From the Collection–Miss Grace Ashburner by George Romney

George Romney (English, 1734–1802), Miss Grace Ashburner, 1792. Oil on canvas. 30 1/8 × 25 1/8 in. (76.52 × 63.82 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection Inc., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur N. McGeoch, Sr. L1941.9. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

George Romney (English, 1734–1802), Miss Grace Ashburner, 1792. Oil on canvas. 30 1/8 × 25 1/8 in. (76.52 × 63.82 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection Inc., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur N. McGeoch, Sr. L1941.9. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

What do you notice first about Miss Grace Ashburner? Maybe her porcelain-white skin highlighted by pink cheeks? Her fashionably powered hair decorated by a shiny blue ribbon? Or maybe her smart green coat with bright brass buttons?

This portrait of Grace, painted by fashionable English portraitist George Romney (1734-1802), shows her wistfully gazing off in the distance. In 1792, the year of the painting, Grace would have turned 18. She is certainly the epitome of a lovely young lady of late eighteenth century England.

Would it surprise you to learn that, just five years later, Grace was involved in a love triangle that resulted in a scandalous trial?

Details of Grace’s life come alive through some primary resources. The story first broke in a number of English newspapers in late June 1797. Notices appear all over the county, from Kent southeast of London, to Chester near Liverpool, to Norfolk on the east coast, to Staffordshire in the Midlands. It even made the newspapers in Ireland. Then, when the civil jury trial happened in September, more newspapers took up the story. There even exists a pamphlet that captures all of the details. It sold for twopence and had as its title:

Cover of pamphletDoesn’t that make you want to read on? (And you can read the text of the whole thing in the London Chronicle here.) Gossip always sells, even back in eighteenth century England!

Grace Ashburner was the daughter of William Ashburner, who worked for the East India Company, which imported goods such as tea from Asia. While her father worked in India, Grace spent most of her childhood in England. It was as a teen that she met Samuel Boddington (1766-1843), and he fell in love.

According to the pamphlet I noted above, Samuel “was enraptured with her charms, as she then possessed indescribable beauties, both of body and mind… Her person was rather small; but the inexpressible sweetness and dignity of her manners, joined to the perfect symmetry and beauty of her person, rendered her irresistible.”

George Romney (English, 1734–1802), Miss Grace Ashburner, 1792. Oil on canvas. 30 1/8 × 25 1/8 in. (76.52 × 63.82 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection Inc., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur N. McGeoch, Sr. L1941.9. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

George Romney (English, 1734–1802), Miss Grace Ashburner, 1792. Oil on canvas. 30 1/8 × 25 1/8 in. (76.52 × 63.82 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection Inc., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur N. McGeoch, Sr. L1941.9. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

In 1790, Grace was on a ship, ready to depart for India to join her father, when Samuel Boddington tracked her down and asked her guardian in England for her hand in marriage. Grace didn’t take the trip after all, and ten months later, permission from her father was received. The two married in 1792. (The portrait was done that year before the wedding, so Romney identified her with her maiden name.)

Samuel Boddington was eight years older than Grace. The Boddington family held large estates in the West Indies, and Samuel had been left a fortune by his father who had been a director of the South Sea Company. He was also active in politics, and eventually represented Tralee as a Member of Parliament in 1807.

Samuel and Grace settled down and had two children, a son and a daughter. Then, Benjamin Boddington enters the story.

Benjamin was a younger cousin of Samuel, and he had joined the family firm as a partner. The pamphlet quotes Samuel’s lawyer, Mr. Erskine: Benjamin “paid every attention to Mrs. Boddington, which might be expected from a near relation, and a partner. The unsuspecting husband, and his still more unsuspecting wife, little knew what foul intentions instigated this diabolical monster.”

Portrait of Samuel Boddington, ca. 1835. Lithograph. The British Museum 1865,0610.1198 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Portrait of Samuel Boddington, ca. 1835. Lithograph. The British Museum 1865,0610.1198 © Trustees of the British Museum.

So, Grace Boddington seems distracted from her husband. Samuel, however, “was too generous” to suspect that Benjamin was that distraction. In an attempt to clear the air, Samuel arranged to travel with his wife to Bath for a few weeks.

The night before the couple were to leave, Benjamin visited them. According to Samuel’s lawyer, Benjamin was “brooding over the black intent and mischief of his soul… to take his leave, as a relation, a partner, and as a bosom friend, whilst, at the very moment, he was planning the detestable scheme of debauching a lady still virtuous… Judas-like, he stretched forth his hand” to Samuel and said goodbye. He also told his cousin that he would send a letter if there was any important business came up that he would need to attend to.

And, you guessed it—such a letter did arrive in Bath a week later. So, Samuel begins his return journey to London. That same morning, Benjamin sets out for Bath, leaving behind a letter for Samuel admitting that he deceived him in order to elope with Grace.

Samuel’s lawyer said that when his client reads this second letter, he “judged but too truly that his wife’s honour was already violated; and it would be in vain to return instantly to Bath, to be a witness of their infamy and his disgrace.”

The lawyer finishes his arguments by asking the jury, “can there be a case of more deep profligacy, or more artful and designing villainy, within the compass of human depravity? The sacred institution of matrimony is destroyed; and all the offspring from it essentially injured. The peace of whole families is violated; and finally, the institutions of society, and the laws of God are held in contempt and trampled upon.”

