Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

My featured artist today is the Victorian painter Mary Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, one of the most popular artists of her time. She is perhaps best remembered for reawakening the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting at the end of the 19th century as shown in her moral or medieval depictions with their vibrant and flamboyant colours. The Pre-Raphaelite group was founded in 1848 by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti but by the time Eleanor went to art school in 1889, Pre-Raphaelite painting was led by a second generation of artists which included Edward Burne-Jones. Eleanor admired their work and carefully followed in their footsteps which helped keep the style alive until the start of the twentieth century. Eleanor was not simply a painter. She was also a designer, produced stained-glass windows and small-scale sculptures, illustrated books as well as completing numerous watercolour and oil paintings.

The Ugly Princess by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1902)

Mary Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was born at the family home in the prosperous London suburb of Upper Norwood on January 25th, 1872. Her father Matthew Inglett Fortescue-Brickdale was a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn who married, Sarah Ann Lloyd, the daughter of Judge Edward John Lloyd QC, of the Bristol county court. Eleanor was the youngest of five children. She had two brothers, Charles, the eldest child, who was born in 1857, John Matthew and two sisters, Kate, and Ann. Ann died aged six, four years before Eleanor was born. The family financial circumstances were sound, and they employed four servants and a governess for Eleanor. As was the norm at that time, the parents were preoccupied with their sons’ future ensuring they had the best schooling and went on to a financially-sound profession whilst being ambivalent with regards their daughters’ future believing that the future happiness of their daughters was a good, kind, and wealthy husband!

Portrait of Charles Fortescue-Brickwell by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickwell (1924)

Charles, an amateur artist who, attended Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford University, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a barrister focusing on land law and in 1900 was appointed Chief Registrar of HM Land Registry.  He was famed for modernising the Land Registry system. John, who was two years older than Eleanor, went into medicine and became a physician in Bristol and contributed many articles for medical journals and co-authored a couple of medical books. Ironically, despite their parent’s plans, neither Kate nor Eleanor married. Little is known of Kate but of course we do know that Eleanor’s love of art was to contribute to her fame and financial stability.

In the Springtime by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1901) watercolour

One must presume Eleanor’s interest in art was fostered by her parents who looked upon the ability to paint and draw, as simply a hobby for females  but one which would prove attractive to suitors. Another reason could be that her father had an interest in art and had John Ruskin as a fellow Oxford University student. Matthew Fortescue-Brickdale was involved in one of Ruskin’s art projects, the Arundel Society, which was founded to promote knowledge of the art works of the old Italian, Flemish, and other European Masters and to conserve and document works of art which were at risk of destruction. It is believed that her father’s love of art resulted in visits with his children to art galleries.

After completing her home schooling in 1889, seventeen-year-old Eleanor enrolled at the Crystal Palace School of Art, Science and Literature. It was not one of the most prestigious establishment but maybe it was chosen for Eleanor for its closeness to the family home. It was a mixed college, but the art classes were for female students only, the science for male students and the music was for both. Eleanor proved an able student and at the end of her first year, was awarded the annual scholarship for crayon drawing and watercolours and in 1892 she gained a silver medal for watercolour.

Natural Magic, 1905 watercolor by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

In 1894, tragedy struck the Fortescue-Brickdale household when Eleanor’s father, Matthew was killed whilst mountain climbing in the Alps.

Around the mid 1890’s, wanting a more prestigious art school which offered tuition by well-known artists who would develop her talent, Eleanor enrolled at the St John’s Wood School. The art school had another important role. It was an established feeder school for students who wanted to enrol at the prestigious Royal Academy Schools. Proof of this comes from the statistic that in the first half of the 1890’s of the 394 students who were admitted to the RA Schools, 250 came from the St John’s Wood School. St John’s Wood School also offered life drawing classes with nude models to both its male and female students.

Contemplation by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

To achieve admission into the Royal Academy Schools, the candidate had to submit certain pieces of art and if they were found acceptable the candidate would become a probationer and then, if their work during the next three months was up to the standard required, they would become a full student and be allowed to start one of the courses. In the Magazine of Art, 25, 1902, an article appeared written by Marion Hepworth Dixon , Our rising Artists: Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale in which she wrote that it took Eleanor three attempts to get to become a probationer but once that was achieved in January 1895, she only remained as such for three weeks before becoming a full-student and starting an art course. In 1897 Eleanor was awarded a prize by the Royal Academy Schools for her work as a designer and promising decorative designer.

Madame Placid by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

For any up-and-coming artist wanting to establish a reputation, social connections were of paramount importance to achieving commissions and acquiring a wealthy patron. Eleanor’s education had been different to many other aspiring painters. She had not attended school, her parents deciding on home schooling, she had not attended a university and now at the age of twenty-five remained unmarried, all of which resulted in her not having many outside connections which would have helped her through her artistic life and so, she had to rely on her family and friends for a helping hand.

