpress than in the illustrations.” [30th Oct 1908]. Nevertheless several of the illustrations were turned into postcards and used as souvenirs of the Japanese British Exhibition of 1910.
Whilst in Japan the sisters met and visited gardens with Isabella Robertson Christie [who was also usually known as Ella] who was to return to Scotland and create the famous Japanese garden at Cowden Castle in Perthshire. [More on that in another post one day]
They followed this up with The Flowers and Gardens of Madeira which A&C Black published in 1908. Whether this entailed a return visit or was based on notes and sketches from their earlier visit is unclear but Ella certainly returned to Madeira to paint in 1910 [Telegraph 23.4.1910] and 64 pictures were exhibited in Bond Street later that year.
After Madeira she was offered the chance to do illustrations for a book on Sicily at £4 an image, but turned it down deciding instead on one about The Canary Islands in 1911. This was, according to one academic study, one of the very first British travel books entirely dedicated to the islands.
The trip there led to yet another exhibition of garden paintings, although the Canary pictures were accompanied by some Essex gardens painted in-between the foreign tours. Another exhibition in 1912 included paintings from Teneriffe and southern Spain.
In 1913 it was Egypt’s turn to get the du Cane treatment, although Florence was only the author of a small part of the text, most of which was done by John Todd. On the Banks of the Nile was not primarily about gardens, and clearly involved extensive travel along the river from the delta deep down into Nubia. Florence later said it was a trip taken much against the advice of Lord Kitchener.
Again reviews were mixed. Illustrated london News [06 December 1913 ]was particularly cutting about “the monotony of colouring” in Ella’s paintings”one is tempted to ask whether the sun never sets in Egypt and no cool shadows rest upon the waters of the Nile… taken separately the plates have a delicate charm but in the bulk they lack variety of treatment.”
There were no more long overseas trips before, or as far as I can see, during the Great War. Once that started Florence went to France and ran a hospital for the Croix Rouge, twice being captured by the Germans. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre by Marechal Foch personally for her bravery. I have not yet discovered what Ella did but she appears to have disappeared from the public arena completely.
After the war the appetite for travel books seems to have declined and Blacks cut the number they published drastically. There were no more for the sisters. There were family problems too. By 1919 their brothers was in serious debt and had to sell the bulk of the Braxted estate. Lady Du Cane retained Mountains, and 50 acres of land around it and Florence lived there with her mother, while Ella remained at Beacon Hill. They now switched their energy from travel writing to gardening and with equal, if quieter, success, as I will try and show next week.
Excellent … I’ve known about Ella du Cane for many years only recently realising we lived in the same Essex village, although she died a few years before I was born. What a supreme artist and explorer of the exotic world. For women, I think she ad Florence made a terrific staement about liberation when they decided to travel un-chaperoned and collect some of the most memorable stories and images that go far beyond the media images now available in giving us a beautiful sense of magic and enchantment. Thank you for your lovely article. Robert
So interesting to read about the du Cane sisters. As the current gardener at the Japanese Garden at Cowden, I have recently been reading Ella’s letters (held in the National Library of Scotland) about her meetings with the sisters in Japan. They appear to have been a major influence on her decision to create a Japanese garden on her return to Scotland. Are you happy if I share your article, or link to the article, on the garden’s social media accounts?