Mary Ann McCracken and National Museums NI’s Collections

For first introducing me to my muse Mary Ann McCracken, I will forever be grateful to the National Museums Northern Ireland who, in 2009, employed me as a Visitor Guide at Belfast’s newly refurbished Ulster Museum. It was in the “Plantation to Power-Sharing” gallery the day before the big opening that I found myself drawn to an image of a little old Victorian lady, an open book in her lap. Twelve years (and several countries) later, I am about to complete my doctoral thesis entitled “The Letters and Legacy of Mary Ann McCracken (1770–1866)” and have plans to publish the first scholarly edition of her correspondence in the near future. In this, the 250th anniversary year of her birth, what better time to delve into National Museum’s collections in pursuit of Mary Ann?

Let us return, then, to the image which first piqued my interest, and which is perhaps the most widely recognised likeness of Mary Ann McCracken: the photograph.

Image: "Mary Ann McCracken” History Collection, National Museums NI, BELUM.P475.1932
"Mary Ann McCracken” History Collection, National Museums NI, BELUM.P475.1932

Captured some time between 1857 and 1866 by the photographer John Gibson of 20 Castle Lane, it was donated to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery by Miss Gibson in 1932.[1] The image is mounted on John Gibson stationary and is presented in an oval vignette, in the carte-de-visite format. The photograph captures Mary Ann in advanced old age; her reading glasses poised on the bridge of her nose, her long-sleeved dress, shawl and bright white bonnet giving her a dignified, matronly air. The open book clasped between her hands reminds the viewer of her devotion to the education of Belfast’s poor children. Mary Ann’s biographer speculates that “all her old interests in mechanism must surely have been rekindled as she sat before that curious thing, a camera, for one of the earliest professional photographs.”[2] By placing herself in her subject’s shoes, Mary McNeill evokes Mary Ann’s curiosity in the “useful science”[3] of mechanics and her sense of wonder at “the discoveries in nature, the inventions in art & all the extraordinary changes in the mind of man.”[4] McNeill depicts Mary Ann as a dynamic woman, still willing to learn and embrace the new. The image also drew the attention of historian A.T.Q. Stewart, who remarked, “there is a splendidly clear photograph of her in old age, from which she looks out at us with shrewd Ulster eyes, and an expression that mingles endurance and willpower.”[5] Interestingly, Stewart does not perceive the dynamic, receptive individual McNeill does, but sees instead a stoic and somewhat static elderly figure.

The Miniatures

Six glass plate photographic negatives capturing seven miniature portraits of (and relating to) the McCracken family can be found within National Museum’s Bigger Collection. These negatives were annotated by local historian Francis Joseph Bigger in July 1908. However, in order to determine the identities of the sitters and glean as much information as we can from them, the history of the portraits must first be explored.

Upon Mary Ann’s death in 1866, the miniatures passed into the possession of her step-grandniece Mary McCracken Aitchison (née McCleery) and her husband Christopher Aitchison. By the 1890s, they had relocated from Belfast to Elmswood, Loanhead in Edinburgh (Aitchison’s hometown), taking the portraits with them. Although the couple donated several McCracken heirlooms to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (for instance, Henry Joy McCracken’s coat and sword in 1892 and a lock of his hair in 1900), the miniatures were inherited by their daughter Helen Anna Francis (neé Aitchison). An extract from Helen’s will reads, “my brother Hugh James Aitchison of Likatlong, Bloemfontein, South Africa, will inherit my furniture etc. including the McCracken miniatures.”[6] Therefore, upon her death on 19 November 1941, the portraits passed to Hugh James Aitchison, a former Lieutenant in the Boer War, who later settled in South Africa, where he died on 22 November 1944. His will states “I give and grant the following legacies free of all estate, succession or other duty: To my eldest son Hugh Christopher Aitchison, my family portraits.”[7] Indeed, Hugh Christopher Aitchison of Likatlong, Bloemfontein corresponded with Mary McNeill when she was writing her biography of Mary Ann McCracken and in December 1956, supplied her with glass plate negatives of these miniatures (and three others), which are now housed within the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland’s McNeill Papers (PRONI D3732/2/1).

