Thursday 8 March 2012

Joanna Mary Boyce, Heroine of Art

Happy International Women’s Day!  It’s also National Pie Week, so I feel I should be baking some sort of celebratory pie because I’m a woman, but instead I’m typing my blog, but now I’m also thinking about pie.  Damn it.  Anyway, because it is International Women’s Day, I thought I should talk about a woman who was an artist.  Thanks to research and rediscovery I have rather a broad sweep to choose from, especially from our lovely Victorian ladies.  Of late I have been thinking about George Price Boyce rather a lot, so my thoughts turned to his sister Joanna Mary Boyce….

Portrait Bust of Joanna Boyce (1862) J H Foley
George and Joanna had one thing in common – their love of art.  Whereas George’s progress into the world of art seemed quite smooth, as you would expect, Joanna’s story is one of fits and starts.  She attended art college from the age of 18, but her education was interrupted first by a serious illness of her big brother, when she nursed George back to health, then by the death of her father.  Finally, at the age of 23, she attended the Government School of Design, where she met other female artists such as Anna Mary Howitt and Jane Benham Hay.  This was also the time that her brother fell in with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who Joanna got to know through him.  Her first exhibited work was Elgiva at the Royal Academy in 1855….

Elgiva (1855)
Elgiva was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who got on the wrong side of Bishop Odo.  Odo had her branded on the face and sent to Ireland in exile.  Ruskin described the work in the following way: ‘As we watch the face for a little time, the slight arch of the lip seems to begin to quiver, and the eyes fill with ineffable sadness and on-look of despair’, which is a tad florid, as she could be trying to remember if she locked the back door or not.  The canvas was bought by her brother and it has remained in the family ever since.

Her first exhibited picture was such a success, she was encouraged to travel to Paris to study, and while there she was asked to review the Exposition Universelle Salon for the Saturday Review and subsequently the 1856 Royal Academy exhibition, which was a unique opportunity for a woman.  She married Henry Wells in 1857, and toured Italy with him that year, which resulted in The Child’s Crusade

The Child’s Crusade: The Departure (1860)
Back in England, the Wells family began to grow with the birth of Sidney, Alice and Joanna Margaret, and Joanna Senior’s work became more domestic in subject.
Peep Bo! (1861)
Peep Bo! shows a mother playing with her child as he sits on his nurse’s knee.  Joanna’s son Sidney, who was the baby in Peep Bo!, was the subject of one of the most gorgeous baby portraits of the period…

Portrait of Sidney Wells (1859)
I don’t know if it’s the white collar, or the highlights of blue, but this reminds me of Elizabethan portraits and it is truly gorgeous.  Interestingly it was rejected by the Royal Academy, and subsequent to Joanna’s death, never appeared in any retrospectives of her work before the Tate Gallery tribute to her in 1935.  Maybe it was seen as too personal to her; possibly the fact that poor little Sidney only lived another 10 years after this portrait made it too personal a work.

A further ‘child portrait’ Joanna produced was the utterly gorgeous Bird of God

Bird of God (1861)
Skirting very close to Pre-Raphaelite subject and style, this little seraph was described as ‘the tenderest and most loving work’.  The paleness of her raiment and powder-soft wings is broken up by that exquisite ribbon on her chest and the toffee coloured hair, looking as if it was blowing in a gentle breeze as she flies.

I think the most famous of Joanna’s work has to be a preparatory work executed in the last year of her life of a model called Fanny Eaton…

Head of Mrs Eaton (1861)
This picture is famous for a couple of reasons; firstly, it’s obviously a rare portrait of a black woman in Victorian England.  Fanny got about a bit as she also modelled for Albert Moore and she’s easy to spot in Rossetti’s The Beloved, even though she ended up at the back…

The Mother of Sisera (1861) Albert Moore

The little boy in the front knew there would be trouble after Keomi the Gypsy blocked Fanny Eaton in the picture…

There is no narrative reflex in Joanna’s picture of Fanny Eaton, it’s just a portrait, where the sitter has dignity and grace.  It’s unsurprising that this is such a well-known piece as, in a quiet way, it challenges the idea that Victorian England was a white-washed landscape full of xenophobic mentalists.  See, not everyone was xenophobic…

While her brother was primarily known as a landscape painter, Joanna also executed this rather lovely image of the Isle of Wight

Shanklin, Isle of Wight (1860)
I would like to campaign to get the Isle of Wight changed to ‘The Isle of Victorian Splendidness’ as that’s what it says to me.  I love going to Ryde, although Mr Walker has never fully trusted me since I told him that the Beatles’ song ‘Ticket to Ride’ is about a trip to the Isle of Wight, and in a more trusting moment he believed me.  He hadn’t known me long at the time and he has since learnt that lesson.  Anyway, I look forward to an annual visit to the Island, and visiting Osborne House, Dimbola Lodge and generally running around cliff-top paths in a corset.  You know, the usual.

The final, unfinished picture that Joanna was working on at the time of her death was Gretchen

Gretchen (1861)
Taken from Goethe’s Faust, Gretchen (or Margaret) is an innocent girl seduced and destroyed by Faust.  Joanna’s picture is of Gretchen singing as she braids her hair after being accosted by Faust in the street.  The model was the German nurse who was looking after the artist's children while Joanna was pregnant with her third child, and she subsequently died after giving birth in the summer of 1861.  She was 29 years old and her work was gaining confidence and momentum.  The plans she left for further works seem to specialise in full length female subjects like the beautiful Gretchen.  I think it is heart-breaking that the small collection of works we have from her short career was further depleted by the Second World War bombing of Bath.  A number of works still reside in private collections and I would love to see them displayed in a retrospective.  For a decent showing of her work, take a look at the indispensible Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists catalogue by Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn.

That’s my tribute to World Woman’s Day.  Now, about National Pie Week….


  1. Thank you for helping me discover this artist. The baby portrait is a gem and I see absolutely what you mean about the Elizabethan references. Also, I always wondered who the woman was in the background of 'The Beloved".


  2. You're welcome. I just need to know who is at the back on the other side now...


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx