Laura Wilson Barker
Laura Wilson Barker (1819-1905) was a composer. She is one of my Notable Women of Lavender Hill and features in my walk as we stop outside 84 Lavender Sweep in SW London, which is opposite the house that I have lived in for over fifty years.
Barker was established as a musician and composer by the time she met and married Tom Taylor, and they lived in Lavender Sweep until he died in 1880. I have written a blog post on Tom Taylor as there is a lot of information on him but far less on Laura – not surprisingly, like many women, she became a footnote to her husband’s life in articles and references. He was a fairly prominent personality as a civil servant, lawyer, Professor of English Literature at University College London, playwright, journalist, critic and editor of Punch. It seems he was a gregarious chap and was a friend to his neighbour Jeanie Nassau Senior, first woman civil servant, another one of those remarkable women who lived in the area of Lavender Hill.
The house on Lavender Sweep
Tom Taylor was a well-known figure, a prolific journalist and dramatist, editor of Punch from 1874 and author of more than thirty burlesques and melodramas, including Our American Cousin, the play President Lincoln was watching in 1865 when he was assassinated.
Ellen Terry, who remembered the Sweep with ‘horse-chestnut blossoms strewing the drive and making it look like a tessellated pavement’, called Taylor’s a ‘house of call for every one of note’, from politicians, including Mazzini, to artists and actors, all presided over by Taylor himself dressed in ‘black-silk knee-breeches and velvet cutaway coat’. Taylor added a large study ‘to his own design’. A visitor in the 1870s found every wall in the house, even in the bathrooms, covered with pictures; a pet owl perched on a bust of Minerva; and a dining room ‘where Lambeth Faience and Venetian glass abound’.
A few years later, when Taylor’s friend the actor John Coleman went to look for the house, he found that ‘not a stone remains … and the demon jerry-builder reigns triumphant’.
Contact with Laura’s descendants
I was contacted by Rupert, who is Laura and Tom’s great-great grandson. He is an actor living in Ireland. He commented: “Great to find someone who is apparently even better acquainted with my great-great grandfather than I or other members of my family. Have never seen some of these pictures before. Thanks”.
I responded and he wrote back: ‘I would also love to resurrect the reputation of Mrs Tom Taylor – Laura Barker, who was a sensational musical talent and I have several of her compositions for the piano and organ. Sadly, when my parents sold our family home back in the early ‘70s another five or six volumes of her work were, for some reason, put into auction and have disappeared into a collection somewhere. Her music is really worth hearing and if one could only get some brilliant young up-and- coming female pianist to champion her cause, I am sure she would once again be restored to her place as one the top British women composers ever, if not the top. In the mid to late 1800s she had as big an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography as her husband. I was pleased to persuade the Encyclopaedia Britannica to restore Tom’s entry a couple of years back. They decided for some reason that he was no longer of interest. I soon put them right on that score! I would love to do the same for her.’
Laura Wilson Barker was born on 6th March 1819 in Thirkleby, Yorkshire. She was the sixth daughter of Vicar Thomas Barker, an amateur musician and painter and his wife Jane Flower. Laura received her first musical instruction in violin and piano from her parents and then studied private composition and presumably also piano with the composer and pianist Philip Cipriani Potter, who taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1822 till 1832 and became its principal in 1832, remaining in the post until 1859.
As a teenager, Laura Barker met
numerous musicians in her parents’ home, including Niccolò Paganini, with whom
Laura played, and Louis Spohr.
Laura Barker reported: ‘My father followed Paganini to his concerts at Leeds, Hull, etc, and made his acquaintance. He took the whole family to Paganini’s concerts at York. I was little more than a child at the time (thirteen years old), but had already written some of the phrases which Paganini played, and especially the exquisite variations on ‘Nel cor più’, which I think impressed me more than any of his other wonderful pieces.’
‘Later in 1832 we again met Paganini in London, and found him just as kind and courteous as before. We met in Perronet Thompson’s ( parliamentarian, governor of Sierra Leone and a radical reformer) house, and what a genius and a child, playing both on the violin and guitar to us, and condescending by his own proposal to extemporize a duet with me (the subject of Rossini’s ‘Di tanti palpiti‘‘). I played the pianoforte and he violin. He came over to Hampstead with his little son Achillino to spend the day with us. He laughed heartily as he heard me imitating some of his extraordinary violin feats.’ (Powder 1939, p. 579).
