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Turkish delights

(Photograph) - Clare Gittings explores, through Vanmour's painting, the remarkable life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and considers why her opinions and experiences still have relevance today

Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737)

Vanmour was born in French Flanders and went to Istanbul with the French ambassador Marquis de Ferriol when he was 18. He is thought to have remained there until his death. Throughout his life he painted hundreds of works and created a remarkable record of life in Istanbul at the time. His speciality was painting diplomatic audiences with the sultan, so he was the obvious choice of painter for the British ambassador's wife.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters are available in various editions * Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers is on show at the National Portrait Gallery until October 31. Admission free. Open daily 10am-6pm. Late opening Thursday and Friday, until 9pm. Tel: 020 7312 2463 or 020 7306 0055

Clare Gittings is education officer at the National Portrait Gallery

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of the earliest travellers included in the exhibition Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers, currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery, London. This portrait was painted in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), which can be seen in the background. Although the building with the minarets had been a mosque since the Islamic conquest of the city in 1453, it was originally built in 500ad as the largest Christian church in the world, called the Aya Sofia or Holy Wisdom. It is now a museum.

Lady Mary is shown with her son Edward and two attendants, one playing the Turkish lute, the other perhaps holding a letter, appropriately for a woman famed for her correspondence. The painting's exotic location and delicate colouring made it a conversation piece at the time, especially for viewers who would have known something of its subject. Born in 1689, Lady Mary had been a lively child. Forbidden by her father, Edward Pierrepoint, Earl of Kingston, to marry the man of her choice, she escaped from home and had a private wedding. Her husband Edward Wortley Montagu was appointed ambassador to Constantinople in 1716. The couple arrived there with their young son in May 1717. Her letters home cover a huge range of topics, including clothing, harem life, music, Turkish baths, and the fate of Muslim women's souls.

Lady Mary's fame rests on her lively and open-minded responses to a very different culture. She sent letters to her wide circle of relatives and friends, including the poet Alexander Pope. He was once an ardent admirer, but their friendship ended some years later when she was supposed to have borrowed some sheets from him and sent them back unwashed. She then became a target for his savagely satirical verses.

In Turkey, she was particularly interested in the practice of inoculating children against smallpox as she herself had suffered from the disease, which ruined her appearance. She had her son inoculated, the first British person to be deliberately protected against this killer disease. Later she also had her daughter, born in Turkey in 1718, inoculated and, on her return to Britain, persuaded Caroline, wife of the Prince of Wales, later George II, to have the royal children inoculated.

Sadly, her marriage turned out badly. Twenty years after her Turkish journey she went abroad again and settled in Venice for many years, leaving her husband, which caused a scandal. She only returned to Britain just before her death.

Her letters themselves have an interesting history. Before she died, Lady Mary entrusted her own copies to a clergyman friend. One day, two men visited him, requesting to see them. Causing a distraction, they left with the letters, which were then returned the next day with profuse apologies.

However, over night they had been copied and were then published, much to the fury of her family who wanted the world to forget about their somewhat eccentric relative.

Lady Mary thought that Turkish women were far more beautiful than the British. Early in her travels, when she was still in her European clothes, she visited a bathhouse and found it full of naked women who wanted her to undress, too. Feeling shy, she showed them her "stays" (corset) and the women decided that her husband had imprisoned her in this device, which she was therefore unable to remove. Soon afterwards, she decided to adopt Turkish clothes. She sent her sister a description of getting dressed layer by layer, promising to have a portrait made of herself, though we do not know if this is the one. In this painting her face is uncovered and the artist, as was normal practice, has flattered her by omitting any sign of the smallpox scars that marked her skin. She was greatly in favour of wearing a veil, as was usual in Turkey at that time. She argued that a veil allowed a woman to go where she liked unrecognised and therefore added to, rather than reduced, her freedom. She wrote that she considered Turkish women to be freer than any women elsewhere in Europe. Yet she herself led a far freer life than most women from any culture.

The painting's subject matter makes it particularly relevant and illuminating to compare with later Orientalist paintings. Historically, it provides an interesting "image of an age". Lady Mary's experiences in Turkey make an excellent starting point for considering how we respond today to cultural and other challenges. The topic of inoculation and vaccination is rarely out of the news and raises questions of the rights and responsibilities of the individual within wider society. What is considered to be beautiful is another rich topic for debate. Lady Mary was ahead of her time in seeing greater beauty in a culture other than her own and realising that the concept is culturally relative rather than a given absolute. Her life also opens discussion about gender inequalities within families, past and present, from wearing the veil to travel and marriage.

Lesson ideas

Early learning goals

As part of personal, social and emotional development, and knowledge and understanding of the world, draw attention to the painting to show that adults also try out and learn from being "other people", including dressing up.

Art and design

Discuss the picture using vocabulary such as pose, background, composition and so on. Particularly focus on how the relationship between mother and son is portrayed, comparing it with the way the Turkish attendants are positioned.


Explore the messages of this painting. Is it accurate compared to her letters? Discuss the changes.


How do we define what's in the public interest? Look at Lady Mary and Edward Jenner; explore methods of inoculation, including vaccination, in the fight against smallpox.

Discuss being abroad, particularly varying degrees of engagement with local culture.

Politics, art and design and art history

Use the painting as part of a practical exercise to illustrate Professor Edward Said's influential critique of Orientalism. Compare this picture with 19th-century Orientalist images by painters such as Eug ne Delacroix, Jean-Leon Gerome, Lord Leighton and David Roberts (try an internet search on "Orientalist paintings"). For each painting, decide how far it conforms to Edward Said's critical definition of Orientalism as an unchanging, geographically undifferentiated view of the Orient, characterised by exoticism, cultural backwardness, a degree of untrustworthiness, sexual provocation, and so on.

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