The most surprising sketchbooks of a Victorian gentlewoman

Forgotten Graces
The Travels and Sketches
of a Victorian Gentlewoman

by Carolyn Gossage

This is a book to excite the mind as well as the eye, introducing the unlikely but intriguing combination of fine art and a detective story. The subject, Miss Charlotte Price (1796-1868), a well- travelled British gentlewoman, sketched and painted unstintingly for over fifty years, producing more than 2500 drawings and watercolours of 19th century England and Wales as well as numerous European “Grand Tour” destinations. Incredibly, however, before their reappearance in a rural Ontario village, her collected works remained locked away in a trunk for close to a century.

My chance discovery of the twenty leather-bound volumes containing much of Charlotte Price’s extensive record of her travels at home and abroad marked the beginning of an investigative odyssey-in-the-making. How had they found their way from London, England to a country boarding school in Lakefield, Ontario? Who was this astonishingly prolific and gifted artist? Where and how had she developed her exceptional artistic talent? I found myself confronted with the irresistible allure of the unknown. 

Subsequent attempts to find answers to these and other beguiling questions concerning the elusive Miss Price have since consumed the better part of twenty years. What emerges in this book includes an account of my quest, accompanied by a series of carefully selected illustrations. These will, in turn, be augmented by material from regional archives and excerpts from 19th century travellers’ guides, such as John Murray’s handbooks.

In my view, the unique juxtaposition of an unsolved mystery and the artist’s charmingly rendered images, accompanied by her own observations - as well as those of other travellers of the times - have the potential to attract both national and international interest. In an era that harbours a resurgent nostalgia for the lost graces of the Victorian Age, it seems timely that the life and work of Miss Charlotte Price should be given their due.  

'The Charlotte Price Collection'

A Visual Journal (1819–1868)

The year is 1865. A lace-bonneted British gentlewoman — slightly past middle-age — is posing for a formal photograph. Standing stiffly in front of a typically Victorian backdrop, complete with a a tasteful vase of lilies, she appears a dignified but reluctant subject. Is she perhaps apprehensive of this new technological means of recording exact images? Having spent virtually a lifetime sketching and drawing whatever she found visually exciting or appealing, she may even harbour a certain prior prejudice against this so-called “magic box” that is about to produce a precise replica of herself within a matter of seconds.

Whether or not the results of this photographic foray pleased Miss Charlotte Price, her portrait served as the frontispiece for each of the twenty-three leather-bound volumes sent out from London, England, to the quiet Ontario village of Lakefield in the 1890’s. The drawings and watercolours taken from her original sketchbooks cover a span of fifty years of extensive travel and observation, not only in Britain but on the Continent as well. Underneath the photograph of Charlotte Price is a finely inscribed request phrased with precise delicacy:

These sketches, being the work of a dearly loved sister who died before many of them were finished — and, it is feared, before very many others were sufficiently set, it is kindly, but MOST EARNESTLY requested that they may not be touched by the finger. She left above two thousand five hundred sketches and it is but just to her memory to remark that many preserved in these volumes would never have been placed there by her own hands — some of them being amongst her earliest sketches — others hastily taken and very many with observations written on them — that under other circumstances would have been erased, but all have been left just as they were found and as HER work, and as a recording of times, places and circumstances of great mutual interest and enjoyment, all are equally valued by her who repeats the request contained in these lines.
The Park, Norwood (London) 1873.

This earnest and eloquent request appears to have had the desired effect. Aside from the occasional brown flecks and foxing that are attributed to the aging process, (human and otherwise) the contents of the volumes bound by Ackermanns of London in the 1870’s are essentially unmarred. What remains of Charlotte Price’s work has survived two ocean crossings a century apart and is still in remarkably good condition. Certainly Miss Laura Price, Charlotte’s “dearly loved sister” who engaged Ackermanns to bind the sketchbooks for posterity in 1873, would find it difficult to imagine that they would be destined to cross the Atlantic, gather dust in a Canadian attic for almost another one hundred years and eventually be rediscovered at Lakefield College School near Peterborough, Ontario.

Family Ties with Lakefield College School

The story of what prompted Charlotte Price’s beloved nephew, Matthew Rolleston to emigrate from England to Canada and - more specifically - to the Lakefield/Peterborough region in the mid-19th century may never come to light. There are, however, records in the Birmingham Archives in England indicating that Matthew’s grandfather, Theodore Price, Esq. had given Matthew his blessing in the form of a generous legacy in 1854. Undoubtedly this inheritance provided a distinct boost to the morale of the young settler and his family.

 According to the annotation on an unfinished sketch found in his Aunt Charlotte Price’s collection when it was held in safe-keeping at Lakefield College, Matthew - along with his wife and at least one child - were the occupants of a wilderness “shanty”, which - in all probability - he had built with the welcome assistance of his pioneer neighbours. Through his marriage to Catherine Reid, Matthew Rolleston had become a brother-in-law to the illustrious Col. Sam Strickland, who already owned much of the land in the Lakefield area. By extension, Rolleston also became part of a close-knit group of early Ontario settlers that included Strickland’s married sisters, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. The accounts penned by these two intrepid women about the rigours of pioneer life in the Upper Canadian wilderness have long since become integral to our understanding of the capacity for endurance required by those who ventured forth to set down roots in the wilderness.

In 1879, when schoolmaster Sparham Sheldrake first undertook the education of the sons of local settlers in what was to become known as Lakefield College School or the Grove, he, too, established a close association with many of these same pioneer families. In fact, Harborne, the property owned by the descendants of Matthew Rolleston abutted on the land destined to become Lakefield College.

