Forgotten Pre-Raphaelite Sisters 2

Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856-1927), The Chance Meeting, "Look in my face - my name is - Might have been" (c 1907), oil on canvas, 66 x 88.9 cm, Private collection . Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I looked at some of the many women artists who painted in Pre-Raphaelite style during the late nineteenth century, but whose work is now largely forgotten and inaccessible. This article concludes that survey, with five more, the last of whom should prove quite an eye-opener.

In each case, I give their name in American style: for example, I refer to one of them as Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti, where her name at birth was Lucy Madox Brown and she later married William Rossetti. Although extremely unusual at the time, I hope this identifies them more clearly.

Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886) was the older sister of Simeon, a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and born into a Jewish family in London. She trained at the Spitalfields School of Design, and worked as an assistant to her older brother, also a painter, until his death in 1862. She was a successful copyist, and several of the replicas which she made have survived. Her own work was exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, but she died relatively young in 1886 after she was struck by a cab.

Solomon, Rebecca, 1832-1886; The Appointment
Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886), The Appointment (1861), media and dimensions not known, The Geffrye, Museum of the Home. Wikimedia Commons.

The Appointment (1861) appears to be an early problem picture, with a deliberately open-ended narrative. A beautiful woman stands in front of a mirror, and looks intently at a man, who is only seen in his reflection in the mirror, and is standing in a doorway behind the viewer’s right shoulder. The woman is dressed to go out, and is holding in her gloved hands a letter. The clock on the mantlepiece shows that it’s about thirteen minutes past seven. Judging by the light on the stairs revealed through the doorway, this is either a summer’s evening, or the morning. Has this man arrived for an appointment with the woman, perhaps arranged in the letter she’s holding?

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Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886), The Young Teacher (1861), oil, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Young Teacher (1861) shows two young girls in the care of a woman who appears to be North African. The older girl is pointing to a place in the text of a large book which is open in front of them, and the younger girl clutches a doll to herself. Judging by the bookshelves behind them, this is both an affluent and well-educated household.

Emma Sandys (1843–1877) was born with the surname Sands, and with her older brother Frederick, another Pre-Raphaelite painter, changed her name with the family. She was a precocious artist, trained by her brother, and exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere. Although she never became popular in London, she seems to have been a successful provincial portraitist in her home city of Norwich, in Norfolk. She died early, in 1877, as the result of a chest condition which may have resulted from tuberculosis or heart disease.

Mary Emma Jones, by Emma Sandys
Emma Sandys (1843–1877), Mary Emma Jones (1874), oil on board, 50.8 x 38.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Sandys’ exquisite portrait of Mary Emma Jones from 1874 suggests how her painting skills must have been much in demand among the wealthy landowners of Norfolk.

Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti (1843–1894) was the oldest surviving daughter of Ford Madox Brown. She acted as her father’s studio and general assistant until he guided her training when she was 25. She quickly became a fine figurative painter in watercolours, exhibiting at the Royal Academy. She married William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s brother and a writer and critic, but almost ceased painting after she had their first child in 1875. She was a suffragette, and a writer too. She had long-term chest problems, and died in 1894 when overseas trying to alleviate her condition.

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Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti (1843–1894), The Duet (1870), media not known, 30.2 × 32.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Duet (1870) was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year, and attracted good reviews. It sold that summer, and its purchaser required some minor changes. He then reneged on the purchase, and it remained unsold. It was praised by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as being “a really perfect picture”. This is particularly interesting for its East Asian references, in the painting on the screen behind the woman, and that on the wall.

Catherine Madox Brown Hueffer (1850-1927) was the younger sister of Lucy, and brought up among the Pre-Raphaelites. She too was trained by her father and exhibited successfully at the Royal Academy. She turned more to watercolours until her marriage, when she ceased painting until after the death of her husband in 1889. She died in 1927.

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Catherine Madox Brown Hueffer (1850-1927), A Deep Problem 9 and 6 Make (1875), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

A Deep Problem 9 and 6 Make (1875) shows a young girl with a tablet on which are written some numbers, including the simple sum 9 + 6. She is lost in thought, her mind perhaps drifting from the problem. As with other women painters of this period, the child’s eyes are exceptionally well rendered.

Although I had heard of my final artist, Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856-1927), I wasn’t aware of how prolific she was, nor of the quality of her paintings. She was born in Birmingham, the daughter of a local newspaper owner and chair of the city art gallery. She trained at the Birmingham School of Art, where she won prizes, and initially painted fine watercolours. In the later years of the century, she turned to Pre-Raphaelite style and exhibited with success. She was highly proficient in several media, and an exponent of tempera, co-founding a society of tempera painters. Late in her career she painted several large works for church interiors, both in Britain and Canada, and died in 1927.

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Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856-1927), Melody (Musica) (1895-97), oil on canvas, 76.3 x 51 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Melody (Musica) (1895-97) is one of several paintings of hers which refer to music, as did Rossetti’s later works. Its decorative style is in keeping with her later paintings, and has led to her being associated with the Arts and Crafts movement.

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Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856-1927), The Keepsake (1898-1901), tempera on canvas, 81.3 x 49.5 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The Keepsake (1898-1901), painted in tempera, is one of Bunce’s finest works, and was named Picture of the Year when exhibited at the New Gallery in 1901. It refers to a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Staff and Scrip (1870), specifically to a passage after the death of a pilgrim. A scrip is a small bag or satchel carried by a pilgrim. This is her only painting which was exhibited outside Britain: in 1905, it was shown at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

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Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856-1927), The Chance Meeting, “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been” (c 1907), oil on canvas, 66 x 88.9 cm, Private collection . Wikimedia Commons.

The Chance Meeting (c 1907) was accompanied by a quotation from the opening line of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem A Superscription, in The House of Life: “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been”. This expresses the feelings of a man who believes that he should just give up trying.

It’s a tableau painted in high Pre-Raphaelite style, perhaps more typical of the major works painted by members of the Brotherhood in the 1850s. Set in mediaeval times, a distinguished man has entered a small town, and stands in its narrow street. Two women stare at him: the florist at the right, and the woman with her back to the viewer, who is looking straight at his eyes.

Kate Bunce’s paintings are really quite something, aren’t they? How come we aren’t familiar with many more of them?