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)

' 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.

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