A Celebration of Womanly Enterprise and Adventure

The National Portrait Gallery currently has an exhibition entitled Off the Beaten Track – 300 years of Women Travellers. They are a fascinating variety of women, some well-known like Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, and Mary Kingsley, some much less so, but all of them exhibiting courage, resourcefulness and frequently a delightful sense of humour.

The reasons for the travels of these adventurous ladies were also varied but they certainly relished the opportunity to abandon their often restricted social backgrounds and the limitations of middle-class life in this country. Many of them financed their travels by writing, painting and lecturing. Some of them with aristocratic connections and sufficient funds were able to enjoy a life that their more home-bound sisters could only dream of.

Perhaps Freya Stark expresses the emotional response to the lure of travel as well as anyone when she says ‘The beckoning counts, not the clicking latch behind you: and all through life the actual moment of emancipation still holds that delight, of the whole world coming to meet you like a wave.’ A number of these women travelled to escape illness, often, one suspects, the result of emotional and physical frustrations; some to escape scandals and also to cause them; some travelled with husbands posted abroad; some went as missionaries or in pursuit of botanical, archaeological and historical interests; some just for the pleasure of travel itself. They are represented in this exhibition by a wonderful range of portraits, photographs and possessions.

Some of the portraits of these women are very attractive. Thomas Lawrence painted a lively and graceful portrait of Maria Graham. She was an excellent botanical painter, and there are some beautiful examples from her Book of Botanical Illustrations painted in Brazil. She also painted and drew landscapes and later in life wrote children’s books including Little Arthur’s History of England.

The sketch of Lady Jane Digby shows a charming and wilful young woman. After a scandalous divorce and a series of liaisons across Europe she finally met and married an Arab nobleman much her junior and lived happily in Damascus and in the desert, eventually dying in her seventies. She was an excellent painter and her watercolour of Palmyra is a lively and delightful composition.

Lady Hester Stanhope travelled in the same part of the world sixty years earlier. She is portrayed in a lithograph as an elegant and youthful figure in Turkish costume smoking a pipe. She adopted Turkish dress after losing her entire wardrobe in a shipwreck. Calling herself Queen of the Desert she was a legendary figure in the Middle East and lived sumptuously for many years – the account of her entry into Palmyra is breathtaking – but alas she ended her life in destitution in a ruined Lebanese monastery!

There is a small portrait of Fanny Trollope, showing an intelligent and fashionable woman with a level appraising gaze. She travelled and wrote to support her family (one of her sons was Anthony Trollope). She travelled to America, and wrote a bestseller about how uncivilized and unpleasant it all was. Very entertaining, it was a highly successful book.

There is a delightful photograph of Isabella Bird, a diminutive and fiercely respectable Victorian lady, dressed in black, with a veil, a white lace shawl and striped umbrella. She wrote long letters home to her invalid sister about her journeys – as well as A Lady’s life in the Rocky Mountains where a brief romance with a ‘mountain man’ gave an added excitement to travelling. She travelled all her life and only contracted mysterious spinal complaints whenever she returned home. An enthusiastic photographer, some of her Chinese photographs used to illustrate her books are on display – she developed them at night, washing the negatives in the Yangtze River!

Another famous nineteenth-century traveller was Mary Kingsley who began to travel in her thirties after the death of both her parents. Having been an assistant to her explorer father, she knew a great deal about Africa, but had never actually travelled further than Paris. She never abandoned her Western wardrobe, and was always in trouble, complaining of losing handkerchiefs and hairpins. Her much-battered hat and a fish (in a preserving-jar) named after her are on exhibition. She wrote Travels in West Africa, about ‘collecting fish and fetish’, which is a hugely readable mixture of serious knowledge, careful observation, and descriptions of near-death experiences. A photograph shows a neat black-clad young woman with an expression of intelligence and humour amply borne out by her writings.

Occasionally the paths of these redoubtable ladies crossed, not always harmoniously. Marianne North whose magnificent botanical paintings can be seen in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens, was photographed by the famous photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. She was visiting her in Ceylon, and complained bitterly about posing in the intense heat against a prickly background and being expected to look natural.

Isabella Burton was the wife of Sir Richard Burton, the diplomat, explorer and author. She loved Syria and the Middle East and accompanied her husband on many of his expeditions. There is a delightful photograph of her reclining on the ground grasping a rifle, dressed in an adaptation of male Arab dress. She was very much pleased to be mistaken for a boy when travelling.

Nearer our own time is Agatha Christie, who travelled widely in the Middle East with her second husband on his archaeological expeditions. Her famous novel Murder on the Orient Express uses this as its background. Her book, called Tell Me How You Live, is a light-hearted celebration of their work together. There is an elegant but curiously opaque photograph of her.

Lady Penelope Betjeman was born in India and travelled back there during her life. Her marriage with John Betjeman was a turbulent one, and travel and animals were her solace. The exhibition shows a short film sequence of her being paddled across the Kulu River in India. She never loses her lady-like composure as she sets off on an inflated animal skin, lying on top of the energetically paddling coolie.

A section of the exhibition is devoted to women who made the journey in the other direction, and whose travels brought them to this country – the story of Pocohontas is well known – briefly feted in London, but sadly, dying on her way home. There were others too, elegant and bejewelled Indian women who took advantage of the educational and political opportunities this country had to offer; bright young women from Africa and the United States, their dark faces looking strangely foreign in the flounces and bonnets of Victorian fashion.

One is amazed at the sheer variety of women travellers that the exhibition covers – each one with her own driving force. Whatever their reasons, and they were many, we are the richer for their lives and their enthusiasms.

Free at the National Portrait Gallery till the end of October.


In the Benedictine Pilgrimage article which appeared in New Directions in August part of the description of Bec was accidentally omitted. It should read:

In Normandy the Abbey of Bec Hellouin was probably the most important and influential foundation of its time, and produced three Archbishops of Canterbury and three Bishops of Rochester. Here the fifteenth-century St Nicholas Tower in its pale stony beauty is all that remains of the monastery before the French Revolution. The original layout of the splendid mediaeval church is marked with stones, and the high altar and apse by carefully trimmed hedges. Some impression of its beauty and size can be gleaned from the immense length from the west door to the high altar, and a remaining wall of exquisitely carved arches and roundels.