British 19th C, except portraits, Continental European after 1800, Dress and Textiles 32 Further information sought on this painting of a woman in a bonnet and shawl

Said to be Florence Nightingale's Housekeeper, Mrs Clarke, but really a Breton Fisherwoman (?)
Topic: Subject or sitter

This lady seems a little strange for a Breton fisherwoman – even one dressed in her best outfit. A woman of her age would almost certainly be wearing black. Her basket is a trug, a typically English construction, and her shawl looks like an Indian or Persian cotton shawl, printed by hand. Again, rather more likely to belong to a British woman than someone French. As for her bonnet it is unlike any Breton headgear I have been able to find reference to.

Sue Rowe, Entry reviewed by Art UK


A vaguely similar bonnet is worn by the sitter in this painting of a woman with a goitre apparently by the Dutch artist Johann Georg Schwartze (1814–1874), who was active in Amsterdam. 'J. G. Schwartze fec. 48' is recorded in ballpoint pen on the back of the canvas and on the stretcher.

Andrew Chamberlain,

Here is another Normandy example, presumably from the late 19th century. The shawl, the basket and the parasol are in keeping with the composition of the Claydon painting. However, the Sussex-style trug in the Claydon painting is a puzzle.

1 attachment
Hat Jodelka,

My great-granny was a working-class Breton and her house was full of stuff depicting Bretons...there's nothing un-Breton about this outfit at all. However, she settled in Sussex in the early 1900s so perhaps the trug is not such an anomaly! The idea that Breton women of a certain age only wore black is just not fact I associate yellow with well-dressed Breton women of a certain age. Onion skins yield yellow dye for starters......

Kieran Owens,

Given that it is just the English Channel which separates the Sussex coast from that of Normandy, stretching, as the latter does from Mont St. Michel in the west to Le Tréport in the east, it is not unreasonable to imagine that the Sussex trug basket might have made its way from the English coast to the French one at some stage in history. Given the identifiable style of the headdress and the presence of nets in the painting, it is also not unreasonable to assume that it depicts a Normandy fishing village.

Herstmonceux, a village in the Wealden District of East Sussex, is recorded as the place where Thomas Smith first created the trug in the 1820s. The plying of fishing vessels could well have facilitated the carrying of this distinctive basket from one side of the channel to the other. Umbrella historians might be able to narrow the date of the painting down through an assessment of the style and manufacture of the one on the lady's lap.

Osmund Bullock,

Thomas Smith did apparently export his trugs to France in the mid-C19th - he had exhibited them at the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle des produits de l'Agriculture, de l'Industrie et des Beaux-Arts, where he was awarded a Silver Medal and Certificate of Merit. The French exhibition was inspired by and hoped to outdo the 1851 London Great Exhibition at which Smith also exhibited, and where his products famously attracted royal patronage - I imagine they'd already been seen there by the large numbers of French visitors.

I doubt that Smith's own trugs would have become standard items in Normandy, but I note that the design is slightly different to his - the originals had (and have) handle and rim made of cleaved chestnut with the darker bark still attached (these are stripped), and the foot shape differs looks, too, like the the slatted bowl might be lined (though that may be artistic licence). See and attachment. Perhaps copies - doubtless cheaper than imported originals - were made locally after his had been examined, as they were in England; and I suppose there's always the possibility that something similar already existed in Normandy, and Smith's design was actually pinched from the French!

1 attachment

Angela Lennox has sent us the following information:

The bonnet looks like the traditional ones worn in Normandy with the lace at the end however, the lady appears to be holding a Sussex trug with feet which is normally for garden produce rather than fish produce. Trugs were also used to measure produce such as grains etc however the measuring trugs didn't have feet.

The bonnet, shawl and umbrella are certainly traditional for Normandy area and would have been a great advert for the dying skills of the area - The bonnet contains a lot of details and is of the general style of the area -see enclosed images but the trug is a complete mystery.

If the lady is from Normandy, then she is wearing her Sunday best as the shawl is certainly expensive and is using a higher quality yellow dye over and above the onion skin dyes used by the many at the time in the UK. The bright yellow in the shawl looks to come from weld which is one of the 3 main dyes produced in Normandy, Brittany and Somme. These include wold - Blue, weld - yellow and madder - red. The shawl includes all 3 of these colours and is simply stunning.

