Forgotten Pre-Raphaelite Sisters 1

Anna Blunden Martino (1829–1915), 'For Only One Short Hour' (Song of the Shirt) (1854), oil on canvas, 47 x 39.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

In the last eight articles in this series, I have looked at the work of six major women artists who were involved in some way with the Pre-Raphaelites. There were of course many more who have since fallen into complete obscurity. In this article, and its companion next week, I look at some of those whose paintings are now almost inaccessible, and only have one or two which are suitable for use as images here. In some cases, this is despite their having painted more than a hundred known works, and exhibited in prominent places such as the Royal Academy.

In each case, I give their name in American style: for example, I refer to the first as Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, where her name at birth was Barbara Leigh Smith and she later married a man named Bodichon. Although extremely unusual at the time, I hope this identifies them more clearly.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) was the daughter of a radical MP and a cousin of Florence Nightingale. She was taught by an array of masters, including William Henry Hunt, Charles Daubigny, Camille Corot and Hercules Brabazon. She travelled widely, and was an early campaigner for women’s rights. A writer and journalist as well as a superb landscape painter, she exhibited extensively, and was instrumental in the foundation of Girton College, Cambridge. She suffered a stroke in 1877, and died in 1891.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891), At Ventnor, Isle of Wight (1856), watercolour and bodycolour with scratching out on paper, 71 x 107 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

At Ventnor, Isle of Wight (1856) is a superb watercolour which she painted on the coast just a few miles from where I live. It conforms to the Pre-Raphaelite expectations of landscape painting, and captures the spirit and detail of the chalk cliffs along this section of the Channel coast. Painted from near Saint Catherine’s Point, in a friend’s studio, looking east into the dawn sky, this was exhibited successfully at the Royal Academy.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891), Entrance to Scalands Gate (date not known), watercolour and graphite on wove paper, 17.9 x 27.9 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t find a date for her very loose watercolour sketch of Entrance to Scalands Gate, which shows a section of country lane near her home in Sussex.

Anna Mary Howitt Watts (1824-1884) was the daughter of a well-known radical couple who travelled widely from childhood. She trained in Munich under Wilhelm von Kaulbach, and during the 1850s was a friend of members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Following a very promising start to her career, she was rejected by the Royal Academy in about 1856, and criticised by John Ruskin, causing her to stop painting and to destroy some of her earlier work. On her marriage in 1859 she became a spiritualist, which set her painting again. She died in 1884.

Anna Mary Howitt Watts (1824-1884), [Spirit Drawing] (c 1858), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.
This is one of her ‘spirit drawings’ from around 1858.

Rosa Brett (1829-1882) was the daughter of a British Army surgeon who spent much of her childhood in Dublin, Ireland. One of her younger brothers was the brilliant Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter John Brett. Like him, she was largely self-taught. Although she exhibited successfully, she doesn’t appear to have sold much in her lifetime, and unlike her brother was largely ignored by the critics. She died in 1882.

Rosa Brett (1829-1882), From Bluebell Hill (1851), watercolour with touches of bodycolour, mounted on thin card, 11.4 x 18 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

From Bluebell Hill was painted in watercolour in 1851, about four miles walk from her home in Detling, near Maidstone in Kent.

Anna Blunden Martino (1829–1915) was born to a couple who ran small businesses. She first worked as a governess, then taught herself to paint, corresponding with John Ruskin who gave her advice. Her first exhibited work is that shown below, and she continued to paint topical social works, as well as being a successful portraitist in the provinces. Later in her career she travelled abroad and turned more to landscapes, which she also exhibited successfully. Although she was prolific and widely known, much of her work was destroyed during the Second World War.

Anna Blunden Martino (1829–1915), ‘For Only One Short Hour’ (Song of the Shirt) (1854), oil on canvas, 47 x 39.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

‘For Only One Short Hour’ (Song of the Shirt) from 1854 makes its literary reference to the popular poem (from 1843) by Thomas Hood, which laments the life of the seamstress working for a pittance at home. Its quotation reads:
“For only one short hour
to feel as I used to feel
before I knew the woes of want
and the walk that costs a meal.”

This painting was included in an exhibition which introduced Pre-Raphaelite art to the American market in 1857-58.

Joanna Mary Boyce Wells (1831-1861) was the daughter of a wine merchant in London, and the sister of George Boyce, another painter. She trained in private art schools before attending the Government School of Design, where she was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites by her brother. She later trained with Thomas Couture in Paris, and travelled in France. She exhibited successfully in Britain, where she attracted positive remarks from John Ruskin. She also wrote her own critical appreciations of major exhibitions, an unusual privilege for a woman. She died young, in childbirth, in 1861, and sadly some of her major works were destroyed during the Second World War.

Joanna Mary Boyce Wells (1831-1861), Head of Mrs Eaton (1861), oil on paper, laid on linen, 17.1 x 13.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Head of Mrs Eaton from 1861 is a fine oil portrait of a model popular at the time among the Pre-Raphaelites, which she made in preparation for her major painting A Sibyl, which was unfinished at the time of her death and subsequently destroyed.

Joanna Mary Boyce Wells (1831-1861), Bird of God (1861), oil on cardboard, 21.2 x 20.6 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Bird of God is a portrait of an angel from the same year, and was inspired by Robert Browning’s poem Guardian Angel. It was her last completed work, and brought praise when exhibited posthumously.

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal Rossetti (1829–1862) is the best-known of all the Pre-Raphaelite women artists, but for her relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his frequent use of her as a model, and for her tragic death. She was the daughter of a London cutler who went to work as a milliner before being introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a model. She studied with Rossetti from 1854, then married him in 1860. The following year she suffered severe post-natal depression after a stillbirth, and in 1862 died from an overdose of the opiate laudanum.

Although Rossetti gathered her works together and recorded them with devotion, her reputation was established not for the artist that she was, but for her relationship with him.

Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight's Spear c.1856 by Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal 1829-1862
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal Rossetti (1829–1862), Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear (c 1856), watercolour on paper, 13.7 × 13.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by W.C. Alexander 1917), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear, from about 1856, shows in watercolour the imaginary chivalric scene of a lady helping her knight prepare to ride out in combat.

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal Rossetti (1829–1862), Lady Clare (c 1854-57), watercolour on paper, 33.8 × 25.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Lady Clare from about 1854-57 refers to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Lady Clare (1842), and is one of several designs which Siddal started to work up as accompaniments to this and other poems published together. However, it is the only one which she brought to completion. The verses to which this refers are those in which Lady Clare’s mother tells her to conceal her humble origins, to avoid her suitor Lord Ronald withdrawing his offer of marriage.

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal Rossetti (1829–1862), Clerk Saunders (1857), watercolour, bodycolour, coloured chalks, on paper, laid on a stretcher, 28.4 x 18.1 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Clerk Saunders from 1857 is another watercolour with a popular literary reference, in this case the ballad of the same name in Scott’s collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. It shows the heroine May Margaret kneeling on her bed and raising a wand to her lips. As she does this, the ghost of her murdered lover Clerk Saunders walks through the wall, and asks her to renew her vows.

Following exhibition, this painting was purchased by Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard.