Sunday, March 10, 2013


Synopsis- Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming, Scots born to a large and influential family was both an author, traveler and accomplished artist.  She was also an unusual woman of her time, outspoken and independent moving from continent to continent, country to country alone and seemingly without any clear cut foreward planning.  I first came across her story while researching my great grandmother Geraldine Sweeny McGowan's time in Levuka, Fiji.

I felt the artist deserved a story of her own... Part 2 follows her to California and the Yosemite Valley, a story she recounts in one of her travel books.


Constance didn’t make it back to Fiji, Tasmania and the promise of a Christmas spent with the Governor of Fiji’s wife Lady Gordon.  Instead she pushed on to San Francisco and an 1878 visit to America’s Yosemite Valley that stretched from its original 3 days to a stay of 3 months. 

In her book about her time in America entitled Granite Crags she wrote “I for one have wandered far enough over the wide world to know a unique glory when I am blessed by the sight of one..”.

Her watercolour sketches became the subjects of Yosemite’s first art exhibition, her travelogue entitled Granite Craigs an account of the months she spent in the redwood forests of the San Joaquin Valley, Yosemite, Oakland, the Tulare Lake and the Sacramento Valley.

The only way to explore the rugged country was by horse.  On an expedition to a high glacier ridge she painted this word picture of her companions.

‘The owners of the sure footed horses of the valley pride themselves on the fact there has never yet been accident, though hundreds of tourists who look as if they had lived all their lives in paved cities, and are wholly guiltless of any notion of riding, annually deliver themselves over to the guides, who place them on the backs of unknown ponies, arrange them in Indian file, and adroitly steer them up and down most fearfully dangerous trails, where one false step or stumble would probably land pony and rider right down in the valley in the form of a jelly.’

Eka was obviously entranced by the forests and lakes of Yosemite and spent much of her time sketching the local tribes.  In her book entitled ‘Granite Craigs’ she covered all this in detail along with probing and amusing insights of the fellow travellers she met along the way. 

In many cases her pen was far more cutting than her brushes and canvas.

During her long stay she took a room in a comfortable lodge set in the midst of lake and mountain.  To me,’ she wrote in her journal, ‘half the charm of this place is that though there are now a great number of people in the valley, including some who are very pleasant, there is not the slightest occasion ever to see anyone except at meals and then only supposing you happen to come in at orthodox hours which is quite voluntary.’

She obviously mixed at various times with these short term visitors but found their manners and habits a bit wearying.

One thing I really cannot attain to’ she noted, ‘is the invariable custom of addressing one another as “Ma’ám and Sir”.  I know they think me very ill-bred but there are limits beyond which assimilation cannot go.  I try to excuse myself on the plea that we (in England) reserve such honour for royalties, but I doubt if the excuse is considered valid.’

There were occasions though where she found her American counterparts quite amazing… ‘I notice with interest and curiosity the number of ladies, both English and American who find their way here.  In all my previous wanderings extending over a period of eight years I have only met one woman traveling absolutely for pleasure.  Here there are many.’

This observation in ‘Granite Craigs’ is followed by a curiously worded but no doubt innocent remark about yet another guest… ‘But the most interesting of my new acquaintances is a very handsome young American doctor to whom I honestly confess I should lose my heart were I a young patient!  A good linguist, a good musician, clever and intellectual… The most curious thing about it is, that my doctor wears the most dainty little feminine garments, and first attracted my attention by the charm of a pensive Madonna-like beauty.  In short, she is a handsome well educated American girl travelling with her parents, who are pleasant as herself.

‘Judge my astonishment when she told me that she hoped I would look her up at the medical college in Philadelphia and hopes soon to start in regular practice, in which she tells me many women are now making their ten or fifteen thousand a year. (Dollars, not pounds.)’

Yet another subtle but revealing interchange with fellow tourists was recorded in ‘Granite Craigs’

‘At the foot of the pass (I) met an English lady and gentleman on foot.  Un-British like, we actually exchanged greetings! Two keen fishermen met on common ground, then we discovered such home links as determined us to meet again; but having made no definite tryst we missed one another in each attempt. (A year later we met(by chance) in Japan and ascended Fuji-yama together.)

