The Macdonald sisters

The Macdonalds were an average middle class Victorian family, although through circumstances their story was to become extraordinary.  Four of their daughters were to have remarkable marriages to, and became mothers of, men who were outstanding in their respective fields. 

Alice married the artist John Lockwood Kipling and became mother to Rudyard Kipling  

Georgiana married the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones

Agnes married Edward Poynter, artist and President of the Royal Academy from 1894 to 1904.

Louisa married local industrialist Alfred Baldwin, her son Stanley born in 1867 became Prime Minister in 1923, 1924 and 1935.   

Although known for their marriages, the sisters were also artists and writers in their own right. This exhibition will explore their stories.

Alice, Georgiana, Agnes and Louisa were the daughters of George Brown Macdonald and his wife Hannah. 

George was born in 1805, his first wife died in 1832 and he remarried a year later to Hannah Jones.  They had eleven children of which seven survived to adulthood.  Henry was the first born in 1835, followed by Alice 1837, Georgiana 1840, Frederic 1842, Agnes 1843, Louisa 1845 and Edith 1848.

George was a Methodist Minster.  His father, Rev James Macdonald,  was born in Enniskillen in 1761 and was one of John Wesley’s Itinerant Ministers.  Throughout his career George was assigned to various parishes around the country with his family.  They made their home in many towns and cities; Huddersfield, Leeds,  Wakefield, Sheffield, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and London. 

Despite their nomadic existence George and Hannah were determined for their children to be well educated.  Henry, as the first born son, received the best schooling that his parents were able to afford.  The sisters were not given the same opportunity, fortunately Hannah was well educated and was able to school them herself. Throughout their childhood they were encouraged to write and to think for themselves.

The girls may have been restricted in their education by their gender, but through their brother they became acquainted with some of the most innovative artists and thinkers of the time.

In 1850, the Macdonald family moved to Birmingham and Henry was sent to study at King Edward VI school.  Henry made the acquaintance of fellow pupil Edward Burne-Jones and the two became firm friends.  Burne-Jones became a regular visitor to the Macdonald household and lifelong friend to the family.  

During his time at the school Henry also met other like-minded boys such as Cornell Price, Richard Watson Dixon and William Fulford who along with Burne-Jones  would later form the ‘Birmingham set’ at Oxford University, a group that became influential in the formation of the Arts and Crafts movement.  

Both Henry and Edward went on to attend Oxford University to study theology and it was here they met William Morris.  Edward and William in particular found friendship through a shared love of Medieval art and poetry.

All three dropped out of university and Burne-Jones and Morris went on to great achievements.  Henry moved to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to make his fortune but the close ties between the Macdonald family and the artistic world had been established and were to remain steadfast.

Alice was born in Sheffield, 4 April, 1837

Alice was the eldest of the sisters and the second to marry.  She often complained that she would become an old maid and at 28 she thought she was much too old to remain unmarried, particularly after her sister Georgie had been engaged at 15.

Alice met her future husband while on a day’s outing to Rudyard lake in Staffordshire.   John Lockwood Kipling was working as a designer and modeller at Pinder, Bourne and Co. in Burslem.  

The couple married in March 1865 and shortly after they moved to India.  Kipling had been appointed as an Architectural Sculptor and Professor of Modelling at the School of Art and Industry in Bombay.  The sisters reacted to her departure with sadness and even fear at what she may encounter halfway across the world and so far away from her family.

After arriving in India they were provided with a bungalow and servants in the grounds of the school.  Alice found it difficult to adapt to their new live with the extreme heat and unfamiliar food.  The couple did however engage themselves with Anglo-Indian society. Alice was a lively character and known for her wit.

Alice occupied herself by writing.   Some of her poems were published including Quartette (1885) a collaboration of all the Kiplings, and with her daughter  Alice Flemming wrote  Hand in Hand: Verses by a Mother and a Daughter (1901). 

Their son Rudyard, named after the lake where they met, was born in 1865 and their daughter Alice in 1868. 

6 July 1837 – 26 January 1911

John Lockwood Kipling was born in 1837 in Pickering, Yorkshire and was the son of a Methodist Minister.

When Alice met John Lockwood he was working as an apprentice at Pinder, Bourne & Co. Earthenware Manufacturers in Burslem, Staffordshire.  He then joined the Department of Science and Art in South Kensington and became involved in the decoration of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Kipling had been inspired by the Indian art on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and in 1864, was appointed as Architectural Sculptor at the of Art and Industry in Bombay (Mumbai). After marrying Alice the following March they set off for their new life in India. 

After teaching in Mumbai for 10 years, and then 18 years at the Mayo School of Industrial Arts in Lahore,  Lockwood was appointed curator of the Lahore Museum and in his new role was keen to preserve the indigenous crafts of India and to prevent local antiquities from being taken out of the country on the black market. 

Lockwood also made decorative designs for buildings in Bombay and designed uniforms and decorations for Lord Lytton’s Imperial Assemblage of 1877, at which Queen Victoria was claimed Empress of India.

Kipling’s legacy can still be seen in India, his sculpture can still be seen in Mumbai.  His collection of Indian art is now with the V&A and represents a significant record of the skills of 19th century Indian craftsmanship. 

Alice Kipling had had a difficult birth with Rudyard in India, when she was expecting her second child she decided to travel to England where she hoped she would receive better health care.

In February 1868 Alice and her son Rudyard set out from India on the paddle wheel steamer Ripon (image).  The journey would have taken four weeks and must have been an arduous one to take with a young child, Rudyard was just two years old.

The Kiplings then travelled to Bewdley to stay with her parents who lived in the High street just a few doors away from her sister Louisa, who had married local industrialist Alfred Baldwin.  Rudyard was left behind with his grandparents while Alice travelled to London to await the birth of her child.  Unfortunately for the Macdonald and Baldwin households, Rudyard had reached the ‘terrible twos’.  Louisa had spoken of   his ‘screaming temper’ and there are accounts of him walking  down Bewdley High Street, shouting `Ruddy is coming!' or, if anyone got in his way, `An angry Ruddy is coming!

After the Kiplings had departed Louisa had written `Sorry as we were to lose [Alice] personally, her children turned the house into such a bear-garden, & Ruddy's screaming tempers made Papa so ill we were thankful to see them on their way. The wretched disturbance one ill-ordered child can make is a lesson for all time to me.'

Georgiana was born in Birmingham 21 July, 1840

Edward Burne- Jones became close to Georgiana during his visits and they were engaged when she was just 15 years old.  They married four years later and moved to rented rooms in London in Great Russell St.  

Georgiana was the most artistic of the sisters although few of her works remain.  She attended the School of Design in South Kensington and studied alongside Ford Maddox Brown who commented that her designs showed ‘real intellect’.   Although a promising artist and woodcutter, she remained in awe of the artistic achievements of  her husband and their friends.  With the limited expectations placed on women during the Victorian era she reluctantly gave up her career as an artist to look after her children.  Her good friend John Ruskin approved,  ‘I am delighted to hear of the woodcutting. It will not, I believe, interfere with any motherly care or duty, and is far more useful and noble work than any other of which feminine fingers are capable, without too much disturbance of feminine thought and nature’. 

Georgiana’s other great passion was in politics. When the family moved to Rottingdean she won a seat on the parish council.  She supported the interests of the working class and women's issues, successfully introducing a nurse for the village.  She later became a vocal opponent of the British Government’s actions in the Boer War much against public opinion at the time.  Georgiana was mortified when her husband received a baronetcy, making her Lady Burne-Jones. 

One of Georgiana’s most notable legacies was her ‘Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones’ published after her husband’s death

She had two surviving children, Philip and Margaret.  Her son Philip followed in his father’s footsteps and also became a painter.  Margaret married the educational reformer John William Mackail.

Through their friendship with Burne-Jones the sisters became immersed in the world of art and were introduced them  to many of his artistic friends including William Morris,   Ford Madox Brown  and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Rossetti was to become fundamental in inspiring Morris and Burne-Jones to take up artistic careers.  Burne-Jones and Morris became associated with the later phases of the Pre-Raphaelites and their work depicted scenes from Arthurian legend and medieval romance.

In spite of a strict Methodist upbringing, the Macdonalds were a liberal family and the sisters enjoyed many freedoms. While living in London the girls took the opportunity of visiting Rossetti’s studio,  their parents probably unaware of his infidelities and Bohemian lifestyle.

The sisters became artists and muses. Georgiana and Louisa both attended art school and Ford Madox Brown became a mentor to both. Edward Poynter painted portraits of Agnes, Louisa and Georgiana.   Georgiana in particular became involved with the pre-Raphaelite movement and featured in many of her husband’s paintings. 

Georgie’s closest and longest standing friend was William Morris. They shared many interests including political ones.  He was more likely to confide in her than anyone else.  The Burne-Jones were regular visitors to the Red House, Morris’s home.  It was a gathering place for a circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists including Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal, and many others.   

It was around the time of Georgiana’s pregnancy with Margaret that her husband began an affair with the model Maria Zambucco.  The affair lasted six years, when Edward tried to end it,  Maria threatened suicide with Laudanum and tried to persuade Edward to do the same.   The situation caused a scandal at the time, although Georgiana remained stoical.

Throughout her husband’s affair her friendship with Morris remained strong.  Morris could sympathise with Georgiana as his wife Jane was having an affair at the time with Rossetti.   It is possible that Morris wanted Georgiana to leave her husband but she always remained faithful.

The arts and crafts movement was born in the late 19th century ,  a reaction against the poor quality goods and social conditions that came with industrialised mass production.

William Morris was hugely influential in the movement along with fellow Birmingham set members and the writer and art critic John Ruskin.  Morris deplored the use of machinery and founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.  a company that used only traditional craft techniques.  

Georgiana and Morris’ wife  Jane were both involved with the company. Jane directed the embroidery  section and was followed by her daughter May. Georgiana was employed painting tiles and making woodcuts during the early years of the company.

