It was the scene of 24-year-old Jane Griffin’s first romance, and the occasion of her first extended trip outside England. It was exhilarating and stressful, not least because all of these new experiences had to be navigated in a second language. All she wanted to do was be left alone to read Byron and Goethe.
But then she met someone new.
This wasn’t a romance: it would prove to be much more important than that.
Jane couldn’t have known that her friendship with an unconventional and independent young Swiss woman would result in the creation of a portrait that would be reproduced countless times, all over the world, for two centuries. That it would inspire other works of art, and grace the covers of books.
As a result, the sketch made in Geneva in 1816 by Amélie Romilly has become the image that all Franklin Expedition researchers and other historians hold of her.
“SHY & SAUVAGE”
In later life, Lady Franklin remembered her time in Geneva as “… the theatre of my earliest entrance into a foreign world, or rather into any, for previously to this I was a shy & sauvage person, shrinking from observation & society, doating on my books & ashamed all the time of being laughed at about them.”
Frances J. Woodward recounts how the Griffin family settled into a “clean, cold & cheerless” apartment in Maison Boissier, at the top of rue des Chaudronniers (the street of the Boilermakers).
Nothing had changed here since the 1700s. The same narrow passages had always snaked through the same dark and filthy maze of crowded buildings. There was no sanitation. The residents were overjoyed whenever it rained: at least the pavements would be clean for a few days.
Maison Butini stood just across the way. This family was to cause young Jane no end of headaches during the family’s stay. Her romance with Adolphe Butini was at first ardent, and then awkward. And when his family continued to push for marriage, it became extremely annoying.
The ups and downs of Jane’s relationship with the Butini family have been well documented by other writers. But Amélie Romilly has been overlooked.
She was a remarkable woman, and she wasn’t just wildly unconventional by early 19th Century standards. She’d be raising a lot of eyebrows if she was living in today’s Geneva.
Amélie was born in Geneva on 21st March 1788, three years before Jane Griffin. Her engraver father had died suddenly when she was only 13 years old, and she had to take series of odd jobs. But she loved to draw, and in 1805 the artist Firmin Massot took her on as a student.
Young Amélie was precociously talented and was soon sent to Paris to study with another Swiss artist, François-Gédéon Reverdin.
She railed against her mother’s delicate sensibilities during their time in Paris. She told Massot: “She wants me to draw only the draped figures … I would like to study almost naked women”.
During this time, she exhibited her paintings at the Paris Salon, before returning to Geneva in 1814.
In 1816, Amélie was living and working in a studio in the Maison de la Bourse Française, just behind Geneva’s Cathedral of Saint-Pierre.
This was just minutes away from the Griffin’s apartment. After Jane and her sister Fanny had been introduced to Amélie socially, they quickly made arrangements to visit her and have their portraits made.
Both sisters were excited by the thought, but a resurgence of high society politicking and manipulation by the Butini family put Jane in a foul mood, and the session didn’t get off to a great start.
In her journal, Jane wrote that “I went to sit to Miss Romilly with an agitated mind & a countenance artificially tranquil, very little able to bear her vivacity & still less to receive the impression of it on my features.
“In fact I repeatedly told her that I was sure she was making me a great deal too enjouée, and I assured her that tranquility if not sadness was the habitual expression of my countenance, for I feared she would give me a false, artificial simper which I should hate to see.
“It was not long however before I threw aside all that I had assumed & fell irresistably into nature.”
Amélie, she said, was a young woman “of the most amiable temper and quick sensibility. I could not help liking her very much when I saw how her beautiful complexion caught as it were the reflexion of the stupid blushes that once or twice I felt heating my cheeks.
“It seems to be her object to seize as much as possible the character and natural expression of the face by making it talk and laugh and to move and be at ease. She talks and laughs incessantly herself, hears what you have to say, and catches your real expression while you forget yourself in speaking.”
A PORTRAIT OF JANE
Jane kept the portrait. She would bequeath it to the National Portrait Gallery, and a photograph of it taken by Sophia Cracroft is held by the National Archives. Presumably Fanny Griffin also kept the portrait Amélie made of her, although I have not yet been able to locate it.
After the Griffin family left Geneva, Amélie Romilly continued to build a reputation as an artist, and to rattle the cage of Swiss society.
She caused a major scandal in 1821 when she married David Munier, who was not only ten years younger than her, but also a man of the cloth and a noted intellectual. Amélie was by then well established as a portrait painter. She had no intention of giving up her career and independent income just because she was now also a pastor’s wife.
The couple were clearly devoted to one another, and Amélie played an active role in David’s pastoral work. She was enraged by the poverty and inequality she saw in Geneva, particularly the hardship and disease suffered by children. She became a relentless campaigner for social change, in person and through her art.
Her work was highly acclaimed and she won many prizes, including a gold medal at the Berne Exhibition in 1830. She was also very prolific. No full record exists, but one catalogue shows that she created more than 2,500 works of art between 1820 and 1856.
She continued to paint well into her 70s. She died in Geneva on 12th February 1875, aged 86: three years after her husband, and just months before the death of Jane Franklin.
Unfortunately, only a handful of Amélie’s works are held by Geneva’s Museum of Art and History, and none are currently on display. The majority of her portraits are believed to remain in her home city, but are hidden away in the hands of private collectors.
Her portrait of Jane Griffin, however, belongs to all of us.
The Griffin family arrived in Geneva at a pivotal point in its history. The city had gained independence from Napoleonic France at the end of 1813, and officially became part of Switzerland on 19th May 1815. On 20th November of that year, Geneva added a further seven communes to its territory. It would expand again, later in 1816.
The colossal fortifications around the Old Town were dismantled in the 1840s. A decade later, many of the historic buildings in and around rue des Chaudronniers were demolished.
Maison Boissier no longer exists: L’ecole Saint-Antoine has stood on the site since 1858. Maison Butini is also long gone, as is Maison de la Bourse Française. But one enduring monument remains, just ten minutes’ walk away from the Old Town.
Rue Munier-Romilly is named for Amélie, and it is quiet and understated in all the ways that this remarkable woman was not.
It’s in a particularly monied part of town and is home to the Italian consulate and an art foundation. When I visited recently I was stopped by a security guard who looked me up and down and wanted to know why I was taking photos.
I told her: “Je suis une étudiante de l’art d’Amélie Romilly.”
This wasn’t true even a few short weeks ago. But it certainly is now.
Woodward, Frances J. – Portrait of Jane: a Life of Lady Franklin
McGoogan, Ken – Lady Franklin’s Revenge
La Francophonie en Europe: le cas de la Suisse romande et de la Communauté française de Belgique – Dialogue et Cultures 56 (2010)
Comment Genève est devenu Suisse – Tribune de Genève (2015) http://bicentenaire.tdg.ch/chapitre2.html