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Ella Taylor and her ‘forgotten’ drawings at Darmstadt

By Alexander Bassano -, Public Domain

The unique drawings of the highly accomplished amateur artist Ella Taylor (1827-1914) represent a rich portfolio of royalty in an informal pose. Carefully preserved in the Royal Collection, they are little known but of quite remarkable value. Ella Taylor sketched herself as well as her subjects. She also made drawings of occasions which otherwise are contained within journal entries or menu cards, with scant visual record. I was astonished to ‘discover’ these sketches in the Royal Collection whilst researching. An album of botanical watercolours attributed to Ella Taylor appeared at Bonham’s in 2013; it was a selection of orchids from Kew Gardens.

Who was Ella Taylor? Research enabled me to discover that she was, in fact, the daughter of General Taylor and Mrs Taylor, who were friends with the Cambridges. According to the author C. Kinloch-Cooke, who wrote a memoir of the Duchess of Teck, General Taylor had held the appointment of Paymaster General to the German Legion. Cooke states that Ella Taylor often visited at Cambridge Cottage, Kew and particularly when Lady Geraldine Somerset was not there, taking her place.

Ella drew herself in self-portrait as part of a group sketch, showing her being presented to Queen Victoria by Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, Duchess of Teck, at Kensington Palace. Dated 3 March 1869, Ella sketched herself kneeling and kissing the Queen’s hand. The Queen’s journal for this date confirms the visit to the Duchess of Teck but does not on this occasion, mention Ella. Ella must have been proud of her royal presentations because she also sketched herself being presented to the Queen of Denmark at St James’s Palace in 1863 and to the German Kaiser in 1877.

Queen Victoria’s (edited) journals contain at least two direct references to Ella, whom she calls on both occasions by her full name. The first instance occurs in May 1879 at Buckingham Palace where the Queen movingly notes that Ella Taylor had been with her second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, at Darmstadt in 1877. The second reference is for January 1884, where the Queen notes Miss Taylor’s arrival at Osborne, as part of Princess Frederica ‘(Lily’) of Hanover’s entourage.

Ella extended her artistic curiosity to herself, unusually including herself in group scenes, as opposed to simply recording what she saw. When it came to sketching herself alone, she inscribed one such drawing as ‘back view of Ella Taylor drawn by herself’, with classic self-detachment. Some eight years younger than Queen Victoria, the back view is not unlike similar studies made of the Queen, showing a fine figure, with the fashionable ringlets, parted at the nape of the neck.

A collective album of her work was produced whilst Ella was staying at Cambridge Cottage, Kew. Bound in red morocco, it bears the bookplate of George V and was presented to the Royal Library at Windsor by Queen Mary on 29 January 1911. The inscription makes clear that Queen Mary was given the album at Windsor and made it over to the Royal Library to join the rest of the collection. Ella Taylor’s own inscription beneath reads: ‘Reminiscences of happy days spent by Ella Taylor at Cambridge Cottage, Kew with Their R Highnesses the Duchess of Cambridge and Princess Mary’. One example of these Kew sketches is a dinner party at Cambridge Cottage, where Ella proudly records the Prince of Wales looking at her drawings.

The reference to Darmstadt is fascinating. Most poignantly, Ella Taylor had been with Princess Alice’s family in 1877, where she made some extraordinary sketches; 1877 was a crucial year for Princess Alice. It was the year that her father-in-law, Prince Charles of Hesse died, followed three months later by Ludwig III, the reigning Grand Duke of Hesse. This meant that in a stroke, Princess Alice became Grand Duchess of Hesse and her husband, Grand Duke Ludwig IV. The following year, the Hesse family spent their last summer holiday together, at the English seaside resort of Eastbourne. In November, the family was stricken with diphtheria, which raged through the Darmstadt residence of the Neues Palais, with all the children falling sick, excepting Princess Elisabeth of Hesse (‘Ella’). Alice moved from sickbed to sickbed, including that of husband. On 16 November 1878, her beloved youngest daughter, Princess Marie of Hesse (‘May’) died. The distraught Grand Duchess had to oversee the funeral of her youngest child whilst the rest of her family lay ill. Alice’s last letter to Queen Victoria was dated 6 December 1878. Signing it ‘Ever your loving child, A’, Alice caught the disease and died by a remarkable circumstance, on the seventeenth anniversary of the death of her father, Prince Albert.

Seen with hindsight, it is this which lends the Darmstadt sketches made by Ella Taylor, their persuasive and poignant quality. They are all the more moving because they record intimate family details seen from inside the shut doors of the Neues Palais. When they were made, however, they were simply recording what was observed, with no notion that they might be later viewed in memorial terms.

Ella Taylor did not always date each sketch precisely, so it was necessary to research at what point in time she left for Darmstadt. Fortunately, her taste for recording such things enabled me to discover the precise day of her departure. She made a drawing of herself at Marlborough House, taking her leave of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Ella Taylor has dated this sketch 4 April 1877 and notes on it ‘before starting for Darmstadt’. Princess Alice’s (published) letters to Queen Victoria do not contain a reference for Ella Taylor in April 1877 because they are understandably full instead of references to her late father-in-law’s death. Princess Alice does, however, feature in the sketch that Ella made of herself being presented to the German Kaiser.

