Tuesday, 14 November 2017

My face is my fortune

First impressions are lasting. Some continue to haunt years later.  When we first viewed the house in 1991, it had been unoccupied for three years. Neglect was evident throughout the property. Even the orchard looked as though it needed a good dusting.

"My face is my fortune,Sir" she said
Stepping into the house, the first image that greeted us out of a wide black frame, was that of a brown haired blue-eyed girl, seductively outstretched with her hands behind her head. Her well-filled blouse and bodice suggestively sporting an undone lace. The caption below the picture read, “My face is my fortune, Sir”, she said.

The print in the dining room before restoration of the house.
The large image, although provocative, is really quite modest in today’s terms. As a Victorian print though, it must have raised an eyebrow or two. With a loosened bodice accompanied by that quotation, the observer could be forgiven an opinion.

By Edwin Thomas Roberts (1840-1917)
We inherited the young lady in the picture when we bought the house. From the sun room where she doubtlessly added warmth, she moved to the dining room and finally to the loft.

I was always curious about the origin of the painting and its accompanying quotation.

I was surprised to find that the quotation was from a nursery rhyme whose origins could be traced back to before 1790. I found it in the Archaeologia Cornu-Britannica; or an Essay to preserve the Ancient Cornish Language, by William Pryce.

It is listed under “A collection of Proverbs, Rhimes, &c.” as a Cornish song. There is a footnote on the page that states “ This was the first Song that ever I heard in Cornwall ; it was sung at Carclew, in 1698, by one Chygwyn, brother-in-law to Mr. John Grose, of Penzance. — (TONKIN.)”

The rhyme had several different mutations and in The Real Mother Goose (1916) it appears as follows.

"Where are you going, my pretty maid?"
"I'm going a-milking, sir," she said.
"May I go with you, my pretty maid?"
"You're kindly welcome, sir," she said.
"What is your father, my pretty maid?"
"My father's a farmer, sir," she said.
"What is your fortune, my pretty maid?"
"My face is my fortune, sir," she said.
"Then I can't marry you, my pretty maid."
"Nobody asked you, sir," she said.

It is evident then, that the girl in the print was a milk maid. The image could of course be suggestive of a rather warm day, or that she had several cows to milk.

My face is my fortune by Edwin Thomas Roberts (1840-1917), https://www.the-athenaeum.org
The artist signature in the left bottom corner
Having found the origin of the line, I started searching for the artist of the original painting. I could not find a copy of the painting online, but I could trace the artist through his signature in the print.

Full Swing by Edwin Thomas Roberts (1840-1917), https://www.the-athenaeum.org/
He was Edwin Thomas Roberts (1840-1917) the son of the artist Thomas Edward Roberts (1820-1901). He exhibited extensively in London from 1862-1886, including at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Society of British Artists. He was a quintessential genre scene artist of the Victorian period, depicting light-hearted scenes of young children and elderly figures. Source: http://www.mkgallery.org/downloads/186/galleryguidetreasuresinmk.pdf

Grist to the mill  by Edwin Thomas Roberts (1840-1917), https://www.the-athenaeum.org/
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica the subject of genre painting is invariably intimate scenes from daily life and focuses attention upon the shrewd observation of types, costumes and settings. Source:  https://www.britannica.com/art/genre-painting

He painted what might have been the same model a couple of times and there is another of his paintings called “My face is my fortune” but this one is of a milk maid with two pails of milk. Clearly he had a preference for a certain look in his models.

Unmasked by Edwin Thomas Roberts (1840-1917), https://www.the-athenaeum.org
It would have been interesting to find the identity of his muse, but I consider myself fortunate to have discovered the information that I have.

The "voorhuis" before restoration.
How the print came to be in the house, I never did discover. That it was a well-loved painting was clear, when one considers its original prominence of position. Perhaps it reminded the previous owner, at that stage an elderly widower, of someone special in his life. 

“My face is my fortune”, has been quite prophetic for the old house. Today we count ourselves fortunate to be able to live in this grand old lady and recount the bucolic scenes of the past and present through this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Well researched and fascinating insights. Congratulations. Perhaps the Victorians were not always as prudish as one tends to think!


Struggling to comment? Please let me know at thys.hattingh@gmail.com.