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Adela Breton

A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico's Ruins

Mary F. McVicker

Publication Year: 2005

Mary McVicker writes of Adela Breton, her independence from the strictures of Victorian life, her career as a pioneering artist-archaeologist, and the enduring significance of her work.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vi

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1: The Bretons of Bath

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pp. 1-5

Getting to the ruins of Chich

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2: Early Years

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pp. 7-11

She was well educated with some facility for languages. As a well-brought-up young woman she acquired the expected accomplishments of drawing, singing, and piano playing, but these interests, particularly art, went beyond the drawing room level of proficiency....

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3: The Freedom of Travel

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pp. 13-17

The will was probated a month later, with Adela as sole executrix. William left her the house at Camden Crescent, along with its furnishings (“plate linen china glass books pictures prints articles of vertu [art objects and curios] provisions”). She also received a specific legacy of fifteen thousand pounds. Harry received ten...

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4: The Grand Tour of Mexico

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pp. 19-21

Adela’s Grand Tour was an amazing trip, even from today’s perspective. It lasted about eighteen months, from late 1893 well into 1895. Of course, in that age of extended travel—and slower modes of travel—people left home for months at a time. Banks or financial agents were prepared to...

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5: Painting on the Grand Tour

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pp. 23-27

Adela missed few of the major ruins in her travels, and her itineraries include many smaller ruins as well, including some that are well off the beaten path, literally. It was characteristic of Adela that she would make a two-and-a-half-day ride to Metlaltoyuca in the northern part of...

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6: Refining the Focus

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pp. 29-32

It is easy to characterize Adela as yet another of those intrepid women travelers that Victorian society produced. These women shared a number of characteristics. They tended to be unmarried and without family obligations. Their parents were either deceased or, if they needed looking...

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7: Teopancaxco: The Art of Recording the Ruins [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 33-44

At Teotihuac

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8: Pablo

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pp. 45-48

Some of the most curious and puzzling things in Adela’s archives are several photos showing Pablo in her house in Bath. Pablo is dressed in a suit, with a watch fob from which is suspended a small cross. In two of the photos he is in front of a fireplace topped by an elaborate overmantle with a...

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9: Sorting Out

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pp. 49-52

Adela was away from England during much of the late 1890s. She had traveled over most of central, south, and west Mexico, thoroughly covering the central area of Mexico in particular. She had spent little time in the north except passing through on the train, and she had not...

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10: Chich

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pp. 53-59

Chichén Itzá in the early 1900s was a far cry from the orderly grounds of today, with mowed plazas and paths and reconstructed pyramids. Then, narrow paths connected the overgrown plazas, and many of today’s structures were mounds of vegetation. Glimpses of architectural...

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11: Life Begins at Fifty

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pp. 61-64

Before arriving in Yucat

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12: The Extraordinary Undertaking: The Murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars

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pp. 65-69

Adela had several undertakings at Chich

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13: The Professionalization of Adela

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pp. 71-74

Adela rarely—if ever—passed up an opportunity to visit a site. En route to Chichén she stopped at what would be one of her favorite sites, Aké. Like many sites in Yucatán, the ruins were on the grounds of a hacienda where Adela might have stayed. As was often the case, the house itself was relatively small, much overshadowed by the main buildings where the henequen was produced. The...

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14: Don Alfredo

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pp. 75-82

Adela’s 1902 season was different from the previous two in several respects: she did more of her own work and less of Maudslay’s, and instead of staying in the Akab Dzib she lived in one of the Maya-style huts on the grounds of the hacienda. Most importantly, however, she met Alfred Tozzer. They would be allies and lifelong friends....

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15: The 1902 Congress of Americanists

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pp. 83-89

The Thirteenth International Congress of Americanists held in New York City was a noteworthy—and newsworthy—event. The New York Times welcomed the event with a lengthy editorial, noting that this was the first Americanist congress held in the United States. Before 1902 almost all the congresses were held...


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pp. 91-106

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16: Back to Work

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pp. 107-115

The 1902 International Congress of Americanists was a turning point for Adela in several ways. Her close copying of the art and architectural elements had given her significant expertise on the art, particularly since she had made careful observations and comparisons as she worked. Her work created great interest on several levels....

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17: Dredging the Cenote

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pp. 117-122

Thompson’s dredging of the Sacred Cenote was remarkable on a number of levels. The cenote had tempted earlier explorers who were drawn by accounts of treasure—not to mention virgins—being flung into the well. Verifying the accuracy of the virgin stories might have some academic or prurient interest, but verifying the tales of the...

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18: The Passing of Pablo

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pp. 123-126

The fact that Pablo’s death occurred so soon after the deaths in Harry’s family made it all the more shocking to Adela. She could not shake a sense of bad fate with the three deaths—Harry’s wife and daughter and now Pablo—happening within three years. And, as stricken as she was by...

