My artist great-grandparents

Posted by Estyn Hulbert on

I'm still reeling from the discoveries I made last month about my ancestors. It's a little hard to know how to move on from there since there's so much more to learn and read about slavery and the sugar trade in the West Indies, but I'm committed to this project of exploring my family history and writing about new members of the family each month.

This is probably a good time to draw a diagram to show who's who.

diagram of partial family tree

This diagram only shows the relatives I've written about so far, and how they're connected to me, so some names and great chunks of my family are missing. I'll fill in as the story progresses (and as I figure out how to draw a complicated family tree!). 

My great-grandparents are the first artists that I know of in my family.

I know very little about my great-grandfather Montgomery "Monty" John Williams. That may be mostly because his marriage to my great-grandmother ended when my grandfather was only 5, and after that he was mostly absent from my grandfather's life and a fairly distant figure. 

Monty Williams holding young son Garth Williams (later illustrator)

This is the only picture I have of Monty, holding my grandfather Garth Williams when he was a baby. I find it a strange and compelling photograph because of the way he's holding his son, but also because his bare forearms and rolled-up striped shirt give him a physical immediacy.

Monty was born in London in 1884 and was trained as an artist.

He sold a drawing to Punch Magazine when he was just 17.

He moved to America and worked as an illustrator for a range of publications and he was an accomplished painter, drawing and painting landscapes and portraits throughout his life

After the First World War and the end of his first marriage he moved to Paris and married Geneviève "Gege" Merisier, shown in this portrait he painted of her. You can see some of his artwork here.

Portrait of Geneviève "GeGe" Merisier by husband Montgomery John Williams

They had a son, Alain, and two daughters, Denise and Martine. After living for a time on a barge on the Seine, they lived in Majorca, France, Madagascar and Mauritius. It seems like nobody in my family stayed in one place.

My mother is friends with Denise and Martine, her aunts, who both live in France.

My great-grandmother Florence "Dé" was descended of the plantation owners I wrote about last month

Her parents were Elizabeth Gordon Jackson and Gateward Coleridge Davis. They were both born in the West Indies and married in Antigua in 1864. Elizabeth was the daughter of William Walrond Jackson, who was made bishop of Antigua in 1860.

I believe Gateward was also the son of a bishop of Antigua. He was a lawyer who studied at Oxford. They seem to have died young, Elizabeth at the age of 50 and Gateward (what a name!) at 48, but they managed to have eleven children. 

Born in Australia in 1877 and raised in Barbados, their daughter Dé (pronounced Day) eventually went to Paris to study art. 

Florence "Dé" Williams (Née Davis)

She was a suffragette, knew Bertrand Russell, and had some connections to the Bloomsbury Group.

She sounds like a bold and interesting woman. I wish I knew more about her. 

Florence "Dé" Williams, née Davis

She certainly knew how to carry a hat.

She met and married Monty when she was in her thirties, while studying art in Paris. They settled in Caldwell, New Jersey, where they had room to work. Caldwell is about an hour and a half from my home here in the Hudson Valley. Knowing this gives me a weird expanding and contracting sense of my family's movements back and forth across the globe.

My grandfather Garth was born in nearby New York City in 1912, and his sister Fiona (my mother's namesake) was born three years later.

Childhood portrait of artist Garth Williams and his sister Fiona

When Garth was five his mother Dé left her husband and took her children to Canada where she joined friends from her time as a suffragette and helped them found a women's college in Barrie, Ontario. 

Florence Stewart Williams skating with children Fiona and Garth Williams

They remained in Canada through the war before returning to England.

When my great-aunt Fiona was just 12 (or maybe 14) she died while at boarding school. It may have been diphtheria or angina. Her mother, Dé, was devastated and suffered a severe depression. She returned to the church of her childhood and became intensely religious.

I don't know if she continued to draw and paint later in life. I haven't heard of any of her paintings or artwork surviving in the family. In Canada and England she taught art and her obituary mentions that she painted sets for her church's theatrical productions.

She died in 1942 when she was hit by a driver while riding her bicycle. Streetlights were dimmed as part of the wartime blackout and she must have been invisible. I wonder how many people were casualties of the war in this way. She was only 66.

Obituary for Florence Stewart Davis Williams

She was certainly not commonplace.

The woman described in her obituary sounds generous, creative and quirky. I love this sentence in particular, "She had a marked and vivid personality, not to be described as eccentric but certainly not commonplace." I sincerely hope that these are the traits I've inherited from her. 

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You'll find all the installments in this series here.

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