The ongoing effects of Mary Elizabeth Jolliffe

Cat James

For reasons I probably don’t need to expand upon, I’ve recently spent a lot of time staring at my own navel. And, when I tire of that, I gaze glassy-eyed at my four walls. On one of them is a framed vintage auction poster for my property. The house itself is mid-Victorian, but in 1919 the then occupant – a Miss Mary Elizabeth Jolliffe – died. Subsequently, as the poster describes, her possessions were advertised for sale by order of her executors.

From the items catalogued, I’ve created my own rendition of Miss Jolliffe. Although now divided into flats, her property itself is a grand detached villa backing onto what was a private ornamental park, so she must have been a woman of substance. And, since she was titled ‘Miss’, presumably the substance was her own, and not her husband’s.

This spinster’s home was furnished with both antique and modern furniture. Of course, her ‘modern’ will now be antique to me, residing in Mary’s property over one hundred years in her future.

The house itself was built by an uncle of Alice Liddell, of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fame. I’ve often speculated if the youngster visited her relatives, the Right Honourable George Liddell and his wife Louisa, when she was on the Island being photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron. The couple are buried together in Ryde Cemetery. I’ve envisaged the horse-drawn funeral cortège leaving the villa, taking its occupant on their final journey. On my daily walk in early lockdown I paid my respects, placing on the Liddell’s tomb a bouquet of bluebells picked from the garden of the property they built.

Miss Jolliffe was clearly a creative lady; both artistic and musical. Perhaps she used her listed drawing materials to sketch the ancestors of those spring flowers, inspired by the work she studied in her two hundred volumes of books, portfolios and prints. Were those drawings and pictures her own endeavours, summarily bundled together with unspecified ornamental items? Perhaps after a summer’s day enjoying music at the park’s bandstand, she returned home to tinkle competently at her cottage pianoforte in its walnut case.

What was the calibre of guests Mary invited to her parties; food presented on the Davenport dinner service? Had they talked earnestly about the Great War, around the mahogany table with its leaves extended, wielding their ‘eating irons’ from the 300 ounces of old English silver plate?

Perhaps Miss Jolliffe breathed her last in that Hepplewhite four-post bedstead, finally succumbing to her disability; itemised between the British vacuum cleaner and four oil drums is an invalid’s wicker chair on bicycle wheels.

The auction took place one June day at the house itself. Potential buyers testing the comfiness of the two Chippendale armchairs (“and four smaller ditto”), before pondering their reflections in the antique mantle glasses like so many faces before them.

And then, once Mary’s possessions were cast to the four winds, presumably the house was sold. Perhaps my auction poster is the only tangible trace left of her.

This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 7 August 2020, and also online.

Cat James

Graphic designer, creative director of Pinkeye Graphics, Isle of Wight County Press columnist, Cat out of Matt and Cat

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