Land Registry certificate (1898). Designed by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.

Her first breakthrough came in the form of a “brotherly helping-hand”. Charles her eldest brother who was working at the Land Registry persuaded her to design a certificate of registration for his newly re-organised Land Registry office.

A Cotswold Village; or, country life and pursuits in Gloucestershire, by James Gibbs

In the same year her brother Charles helped her once again. He had married Mabel Gibbs, whose brother James Gibbs an amateur cricketer who had played for the MCC, and a writer who, that year, had published a book, A Cotswold Village; or, country life and pursuits in Gloucestershire, and had Eleanor illustrate it with twenty pen and ink sketches of rural scenes. Later her reputation was further advanced when she provided pen and ink sketches for the illustrated version of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Her reputation as a talented illustrator soon grew and her design work was in great demand from such popular journals as Country Life and The Ladies’ Field. Her “audience” were the wealthy landowners some of who became her patrons and would often call upon her to paint pictures of their family and stately homes.

The Pale Complexion of True Love by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1898)

In 1899 she completed her first major work of art entitled The Pale Complexion of True Love which was accepted for inclusion in that year’s Royal Academy Annual Exhibition. The title of the work is taken from Act 3 Scene IV of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It, when the elderly shepherd, Corin speaks of the shepherd, Silvius’ unrequited love for the shepherdess, Phebe:

“…If you will see a pageant truly play’d,
Between the pale complexion of true love
And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain,
Go hence a little and I shall conduct you,
If you will mark it…”

The first thing that strikes you with this painting is the sumptuous red of the lady’s gown. It is interesting how the artist has used such a bright spectrum of colours. To many people, the Pre-Raphaelite painters use of bright colours was garish and lacked delicacy. To others it was this vibrancy of colour which heightened their work, but I will leave you to decide.

The Gift That is Better Than Rubies by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1899)

In 1899 Eleanor produced a painting, The Gift That is Better Than Rubies, a title derived from a passage in the Bible – Proverbs 8: 10-11.

“…Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it…”

The Gilded Apple by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1899)

In the summer of 1899, father and son art dealers, William and Walter Dowdeswell who ran a gallery in New Bond Street, London, commissioned Eleanor to produce a large number of watercolour paintings for their 1901 show which was entitled Such stuff as dreams are made of, a line from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The depictions in these works covered subjects from the Bible, Shakespeare, Browning and Coleridge. One of her watercolour paintings on show at this exhibition was The Gilded Apple. It depicts a fairy tale princess being thrown a gilded apple. She leans back in an attempt to catch it and her crown tumbles from her head and is about to fall into a fishpond behind her. Meanwhile we see a cat ready to pounce on one of the fish in the pond.  The commission had been so big that Eleanor had decided to acquire her own studio in Holland Park, and area populated by many artists. The show was a spectacular success and all the paintings were sold. In an article in the June edition of The Artist praise was heaped upon her:

“…Rarely, if ever, has a woman painter made a great reputation as quickly and thoroughly as Miss Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, whose series of watercolour drawings has, during the last month, drawn the whole of artistic London to the Dowdeswell Galleries…”

The Little Foot Page by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1905)

One of Eleanor’s best-known paintings is one she completed in 1905 and is entitled The Little Foot Page which is now part of the Walker Art Gallery collection in Liverpool. This painting illustrates lines from a 1765 ballad Child Waters sometimes known as Burd Helen, part of the collection of traditional folk ballads by Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The ballad describes the loyalty of Ellen who is bearing the child of her heartless lover Child Waters. He insists Ellen serve him as a page. She is shown dressed in male clothing and just about to cut her long beautiful hair, so she can pass as a boy. Her dress and wimple can be seen, discarded in the foreground. The theme of a wronged woman was a familiar one in Victorian times. Look at the painstaking way the artist has depicted the foliage. Eleanor was a great believer of the adage, “truth to nature”, and this is highlighted in the painting.

Love and his Counterfeits by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1904)

I have always liked multi-figured paintings which have a story attached and so one of my favourite works by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale is one which she completed in 1905 and entitled Love and His Counterfeits. The painting was included in the artist’s second show at the Dowdeswell Gallery, in June 1905. How many times do we look at a “complicated” work of art and wonder what is going on? If only we could ask the artists. In this case Eleanor has put us out of our misery by supplying, in her words, the story behind the depiction which came with the work. She wrote:

