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October 13, 2004

Three Centuries of Women Travellers at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers
National Portrait Gallery, London
7th July - 31st October 2004
Daily 10am 6pm (Thursdays & Fridays to 9pm)
Free Admission

The exhibition of portraits and photographs of women travellers at the National Portrait Gallery has already had 125,000 visitors. This wonderful celebration of the deeds of dead white women deserves even more.

Many of those who travelled were those dogged independent women of the nineteenth and early twentieth century who defied family and convention and probed the frontiers of China or Arabia sending back accounts and photographs of the life of distant societies, indeed often aspects of intimate life that would have been unaccessible to men. Here are not just the faces but the writings, the artefacts and the photography of Mary Kingsley and Amelia Edwards, of Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell.

In some ways what is remarkable is not that they went but that the legal and economic mechanisms that would have operated in other societies to constrain them altogether did not operate in Britain.

Many of the women who travelled were great upholders of the conventions at home, however much freedom of movement they exercised abroad. Gertrude Bell - who helped to decide the boundaries of the artificial country we call Iraq - was a founder member of the Anti-Suffrage League, as was Lady Lugard the colonial editor of The Times. In Mesopotamia Gertrude Bell would travel across the desert on a camel, but in England she would not walk down Piccadilly without a chaperone. It was women like this who made Britain great and reflected Britain's greatness

It is also striking how many British women travelled in the Muslim world right from the time of Pitt's niece Hester Stanhope and the scandalous June Digby, divorced for adultery with great publicity by Lord Ellenborough. Abroad they constituted a category of their own where neither western nor local rules could apply.

Others among the women travellers depicted were the dutiful wives of male travellers, traders, plantation owners and colonial rulers. It does not really matter that they seem less sturdily independent. What is crucial is the skill with which they employed pen, paintbrush and camera and told us things we would not otherwise have known or displayed talents that others could not match.

Fanny Trollope travelled across the United States, then a fairly wild and savage country in 1827-31 and wrote and published to rescue her family from debt and her husband's incompetence. Her book Domestic Manners of the Americans shows real insight into the mores of a distant, uncouth and backward people. Her work far exceeds in quality the stilted wooden novels of her son Anthony Trollope. She understood how they lived then, but after those books can we ever forgive him? Talent is all. She had it and her wretched son did not, as we can see from his appeal to the most mediocre intellects of our own time, a wrinkle on the middle-brow.

Yet it has to be admitted that the best drawing in the entire exhibition is by a man Wyndham Lewis' portrait of Rebecca West.

Go to the National Portrait Gallery and become visitor 125,001.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.

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