Monday 3 June 2024

A Tale of Three Sisters

 As often happens, I started looking at one person only to open a whole can of worms and end up looking at three unknown female artists.  I started by looking at this...

Watching the Birds (undated) Frances Elizabeth Grace

Okay, so this little moppet may not look like much, and I'm damned if I can see any birds, but it is a little gem that hangs on the walls of Southampton Art Gallery. It's only 27cm by 38cm, so not huge, but there is a certain feeling about it, a wistful, melancholic longing for something beautiful to appear in this little girl's life. She is looking for nature in a brick forest under a grey-yellow sky. I love it. Obviously, I wanted to know more about Miss Frances Elizabeth Grace...

There are not many of Frances' paintings in public hands in the UK, but two of them are with Brighton and Hove which is unsurprising as Frances was a Hove girl from cradle to grave. In fact, her family pretty much stayed put (with a couple of exceptions, one of them scandalous, hurrah) within a small area of Hove for all their lives. Frances was born in 1857, the second daughter to William (1824-1870) and Frances Elizabeth senior (1825-1891).  It is rather unusual for a mother and daughter to have exactly the same name, but this might explain why Frances junior was also known as Lily or Libby Grace within her career, which makes my job that bit more difficult, thanks very much. We'll come to that in a bit.

William was a linen draper, a living that afforded them servants and a very pleasant house on York Road in Hove. He married Frances Elizabeth senior in the summer of 1852, and along came eldest daughter Ellen Maud in 1854. Frances junior followed in 1857, then Harriette (or Harriet, spellings vary) in 1860, Anna Maria in 1861, William Francis in 1864, then finally Olive Blanche in 1870. In the 1861 census, the family had settled in York Road, with William listed as a linen draper's assistant and they had a servant, 18 year old Martha Gibb. 

Alice (undated) Harriette Edith Grace

Four days after the birth of the youngest child, Olive on 10th September 1870, William died suddenly and unpleasantly. He had been promoted at Hannington and Sons drapers, but the amount of work her was expected to do made him anxious and affected his health. When his employers spoke to him about changes to his working conditions, he regularly burst into tears. On 10th September, he walked off the chain pier, leaving behind his hat with a note pinned to it - 'Mr Samuel has again reduced my strength in the warehouse and at the same time expects me to do more business. I cannot bear it. Itis unkind and unreasonable. He has driven me mad - WILLIAM GRACE. May God help my poor wife and family, I cannot.' William drowned before anyone could reach him. He was 45 years old. I think it is interesting (and stokes class war in my soul) that his employers were completely exonerated at the inquest and William was just written off as mad and unable to function.

Quite how the family managed is another thing.  We have often heard of family tragedies in these posts but the double blow of the loss of William (and his wages) together with the public knowledge of his suicide, not to mention the blame he laid at his employers doors, much have made life very hard for Francis senior and her children. In the reports of the inquest, William's employers were completely basically praised for putting up with such a temperamental employee and all blame was put on William's wobbly mental health which obviously explained everything to the Victorian readers. I think it is remarkable that the family continued and flourished in the light of such a tragedy. 

By 1876, Frances junior (who I'll call Libby to make life easier and seems to be what the family called her), Harriette and Anna were all at Brighton School of Art and Science, receiving awards for their work. Anna received an award for her freehand drawing, and an excellent commendation for her model drawing. Prizes of the third grade awarded at South Kensington were given to Libby and Henriette and Libby was part of the selection for the National Competition, where works from all the art schools in the country select their best work. She went on to win the National Gold Medal in conjunction with a Princess of Wales scholarship for her work.  In 1879, in the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists, Harriette showed An Old Oak which was sold for £3 3s. She also started teaching at Brighton Art School, who announced her presence proudly as a graduate of the RA and a silver medallist. Interestingly, Harriette was one of the students at the RA who signed the famous petition to allow female students to draw from a semi-draped model.

Reverend William Thursby (1894) Harriette Edith Grace

Eleanor May Thursby (1894) Harriette Edith Grace

Anne Thursby, daughter of William Hanbury of Kelmarsh (1893) Frances Elizabeth Grace

A quick note on the pictures here - as I have said they are few and far between but the ones we have raise a lot of questions.  Take these three portraits by Harriette and Libby. I felt there was definitely something up with them in terms of style and so I thought I'd have a look into who the people were. They were all done around the same time and Anne Thursby (1742-1823) was actually the mother of William Thursby (1795-1884).  He was married to Eleanor (1803-1883) and as you can see, none of them were alive at the time of the portraits so I'd love to know why they were created.  William and his wife were local to Hove, so possibly he was important in the town.  All three paintings are now the property of West Northamptonshire Council, probably because that's where Kelmarsh is, but who commissioned them in the first place? So many questions...

