The images here all come from the gallery's press release for the exhibition. Most of them are of works in private collections, and should not be reproduced; but the last, Birmingham Museums Trust's A Deep Problem: Nine and Six Make.... by Catherine Hueffer (her married name), is available for reuse under the terms of the Creative Commons licence. Click on all the images to enlarge them.
Left: The upper room of the exhibition are. Right: The main gallery, below.
isiting the Watts Gallery, at the heart of a unique artist's village in Compton, in the Surrey Hills, is always inspiring. Its exhibition space is regularly put to full and imaginative use, displaying works unlikely to be seen together anywhere else, often brought in from private collections. These benefit immensely from being shown in context, with mementoes that bring the artists to life for us, and informative gallery labels. Ably co-curated by Dr Ruth Brimacombe, the present exhibition (28 September 2021 - 20 February 2022) showcases the talents of Lucy Rossetti (1843-1894) and Catherine Hueffer (1850-1927). Their surnames as married women obscure their relationship, but Lucy and Catherine were in fact half-sisters, the artistically talented daughters of the important Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Lucy was Brown's daughter by his first wife, Elisabeth, who died in 1846; Catherine was his daughter by his then model and mistress, and later second wife, Emma Hill.
Left: The father of the family, Ford Madox Brown at the Easel, a watercolour of 1870 by Catherine Madox Brown (Private Collection). Right: Lucy as a Child, with Rose, watercolour and gouache on millboard, 1849 (both in private collections).
The two girs were growing up at a time when women's opportunities for formal art training were limited. For example, it was not until 1893 that the Royal Academy Schools admitted female students to its life-drawing classes (Cherry 17). The sisters, however, had the great advantage of being born into an artistic milieu, and having access to their father's studio. Helping to prepare his canvases was just one of the tasks that fostered their interest in his work and supplied them with skills they would need in the future. They could also accompany him on his visits to the Branch Government School of Art in Fitzrovia when the regular pupils were not attending. The gallery label in the little upper ante-room to the main exhibition hall shows Catherine's early portrait of her father at his easel, the label next to it admitting that the pose is a little "awkward." But it is nevertheless very accomplished and catches the inwardness, the visionary and poetic aura of the still youthful artist. Another star of this first room is Brown's portrait of Lucy as a child. Solemn, rosy-cheeked, she looks squarely at her father, a little rosebud peeping out more shyly at the top of her dress.
Left: Brown's replica of his larger, well-known The Pretty Baa-Lambs, oil on panel, of 1852 (from the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), featuring Emma Madox Brown in eighteenth-century dress with baby Catherine. Right: Palettes used by Brown and Catherine, c. 1860s-90s, from the Parliamentary Archives in London.
Naturally, the daughters served as models themselves, and here (on the left above) is Catherine in her mother's arms, reaching out towards the lambs painted in meticulous Pre-Raphaelite detail on meadow grass strewn with tiny dots of daisies and buttercups. The mother's long gown is echoed by the infant's, and both look as if they belong in another age, or are, indeed, timeless representatives of the full-blown springtime of life. Gather it while you may, the artist implies, with a figure kneeling to the side, a lady's maid perhaps, picking the wild flowers. Soon enough, lambs stop gambolling, and children grow up. In this case, the little girl and her older sister would be drawn more actively into the family profession. It was touching to see Catherine's own handwritten label on the rectangular palette displayed here, indicating that it was the one her father used, and one that she herself had clearly played an active part in conserving; and some paint still clings to the other one, thought to have been used by both father and daughter. Catherine is believed, for example, to have done some of the preliminary work on the watercolour replica of The Last of England. Such memorabilia give the visitor a real sense of connection to the artists.
Three more paintings in private collections. Left to right: (a) Catherine's watercolour, At the Opera of 1869, thought to have been modelled by Lucy. (b) Lucy's watercolour The Duet of 1870, thought to have been modelled by Catherine, and her younger brother Oliver Madox Brown. (c) Lucy's oil-painting of 1871, Ferdinand and Miranda Playing Chess, in which Miranda is thought to have been modelled by Catherine.
