Sophia Augusta Cottrell (1823–1909) & Henry Cottrell (1811–71)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 15, 354–357.
Sophia Cottrell was born on 19 March 1823 at 19 Duke Street, Westminster, the youngest of twelve children of Charles Augustus Tulk (1786–1849), Swedenborgian, author, and member of parliament (Sudbury, 1820–26; Poole, 1835–37) and his wife Susanna (1787–1824), the daughter of Marmaduke Hart, a successful London merchant. Sophia’s father inherited a sizable fortune from his father, John Augustus Tulk (1756–1845) and was able to build the impressive St. John’s Lodge in Regent’s Park. Before Sophia’s birth, however, the family moved from there to Duke Street and then, in late 1842 or early 1843, to Totteridge Park, north of London. In a letter to Mary Russell Mitford, EBB indicated that these relocations may have been due to financial setbacks brought on by the “wildnesses” and “misfortunes” of Sophia’s brothers (31 October 1842, letter 1037).
Henry Cottrell was born on 5 March 1811 at North Walton, Hampshire, the fourth son of Clement Cottrell (1773–1814), Rector of North Walton, and his wife Georgiana (née Adams, b. 1779?). He chose a career in the navy, entering the Royal Naval College (then at Portsmouth) in 1824 and retiring some time in the 1830’s with the rank of lieutenant. In 1838 he was appointed chamberlain in the household of Charles Louis de Bourbon, or Carlo Ludovico di Borbone (1799–1883), Duke of Lucca (1824–47). Among his other duties, Henry acted as agent in selling portions of the nobleman’s art collection, and it was probably at this time that he began to acquire the paintings which would later impress visitors to the Cottrells’ home, including EBB. For his service to the Duke, Henry received the honorary title of count on 9 July 1846 and was afterwards known as Count Cottrell. A year later he left the Duke’s household when Lucca became a part of the duchy of Tuscany.
According to Sophia’s “Recollections” (see Scott Lewis, “Sophia Cottrell’s Recollections,” Browning Society Notes, 24, 17–49), the Cottrells and the Tulks knew each other through her father and Henry’s elder brother, Charles Herbert Cottrell (1806–60), as they were both magistrates for Middlesex. Henry’s mother, who was living at Hadley not far from Totteridge Park, called on the Tulks after their removal there. Sophia first met Henry during one of his visits home from Italy and was attracted to him for his “handsome face” and “foreign way” (“Recollections,” p. 34). The Cottrells were married on 25 September 1847. After a honeymoon at St. Anne’s Hill, Surrey (a country house lent to them by Lord Holland), the newlyweds left for Italy and settled at Florence in the Piazza Maria Antonia (now Piazza del Independenza). Both Cottrells were Swedenborgians. Sophia was raised in the faith, and it would seem that Henry became a follower about the time of his marriage.
Henry was by now without an occupation, and the lack of money was a problem that would plague the Cottrells throughout their married life. In February 1849, EBB told Henrietta that the Cottrells were allowed £200 a year from Mr. Tulk, upon whose death this amount was to be increased to £350 a year. But there was no mention of such an allowance or increase in Mr. Tulk’s will, nor was there any other immediate provision made, “except a share in some property which is to be divided at the end of eighteen years” (letter 2773). Count Cottrell briefly considered an expedition to join in the California gold rush but decided against it.
The Cottrells’ first child Alice Augusta Enrica was born on 14 July 1848, and they had six more children together, though only three lived past infancy; these were Henry Edward Plantagenet (1852–1938), Violet Amy (1859–1936), and Agnes Isa Sophia (1865–1945). Besides the aforementioned residence at Piazza Maria Antonia, other Florentine addresses for the Cottrells included Casa Maquay in Via del Maglio (now Via Lamarmora) and 82 Via Cavour. The Count’s poor health, which EBB had noted as early as November 1854, began a more serious decline in the mid-1860’s, and it was recommended that he live in a milder climate. Consequently, in December 1870 the family relocated to Nervi, on the Tyrrhenian coast just below Genoa. Henry Cottrell died there on 16 March 1871 and was buried in the English Cemetery in Genoa. Two years after her husband’s death, Mrs. Cottrell returned to England, living first at Cheltenham and later Richmond. At the time of a will she made in 1896, her address was given as 18 St. Stephen’s Road, Bayswater. She died on 26 February 1909 at 7 Falkland House, Cheniston Gardens, Kensington, leaving the bulk of her estate to her two daughters.
Well before Sophia married, the Tulks and the Moulton-Barretts knew each other through common in-laws. EBB’s paternal uncle Samuel Moulton-Barrett married, as his second wife, Anne Gordon in 1833. The following year her brother John Gordon married Sophia’s sister Caroline Tulk. By October 1842, EBB could state to Miss Mitford that “we know the Tulks very well” (letter 1034). RB had been acquainted with Sophia’s brother Augustus Henry Tulk when the two were students together at London University in 1828. The Brownings and the Cottrells began seeing each other not long after the latter settled at Florence in the autumn of 1847. Although RB would later describe Mrs. Cottrell as “gentleness itself” (letter to Isa Blagden, 21 November 1870), no clear picture of her personality emerges from EBB’s letters. Mrs. Cottrell’s husband, on the other hand, was often the focus of EBB’s character analysis. After an initial negative assessment, in which she seemed somewhat amused by his title, she and RB began to warm to him, though still with reservations. In a letter to Arabella dated 4 July , she remarked: “Count Cottrell improves on us most agreeably, and indeed there is much to like in him in many ways—a groundwork of natural affectionateness & goodness, & a superstructure of a various knowledge of the world, which does not however render him a refined man. … A sort of abruptness of manner is in his disfavour with strangers” (letter 2739). The Count advised the Brownings in their purchases of furniture for Casa Guidi, and EBB told Arabella that he “has a great deal of taste in the furnishing department” adding that he “paints in oils very well for an amateur & has a feeling about pictures” (10–11 May , letter 2731).