Her books weren’t only recollections of her travels and fellow travellers; in Granite Craigs she describes in detail the area’s hydraulic mining operations and the quartz mining near Sonora while in the vast redwood forests she establishes her views on ecology and the downside to logging…
The largest Sequoia that has yet been discovered is on King’s river, about forty miles from Visalia. It is forty-four feet in diameter— one hundred and thirty-two feet in circumference! Wouldn’t an English forester open his eyes pretty wide at such a giant as this! Happily for all lovers of the beautiful, the owners of saw-mills find that they cannot well “handle” these monarchs—they are not “convenient” either to saw down or to cut up; so, although the young ones are ruthlessly destroyed (I ought to say utilised for timber), the Big Trees are mercifully spared. Long may they live!

This lithograph by an unknown artist shows only too well the blithe destruction of these forest giants.

Her books were largely derided by the mostly male writers of the time. Constance Frederica obviously didn’t fit their image of a Victorian woman’s demeanour of delicate manner, dependent on their menfolk.  One critic, the author Henry Adams went so far as to describe her books as a mere collection of anecdotes without much interest.

Silly man, such autobiographical travel books rate among today’s best sellers and all Gordon-Cumming’s books are still available, some in hard cover and all in E book form.


Those first years in India and Ceylon with her sister’s family led to the publication of one of her earliest books and this delightful account regarding it’s title.


When it came time to put into print her experiences in Ceylon, the publishers with considerable humour introduced her book with this light hearted preface…

What can be the reason that writers on Ceylon seem impelled to describe their book as a term of years?...

' Fifty Years in Ceylon.' An Autobiography by Major
Thomas Skinner.

' Eleven Years in Ceylon.' By Major Forbes, 78th High-

' Eight Years in Ceylon,' By Sir Samuel Baker.

' Seven Years in Ceylon.' By Mary and Margaret
Leitch. … and finally…

'Two Happy Years in Ceylon,' by C. F. Gordon-Cumming…
who had so named her notes of pleasant days in the fair Isle, before realising that any of her predecessors had thus described their longer terms of residence therein.''

Ramboda Pass, Ceylon by C.F. Gordon Cumming



This handwritten draft form of the book is part of a collection held in Cambridge archives.


Constance Frederica, or ‘Eka’ as she preferred was a prolific writer.  Her travelogues and articles were featured in just about every British magazine of the day and received with favourable comments by newspaper critics from the Manchester Guardian, the Newcastle Chronicle, Liverpool Mercury, The Observer and the Daily Telegraph to name only a few.

'We have no more fascinating writer than the lady who made so many friends by her former books. Miss Gordon Cumming has made herself mistress of the art of descriptive writing. She is an acute observer of men and things.'— Leeds Mercury.

' Altogether, this is one of Miss Gordon Cumming's best works, and may safely be recommended to lovers of travel-literature,' — Globe. 

' A book to be read without delay’. . . . Miss Gordon Cumming continues to' keep the reader charmed at every step.' — Methodist Recorder.

Fascinated by history’s almost constant passing parade of ceremonial umbrellas and elaborate shelters she sketched the beauty of times past capturing its mystery and pageant.  Her subjects were diverse; from Egypt and Morocco to the Indian sub continent, China and Japan, the islands of Polynesia, Australia and New Zealand and the Americas.    All were grist for her mill.

In compiling some of her shorter articles for magazines she, or perhaps her editor was not averse to including the works of others.   In the case of Pagodas, Aurioles and Umbrellas she interspersed her own work with that of the travelling journalist for the Illustrated London News, William Simpson. His sketch below of a Moroccan procession obviously caught her professional eye.

As did another of his works sketched in China, shown in the next chapter. He shared with Constance a keen interest in life’s passing parade.  There is little doubt that their paths crossed, both in northern Africa and in China where both observed and recorded the sights and smells of countries abounding with colourful pageantry.

It’s difficult to imagine how she managed while traveling, her paraphernalia of easel, sketch books, paints, not to mention journals and personal needs must have been cumbersome. 

Her life appeared to be constantly in flux, her home for months on end a suitcase, though for the 1870’s I imagine this was a sturdy cabin trunk.

 Ahead for her now is the ocean crossing from North America to Japan.


NEXT:  In Part 3 of Constance Gordon-Cummings life and times the artist takes ship to the Orient where we pick up her story as she prepares to climb Mt Fuji.  Her next stop will be Hong Kong and an eventual chance meeting in Peking that will change her life forever.

Robyn Mortimer 2013-03-08