Saturday, September 29, 2012

I'm Related to the Mona Lisa (sort of)

Did you know there is a second Mona Lisa? Yes, and I'm related to the man who found her, Hugh Blaker.

Of course, I had no idea about any of this until a couple of hours ago.

Here's what happened.

Today I went to the National Archives in London with no particular game plan. Actually I was just hoping to write up some notes from earlier visits, not to do new research. But you know how it is. So much easier to surf the net – I mean, do research – than it is to make sense of it and write it all down.

Every now and then I try searching the various databases, mainly Ancestry.co.uk and the National Archives' own indexes, to see if anything new will turn up for my distant ancestor, William Lumley Sanders. He was born around 1825 in the parish of St Luke, Middlesex, which to we North Americans is "somewhere in London".

Today I went back over some familiar ground, looking for new angles.

I knew that William Lumley Sanders had married Maria Vernell in 1847. I also knew that Maria was the widow of John Vernell, and that they had a son in late 1840, a few months before getting married. That son was James Sanders Vernell. The "Sanders" is a clue to the ongoing, confusing relationship between the Vernell and Sanders families.

Maria's maiden name was Sanders. It's possible she was a near or distant cousin to her second husband, William Lumley Sanders, but that is only speculation. Sanders is a common name, especially in their part of London.

In the 1851 census, William and Maria Sanders were living at 3 Brunswick Terrace, Camberwell. William was a Silk Warehouseman, and there were four children in the household, a girl and boy Vernell and a girl and boy Sanders.

The Vernell family came to public attention not too long ago via the Museum of London. When the museum excavated the site of the former home of the silk merchant James Vernell ("Archaeology meets 'Who Do You Think You Are?'") they blogged about searching for and then meeting some of the Vernells' descendants. James Vernell and his wife had no children, as far as I know, but James's brother John had many. The Museum invited two of John's descendants, Rick and Roy Glanvill, to look at some of the Vernell artifacts.

John Vernell the silk merchant (brother of excavated James) had 11 children, more or less. His eldest son was the John Vernell  (1816 - 1845) who married Maria Sanders. This John married young and died young, but managed to have at least three children first: James Sanders Vernell whom I've mentioned, Maria Vernell (1842 - 1858), and yet another John Vernell (1844 - 1874).

James Sanders Vernell's story is a whole other tale, best left for another day.

In the 1851 census, Maria and her brother John were the girl and boy Vernell living with their mother and her new husband. The other two children in the family were Jane Sanders, age 5, and Walter Sanders, age 3. Walter was the natural son of William and Maria, but Jane had a different mother.

Jane's full name was Jane Rosalie Redstone Sanders (much easier to trace than plain "Jane Sanders"), and every census return I've seen has her place of birth listed as London.

The next part of the story involves the relationship between one of Jane's sons and one of her little brother Walter's sons. These boys are half-first cousins. They have the same grandfather (William Lumley Sanders) but different grandmothers.

Time passed and tragedies befell the Sanders family. Young Maria Vernell died at only 16 years old. Unusually for a minor, let alone a minor female, she left an estate (value: under 1,500 pounds). Administration was granted to her uncle, William Davis Bates, a corn dealer. Bates was also the guardian of Maria's little brother John Vernell and her little step-brother Walter Sanders. I'm guessing that the two boys might have gone to work for him, and that William Lumley Sanders must have already died, or they wouldn't have needed a guardian.

The two boys, John and Walter, were probably very close. I picture them being set adrift in the world to learn the corn business from their uncle after their father died. A few years later, John married Eleanor Campbell and had some children. Then he died suddenly. Walter then married Eleanor, and they had more children. And then he died suddenly.

One of the many young children left fatherless was my great-grandfather. Jane Rosalie Redstone Sanders was his aunt, but he may never have known her.

Jane's life took a different path. She left London, perhaps to go live with relatives or to work, and married a very successful builder in Sussex. They had two boys and three girls. Her husband, Robert Charles Blaker, died in the 1890s. Jane then married a man named John Richard Eyre. So! I'm related to Jane Eyre. Good to know.