When Hugh Christopher Aitchison died on 15th March 1964, his wife Helen continued to live at Likatlong Farm with their infant daughter Jane Margaret Aitchison. Helen remarried Hugh’s brother George Kemp Aitchison on 5th October 1964 and according to the couple’s will, Jane Margaret Aitchison was the sole heiress of their entire estates.[8] The property appears to have been sold shortly after George’s death on 2nd November 1980 and presumably the miniatures passed into Jane Margaret’s hands. However, Jane’s whereabouts, and accordingly those of the portraits, remain undetermined.  

Image: black and white photograph of miniature painting of male member of the McCracken family; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18140
black and white photograph of miniature painting of male member of the McCracken family; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18140

James McCleery

This miniature portrait is of James McCleery, an engineer and surveyor for the Lagan Navigation Company and Belfast Water Commissioners. His son William McCleery married Maria McCracken (Henry Joy McCracken’s daughter) in May 1847, making him Maria’s father-in-law. The miniature lies within a silver brooch pin locket, the reverse of which is captured on a glass plate negative within PRONI’s McNeill Papers (PRONI D3732/2/1). On the underside, the monogram “JMcC” is set at the centre of the glass case. A piece of paper stuck beneath the initials reads: James McCleery 1776–1852 Grandfather to M.McC.Cl.” The latter initials refer to Mary McCracken McCleery, Maria’s stepdaughter. Through the glass case can be seen a plait of two different hair colours, one of which presumably belonged to James McCleery. Evidently, Bigger did not have access to the miniatures, because if he did he would have been able to read the underside and annotate the negative accordingly.

Image: black and white photograph of miniature painting of female member of the McCracken family; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18143
black and white photograph of miniature painting of female member of the McCracken family; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18143

Ann McCracken

The female sitter for this portrait is Mary Ann’s mother, Ann McCracken. The miniature lies within a silver brooch pin locket, the reverse of which is also captured on a glass plate negative within PRONI’s McNeill Papers (PRONI D3732/2/1). On the underside is a glass case containing an assortment of human hair within. Along the outer edge runs a plait made up of two different hair colours. This is separated from a looser plait of dark hair by an oval silver band. A piece of paper is stuck across the centre of the case and reads, “Mrs John McCracken (Ann Joy).” The portrait was reproduced with McNeill’s biography.[9]

Image: black and white photograph of miniature painting of Francis McCracken; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18141
black and white photograph of miniature painting of Francis McCracken; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18141

Francis McCracken

In this case, Bigger identifies the sitter as “Francis M’Cracken.” His further annotation “return negative to R. Welch” would suggest that at least this particular negative was borrowed from Irish photographer Robert John Welch (1859–1936). Unusually, this miniature has been removed from its frame and is held in place with mountings. A glass plate negative of this portrait held within PRONI’s McNeill Papers (PRONI D3732/2/1) reveals that it had since been returned to a silver rimmed locket.

Image: black and white photograph of miniature painting of John McCracken; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18142
black and white photograph of miniature painting of John McCracken; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18142

John McCracken Junior

Once again, the identity of the sitter is based upon Bigger’s annotation: “John M’Cracken,”who, it would seem, looked remarkably like his elder brother Francis. This miniature lies within a silver rimmed locket.

Image: black and white photograph of two miniature paintings of male members of the McCracken family; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18145
black and white photograph of two miniature paintings of male members of the McCracken family; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18145

Two unknown McCracken or McCleery family members

Regarding these two unframed miniatures, Bigger does not provide any information beyond: “McCracken family?” Given the presence of James McCleery’s portrait within the collection, there is a possibility that one or both of these sitters were members of the McCleery family.

