The Light Within Us – The background to the story
When I was a child, my maternal grandmother, born in 1892, came to live with us. I loved to look at her photograph albums and listen to her family stories. She had eight siblings and when she was nine her father died and she went to live with an uncle and aunt in Gloucestershire.
What fascinated me was how vividly her stories brought to life her siblings, school friends, cousins and ‘the Aunts’. I met some of the relatives Granny mentioned, others died before I was born, but it’s only now I appreciate that those people were actually Victorians. Victorian and Edwardian history may seem a long time ago to my grandchildren but, to me, it feels almost as if I could reach back and touch members of my family from that era.
During my lifetime, there have been great changes in society’s attitude to women. Young women today, part of the #metoo generation, may feel they are still oppressed but there is no comparison to the lives of Victorian women, who had very few rights. Most women didn’t have the vote until 1928. Spinsters, unless they’d inherited a fortune, had little social standing and a married woman’s assets became her husband’s upon their marriage. Divorce was almost unheard of and only applied to the rich and well-connected since it required an Act of Parliament. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 improved matters by allowing a woman to hold her wages and any inheritance, up to £200, independent of her husband.
Felix Slade founded the Slade School of Fine Art in 1871. He envisaged a school where fine art would be studied within a liberal arts university and the education of female students was to be on equal terms with male students. Many subsequently famous female artists passed through the Slade at this time, including Kate Greenaway and Evelyn de Morgan. Evelyn’s early work was in the popular Neo-Classical style favoured by artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton.
During Queen Victoria’s long reign, England was involved in imperialist expansion in Africa, the Orient and the Middle East. At the end of the 19th century, Britain was the foremost European power and possessed considerable material wealth. Through the varied global contacts of the Empire, there were many opportunities for intellectual and cultural enrichment. The Victorian era is noted for its romantic painting, photography and crafts.
William Morris, poet, painter and social reformer, founded the Arts and Crafts Movement. He strived to demonstrate that art should be both beautiful and functional and his ideas were strengthened by his friendships with Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their artistic influences are still to be seen today.
Artists had long been attracted to Cornwall for the dramatic landscape and the extraordinary quality of the light. In the 1880’s the railway network extended from London into Cornwall and brought artists who congregated in colonies in St Ives and Newlyn.
The Newlyn colony comprised mostly English artists. They painted outside to capture the light and, before the turn of the century, used a muted palette in a predominantly French Realist style. At this time, the mining and fishing industries were failing and many of the artists set out to capture scenes of a fast disappearing way of life for the British public. Several artists had trained in Paris and they displayed their work not only in their studios but also sought sales and recognition from exhibiting at the Royal Academy. St Ives, on the wild and rugged Atlantic coast, became popular with English and international landscape and marine artists, who regularly showed their work at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.
The Light Within Us, the first of the Spindrift trilogy, explores the lives, loves and female friendships of the fictional Spindrift artists’ community near Port Isaac on the north Cornish coast. Spindrift House was inspired by a real house but the exact location, the cove and the characters are dreamed up from my imagination.
The Light within Us is available from March 5th 2020 to buy here