Martha Norton, the Well Woman of Buxton

 Martha Norton by John Nixon Back in 2012 I blogged about Martha Norton and in particular a sketch we had recently had identified as being by John Nixon.  This sketch had been in the Museum’s collection since 1985 but it wasn’t until Charles Nugent (a watercolour specialist) visited, that we found out who painted it.  Since then we have added another image of Martha to our collection and you can read about this and Martha in general, in a post written by Ros Westwood on the main Buxton Museum blog.   

St Anne's Well, 1796

St Anne’s Well, 1796

A Derbyshire salon hang?

William Marlow oil painting of Matlock Bath

William Marlow oil painting of Matlock Bath

Over the last five years Buxton Museum has bought over 30 artworks as part of the Enlightenment! project. These range from oil paintings by Royal Academy artists to watercolours by unknown amateurs. What the pictures all have in common, is that they show either Derbyshire views or Derbyshire people and were created between 1743 and about 1880.

All these artworks have been on display in the Museum, and many of them have toured to Derby Museum and Art Gallery and Strutt’s North Mill. We don’t have a permanent art gallery at the Museum. Instead we incorporate art into the Wonders of the Peak Gallery, especially in the Georgian Room, and into our temporary exhibition programme. As part of Collections in the Landscape we are looking at redeveloping the Wonders of the Peak Gallery and have a commitment to put 10% more objects on display.

Salon hangs were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This is an image of the 1839 Derby Exhibition at the Mechanics Institute in Derby.

I am very keen to get more art on display and one way of doing this in a small space is by implementing a salon hang – basically floor to ceiling art. Although I like salon hangs, I do find that they don’t always work and that pictures can sometimes blend too much into the background. Traditionally the ‘best’ paintings were hung ‘on the line’ i.e at eye level. While those further down the hierarchy were ‘skied’, meaning that you can’t get a decent look at them! The benefits of the salon hang, is that you are able to get more art on show and they are displayed in an appropriate period style.

Salon hang at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Salon hang at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I think Buxton Museum’s Derbyshire views would work well in this scenario. It would give the wall a strong theme and comparisons could be made easily between the different artists’ interpretations of the views. Oils could be up there semi-permanently while works on paper could be on a rolling programme, limiting their exposure to the light. We could also look at drawers, possibly in a Georgian Gentleman’s style cabinet in which to display prints and watercolours, which would allow public access while limiting light damage.

Anna using the iExplore app at the Clarke Institute

Anna using the iExplore app at the Clarke Institute

It can be tricky to get the interpretation right on a salon hang, as it doesn’t lend itself to the traditional museum label. While visiting museums over the last 6 months I have been keeping my eyes peeled for ideas. I enjoyed the hang at the Clarke Institute in Massachusetts, USA. Here they’ve hung over 80 paintings in a small room and the bulk of the interpretation is accessed via tablets, which are loaned to visitors. It creates an interesting exhibition and I enjoyed the ‘hodgepodgeness’ of depictions of American Indians displayed alongside a Renaissance Madonna and British coastal scenes.

Using the iExplore app

The tablet displayed a programme called uExplore which gave further information on the paintings and sometimes also relevant audio and video content. There was another interactive app called uCurate which allows visitors to digitally curate their own exhibition – you choose the paintings, wall colours, design layout etc.

A visitor using the uCurate app at the Clarke Institute

A visitor using the uCurate app at the Clarke Institute

Both apps are available to use from the comfort of your own home – We’d be interested to know what you think?


John Nixon sketch of Martha Norton

As part of the Enlightenment! project we have been doing some research into our existing collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

A couple of months ago we had a specialist come and take a look at our 18th and 19th century watercolours.  He took one look at a painting we have of Martha Norton and immediately identified her as the work of John Nixon (1760 -1818).  This was a really useful piece of information as we can now take her out of the ‘unknown artist’ category.

We took the picture out of the frame and sure enough we found a signature on the back.  The Museum bought this picture in 1985 and prior to that, we now know that it was sold at Christies in the 1970s and was once the property of the Governor and Directors of the French Hospital of La Providence.

Martha Norton was the well keeper at St Anne’s well in Buxton.  After the 1772 Buxton Enclosure Act the well became public property and had to be kept in a good state of repair.  Every Easter a well woman was appointed to take care of the well and assist people who were taking the water.  There was no salary and the well women had to rely on tips as an income.  According to Mike Langham in his book ‘Buxton: A People’s History’, Martha was elected to the position 15 times between 1775 and 1820.

St Anne’s Well, 1796

We were really excited to find out our sketch was by John Nixon.  Alongside visiting Buxton we know that he visited Dovedale as we were outbid on a Nixon sketch of picnickers in Dovedale last year.

At the time of this auction we did some research to try and establish when Nixon visited Derbyshire and where he went.  I contacted a few museums who had work by Nixon to see whether they had any Derbyshire scenes (thank you Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and Ulster Museum). They didn’t have anything but Lucy Salt at Derby Museums found a reference in an old Christie’s auction catalogue which included a Nixon entitled ‘Entrance to Cromford’.

The sketch of Dovedale contained the inscription, ‘3 Miss Johnsons of Loughborough . J.N…. Japer[?] Atkinson at Dinner in a cave in Dove Dale, Derbyshire’.  We tried to figure out who these people were but had no luck.   I wonder where the sketch has has ended up?

About John Nixon

There doesn’t appear to be a huge amount of information about Nixon. He was a wealthy Irish merchant and an amateur artist who was best known for his comical sketches.  He seems to have visited many fashionable places (no surprise he came to Buxton then!) and drew the people he encountered.  He was a friend of Thomas Rowlandson and they visited Bath together in 1792.