In the 1881 census, all three girls are still listed at art school, with William junior and Olive still at school. Eldest sister Ellen married in 1874 to William Michael Quirke, a salesman from Limerick, and went on to have 11 children, all but one having impressively long lives.  1881 was also the year that Harriette and Libby first appeared at the Royal Academy, Harriette with a portrait of Mrs Sussex Lennox and Libby with Blanche. Although I started by looking at Libby, it very quickly became apparent that Harriette was probably the most successful of the three sisters (the Charlotte Bronte of the three, if you will).  Her portraits appeared more often than either of the two other sisters managed - in 1882, she showed Mrs Kingsmill of Sydmonton and in 1884 she showed Elsie, Daughter of J Watney Esq, which was mentioned in The Artist magazine. Anna joined both sisters in the 1886 Royal Academy - Anna showed Portrait of a Boy, Libby showed "Dark nor Light..." based on a poem by Keats, and Harriette had two pictures, "These Are Ancient Things" and Conal. There is a lot to unpack in these titles and sadly we do not have accompanying images. Obviously, I'd love to see Libby's piece that is based on Keats as I can shove her into the Pre-Raphaelites because I know people love it when I do that. I wonder if Conal is anything to do with their Irish brother-in-law, as Conal was an ancient bishop from Ireland. I'm guessing These Are Ancient Things is a biblical piece from Harriette as it seems to be framed as a quotation. It might also be to do with these images...

Still Life (c.1879) Harriette Grace

Mind you, have a look at this one by Libby...

Still Life (c.1877) Frances Elizabeth Grace

oh, and this one...

Still Life (undated, but I think we can have a guess) Frances Grace

It's a matching set! The frieze behind the first two is the same, so either it was a piece at the art school or in their home. It would be tempting to think it was the work of one artist but you can see differences in the handling of the material. I like Harriette's flower but Libby's peacock feather wins it for me. They also remind me of other works of art that were responses to things like the Parthenon Friezes, such as Julia Margaret Cameron's 1867 Version of Study after the Elgin Marbles or Alma-Tadema's 1868 Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthanon to his friends. In 1887, Anna was at the Royal Academy alone with a miniature portrait of Edith Constance Wood which appears to be her last piece at the RA. Harriette continued, showing two pieces in 1890, one portrait and A Study of Colour. She also had a piece in the 1891 exhibition from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled Grandmother Dear: " What would the world be to us if the children were no more?". The Grace sisters appeared at the 1888 Women's Art and Industry exhibition at the Brighton Pavilion, and also showed their work at the Ditchling exhibition of 1889, gaining a favourable mention in the Mid Sussex Times - 'The pictures of the Misses Grace all deserve attention, and are well-known to frequenters of Brighton exhibitions. Particular mention may be made of a "Portrait of a Man" by Miss A. M. Grace, "A Daughter of Erin" by Miss H. E. Grace, "In the Cloisters, Westminster Abbey" by Miss F. Grace and a capital picture entitled "At the Cross Roads, Ditchling."

The Southern Weekly News in 1890 recorded all three sisters' paintings in an exhibition once more, mentioned as the 'Misses Grace.' Libby showed a painting entitled The Model's Rest which was praised as a charming study of a very beautiful girl. Harriette's still life was both simple and distinguished and Anna was described as 'a lady full of promise as an artist.' By the 1891 census, Libby, Anna and Harriette were all listed as portrait artists and teachers.  William had become a mining engineer (I'm coming to him) and Olive was a mathematics teacher. Their household included two servants, one a trained invalid nurse, presumably for Frances senior, who died shortly after the census was taken. William began to travel with his work, going to South America, then to Australia. I am particularly grateful to the internet for a family painting of William by Libby in his South American garb...

William Grace (undated) Frances Elizabeth Grace

William went on to marry Ellen Browne, the daughter of a gentleman, at St Andrew's Church, Coolgardie in Western Australia, in March 1899. The couple returned to Hove and began their married life there, their son Francis arriving in 1900. By 1901, the family were in Australia once more and then William was offered a job in Mexico for a short period. The family returned to Hove, but William's absences were very frequent and often lasted more than a year at a time. Homesick, Ellen returned to Australia just William got a job in New Zealand.  In the resultant divorce paperwork (spoiler alert), William lists how often he was away and it is a great deal, with his holidays cut short by the demands of his work and Ellen seemed to move between England (her married home) and Australia (her birth home) without a lot of joy in her life. The last time he saw his wife as 1912, so he was rather surprised when Ellen gave birth to a second child in December 1914. As William explained in the paperwork, he had not been within 6000 miles of his wife in two years, so he was fairly certain the child was not his.  Just to make sure, I had a look at the birth certificate for Stephen Robert, born on 22nd December 1914 and his father is listed as Emil Fox, an oil broker's manager. William married again in 1916, but then died a few months later.  His widow was Grace Wood, who lived with the splendid married name Grace Grace. 

Lady Abinger (1883) Frances Elizabeth Grace

Back to the girls, Ellen was widowed in 1918, but managed to not lose any of her sons in the First World War, which is a bit of an achievement. She settled to a life of comfortable widowhood and taught music in her home which was only a few streets from her sisters. Olive never married, remained a maths teacher and again lived very close. Back to the Three Artists...

Libby and Harriette both appeared in the 1894 Royal Academy, Libby showing A Daughter of Erin and Harriette showing Fruit. I wonder if Libby's picture was the one mentioned in the Ditchling exhibition attributed to Harriette, or another one on the same subject? This was Libby's last RA. Harriette appeared twice more, in 1898 with Nasturtiums and 1900 with Still Life which could well be the picture above. In 1899 Harriette started a Sketching and Copying Club from the sister's home in York Road which was warmly recommended in Girls' Own Paper in both July and September of that year. Anna not only painted but seems to have started a women's orchestra in 1915 which practiced every Tuesday afternoon in their York Road home and other locations.  For the sake of the other sisters, I hope they were good...

This is where I run out of information on the Grace Sisters.  Harriette died of bronchial pneumonia in 1932, leaving her money to one of Ellen's children. She alone received an obituary in the West Sussex Gazette stating that she and her sisters were much respected and it was almost fashionable to be painted by them. Libby, Anna and Harriette had held a very successful exhibition in Hove public library just weeks before Harriette's death and the day after her death, one of her sketches of Ditchling appeared in the newspapers. Anna died on 1st June 1939, followed by Libby on 23rd September, all of them missing the 1939 census which was on 29th September 1939. Olive died the year after, followed by Ellen in 1943.

I think families of artists are fascinating.  Along with my obsession of husband and wife artistic duos, I'm very much interested in whole families of painters, and I'd love to see an exhibition that explores this subject. It's a shame that we have so little of the Grace sisters' work and what we have I don't think fully expresses how interesting they were.  In the meantime, I will go and watch that little girl watching the birds in Southampton.

Thursday 23 May 2024

Review: Spirituality, Feminism and Pre-Raphaelitism in Modern British Art and Culture

 You know me, I am all about 'forgotten' artists (I can't stand it when journalists say someone is 'forgotten', so possibly 'less fashionable' is better? That sounds a bit judge-y. 'Lesser known'? 'Obscure'? Anyway, you get the picture...) and so I get excited when books come out about them, which both inform and raise the profile of their art.  I also am up for a bit of Feminism and Pre-Raphaelitism, so Alice Eden's new book was right up my alley...

Okay, let's get the price out of the way, as it is £130 and not everyone gets a review copy as I was fortunate enough to receive.  We have seen such prices in a number of books of the last few years which people were desperate to get their hands on.  In such cases, the prices came down eventually and the library will get you a copy in the meantime. I'm guessing the sort of publisher that could make this book cheaper are few and far between these days as the little presses get swallowed up by the bigger groups who are less risk-taking and more about the profits above all else. It's a shame but here we are. Let's get on to the book itself and not my predictable rant about publishing...

They Come (undated) Thomas Cooper Gotch

So, Alice's book centres around three artists from the later Victorian period - Thomas Cooper Gotch, Robert Anning Bell and Frederick Cayley Robinson - and how their art can be seen to explore the subjects of female spirituality, modernity and the past. I think critics in Britain struggle with with nineteenth to twentieth century 'modern art' as, unlike other countries, we don't go from highly figurative paintings of Medieval women in towers to dipping a cat in paint and throwing it at a canvas, so writers have always struggled to see the subtleties of our art movement from the past to the future. I believe Sister Wendy described Pre-Raphaelitism as a cul-de-sac, which is charming. Also, art historians and critics are not a bright bunch on the whole and so wouldn't be able to tell a gradual nuance from their elbow. As Alice points out, the work of these three gorgeous artists existed in and responded to The Modern World (TM), often engaging in amazingly symbiotic ways - angels and aeroplanes, knights and sewing machines. I was immediately reminded of a beautiful Maxwell Armfield painting of a woman playing a harp, looking for all the world like Saint Cecilia, while post Second World War New York is seen behind her. These two things can exist together. Didn't Burne-Jones say something to the tune of 'the more I see of modern life, the more I paint angels?' - little did he know that the two aren't mutually exclusive...

Music in New York (1946) Maxwell Armfield

I blame the fin-de-siecle, quite honestly. It made everyone get all spiritual and that combined with the growing awareness of women's rights and votes. There is an argument (I have often made it here on this blog) that a lot of male artists (and much of society) did not respond positively to the growing volume of female voices, and there is a layer of threat in the feminine occult and female spirituality, but there is also reason to see its sudden existence. In this book, you can see the case made for the evolution of Pre-Raphaelitism from Truth to Nature to Trust to Supernatural as the Victorian obsession with ghosts became the Edwardian love of Modernism and magic.

The Toy Windmill (1931) Robert Anning Bell

Let me just get my 'Pre-Raphaelite' rant out of the way too.  Goodness, I am filled with the rants today, but honestly, it's been that sort of month. I am aware that the term Pre-Raphaelite is both over- and under-used. In some quarters, it is seen as sacred - if it isn't the work of the original Magnificent Seven, then you don't get to call it Pre-Raphaelite.  Others apply it to any woman with red hair. I think we can find a middle ground - I would rather the term was over-used because it keeps it in the modern consciousness, however when it comes to describing art what we need to agree on is that the work of the Magnificent Seven is Pre-Raphaelite and then possibly everything else is Pre-Raphaelitism. Surely that will keep the purests happy? That way we only need to argue about what constitutes Pre-Raphaelitism, which includes the Met Galathe Met Gala apparently. Sorry, back to the review...

The Call of the Sea (1900) Frederick Cayley Robinson

Glasgow plays a big connecting role in all this - the Celtic Revival held a spiritual and mystical heart, unsurprising, as artists such as John Duncan were connected to the theosophical movement at the time, and Belgian Symbolist artist Jean Delville was Head of Painting at the School of Art from 1900. It is a relief and a definite refocusing to admit that maybe, just maybe, it's not all about London all the damn time. Stuff happened elsewhere that is actually important to how we could see British Art and its evolution. The moment we step from the Capital it is easy to see that Britain didn't just drop off the artistic horizon. Marvellous.

