The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood: a new series

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Aurora Triumphans, or Dawn (c 1876), oil on canvas, 120 x 170 cm, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Too long ago, I bought a wonderful book by Kirsty Stonell Walker, titled Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang. Don’t be deterred by those words, though: it’s an unusually broad survey of some of the most important women responsible for the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, and goes a long way to redress the balance in art history.

Where that book falls short is its limited coverage of the works of some of the very best of the Pre-Raphaelites, those of the ‘sisterhood’ which still tends to get overlooked. This sadly short series tries to add some better information and examples of paintings from some of the brilliant women artists who were associated with the movement.

Louisa Anne Beresford (née Stuart), Marchioness of Waterford (1818-1891)

It was only when I researched the paintings of Louisa Beresford to write a celebration of the bicentenary of her birth, a couple of years ago, that I realised that she was a friend of both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin, and a member of the Pre-Raphaelite inner circle.

She was born in Paris into British nobility, the daughter of a Baronet whose family home was a castle overlooking the English Channel, who happened to be the British Ambassador in Paris at the time. It was Ruskin who taught her to draw, and it’s claimed that Rossetti taught her to paint, despite him being ten years younger than her.

One of her family estates included the small village of Ford, close to the eastern end of the Scottish border in Northumberland. When Beresford’s husband died in a riding accident in 1859, she determined to improve the welfare of her tenants, so rebuilt their houses and the village church, and had a new school constructed for them in 1860, in which she painted extensive murals.

Sleeping Disciples by Louisa Anne, Marchioness of Waterford 1818-1891
Louisa Anne Beresford (née Stuart), Marchioness of Waterford (1818-1891), Sleeping Disciples (date not known), watercolour on paper, 12.7 x 39.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Adelaide, Lady Brownlow 1917), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Outside her painted school, few of her paintings are in public collections, but this undated watercolour of Sleeping Disciples now in the Tate gives an idea of her affinity with the movement.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903)

Sophie Gengembre Anderson is another pioneering painter who is usually omitted from the Pre-Raphaelite canon, and like Louisa Beresford isn’t covered in Kirsty Stonell Walker’s book. She too was born in Paris, the daughter of an accomplished French architect and his British wife. At the age of 25, she and her family fled France for America, where she eventually settled in Manchester, PA. Having married an American portrait painter, the couple moved to London in 1854, where she established her reputation exhibiting with the Society of British Artists and at the Royal Academy.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), Elaine (The Lily Maid of Astolat) (1870), oil on canvas, 158.4 x 240.7 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

One of her most fascinating paintings is among her best, and best-known: Elaine or The Lily Maid of Astolat (1870). She exhibited this in Liverpool, at the first Autumn Exhibition there, where it was very well-received, and was purchased for the city, becoming the first work by a woman artist to enter the Walker Art Gallery collection.

It shows the corpse of Elaine of Astolat being rowed by a servant to Camelot, after she had died of a broken heart for her unrequited love of Sir Lancelot. Her body is ghostly white, and holds lilies as a sign of virginity, and her parting letter to the knight.

The story has many similarities with another popular Arthurian legend of the Lady of Shalott, and both were painted at around the same time by recognised members of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927)

Arguably the finest and most prolific of all the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Marie Spartali Stillman gained entry to the inner circle through her parents’ cultivation of artistic circles at their garden parties and dinners. In her late teens, together with her two cousins Maria Zambaco and Aglaia Coronio, collectively known as The Three Graces, she was admired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a “stunner”. At the age of 19, the Graces were often used as models, and the following year she started as a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, receiving two days of studio teaching with him each week.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), Marie Spartali Stillman (1868), albumen silver print from wet-collodion glass negative, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Spartali, as she was then, was first sent to the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) at her father’s wish. Cameron’s Marie Spartali Stillman (1868) is an example from that commissioned series. Later, Mrs Cameron put her in a variety of roles as a model, in her studio at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, close by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s winter residence there. Cameron was one of the earliest ‘artistic’ portrait photographers, specialising in women, and another important member of the Sisterhood.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Marie Spartali Stillman (1869), red chalk on greenish paper, 62.2 × 47 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) sketched her in red chalk; Rossetti openly expressed his admiration of her beauty, and his inability to capture it in his work. He used her as a model for several of his paintings.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Mariana (1867), watercolor and gouache on paper, 38.1 × 27.4 cm. Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

By then, she had already painted Mariana (1867), a remarkably accomplished watercolour version of this popular motif, set here in the context of Shakespeare’s character in Measure for Measure, and Tennyson’s poem of 1830. In the former, Mariana is a betrothed woman who, when rejected by her suitor, lives in a moated house. In the latter, the rejected and world-weary woman becomes suicidal. Despite a favourable reception when shown in the Dudley Gallery, the artist kept the painting, and it didn’t re-appear until the 1980s. It was probably an inspiration for Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Mariana of 1868-70.

Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933)

Annie Louisa Robinson, as she was before marriage, had a more modest background, being born into a middle class family in Hulme in the city of Manchester. She quickly demonstrated her artistic talent, winning a scholarship at the Manchester School of Art which took her to Rome. She then trained at the Académie Julian in Paris, where she became influenced by the Naturalist paintings of Jules Bastien-Lepage.

On her return to Manchester, Swynnerton and her friend Susan Isabel Dacre founded the Manchester Society of Women Painters. Swynnerton’s first painting to be exhibited at the Royal Academy was in 1879. Although her early style is Naturalist, later in her career she painted more as a Pre-Raphaelite. She moved with her newly-wedded husband, a sculptor, to live mainly in Rome in 1883, and was an active member of the Suffragette movement.

Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933), Cupid and Psyche (1891), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Swynnerton’s Cupid and Psyche from 1891 follows the long-standing tradition of showing the couple as being very young. Thankfully Henrietta Rae had earlier blazed the trail which enabled this, a painting of nude male and female by a woman, to be exhibited in polite company.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919)

Mary Evelyn Pickering was born into a wealthy upper-middle class family in London. Her father was friends with William Gladstone, who was to become Prime Minister, and she was introduced to art by her mother’s brother, Roddam Spencer-Stanhope, who was one of the first-generation Pre-Raphaelites. He introduced her to the Rossettis, Watts, Holman Hunt, and others.

At the age of only 17, she started attending the newly-formed South Kensington National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) in London, from where she moved on to the Slade. She visited Italy repeatedly, sometimes stayed with her uncle, Roddam Spencer-Stanhope, in his villa near Florence. She set up her studio in Chelsea, London, in the early 1880s, where she became friends with John Ruskin, philosopher JS Mill, Lady Byron, and the social reformer Elizabeth Fry. She too was a strong feminist, and a Suffragette.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Aurora Triumphans, or Dawn (c 1876), oil on canvas, 120 x 170 cm, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Her Aurora Triumphans, or Dawn from about 1876 shows the Roman goddess of the dawn reclining at the lower right, the shackles of the night shown as roped roses. At the lower left, Night is flying away in her dark robes. Above them, three winged angels resplendent in their golden tunics sound the fanfare bringing day. Aurora is triumphant in dispelling Night.

This painting has an interesting history. First exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, it seems to have gone into a private collection until coming onto the market in about 1922. At that time, De Morgan’s signature had been overpainted with that of Burne-Jones. It was on the strength of that that it was purchased for the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth, where it now is, unveiled as one of Evelyn De Morgan’s paintings instead.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945)

Although she might sound like a wizard hockey player and head girl of her private school, and was certainly something of an anachronism, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was a fine painter and another campaigner for women’s rights.

She was born to an affluent family: her father was a leading barrister, and home was in the leafy lanes of Upper Norwood in Surrey, England. She was a precocious artist, and started her studies at the Crystal Palace School of Art, before entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1897. Women had only been admitted to the Schools since 1860, and she was already working beyond the bounds normally expected of women artists, by producing commercial illustrations for magazines, including Country Life.

Her major influences seem to have been John Byam Liston Shaw, who in turn was influenced by John Everett Millais and J W Waterhouse. Her work received rare praise from George Frederick Watts, then a veteran of Victorian painting.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Pale Complexion of True Love (1899), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Pale Complexion of True Love (1899) was her first major painting, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Its title is taken from Shakespeare’s As You Like It – such literary quotations being popular with Victorian artists, and often used by her. Although it was fifty years since the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had revived styles from the early Renaissance and before, she has depicted an Elizabethan scene in similar style, and brilliant colour.

Among the other women painters who should be included with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement are:

  • Anna Blunden (1829-1915), most of whose paintings were destroyed during the Second World War
  • Rosa Brett (1829-1882)
  • Joanna Boyce (1831-1861), who died following childbirth at the age of only thirty
  • Emma Sandys (1843-1877), whose paintings have been attributed to her brother Frederick
  • Louise Jopling (1843-1933)
  • Lucy Madox Brown (1843-1894), who stopped painting when she married William Michael Rossetti
  • Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930)
  • Kate Bunce (1856-1927)
  • May Cooksey (1878-1943)
  • Noel Laura Nisbet (1887-1956).

Among those whose influence came through their modelling are Lizzie Siddal, best known for her role as Ophelia in Millais’ classic from about 1851-52, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris, the Pettigrew sisters, and a couple of dozen more.

I look forward to telling and showing you more about them over the coming months.


Kirsty Stonell Walker, Kingsley Nebechi (illustrator) (2018) Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang, Unicorn. ISBN 978 1 911604 63 1.