Anne Langton, author and artist, was born at the Farfield estate in Lancashire on June 24, 1804. Her father Thomas Langton had made a considerable fortune at Thorley, Morrison and Co., in Riga, which he invested in his brother’s firm, Langton, Birley and Co., upon retirement to England a few years earlier. Thomas concentrated his energy on his children’s education, particularly in arts and literature, with the aid of a French priest.
Thomas believed that his children needed a broader education than he could provide and took them to Yverdon, Switzerland. While John was a student of Johann Henrich Pestalozzi, Anne and William were tutored privately by institute masters. Two years later the family continued their travels, hiring tutors in Belgium, Austria, Southern France and Germany. Anne spent two years studying art in Rome.
While overseas, Thomas Langton learned that Langton, Birley & Co. was struggling and hurried back to England in 1820. In 1826 he settled with his creditors to avoid bankruptcy, and was forced to sell his beloved estate, Blythe. The Langtons moved first to a rented home in Liverpool, before heading to the remote town of Bootle.
When her family’s fortunes declined sharply, Anne was in her late teens, an age when most girls would be pursuing marriage. Anne retreated with her parents into limited social isolation, as they lacked the resources for her to enter the desired circles. Instead, she spent much of her time visiting with relatives. On many of these visits Anne painted miniatures of her hosts. She was paid for some of these works, but her father would not allow her to solicit customers who were not already close friends or family. Anne’s semi-isolation continued for the remainder of her time in England. In addition, by the mid-1830s, her hearing became increasingly impaired and her prospects of marriage diminished.
By 1837, Thomas Langton’s numerous schemes to restore his fortune had failed, and he decided to try life in the New World. On May 24, 1837, Thomas, Anne, Ellen and Alice Currer, Anne’s aunt, sailed for New York City on the packet ship Independence. Anne found the journey on this ship trying and tedious. She thought the accommodations were dirty, uncomfortable and very inelegant. After they arrived in New York, the Langtons took a leisurely trip towards the Kawartha Lakes, arriving in mid-August. They stopped on route to shop on Broadway, toured many towns and visited with other gentry families.
When the Langtons emigrated they brought along considerable supplies and furnishings, such as beds, chairs, rugs, glassware, furs, and wine. They would continue to receive shipments of items from England, such as books, magazines, flower pots, preserves, tea and clothing. These items allowed them to live a very comfortable life relative to most of their neighbours at their new home, which they named Blythe.
Emigration allowed the Langtons to once again assert a social superiority. Anne maintained an interest in dressing appropriately for her class, though she saw the folly of these costumes in such an unpolished region. Nonetheless, she persisted in choosing finer apparel, to the amusement of many observers, and continued to enjoy formal dinners.
The gentry of the upper Kawartha Lakes were sufficiently isolated and few in number that differences in affluence that would have been very significant in England were less so, and they formed a close group of friends. Anne spent long hours preparing for guests. Gatherings were held very frequently, though at times sporadically. Occasionally they were entertained at different homes each night of the week. At these gatherings they often played games like cards, chess, and backgammon; and discussed politics, business and the old world.
Anne enjoyed other leisurely activities in the backwoods. In addition to the time that she spent painting and sketching, she frequently went exploring. She commonly went on walks, either independently or with family members. She took an interest in the countryside and its peoples, both European and native. She was taken by boat on numerous exploratory trips to destinations such as Balsam Lake.
Despite her frequent descriptions of activities that seem recreational to present day observers, Anne found that she was working very hard. She emphasized that there was “very little” time for leisure, once she met her obligations. Although she commented quite favourably on the parties she attended, she still perceived them as not wholly leisurely, as the preparations for these gatherings were onerous.
Also, there were numerous troubles that made it far from the comfortable life that they had once lived. One of the privations which most bothered Anne was the cold. In her letters to her brother William, who remained in England, she complained repeatedly about the terribly inhospitable conditions in Blythe. The home was built with unseasoned timber, and as a result was drafty once the timber shrunk. Despite consumption of firewood which could reach two large trees per day, it was quite common in the winter for their home to be well below the freezing point. Much of Anne’s time in the winter was spent putting wood on the fire, struggling to keep the house decently warm.
Servants assisted Anne’s labours. She found superintending the help very challenging and criticized most of her workers as “lazy”, “slovenly”, “thoroughly useless”, dependent on instruction, disinclined to serve, or otherwise unsuitable. The Langtons endured continual turnover in their help, which caused additional stress.
The Langtons could not secure enough workers to free them from domestic labour. Anne baked, preserved food, sewed, glazed windows, made candles, cleaned and even drove a sleigh. These activities were in stark contrast to her lifestyle in Europe. She did not seem to have minded this transformation. She mused to her brother about one of her servants seeing her while she worked, although she assured him that she would not lose her feminine grace.
Anne taught many of her neighbours’ children, with some assistance from her Aunt Alice. Anne ran a school in Blythe, meeting about two or three times a week, usually for an hour. She took great pride in her abilities, and compared her efforts very favourably with the school that the resident Anglican clergyman, Reverend Thomas Fidler, operated at Fenelon Falls. Many of her pupils came to school not knowing their letters. Anne often found her students challenging. Their parents, many of whom were illiterate, did not always believe that it was necessary for their children to attend every lesson, resulting in spotty attendance. Nonetheless, she sought to ensure their education, and in July 1841, decided to use a small inheritance to purchase the land to erect a school. Anne also made her books available as a circulating library, although she had few patrons.
Much of Anne Langton’s fame derives from the visual record she left of the settlement of the Kawartha Lakes. Her sketches and watercolours followed classical norms, such as the rigorous use of foreground, middle ground and background, although she would incorporate some less than beautiful objects in her works. Her sketches included views of Maryboro, Sturgeon Lake, Blythe, and a few that illustrated the development of the mill and bridge in Fenelon Falls.
Anne was not able to remain in the area that she chronicled. In 1846, an ague epidemic struck the settlers on Sturgeon Lake. Alice Currer and Ellen Langton died. It ended all work at Blythe and convinced the Langtons to retreat to Peterborough until the atmosphere cleared. Anne survived her bout with the illness. The following spring, John, Lydia and Anne sailed for England, where Anne remained until June 1850. John convinced her to help raise his family, which included seven children. Together they lived first in Peterborough, then Toronto, Quebec and Ottawa. For about six years, beginning with John’s retirement in 1878, they lived on Prince Arthur Avenue in Toronto in the building which now houses the Women’s Art Association of Canada headquarters. On May 10, 1893, Anne Langton died at her home at 123 Beverley Street in Toronto at age 88.