“…When a girl’s soul awakens and she opens the door of her Heart’s Castle to receive Love, at first she will not recognise him.
First, she will see Fear and think him to be Love. Fear, in craven armour of black, with no coat of arms or badge to mark his family. But by Fear, Love may come.
Then she will see Romance, being now in love with ‘being in love’ –
Romance, the Boy on a Bubble with a Castle of Dreams in his hand, and
Birds and Roses about him. He leads Ambition, who shall stir the girl to think he is Love himself – Ambition, very hot and eager, riding upon Pegasus, the winged Horse.
After them is Position, whom she may take for Love; but truly she is in love with Appearance, Prestige, Importance, Riches, Place, all his Train, and this is borne by a Cupid.  Now she is stirred by Pity, thinking whom she pities she loves – Pity with the Cup of tears with three handles, that many may drink.
Then she perceives Arts, a brave fellow who is but words and emptiness and a mask for love. Arts paints a wound upon him and sings that it is real. To Love he is not henchman, nor cousin, but enemy.
Behind him goes Flattery with a mirror, so she is wooed by vain words. Then Gratitude comes with the smoke of memory, and she will think she is faithless if she does not love one who has been kind.
Now, at last, after her emotion, her assault by gifts, mirrors, riches, tears, dreams, phrases, memories, comes True Love, empty-handed, to take and win her Heart’s Castle…”

The Rusty Knight (Yniol’s rusted arms) by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

During the first part of the twentieth century Eleanor carried on with her book illustration. In 1909, Ernest Brown, of the Leicester Galleries, commissioned a series of twenty-eight watercolour illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which she painted over two years. They were exhibited in the Dowdeswell Gallery in 1911, and twenty-four of them were published the next year in a deluxe edition of the first four Idylls. The book, Idylls of the King, was a cycle of twelve narrative poems by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which retells the legend of King Arthur.

In the painting, above, The Rusty Knight (Yniol’s rusted arms), we see the knight Sir Geraint astride his horse, accompanied by Enid who walks alongside. He has borrowed a suit of armour from her father Yniol to challenge Enid’s other suitor on the tournament ground. Geraint is a flawed character and suffers from jealousy and at times mistrusted Enid. It could be that Eleanor felt for Enid and so mocked Geraint by depicting him, peeking 0ut his ill-fitting suit of armour whilst sat on an over-large horse.

The Passing of Elaine by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1911)

Her 1911 painting, The Passing of Elaine, depicts another female character from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which caught the imagination of Eleanor.  She was Elaine, a naïve but affectionate young girl who falls in love with Lancelot, but he has no romantic feelings for her. When he tells her that their love can never be, she wishes for death. She orders a chariot bier to take her to the river and place her on a barge, clothed in black upon which she will make her final journey down the river to King Arthur’s Court in the castle at Camelot.

Portrait of Winifred Roberts, by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, (1913)

The works of art of Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale were not all book illustrations, neither were they all Pre-Raphaelite-type paintings. One of my favourite works by Fortescue-Brickdale is a portrait which she completed in 1913. It is a portrait of Winifred Roberts, a student at the Byam Shaw School of Art, where she taught. The portrait was a commission given to Eleanor by Winifred’s grandmother Rosalind Howard. Winifred wears a blue dress with lace trimming. She is sitting on a settee which is covered in a fabric produced by Morris and Company, a furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer and retailer founded by the artist and designer William Morris with friends from the Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1938, Brickdale’s career as an artist and illustrator was cut short when she suffered a stroke and was unable to paint for the last seven years of her life. Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale died in Surrey on March 11th, 1944 at the age of 79.

Eleanor was acknowledged as having revived the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting at the end of the 19th century and was considered ‘the last survivor of the late Pre-Raphaelite painters’. Her style of painting and her illustrative work had many admirers who baulked at the new modern art which was becoming more popular, what they wanted and what Eleanor gave them was aesthetically pleasing art which told stories.

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Annie Louisa Swynnerton. Part 3 -The later years and the Royal Academy

Portrait of Annie Swynnerton by Gwenny Griffiths (1928)

In my third and final blog looking at the life and works of the talented Victorian artist, Annie Louise Swynnerton I wanted to firstly concentrate on some of her best loved paintings.

In 1880 she completed a work entitled The Tryst sometimes referred to as The Factory Girl’s Tryst. This remarkable painting was bought by Henry Boddington Jnr., the owner of the brewing empire which was not only Manchester’s largest brewery but one of the largest in the North of England. He later gave it to the Salford Art Gallery.

Tryst by Annie Swynnerton (1880)

The depiction features a night-time background scene with distant twinkling lights reflected on water behind the female figure. It could be that Annie got the idea of this background after seeing some of Whistler’s Nocturne paintings featuring the River Thames at night, which he completed in the 1870’s. The setting for Annie Synnerton’s work is thought to be Peel Park Lake, an urban park in Salford, Manchester and the park is situated on the flood plain of the River Irwell.  In the top right of the painting you can just make out an illuminated windmill and it is known that a mill stood on the bank of the river in the 1880’s.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, (1874)

The meaning of the word tryst in the title of the painting refers to a secret meeting between lovers and this subject is a very popular one for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. The figure is of a young girl who is clutching her shawl around her body to fend off the cold. She has a worried expression on her face, a look of desperation, but why? We cannot hep feel for this vulnerable young girl. Her eyes are staring out as if she is looking for something or somebody, but what or who is she searching for?

