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.