A few years later, Laura also met the composer and violinist Louis Spohr: ‘It was on the occasion of the Norwich Festival in 1839 that we had the pleasure of making the personal acquaintance of Spohr. My father took two of my sisters to this interesting meeting, which was a memorable one in our quiet country lives. We met the great man at the house of Mr. Marshall, the Mayor of Norwich. He was always ready to help me with my violin, and kindly chose a bow for me. He was very friendly and always seemed not only willing but even happy to be able to help someone and as the owner of my wonderful Stradivarii violin, he was very interested in it and marked the places on my string measure with the string strength, which needed the instrument.’ Later, the Stradivari violin was owned and played by the renowned violinist Joshua Bell.
It seems that Laura was encouraged by her family to compose. Her father sent Louis Spohr one of her compositions in 1836. Her Seven Romances for voice and guitar are dated 1837 and in 1847 she published an album with six songs for a voice and piano. A year later followed the five-part Glee, a traditional English choral movement: Can a Bosom so gentle remain? This is according to a text by William Shenstone, which was published in the London Sacred Music Warehouse (The Musical Times, April 1, 1848).
In the following years, Barker’s compositions were received enthusiastically by the public and the press; many of her compositions are based on texts by the writer Alfred Tennyson.
She taught music at the York School for the Blind probably from 1843 until she was married in 1855.
Some of her Six Songs for voice and piano are in a collection of mostly 19th- and early 20th-century musical scores by women composers held at the University of Michigan Music Library.
A German website on women in music has information on Laura. It concludes that more research is needed: ‘Like everything we’ve seen from this accomplished author – who, though an amateur, understands more about art than many professors of rank and name, not to mention her sparkling ingenuity, a skill that is not tied to teaching or a professional status.’
It was only after the death of her husband in 1880 that Laura Barker published further compositions, including the Songs of Youth, which were published in 1884 by Stanley Lucas, Weber & Co. in London. In the Musical Times a reviewer wrote, ‘This volume of songs is a welcome contribution to the high-class vocal music of the day. With the exception of The Owls, the words of which are by the composer, the poetry is not selected from the works of any living author; but all the subjects are well-chosen and admirably adapted for musical setting. Mariana’s Song, from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and the Dirge, Yes, thou may’st sigh, from Scott’s Fair Maid of Perth, are excellent compositions; but this song with songs is a welcome contribution to today’s world-class vocal music.’
Laura and Tom held regular Sunday music concerts and were noted for their hospitality. Tom Taylor’s home was one of four grand houses between Lavender Hill and Battersea Rise. Among his friends and visitors to Lavender Sweep were Dickens, Thackeray, Charles Reade, Alfred Tennyson, Henry Irving and Lewis Carroll, who took a number of photographs of the house. Artists, musicians and politicians and many of these celebrities attended their Sunday soirées.
The actress Ellen Terry was another of the many visitors to the house. In her autobiography she wrote: ‘it clearly became the home from home for the people from all the walks of literary, artistic and theatrical life that Taylor was part of’. Ellen was evidently fond of the Taylors and Laura painted her and her sister Kate.
It was during this time that Ellen Terry married George Watts, when she was just sixteen. Watts’s friends advised him against the union. The marriage lasted less than a year and did not seem to cause harm for either of them, but it probably was the subject of gossip amongst this earlier ‘Lavender Hill mob’. This would have included another neighbour, Marie Spartali , the Pre-Raphaelite artist and friend of Jeanie Nassau and another of my Notable Women.
I can only speculate that Jeanie, who besides being the first woman civil servant was also a trained singer, and Marie and her sister Christina, another talented singer, who lived in The Shrubbery nearby. would have attended and contributed to these musical parties. We know that Clara Schumann was a friend and accompanied Jeanie Senior singing so I think it likely that they met up at the Taylors for what in Ireland is called a ‘session’.
Laura was obviously also a talented artist. Her paintings are all at Ellen Terry’s house at Smallhythe Place, owned by the National Trust. According to Rupert Stutchbury: ‘She was indeed an excellent water colourist and so were her sisters. They were all very talented in several artistic directions and were called ‘the phenomenons’ by their contemporaries, I believe.’ http://members2.boardhost.com/MusicWebUK/msg/1417718280.html
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Laura died in March 1905. She had gone to live in Porch House, Coleshill, Berkshire, with her daughter Lucy Taylor and two servants, Barbara Nugent and Jane Elizabeth Blake, both of whom had worked for the Taylors in London before the family moved to Coleshill.
Lucy Taylor died in 1940. Her Memoir was published in 1939 and contained entries from Laura’s diary but does not seem to be available.
Laura’s music is awaiting a young singer and a pianist to rediscover this forgotten Victorian composer and to bring her to new audiences.
Laura Barker is the only one of the Notable Women of Lavender Hill who has not got a Wikipedia entry and now I hope that this will be rectified and will be the start of her being given the recognition and acknowledgement as a significant Victorian female composer, and of her compositions played again.