The Little Girl at the Door

When I was walking in Canterbury, I came upon the local library, a great ark of a building. It was the gift of a wealthy benefactor, and it reminded me of the Skaneateles Library with its Barrow Gallery attached to it. Except here, the gallery was on the upper floor and went by the more elevated title of The Royal Museum and Art Gallery. All by itself, the old building was worth exploring, but the gallery, up a grand staircase, was filled with surprises. An exhibition of teapots, a room devoted to military history, and in one room, in a corner, one of the most arresting paintings I’ve ever seen.

It was tall, almost as large as its subjects, a girl in a dark hat and coat standing at a white door, about to turn the doorknob. Not the stuff of epic romance, but I couldn’t leave it. It cast a spell and I was caught. When I did manage to leave, I came back again. I don’t remember anything else in the room.

The painting was titled The Little Girl at the Door, and the artist was Harriet Halhed (1851 – 1933). She was born in Australia, but came to England and studied in Canterbury at the Sidney Cooper School of Art, at the Royal College of Art in London, and then in Paris under Louis Henri Deschamps. She came back to Canterbury where she painted, taught, and also did some sketches of sculptural details at the Canterbury Cathedral for the Kent Archeological Society.

One of her pupils, Janet Forbes, described her: “She wore strange, homespun, loose, sacklike clothes… girded herself with embroidered and studded belts and clasps and chains from Bulgaria, donned little Finnish fur hats, and beads from the Andaman Isles.” This was a woman my Aunt Rhea would have enjoyed.

Historical sources list both Foresters’ Hall in Canterbury and Sevenoaks, in Kent, as places where she lived or worked; in 1897, she went to London, where her studio was behind a Chelsea pub called “The Magpie and Stump,” which often furnished lunch for the artist and those she taught.

The Little Girl at the Door was exhibited in 1910 at the Royal Academy in London and at the Paris Salon, and 20 years later was presented to The Royal Museum & Art Gallery by 16 of her former students. There is little about the artist on the Web, just enough to offer a glimpse of a fascinating person and a fascinating painting. I’d love to know more, but I need to be grateful that our paths crossed at all.

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16 thoughts on “The Little Girl at the Door

  1. My daughter and I saw this painting when we visited Canterbury five years ago. It has haunted me since. I was disappointed to learn the only reproduction available was a small greeting card, but I bought it.

  2. Having grown up in canterbury – this painting has always been a port of call – every time i return i go to visit her. she had much the same effect upon me as a child as she does as an adult – captivating and haunting in the same instant – im always drawn back to her.

  3. The Little Girl at the Door
    By Jack Windsor

    For me The Little Girl at the Door painted by Harriet Halhed asks more questions than it answers. Is she going out of the door or has she just come in? Has she been summoned to the room or told to leave? Is that sadness in her face or is it apprehension? She is wearing outdoor clothes yet clearly it is an internal door and she holds the door handle in both of her little hands but as she turns it she has half turned to look at someone in the room. Is she saying goodbye or hello? Her clothes tell us that she is not a poor girl for they are of good quality but why is she dressed so sombrely? Has she been to or is she going to a funeral or is she, perhaps, in mourning? Her mode of dress with its black clothes suggests one or the other. It seems a shame that such a pretty child should have to be so sad for looking at her face I am sure that she has a beautiful smile. I suppose that I shall never know the answer to my questions but the painting has intrigued me since I first saw it in the Royal Museum in Canterbury about ten years ago.

    Here is a short story I wrote which was inspired by the enigmatic painting:

    The Little Girl at the Door
    By Jack Windsor

    Mary tapped gently on the door. She was frightened and confused, not knowing what to expect in the room that lay on the other side of the door. She was dressed in her outdoor clothes and still had on the hat she wore to the cemetery.

    “Enter!” The stern tone of the voice made the child start, she was not used to being spoken to like that. Her mother always addressed her in such a gentle way and never said anything in such a harsh manner. Slowly she turned the handle and pushed open the door.

    “Come in child, close the door!”

    As the door clicked shut, Mary looked back at Aunt Emily. Her mother’s elder sister was seated in the high backed chair close the window. Normally, Mary liked to sit on the window ledge and watch the world pass by but today, even though it was afternoon and the sun was shining, the heavy curtains were closed.

    “Come here, I wish to talk to you.”

    Mary was not very fond of Aunt Emily for she was always more severe than Mary’s mother and did not seem to be interested in playing children’s games. Indeed Aunt Emily always became irritable when Mary and her brother George were playing nearby. So in the past, the children kept out of the way when their aunt was in the vicinity.

    The girl stood in front of her aunt wondering what she was going to say. She was only seven years old yet her little life had been thrown in turmoil recently. It had started to change about six months ago when news came through that her father’s ship had gone down. Nobody knew quite what had happened until a passing ship had sighted the wreckage of his vessel off the coast of North Africa. Everyone waited for news of the crew but none of them had been seen since and so, eventually, the ship’s owners reluctantly informed families that it seemed all hands had gone down with the vessel. In truth, Mary hardly knew her father for she rarely saw him as he was so often away at sea. He was the ship’s Master and was paid a percentage of the each trip’s profits so Mary’s mother was able to afford many of life’s luxuries. After the disaster, although the family’s income was severely reduced, the ship’s owners continued to pay Mary’s mother a pension and so she was able to continue caring for her family. Until just ten days ago when Mary’s mother contracted a fever and within three days was dead.

    “I am afraid everything is going to change a great deal for you Mary.”

    The little girl nodded but did not reply. Her life was already changed. She knew that when she saw her mother’s coffin lowered into the ground earlier that cold winter day of 1894.

    “Your brother George will be going to live with your grandparents but they have insufficient space to accommodate two children in their cottage so you will be staying here with me. It is far from an ideal arrangement for I have no wish to be burdened with the responsibility of bring up a child. However, we must both make the best of the situation.”

    “Does that mean I will not be able to play with George any more?” queried the little girl.

    “He will be able to visit you sometimes but most days you will not be able to see each other and, another thing,” Aunt Emily added, “I have told Miss Williams not to come here anymore. We cannot afford private tutors and in any case girls don’t need to be educated with all those silly ideas she has been putting into your head.”

    “But mother said…..”

    “Your mother is dead Mary. You live with me now and what I say is what will happen in this house from now. You may go up to your room and change out of those outdoor clothes. Which reminds me, I will not waste my money on fancy clothes. You can spend your time practising your sewing then before long you can make your own dresses. Now off you go, I have more important things to do than spend my time talking to a child.”

    The girl walked slowly up the stairs tears running down her little face. First she had lost her father then her mother had gone. Now it seemed she would rarely see George and she would never have any nice clothes again. It all seemed so unfair for surely there was enough room for her as well as George at her grandmother’s cottage? She threw herself down on the bed and let the tears flow freely. Then fell into a fitful sleep until she heard her aunt calling her down for tea.

    As the days passed by her relationship with Aunt Emily became worse. The girl rebelled at the sudden imposition of a discipline she was unused to and her aunt begrudged the burdensome responsibility of bringing up her sister’s orphaned child. “Don’t do that Mary! Oh do be quiet Mary. Have you done your chores today?” It was as if she could do nothing right.

    The days turned into weeks and Mary’s relationship with her aunt did not improve, indeed it became progressively worse as Aunt Emily imposed more rules upon her niece and Mary grew stubbornly defiant. Being sent to her room without any tea became a regular punishment for the child. Eventually the little girl decided the time had come to run away. She did not know where to and did not care, just as long as it was away from her aunt.

    One sunny morning Mary quietly crept into the kitchen and gathered what food she could carry in her pockets. She took it back to her room then dressed herself for the adventure that lay ahead. Although spring was already well advanced the weather was still cold so she put on the fur coat her parents gave her the previous year. Now it was getting a little small for her but she knew Aunt Emily would never buy her another one so she might as well take it. She put her hat on then went to the door and cautiously opened it to see if her aunt was around. As she did so there was a loud knocking at the front door.

