Thursday 31 March 2022

John Galt's Women - Countess of Blessington

Greenock author John Galt (1779-1839) met Marguerite, Countess of Blessington through Lord Byron.  Galt had met Byron on his travels on the continent in 1809 and had written his biography - The Life of Lord Byron.  Galt often attended the salon in the London home of the Blessingtons along with many literary figures of the day.  Galt and Marguerite became friends and kept up a correspondence that lasted until his death in Greenock in 1839.  But who was Marguerite, Countess Blessington whom Galt once referred to as “the most gorgeous Lady Blessington”?  (As she was referred to by admirer Dr Samuel Parr.)

Countess Blessington

Marguerite was born Margaret (Sally) Power in Clonmel, Tipperary in Ireland in 1789.  Her father was a hard living man of the minor local gentry.  He kept company with many of the local army officers and was a drunk and often in debt.  He had no scruples in accepting money in exchange for his daughter.  So when Margaret was just 15 she was married off to Captain Maurice Farmer of the 47th Regiment of Foot who was stationed near their home.  Three difficult and violent months later Margaret had the courage to leave her husband and return home.  A short time later she met another English officer, Captain Thomas Jenkins, who was a very different sort of man.  She returned with him to his family home in Hampshire Not much seems to be known about her life there.

It was here that she met Charles John Gardiner, Viscount Mountjoy, later created Earl of Blessington, a widower with four children (two legitimate).  He fell in love with Margaret and paid Jenkins off.  The couple travelled to London where he set Margaret up in a house in Manchester Square.  Fortunately for the couple, Margaret’s husband (Farmer) died in debtors prison in 1818 leaving Margaret free to marry.  She became Countess Blessington and changed her name to Marguerite with a home in St James Square.  It was here that the couple lavishly entertained and where she met John Galt.

John Galt by Count D'Orsay

Count Blessington’s owned the Mountjoy Forest Estate in County Tyrone, but Marguerite had no wish to return to Ireland.  In fact Galt wrote to her on this subject from Liverpool in July 1822.  He agrees with her decision and writes:

“… I address you more as an intellect than a lady, and the interest I take in all that concerns my friends must be accepted as the only excuse I can offer for the freedom.” 

In 1822 the Blessingtons set off on an expensively lavish grand tour of France and Italy.  Part of their entourage was a private chef and mobile kitchen.  They were joined by the young, handsome Frenchman, Alfred Count D’Orsay who had been a great favourite with London society and reputed to be Marguerite’s lover.  (Some speculated that he was the Count’s lover).  At Genoa they met with Lord Byron who seemed to have taken to Marguerite.  (She would later, like Galt, write a book about him.)  However, others she met thought her “vulgar”.  They travelled widely and also spent time in Naples and Florence.  Questions were asked about d’Orsay’s inclusion with the party and it was explained that he was to marry Count Blessington’s fifteen year old daughter, Harriet Gardiner, whom he had never met.  However, a large financial settlement eased the bargain, and the couple were married in Naples in 1827 thus d’Orsay became Blessington’s heir as he had no sons.  The travellers moved to Paris where Count Blessington died of a stroke in 1829.

Marguerite returned to London but her reputation had preceded her, but she managed to recreate her “salon” attracting many famous persons of the day although she was largely shunned by society ladies.  In 1835, already unwell, Galt wrote to her from Greenock: 

I shall soon have occasion to send your Ladyship my little work, which is now making up, for my unfortunate restlessness of mind must have something to do, and I can do nothing that is not sedentary, for to add to the trouble of entire lameness, my memory is often very ineffectual, and things of the nature of amusements more than business must, I fear, even with convalescence, be my occupation for the remainder of my life, if able to attend to them.”  Galt died in 1839.

Count D'Orsay

D’Orsay and Harriet’s marriage broke down in 1838 and, despite a large settlement payment from Harriet (in order that he would have no claim on the Blessington estate), financial crisis loomed.  D’Orsay continued to live with Marguerite at Semour Place and later at Gore House (now the site of the Albert Hall) in London.  Many of the literary giants of the time were attracted to her home.

Charles Dickens 1842

Despite financial troubles, Marguerite was a resilient woman, and she started writing as a means of earning badly needed money.  She wrote novels and contributed to many of the monthly magazines which were popular at the time.  She contributed to Charles Dickens, Daily News

Daily News 1847
In 1849 D’Orsay, badly in debt, left for France.  The contents of Marguerite’s home were sold to pay off her debts.  She left for France to join D’Orsay.  She died in Paris a few months later in 1849.  Her obituary states -

Her celebrity and vogue among men of talent arose primarily from her beauty, wit, conversational powers, and highly cultivated mind.  But had she possessed no personal attractions … her published works alone would have attracted admirers around her, and would have established her claim to be ranked with the most noteworthy of her contemporaries.

Tomb of Lady Blessington and Count D'Orsay, Chambourcy, France

D’Orsay took to painting portraits.  He died in 1852 and was interred alongside Marguerite in Chambourcy in the grey stone tomb he designed for her.

