Today I am going to continue looking at the life of Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale and feature another of her paintings. Whilst most of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood continued to be household names even though it was more than a century after their deaths, not all those who followed in their footsteps are as well recognised today as they were at the height of their fame.
When Eleanor was growing up she would have been aware of the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as there were still commemorative exhibitions and books being published about their work. There is no doubt that even at that early age the publicity surrounding the art work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would have influenced Eleanor. She was a painter, who continued the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, reworking romantic and moralising medieval subjects in naturalistic and often intense colour and elaborates detail.
In my last blog I had reached 1895 and Eleanor had just been accepted at the Royal Academy Schools in London having previously studied art at St John’s Wood School. Whilst attending the Royal Academy School she met Byam Shaw and their friendship and working relationship endured for almost twenty-five years until his untimely death, aged forty-six in 1919. Byam Shaw was a painter, decorator and illustrator, who was the same age as Eleanor, and had been born in Madras in 1872. Byam was to become a big influence on her artistic work and like Eleanor he had been commissioned to do numerous pen and ink drawings and watercolours for books.
Whilst at the art school, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale won a £40 prize in 1896 for her design for the decoration of a public building and, the following year, she made her debut with a black and white work in the RA’s exclusive Summer Exhibition. Following this success she progressed to colour illustrative work and by the end of the century she was making a name for herself as a painter with oils which she began exhibiting at the Royal Academy and in my last blog I featured the first oil painting she had exhibited there, entitled The Pale Complexion of True Love. In 1899 she received a commission for a number of watercolours from Charles Dowdeswell who with his brother, Charles, were art dealers who owned the Dowdeswell and Dowdeswell art gallery in New Bond Street, London. She completed the commission in 1901 by producing forty-five watercolours and her work was shown at the Dowedswell gallery under the Shakespearean title Such Stuff as Dreams are Made of. The press greeted the exhibition as a spectacular success and her work was immediately likened to that of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters of the 1850’s. In the June 1901 issue of The Artist, her exhibition was reviewed:
“…Rarely, if ever has a woman painter made a great reputation as quickly and as thoroughly as Miss Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, whose series of watercolour drawings has, during last month, drawn the whole of artistic London to the Dowdeswell Galleries……She combines great technical skill with extremely felicitous, quaint imagination and rare poetic feeling…. [This exhibition] should be sufficient to secure her a leading position among the women artists of this country…”
All but two of her works were sold and with the money she received she acquired her own studio in Holland Park, in west London, which was the home of many artists. This was to be her artistic base for the rest of her life. She had been living at home with her sister Kate and her mother Sarah. Her father had been killed in a climbing accident in the Alps in 1894. In 1908 Eleanor, her mother and sister moved house and went to live in West Kensington where she would remain for the next thirty years. Her mother died the following year.
Her name as an artist was indelibly made after the Dowdeswell exhibition and numerous journals and newspapers wrote about her and her work. In 1905, despite the large number of painting commissions she received, she decided to take up teaching art and, along with her old artistic friends Byam Shaw and Rex Vicat Cole, taught one day a week at the art school of King’s College for Women. By 1909 these three were looked upon and advertised as leading the art courses at the college. However the following year Cole and Shaw were disillusioned with the teaching at the college and, along with Eleanor, they left. They set up their own art school known as the Byam Shaw School of Art. Shaw and Cole were the joint principals and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was in charge of the Watercolour and Composition sections. In 2003, this school of drawing and painting was integrated with Central Saint Martins, but maintained its individual title and teaching approach.
Eleanor carried on with her work as an illustrator of books and was never short of commissions. She was a hard and diligent worker. Maybe she worked too hard as in the early 1920’s she was struck down with a long and unexplained illness which prevented her working and affected her eyesight. It was this problem with her eyesight that made her concentrate on larger works rather than the finely detailed watercolours in which she had specialised. The appearance of her works at various exhibitions started to decrease and it was during this time that she made a number of glass designs which were seen in churches around the country, and which no doubt mirrored the stained-glass work of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones. One such window, which she designed in 1928, was for the Bristol church of All Saints’ Clifton commemorated the passing of her brother John in 1921.
Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale remained artistically active well into her sixties although she bemoaned the fact that in her mind, Pre-Raphaelitism was no longer wanted. In 1938, aged sixty-six she suffered a stroke which put an end to her art. She died seven years later in March 1945, aged 73.
For my featured painting today I have chosen a work by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale which I saw last week at the Lady Lever Museum exhibition of her work. It was a painting which immediately caught my eye and I was curious to know what it was all about. The work, which she completed in 1920, is entitled The Forerunner and has the subtitle: Leonardo da Vinci showing a model of his flying machine to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and his Court.
The Forerunner title derives from a novel entitled The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci: The Forerunner by Dmitry Merezhkovsky and was a fictional tale about the conflicted life of Leonardo da Vinci: genius on the one hand, counterbalanced by the pagan world, in conflict with the fanatical religious climate in which he lived.
The painting is set in the court of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and depicts Leonardo, the artist, theoretician, designer and scientist, demonstrating his model flying machine to his patrons Ludovico Sforza and his wife, Beatrice d’ Este. In the painting, Beatrice d’ Este is seated on the left and appears totally indifferent to Leonardo’s presentation. On the other side of Leonardo stands the Duke. He seems bemused and somewhat sceptical of what Leonardo is showing him and what he is being told. Leonardo had a troubled relationship with his patron Ludovico Sforza. The Duke had rubbished many of Leonardo’s ideas and on occasions failed to pay Leonardo for his commissioned work. There was also little love lost between Leonardo and the Duchess, Beatrice d’ Este, as she was angry with the artist for painting a portrait of her husband’s mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, a painting, which we know as Lady with an Ermine. In this painting Fortescue-Brickdale has included Cecilia in the painting standing next to the seated duchess and to her left is the Duchess of Albano. Positioned behind the seated duchess, in a hooded monk’s habit, is Girolamo Savanarola, a much feared Dominican friar and preacher who was known for his prophecies of civic glory and calls for Christian renewal. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor. In a way his addition to the painting is a reminder of his and the Church’s antagonism towards scientific advancement. Savonarola was to become very powerful in Florence after the fall of the Medici family in 1494. For all those in the painting who doubted the wisdom of Leonardo’s new invention there was one avid believer. In the centre of the painting, with his back to us, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale has added the small figure of a boy who looks up at Leonardo, mesmerised by what the great man holds in his hands. The boy is Ludovico’s son Cesare.
It is a sumptuous painting measuring just 60cms high and 122 cms long. Brickdale’s interest in the subject reflects her enthusiasm for Renaissance art and her fascination with Leonardo da Vinci. Another possible explanation for the choice of the theme of this painting could be due to Eleanor having personal connections with Charles Rolls the aviator and the fact that she had always shown an interest in aeroplane technology.
The painting was bought by Lord Leverhulme in 1920. In the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool there is a preliminary watercolour study for ‘The Forerunner’ .