Take It On Faith in a Rescuing Remnants Postlude: More of Mary Workman’s Remarkable Artwork, 1836-1844

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon’s presentation, Rescuing Remnants: The Life and Art of Mary Workman, featured two parts. The first was by John Sharpe, a resident of Clifton, England, where the Workman family long resided and who does done a tremendous amount of research and writing on their history there. John gave a excellent background on the family, specifically Mary (1808-1868), the youngest of the eight children, including William (the Homestead’s founder) and David (whose family became prominent in late 19th and early 20th century Los Angeles,) of Thomas Workman and Lucy Cook.

What John impressed upon those attending the virtual talk was just how extraordinary it was for Mary to even have any education at all in early Nineteenth Century England, especially a small, remote hamlet like Clifton. Even more astonishing, however, was her level of achievement, which he stated was such that she would have earned, by our standards, a college degree, simply unheard of for any woman.

The only surmise he could come up with is that she must have come under the tutelage and support of a clergyman, not unlike what happened with her father and his uncle, the Reverend William Workman, a prominent churchman of Nothumberland north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Whether it was the local parish pastor at St. Cuthbert’s Church is not known, but her educational acumen and attainment was, by any standard of the era, very impressive.

The earliest image from Mary Workman’s portfolio, dating from 1836 and showing guardian angels.

So, too, were her artistic abilities as an amateur and, here again, there is no way to know how her natural talents were nurtured and developed. Her painting and drawing skills were highly developed and John again mused that she may have also had a man of the cloth providing her with encouragement and, perhaps, tutoring. In both written and artistic expression, moreover, it is hard to believe that she could have developed as she did without an abundance of encouragement from her parents.

The second half of today’s presentation focused on her art, including the very impressive framed work showing the Biblical story of “The Prodigal Son” and which features painting, fabric applique, gold leafing or foil and other elements of what makes for a stunning multi-media work, the whole of which was shown in a previous post.

Seven other pieces from the portfolio, datring from 1836 to 1844 were also highlighted in that June post, including representations of a dyring man, perhaps related to a calligraphic rendering of a poem by Alexander Pope, although there are lines from a poem by Jane Taylor (best known for penning the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”)—these likely connected to the death of Mary’s father in late 1843 just prior to the inclusion of a few works in the album.

Also featured in that post were “Faith in the Lord,” a beautiful combination of painted vignettes and calligraphy of text from Isaiah Chapter 9, Verse 6; a fine painting of Christ in agony on his way to the crucifixion; a tender representation of a mother and young daughter (maybe reflective of Mary and her mother Lucy?) with accompanying reflections that appear to be Mary’s own words along with a short poem beneath the image that are unatributed and published in an 1822 British magazine; a beautiful rendering of a family scene for a poem by Nathaniel Cotton called The Fire-Side; and a notable painting of who is assumed to be the Virgin Mary.

This follow-up takes a look at other works from the portfolio showing more of the talent displayed by Mary. The earliest of all the material in the album is an excellent rendering from 1836 of guardian angels with one at the right is in a flowing robe of navy blue, while a pair of others at the left are dressed in regal purple. A women at the center is kneeling in prayer with eyes upturned toward heaven and the angel on the right holds a halo touched up in white paint over her head. A similar effect in white is comprised of rays emanating from the head of the young angel in the back.

Two of the contributions are undated and are largely calligraphic. One is titled “A Hymn” with a very stylized font and ornaments around it, while bordering the text are some impressive flourishes including one at he bottom that forms, at the center, what could be a swan’s head. The three stanzas are an adaptation of a piece from the 1780s by the wonderfully surnamed Augustus Toplady and are:

When languor and desease [sic] invade

This trembling house of clay

‘Tis sweet to look beyond our cage

And long to fly away

Sweet to look inward, and attend

The whispers of his love;

Sweet to look upwards to the place,

Where Jesus rules above.

‘Tis sweet to rest on lively hope

That when our change shall come

Angels will hover round our bed,

And waft our spirits home.