Marguerite was a strong woman who seemed not to care about what society thought of her.  She forged her own path through society and won the admiration of not just John Galt but many of the important people of her day.

Wednesday 30 March 2022

Greenock Waterfront Art - Ebb & Flow

On the riverside path at Greenock's Waterfront Leisure Complex is this lovely seating area surrounding a sculpture of a little seal.  It is called "Ebb & Flow" and is by Alan Potter in conjunction with RIG Arts.

It is a lovely installation on a popular walking and cycle route along the riverbank.  You can sit here and look out over the River Clyde watching the ships and tugs go by.  It was a bit hazy this morning when I took these photographs.  Normally you can see across the river to Helensburgh.

The work features mosaics of some of the local riverlife in beautiful oak benches.

You can read more about the installation on the information board.

So, if you are heading for the Greenock's Beacon Arts Centre or the Waterfront Leisure Complex then it is well worth taking some time out to view "Ebb & Flow" and some of the other interesting art installations that line the pathway between them.

Saturday 26 March 2022

Mysteries at the McLean Museum - the Wooden Spoon

The McLean Museum, Watt Institute, Kelly Street, Greenock has an exhibit about Greenock's sugar trade.  In it is this unusual wooden spoon.  Unusual in the fact that it has lots of little metal rings around the handle and a little metal discs attached.  What is it doing there?  There was no card to explain why it is in this exhibit.  

Of course the simple explanation could be that wooden spoons are used a lot in cooking and baking and thus its significance in a exhibit case dedicated to Greenock's sugar trade.   But why the rings?

Most of us will know that winning a wooden spoon means that an individual or team has come last in a competition.  So it can be inferred that the names on the metal rings must be the names of the losers in a competition.  The spoon reads "Greenock Sugar Trade Golf Club Inst. 1919" on the bowl of the spoon.  So, those with good eyesight can then understand what this unusual item is all about.  There was nothing explaining this to the viewing public.  Many youngsters will not know what winning a wooden spoon means and that this is really a bit of fun (unless you take your golf really seriously!).  

There were no cards to explain what any of the individual exhibits in this case are.  The large poster lists Sugar, Ships and Slavery as being "The Story of Inverclyde".   Ah, so that explains the items in the display!?

Enlarged, the poster goes on to explain (I think) the link between Greenock and Port Glasgow's coats of arms and "supplying the colonies".  Herring was a major export from the area.  Long before Greenock became involved with the Atlantic trade, dried fish were exported from here to many parts of Europe, especially Roman Catholic countries which advocated the eating of fish on Fridays and holy days.  Port Glasgow's coat of arms refers to the North American timber trade and was only adopted in the mid to late 19th century, long after slavery had been abolished.  Also interesting to see that Port Glasgow was "allowed to digress into shipbuilding" after the River Clyde was deepened!

It is flattering to think that the staff at the McLean Museum credit us all with having the intelligence to work out what everything in the exhibit is - after all there is a notice stating that it is about Greenock and sugar.  I can just hear children ask - "What are those big white triangle things?  What kind of bug is that and what has it got to do with sugar?  What are those tins and what's their connection to Greenock?  What is that "Target Zero" notice all about?  Who were Tate & Lyle?"  How are children - let alone visitors from out of the area or overseas -supposed to make sense of all this? 

A small notice in the case (in very small print) draws attention to an exhibition named "Remembering Sugaropolis" - online teaching and learning activities.  (No explanation of "Sugaropolis" the name given to Greenock at the height of its sugar refining industry.  How are people supposed to link Greenock/Sugaropolis?)  If you happen to have your phone or tablet handy (and have the time to listen) then you can go online and find out about some of the items in this case.  It links to a YouTube "Curating Objects" video in which an academic lists some of the items in the exhibit and explains "what is involved in writing a display label for an object in a museum collection"!  Oh the irony!

The cruise ship season is underway and many visitors will be arriving in Greenock over the summer.  I hope they are not too confused by the Mysteries at the McLean!  Check out another mystery - The Children of Greenock.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

The Loss of the Brig Rival - over 450 lives lost

On 22 November 1832 the brig Rival (350 tons) with a crew of 17 and over 450 passengers left Greenock en route to Oporto in Portugal.  The ship was under the command of Captain William Wallace of St Andrews  and was owned by his brother.  Just a few days later, at the end of November 1832, the ship was wrecked in a storm on the Skerd Rocks in Galway, west coast of Ireland.  There were no survivors.

A few bodies washed ashore and were given a decent burial.  Some items from the ship were found floating by ships sent to investigate the fate of the vessel.  Amongst these were letters to Captain Wallace from members of his family. William Wallace, about 40 years of age, was known to be an experienced mariner.  He had made several voyages to Europe and the West Indies.

Apart from the crew, the Rival had been carrying 450 volunteers to Oporto in Portugal where they were to join the forces of Dom Pedro in the fight against his brother, Dom Miguel.  The ship also carried supplies for Dom Pedro’s troops.  The volunteers had been recruited in Glasgow and other large towns in Scotland.

