Hannah Mary Rathbone (1798-1878)

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Hannah Mary Rathbone (1798-1878) was a respected writer, best known for her work of fiction, The Diary of Lady Willoughby (1844-47). This charming collection of watercolours show her literary and artistic influences. Hannah Mary was part of the celebrated Liverpool Rathbone family of non-conformist merchants and ship-owners, philanthropists and social reformers. The family famously hosted the great American wildlife artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) when he spent time in England in the 1820s and 30s, and his influence can be seen in Hannah Mary's work. Many of her subjects were also inspired by the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - America's most beloved 19th century poet.

Hannah Mary's unuusual book ‘The Diary of Lady Willoughby’, set in the reign of Charles I, gained her wide celebrity. First published anonymously in 1844, it was taken by some as an original 17th-century work of autobiography; others speculated as to the author, with Robert Southey, Lord John Manners, and Mr John Murray all in turn suggested. Rathbone also published books of poetry, an illustrated volume called The Poetry of Birds (1832), and a selection of pen-and-ink drawings from Pinelli's etchings of Italian peasantry.

Her joint interests in Longfellow and ornithology, in evidence in these paintings, point to a remarkable influence on the Rathbone family: the American wildlife artist John James Audubon (1785-1851). In 1926 the bankrupt Audubon sailed from America to England in search of patronage for his idea of producing, as engravings, each of the birds of America. In July 1826 he arrived in Liverpool and struck gold: he was taken in by - and received financial assistance from - the Rathbone family at their Liverpool mansion, Greenbank House (now part of the University of Liverpool). Audubon’s resulting work was the magnificent Birds of America, a huge and lavishly illustrated set of prints featuring some 435 hand-coloured plates, copies of which rank among the world’s most valuable books.

Audubon cut a dashing frontiersman-like figure, and, with his knowledge of and intimate relationship with America’s wildlife, would have made quite an impression on the young Hannah Rathbone. Hannah Mary (née Reynolds) married her half-cousin Richard Rathbone, a commission merchant and committed opponent of the slave trade, and spent long stays at her husband’s family home, Greenbank House. Furthermore, Audubon was also to become a widely respected writer - his writings on Louisiana influencing Longfellow - an influence which comes full circle back to Hannah Mary Rathbone in her paintings.

The University of Liverpool Special Collections & Archives recently held an exhibition titled 'A gift from Greenbank': reconstructing the Rathbone library, which featured a compilation of poems about birds, with corresponding hand-painted, coloured illustrations, by Hannah Mary Rathbone.