Helen Gifford

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These works come from a beautiful leather-bound album of flower and plant studies by Helen Gifford. With the word ‘botany’ on the spine and cover, the album is signed on the title page and dated 1861 (please note, the album itself and the inscription inside it are not included with the work). Some pages bear the watermark ‘J. Whatman, Turkey Mill 1851.’

Most of the highly detailed watercolour studies of flowers and fruit in the album are accompanied by extensive botanical notes. As a lengthy inscription inside the album makes clear, these notes follow the so-called ‘natural system’ of the French botanist Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, which came to displace the ‘sexual system’ of Linnaeus. Instead of ordering plant families by their number of stamens and styles, the ‘natural system’ grouped them according to shared characteristics in their flowers and fruits.

The paintings were made during what must have been a turbulent time for Helen Gifford. Her father was John Attersoll Gifford, a solicitor who took to drink, retired early, and lived on his mother's private income, until her death in 1860. The family then had to make economies, and Helen had to work as a governess. With a frequently drunk and unpredictable father at home, the orderliness of botanical classification may have appealed to her.

In 1868 Helen Gifford was able to escape the pressures of her father’s house, when she married the Reverend Caddell Holder (who was thirty-five years older than her), and moved into the rectory in St Juliot in Cornwall.

Today, Helen Gifford is best known because of a series of events that happened shortly after her marriage. Her husband’s church needed to be repaired, and a young architect named Thomas Hardy was hired to supervise the work. Helen Gifford set to work arranging a match between this young man and her sister Emma, who had also sought refuge from her father by staying at St Juliot. Hardy and Emma were soon married, and when Hardy eventually turned his hand to writing, he would fictionalise their courtship in his third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes.

Thomas and Emma Hardy’s marriage was not to be a happy one, however, and so Helen Gifford is at least partly responsible for the theme of ill-judged marriages and incompatible spouses, which runs through the work of one of Britain’s greatest novelists.