Our Cousin Florence - Florence Nightingale and her family
Newly discovered correspondence reveals an intimate portrait of the woman behind the lamp
Florence Nightingale, an iconic figure, heroine and a selfless woman devoting herself to a career of care and compassion is a story well known; but what of the high society life she spurned in favour of the very different path she took to women in her social class in Victorian England? Our Cousin Florence is a journey into the person less known, examining and contrasting the life she chose by exploring the young fashionable Florence little known to the public today.
The previously unseen correspondence and sketches illustrate Florence Nightingale’s young life which was firmly embedded in aristocratic society. The letters highlight her internal struggles to justify leaving the high society life she felt created a “forced idleness”. Her journey to make these life decisions, the contrasts of her world as a young woman and latterly after her war time experiences, are all examined in this defining exhibition at the renowned Lotherton Hall, home of Leeds Museum and Galleries extensive fashion and textiles collection.
Florence enjoyed a very close bond growing up with her cousins, a relationship for which they coined the phrase ‘cousinhood’ and affectionately named their cousin, ‘Flo’. Marianne, a cousin on her mother’s side, was a beloved friend and confidante and the exhibition showcases their socialite life before their relationship diverged at the time of Marianne’s marriage to Sir Douglas Galton in 1851. Sir Douglas Galton later became a close advisor to Florence on hospital design.
Recently found at Trelissick House in Cornwall, the exhibition includes these extraordinary papers, sketches and correspondence – never shown before – that tell the story of Florence’s inner-battle against the glittering world that she was expected to follow, her relationship with her cousin Marianne and her ‘visions’ that led her to take up the mantle of a career in nursing.
Why Lotherton Hall? This was the home of Marianne’s youngest daughter, Gwendolen Gascoigne, Florence’s God daughter, and was the place Marianne retreated to after the death of her husband Sir Douglas Galton in 1899. This batch of newly discovered archive material all belonged to Marianne, which includes a fascinating bundle of letters from Florence to Marianne. Items on display throughout the house also include paintings, child hood sketches, jewellery, toys and the desk that belonged to Florence Nightingale, brought to Lotherton Hall by Gwendolen Gascoigne.
Pivotal to the exhibition are the key fashion pieces of the period including a day dress and evening dress similar to those that Florence and her cousins would have worn as depicted in the sketches; items that provide a stark contrast with the items of clothing that would have been worn by female nurses during the Crimean War. While some items have been kindly loaned, many of these items are part of the permanent collection at Lotherton Hall, the home of Leeds Museums and Galleries’ extensive and extraordinary collection of fashion and textiles.
Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, said:
“This exhibition will offer a fascinating insight into one of British history’s most respected figures, whose compassion and selflessness have quite rightly seen her reach iconic status.
“It’s a real privilege for Leeds that Florence Nightingale had such strong ties to the city and I’m sure this new material will help give visitors a fresh perspective on the character of a young woman who grew to become famous The Lady With the Lamp.”
The exhibition opens to the public on Friday 18 March and closes Sat 31 December 2016. Press preview Wednesday 16 March.