Mrs. Arthur Hammersley (Violet Mary Williams-Freeman 1877-1962), my grandfather's aunt,
painted in 1907 by
Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942), oil on canvas 214.0 x 153.7cm. The painting is called 'Violet Hammersley'.

She was the daughter of William Peere Williams-Freeman (1834-1884) of Clapton (or Clopton), Northants, a diplomat, and Isabel Frances Merivale (d. 1911), daughter of Herman Merivale, CB, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for India. Arthur Hammersley (1856-1912), son of Hugh Hammersley (1819-1882), was a banker. They were married in 1902 and had three children; Christopher (b. 1903), David (b.1904) and Monica (b. 1907). Arthur Hammersley had a son, Hugh (b.1892), and three daughters (Gwendolen, Cynthia and Doris) by his first marriage to Mary Louisa Campbell. Christopher Hammerlsey (b. 1903) was my grandfather's closest friend. More information on her family can be found in the Marquis de Ruvigny's 'The Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal' (Mortimer Percy Volume, Part I, Page 82), which traces Violet's descent from Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, second son of Edward III. See also the entry for Williams-Freeman in Burke's Landed Gentry. By an extraordinary co-incidence Violet's grandfather, also William Peere Williams-Freeman, owned Pylewell House, previously owned by Ascanius William Senior (1728-1789). Until 1853 he had lived at Fawley Court, Henley-on-Thames, built for William Freeman in 1684 by Sir Christopher Wren and apparently the inspiration for Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows'. When William Peere Williams-Freeman died in 1873 the house (Pylewell) was acquired by a Mr. Whitaker, from whom it has descended to the current owner, Lord Teynham. This painting is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia and was purchased by them from Violet Hammersley in 1955.

Fawley Court, Henley-on-Thames. Seat of the Williams-Freeman family until 1853.

Herman Merivale was a very close friend of William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), the author, as were his children (Herman, Fanny and Isabel - mother of Violet) of Thackeray's children (Anny and Minny). See the biography of Anny Thackeray, 'Anny' by Henrietta Garnett (Chatto & Windus, 2004), indexed under 'Merivale' and 'Freeman, Ella' (i.e. Isabel Williams-Freeman, mother of Violet Hammersley). The Merivales also knew Jeanie Senior, grandmother of Oliver Nassau Senior, my grandfather and nephew of Violet Hammersley (see above). Anny Thackeray (Lady Ritchie) was also a close friend of Jeanie Senior. My mother remembers Violet as a rather haughty old lady.

Violet Hammersley with her son, Christopher, in 1904.

Violet Hammersley with the 11th Duke of Devonshire.

Violet Hammersley was a close friend of the Mitford family - the children called her 'Mrs. Ham'. There is a chapter about her in Diana Mosley's (nee Mitford) book 'Loved Ones' (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985). Here are some quotes about her:

'When she was twenty she married a rich widower, twice her age; he had grown up children. Mr. Hammersley loved hunting and shooting and for him the best moment of the year was August in Scotland. He was also a great gardener. Although I never knew him, for he died in 1913 [actually 1912], I can well imagine him from a portrait by Henry Tonks, a well-built blond man with a cheerful, rubicund face under a straw hat, the picture was like an Impressionist's version of a seedsman's catalogue, so sunny and bright, with so many flowers. Nothing, neither the man nor the scene, could have been more unlike Mrs. Hammersley. Theirs must have been the attraction of opposites.'

'She was rather small and very dark, with black hair and huge dark eyes, and she had an expression of deep gloom. She had a rather low, hollow voice, and although she often laughed it was as if unwillingly. Her garden, at least the only garden of hers I ever saw, was a discreet green. When I first knew her she was already a widow, and widow's weeds became her. To the end of her life she was swathed in black scarves and shawls and veils; in later years not exactly in mourning, because many of her clothes were dark brown, but the whole effect had something more Spanish than French about it. Once when she was slightly annoying my sister Nancy, who used the powder and lipstick universal among our generation, by saying: "Painters don't admire make-up at all," Nancy retorted: "Oh well Mrs. Ham you know it's all very well for you, but we can't all look like El Greco's mistress." Mrs. Hammersley gave he hollow, unwilling laugh.

