Back in November I was invited by the Joseph Priestley Society to write a blog about my participation in the centennial celebrations of the unveiling of the statue of Joseph Priestley in the town of his birth, Birstall. The publication of the article on the website was delayed by a house move, but it appeared on the Joseph Priestley Society blog on 21st April 2013. Sadly the server for their website http://www.priestleysociety.net has been down recently so here is the article in full.
Frances Darlington, Sculptor 1880-1940, a little about my research.
On 14th October this year Birstall celebrated the centenary of the unveiling of its Joseph Priestley statue. Two outstanding facts are still remarkable about the statues provenance, firstly it was commissioned with funds raised by public subscription, and secondly it was made at the beginning of the twentieth century by a woman. Frances Darlington (1880 – 1940), was a local artist, then in her early thirties, who had trained at the Slade School of Art in London. Frances was my Grandmother’s aunt, and as a result I have been fascinated with her since I was a child and have been trying to research her life and work since I was seventeen! Twenty three years later I am close to publishing a biography. I was kindly invited by the Joseph Priestley Society and the Rotary Club of Birstall Luddites to lay a wreath at the foot of the statue. It was certainly a very significant moment for me as I did so and the band struck up Auld Lang Syne as they had done one hundred years previously, when Frances was there in person to accept a bunch of flowers.
As a seventeen year old devotee of Frances Darlington in 1989 I visited The Last Romantics exhibition at the Barbican in London, a fairly comprehensive show of late Victorian art, and filled with Frances’ London contemporaries where I was sure she would have some representation. While there were many comparable works there was no sign of Frances’ work. It was at this point that I gravely realised that if I was to know or tell her story I would have to do all the research myself. When I took a year out from my degree at Glasgow University in 1991, I set about the research again. Before the advent of the Internet and email I wrote several letters to institutions where there might have been some connection but hit so many dead ends that I gave up. Over the years clues would bubble to the surface and produce a new isolated set of facts, but never enough to collate a life story. Several years later in 2001 my grandmother telephoned me in a somewhat excited state: the Yorkshire Post had published an article with a plea from the Henry Moore Institute for further information on Frances Darlington. It is an odd feeling, like having the rug swept from beneath your feet, but of course my grandmother could only supply what we already knew. Collaboration followed and with it a greater emergence of facts. We had a selection of Frances’ own photographs of her work and we shared these with the curators from the Henry Moore Institute and with the Mercer Art Gallery where it was decided an exhibition of Frances’ work would be held from November 2003 to January 2004. It was an exhilarating time of discovery. The meetings were a great buzz, where Matthew Withey would share his new findings and we would piece them together with what we knew and had gleaned from the family correspondence. Together we collated a mini biography. Most exciting of all was the day when Matthew and the vicar of St. Wilfrid’s Church Harrogate found a lost piece of her work in the crypt there: The Madonna Della Rosa. It was expertly cleaned by the restorers at the Henry Moore Institute and included in the exhibition. A few other works were traced and included in the show and my grandmother lent the few pieces she owned as well as her selection of photographs.
Incredibly, I did not know of the existence the Birstall statue of Joseph Priestley until the opening night of the exhibition on 8th November 2003. Frances’ own photograph of the work had become separated from the few we had kept together and was not found until after the show. Matthew did not mention it, so it was an enormous surprise to find that Frances had undertaken such an important commission. If my Grandmother or her twin ever knew about it they had forgotten; they would have been only 18 months old when it was unveiled in 1912.
It was automatically a priority to drive to Birstall and to see this statue in reality. I remember the day vividly, it was sunny and frosty and I turned the car around the market place, catching a glimpse of the top of the statues head. Almost as though invited, a parking space appeared immediately and I slipped the car into it, almost on autopilot, getting out in something of an excited daze. I stood there with a lump in my throat and in complete awe of this artist who I had been looking for, for so many years. I have been back to Birstall several times to see the statue, quietly and anonymously, but inwardly swelling with pride. If you can understand my emotions on that occasion, then my emotions at laying a wreath at the centenary celebrations this year might be guessed at!!
