Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen was born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1829 or 30, records vary as to the exact date. At an early age Rebecca started to spend more and more time with her Uncle and Aunt, Sir William Chatterton and Georgiana, Lady Chatterton at their home in Ireland, probably eventually going to live with them. Sir William and Georgiana seemed to have held great affection for Rebecca, with Sir William referring to her as ‘his pearl’.
Georgiana makes several references in her diary to Rebecca’s education; she makes an excellent translation from German and learns French from a governess while staying in Paris. She attended school in London, where she would have been taught a neat hand, a practical appreciation of drawing and literature and given a moral education.
In 1855 Sir William died, and four years later Georgiana married Edward Dering, whom she met at private concerts given by friends. The three travelled extensively in Europe over several years, sketching and drawing wherever they went.
In 1867 Rebecca, then aged 37, married Marmion Edward Ferrers of Baddesley Clinton, described, in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, as ‘a genuine type of the old English squire, open handed and kind hearted and generous to excess’. Georgiana and Edward Dering moved to Baddesley two years later to join the couple.
The four became known as ‘The Quartet’, and immersed themselves in the arts – writing, poetry, fine art and music, as well as the restoration and upkeep of the house and estate. In the evenings they read Tennyson together and played the “Round Game”, sometimes with guests, where each person in turn had to compose a poem from a list of words given by the other players.
At least 78 of Rebecca’s paintings are known to exist today. She filled sketchbooks drawing sketches and making preparatory drawings for larger pieces. She wrote to a dressmaker requesting a plain dress to paint in, so that she didn’t have to worry about getting it dirty. We know she was painting until she was at least 90, and that when she became confined to her room her maids not only brought her meals up to her, but also her paints and easel.
This idyllic life of the Quartet had only lasted for seven years when Georgiana died, followed eight years later by the death of Marmion. Georgiana had left money in trust for Rebecca, and Marmion left her all he owned, together with the tenancy of the house until she died. Rebecca and Edward remained at Baddesley, but it wasn’t socially acceptable for the two people to live alone unmarried, so a local priest came to stay for 13 months, until, still in mourning clothes, they were married.
Seven years later, in 1892, Edward died, aged 64. Rebecca lived at Baddesley for another 31 years. She seems to have come into her own in her widowhood, remaining involved in local affairs, painting prolifically, and maintaining a strong Catholic faith.
During the First World War she hosted visits of wounded soldiers, from all ranks, from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. It’s interesting that she welcomed soldiers of all ranks, as some other ladies only invited officers.
Rebecca’s Catholic faith was strong to the end, with a priest from Warwick coming to the hall every Wednesday afternoon to say Mass, and prayers said in the Chapel every evening at 9 o’clock.
An article in the Catholic publication The Universe contained the following: ‘She was one of those old time figures who to extreme old age preserved the charm of gracious courtesy and old-world dignity… grand dame to her fingertips… never seemed to grow old, always the same, always gracious, always cheerful, always busy at her painting, beautiful in her old age as a piece of Chelsea china… never known to refuse help to anyone in need’.