This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Miss Sylvester's Violin

14 February 2014

She holds a violin, the fingers of her left hand placed firmly on the strings in that way a violinist has when testing their instrument's tuning. Her short frock has colored bows and layers of lace, while her stockings are decorated with a short stripe that accents the jeweled buckles of her shoes. Her long hair is pulled back  from her shoulders to avoid interfering with her playing. She wears pearl bracelets on both arms. On the chair are a plumed hat and cloak, and a leopard skin lies atop a Persian carpet.

The little girl appears to be about 8 or 10 years old. Her name is Miss Winifred Sylvester and she lives in London.  Last week we had a tour of her music room. Today we will have a proper introduction to Winifred and her parents.



She was born in Mumbai, India, or Bombay as it was known during the British colonial period. Her birth year is uncertain as Winfred's name is found in only three census records. The census of 1891 was when she was still single and the next in 1901 was after her marriage. Both agree that 1870 was the year of her birth. But in the third census of 1911 her age magically diminishes by 7 years while her husband adds 10 to his. While a lady's age is often flexible, 1870-71 seems a more honest estimate.





The cabinet photo was created by the studio:

Hills & Saunders
36 Porchester Terrace, W.
By Appointment to the Queen
also at Eton, Harrow,
Oxford & Cambridge

The negative was No.21967 with Position No.3 which means Winifred had multiple poses. Perhaps some were made without her violin.

The Hill & Saunders studio began in Oxford in 1860, and soon expanded with branches in eight other locations. The London studio opened in 1868 and was at this address from 1868 to 1886. In the university towns like Oxford and Cambridge, their specialty was portraits of scholars and faculty. In London they photographed high society. The elite Appointment to the Queen gave Hills & Saunders a concession to photograph Queen Victoria and her extended royal family. The result was a very large number of portraits, many of which can be found
at the archives of the RoyalCollection.org.uk.






Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein, 1879
Hills & Saunders (photographer)
Source: Royal Collection Trust


One of these royal subjects who posed for Hills & Saunders was Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein, who was the eldest son of Princess Helena, third daughter of Queen Victoria. It is unusual because photos of the Queen's family were usually arranged with dogs and horses rather than violins. This image dates from 1879 when the Prince was about age 12.



Clearly this was a very high end London photography studio. It was also quite close to Winifred's home at No.16 Melbury Rd. with a short walk or carriage ride through Kensington Gardens to Porchester Terrace covering only 1 ½ miles. 
























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Her mother was Matilda White Sylvester pictured here with Chloé, the family dog. Her dress with its slim waist, puff sleeves and ruffles is made with a single fabric color that the photo's sepia tone may mistake for white when it was really cream or yellow. In one hand she holds her kid gloves and a dog leash. Chloé sports a rather nice leather collar with metal studs and what may be a dog tag.

Like her daughter, Matilda was also born in the East Indies in about 1851. Her father was probably employed by the East India Company which was the charter merchant group that first established British trading posts in India in 1612. By 1757 the company had independent control over much of the sub-continent which lasted until 1858, when the Crown took over direct rule of India under the British Raj.








This photographer used a rather overstated ornamental  design as a backstamp:

Naudin Artist and Photographer
Electric Light and Daylight Studios
169 High St.
Kensington W.
Lately Known as
13 The Terrace

The photographer was William John Naudin whose studio started at No.13 The Terrace in 1883. It moved to No.169 High St. in Kensington, London in October 1894 and was there until 1909.

The phrase Lately Known As suggests Matilda's photo was taken around  1894 to 1895, which was the date written on the back of Winifred's music room photo.





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Winifred's father was John Henry Sylvester, and he also posed with Chloé, whose whiskers are no match for her master's impressive mutton chops. His mustache style would not have been considered eccentric in his time, as it served as a badge of his military career. Sylvester had been a horseman in the cavalry, the 11th Bengal Lancers serving in India. He was not an ordinary trooper either, but a surgeon, a medical officer attached to a cavalry regiment of the British Indian Army.


He was born in 1831 in Shipton, Oxfordshire. After passing exams with merit, he was assigned to a cavalry unit as an army surgeon and sent to India, where he soon found himself engaged in some of the most challenging conflicts of Queen Victoria's British empire. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Britain's colonial empire in Asia sustained a long series of wars in the region that is now called Pakistan and Afghanistan. Years later in retirement, Sylvester wrote two memoirs about his military experience. One is available for free on Google books: Recollections of the Campaign in Malwa and Central India: Under Major General Sir Hugh Rose, G.C.B.
Unfortunately the other has not been digitized: Cavalry surgeon: the recollection of Deputy Surgeon-General John Henry Sylvester, Bombay Army.

