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.