One of the best parts of this blog for us is how we have the chance to "meet" readers around the world. Recently we were contacted by Gwen Yarker, a fellow Nerdy History Girl at heart, who is also exhibition curator of the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester.
The museum is currently hosting an exhibition of 70 extraordinary portraits called Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County. Included in the exhibition will be works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, William Hogarth, and many others. Since most of our readers (including us, alas) won't be able to travel to Dorset, Gwen generously offered to share one of the paintings from the exhibition with us.
The charming portrait, left, shows Lady Elizabeth Fox-Strangways (1773-1844), eldest daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester, standing beside her older cousin, Elizabeth Kitty Acland (1772-1813), known as Kitty. The picture is representative of the new fashion for representing children as children, informally and comfortably dressed, rather than as stiff-laced, miniature adults. They probably sat for Dorset-born artist Thomas Beach (1738-1806) in 1777, at the Ilchesters' family home Redlynch, in Somerset. During this period, the Ilchesters were caring for Kitty while her parents were away in North America.
Kitty was the only daughter of Major John Dyke Acland, 7th Baronet. (1746-1778) and Lady (Christian) Harriet Caroline Fox-Strangways Acland (1749-1815), and it is Lady Harriet who is our Intrepid Woman. Colonel Acland was a major in the 20th foot, fighting in the American War of Independence. Unwilling to be left behind in England, Lady Harriet sailed to join her husband with her mother, a valet, lady's maid, and a dog. Obviously Lady Harriet was no ordinary camp wife; as she followed her husband's expeditions, she kept a detailed diary recording her impressions of the American landscape and native customs that was later published.
But Lady Harriet is best remembered today for her role in a far more dramatic event. In October 1777, Colonel Acland was badly wounded and taken prisoner by the Americans at the second Battle of Saratoga (Bemis Heights.) At once the pregnant Lady Harriet decided to go to him. Accompanied by her maid, a military chaplain, and Acland's valet, she crossed the Hudson River in an open boat and made her way into enemy territory. While there are varying accounts of her night-time crossing, all agree that she was treated courteously by American General Horatio Gates, and permitted to join her husband in captivity to nurse him. The Aclands were released and allowed to return to England (and to their daughter Kitty) in January, 1778, with Lady Harriet still nursing her convalescing husband. Their son John was born on the voyage.
After such perilous adventure, Lady Harriet and Colonel Acland deserved a long and happy life together. Unfortunately, Colonel Acland died later in 1778 from complications after a duel – fought in defense of the American cause.
The dramatic story of Lady Harriet's loyalty and courage made her a much-praised heroine to 18th c. England. Artist Robert Pollard painted his version of her river crossing (right), which he later turned into a popular print. We're guessing that, in real life, the intrepid Lady Harriet and her little party had enough sense not to stand upright with a too-large flag in a too-small boat to challenge the enemy's armed sentries.
Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County continues through 30 April 2011. If you're fortunate enough to be able to visit, here is more information about the show. Many thanks to Gwen Yarker for all her assistance with this post!
(And as a minor note, proving once again that everything in history really is linked together: Kitty Acland married Henry George Herbert, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, in 1796. Their son, the 3rd Earl, is responsible for building the family's country house, Highclere Castle – the grand house that stars in the PBS series, Downton Abbey.)
Above left: Lady Elizabeth Theresa Fox-Strangways and Elizabeth Kitty Acland, by Thomas Beach (1738-1806) oil on canvas, 1777. Private collection. Photograph courtesy of Dorset County Museum. Above right: Lady Harriet Ackland, intaglio print, drawn & engraved by Robert Pollard, London, 1784, Library of Congress.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.