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.


  1. Dear Kirsty
    What a fascinating and creative family and thank you for the introduction. Given their family situation, it is impressive that the girls could all pursue their artistic and creative lives. I think Emma's rendering of fabrics and textures is particularly beautiful.
    I am always pleased to find there is more evidence that the Pre-Raphaelites exerted a wider influence in art than they were previously given credit for, particularly when the baton was taken up by female artists.
    Best wishes

  2. Dear Kirsty, thank you so much for digging up all these fascinating nuggets on more overlooked women. Really enjoyed reading about Emma and her sisters (which sounds like a Woody Allen film 🤣). Always a great read and your research only serves to show how much more is there in the archives waiting to be mined.


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