Vermeer used weld in his painting 'Girl with a pearl earring' and is the brightest yellow achievable. It is still grown in Normandy and used for expensive silk dying today.

The background image is certainly a fishing scene however the roof of the structure looks as if it is made from reeds which is standard in the area of Oyne in Normandy as a thatch roof material. It was also used in Sussex as a thatch material for ordinary working people.

I know nothing about Florence Nightingale's housekeeper however, unless she came from Normandy, then I don't think this is her.

2 attachments
Kieran Owens,

Comparisons between a wide range of traditional costumes from Normandy indicate that this sitter's outfit, with its distinctive yellow shawl, might be local to the Dieppe area.

Could Marion explain where is Oyne, in Normandy? I can find no reference to it online. Might you mean the region of Orne? If so, at over 35 miles from its most northerly town of Vimoutiers to the nearest coastal town of Cabourg, it seems rather far away to be associated with fishing nets.

Kieran Owens,

Sorry Marion, I meant to reference Angela Lennox.

The background structure, thatched over, appears to be part of a derelict but large clinker-built boat, probably being used as a beach store for related kit such as the net. It's not the transom / stern, but cut off further forward just alongside an inserted futtock/top-timber and part of an overlapping floor-timber, both left of the sitter, with the keel below hidden behind her. The beach with what may be a cliff behind it is suggested to left and if the latter is as chalky as it looks would be more Normandy than Brittany.

Kieran Owens,

Dieppe and Caen, through the latter of which the Orne flows into the sea, are about 120 miles apart. That is quite a geographical area over which such regional costumes' variations could be spread. Perhaps a French costume expert could be found who could better advise on this point. One way or the other, though, it would seem that Normandy is the most likely location, as opposed to Brittany.

Hetty Startup has sent the following comments:

I have spent some of my summer looking at Danish painting from the art colony at Skagen. So this caught my attention although not by Anna Ancher. Various post Impressionists and genre themes come to mind but I don't have much to add. The umbrella is very quirky as is the setting - thatch suggests an awning or overhang - is she inside or outside? Dignified expression on the sitter but still a real puzzle. Was the shawl special in some way? Its very fancy if its for a fisherwoman.

Victoria Beauchamp,

The Verney family are thought to have originated from near Bayeux Perhaps Sue will know if the family still had relations in the area in the period of the painting (c19th century?) From the Memoirs of the Verney Family during the Civil War they appear still to have a house there as it notes
"Mary takes much pains with her housekeeping, she was famous for making good bread....a firkin of this country butter ' are sent as delicacies from Bucks to Normandy ". ( see p230)

Lady Frances Parthenope Verney (Francis Nightingale's sister) wrote in 1885 "Cottier Owners, Little Takes and Peasant Properties: A Reprint of 'Jottings in France, Germany, and Switzerland' as well How the Peasant Owner Lives in Parts of France, Germany, Italy, Russia (1888). In both she talks about the lives of Norman peasants. Although the lady in the painting appears to be more than a peasant with her fine shawl perhaps it is a painting she collected during her travels?

(Just as a way out thought could it be Lady Francis in costume - which might account for the mismatch of objects? I am not good with faces but there is something about the eyes that may be similar to the old lady in the picture)

Osmund Bullock,

The Verneys who later lived at Claydon had been resident in England since at least the early C13th; so although a C15th family member was a merchant who traded with the Continent, it seems extremely unlikely that in the C19th they would have had known any distant cousins in Normandy (if indeed that's where the family originated) - I mean, does anyone know their 8th cousin, let alone their 18th?!

The connection with France during the Civil War is real, but was only because in 1643 Sir Ralph Verney (and other relatives) fled to ten years' exile there (at Paris, Rouen and Blois), and later in Italy. Rouen is certainly in Normandy, albeit 50 miles inland; but I cannot imagine that any connections made there in the mid-C17th could have been relevant 200 years later.

In any case, are you saying that the donor of the portrait, Mrs Margaret Simpson, was a member of the Verney family? As far as we know the painting has only been associated with the house since her gift of it in 1985.

Barbara Bryant,

Perhaps what needs addressing, other than the details of the costume, is why there is a traditional identification of the figure as Mrs Clarke, Florence Nightingale's housekeeper, which is quite a specific reference to make. Is this inscribed somewhere on the back of the picture? Florence Nightingale did have a housekeeper named Mrs. Clarke. So why did someone, somewhere along the way, say that this particular painting showed her? And might that shawl be a souvenir of Scutari?