Three generations later, in the early 1970’s, this proximity would become an instrumental factor in the school’s acquisition of Harborne from Rolleston’s great granddaughter, Mrs. H.R.S. Pocock of Jersey in the Channel Islands. Having inherited the property on the death of her father, Col. Alfred Lefevre, her childhood ties with the College remained strong and an agreement was quickly struck that the College would purchase Harborne and the adjacent land. At the time, the College administration also agreed to become unofficial guardian of the majority of the bound volumes of Charlotte Price’s sketches, owing to the difficulty of transporting them to the Channel Islands. Bookshelves in the reception area just outside the Headmaster’s study seemed an ideal place for them to be temporarily given house room and it was here - on these same shelves - that my first chance encounter with the monumental output of Charlotte Price’s life’s work took place over twenty years ago. In the interval, the College has become co-educational - a fact which I feel almost certain Miss Charlotte Price would find highly gratifying. In any case, what follows is an account of the information I have been able to uncover relating to the Price/Rolleston family history and also of the many questions that still remain unanswered.

Trying to unravel the mystery

It is more than ten years since my first meeting with Charlotte and her sketchbooks at Lakefield, while rummaging through a cupboard that contained the College archives. Initially I mistook the two large stacks of volumes for old ledgers or enrolment books. Perhaps they would be useful for my research on the school’s origins. It was only when I took down the first volume from the shelf and opened it that I realized I had inadvertently stumbled upon something quite extraordinary. There was Charlotte Price, just as she had posed more than a hundred years earlier. And beneath the photograph, her sister’s concern for the preservation of a lifetime of recorded memories. Look, but don’t touch. As promised by its title, the volume I had randomly selected did indeed contain “Sketches from Nature.” But nothing could have prepared me for the captivating beauty and diversity of the “times, places and circumstances of mutual interest and enjoyment” described by
Charlotte’s sister in the foreword.

Clearly this collection of skillfully executed drawings, sketches and watercolours was the work of an accomplished artist. But who was Charlotte Price? Where had she studied? And how had these sketchbooks found their way across an ocean and into a locked cupboard in a prestigious Canadian boys’ boarding school?
Leafing my way through the volumes, I uncovered only two loose drawings relating to Canada West as it was then known: one marked “Dear, dear Matt’s Shanty, Peterborough” and the second “Our Beloved Matt’s Grave, Peterborough, Canada West”. Had Charlotte Price lived in the vicinity for a time? What part had “our beloved Matt” played in her life? His identity might help to explain the sketchbooks’ presence in Lakefield. Alas, local records turned up no early settlers answering to the surname Price.

Without the hand-written inventory lists included in the front of each of the twenty-three volumes, tracing the circuitous and often mystifying course of the Price family ties on both sides of the Atlantic would have been impossible. These and the annotations that accompany many of the Price drawings were the key. Together they provide at least a glimpse of the woman who, in the manner of film-maker Alfred Hitchcock, occasionally placed herself in the foreground of a drawing with a telltale sketchbook on her lap. Charlotte Price was, as suspected, a maiden lady of independent means. And she was almost certainly a pupil of the celebrated 19th-century British artist, David Cox Sr. The number of drawings in the collection labeled “Copy from Cox” implies an influence of importance.

This impression is strengthened by a distinct and unmistakable similarity in composition, perspective and technique. Here again, the main difficulty was finding a link of some sort between Cox and the ubiquitous Miss Price. Many dead ends and blind alleys later, the various bits and pieces of the original puzzle have at long last fallen into place. The trail that began in Canada led first to London then to Jersey in the Channel Islands, and from there to Birmingham and Harborne. In the beginning my attempts to uncover every conceivable piece of information — any link that might help to fill in the gaps — were frustratingly unproductive, but I was reluctant to call a halt. Charlotte Price and the circumstances surrounding her life had gradually become a minor obsession.

During the course of this lengthy unravelling process, I found myself inextricably immersed in Charlotte Price’s world. It had, in effect, become mine as well. Through her eyes, I was transported into an irretrievable past — a past that she recreated with loving care. Her intention, it seems, was to record these images purely for her own satisfaction and for the private pleasure of family and friends. Mine has become the desire to present this unintended legacy to generations unknown and unfamiliar — to bring Charlotte Price’s “times, places and circumstances of great mutual interest and enjoyment” into another century and beyond.


While many of the pieces of the Charlotte Price puzzle have fallen into their respective places, the whereabouts of over seven hundred missing sketches and watercolours has yet to be established. The contents of the original 20 volumes I came upon in Lakefield account for approximately 1500, while the three in Jersey make for a total of only 1800. Someday the remains of Charlotte Price’s legacy may turn up; perhaps here in Canada; perhaps in Britain; or perhaps in some totally unexpected place. They may, in fact, never come to light, in which case we can be more grateful than ever that so much of her work has been preserved for our present enjoyment.

I leave you with some of Charlotte's amazing sketches - after all, it's her art which brought all this about. Even in the book I had to be painfully selective, and for this blog I can choose even less. So be it. Take these as an appetizer: 

 Bagnères de Bigorre near the Coustous Promenade, circa 1855.
Watercolour and chalk.

 Fort at Urdos. 'A quarter of an hour to Spain', 1855.


see also:

Greatcoats and Glamour Boots
Based on the letters written by Mary Buch, a young Canadian airwoman
A Close Look At The Past and Present Of The Most Famous Book Fair Of Them All
A story of courage during WWII

1 comment:

  1. Ms. Gossage, I've stumbled into your blog via Rose's houseboat project blog.
    Your histories presented here are fascinating. A true affirmation of the magical nature of life at its most intriguing.

    The Price sketches displayed are remarkable diverse and engaging. What a lovely find and intriguing story.