Dom Pedro

Dom Pedro (1798-1834) became King of Portugal in 1826 on the death of his father.  The country had been in a state of revolution for a number of years.  Although he lived in Brazil, Dom Pedro abdicated the Portuguese crown in favour of his eldest daughter – Queen Donna Maria II.  He acted as an absentee King.  His brother Dom Miguel who was declared Regent in 1828 was acclaimed King Dom Miguel I.  Several other members of Pedro’s family backed his brother Miguel.  With trouble brewing in Brazil, Dom Pedro left for Portugal to support his daughter.  Landing in France, he organised a small army of Portuguese liberals.  In 1832 they landed in Oporto.  His brother, Miguel’s troops besieged the city.  Short of money and troops, many foreign volunteers enlisted to aid Dom Pedro.  Eventually Dom Miguel was forced to abdicate and exiled.  Pedro’s daughter took her place as Queen.  Dom Pedro died in September 1834.

This was not the first batch of recruits from Scotand and the rest of Britain.  How bad must the economic situation have been in Scotland at that time when so many young men were willing to move away from homes and families to fight for a cause they probably knew nothing about.  Of course they were paid to enlist, but to take such a chance on the unknown – brave or foolhardy?

Friday 18 March 2022

Gilded Lyle Fountain

The Lyle Fountain in Cathcart Square, Greenock has been returned after having restoration work done.  Beautifully painted in black and gold, it looks fantastic!

However, although the fountain has been back for some months, there still must be some work continuing as there are some ugly barriers around the base of the fountain.  

On 1 July 1880 the Fountain was officially unveiled in a public ceremony in Cathcart Square.  The fountain and its accompanying light were gifted to the town by former Provost (1876-1879) Abram Lyle.  Abram Lyle junior did the unveiling and a silver cup filled with water from the fountain was presented to his wife (Isabella Foster).  

Photo - Greenock Burns Club

Near the end of the ceremony, the Greenock Telegraph reports that - 

    "a young man walked coolly up to the fountain and took a drink in such a self-professed fashion that no one thought of interfering until he managed his object, and he was able to say that, after Mrs Lyle jun, he was the first party to drink from the fountain.  The young fellow was quickly followed by a woman, evidently more in need of an outward than of an inward application of the water."

The inscription on the base fountain read "With Thee there is the Fountain of Life; in Thy Light shall we see Light"

Francis A Skidmore was the architect who designed the fountain.  Around the top of the fountain are the names of eighteen families who held prominence in Greenock at the time.  

Hopefully the barriers will soon be removed and the Lyle Fountain can be seen in its total beauty.

Thursday 17 March 2022

Mysteries at the McLean Museum - Children of Greenock

The McLean Museum in Kelly Street, Greenock is part of the Watt Institution.  It is a fascinating place to visit and the front of house staff are lovely and could not be more helpful.  But there are exhibits which puzzle me.  Perhaps it is taken for granted that locals know their local history and that putting description cards beside exhibits would be an insult to their intelligence.  I am not sure what the lack of information in display cases is about, but here is a glaring example.

This lovely artifact is lumped in an exhibit of shipbuilding bits and pieces at the back of the museum.  It is a tribute to the Greenock born poet William Sydney Graham.  (I've written about him before here and here.)  Entitled "The Children of Greenock" (the title of one of Graham's poems) and has lines from the poem around its edges.  

"Her window watched the shipyards sail their men away.  The sparrow sill bent grey over the struck town clocks.  Striking two towns, and fed its flocks."

It is a view of Greenock through a window with ships out on the River Clyde.

However, trying to find any information about this was just about impossible!  There was no little printed card in the display case to explain who W S Graham was or his connection to Greenock.  There was nothing to indicate who had made this work or why it was in a display about local shipbuilding.  I was curious so I asked the lovely lady at the welcome desk if she could tell me a bit more about it.  She was very helpful, but had no knowledge of the work.  She suggested that it would be detailed in their online collection.  A colleague passing by who happened to have a laptop with him was able (after a bit of a wait and after he had opened the case and checked the acquisition number on the frame) to give me details.  It was created by Michael McDonnell (1939-2022) and bought by the Museum in 2002.

Mike McDonnel was born in Greenock and died in January of this year.  He seems to have been a fascinating man and led an extremely interesting life.  He was a doctor and after many years of travel,  spent his latter years in Shetland, creating many art works there.  You must read his full obituary to appreciate what an interesting character he was.  You can also see more of his original work here.  W S Graham, a fellow Greenockian was his favourite poet and that is why he made the piece that was bought by the McLean Museum.  There are other works which he made as a tribute to Graham.  You can see them here.

So, part of the mystery is solved, but I still have a few questions.  Why is there no notice to explain who Graham was or his connection to Greenock?  Why is there no information about Mike McDonnell, the creator of this unusual work and what it represents?

One of the few notices in that actual display case.

The front of house staff at the McLean Museum are wonderful and I just wish that their lives were perhaps made easier by proper explanation of exhibits.

Interestingly, a new exhibit from the McLean's Egyptian Collection had copious printed notes about the pieces on display.  It is just a pity that the same attention to detail is not noticeable in local history exhibits.