The answer lies in a Manchester legend which Annie would have been familiar with. It is a legend of the love affair between a poor local girl, a mill worker, the daughter of a miller, and the son of the wealthy landowning Stanley family. She had come to the windmill to meet the young man, but he never arrived. His family had found out about the affair and were horrified by the liaison and so, to put an end to the relationship, they sent him away from home. The young girl was heartbroken when she heard what had happened and being so distraught threw herself into Peel Park Lake and drowned. The Stanley’s son on hearing of the death committed suicide. The boy’s father was so remorseful about sending his son away from home which resulted in the two suicides made it known that the windmill, the trysting place of the young lovers, must endure forever.

The Letter by Annie Swynnerton

Another painting which causes you to wonder what the depiction is all about is Swynnerton’s painting, The Letter, which is part of the Royal Academy collection in London and is a depiction of a favoured subject by many artists of the past. Receiving, reading, and writing a letter was a much-loved subject of artist for many centuries. Looking back at genre works by sixteenth and seventeenth century Northern Renaissance and Dutch painters many featured this subject.  It was a depiction that made viewers wonder about the story behind the painting.

Woman Reading a Letter by Gabriel Metsu (1665)

I can recall two wonderful paintings by Gabriel Metsu, prints of which I have on one of my walls at home, Woman Reading a Letter and Man Writing a Letter (see My Daily Art Display, Jan 22nd, 2014).

The Letter by Leonard Campbell Taylor

The subject was also popular in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century with British artists such as The Letter painted by the British painter Leonard Campbell Taylor.

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer (1659)

Annie Swynnerton’s painting besides being about letter reading has another connection with a famous painting of the same subject, Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, as like Vermeer the person reading the letter is illuminated by natural light coming through a window, which symbolised the outside world. In the work by Swynnerton the way she has formulated the composition (101 x 48cms) its narrowness gives us a feeling that the girl is in some way confined in a restricted space which gives us a perception of claustrophobia. The contrast between the dark background and the illuminated figure of the girl with the painted highlights on her face, hair and dress enhances the three-dimensionality of the depiction. What is in the letter remains a mystery but whatever it is, it has the girl’s full attention.

Cupid and Psyche by Annie Swynnerton (1891)

Annie Swynnerton’s paintings often depicted nudes but couched them with mythological connotations probably to make them more acceptable to the Victorian public. Her best-known work of this genre was her 1890 painting Cupid and Psyche. The pair from Roman mythology were the favourite subject of many artists. According to mythology Cupid was sent by his mother Venus, who was jealous of Psyche’s beauty, to wound Psyche with one of his arrows and by so doing she would fall in love with a lowly man. The twist to the story is that Cupid falls in love with Psyche and makes her his wife, but he forbids her to look at his face to ensure the marriage remains a secret. The story then gets more complicated………

In the depiction we see Cupid on the right kissing Psyche. The depiction of the nudes differs from the normal idealized Academic-depicted nude paintings which were common in works by artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Frederic Leighton. Swynnerton has once again gone for an un-idealized portrayal of the human body. Look carefully at the way the artist has use an assortment of colours in the portrayal of the naked flesh including blue for the veins. Their bodies are illuminated by moonlight whilst, behind them, we see the light of the breaking dawn. The painting received mixed reviews from the critics, some of whom were startled by the depiction. Claude Phillips from the Art Journal praised Swynnerton writing:

“…her flesh-painting has a certain quivering reality not to be found in many renderings of the nude by contemporary English artists…”

But the art critic and one of the two ‘non-artistic’ members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Frederic George Stephens, writing in The Athenaeum commented on Swynnerton’s depiction of Psyche:

“…her features are coarse and blubbered, and her flesh is without the sweetness, evenness or purity of youth…”

Oceanid by Annie Swynnerton (1908)

Another of Annie Swynnerton’s mythological paintings, Oceanids, was completed in 1909 and is thought to have resulted from some plein-air painting at one of the crater lakes close to Rome and then completed in her studio in central Rome. Oceanids were goddess-nymphs who presided over the sources of earth’s fresh-water, from rain-clouds to subterranean springs and fountains. Along with the Oceanid there is another creature depicted in the painting but barely discernible in the bottom right of it. It is a sea serpent which co-habits with the Oceanid in the lake. What is so magical about this painting is the way Swynnerton has illustrated the translucency and movement of the water and could only have been achieved by carefully studying the water conditions of the lake and the way light played on the surface. It is also remarkable the way she has depicted the dappled light on the body of the woman. The expression on the woman’s face is one of great pleasure as she draws her hair out to be warmed by the rays of the sun. The painting was bought by Christiana Jane Herringham who was the daughter of Thomas Wilde Powell, an artist, and later a wealthy patron of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1880 she married the physician Wilmot Herringham, (later Sir Wilmot Herringham) with whom she had two sons, Geoffrey, and Christopher. Lady Herringham was committed to women’s suffrage from 1889 onwards and had probably met Swynnerton through their mutual friendship with Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The painting is now part of the City of Bradford Museum collection.

