Monday, March 11, 2013



Synopsis:  Parts one and two introduced Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming, artist, author and traveler born in Scotland in 1823. Her literary and artistic output is prodigious.  Her articles appear in newspapers and magazines worldwide. A virtual ‘will of the wisp’ when it comes to roaming destinations foreign we resume her story just as she leaves the America’s and approaches the Orient…


This third and final episode is for the first half a lighthearted and frivolous look at her travels from Yosemite in America to Japan and China.  

The final part though recounts the artist's great and sudden epiphany in life when she meets a missionary whose life is dedicated to helping the blind. That first meeting changed her life for evermore.



Constance Frederica ‘Eka’ Gordon-Cumming spent some time in Japan.  She carried with her letters of introduction to various consulates and was rewarded with ‘passports’ enabling her to travel freely around the country.  She wandered virtually at will recording the sights and sounds of a Victorian era Japan that both titillated and depressed her.

On one occasion forewarned a momentous ceremony was to take place in a prominent Imperial residence she took up a vantage point on a balcony nearby and armed with a pair of binoculars observed with delight the arrival and greeting of the Emperor and his wife and their slow progress through the building opposite.

A sneaky surveillance the Japanese authorities at the time would not have looked kindly on.

No visit to Japan is complete without at least a view of Mt Fuji; in 1878 Constance however made the entire climb to the summit…but not alone. 

The coincidence of travel and meeting up with old friends in surprising new locations was one of Eka’s joys.  An introduction at the start of her visit to Japan caused her to cast her mind back a number of decades to her school days back home in Scotland.

As a sixteen year old during a ‘party night’ at her boarding school a local church minister brought his son along as an added guest; a welcome younger face of the opposite sex for ‘Eka’ and her classmates to interact with.  Blessed with a keen memory the name Garrett stayed in her mind so when she was introduced to the Chaplain of Yokohama she remembered him instantly.

His mind was duly prodded and the meeting resulted in his offer to accompany her and a group of friends to climb the iconic Mt Fuji.

They started their journey from Yokohama early in the morning with Eka writing in her journal about the road taken… passing tea houses along the way‘gay with a multitude of quaint calico flags…  we reached Oodiwara and started off again in bath chairs of very light construction, but owing to the steepness of the road we were soon transferred to kangos or mountain chairs; these were basketware seats slung on a pole which is borne by two men.  Being made for little Japanese they are of course horribly uncomfortable for full grown Europeans.’

Never one to avoid local cuisine she particularly enjoyed a “most sustaining concoction” of raw eggs beaten up with sugar and hot saki… ‘…and by no means to be despised.’

Yet another surprise reunion was made when she happened upon the two compatriots she had met while traversing the glacier in the Yosemite Mountains some months earlier.

Any thoughts that the Lady Constance demanded and received superior accommodation were dispelled when I read her comment about an uncomfortable night in Subashiri where she arrived at the Inn in clothes soaked with heavy rain and unable to stay in good rooms because they were already occupied.


Later in an article entitled ‘A Pilgrimage to the Summit of Fujiyama’ she describes reaching the summit… ‘…by dint of great exertion and with the help of my faithful coolie… and was rewarded with …a magnificent panorama…on every side dreamy visions of far away ocean, range beyond range of dwarfed mountains…towns and gleaming lakes…’
In a final comment I could almost see her accompanying smile as she remarks on the affects of altitude sickness and an accompanying Japanese coolie’s remedy of … “crushing sour pink plums on their temples!”

From Japan she boarded ship for Shanghai, but where I some 150 years later was entranced as my ship progressed up the Yangtze River, Eka could see no beauty in the flat monotonous land stretching from muddy swirling river. Consequently she stayed just long enough to find passage to Hong Kong.



Constance made the journey from Shanghai to Hong Kong on the Messageries Maritime steam ship Pei Ho writing home that…

 ‘Shanghai turned out a disappointment for me with its horrid river of yellow mud and the hideousness of flat country.  I resolved to risk spending Christmas Day at sea on board a dreary ship huddled round two wretched stoves in the large dark uncomfortable cabin.’

And so she arrived in Hong Kong’s spectacular harbour on board the ‘dreary’ SS Pei Ho arriving in Hong Kong on Christmas Day.



By the 21st Century the island’s disastrous fire had disappeared from memory, and to a large extent from history until present day Hong Kong writer Adam Nebbs researching the history of the island discovered that Constance wasn’t the only writer and traveller of note who happened to be there on that infamous day.

Two other notable figures from history also witnessed and wrote about the fire in books they published some time later. 

