The Short Life and Long Afterlife of Penelope Boothby (1785–1791)

Penelope Boothby was the daughter (and only child) of Sir Brooke Boothby (1743–1824), seventh Baronet (sixth, says Wikipedia) and of his wife Susanna (1755–1822). For her biography and cultural afterlife, I follow mainly Rosemary Mitchell’s article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Penelope was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire (UK) on 11 April 1785. Her education was probably influenced by the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose works her father translated into English. In July 1788, her portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. According to Rosemary Mitchell, “Allegedly a warm relationship developed between the artist and the sitter, who disappeared from her home one day and was found at Reynolds’s house.” Her oversized bonnet earned the painting the epithet of the “Mob-Cap”. I show the scan given in the article by Roy Flukinger in Cultural Compass:

Joshua Reynolds – Penelope Boothby (1788)

Joshua Reynolds – Penelope Boothby (1788)

Penelope died on 13 March 1791 (on the 19th, says Wikipedia) at Ashbourne Hall, the family estate in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, after an illness of about a month. She was buried on the 20th at St. Oswald’s Church in Ashbourne. Mitchell says: “according to local legend her coffin was carried by six little girls, accompanied by six little boys holding umbrellas over them to keep off the rain. Her parents’ grief was life-long and devastating, and appears to have resulted in the collapse of their marriage.

Boothby devoted several years to paying a posthumous tribute to his beloved daughter. He “commissioned the artist Henry Fuseli to memorialize his daughter in a painting entitled The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby (1792).

Henry Fuseli -The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby (1792)

Henry Fuseli – The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby (1792)

Mitchell notes: “With its strong resemblance to an altarpiece, Fuseli’s work depicts a winged and elegantly clad angel sweeping down from heaven to receive an elongated Penelope, while a figure representing the daystar indicates the way upwards. On the ground, an urn and an oversized butterfly or moth serve to symbolize death, the fleeting character of human life, and the resurrection of the dead.

And that was not all: “A monument to Penelope was commissioned in 1793 from the prominent sculptor Thomas Banks. Made of Carrara marble, it depicted the little girl apparently sleeping, and carried inscriptions in English, Italian, Latin, and French, culled from the Bible, Catullus, Petrarch, and (unsurprisingly) Rousseau.” This monument lies in St. Oswald’s Church, Ashbourne.

Here is the photograph taken in 2009 by Pasquale Apone for Panoramio:

Thomas Banks - monument to Penelope Boothby (1793) (1)

Thomas Banks – monument to Penelope Boothby (1793) (1)

In the following photograph from Wikimedia Commons, one sees in the background the Memorial to John and Anne Bradbourne:

Thomas Banks - monument to Penelope Boothby (1793) (2)

Thomas Banks – monument to Penelope Boothby (1793) (2)

Here is a close-up 2006 photograph by user ‘JR P UGArdener’ on Flickr:

Thomas Banks - monument to Penelope Boothby (1793) (3)

Thomas Banks – monument to Penelope Boothby (1793) (3)

Two old-fashioned argentic black & white photographs by F. H. Crossley are available on the website of the The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, see references B47/2057 and B47/3058.

In 1796, Brooke Boothby published a collection of sonnets expressing his grief: Sorrows. Sacred to the Memory of Penelope. According to Mitchell, some reviews were “measured but sympathetic”, but another stressed the “sameness and insipidity of sound” of the sonnets. Indeed, eight of these poems are reproduced on Sonnet Central, and I find them moving, but far from exceptional.

Sir Brooke Boothby lived in an extravagant way and finally became ruined. Ashbourne Hall was leased in 1814, then Boothby settled in Boulogne in 1815 and died there in 1824.

As says Mitchell: “Penelope Boothby’s cultural afterlife did not end with her father’s poetical tribute.” Several artists emulated Penelope’s portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. I show two 19th century mezzotint prints downloaded from the National Portrait Gallery (references NPG D21649 and NPG D31993, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0):

James Scott, after Joshua Reynolds - Penelope Boothby (1850-1880)

James Scott, after Joshua Reynolds – Penelope Boothby (1850-1880)

Samuel Cousins, after Joshua Reynolds - Penelope Boothby (1874)

Samuel Cousins, after Joshua Reynolds – Penelope Boothby (1874)

Then “Reynolds’s portrait served as the inspiration for John Everett Millais’s Cherry Ripe (1879), which was a portrait of Edie Ramage, who had attended a fancy-dress ball in that year dressed as Penelope.” I show here the reproduction given in Pip’s article Cherry Ripe! Pt. 1:

John Everett Millais – Cherry Ripe (1879)

John Everett Millais – Cherry Ripe (1879)

Mitchell continues: “Three years earlier the photographer and writer Lewis Carroll had taken two pictures of his favourite model, Xie (Alexandria) Kitchin, dressed as Penelope Boothby—one in which she is sitting down and one with her standing against a minimalist background.” I reproduce these two photographs from the article by Roy Flukinger in Cultural Compass; as one sees, Xie wears the same mittens and “Mob-Cap” as Penelope in Reynolds’s painting:

