Ada Lovelace by Margaret Sarah Carpenter
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Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was a mathematician, now known for her important contribution to early computing. But for many years this was mostly ignored by the scientific and mathematical community, which was dominated by men.
The portrait is painted by Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1793–1872), one of the most successful female artists of her day in Britain.
Analysing the portrait
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Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?
- Ada Lovelace is wearing a long white satin dress and a red train lined with fur. The train is decorated with jewelled clasps at the shoulders and a jewelled buckle at the waist.
- She is wearing a tiara in her hair.
- We can see a delicate white satin shoe pointing out from beneath the hem of her dress.
- Her clothes tell us that she was a wealthy member of Britain’s highest social elite, who didn't have to work.
- Lovelace appears to be standing in the doorway of a large room, as if she has just come down the grand wooden staircase in the background.
- The doorway appears to be made of stone and has been decorated.
- The staircase would have been made by highly skilled woodworkers and been very expensive.
- She is standing on a large, luxurious rug. At this time, highly patterned, colourful rugs like this were bought purely for decoration and were must-haves in the homes of the richest people in society.
- The portrait presents Lovelace as a wealthy, fashionably dressed, respectable woman of high social status.
- She was given the title ‘Countess of Lovelace’ when her husband, William King, was made the Earl of Lovelace. Although already a member of the aristocracy before she married, this was a higher-level title.
- Today, there is a lot of interest in Lovelace’s contribution to computer programming. But this portrait focuses on her social status rather than on her interests and achievements.
Who was Ada Lovelace?
- Ada Lovelace was born Ada Byron.
- Her father was the famous poet Lord Byron. He is widely thought of as one of the greatest poets of his day. But he also had a reputation as being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.
- Her mother was a wealthy member of high society. She left Byron when Lovelace was just a year old. Although Lovelace never saw her father again, she became famous for being Byron’s daughter.
- Lovelace was brought up by her mother, who encouraged her interest and strong abilities in maths and science. In the 1800s, these were both subjects dominated by men.
- Aged 17, Lovelace met mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage. She was fascinated by Babbage’s designs for an ‘analytical engine’, an early computer that could make complicated calculations.
- Lovelace worked with Babbage, helping to develop ideas for what are recognised today as early computers. Babbage’s vision was for a calculating machine, but Lovelace saw that it could be so much more.
- She wrote that the machine could be programmed to follow a list of instructions, not only with numbers, but with other things, such as symbols or music. We now recognise this as a computer algorithm.
- The machine was never built – it would have been enormous. But their theory and designs helped lay the foundation of modern computing.
- Today, algorithms underpin much of the digital and electronic world we live in – from finding routes on maps to searching the internet.
Who was Margaret Sarah Carpenter?
- Margaret Sarah Carpenter was born Margaret Geddes in Salisbury, England.
- She was a mainly self-taught artist who practiced her skills by copying Old Master paintings from Lord Radnor’s collection at Longford Castle.
- In 1813, Lord Radnor paid for her to move to London. She lived and worked there independently, running her own portrait practice. She won prizes for her work.
- She was heavily influenced by the artist Thomas Lawrence – the leading portrait painter in Britain in the early 1800s. When Lawrence died in 1830, Carpenter took his place as a leading portrait painter, despite facing many barriers as a female artist.
- Carpenter became Britain's most successful female artist, producing over a thousand paintings.
- The quality of her work was widely recognised and celebrated during her lifetime, but has been largely ignored since her death.
Why is this portrait significant?
- This is one of only a few known portraits of Ada Lovelace.
- It was painted by Margaret Sarah Carpenter, the most successful British female artist of the early 1800s.
- We cannot see any reference to Lovelace’s interests in mathematics and science, despite her exceptional abilities and lifelong fascination with these subjects.
- During Lovelace’s lifetime, and for years after, her ideas and vision for programmable ‘computers’ were largely ignored by other scientists, mathematicians and computing pioneers.
- When electronic computing was developed, decades after her death, computer programmers revisited Lovelace’s ideas and began to recognise how visionary she had been.
- The portrait represents the coming together of two of the most brilliant and independent-minded women of the 1800s.
- Despite the quality of the portrait, when Lovelace saw it, she is said to have joked that her jaw appeared so large, that the word ‘mathematics’ could be written on it.
- What is your impression of Ada Lovelace from this portrait?
- What does the portrait tell us about attitudes toward women in the 1800s?
- Why might Lovelace’s contribution to Babbage’s work have been played down in her lifetime?
- What other examples do you know, or can you find, of women’s contribution to science, technology, engineering or maths having been ignored or credited to men?