Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Gilchrist Family Papers - Biographical Sketch

The accomplishments of the Gilchrist family enabled them to form unusual relationships with famous literati and artists of the nineteenth century. Each member of the Gilchrist family pursued individual interests in the disciplines of art, literature, science, and medicine. As each member of the family expanded in his/her discipline, interaction with notable individuals expanded. The correspondence and diaries contained in this collection disclose not only the unique relationships they had with writers and artists of the nineteenth century but also reveal the joys and hardships of this unconventional family.

Anne Gilchrist was born Anne Burrows in 1828 to John Parker and Henrietta Borrows. She was a descendent of an upper-class family, a fact which enabled her to receive a formal education. Anne was interested in literature and exchanging theoretical ideas with intellectuals: an interest that her father enthusiastically encouraged. At the age of eleven she suffered the death of her father, who died from an illness which ensued after a fall from a horse. Anne had had a close and supportive relationship with him, and his death affected her deeply. Living with her mother Henrietta in London, Anne met Alexander Gilchrist. Alexander (known as Alex) was born in 1828 to James and Dorothy Gilchrist. James Gilchrist, the son of a Scottish farmer, was a writer and philosopher, whose most successful work was titled The Intellectual Patrimony (Alcaro 1991, 49). According to a biographer of Anne Gilchrist, Marion Walker Alcaro, Alex and Anne had a comfortable intellectual friendship, but Anne was not interested in marriage. Because of Anne's social stature many suitors were vying for her hand in marriage. The first time Alex proposed marriage to Anne, she refused. There is not much known of the courtship between Anne and Alex, but Anne finally agreed to marry Alex because of their intellectually-compatable friendship. Alex encouraged and respected Anne's academic interests, and Anne often aided Alex in his work. Although Anne may not have had a deep and unwavering love for Alex, they shared the same scholarly interests and both had lost the supportive relationships they had shared with their fathers through a saddening early demise.

After a two-year engagement during which Alex was finishing his law degree, Anne Burrows finally wedded Alex Gilchrist in February of 1851. Alex chose not to pursue a career in law and decided to fulfill his life-long aspiration to become a writer. Numerous poems written by Alex between 1843 and 1850 and contained in this collection demonstrate his love for writing. At the time Alex and Anne Gilchrist were married, Alex was working on a book entitled The Life of Etty (William Etty, British painter, 1787-1849). While spending the initial years of their marriage traveling in England, Alex conducted research for the biography of William Etty, and Anne gave birth to their first son, Percy Carlyle Gilchrist (1851-1935). Alex relays the news of the event in a cheerful letter to a life-long friend of Anne's, Julia Mary Newton.

In 1853--two years after the birth of Percy--the Gilchrists made their first home in an old manor in Guilford. Here the Gilchrists celebrated the birth of their second child Beatrice Carwardine in September of 1854. Due to the fact that Alex put aside a profitable career as a barrister and was pursuing his desire to become a writer, the Gilchrists lived modestly in their old manor at Guilford. Even though money was meager, the Gilchrists still entertained during these years. Guests included persons such as William Haines, a dear friend and almost brother to Alex (Alcaro 1991, 68: William Haines as described by Anne Gilchrist), and popular magazine author Walter White. Other acquaintances of Alex included sculptor William Calder Marshall (1813-1894). An 1855 letter from Marshall concerns corrections of a bio- graphical sketch that Alex had written about the sculptor.

Alex completed The Life of Etty, and the two-volume work was published in 1855. Even though Alex's first work was not a literary success, it gained him a friendship with British writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Alex had sent Carlyle, whom Alex idolized, a copy of The Life of Etty, and Carlyle found fit to praise it. Soon there were correspondence and visits between the two men, and their friendship became more intimate. During the mid-1850s Alex began a new project on the life of William Blake (1757-1827). This new endeavor would require extensive research in London. Because of the Gilchrist's growing friendship with the Carlyles and Alex's need to research in London, Carlyle suggested that the Gilchrists move into the home next door to his own in Chelsea.