Ella must have reached Darmstadt in about four days, because she has dated a sketch 8 April 1877, ‘The Grand Duke of Hesse, Princess Alice and family at Darmstadt’. This must have been a later inscription because Ludwig III did not die until 13 June 1877, and the sketch clearly is meant to show Ludwig IV, Alice’s husband. The drawing is delightful and shows Princess Alice being presented with daisy chains by her youngest children (Princess Alix of Hesse and Princess Marie of Hesse); Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’, stands with her father holding a book, whilst the remaining children gather at a table in the room. I identify these as certainly being Princess Victoria of Hesse, Princess Irene of Hesse and Prince Ernst Ludwig of Hesse.

A charming drawing that Ella Taylor made was an informal one of Princess Alice reading aloud to her in Darmstadt, whilst she sketched. She inscribed it: ‘Princess Alice reading to Ella – Darmstadt 1877’. It is an apt scene, however peaceful it looks. Princess Alice was exhausted by her new duties as Grand Duchess on the death of Ludwig III. She wrote to Queen Victoria in June: ‘Am much tired by all that lies before us, and not feeling well’. Some days later she wrote: ‘We are both so over-tired’. Still later in October, she sighed wearily: ‘Too much is demanded of one; and I have to do with so many things. It is more than my strength can stand in the long run’.

A fascinating sketch is Dinner at the Neues Palais, Darmstadt’, dated 2 May 1877. Seated at the dining table is the German Crown Princess (‘Pss Royal’) and Princess Alice, who is talking to Prince Alexander of Battenberg.

Certainly the most beautiful of the sketches I think, are the two that Ella Taylor made of Princess Alix and Princess Marie of Hesse, picking up on Princess Alice’s letters of 1877 to Queen Victoria: ‘The two little girlies are so sweet, so dear, merry and nice. I don’t know which is dearest, they are both so captivating’. Proudly Alice wrote the following year in 1878 to the Queen: ‘Aliky and May… are, I must say myself, such a lovely little pair as one does not often see.’ The sketches bear this out, as do the photographs in the Grand Ducal archive in Darmstadt’s Hessisches Staatsarchiv, as well as the albums of royal children held at Windsor. The two sketches are dated 1877, one with a precise date of 10 April 1877. Movingly, Ella Taylor has returned to the theme of daisy chains, showing Princess Alix with a daisy chain on her arm, both girls in matching dresses with bows. The inscription may contain actual words that the two little princesses said: ‘Look Mama, our daisy chain!’ (the youngest children of Princess Alice)’. The other sketch is inscribed Ps Alix & May of Hesse’.

There are several references to Ella Taylor in the two-volume 1900 memoir of the Duchess of Teck by C. Kinloch Cooke, based on her private diaries and letters and with a dedication by permission to the Duchess of York, future Queen Mary. The memoir mentions Ella’s participation in the tableaux vivants at Hanover and also interestingly, a number of examples of letters to Ella from the Duchess of Teck. It is clear from these, that Ella Taylor was corresponding with the Duchess of Teck in the early 1860s because the Duchess thanks her on one occasion for her ‘dear kind letter‘. Reading was even then a popular shared exercise, as the Duchess writes: ‘We have not had time to read much of an evening since you left, but have gone on with David Copperfield’ (C. Kinloch Cooke, A Memoir of Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck, Vol 1, 343).

Another letter in the Cooke memoir is dated Kensington Palace, 25 February 1879 and refers to the motherless Hessian children, just over two months after Alice’s death. The Duchess of Teck writes to Lady Elizabeth Biddulph: ‘To-morrow afternoon I take my little flock to Windsor to see their Hessian cousins. The poor dear Grand Duke has been to see me, and is [in German, touching in his distress]. He is utterly broken hearted, but struggles manfully to bear up…’ (C. Kinloch Cooke, A Memoir of Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck, Vol 2, 107). The Duchess had written to the Countess of Hopetown shortly after Alice’s death from Kensington Palace, 17 December 1878: ‘I have just been summoned to Windsor to-morrow, to be present at the religious service which the Queen is going to have in the private Chapel of the Castle at the same hour (2.30) as that at which the last sad ceremony at Darmstadt is to take place’. (Ibid, 104). Probably the Duchess saw Ella Taylor’s sketches of Darmstadt. She commented: ‘Those poor bereaved ones, in that once so happy home’.

What I have not yet managed to establish is quite why Ella Taylor went to Darmstadt at all. It seems it may have been on a recommendation. Perhaps, it was suggested by the Prince and Princess of Wales. Thankfully when she went, she took her sketchbook.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She writes for journals and specialist magazines. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and was selected as an historical advisor for the first-time translation from English to Russian of the classic biography by Baroness Buxhoeveden (Moscow, 2012). She also specializes in Empress Elisabeth of Austria and has written a series of academic articles on her life based on original research in Vienna and Geneva and spoke about the Empress on the TV Yesterday Channel series, World's Greatest Palaces (2019). Elizabeth is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's magazine, Tudor Life. She is a former contributor to the European Royal History Journal and Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine. She joined the team of History of Royals magazine in 2016 and was History Writer at Royal Central (2015-20). She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.