He also drew satirical sketches of his time in Paris and exhibited 39 paintings between 1781 and 1815 as an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy.  (A lot of this info is lifted from Nixon’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Talk: The Derbyshire mermaid

Anita Hollinshead is giving a talk on Buxton’s mermaid at Derby Museum and Art Gallery on 10th Nov, 11am – 12pm.

The mermaid was originally thought to be part-monkey, part-fish, but investigations by Anita and experts at Lincoln University tell a different story…..

For a taster of Anita’s research see here.

Ashford Black Marble jewellery – Selim Bright & Co

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery has bought an Ashford Black Marble jewelry set, consisting of a brooch and earrings set in gold and in their original box.  The work is of the highest quality but what made it stand out for us was the box which bears the words ‘S. Bright & Co, Buxton, Goldsmiths and watchmakers’.

Buxton was one of the main centres for the Derbyshire Black Marble industry and the museum has a fantastic collection of Ashford Black Marble.  Much of it is on permanent display in our Wonders of the Peak gallery.  Most of the work is unsigned and is difficult to attribute it to specific workshops so we are delighted to have the original Bright box.

Selim Bright appears in the business directories in 1822 as ‘Bright and Sons, the Square’. By 1835 the business had moved to the Crescent. They were associated with jewellers and cutlers in Sheffield (St James Street) and are described as such rather than marble workers.  By 1857 they are listed in White’s Derbyshire Directory as Bright & Co, still in the Crescent.  Bright exhibited an Ashford Black Marble table and numerous vases at the 1851 Great Exhibition, where he was awarded an honourable mention for his work.  A decade later he exhibited at the 1862 London International Exhibition.

The jeweller’s box is marked S.Bright and Co. Buxton, so the garniture dates from the height of the marble trade, around 1850 – 1865.

Selim Bright had a shop under the arches in the Crescent. It is a pity we can’t make out an A Board outside his door.

The Bingham Trust kindly gave us a grant to assist with this purchase and we are very grateful for their support.  In 2005 they also helped us purchase the Tomlinson Collection of Ashford Black Marble, which is now a highlight of our collection.

We have bought other Ashford Black Marble pieces during the project including a pen rest with a Mawe’s Museum retailers sticker and an intriguing socle decorated with a silhouette.  We were spectacularly outbid on an Ann Raynor etching of Matlcok Tor in 2010.

‘Revealing the World’ exhibition at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

Last week we opened our latest exhibition at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Revealing the World’. The exhibition looks at the curios and artefacts brought back by travellers, scientists and explorers who travelled the world. The exhibition includes loans from the British Museum, Derby Museum Service and Bakewell Old House Museum, and includes some of our Enlightenment! purchases. Other items were donated by Enlightenment figures with Derbyshire links such as Joseph Banks and Thomas Bateman.

On display there is an oil painting called ‘Near Tokyo’ by Frank Beresford that Derby Museum and Art Gallery bought from Ebay earlier this year. Frank Beresford was born in Derby in 1881 and trained at the Derby School of Art. In 1908 – 1909 he went to Japan on a painting tour, you can find out more about the artist and his visit to Japan here.

The other two loans from Derby Museum Service look at how far-away places influenced fashions and designs back home. On display are the two Derby Porcelain plates that the project bought in 2009. The plates painted by John Brewer show Arctic scenes including a Newfoundland dog rescuing a sailor and a rather docile looking Polar Bear. Their production shows the level of interest in the Arctic explorations that were happening at the time.

Another loan from Derby is a mettzotint of Joseph Wright’s painting ‘The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of her deceased husband’ – showing the fascination there was for the image of the ‘Nobile Savage’ in late 18th century Britain.

Other loans include a pyramidion collected and donated to the British Museum by Sir John Wilkinson Gardner, an Aleut Indian canoe donated by Joseph Banks and three Peruvian figures collected by Thomas Bateman.

The exhibition is free and runs until the 24th November.

Spot The Difference

Buxton Museum’s recent purchase of the John Webber and William Day watercolours of Castleton has got us thinking.  These two watercolours were drawn on the same day in 1789 and both show the same view but from slightly different angles.  We have been playing spot the difference with them and this inspired us to put then up alongside other pictures showing similar views from different angles.

 These pictures are on display on our newly repainted landing at Buxton Museum, and include 5 pictures that we have bought as part of the Enlightenment! project.

 These images should give you a flavour – please excuse the poor photography!


John Webber’s 1789 Castleton watercolour on the left and William Day’s watercolour on the right.

John Bluck’s 1805 print of Matlock Bath on the left, and William Marlow’s 1780 oil of the same view.

A lithograph of Buxton Crescent on the left and William Cowen’s 1850 watercolour on the right.

Godfrey Sykes’ 1850 oil of Buxton Market Place on the left and an unknown artist’s oil on the right.

Buxton Crescent Souvenir Patch Box



Buxton Museum and Art Gallery bought this enamelled patch box in January 2012.  It dates from the late 19th century and has a transfer print of the Crescent in Buxton.

Patch boxes were used to store ‘patches’ which were decorative beauty spots used to cover blemishes, scars, moles etc.  They ranged from purely functional paper or mole skin patches to highly decorative silk and satin ones which were cut into elaborate shapes such as hearts, stars and diamonds.

Buxton Crescent was a popular subject for artists and printmakers and features on a range of souvenirs from the period. 


Buxton Crescent, oil on Canvas, artist unknown, c. 1825

Buxton Crescent attributed to W. Cowen, c. 1850