High Pre-Raphaelite style was relatively short-lived, like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood itself, but continued to influence British art through the rest of the nineteenth century. Among the highly talented women painters who embraced its themes, although she expressed them in her own style, was Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933), whose art and achievements had been almost forgotten until recently.
She was born Annie Louisa Robinson in Hulme in the city of Manchester, England’s second city after London, and became an accomplished young watercolourist. She was able to sell her paintings to augment the family’s income when times were hard for them. She started her formal training in 1871 at the Manchester School of Art, where she won a gold medal and a scholarship to travel to Rome.
She thus trained in Rome from 1874-76, then in Paris at the Académie Julian from 1877-79. She became a close friend with fellow Macunian and painter Isabel Dacre, who studied in Rome and Paris alongside her. Swynnerton was mainly influenced by the paintings of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who died suddenly in 1884. Little remains to be seen of Isabel Dacre’s paintings now, just a handful of her portraits.
On their return to Manchester, Swynnerton and Dacre founded the Manchester Society of Women Painters, which provided support to other women struggling to get started, and held its own life classes. Swynnerton’s first painting to be exhibited at the Royal Academy was in 1879, and the following year she exhibited a portrait of Susan Dacre. In 1883, Annie married Joseph Swynnerton, a sculptor from the Isle of Man. The couple spent much of the year working in Rome, but Annie Swynnerton kept a studio in Shepherd’s Bush, in west London.
Her earlier mature paintings such as The Young Mother from about 1887 demonstrate her social realism and influence by Bastien-Lepage. This young Italian country girl is carrying her infant and a large pitcher among fruit trees on the coast.
As was prevalent throughout Europe at the time, women artists were usually still deemed inappropriate students in life classes, and the prospect of a nice young lady painting the human body without clothes was a disturbing prospect. This changed in England in around 1885, when the young Henrietta Rae (1859-1928) exhibited her first nudes at the Royal Academy. Although her figures were thoroughly academic, she was offered plenty of unsolicited advice not to show such works in public again. She thankfully ignored them, and had blazed the trail for other women.
In 1891, Swynnerton followed in Rae’s brushstrokes with Cupid and Psyche, which adheres to the long-standing tradition of showing this couple as being very young.
A year later, she followed that up with Mater Triumphalis (1892), which appears to have been inspired by Swinburne’s poem of the same name, starting:
Mother of man’s time-travelling generations,
Breath of his nostrils, heartblood of his heart,
God above all Gods worshipped of all nations,
Light above light, law beyond law, thou art.
Although this was shown in the Salon in Paris, that wasn’t until 1905, and a decade later it was given to the French nation. As a result of that, this painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Although their figures are quite academic, the approach and themes of these paintings are consistent with those of the broader Pre-Raphaelite Movement, and those of her friends George Frederic Watts, Edward Burne-Jones, and John Singer Sargent.
For me, Swynnerton’s masterpiece, and one of the finest paintings of this difficult subject, is The Sense of Sight from 1895. This is now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, which had purchased Sophie Gengembre Anderson’s Elaine of Astolat in 1870. Swynnerton’s is a fascinating work, painted at a time when those influenced by Aestheticism were referring to other sensory modalities including music, in their images. This could be seen as a reaction to such diversions, bringing the focus of visual art back to vision, in a visually arresting manner.
Glow Worm (c 1900) is an unusual nocturne, which shows an elegantly-dressed woman out in a garden on a summer’s night, using a small torch to get a glow-worm to light up in the dark.
The Letter (c 1900) shows a young woman reading a letter inside a mediaeval house, with its bottle-glass windows.
Evelyn (c 1900) is one of her several superb portraits of children.
Illusions (c 1900) is another excellent portrait of a young girl, who is dressed up in a suit of armour.
Swynnerton’s undated Joan of Arc contrasts with contemporary paintings of this heroine of the French nation, in showing her rather older than usual. She makes no references to the famous painting by Jules Bastien-Lepage either.
New Risen Hope (1904) is a wonderful painting of the fresh hope of the young.
Miss Elizabeth Williamson on a Pony (1906) is a fine equestrian portrait.
John Singer Sargent appreciated Swynnerton’s work, and purchased some of her paintings, including The Oreads (1907), which he later gave to the Tate Gallery. The title is a misfit of which I am suspicious: Oreads were mountain nymphs in classical mythology, whereas these appear to be Oceanids instead.
When her husband died in 1910, Annie spent more time in London, now in Chelsea, before retiring to Hayling Island, on the Hampshire coast to the east of Portsmouth. In her later years, her eyesight started to fail, but she continued to paint mainly portraits.
The Convalescent (1929) shows a woman still recovering from illness, struggling with her fatigue.
Some of her late portraits are among her finest, and most significant. Painted in 1930 despite her failing sight, Dame Millicent Fawcett, C.B.E., LL.D. shows one of the leading campaigners for women’s suffrage, who had died the previous year. Dame Fawcett co-founded Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1871, and led the Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1897-1919. She had been a tireless worker for the cause from the age of 19 in 1866.
Count Zouboff (1931) was one of her last paintings, apparently set in rugged hills in mainland Europe.
A reasonable number of Swynnerton’s works have entered public collections, particularly those of the Tate and Manchester Art Gallery. They show her highly individual style, as she progressed from detailed (social-)realism with Pre-Raphaelite influence, to her later and looser approach. She painted some of the most piercing eyes I have ever seen in paintings, faces and figures which are truly vivid.
She was fortunate to have John Singer Sargent as a friend and loyal supporter in the Royal Academy. Two of the founding members of the Academy in 1768 were women: Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman. Despite that, it did not admit another woman as an Associate (the step before becoming a full Academician) until 1922, when Annie Swynnerton was elected one.
The inscription on her gravestone reads “I have known love and the light of the sun.” Both shine through in The Sense of Sight.
Susan Thomson (2018) The Life and Works of Annie Louisa Swynnerton, Manchester Art Press. ISBN 978 0 95546 1934.