Geoffrey and Christopher Herringham by Annie Swynnerton

Annie Swynnerton completed a painting, of Jane Herringham’s two sons, Geoffrey, and Christopher Herringham in 1889 and the following year was exhibited at the New Gallery in London and at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition. The rural setting is at the onset of evening with the sun setting in the blue-hilled background. Again, like so many of her figurative works, Swynnerton has focused on the natural light which illuminates the rosy-cheeks of the boys but also look at how the glimmering light is captured on the velvet jumpers worn by the boys. It is a depiction of happy childhood but alas their future was destined to be anything but happy. The younger son, Christopher, died of acute rheumatoid arthritis soon after the painting was completed, and Geoffrey was killed in 1914, during the first months of the Great War. He was 31. Their mother Jane died aged 77 in 1929 but spent many of her last years in a mental institution suffering from delusions of pursuit and persecution.

Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1856)

The painting is often likened to that of John Millais’s 1856 work Autumn Leaves with its twilight setting and blue-hilled backdrop. Millais’ work is housed in the Manchester Art Gallery and must have been seen on many occasions by Swynnerton.

Margaret and Chrystian Guthrie by Annie Swynnerton (1907)

Another painting commission Annie Swynnerton received due to her connection with the woman’s rights campaign was to produce a portrait of the two daughters of American-born Mary Guthrie, the wife of David Charles Guthrie, 5th Baron of Craigie and East Haddon Hall. Mary Guthrie was a leading campaigner in the Northampton area for the Woman’s rights and it is through that connection that she met Swynnerton. In the painting entitled Margaret and Chrystian Guthrie we see her two daughters sitting on a window seat in East Haddon Hall. In the background we can see the extensive and opulent gardens. The children seem a little bit edgy and probably don’t like to waste time sitting for the portrait and prefer to be off playing. Look at the elder of the sisters on the left. She is almost desperate to lift herself off the seat and run away. The younger, with her back to us, looks over her shoulder and smiles but seems to prefer to concentrate on the sunny garden. The painting is a mass of colour and tones from the yellows, greens, and blues of the garden in the background to the pinks and reds of the sumptuous curtains and cushions we see in the room itself. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1907.

In 1922 Annie Louisa Swynnerton was finally elected the first female Associate Member of the Royal Academy. One has to remember that Swynnerton had been regarded as a highly accomplished and talented artist since the late 1880’s so why the long wait for recognition by the Royal Academy? To find a possible answer to that question one must look at the Royal Academy establishment.

A 19th century illustration of the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 to publicise the arts, to deliver free tuition which would enable the talented, notwithstanding their means, to be taught to the highest standards. It was also committed to hold an annual exhibition which would be free to exhibitors and at which the works would be selected on merit. Thirty-six artists and architects petitioned King George III seeking his permission to establish a society which would promote the Arts.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Zoffany (1772)

In a group portrait of the thirty-six founding members of the Royal Academy completed by Johann Zoffany in 1772, we see the members gathered around a nude male model at a time when women were excluded from such training to protect their modesty. For that reason, the two female founding members, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman could not be depicted as being present at the life drawing class but Zoffany added them as portraits hanging on the wall.

King George III agreed to the request and accorded it Royal status and helped subsidise it for the first decade. Its first president was Joshua Reynolds. To preserve the excellence of the establishment the numbers of Academicians would be limited to artists, sculptors and architects.  Later engravers were included. The 1768 Instrument of Foundation allowed total membership of the Royal Academy to be 40 artists. When Annie Swynnerton was elected the maximum permitted number was 42 and since then there have been two more changes to the rule and the maximum now stands at 80, but within that number there must always be at least 14 sculptors, 12 architects and 8 printmakers with the balance being painters. The maximum age of an Academician is set at seventy-five and once Academician reach that age they stand down and become Senior Academicians. So, when this happens or on the death of an Academician, a vacancy occurs.

Nominations Book of the Royal Academy

Anyone is eligible to become a Royal Academician, if they are under seventy-five years of age and professionally active as an artist or architect in the UK. Potential new Royal Academicians are first nominated by an existing Academician, who writes their name in the weighty Nominations Book. Signatures must then be elicited from eight other Royal Academicians in support of the nomination. At this stage the nominee becomes a candidate. In March, May, and December each year, all the Academicians meet at a General Assembly to vote in new Members from the list of candidates. There is no postal voting, so this is done entirely in person.

