Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Laura Barker 1819-1905 composer

Posted in Laura Barker 1819-1905 composer by sheelanagigcomedienne on June 20, 2018

Laura Barker composer Laura 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 which is opposite the house that I have lived in for over fifty years.       84 has a fanlight that came from the original Lavender Sweep House which was the grandest on this carriageway of four houses.


Laura Wilson Barker was established as a musician and composer by the time she met and married Tom Taylor and they came to live in Lavender Sweep until he died in 1880. It was then a curved carriage way with four houses and two lodges. I already did 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,  who lived at Elm House  from 1860 which was on the site of Battersea Town Hall.  She is another one of these remarkable women who lived in the area of Lavender Hill.

I have been contacted by Rupert who is Laura and Tom’s great, great grandson and he is an actor now 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 1800’s she had as big an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography as her husband. I was pleased to persuade the Encyclopedia Britannica to restore Tom’s entry a couple of years back. They decided for some reason that he was not 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 piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1822 and 1832 and became its principal in 1832, remaining in the post until 1859. Philip Cipriani-Potter

As a teenager, Laura Barker experienced numerous musicians in her parents home, with whom the family was associated, 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, he was always ready to help me with my violin, and kindly chose a bow for me, 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.


It seems that Laura was encouraged by her family to compose. Her father sent Louis Spohr one of her compositions in 1836. From 1837 “Seven Romances for voice and guitar are known and in 1847 Laura Barker published an album with six songs for a voice and piano, and a year later followed the five-part Glee, a traditional English choral movement,” Can a Bosom so gentle remain “according to a text by William Shenstone, which was published in the London” Sacred Music Warehouse “(see” The Musical Times “of April 1, 1848). In the following years, Laura 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 18403 till she was married in 1955.

Laura had acquired and played a Stradivarius. That has an interesting back story as it was later owned by  the virtuoso Joshua Bell and also a fascinating history of another of Bell’s violins which had been stolen! This is one of the joys of the internet.



The history of the instrument is recorded from the time that it was in possession of Dr. Camidge, organist of York Minster, presumably John Camidge (there were a number of organists in his family) who received the Degree of Doctor of Music in 1819. In 1837 the violin was acquired by the Reverend William Flower who in his time owned several Stradivari instruments. During the sojourn of Louis Spohr in England, he used the violin when he appeared as soloist at a Musical Festival held at Norwich in 1839. At the death of Reverend Flower, the violin passed to his grandson, Tom Taylor, by whose name it has since been recorded. His wife (née Laura Wilson Barker) was a fine musician, a composer, and a finely gifted and highly accomplished player of the piano as well as the violin. She played with such artists as Spohr and Paganini. The violin remained in her possession after the death of Tom Taylor, until her death at Coleshill, Buckinghamshire, England, May 22, 1905 at the advanced age of eighty-five. Inherited by her daughter, Lucy, it was purchased from her by a German …..  and brought it to the U.S.A. in 1928.

Documents which accompanied the violin included some letters from Lucy Taylor which contained reference to her mother’s violin; these include the information about Laura her playing with Paganini and later with Spohr, who suggested her coming to Cassel as his pupil. Joseph Joachim was also a friend and often played on the violin at the Lavender Sweep soirées and an interesting anecdote is contained in one of the letters mentioned:

“Once when Madame Joachim, the famous prima donna, was staying with Mrs. Tom Taylor, the Professor arrived and found his wife singing to a distinguished audience there. In the middle of a song, a servant rushed in and informed her mistress that the top story of the house was ablaze. Even for this, Mrs. Taylor would not have the great singer interrupted, but Professor Joachim was alarmed for the safety of the Stradivari, which he at once picked up and took to his waiting carriage, with the remark ‘Whatever else happens, the Strad must be saved’.”

Joachim and Amelie

I wondered if there is a connection between Laura’s mother Jane Flower and the said Reverend Flower. Laura and Tom got married in 1855 in Brompton. So, did she have access to this violin early on and is this how they met?

Some of 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.;c=1346310894;pn=7;sort=auth_a


This 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 .