The first book contains long description of battles and campaigns, but includes Sylvester's observations as a doctor dealing with exotic diseases like cholera and malaria. After promotion from field service, Sylvester stayed in Bombay, which is where he likely met his wife Matilda. He took a position with the Grant Medical College, a teaching hospital founded in Bombay in 1848 to train Indian doctors in the Western methods of medicine. Initially he taught physiology and anatomy, but in the annals of the 1870 edition of Transactions of  the Medical and Physical Society of Bombay, I found his name as a professor of ophthalmic medicine and surgery. In one scholarly article he reports on his success with over 200 operations to remove cataracts.


After 21 years in India, Sylvester left medicine in 1875, returning to London with his wife and daughter. Given his history, he chose an unlikely district for a retirement home.


Surgeon John Henry Sylvester
11th Bengal Cavalry (Probyn's Horse)
Oil on canvas by Colin Hunter (1841-1904), 1885.
Source: National Army Museum


If you remember from my story of Winifred's music room, the Sylvester house on Melbury Rd. had several neighbors who were prominent artists with membership in London's Royal Academy of Arts. A Scottish painter, Colin Hunter, A.R.A. (1841-1904) lived next door at No.14 Melbury Rd. Though his  work was primarily in landscapes, in 1885 Hunter created a wonderful portrait of John Henry Sylvester wearing his splendid Indian army uniform. It's possible that Sylvester wanted the painting made to celebrate the publication of one of his books.


This colorful painting brought to mind another medical officer, late of Her Majesty's Indian Army — the fictional Dr. Watson, partner to Sherlock Holmes. It is intriguing to think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was Scottish and a physician, might have used Sylvester as a model for his character of Dr. Watson  in the detective stories of Sherlock Holmes. The first novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887.





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Winifred has become a young woman in this photograph and yet she holds her violin in the same manner as in her younger photo. However this time the camera focuses on a 3/4 length pose with no distractions, only her. She is dressed in a lustrous gown, her hair coiled up and held by a feathered pin. She looks to be about age 15 or 16. 






The photographer had a prime location in South Kensington for London's high society  clientele.

C. Vandyk
125 Gloucester Rd.
Queens Gate, SW
Mr. Vandyk personally photographs each sitter

His full name was Carl Vandyk, a German immigrant from Bremen and this studio on Gloucester Road was his first of several addresses. It opened in 1881 and continued until 1913. Since it was also his residence, that may account for his offer of personal service.

Like the other photographers, Vandyk made several photographs of the Royal Family, many done after he added a studio in 1901 on Buckingham Palace Road, in Westminster.







In 1893 the London Charity Record printed a report about a musical event in aid of the Paddington Green Children's Hospital. It was produced over two January evenings with amateur musicians assisted by some professional artists. On the first night:

Miss Winifred Sylvester was listened to with breathless attention while she performed in a masterly way two lovely morceaux on the violin,"The Nitei Mezzo" (Masiagui), and "The Witches' Dance" (Bazzini), for which she received an encore.

The following year in 1894 a newspaper in Reading, England ran an advert that listed Winifred as a soloist in Miss Murchison's Grand Morning Concert presented at the town hall. A review of the performance was published the next day.


Reading Mercury
March 24, 1894


Mr. Arthur Strugnell was the only gentleman who took part in the concert. His powerful and cultivated baritone sounded pleasantly in two oft-heard melodies "The Bedouin love song" and "Farewell, fond heart." The latter sung without notice, when Miss Sylvester in playing Chopin's "Nocturne" was interrupted by the breaking of a string in her violin. Resuming her performance in a few minutes Miss Sylvester played remarkably well, and responded to a well-deserved encore.

Two young ladies also sang a well known air, the "Ave Maria" from Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana, to which Miss Sylvester supplied the violin obbligato.






No doubt many violinists have experienced this same mortification when their instrument fails at the middle of a bow stroke. It makes the concert memorable for everyone except the soloist who would much rather forget the mishap.



