c1876, Lady Dorothy Nevill Letter from Harrison Weir

MUSEUMFACTFILE
ClassificationEphemera
CategoryLetters
ArtifactOriginal Letter from Harrison Weir to Lady Dorothy Nevill.
Datecirca 1876
ConnectionHarrison Weir - Illustrator/Author/Cat Judge
Lady Dorothy Nevill - Socialite/Siamese Enthusiast/Cat Judge
CollectionThe Harrison Weir Collection
DescriptionSigned, undated letter in the hand of Harrison Weir, written from his London residence at 9 Lyndhurst Rd, Peckham, SE; describing what he overheard said about himself on a return train journey between Petersfield (near 'Dangstein') and his country home in Kent.
Brief HistoryContent published by Thomas Nelson & Sons in 1906, in 'Reminiscences' (A Memoir of Lady Dorothy Nevill), after the death of Harrison Weir.
AcquisitionPurchased for The Harrison Weir Collection, 2015.

Letter, in Harrison Weir's handwriting,
to Lady Nevill, circa 1876.
Courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection

Historical Background

Harrison William Weir and Lady Dorothy Nevill, (nee Dorothy Walpole) were contemporaries who shared a common interest for things botanical, ornithological and feline. They probably met quite early on, when the newly married and compulsively articulate Lady Nevill attended some of the track meets frequented by her husband and cousin, Reginald Nevill (the heir of his uncle Edward Walpole), and Dorothy's father, Horatio, (another Walpole), and the 3rd Earl of Orford. Dorothy was herself, not particularly a fan of racing, once describing it 'the treacherous quicksand which is euphemistically known under the name of 'The Turf'1. The Earl, was in the habit of betting and losing large, but although Dorothy's husband Reginald also owned racehorses and was for a time associated with the Earl 'on the turf', he did not share in the Earl's fondness of betting, nor did he injure his fortune by it.

Weir, of course, attended specific events on the racing calendar as an artist/reporter, working on behalf of the Illustrated London News, accompanied no doubt by some of his own 'in-laws', being married as he was, to the eldest daughter of the famous painter of race horses, John Frederick Herring Senior. Herring, was similarly regularly expected to record the likenesses of the winning horses for a variety of sporting publications; and was followed in this, by at least two of his sons, one as a painter and the other as an illustrator for periodicals.

Lady Dorothy Nevill, in 1865
Courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection

Joint Interests

The Nevill's lived for a time on a large estate called 'Dangstein' near Petersfield in Kent, where for over 25 years, Lady Dorothy established and cultivated an enormous garden comprised of many Exotic species of plants. Her very considerable efforts in this regard had garnered a reputation for 'Dangstein' that almost rivalled that of 'Kew Gardens' in London. Dorothy was, in fact, a rare commodity in her day and age, being aristocrat by birth, but more importantly a woman active in a man's world, interested in the endeavours of naturalists and in the sciences. She could count among her many friends the botanists, Sir William Hooker, and his son, Joseph Hooker, (later Sir Joseph) as well as the eminent naturalist Mr. Charles Darwin. At the suggestion of Sir William Hooker, she had assisted Darwin from time to time, by providing him with rare examples of orchids for his studies and observations in relation to his book on The Fertilisation of Orchids (1862); which, 'had provided him with one of the finest test cases for the theory of evolution'2.

Weir had a connection to Darwin as well, through the former's expertise with Pigeons, and had assisted both Lady Dorothy and Darwin by supplying them both with Pigeons on separate occasions; Lady Dorothy keeping them for her gardens and for social entertainment reasons, and Dr. Darwin when seeking stock for his experiments in breeding them and studying factors related to inheritance.

All three were destined to share another common interest when Lady Dorothy obtained her first Siamese cats through the efforts of Mr. R. Herbert of the Colonial Office interceding with the Palace at Bangkok. Weir had visited and seen the cats, probably as early as the late 1860's and when he later formulated his plans around the first Crystal Palace Cat Shows in 1871 and 1872, he actively involved Lady Dorothy, who, along with her relative the Hon. Mrs. Henry Walpole, officiated as Judges at the Second Crystal Palace Cat Show of December 1871. Lady Dorothy also successfully exhibited one of her Siamese, a female named 'Poodles' at the May 1872 Crystal Palace Cat Show. In 1875, she and Darwin acted as Patrons to a Cat Show, and Darwin showed considerable interest in the inheritance of 'polydactyly' in cats, which were known to have passed on this trait to their progeny.

