21st August 2020

An exquisite collection item, now on public display in our Visitor Centre, gave our curator Kirsty some sleepless nights before she discovered its story...

I think it’s only healthy that every curator has many items in their care that they are itching to find out more about at any one time. It keeps us on our toes! For the last couple of years, I’ve been musing about a particular item in the collection here - often in the wee small hours or in a flight of fancy whilst I’m washing the dishes(!). Why, and how, did an ornate parasol handle from the Empress of Brazil end up in the hands of the Scott family? What is the connection? Its listing on our collections catalogue is sparse in the extreme, describing it as a nineteenth century piece with a link to the Brazilian royal family. And so, as my colleague and I were gearing up to revamp two of our display cases in the Visitor Centre exhibition, focussing on the Hope-Scott and Maxwell-Scott generations of descendants, I decided that it was high time the parasol handle had its time in the sun.

It’s a lovely thing to look at. Gilt-metal and inset with semi-precious stones and enamel work, it’s a piece of mid-Victorian bling in an era when well-to-do ladies were anxious to protect their fair complexions from the sun with this most desirable of fashion accessories. Inside the beautiful presentation case is the holiest of holies for a curator: a handwritten note in the hand of Walter Maxwell-Scott, Sir Walter Scott’s great great grandson. Walter Maxwell-Scott is a looming figure in our historic archive and in my work with the collection, I’ve become very fond of how fastidious he is in retrospectively going back and noting things down for posterity.

He clearly had the foresight to realise that over 100 years down the line, someone like me would need to know something of its story. In his brief note he states that the parasol handle had been given to his mother by the Empress of Brazil. His mother was Scott’s great-granddaughter, Mary Monica Maxwell-Scott, born Hope-Scott, and, interestingly, in his note Walter uses this pre-marital name as the primary reference, by which I think he is implying that it was presented to the family at Abbotsford before her marriage in 1874.

Abbotsford has had many famous visitors over the years, from artists and writers to statesman and royalty, so on the face of it the Empress of Brazil visiting isn’t particularly surprising. Nevertheless, I was intrigued so I decided to do a little digging…

The year was 1831. The abrupt abdication of the Emperor of Brazil suddenly catapulted his young son and heir, Pedro II, into the limelight. The young boy’s formative years were arduous and lonely, and he enjoyed little of the freedom we would associate with childhood. His escape was in literature and through study he mastered French, German and English alongside his native Portuguese. Sir Walter Scott was one of his earliest and most beloved literary idols, and Dom Pedro II later claimed the Waverley Novels had been his lifelong favourites, fondly referring to their author as ‘my Walter’.

When Pedro married, with all the responsibilities of carrying on the Imperial line, his court’s attention naturally turned to the monarchies of the Old World. His bride was to be Teresa Cristina, the daughter of Francis I of the Two Sicilies, nephew of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and the couple married in 1843. Most interesting to note with relation to Abbotsford and Scott, is that Dona Teresa Cristina was also a passionate and informed antiquarian, particularly with regards to the field of archaeology. I would have loved to hear what she thought of Scott’s home!

In 1871, the imperial family travelled to Europe, incorporating a tour of Great Britain with a distinctively ‘Scott-ish’ flavour. In July they were in the company of Queen Victoria at her home on the Isle of Wight, and they then travelled north, stopping at Kenilworth in homage to the Walter Scott novel of 1821. By the end of the month they were in Scotland, determined to see the Trossachs and the majestic beauty of Loch Katrine, setting of The Lady of the Lake (1810). Around this time of year, as July slides into August, they visited Melrose Abbey and Abbotsford itself.

Mary Monica would have been about 20 years old at the time and still living with her father in Oxfordshire. At this time Abbotsford was occupied by tenants rather than the family (as is often the case in the later nineteenth century), so it is entirely possible that the imperial party did not meet the chatelaine of Abbotsford in person when they were looking around, although members of the Hope-Scott family tended to visit in the summer months, if at all in any given year. Certainly Walter Maxwell-Scott’s note suggests there may have been a physical presentation of the gift, at least as far as he understood things. Either way, I think this visit in 1871 finally explains how and when the parasol handle ended up in the collection, whether as a gift presented in person on the tour or as a token of appreciation forwarded afterwards.

The Emperor also took away a memento of his own. Dom Pedro II confided in a later letter that he had taken an ornamental bush from Abbotsford back to Brazil to plant in the palace grounds at Petropolis. What variety of plant this was, we do not know, but the Emperor clearly wanted to take a physical memento of his trip with him, and the connection with the soil of Abbotsford was emotionally significant. Perhaps its descendants are still in leaf on the other side of the world today….


Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Collections and Interpretation Manager