Artistic Expression

27th May 2011

The Open Garden Squares Weekend – to be held this year on 11-12 June – presents a marvellous opportunity to visit London gardens not usually open to the public, and to discover their hidden histories…

Three of the sites on the historic Canons estate in Edgware will be participating: the church of St Lawrence in Little Stanmore; the George V Memorial Garden, Canons Park; and Canons, home now of North London Collegiate School.

Here Grace Fuller reveals some of the school’s literary and artistic connections, and previews the weekend.

Frances Mary Buss, founder and first headmistress of North London Collegiate School, is well-known as a pioneer of women’s education, a woman whose belief that girls should be “trained to match their brothers” saw her brook no opposition as she set up two schools, established a teacher-training college and founded the Association of Head Mistresses. She instigated a rigorous education for her pupils, many of whom became the first students at the new Girton College, Cambridge University, at a time when degrees were not yet open to women.

Less known, perhaps, is the fact that via Miss Buss, pupils in NLCS’s earliest years had regular contact with eminent artists of the day.

Robert William Buss, her father, was a theatrical portrait painter and humorous illustrator who liked to feature his children in his work, and who was one of the school’s earliest teachers. He taught not only drawing and painting, but also science; clearly a man of great intellectual versatility. Two examples of RW Buss’s pictures hang at the school today, including The Court Martial: The Trial of the Cat that Killed the Pet Canary. The little girl sobbing at the death of her pet bird is probably young Frances Mary herself.

Buss was a prolific artist, with a vast network of connections, but he struggled to make ends meet and often had to adjust his work to satisfy the changing demands of the growing upper middle classes, who had clear views on the sort of art they wanted in their homes. Nevertheless, he exhibited 112 pictures in total, including 25 at the Royal Academy.

In 1843, he formed a sketching club that would ‘meet at each others’ residence, according to rota’. The rules stipulated that the host would propose the subject, and provide tea, coffee, paper, pencils, sepia and Indian ink and brushes. The aim was ‘to induce the facility of invention, and a ready power of sketching upon any given subject’. After two hours the results were displayed, and the evening ended with beer, bread and cheese, and a ‘jorum’ of gin.

The artists met monthly in winter, and there were penalties for non-attendance. Sketching took place in silence, followed by ‘vigorous discussion’ over the food and alcohol.

Following the suicide of Dickens’s illustrator, Robert Seymour, in 1837, RW Buss had been commissioned to illustrate an instalment of The Pickwick Papers. Buss was painting for a Royal Academy exhibition when he was asked to produce etchings for what was to become the 19th century’s most popular novel. Nervous about mastering the technique, he bought new equipment and produced several drawings, passing them for completion to an expert engraver. The quality of his original work was lost in the process, however, and only two of his drawings were selected: The Cricket Match at Dingley Dell and The Fat Boy Watching Mr Tupman and Miss Wardle in the Arbour. When the publisher decided to take the commission away from Buss, he was shocked and felt that he had been treated unfairly.

Girls in 1860s photographed by RW Buss

As Dickens’s prosperity soared, Buss’s diminished, and from 1854 his canvases were excluded from the Royal Academy. It was the school’s gain, though, as Buss then supplemented his income by teaching, preparing diagrams and models to accompany his lectures. One former pupil recalled that his chemistry series was marvellous, ‘especially for smells and explosions...’. He was also fascinated by photography, a recent invention, and, from the school’s earliest days, delighted in capturing staff, supporters, pupils and events in photographs which survive to this day in the NLCS Archive.

Despite his distress at the loss of the commission, Buss did not blame Dickens himself, and even paid tribute to Hablot Knight Browne – ‘Phiz’ – who succeeded him as illustrator. Indeed, when Buss died he was working on a portrait: A Souvenir of Dickens – later known as Dickens’ Dream. The picture pays tribute to the novelist, who is shown sitting in his study, surrounded by scenes from his books. There’s a certain poignancy in RW Buss’s modest replication of images by the illustrators who succeeded him.

Probably his most famous picture, it now hangs in the Dickens House Museum, where part of Pickwick was written.