What feels very relevant to our modern life are Victorian/Edwardian notions of the erosion of masculinity. Back in 2012, I wrote a piece about how Burne-Jones turned everyone gay in the 1880s and it is very much seen as a response to not only the more mystical style of art, but also predictably the rise in the power of women. I find it all really modern; you only need to venture onto the wrong side of social media to find out the horrors of mewing, man or bear and all that to know that we are not alright. What is oddly comforting is that over a century ago they were having the same conversations, albeit with a corset on and less bears. If ever you want to argue that British Victorian and Edwardian art is modern art, reflect on how our views, issues and struggles are so very alike. Then feel a bit sad.

Childhood (1926) Frederick Cayley Robinson

This is a great book, not least because I feel really ranty and argumentative so obviously it is thought-provoking. Alice's three chaps are artists who massively deserve our attention, not least because I think Gotch got dismissed in the whole Lewis-Carroll-is-a-kiddie-botherer of the early 1970s, which I find infuriating, but again, art historians are the worst. I do have a concern (and I in no way want to come off like 'I'm not like other girls' here) that in our rush to find lost artists, we are concentrating on traditionally marginalised one, which is brill and correct, but we are not dragging along other excellent artists who had the misfortune to have been born white and male but missed the first bus of rediscovery. There is room for all, which is surely the point, and so we would do better to start talking about the whole history of art, which surprisingly includes men. Arguably, by leaving out the patriarchy we miss the context in which everyone was working. Context is everything.

This is a richly illustrated book with images that are possibly new to everyone, or at least not so familiar. It's an academic but accessible read and will get you thinking and talking. It is new ways of looking at familiar ground and bringing the way we see our home-grown art into the twenty-first century. It's about time.

A Pageant of Childhood (1899) Thomas Cooper Gotch

Spirituality, Feminism and Pre-Raphaelitism in Modern British Art and Culture is available from Routledge and all good book shops now.

Sunday 21 April 2024

Kate Greenaway: The Disco Years

 If I was going to have a tattoo of an important date, I might choose the day I met Mr Walker, the day my daughter was born or May 1966.  Now, for someone not born until 1973, that might seem a bit of an odd one, but that was when the V&A held their extremely important exhibition on Aubrey Beardsley. Yes, yes, people had been talking about Victorian art before then and many of my favourite books on Pre-Raphaelitism predate this point but somehow after this date, it became legitimate to not only like the Art Nouveau/Pre-Raphaelite/Victorian of it all but also openly flaunt your proclivities in public without fear of recriminations. After this date, Victorian-ness hit the mainstream, reflected in 1970's Carry On Loving, which had an Art Nouveau poster on the wall of the hip and swinging flat.  All of this rambling is by way of explaining how I ended up with a haunted Victorian child called Benjamin...


We'll come to my melancholic boy-child in a moment, but let me take you back in time...


Catherine 'Kate' Greenaway (1846-1901) is probably one of those book illustrators that has exceeded their era and remained in the public consciousness.  Rather like Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway and her winsome Regency children in their rational dress sum up a certain side of Victorian England which isn't exactly mainstream but also very much how we now visualise the nineteenth century.  Daughter of an engraver, Kate learned her skills at the schools of South Kensington, Heatherleys and the Slade, before launching her career with greetings cards and book illustrations in 1871, and her 1879 book Under the Window cemented her reputation as an artist of the idyllic and aspirational Victorian artistic childhood.  She died of breast cancer in 1901, aged only 55.


Now, you know me, I have a bit of a passion for post-mortem reputation and how that changes. I especially love learning about how the Victorians were seen in the increasingly modern world.  This especially resonates with me when I find out how much of this I consumed without realising.  Let's begin in the 1920s...

from North Eastern Daily Gazette, 1909

When an artist dies, there usually is a bit of a kerfuffle over how much they were loved and will be missed etc etc. In 1902, around two months after Kate's death,  there was a retrospective at the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street, where the newspapers talked about her merits and how Ruskin had been a supporter and champion of her talent. After that, Kate Greenaway became synonymous with clothing, especially that of children and her career as a style icon really came into its own.  I think the fact that her books remained in print possibly fuelled this trend for kid's clothes but maybe it was a self-pollinating plant with the children's clothes resulting from the books, then the books being popular because of the fashion.  

In 1921, Mrs Olive Greenaway, playwright and author No Winkles (you heard me), not to mention 'a relative of the famous artist' and in no way riding on her coat-tails, wrote the play Spirit of Kate Greenaway which, considering the picture above, involved lots of bendy girls dancing in high-waisted dresses. The London Daily News reported that Olive wanted to elevate her beloved relative to more than merely 'poke-bonnet' fame. It has to be said that she did just that and made Kate famous for not just bonnets but also the most fashionable wedding attire that the 1920s could offer.  Going through newspaper reports of the 1920s, there are numerous society weddings where the little poppets acting as flower girls and page boys had the dubious pleasure of being in velvet or white satin (imagine how long that remained white...)  The Pall Mall Gazette of June 1923 reported that Peggy Marter married the astonishingly-named Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming and had a little boy and girl as attendants, each dressed in Kate Greenaway suits of green and white.  The Daily Mirror reported in April 1926 that Joyce Philipson and Terence McKenna had three little Kate Greenaway bridesmaids following her.

from Marigold Garden (c.1892)

Celia Weigall and Captain Humphrey Noble had six bridesmaids in blue satin with wreaths of forget-me-knots and a page in blue satin, all little Greenaway moppets in January of the same year.  Closing the decade, Elizabeth Howell married Frederick Pill, accompanied by a bevy of bridesmaid and pages in lemon satin Kate Greenaway style outfits.    Finally, and I have to add this one because the bride was called Betty Shove (awesome) and Miss Shove married James Rose with bridesmaids dressed in primrose satin and matching bonnets.  This was backed up by the reprint of what was referred to as the 'Kate Greenaway Birthday Book' taken from her Almanacks, mid-decade.

