Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Thomas Sutherland: the Literary Edition

John Ruskin, detail of a painting by John Everett Millais (1853–54)

Of all of the stories to surround Thomas Sutherland (1772-1850), this one, excerpted from J. M. Warwick’s “Sutherland, Talfourd, and Warwick Families,” is the most tantalizing:

“Of an upper middle class family of merchants, Sutherland was a frequenter of the literary and artistic salon which met at the Talfourd home in nearby Wandsworth, now, too, a part of London…. If Moore Township can be said to have had its birth with the erection of Sutherland’s Wharf at Mooretown, its conception took place in the Talfourd home in Wandsworth, where Robert Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett were wont to foregather with John Ruskin, Mrs. Mitford, Charles Dickens and other writers of the day, under the beneficent and patronizing eye of the aging Mrs. Talfourd. Mrs. Talfourd’s own son, Field, then an unknown, would one day be a portrait painter of note, but not until he had assisted his brother Froom in opening up a settlement in the St. Clair river which would bear his name.”

Unfortunately, the chronology simply doesn’t make sense. Mrs. Talfourd, mother of Field (1809-?), Froome (1807-1902), and Thomas Noon (1795-1854), and wife to Edward, was Anne Noon, born in 1773. Thus she would not have been “aging” to Thomas Sutherland, Sr., born a year earlier. Moreover, the Talfourds were extremely pious; Anne Noon Talfourd’s father, Thomas Noon, was a dissenting clergyman, the minister of the independent chapel at Reading, Berkshire. In accordance with their religious beliefs, she and Edward limited the reading material they allowed in the house—the only plays Thomas Noon Talfourd reported having access to when young were Hannah More’s Sacred Dramas. It seems highly improbable that someone who banned Shakespeare would host a modern literary salon.

Adding to the improbability of TS, Sr. attending a literary salon with these figures during his formative years is the fact that he was already established with a family in Scotland long before most of these writers (with the exception of Mary Russell Mitford) were born. But there are a few other possibilites: 1) TS, Sr. knew Edward and Anne Talfourd; 2) TS, Sr. met Field and Froome in Canada and visited them during the Sutherland family trip to Croydon said to have occured in 1841; 3) It was TS, Jr. who knew the Talfourd family in England, perhaps due to a shared interest in literature; 4) any combination of the above.

It is established that Thomas Noon Talfourd was a friend of Dickens (who dedicated The Pickwick Papers to him), the Lambs, the Brownings, and Mitford. As to an aging Mrs. Talfourd, while TNT’s wife (Rachel Rutt, daughter of John Towill Rutt of Clapton) was too young to assume that title, TNT’s mother is described as being in his house on at least one occasion when friends gathered. It thus seems more likely that if TS knew the Talfourds and attended their literary salons, it was not in advance of his move from Croydon to Edinburgh, but rather following his move from the old world to the new. This most likely places Sutherland as a visitor at the Talfourds in the early 1840s, when he made a trip to England with his family--ostensibly to break up an attachment his youngest daughter had formed, and of which he did not approve. This does make sense: after all, the gift of Holy Vessels by John Ruskin to Sutherland's church in Mooretown can be dated to 1842 according to an incription. By this time the Talfourd connections would have been well forged.

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