Charles L. Dodgson - Xie Kitchin as Penelope Boothby, seated (1875-1876)

Charles L. Dodgson – Xie Kitchin as Penelope Boothby, seated (1875-1876)

Charles L. Dodgson - Xie Kitchin as Penelope Boothby, standing (1875-1876)

Charles L. Dodgson – Xie Kitchin as Penelope Boothby, standing (1875-1876)

Rosemary Mitchell concludes:

“The parental and artistic response in the 1790s to Penelope Boothby’s untimely death reveals the impact of Romantic ideas on constructions of childhood as a period separate from adulthood, and blessed with innocence and openness to natural and spiritual truths. It also illustrates the effect of Romanticism on perceptions of death, as the memorials to Penelope reflect an increasingly individualized and partially secularized response to the experience of loss. The later Victorian appropriation of Reynolds’s image of the living Penelope reveals both the intensification of the cult of childhood in the nineteenth century and a nostalgia for the apparently simple and rural world of pre-industrial Georgian England.”


  • Rosemary Mitchell: ‘Boothby, Penelope (1785–1791)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2010; online edition, Jan 2011. (The online version is available only to registered users or subscribing institutions.)
  • Roy Flukinger: ‘For his most famous child portrait, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) drew inspiration from an eighteenth-century painting’, Cultural Compass, The Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Update: a new transcription of three other sonnets from Boothby’s Sorrows.

Cherry Ripe!

There is a garden in her face
Where roses and white lilies grow;
A heav’nly paradise is that place
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.
There cherries grow which none may buy,
Till “Cherry-ripe” themselves do cry.

The above is the first stanza of Thomas Campion’s poem “There is a Garden in Her Face,” a paean to a beautiful virginal girl. How do we know this? We must first put it into historical context. Cherry vendors in England traditionally used the call “Cherry ripe!” to let people know that cherries were ready to buy. If we apply this fact to the poem, we see that the man is describing a girl that, while beautiful, is not yet ready to be “bought”—that is, she hasn’t quite reached sexual maturity. Campion admires this girl for her sexual purity, which he acquaints with spiritual purity. Here we have a basic explanation for the Victorian cult of the girl (which followed Campion by a couple hundred years): girls, because of their perceived innocence and sweetness, were considered above all other natural human groups to be the closest to God, so long as they maintained their virginity, hence British society’s horror of the underground culture of girls being kidnapped and deflowered—brought to light by W. T. Stead’s series The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon, and likely highly exaggerated therein—which compelled Britain’s Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

In terms of cherries being associated with young girls and virginity, many people seem to be under the impression that slang terms like cherry, in reference to the hymen, was invented by their generation, or at least the generation before theirs. In fact, this is not so:

cherry […] Meaning “maidenhead, virginity” is from 1889, U.S. slang, from supposed resemblance to the hymen, but perhaps also from the long-time use of cherries as a symbol of the fleeting quality of life’s pleasures.”

There we have it. The slang term dates at least to 1889, but I suspect the association of this particular fruit with virginity dates further back than even Campion’s poem, which was first published in 1617. And we are also given another, older, symbolism for cherries in the above etymology: they stand for the fleeting quality of physical pleasure. This too can be tied into sex, but also to childhood, which is itself fleeting. This symbolism is the Western tradition, but even in the East the cherry (and more specifically the cherry blossom) are also associated with maidenhood/virginity. We are more concerned with the Western mode here, but I do find it interesting that such disparate cultures can arrive at a similar symbolic representation, don’t you?

Back to the poem. We get the impression from the final stanza not of a full-grown woman—worldly and self-assured—but of a nervous girl being approached by potential mates, as if she is a wary doe being stalked by wolves on the hunt.

Why am I bringing all of this up? It is to lay the foundation of context for one very interesting painting, that painting being Sir John Everett Millais’s “Cherry Ripe”, a deceptively simple portrait of a little girl in a white dress with pink highlights sitting on a log in the forest . . .

John Everett Millais – Cherry Ripe (1879)

Wikipedia: John Everett Millais

Millais was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and like most of the Pre-Raphaelites, he loaded his art with symbolism. First, the semiotics of color. White was of course the color of purity. Children, particularly little girls, were often dressed in white for formal portraits. Moreover, the child is placed against a dark and shadowy forest from which any wild beast could emerge and snatch her from her perch; unlike most portraits, which are set safely indoors or illuminated spaces, this one is actually a bit edgy. More likely than not this was intentional on Millais’s part. I have mentioned before that semiotically a white figure against black backdrop stresses the figure’s vulnerability or purity—or, in this case, both—in a morally nebulous world. Pale pink, which is traditionally associated with young girls, is also the color of cherry blossoms, and the child’s flesh is also pinkish. Here we have a figure composed almost entirely of white and pink. The lone exceptions are her eyes and hair and the black gloves, but as they were a conscious choice, it is the gloves that draw our attention.