Oreads by Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1907)

So, to go back to the case of Annie Swynnerton. She was a respected artist. She was under seventy-five years of age and so she should have been a prime candidate, or was she? The Royal Academy in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was very male orientated and talk of electing a woman into the hallowed ranks was anathema to many Academicians. In 1907, when Annie was 63, her name was put forward by George Clausen following the positive response to her paintings which were shown at the Academy’s 1906 exhibition and by her painting Oreads shown in 1907. However, she failed to be elected. Seven years later, in 1914, her name was once again put forward by George Clausen but once again she failed to be elected. Annie may have been totally disillusioned with the way in which she had been treated by the R.A. and did not exhibit again at the Royal Academy for six years.

The breakthrough finally came in November 1922 when she was finally elected the first woman Associate Royal Academician. Full coverage across all newspapers hailed this not only a success for Annie but a success for women. She was delighted, and the Daily Mail of November 25th printed an interview they had with her and recorded her feelings at being so honoured:

“…I am much gratified at the honour bestowed on me, but true art needs no incentive; its work is its own reward. Professionally, though, this recognition of women artists should be a great help. It marks such a very long stage from my younger days, when women were not admitted to the Academy schools and it was difficult for them to get their best work exhibited…”

And that ended the saga – or did it? Those of you who are good at maths, knowing Annie Swynnerton was born in 1844, will have realised that when she was elected a Royal Academician in November 1922 she was 78 and that was three years past the cut-off date for being eligible to become a Royal Academician !!!!!!   It was thought that she would have to resign immediately. The proposed treatment of Annie outraged the national press. In an article in November 28th Daily News they did not mince their words:

“…Today the world sinks back in its chair overwhelmed with laughter and despair and the Academy is covered with ignominy. Surely there has never been so egregious a blunder, if indeed it was not something worse…”

They, like many people, could not decide whether it had been the Academicians’ carelessness and incompetence for not realising the age of Annie Swynnerton when her name was put forward on the third occasion or they were being devious and there was an element of conspiracy about the whole issue.  A compromise was finally reached and Annie Louisa Swynnerton was made a Senior Associate Academician but, because of her age, could never be raised to full membership.

Annie Swynnerton’s Grave, St Mary’s Church, South Hayling

Annie Swynnerton’s sight began to deteriorate towards the end of her life, but she continued to exhibit pictures at the Academy, although they were often works she had painted years earlier. She died on October 24th, 1934 at the age of eighty-eight at her home on Hayling Island, near Portsmouth, leaving a studio full of 170 pictures, all but 12 of them unfinished and unframed.

Annie Louisa Swynnerton, besides being a very talented painter, was a fighter. Her determination was the key to success. She overcame many difficulties and what she achieved was a beacon of light which inspired many female artists who followed to press ahead with their fight against institutionalised prejudice against female artists.


Most of the information for my three blogs about Annie Swynnerton was found in some excellent books which I bought at the Painting Light and Hope exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, which you should try and visit.

Annie Swynnerton, Painting Light and Hope by Kate JT Herrington and Rebecca Milner.

The Life and Works of Annie Louise Swynnerton by Susan Thomson.

Annie Swynnerton, Painter and Pioneer by Christine Allen and Penny Morris.

Annie Louisa Swynnerton. Part 2 – the middle years and marriage.

Charles Barry’s Royal Manchester Institution is now Manchester Art Gallery

After two years in Europe Annie Swynnerton and Isabel Dacre returned to Manchester. Manchester had two very important establishments with regards the Arts. There was the Royal Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science, and the Arts (RMI) which had been founded in 1823. It came into being following a visit to the Exhibition of Paintings and Works of Art of the Northern Establishment of Artists at Leeds by three Manchester artists – William Brigham, Frank Stone and David Parry in the summer of 1823. They believed it would be a good idea to have a similar annual Exhibition in Manchester and so, in October 1823,  at a public meeting held in the Exchange Room by Manchester merchants, local artists and others keen to dispel the image of Manchester as a city lacking in culture it was decided to establish an “Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Manchester”.  In March 1824, King George IV agreed to give it his royal patronage and it became the Royal Manchester Institution (RMI). The Institution held regular art exhibitions, collected works of fine art, and promoted the arts generally from the 1820s until 1882, when the building and its collections were transferred under Act of Parliament to Manchester Corporation, becoming Manchester Art Gallery.