One was the famous American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie who included witnessing the fire in his book Around the World… and the other was the adventurous Isabella Bird, already known to Constance, who arrived in the Colony at the same time and mentioned the fire in her book The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither describing how she made her way through the burning streets to the residence of Bishop Burden.  

It’s curious to note that both ladies wrote about their arrival in Hong Kong in their respective books, as being aboard similarly miserable and dismal ships…Constance on the Pei Ho and Isabella on the Volga which incidentally Constance had sailed on initially from Yokohama to Shanghai. 

In the months before arriving in Hong Kong both women had briefly met up with each other in the British legation in Tokyo.

Their friendship however went back much further than China.  As early as 1878 while Constance was in Fiji and sailing the south Pacific on the French man-of-war Isabella Bird was back in England busy proof reading Gordon-Cummings latest literary effort, perhaps the one she wrote on her experiences in the Himalayas, which was entitled ‘From the Hebrides to the Himalayas’. 

The fire - By an unknown artist.

And the fire? Like all such major conflagrations it started by accident, in the shop of an English trader and quickly spread throughout Hong Kong destroying hundreds of buildings between the harbour front and Hollywood Road…but not reaching to the socially elevated district of Glenealy.

As she did on all her travels, Constance stayed in Hong Kong with friends, or perhaps acquaintances, or maybe even with relations.  She traveled at times in rarefied company and her contacts were on a global scale.  I doubt she ever seriously lacked a welcoming roof over her head.

In the painting above, Constance has caught the view over the city from a vantage point that looked east from Glenealy, an historical part of old Victoria City where the British Colony of Hong Kong began.  A keen eye has sighted two figures standing on the balcony roof of the building below and commented they may well be Gordon-Cumming’s hosts.

In the distance is Government House, and the partially constructed Roman Catholic Church, itself on the site of an old mansion that once belonged to an American opium trader and grandfather of future US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  A French flag hangs bottom left and may well be the French Consulate.

In her subsequent book on China she mentions an excursion into the interior with the Delano family.

Constance intended this visit as a mere stopover on a voyage home.  No doubt she meant to stagger the voyage home to stop over with relations and friends in India.  But then Hong Kong compatriots urged her to stay longer, travel at least to Peking:  See more of China. 

Always adaptable and ready to move at a moment’s notice, she took their advice and set off on a life changing journey that would prove to be a crossroads in her life. 

In fact on that first day she went no further than Canton arriving there in time to attend the Governor’s Ball on New Year’s Eve.


How did Constance make her way further north from Hong Kong and Canton to Peking?  I would imagine by coastal steamer as I myself made a similar journey in the 1990’s to Shanghai aboard a Chinese vessel originally commissioned many years earlier as the luxury American cross-Pacific steamer, the Mariposa.. 

But the artist’s journey was broken into sections, she first sailed to Canton, then to Shanghai (a second visit she found more to her liking) where she made a side trip to the town of Ningbo where the Inland Mission has set up a school.

In the town she visits the Buddhist Temple and sketches the Three Pure Ones and their worshippers. 

The Three Pure Ones.  C.F. Gordon-Cumming

The ultimate journey to Peking thrust her into the heart of everyday China.  She wrote in depth about the Chinese people she passed amongst, commenting on their class structure, poverty and the everyday smells of China that she found difficult to accommodate.

She didn’t always rely on European companionship to forge an easier progress and often found herself in situations where language failed and interaction took place with signs and pantomime. 

Whenever she set up her easel a crowd would gather to observe this strange creature whose skin and hair colour, not to mention dress was so alien to theirs.

I think she revelled in the stir her presence created.

The great wall of Peking C.F.Gordon Cumming.

Writing in 1886 Constance makes the comment that ‘…physical fear is a sensation which I have never experienced…’ Yet during her visit to 19th century China she must have come across situations and events that gave her cause to take special care, perhaps even to hold her tongue.  Not least were her views on the great gap between the privileged and the poor. 

One example is this description of one event she witnessed…

The central roadway is reserved for cart-traffic, which plies
ceaselessly, summer and winter, on the paved road. This, being never repaired from one year's end to another, is all in the same atrocious condition as the road from Tung-Chow, and all others, both within and without the city.

But occasionally it is announced that on a given day the Em-
peror will come forth from his seclusion and pass along certain streets. Then the whole of the extemporised shops disappear as if by magic. A squad of men are put on — not really to repair the road, but just to shovel all the dust into the holes and ruts, till the road whole is perfectly level, so as to allow of this one procession passing over it without a jolt (and till it has passed, not a foot is permitted to tread the Imperial carriage-road).
Then every shop along the streets thus honoured is closed, and all access from side-streets is carefully barricaded. Sometimes even a high screen of yellow cloth is fastened on poles all along the road on each side, less any rash subject should venture to look upon the “Son of Heaven", who is thus deprived of the interest of even seeing his own people in his own streets.

Above a similar excursion…the Emperor’s wedding procession sketched by a contemporary and like minded artist, William Simpson of the Illustrated London News and witnessed by him from the seclusion of an opium den across the way.



The years concerning this, my account of Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming’s life seem almost to be contained within the same decade of the 1800’s.  No sooner had she arrived in Fiji then it seemed I had carried her forth to cover the greater expanse of the world…Samoa, Tonga, Polynesia and the Sandwich Islands, San Francisco and the Yosemite Valley, Japan and now China.

In truth though Constance took her time, staying months at a time in the one country, sometimes even years: often returning for a second, a third visit. Her paintings, articles and books seemed never ending.  

If her life appeared frivolous and foot loose it is only because there is no room in a modern blog to cover each and every moment she spent observing, dissecting the life and times of peoples as diverse as remote Fiji islanders, Egyptian fellaheens, the untouchables of India, the rare atmosphere of the privileged and diplomatic of the world, and even of fellow sailors on ships of passage.

It was in China however that Constance found her epiphany in life, a cause to bring before the world, a unique way to use her writing talents to champion the cause of one man in his attempt to bring enlightenment to ‘illiterate Chinese both blind and sighted.’


A blind beggar in China 19th Century.  C.F. Gordon Cumming

Constance met William Hill Murray, a Scottish missionary in Peking in 1879 China on that memorable journey when she arrived in Hong Kong in time to view its partial destruction by fire.

The Rev Murray was himself an extraordinary man. He was the only son in a family of ten children; his father worked in a saw mill in a small town near Glasgow in Scotland.  Young William would most probably have followed in his father’s footsteps if it hadn’t been for an unfortunate childhood accident in the mill when at the age of nine he lost his left arm.

As he grew up it was noted that William had a keen ear for languages.  He attended classes at the University while working for the National Bible Society of Scotland.   In time he was sent out to China as an agent for the Society, spent some time in the northern provinces of Manchuria and became proficient in the Chinese language.

Murray was drawn to the plight of the blind, most of them barely surviving by begging on the streets;  if only they could be taught to read, learn perhaps a trade their lives would be transformed.  The Braille system was already in practice in Europe and he wondered if this could be adapted for use in China.

And so he began to explore the many intricacies of this very different oriental language, both the oral and written aspect, and set up an experimental school to work with blind neighbourhood men and women.

But the Peking project was a time and finance draining exercise that attracted no outside help; no one else apart from his wife and family cared nor was interested in the task he had set himself.

At this same time, 1879, Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming arrived in China.  This was to be a short visit to Hong Kong; she had no intention of travelling further to Peking and had even booked her return passage to England.  But friends persuaded her not to leave China until she had at least visited its capital.

Once she arrived in Peking she needed a guide, the Rev Murray was recommended and so began a few enjoyable days walking the busy crowded streets, the two of them chatting as they made their progress through the city.  On a visit to Murray’s make shift School for the Blind in Fish Skin Lane she viewed four blind beggars reading the Holy Scriptures.

It was a revelation for Constance; suddenly her life had new purpose.

It seemed all her exotic travelling thus far, all the books and articles and fame had drawn her to this humble little building, to this one man, and to a dream and a goal that would fill her every waking moment for the next forty years.


William Murray faced enormous problems converting the Chinese language into a Braille form that would enable the blind to read.  For a start even a sighted Chinese person learning to read text must, in time, be able to recognize by sight at least four thousand complicated characters. 
The Chinese have no alphabet and in understanding and reading their literature they must first master 408 sounds: But how to formulate these sounds into Braille.

The solution was comparatively simple.  As Constance would point out in her book about Rev. Murray’s School for the Blind … “to the Chinese mind an alphabetic system is so essentially foreign as to be inherently repugnant…however the Chinese all have a natural liking for numerals.”

 After much trial and error the Reverend solved the difficulty of using a similar system to Braille by making the embossed dots represent numerals; the same group of dots differently placed, representing units, tens and hundreds. Pupils learned this new method by heart until they could instinctively recognize the corresponding sound purely by touch.


His work progressed at remarkable pace, his Braille type of recognition for the blind an outstanding success and for the first ten years from the invention of this ‘Numeral Type’ it was used solely for the unsighted. 