There were still more artistic connections for the young pupils of NLCS, in the form of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (of which Dickens, as it happened, was a harsh critic). The PRB, as they signed themselves, was set up in 1848, by a group of young artists rebelling against the academic style promoted by the Royal Academy of Art and wanting to recapture the purity of painting before Raphael. Leading PRB members were William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but perhaps the greatest was John Everett Millais, who at the age of 11 years was the youngest pupil ever to join the Royal Academy school.

The PRB aimed to paint directly from nature, and to create art with a spiritual or moral message inspired by the great works of literature and the bible. Many critics attacked the movement, describing their works as ugly, crude and irreverent. On the front page of his weekly magazine Household Words, for instance, Dickens attacked Millais’ picture, Christ in the House of his Parents, which hangs today in Tate Britain. Millais shows a humble family with the near-photographic realism typical of the PRB, but Dickens describes Christ as a ‘hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand...’.

In 1880, a pupil called Mabel Heynemann was living at Myra Lodge, a boarding house for North London Collegiate School. She was a keen musician and learned the harp, which Miss Buss kept in her own drawing room. Mabel was allowed to practise there, provided she left as soon as any visitor arrived. One day a handsome man was ushered in while Mabel was practising. He asked her to play ‘Home Sweet Home’ for him while he waited to see Miss Buss, and Mabel obliged but rushed away afterwards, afraid that she would be punished. Outside, she met a teacher, who told her the visitor had been Sir John Millais, a friend of Miss Buss.

In the school’s archives is a scrapbook that belonged to Frances Mary Buss; the cuttings, exam blunders, curious advertisements, jokes, poems and quotations it contains reveal her interests and personality. On one page is stuck a copy of Millais’ A Huguenot; underneath Miss Buss has copied verses from a sentimental poem about the painting, which talk of putting duty before love:

He speaks again, in mournful tones and tender
But with unswerving faith,
‘Should not love make us braver, aye and stronger
Either for life or death?’
Then there is silence in the sunny garden
Until with faltering tone
She sobs, the while still clinging closer to him
‘Forgive me – go – my own.’

Did Miss Buss, then 53, have tender feelings for the handsome John Millais, her contemporary and friend, who could have been a frequent visitor to the family home? If so, this certainly challenges the rhyme dreamed up in the staffroom of a boys’ public school about the two pioneers, headmistresses of NLCS and Cheltenham Ladies College, who were changing women’s lives:

Miss Buss and Miss Beale / Cupid’s darts do not feel
How different from us / Miss Beale and Miss Buss.

Meanwhile Frances Mary Buss was also developing a useful friendship with the critic John Ruskin, who defended the PRB. He was a friend of Millais, who in turn caused a scandal in Victorian society by falling in love with Ruskin’s wife. Effie Ruskin left her husband to marry Millais, with whom she had a long and happy marriage and eight children.

Ruskin, for his part, published in 1864 a lecture on the role and education of women, Of Queens’ Gardens, which allowed Miss Buss to see him as a potential ally in her fight for women’s education; he echoes her philosophy in his words ‘let a girl’s education be as serious as a boy’s... You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornament and then complain of their frivolity. Give them the same advantages that you gave their brothers...’. The school’s archives contain a letter in Ruskin’s hand, expressing his support for the School. ‘I am much interested in what you tell me of the school and of the feelings with which it has been founded... I might perhaps be able to come to see what you are doing and to hear how I could promote it.’

History does not record whether the visit took place, but the school – and girls’ education – flourished. In 1940 NLCS left its Camden home and moved to Canons, where it has been ever since.

On Saturday 11 June, from 1pm to 5pm, there will be a day of family fun at Canons, home of NLCS and former home of the Duke of Chandos, as part of the London-wide Open Garden Squares Weekend.

The ‘Canons Trail’ will let visitors discover Canons and its gardens (with a gardener on hand to answer queries), and a film, The Story Of Canons, will also be showing. Free activities for children will include cookery, plant pot and windmill decoration, old fashioned games and colouring competitions. There’ll be a chance to enjoy some of the wonderful ten acres of grounds, and to sample some historic food and recipes.

For further details see www.opensquares.org or call 020 8951 6430.

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