Recent Research / The Priestley Statues / Composition
Recently I have been in touch with the archivists at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania which curiously has links with both the Priestley family and the Darlington family. They hold a large bequest of Priestley artefacts donated by a Mrs Temple Fay, a descendent of Joseph Priestley; they also hold another bequest from Emory McClintock, an American actuary and one time president of the American Maths Association. McClintock was married to Zoë Darlington, Frances’s aunt, while he was American Consul at Bradford in 1868. On contacting Dickinson College to find out about Emory and Zoë McClintock I was surprised to learn that they held work by Frances. They subsequently sent me images of two Priestley statues by Frances Darlington and a large sketch. One of the images represents the bronze that is held at the college; the other, a sepia photograph is thought to show a marble version. Initially I thought these pieces must have come to the college via the McClintock bequest but they actually came to be there through the Temple Fay bequest. In tracking down how the Birstall commission came to Frances I found out that one of the main subscribers to the statue, John William Priestley, lived in 1912 in Kent Road, Harrogate, which is where Frances and her mother were also living at that time, and where Frances’ mother died in 1914. J.W. Priestley had a daughter, Ruth Eva, who was an exact contemporary of Frances, so it is possible that this is how the connection was made, and how the family came to know of Frances’s skill as a sculptor.
Photograph of the marble version of the Joseph Priestley statue held by Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, USA
As none of the works by Frances Darlington at Dickinson College are dated it is hard to tell whether these preceded the Birstall statue and whether Frances’s ideas developed from these works. It is possible that the family wanted their own statue following the unveiling in 1912. By this time Frances had already sold work to public collections such as the Little Sea Maiden in Leeds City art gallery (1906), and was in the process of producing the relief sculpture panels for the Stations of the Cross, a collaboration with the architect Temple Moore and his son at St. Wilfrid’s Church in nearby Duchy Lane Harrogate. As early as 1901 Frances had won the commission for the Diamond Jubilee statue of Queen Victoria in Morley, not very far away from Birstall, so the subscribers would have been able to see her monumental work at first hand quite easily. It is not clear how Frances won this commission but the whole project which had begun in 1896 with a fund to purchase a work of art to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was organised by a body of women, wives of the Mayor and Councillors. These fine ladies organised the subscription fund, as they also did for the Royal funeral decorations in 1901. According to the Morley Town Council minutes Frances herself made the offer to do the work and the council agreed. It is perhaps likely that as a young woman freshly graduated from art school that Frances asked for less money for her work than her male counterparts; and this fitted the budget stipulated by the council. It is also possible that this financial element might have been a factor of consideration in the publicly funded Birstall statue.
One researcher has claimed that Frances copied the statue in City Square, Leeds. There are similarities, particularly in the head; but the genius of Frances’s composition comes in a subtle use of symbolism and intuitive poise. Whereas Alfred Drury had his Priestley statue holding a magnifying glass to a pestle and mortar, Frances chooses a candle and a beaker. When I was reading up on Priestley before the centenary celebrations, one thing leapt out at me, something that I am sure Frances would have seized upon too, and this was the way Priestley tried to align his theology with his scientific theory. Frances was a devout Christian. Much of her work is church decoration and statuary. Like many of her contemporaries who were working in the wake of the last of the Pre Raphaelite influence, Frances consistently used symbolism in her work. This might be seen in her Stations of the Cross where a robin, a symbol of resurrection is perched upon the cross, or in her statue of the Christ Child (produced by the S.P.C.K. as a statuette) which opens its arms at once to embrace and to enact and anticipate the Cross.While simultaneously using the candle and beaker to announce Priestley’s most famous scientific discovery, Oxygen, Frances is also using it to demonstrate his balance between Faith and Discovery. The candle is a timeless symbol of Christian faith and light; while the beaker, might be seen as emblematic of science, as a receptacle of containment and analysis, discovery and revelation. Rather poetically Frances has posed Priestley at a point of thoughtful hesitation at the prospect of one extinguishing the other.