Elizabeth was forty-two years old when this portrait was painted. She is wearing a close-fitting white muslin bonnet, tied with blue ribbon, with a “Marie Stuart” style dip or band that barely conceals her wisps of brown hair. Her style is reminiscent of ‘mourning dress’ worn by widows in the later nineteenth century. It is not clear who it is she is mourning however – her husband, Capt. George Riddell, was still alive when this was painted so it was probably another close relative. Records are incomplete for Elizabeth’s life but we know that she lost her second son, Robert Edmeston Riddell, who died “when young”.
Elizabeth sat for this picture in Berwick-upon-Tweed, probably at home or in the studio of another Berwick resident and artist, Thomas Sword Good. Good, who trained as a house-painter and later earned his living in fine art, also painted a portrait of Elizabeth’s brother, Andrew Edmeston (also in the Berwick Museum & Art Gallery). Andrew was very wealthy and in addition to the family farm in Northumberland he owned land in Otsego County (New York). Elizabeth married George Riddell in 1801 when she was 23 years old, and they had eight children together.
We know very little else about her life – other than her reading habits. This information survives in a series of pamphlets, chap-books and manuscripts in Berwick’s collection. She owned a series of humorous morality tales, including The Merry Andrew, some local histories (The Hermit of Warkworth: A Northumberland Tale, illustrated by Thomas Bewick), and some rhyming and ‘riddle’ books, in the style of Old Mother Hubbard. One book in her collection includes Dame Trot and her Comical Cat which appears to have been hand-coloured, perhaps by Elizabeth herself or her children. Dame Trot went through countless printings and is truly the ephemera of the day – but Elizabeth clearly loved it. In one of the drawings she wrote her name on Dame Trot’s apron – she seems to have sympathized with the old woman, who was always running around after her cat, or constantly popping out to the shops or quayside, or to the inn for ale.
Dame Trot and her Comical Cat, hand coloured and annotated by Elizabeth Riddell
A list of Elizabeth’s favourite books
Towards the end of her long life (she died aged 89) Elizabeth left a list of her most cherished books; her New Testament and Prayer Book feature in the top three, as does ‘Murrays Introduction’, i.e., an essay on the proper use of English Grammar by Lindley Murray. We also know that Elizabeth was keen on cooking and looking after her home as she was a subscriber to the various printings of Taylor’s The Lady’s, housewife’s, and cookmaid’s Assistant: or, the art of cookery which was printed in Berwick.
The Riddell’s of Berwick were wealthy merchants during the nineteenth century but there is no evidence that Elizabeth ever the left the town she was born in. These objects speak to a life that was lived without fanfare but they are very special nonetheless.
This object was audited and researched as part of the Ellerman Project.
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This is the first of a series of blogs about our collections for Women’s History Month (March 2019).