In 1856 the Gilchrist family settled at 6 Cheyne Row. It is here that Anne gave birth to two more children: Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857-1914), who was born in March of 1857, and Grace Gilchrist (1859-1947), who was born in January of 1859. During their residence at 6 Cheyne Row, the Carlyles introduced the Gilchrists to several accomplished writers and artists. Alex made contacts with collectors and artistic descendants of William Blake who willingly helped Alex with his research. This residential location proved a great asset for Alex's research on the new book.

By 1860 the Gilchrists had associated and corresponded with pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), and Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). In a letter from 1861 Samuel Palmer writes to thank Anne for a ticket to a production she gave Samuel. Alex's research was ongoing to compile the facts, anecdotes, writings, and paintings from Blake's life. The lives of the Gilchrists and their four children were pleasant at 6 Cheyne Row: while Alex worked on The Life of William Blake, Anne pursued her love for writing by publishing magazine articles. The Carlyles and Gilchrists continued to entertain and remained intimate friends.

Alex worked incessantly in his years at 6 Cheyne Row to complete The Life of William Blake. Macmillian publishers accepted the work, even though Alex submitted only a partial manuscript. In October of 1861 Alex was nearing completion of The Life of William Blake when Beatrice Gilchrist contracted scarlet fever during an epidemic of the disease. Anne, in isolation with Beatrice, nursed her daughter back to health. Just as Beatrice was recovering, the Gilchrist's son Percy contracted scarlet fever. Alex, through contact with his son, also contracted the dreaded infection and became critically ill. Alex Gilchrist succumbed to the disease in November of 1861.

With the death of her husband Anne Gilchrist was left with four children and Alex's nearly completed manuscript of The Life of William Blake. In 1862, shortly after the death of her husband, Anne moved her family to Brookbank Cottage in Shottermill. She ignored the protests of the Carlyles and a close friend Isabella Ireland to stay at 6 Cheyne Row. At Brookbank Anne completed her husband's unfinished manuscript. With the help of Michael William Rossetti (1829-1919), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Samuel Palmer, Anne finished The Life of William Blake, and it was published in January of 1863.

After the completion of The Life of Blake Anne wrote two articles for Macmillan Magazine. Although Anne wanted to pursue her own aspiration as a writer, her primary concern in these years was her children. Anne's children had fond memories of the visitors at Brookbank Cottage. One famous figure that the Gilchrist children recalled with tenderness was Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). Percy Carlyle Gilchrist involved himself with science and mining. He attended the Royal School of Mines and later developed the dephosphorization of Cleveland Pig Iron to make steel (see Bolckow & Vaughan 1929, 17-19 for dephosphorization process). Percy, after a rocky courtship, married Norah Fitzmaurice. Beatrice Carwardine Gilchrist's ambition was to become a physician; she completed the required academic course work in England and in 1876 attended the Woman's Medical College in Philadelphia. Due to the educational regulations in England during the nineteenth century, Beatrice was unable to attend medical school there. Beatrice's continued education precipitated the family's move to the United States. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist, warmly called Herby, became an artist. At the age of fourteen Herby began attending drawing schools and later was accepted as a student to the Royal Academy. Grace Gilchrist, or Giddy as she was more affectionately known, the youngest of the Gilchrist children, never quite found her talent. Grace did try her hand at singing. A letter from Edward Carpenter (1844-1929, writer) in the mid-1880s praises Grace's efforts on stage.

In 1876 the Gilchrists, excluding Percy, who was newly-married and immersed in his career, moved to the United States. Here Herbert studied painting and Beatrice pursued her medical career. While in the United States Anne met the poet she most admired, Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Anne was introduced to Whitman's book, Leaves of Grass, by William Michael Rossetti. With her children grown, Anne could pursue her own interests. While in the United States, she continued her relationship with the Rossetti's through letter-writing. In an 1872 letter to Christina Rossetti, Anne thanks Christina for shipment of a book. The Gilchrists' stay in the United States was exciting and exhausting for the family. They constantly entertained Whitman along with his friends and family while pursuing their own interests. Herby studied with successful painters, while Beatrice continued her studies in medicine. Anne proceeded in gaining knowledge as well as a long-lasting friendship with Whitman. In 1879 the time had come for the Gilchrists to return to England. Upon their return they acquired a new home in Hampstead.

