Despite spending most of his acting career portraying aristocratic villains, Charles Dance had a staunchly working class upbringing. “There’s nothing aristocratic about me at all,” explains the Game of Thrones star. “My mother was an under-house parlour maid from the age of 13 – you can’t get any lower than that that.”
Believing that his maternal ancestors were of humble, East London stock, Charles visits the Bishopsgate Institute to meet historian Fern Riddell. Going back through census returns and certificates, Fern reveals details of a scandalous love affair concerning his great great grandparents, who bore seven children despite being married to other people.
But it’s the surname of Charles’s great great grandmother – Emma Futvoye – that really piques the actor’s interest. It certainly doesn’t sound English, so where does it come from?
To seek the answer, Charles travels to Derbyshire, where he discovers that an entire archive exists devoted to the Futvoye dynasty. Archivist Jane Middleton Smith explains that the Futvoyes emigrated from Belgium at the end of the 18th century, and that Emma’s father – Charles François Futvoye – was a celebrated artist.
In Derbyshire, Charles sees a portrait of his 3x great grandmother Sarah Cook, to whom he bears a striking resemblance.
To investigate Charles François’s career, Charles visits the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which holds one of his original works. Historian Sally Woodcock reveals that Futvoye became a famous figure within the London art world, renowned for Chinoiserie – a mock-Oriental style of interior design that became fashionable during the early 19th century.
Indeed, Charles François became so well respected that he was hired to teach other artists his craft, and also ran a successful art supplies shop on Marylebone High Street. A trip to the premises – now a bookshop – leaves Charles feeling inspired: “I can see racks and racks of paintbrushes, inks paints and material for lacquer work… it’s fascinating.”
Crucially, Charles is able to trace the Futvoye line back another generation, discovering that Charles François’s father, Matthieu, was also an influential artist. In an old newspaper cutting, he finds out that his 4x great grandfather even taught the children of the British royal family.
“It’s miles away from the East End of London and the world I assumed my mother had come from,’ muses Charles. “I suspect she had absolutely no idea that her ancestors were living a totally different kind of life.”
Peter Donaldson reveals that Walter Dance served in the Second Boer War, enlisting in 1900.
Next, Charles decides to research his father, Walter Dance, who died when the actor was four years old.
The only picture of Walter that Charles owns is an old sepia photograph, in which he is wearing an army uniform – presumably from the First World War. However, military expert Peter Donaldson reveals that it actually dates from the Second Boer War, backing up the theory with documents showing that Walter did indeed serve during the South African campaign.
There are other shocking revelations from Walter’s service record: not only was he 26 years older than Charles had been led to believe, but he was also married with a daughter named Norah, who would have been Charles’s half sister.
Delving deeper, Charles learns that Walter and his wife Louie had a second child named Mary, who was accidentally killed when she was struck by a scaffolding pole near the family home.
“As a parent, I don’t think one would ever get over something like that,” says Charles, visibly moved by the discovery.
Charles’s journey comes to end in Pretoria, where he meets his great niece Noneen and her family
Some years after Mary’s death, Walter returned to South Africa with Louie so they could be close to their surviving daughter Norah, who had emigrated there with her husband. Although Norah died in 1993, Charles learns that her granddaughter, Noneen, still lives in Pretoria, and embarks on an emotional journey to meet her.
With help from Noneen, Charles is able to plug the gaps in his father’s story. After spending more than a decade in South Africa, Walter and Louie eventually moved back to Britain, where Louie sadly passed away. Shortly afterwards, Walter met Charles’s mother, Eleanor, and they began a relationship.
As Noneen introduces Charles to other members of his ‘new’ extended family, the actor expresses delight at finally being able to get an impression of the man that Walter Dance was.
“The understanding that I now have of my father and his life has, in some peculiar way, given me more of an understanding about myself… I wish I’d known him.”