Mary Magdalene Defour was born on 8 May 1729, the first in the second generation of her French Protestant family to be born in London. Her grandparents, like tens of thousands of other Huguenots, had fled France during the 1680s after refusing to renounce their faith. The family of master-weavers settled in Spitalfields where a silk industry was being established.
Mary Magdalene was among the first baptised at the newly built Christ Church, as were five siblings who all failed to live beyond infancy. Doting on their sole child, Mary Magdalene’s parents encouraged a love of learning that resulted in her life-long fascination for the new discoveries the world had to offer.
Aged thirty, and having resisted several offers of marriage, Mary Magdalene fell in love and married James Crespigny, a wealthy silk merchant, nearly twenty years her senior, and a widower with several grandchildren. After their marriage she moved into his house in Spital Square. Crespigny adored his young wife, bestowing her with jewels, fine clothes and even commissioned her portrait. After his death in 1768, she was left with an annual income of £420 and the interest from £12,000. In her will of 1777, Mary Magdalene bequeathed diamond rings, buckles and bracelets to friends, but left her precious collection of shells to her favourite of James’s grandchildren.
Her final wish was to be interred alongside her beloved husband in the crypt at Christ Church, and there she remained for over two hundred years. In 1984 the bodies there were exhumed prior to major restoration work. Inside her lead-lined coffin, Mary Magdalene was found holding a scallop shell.
(2007) shells & earthquake putty: 300 x 400 x 300 mm