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Parsons [née Field], Mary, countess of Rosselocked

(1813–1885)
  • Carolyn Bloore

Parsons [née Field], Mary, countess of Rosse (1813–1885), photographer, was born on 21 July 1813 at Heaton Hall, Bradford, the elder daughter of John Wilmer Field (1775–1837), landowner, and his first wife, Ann Wharton-Myddleton (d. 1815). She and her younger sister, Delia, were educated at home by their governess, Susan Lawson, who is reputed to have encouraged Mary's inquiring mind and wide-ranging interests. After 1827 the family spent most of the year at the London house in Hanover Square. On 14 April 1836 she married William Parsons, Lord Oxmantown (1800–1867), who, on the death of his father in 1841, became third earl of Rosse and inherited his family estates and Birr Castle, King's county. The first of her eleven children, a daughter, was born in 1839, but only four sons, Laurence Parsons (1840–1908), Randal (1848–1936), Clere (1851–1923), and Charles Parsons (1854–1931), survived beyond childhood.

Mary Parsons's marriage settlement and substantial inheritance enabled her to pursue her scientific and artistic interests and to participate in those of her husband, who was president of the Royal Society (1849–54) and a commissioner for the Great Exhibition of 1851. She is said to have mastered sufficient astronomy to assist him with calculations, and supported him practically and financially in the construction of his giant telescope, completed in 1845. This was to feature repeatedly in some of her most successful and evocative photographs, one of which, Mouth of the Great Rosse Telescope at Parsonstown, was reproduced as the engraved frontispiece to Curiosities of Science (1858). Others, such as Lord Rosse's Three-Foot Telescope (Castle Ward album) and the various stereoscopic images of the early 1860s, were more technically informative and were reproduced in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1861) and exhibited at the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865.

Early in 1854 Lady Rosse took her first photographs, initially using the waxed paper process and then working extensively with collodion, which she applied to portraiture, photographing both notable figures, such as the mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Romney Robinson, and finely composed informal groups of her family and friends, images that are paralleled in the photography of the ladies Nevill at Eridge Park, Kent, and the early work of Lady Hawarden at Dundrum in neighbouring co. Tipperary, in common with whom she used shadow as a compositional element. She was proposed as a member of the Dublin Photographic Society (later the Photographic Society of Ireland) in November 1856 and in 1859 was awarded the society medal for the best paper negative. From the grounds of Birr, she created picturesque views of the castle, the River Camor, and the town of Birr: the sort of images she might have contributed to the Amateur Photographic Association of which she became a member in 1863. She experimented too with photography from the yacht Titania, which the family chartered for seven years.

Lady Rosse was a woman with great energy and determination. In a successful attempt to alleviate local poverty during the Irish potato famine of 1845, she initiated extensive work to provide local employment; in collaboration with her uncle Richard Wharton-Myddleton she redesigned and organized the rebuilding of the castle demesne. Subsequently she built a nursery wing, a stable block, gatehouse, and entrance gate. She was also responsible for the design and on-site manufacture of cast-iron and bronze gates, with heraldic embellishment to the keep gates. She recorded the new building photographically and frequently used the arch of the keep gate as a background for group portraits. Her design ability is also evidenced by a massive oak armorial sideboard, a Gothic bedroom suite, and a Gothic monument to the memory of her father in St Paul's Church, Shipley.

Early portraits of Mary Parsons portray her as a slim, elegant, dark-haired woman; later she appears more formidable, but seldom without a smile. She excelled as a hostess, was devoted to her sons, and played a major part in their upbringing and education. After the death of her husband in 1867, she left Birr to spend the rest of her life at 10 Connaught Place, London. Always an independent woman, she maintained interests in her Heaton and Shipley estates and in global investments, particularly railway stock. She died on 22 July 1885 in her London home, and was buried at Birr. Many of her photographs are in the collection of the Birr Scientific Foundation, Offaly.

Sources

  • D. H. Davison, Impressions of an Irish countess: the photographs of Mary, countess of Rosse (1989)
  • W. Cudworth, Mannington, Heaton and Allerton, townships of Bradford (1896)
  • H. Hind, Bradford remembrancer (1972)
  • T. R. R., PRS, 16 (1867–8), xxxvi–xlii [osb]obit. of William Parsons, 3rd earl of Rosse[csb]
  • C. W. Foster [and] J. J. Green, History of the Wilmer family (1888)
  • Photographic Journal, 5 (1858–9), 96–7
  • Photographic Journal, 8 (1862–4), 263–4
  • Photographic Notes [15 Sept], 220
  • L. Walker, Drawing on diversity: women, architecture and practice (1997)
  • D. H. Davison, ‘10. Mary, countess of Rosse: pioneer photographer’, Some more people and places in Irish technology (1990), 28–9
  • J. Timbs, Curiosities of science (1858)
  • W. Parsons, third earl of Rosse, ‘On the construction of specula of six-feet aperture’, PTRS, 151 (1861), 681–745
  • vault, Birr Castle, Offaly, Ireland
  • stained-glass windows, St Barnabas, Heaton
  • christening register, Bradford parish church cathedral
  • private information (2004)

Archives

  • Birr Castle, Offaly, MSS
  • Castle Ward, scrapbook

Likenesses

  • watercolour, 1836, Birr Castle, Offaly
  • silhouette, 1840, Birr Castle, Offaly
  • S. C. Smith, oils, 1850, Birr Castle, Offaly
  • M. K. Ward, watercolour, 1851, Castle Ward, co. Down
  • attrib. W. P. Parsons, collodion photograph, 1856, Birr Castle, Offaly
  • carte-de-visite, 1860–1869, Castle Ward, co. Down

Wealth at Death

£25,229 7s. 5d.; annual income of Heaton and Shipley estates £3000: Rosse MSS, G19, Birr Castle, Offaly

Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society