Friday, 4 August 2017

Nellie Epps – Nineteenth Century Wonder Woman




In a blog post of 16th August 2016 [1], Ellen Moody describes her admiration for a small picture of Torcross in Devon painted by Ellen (Nellie) Gosse in 1879 (see above). In this black and white reproduction we see a tranquil scene at the southern end of Slapton Ley, with Widdicombe Hill rising steeply in the background; giving a very Devonian feeling of intimacy and peace. The cottages and outhouses are no longer there, but the wall adjoining the Ley remains and the profusion of wild flowers is familiar to all those who visit Torcross in spring and early summer. An image of the painting created such an impression on Ellen Moody that she "fell in love with it" as "an idyllic dream vision of the holiday place" [1].

Ellen Epps married Edmund Gosse in 1875 and the story of the Gosse family is a fascinating one [2]. Nellie's father was George Napoleon Epps, the half brother of Dr John Epps, well known for practising homeopathic medicine and a kindly man who did all he could to reduce pain during illness, George, also a doctor, assisted his half brother. Introducing us to Ellen Epps, Ann Thwaite writes [3]:

Nellie was certainly a 'new woman'.. .. She was a feminist of the most attractive sort, totally aware of her own equality with men, but not strident in making them aware of it. She had serious ambitions as a painter..

.. and was a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, her sister Laura being married to Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It was in these artistic circles that Nellie first met Edmund, who had come to London from Torquay. Edmund was the only son of Philip Henry Gosse the great Natural Historian and they were very close after father and son moved to Torquay shortly after Edmund's mother, Emily, died from breast cancer. The pain of her final months was treated by Dr John Epps, so there was a link between the two families from a much earlier time. Certainly Henry Gosse would have thought highly of members of the Epps family.

As is well known from Edmund's book Father and Son, the relationship between Henry and Edmund became difficult after the latter had moved to London. Henry had remarried and this brought nothing but happiness to the Torquay household: it was Edmund's growing disenchantment with the brand of Christianity followed avidly by Henry that was the basis of the split. That, and the discovery of a wide circle of intellectual friends, the realisation of his bisexuality, and his tendency to be snobbish. How much Henry knew of Edmund's activities is not known, but he knew enough. In Glimpses of the Wonderful [4] Ann Thwaite writes:

Edmund was now walking in 'slippery places'. 'The literary, the scientific, the artistic, the polite, the fashionable circles of London are utterly alien from Christ.' Henry Gosse was certain that Edmund knew this as well as he did.

Unfortunately, Edmund had a reputation for errors in his writing and that may apply to some of his account of life with Henry in Father and Son. That book did nothing to promote sympathy for Henry's position and it is worth noting that Edmund published it anonymously, nineteen years after his father died. Of course, Edmund had many positive sides: he was a gifted translator of works in several languages and he also promoted the work of many artists and writers; his influence being recognised by a knighthood. 

Edmund was dependent on Nellie; not just for practical matters, but also as a strong support, for she knew of his liaisons with Hamo Thornycroft the sculptor. When the two men were together, Edmund wrote to Nellie to say how much he missed her, showing the rare sense of tolerance that bound Edmund and Nellie even more closely together. Let's go back to the start of their time together and of the role Nellie played in the life of Henry Gosse.

Nellie married Edmund on 13th August 1875 in Marylebone Register Office and neither Henry nor Eliza were present at the ceremony, or at the reception held at Alma-Tadema's house. However, Henry sent melons and grapes and a generous cheque and his feelings towards Nellie were positive from the start, partly because of the Epps connection. Ann Thwaite writes [4]:

Nellie had sent Henry Gosse for his birthday 'the sweetest kindest letter possible' and a photograph of one of her own paintings. Her response to the orchids that Henry sent [he had become an "orchid fancier" and grew them] had been perfect in its detailed enthusiasm.. ..'We long to embrace her as a beloved Daughter,' the father wrote to the son. Embrace her they did that September when the newly married couple included a ten-day visit to Sandhurst [Henry's home in Torquay and where Edmund grew up] as part of their honeymoon tour..

..Both Philip Henry Gosse and Eliza became devoted to Nellie. She was all tact and sweetness, with a strong base of common-sense. There were no storms or arguments.

The warmth towards Nellie continued through all the visits with Edmund and, later, with the children. There were also trips to the shore, even when Henry was in his late seventies, and it was Nellie that nursed him through his final illness. Henry's belief in the imminence of the second coming of Christ was so strong that he was convinced that this could happen before he died and, in this way, he was not prepared for death. At the end, there was both mental anguish and all the symptoms of terminal congestive heart disease and Nellie handled this in a way that few could manage. For two days the strain became too much even for her and she needed to rest, but she returned and continued giving the love that she felt. She was a remarkable and very talented woman.

At this point, it is worth pointing out quotes made by others about Nellie's make-up and personality. Here are some given by Ann Thwaite [3]:

Mrs Gosse, a most kind, charming and courteous woman, understood perfectly her husband's character, comprehended his fiery nature, his nervous irritability, no doubt aggravated by half a century's hard work and also by the many vexations and jealousies inseparable from a literary career.. .. She tried to pad the corners for him, so that neither he nor others should be hurt. (Osbert Sitwell)

'..one of the least fussy people I had ever known. Her voice was richly subdued and reassuring, and there was a sense of security in all she did. (Siegfried Sassoon)

And this from Conversations with Sylvia (Edmund and Nellie's daughter) [5]:

Sylvia always had a close relationship with her mother Nellie: she felt she could always approach her when she wanted to know something or when she was troubled by any sort of problem. When Sylvia grew older they were to share a common interest in painting and her mother then quite understood her wish to be independent, for that was how she herself had felt when young. Again like Sylvia, her mother was extremely generous without people knowing. She would willingly give money or her services surreptitiously, but she would never serve on a committee.

Of course, Nellie lived in very different times to those of today and contemporary feminists my take a dim view of some of her traits. However, I think she was amazing and it is interesting that she kept up her painting – we know that she painted extensively on the honeymoon excursions. The little picture of Torcross dates from a later visit to Devon, and to Henry and Eliza in Torquay. Like Ellen Moody, I admire its atmosphere and yet, within two hundred meters of this scene is the English Channel, sometimes whipped up into very destructive storms [6]. The painting is very personal to Nellie and almost represents a visual metaphor of her embracing solidity, tranquillity and beauty of nature; Edmund is joined to the East and can be both stormy and destructive.

I would love to have met her and feel that she should be much better known. People like Nellie are precious.



[2] Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing [out of print!]

[3] Ann Thwaite (1984) Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. London, Secker and Warburg

[4] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, Faber and Faber.

[5] Kathleen Fisher (1975) Conversations with Sylvia: Sylvia Gosse. Painter 1881-1968. London and Edinburgh, Charles Skilton Ltd.


Friday, 21 July 2017

Two Creationists, Christian sects, and religious tolerance



Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) and Francis Orpen Morris (1810-1893) were two of the most well-known Natural Historians of the mid-Nineteenth Century. Gosse is famous as the populariser of aquaria, the use of microscopes, and the observation of marine organisms on the shore; Morris for his works on moths, butterflies and birds, and also for his campaigns against fox hunting, vivisection and much else besides. Both had biographies written by their sons [1,2] and it is from these that we know much about the two men.


Henry Gosse (above) was the son of a painter of miniatures and, as a young man, was sent to work as a clerk in Newfoundland, returning to England after travelling to Alabama where he held a teaching post. He was interested in insects as a boy and was introduced to shore life by a knowledgeable aunt. Like Gosse, Morris (below) was also very interested in Natural History as a boy, but his background was rather more privileged, being the son of a Royal Navy officer (who became an Admiral) and going on to study Classics at Oxford University. On graduation, Morris was ordained in the Church of England and progressed to be rector of Nunburnholme from 1854-1893 [3]. From this small village in the Yorkshire Wolds, Morris kept up a correspondence on many topics and he was an enthusiastic pamphleteer, best known today for attacking Darwinism and, especially, Darwin's On the origin of species [3].


Having returned from North America, Henry Gosse was a schoolmaster and also wrote books, the first being based on his experience in Canada and published by Van Voorst. This was followed by a number of other publications, most of which he illustrated, having acquired the skills and training of an artist from his father (the plates in Morris's books were by others). Eventually, Gosse became recognised and he was able to live off his work as an author and lecturer, settling in Torquay from 1857-1888. He was a devout non-conformist and he produced his book Omphalos [4] as an "attempt to untie the geological knot": the conflict between geological periods of time and the account of Creation in The Bible. Although written in London, Omphalos was published soon after Henry moved to Torquay and this was two years before the publication of Darwin's famous book. Gosse's thesis was that geological time periods, strata and fossils were all likely to be real but that they were created at the time the Earth and all organisms came into existence. Needless to say, this idea was not met with any enthusiasm by either the scientific or religious communities [5] and Gosse continued his work in Natural History, making many outstanding contributions.

Both men were Christians and Creationists, but I wonder whether they would have enjoyed each other's company if they met (I cannot find a record that they did so, and both travelled little in their mature years). Gosse was shy, but this did not stop him proselytising his views if he had the chance. He was an evangelical Christian with a profound belief that the second coming of Christ was imminent, something that strongly influenced his thinking. He was intolerant of Catholicism and always referred to the village in which he lived as Marychurch, rather than St Marychurch (its proper title), as he objected to the use of the term saint in the Catholic tradition [5]. Morris had equally strong views about the practice of religion, but these centred on the need for the traditions of the Church of England. On the organisation of religion, then, the two men are likely to have clashed – would their mutual love of Natural History and the evidence it provided constantly to them of Divine Creation have enabled them to celebrate together? Somehow, I doubt it. Yet, if there weren't religious differences to get in the way, one can imagine Gosse and Morris talking for hours about the boyhood collection of insects, their love of birds and all manner of other Natural History.

Henry Gosse's religious views provided difficulties in his relations with Edmund, his son and biographer and these led Edmund to write Father and Son, published anonymously in 1907. In contrast, Morris's son not only became ordained in the Church of England, but also followed his father as the Rector of Nunburnholme. Both "official" biographies written by the sons are factual and, in parts, affectionate, but Father and Son is rather different. It paints Henry Gosse as being intolerant of Edmund's views and he was always encouraging him to return to the values of the Brethren that Henry believed in so profoundly. The result of Henry's unshakeable beliefs was thus alienation from the scientific world and also from his only child. It all seems so unnecessary, especially as he was such a splendid enthusiast for Nature. Having asked whether Morris and Gosse would have enjoyed each other's company, I'm tempted to ask whether I would get on well with either of them. I like to think that the answer is yes, but I'm not sure. Religious belief has a way of becoming so intrusive and damaging.

It is not far-fetched to suggest that both Gosse and Morris had a Christian faith that made them isolated and narrowly focussed and which provided challenges from the scientific developments occurring in the mid-Nineteenth century. Their faith was the most important thing in their lives and they believed in all that was written in the Bible, yet their preferences in form of worship were different and neither was likely to budge from their position. As a non-Christian, that is something I find difficult to understand, yet it has been a feature of the Christian religion, with its many schisms and formation of splinter groups. As there must be one God and one Heaven, I am puzzled about the inability of some Christians to agree and to believe that their version of the faith is the only true one.

To gain some insight, I looked up the website of the Evangelical Alliance to find out if we are now living in an age of greater tolerance. In a piece entitled "Should we all go to one Church? What denominations mean for unity" Amaris Cole begins by introducing two questions [6]:

Anglican. Baptist. Brethren. Assemblies of God. Vineyard. Elim. Newfrontiers. Foursquare. The list goes on. There are many churches in the United Kingdom, all with their own worship styles, preaching practices and theological frameworks. But if we're aiming for unity as evangelicals, is it a problem that we are split down denominational lines? Shouldn't we all go to one Church?

One of the five respondents, Alexandra Davis, replied as follows [6]:  

God created us in diversity, with differences in style on so many levels – learning, worshipping, fellowshipping, communing. I suspect if we all went to one Church we'd just end up in a very mono-cultural way of doing things. Meeting with God and other Christians in a diversity of ways is one way of bringing glory to the creator God whose imagination is beyond anything we could... imagine. We could, of course, get a bit better at being more accepting of difference, keeping a check on how valuable our particular preferences really are, and making more.. ..effort to cross those diversity lines. We will be one Church in heaven so we might as well start practising for the perfection now.

Alexandra implies that the various sects and branches of Christian practice derive from differences inherent in human individuals and society. In advocating tolerance between sects (as I believe she is doing) she will attract the wrath of those like Gosse and Morris who were firmly of the opinion that only their version of Christianity was the correct one. Also, what are evangelical Christians proselytising if it is not their own personal version (usually shared by a few others) of belief?

Of course, if religions are the result of human imagination, one could understand it all. It must be difficult to be a Christian believer and face the questions that Amaris poses.


[1] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[2] M. C. F. Morris (1897) Francis Orpen Morris : A Memoir. London, John C. Nimmo.


[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: An attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst,

[5] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810 – 1888. London, Faber and Faber.




The illustration of Christian worship above is taken from http://religiousaffections.org



Friday, 7 July 2017

Visits from a leaf cutter



Our friends Fiona and Conor gave us a potted houseleek plant (Sempervivum sp.) and it has grown so well that it has now been divided. Four of the rosettes were re-planted into the attractive ceramic pot that was part of the original gift and this forms the central decoration on the large table in one of the seating areas in our garden.


Yesterday, while enjoying a cup of coffee in the warm sunshine, I noticed that the pot was being visited by a leafcutter bee (Megachile sp.). It flew around the pot, landed on the soil at the margin, and then disappeared under the lip. Although my photographic skills are less well developed than my patience, I was able to get an image of the bee in flight just before it landed (see above). In addition to making frequent foraging flights for pollen and nectar, it also brought in sections of leaf on three successive occasions and the bee then looked just like the one in this wonderful image taken by HymenOphrys  and published on the urbanbees website [1]:


To find out more about the bee’s behaviour, I looked up Shuckard's British Bees [2]. The prose of Nineteenth Century Natural Historians is often appealing, as they had few other methods of describing their observations, only being let down by excesses of anthropomorphism. Shuckard was no exception, and he conveys his passion for the study of insects, something which overtook his ability to manage his finances [3]. These are his descriptions of the behaviour of this solitary bee [2]:

The proceedings of these bees are very curious. Although the tubes they usually form are long, they are so constructed as not to branch far away from the exterior of the material into which they bore.. ..Both the sides of the tube, and the cells they form within them, will necessarily vary in diameter and length with the size of the species, but in the larger species they are about an inch and a quarter long and half an inch in diameter..

..The cylindrical tube [is] prepared.. ..by the gradual removal of the particles of the wood, or sand, or earth of which it consists, the insect's instinct [then] prompts it to fly forth to obtain the requisite lining, that the lateral earth may not fall in, or the wood taint the store to be accumulated for the young.. .. Having fixed upon the preferred plant .. ..it alights upon the leaf, and fixing itself upon the edge, it holds it with three legs on each side, then using its mandibles as the cutter of silhouettes would his scissors, and, just as rapidly as he cuts out a profile, does this ingenious little creature ply the tools it is furnished with by nature. The oval or semicircular cutting being thus speedily dispatched, with the legs still clinging to the surfaces, the insect biting its way backwards, the piece cut off necessarily remains within the clutch of the legs, and, when about falling, the rejoicing labourer expands her wings and flies off.. ..[to arrive] at the mouth of the aperture within which she has to convey it..

Shuckhard then describes how other pieces of leaf are brought in to complete the lining and it was this that I was watching. The bee then collects pollen and nectar (flights that I also saw), and deposits these in the leaf-lined tube. An egg is laid on to the mass and the cell completed by another leaf fragment of circular form.

Shuckard  continues:

The whole process is again renewed in the same manner as at first, the bottom edge of the cutting of the external leaf is again curved to form a concave bottom to the next cell, and the sides are similarly formed, and each cell fits the preceding like the top of one thimble placed in the mouth of another.

The analogy to thimbles is rather dated, but we can now picture more clearly the biology of the bee. In time, larvae hatch from the eggs, consume the food store provided for them, and grow through stages to then produce a silk cocoon in which they pupate. Emergence of the adults from pupae completes the cycle, with mating occurring and the next generation of female bees starting to build tubes and cut leaves.

It is intriguing to ask oneself how the habits of the bee evolved: its burrowing behaviour; the use of leaves to provide a lining of the tubes it makes; the manner in which leaf segments are brought together; the collection of pollen and nectar; the evolution of life stages of such markedly different form; and the ability to fly and to navigate. All this was going through my mind when watching "my" bee and I'm so pleased that she chose our pot of Sempervivum as the home for the next generation. They will not be disturbed.



[2] W. E. Shuckard (1866) British Bees: An introduction to the study of the natural history and economy of the bees indigenous to the British Isles. London, Lovell, Reeve & Co.

[3] Yolanda Foote (2004-2016) Shuckard, William Edward (1802/3-1868), entomologist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Standen, Jacques Delamain and Olivier Messaien



I like perusing the titles of books in the libraries of large country houses. They give an impression of the interests of previous owners of the house and, because of my liking for Natural History, it is volumes on this subject that particularly catch my eye [1,2,3].


Last week, I visited Standen House, the country home of the Beale family from the end of the Nineteenth Century. It has lovely gardens and the interior of the house is decorated in Arts and Craft style and contains some very fine furniture [4]. As would be expected in the library of a family with seven children - and, later, grandchildren - there were many volumes about fairy tales and adventure, but the book that stood out for me was The Days and Nights of Birds by the French amateur ornithologist Jacques Delamain (the cover of my copy is shown above). Ornithology has always been a popular pastime, and many books have been written about the habits, and habitats, of birds. In the Foreword of The Days and Nights of Birds [5] Delamain writes:

"But has not everything essential been said about birds?" The question was put to me one day by Abel Bonnard who was unwilling to see too narrow a limit imposed on his keen poetical curiosity. I assured him that this subject, like all which touch nature, was inexhaustible. Indeed, for the seeker, one discovery leads to another and new problems appear which the mind tries to solve. The beauty of living creatures and the setting in which they move, life's harmony and complexity, always awake in us unexpected echoes. Intellectual curiosity, the aesthetic sense and poetry never fail to renew the world.

Each one of us follows his own way, seeking to understand the mystery of creation. For some, the way grows endlessly broader, embracing vast horizons, others advance slowly and shortsightedly along a narrow path. But no one can set out without discovering riches..

We can see that Delamain's interest in birds was wrapped up with his love of Nature and he communicated this in an attractive prose style that is apparent even in translation. It is easy to see how readers may be stimulated to look more closely at birds after reading his books and Delamain concludes the Foreword by writing:

My first book, Why Birds Sing, brought me precious assurance from my readers that I had taught them how better to observe Nature, and how to love her more. If my present volume induces them to look once more on the ever varied spectacle offered to our eyes by the seasons as they pass, and increase their interest in the creatures that people our fields, woods and rivers, it will have fulfilled its purpose.

One can imagine Mr Beale, or visitors to Standen, reading the book and using it as a guide to their own observations on walks in the garden or around the estate.


The writings of Delamain influenced many others, including the composer Olivier Messaien. Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong and Hill and Simeone [6] describe the result of his visit to Delamain's home La Branderaie de Gardépéé (see above):

In April 1952,.. .. Messaien took what proved to be a decisive step. At the suggestion of his publisher Leduc he paid a short visit (15-17 April) to Jacques Delamain, a leading ornithologist and prolific author. Delamain lived in south-west France, his house at Gardépéé set in large wooded grounds midway between Cognac and the neighbouring town of Jarnac, where the Delamain family firm still produces brandy. Delamain's tuition enabled Messaien's knowledge of ornithology to catch up with his musical aspirations. In particular, he learned to identify birds solely through their songs or cries: 'It was [Delamain] who taught me to recognise a bird from its song, without having to see its plumage or the shape of its beak.'

..the visit to Delamain proved a life-changing experience. Delamain inspired Messiaen to pursue his researches in a more systematic way. The results can be seen in the surviving birdsong notebooks, the Cahiers de notation des chants d'oiseaux, in which Messaien started to collect his observations from nature..

Messaien went on to compose Réveil des oiseaux and Hill and Simeone [5] include a quote from the composer about this work:

"In Réveil des oiseaux [...] there's really nothing but bird songs [...], without any added rhythm or counterpoint, and the birds singing are really found together in nature; it's a completely truthful work. It's about an awakening of birds in the beginning of a spring morning; the cycle goes from midnight to noon: night songs, an awakening at four in the morning, a big tutti of birds cut short by the sunrise, forenoon songs, and the great silnce of noon.."

You can hear the piece in this video clip [7] and it is interesting that it follows a sequence of bird song through a day, perhaps in homage to Delamain's Days and Nights of Birds.


I find the link between Delamain and Messaien fascinating: a great composer and a wonderful writer both communicating about Nature and the pleasure that it gave them. Thank you Standen, and the National Trust, for giving me a chance to tell the story.






[5] Jacques Delamain (1933) The Days and Nights of Birds (translated by Mary Schlumberger). London, Victor Gollancz.

[6] Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone (2007) Olivier Messiaen: Oiseuax exotiques. Aldershot, Ashgate,