Professor Frank James explores the high society life of Jane Davy, wife of renowned Ri chemist Humphry Davy.
In 2014 the Ri is proud to celebrate women in science with the first ever all women line-up for our Friday Evening Discourses. To coincide with these monthly events, Frank James will tell the stories of some of the many women associated with the Ri since 1799 in this monthly blog.
Aoife McLysaght will present the next Friday Evening Discourse 'Too much of a good thing?' 8.00pm to 9.15pm on Friday 28 March 2014.
Jane Kerr was the only daughter of Jane Tweedie and Charles Kerr, from Kelso in Roxburghshire, although she was born in Antigua on 5 February 1780, where her father was a merchant at the time. Kerr was also Navy agent for the colony and was responsible for overseeing the development of its fortifications, for which he was reimbursed by the government. In a dispatch, however, one of the English commanders on the Caribbean station, Horatio Nelson, hinted that he was unhappy with Kerr’s financial arrangements.
Charles Kerr died at the end of 1795 and his widow and daughter then moved to London where they settled in Portland Place. They moved to Berkeley Square after the elder Jane Kerr married again at the start of 1798. Her second husband was Robert Farquhar who, when slavery in the British Empire was abolished in 1833, owned one estate on Antigua and three on Grenada worked by 900 slaves, for whom he received more than £20,000 compensation from the government. Robert and Jane Farquhar had one daughter, Eliza Mary who married into the Shaw-Stewart family.
The younger Jane Kerr was evidently a wealthy woman. Though the exact extent her fortune is not known, informed commentators at the time suggested that she had capital of around £60,000 with an annual income of about £4000. On 3 October 1799, at the age of nineteen, she married Shuckburgh Apreece, the son of a Huntingdonshire baronet seven years her senior. They had no children and he died, before his father, just over eight years later, so the title eventually passed to his brother who clearly had mental health issues.
Following the death of her husband, Apreece pursued a life in fashionable society. For example in the Spring of 1809 she was presented to Queen Charlotte, and towards the end of the year went to Edinburgh where she was, according to her distant cousin the novelist Walter Scott, ‘a lioness of the first magnitude & reputation’. The sixty-one year old natural philosopher John Playfair was certainly smitten, and according to Scott proposed marriage - presumably Playfair was the ‘venerable Professor’ that Henry Holland, then a medical student at the university, recollected adjusting her shoe laces in the street.
Scott clearly found her insufferable and wrote to a friend after she had toured the Inner Hebrides with him that:
she is one of those persons who aim at literary acquaintances and the reputation of knowing remarkable characters and seeing out of the way places not for their own value nor for any pleasure she has at the time but because hearing and seeing & being acquainted gives her a knowing air in the world.
On her return to London at the end of 1810, Apreece began attending Humphry Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution and was clearly immediately captivated, telling Scott at the start of March 1811 that ‘Davy is remarkably pleasant, & all the fashion & celebrity of admiration do not injure his unaffectedness’. Davy reciprocated quickly and while visiting Bakewell in Derbyshire over Easter 1811, he addressed a long nature poem for her ‘eye only’.
It is hard to trace in detail the development of their relationship mainly because no letters from her to him have survived and most of the numerous notes from him to her, now in the archives of the Royal Institution, written during 1811 and 1812 are undated and undatable with any precision. But they began to be seen in Society together, for example dining with Caroline, Princess of Wales. Her lady-in-waiting, who did not have a high opinion of Davy, wrote in her diary that ‘Mrs A[preece] seems tinctured with something like love’.
Davy and Apreece became engaged at the start of March 1812. On 9 April Davy was one of the first to be knighted following the proclamation of the Regency and two days later he and Apreece were married in her Berkeley Square house by Samuel Goodenough, Bishop of Carlisle. Since Davy was knighted before they married Jane ensured that she would immediately gain a title, unlike with her first husband. Davy, now married to a wealthy woman, was able to resign all his positions at the Royal Institution, Royal Society and Board of Agriculture. In some ways their relationship sounds like an inverted plot of a Jane Austen novel and this may explain why Jane Davy did not like Pride and Prejudice published at the start of 1813.
Davy told a friend that after his marriage, ‘I shall be able to devote my whole time to the pursuit of discovery’. This proved to be very far from the case, although he did invent the miners’ safety lamp at the Royal Institution in 1815. The Davys toured the Continent between 1813 and 1815 and her domineering behaviour was memorably captured in Michael Faraday’s letters. On their return the Davys purchased 26 Park Street, Grosvenor Square, which became their London house for the remainder of both their lives. Starting in 1818 they visited Italy again at the personal command of the Prince Regent so that Davy could attempt to unroll the ancient papyri that had been excavated at Herculaneum. But they were also active in Italian Society, especially its English component, meeting for instance the poet Lord Byron whom they had known in London.
They returned to London in 1820 in time for Davy to be elected President of the Royal Society, a post which created considerable stress for him, culminating in a stroke and his resignation in 1827. During the 1820s both Davy and Lady Davy travelled extensively and separately on the Continent, which has been interpreted as an indication of strains in the marriage.
It should be noted, however, that following Davy’s death in Geneva in 1829, Lady Davy never remarried and retained her title until her own death on 8 May 1855. It is striking that for someone as well known as Lady Davy and with a strong interest in images (she commissioned the President of the Royal Academy, Thomas Lawrence, to portray Davy complete with lamp - shown below), that no known portrait of her has been identified.
We have a wealth of fascinating letters both from and to Humphry Davy, including a few from Jane Davy. You can download some examples of these, containing both scans and transcripts, on the right hand side of the page. Two are from Humphry Davy to Jane (then still Mrs Apreece), the first a poem, the second a love letter around the time of their engagement. The final, rather poignant letter is the last Jane ever sent to Davy, telling him that she was leaving for Geneva, having just received news of his failing health.
If these spark your interest there are many more to discover on the Davy Letters project website.
Take a glimpse into the lives of the Davys. Browse the online database of transcribed letters by Humphry, Jane and John Davy on the Davy Letters Project website.
Learn more about the extraordinary life and work of Humphry Davy in our interactive timeline.
PhD student, Naomi Heffer, reflects on her experiences working as the Ri’s digital intern.
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