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Dame Ethel Mary Smyth

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Dame Ethel Mary Smyth

by Unknown photographer
platinum print on card mount, 1891-1894
5 5/8 in. x 4 1/8 in. (142 mm x 106 mm) image size
Given by Mrs W.O. (Elfrida) Manning (née Thornycroft), 1958
Photographs Collection
NPG x13395

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Gibson, Robin, The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, 1998, p. 66
  • Levitt, Sarah, Fashion in Photographs 1880-1900, 1991, p. 109
  • Robin Gibson, Pets in Portraits, 2015, p. 102 Read entry

    As a pioneer campaigner for women’s rights and the first British woman composer to achieve international renown, Dame Ethel’s least-known work may well be Inordinate (?) Affection, an autobiographical account of her dogs that she published in 1936, just after the loss of Pan IV, one of a series of Old English sheepdogs, all called Pan.

    ‘The incomparable Marco’, as she calls him, was her first dog (pictured here). A St Bernard cross, he had been acquired by a friend from a Viennese washerwoman who had, like others of her trade, intended to use him to pull the little cart with which she collected the washing. As a student composer of songs and chamber music, Ethel had been living and studying in Leipzig since 1877 and, after the painful break-up of a passionate friendship with the wife of her first teacher in 1885, was clearly ready for a different sort of relationship. Indeed the succession of large dogs that dominated her later life seems to have played a part in fulfilling the emotional needs that her exuberant and friendly nature demanded.

    The relationship with Marco, whom she took back to Leipzig in 1887, was clearly a marriage made in heaven. Before she finally returned to England with him in 1889, he had, as she relates with transparent relish, burst in on a rehearsal with Brahms and almost knocked him off the piano stool, demolished a hotel room during a trip to the Paris Exhibition and terrified Tchaikovsky, who nevertheless added a cautious PS to a letter of 11 April 1889: ‘J’espère que votre cher chien va bien’ (‘I hope your dear dog is well’). Within a year her first orchestral music had been performed, and in 1893 the Mass in D, one of her most important works, was given its premiere. Professionally and emotionally she was out of what she later described as her ‘desert’.

Events of 1891back to top

Current affairs

The Irish Nationalist leader Charles Parnell is forced to resign after being named in the divorce proceedings brought by William O'Shea against his wife Kitty, who had been Parnell's mistress for a decade. The scandal severely damages the campaign for the Home Rule Bill, contributing greatly to its subsequent failure. Parnell's health also suffered; he contracted rheumatic fever and died a few months after resigning.

Art and science

Thomas Hardy's publishes Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a tragedy which explores the consequences of the young Tess's seduction by the wealthy Alec D'Urberville. In the novel, Hardy sets forward his major concerns about the individual's powerlessness before fate, whilst radically critiquing the hypocritical double standards of contemporary morals.


The construction of Trans-Siberian railway, the longest single rail system in Russia, begins in the Urals and at Vladivostock. Running between Moscow and Vladivostock, work was completed in 1917.
The German aviation pioneer Otto Lilenthal takes off in the first glider from a hill near Potsdam, the first of many guided flights and an important step in the development of aerial technology.

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