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Unveiling Mrs Gumley

5 October 2014

Russell Mrs Gumley copyWhen John Russell’s pastel of an elderly woman was exhibited in 2009, no one could have imagined the depth of confusion and mystery surrounding her. Spotting that the family with which she was connected were called Degge, not Digges, and having realised that she was closely connected with the Wesley family (she was godmother to Charles Wesley Jr) and Methodism – to which Russell was deeply committed – I published a note in the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, and posted a version of that article on my website. (That has now been updated, but you can always find older versions of articles on the UK web archive.)

I was delighted to see last week that a scholar approaching this from a different angle has found some additional material, even if it removes one of the rungs in my ladder taking us back to her birth. It shows why two heads are better than one, and why scholarship is always improved through communication. Terry Jenkins is an opera specialist with a deep interest in the impressario John Rich – the producer of The Beggar’s Opera, which, as you will recall, made Rich gay and Gay rich in the witticism recorded by Dr Johnson. His piece appears in the current issue of the British Art Journal. But I think it fair to say that while Mrs Gumley’s involvement in the financing of Rich’s theatre is a fascinating new insight, the facts about her origins remain, as Jenkins admits, uncertain.

So I have been having another look at this, and have now posted a revised version of my article to set out some further discoveries. You might say that while Jenkins challenged my overconfident facts and replaced them with unknown knowns, my new analysis turns these perhaps into partly known unknowns.

Specifically both of us had missed this passage in Macklin’s notebooks which tells us why we will probably never learn who Mrs Gumley’s parents were (you’ll have to read my full essay to understand why Martha Gumley, Mrs Colvill and Pat Lauder are the same person: but you can get the general drift, without needing to decode the arms on her seal):

Rich kept actresses, but he never gave them parts until the time of Mrs Stevens – she was a virago, and did as she pleased. Speak of her art and manner of getting the ascendancy of him, viz. by her sycophancy, and her sanctity – clothing poor children, charities, &c.
Mrs Colwel lent Rich money; made him and her children presents–the reason why Mrs C. did all this–she had been an abandoned woman, without friends or family – was first a parish girl, then a w–––e, then an orange wench: Colvin, a madman, took her as a mistress – then married her. Mrs Rich made her a methodist. Gumley met her at chapel – married her – took her out of the Richs’ hands.– Tell all that history.
Mure married Pat Lauder’s sister, who had a child by Colonel D**gg*: this child was left thirty thousand pounds by Colvin. – Mure was an upholsterer; but upon getting seven hundred pounds per annum from Colvin for marrying the woman, he commenced merchant and gentleman in Suffolk. – All that history opened.

But did John Russell know any of this history? He was born at more or less the same time as her conversion to Methodism and respectability. And does his or our ignorance of her background mean we don’t know who Mrs Gumley really was?


At the suggestion of one reader a comment about Mrs Gumley’s appearance has been deleted from the first version of this post. You must make up your own mind.

From → Art history

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