A Victorian Lady and Her Microscope

Recently, I was contacted by a collector of Victorian portraits, Christian Thurston. He was interested in acquiring the portrait shown on the right in fig. 1. It is a portrait of a rather pretty lady and her microscope. The motivation for contacting me was to determine if I could identify the microscope and its date of manufacture and perhaps that would serve as a clue to help identify the sitter.

It turned out to be relatively easy to identify the maker of the microscope. The unique shape of the base of the microscope suggested it was one made by the London-based instrument maker John Browning (c.1831-1925) and, in fact, a nearly identical microscope appeared in an 1875 advertisement in the Quarterly Journal of Science (compare figs 3 and 4); the illustrated microscopes differ only by the shape of the stage. So far, the identity of the microscope and its maker has not proved to be of much help in establishing the identity of the subject of the portrait, although the microscope is consistent with the expected date of the painting and its English origin.

As one might expect, if a lady during the Victorian era had her portrait painted next to a microscope, a microscope must have been a very important part of her life. One such person, probably the most famous lady microscopist of the Victorian era (and they are a rare breed), was the Anglo-Irishwoman Mary Ward (1827-1869). In addition to the microscope, another prop is evident in the portrait and that is the book that the lady is holding. This is significant in that one of Mary's major achievements, one which established her fame, was the publication of her book Sketches with the microscope, first published in 1858 (later renamed World of wonders revealed by the microscope). The book was very popular and was reprinted eight times during the years 1858-1880. Another of her publications, Telescope Teachings (1859) was also very popular as were several others.

  A portrait of a Victorian lady and her microscope

fig 1: The portrait

Indeed, the person in a photograph of Mary Ward (fig. 2) bears a strong resemblance to the lady in the portrait. Thus, we initially were confident that the pieces to this puzzle were coming together. However, certain other facts have raised some questions concerning the identity of the sitter. One such fact is that Mary's microscope currently resides in Castle Ward. It is not the microscope that is shown in the portrait, but is instead a large microscope made by Andrew Ross, c. 1850. However, further research revealed that Mary may have owned other microscopes, at least one of which presumably now resides at the Birr Castle museum.

After this portrait was purchased by the collector, he sent it out for a mild cleaning. This revealed signatures by two artists and the date 1882. The artists are William Harbutt, a well known painter and teacher of portraiture from Bath in England and Dennis Miller Bunker, an artist from Boston, Massachusetts. It is known that Bunker was in England and France around 1882.

Mary Ward (1827-1869

fig 2: Mary Ward (1827-1869)

Clearly, the 1882 date on the painting is inconsistent with it being a life portrait of Mary Ward who died in 1869 (as an aside, Mary has the dubious distinction of being the first person to have ever died in an automobile accident). So, at this time we are forced to concede that the sitter in the portrait may not be Mary Ward. It should be noted that Mary had six children who survived into adulthood. Is possible that they commissioned a posthumous portrait of their famous mother or is this a portrait of another lady who had a serious interest in microscopy? One other possibility is that the second artist was commissioned to add a microscope to the original portrait and that the 1882 date is the date that that was done.


An 1875 advertisement for Browning's microscopes

fig 3: The 1875 advertisement in the Quarterly Journal of Science


An enlarged view of the microscope in the painting

fig 4: An enlarged view of the microscope in the painting

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