The Offering by Joseph Swynnerton (Manchester Art Gallery)

The other artistic establishment in Manchester was the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (MAFA) which was founded in 1859.  Both organisations hosted major exhibitions every year and drew in well-known artists whose works were hung alongside those of younger and unknown aspiring artists. It was also an ideal time for what we now term “networking” when painters and sculptors who had their work on show could mix with the buying public and pick up new commissions. Annie Swynnerton and Isabel Dacre had their work exhibited and their portraits were in much demand.  Another recipient of many commissions especially for his portrait busts was a sculptor from the Isle of Man, Joseph Swynnerton and it is quite likely that he had met Annie during one of the exhibitions. He had studied and lived in Rome and it could well be the case that he persuaded Annie to visit the Italian capital once again.

William Gaskell by Annie Swynnerton (1879)

It was in 1878, during her two-year stay back in Manchester that Annie Robinson, later Annie Swynnerton,  completed one of her most impressive works. It was a commission, received from the Portico Library in Manchester, for the portrait of William Gaskell, the English Unitarian minister, charity worker and pioneer in the education of the working class. He was a writer and poet and the husband of novelist and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell. For his forty years of service to the library the proprietors offered Gaskell a gift of either a portrait painted by Annie Robinson or a bust sculpted by Joseph Swynnerton. On the advice of his two daughters, Meta and Julia, who had seen Annie’s work, he chose a portrait. It turned out that the library board found enough money to pay for both the portrait and the sculpture and so Joseph and Annie set to work on their commissions. On completion the bust of William Gaskell was given to the library where it went on display and the portrait painting was given to Gaskell himself. On his death the portrait was passed on to his daughter, Meta Gaskell, who in 1914 donated it to the Manchester Art Gallery where it remains to this day. Annie had become good friends with Meta and Julia Gaskell and it was through them that she came to meet the Pre-Raphaelite painters, Edward Burne-Jones, and John Everett Millais as well as the American portrait painter, John Singer Sargent.

The Dreamer by Annie Swynnerton (1887)

Isabel Dacre and Annie Robinson left Manchester once again and returned to Paris where they remained for a year. On their return to Manchester their reputations as accomplished artists had grown, and their work was in much demand. The two women were very disappointed that the prejudice against women artists had not changed very much and they were well aware that female artists were able to get better tuition in Paris than was possible in England apart from London which now had, since 1856, the Society of Female Artists. Isabel and Annie decided to rectify the situation in 1879 and founded the Manchester Society of Women Artists. The society hosted many exhibitions which created opportunities for local women to display their work. The society also allowed women to take part in life drawing which up till then had not been available to women in Manchester. It was all about the equalizing of opportunities for women in the world of art.

Evelyn by Annie Swynnerton

The Society held three annual exhibitions in 1880, 1882 and 1883 with Annie and Isabel providing the most works but by the time of the 1883 exhibition which was held in a studio used by Annie and Isabel the number of paintings on show had declined. In 1884 the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts decided to change its admission policy and allow women to full membership instead of just as Lady Exhibitioners and provided female artists with the same training and opportunities as their male counterparts. However, it was another three years before women could sit on the MAFA Council. This change of attitude by the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts was a triumph for Annie and Isabel and their Manchester Society of Women Artists and down to their hard work and constant lobbying for artistic equality. The Manchester Society of Women Artists had served its purpose and was now no longer needed.

Joan of Arc by Annie Swynnerton

Annie Swynnerton eventually found the artistic opportunities in Manchester were limited and realised that if she was to remain in England she must position herself in London or maybe even go back to Paris. She eventually made the move to London and found that there she had opportunities to meet fellow artists and the chance to exhibit her work at the likes of the Royal Academy or one of the new avant-garde galleries such as the Grosvenor Gallery.  Such opportunities were far greater than when she was living and working in Manchester.

Oleander by Annie Swynnerton

There is no definite evidence as to when Annie Robinson first met the Manx sculptor Joseph Swynnerton, but we know their paths must have crossed during exhibitions in Manchester, or maybe when they were awarded the William Gaskell commission or when they were both in London and in Rome where Joseph spent most of his time. The couple were finally married on July 6th, 1883 at St Marylebone’s Parish Anglican Church in London. The wedding day was also Joseph’s thirty-fifth birthday; Annie was four years his elder. Although Annie was a Catholic. the service had to be held in an Anglican church as Joseph was not a Catholic, but Joseph later converted to Catholicism. The couple’s final decision to marry was not made for many years after they first met, and many wonder about the delay in formalising the relationship. Was it due to their constant travelling and being apart?  One theory regarding the delay, albeit a somewhat cynical one, was that Annie, who was a staunch believer in improving women’s rights, delayed marrying her husband until after the Married Women’s Property Act became law. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that significantly altered English law regarding the property rights of married women, which besides other matters allowed married women to own and control property in their own right.

