In 1912, suffragette Norah Smyth and fellow campaigner, Helen Craggs, hired a boat and rowed up the River Thames in order to set fire to Nuneham House, the home of Lewis Harcourt, an anti-suffrage MP. When they reached the wall surrounding the big old estate house, they were spotted by a policeman who gave chase. Craggs was apprehended and arrested. Smyth legged it across the fields and got away. The policeman told the court that the two had the following in their possession: a bottle and two cans of inflammable oil, two boxes of matches, four tapers, nine 'pick-locks', 12 fire-lighters, a hammer, an electric torch, and "a piece of American cloth smeared over with some sticky substance". Craggs got nine months but was released from prison a few weeks later after going on hunger strike.
In her essay written for an exhibition of Norah's photography in Four Corners, London (2018), Carla Mitchell wrote that Norah confessed to attempted arson only late in her life, to a nephew. The nephew evidently expressed his surprise to his aunt that she would attempt to torch an old house, given her love of old paintings and antiques. She told him that the east wing had been uninhabited.
Norah Smyth (1874-1963) ended her days in Oak Park on the outskirts of Letterkenny in Co Donegal, where she lived with her sister Úna Maud Lyle Smyth (1872-1964). It was a quiet end to two very exciting lives.
Úna was an award-winning novelist who published under the name of Marius Lyle. Norah, the more famous of the pair, was a suffragette and a socialist whose evocative photography documented the struggle to give women the right to vote. When the Smyth sisters died, their house was sold with furniture and contents intact. Oak Park's new owners, long serving medical practitioners, appreciated the history of these items and kept them safe for future generations.
Now, more than 50 years later, the contents of Oak Park are coming up for auction as part of Victor Mee's Palace Collection Sale. For collectors who like their objects to have a story, the auction has rich pickings. The father of the Smyth sisters Hugh Lyle Smyth, was born in Derry but moved to Cheshire in England where he had a successful business as a grain merchant and fathered 11 children.
The third child, Úna, allegedly ran away from home aged 16. She married her cousin, Hugh Lyle Waring Smyth, in Buenos Aires, lived with him in Drumahoe, Co Derry, and became a novelist. Her first novel, Unhappy in Thy Daring (1916) was set in Ireland. It won the 1916 Melrose Prize, adjudicated by HG Wells, and a reviewer in The Bookman praised the "cool but ruthlessly explicit presentment of sex in action".
Until the age of 37, Norah lived quietly at home in Cheshire. Then, in 1911, her father died and she went to London to join Edith Craig's Pioneer Players. Craig was a pioneer of the campaign for women's suffrage in England. She was also a lesbian and it's likely that Norah was too. Smyth also became an unpaid chauffeur to Emmeline Pankhurst, the leading figure of the Women's Social and Political Union. A photograph taken in 1913 shows Norah resplendent and proud in chauffeur's uniform. She may have been introduced to the Pankhurst family by her aunt, the composer Dame Ethel Smyth, who was also gay and who was at one time in love with Emmeline Pankhurst.
Some say that highlighting the sexuality of these suffragettes can diminish the seriousness of what they achieved; others feel that these women were pioneers of more than politics and were also pushing the boundaries of a heteronormative society. Sadly, there are none of Norah's photographs in the Victor Mee auction, nor any specific suffragette memorabilia, but the collection does reflect her interest in antiques. "There are quite a lot of oriental items from Oak Park," says Bryan Mee, auctioneer. "Between 30 and 40 lots, including an onion vase decorated with dragons and some little bronze Buddhas. There's been plenty of interest in those."
Some of the pieces are evocative. An early 20th-century cast iron garden bench with wooden slats (Lot 85: est. €1,000 to €1,500) is somewhere that one can imagine the elderly activist enjoying the sunset, while the Georgian mahogany server, raised on barley twist legs and lion paw feet (Lot 163: est. €800 to €1,200) probably played a practical role in her daily life.
The most valuable piece from the Oak Park collection, unless one of the oriental objects performs out of its socks, is an Irish Georgian mahogany secretaire bookcase with a swan neck pediment over a single astragal glazed door (Lot 279: est. €3,000 to €4,000). Other pieces are more incidental, but also cheaper: a late 19th-century hand-knotted Persian rug (Lot 429: est. €300 to €600); a 1930s brass desk lamp (Lot 490: est. €100 to €200); and an 18th-century painting, The Physician, in a gilt frame (Lot 631: est. €200 to €400).
The challenge, for those in search of a memento of the suffragette, will be in working out which items come from Oak Park. The lots in the sale also include the contents of The Bishop's Palace in Co Cavan, where furniture and objects from both collections are displayed as an ensemble. "Ask an auctioneer when you come to view the sale," Mee suggests. "There will be plenty of people there to help."
The Palace Collection Sale takes place at the former Bishop's Palace, Upper Kilmore, Cavan, Co Cavan, on Monday at 11am. Viewing begins today to Sunday 27-29 11am to 6pm. The venue is three-quarters of a mile past the Farnham Estate Hotel & Spa on the right. (victormeeauctions.ie)