Richard Hoover: Uncovering the ‘soul’ of an engraving

Richard W. Hoover

Richard W. Hoover

Here’s a faded, badly kept engraving, dated 1782, by the great English engraver Valentine Green, after Joshua Reynolds’ oil portrait of Lady Charlotte Hill Talbot. It fairly broadcasts not only the classical traditions which governed the day, but English women’s frustrations, aspirations and hopes.

A nearly fruitless Internet search suggests that, save for dates and details of lineage, little is known either of Lady Charlotte or of her parliamentarian husband, John Talbot. Good! More’s the fun! So, let’s uncover the “soul” of this antique image by applying some old-fashioned speculation!

For sure, Lady Charlotte is rendering an offering to the dark helmeted being whose statue looms behind: Minerva, Roman goddess not only of poetry, weaving, crafts and magic, but of qualities thought to be more masculine — wisdom, commerce and war-waging!

Hair piled high, Roman style, and dressed in the flowing Roman way, Charlotte rests her right hand on the “gurus,” the tall-necked vessel holding either sacred milk or wine. She appears ready to pour a portion into the “patera,” the shallow offering-dish held in her left hand. Note the “turibulum,” the smoking incense burner standing lower left. Sacred scents will attract Minerva, and the conversion of solids to ethereals highlights the spiritual ambience. Also note the “lararium,” the three-sided altar containing the sacred fire. Once the patera is charged and, some say, its contents consigned to the smoldering turibulum, the ritual will be complete. Minerva is now present and, no doubt, will impart considerable qualities to her devotee!

Did Minerva’s stellar attributes — particularly wisdom, commerce and war-making — rub in the education, travel, equality and independence that 18th century English women believed they were denied? You bet!

In “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft lashed out, asking readers whether French or Italian women, like their English counterparts, had confined themselves to domestic life. Never! England, she concluded, was badly lagging!

Wollstonecraft and others believed to their core that travel, particularly to France and to Italy’s ancient Roman sites, would bring them enlightenment, a sure cure for the homespun doldrums and ignorance caused by the repression of women. Lady Anna Miller pointed in sorrow and disgust to the “many prejudices and littlenesses of thinking which insensibly have taken so deep a root in our (women’s) minds … “ It was, after all, the Age of Enlightenment and English women felt they had been excluded.

And so, enter Lady Charlotte, determined to measure up. Shorn of all “littlenesses,” she is armed and shining with powers conferred by Minerva. Her portrait is but one of many showing English women basking in Greek-Roman tradition, basking in the anticipation of education, travel and freedom — blessings that men had long enjoyed, that only the pursuit of classical traditions could bring.

Soon, the continent and its ancient wonders would cease to be a males-only preserve, as it had been for husband John Talbot in his bachelor days. English women would make the “Grand Tour” in growing numbers, recording their adventures in pencil, paint and prose, even publishing travel accounts on their return.

Alas, I cannot tell if Lady Charlotte, who died at age 50, was ever among them.

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.

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