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Saturday, 29 June 2013


I have inherited books from my late father and my late uncle, and now have two copies of several volumes written by or about the family. Particularly well represented on my shelves is their only aunt, Emma Gurney Salter. They both adored her, my father particularly. Emma, who never married, was very fond of her nephews too, although that didn’t stop her warning my mother just before her wedding that my father might not be suited to marriage. (They divorced six years later.)

Emma Gurney Salter (1875-1967) in 1912 on the occasion of the publication of Nature in Italian Art (from the Illustrated London News)

She was an archetypically bookish maiden aunt, a scholar in the field of Italian ecclesiastical history. She was an authority on St Francis of Assisi, and in her publications she often blended medieval history and art – I have editions of at least eight of her works including two copies of Tudor England Through Venetian Eyes and three of Nature in Italian Art. The subtitle of Nature is “a study of landscape backgrounds from Giotto to Tintoretto” and it is a comprehensive survey of landscape, flora and fauna depicted by artists from all the Italian schools of art from 1250 to 1590.

My father’s copy of Nature was his father’s, signed “to F.G.S. with love from the author, April 1912,” a gift from sister to brother soon after its publication that year. Uncle John’s copy, “to John Gurney Salter from his aunt,” has a letter to him from her tucked inside the cover, in which she writes
I daresay you know it was accepted by Trin. Coll. Dublin as a thesis for their Litt.D.? I submitted also my earlier book on Franciscan Legends & an art. in the Edinburgh Rev. and some translations also.

Emma studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. Women had been allowed to take courses at Cambridge University, and even to sit exams, since 1881, but were not awarded degrees. Oxford finally recognised female graduates in 1920; Cambridge was then shamed into granting diplomas to women from 1921, but did not give women degrees until 1948.

At Trinity College, Dublin, however women had been eligible for degrees since 1904. From then until 1907, brilliant scholars like my Great Aunt Emma at both Oxford and Cambridge were able to sail to Dublin (then still part of the United Kingdom), where Trinity College was happy to recognise their studies in England and to confer on them the degrees which the English universities refused. These women became known as "steamboat ladies." Steamboating great aunt Emma’s Trin. Coll. Litt.D. was built on her Trin. Coll. MA.

I found my third copy of Nature in Italian Art in Cumbria around 2005 on the shelves of a relative stranger, the friend of a friend, who had bought it and a few hundred others from a second-hand bookshop purely for their decorative spines. My delight at finding Emma’s book was compounded when I took it down and read the flyleaf dedication, “to F. Reyner, from the mother of the authoress.” What a find – Frederick Reyner, Lancashire cotton magnate, was my great great uncle, brother of my great grandmother Jane Salter née Reyner, Emma’s mother.

Three copies of Nature in Italian Art by my great aunt Emma Gurney Salter, the former properties of three generations of my ancestors: my grandfather, my uncle and my great great uncle

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