Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: An Algerian Excursion
October 19, 2018
In April, 2017, I received an email—in French—from the resident of a small town overlooking Lake Geneva. The sender read about our recent acquisition of Ventnor: Isle of Wight by British artist and social reformer Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, and asked if we would like to purchase more of her work. She could only send a few photographs but described a number of watercolors and several carnet (sketchbooks) in her possession that she wanted to sell quickly. For various reasons, we could only view the artworks and sketchbooks at her home in Switzerland.
I was intrigued! Although Bodichon has received some attention for her work in the women’s right’s movement, very little had been written of her artistic practice. Few of her finished works exist. Much of her preparatory work, carefully arranged in scrapbooks, was dismantled in the last century and scattered between public and private collections. First, I had to convince my curatorial colleagues that this potential wild goose chase was worth the time and expense. Next, I had to convince my long-suffering husband to be my accomplice on the adventure. With the good will of all parties, we traveled to Switzerland and were able to buy eleven drawings and watercolors, three sketchbooks, and a selection of archival material related to the artist’s lifework.
Barbara Bodichon traveled extensively. In her childhood, her family took annual outings in a purpose-built carriage large enough for the family and their servants to travel comfortably. As an adult, this wanderlust continued when, at the age of 23, Bodichon and a female friend took an unchaperoned tour of Europe. This indifference to social convention was characteristic of the artist’s independence. Countless trips followed, including a tour of the American South on her honeymoon just four years before the start of the Civil War. Bodichon wrote in a diary kept during this journey, “Slavery is a greater injustice, but it is allied to the injustice to women so closely that I cannot see one without thinking of the other…”
After her marriage to Eugène Bodichon, a French doctor living in Algeria, she split her time between London where she carried out her political activities, and winters painting in the North African colony. Her Algerian residency was filled with exploration, often on horseback or mule.
Decades ahead of the Impressionists, Bodichon almost always worked en plein air (outside).The images in these sketchbooks document an expedition taken in the early spring of 1876 through the Algerian province of Constantine. She was accompanied by fellow women’s rights campaigner, Mary Ewart, and Catherine Scott, daughter of C.P. Scott (editor of the Manchester Guardian). She made some of her drawings rapidly from a train window or the deck of a steamer, and captured other images in a more leisurely manner.
Her sketchbooks provide a kind of visual diary of the trip. The difficulties of travel at that time would have required a fair amount of determination. The trek from London to Algiers began with a ferry from England to France and onward from the coast to Paris by train. From Paris, the three women took another train to Marseilles before crossing the Mediterranean to Algiers by steamer. The entire trip, if completed without interruption, would take approximately 78 hours.
Algiers, the main port of entry to the country of Algeria, was Bodichon’s home base. From there the three women began their travels in Algeria. They traveled for about a month by steamer around the coast of Algeria past the town of Dellys (Image 2017-53.43). The town is shown here in a watercolor and clearly done on shipboard. Their destination was the small settlement of Philipville (Image 2018-53.36) depicted here in simple pen and ink outline. As seen in this pencil and chalk sketch (Image 2017-53.26), they then boarded a train which took them 60 kilometers and 1200 feet up to the city of Constantine which is dramatically situated on an outcropping of rock carved out by the Rhumel River.
To explore one of Bodichon’s sketchbooks, click here. All three sketchbooks, as well as larger individual drawings created by Bodichon, are included in the forthcoming exhibition Politics and Paint: Barbara Bodichon and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood on view November 3, 2018 through February 3, 2019.
Margaretta S. Frederick
Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection