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.