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Newhaven Beauties!

April 29, 2010

Hi – I’m Sarah Saunders, Deputy Head of Education, and I’m delighted to be a new contributor to Heads Up. Over the coming months I hope to keep you posted on the latest developments on the galleries we’re working on, as well as providing insights about the education facilities and events programme of the brand new Portrait Gallery.  

On Friday I excitedly took a taxi to the Granton Centre for Art with Chief Curators Sara Stevenson and Julie Lawson. The aim of our visit was to select some photographs for one of the new galleries, which looks at the social and legislative changes affecting women’s lives in the 19th century.  



Mrs Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall, Newhaven fishwife  

For more information on these and other works by Hill & Adamson, click on the image above to go to our Flickr Commons site  

A visit to the stores is always exciting and illuminating. In one room, opposite rolling racks of paintings, there are boxes upon boxes of photographs stored in tall glass cabinets. Julie and I asked to see some of the  calotypes of Newhaven fishwives by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, particularly one of Mrs Elizabeth Johnstone Hall.   

The fishermen and women of Newhaven are a particularly fascinating example of a unique and brilliant social organisation, whereby the fisherwomen were equal partners with their husbands in a very successful fishing community. While the men were heroically risking their lives far out at sea, Sara tells us how the women paired up as girls, giving mutual support to each other throughout their careers. Surprisingly for this time, they also had financial control of the family’s money.  



Jeanie Wilson and Annie Linton by Hill & Adamson


Here you can see one such a pairing – Jeanie Wilson and Annie Linton, posed with some examples of the day’s catch of fish and oysters. Annie is seen with a pencil in her mouth, pondering on the daily accounts perhaps.  


What really amazes me is how striking they look in their colourfully-striped dresses, which were both practical for the dirty, smelly and heavy work of carrying the fish over a mile up from the harbour to the village and yet also made a fashion statement about their role in this impressive community. How fabulous they must have looked!  Accounts that tell us that the stripes varied in colour e.g. blue and white, pink and white, that they wore up to six petticoats and  had beautiful singing voices.  

Photographs of Elizabeth Rigby (later, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake) by Hill & Adamson


When asked by art critic Elizabeth Rigby (also featured in the gallery) why she didn’t put a pad on her back to save wearing so many expensive petticoats, Jeanie Wilson replied,  

“It was verra true – a piece on the bock might be better, but ye ken it’s juist the fashion o’ the place”.

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