Martha Gunn Painting

From 7th October, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery will have an exciting new permanent exhibit – all the way from Brisbane, Australia.

Sea-bathing had become extremely popular by the end of the nineteenth century and two new professions emerged – ‘bathing’ (the immersion of men by men) and ‘dipping’ (the immersion of women by women). The sexes were required to bathe separately and, indeed, this restriction remained in place in Brighton until the 1930s. Martha Gunn was ‘queen’ of the dippers and friend of the Prince of Wales, as was her male equivalent, John ‘Smoaker’ Miles. She was born in 1726, retired in 1814 and died in 1815. Having spent most of her life working on Brighton beach, it’s no surprise that she set off for warmer climates; well, her painting that is.

An original oil painting of Martha Gunn has just been donated to the people of Brighton & Hove by Chris Gunn, a direct descendant. The painting left Brighton in 1949 when Chris’ family moved to Uganda where it hung in a mud house. It then travelled to South Africa, Australia, back to Africa and then, in 1982, to Australia again! A private bequest was made available to cover transport and import costs, and the painting is now back by the sea in Brighton, its natural home.

It is thought that the painting dates from the 1780s but unfortunately the identity of the artist is not known. It shows a rather plump Martha wearing a hat, several layers of clothing and a clearly-displayed wedding ring. Chris recalls the painting hanging in the family flat in Eastern Terrace during the Second World War. Since its return, a press cutting has been discovered which suggests that it was given to Chris’ great-grandfather.

Martha Gunn was buried in St. Nicholas Churchyard as was another interesting character with a bathing connection called Sake Dene Mahomed, the proprietor of Mahomed’s Baths. Other graves include those of Captain Nicholas Tettersell (rescuer of King Charles II) and Amon Wilds (the great Regency architect/builder). As I wrote several months back, this summer saw the rejuvenation of the Churchyard by Brighton & Hove City Council and local residents.

Martha’s painting will be hung on Monday 6th October and will be on display to the public the following day. Admission to the centrally-located Museum & Art Gallery is free so there is simply no excuse for not taking a dip.