Beyond the Brotherhood: female artists of the Victorian era

As the National Portrait Gallery in London stages Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, Victorian art specialist Sarah Reynolds illuminates the careers of key women artists of the period 


Detail of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s (1828-1882), Head study of Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) for 'Dante's Dream'. 14¼ x 11⅝ in (36.2 by 29.5 cm) (folded); 21½ x 24 in (54 x 61 cm) (overall sheet size). Sold for £320,750 in Victorian Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 11 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

‘When one thinks of Victorian artists, it is generally the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and various Royal Academicians, who spring to mind,’ says Sarah Reynolds, Victorian Art specialist at Christie’s in London. ‘While images of women predominate their canvases, what is less known is that there was a group of highly talented female artists working alongside them and sharing ideas.’

Traditionally these women have been viewed in relation to their male counterparts, implicitly seen as inferior to their famous husbands, fathers and brothers. But in recent years, they have begun to be recognised as talented pioneers in their own right.

‘If you’re in London during Classic Week, I’d recommend visiting the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters,’ adds the specialist. The exhibition runs until 26 January 2020, and explores the overlooked contribution of 12 women — including Evelyn de Morgan, Georgiana Burne-Jones and Elizabeth Siddal — to the artistic movement. 

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927)

Marie Spartali Stillman was born into a family of wealthy Greek expatriates whose circle of friends included several important patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites. Growing up in an artistic household, the young Marie showed an early talent for drawing and painting. In 1864 she became a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, one of the principal associates of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose influence can be seen in her work from this period.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Head Study of Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) for ‘Dante's Dream’. Pencil and coloured chalks on duck-egg blue paper. 14¼ x 11⅝ in (36.2 by 29.5 cm) (folded); 21½ x 24 in (54 x 61 cm) (overall sheet size). Sold for £320,750 on 11 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

Marie and her sister Christine were introduced to the wider Pre-Raphaelite circle at a garden party in the late 1860s, where Thomas Armstrong recalled ‘every one of us burned with a desire to paint them’, and the poet Algernon Swinburne thought that she was ‘so beautiful I feel as if I could sit down and cry’.

Marie first sat for Rossetti in 1869 for the series of studies from which the work above is taken, and would go on to feature in several of his compositions — including some alongside his mistress, Jane Morris. ‘I find her head about the most difficult I ever drew,’ Rossetti wrote of Stillman. ‘It depends not nearly so much on real form as on subtle charm of life which one cannot re-create.’ A related portrait head of Marie Stillman, dated 1870, is in the Lloyd Webber collection.

Maria Spartali Stillman (1844-1927), A Lady with Peacocks in a Garden, an Italianate Landscape Beyond. Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour with gum arabic on paper. 19 x 17 in (42.3 x 43.2 cm). Sold for £10,625 on 17 June 2014 at Christie’s in London

Today Marie Spartali Stillman is one of the most marketable of the female Pre-Raphaelite artists. A 2015 exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum, Poetry in Beauty, has done much to bring her the recognition she deserves.

Elizabeth Rossetti, née Siddal (1834-1862)

Discovered in 1849 by Walter Deverell while working at a hat shop, the redheaded Lizzie Siddal became one of the favourite muses of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The original Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’, her image endures on the walls of many public galleries and museums and is forever linked to two of the most important members of the Brotherhood: Sir John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Elizabeth Rossetti, née Siddal (1834-1862), Study of a Woman and a Man Seated on the Ground, a Further Male Figure Standing Behind. Pencil on paper. 4⅜ x 4½ in (11.1 x 11.4 cm). Sold for £2,500 on 11 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

As the model for Millais’s Ophelia, Lizzie infamously posed in a bathtub of often ice-cold water over a period of several months, catching a serious chill. But it is as Rossetti’s muse, lover and eventual wife that she is best remembered. The relationship was extremely turbulent, and less than two years after their marriage the severely depressed Siddal died from an overdose of laudanum.

What is less appreciated is that Rossetti encouraged Lizzie’s burgeoning artistic talents, and greatly influenced her earnest style. Today, her work has a strong following at auction, and exhibitions such as the Tate’s 2012 Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde  have helped to promote public appreciation of her role as artist as well as muse.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919)

Evelyn De Morgan, née Pickering entered the Slade School of Fine Art in 1873 — against her parents’ wishes — just two years after it opened. One of the first women artists to attend the school, she excelled and was awarded the prestigious Slade scholarship.

Encouraged by her uncle, the second-generation Pre-Raphaelite artist John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, she made several visits to Italy between 1875 and 1877 to study Renaissance art. On her return to London she was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Grosvenor Gallery. In 1887 Evelyn married the potter William De Morgan, a friend and colleague of William Morris.

Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919), Portraits of Alice Mildred and Winifred Julia Spencer Stanhope. 17½ x 31⅝ in (44.5 x 80.4 cm). Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in Victorian Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 11 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), The Wandering Jew: ‘Whom the gods love die young'. Oil on canvas. 31 x 41 in (78,8 x 104.2 cm). Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Offered in British Art: Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 12 December 2019 at Christie’s in London

Of independent means, Evelyn De Morgan painted entirely to please herself; any income she made was used to help finance her husband’s pottery business. Her exhibitions in her lifetime attracted a great deal of critical acclaim, so much so that George Frederick Watts proclaimed her ‘the first woman artist of the day — if not all time.’

