ary Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale — named for her paternal aunt — was born into a financially comfortable family living in the handsome London suburb of Upper Norwood, where beautiful views over Surrey replaced the inner London surroundings in which the family had lived until a few years previously. She was the last of five children: the oldest, Charles, was fifteen years her senior [cat. 31], followed by Kate, then John, just two years old at her birth; Anne, born in 1862, had died in 1868. Their father Matthew was a successful barrister who had married a judge's daughter and when Mary Eleanor was a girl the household included four live-in servants and a governess for her.
This was the kind of family in which the sons were expected to go into the professions, and the daughters to make good marriages. Thus after graduation from Oxford University, Charles followed his father into law and John went into medicine, and over the years both published specialist texts that gave them enduring status in their fields. Neither Kate nor Mary Eleanor ever married, however, and it is tempting to see in this departure from the norms of their class a sign of the changing times, as Victorian Britain became twentieth-century Britain, and women finally became citizens. Kate Fortescue-Brickdale remained a private individual, without husband, children, profession, philanthropic causes or scandal to bring her into the public eye, but her younger sister progressed steadily in her chosen field to become one of the most familiar names in Edwardian Britain.
Eleanor's choice of art as a career can be supposed to have begun with a pastime, developed to a vocation and eventually crystallised as an occupation and identity. There are signs that her family was disposed to the arts in a quite specific way, with her father having been a fellow-student of John Ruskin's at Oxford and a founding supporter of the Arundel Society, one of Ruskin's pet projects; 1 and with Charles attending Ruskin's lectures while at university in the 1870s and remaining a keen amateur artist all his life.2 It can be assumed that the Fortescue-Brickdale home received illustrated periodicals such as the Cornhill Magazine and that gallery-going was one of their regular pursuits. Mary Eleanor's own edition of an 1881 re-issue of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, a present from an aunt and uncle, is coloured in by its enthusiastic young recipient in charming proof of her burgeoning creativity. There are proofs too of a remarkably good eye and hand in ink sketches made on a trip through Germany and Switzerland in 1885, that is to say when she was thirteen or fourteen years of age, and indications of the ceaseless observer in pencil studies of scenery made in her later teenage years in Surrey, Scotland and elsewhere.
In the mid 1880s the Fortescue-Brickdales moved across the road to a house in a new development described by a late twentieth-century commentator as 'later Victorian stockbroker belt' (Conservation in Norwood 7) and shortly thereafter Eleanor moved out into the wider world when, at the age of 17 (1889), she enrolled at the nearby Crystal Palace School of Art, Science and Literature.
Although this facility — to call it an institution would be an over-statement — had neither the status of one of the government schools nor the glamour of a school run by a well-known artist, it no doubt had the attraction to the Fortescue-Brickdale parents of lying a few minutes' walk away from the family home. It was based in the Crystal Palace, removed from central London where it had famously housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 and re-erected in south London as a centre for exhibitions, trade shows, entertainment and sundry diversions both didactic and commercial. Young men were admitted to study science and young women to study art, with music welcoming students of both sexes. The chief offering of the School was its vast collection of casts of the 'masterpieces of the antique' and extensive picture gallery boasting 'many admirable specimens of eminent painters who are very poorly represented in the National Gallery'.4 Though this suggests that the primary opportunity it gave was in art appreciation and copying, Fortescue-Brickdale later gave it credit for providing her with a firm foundation in design (quoted in Cassidy 425). Lectures in anatomy and composition and tuition in 'artistic wood carving' and 'decorative art and design' were amongst the opportunities offered (Mackenzie 30-31). Prizes were awarded for drawing from the antique, modelling from the life and from the antique, animal studies, original designs in illustration, oil painting, sculpture and architecture. At the end of the 1890-91 academic year, Fortescue-Brickdale was awarded the annual scholarship for crayon drawing and watercolours, and the following year a silver medal for watercolour.7
The Fortescue-Brickdales, the Gibbs and their friends were in microcosm the readership of the new large-format upper-class weeklies and The Ladies' Field, begun by George Newnes in January 1897 and March 1898 respectively. The former, focussed on the landed upper class, has been described as "the manual of gentrification for the late Victorian and Edwardian middle classes",8 part of the liberal trend for appreciation of the English country life and rural traditions that embraced enthusiasm for Helen Allingham's cottage portraiture, the establishment of the National Trust, and the success of gardening guru Gertrude Jekyll. Fortescue-Brickdale's charming and varied designs for these titles [fig. 3] allowed her to work out a repertoire that she was able to develop and mine for years to come. 9 They sat alongside contributions by her friend John Byam Shaw and others such as Arthur Rackham, Harold Nelson and Miriam Garden and, after her first appearance in January 1898, not an issue of Country Life appeared without something from Fortescue-Brickdale's hand until January 1909.10 Whether for regular columns on books, farming topics and readers' letters or for one-off articles and stories, her designs drew her to the attention of an audience from which she was to draw numerous patrons in the process of her long career. This sector of society was also a steady source of commissions for portraits and, with its big houses in extensive grounds and historic settings, handily facilitated Fortescue-Brickdale's growing need for historic, decorative and natural backgrounds for her watercolours and paintings [cat. 15].11 Another opportunity offered by this class was in the fin-de-siècle fashion for book-plates, which gave black-and-white artists another string to their bow.12 It is telling of her progress that by the end of 1898, Fortescue-Brickdale was keeping a notebook of sales achieved.13