An interesting female musical pioneer of the Victoria period was Helen Countess of Radnor (1845–1929). The daughter of the vicar of Ryhall, Rutland, in 1866 she married William Pleydell Bouverie, soon to be the 5th Earl of Radnor. From this position of wealth and rank she organized a "ladies string band" in 1881 to play for a special charity concert . This short excerpt from Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality explains her background but leaves out that she was also a very gifted musician herself.

Lady Radnor is perhaps better known by her former title of Viscountess Folkestone, under which name she acquired considerable celebrity by her organization of a Ladies Orchestra, which was the outcome of a skating accident at Prince's. Forced to give up hunting and skating, she had recourse, on her recovery, to the promotion and encouragement of music among the people.




Lady Radnor's orchestra was remarkable news even across the Atlantic, as this illustration taken from the London Graphic was reprinted in the August 30, 1884 supplement to Scientific American.

Lady Folkestone organized her string orchestra and choir in 1881 when she gave a concert at Statford House in aid of the Royal College of Music. The band, like the choir exclusively from the gentler sex, numbers many ladies of the nobility, and it comprises fourteen first, and thirteen second violins; eight violas; eight violoncellos; and even three lady players of that cumbrous instrument the double bass. These ladies under the baton of Lady Folkestone played the march from Handel's "Occasional" overture, the "Lullaby" from Mr F. H. Cowen's string suite, "In Olden Time", and the so-called "Concerto Grosso" which is, however, an arrangement by Geminiani of the tenth the twelve violin sonatas written by Corelli at Rome in 1700. The choir sang a chorus from Dr. Ferdinand Miller's "Song of Victory", Mendelssohn's "Now May Again" and Henry Leslie's part song "The Swallow"

It was a very pretty sight to see Lady Folkestone's executants, the instrumentalists dressed in white, with of pink or blue, occupying the platform, while choristers also dressed in white with breast knots of pink, white, or dark red roses, were arranged in tiers of seats at the background. The display of diamonds almost equaled that at a Court concert. The first of Lady Folkestoue's concerts was attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales and two of their daughters, and the Princess Louise, and at the conclusion of the performance the royal party shook hands with and warmly congratulated the fair conductor


Lady Radnor continued producing and conducting these charity concerts every year. The orchestra used only string instruments (though sometimes adding tympani) and the musicians were exclusively women. The main program was conducted by Lady Radnor though sometimes a gentleman was invited to lead the orchestra through one or two compositions. 



London Standard
June 27, 1896

In June of 1896 she announced a concert for St. James Hall benefiting the special appeal fund of the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots. It included a women's choir as well as the ladies string orchestra, which brought over 150 performers to the stage. 







London Standard, June 22, 1896

The London Standard of June 22, 1896 published a roster of the Lady Radnor's string band for that year's concert. It lists 72 women's names and in the second column of the first violins, there is Miss Winifred Sylvester.

The newspaper clipping of the concert announcement mentions a new piece by the noted English composer, Sir Hubert Parry. This composition was dedicated to and titled as Lady Radnor's Suite in F for strings. It is lovely music and remains a staple repertoire of youth orchestras around the world today. Winifred Sylvester played it first.

This would be the last concert Lady Radnor conducted and it is unclear why she discontinued this event. Perhaps the novelty of women musicians no longer appealed to the patrons and did not attract the contributions that the earlier ones had solicited. There may have been pressure from the high class society she was part of. Nonetheless, Lady Radnor remained a patron of the Royal College of Music in Kensington and other art institutions. She was a friend of the great English composer,  Sir Edward Elgar who was inspired by her promotion of women musicians to start his own ladies orchestra in his city of Worcester.








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At this point in Winifred Sylvester's story I must pause to make this humble caveat.  

The preceding photographs (unless otherwise noted) are all in my collection, and they have the same provenance: a British antique dealer with a specialty in photographs. The detailed sale descriptions placed them as originating from the estate of John Henry Sylvester. However the two photos of the young violinists have no identification marks of any kind. While I believe they are both photographs of Winifred Sylvester, there remains a possibility that this is incorrect. With these limited clues there can never be 100% certainty on artifacts that are 120 years old.

All of the photo stories I write for this website are only about the photographs and postcards in my personal possession. Whenever I add additional pictures or historic material, I make efforts to use only image files from open source archives such as Wikipedia. However for this story of the Sylvester family I am making an exception and adding photos that do not belong to me. The next three images came from the same estate sale, but I do not know to whom they currently belong. Hence I apologize to the owners and trust that they will see the value that these photos add to the story of Winifred, Matilda, and John Henry Sylvester.