Osmund Bullock,

I absolutely agree, Barbara; and in fact as an adjunct to that question I've been pursuing the precise identity of 'Mrs Clarke' to establish (at the least) her age, and if she had any connection with northern France. Unfortunately the name is common, and at no time does she appear in a UK census return with Miss Nightingale. Her first name was apparently Ann, and she is described by one later commentator as 'elderly' - I don't know on what basis. Certainly she was old enough in 1853 to have a niece who worked with her, and her responsibilities and character (of which more later) suggest she was a woman of age and experience, though still able to thrive on punishingly hard work, undertaken willingly. She accompanied Florence to Scutari, but did not stay long.

I will write further anon - anyone else researching her should beware of confusion with another much younger Ann(e) Clarke who worked under Florence as a maid, and also with Mrs (Helen) Clarke and her daughter Mary Elizabeth Clarke (later Mohl), Florence's lifelong friend and correspondent whom she first met in Paris ca.1840. It has occurred to me that there might have been confusion as to the portrait's sitter with the latter; but although 'Clarkey' (b.1793) lived in France and died at the age of 90, I think it a most unlikely way to portray an author, artist and formerly great Parisian salon hostess in old age. I haven't *completely* ruled it out, though.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

This portrait may very well be of a woman from the region of Chateaubriant, Pays de la Mée, West Brittany, pp.40-41. I attach two drawings from a 2002 reproduction of Francois-Hippolyte Lalaisse, COSTUME BRETONS, 1846, published by Biblioteque de l'Image, Paris.
Fig. 1 Francois-Hippolyte Lalaisse, COSTUME BRETONS, 1844-6.
Fig. 2 as above
The women in these images wear the same extreme style of bonnet with the same dark yellow shawl crossed in the centre front. Chateaubriand has an Atlantic sea coast line - which might fit with what seems to be fishing nets in the back ground to the portrait.

Jacinto Regalado,

For what it may be worth, I simply cannot imagine this woman was a British housekeeper, or at least I find that highly improbable.

Holly Carter-Chappell of The Florence Nightingale Museum has kindly sent the following information:

'I’ve had a quick look and I think it’s unlikely to be Mrs Mary Clarke, who was housekeeper under Florence Nightingale at the Harley Street Hospital for Gentlewomen and accompanied Florence to Scutari Hospital. Prior to being appointed Housekeeper at the hospital, Mrs Clarke had been Matron at a workhouse in Sheffield. She was invalided home from Scutari in April 1855, and we don’t have much evidence of Florence keeping in touch with her afterwards. So she wasn’t a much loved family housekeeper who might have had a portrait commissioned of her by the family. We don’t know much about her life after returning from the Crimea, or when she died. But considering her position of responsibility at the workhouse and later Harley Street, and having an adult niece working with her, I would imagine she was at least in her forties when she went out to the Crimea.

I’d be interested to know how the portrait became associated with Mrs Clarke, as it’s a very specific association with someone who played a relatively minor role in Florence’s life.'

Anne Engdahl,

My theory is that the sitter is Miss Clarke and the artist is a friend of Florence Nightingale who liked Miss Clarke's face and wanted to paint her but brought props with him eg the bonnet and shawl.
Artists often do that.

Re-posted on behalf of Lou Taylor, with images attached.
This portrait may very well be of a woman from the region of Chateaubriant, Pays de la Mée, West Brittany, pp.40-41. I attach two drawings from a 2002 reproduction of Francois-Hippolyte Lalaisse, COSTUME BRETONS, 1846, published by Bibliotheque de l'Image, Paris.
Fig. 1 Francois-Hippolyte Lalaisse, COSTUME BRETONS, 1844-6.
Fig. 2 as above
The women in these images wear the same extreme style of bonnet with the same dark yellow shawl crossed in the centre front. Chateaubriant has an Atlantic sea coast line - which might fit with what seems to be fishing nets in the back ground to the portrait.

2 attachments
Kieran Owens,

As described on Wikipedia, "Châteaubriant is a town in western France, about 350 km southwest of Paris, and one of the three sous-préfectures of the Loire-Atlantique department. Châteaubriant is also situated in the historical and cultural region of Brittany, and it is the capital of the Pays de la Mée."

