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A Blossoming Friendship: The Clara Peters Collection

Photograph of Rosalie Chichester and Clara Peters (left) in New Zealand, 1928. © National Trust / Elsie Rolfe

'...a most devoted friend'.

Clara Elizabeth Peters may well have known that she was dying when, in February 1939, she presented her extensive collection of watercolour paintings of local plants and flowers to the North Devon Athenaeum.

Less than a month later she was laid to rest at St James’s churchyard in the grounds of Arlington Court where she had spent the last 28 years of her life as a paid companion to its unmarried and childless last inhabitant, Rosalie Chichester. Too ill to attend the small service, Rosalie sent flowers: ‘In loving memory of a most devoted friend’.

Their mutual love of flowers and art remains carefully preserved in the 164 watercolours which still form an integral part of our collection. Simple and elegant, yet perfectly uniform, the identically presented paintings containing nothing more than the neatly labelled specimens –  their slender stems and gently folding leaves casting slight shadows – are as much an intricate study of the local flora as they are works of art. The fact that Clara – known as ‘Chrissie’ – made a point of presenting them to the Athenaeum shortly before her death suggests an awareness of their value and significance for future generations of North Devonians.

Frustratingly little is known of Chrissie’s life before, aged 47, she accepted the post at Arlington in 1911. The only child of piano maker John Peters and his wife, Mary, she was born in Marylebone, grew up within the City of London, and by the age of 16 was employed as a school teacher. A decade later she was living with a Lincolnshire woman named Lucy West on the Harrow Road, and by the turn of the century the pair had moved to Paddington where they worked as dressmakers.

Clara Peter’s watercolour, 1914 © MBND.

The late Victorian and Edwardian era was a particularly bleak time in which to be an unmarried woman. Nevertheless, observes author Wendy Patterson, whose book Rosalie Caroline Chichester provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the two friends, their situations were not unusual. Around a third of women aged 25-35 were unmarried and while Rosalie’s wealth and status would have shielded her from much of the more overt discrimination – not to mention the constant fears about how to provide for oneself and threat of the workhouse suffered by the overwhelming majority of ‘spinsters’ – opportunities to live a truly fulfilling life would still have been severely limited. So pervasive was the notion that a woman’s natural place was as a wife and mother firmly rooted in the family home that unmarried women were perceived as ‘stunted, unfulfilled… lacking in value’ and a danger to society.

“Ridiculed by men, treated with scornful anxiety by other women” writes feminist author Margaret Walters in her introduction to George Gissing’s 1893 novel, The Odd Women: “the old maid is a traditional figure of fun. Men without women may achieve a certain romantic panache; women without men are oddities, hardly women at all…. They are seen, and see themselves, as failures and freaks”. Moreover, opportunities for paid work decreased rapidly as women aged, so it is likely to have been with some relief that Chrissie found not only employment, but also a beautiful home in which to spend the rest of her life.

Clara Peter’s watercolour, 1914 © MBND.

'...delicate depictions of Arlington’s fox gloves, blue bells and wild hyacinths'.

Due to the fact that most of Rosalie’s extensive accumulation of diaries and letters are rumoured to have been burnt by her faithful parlour man after her death on the grounds that they were ‘too intimate’, the intricacies of her relationship with Chrissie can only be guessed at. There can be little doubt however, says Patterson, that everything went ‘extremely well’ and that Rosalie relied on her a lot.  A year older than her employer, as well as an accomplished artist and pianist, she was also an extremely ‘hands on’ and practical person who took over much of the day-to-day running of the estate, made two crystal wireless sets and wired up a system of bells for ‘summoning the servants’.

If part of Rosalie’s reason for appointing Chrissie was to enable her to ‘spread her wings beyond Arlington’ and see the world – it was still generally considered unacceptable for women to travel alone  – the outbreak of the First World War would soon put any such ambitions on hold. After most of the estate’s men had been called up to fight, Rosalie closed up the court and moved with Chrissie into Home Farm where they would remain until the end of the conflict. It was during this time that Chrissie produced her colourful collection of paintings. Just as many of us today report having developed a more intimate knowledge of our towns and villages during the recent lengthy periods of lockdown, it seems that, marooned by war, Chrissie and Rosalie took a microscope to their surroundings. They combed the lanes, meadows and hedgerows for specimens, often venturing beyond the locations commonly perceived as picturesque and romantic. Thus delicate depictions of Arlington’s fox gloves, blue bells and wild hyacinths sit uniformly alongside field poppies and scarlet pimpernel discovered at Woolacombe’s ‘waste-place’.

Clara Peter’s watercolour, 1915 © MBND.

In spite of her status, Rosalie’s life appears on the whole to have been an unhappy one. Her father, Sir Bruce Chichester, died when she was just 15, leaving her in the care of her fiercely controlling mother who, recalled evacuee Nancy Phelan, was so determined that her daughter should never marry that she isolated her: “like a Nepalese living goddess, so out of touch with ordinary life that she never quite understood it”. Her years with Chrissie – with whom she later toured Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – seem to have been a splash of sunshine in a life characterised by isolation and loneliness.

After Chrissie’s death, Phelan states that she spent the remaining ten years of her life as little more than a recluse: ‘ugly, alone and unloved’. ‘Poor Miss Chichester’ she wrote after visiting the lakeside spot at which her ashes are interred, many years later. ‘She was not very lucky with people, but here, among her birds, trees and flowers perhaps her spirit is happy’.

Perhaps also among the lanes, hedgerows and flower meadows that she wandered seeking specimens with Chrissie, as war raged across the seas.

The Clara Peters Collection is available to view on request. The online collection can be viewed here on the museum’s Google Arts and Culture page.

Written by Sophie Jay

Editor Adam Murray

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