Illuminated initial M

ary Ellen Edwards’s monogram, ‘MEE’, is one of the best known of the 1860s. Yet criticism of her illustrations is relatively undeveloped or dismissive in the manner of Reid’s negativity (261). For sure, not all of her illustrations are the best of their kind and the sheer volume of work is almost certain to produce inconsistency. However, her best work is both distinctive and influential. Her style has several dimensions.

Edwards is adept at producing ensemble pieces in which a number of figures are combined to create a tableau. These are effective reportage in which social interactions are analysed in detail. She is at her most insightful in her treatment of soirées and parties in Charles Lever’s The Bramleighs of Bishop’s Folly (1872). In A Reception at Rome (facing 264), we see a complex composition in which the figures’ interactions are expressed in their nuanced glances and small but telling gestures. The same can be said of the frontispiece, The Curate Cross-Examined. Both illustrations visualize the drama that underlines the polite manners and suggest the tensions at work within the most respectable of gatherings.

Three illustrations from William Gilbert's Ruth Thornbury (1866). [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Edwards is at her most interesting, however, in her treatment of single figures and pairs. Like many of her contemporaries she is skilled in charting the coquettishness of young lovers, but her particular contribution is her capacity to view the situation from the perspective of her female character, who is placed in a plausible domestic space. This is shown, in contradiction of the terms of feminist critics such as Deborah Cherry (124–27), as a site of power in which women are not so much contained, as controlling the space around them. In Edwards’s approach female activities are invested with a new significance and value. Her imagery often involves an extension or contradiction of the text. In At the Cottage (facing 77) an illustration for Lever’s Bramleighs, the author merely remarks that Julia is ‘arranging some flowers … over a small hanging lamp’ (77). In the image, however, the figure stands on a chair as if she were a classical sculpture; Jack Bramleigh looks into the female space, but Julia stands over him and dominates the composition. Tete-a-Tete is another example (facing 326), representing Augusta’s psychological domination of both the situation and her companion in the very physicality of her presence. Her dress occupies perhaps two thirds of the composition, squeezing Pracontal into a corner. Indeed, there are numerous occasions in which the artist asserts the ownership of ‘female space’, pushing men outside, pushing them into corners, or physically overwhelming them in an intimate embrace. In The Dance of Death (Once a Week, 12 [1865]: p.267) the female figures drags her lover to their death, and in Husband and Wife, an illustration for Trollope’s The Claverings (The Cornhill Magazine [1867]: facing p.1), Edwards shows Hermione holding Sir Hugh in a claustrophobic grip; as N. John Hall remarks, it strongly conveys a ‘sense of suffocation’ (p. 113).

Feminine power directed outwards is one theme, and Edwards is equally accomplished in showing the psychological travails of women’s suffering: sometimes this is focused in the embrace of two women, and sometimes she focuses on individuals engaged in solitary reverie or coping with inner turmoil. The illustration to Isabella Fryer’s ‘The Death of Emilia Manin’ exemplifies this intense inwardness ( The Quiver 2 [1867]: 265); others include her work for Ruth Thornbury in Good Words (1866), in which a particularly feminine anguish is powerfully conveyed.

This visualization of intense feeling is of course a central characteristic of the graphic art of the Sixties, but Edwards’s finely nuanced scenes open a small space in which she presents a very personal view of female emotion. As Ellen Clayton remarks, she creates ‘graceful and not insipid pictures of womanhood … possessing feeling and sentiment [but] without degenerating into affectation [or] inane prettiness’ (II, 80). Clayton’s comments are a riposte to Reid’s accusations of sentimentality (261) and suggest he never considered the sensitivity of her work, at least in showing of feminity. Her men, by contrast, are purely conventional – the necessary foils to the women. Edwards is in this respect very much a ‘female artist’ who implicitly champions her heroines, even though she typically shows them in realistic, and sometimes unsettling terms.

