Native American tribal art recalling adventures of a pioneering female traveller from the West Midlands set to sell at auction
Friday, 28 August, 2020
At the dawn of the 20th Century the American west was still ‘Wild’ and the prevailing view was that a woman’s place was ‘in the home’. However, it was also a period of great upheaval, with the fight for equality and women’s right to vote in full swing. The legacy of a trailblazing woman from the Black Country, who embarked on a solo adventure to the US West Coast in 1907, encapsulates the spirit of the age – and is set to come under the hammer at Cuttlestones’ Autumn Antiques Auction on Thursday 3rd September.
The collection of Esther Emily Sibley (born Morgan in Garndiffath, Monmouthshire, 1869) is of considerable interest in its own right, being made up of items collected from Arizona during her trip. Believed to be from the Navajo tribe, items include a large blanket, a pair of beaded and hide moccasins, a wonderful child’s papoose with doll, two hide and bead pouches, a long beadwork necklace, a pair of beadwork pendants, a beadwork strap band and two sets of ebonised beads. Adding to the interest of this enchanting collection, however, is the accompanying ephemera that help tell the story of Esther’s adventures in the US.
Having spent her childhood in Wales - first in the family home and later in service in Pontypool, at the age of 22 Esther moved to Brownhills to live with her mother, who had moved to the Midlands in around 1878 when she remarried following the death of Esther’s father. On 26th December 1891, Esther married Tom Gould Sibley, a shoemaker in Brownhills, and on the 13th August 1892 gave birth to her daughter, Martha Sarah Sibley. Martha continued to live with her Grandmother and Step-grandfather until she married Daniel Marklew in 1915, but there is no trace in the census of Esther or Tom for more than 10 years.
Esther, however, reappears in the 1901 census - employed as a domestic nurse by Edward H. James, a wine consultant, at his home ‘Hazelhurst’ in Sutton Coldfield. Edward’s wife Lucy died in 1903 followed by Edward in 1904, and it is believed that Esther may have inherited a little money which helped finance her later trip to the US.
It was on 24th September 1907 that Esther E Sibley boarded the SS Carmenia at Liverpool and sailed to America, her destination stated Arizona. During this trip she amassed the majority of her collection, whilst documenting her adventure through photographs and post cards. However, it seems the journey ignited Esther’s wanderlust rather than sating it, as seven years later - on 14th March 1914 – she sailed again on SS Carmenia from Liverpool to the US.
Esther’s collection was kept by her daughter Martha Marklew at her house in Great Charles Street, Brownhills, possibly following Esther’s death in 1930. Along with the tribal items were a photo/postcard album with assorted examples including Arizona and Texan landscapes; loose photographs of Esther and her female travel companion; a Native American woman and Esther outside the family shop; a Mexican 2 Peso note (No 8741203) and a copy of the SS Carmenia passenger list, all of which are included in the lot going under the hammer. It has been consigned to the sale by a family member.
The extraordinary story behind this lot makes it particularly interesting, as MD and Head Auctioneer at Cuttlestones, Ben Gamble, explains:
“Native American Tribal Art has a strong collectors’ market in its own right – and can fetch significant sums, mainly on the US market. Thanks to our online bidding platform we have global reach and regularly sell and ship items to the States, so are expecting significant interest from there. However, the lot’s provenance will also make it appeal both to those with an interest in the Black County and those who collect items associated with feminist history and the suffragette movement. Its association with a strong, independent woman who blazed her own path by travelling overseas unchaperoned at a time when it was virtually unheard of – especially for a working class woman – is inspirational, and it is a window into a fascinating period in our social history.”