Ellen Terry, who was another of the many visitors to the house, ‘to us he was more than this he was an institution‘. In her autobiography she said ‘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”. The young actress 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 sixteen. His friends advised him against including the Taylors and his friend Jeanie Nassau Senior. Watts and Ellen’s marriage lasted less than a year and it didn’t seem to cause harm for either of them but it probably was the subject of gossip amongst this earlier Lavender Hill mob which would have included another neighbour Marie Spartali , the Pre-Raphaelite artist and friend of Jeanie’s and another of my Notable Women

I have had some ersatz blue plaques made for my walk. I hope one day to have real ones. There is an nomination for Marie Spartali being considered by English Heritage and perhaps we will have a Battersea Society commemorative plaque to Laura but there is a queue and a limit to how many women they will allow in succession. Of the sixteen  EH/LCC plaques in Battersea there are none commemorating women. So, I am on a mission and I will keep on promoting my women. I sound like I am their agent!



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 who played many concerts with Joachim during the 1860s and 1870s and that Clara 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’.



There is a detailed description of their home in the Survey of London.                     ‘Reading Watts later built Graham a magnificent detached 42ft conservatory to the north-west of the house, with semi-circular ends rather in the manner of Richard Turner’s Palm House at Kew, reached by a tiled and glazed passage.August 1858 when Graham sold the house to its final occupant, Tom Taylor. Taylor’s residence saw a change of pace for the house. He 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. (Incidentally, it was a Major Henry Rathbone who was with Lincoln and tried to apprehend the assassin Booth and was himself severely injured by a stab wound)

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’. Yes, that’s when our houses in Lavender Sweep had been built by 1881.The construction was so quick back then.



These are some of the paintings by Laura who was obviously a talented artist. They are all at Ellen’s at Smallhythe Place 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”






There is a portrait of their son Wycliffe by Milais. Tom Taylor ‘ was an early champion of Millais’s work”  and according to auctioneer’s Christie’s : “The boy’s portrait was painted in fulfilment of a promise that Millais made to Taylor before John Wycliffe Taylor was born – that if he ever had a son, Millais would paint the child in return for Taylor’s ‘many an act of friendly kindness’. Wycliffe was one of the few people whose portrait was painted by Sir John Everett Millais and who was photographed by Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll. The photo is of Laura and Wycliffe. The portrait was expected to sell for £125,000 in 2016 at auction.


Laura died in March 1905 and had gone to live in Porch House Coleshill Berkshire with Lucy 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.

Apparently,  a later owner of  Porch House  in 1962 Mary Ure, who had been married to playwright John Osborne, lived here with her second husband actor Robert Shaw where they entertained their theatrical friends. A nice bit of serendipity.



Lucy Taylor died in 1940. Her Memoir was published in 1939 and contained entries from Laura’s diary but doen’t seem to be available.

Laura’s music is awaiting a young singer and a pianist to rediscover this Victorian composer who has been forgotten and to bring her to a new audiences and with a focus on women in this centenary year 2018 should be an opportune time.

I cheekily wrote to pianist Lucy Parham about Laura. Lucy is internationally renowned  pianist and  is the creator of the acclaimed Composer Portrait concerts, “one of the must-see events of the musical calendar”

Thanks so much for your lovely email.
Laura Barker sounds fascinating and as soon as my somewhat chaotic period comes to a halt I shall look into her more.

It is the Clara Schumann bicentenary next year so, as you can imagine, I have got my hands somewhat full.

I agree that we have to give as much publicity to these female composers as possible, so an anniversary year is always a particular gift!”


I was delighted with her response and we are looking forward to her I , Clara show on Sunday 26th 2019 with Dame Harriet Walter narrating at the Omnibus 1 Clapham Common Northside – our favourite little local arts centre.

Laura Barker is the only one of the Notable Women of Lavender Hill who has not got a wikipedia entry and now, I hope, this will be be rectified and be the start of her being  given the recognition and acknowledgement as a significant Victorian female composer and her compositions played again.


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