Now back to the story.

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From an anonymous collection


Here we can see another side to John Henry Sylvester talents as he stands outdoors at an artist's easel while holding a brush and palette. I do not know the location, but England seems a fair choice. In this era drawing was a skill that many men and women developed, either as a pastime or a vocation. For a soldier and professor of anatomy like Sylvester it would have been a very useful talent.

When he cast off his medical career in Bombay and returned to London, Sylvester may have chosen the house on Melbury Rd. because he wanted to join the small circle of artists who lived on that street.


On the web, there are a just few hints that John Henry Sylvester may have painted and possibly concentrated on military subjects. He has one citation at the National Portrait Gallery for a print made of his 1893 painting of Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts. Since Lord Roberts, one of the most important British military commanders of the Victorian age, made his first reputation during the India and Afghan campaigns, it is possible that he and Surgeon J. H. Sylvester were acquainted.



Ducks on a Pond
John Henry Sylvester
Source: Blouin Art Sales
Another John Henry Sylvester citation was attached to this watercolor which sold at Christie's auction house in South Kensington, London in 2001 for £ 800. It does not fit the vague image of the painting on his easel, but perhaps one day I will find that match and solve the case.





From an anonymous collection










This last photograph shows John Henry Sylvester in his final years, as both he and Chloe look a bit bedraggled with age. The photography studio is marked
H. & R. Stiles of Kensington High St., London.





















1903 UK Probate Records

John Henry Sylvester died on November 29, 1903 at age 73.  His effects were valued at £32,761 10s, 5d which would be worth between £2,980,000 and £3,376,000 in today's money.

Curiously his wife, Matilda Sylvester lived exactly 10 years more, dying on November 28, 1913. Her effects were valued at only £1,829 17s, 8d.



As I have already hinted, Winifred did marry and left the life that was centered on her music room.





This official document of the Diocese of London is dated 5th June 1896 and was found on Ancestry.com. It records the marriage bond between William Morgan Hodder and Winifred Sylvester. This church license was required to be sworn and witnessed prior to the actual wedding ceremony, and the phrase, Twenty one years and upwards, only indicated that the couple were of legal age.

Captain William M. Hodder was a military man, an officer in the Royal Engineers, which must have pleased John Henry. He was born in County Cork, Ireland and was 9 years older than Winifred.






The Morning Post July 24, 1896

The wedding was held on July 22, 1896 and we can imagine that there was suitable music and pageantry for the happy couple. Did any of Winifred's fellow lady musicians perform? Perhaps Josef Ludwig, her master, played a solo.

Did you notice the date?  Only three weeks earlier, Winifred played her concert with Lady Radnor on July 1st. Did her excitement about the wedding temper her nerves about the concert? Or vice versa? Surely she knew that her future was now as a military officer's wife, and her days with the violin and concerts were finished, if not severely limited. Though the musicians roster of the Ladies String Band did have some married women, they were the exception. Society, at least in the circles to which Winifred belonged, could not accept the idea of a married woman performing in a concert hall.

She followed her husband now. By 1901 they lived in Weymouth on the south coast of Dorset. Hodder had made the rank of major, and Winifred was the mother of two daughters, Muriel and Beryl. According to the next census, William Hodder at age 50 had retired as a colonel of the Royal Engineers. This fortunately must have kept him from active service in the Great War, as his death is noted on one family tree as occurring in 1930.

What happened to the violas, the violins, the piano, the guitar, and the other photographs in Winifred's music room? I can offer no answer.

From an anonymous collection
This last photograph was described as signed on the back - Winifred Sylvester Hodder and Becky.  My opinion is that it dates to shortly after her marriage in 1896. Winifred's crushed velvet jacket with fox tail scarf creates an interesting fashion statement next to her neatly clipped poodle. Is she holding a dog treat? Though her face is hidden behind a veil, I think it bears a strong resemblance to the young woman violinist in the Vandyk photo.


