I was recently trying to find out who in Cambridge (apart from the Polar Museum) has any scrimshaw, and was most intrigued to discover – as well as, naturally, bone and ivory carvings – Jane Scrimshaw, immortalised by John Faber the Elder (another artist of whom I had never heard) at the age of 127.
The caption to the engraving tells us about her: ‘Jane Scrimshaw ye daughter of Thos. Scrimshaw wooll stapler born in London in ye Parish of St Mary le Bow 1584 April ye 3d is alive and Healthy this present 1711 at ye Marchant Taylers Alms Hous on Little Tower Hill done by ye life’.
There are two versions of the print in the Fitzwilliam Museum collection. The second one (a later state of the print) has an additional line: ‘She Dyed December 25 1711, aged 127 years, 8 Months and 22 Days.’ Another state, in the National Portrait Gallery, has the simpler coda, ‘Dyed December 25 1711’.
There are many later versions and adaptation of the print, including another in the NPG, by T. Maddocks, after John Faber, which dates from 1819. It has no inscription, and the image is in a more conventional rectangular outline.
According to Stowe’s Survey of London, the almshouses in question were built in 1560 by Richard Hills (Hil, Hilles), Merchant Taylor and one-time Master of the Company, who ‘gave five hundred pounds towards the purchase of a house called the manor of the Rose, wherein the merchant-taylors founded their free school in London; he also gave to the said merchant-taylors one plot of ground, with certain small cottages on the Tower hill, where he built fair alms houses for fourteen sole women’.
It is probable that the witch-like ensemble in which Jane is depicted was the prescribed uniform for the alms-women.
The present resident ladies of the Trinity Hospital, Castle Rising, Norfolk, founded by Henry Howard, earl of Northampton (1540–1614), son of Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (the ‘poet earl’ executed in one of Henry VIII’s final outbreaks of viciousness before his own death), still wear the red cloaks and steeple hats. Northampton founded several other almshouses, at Greenwich (managed, then as now, by the Mercers’ Company), at Clun in Shropshire and at Shotesham in Norfolk.
It is frustratingly difficult to find out more about the Tower Hill almshouses, or about Jane Scrimshaw herself. The most famous English centenarian of the early modern period was undoubtedly Thomas Parr (‘Old Parr’) of Alberbury in Shropshire, who was allegedly born in 1483 and died in 1635. He (again, allegedly) married for the first time at 80, did penance in church for committing adultery aged 105, and after his wife’s death remarried at the age of 122. He was ‘collected’ by Thomas Howard, 14th earl of Arundel (in rather the same way that he picked up painting and objets d’art all over Europe), and was brought to London, engraved for posterity and presented to Charles I.
Parr died suddenly six weeks after his arrival in London and was dissected by William Harvey. His death was attributed either to the smoky air of London, or to sudden exposure ‘to rich food and strong drink’ (ODNB) after a lifetime of healthy bread, cheese and buttermilk.
Parr was made famous by the poet John Taylor, who published a pamphlet about him called The Old, Old, Very Old Man, but, alas, no such tribute appears to have been made to Jane Scrimshaw – though it is a fairly safe bet that she did not live such a disreputable life, as entry to an almshouse almost always depended on previous good living. At Castle Rising, the candidate had to be ‘of honest life and conversation, religious, grave and discreet, able to read, if such a one be had, a single woman, her place to be void on marriage, to be of 56 years at least, no common beggar, harlot, scold, drunkard, haunter of taverns, inns and alehouses’.
I had hoped that she might have figured in The Book of Wonderful Characters: Memoirs and Anecdotes of Remarkable and Eccentric Persons in All Ages and Countries published between 1788 and 1795 by James Caulfield (1764–1826) and later reissued in one volume containing 69 brief lives of, inter alia, Francis Battalia, the stone-eater, Baron D’Aguilar, of Starvation Farm, Thomas Hills Everitt, the enormous baby, and Floram Marchand, the great water-spouter (don’t ask …), but no such luck – though Caulfield does include three centenarians: Old Parr, Henry Jenkins ‘the modern Methusaleh’ (allegedly 1501–1670, who claimed to remember Flodden Field) and Jane Lewson (1700–1816), who seems to be in the collection by reason of her extremely eccentric behaviour as much as for her longevity.
There is a brief entry about Jane Scrimshaw in an anonymous 1845 work, Curiosities of Biography; Or, Memoirs of Remarkable Men [sic], published in Glasgow. It does not provide much more than is known from the caption of Faber’s print, but it does add (no sources given) that she was little more than forty when she ‘was under the necessity of seeking an asylum’ in the almshouse; and that soon after the mezzotint was made, she was removed to ‘the Rosemary-Lane workhouse [not far away but in a notoriously poor and criminal area] … Her death is supposed to have been accelerated by vexation at her removal’, the reason for which is unexplained. The picture accompanying this brief life is an extremely crude version of the original.
What about John Faber the Elder, who achieved for Jane a small amount of posthumous fame? Born about 1660 in the Hague, he first became known as a portrait miniaturist in Amsterdam. His earliest known work in London dates to 1698, and his subsequent output was increasingly of mezzotints. Working first at the sign of the Two Golden Balls on the Strand, and later at the Golden Eagle on Essex Street, he produced portrait prints in sets with subjects such as Twelve Ancient Philosophers, Twelve Caesars, Twenty-One Reformers, and Four Indian Kings. He died in 1721; his son, John the Younger (1684–1756) followed him as a well regarded engraver.
In 1711–12 John the Elder was working in the Bodleian Library along with George Vertue, producing a set of 45 images of the founders of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, based on the portraits in its collection, while another part of his output was illustrations of people well known for their great age or eccentricity. It is within this category, presumably, that he ‘captured’ Jane Scrimshaw, a few months before her death, in exile from her home of about eighty years. I wonder where she was buried?