In the 1901 census, John Eyre is listed as a journalist. I thought that occupation might lead me to some interesting information. After all, if anyone is going to leave a paper trail for posterity, it will be a writer. I did an open-ended Web search for him. To my surprise, I soon saw that he and his step-son Hugh Blaker were a little famous.

In 1913, Hugh, an art collector, bought a painting he believed to be a second Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci. He developed the evidence in support of his claim, and Eyre, also a knowledgeable art collector, wrote a book setting out the arguments. Their theory attracted support and the so-called "Isleworth Mona Lisa" has gathered a following over the years, although the jury is still out. (The painting is called the "Isleworth Mona Lisa" after the village where Hugh lived, along with his mother, step-father, and sister Jenny. By coincidence, Isleworth is quite close to the National Archives, where I was reading all this information. I wanted to hop on the bus and get over there to look for Hugh's house, but restrained myself.)

The story could end here, but there are three more things I'd like to say. First, Hugh was an active art collector, museum curator and consultant who deserves credit for much more than finding the Mona Lisa – as if that wasn't enough. He was one of the art advisors to the Davies sisters, two extremely wealthy unmarried women who donated their collection of 260 Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and other paintings to the National Museum of Wales. That collection is a key part of the museum's holdings ("The Davies Sisters collection").

The next thing: Hugh's sister, Jenny, was the governess to the Davies sisters, and that may be how they linked up with Hugh in the first place. In fact, although Jenny lived at 57 Church Street in Isleworth for a long time after her mother, step-father, and Hugh had all died, her actual death happened at the Davies' sisters Welsh estate.

Jenny wasn't married, nor was Hugh. Jenny appointed the artist Murray Urquhart, a long time associate of Hugh's and also an advisor to the sisters, as her executor. This small group of people (and I'm sure there were others involved) carried the torch for Impressionism and other modern art during the decades when it was dismissed by the art establishment.

As an aside, the census returns and other genealogical documents consistently call Jenny by her official, registered name (Jenny), but some publications call her Jane. It's possible that was a family practice.

Finally, and this takes us quite far from the art world, but provides a bit of insight into Hugh Blaker's character: he was a mentor of other creative people. One of these was a young fatherless lad named William Hartnell, whom Hugh is said to have more or less adopted for a time, and encouraged in his acting career. Thus was the beginning of the actor who later played the first Doctor Who.

I don't think my great-grandfather had any idea that Hugh Blaker even existed. He was far too busy fighting in the First World War and then trying to make a living in Canada. Also, it seems like Hugh's mother Jane didn't stay connected to the Sanders and Vernell families.

If I had ever heard of the Isleworth Mona Lisa before today, I had completely forgotten it. As I followed the twisty-turny research trail at the archives, it was all new territory. Imagine my surprise to get to the end and find out today that only yesterday the Mona Lisa Foundation in Switzerland formally unveiled the Isleworth Mona Lisa, with due credit to Hugh Blaker. Cousin Hugh, as I like to think of him.

"The Man Who Found the Mona Lisa" and more about the discovery can be seen on the website of the Mona Lisa Foundation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Soldier's Grave in Mortlake, the Greatest British Sportsman, and an Unsung Heroine

two stone crosses, one red, one white; white one has legible writing for Lt Col John O'Brien Minogue
Grave marker in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Mortlake, Surrey (London, England)  
In Loving Memory of Lieut. Colonel John O'Brien Minogue, CMG, West Yorkshire Regt.
Died Oct. 26, 1916, aged 55 years.

I took a picture of this grave marker only because it was clear, old, military, and had a feeling of loneliness. In Loving Memory, but where is his family? Not here, as far as I can see. A little searching revealed two unexpected connections.

First, why Mortlake?

Lt-Col John O'Brien Minogue was born in Ireland, though his lengthy military service appears to have begun in England. He was a commander at Gallipoli, one of the most infamous disasters of the First World War. He died in England, and is considered a casualty of the war, so perhaps he died of war wounds.

This might be a good guess for another reason. On January 25, 1916, Minogue married Annie Philipson. He was about 55 and she about 47, and neither had been married before. Annie was the "Foundress and Commander of Mornington Lodge War Hospital for Officers". This comes from the notice of her second marriage, to Second Lt. Thomas Harrison Caffyn Bannister, in 1918. I wonder if Minogue was one of the convalescents in Mornington Lodge. My basic searches for information about the lodge haven't turned up much, other than it was in West Kensington.

Back to "why Mortlake?" The church of St. Mary Magdalene is a Roman Catholic church, and perhaps it's a simple as that. We can speculate that Minogue was a Catholic and that St Mary Magdalene was one of the churchyards with available space. Another reason may be the Irish connection. This is more speculative, but back in the 1840s, as a result of the potato famine, many Irish people settled in the Mortlake area – enough to require a larger church. Perhaps Minogue had family there, long-ago cousins who descended from the famine migrants perhaps.

My guess is that official or unofficial regimental histories of the West Yorkshire Regiment will include some mentions of Minogue, particularly in connection with Gallipoli.

Annie Philipson, later Annie Minogue and then Annie Bannister, is an interesting figure. After all, she founded a hospital. I don't know if it was before or after her first husband died. I speculate that she used an inheritance from her father. He was Hilton Philipson, a lawyer from Tynemouth. The family fortune came from coal. When Hilton died in 1904, his effects were valued for probate at over 457,000 pounds. He had a wife and five children surviving him, two daughters and three sons.

Annie's family is interesting for reasons other than their wealth. Her eldest brother, Ralph Hilton Philipson, was a coal magnate whose second wife, Maya (nee Maya Stuart-King) was the widow of a Russian baron, Baron De Knoop. He had been fantastically wealthy and was a collector of musical instruments, but the account I read (only one) says Maya had her own Strad when she married the miserable Baron. At any rate, her second marriage to Ralph was happier, and there was no shortage of money.

The second brother, Roland, was also a successful businessman and a barrister. He was killed in a terrible railway accident at Grantham in 1906.

The third brother, Hylton Philipson, was a well-known cricket player, by the nickname of "Punch". In fact, all three brothers were notable cricketers. However, it is their sister Mary's boy, Max Woosnam (1892 - 1865), who is the most famous sportsman. Wikipedia currently says this about him:

"Maxwell "Max" Woosnam (6 September 1892 – 14 July 1965) was an English sportsman is sometimes referred to as the 'Greatest British sportsman' in recognition of his achievements .
Amongst his achievements was winning an Olympic gold and silver at the 1920 Summer Olympics, winning the doubles at Wimbledon, compiling a 147 break in Snooker, making a century at Lord's Cricket Ground, captaining the British Davis Cup team, captaining Manchester City F.C. finishing ultimately runners-up for the Football League Championship in 1920-21 and captaining the England national football team."

Max also fought at Gallipoli, and on the Western Front in the First World War.

There you have it. An old soldier commanded the troops at Gallipoli when his fellow officers had fallen. Late in life he married a compassionate, wealthy lady whose nephew fought in that same awful battle. The old soldier died before his first wedding anniversary, but his widow went on, founding a convalescent hospital for officers, re-marrying, and seeing that same nephew go on to unimaginable sporting triumphs. And all of this from a tiny stone tucked away by a wall in Mortlake.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sir Richard Burton (explorer), pictures of 2 memorials in Mortlake

Sir Richard Burton, who died in 1890, was an English explorer whose better-known achievements were translating the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra and entering the holy city of Mecca in disguise. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

After his death, the great explorer was not buried in Westminster Abbey as his wife Isabel reportedly wanted. Instead, both the Burtons now lie in a mausoleum in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Mortlake, Surrey. What's unusual is that this structure is a stone version of a Bedouin tent, designed by Lady Burton.

There is a memorial window for the Burton family inside the church.
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