I have recently finished reading Umbertina by Helen Barolini (1979), a classic novel about migration and identity as explored through the lives of three generations of Italian-American women. In the 1870s the title character, a Calabrian goatherd, commissions an intricate woven bedspread for her wedding to Serafino Longobardi. With its traditional design of grapes, fig leaves and ivy, ‘the bedspread was the one thing she would bring to her new home [in New York] and she wanted it beautiful and strong, to last forever’ (p 44). Circumstances force Umbertina to sell her treasured matrimonial bedspread, and decades later it ends up on display at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with the label, ‘Origin: Calabria. Owner unknown’ (p 407). It’s a powerful reflection on the loss of cultural heritage and provenance, and the silence that characterises so many women’s stories and migrant collections.
In our own museum’s immigration collection are two intriguing watercolour albums that were created by traveller and amateur cartoonist, Mrs M E Cherry, in the 1930s. Together they contain more than 100 vibrant illustrations that capture Mrs Cherry’s voyage from London to Adelaide on Ormonde in 1931–1932, and her travels in the South Pacific and the south of France in 1932–1939.
Mrs Cherry depicts herself in many of the illustrations (usually with her trusty green handbag and a cigarette in hand), along with entertaining observations of her fellow passengers and vignettes of shipboard life, with its cycle of gala dinners, fancy dress parties, shore excursions and the occasional bout of seasickness.
The two Cherry albums were acquired 20 years ago, in 1997, from a gentleman who had found them in an antique shop in England. Since then they have been among the museum’s most fascinating objects, embodying their creator’s witty, self-deprecating sense of humour. Yet very little was known about the identity of Mrs M E Cherry (not even her full name) until 2015, when intern Katharine Cousins undertook a project to trace copyright owners for orphan works in our collection.
Katharine’s archival detective work, using shipping records and digitised newspapers, allowed her to identify Mrs M E Cherry as Mabel Edith Cherry (née Ayers) (1887–1972), the granddaughter of Sir Henry Ayers, eighth Premier of South Australia and the namesake of Ayers Rock (now known by its traditional name Uluru). Katharine wrote about her research process on the museum’s blog.
I have often wondered about the elusive Mrs Cherry, particularly after reading about Umbertina and her lost Calabrian bedspread, and how sad it was that her illustrations had ended up in an antique shop without any information about their maker or personal associations. So you can imagine my excitement when we were contacted recently by Mrs Cherry’s London-based nephew, Francis Cherry, who had stumbled upon Katharine’s blog and was able to provide further insight into the life and personality of his ‘Aunt Mabel.’
In 1908 Mabel married Francis’ uncle, Bill Cherry, a surgeon in the Royal Navy who was posted to Australia. The couple divorced in 1929 and did not have any children, which may explain why her albums found their way into an antique shop. Mrs Cherry lived in considerable style between Sydney and her luxury flat in London, until her death in 1972.
Francis says, ‘I remember her well, she was not particularly prepossessing (very short), but had the most beautiful low-pitched voice, and a mind as amusing as it was sharp. She and my mother were great buddies, and I used to be dragged along to make obeisance to Mabel. I remember she included me in one of her amazing cartoons, as a schoolboy in shorts, which I think was accompanied by a poem. She seems to have spent most of her time travelling between Australia and London and socialising – there was a lot of talk in her letters about the “South,” which I think was a hotel in Sydney, where the smart and moneyed set used to meet up.’
It has been wonderful to hear from somebody who knew Mrs Cherry personally, to breathe new life into her illustrations some 80 years after they were created. Francis also put us in touch with his cousin, Fiona, whose mother-in-law knew Mabel and noted that she was always considered ‘quite a character.’ I’m delighted to discover that Mrs Cherry sounds exactly as I imagined her to be!
– Kim Tao, Curator