August from the 1889 Almanack

If anything, the 1930s were even more densely packed with Greenaway-inspired events.  Possibly the most touching was a party at Acton hospital at Christmas 1938.  The tables were decorated with Greenaway themed dolls and all the patients in the women's wards wore bonnets inspired by her art.  I see that newspapers even offered paper patterns to make fancy dress costumes that meant a child could dress as 'Kate Greenaway' (No.23 from the West Sussex Gazette paper pattern dept in 1932.) It's that curious? I can't think of another artist where you'd say that, for example you wouldn't sell a 'Bubbles' costume and call it a 'John Everett Millias' costume because although you might call it a 'Millais' costume, by calling it by the artist's full name, it implies that that is what they looked like.  I wonder if by 1939, people assumed Kate Greenaway was a woman who wandered about in an Empire-line dress and poke bonnet.


Okay, this is all a long-winded way of getting to the 1970s, but hang in there.  Kate's dominance was seemingly cut short by the Second World War, cutting newspaper mentions from almost 4000 in the 1930s to 580 in the 1940s (yes, I know, other stuff was going on that decade) and not even her centenary in 1946 really made much of an impact. In 1955, the Kate Greenaway Medal for children's illustration was established, the first winner being Edward Ardizzone in 1957 for Tim All Alone. I'm a bit disgruntled that the medal's name was changed in 2022 to the Carnegie Medal (I think rolling together two different medals but keeping the name that wasn't a book illustrator, which makes perfect sense apparently). So, all was quiet with the odd reissue, but the 1960s changed everyone's attitude to the Victorians.  It seems to me, as someone not born yet, that there was a polarisation of opinion (which arguably still exists) as to the worth of all things Victorian.  Into the 1970s and in the summer of 1973, Penshurst in kent held an exhibition of Kate Greenaway books, cards, original drawings and the almanacks which proved to be very popular and more to the point, commercial...

'Storybook Bride' from Sandwell Evening Mail, 1979

It was like the 1920s all over again, and weddings were again filled with Victorian bridesmaids; In 1975, Country Life began to say 'Kate Greenaway' in the same breath of 'Laura Ashley' and that country idyll took on a new aspect. Laura Ashley, who had been printing Victorian scarves since the 1950s and selling clothes since the 1960s finally became mainstream in the 1970s.  Edith Holden's Country Diary hit the shelves in 1977. Arguably, Kate Greenaway's style is not the same, far simpler, but in rediscovery I guess we don't concentrate on the fine details, just that Kate was a Victorian and her pastoral perfection fitted in with the aesthetic.

My Aries plate...

Detail of the dancing girls

Reverse of plate

Within this came some interesting off-shoots.  In 1979, Royal Doulton produced a set of 12 plates decorated with Kate Greenaway illustrations.  These were promoted in the Staffordshire Newsletter for Mothering Sunday - 'If Mum likes to collect small pieces of china, Royal Doulton of Stoke have some lovely pieces. You could choose a Kate Greenaway plate with Mum's own zodiac sign.' These have embossed dancing figures around the outside and on the reverse were notable events that occurred within that zodiac month and are based on her famous 1884 Almanack. 

These followed the 1976 range of figures, sculpted by Peggy Davies, which continued to be produced until the late 1980s.  I find these to be more traditionally Victorian in colour if not style, rather than the pastel, white and green Regency children that I associate with the Greenaway look. They also produced Peggy Nibet's range of Kate Greenaway dolls followed in 1981 (see this website for a full range)...

Of course I picked 'The Muff' as my illustration

These were limited addition and all very much aimed at the collector, but by accident I found a range of Kate Greenaway merchandise that was actually aimed at children.  That is how I acquired my haunted Victorian son.  Say hello to Benjamin...

Benjamin in box

The side of the box

Yes, I am aware that one night I'll wake up and his little chubby face will be looking down at me, but I feel fairly certain he is not actively plotting against me. The reason Benjamin and I met was that I collect 1970s and 80s Pedigree Sindy dolls.  In one of my endless eBay searches for 'Pedigree doll' up came this moppet and his equally haunted siblings, Charles, Meg, Nell and Constance.  Standing 12" (apart from Constance who is a big 15" girl), they fed into a nostalgic doll trend which can be seen in ranges such as Holly Hobbie who had her 1976 Knickerbocker doll.  Many, many thanks to the wonderful Annie of Our Sindy Museum for further information - Kate Greenaway was a keen doll collector herself, so it seems natural that there would end up being dolls of her figures. The dolls had twisting waists and the normal five-points of articulation, although I noticed Benjamin has a ball-joint neck like Sindy which means he can tilt his head.  He, Constance and Meg are dressed in brown cord, whereas Charles and Nell wore blue and green.  Most intriguingly, the boxes were beautifully illustrated with Kate Greenaway illustrations and the doll stands within a scene, possibly hinting that, despite being what we would call 'playline' now, there was a collect and display aspect to the dolls too.  When the dolls launched in 1977, the Liverpool Daily Post were intrigued: 'an interesting face of the doll scene is the revival of period dolls. The biggest venture of this kind is the Kate Greenaway range by Pedigree, but other firms are also putting their money on map [sic]caps and flounced bloomers.' They cost around £4, the same as a Ballerina Sindy doll and was heavy pushed as a Christmas present in 1978.

These were not a long-lived range, and despite being perfect age for these in 1978, I have absolutely no recollection of them, so they did not reach my corner of Wiltshire. By1979, the Big Store toyshop in Nottingham was advertising them for half price and there remains only the five which can be purchased on eBay should you need a melancholic poppet in your life too. I don't think I'll be buying any more of them, as although I don't want Benjamin to be lonely, I don't want to be outnumbered by them.

from the Illustrated London News, 1980

The 1980s brought more china knick-knacks, but the mention of her name was invariably followed by the word 'medal' and she slipped back from the public consciousness.  Now, if you asked someone what Kate Greenaway meant to them, I'm guessing they would talk about her books rather than a wedding they had been to or the china figures on their mantel piece.  So, is this a good thing? Shouldn't we celebrate an artist becoming larger than their art?  For a time during those electric-boogaloo years of the 1970s, kids knew who Kate Greenaway was and had examples of her art in their rooms.  Despite not having the dolls, I had the 1970s reissue of Under the Window by Picture Lions so Kate was in my consciousness.  I am happy to die on the hill that it is okay to pander to kids in the name of art - when I helped the National Trust produce a children's wombat trail around the Red House, I wanted to make kids feel happy about art. Did that teach the kiddiwinks about the finer points of William Morris's socialism? No, but maybe in time they will feel confident enough to find that out because they will know Morris and feel that he and his art and everything else is for them. Likewise, not every child who owned Benjamin, Nell, Meg, Charles or Constance became an art historian, but for that time they knew and treasured a byproduct of the intellectual property of a female artist who had been dead almost 80 years.

Kate Greenaway in her Studio, 1885

 Of course I'm calling for a retrospective.  And so is my son, Benjamin.

Sunday 7 April 2024

The Very Uneventful Life of Emma Irlam Briggs

Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of researching and writing about Emma Irlam Briggs for an upcoming auction at Bonhams.  I knew her a little due to this image...

The Violinist (1893)

This cracker is in the collection of the Russell-Cotes.  When purchasing it in 1937, Norman Silvester (the curator at the Russell-Cotes) asked Briggs for a brief summary of her life (thanks Norman, all art historians are grateful for the effort). Despite popularity and success with her portraits, her religious images and her more Pre-Raphaelite works, Briggs apologised that her life had always been ‘very uneventful’.  This, as it turns out, is not exactly true...

The Barred Door

Emma Irlam Briggs was born in Northfleet, Kent on 31st January 1867, the fourth of six sisters. The eldest girl, Annie (1860-1866) died the year before Emma was born, but Ada Elizabeth (1861-1951) and Mary Jane (1863-1944), then Ebba Monica (1871-1901) and finally Agnes Everildis (1872-1940) completed the family. The Briggs family seem to have moved around, possibly due to her father James working as a priest and obviously going where the Lord required.  James was described as never being of stout heath, and the family had not settled long in Poole before he died of pneumonia aged only 44. He left his wife and his five daughters to make their own way, which can't have been easy on the remains of a vicar's wage.

 

Young Girl in Blue (no date)

Eldest sister Ada became Poole’s first female alderman in 1919 and wrote novels.  Agnes was a violinist, see the first picture, and a miniaturist. When Emma caught measles as a child, she lost almost all her hearing, relying on an ear trumpet.  Like her sister Agnes, she turned to art, attending the Bournemouth Municipal Art School to begin with, then studying in conjunction with South Kensington, where she won several prizes.  She then completed a course at Wimbledon Art College, and was offered a scholarship but was unable to accept it.  She instead did a year at St John’s Wood Art School, followed by the Royal Academy schools where she was awarded the Landseer Scholarship.  Again, she declined the scholarship and instead went to Paris, before returning to Hampshire to begin her career...

Interestingly, Emma's reputation in the twentieth century was that of a religious artist.  Her best loved and most reproduced paintings were In Joseph’s Workshop or The Workshop at Nazareth (1904)...

The Workshop at Nazarath (1904)

...and St Joseph’s Dream (1906), both still in private hands, although the prints were very widespread.  She went on to produce 10 paintings, including The Divine Son for the interior of St Paul’s Church, Cheltenham, but I think it is quite obvious that we are very far from Millais or Holman Hunt in term of realism. However, the beginning of Emma’s career was marked with Pre-Raphaelite subjects and portraits.  Her debut exhibition was in Bournemouth in 1886 and she remained an active member of the local Bournemouth Art Society alongside other Hampshire artists such as equestrian artist Lucy Kemp Welch (1869-1958). In early reports of her work she went by ‘Irlam Briggs’ without any hint of gender, which was corrected over time to ‘Miss Irlam Briggs’.  Her debut at the Royal Academy in 1892 was with a pair of portraits of Petronell and Dorothy Barrett, followed the year after by a portrait of her sister Agnes, known also as The Violinist (1893) as you can see above. I think there is a certain sad irony that Emma portrayed her sister producing music she couldn't hear because of the measles. Mind you, as I said in this post, images of music are a bit odd, if you think about it. I also wonder if this one is also Agnes...

