Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale: The Forerunner

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Forerunner (1920), oil on canvas, 59.6 × 122 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

She was only ten years old when Dante Gabriel Rossetti died, and was never a member of any Pre-Raphaelite circle, but Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945) was the last survivor of the Pre-Raphaelite movement before she died a few months prior to the end of the Second World War.

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 when she started to produce commercial illustrations for magazines, including Country Life.

Her major influence was 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 art.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Pale Complexion of True Love (1898-99), oil on canvas, 71.4 x 91.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Pale Complexion of True Love (1898-99) is her first major work, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1899. Its title is taken from Shakespeare’s As You Like It – such literary quotations being popular with Victorian artists, and often used by Fortescue-Brickdale. 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.

Despite this painting selling when first exhibited, and being shown later that year in Liverpool, it seems not to have attracted any critical attention.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), A Knight and Cupid Before a Castle Door (1900), watercolour, 32 × 40 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In her watercolour of A Knight and Cupid Before a Castle Door (1900), Cupid, the god of love, is the custodian of the keys to the castle. The knight, who wears a laurel wreath around his helmet indicating victory, must convince Cupid that he is fit to enter. Slung at the side of the knight’s charger are a crown, another laurel wreath, and a sleeping (or dead) dragon.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Deceitfulness of Riches (1901), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Deceitfulness of Riches (1901) is another work of brilliant colour. At its centre, a fair maiden is asleep, holding a peach in her left hand. Figures around her are more active, holding out a bowl of peaches, playing music to her, and stealing away with a fan made of peacock feathers.

That year, Fortescue-Brickdale exhibited forty-five watercolours at the Dowdeswell Gallery in London. These sold well, and she was able to acquire her first proper studio, in Holland Park, not far from Leighton House, which had been the residence and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton until his death in 1896. It was from this studio that she pursued her successful career illustrating books and magazines, from about 1902.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Nativity (date not known), watercolour, 24 × 17 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In a contrast to her Pre-Raphaelite style, her undated watercolour of The Nativity has a more contemporary look, apart from the Virgin Mary’s costume.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), Love and his Counterfeits (1904), watercolour and graphite, 66 x 133.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Love and his Counterfeits (1904) is a more flamboyant watercolour which she exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1905. It was accompanied by a text written by the artist explaining the allegorical scenario as that of a girl’s soul (at the left) awakening to receive love. She doesn’t recognise him at first, seeing instead Fear in black armour, and Romance as a boy on a bubble with a miniature castle of dreams. He leads Ambition, who rides on Pegasus, following which is Position. Then comes Pity, with a cup of tears with three handles. Later comes Flattery with a mirror, and Gratitude, and finally True Love, at the far right.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Little Foot Page (1905), oil on canvas, 90.8 × 57 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Also exhibited in 1905 was her oil painting The Little Foot Page (1905), which shows a scene from the Scottish ballad of Burd Helen, in which the heroine, an abandoned and pregnant lover, cuts her hair and disguises herself and her pregnancy, to pursue her lover. Within a few years, fashion among young women art students was for the same ‘page boy’ cut; I don’t know whether Fortescue-Brickdale anticipated or influenced that.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Uninvited Guest (1906), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Fortescue-Brickdale’s The Uninvited Guest (1906) addresses the popular theme of marriages of convenience, which were contracted for wealth and status rather than for love. A wedding party is processing from the service, with the bride and groom to the left of centre. Those opulent figures representing rank and wealth pass by the neglected nude figure of Cupid at the right, symbolising true love. This too was shown at the Royal Academy.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), If One Could Have That Little Head of Hers (1910), watercolour, bodycolour and gold, 31.8 x 19 cm, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, England. Wikimedia Commons.

If One Could Have That Little Head of Hers (1910) is a watercolour with a curious title which refers to Robert Browning’s poem A Face, which starts:
If one could have that little head of hers
Painted upon a background of pale gold,
Such as the Tuscan’s early art prefers!

This appears to be a soliloquy on an early Renaissance painting of a beautiful woman. Thanks to ‘Not Jack Frost’ for discovering the literary reference, which he quotes in full in his comment below.

In 1911, John Byam Liston Shaw founded an art school, and Fortescue-Brickdale soon started teaching there.

From 1909, she worked on a commissioned series of twenty-eight watercolours to illustrate a printed edition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which retells Arthurian legends. She completed these in 1911, when they were exhibited, and the book was published in 1913.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1945), St. Catherine of Siena (1919), illustration in “Golden Book of Famous Women”, p 239, further details not known.

St. Catherine of Siena (1919) is an example of one her illustrations from her Golden Book of Famous Women which was published in 1919. It shows the Dominican philosopher and theologian, who lived from 1347-1380, apparently debating with cardinals above the city of Rome.

Her finest paintings must be two of the most significant works about art history from the twentieth century, in which she painstakingly recreated imaginary scenes from the Renaissance, both well before the arrival of Raphael.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Forerunner (1920), oil on canvas, 59.6 × 122 cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1920, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale painted The Forerunner, which shows Leonardo da Vinci trying to convice the Milanese court of his idea for flying machines. The notable figures included here are (from the left) Savonarola (taken from Fra Bartolomeo’s portrait), Beatrice d’Este (Duchess of Milan), Cecilia Gallerani, Elisabetta Gonzaga, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ludovico Sforza (Duke of Milan, and Leonardo’s patron).

She sold The Forerunner to Lord Leverhulme, and it’s now on view in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. In 1922 she was commissioned to paint Botticelli’s Studio for Montague Rendell. The latter was exhibited at the Royal Academy later that year, and has since been in a succession of private collections.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), Botticelli’s Studio: The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici (1922), oil on canvas, 74.9 × 126.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The painting’s title reveals its key figures: Botticelli’s Studio: The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici (1922). Sandro Botticelli stands at the left, in front of an exquisite tondo which he is working on. Bowing to him at the centre is Giuliano de’ Medici, who is accompanied by Simonetta Vespucci, wearing the green dress. Behind her is Lorenzo de’ Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, and behind him are Giovanna Tornabuoni and her attendants. The view through the window is of the Palazzo Vecchio in the centre of Florence.

These figures were not painted from models, or imagination, but each is based on contemporary sources.

Giovanna Tornabuoni comes from a detail of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s painting The Visitation (c 1488) in the Tornabuoni Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Giovanna was born as Giovanna degli Albizzi in 1468, married Lorenzo Tornabuoni in 1486 when she was about eighteen, and died in childbirth two years later in 1488. She is here accompanied by her maid, and her nurse.

Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492) appears in Girolamo Macchietti’s undated portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo was born in 1449 into the banking family, the grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Europe. Lorenzo was groomed for power, and became the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic when his father died in 1469. He survived an attack in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore on Easter Sunday 1478, in which his brother Giuliano was stabbed to death. This led to his excommunication, and invasion by forces of the King of Naples. He resolved that, and died in 1492, when he was forty-three.

It was Sandro Botticelli who painted the reference Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici in about 1475. Giuliano was born in 1453, younger brother and co-ruler of the Florentine Republic with Lorenzo. He was assassinated in the attack in the cathedral on Easter Sunday 1478, dying at the age of twenty-five. Although he never married, an illegitimate son of his went on to become Pope Clement VII.

The painting shown in progress is Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat, which is believed to have been completed in 1483. It shows the Virgin Mary being crowned by a pair of angels, writing down the start of the Magnificat in a book, and holding a pomegranate in her left hand. It has also been interpreted as a family portrait of the de’ Medicis, in which the Virgin is Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, who are the angels. I believe that Lucrezia was one of Giovanna Tornabuoni’s aunts by marriage.

Perhaps inevitably, time is slightly out of joint. The figures might have been able to gather together in this way in about 1475, before the deaths of Simonetta and Giuliano de’ Medici, but that is well before Botticelli might have painted Madonna of the Magnificat, and when Giovanna Tornabuoni was still a child.

During the 1920s, Fortescue-Brickdale’s eyesight began to fail, and her health started to deteriorate. She worked more on small watercolours, stained glass windows, and altarpieces. In 1938, she suffered a stroke, and died in 1945.


Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s Golden Book of Famous Women, at archive.org (downloadable in various formats).

John Howe’s The Stuff of Dreams, a detailed study of her career and work. Strongly recommended.