    Aunt Emily went to the door and opened it. Mary heard a man’s voice, then immediately ran down the stairs, tears welling in her eyes. “Father, Father, you came back. Everyone told me you were dead!“

    Her father picked her up and clasped her tightly to him. “I nearly was my Darling. My ship was wrecked and almost all the crew were lost but some of us clung to the wreckage and washed up on an island near the coast of Africa. It has taken us this long to make our way home. But now I am home, I shall look after my children who are so dear to me.”

  4. Thanks for the information about Harriet Halhed and the painting. You write well, Jack, with a feeling for that turn of the century period, so I enjoyed the story, finding it easy to empathise with the child in the painting also, though I wonder if there is someone out there who knows who the child was?

  5. Hi
    My father, Basil Maurice Halhed, was second cousin to Harriet. If you visit our family website you will get a full history of the family.
    http://www.halhed.com
    I hope this is of interest to you.

    Kind regards,
    Valerie

  6. Hi,
    I will try to get this through to you again although I am having a bit of trouble. Visit web site for more information on the Halhed family, http://www.Halhed.com. Harriet was my father’s second cousin. His name was Basil Maurice Halhed and he was killed at Monte Casino in 1944. Hope you enjoy looking at the site.
    Regards,
    Valerie

  7. Hi
    Harriet was the daughter of my 5xgreat uncle William Duodecimus Halhed. He was a son of John Halhed and Anna Maria Caswall (my 4xgt grandparents) who lived at Yateley, Hampshire, UK. In 2007 I went to Tower Hill, Koroit, Vic. Australia where a new gravestone to William was dedicated 150 years after he died there.

    Basil Halhed in Canada has done a very good website for the Halheds and I also have quite a lot of information.

    Are you related to shalhedmoran@eircom.net?

  8. Like all who see her, I too cannot forget her enigmatic face and the questions left unanswered. I do not get to Canterbury as often as I would like but I always make for the Library/gallery to see her again. The last time I went the whole place was in a state of upheaval and refurbishment but I was able to get small ‘poster’ print of the picture as well as a card. The attendant I spoke to said that she was an overwhelming favourite and they were always being asked for prints. With such popularity it is suprising that they have not done this already! It would be a welcome injection of cash for the Gallery without doubt. I live iln hope!

  9. Hi Bobbie.,
    I have seen your name on the family web site that my lst cousin, Basil, put together, and an absolutely amazing family web site it is.
    You will, no doubt, already have lots of information on our family, as you are also family. Francis Halhed (who looked after Harriet when her parents died) was my great great grandfather.
    Sinead Halhed-Moran is my daughter, and we also have a son, Bobby Halhed-Moran.
    In what way are we related, Bobbie?
    Kine regards,
    Valerie Halhed-Moran

    • Hi Valerie
      Haven’t done any family history for a few years and have only just seen your message of 25 Aug 2011. I don’t know how we are related but I will ask Basil (who hasn’t been well for the past few months). This is a short message as it’s 11 pm(!) but will try and get some details in the not too distant future.
      Best wishes
      Bobbie

      • Hi Bobbie , Sorry for delay as I have just seen your post today.
        Basil, May he now rest in peace, was my first cousin.

        His father Dick Halhed and my father Basil Maurice Halhed were brothers.

        After Harriet ‘s parents died , My great – great grandfather Francis and his wife Mary Ann brought Harriet and her siblings back on the long journey to live with them and their children in England.

        Hope this is of some help, do stay in touch. Valerie Halhed-Moran.

  10. I was wondering if someone could help us find out more information about the Little girl at the door. My neice bares a striking resemblence to this little girl, and our family is intrigued and compelled to find out more about her.
    If anyone could help us, it would be greatly appreciated.

  11. Hello there

    I saw this picture in Canterbury, it was a small print of the original and it’s in a bar called Bramleys. I was also spellbound by it. Many thanks for your illuminating blog about it’s history! Didn’t know it was so close to home. Must investigate.

    • Hurrah ! The completely refurbished Beaney has reopened in Canterbury and the painting is back on display in the centre of the gallery. It is so evocative and like many who look at it I wonder what the story is behind the picture, what’s behind the door ? Why is the girl dressed in black ? So many possibilities emerge from this one painting…

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