Joseph William Swynnerton

Joseph wynnerton had trained as a sculptor in Rome where, from 1869, he had his main home. He was very successful and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy and received many commissions for his work from clients in both Rome and Manchester. At this time Annie was also exhibiting her work at the Royal Academy and had split her time between London and Manchester but she was persuaded by her husband to leave England and come and live with him in Rome, albeit they both kept on their own studios in London.
When I was reading about Annie and Joseph’s wedding I came across a quote with regards the couple from Joseph’s “Aunt Florrie”. It is a very unflattering comment and of course we know little about “Aunt Florrie” or her age when she met Annie and later came out with this bizarre description of the couple. It quotes her saying:

“…He married a lady who was a Roman Catholic. Her name was Annie. I saw her shortly before they were married. They visited at our house and she was absolutely the ugliest woman I ever saw! I have often wondered about that because Uncle Joseph was such an admirer of beauty. She had a large bony frame without an ounce of flesh. Her eyes were sunken very deep in the sockets. Her forehead and cheek bones were very prominent and she had a very large mouth with protruding teeth!…”

Lydia Becker by Isabel Dacre (c.1888)

It was very apparent that the lack of equality between men and women when it came down to opportunities was not just present in the art world but in all facets of life. There was a great feminist movement in Manchester which, at this time, had become a vibrant centre for new money, business, and social change, and in 1867 the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage was launched.  Annie and Isabel Dacre became actively involved in the movement. The leading activist in the Manchester suffragist movement was Lydia Becker who was a friend of both Annie and Isabel.
Lydia Ernestine Becker sat for one of Isabel Dacre’s portraits which was completed in 1888 just two years before her death due to diphtheria at the age of 63. It is a somewhat austere portrait and is maybe due to the serious nature of her work as the President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In the depiction we see that her hair is on top of her head in a tightly-wound bun giving us an uninterrupted view of her face. The background of the painting is dark and plain and allows us to concentrate on the sitter. She wears a plain darkly coloured silk dress which mirrors her sensible and pragmatic character. She wears wire-framed glasses and an ornate necklace. There is a rose corsage attached to the lace of the dress. It is an un-idealized likeness which conjures up the image of an intellectual woman.

Dame Millicent Fawcett, C.B.E., LL.D. by Annie Louisa Swynnerton

Annie Swynnerton had an extensive network of female friends, many of who were leading lights in the Suffragist movement. Another of her many portraits was her depiction of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who was influential in gaining British women over 30 the vote in 1918. Garrett Fawcett was Lydia Becker’s successor as leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In this portrayal Fawcett is donned in the robes of the University of St Andrews, the establishment that awarded her an Honorary Doctorate in Law for services to education in 1899, and although the painting is undated it could well have been completed the year Fawcett was given the award at the age of 52. The setting for the depiction is an unknown domestic interior. Natural light has been blocked out by a screen which we see behind the lady but there is a strong shaft of light which illuminates her face, hands, and the front of her doctoral hood. This is a classic use of chiaroscuro technique which Swynnerton had used on many of her early portraits. It is another un-idealized portrait which shows the lines and creases of the face of the sitter but in a way, this has had gravitas to the work. In 1930, a year after Swynnerton had died this work was included in the Royal Academy exhibition entitled Portraits of Distinguished Men and Women. Ironically the National Portrait Gallery in London had rejected this work, and many believed this was because of Fawcett’s support of the Suffragist movement.

Joseph Swynnerton had been a healthy and very active man, but it is known that the couple had hurriedly returned to London in the early months of 1910 where Joseph was treated for a heart complaint. We cannot be sure what Annie and Joseph were told about his prognosis but from London they travelled to the Port St Mary in the Isle of Man, where Joseph had been born. Was it just that they believed a change of location would aid his recovery or was he returning to his birthplace one more time before he died?

Kirk Maughold Church and graveyard, Isle of Man

We will never know but two weeks after their arrival, on August 10th, 1910, Joseph Swynnerton died, aged 62. He was buried in Kirk Maughold Churchyard, on the Isle of Man, where some years before he had expressed a wish to lie.   Of his death Annie wrote:

“…Meanwhile he has passed away in the sickness of hope deferred – lulled to rest by the dirge of the seagull and the murmur of the waves on the shores of his beloved island.
What a sense of loss – of exquisite companionship for ever fled, only those can estimate who were privileged to know him…”

Annie returned to Rome but soon left Italy and returned to England…….

………………………………..to be continued


Most of the information for this and following blogs about Annie Swynnerton was found in some excellent books which I bought at the Painting Light and Hope exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery.

Annie Swynnerton, Painting Light and Hope by Kate JT Herrington and Rebecca Milner

The Life and Works of Annie Louise Swynnerton by Susan Thomson

Annie Swynnerton, Painter and Pioneer by Christine Allen and Penny Morris.