Image: black and white photograph of painting of Mary McCracken and child; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18144
black and white photograph of painting of Mary McCracken and child; annotated F. J. Bigger BELUM.Y18144

Mary Ann McCracken and Maria   

This miniature is markedly different from the others in that it is not contained within a locket or brooch, but lies within a dark frame with a lighter inner trim. In a letter to her sister dated 30 December 1956, Mary McNeill reported on the arrival of Aitchison’s negatives, exclaiming, “I wish you could see Mary Ann aged 30 with little Regency curls across her forehead and a dog’s head resting on her arm, and beside her Harry’s little daughter.”[10] McNeill appeared quite confident of the sitters’ identities and went on to reproduce the image within the biography, labelling it as, “Mary Ann McCracken and her niece Maria (probably about 1801).”[11] This was presumably based upon information provided by Aitchison.

Templeton Journal entry

Also housed within National Museum’s History Collection are the journals of Belfast naturalist John Templeton (1766–1825). There are sixteen diaries in total, spanning the years 1806–1825. From childhood, the Templeton and McCracken families were close, both attending David Manson’s pioneering ‘play school.’ Indeed, it is alleged that Mary Ann was a bridesmaid at John’s wedding to Katherine Johnston on 21 December 1799.[12] Solid evidence of their friendship can be found within the pages of John’s journal, specifically in an entry dated 14 September 1809 which states, “Went to Bangor with Miss Mary McCracken, found on the Rocks below Bangor: Ligusticum Scoticum with arenaria maritima, riccia glauca.”[13]

Letters 

For many years, the museum held sixteen of Mary Ann McCracken’s letters (five addressed to her niece Eliza Tennent and eleven to Robert James Tennent) however, during the late 1990s these documents were transferred to PRONI where they can still be found within the Tennent Papers (PRONI D1748). Transcriptions of these letters can be found within my forthcoming edition, in the hope that in another 250 years, Mary Ann’s voice will still be heard.

 

 

 

[1] Presumably, Miss Gibson was either a daughter or another close relative of John Gibson.

[2] Mary McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken 17701866: A Belfast Panorama (Dublin: Allen Figgis & Co. Ltd., 1960), 307.

[3] Rose Ann McCracken and Mary Ann McCracken [Belfast] to Henry Joy McCracken [Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin], 27 September 1797, TCD MS873/135.

[4] Mary Ann McCracken [Belfast] to Dr Madden [Dublin], 27 & 29 November 1853, TCD MS873/72.

[5] A.T.Q. Stewart, Summer Soldiers: The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1996), 260.

[6] Notebook 4, 5 volumes of notes for Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, McNeill Papers, PRONI D3732/3/3.

[7] "South Africa, Orange Free State, Probate Records from the Master of the Supreme Court, 1832-1989," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:WPKP-7K3Z : 23 December 2019), Hugh James Aitchison, 1944; citing Probate, Thaba Nchu, Thaba'Nchu, Orange Free State, South Africa, Master's Office of the Orange Free State Archives, Bloemfontein; 004087936.

[8] "South Africa, Orange Free State, Estate Files, 1951-2006," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-LB3H-XD?cc=1407787&wc=Q87D-X1Z%3A1058037301%2C1058105001 : 21 May 2014), 1980 > no 2410-2418 > image 155 of 421; Master of the Free State High Court, Bloemfontein.

[9] McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 38.

[10] Mary McNeill to Peg, 30 December 1956, McNeill Papers, QUBSC.

[11] McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 112.

[12] See Byrne, ‘Templeton, John’ in J. McGuire and J. Quinn (eds), Dictionary of Irish Biography, 9 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 303.

[13] National Museums NI, History Collection, BELUM.S56.4, John Templeton’s Journal 1809. The plants they discovered growing on the rocks are more commonly known as Scots lovage, sea thrift and Glaucous Crystalwort.