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Ancient    Secrets

of  the 


An  Uppity Englishwoman Paints the Maya

Adela Breton in Maya land

Adela Breton and Pablo Solorio, from photo in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Adela Breton

There she is, one of a vanished breed of tough Englishwomen, dressed neatly in the full Edwardian regalia of the day, every hair in place, and spine straight as an arrow-  all this in the tropical heat and humidity of the Yucatan! She sits riding side saddle, every inch the total English gentlewoman, for she described "ungraceful" women who rode astride as “a sight to make gods and men weep.” This attitude of English propriety oddly enough did not prevent her from escaping the expected and stifling role of a Victorian "maiden lady". 

Don’t let her appearance fool you- this is Adela Breton, and she was as tough as an old boot. Tougher, actually, as old boots tend to fall apart under stress, and this woman NEVER permitted that to happen. Her male contemporaries variously described her as “ a nuisance”, “a Tartar”, “eccentric”, and “English to the bone”, yet none denied the value of her work. She began painting initially at the request of British archaeologist Alfred P Maudsley, who suggested that she might travel to the Mayan city of Chichen Itza  and make sketches to verify the accuracy of some of his drawings. This began may years of beautiful and meticulous watercolor renderings of Mayan buildings, murals and sculpture.

Mayan Glyphs

Miss Breton (somehow, she doesn’t appear to be the sort of woman that you would call “Addie”) led a quiet spinster's life in England, caring for her invalid parents. She broke out of her Victorian cocoon in 1900, traveling to Mexico in 1900, after the death of her father left her with the freedom and finances to do so, and proceeded to paint beautiful and painstakingly exact recordings of the frescoes and painted sculpture. Her work did not receive much notice until recent years. Today, Mayan scholars are very grateful that she painted so prolifically, as many of the once brilliant colors have faded, and some of the buildings are now deteriorated or gone entirely. Most of her collection of Mayan paintings now reside in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  

Adela Breton made 13 trips to Mexico, drew and painted the rapidly deteriorating Mayan ruins, wrote articles and gave papers, worked with the Mayan language, studied and copied old manuscripts, and in general managed to escape from what she called “the gilded cage of English civilization". Miss Breton also visited Central and South America, Egypt, Australia, Japan and Fiji,  all at a time when travel was lengthy and arduous. She died as she was returning home from a conference in Río de Janeiro in 1923.

Chichen Itza by Adela Breton in Maya land

Chichen Itza by Adela Breton, in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

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