BETHAM, Mary Matilda

1776 - 1852

Born at Stradbroke, Suffolk, eldest of the fifteen children of the Revd William Betham (1749-1839) of Stonham Aspal, Suffolk, and rector of Stoke Lacy, Herefordshire, and his wife Mary, née Damant (1752/3–1839), the widow of Whittocke Planque. William Betham was a distinguished antiquary and had a fine library which awakened Matilda’s interest in literature, especially of history. On visits to Cambridge she studied Italian with Agostino Isola, who had also taught the younger Pitt and William Wordsworth. Matilda taught herself miniature painting, and her portraits have great delicacy but she remained too much of an amateur and her success was limited but her subjects included her father, the Countess of Dysart, the Duchess of St. Alban's and Robert Southey. Belonging to a large family she made efforts to turn her talents to practical account, and exploited her large miscellaneous historical reading effectively in her 'Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of every Age and Country' (1804). Betham had already settled in London where she gave Shakespearian readings, exhibited her portraits at the Royal Academy 1808-1811, and had a brief but brilliant period of literary and artistic success. She came to be on friendly terms with Charles and Mary Lamb, with Coleridge, Southey, Mrs Barbauld, and others. How high she stood in their esteem and liking may be gathered from their letters to her, including a laudatory verse epistle from Coleridge. This, and other correspondence, is printed in 'A House of Letters' (1905). Matilda had already published two small volumes of verse, 'Elegies' (1797) and 'Poems' (1808), which attracted little attention, but in 1816 her 'Lay of Marie' was well received. The work of the thirteenth-century poet Marie de France was an encouraging precedent for a woman with literary ambitions, and Matilda's poem effectively challenges comparison with Walter Scott's 'Lay of the Last Minstrel'. Charles Lamb, who saw the volume through the press, thought it ‘very delicately pretty as to sentiment’. Southey and Allan Cunningham were still warmer in their praise, Southey advising her to insert at the end of her fictitious 'Lay of Marie' the real 'Lais de Marie', so as to give her book an antiquarian value. Family circumstances and poverty affected Betham's mental health and in 1819 she was confined as insane. She complained that her unconventionality made her family wish to keep her out of the way, and she did eventually retire to the country and relinquish her literary pursuits but her friendships remained. ‘I would rather talk to Matilda Betham than to the most beautiful young woman in the world’, said a young man of her in her old age. She died at her home in Burton Street, London, on 30 September 1852.




Works by This Painter