By Haydn Brown.
Number 54 today, is an inconspicuous house in St Giles, Norwich. It is possible that it has always been so – or maybe it hasn’t? Maybe, if one was to delve into the complete history of No. 54, there would be many uncovered stories laying in wait. But that is not the aim of this particular tale, which prefers to settle on its owners and occupants at the turn of the 18th century; in particular, one Elizabeth Rigby (17 November 1809 to 2 October 1893) who became a British author, art critic and art historian, and was the first woman to write regularly for the Quarterly Review. She was known not only for her writing but also for her significant role in the London art world.
Elizabeth’s father was Dr Edward Rigby (1747-1821), a well-respected physician who, at the time of Elizabeth’s birth, owned both No. 54, St Giles, Norwich and also the neo-Georgian Framlingham Earl Hall which used to stand just five miles south of the City. He bought the Hall in 1786 along with about 34 acres of surrounding land on which, from about 1805, he laid out and planted what became a great collection of trees.
Dr. Edward Rigby was the son of John and Sarah (nee’ Taylor) and was born at Chowbent, Lancashire, on 27 December 1747. Educated at Warrington Academy and Norwich School, Rigby was apprenticed in 1762 to David Martineau, surgeon of Norwich. He then studied in London before being admitted as a member of the Corporation of Surgeons on 4 May 1769. In that same year he married for the first time, to a Sarah Dybal and settled in the Norwich area where the couple produced two daughters.
During this period Edward Rigby’s interests, outside his medical profession, began to involve both community and political activities. In 1783, he joined the Corporation of Guardians of Norwich, only to find that when he attempted to promote ‘the economical administration of the Poor Laws’ he was met with so much opposition that by the following year he had resigned. Then by 1786 he was seen to be taking the lead in establishing the Norfolk Benevolent Society for the relief of the widows and orphans of medical men. In politics he was a Whig and a supporter of William Windham. However, in 1794 when Windham became Secretary at War and had to stand again for Norwich, Rigby was one of the disillusioned Whigs of the time who backed James Mingay against him. Windham was re-elected, but Mingay’s reputation as a Whig was boosted.
As a widower, Rigby became an Alderman of the city of Norwich in 1802 in what turned out to be a very tight contest for the North Ward. He then became Sheriff the following year and Mayor of Norwich in 1805 when he presided over a meeting which addressed the issue of smallpox in the city. Rigby is said to have ‘made known the flying shuttle to Norwich manufacturers’ and to have introduced vaccination in the city. By then Rigby had married Anne Palgrave, the daughter of William Palgrave of Great Yarmouth. Their wedding had taken place in 1803 and the marriage thereafter produced a total of twelve children, amongst whom were a set of quads, three girls and a boy born on 15 August 1817. This was indeed a remarkable event. Unfortunately, the babies did not survive long; one lived just 18 days and the other three from between eight and ten weeks.
However, at a quarterly meeting of the Norwich Corporation on September 12th 1817, the Court of Aldermen resolved that a piece of plate be presented to Alderman and Mrs Rigby in commemoration of the births, to which the Commons “cordially acquiesced on the understanding that if the same event should happen in their own body they should put in a claim for a similar complimentary memento.” A violent personal dispute ensued between two members of the Common Council, “which so alarmed eight of the members for the Ward beyond the Water that they left the room without leave of the Speaker, the consequence being that the whole proceedings proved abortive.” Another meeting was held on the 27th, when the presentation was amicably agreed to, and on December 24th 1817 Dr. and Mrs. Rigby were given a silver bread basket, “with the names of the children and the arms of the family richly emblazoned thereon.” This must have been quite distressing, particularly to Mrs Rigby having, by then, lost all four of those children.
Over two marriages Edward Rigby sired fourteen children, some of whom found fame in their own right.
Alongside all this, Rigby was a notable physician and described as being a brilliant surgeon who was also instrumental in the founding of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital with which he was to be associated with for over 50 years. Outside of the medical profession, Rigby was a practicing agriculturist and a friend of Thomas William Coke of Holkham. He too experimented on his own farm at Framingham Earl. Edward was also a classical scholar and in later years, he further became distinguished when Pitt Lane, which ran between St. Giles and Bethel Street, was re-named Rigby’s Court.
Dr Edward Rigby died on 27 October 1821, aged 74 years. He was buried at St Andrew’s Church; Framingham and his tomb was inscribed with a fine epitaph to a man renowned locally as a tree planter:
‘A monument to Rigby do you seek?
On every side the whisp’ring woodlands speak.’
His wife, Anne, survived him by 51 years, dying at Slough, Buckinghamshire on 2 September 1872, aged 95 years.