As time went by, family members continued to use each other as models, and this now included Oliver Madox Brown, Catherine's promising sibling, and Lucy's half-sibling, born in 1855. All three began to attract attention. Of the works shown immediately above, two were shown at the Royal Academy: Catherine's At the Opera (on the left) and Lucy's The Duet (in the middle). Both received warm praise as well as some criticism. According to the gallery's notes, Catherine's painting of the woman absorbed in the opera, with her sophisticated, coiling hair, her rich stole and low-necked dress, was displayed in pride of place "on the line," and was described by William Michael Rossetti (Lucy's future husband) as promising "uncommon attainment in the future." The figures in The Duet, like the mother in The Pretty Baa-Lambs, wear eighteenth-century costume, perhaps again in a bid for timelessness; but the Chinese screen makes a more topical fashion statement. The sisters were, apparently, keen followers of fashion in matters of dress. In the painting on the right, Lucy once again shows that she was less drawn to portraiture, and more interested in historical or literary themes. She has Prospero showing the King of Naples the couple's budding relationship. Ferdinand's doting gaze is intensified by the passionate red of his garb. The details here are wonderful: the parrot on the back of Miranda's chair, for instance, and the lizard on the rock face behind Ferdinand.
Lucy Madox Brown's watercolour, The Tomb Scene from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" (Act V, sc.3), of 1870, from the National Trust, at Wightwick Manor.
While many of these works deserve to be much better known, perhaps the most striking of all is Lucy's scene from Shakespearean tragedy. Romeo looks into the still, apparently lifeless face of his beloved, holding the fatal vial with which he will poison himself. The words of Tom Taylor in The Times, when writing about this painting, provided the title of the Watts Gallery exhibition: Taylor recognised in it artistry of "uncommon power" (gallery notes). The dim gothic surroundings, the shaft of light illuminating the unconscious form of Juliet, and the terrible realisation (actually misunderstanding) of the youth, are all movingly conveyed, the one comfort being the church glimpsed through the open door of the tomb. Light and shade are skilfully managed here, and Juliet surely deserves to be remembered among the "sleeping beauties" of Victorian painting; but Romeo's expression, and his right hand clenched on the edge of the tomb, steal the show.
Catherine's delightful watercolour, A Deep Problem: Nine and Six
Make...., shown to acclaim in Manchester in 1875.
Having exhibited for only a few years (1869-75), first at the Dudley Gallery, then in Liverpool and Manchester as well as in London, Brown's daughters faded into the background of their famous father. Catherine married music critic Francis Hueffer in 1872, and her last exhibited work was the delightful A Deep Problem: Nine and Six Make...., shown to acclaim in Manchester in 1875. For all her ambitious literary and historical projects, Lucy, who married William Michael Rossetti in 1874, also withdrew from professional work. It was not a deliberate choice, since, again according to the gallery's notes, both continued to paint and sometimes attempted to re-enter the professional art world. But the shock of Oliver's early death in 1874, and the pressures of married life — as well, perhaps, as the general problems for any woman trying to push against prejudice in a male-dominated career — all seem to have taken their toll.
"Uncommon Power" provides a rare opportunity to appreciate the two sisters' works together, and is enjoyable and eye-opening. But it is more than that. It adds to the impact of the "Pre-Raphaelite Sisters" show at the National Portrait Gallery in the winter of 2019-20, and raises the question of how many other gifted women artists, born into less favourable circumstances, have been lost to posterity as result of earlier attitudes. By indicating the extent of this particular and very "deep problem," the exhibition strengthens the will to tackle it, whether by showcasing forgotten talents, or by fighting against such attitudes today.
Cherry, Deborah. Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture in Britain, 1850–1900. London: Routledge, 2000.
Created 15 October 2021