Posted 14th February 2019
Portrait of Rachel Gurney
When I first started working at Watts Gallery I became aware that there was a portrait of Rachel Gurney, painted in 1885 by GF Watts. The portrait was in storage but the Curator showed it to me. I admired the painting and vaguely wondered if we were in any way related.
With the painting now being displayed I was asked by the marketing team to write my impression of the portrait, as her namesake.
I have to say that I find it very striking – her black dress and the dark background really emphasise the luminosity of her skin. She looks very healthy - her sister Laura said she had 'a gorgeous complexion which had the bloom on it of a pomegranate and the deep rose of a sun-kissed peach'. I think that is a beautiful description of her. With her big brown eyes, she is gazing at something, neither happy nor sad and looks self assured without being haughty. She seems very calm and it makes me smile when I look at the portrait.
It's no wonder that King Edward V11 wanted to buy the portrait when he saw it displayed at Watts Memorial Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1905. Despite the King being friends with Rachel and her mother Alice Prinsep, Mary Watts politely refused Rachel to leave the Watts Gallery. Thank goodness for that!
Knowing from research my father did that there is a link somehow between my great-grandfather Richard Gurney, and one of the brothers of Elizabeth Fry, the social reformer (a Gurney before she got married) I wondered if Watts's Rachel descended from this Gurney line. I very quickly discovered that Rachel's grandfather was Daniel Gurney, the banker and, a brother of Elizabeth! Whilst not descended from Daniel or his brother Samuel, it is the other brother John with whom we think there is a family link. My mother remembers seeing an old book called The Gurneys, which had a picture of Daniel Gurney - she said he was the spitting image of my great-grandfather and grandfather.
I am now trying to obtain birthdates for Richard Gurney and his parents' names so I can complete the missing link. All the research done was passed to my father's cousin, sadly who has now died, which I am trying to locate.
In the meantime I am so excited by the prospect of being able to see Rachel everyday at work and know that we are related!
From Monday 18 February, see G F Watts's Rachel Gurney on display in the main gallery as part of our spring re-hang.