I know about Matilda Sharpe because she was the woman who, along with her sister Emily, founded Channing School in Highgate where I taught for 16 happy years.
The school was originally intended for the daughters of Unitarian ministers but is now open to girls from every religion or none. There were still echoes of Matilda Sharpe around the school when I worked there. For instance, her aspirational motto (also the title of a book of homilies she authored) was engraved over the door to the sixth form Centre: “Never forget life is expecting much of you and me”. Although well educated at home, Matilda Sharpe wanted to make it possible for girls to enter university and make their way into the professions on the same footing as boys – which is exactly what Channing girls have done from that day to this.
In 1840, Matilda’s family moved to 32 Highbury Place where they maintained strong links with the Newington Green Unitarian Church. Matilda and her sister, Emily taught at the Newington Chapel Sunday school. Her mother’s relatives lived on Newington Green and also held Unitarian views. Matilda came from an intellectual family: her father Samuel (1799–1881) was an Egyptologist and translator of the Bible and her mother Sarah (1796–1851) was a talented painter. She took up painting herself early in life and developed into a highly proficient portrait painter. Three of her works are held in the National Portrait Collection. They depict her father, Joseph Bonomi, the illustrator of her father’s books on Egyptian antiquities , and the theologian, Samuel Davidson.
There was a sketchbook of Matilda Sharpe’s watercolour and pencil sketches in the archive of Channing school. One study depicted the garden of her house in Highbury, in which a huge stone carving of “Melpomene” (the Greek muse of tragedy) was prominently located. I was surprised when I saw this watercolour sketch, as Melpomene now lives in the playground at Channing School; the sort of landmark you can’t miss. I hadn’t realised it had been a bequest made by Miss Matilda.
One of her interior watercolour studies was acquired by the Geffrye Museum (Now: Museum of the Home) Entitled; “”Drawing Room at 69 Seymour Street”. It depicts a quiet interior furnished in Victorian style with guilt-framed mirrors and a circular table draped with a heavy damask table cover. The Museum used Matilda Sharp’s study as the inspiration for their re-creation of a “Drawing Room in 1870” that contains exactly same sort of guilt-framed mirrors and a round table draped with a heavy cloth. Reproductions of the painting are now available to buy on-line as a print or as a jigsaw puzzle. It feels a bit odd to see Matilda Sharpe’s quiet and contemplative watercolour study sold as a jigsaw puzzle for popular amusement.
The founding values of Channing School were Unitarian. The school motto, chosen by Matilda Sharpe, is ‘Conabor’ which translates as: “I shall try”. If girls tried to succeed in education, Matilda Sharpe reasoned, it was pretty certain they would succeed. And she was right; but success was never seen as an end in itself at Channing. Moral values matter too – respect, tolerance and mutual understanding are promoted throughout the school. I am reminded of something I recently heard on the radio. “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice”. All of the students I met at at Channing School were very nice people.
Matilda Sharpe also found time to publish short books of aphorisms and poetry. (There is a collection of them in the Channing archives). In “Old Favourites from the Elder poets” (1881) she collected together poems by nine women including Unitarian poet Anna Leititia Barbauld. It was re-released as a facsimile copy in 2016, with the somewhat exaggerated claim on the back cover that “this work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it”. Although hyperbolic, there is some truth in the claim that Matilda Sharpe contributed something important to ‘civilization as we know it’, although it was probably not her choice of poetry.
When Channing School for Girls opened in 1885, universities had only just begun to admit girls with suitable entry qualifications, and there were very few academic schools that would educate girls for university admission. Channing School, like Queens College (founded 1848) and North London Collegiate (founded 1850), provided this opportunity for girls and as such was a part of the women’s educational reform movement that was central to the wider women’s movement that played such an important part in shaping our modern world. Educational reform, painting and publishing her thoughts on life were all part of Matilda Sharpe’s formidable array of accomplishments.