Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Worth a Thousand Words

Princess Titaua and her family, late 1880s
I am deep into the picture research for my short biography of Titaua Salmon, which will be published in Scotland this summer. It looks like it might get a bit of publicity as the launch of my booklet will be featured at the opening of the £46 million refurbishment of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on Friday, July 29. Some of the museum’s most significant Polynesian items were donated or sold by the Princess and her husband in 1895.

There are many evocative pictures of the Princess. They all show a woman with long glossy black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and a Mona Lisa set to her mouth. Seldom if ever is she seen actually smiling.
They say every picture tells a story and none more so than the one you see at the top of this post, which was taken in the late 1880s. In 1878, very soon after the death of her first husband, John Brander, Titaua had married the manager of her husband’s company, a man called George Darsie. Darsie turned out to be a greedy man with no turn for business, and over the next 15 years, he ran the House of Brander into the ground.
Seeing their inheritance dwindle before their eyes, the Brander siblings became alarmed and took the Darsies to court. The bitter legal and personal battle lasted for years and was still going on when Titaua begged all her children to gather in a photographer’s studio in Papeete to take a family portrait.
All of her children complied with their mother’s request, except for her oldest Margaret, who was far away in Hamburg, married to a wealthy German merchant. Margaret had cut off communication with her mother when it became clear that Titaua wasn’t going to pay the 60,000 francs that Margaret’s father had left her as a marriage settlement in his will.   
But the other Branders were there - the five handsome sons in the back row, the second daughter Marion turned towards her mother in sad unease. There is a palpable sense of discomfort about the picture. Not even the children are smiling – the two last Brander girls and the three children Titaua had had with Darsie. George Darsie plays the part of stern paterfamilias, but he looks off into the distance as if detaching himself from the disapproval that must have vibrated in the air around him. Titaua’s lovely face looks strained and anxious. Perhaps it was coming home to her just how much she had lost by marrying the handsome Fifer – an enduring estrangement and alienation from her older children.

No comments:

Post a Comment