Minding the Women
An exhibition celebrating Caroline Wedgwood
Leith Hill Place, National Trust
Caroline Wedgwood was wife to Josiah Wedgwood, sister to Charles Darwin and grandmother to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Reading her letters reveals a gentle and genteel woman who was family and community focused. She was educated and knowledgeable on subjects such as botany and politics. She was vehemently anti-slavery and pro-education, setting up and running a local school. She is thought to be the person responsible for the stunning Rhododendron Wood adjacent to the house. Caroline gave birth to four daughters after a late marriage. She lost her first child in infancy and she suffered great sadness as a result. This exhibition, part of my residency with the National Trust, is a response to Caroline Wedgwood’s life, an indomitable character of Leith Hill Place.
The Angel of Leith Hill Place
Bronze verdigris, mounted on reclaimed oak
The Angel of Leith Hill Place is both woman and tree, a feminine tree trunk and two wings stretching up and taking flight, a sapling and a mighty oak, an inanimate object and life giving uterus, both elegant and primitive, both heavy in material and light in attitude, this incongruous work portrays both the genteel woman and the academic botanical scholar, the idea that we are never just one thing, that Caroline Wedgwood, like all of us, was multi-faceted and contradictory. Caroline was a generous woman who cared for her family immeasurably, an angel of comfort and a root of support. “I never saw a human being so fond of little crying wretches, as she is. But I am an ungrateful dog to speak this way, for she was a mother to me, during all the early part of my life.” (Charles Darwin 7th July 1837)
Woman into Wood
Bronze and lead, mounted on reclaimed oak
Caroline Wedgwood is thought to be the person responsible for the rhododendron wood adjacent to the house. Upon researching her life and reading through her letters, there is indication that she was a knowledgeable botanist and keen gardener (“We have all been taking to gardening very vigorously” (Caroline 11th April 1826)) but there is no evidence that she was the mother of the wood. Somehow over the years a local myth has developed, maybe based on real remembered history or maybe not.
However, the rhododendrons are the thing she is remembered for, turning the woman into a wood. She was not only a surrogate mother to her siblings (“I think the time when you & Catherine were little children & I was always with you or thinking about you was the happiest part of my life & I dare say always will be”(Caroline 22nd March 1826)) and mother to her own children but also a mythical mother to an exotic, colourful and botanically interesting woodland.
Caroline Wedgwood married early August 1837 at the age of 36 and very quickly became pregnant. Her first child, Sophy Mary Ann Wedgwood, was born in 1838 but died seven weeks later. She was understandably devastated. It was moving to read that Caroline Wedgwood sought help for her sadness later in her life.
The reference to her seeing a mental health doctor is in a letter from Charles to Josiah on 1st May 1854 where it says “Give my best love to Caroline. Most heartily glad we were to hear so good an account of your interview with Sir. B. B.” Referencing Benjamin Collins Brodie who lived at Croome Park in Surrey and wrote Psychological Inquiries which was published in 1854. Caroline Wedgwood had four daughters, Sophy Mary Ann Wedgwood (1838), Katherine Sophy Wedgwood (1842-1911), Margaret Susan Wedgwood (1843-1937), and Lucy Caroline Wedgwood (1846-1919), known to the family collectively as the “Josselinas”. Four is something of a family portrait, a mother with her four children.
Pewter & silver alloy, mounted on reclaimed oak
A hollow, rotten tree that is left to fall still has a role to play in the woodland, feeding the wildlife, creating a habitat that is vital to survival. Caroline was politically and socially generous in attitude, seeing the best in humanity with hope and optimism. For her, even the most desperate situation deserved a place of importance in our considerations: a hollow tree deserved a place amongst the silver. “I rejoice to find the more you see of the negro’s the better you think of them & it is delightful to think in a few years we shall have no more slaves—that alone is enough to make one properly value this Parliament” (Caroline 28th October 1833).
Caroline Wedgwood loved gardening and is thought to be responsible for the rhododendron wood adjacent to the house. She is also a woman capable of supporting a large family. Her letters reveal a woman who holds the emotions of others close to her heart, with the strength and fortitude of the oak tree.