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It is very uncommon to have the opportunity to research the full arc of a life, and even more rare to include an earlier generation. The story of Winifred and her parents offers an intimate glimpse of the London society and culture that had reached a pinnacle of sophistication at the end of the Victorian era. Because of her parents, Winifred enjoyed a position of wealth and privilege that afforded her an opportunity to study music and excel on the violin. Yet at the end of the 19th century, the world was not ready for a woman to have a professional career in music, or for that matter in art or medicine. It was considered improper for any respectable woman to pursue such a vocation.

Today in the 21st century, we can see how far society has advanced by looking at the roster of any professional orchestra. Not only are there thousands of women violinists and double bassists, but female horn players and percussionists as well. Today that notion that a female musician is inferior to a man, or somehow incapable of attaining the highest virtuosity in the musical arts seems absurd and preposterous. The integration of women into professional music took many more decades. It began with women like Lady Radnor and Winifred Sylvester who bravely ignored conventions and encouraged their audiences to appreciate musical talent without regard to gender.


Winifred died on September 18, 1948 in Worthing, England. No letters, flowers, or mourning.

Let this be her celebration then.












This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where all the best photos tell a story.



I am most grateful to Alan Burnett and my friends on Sepia Saturday
for their encouragement and enthusiasm. A story like this
may start
with the people in a photo,
but it could not have been written
without the inspiration from the boundless curiosity
of my fellow blog writers.

Thank you.



19 comments:

B. Rogers, Living in Black Mountain said...

What an amazing and well crafted tale...and the pictures support it throughout. Many thanks. Incidentally, the dogs are nice, but that mustache takes the cake.

Jackie Mc Guinness said...

I am in awe of that mustache!!


What an great story you have shared here.

Susanna Rosalie said...

Could not stop reading and was anticipating the next photo. Great talent of yours to keep the readers attention! I appreciate it.

boundforoz said...

These two weeks been marvellous reading. To make the story of an unknown family become so absorbing is a real skill.

Little Nell said...

A superb post Mike.I really enjoyed getting to know this family and their many talents. Chloe and Becky make interesting subjects too!

Karen S. said...

Wow, this could be a new series, much like Downton Abbey! Only better with the casting of family dogs. A most enjoyable post, which enabled us to get in touch with the family.

Karen S. said...

Also, fantastic collection of photos too!

Bob Scotney said...

What a superb collection of photos and a family story to go with them.
I remain in awe of posts like this.

Postcardy said...

You did a fine job of presenting information about this family.

I must admit, my favorite photos are the ones that include dogs.

Christine H. said...

I didn't read the earlier post, so I guess I have to go find that one to learn the rest of the story.What interesting characters! I am so glad these photos ended up with you. What a service you do in keeping them together and in researching their history so we may have a glimpse into their lives.

Jo Featherston said...

A great continuation post about Winifred, and marvellous that you've found so many photographs to research and document her life story.

Rob From Amersfoort said...

Wonderful life stories and photos. And you found one of his paintings too! Love the dogs, the difference between the two photo's with John Henry Sylvester and Chloe is moving.

Wendy said...

NOOOO-- you can't leave us with that sad "No letters, no flowers, no mourning." I'll mourn if I want to.

And I'll also cheer myself up by contemplating how those photos of Mr. & Mrs. Sylvester would make perfect subjects in a post on how owners look like their dogs. Come on, you have to admit those whiskers on Mr. S's dog match his. And then Becky and Mrs. S are wearing the same coat.

Caminante said...

What an fascinating tale. Thank you for the hours it must have taken to craft it.

Titania said...

A wonderful story to complement the fine pictures. Really fascinating; very much liked your ending, the celebration of this remarkable lady from an other time and life.

anyjazz said...

Fine post. An absolutely excellent collection of photographs you have on this post. Well written.

TICKLEBEAR said...

Well, I'll say...
From the British Empire and its exotic smells from Asia to the proper etiquette of London's High Society, you've certainly brushed up quite a portrait. I'm glad I read the two chapters to get an in depth view of who and what Winnifred was all about. Now that we know of his artistic abilities, one better understands why he chose such a location for his house in London. Pity the girl gave it all up upon marrying. But as you said, her contemporaries looked down on such ambitions for women...

Lisa Hirsch said...

Wonderful series!

I want to add that there were at least a few women who had concert careers in the 19th century, including Clara Schumann, Teresa Carreno, and Maud Powell.

Brett Payne said...

A stunning collection, and what a story you have unearthed ... the rest of her life seems almost an anticlimax after the impressive room she occupied in 1895!

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