We are currently seeing an upsurge in communities coming together and supporting each other. Today’s blog of pioneering women of Sussex, by curator Alexandra Loske, focuses on the little known Mrs Marriott who set up a series of almshouses to support widows in Brighton.
We have in the Fine Art collection of Brighton Museum two large and important portraits by the 18th century painter Angelica Kauffman (another one of my pioneering women!): Penelope at her Loom and Portrait of a Woman (in Neapolitan Dress). They were the kind of art that would have graced large country houses and were possibly bought by a young male aristocrat on the Grand Tour in the 1760s. But there is another, smaller, and rarely seen painting by Kauffman in our collection: a quarter-length portrait of a woman, stylishly but not lavishly dressed, sporting an elaborate hairstyle, exuding both elegance and a hint of melancholy.
This sitter in this sensitive portrait is Margaret Marriott, a wide-eyed beauty who was born in 1742 on an indigo plantation in South Carolina. She was the mother of two daughters, Dorothy and Philadelphia Percy (the latter also sometimes referred to as Anne). The girls were the illegitimate offspring of Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland (born Hugh Smithson). This was public knowledge – the girls took their father’s surname – and did not seem to have damaged Mrs Marriott’s reputation in society. The Duke even paid for the girls’ education in Paris. It appears that Marriott and her daughters lived in Marylebone, London, but also had connections with Brighton. Sadly, the sisters both died in their early twenties; Philadelphia in 1791, Dorothy in 1794. Astonishingly, they are buried in Westminster Abbey, near their father.
On the request of her daughters, Mrs Marriott arranged for six almshouses to be built in Brighton as a memorial to them. The small yellow-brick houses at the bottom of Elm Grove, now nos. 4 to 9, Islingword Road, were one of the first Gothic revival buildings in Brighton. The inscription under the eaves reads These Almshouses were erected and endowed at the request of the late Philadelphia and Dorothy Percy AD 1795. The two-story cottages, now overlooking a busy junction, housed six poor widows of the Church of England, who were also granted £48 a year, and a new gown and cloak every two years.
We don’t know when exactly or where the stunning portrait by Kauffman was painted, but it is highly likely that it was between 1766 and 1781, when Angelica Kauffman lived and worked in England. It is quite possible Marriott sat for her portrait around the time her daughters were born. She certainly had the taste – and the means – to commission to be painted by one of Europe’s most celebrated artists. The painting was bequeathed to the Museum by a Miss Eleanor M Wilde in 1939, who also donated various papers relating to the family to the East Sussex Record Office. Incidentally, the two large Kauffman paintings were also donated to our collections by a woman, a Mrs Burges-Watson. Nothing is known about the circumstances of either donation.
Mrs Marriott died in 1827, having seen her almshouses do much good over three decades. In 1859 six more almshouses were added (three to either side) by Revd Henry Wagner and his sister Mary, in memory of the Marquess of Bristol. In the 1960s there were plans to demolish these almshouses, but in March 1971 they were listed and restored in 1975-6. They are now private houses.
The story doesn’t end there. The girls’ half-brother, James Smithson – another of the duke’s illegitimate offspring – became an internationally renowned chemist. He decreed that after his death his wealth should be used to create ‘an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge’ in the United States. This is the famous Smithsonian Institution in Washington. These modest almshouses therefore have a link with one of the greatest museums and research centres in the world. The portrait of Mrs Marriott by Angelica Kauffman is currently on display on the upper floor of Brighton Museum, by the entrance to Anita Corbin’s exhibition 100 First Women Portraits – very appropriately so.
Alexandra Loske, Curator and Art Historian