Around this time last year I found myself battling with what I called the “stickiest tape I have ever come across in my life” (and I stand by that statement), whilst installing our ‘Lady of Letters‘ exhibition, to complement the release of David Sekers’ book ‘A Lady of Cotton, Hannah Greg, Mistress of Quarry Bank Mill’, all about the life of Hannah Greg (which you can buy in our shop).
David was the Museum Director here at Quarry Bank Mill in the 1970s, when the site was first turned into a museum, and later he was Director of the Region for the National Trust in the South. He also acted as Historical Consultant for Series 1 of The Mill.
This week he has been kind enough to contribute a post to the blog, all about the experiences of John James Audubon when he visited Samuel and Hannah’s home; Quarry Bank House…
An American naturalist as a guest of the Gregs at Quarry Bank…
The American naturalist John James Audubon is now well known as a founding father of wildlife conservation, as well as a great naturalist and artist. His huge illustrated Birds of America has become the most expensive book in the world.
It is therefore interesting to see that at the age of forty-one, penniless yet flamboyant, risking all he had to get British backing for this ambitious book of bird illustrations, he was helped on his way by the Gregs and the Rathbones. His initial contact in Britain was Richard Rathbone, and then it was Samuel and Hannah’s daughter Bessy Rathbone who introduced him to her family with a view to gaining patrons and subscribers in Manchester. The Gregs entertained Audubon three times.
Audubon recorded in his Journal of 1826 his immediate impressions of each time he visited the Gregs. It is written in the form of letters to his wife Lucy. In spite of his extravagant language, his account gives a rare glimpse of the Greg family at home, conversing, singing, reciting, drawing, and walking. The desire to learn through observation and conversation, was a trait that Audubon shared with the Gregs. The Journal confirms Samuel’s congenial nature and his admiration for the revolutionary General Lafayette, as well as Hannah’s readiness with quotations and medicines, and suggests that the Gregs had by then a successful Vine House for growing dessert grapes (a precursor to the later curvilinear glasshouses). As you would suppose, the Gregs subscribed to the first edition of the Birds of America.
It was on 19 September 1826 that Audubon met Samuel, who took him by carriage to Quarry Bank. Audubon appreciated the fertile countryside en route, and found Quarry Bank ‘an enchanted spot, the grounds truly picturesque and cultivated to the greatest possible extent’. After a warm welcome among the family, Samuel Jnr and William Greg took him up to the village past the chapel and a long row of houses, to attend a meeting of the debating club instituted ‘for the advancement of the workmen. The question presented was: ’Which was the more advantageous, the discovery of the compass or that of the art of printing?’ Afterwards Audubon was engaged in conversation with the men and enjoyed telling them about his country. The next day before returning to Manchester, he enjoyed partridge shooting that had been arranged for him on Lord Stamford’s estate.
Then on 26 September, Audubon received a pressing invitation from Hannah, delivered by two of her sons, to come to Quarry Bank to meet her friend Professor Smyth; ‘We dine, the Professor opposite the Woodsman – the Father between his Eldest and Youngest (Ellen)… America again the Subject – our Washington and the Napoleon of France are weighed (as they ought to be) in very different Scales – our Habits and those of Europe come next and vary in Value quite as much and after many witty pros and cons (from the Professor, recollect), we raise to go to see the Ladies that have prepared tea for us… Lucy, when I related our receiving our noble and worthy General Lafayette both in New York and Philadelphia, I saw the Tears trickle down the cheeks of good Mr Gregg with a good weight of feelings better understood by me than easy of description.’
The following morning, Audubon went for an early walk in the rain, joining ‘4 of the sisters all drawing in the Library, that in this Country is generally the setting room’. He helped the girls with their drawing, drew a portrait of the Professor and after lunch walked through the garden, Hannah having promised a bunch of grapes. Then Dick the pony was ready to take them back into town.
On Saturday 7 October, after being entertained by Robert Hyde Greg at his house at Sumner Place, where he saw his collection of pictures, he was taken by Hannah and Samuel in their carriage back to Quarry Bank… We turn again quite short to the right, move slowly down the Hill and I am leading Mrs Gregg to her House – Thus from Green Bank to Quarry Bank, but from one pleasure to another, not like a Butterfly that Skips from flower to flower, but more I hope – as a bee gathering honeyed knowledge for older times!
Addressing his wife Lucy, he comments on his hosts: ‘Mrs Gregg is one of those rare examples of the superior powers of thy Sex over ours where education and Circumstances are combined—She is most amiable, Smart, quick witty, positively Learned, with an Incomparable Memory, and as benevolent as Woman can be — Her and her Husband form the finest picture of Devoted, tender and faithful attachment I Ever met with…’
While ‘the ladies worked at Light things’, they all talked about the superiority of women, and at one point ‘Mr Greg with a smile… pointed to his Lady and pronounced her his superior also!’
On the Sunday he went to Chapel with the family and walked round the garden with Ellen, the youngest daughter. On the Monday, he drew a chaffinch and went out shooting game; returning to the family’s hospitality, but declining Hannah Greg’s administrations for his cold: ‘ It was with difficulty that I escaped the physic intended for me this Evening. Mr Gregg said that wine was bad for me and I must not touch it — I pleaded that it would wear my Cold and swallowed a Glass…Mr Gregg was in high Spirits, so was his lady and all the stars shewn brightly also; much entertaining poetry was tread and repeated. We had a little music and a great deal of interesting conversation’ – some of it over a map of America.
The next day he left with Samuel for Manchester, talking of cotton, Corn Laws, and taxes here and in America.
Audubon was invited back. Walking from Manchester on Thursday 19 October, a fine day, he arrived at 10am while the family was still at breakfast, and drew with the ladies all day. ‘The afternoon was spent first at sketching a Portrait of Mr Gregg… the chalk moved fast and I was quite satisfied of my work, but it was not so of everybody Else. Faults were found and I enjoyed the Criticisms very much’. He then went to the village and saw inside the home of a weaver – he referred to a silk weaver; and the next day he ‘saw inside another beautiful Cottage, where to my great surprise I saw 2 cases of well stuffed birds’. Then Ellen and her sister Agnes took him to the farm where he ‘saw the Finest diary and handsomest Cattle’. They exchanged presents and keepsakes as he left.
Audubon was becoming a star – he was soon on his way to publishing his magnum opus.
David Sekers, June 2014
These excerpts – which retain the spelling and punctuation of the original – are reprinted from John James Audubon’s Journal of 1826: The Voyage to The Birds of America by John James Audubon, edited by Daniel Patterson, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2011 by the Board.