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Bird of Time enamel plaque by Ernestine Mills

May 18, 2016

Omar Khayyam, EM_VIC 20150902-P1030236 copyThis fascinating piece of artwork, shown in the illustration right, is owned by Irene Cockroft, a descendent of Ernestine Mills.  Irene has contributed the following comments, highlighting also her other links with the history of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat.  She asks for help from readers who have any further information.  Please add your comments below. 

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated by Edward FitzGerald. quatrain VII, 1st ed.

This enigmatic plaque, c. nine inch tall, was enamelled by artist Ernestine Mills (1871-1959).  Mills trained at the South Kensington School of Art and the Slade.  She studied enamelling under Alexander Fisher (1864-1936) at Finsbury Technical College.  The plaque is typical of her style but the shape is unusual.  Ernestine’s kiln could accommodate twice this width.

Did she design slim shapes to illustrate a series of images inspired by favourite Khayyam-FitzGerald quatrains; or to facilitate flexible hanging?  Could slender frames have been fashioned to embellish either side of a fireplace?  (Among other endeavours, Mills designed ceramic tiles for Pilkingtons of Manchester, some of which were used in fire surrounds.  No Khayyam tile designs have yet been located, but not all design records, tiles or for that matter, fireplaces, survived World War II.)

Possibly because Ernestine (Tina) Mills was my relative, a title for her naked angel enamel immediately sprang to mind – ‘The bird of time is on the wing’.  Obviously, the heavenly robe had perished in the fire of spring.  Can any reader suggest a more likely interpretation?

Bell T.E. EM Indian memorialErnestine’s father was Major Thomas Evans Bell (1825-1887), a soldier and diplomat with the East India Company, who edited the Madras Literary Journal.  With Whitley Stokes, Bell is credited as having been the first to re-publish Edward FitzGerald’s inspired translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

In 1862 the Madras Literary Journal stepped in, where mainstream publishers feared to tread through dread of censure.  Khayyam’s philosophy attacked religion!  By contrast, so enamoured were Bell and Stokes of the anglicised Khayyam quatrains that strayed into their possession, they decided to publish, even though they knew not the identity of the translator.  Thankfully, they were not damned for their piracy – not by FitzGerald, anyway.  The FitzGerald Rubaiyat has rarely been out of print since.

The source of Bell’s advocacy is not hard to fathom.  He was a close friend and disciple of secularist G.J. Holyoake.  The havoc wrought in India by conflicting religious beliefs probably contributed to Bell’s secularism, though he displayed Khayyam-like tolerance to all.  His supportive wife-to-be, classical actress and musical composer Emily Ernst Magnus, and in due course their daughter Ernestine, proved of like character in secularism, radicalism and courage.

All three devoted energy to the burgeoning cause of equal rights for women.  Thomas and Emily were members of the Central Committee of the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage.  Emily signed the 1866 women’s suffrage petition to Parliament.  By 1908 Ernestine was donating a percentage of her work to sell at bazaars to raise funds for the Women’s Social & Political Union war chest.

Pirating of poetry apart, Major Bell held high ethical standards.  Unlike the majority of British adventurers who followed the winds of trade to India, Bell lived austerely.  The only acquisition he valued was his professorial knowledge of India and her people.  This he put to good use on his return to London, followed by early retirement from armed service, in 1865.  Bell married, and settled to writing scholarly tomes on Indian politics.  These books, he hoped, would influence high-handed British officialdom, and coincidentally the future fate of India, for the better.  Prophetically, Bell penned his fear that all would end in ‘garments rolled in blood’.

EM miniature NDWBell died in London in 1887.  His daughter Ernestine was sixteen years old.  Finding the money to complete her art training must have been a struggle.  The additional acquisition of Applied Art enamelling skills provided Ernestine with the means to earn her living as an artist.

