A heroine eclipsed by tragedy

Christiana Herringham and the Edwardian Art Scene
February 14, 1997

An expert on E. M. Forster, Edwardian culture and Anglo-Indian cultural relations, Mary Lago brings to Christiana Herringham and the Edwardian Art Scene scholarship of a calibre and commitment rarely devoted to the exhumation of long-forgotten minor figures. The result is both a portrait of a woman of courage, sensitivity and integrity and a richly documented study of the late Victorian and Edwardian art world, offering a new perspective on contemporary issues ranging from the marginalisation of women to imperialist attitudes to Indian art.

Christiana Herringham (1852-1929) influenced the art world almost invisibly, but in ways which are still felt today. Her most enduring legacy is the National Art Collections Fund, which she provided the money to launch in 1903 to help preserve Britain's artistic heritage at a time when works in private collections were rapidly disappearing overseas. She served as the only woman on the NACF's first executive committee, struggling with her friend Roger Fry to preserve its nonelitist principles as the titled, moneyed patriarchy threatened to take over.

As an artist, she dedicated herself to the revival of tempera painting, translating Cennino Cennini's 1390 treatise Il libro dell' arte o trattato della pittura in 1899 and founding the Society of Painters in Tempera in 1901. The expertise she gained copying quattrocento paintings in Florence and London equipped her for what would be the great adventure - and the mysterious, eclipsing tragedy - of her life. On a visit to India in 1906, she made an arduous trip to the Ajanta caves in the Deccan. The partly frescoed rock-cut Buddhist temples and meditation halls, abandoned to the dark and damp in the 7th century, had been rediscovered by British soldiers hunting tiger in 1819. By 1906 the wall paintings had deteriorated so badly that Herringham decided to copy the surviving paintings. She spent the winters of 1909-10 and 1910-11 with a team of English and Indian artists peering through the smoky light of candles and oil lamps amid the smell of bat dung to make copies of what slowly revealed themselves as one of the glories of world art. But as an exhibition of the copies opened at the Crystal Palace in June 1911, Herringham was admitted to an asylum and spent the rest of her life in mental institutions, haunted by guilt and fear for having intruded on the sacred realm of Ajanta.

A remarkable story, and one which may remind readers of another tale of Englishwomen and Indian caves. The persuasive case Lago makes for Herringham as a major source for Mrs Moore in Forster's A Passage to India is just one more reason to read this admirable biography, which offers new and valuable insights into this fascinating period in British and Anglo-Indian cultural history.

John Hatcher is associate professor of English, Fukuoka University, Japan.

Christiana Herringham and the Edwardian Art Scene

Author - Mary Lago
ISBN - 0 85331 680 5
Publisher - Lund Humphries
Price - £25.00
Pages - 340

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