Family Group Sheet
Family Group Sheet
NameCapt Henry Brooks GASKELL
Birth1846
Death1907
FatherHenry Lomax GASKELL (1813-1889)
MotherAlice Cunliffe BROOKS (1822-1872)
Marriage1873
SpouseHelen Mary “May”
Birth1853, Shelsey, Worcs
Death1940
FatherCanon David MELVILLE (1812-1904)
MotherEmma HILL (1822-1893)
Children
Birth1879
Death1954
Birth1874
Death1910
Birth1887
Death1966
Notes for Capt Henry Brooks GASKELL
Of Kiddington Hall, Oxford.
Notes for Helen Mary “May”
See Josceline Dimbley’s book: A Profound Secret” (2004) which relate to Edward Burne-Jones and his alleged afair with May Gaskell the mother of the subject of his portrait of Amy Gaskell.


From the Daily Telegragh April 2004

Edward Burne-Jones's gorgeous, enigmatic portrait of Amy Gaskell - the finest of the Victorian era - has long been shrouded in mystery. Now, says Richard Dorment, the extraordinary truth has been revealed

The centrepiece of the exhibition A Profound Secret is for me the single most beautiful portrait of the Victorian era. By Edward Burne-Jones, it depicts the 19-year-old Amy Gaskell, a pale young woman dressed entirely in black.

In the three-quarter-length canvas, she is shown seated against a black background with her hands in her lap. Her lovely face, modelled with imperceptible transitions from light to dark, is almost in profile.

No portrait I know so perfectly conveys the gravity and expectancy of an adolescent on the brink of life. Yet, like so many of the greatest portraits, this one doesn't tell us all we want to know about the sitter. The picture exudes a sense of mystery - a curious mingling of innocence with melancholy - that has, until now, eluded explanation.

What we know about the past is often a matter of the documents that happen to survive. The discovery by the writer and journalist Josceline Dimbleby of a cache of Burne-Jones's letters to her great grandmother (the basis both of this exhibition and of her book A Profound Secret) have made me see the Portrait of Amy Gaskell in a whole new light.

RELATED ARTICLES

28 March 2004: 'Body and soul you are perfect, perfect' [reviews A Profound Secret: May Gaskell, her Daughter Amy, and Edward Burne-Jones] 14 Apr 2004

18 February 2004: Hooked on reality [on the work of the Pre-Raphaelites] 14 Apr 2004

For the picture is the fruit - a Freudian would say the offspring - of a passionate love affair, not between the artist and the sitter, but between the artist and the sitter's mother.

In 1892, the 59-year-old Burne-Jones, who was married with two grown-up children, met and fell in love with Amy's mother Helen Mary (May) Gaskell.

She was a vivacious but unhappily married society hostess who belonged to the aristocratic circle of friends known as the "Souls". He was the elder statesman of Victorian art, once the close follower of Rossetti, later working with William Morris, and now the idol of the French Symbolists.

Reading the letters Burne-Jones wrote to May Gaskell, by turns fey and heartfelt and often illustrated with deliciously comic drawings, there is no doubt that his love for her was all-consuming.

But the relationship had no physical dimension. The surviving material wonderfully evokes a late-Victorian world of drawing-room flirtations and of courtly love, a world in which loving intimacy could develop between a man and a woman without necessarily becoming sexual.

May's eldest child Amy was, we learn, a troubled and complex young woman. Hers was an inward-looking and somewhat morbid personality, capable of captioning a photograph of herself lying in bed "Dead".

Most portraits of pretty young girls show them in becoming frocks. By choosing to paint Amy in black, Burne-Jones hints at the difficulty she had coming to terms with life. For Burne-Jones was a man of strong intuitions and generous friendships.

In one of the most extraordinary letters displayed in the show, he writes to May, preparing her for a coming sorrow. Writing in the weeks before he died of heart failure in June 1898, he gently takes leave of her.

"Supposing that we should never meet again - you would have courage, wouldn't you? We have had six years of the most beautiful friendship that ever was. Six long years of it without a flaw, without a thing to repent of."

Without Dimbleby's research, we could not have known about the tragedy that was now to unfold. For, in the same year Burne-Jones died, Amy married Lionel Bonham, a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards, and followed him to the East.

Her life with Bonham was very unhappy. After his death from typhoid in 1909, she waited for her husband's body to be returned to the family home, Holdhurst in Surrey. One night, she retired early to bed, giving instructions that she was not to be disturbed.

When she did not appear the next morning, her mother went to her room and found her dead. She was 36. Although May Gaskell maintained that Amy had died of a broken heart, the presumption is that she took her own life.

In view of all this, we look again at Amy's portrait and realise that it turned out to be the most precious gift Burne-Jones could have given to the woman he loved so deeply and protectively, a likeness of a beloved child that could comfort and console the devastated mother in the long years that were to pass before her death in 1940.

The show at Leighton House is as nearly perfect as it can be, filled not only with Burne-Jones's letters but also with his exquisite portrait drawings in pencil and chalk.

But go quickly: there is a rumour that the owner may remove the portrait of Amy before the show closes.
Last Modified 28 Dec 2012Created 28 Jan 2018 using Reunion for Macintosh