Many of the models used by artists in the late nineteenth century in Britain were, as was and is often the case, family members and friends. The Pre-Raphaelites generally used their partners, and friends from their own circles. Dante Gabriel Rossetti extended this to include what he called ‘stunners’ like Fanny Cornforth, actually Mary Cox, the daughter of a Sussex blacksmith who had previously worked as a housemaid.
One group of professional models were three of the daughters of an equally humble family in Portsmouth: the Pettigrews. William Pettigrew, their father, was a cork cutter, possibly working for the large and heavily industrialised Royal Naval Dockyard there. He, his wife, and their thirteen children (or those of them who survived) moved to London in 1884.
Their first major assignment was for John Everett Millais’ An Idyll of 1745 (1884) that same year. Millais revealed his deferential attitude towards them when describing them as “three little gypsies” who “with the characteristic carelessness of their race, they just came when they liked”.
The three are, from the left, Lily, Hetty, and Rose. Millais dressed them as Scottish girls, supposedly meeting two young English soldiers during the Jacobite rising of 1745, when Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – tried to regain the British throne by overthrowing King George II. It culminated in the fierce battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746, at which the rebels were soundly defeated.
Following the battle, 3,500 Jacobite rebels were captured and indicted for treason; only 900 were pardoned, the rest dying before trial, executed on conviction, or transported. Millais’ gloss using very English girls was a travesty of history, which had been anything but idyllic.
Hetty, the oldest of the Pettigrew children, was actually Harriet Selina Pettigrew, born on 9 October 1867.
Being seventeen when they moved to London, she was the first to develop her new career as an artists’ model. She met the French painter Théodore Roussel, who had moved to London in 1870, and soon appeared shockingly nude in The Reading Girl (1886-87). Hetty and Roussel became lovers, and they had a daughter too, but when Roussel’s wife died in 1909, he would not marry her, preferring the widow of another painter instead.
Hetty also met John William Godward, and from about 1887 posed for him too. An early clothed painting of his which features her is Waiting for the Procession (1890), which includes her sister Lily.
She appears in several of Roussel’s drawings, usually nude, and then in Whistler’s drawings from about 1891-92, again unclad.
Godward’s paintings of Hetty and Lily grew steadily more daring, and more revealing. In Mischief and Repose (1895) he again used Hetty (on the left) and Lily.
The two sisters were photographed together in Whistler’s studio in 1891 by Edward Linley Sambourne, with Hetty the older on the left.
Hetty appears to have eventually become a sculptor, as her modelling career faded after 1906, and she is believed to have died in 1953, at the grand age of 86.
Lily, actually Lilian, was three years younger than Hetty, and born on 25 February 1870. She was thus fourteen when she modelled for Millais, but apparently more precocious when it came to modelling nude. She was painted and drawn from 1887 onwards, by John William Godward and Whistler, and appears nude in a long series of paintings by Godward between 1890 and 1901.
Sambourne took this surprisingly bold photograph of her in 1889.
It was Godward’s A Pompeian Bath (1890) (above) which first showed Lily nude, and his painting of Campaspe (1896) (below) shows a later work. Looking at accessible paintings by Godward, Lily seems to have been his most frequently-used nude model, at least until late in his career when he eloped to Italy with another of his models.
Lily started to model for Philip Wilson Steer in about 1893, and in 1911 appears in Augustus John’s Lily on the Mountain.
Nothing is known about Lily after 1911; as I have been unable to discover the name of the model with whom Godward went to Italy in 1912, it is conceivable that she was Lily Pettigrew. His family believed that the woman was Italian, but don’t appear to have put a name to her.
Rose, actually Rose Amy, was the youngest of the three, born on 25 February 1872. She was therefore only twelve when the family moved to London and the sisters modelled for Millais. Perhaps seeing their modelling careers, she determined that she would pursue a different path. She posed for Whistler from about 1884 or 1885, but seems to have avoided removing her clothes.
By about 1891, she was Whistler’s most frequent choice of model, often working five days a week with him, and lunching with him and his wife Beatrice. A major series of pastel drawings of her developed a mother and baby theme, apparently with the aid of an infant borrowed from her older brother and his wife. She also modelled for William Sickert, Augustus John, Whistler’s wife Beatrice Godwin Whistler, and Philip Wilson Steer.
Rose seems to have started to model for Steer in about 1888, and at some time after that he painted this undated Portrait of Miss Rose Pettigrew.
Steer’s oil sketch Portrait of Miss Rose Pettigrew was painted in 1892.
Rose fell in love with Steer, as he continued to paint her in works such as The Japanese Gown (1896). Nothing seems to have come of that, Steer died a bachelor, and this is the last painting of his in which she appears. That year, Rose married the composer and musician Harry Waldo Warner, and put modelling behind her. Her memoirs were published in 1947, shortly after her death.
That is not all, though. The Pettigrew sisters are also believed to have modelled for other artists of the time, including William Holman Hunt, Frederic, Lord Leighton, Edward Poynter, Val Prinsep, and John Singer Sargent. The remaining challenge is to identify their works in which Hetty, Lily, or Rose appear. For they were at the very heart of Aestheticism.