Penelope Boothby was the daughter (and only child) of Sir Brooke Boothby (1743–1824), seventh Baronet (sixth, says Wikipedia) and of his wife Susanna (1755–1822). For her biography and cultural afterlife, I follow mainly Rosemary Mitchell’s article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Penelope was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire (UK) on 11 April 1785. Her education was probably influenced by the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose works her father translated into English. In July 1788, her portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. According to Rosemary Mitchell, “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.” Her oversized bonnet earned the painting the epithet of the “Mob-Cap”. I show the scan given in the article by Roy Flukinger in Cultural Compass:
Penelope died on 13 March 1791 (on the 19th, says Wikipedia) at Ashbourne Hall, the family estate in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, after an illness of about a month. She was buried on the 20th at St. Oswald’s Church in Ashbourne. Mitchell says: “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.”
Boothby devoted several years to paying a posthumous tribute to his beloved daughter. He “commissioned the artist Henry Fuseli to memorialize his daughter in a painting entitled The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby (1792).”
Mitchell notes: “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.”
And that was not all: “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.” This monument lies in St. Oswald’s Church, Ashbourne.
Here is the photograph taken in 2009 by Pasquale Apone for Panoramio:
In the following photograph from Wikimedia Commons, one sees in the background the Memorial to John and Anne Bradbourne:
Here is a close-up 2006 photograph by user ‘JR P UGArdener’ on Flickr:
In 1796, Brooke Boothby published a collection of sonnets expressing his grief: Sorrows. Sacred to the Memory of Penelope. According to Mitchell, some reviews were “measured but sympathetic”, but another stressed the “sameness and insipidity of sound” of the sonnets. Indeed, eight of these poems are reproduced on Sonnet Central, and I find them moving, but far from exceptional.
Sir Brooke Boothby lived in an extravagant way and finally became ruined. Ashbourne Hall was leased in 1814, then Boothby settled in Boulogne in 1815 and died there in 1824.
As says Mitchell: “Penelope Boothby’s cultural afterlife did not end with her father’s poetical tribute.” Several artists emulated Penelope’s portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. I show two 19th century mezzotint prints downloaded from the National Portrait Gallery (references NPG D21649 and NPG D31993, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0):
Then “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.” I show here the reproduction given in Pip’s article Cherry Ripe! Pt. 1:
Mitchell continues: “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.” I reproduce these two photographs from the article by Roy Flukinger in Cultural Compass; as one sees, Xie wears the same mittens and “Mob-Cap” as Penelope in Reynolds’s painting:
Rosemary Mitchell concludes:
“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: ‘Boothby, Penelope (1785–1791)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2010; online edition, Jan 2011. (The online version is available only to registered users or subscribing institutions.)
- Roy Flukinger: ‘For his most famous child portrait, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) drew inspiration from an eighteenth-century painting’, Cultural Compass, The Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.