Glimpses of Everyday Life BC (before cameras)

Those who enjoy historical novels set a century or two ago encounter young ladies busy doing their fine sewing (white sewing was never seen by callers) and music and watercolors. But we rarely see examples of the first and last.

Equally rarely do we get to see the art made by ordinary people, ones deemed at their time, and after, to be absent of genius. But I’ve always loved discovering sketches, especially from life, by ordinary people—one can see the details of life as perceived by them. Sometimes I find these more fascinating than the glam work of the genius, consciously aimed to please the generations to come.

During my student days, I remember standing before a magnificent illustrated page of the Bible made during the early Middle Ages. But once I’d taken in the beautiful, elaborate decoration, what caught my eye was a tiny sketch embedded in it of a couple of monks, one plump, one skinny, their robes hiked up, as they weeded a garden patch with their tools. This glimpse of their daily life—how they raised their food—ignited in my mind an image of the artistic brother glancing out, perhaps through a keyhole window in his scriptorium (his only source of good light), and capturing a real moment before going back to his beautiful scrollwork.

So when I came across mention of Diana Sperling, an otherwise ordinary Englishwoman whose life spanned the Napoleonic period up into the middle of Victoria’s long reign, I was curious. She lived at Dynes Hall, her family middling gentry (a step up from Jane Austen’s family, who owned no land), and had been an indefatigable watercolorist. It turns out that the only collection of her work is in a single volume, Mrs Hurst Dancing, an annotated collection of 70 plates put together charmingly by Gordon Minjay.

Here we see the Sperlings at dinner. On the left, a new arrival, a footman taking the guy’s greatcoat, and some kind of bundle on the table next to him.

At the far right, a parrot in a cage sits on the sofa behind Mom Sperling. On Mom’s left, a daughter sneaking tidbits to the family dog. Ladies of a certain age wear indoor caps. Dad doesn’t have one, though in the scene below, Mom and Dad both wear them.

Diana must have been proud of that carpet, judging by the care with which she painted all those round shapes.

Mom Sperling was an active woman–up top, there she is playing with the younger set, as a couple of girls look on. Here are Mom and Dad after dinner. Mom’s feet don’t quite touch the ground–I remember the days when furniture was made by, and for, male bodies.

Though they were a family of substance, Mom helped with the housekeeping. Here we see her swatting flies as the maid collects the corpses. (Though I suspect that when Mom was done whacking, it was the maids who got to clean the fly squish off the windows and walls.)

Flies weren’t the only bugs squished. In this scene, the young ladies are getting ready for bed, but one flinchingly kills a spider with her toes. Note the voluminous white nightgowns. I have one just like it that my great-grandmother–a Swedish farm girl–sewed as a teen, for her married state.

Here are the ladies busy repapering a salon.

Here the girls are walking along a road, unpaved, of course. Note that they hook up their hems in back, indicated by the slight bumps under their red cloaks. They are on their way to a neighbor’s for a dinner party. Everyone carries their own shoes for the dinner, brother getting to stash his in his capacious coat pocket, but he carries the lantern for the return journey home.

And here is an outdoor scene, with a lot of detail worked in. Diana was pretty good, I thought, when she had a model not moving around.




Glimpses of Everyday Life BC (before cameras) — 22 Comments

  1. I adore this book…but at times some of her figures remind me of Edward Gorey. 🙂

    Another (not quite so) good one is “Making Victorians: The Drummond Children’s World 1827-1832”

  2. These are wonderful. And give you a sense that life for even a reasonably well-to-do woman was not all subscription library novels and embroidery (I love the women papering the salon, in particular).

  3. The single father-mother, wife-husband plate features the wife playing chess with her husband. Which I am choosing to interpret as a happy marriage of equals — a marriage of equals, at least as far as ‘equality’ went in those days — in contrast to the Bennets’ marriage, for instance.

    England was wet and cold. Sometimes chairs were made extra-high purposely, so thinly clad feet and ankles could rest on stools, above the chilly floor, thus the double purpose of those charming foot stools so common before central heating. I have one here at my desk because the floors in our building’s 19th century apartment building get freezing in winter.

    • That’s interesting about footstools. (In California, they are unnecessary) but you’re right–there are references to footstools in so many memoirs and letters. Well, Mom Sperling wasn’t needing one there.

      Re her marriage, note it is she playing at shuttlecocks with the son. She got to play as well as work. The evidence seems to be there that she led the life she wanted–she’s active in so many of these paintings.

  4. Wow, these are marvelous! What a delight! I love Mom and the maid dispatching the flies–I love that they’ve climbed up on the windowsill do to it. And the dog with his paws in the woman’s lap–such great details.

    The red cloaks/coats are everywhere–Mom has one behind her chair while playing chess; the two daughters have theirs flung carelessly on a chair (one) and hung on a hook (the other) in the spider-killing scene. And, of course, they’re wearing them in the outdoor-journey picture.

  5. Thanks, Sherwood! I agree about catching unexpected glimpses of the everyday life of just folks in the past. I seek them out when I travel and love the open air museums and collections featuring popular culture.

    • Oh, I so agree about collections featuring popular culture! It’s amazing and exhilarating how much museum display and the thinking behind it has changed in the last thirty years.

  6. These are amazing (and, yes, I now own a copy *g*). Thank you so much for sharing – I always love seeing historical popular culture.