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19: Drawing and Dredging

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pp. 127-130

Adela was in Mexico for almost three months, spending most of her time in and around Mexico City. She stayed with Zelia Nuttall at Casa Alvarado in Coyoacán, and she wrote Miss Mead a cheerful letter with news about both Zelia and Alice Fletcher. The health of both of them was a concern: “Some one ought...

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20: Adela at Work

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pp. 131-135

Adela did not return to Mexico until 1907, but in the intervening months she was anything but idle or homebound. She continued to work on her copies of the Chich

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21: Acanceh: The Palace of the Stuccoes

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pp. 137-140

Acanceh, which is about twenty-five kilometers southeast of M

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22: Study Abroad

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pp. 141-146

The first decade of the twentieth century was a very active time for travelers, archaeologists, scientists, and explorers making plans, expeditions, inquiries—not only in Mesoamerica but also in Egypt and the Near East. Adela was interested in all of it, and she intended to participate...

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23: A Scholar Not a Painter

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pp. 147-150

The 1910 meetings of the International Congress of Americas (ICA) were split between Buenos Aires and Mexico City. Buenos Aires originally had been designated as the site, but Mexico wanted a big commemoration for the one-hundredth anniversary of the “Grito!”—Father...

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24: Organizing an International Meeting [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 151-160

Adela had reason to be concerned with the meetings less than a year away. And although many of the arrangements, such as setting the date, had been made before she was invited to join the committee, it was becoming obvious that if the meetings were to materialize in any...

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25: The 1912 Congress of Americanists

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pp. 161-165

It was the first Congress of Americanists held in Great Britain. Maudslay was the president. Adela had several titles: Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Honorable Assistant Secretary and Treasurer, and she also acted as the General Secretary, a position that became...

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26: Aftermath

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pp. 167-172

The 1912 Congress of Americanists would mark a milestone. Forty years later, in 1952, when England next hosted a congress, J. Eric Thompson (no relation to Edward Thompson), the president of that congress, would reflect back with humor and more than a tinge of melancholy....

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27: The Manuscript “Collectors”

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pp. 173-182

Obtaining copies of codices, which were in Europe, was a problem. Scholars often found it difficult to obtain permission to view and copy them, and the manuscripts obviously did not travel. Many of the codices were large and intricate, and the process of copying was difficult and time consuming. And there was still no satisfactory...

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28: The Onset of the War

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pp. 183-189

Australia was “most interesting in every way, with all sorts of problems waiting to be solved” (ibid.), she wrote Hrdlicka, referring, presumably, to unspecified professional questions. She and Alesˇ Hrdlicka shared a common interest in physical anthropology and early man. She was...

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29: In Search of Health

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pp. 191-195

The precise state of Adela’s health, like the state of her finances, is hard to determine. She did suffer from recurring bouts of malaria, and she did have some form of arthritis. Damp weather aggravated her arthritis and affected her general feeling of well-being. Her tendency to get headaches probably wasn’t helped by the close...

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30: Home Again

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pp. 197-200

Adela’s homecoming was busy with both personal matters and professional business. She visited cousins, caught up with Harry, spent time in London (dealing with some Americanist business!), and sought out old friends, including the Maudslays. “I have an immense quantity of reading to get through,” she wrote Ella, “publications...

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31: Last Travels

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pp. 201-204

She managed to attend the meetings and participate a little. She was not, however, up to going on any of the excursions. Shortly after the meetings she came down with dysentery, and arrangements were made for her to go to a private hospital up in the hills close to Rio. She was comfortable, and she wrote that friends visited her...

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pp. 205-207

After Adela’s death knowledge of her work quickly disappeared. In the 1920s when the Carnegie Institution worked at Chichén, members of the expedition either did not know about or did not recognize Adela’s work of copying the murals and bas reliefs twenty-five years earlier....

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pp. 208-209

This book would not have been possible without the help of Sue Giles, Curator of Ethnography & Foreign Archaeology, Bristol’s City Museum & Art Gallery. She has answered so many requests and questions; her insights into Adela and the collection at Bristol have been invaluable; but beyond that, her friendship...

Appendix A: Locations of Paintings and Drawings

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pp. 210

Appendix B: Archival Materials

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pp. 211


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pp. 211-214


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pp. 215-216


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pp. 217-218

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826336804
E-ISBN-10: 0826336809
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826336781
Print-ISBN-10: 0826336787

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 20 halftones, 1 map
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Indians of Mexico -- Antiquities.
  • Indian architecture -- Mexico.
  • Women artists -- Mexico -- Biography.
  • Mexico -- Antiquities.
  • Breton, Adela, 1849-1923 -- Travel -- Mexico.
  • Indians in art.
  • Mexico -- In art.
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