Art: Who was the mysterious Mrs Griffiths?

PUBLISHED: 10:57 24 September 2020

Mrs Griffiths by John Collier

Mrs Griffiths by John Collier

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This handsome portrait hangs in Brighton Town Hall, the elegance of the sitter made all the more intriguing by the fact we know so little about her

This painting hangs not in an art gallery, but in Brighton Town Hall. It is a very large portrait of Mary Ann (or Minnie) Griffith. At some point in its history the title of the painting has gained an erroneous ‘s’, an error made most probably by a member of the museum staff, which now regrettably alters Minnie’s name for posterity. This painting found its way into the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum Collection principally because her descendants were unable to find room to house such a large and heavy painting.

Minnie was the youngest daughter of Thomas Kinder JP, once of St Albans. Sadly, little is known about her apart from what we can deduce from this painting. The magnitude of this portrait suggests that she was evidently very highly thought of. She was clearly a woman of great style. Her petite frame shows off the elegant ballgown made from pink embroidered taffeta and Brussels lace. Her granddaughter, Helena, was given a piece of this fabric to make a dress for her doll. Rather charmingly she still has this in her possession today. As is common in many society portraits the artist has arranged the pose so that the jewellery is visible but not displayed ostentatiously. Minnie’s wedding ring and her pendant form a line that crosses her heart. A good portrait artist will reveal elements of a sitter’s personality and Minnie’s thoughtful expression and distant gaze encourage us to imagine the woman she once was and the life she led.

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The Hon. John Maler Collier was an exceptionally talented artist who also painted the portrait of Rudyard Kipling which hangs at Bateman’s. Collier’s work is well represented in galleries across the country thanks to a posthumous travelling exhibition organised by his widow where each host venue was bequeathed a painting. His oeuvre stretches from portraits of notable Victorians, to pre-Raphaelite scenes inspired by literature and mythology, to ambiguous domestic scenes designed to promote after-dinner conversations.

Mrs Griffiths is located in the corner on the western wall of the second floor of Brighton Town Hall, Bartholomew Road, Brighton BN1 1JW. This part of the building is usually open to the public and admission is free although, given the current disruption to normal operating procedures, it would be wise to check before travelling.

Why you should see this painting: An elegant society portrait housed in a building worth a visit in its own right. It shows a beautiful and graceful lady with a story made more compelling in that we know so little about her.

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