GD member Isabel de Steiger (1836-1927): her work as an artist
THIS FILE IS A VERY BASIC LIST, PENDING A GREAT DEAL MORE WORK AT THE NATIONAL ART MUSEUM SOME TIME IN THE FUTURE
Very few of Isabel’s art works survive. There are several reasons for this:
1) she concentrated on painting
2) doing very little illustration work that would still be around in books and journals.
3) Reading between the lines of Memorabilia I think that although a fair few of her paintings were exhibited, few were sold either to individual buyers or to galleries; most therefore remained amongst her possessions and
3) were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1900.
Only two of her works are reproduced on the web. I found a reproduction of one painting - probably her last work; and Roger Wright found one illustration because the book it appeared in can now be reached via archive.org.
It’s a sorry tale. I may do a little better finding out more about individual paintings when I’ve completed a big piece of work I have planned for the National Art Library (at the V&A) on all the GD members who were artists. Until then I’m relying on Isabel’s own memoir as my main source: Memorabilia: Reminiscences of a Woman Artist and Writer by Isabelle de Steiger. London: Rider and Co. There’s no publication date but the BL stamp says “27 MAY 27". In the text below I just call it Memorabilia.
THE BASIC ART DICTIONARY SOURCES, pending a more thorough investigation at the National Art Museum:
Dictionary of British Artists 1880-1940 p145 entry for Isabel de Steiger: exhibiting 1881-1926. This Dictionary describes her as a figure and flower painter; which isn’t really accurate, I’d call her a painter in the ‘high art’ style myself. List of how many and where she exhibited:
7 Royal Society of Artists Birmingham
29 Walker Art Gallery Liverpool
9 Manchester City Art Gallery
1 Royal Academy Memorabilia p131 RA got her name wrong so she’s in the catalogue as “Miss F Steeger”
1 Royal Society of British Artists
6 Royal Hibernian Academy
1 Royal Institute of Oil Painters
4 Royal Scottish Academy
3 Society of Women Artists.
I make that 60 paintings exhibited; however the total is probably less than 60 as almost certainly Isabel showed some works more than once.
This dictionary hasn’t included the Grosvenor Galleries in its list for Isabel, but she definitely exhibited at least four paintings there: Memorabilia p159.
Dictionary of British Art. Volume IV: Victorian Painters I: The Text. By Christopher Wood. Published Antique Collectors’ Club 1995. On p138 Isabel de Steiger. This Dictionary states that she only exhibited between 1879 and 1883; until I do the work at the National Art Museum I can’t verify those dates. It’s better than the ‘British Artists’ Dictionary on the type of ‘high art’ subject Isabel chose: eg Marianne; Cleopatra’s Deadly Resolve in the Temple of Isis etc. Exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists etc.
WORKING LIST OF PAINTINGS TAKEN FROM DETAILS BELOW and roughly in the order in which Isabel mentions them in Memorabilia, which I presume is the order in which they were painted:
Cleopatra’s deadly resolve in the temple of Isis
Cleopatra after the battle of Actium
Cleopatra before the battle of Actium
Aurora at Dawn
Portrait of Patience Sinnett; given to Patience
Portrait of Mabel Collins
The Spirit of the Crystal; later as drawing appears in Unknown World
St John the Baptist; donated to Rev Elcum vicar of St Agnes and St Pancras, Ullet St Liverpool
Portrait of Morya; commissioned by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, sent to Theosophical Society at Adyar, Chennai India
Portrait of Dr Ginsburg; charcoal drawing
The Avenging Angel
The Spirit of the East Wind also known as Ghoul of the Shipwreck; later appears in Unknown World
Castles in the Air
FURTHER DETAILS OF THE PAINTINGS LISTED ABOVE, WHERE I HAVE FOUND ANY
UNIDENTIFIED PAINTING by Isabel JUST CALLED ‘CLEOPATRA’ is mentioned as appearing in one exhibition in 1879 and in another show, possibly more than one, in 1880. I’m assuming that all the references I’ve found are to one painting, not several. However, I may be wrong about that because in Memorabilia Isabel mentions several works featuring incidents from the life of Cleopatra. I think it’s most most likely that the painting called just ‘Cleopatra’ is Isabel’s Cleopatra after the Battle of Actium, Memorabilia p58 exhibited 1879 and painted in the style of Alma-Tadema which Isabel admired and copied in her early years as an artist.