Then in 1889 someone mentioned in passing…”Oh, what a privilege it is to be blind and to learn to read and write so well in just a few weeks, whereas sighted and illiterate persons take about six years to learn to read and then cannot write at all.  Why don’t you do something for poor sighted people?” 

The idea hadn’t occurred to him, but he could see its value. He mulled over the problem of converting touch to vision and finally, by connecting the white dots for the blind with visible black lines for the sighted it was found even ignorant peasants with normal vision could read books after only a short degree of instruction.

All of this took time, effort and money and Constance set out to make their home country, Scotland, and the world aware of Rev. William Murray’s impossibly gigantic dream. Those early years were difficult; the school faced many hurdles, chiefly financial causing Constance to write that “Satan seems to be continually on the alert to hinder in every detail.”

The book she wrote in 1898, entitled “The Inventor of the Numeral-Type for China” followed an earlier article printed in 1895 “The Blind in China”; both proved popular and helped financially to establish a committee in Glasgow to raise funds for the school in China.

On her return to Scotland and the creation of a fund raising group Constance wasn’t content to stay on the side line urging others to donate and do the hard yards; she took an active part as a committee member. Inevitably there were critics who showed their disfavour of the way she thrust the School for the Blind into the public eye.
But this was nothing new to her.  Over the years many had derided her writing and her artwork, her independent travel, and always she ignored them and carried on regardless.

Her interest, personal input and monetary support with personal donations to the committee never waned; she would remain an active member for many years.

It is apparent The School for the Blind became the centre of her life. Her travel to distant parts appeared to have ceased and apart from her final book, an autobiography entitled ‘Memories’ further publications were either reprints of earlier works, or articles concerning the School for the Blind.  She worked tirelessly to raise funds, the School grew in numbers.

A special Committee of both American and British men, all prominent in business and public affairs was established.  Donations continued to pour in. Between the two groups the school prospered and grew.

A blind man given the ability to read.

The Reverend and Mrs William Hill Murray.

Then in 1900 the School and all missions in Peking and the North of China were destroyed during the Boxer rebellion.  The Murray’s, husband and wife survived the bloodbath, but most of their students were massacred in the fighting. The School struggled on until 1911 when the Rev. Murray passed away.

His wife continued to run the school as best she could until it all became too much for her and she requested she be relieved. In the meantime education in China had made huge strides and the humble School was merged into a larger Institute.

Williams name though was remembered for years to come with the emergence of Peking’s “Hill Murray Institute for the Blind”. 

Constance supported the school for the rest of her life, continuing to take an active role on the Glasgow Committee.  In 1904 she published her autobiography entitled “Memories.”  It would be her last publication.
She died in Scotland on 4th September, 1924 and was buried near Crieff.

Robyn Mortimer 2013

Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming’s paintings and artwork are held in public museums of art around the world .  From time to time items from private collections appear in auctions where they attract considerable sums. The following list of her books and publications is by no means complete; some of her work was donated privately to museums in Scotland.

1876 From the Hebrides to the Himalayas; a Sketch of Eighteen Months' Wanderings in Western Isles and Eastern Highlands. (London: Sampson Low, Marston)
1881 "The Last King of Tahiti," Contemporary Review, v.41, (London)
1881 At Home in Fiji (Edinburgh: William Blackwood)
1882 A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons)
1883 Fire Fountains: The Kingdom of Hawaii (Edinburgh: William Blackwood)
1883 In the Hebrides (Edinburgh). Cruising the Scottish Islands.
1884 "Fijian Pottery," The Art Journal
1884 Granite Crags Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons). Reprinted in 1886 and 1888 as Granite Crags of California, minus 2 illustrations
1884 In the Himalayas and on the Indian Plains (London: Chatto & Windus)
1885 "The Offerings of the Dead," British Quarterly Review
1885 Via Cornwell to Egypt (London: Chatto & Windus)
1886 Wanderings in China 2 v. (Edinburgh & London: William Blackwood & Sons)
1887 Work for the Blind in China: Showing How Blind Beggars may be transformed into useful Scripture Readers Part I (London: Gilbert & Rivington), Part II (Helensburgh, [1892])
1889 Notes on Ceylon (London)
1889 Notes on China and its Missions (London)
1890 "Across the Yellow Sea," Blackwood's Magazine
1892 Two Happy Years in Ceylon, 4d ed., 2 v. (Edinburgh & London: William Blackwood & Sons)
1895 The Blind in China (Helensburgh)
1898-99 The Inventor of the Numeral-type for China, by the use of which Illiterate Chinese both Blind and Sighted can very Quickly be Taught to Read and Write Fluently (London: Downey & Co.)
1904 Memories. Autobiography