Ernestine’s well-worn 1901 Astolat Press pocket edition of Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubyait of Omar Khayyam bears her signature, matching that on the back of her mystery enamel.  I inherited the pocket-size, (105mm x 70mm), Astolat Press memento of Ernestine’s love of The Rubaiyat.  Her little book is vellum-bound with gold-embossed roses and grapes tooled by one Y.W.B.  There are no internal illustrations.

When Ernestine eventually passed away, some years after her husband Dr Herbert Mills, in 1959, her daughter Hermia, by now like her late father an overworked medical doctor, determined to leave the past behind and make a fresh start.  She had the family home professionally cleared, then sold.  Who knows if copies of the 1862 Madras Literary Journal were, like winter garments of repentance, flung in the cleansing fire of spring clearance?

If anyone can shed further light on the ‘bird of time’ enamel, I shall be delighted to hear of it.  I wondered if a matching shaped plaque might have been inscribed with the quatrain it appears to describe?  Mills was noted for her lettering – no mean achievement in enamel!  The discovery of a similar plaque would be of great interest; as indeed, would news of other plaques or jewellery enamelled by Ernestine Mills.  A small ‘EM’ in the bottom corner of a plaque or a full signature on the back, with or without date, was her usual identification, but sometimes this was omitted.  As jewellery was often too small for a monogram, provenance is important.

I am photographing examples of Ernestine’s work, and collecting information about her family, life and times, for a biography.  I would value any help in this endeavour.  Please contact me through the blogsite.

Irene Cockroft

Captions to three photographs above, in order of presentation.

  1. Ernestine Mills ‘Bird of Time’ enamel: aperture 235mm high x 75mm wide; outside edge of wood frame 255mm high x 95mm wide.  Back counter-enamelled, signed and dated 1922.
  2. Ernestine Mills’ silver and enamel monument to Thomas Evans Bell commissioned by the House of Greatness museum, Indore, India.  Bell validated Indore Maharajah Holkar’s loyalty to Britain during the 1857 Mutiny, exempting his princely state from reprisals.  The monument lists Bell’s many writings on Indian politics.  He counselled controlled return of independence to the Indian nation.
  3. Portrait of Ernestine Mills c. 1898 by fellow art student Edith Hinchley.

 All the above material is © V. Irene Cockroft.  All images are courtesy of V. Irene Cockroft, photos 1 © V. Irene Cockroft & 3 © David Cockroft.  Our thanks to Irene for this contribution.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Forrest permalink
    May 20, 2016 10:09 am

    Hello Irene,

    I wasn’t sure whether you were asking about the enamel art-work itself (which is very neat!) or about your (?) choice of title, “The Bird of Time.” If the latter, this is obviously a very apt title for this, with the regular symbol of Time, the winged hour-glass (commonly encountered on gravestones), being held aloft by the Angel – compare Edmund .J. Sullivan’s illustration to verse 7. Did Ernestine do other Rubaiyat plaques like this, or is this the only one known ? If there are others, I for one would like to see them.

  2. V. Irene Cockroft permalink
    May 20, 2016 1:04 pm

    Dear Bob,
    I’m pleased to have your agreement as to the aptness of my identification of the mystery enamel bought at auction recently, as a portrayal of Fitzgerald’s translation of the quatrain by Omar Khayyam, ‘The Bird of Time has but a little way to fly, and lo! the bird is on the Wing’. There were no clues as to the meaning or origin of this enamel other than the signature of Ernestine Mills and date 1922 on the back. My surmise seems likely to be correct in view of the artists’ being the daughter of the editor of the Madras Literary Journal which first published Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat in 1862. This is the only Rubaiyat-related piece by Mills known to me. I feel sure there must be more out there (many plaques by Mills found their way abroad). As the great-niece of the artist, I am gathering material for a biography. I welcome any information or images that will add to the history. Mills like her father was a Freethinker. She created a striking secularist/humanist enamel illustrating the poem ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ by Leigh Hunt.

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