The establishment of The De Morgan Foundation in 1968 and a series of dedicated exhibitions in the 1990s has helped bring Evelyn’s work to a wider audience, cementing her reputation as one of the leading artists of her day.

Emma Sandys (1834-1877)

Long viewed in the shadow of her more famous brother, Anthony Frederick Sandys, Emma Sandys sustained a successful career as an artist until her life was tragically cut short at the age of 43. The Sandys were poor, and Emma helped to support the family by selling her work. Financial necessity appears to have fuelled her artistic development, and her works from the mid-1870s are increasingly sophisticated and beautiful.

Emma Sandys (1834-1877), Portrait of Mary Emma Jones, Bust-Length, Wearing a Pearl Necklace. Oil on board. 20 x 15¼ in (50.8 x 38.8 cm). Sold for £62,500 on 11 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

The Sandys siblings often shared models, studio props and costumes, and employed a similar artistic technique, and as a result there has often been confusion over attribution. This was the case with the 1874 Portrait of Mary Emma Jones, Bust-Length, Wearing a Pearl Necklace, pictured above and previously attributed to Frederick. In Portrait of Mary Emma Jones, the model was Frederick’s wife and muse, Mary, and the composition is based on one of his drawings. But it was his sister who executed the oil painting. A work of this quality has not been previously seen on the open market, making this a key reattribution.

Laura, Lady Alma-Tadema (1852-1909)

Like Marie Spartali, Laura Epps and two of her sisters studied with the progressive Ford Madox Brown, whose studio was particularly welcoming to female artists. The youngest daughter of a pioneering homeopathic doctor, George Epps, the 17-year-old Laura met Dutch artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1869 at one of Madox Brown’s Boxing Day parties. It was love at first sight. The recently widowed Tadema moved to London the following year, where he established himself as Laura’s painting teacher. The couple married in 1871.

Laura, Lady Alma-Tadema (1852-1909), Bright Be Thy Noon. Oil on canvas. 27 x 19¾ in (68.6 x 50.2 cm). Sold for £112,500 on 11 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

Unlike many women of her generation, Laura Alma-Tadema continued to paint for the rest of her life. Influenced by both classical and Dutch art, her canvases often depict a domestic setting or feature family members. Although she was much praised and her art was widely exhibited both at home and abroad during her lifetime, her reputation was for many years overshadowed by that of her better-known husband. Happily, the 2017 exhibition series Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity  featured a large number of Laura’s paintings, crediting her artistic talent as equal to her husband’s.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, R.W.S. (1871-1945)

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was one of the most popular Edwardian artists. By the time she entered the Royal Academy schools, where she won a prize for her mural design in 1897, Pre-Raphaelite painting was led by a second generation of artists including Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

Using a variety of different media such as stained glass and sculpture, as popularised by William Morris and Burne-Jones, Fortescue-Brickdale helped keep the style alive into the early 20th century. As the original Pre-Raphaelites had done in the 1850s, she adapted romantic and moralising medieval subjects, and celebrated the beauty of nature. Upon her death in 1945, she was identified as the last Pre-Raphaelite, although she ultimately recognised that her favoured style had run its course by the end of the 1920s.

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, R.W.S. (1871-1945), 'With Goodly Greenish Locks, All Loose Untied'. 13½ x 10⅛ in (34.3 x 25.8 cm). Estimate: £5,000-8,000. Offered in Victorian Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 11 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, R.W.S. (1871-1945), The Secret. Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on artist’s board. 19½ x 8½ in (36.8 x 21.6 cm). Estimate: £2,000-3,000. Offered in British Art: Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art on 12 December 2019 at Christie’s in London

Despite her popularity at the start of the 20th century, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that a retrospective of her work was held (to coincidence with the centenary of her birth). It would take another 40 years before another solo exhibition, A Pre-Raphaelite Journey: Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, was mounted at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool in 2012. Despite this, she has long had a strong following among collectors, and her works regularly sell at auction.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920)

Although Georgiana Burne-Jones is best known as her husband’s biographer, she was a talented artist in her own right. Born in Birmingham in 1840 to Reverend George Browne Macdonald and his second wife Hannah, she moved in artistic circles from an early age. 

In the mid 1850s, Georgiana and her three sisters were introduced to the literary ‘Birmingham Set’, which later morphed into the ‘Pembroke Set’ when many of its members started at Pembroke College, Oxford. In around 1856, Georgiana met the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artist Edward Burne-Jones, whom she married four years later. 

Lady (Georgiana) Burne-Jones (1840-1920), Found Drowned. Pencil, pen and black ink on paper. 5⅝ x 7 in (14.3 x 17.8 cm). Sold for £16,250 on 11 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

Georgiana attended the Government School of Design in South Kensington. She later studied under Ford Madox Brown, one of the principal associates of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who applauded and encouraged her talent. 

She worked for Morris & Co. in the early years of the company, painting tiles, and enjoyed making woodcuts, for which Found Drowned, a detailed drawing sold by Christie’s in December 2018 for £16,250, may have been intended. According to the specialist, very few examples of her work survive today.

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