Another undated piece is a two-page replication of a portion of “The Believer’s Triumph Over Death,” with the title very stylized and the remainder in text that alternates between blue and red ink. William Romaine was the composer of the sermon, though the title had been used previously, and he wrote of how “Man consists of two parts, a body and a soul. The bodily life is dependent on the light and air of this world, and on the circulation which they maintain and carry on. When this connection is broken, the body expires, it loses all sense and motion, and is dead. To the life of the soul is dependent on the light and air of the spiritual world.”

As the believer achieves victory, it is expressed through utterances such as “The Lord is my light, and my salvation, what then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom then shall I be afraid?” and when a person’s “body expires, it falls asleep inthe Lord, and his spirit enters upon an eternal triumph of life and glory among the spirits of just men made perfect. O what a deliverance is this from the bondage of sin, and terrors of the grave. It is the peculiar privilege [of] blessedness of believers in Jesus to die in peace.”

One of the more intricate works in the album is a gorgeous combination of art work and calligraphy with the text based on the words of American Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, an immensely popular and influential figure of his day, and his sermon, “Imitableness of Christ’s Character,” appears to have been published around 1830. Mary’s rendering dates to Christmas 1843, not long after her father’s death.

At the top is a stunning scene of angels in heaven surrounding the Lamb of God lying above a cross with sunbursts streaming from it. Stylized text surrounds this scene and reads “My Friends We May All Approach Jesus Christ, He Died For All Of Us Leaving An Example That we should follow his steps.” The selection from Channing’s work is:

By earnest purpose, by self conflict, by prayer and watching, by reading and meditation, by FAITH in the CHRISTIAN promises, by all those heavenly aids and illuminations which he that seeketh shall find, we may all unite ourselves in living bonds to CHRIST, may love as he loved, may act from his principles, may serve with his constancy, may enter into his purposes, may devote ouselves with his Self Devotion to the Cause of GOD and Mankind and by likeness of Spirit may prepare ourselves to meet Him, Our Everlasting Friend.

A few weeks later, on 14 January 1844, Mary completed a page with a cross and a dove of peace at the top center. A statement in French surves at the bottom of that vignette and it appears to translate to: It is necessary for the Dove to rest on the Cross before the Cross can be caried without difficulty.”

What follows is an excerpt from a work by Nicholas Michell and dating to 1834 called “Lanherne Convent,” which is a Roman Catholic Carmelite institution in Cornwall, in the far southwestern corner of England The lines read:

Though Public Weal condemns conventual life,

That sinks the friend , the Mother, and the Wife,

And breaks Society’s electric chain,

From heart to heart conducting joy and pain,

Yet blest the Vestal’s tranquil moments glide,

If hushed Regret, and absent Love and Pride;

If Resignation lend her seraph light,

And cheer her day and tranquilize her night;

And pure Devotion waft her thoughts on high,

Opening from earth a vista to the Sky.

Finally, on 7 March 1844, there is a page titled “Faith and Reason” and excerpting from a work by Dr. Edwin Young dating to a century prior. There is a simple image of what looks like Christ holding a cross, the title in stylized lettering, and text that, in part, reads: “Fond as we are, and justly fond, of faith, Reason, we grant, demands our first regard . . . Reason the root, fair faith is but the flower, the fading flower shall die, but reason lives immortal as her father in the skies. When faith is virtue, reason makes it so . . . Believe, and look with triumph on the tomb, Thro’ reason’s wounds alone thy faith can die; Which dying tenfold terror gives to death, And dips in venom his twice mortal sting.”

It is a simple artifact, the light-colored clothbound booklet with its pages sometimes interleaved with thin sheets, and its compact size of 6 by 7 inches making some of the painted work even more impressive because of the amount of detail rendered in so small a space. It will likely always remain a mystery how Mary Workman was able to amass such an education and generate the display of artistic ability shown in the album coming from a rural region so far removed from major population centers and their fine schools and venues for cultivating high culture.

We are grateful to Jon and Elaine Krebs for their donation which allows the Homestead to be able to share this remarkable material with the public and which deepens our understanding of the Workman family, of whom we knew relatively little just a quarter century or so ago. We are also thankful to John Sharpe for his assiduous and determined research and writing over these last twenty-five years as he has enriched our knowledge of the English origins of the family. Both these valuable contributions came together in an elegant fruition this afternoon.

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