Woman with Violin (c.1920s)

She did a later portrait of Ada, so this might be around the same time.

The Lost Bower (1894)


 1894 saw The Lost Bower, which was accompanied by a couplet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning from the poem of the same name, which marked a start of a series of literary inspired female figures drawn from Shakespeare and poetry, including Juliet (1896), 

Juliet (1896)

and The Blessed Damozel (1900)...

As you can see, Emma got some illustration in Royal Academy media coverage, but as these pictures are still in private hands, we're a little short on colour images. Elaine and The May Queen (1902), followed which is why I am designating her 'Pre-Raphaelite Adjacent', a new term I shall be using an irritating amount to discuss artists who followed the Pre-Raphaelites in subject matter or style but maybe not all of the time.  Honestly, if any publishers wish to contact me on a weighty monograph on the subject, I'd be delighted to expand my extremely dubious stance. Emma's Pre-Raphaelite moments were interspersed with female portraits (which probably actually paid the bills) and a rare historical piece, again a female figure, a girl resting against a large open Bible, Elizabeth, second daughter of Charles I, died Sept 8, 1650 (1901).

Elizabeth, Second Daughter of Charles I, Died Sept 8 1650 (1901)

Definitely one from the 'whimsical moppet asleep' genre of Victorian art (I saw this image online with the title 'A Book At Bedtime'), but poor old Princess Elizabeth had a rather sad life, as she was only 14 when she died of pneumonia at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, the year after her Dad had his head lopped off. Popular accounts were that she was found dead, her head resting on the Bible that her Father had given her on their last meeting, which is fairly heart-rending.  The Victorians rediscovered her as a pious heroine, mainly due to Victoria moving to the Wight and having a statue of the doomed princess carved by Marochetti...

Detail of Marochetti's Princess Elizabeth (1856)

As a side note, the face of the sculpted Princess is apparently Julia Jackson (Julia Margaret Cameron's Niece and Virginia Woolf's Mum). Anyway, back to Emma - With her propensity for female figures and portraiture, it is unsurprising that her sisters were subjects of her art throughout her career. Agnes’s portrait was relatively early, with Ada’s official portrait as Poole’s first woman councillor presented to the corporation in 1927. 

Ada E Briggs (1927)

She also painted her sister Mary, as Mrs Frederick John Butts, which might have been painted for her marriage in 1889 or possibly after the birth of her daughter Mary Francis Butts (1890-1937), the modernist writer and acolyte of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)... 

Mary, Mrs Frederick John Butts (c.1899)

Mary Briggs’s marriage to Butts resulted in her living in Salterns, an 18
th century house overlooking Poole harbour, with a collection of William Blake watercolours inherited from Frederick Butts' grandfather who was a friend of Blake.  Once widowed, Mary sold the watercolours, for which her daughter never forgave her. Sadly, we don't seem to have any images of Monica, the second youngest daughter.  She was interested in botany and pursued it as a 'lady enthusiast' collecting specimens from the local area in Poole.  In January 1901, she had left her house at 11.30am, planning to return for lunch after fishing up fungi from a pond on the Sandecotes estate nearby. When she didn't return, her sisters felt concerned, and rightly so as Monica was found drowned in the pond shortly afterwards.  Tragically, she had been discovered by labourer Frank Tilley, but he had not wanted to go into the pond himself, so went to find help from Arthur Vivien, who had waded in and fished the poor girl out.  It was discussed at the inquest whether or not Monica had been melancholic or of a changeable mood, but by all accounts she was a cheerful soul who had just had a tragic accident, much like Edith Holden (of Edwardian Lady Diary fame).  Interestingly, the judge at the inquest was perturbed that Tilley had not attempted to rescue Monica, and had he done so she might not have died.  Also interesting is that Ada made the newspaper print a retraction of a previous report that Monica had taken her hat and gloves off and placed them by the bank, hinting she had drowned herself in a fit of womanly despair. Well done, Ada.

Wounded Soldier (no date, c.1900)

One of the pictures I wrote about for Bonhams was an interesting portrait of a wounded soldier.  Emma really didn't do men beyond Jesus, so this painting/portrait was an oddity in her output.  I wondered if it had been done around the time of the Boer War or the rather disastrous colonial wars as a sort of protest piece, or even a pro-soldier piece, giving the message of 'beaten but not defeated'.  As we have talked about before, the Victorians like a noble defeat painting (like this one of General Gordon) and this rather handsome chap with that exceptionally good moustache could fall into that category. He remains a bit of a mystery however...

Emma remained in Poole for the rest of her life, supporting local charities such as the orphan’s home and both the Bournemouth and Poole Art Societies, the latter for which she served as honorary assistant secretary. Prints of her religious images remained popular Sunday School prizes and she continued to exhibit locally until the Second World War. When the Russell-Cotes bought her portrait of Agnes, Emma was delighted, although as modest as always in her correspondence with the museum.  She died at home in Dorset in 1951, a few months after Ada, the last of the Briggs girls. She even outlived Mary's children who both predeceased their mother who died in 1944. 