Her drawing style further reflects this highly inflected reading of her literary sources. Though there is some variation in her drawing, her line is usually delicate and lyrical; though placed in shallow spaces, her images often create a tension between depth and flatness. She is notably interested in drawing swirling arabesques in the forms of the women’s dresses. Diana Paget and Charlotte Halliday, for Braddon’s Birds of Prey exemplifies this tendency (Belgravia 2 [1867]: facing p. 192), and the same approach is repeated in her illustrations for Ruth Thornbury and The Claverings.

This striking feature is one of her trade-marks, although it was undoubtedly heavily influenced by Millais and Arthur Boyd Houghton. Both treat elaborate dresses – invariably crinolines – as a design unit in which the surface is animated by swirling lines. Edwards would have seen her contemporaries’ work and absorbed the way in which they transform an inert object into an imposing compositional device, which sometimes acts expressively as a sign of the characters’ feelings.

Left: The Dance of Death by Mary Ellen Edwards. Right: Morgiana Dancing by Arthur Boyd Houghton. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

There is a close relationship, especially, between Edwards’s treatment of crinolines in her illustrations for Braddon’s Birds of Prey and the agitated drawing of the dress of Lucy Robartes in Millais’s Was it not a Lie? for Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (1861). The fantastical patterns of Oriental damsels in Houghton’s Arabian Nights (1865) is another key influence and is further evidence of Edwards’s responsiveness to contemporary developments.

Influenced by fellow practitioners, Edwards was also a source and inspiration for other artists. One of the most intriguing connections can be found in the correspondence of Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh several times mentions Edwards’s illustrations in The Graphic and seems to have been impressed by her scenes of contemporary life. He cut out some of her designs and sent them to his friend Anton van Rappard. What impact they had upon his art is hard to gauge – if any – but Vincent’s approval is surely a sign that Edwards was more than ‘competent’ and ‘uninspired’, as Rodney Engen describes her (Exhibition of Proof Engravings).


I am greatly indebted to Mr Alan Hart for permission to use material from his excellent website charting the Meadows family. The site gives much additional biographical information on Mary Ellen, as well as details on her later work in the period after the sixties. The URL is: her family

Primary Works Cited

The Argosy (1868).

Braddon, M.E. Birds of Prey. Belgravia 2 (June 1867). Co-illustrated by Braddon.

The Churchman’s Family Magazine (1863–64).

Good Words (1866).

The Graphic (1869–80).

Idyllic Pictures. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, 1867. Co-illustrated by Edwards.

The Illustrated Times (1867).

Lever, Charles. The Bramleighs of Bishop’s Folly. London: Chapman & Hall, 1872. Illustrated by M. E. Edwards.

Once a Week (1865–68).

The Quiver (1864–68).

The Sunday Magazine (1865).

Trollope, Anthony. The Claverings. The Cornhill Magazine 13–15 (1866–67).

Secondary Works Cited

[Anon] ‘The Claverings.London Review 14 (11 May 1867): p.547.

Cherry, Deborah. Victorian Woman Artists. London: Routledge, 1993.

Clayton, Ellen C. English Female Artists. 2 Vols. London: Tinsley, 1876.

Cooke, Simon. Illustrated Periodicals of the 1860s. London: British Library, 2010.

Engen, Rodney. Exhibition of Proof Wood Engravings at the Mendez Gallery. Stroud: Hodgkins, 1986.

Garrigan, Kristine Ottesen. ‘Women Artists.’ Victorian Britain: An Encyclopaedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011. pp. 864 –66.

Gerrish Nunn, Pamela. Victorian Women Artists. London: The Women’s Press, 1987.

Hall, N. John. Trollope and His Illustrators. New York: St Martins Press, 1980.

The Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury. 8 August 1868. p. 7.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; rpt. New York: Dover, 1975.

Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. 2 Vols. London: Blackwood, 1883.

White, Gleeson. English Illustration: The Sixties, 1855–70. 1897; rpt. Bath: Kingsmead, 1970.

Last modified 7 September 2014