The painting Cleopatra:
Catalogue of the Exhibition of Works of Modern Artists 1879 at the Royal Albert Hall Academy of Arts and Sciences: p23.
The Academy volume 18 1880 p209 Cleopatra by Mme de Steiger is in a list of paintings, obviously an exhibition list but I couldn’t see at what gallery. No review in the snippet; just the list.
The Architect volume 23 1880: p19.
IF it’s CLEOPATRA AFTER THE BATTLE OF ACTIUM: Memorabilia p278 it was bought by Isabel’s Liverpool friend William Crosfield in 1880 and inherited in due course by his daughter Dora who still owned in when Isabel was finishing Memorabilia ie 1926.
THE AVENGING ANGEL
This painting was also reproduced in Unknown World volume 1 1894, with a note that the original was in pastel and had been exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery in 1892.
I couldn’t find in the book a reference I came across on the web, to The Avenging Angel in H. P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings volume VI covering 1883-85. Compiled by Boris de Zirkoff and published Los Angeles California by the Blavatsky Writings Publication Fund in 1954. However, it might indicate that Isabel was working on The Avenging Angel in the mid-1880s.
Memorabilia p159: the four paintings immediately below were all shown at the same exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries: the portrait of Patience Sinnett; the portrait of Mabel Collins; the Phaedra; and The Spirit of the Crystal. Memorabilia pp157-59 Isabel was a regular guest of the Sinnetts during the 1880s so this decade is my best shot for when all four were painted.
PORTRAIT OF PATIENCE SINNETT
Memorabilia p159 this was a full-length portrait, done in pastels. Isabel gave it to Mrs Sinnett.
PORTRAIT OF MABEL COLLINS
Memorabilia p247-51 both Isabel and Mabel Collins (Mrs Keningale Cook) were friends of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late 1880s/early 1890s. Early volumes of the Theosophical Society journal Lucifer were edited by Mabel who also wrote articles for it.
There’s no mention of Phaedra in Memorabilia other than the fact of it having been exhibited. The subject had a lasting fascination for Isabel though: Light (the magazine of the British National Association of Spiritualists) volume 9 1889 p610 has a report on a recent meeting of the London Spiritualist Alliance. The report included coverage of a talk given there by Isabel: Spiritualism Amongst the Poets; in which she mentioned Phaedra - probably the mythical queen, rather than the painting.
THE SPIRIT OF THE CRYSTAL
The painting was reproduced as an illustration in the occult journal Unknown World volume 1 1894. Below the reproduction was a note that Isabel had painted the original in 1890; it was signed.
ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
I cautiously date this painting to the late 1880s/early 1890s for the following reasons. In Memorabilia (pp176-80) Isabel mentions that she painted St John the Baptist at the time when she had a studio in Holland Park, which I think was around 1886-87. In addition, Isabel says that while she was at work on it, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky paid her a visit. Blavatsky settled in London in the late 1880s; and died in 1891.
St John the Baptist is the only painting Isabel did - or at least, the only one she mentions in Memorabilia - with a biblical subject. She later gave it to the Rev Elcum, vicar of the newly-built church of St Agnes Ullet Road, Liverpool.
‘PORTRAIT’ OF MORYA probably 1886-88
Following her visit to Isabel’s studio, Blavatsky commissioned a ‘portrait’ of Morya, one of her two Mahatmas; there was to be a companion ‘portrait’ of the other Mahatma, Koot Hoomi, done by Schmiechen, a German artist who’d done a lot of work for theosophists. When completed, both the ‘portraits’ were sent by Blavatsky to the theosophical community at Adyar, just outside Madras (now Chennai).
