Wolverhampton BTW

Maria Graham

Graham, Maria née Dundas, later Lady Callcott, 1785—1842

by Benjamin Colbert

Maria Graham, née Dundas, was born on 19 July 1785 at Papcastle, Cumberland, the eldest child of George Dundas (1756-1814), naval officer, and Ann Dundas, née Thompson (d. 1808). Her mother’s family were Virginian royalists who had fled to Liverpool during the American Revolution.

In her early years, her father was stationed in the Irish channel, and the family lived first on the Isle of Man and then Wallasey, on the Cheshire coast, where Maria Dundas remained until she was 8 years old. Her mother had shown signs of mental instability and, in 1794, her father had her mother committed to Billington Asylum in Lancashire (Sutcliffe). A year previously, 1793, Maria Dundas had been sent to a boarding school at Drayton, near Oxford, where, for the next ten years, she had little contact with her father, and it is unlikely she ever saw her mother again. Nevertheless, she excelled in her study of languages, literature, history, and drawing, among other subjects. After finishing school she spent 1804 to 1806 with her uncle, James Dundas (1752-1831), a writer to the signet in Edinburgh, but returned south after having contracted tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually lead to her death.

Her father was appointed naval commissioner of the dockyard at Bombay and Maria Dundas accompanied him to India, where they arrived on 26 May 1809. On board HMS Cornelia during their passage out, she met Lieutenant Thomas Graham, and in December of that year they married. For the next two years they travelled to the Mahratta Mountains, Trincomali, Madras, and Calcutta. Her account of these journeys was published upon her return to England in June 1811, as Journal of a Residence in India (1812), followed by Letters from India (1814).

From 1811 to 1815 Thomas Graham commanded a vessel and Maria Graham did not accompany him, instead residing at Blackheath with her brother. After her husband returned, Graham moved with him to Edinburgh and then Broughty Ferry, in Forfashire, from which place Maria Graham corresponded with John Murray on writers (Jane Austen, Lord Byron, S.T. Coleridge, Helen Maria Williams) and literary matters in general, evincing a growing friendship (she published a translation of Rocca’s Memoirs of the War of the French in Spain with Murray also in 1815).

In 1818, the Grahams sailed together to the Mediterranean, visiting Malta and Italy, where Maria Graham worked on her Three Months Passed in the Mountains East of Rome (1820) and Memoirs of the Life of Nicholas Poussin (1820) published on their return to England. In July 1821, they sailed for South America, where, on 9 April 1822, her husband died off of Cape Horn while they were en route from Rio de Janeiro to Valparaíso, Chile. Continuing in Chile and then Brazil, Maria Graham took up the post of governess for the princess Donna Maria, later Queen of Portugal, returning to England by December 1823 to collect books, globes, and other teaching materials for her new charge. By the time she returned to Rio de Janeiro in October 1824, the political landscape had changed and she felt compelled to resign. Her financial outlays were considerable, but two more travel books prepared for the press when she was still in England – Journal of a Residence in Chile (1824) and Journal of a Voyage to Brazil (1824) – perhaps helped compensate her for her losses.

Back in England by the end of 1825, Maria Graham took up a commission from her publisher, John Murray, to edit the journals and papers of the voyage of H.M.S. Blonde to the Sandwich Islands in 1824-25, the original complier, Richard Bloxam, having proven incommensurate to the task. The voyage’s purpose had been to repatriate the remains of the King and Queen of the Hawaiian Islands, who had died on a visit to England, but it had scientific value as well, and Maria Graham consulted authorities and conducted her own research while composing the narrative, Voyage of H.M.S. Blonde (1826, [i.e. 1827]), which contains substantial original material.

A renewed acquaintance with the landscape artist Augustus Wall Callcott (1779-1844; ODNB) (knighted, 1837) while she was writing this narrative led to their marriage on 20 February 1827, and from May 1827 to July 1828, the newlyweds toured the continent, passing seven months in Germany and revisiting Italy. On her return, the Callcotts visited Scotland, but established themselves at Kensington. From here, Maria Callcott conducted only shorter tours within England, for from this time her health began to fail – she burst a blood vessel in 1831 and was an invalid thereafter. For once, her travels did not produce a travelogue, although as always she kept a journal, which survives in manuscript. However, she did publish two art studies that drew on the tour, Description of the Chapel of the Annuziata dell’ Arena; or Giotto’s Chapel, in Padua (1835), accompanied by her husband’s drawings, and Essays towards a History of Painting (1836). During her final years, she distilled her extensive knowledge of history and science into works for children, such as her most popular work ever, Little Arthur’s History of England (1835), as well as The Little Bracken-Burners (1841) and The Scriptural Herbal (1842).

She died of tuberculosis on 21 October 1842 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.


Dodd, Charles R. ‘Maria, Lady Callcott. Born July,1785–Died October 21, 1842’. The Annual Biography: Being Lives of Eminent or Remarkable Persons, Who Have Died within the Year MDCCCXLII. London: Chapman and Hall, 1843. 285-95. Print.

Graham, Maria. Letters to John Murray [9 Dec. 1815-Nov. 1816]. MS. 40185. Natl. Lib. of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Graham, Maria. ‘Reminiscences’ [dictated between 1836 and 1842]. Maria, Lady Callcott: the Creator of ‘Little Arthur’. By Rosamund Brunel Gotch. London: John Murray, 1937. 7-89. Print.

Hayward, Jennifer, ed. Introduction. Journal of a Residence in Chile during the Year 1822: and, A Voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823. By Maria Graham. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. vii-xxiii. Print.

Mitchell, Rosemary. 'Callcott [née Dundas; other married name Graham], Maria, Lady Callcott (1785–1842), traveller and author'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 8 Oct. 2009. Oxford University Press. Web. 22 Nov. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/4399

Sutcliffe, Paul, contrib. ‘Dundas of Manour’. Compiled by Catherine Laura Dundas Dunbar. Web. 22 Nov. 2017.


Title Published
Journal of a Residence in India 1812
Letters on India 1814
Three Months Passed in the Mountains East of Rome 1820
Journal of a Residence in Chile 1824
Journal of a Voyage to Brazil 1824
Voyage of H.M.S. Blonde to the Sandwich Islands 1827 Editor

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