A Frances Darlington Mystery for the Platinum Jubilee

What seems like aeons ago now, just before the U.K. and the rest of the world was plunged into the darkest days of lockdown and the pandemic, I sent a copy of my biography of Frances Darlington to HM. the Queen. Among other things, the book features Darlington’s relief sculptures for St. Wilfrid’s Church in Harrogate, which is situated on Crown land on Duchy Road which being situated in North Yorkshire is, perhaps controversially, part of the Duchy of Lancaster! Darlington’s works in St. Wilfrid’s were part of a collaboration with the architect Temple Moore are integral to the overall architectural theme.

I received a lovely letter back and some time later, another communication from Jonathan Marsden, who as curator of sculpture at the Royal Collections was compiling a catalogue of sculpture in the collection. Jonathan sent me an image of a piece that I had never seen before, a relief panel by Frances Darlington made in 1926 to commemorate the birth of a daughter to the then Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) with the tiny princess growing up to be H.M. Queen Elizabeth whose Platinum Jubilee I have the pleasure of celebrating in writing this post. 

Royal Collection Trust copyright 2022 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 

The arrival of this communication was quite momentous for me because, as those who are familiar with my work will know, I have been attempting to research the life of Frances Darlington since I was seventeen and this has even affected my own work as an artist in rather a profound way. Darlington, known affectionately as Auntie Dickie within the family was my grandmother’s aunt and my research stemmed from very little information, a handful of letters and postcards, disconnected old photographs (and negatives) and a few pieces of her work still owned by the family. From this and with the help of extra research collaboration with Matthew Withey at the Henry Moore Institute in 2001-3 (towards an exhibition of Darlington’s work at The Mercer Gallery, Harrogate 2003-4) which provided a catalyst for the ensuing research, I’ve amassed a large body of research material and published two editions of her biography in 2013 and 2016 (revised paperback and ebook). As I have written in my book, it is evident from various sources that Darlington had a deep regard for the tradition and duty of monarchy, but up to this moment the only royal portrait that I knew of was her 1901 memorial bust of Queen Victoria, unveiled when Darlington was only twenty-two.

Marble bust of Queen Victoria, Morley Town Hall by Frances Darlington 1902.

The email also arrived at a time when I was feeling the loss of my father quite deeply (he had died of Covid-19 in April that year) and so embodied a type of light and hope that I have come to associate with H.M. This new discovery warranted new research which I have done when I have been able to amidst all my other commitments. There is nothing like new information to inspire energy in a research project!

According to the Jonathan Marsden, the relief panel is thought to have been present to HM the Queen Mother, but the identity of the donor is not known. That there should be no obvious record perhaps points to the informality and personal nature of the gift and the sentimental heart-shaped composition surely points to something deeply personal. As there was a much greater deference towards the royal family in the past, it seems unlikely to be the unsolicited gift of a stranger.

1926 was the year that Frances Darlington moved from her riverside cottage in Knaresborough to a studio flat in London. (She is listed in trade directories at the beginning of the year in Knaresborough and on the electoral roll in London by the beginning of the next year). So at the time of the Queen’s birth in April, it is more likely that Darlington still lived in Knaresborough. Knaresborough is very close to Goldsborough Hall, where the Duke of York’s sister, Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, (who had married Viscount Lascelles, the eldest son of the Earl of Harewood) lived. (As was traditional, the eldest son of. the Earl of Harewood lived at Goldsborough Hall). Diane Howse, Lady Harewood put me in touch with the curators at Harewood House where the private archive of Princess Mary is held, but as yet no clue has been found. Despite this, it still seems to be the most plausible connection. According to the curators at Harewood, Princess Mary and her husband were keen patrons of the arts and attended many local exhibitions and events, so it seems likely that they would be familiar with Darlington’s public works in the locality, including the seventy-foot frieze in the foyer of Harrogate Theatre unveiled just a few years earlier c. 1923-4. It is worth noting that Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was friends with Princess Mary and was her bridesmaid before she married Princess Mary’s sister Prince Albert, later George VI.

As this route of research failed to yield any truths, I began to wonder about other possibilities, other friends of the late Queen Mother who might have commissioned the piece for her. This led me to look at the friendship with the Vyner family who lived at Fountains Hall, Studley Royal – Fountains Abbey was also a favourite haunt of the Darlington family.

I must at this point thank Richard Compton at Newby Hall for his help with this line of research, in breaking the news to me about the devastating fire that destroyed most of the evidence of the Vyner family as well as for pointing me to the West Yorkshire Archive where the remainder of the family papers are held. Huge thanks to the amazing West Yorkshire Archive staff who helped look through the holdings remotely so as to also eliminate this line of enquiry. Who knows how many other clues to this and other branches of research were lost in this fire.

My strategy with researching and writing the biography was ‘a cup half full’ approach and to focus upon what I did know, and what I might reason from it. What we do know is that at the time Frances Darlington lived at St. Francis Cottage, Knaresborough, a town with a large artist community. We also know that it is in close proximity to Goldsborough Hall where a close friend of the Queen Mother, who was also a patron of the arts and was also, in her patronage of the Girl Guides, something of a feminist, lived and may have looked to patronise the work of a fairly prominent (then) female artist.

It seems highly unlikely that the Royal family ever sat for this piece and there is evidence that Darlington frequently worked from photographs when a live model was not available. In comparing some of the press photographs released upon the birth of Princess Elizabeth with the sculptural figures it is easy to see the resemblance may have been slightly altered for the purposes of the relief panel. However, if the commission did originate from within the family it is possible that Frances Darlington had access to other photographs that were not released to the press.

There are so many other tangental connections which may yet prove to be the source of the commission. Darlington’s family were mainly solicitors and consuls involved in international diplomacy but as yet the Royal Archive has not found any such connection with the piece.

As such, the mystery thickens but experience has taught me to be patient, alert and never to leave any stone unturned as the tiniest clue can be a key to a palace of information! My heartfelt thanks go out to all involved in getting this image to me – I hope to find something more soon and to eventually find a publisher willing to take a revised edition of the biography into the mainstream.

Wishing everyone, and especially Her Majesty the Queen a very HAPPY PLATINUM JUBILEE!

Finding Frances – the biography of Frances Darlington (1880-1940) available as a print-to-order paperback via Blurb or as an ebook on Apple Books.

My recent paper on Frances Darlington’s female networks available on the Royal Society of Sculptors’ Vimeo channel here.

Frances Darlington c. 1900

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