Thursday, December 10, 2020

Finding Rosa Mingaye, Cumbrian Artist

By Dr John Little

Like all English historical fiction authors my writing deals with a mixture of reality and truth, of actual and dreams; of fiction and fact. It is my wish to make it so that my reader may, in the style of Leopold von Ranke, walk in the shoes of dead men and women, even for just an instant. This desire is shared by every writer of historical fiction. Last year I lit upon the figure of Dr William Perry Briggs, a Cumbrian doctor who somehow found himself tending wounded Turks at the town of Plevna during a murderous siege in one of the major wars of the nineteenth century; the Russo-Turkish conflict of 1877-8. It seemed an interesting adventure story and so I set out to write it, and found that the borderline between researching for historical fiction, and unearthing unknown history is a very fine one.

Of course, any adventure has to have a back story or two; the protagonist must have a family, friends, motives, a background of some sort and some personal details. I found that Briggs married a woman called Rosa, and that he thought she was three years older than him. She was, in fact nearly eight years older. Of itself that detail is fairly quotidian for the day; many people faked their ages, particularly on marriage certificates. Rosa’s gravestone claims a birth date of 1853, whereas the census of 1851 reveals that she was born in 1849; her husband was born in 1856.  

So far, so not very exceptional, but it was enough to spark an interest in finding more. Her father was Joseph Richardson, and her brother was Augustine; both men were well known artists, and the brother in particular was renowned for stained glass windows in churches, some of which survive today. For some reason unknown, both men were using ‘Mingaye’ as their professional name; it had been the surname of Joseph’s dead wife. They were not alone in this, for Rosa was also signing ‘Mingaye’ on her own work.

Rosa Mingaye has been long forgotten, yet as I wish to demonstrate, she was an artist of flair, great talent and an extremely fine water colourist. In her day she was celebrated, and though her works sell for small amounts today, I believe that in real terms they sold for far more when she was making her living from them. Women artists are all too often airbrushed from history, and my research for my novel led me to one who deserves to be known. I have not found her name on any of the long lists of Victorian artists that may be found on the internet; perhaps it is time to revise them.

I believe that the above painting is the River Thames, near Oxford, where Rosa lived and worked before her marriage. Her work seems to comprise landscape scenes, but also some rural buildings. Human figures appear as above, small and in the distance. I am led to think that she was working to please a market of well do do town dwellers who wished to adorn their walls with such things, not only for decorative purposes, but to show their wealth. Iffley Mill (below) stood on the River Thames; it was destroyed by fire early in the twentieth century.

Rosa's work seems to comprise landscape scenes, but also some rural buildings. Human figures appear as above, small and in the distance. I am led to think that she was working to please a market of well to do town dwellers who wished to adorn their walls with such things, not only for decorative purposes, but to show their wealth.

Her work was displayed across the country; this one is from a gallery in Norwich; the spelling of her name may be put down to the reporter.

Not all of her paintings are extant. To judge from the contemporary description of this one (below) from Manchester, it was worth seeing.

She continued her career after her marriage where she and William Briggs lived in the small Cumbrian town of Aspatria. It is not very far from the English Lake district, and of course the area became her studio. These are studies of Derwentwater.

That I have come across this undoubtedly talented, but unknown English water-colourist of the nineteenth century, is an accident of writing fiction. 

Rosa Mingaye was not a fiction and it may be that a serious art historian with access to more resources than I can command, may be able to find more about this artist. It is a basic understanding of feminism, and of plain common sense, that men and women are of equal dignity. This artist deserves a place, even just a mention, in the pantheon of nineteenth century water-colour painters. Neglect, surely, is not an option.


Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster. He has written ten books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes. His novel about Dr Briggs featuring Rosa Mingaye, ‘Love and War - a Romance of Old Aspatria’ will be published early 2021, and although based on real people, and accurate in detail, it remains a fiction.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely fascinating,I love the rediscovered history that pops up as one writes historical fiction. I always say the history is often more interesting than what we can make up and an author is cheating themselves if they don't look around where the road leads one.Thank you for bringing Rosa to the fore!


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