Mrs Stirling remembered

Mrs Stirling was born in 1865 and during her near hundred year life span she saw many changes; politically, socially, and artistically. Sir John Betjeman (writer, journalist and founding member of the Victorian Society) described  her as reminiscent of Miss Haversham in Charles Dicken’s Great Expecations¸ sitting in her faded pile, surrounded by the objects of a past life. However, this isn’t the image of Mrs Stirling which I have come to know and love over my ten years as Curator here at the De Morgan Foundation.

Mrs Stirling was an ambitious writer, publishing her first book of fairy tales by the age of 25, and she went on to author more than 30 other books during her career. She was an anti-establishment thinker and member of the Rationalist Press Association. A determined advocate for women’s rights - her efforts in this regard earned her letter of thanks from Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Suffragette Movement. She was an enthusiastic historian - her move to Old Battersea House came as a result of the campaign to save the property from demolition and of course last but not least, she was a passionate collector and propagandist for her sister and brother-in-law’s work.

Unlike Miss Haversham’s cobwebbed mansion, Mrs Stirling’s home Old Battersea House was a living museum, continually full of friends and family who joined her for afternoon tea, or the visitors who regularly knocked on the door hoping for a tour of the house and collection. After her death in 1965, there were many articles in the press devoted to the much loved Battersea resident and hundreds of letters expressing sadness at her demise poured through the letter box from those who had been fortunate enough to meet her and view the collection. Even now I regularly hear from people who have fond memories of trips to visit the eccentric lady and her wonderful home; descriptions of Mrs Stirling, frail, but elegant, bedecked in jewels and vibrantly dressed in purple or red velvet dresses are now familiar stories to me.

 

Mrs Stirling’s voice is still strongly heard here at the De Morgan Foundation. The main remit of our charity is (as per her wish) the “provision and maintenance of the collection for a public audience”. Her plummy clipped Standard English pronunciation (as heard on the infamous Ken Russell documentary filmed in Old Battersea House) often reverberates through my head as I relay her anecdotes to new visitors to the collection. Mrs Stirling’s hand written catalogues which detail her collection are invaluable in tracing the provenance of the works of art and bring to life her dedication as a collector. What I often find surprising, is not the lengths to which Mrs Stirling went to purchase pieces, but that so much of her collection was donated to her by others who supported her vision to create a collection of national importance. For instance a series of Peacock and Thistle tiles were given to Mrs Stirling by a Mrs Bullivant whose husband had acquired them over a number of years from an antique dealer and a gold lustre Peacock Plate was given to her by the Earl and Countess of Bathurst. Hand written labels also adorn many of the actual objects, giving further anecdotal information – for instance on the back of a ruby lustre plate decorated with bees Mrs Stirling writes “Said to be one of the first… if not the first plate made by William De Morgan and given to his Uncle Henry Frend” and on a palate knife she inscribes in indelible ink (a curatorial no-no today) that it was given to her sister by the Royal Academician G.F. Watts.

Mrs Stirling’s visionary efforts to preserve her sister and brother-in-law’s work during the 1920s to 1960s, when appreciation of Victorian art was at an all-time low, means the nation owes her an extraordinary debt and it is a great honour to continue her legacy of preserving the collection and facilitating public access to it. 

Claire Longworth, Curator