After his dramatic summarizing of the facts, he brings witnesses to prove that Benjamin has destroyed a wonderful marriage. Before his treachery, Grace was a virtuous and beautiful woman. The marriage between Samuel and Grace was harmonious and happy.

In response, the only thing that the defense lawyer attempts in cross examination is to show that Benjamin does not have the money to pay the enormous sum of 50,000 pounds demanded in damages. At the end, he emphasizes Benjamin’s youth and that any man in his position would be likely to be “enchanted by beauty.”

Charles Williams (British, active 1796–1830), The ghost of crim-con or a check to speculation, 1808. Hand-colored etching. The British Museum 1868,0808.7628 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Charles Williams (British, active 1796–1830), The ghost of crim-con or a check to speculation, 1808. Hand-colored etching. The British Museum 1868,0808.7628 © Trustees of the British Museum.

The jury, after twenty minutes deliberation, reaches their verdict—awarding 10,000 pounds to Samuel, which essentially bankrupts Benjamin.

Samuel requests a divorce from Grace, which is granted in early May 1798. A few weeks after, there are a few small newspaper notices that Benjamin and Grace have gotten married.

Reading the newspaper notices of the elopement and the trial—many of the accounts used exactly the same language, so there is only a source or two writing for multiple outlets—it is clear that although the public likes to hear about scandal, the story is held up as an example of what horrible things happen when people behave improperly. In fact, a number of the newspapers state this outright. “The circumstances in the story of Mrs. Boddington hold out so instructive a lesson, that we cannot avoid laying them before our readers,” says the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette.

The very basis of society was at risk when a married woman runs off with another man. It’s a moral no-no partly derived from religious beliefs, but it is also derived from economics. Women were not their own person. In the law’s eye, they were property that was transferred from fathers to husbands. Legally, a woman’s function was to keep house and raise children. By having a wife, a man did not have to pay another woman to do these things, so getting married and giving room and board to a woman could be considered an investment. Break the continuity of that transfer, and chaos in the economic stability of England is not far behind.

Laws dealing with adultery literally said that the seducer “wounded another man’s property,” which means the husband can get financial redress by suing the other man in civil court. The euphemism for adultery was “criminal conversation”, abbreviated as “crim con” in the newspapers. The term was so well-known, that artists made satirical prints to comment on the role of the crim con in society; you can see a few of them illustrating this blog post.

Isaac Cruikshank (British, 1764–1811), Symptoms of Crim. Con.!!, 1796. Hand-colored etching. The British Museum 1935,0522.8.39 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Isaac Cruikshank (British, 1764–1811), Symptoms of Crim. Con.!!, 1796. Hand-colored etching. The British Museum 1935,0522.8.39 © Trustees of the British Museum.

And, of course, a woman who carries on with a man who is not her husband might have children from that other man. This calls the line of inheritance into question, another economic consideration. Even rumors could cause big problems.

So, we’ve seen the Boddington scandal from the male point of view. What did Grace herself think about this?

As you can guess, we have no record directly from Grace. A few newspapers reported on Grace’s reaction to being caught. She became “very penitent” upon their return to London, and she “pretends to be indignant at the conduct of her seducer”. She turns against Benjamin to save face, hoping that her husband will take her back.

When Grace and Benjamin get married, a newspaper writer can’t help but give a final jab: “how far the ceremony of marriage is honoured by this union, or the morals of the parties improved by it, we leave to other to determine. The sorrow and contrition … appears to all flim flam.”

This moralization, however, is a bit unfair. For, without a man to support her, what can Grace do? In matters of love, money, and law, women really didn’t have much choice. Although men only had to show that their wives committed adultery to get divorce, a wife had to prove cruelty in addition to adultery. And this was difficult, because men could treat their wives quite horribly under the law.

Possibly Charles Williams (British, active 1796–1830), A lamentable case of crim-con, 1801. Hand-colored etching. The British Museum 1935,0522.8.129 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Possibly Charles Williams (British, active 1796–1830), A lamentable case of crim-con, 1801. Hand-colored etching. The British Museum 1935,0522.8.129 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Taking all of this into account, it appears that although during the civil trial Grace is portrayed as an innocent taken in by a smooth-talking con man, she reciprocated Benjamin’s regard. Which makes sense—if you are suing for damages, you have to make the seducer appear to be totally at fault.

Also, Samuel Boddington probably didn’t make for an exciting match for young beautiful Grace in the long run. He preferred intellectual pursuits to socializing. Benjamin, who was practically the same age as Grace, must have offered a very appealing counterpoint to his older relative. In the looks department, I’ve only been able to find a portrait of Samuel, so we can’t see for ourselves if Benjamin was more handsome than his cousin. The Derby Mercury claimed that Samuel was “as handsome a man as his injurer is an ordinary one”, but in the context of the lesson to be learned, this could very well be a skewed opinion.

Finally, with Grace’s reputation ruined and Benjamin finances drained, did the couple live happily ever after? We can’t be sure, but she and Benjamin had seven children together before she died in 1812, when she was only 37. Benjamin lived another 41 years and never remarried.

Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.

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