Though she lacked the status that would have put her name on the frontispiece of A Cotswold Village [J. Arthur Gibbs, 1898], the next book the promising newcomer was commissioned to illustrate recognised her as a coming black-and-white artist with audience appeal. The ten drawings that Fortescue-Brickdale contributed to Walter Scott's well-known medievalist adventure in Bell and Sons' illustrated edition of Ivanhoe published in 1900 made her familiarity with the Pre-Raphaelite repertoire more obvious.14 Meant for use in schools, this was a cheap and cheerful publication, but once again put the artist's name before a huge audience as the colleague of Bell's other illustrators, who included Byam Shaw and Robert Anning Bell. She progressed to colour illustration with a share of the Constable edition of Shakespeare's works [cat. 4] published in 1901, which put her into the company of Shaw, Cadogan Cowper, Gerald Moira and others… …[T]he variety in Fortescue-Brickdale's creative practice continued to develop, indicating that she still saw herself as an artist who was as much a designer as a painter. In the summer of 1907, she was drawn by her friend Dion Clayton Calthrop into the fashion for pageants,15 while a further dimension of her skills in two-dimensional work was made clear in 12 watercolours in the Wright Brothers' 17-part Beautiful Flowers and how to grow Them, appearing during 1909 [cat. 14], which gave rise in turn to the issuing of a flower calendar of Fortescue-Brickdale's designs, complimented for combining accuracy with pictorial charm and aesthetic merit (Anonymous 193). Of course, the Pre-Raphaelite in her venerated nature and its myriad forms, observed them closely and believed in nature's value for the spirituality and morality of humankind but, even though this had been visible in such works as The little Foot-Page [cat. 7], it was not until the Wright publication that this artist's sympathetic skill in the delineation of nature — somehow the expression 'still life' seems inadequate — was so gracefully exposed.17
This was a key element of the suite of watercolours commissioned in 1909 by her new dealer Ernest Brown, who ran the Leicester Galleries, and published in Hodder and Stoughton's illustrated editions of Tennyson's Idylls of the King [cats. 16-19], which appeared in 1911. The initial commission, probably provoked by the centenary of the poet's birth, asked for 28 drawings, though the books (a deluxe edition and a popular edition) used only 21 and 12 compositions respectively. Readers, then, saw only the original four Idylls that had appeared in 1859, devoted to the female characters from the Arthurian stories, Enid, Vivien, Elaine, and Guinevere, without the episodes concerning King Arthur and knights Lancelot and Gareth included in exhibition. Explicitly reinforcing for some reviewers the artist's Pre-Raphaelitism and femininity,18 this sequence of pictures celebrates natural settings and their detail, in the various stages of Geraint and Enid's foolish rambles, in key scenes of Vivien's enslavement of Merlin, in the more sophisticated images of Elaine's sad story, and in the account of the flawed heroine Guinevere. The presence of individualised plants, bushes, grasses and trees gives the magic touch to many of the works, that were displayed alongside Arthur Rackham's latest work at the Leicester Galleries in October 1911.
This publication was a greater critical success than her Browning designs, which had been seen to fall short of the poet's highly individual, sensual and, it could be said, masculine spirit. Browning's "dubious, self-exculpating, failed, doubting characters from the margins of morality, religion, art, intellect, society, history"19 may have been alien to Fortescue-Brickdale's psychology, while the version of the Arthurian world that Tennyson offered in the Idylls was generally agreed to be founded on a conservative sexual politics invested in the polarisation of good women and bad on whose behaviours the prosperity of their entire society depended. This may — sadly, it could be said, from a 21st-century viewpoint — have been more familiar to the artist.20 In this respect, this project shifted Fortescue-Brickdale's repertoire more toward the idées reçues of Tennyson's sexual politics — and the feminine sphere for which admirers such as Walter Shaw Sparrow had already tried to claim her. Though, as has already been asserted, Fortescue-Brickdale was capable of much more than this, the femininity of her interpretation of the Idylls is indeed marked in contrast with the vigorous work of, say, Florence Harrison, who illustrated Tennyson's Guinevere for Blackie just a year later.21 Without documentary evidence, though, it is tantalisingly impossible to say how self-determining Fortescue-Brickdale's programme of work was or whether she was steered by others into what conservative taste designated 'women's work'.
No evidence remains either of Fortescue-Brickdale's view, in these eventful years in Britain's evolution into a modern society, of the Liberal landslide in the 1906 election, the great demonstrations by the suffragists in 1908, the unrest provoked by Lloyd George's budget in 1909, or the shocking Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912; but her family life underwent substantial changes at this time, with a move in 1908 to the West Kensington house that would be her and her sister Kate's home for the next thirty years, her mother Sarah's death in 1909, and her brother Charles' knighthood in 1911/
Last modified 3 March 2014