Elizabeth Rigby, the main subject of this tale, was born on 17 November 1809, one of twelve children eventually produced by Edward Rigby and Anne (nee’ Palgrave) at their 18th century neo-Georgian Framingham Earl Hall. This was the family’s country home where her father planted many trees, turning a bleak heath into a pleasant wood.
Today, both the parkland and the site of the old Hall are mostly hidden by those trees, although in the winter glimpses may be seen through the hedge. Both parents were to include Elizabeth in their social life and conversations with prominent citizens and intellectuals of the time; this says much about their enlightened attitude where their children were not ‘pigeon-holed’ by being required ‘to be seen but not heard’ when in adult company. It also says much about Elizabeth’s own intellect.
Elizabeth grew up being very fond of drawing and continued studying art well into her twenties. During this time, she may well have been influenced by John Crome (1768 – 1821), the famous painter, who was well known to the family; her father had first employed Crome as an errand boy in his youth and later gave him lodgings at his house at 54 St Giles, Norwich. Also, during this time Elizabeth was privately educated and learnt French and Italian; however, after an illness in 1827 when she was about 18 years of age, she was sent to convalesce in Germany and Switzerland. There she stayed for two years, during which time she began a lifetime of publication which included a translation of Johann David Passavant’s essay on English art. A second trip to Germany in 1835 led to her writing an article on Goethe. Then, after travelling to Russia and Estonia to visit a married sister, her letters of the time, plus her subsequent travel book, ‘A Residence on the Shores of the Baltic’ (1841) led to an invitation from John Gibson Lockhart for her to write for his Quarterly Review.
In 1842, Elizabeth’s widowed mother, Anne Rigby, moved with her daughters to Edinburgh, where Elizabeth’s literary career brought entry to an intellectual social circle including prominent figures such as Lord Jeffrey, John Murray and David Octavius Hill, who photographed her in a series of about 20 early calotypes, assisted by Robert Adamson.
Hill and Adamson
David Hill and Robert Adamson were pioneering photographers, now acknowledged as masters of the art, working in Edinburgh, a city where they were not constrained by Henry Talbot’s English patent on his calotype process. They exploited their opportunity to the full, creating a magnificent series of photographic prints throughout their partnership (1843-1847). Their salted paper prints were made from calotypes [paper negatives] and have a soft, painterly appearance.
Despite writing in her diary in 1846 saying that there were many “compensations” for unmarried women, Elizabeth met and married Charles Eastlake, artist, connoisseur and Director of the National Gallery in London three years later; Elizabeth was aged 40. She joined Charles in an active working and social life, entertaining artists such as Landseer and mixing with a wide range of well-known people, from Macaulay to Lady Lovelace. In 1850 Charles Eastlake was both knighted and elected President of the Royal Academy. Then in 1853, he was appointed first President of the Photographic Society of London and, in 1855, Director of the National Gallery. Throughout the time following their wedding and into the 1860’s, Elizabeth Eastlake (now Lady Eastlake) continued her habit of continental travel as she and her husband toured several European countries in search of new acquisitions for the National Gallery. In addition to all this Elizabeth managed, and anonymously, to contributed a 26-page review titled ‘Photography’ in 1857. In this perceptive but much-scrutinised essay on early photography, she included a discussion on the position of photography in art.
In fact, Elizabeth wrote prolifically, helping to popularise German art history in England, both as critic and as translator; sometimes, she collaborated with her husband. She wrote a memoir of him after his death in 1865. Italian art also absorbed her attention. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael and Dürer were the subjects of her ‘Five Great Painters’ (1883), published ten years before she died in 1893. In 1895 her nephew Charles Eastlake Smith edited her Letters and Correspondence, the first volume of which at least was read by the late nineteenth century English novelist George Gissing in July of the following year.
Lady Elizabeth Eastlake’s reputation in the 20th century, quite apart from her photography, was mainly to be remembered for her scathing review of the book ‘Jane Eyre’, of which she strongly disapproved. She disputed the morality of this novel, writing that:
‘the popularity of Jane Eyre is a proof how deeply the love for illegitimate romance is implanted in our nature’………..It is a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste’.
She was also known for her attacks on John Ruskin, assumed to be linked to her role as confidante to his estranged wife, Effie Gray. According to historian Rosemary Mitchell, however, her work as art historian and writer was significant and original. Mitchell considered Elizabeth Eastlake to have been a scholarly and perceptive critic, and Marion Lochhead regarded Eastlake as a ‘pioneer of feminine journalism’, whereas Janice Schroeder decried her values supporting women’s subordinate place in the class structure within British imperialism.