She had the most beautiful, delicately made hands, and she was a talented pianist. Her long drawing room had a grand piano at each end and she loved to play duets with musical friends. On one slender, ivory finger she wore a diamond and emerald ring shaped like a fleur-de-lys. We all craved it, and I am sorry to say we never hesitated, as children, to exclaim, "Oh Mrs Ham! Your ring! You are so lucky," or even, "Mrs. Ham, when you die will you leave me your ring? Please do." At a very early age we discovered the potency of the word 'lucky' when applied to Mrs. Hammersley. She considered herself the unluckiest person alive, and reacted accordingly to our reiterated cries.

She had perfect taste, and no doubt the London house with two pianos must have been delightful. I never saw it, but she told me that when it was finished she took her butler all over it. Clean and shining, with whatever labour-saving devices existed in those days, it was convenient, bright and beautiful. The butler said nothing; she had hoped for a word of praise. When every corner had been visited, he spoke: "No boot hole," was his only comment.'

'My parents had many friends and relations to stay; Mrs. Hammersley was our favourite.'

'She was one of those rare persons who are equally good as hostess and guest; she was well worth the trouble she caused. Her luncheons and dinners were highly enjoyable...'

'Once when I was lunching with her at Tite Street Mrs. Hammersley began inveighing against the wretches who borrow one's books and fail to return them. A fellow guest, Logan Pearsall Smith, got up from the table and opened a glass-fronted bookcase. He took out three volumes at random, and each had somebody else's name on the fly leaf. She was unabashed.'

'Working on a book, Nancy [Mitford] went to stay with her at Wilmington [Totland Bay, Isle of Wight]; rationing was still at its most stringent. Nancy wrote to me: "The Widow [Violet Hammersley] performs the dance of the seven veils for the butcher, but he never gives us anything." We had just killed a bull calf on the farm, and I wrote asking whether I should post a few pounds of veal. A telegram handed in at Totland Bay arrived; it contained the one word 'Yes'. Mrs. Ham was famous for her short telegrams.'

'Hers was the charm of sharp intelligence, wonderful elegance, and a real and deep interest in every aspect of the lives of her friends. This interest she lavished upon small children, who loved her accordingly as she loved them.'


Steer’s portrait of Mrs. Violet Hammersley is one which can truly be described as being in “the grand manner,” evocative in particular of the works of Gainsborough. In Gainsboough’s works, “the figure is often seen against a backdrop of feathery foliage, which opens up to reveal a distant landscape. Efforts were made to achieve the right effect in the picture and Mrs. Hammersley borrowed an unfashionable oyster-coloured satin dress, designed by Worth, in which to pose. This must have provided the closest approximation to Boucher’s Mme. de Pompadour (1758, Victoria and Albert Museum, London) upon which the pose was probably based. Mrs. Hammersley recalled that, displeased with the dress’s blue satin bows, Steer ‘replaced them with white’: I sat to him all through the winter and spring and into the summer of 1907, and we had near a hundred sittings. These took place at 109 Cheyne Walk, and I sat on a sofa at the end of his charming drawing room … The sitting lasted about three hours and I do not remember ever being bored for a moment. (quoted in MacColl, 1945)”

Madame de Pompadour by Bourcher (1758)

Another portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Bourcher.

'Odalisque', another painting by Bourcher.

A painting by Rubens entitled 'Constantine investing his son Crispus with command of the fleet' (1622), which was owned by Arthur Hammersley's (see above) great-grandfather, Thomas Hammersley (1747-1812), is also now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Perhaps Violet Hammersley sold this painting to the Gallery of New South Wales along with her portrait by Steer.

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