c1876, Lady Dorothy Nevill Letter from Harrison Weir
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.
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:
Likewise, she mentioned his ability as an artist which she clearly admired, and an instance when he had drawn (or painted) her cats:
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.
The following is her introduction, and full transcript of that correspondence:
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'.
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.
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