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Merrifield, Mary Philadelphia

    Full Name: Merrifield, Mary Philadelphia

    Other Names:

    • Mary Philadelphia Watkins

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 15 April 1804

    Date Died: 05 January 1889

    Place Born: Brompton, Kent, UK

    Place Died: Stapleford, Wiltshire, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Renaissance


    Early amateur art historian and algolist, published important translations of art treatises. Mary Philadelphia Watkins was born to Sir Charles Watkins (d. 1808), a barrister, in London. In 1827, Mary Watkins married John Merrifield (1788/9-1877) with whom she had five children. After her husband qualified for his barrister exam, the family was moved to Brighton. During the 1840’s, she studied Venetian artistic restoration methods of Pietro Edwards (1744–1821) using old manuscripts, namely the Volpato Manuscript, and paintings with notable art historians, Luigi Lanzi and Sir Charles Eastlake. In 1844, Merrifield translated the recently discovered Cennino Cennini’s A Treatise on Painting. From this work, the Royal Commission on the Fine Arts commissioned pieces on artistic mediums and methods, granting her the ability to travel to France and Northern Italy to uncover and transcribe documents with her son, Charles Merrifield. This led to the publication of an 1846 collection of documents on the history of frescoes, titled The Art of Fresco Painting, a work still used today. In 1849, she published a two-volume collection of Original Treatises Dating from the XIIth to the XVIIIth Centuries on the Arts of Painting in Oil, Miniature, Mosaic, and on Glass; of Gilding, Dyeing and Preparation of Colours and Artificial Gems. This consisted of translations and reproductions of original documents. Merrifield’s works went through numerous editions and re-edits, including one by A. C. Sewter. In 1854, Merrifield published Dress As a Fine Art, a study of previous fashions through an art and science lens and an attempt to refute negative female stereotypes. In 1857, Merrifield received a £100 pension for her work in art and literature, works that have yet to be superseded today. During this time, she was made an honorary member of the Accademia di Belle Arti of Bologna and was elected a member of the Royal Society of Arts in London. Additionally, Merrifield became associated with a number of women’s movements during the 1860’s. From there, her interest shifted to the natural sciences, where she was one of the few women working in this field, publishing a work titled A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton. She became a leading expert in the UK in the field of algology (the study of algae), later having a species of marine algae named after her, rytiphlaea merrifieldiae. While in Brighton, Merrifield worked on a number of exhibits in the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (later relocated to the Booth Museum). Additionally, Merrifield learned both Danish and Swedish to keep up with the most recent work in botanical research. After her husband’s death in 1877, Merrifield moved into her daughter’s home in Cambridge. Until her death in 1889, she wrote many papers for different scientific journals like Nature and Journal of the Linnean Society, while residing in her daughter’s home in Stapleford, Wiltshire. Her plant collections are in the Natural History Museum of London and the Booth Museum of Natural History. 

    Merrifield’s research was also deeply influenced by Baconian empiricism, as much of her writing was based strictly on observations. Recent scholarship at the Key Archives of Brighton House has been working to transcribe all her correspondence to her husband (around 150 letters) during the 1840’s as she traveled the world to get a clearer picture of the work she had done.  In addition to Charles, a mathematician, another son, Frederick, was a world-renowned entomologist.

    Selected Bibliography

      The Art of Fresco Painting, as Practised by the Old Italian and Spanish Masters, with a Preliminary Inquiry into the Nature of the Colours used in Fresco Painting, with Observation and Notes. London: C. Gilpin, 1846;
    • Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to XVIIIth Centuries on the Arts of Painting. 2 vols. London: J. Murray, 1849.


    • “Merrifield, Mary”. in, Kirk, John Foster, ed. Allibone’s Critical Dictionary of English Literature: A Supplement. British and American authors. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1891;
    • Boase, Frederic. Modern English Biography: Containing Many Thousand Concise Memoirs of Persons who Have Died Since the Year 1850. Truro: Netherton & Worth, 1892-1921;
    • Roberts, Thomas Rowland. Eminent Welshmen: a Short Biographical Dictionary of Welshmen who Have Attained Distinction from the Earliest Times to the Present. Cardiff: Educational Publishing, 1908;
    • Eisler, Colin. “Lady Dilke (1840-1904): The Six Lives of an Art Historian.” in, Sherman, Claire Richter and Holcomb, Adele M., eds. Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts, 1820-1979. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981, p. 154;
    • Ismail, Lee. “Mary Merrifield.” Royal Pavilion 16 January 2015,;
    • Tribology. “Victorian Colour Researcher Mary Merrifield’s Epistolary Travel Diaries : Research and Conferences : Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research.” ANTIFER, 16 July 2017,;
    • “Merrifield, Charles Watkins (1827–1884), Mathematician.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 9 accessed Nov. 2017,;
    • Creese, Mary R. S., and Thomas M. Creese. Ladies in the Laboratory?: American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900: a Survey of Their Contributions to Research. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998;
    • Véliz Bomford, Zahira. “Mrs. Merrifield’s Quest: a New Methodology for Technical Art History.” Burlington Magazine (June 2017): 465-475;
    • Avery-Quash, Susana. “I Consider I Am Now to Collect Facts Not Form Theories’: Mary Merrifield and Empirical Research into Technical Art History during the 1840s”. review of La Donna che amava i colori. Mary P. Merrifield: Lettere dall’Italia, 1845-1846. Journal of Art Historiography (August 2018);
    • Mazzaferro, Giovanni. “Mary Philadelphia Merrifield: the Lady from Brighton Who Loved Colours.” Letteratura Artistica,

    Contributors: Kerry Rork


    Kerry Rork. "Merrifield, Mary Philadelphia." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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