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  Penelope Boothby (1785–1791), by Joshua Reynolds, 1788 Penelope Boothby (1785–1791), by Joshua Reynolds, 1788
Boothby, Penelope (1785–1791), artist's model and subject of poetry, was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire, on 11 April 1785, the daughter of , and his wife, Susanna (1755–1822), daughter and sole heir of Robert Bristoe or Bristow of Micheldever, Hampshire. She was baptized on the following day in Lichfield Cathedral. Her father, who did not inherit his title until 1789, was a prominent figure in the cultural milieu of the day, a poet, political writer, translator of Rousseau, and an amateur botanist and collaborator with Erasmus Darwin; he was also a friend of several well-known bluestockings, and an art patron. Penelope was an only child, possibly because her mother was disabled. Little is known of her short life, though her upbringing was presumably influenced by the principles outlined in Rousseau's Émile.

In 1787 the Boothbys visited Paris, where Brooke met the French artist Jacques-Louis David, and by April 1788 they were in London, where a portrait of Penelope was commissioned from Sir Joshua Reynolds. Fifty guineas was paid for the portrait in May, and appointments for the little girl appear in Reynolds's pocket-book for 1, 3, 5, and 8 July 1788. 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. The portrait, on loan at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, has been described as ‘one of Reynolds' most successful child-portraits, original in conception and brilliant in execution’ (Penny, 319): it depicts Penelope sitting down against a wooded landscape, sporting an oversized bonnet, which earned the painting the epithet of the Mob-Cap. Higonnet comments that Penelope does not quite fit her clothes: ‘endearingly miniaturized’, she is the classic Romantic child, representative of an Edenic innocence, ‘absorbed in childhood’, emblematic of ‘what we have lost and what we fear to lose’ (Higonnet, 28).

Soon after the portrait's completion the Boothbys returned to their estate at Ashbourne in Derbyshire, where Penelope probably spent the remainder of her life. She died on Sunday 13 March 1791, at Ashbourne Hall, after an illness of about a month, during which she was treated by Erasmus Darwin. In a letter of 9 March 1791 Darwin opined that she was suffering from hydrocephalus, recording that the illness had started as a pain in the left side of her head, followed by vomiting. As she became increasingly drowsy he had treated her with calomel, blisters, laudanum, and ether. It seems possible that an encephalitis (a viral infection of the brain, causing intracranial pressure) was the cause; meningitis has also been suggested, although an attack of bacterial meningitis would probably have resulted in a much quicker death. A congenital abnormality may possibly have been responsible. Penelope Boothby was buried at St Oswald's Church, Ashbourne, on 20 March 1791: 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. Susanna Boothby is thought to have gone to live in Dover, while Brooke departed for France soon after his daughter's death, and led a peripatetic existence for the rest of his life. However, financial considerations might also have been a factor: Boothby was heavily in debt and in 1792 let out Ashbourne Hall and borrowed £4000 on the security of the estate.

The grief of Penelope's parents led both to memorialize her in their separate fashions. 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. According to the sculptor's daughter, Brooke Boothby used to come daily to view progress on the effigy, and often wept. When Banks's model (now in the Sir John Soane collection) was exhibited at Somerset House in 1793 Queen Charlotte and her daughters were also apparently moved to tears. The monument itself, which is in St Oswald's Church, appears to have been kept in a locked wooden case until at least 1839. It seems likely that this was at Boothby's request, and that it reflects the degree to which the effigy functioned as a site for his grief. Boothby also commissioned the artist Henry Fuseli to memorialize his daughter in a painting entitled The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby (1792; Wolverhampton Art Gallery). 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.

In 1796 Boothby published a collection of his own sonnets, Sorrows Sacred to the Memory of Penelope, in which he constructed his own ‘frail monument’ to one loved ‘not wisely but too well’ (‘To the reader’), and also celebrated the artistic memorials of Banks and Fuseli, which were beautifully depicted in stipple engravings in the volume. Boothby's verses were competent but, as he himself said, their true value was as ‘expressions of true feeling’ (ibid.). Reviews in the British Critic and the Monthly Review were measured but sympathetic, praising this ‘elegant monument of paternal grief’ (Monthly Review, 21.316). The poet Anna Seward—possibly a disappointed admirer of Boothby—was less impressed, commenting on the ‘sameness and insipidity of sound’ of the sonnets (Zonneveld, 292). Later Susanna Boothby recalled Penelope in her will, in which she left £100 to ‘the nurse of my beloved child’, and bequeathed jewellery featuring Penelope's hair and a copy of Sorrows to her brother, ‘to be carefully preserved by him’ (ibid., 438–9).

Penelope Boothby's cultural afterlife did not end with her father's poetical tribute. 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. 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.

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


J. Zonneveld, Sir Brooke Boothby: Rousseau's roving baronet friend (2003) · Burke, Peerage · D. H. Weinglass, Prints and engraved illustrations by and after Henry Fuseli: a catalogue raisonné (1994), 177–8 · C. F. Bell, ed., Annals of Thomas Banks (1938), 95–6 · A. Higonnet, Pictures of innocence: the history and crisis of ideal childhood (1998), 28–30 · R. Woods, Children remembered: responses to untimely death in the past (2006), 77–8, 83–4 · N. Penny, ed., Reynolds (1986), 319 [exhibition catalogue, RA, 16 Jan – 31 March 1986] · B. Boothby, Sorrows sacred to the memory of Penelope (1796) · ‘Sorrows sacred to the memory of Penelope’, Monthly Review, 21 (July 1796), 316–17 · ‘Sorrows sacred to the memory of Penelope’, British Critic, 8 (Aug 1796), 128–30 · L. Bradley, ‘From Eden to empire: John Everett Millais's Cherry ripe’, Victorian Studies, 34/2 (winter 1991), 179–203 · P. T. Reis, ‘Victorian centrefold: another look at Millais's Cherry ripe’, Victorian Studies, 35/2 (winter 1992), 201–5 · R. Taylor and E. Wakeling, Lewis Carroll, photographer: the Princeton University Library albums (2002), 96–101, 234 · D. R. Nickel, Dreaming in pictures: the photography of Lewis Carroll (2002), 62–3 · L. Smith, The politics of focus: women, children, and nineteenth-century photography (1998), 27–30


J. Reynolds, oils, 1788, priv. coll.; AM Oxf. [see illus.] · H. Fuseli, oils, 1792, Wolverhampton Art Gallery · T. Banks, funeral effigy [model], 1793, Sir John Soane's Museum, London · T. Banks, funeral effigy, marble, 1793, St Oswald's Church, Ashbourne · T. Kirk, stipple engraving, 1796 (after oils by Joshua Reynolds), repro. in Boothby, Sorrows · J. Scott, mezzotint, 1850–80 (after oils by Joshua Reynolds), NPG · S. Cousins, mezzotint, pubd 1874 (after oils by Joshua Reynolds), NPG · stipple engraving (after funeral effigy marble by Thomas Banks), repro. in Boothby, Sorrows · stipple engraving (after oils by Henry Fuseli), repro. in Boothby, Sorrows