Beatrice's drive and intelligence made her a diligent student. By 1880 she had earned a professional position in Berne, Switzerland. In March of the same year she returned home unexpectedly and declared that she did not want to continue her career as a physician. This unexplained event was soon resolved as Beatrice decided to continue with medicine and take a position in Edinburgh. As Anne and her children were settling back in England, she worked on a second edition to The Life of William Blake.

In 1881 Anne went to visit her daughter Beatrice in Edinburgh. Anne suffered from what she thought to be asthma, but Beatrice explained it was emphysema. Anne enjoyed the visit with her daughter and returned to Hampstead content. But shortly after Anne left Edinburgh, word arrived in Hampstead that Beatrice was missing. Her body was found on a farmer's field, on the fifteenth of August 1881, she had been missing since July 20. Beatrice committed suicide by ingesting hydrocyanic acid (Alcaro 1991, 211). The suicide was not made public. Anne wrote Beatrice's obituary, which is contained in this collection.

Herbert and Grace continued to live at Hampstead with Anne. Percy had his own life with his wife Norah in a cottage by the sea and a successful career in the mining industry. During these years Anne continued to write. She decided to write the biography of Mary Lamb (1764-1847), sister of author Charles Lamb (1775-1834). At this time Anne received what must have been devastating news to her, that she had breast cancer. The year 1881 was a tragic one for Anne, she lost her daughter Beatrice and learned of the disease, which she kept secret from all, that would eventually take her life. In 1882 Anne finished the Life of Mary Lamb. The copyright agreement was signed with David Bouge, a London publisher, a copy of which can be found in the collection.

During the remaining years of her life Anne continued her correspondence with friend and poet Walt Whitman. Anne was interested in writing a biography on Dorothy Wordsworth, sister to the famous poet William Wordsworth. But the correspondence contained in this collection from a Wordsworth-descendent suggests that the Wordsworth family was not willing to share family information with her. Anne kept her illness hidden from Herbert and Grace, who thought the emphysema from which Anne suffered was progressing. When Anne became critically ill in 1885, the disease took her quickly and her children were devastated.

The Gilchrist children maintained close relationships with each other and pursued their own interests in life after the death of their mother. Grace Gilchrist, through voice training, became an average contralto. She also became a member of the Fabian Society, a socialist political group, along with her brother Herbert. Through the Fabian society Grace met and became enamored with writer George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Emma Brookes, a novelist, intruded on this relationship to find out Shaw's intentions. Herbert--also aware of this--may have had words with Shaw. A argumentative letter from Shaw to Herbert from 1888 indicates that there was a desire to break off Shaw's involvement with Grace. In 1897 Grace married Albert Henry Frend, an architect. Herbert and Percy not were fond of the man Grace wanted to wed. As Grace's diaries in the collection reveal, the marriage ended twelve years later with a long and bitter divorce. Grace lived the rest of her life with close companions and pursued the study of theosophy. She died at the age of eighty-eight in 1947.

Herbert continued painting. His portraits of Walt Whitman, his mother Anne, and a group-portrait are now housed in the Department of Special Collections, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania. Herbert never became a member of the Royal Academy as he had dreamed. In 1887 he published Anne Gilchrist: Life and Writings. Included in the biography of Anne, relayed through her correspondence, is a preface by close friend of the family, William Michael Rossetti. Even though Herbert appeared to be a rather successful painter, he--like his sister Beatrice--took his own life at the age of fifty-nine i n 1914.

Percy continued his eminent career in the mining and steel industry. He lived a comfortable life and died at the age of eighty-four in 1934.

Like all families the Gilchrists experienced tragedy and happiness, but the Gilchrists' accomplishments and unique relationships make them an intriguing family for further study.


Alcaro, Marion Walker. 1991. Walt Whitman's Mrs. G. London and Toronto: Associated University Press.

Bolckow & Vaughan. 1929. Thomas & Gilchrist 1879-1929. Middlesbrough, England: Blockow, Vaughan & Company, Ltd.

Gilchrist, Alexander. 1907. The Life of William Blake. London: John Lane the Bodley Head.

Gilchrist Family Papers. 1823-1939. Held by the University of Pennsylvania Library, Department of Special Collections.

Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden. 1973. Anne Gilchrist: Life and Writings. New York: AMS Press Inc.

Last update: Friday, 31-Jan-2003 20:58:42 EST
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