A few days ago a friend sent me a photograph of a small watercolour, painted almost 200 years ago. He wrote ‘I have been given a floral watercolour miniature from my aunt Rachel’s house on which she noted on the back that it was painted by Sarah Rickman in 1830. Would this Sarah have featured in your research, do you think?’
Yes! She didn’t just feature in my research: she was its star.
Sarah Godlee Rickman (1798-1866) and her cousin Dr Thomas Hodgkin (same dates, he was the medical pioneer who identified the leukaemia that bears his name) were close as children and considered marriage in their youth. But at that time Quakers forbad marriage between first cousins though it was common enough in the rest of society: Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin – no one murmured when they married their first cousins. But they weren’t Quakers. When her husband died, five years after she painted this water anemone, Thomas who had stayed single spent two years trying to get the Society of Friends to fall into step with the rest of society. They ignored him. He and Sarah had to give up their hopes of making a life together.
All her life, in tragedy and delight, Sarah was a maker.
She did brilliant silhouettes – the Wellcome library bought a whole album of them without knowing who had done them – all with her distinctive ‘SR’ signature These examples show her portrait of William Miller, the well-known engraver, who was two years older than her, and his sister Elizabeth, two years younger, who became the third wife of Thomas Rickman the architect. They date from one of her long visits to Edinburgh. The Millers were delighted by the addition of such a bubbly and sociable young woman to the small coterie of Quakers north of the border.
Her leatherwork was so professional that recipients of her gifts complained people assumed they had been purchased – nothing amateurish about anything she did. When she and her sisters ran a little school in Lewes, she made a leaving gift for each girl, gifts that were treasured for decades – and which maybe survive still.
In 1824, back home with her family in the Bear Yard in Lewes, she began a ‘Family Journal’ full of gossip and news and reflection, laughter and tears, a document in which a whole family and their circle dance across the pages. When I read it first, they became so familiar, as if they had just left the room, that it was hard to believe she’d been writing nearly 200 years ago.
And she painted. I’d seen sketches she did as preparation for silhouettes, but this is the first botanical painting of hers I’ve found.
One of the many singular things about Sarah is how much of her survives. She was neither rich nor famous, but her legacy has been treasured by her family and others through the generations. An anonymous friend put together a handwritten account of her ‘Life and Writings’. Nicholas Godlee, great grandson of one of her brothers gathered as many of her letters and papers as he could – and generously let me work through them all when I was writing about the lifelong devotion between Thomas Hodgkin and her. Nicholas’s interest in her had first been sparked when he inherited a small table she had made. Cabinet making and sculpture were all activities she plunged into with zest.
Perhaps this is her secret. In spite of the many difficulties in her life, she embraced each day with honesty and gusto. Friendship, literature, family, creativity – she enhanced the lives of all who knew her – ‘the sun of our system’, as a sister described her – funny, warm-hearted, waspish and kind. Her personality somehow survives in the objects she made. Like this little painting of the water anemone. Hardly a great work of art, but the creation of a woman whose life was itself a work of art.
And it sets me wondering. How much else that she made or wrote still survives, scattered and still treasured? Nicholas had two volumes of her Family Journal, from January 1824 to December 1828, but there are references in her letters to later volumes. It was passed around her family who insisted she carry on. Have all the later volumes been destroyed, or are they still treasured, still surviving?