Saturday, June 24, 2017

“Ancanthe” -Lady Franklin’s Folly




Snow swirls around the mountain. The wind howls around the house and there’s a big pot of soup on the stove. I should be doing Tax Returns as it’s  the end of our financial year, but I have instead become engrossed  in the story of Lady Jane Franklin (1791 – 1875), since visiting her delightful “temple” stuck in the middle of what still looks pretty much like a kangaroo paddock.

Dusk at "Ancanthe" being restored to its former glory
You simply have to admire a woman who could look at a bit of raw bushland where the kangaroos roamed freely and decide that what the brutish convict colony needed most was a Greek Temple where Art and Culture could flourish. That, however,  was by no means her only gift. If I could, I would make a movie about her life. It would have everything - adventure, passion and pathos, daring, intrigue, triumph and tragedy, except a Hollywood ending. 

Side view - small but exquisite and perfectly proportioned


In the few short years from 1837 to 1843 in which she was first lady of Van Diemen's Land, she left her mark on many aspects of colonial life – too many according to some, which was to lead to the recall of her husband, polar explorer Sir John Franklin, in 1843.

Lady Jane Franklin - Intelligent, beautiful and for a short time regarded as "the brightest ornament of Hobart's social circles."

In the meantime, she sought to improve the lot of the convicts, ensuring that the women had sewing supplies and could learn some skills. Her character was described as being of “kindness, benevolence and charity" and she is also reported as being the "The brightest ornament of Hobart's social circles," but it is also noted in the article by Lauren Young on Lady Franklin's contribution to polar exploration, (quoting someone called Johnson) that " Settler locals soon learned to loathe her for cheerfully replacing balls with public lectures on botany, science and ethnography,” and, (quoting Russell) that almost from the moment of her arrival "she was mercilessly satirized by the colonial press."

Certainly, Lady Franklin did encourage education, not just in Tasmania, but in Victoria and South Australia too, where Christ Colleges were subsequently established. In Tasmania, she bequeathed 400 acres for the establishment of a college but this did not eventuate before her departure.

Rescued from oblivion by the Arts Society of Tasmania in 1949, there is currently a ceramic exhibition "Shades of Clay" on  inside

Already well -travelled before arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, she continued to travel widely, making the first trip by an Englishwoman to the state’s remote West Coast and being the first to travel overland from Melbourne to Sydney when there were still no roads.* She also encouraged her husband to establish a Royal Society for Science - the first outside the UK, which made Tasmania the foremost intellectual centre among the colonies, and from her own purse bought land at what is now Franklin, to create an agricultural community of free settlers, each of whom she interviewed personally.

A pair of several charming guinea fowl by Eve Howard

She envisaged that the land which she bought at Kangaroo Valley, now called Lenah Valley, would become a botanical garden with a Museum of Natural History and a Library. She called the building  “Ancanthe” meaning “the valley of flowers” and it opened as the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1842. However, after her husband’s abrupt recall, following political infighting and accusations that his wife influenced too much of his decision - making, the books and exhibits were dispersed  and the quaint little building fell into neglect. For over a century it languished, sometimes being used as an apple -shed  or as storage for the University of Tasmania, until it was rescued by the Arts Society of Tasmania in 1949 and renamed The Lady Franklin Gallery.


"Langalini" - The Little Mermaid - by Heather Creet
 After leaving Tasmania, Sir John returned to the possibly less fractious business of finding the North West Passage, a journey from which he never returned. Long after official searches ceased, Lady Jane was so distraught that she continued to fund no less than seven missions in the hope that her husband might still be found alive, though this was not to be.  Fondly remembered by the people of Tasmania, if not the officers, some £ 12,000 were raised by Tasmanians to outfit another ship. Although these expeditions contributed greatly to geographic knowledge of northern Canada and the Arctic, her husband’s ship “The Terror” was not found until 2016 and she died a lonely widow in the northern - most reaches of the British Isles to be close to where he died.  For a haunting ballad written in her honour not long after that event, click here.

"Language is Leaving me"  - Poignant ceramic by Dawn Oakford  reflecting on her mother's Alzheimer's Disease

 I had thought we needed a memorial for Lady Franklin, that she should perhaps have a commemorative statue alongside that of her husband in Franklin Square, which was at least named after him, but perhaps the Lady Franklin Gallery is a more fitting one. It’s good to see it being restored and lovingly used. I don’t think Lady Franklin would be disappointed were she to call by today or if her ghost still hovers over Lenah Valley.

Playful crackle -glazed seal cubs by Robin Roberts
Of course, we still have our huge Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery which takes up a good part of a city block and was an offshoot of the Royal Society inspired by Lady Franklin. There is also a residential college at the University named after her.


·       *  Several sources including the Encyclopaedia Britannica credit Lady Jane with being the first white woman to climb Mt. Wellington, however, according to unconfirmed local wisdom, that honour belongs to one Salome Pitt, who together with her Aboriginal companion, Miss Story, climbed it in 1810.

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