Flora Clift Stevenson, 1840 - 1905. Educationalist and philanthropist

Alexander Ignatius Roche

Flora Clift Stevenson, 1840 - 1905. Educationalist and philanthropist

about 1904

Ann McCluskey, Learning Programme Coordinator (Families, Young People and Communities) This Portrait of the Month is selected by Ann McCluskey, Learning Programme Coordinator (Families, Young People and Communities)

As Flora Clift Stevenson died in 1905, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the likeness, and would evaluate this painting’s style as typical of the age; accomplished but unexciting. But beyond the artistic surface, what does the painting mean to me; a 21st century woman confronted with an image of a 19th century version?

There are two ways to read the painting in search of meaning. Firstly, I can ‘cold-read’ her; projecting a psychological portrait of corsetry and sternness, with connotations of the buttoned-up and forbidding. But is my imagination accurate?

In her zeal to have the delinquent and impoverished of her era educated, Flora tolerated no compromise: food and clothing were only provided on condition of attendance at school. And she didn’t believe in welfare either – as it inclined parents to responsibility-shirking. Is there also a psychological portrait here, as well as a technically proficient one?

But the other reading is symbolic: a woman represented with written-upon  paper in her hand signifies an intellect, and a place in the public domain at a time when women were denied the right to vote. Here was also a suffragette; a passionate advocate for the right of women to be university-educated; and a woman at the heart of legislative reform in Scottish education. (She was part of a select committee in 1887 to compel ‘neglected’ children to attend school.)

Flora may have had a ‘grand manner’ (she was an intimidating presence for parents whose offspring benefited from her educational activity) but without her, our right to an education in Scotland may have been less-assured. Victorian portraits often invoke presumption in the viewer of a time and place that has no meaning to ‘the here and now’. Flora’s portrait reminds us that some people, and some paintings, are always relevant to the here and now; brown paint and imperious ways notwithstanding.