Meanwhile, Sophia’s father Charles Tulk, his daughter Louisa, and her husband James Peard Ley had joined the Cottrells in Florence. The elder Tulk, who quickly became a favourite with both Brownings, gave the poets a copy of Swedenborg’s Conjugial Love, with its “very extraordinarily-sounding paragraphs,” which they hid “in the shadiest corner of the room, lest somebody, not quite as spiritual as a Swedenborgian, might make wrong deductions from it” (letter 2719). Mr. Tulk and the Leys returned to England in August 1848, and it was not long before the Cottrells began receiving melancholy news. In September the Leys’ infant girl died. She was soon followed in death by her mother Louisa on 26 November 1848. Mr. Tulk died on 16 January 1849. Then came word from India that the infant child of Caroline Gordon had died in the autumn. Her husband John Gordon died on 21 February 1849, only twenty-four hours after the burial of his mother, who had been living with them in Calcutta. EBB found Mrs. Cottrell’s optimistic acceptance of these misfortunes, particularly the death of her sister Louisa, to be remarkable. In a letter to Arabella, EBB wrote that Sophia “was overwhelmed just at first, but had recovered all her calmness, .. ‘resolving by a cheerful submission to the Divine will, not to repel the happy spirit’” (16–18 December , letter 2761).
This equanimity was not as readily apparent when the Cottrells lost their sixteen-month-old girl, Alice Cottrell, on 8 November 1849. The parents were so stricken by the event, that RB had to manage the funeral and burial of the child. EBB was moved to compose “A Child’s Grave at Florence: A.A.E.C. Born July, 1848. Died November, 1849,” which was printed in The Athenæum of 22 December 1849. Less than a year later, RB found himself in the same position again when he was called upon to oversee the burial of the Cottrell’s first son, three-week-old Carlo Ludovico, the Duke of Lucca’s namesake.
The arrival in late August 1849 of Sophia’s bereaved sister Caroline Gordon in Tuscany, placed a strain on the Browning-Cottrell friendship. Mrs. Gordon’s husband had died owing money to Mary Trepsack (“Trippy”), long-time companion of EBB’s grandmother. Trippy had invested £4,000 with him in a doomed business venture, and the Brownings felt that Mrs. Gordon should accept responsibility for her husband’s debt. When it was learned through Count Cottrell that she intended to offer only a small percentage per annum of the principal, thus leaving Miss Trepsack financially dependent on EBB’s father, the Brownings were resolute in their decision not to associate with her. In a letter to Henrietta dated 25 May , EBB reported that she and RB had been “very cool to the Cottrells, & they are aware of it, I am certain, Count Cottrell not coming as usual to tell us of the birth of his baby.” Nevertheless, the couples remained on friendly, if more distant, terms.
In 1851 the Cottrells’ son Henry (“Hal”) Edward Plantagenet was born, and he became a playmate of Pen Browning and a life-long acquaintance. In the mid-1850’s, the Cottrells and EBB shared a mutual interest in spiritualism and a common experience in that each had participated in a séance with Daniel Dunglas Home. EBB reported to Isa Blagden in December 1855 that she had received “a letter from Sophia Cottrell, from Florence, .. a thick letter on thin paper, & full of Hume [sic, for Home]. She & her husband are implicit believers. They have seen an accordion lifted from the floor at Mr. Powers’s, simply by the ‘spiritual hands’– Mrs. Powers has seen & kissed her mother’s hand. Sophia Cottrell has held her father’s hand & her dead baby’s, feeling all the little fingers.” EBB’s last known reference to her friend occurs in a letter written from Rome, six weeks before her death: “Write, & tell me particularly of Sophie Cottrell. … My true love to her!” (letter to Isa Blagden, [18 May 1861]).
In view of RB’s help with the funerals of the Cottrells’ infant children, it was fitting that Count Cottrell took care of the arrangements for EBB’s funeral and burial. Additionally, in 1862 he volunteered to supervise the construction of the monument over EBB’s grave in Florence. The project, however, was fraught with problems, not least of which was the sculptor’s departure from Frederic Leighton’s original designs. RB felt that Henry should have insisted on their being followed and was further bothered that the sculptor had been paid in full before the work was completed. Despite these irritations, RB always expressed feelings of gratitude and indebtedness to his friend for his assistance. Their last recorded meeting took place in London during the summer of 1869. Upon Henry Cottrell’s death in March 1871, RB sent condolences to his widow. About a month later he told Isa Blagden: “I hope Countess Cottrell got safely the letter I directed to her: I tried to express some little of the sympathy I felt. She is a sweet good loving nature, and cannot be better bestowed for awhile than with you. Give her my true love” (25 April 1871). There are no further references to Sophia Cottrell in RB’s correspondence. However, he does mention her son Hal in a February 1872 letter to Isa Blagden: “A frequent visitor to Pen, of late, has been Hal Cottrell,—a fine confident young fellow, with an excellent opinion of himself.” Upon his death in 1938, Hal Cottrell left his daughter a pencil sketch of Pen as a child drawn by Frederic Leighton (see Reconstruction, H78)