I know I always call for a rediscovery of lost artists such as Emma, but I think there is definitely an exhibition in Pre-Raphaelite Adjacent artists, and it remains fascinating (as I repeatedly say, my apologies) just how far these artists, especially female artists, pulled the subjects so dear to Pre-Raphaelitism out into the world.  Poole have the portrait of Ada and the Russell-Cotes still regularly get Agnes out, but I would love to hear from anyone who knows the whereabouts of any of her other Pre-Raphaelite subjects.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

Book Review: Julia Margaret Cameron - A Poetry of Photography

 Happy New Year everyone and I trust you have all recovered from your Christmas jollities and the suchlike.  I was very fortunate to receive a lovely Christmas present from Father Christmas (and the lovely people at Bodleian Library Publishing, merci beaucoup) of a brand spanking new volume on Julia Margaret Cameron's photography.  Now, as you know, I love a bit of JMC and have gone as far as to write a book about her, and so am always interested to see what everyone else is writing, plus any book on Julia is going to be a joy to look at, so I was very excited when the whacking great big parcel arrived...


Oxford holds a sizable collection of Julia's photographs - over 100 of which appear in this book, which has been written in conjunction with that collection from the Bodleian and the Ashmolean, together with other works of art that place her work in context.  This book by Nichole J Fazio explores how Julia blurred the line between photography and poetry in her pursuit of the visual poetic, her response to the verses of others and her creation of a visual language of her own.

The Kiss of Peace (1869)

Julia herself wrote and translated poetry and had a great love of the works of others.  Her devotion to Tennyson as both a friend and an artist created some of her best works, but it is rare that we look at her visual work as poetry.  Arguably, her poetry is better without words, or certainly has a timeless quality that an awful lot of  poetry can lack. In her visual poems, Julia was experimental, not always successful, unconcerned with the rules of visual art and sometimes spectacularly iconic in ways that still resonate with us today and seem inexplicably modern. Such is the pleasure of her work - somehow, she expresses an emotion she feels yet over 150 years later we can see our own emotions in that same image, even if it is not quite what she intended.

Maud (1875)

The book is split into two distinct sections - the essays and the plates, all delivered on beautiful quality paper (these things matter).  In the essays, we explore Julia, how she fitted (or didn't fit) into the movement of nineteenth century, male-dominated photography, and how her intentions differed from those of the other practitioners.  One thing I have always been fascinated with is when portraits veer from the intended outcome - Julia has many examples; there might be two images of Henry Taylor, one is a portrait and one is something like 'King David' but both are so similar, so when does a portrait stop or start being a portrait? 

A Study of King David (1866)

I really enjoyed the chapter on G F Watts who I think we should acknowledge as a lynch-pin in nineteenth century British art as he knew everyone (truly the Kevin Bacon of Victorian art) and his relationship with Julia is a complex one which I have always felt Julia does not get enough credit for. I also like the alignment of her work with Symbolism and its early place in Britain.

George Frederic Watts RA (1865)

I think her sequence for Idylls of the King contains some of her best and worst work, or rather her most timeless and most dated pieces. I've always felt there is a sharp contrast between a picture like Maud (1875) and 'So like a shatter'd column lay the King' (1875), one meditative and aesthetic, the other theatrical and decidedly am-dram. I think they show the struggle for Julia between the dramatic 'narrative' art and the more 'art for art sake' style of her photography, not to mention her manipulation (intentional or otherwise) of the photographic form with variable focus, scratches, smudges, all changing the outcome of the image.

'So like a shatter'd column lay the King' (1875)

This is a book about Julia's work, rather than a biography, and a look at how that work fits within the artistic and poetic framework of her time. There is an attempt to see her development as a photographer/poet/artist, the pinnacle being the Idylls cycle but with so many striking images it sometimes is hard to see a development in a way - Julia is brilliant at all points in her career, but also very Victorian at points, very religious and very overdramatic, all of which are charges that could be levelled at Julia herself (and many Victorian artists and poets). Her poetic work is amazing but it would be easy to underestimate the power and differentness of her portraits of her friends. I am always struck by her beard-portraits and how the men look at ease, despite the long exposure times. Sometimes it is almost as if they don't know she is there, which would be impossible for many reasons.

The Dream (1869)

This is a cracking book, and a great way to start 2024.  It's a heavy, beautifully illustrated and thoughtful book, proving a background and framework to consider these increasingly familiar photographs. All aspects of her work are here from the gentle religious pieces, the famous men and women, the children and the ever-present Tennysonian verses. I appreciated the multiple photographs on the same subject, for example it is interesting seeing The Whisper of the Muse in its different versions.  I very much hope that Julia Margaret Cameron is finally finding her place as an innovator and (for want of a better word) influencer in art in the mid-nineteenth century. Not enough is written about her influence on other artists, concentrating instead on those that influenced her, yet it is impossible to look through such a beautiful book as this and not see the difference she made to the conversation. I can only hope more exhibitions are to come.

Julia Margaret Cameron: A Poetry of Photography by Nichole J Fazio is available now from the Bodleian Shop and all splendid book sellers.