Monday, January 9, 2012

Liberating Mary

I would like to think that Mary Wollstonecraft attracts the right sort of visitor, certainly to the city where she spent most of her life, and possibly elsewhere. Last week we met literary pilgrim Alexis Wolf (and a few days ago I met her in the flesh in Newington Green, for a visit to the Unitarian church and then coffee at the Belle Epoque). This week we have another American in London, whose adventures date back decades. The tale of how Bob Lamm "liberated Mary" from the bowels of the National Portrait Gallery first appeared in Ms. Magazine in 2004, when he was called "an intrepid male feminist". So, with his kind permission, I reprint his essay in full.

[The image he is referring to is the last one of her, when she was pregnant with Mary. It is by John Opie, and can be seen on the NPG site. The Cornish sensation had painted her c. 1790 as well; that portrait is held by the Tate.]

No visit to London can really begin for me until I go to the National Portrait Gallery, near Trafalgar Square, and pay my respects to a lovely painting of Mary Wollstonecraft that I helped liberate from the gallery’s “dungeons.”

The seeds of my rescue began in the late 1970s, when I visited the gallery but couldn’t find a painting of Wollstonecraft. 
A few years earlier, my men’s study group on early feminist literature had devoted six months to the life and work of the inspiring English writer of the late 18th century, best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

I subsequently lectured at women’s studies classes about this eloquent crusader who offered challenging political insights and was bold enough to attack in print some of the most famous men of her time, among them Burke, Rousseau and Talleyrand. Because of my great admiration for Wollstonecraft, she was on my mind when I walked through the National Portrait Gallery and then stopped at the gift shop.

In a most unlikely place — the “G” section of the postcards — I suddenly recognized a postcard of her labeled “Mary Godwin (née Wollstonecraft).” [Dreadful, but not unprecedented. See the Camden Council placard in St Pancras churchyard, detailed here. -- Ed.] In her 30s, Wollstonecraft had married the British philosopher William Godwin but had continued to use and write under her own name. The National Portrait Gallery either hadn’t noticed or didn’t approve. The postcard indeed featured a portrait of Wollstonecraft, but where was the painting itself?

At the information desk, I learned that the portrait (by John Opie, circa 1797) was currently housed in the storage area. The gallery’s walls included few paintings of women — most of whom were best known for some biological or romantic connection to a famous man. At the same time, there was apparently no room for a portrait of England’s feminist pioneer. The story might have ended there, but the woman at the information desk volunteered that a visitor could request to see any painting not on display. The timing was right, a guard was found and I was soon down in a storage room standing before Opie’s striking portrait.

The painting shows Wollstonecraft in simple clothing — a black beret and a loose white blouse — without any of the lacy feminine frills of that era. She seems intelligent, serene, hardly the dangerous radical so vilified by her enemies. 
Against a dark background, a single light source brilliantly illuminates Wollstonecraft’s face and blouse, as if the artist saw Wollstonecraft’s burning feminist spirit as a beacon of truth amid the prejudice and ignorance around her.

During visits to London over the next few years, I retraced these steps to see Opie’s portrait and lamented that others wouldn’t get that opportunity. In early 1984, however, I quite literally encountered an obstacle: A guard said I couldn’t see the painting because there was “something in the way.” The assistant registrar, Andrea Gall, was called in and countered, “So let’s move it!”

We did, and as we admired the portrait together, we wondered why it was not on display. The time had come to protest Wollstonecraft’s imprisonment. I requested a meeting with Jacob Simon, the new curator for the gallery’s 18th-century collection. When we spoke in his office, I urged him to find room for the painting and to label it just as she is remembered, Mary Wollstonecraft. He was polite but noncommittal.  Later that year, Mr. Simon sent me a carefully worded letter stating that the Wollstonecraft portrait would soon go on display — but only for four months, to take the place of a painting of Wordsworth on loan to another museum.

Thrilling as this news was, I was also saddened because I wouldn’t be in London again during those months and thus would never see the fruits of my protest. Then, shortly thereafter, I learned that the portrait had been cleaned, given an impressive new frame and was now hanging for all to see … under the name of Mary Wollstonecraft!

Now I regretted even more that I’d never see the portrait on the gallery’s walls. But when the Wordsworth painting returned to its home in early 1985, I received stunning news and Jacob Simon became a true hero. Despite his original plan, he never took down the portrait of Wollstonecraft, and it has remained on display ever since.

She can be found today in a small room with stained wooden floors, along with portraits of her husband, William Godwin, and their daughter Mary Shelley. (Wollstonecraft died in 1797 shortly after giving birth to the younger Mary, best known as the author of Frankenstein.) Wollstonecraft and her loved ones look out proudly at an illustrious array of companions: Percy Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Blake and Austen. 
Virginia Woolf wrote of Wollstonecraft, “One form of immortality is hers undoubtedly: She is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.”

And, I’m delighted to say, we see her portrait as well.

Originally published in the United States by Ms. Magazine in their fall 2004 issue, pp. 72-73.


  1. Lovely story. Clicking through to the NPG site, there's a little collection of portraits of Mary W, including this rather surprising one:

    Where did you get that hat!?

  2. Indeed! One sees why certain portraits become popular (iconic, in a secular-literal sense) and others fall by the wayside. I note that the Tate site says their portrait is not on show - another campaign, perhaps.

    1. What a great story. Way to go, Bob!

    2. Bob, have you come across The Rights (and Wrongs) of Mary Wollstonecraft, Doug's play? I am pleased to introduce two intrepid male American feminists who can shake hands, or bear hug, or whatever they deem appropriate. Or perhaps duel over who loves Mary the most. Certainly Bob met her first, by sheer accident of birth. Gentlemen, I leave you to it.