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 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.


  1. Isn't genealogy wonderful? An amazing world of connections and misconnections. Great story!

  2. Wow. What a wonderful story. You're a great researcher Jill. Time to get on to the most mysterious story of all...what's behind Mona Lisa's smile? :)


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