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Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, exhibited 1840 - NPG 1235 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Mary Shelley

by Richard Rothwell
oil on canvas, exhibited 1840
29 in. x 24 in. (737 mm x 610 mm)
Bequeathed by the sitter's daughter-in-law, Jane, Lady Shelley, 1899
Primary Collection
NPG 1235

On display in Room 18 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Richard Rothwell (1800-1868), Painter. Artist associated with 11 portraits, Sitter in 1 portrait.

This portraitback to top

Mary Shelley, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814 and became his second wife in 1816. Her Frankenstein of 1818, written at Lord Byron's suggestion, is one of the finest examples of the Gothic novel in English. The papier-mâché frame to this portrait is by C.F. Bielefeld and was made by applying seven different types of ornament to a supporting wooden framework. It probably dates to the mid-nineteenth century, at which period the frames on the portraits of her parents were changed to match.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 56 Read entry

    Writer and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) is the author of the Gothic masterpiece Frankenstein (1818), one of the most important books in the history of literature, an enduring cultural milestone and, arguably, the first work of science fiction. Born to radical freethinkers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, she married the poet and political activist Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816, following their elopement, behaviour that saw her shunned by society. Yet she remained a free and determined spirit, a woman of diverse talents, whose life was defined by death and desertion (including her mother’s death from septicaemia days after her birth, the early demise of three of her four children and her unfaithful husband’s untimely end when she was twenty-five). Her second novel, Valperga (1823), was published the year after Percy Shelley’s death by drowning, and thereon, as his editor, she established his posthumous reputation. She herself wrote prolifically, not just novels (including her acclaimed futuristic work, The Last Man (1826), perhaps the earliest English novel to deal with post-apocalyptic themes) but also innovative short stories and plays, and journals and essays. Her travel books frame her literary career, from History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) to Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844), an inspiringly creative oeuvre, despite a challenging life.

  • Smartify image discovery app
  • 100 Writers, p. 59
  • Eger, Elizabeth; Peltz, Lucy, Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings, 2008 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 13 March to 15 June 2008), p. 131 Read entry

    Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in 1814. Her most famous novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Promethus (1818) is a masterpiece of the Gothic genre that explores the tension bewteen aspiration and rebellion. This portrait, painted when she was forty-three, shows her as a subdued yet powerful presence.

  • Holmes, Richard, The Romantic Poets and Their Circle, 2013, p. 105
  • Holmes, Richard, Insights: The Romantic Poets and Their Circle, 2005, p. 86
  • Holmes, Richard; Crane, David; Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantics and Revolutionaries: Regency portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, 2002, p. 53
  • Motion, Andrew (edited), Interrupted Lives: In Literature, 2004, p. 33
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 561
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 43, 169 Read entry

    Gilt papier-mâché ornament on a pine framework with corner fillets. 6 1⁄ 4 inches wide plus replacement inner slip of 1 1⁄ 8 inches. Probably acquired from the framemaker, R. Aldworth, Bournemouth, whose label is found on the other Shelley family portraits.

    A papier-mâché frame made by Charles Frederick Bielefeld, the leading manufacturer of frames and ornament in papier-mâché in the first half of the nineteenth century.1 The backs of the scroll leaves are stamped 'CF BIELEFELD London'. This frame appears as pattern no.1117 in one of Bielefeld's published catalogues of papier-mâché ornament. The priced copy in the Victoria and Albert Museum, probably a working copy used by the firm, costs the main pierced foliage ornament at 1s.3d a foot, the large corner flowers at is each and the other ornaments at from 2d to 6d a foot.2 The cost of the Mary Shelley frame would therefore have worked out very competitively at about £1.9s.9d for the ornament.

    Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was the daughter of the philosopher, William Godwin, and the author, Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley's portrait, together with earlier portraits of her parents, also in the National Portrait Gallery, were refrained in almost identical papier-mâché frames, probably for Mary's son, Sir Percy Shelley, who built the Shelley shrine, 'The Sanctum', at Boscombe Manor near Bournemouth in 1849.3

    1 Papier-mâché frames by Bielefeld can also be found on Samuel Laurence's Charles Babbage, dated 1845 (National Portrait Gallery), and William Etty's Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret of c.1833 (Sotheby's, 9 June 1994, lot 178).

    2 Victoria and Albert Museum, Print Room, E.166-1987, pressmark 95.C.104.

    3 The portrait of William Godwin was lent to the 1868 National Portrait Exhibition in its present frame but that of Mary Shelley does not appear to have received its matching frame until later. See the photographs taken in 1868, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Picture Library, Guardbook, nos.8290, 8260.

  • Walker, Richard, Regency Portraits, 1985, p. 447
  • Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantic Icons, 1999, p. 95

Events of 1840back to top

Current affairs

Victoria marries her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; he is given the title of Prince Consort.
The Penny Black stamp is introduced by Rowland Hill; the first pre-paid, self-adhesive stamp, it marks the start of the modern postal system.
The start of the Irish potato famine, which by the time of its peak in 1851, had caused the deaths of one million, and contributed to the sharp rise of emigration from Ireland to England and America.

Art and science

Beau Brummel, the fashion leader responsible for sparking the culture of 'Dandyism', dies of syphilis.
The first stone is laid on the new Houses of Parliament, based on the gothic designs by the architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. The old buildings had burned down in 1834, following a blaze caused by burning wooden tallies used by the Exchequer to calculate tax.

International

The Afghans surrender to Britain during the Afghan-British war (1839-42). The war was sparked by British fear over Russian influence in Afghanistan, with the British East India Company resolving to depose the Afghan leader, Dost Muhammad, who was insistent on Afghan independence, and restore the former leader Shoja Shah.
The Maoris yield sovereignty of New Zealand under the Treaty of Waitangi.

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