Of Pigeons and Cats

In her memoirs, published in Reminiscences in 1906, Dorothy relates a humorous anecdote with regard to Weir, and the pigeons she had obtained from him:

"Mr. Harrison Weir, besides being an excellent artist, possessed a very considerable knowledge of natural history. The keeping of pigeons was one of his special hobbies. He once gave me some, but carelessly enough, after confiding them to the charge of the head gardener, I paid little further attention to them. A week or so later Mr. Harrison Weir came to pay us a visit, and on his arrival enquired: 'Well, how are the pigeons I sent you?' 'Quite well' said I, 'and as happy as the day is long.' To which he rejoined, "I know they are, for three days ago they all came back to their old home in my garden, and have remained there ever since.' "

Likewise, she mentioned his ability as an artist which she clearly admired, and an instance when he had drawn (or painted) her cats:

"Mr. Weir made the most delightful sepia sketches, and amongst my treasures I especially value the portrait of a lovely Siamese cat which he painted for me. He was also a proficient in the art of portraying wild Nature, whilst in sketching birds his talent has never since been equalled."

The Letter from Harrison Weir

It is clear from the record of Weir's correspondence, held in The Harrison Weir Collection, that the two friends corresponded frequently. Both were avid letter-writers. But the letter which is the subject of this article is especially notable, as it records a small but special and extremely meaningful event in the life of Harrison Weir; so much so, that he felt compelled to immediately relate the specifics of it to Lady Dorothy. She, having kept the letter for at least 30 years, then included it in her memoirs.

Original Letter in the hand of Harrison Weir, to Lady Dorothy Nevill. c.1876
Courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection

The following is her introduction, and full transcript of that correspondence:

"At Dangstein, I used to keep a good many pets, the memory of which is still preserved, owing to the genius of the late Mr. Harrison Weir, who used frequently to come down to us - never perhaps, was anyone so devoted to the animal creation as he. The pleasant little incident described below, occurred many years ago; even then it will be observed that the artist was in feeble health, though, contrary to his expectations, he lived for many years after the letter was written, dying, indeed, but quite recently:

"MY DEAR LADY DOROTHY NEVILL,
'Thank you for your letter. My daughter never looked in the pocket of my portmanteau; she has now, and all is right. I am so sorry to have troubled you. I am a little better, but still very unwell and weak. I hope that Mr. Nevill continues to improve in health, and that you are well. When I am well enough, I shall look in for a chat.
'I must tell you of a little incident which occurred to me when returning to Kent from Dangstein. For years, as I told you, people had told me of the good my work had done and was doing, but I could never learn it in any other way, excepting by the publisher being well satisfied etc. But the other day, when travelling, two gentlemen were talking in the compartment where I was sitting; one had the Animal World. Presently he said, "This is doing good, and more than the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals." "Well," said the other, "I think the love of, and kindness to, animals has much increased of late years, and I believe it is entirely due to one man, a man by the name of Harrison Weir, who has done it all by his pen and pencil." "There I quite agree with you," said the other. "It is wonderful the good this man has done," etc.
'You may guess how I felt as I sat in my corner. I never, never felt so proud, and never, never so happy before. Do you know I thought I should have cried I felt so full of joy, as it was such an un-called for confirmation of what I had worked for night and day for more than thirty years. But I am afraid that my work is nearly ended (I hope not); I have only been able to work two days since I left you, and this in much pain and suffering.
'With sincere regards to yourself and Mr. Nevill, believe me, my dear Lady Dorothy Nevill. Yours very truly,
'(Signed) HARRISON WEIR.'

As can be easily understood from reading the above, the affirmations overheard by Weir, were made freely and willingly by the gentlemen on the train, and were as Weir acknowledged, an unexpected confirmation of everything that he had set out to humbly achieve, 'by the power of his pencil'.

Above left: Harrison Weir, a photo taken circa 1905 and appearing in his obituary, published in the 'Gardener's Chronicle', in 1906.
Above right: Lady Dorothy Nevill, in a photo taken to celebrate her 80th birthday in 1906, and to promote her forthcoming book 'Reminiscences', in which was featured the letter from Harrison Weir.
Courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection

In Summary

In truth, Weir's bird and animal illustrations influenced at least three generations of Victorian children, all of whom had grown up with his visual anecdotes about the ethical treatment and sagacity of birds and animals. Even after his death in 1906, his drawings were still being regularly republished in journals and children's books for another 6 to 8 years. Through his art and his writing; his contribution to the cause of animal welfare has been immeasurable, and notable in that he was a clear force for societal change, both during and beyond his own lifetime.

References

  1. Reminiscences (1906) by Lady Dorothy Nevill.
  2. Exotic Groves (1984) by Guy Nevill.
  3. Under Five Reigns (1910) by Lady Dorothy Nevill.(Photo)
  4. 'Original Letter' images, courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection.
  5. Our Cats (1889), by Harrison Weir.
  6. The Daily News, December 2nd, 1871Dec 1871.(Hon. Mrs Henry Walpole)
  7. The Gardeners Chronicle (1906) Obituary.(Photo)
  8. The Weekly News (1906) Photo of Lady Dorothy Nevill, by Willoughby.
  9. Text John Smithson, 2018


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