The gloves are black. The color black has many symbolic interpretations, but here it screams sexuality. Look closely at the girl’s hands: they are placed in her lap and closed together prayer-style, only inverted. The gloves are fingerless, V-shaped and adjacent to her hands, inevitably funneling one’s attention right to the girl’s fleshy, exposed fingers, and (as more than one art critic has pointed out) those fingers happen to resemble a vulva.

Now some questions arise. Was this accidental or deliberate on the part of Millais? I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. And what exactly is Millais saying with this painting? Perhaps he is wrestling with the Victorian notion of the asexual girl-child, and suggesting that it may be a tad more complicated than that. Maybe he’s being ironic. After all, despite the title of the piece, the little girl is clearly nowhere near being “ripe”, and indeed some of the cherries lying at her side belie the title as well. Then again, maybe it is entirely coincidental, but I doubt it.

There is one other possibility I can think of. Millais was a friend of culture/art critic John Ruskin, who was married to Effie Gray at the time they met and became friends. But Ruskin had been married to Effie for several years and had yet to consummate the marriage, owing to, it was rumored, his mortal dread of pubic hair. Ruskin, like Lewis Carroll, had written a book for his beloved when she was still a child. The book was The King of the Golden River. Unlike Carroll, however, Ruskin was eventually able to marry the girl he had eyes for, although Ruskin and Effie were only nine years apart in age whereas Carroll and Alice Liddell were twenty years apart and of different social classes from one another. Anyway, Millais and Effie eventually fell in love, the marriage between Ruskin and Effie was annulled, and Effie remarried Millais, with whom she had eight children. (Side note: The oldest Millais daughter—also called Effie—was even one of Lewis Carroll’s photographic subjects.) Now, Ruskin was a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but given the embarrassing situation between Ruskin, Millais and Effie, it is little wonder that Ruskin began to condemn Millais’s post-marriage work, ostensibly because it was of lower quality according to Ruskin, but in reality it is more likely that Ruskin felt slighted and used his power as a critic to avenge the loss of his mate to Millais the best way he knew how. Is it possible, then, that Millais, with the painting “Cherry Ripe,” was publicly mocking Ruskin and his supposed pubic hair phobia? Probably not, but it is worth considering.

And speaking of Lewis Carroll, perhaps the next most famous artwork featuring little girls and cherries after the Millais piece is Carroll’s photo of the Liddell sisters (Edith, Lorina and Alice) in which the oldest girl, Lorina, is feeding Alice a cherry. Alice stands with her head cocked and mouth slightly agape, like a baby bird waiting to be fed by its mother. And, of course, Alice would be the one to be fed, given Carroll’s ongoing fascination with her.

Lewis Carroll – The Three Liddell Sisters (“Open Your Mouth”) (1860)

Wikipedia: Lewis Carroll

The above was one of several Carroll works that Polixeni Papapetrou created a tribute to.

Polixeni Papapetrou – Cherry Group

Polixeni Papapetrou (Official Site)

One step removed from this, cherries—really any fruit, but apples and cherries in particular—can represent transgression, as in the story of Adam and Eve, in which children stand in for the first humans and the crime that brings on their downfall is theft.

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The Cherry Thieves

Wikipedia: Fritz Zuber-Bühler

Carl Larsson – Forbidden Fruit

Wikipedia: Carl Larsson

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Pickers

Wikipedia: Frederick Morgan (painter)

Note the coy and mischievous expression on this girl’s face:

Charles Amable Lenoir – The Cherrypicker (1900)

Wikipedia: Charles Amable Lenoir

Cherries can also represent intimacy, both romantic and familial.

Paul Hermann Wagner – Idylle mit Atelier (1889)

Lord Frederick Leighton – Mother and Child (1865)

Lord Frederic Leighton: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

Franz von Defregger – Kinder beim Kirschenessen (1869)

Wikipedia: Franz Defregger

Cherries can become an amusement for little girls playing at being women.

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (1)

Frederick Morgan – Cherry Earrings (2)

Frederick Morgan – The Cherry Gatherers

Georg Rössler – Mädchen mit Kirschen (1901)

But mostly cherries were just colorful eye-catchers that helped to emphasize the vibrancy and ruddy healthiness of youth . . .

Emile Vernon – The Cherry Bonnet (1919)

John Russell – Little Girl with Cherries (1780)

Wikipedia: John Russell (painter)

Friedrich von Kaulbach – Kirschen (Cherries)

Wikipedia: Friedrich Kaulbach

Fritz Zuber-Bühler – The First Cherries

Finally, a couple of curious contemporary artworks in which girl meets fruit; to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what to make of these.

Rene Lynch – Wonderland: Cherry Picking (2005)

Rene Lynch (Official Site)

I will say one thing about this final piece: Pay attention to how the little nude girl unwittingly mimics the lithe erotically posed woman in the magazine her mother is holding.

Tatiana Deriy – Little Cherry

(Editor’s update, 2015/11/06: There is a larger image of Little Cherry on Tatiana Deriy’s website.)