From the 4th March 1790 until the 9th March 1957, Loire-Inférieure, the name which is visible in the top left-hand corner of Lou Taylor's second attachment, was the region which, after 1957, became the Loire-Atlantique department. (See for the details).

The town of Châteaubriant is about 50 miles inland from the nearest coastal village in the Loire-Inférieure/Loire-Atlantique department, which hardly qualifies it for a seaside location where there may be fishing nets.

From the various postings above, it would seem that there was a similar costume arrangement in both Brittany and Normandy.

Guy Eades,

I suggest you contact the Florence Nightingale Museum at st. Thomas' hospital London as they probably have records/image of Florence Nightingales's housekeeper as help you to prove or disprove this connection

Osmund Bullock,

To get back to the very puzzling question already raised by both Barbara Bryant and Holly Carter-Chappell of The Florence Nightingale Museum. How and why did the name of Mrs Clarke become associated so specifically with this painting? She is a most unlikely candidate for sitter without some reason, so could there be a kernel of truth there somewhere, albeit perhaps in a garbled form?

As Holly says, Mary** Clarke was a fairly minor player in the story of Miss Nightingale, and very few people would be aware of her existence, let alone her name. She certainly made an important contribution to the preparation and early running of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street - there are numerous admiring references to her in Florence's correspondence and reports of 1853-54. Mrs Clarke was the hard-working but draconian supremo there in matters domestic - she is sometimes described as 'matron' (as well as housekeeper), but that was not in the nursing sense. She volunteered to go out to Scutari with her mistress, and arrived with the first batch of nurses in late 1854 with some degree of authority over them; but she returned to England not long afterwards, ostensibly for health reasons. However, though Florence admired her demanding standards and capacity for hard work, her authoritarian and unsympathetic manner upset many of her charges, and this may have hastened her departure.

[**Her name is given as 'Ann Clarke' in a footnote on page 65 of Vol.12 of 'The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale' ( ), but it is certain from other references that this is an error - she was definitely Mary. The niece who worked with Mary at Harley St may perhaps have been called Ann(e) Clarke; another of the same name was a nurse at Scutari; and there seem to be at least two, possibly three further namesakes to be found in the Nightingale correspondence, one of them a maid who worked for her at Harley Street and again in London later on (1863/64). It is unclear how many of these - if any - are in fact the same person.]

Osmund Bullock,

In her home town of Sheffield, to which she returned (permanently, I think) after the Crimea, Mrs Clarke's fame seems to have been very slight and very brief - more of that in another post; I can't imagine that even in Hallamshire anyone would pick her name to attach to a portrait of an unknown sitter - and still less so down south. So how did it become linked to it, and when? We really do need to know from the National Trust if they have any more information about the source of the identification: is it written on the back, perhaps, and if so, how old is the inscription? The Art UK page for Claydon House ( ) says that the "miscalled portrait of Florence Nightingale’s housekeeper was given to Claydon because of her association with the house" - but do they mean it was given to Claydon specifically by the 1985 donor Mrs Margaret Simpson, or that the NT chose to direct it there after receiving the gift?

I should add that I have finally managed to identify the right Mary Clarke genealogically, and I will elaborate in another post. I have also just ordered a copy of her will (she died in 1882) in the forlorn hope there might be something there that helps. But even if not, and no other connection with the portrait can be found, it's perhaps worth telling the bare bones of her life story so the FN Museum can add it to their database.

Barbara Bryant,

Thank you, Osmund, for echoing my sentiments exactly (and in much more detail). It is great that the National Trust has put this picture forward for discussion. But we do need to know why the identification was attached to the picture in the first place. It is either inscribed as such or the information came with the donation from Mrs Margaret Simpson (as recently as 1985).

Andrew Chamberlain,

As Kieran previously suggested, the trug (complete with feet) may have crossed the English Channel. Here is a colour print titled "A French Fisher Girl" by James Dromgole Linton, 1906.

1 attachment

Please support your comments with evidence or arguments.

jpg, png, pdf, doc, xls (max 6MB)
Drop your files here
Attach a file Start uploading

Sign in

By signing in you agree to the Terms & Conditions, which includes our use of cookies.