Georgiana was a source of inspiration for Morris.  His ‘A Book of Verse’ 1870 was entirely dedicated to her.  

Agnes was born in Leeds,  1843

There is less known about Agnes than her other sisters.  She did not publish or produce works of art, but like her sisters she was artistic and was the most musical being a talented pianist and singer.  As with her sisters Agnes was taught in all subjects suitable for young ladies but also had the opportunity of studying art with Burne-Jones and Morris.

Agnes had many suitors but eventually married the painter Edward Poynter in 1866.  The couple met through the Burne-Jones’s who had built up a significant social circle. The couple shared a love of art and music. Poynter’s success as an artist was already established and the couple’s engagement was met with approval by the Macdonald family.

Agnes and Edward married in a double wedding with her sister Louisa and Alfred however none of the other family members attended the wedding.

As Edward’s career escalated the Poynter’s social calendar spiralled and Agnes became a prominent figure in high society.

The Neoclassical movement dominated the late 18th and early 19th centuries, its inspiration came from the art, architecture, music and theatre of the classical era.  The Grand tour was a popular rite of passage for young men as they travelled through Europe absorbing the culture of Renaissance Italy and France. 

Sir Edward John Poynter was an exponent of the Neoclassical style and painted scenes of antiquity on enormous canvasses.  ‘Israel in Egypt and The Catapult’ measured over 3 meters in length and set his reputation as an artist.   Poynter was born in Paris in 1836 and his family returned to England shortly after.  At 17 he moved to Rome and worked in the studio of Frederick Lord Leighton, one of the main British artists of the Neo-classical movement.  They formed a close artistic relationship and Leighton became an inspiration for the young artist. 

Poynter moved to Paris in 1856 and spent three years as a student of Swiss painter Charles Gleyre.  His fellow students included the cartoonist and writer George du Maurier and James McNeill Whistler.  Poynter’s career developed quickly eventually becoming Director of the National Gallery and president of the Royal Academy.

Louisa born in Wakefield, 1845

Louisa showed a talent for art and writing from an early age.  She studied art along with her sister Georgiana encouraged by Edward Burne-Jones and taught by Ford Madox Brown.  Her work was praised by Rossetti, likening her talent to that of Georgiana’s.  William Morris was even keen for her to produce work for his company but this didn’t come to fruition.   Perhaps like Georgiana,  she felt that her place was to be a wife and mother.

Louisa met her future husband through the family’s friendship with the Baldwins.   George Baldwin was an Iron founder with a factory in Stourport on Severn.  Louisa and his son Alfred were engaged in 1865 and married in a joint ceremony with Agnes and Edward.   Louisa’s mother Hannah disliked Alfred, considering him to be pompous,  but was grateful that he was wealthy unlike her other daughters’ choices. 

Louisa had a fascination with the macabre, as a child she successfully attempted taxidermy on a dead mouse she once found.  She was also particularly interested in the occult and wrote many ghost stories writing as Mrs Alfred Baldwin.   Although her works do not match the talent of her relatives her stories were still published, perhaps with some help of her nephew Rudyard.  Her most successful work ‘The shadow on the blind and other stories’ is still in print today. 

Her son Stanley born in 1867 became Prime Minister in 1923, 1924 and 1935.

After Louisa and Alfred had married they came to live Bewdley and within months Louisa persuaded her parents George and Hannah to join them.  George’s health was deteriorating and they moved into a house just a few doors away. 

There are stories of the house being haunted.   A dull, knocking noise could be heard coming from beneath the ground.  The cause of it was never found.  Edith once asked her mother ‘How can you sit here alone and read, with that sinister noise going on below?’

Edith, the youngest sister, moved with them.  She was the only sister not to have married and as an unmarried woman if fell upon her to look after her father. Edith never had the same recognition within the family as her married sisters.  After her father died she moved in with the Baldwins the help raise Stanley.  She was a keen embroiderer and an altarpiece sewn by her and design by Morris can be seen at All Saints Church in Wilden.

The Baldwin’s  home provided a convenient place for the sisters to meet up and they would visit several times a year.   John Lockwood Kipling also visited during a holiday to England in 1879.  He sent stories back to India in his ‘English Etchings’ and  made reference to a town called ‘Snoozely’ in Worcestershire, now known to be Bewdley. 

George died after a long illness in 1868  and Hannah in 1875, they are both buried in Ribbesford Church.   A memorial window by Burne-Jones and Morris can be seen in the church. 

Alfred had started work at Wilden Iron and Tin Plate Company at Wilden near Stourport, the company was owned by his Uncle.  Alfred eventually took over the works and changed the name to Baldwins and co.   Alfred later became  MP for Bewdley from 1892 to 1908.

Alfred Baldwin felt a sense of duty to the people of Wilden and in 1879 built a Church and for Wilden. He later commissioned Morris and Co.  to create stained glass for the Wilden Church using Burne-Jones designs. The windows are dedicated to the members of the Macdonald, Baldwin and Burne-Jones families.  Morris designed the gold altar piece for Edith to embroider; it can still be seen on display in the Church.

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