PORTRAIT OF CHRISTIAN DAVID GINSBURG
On Memorabilia p169 Isabel mentions being occupied by this charcoal drawing during the summer of 1883, making several visits Ginsburg’s home in Egham to work on it. She found the process very trying, because his head was anything but classical in shape, and his face moved continually because he wouldn’t stop talking! Isabel doesn’t say whether the drawing was ever exhibited, nor what she did with it when (if ever) it was finished; but I presume she gave it to Ginsburg.
THE SPIRIT OF THE EAST WIND
Another painting reproduced in Unknown World volume 1 1894, where it was given an alternative (rather lurid!) title: Ghoul of the Shipwreck. Below the reproduction was a note that the original had been an oil painting, but no details were given of when and where it had been shown so perhaps Isabel had never exhibited the original oil work. The reproduction wasn’t signed or dated.
CASTLES IN THE AIR was still in existence as late as 2010 and has been sold twice in recent years.
Once via Bonhams in 1997 (I think). I found a snippet including a pre-sale list at but wasn’t able to reach that page, of course, after such a long time.
Then again though I’m not quite sure how (that is, whether by auction or private sale) in June 2010. See . The owner in 2010 was Paul Feazey.
Castles in the Air is the only painting by Isabel to appear on the web: painted 1910, oil, 36 x 24" original frame presumably all those details put together by Bonhams for their sale of it in 1997.
See Castles in the Air at: greatnorthernplains.blogspot.co.uk/2005/12 posted December 2005.
I’ve got a problem with the date of 1910 for Castles in the Air; and I couldn’t see from the web page whether that date was actually written on the painting or the frame; or just a best-guess by Bonhams. In Memorabilia p219 Isabel says that she was working on Castles in the Air at the same time as she was beginning Memorabilia; that is (p1) about 1911-1912.
WORKS NOT IN MEMORABILIA
I’ve found several:
I might know this one by another name: Isabel called it THE ENCHANTRESS. The only reference I’ve found to the existence of such a painting is in the Warburg Institute Gerald Yorke Collection catalogue number NS73 in a letter from Isabel to Frederick Leigh Gardner. The bit of the paper where the address and date were has been cut away. A handwritten note by Gerald Yorke dates the letter as written on 11 November 1897; though he doesn’t say how he reached that conclusion. Isabel mentions having shown ‘The Enchantress’ to Gardner.
A painting entitled THE GREEK CAPTIVE AND HER NUBIAN SLAVE was shown by Isabel at the Piccadilly Gallery in the first exhibition of the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours.
Source: via archive.org to the Catalogue of the first exhibition of the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours; published by the Institute 1884: p35 catalogue number 690.
At www.artnet.com, on Pinterest and at a couple of other art-sales websites, there are small reproductions of a painting cautiously identified by a French art dealer as being a portrait of Helena Petrovna Blavatska. I say ‘cautiously’ because the painting bears no resemblance to the photographs of Blavatsky that are so well-known. The painting was signed by Isabel, and dated by her in the bottom right hand corner; though she did not give it a title.
The best details of it are at given at www.auction.fr: 54 x 43cm; 21 x 16 inches. Oil on canvas. It was for sale in an auction entitled Tableaux Modernes et Anciens on 19 October 2001at Beaussant-Lefčvre Paris. Price being asked was 1220 euros. This website describes Isabel as “peintre orientaliste”.
At www.auctionclub.com Isabel is described as German. This website says the painting was sold by Beaussant-Lefčvre on 19 June 2002. So was it sold twice in quick succession? Or did it not sell in October 2001 and so was put into a later auction?
ISABEL’S WORK AS AN ILLUSTRATOR
Isabel doesn’t mention having done any illustration work in Memorabilia. The only examples I’ve found are the works listed above as appearing in Unknown World in 1894 (all of which had originally been paintings) and this one:
Frontispiece to A Book of Mystery and Vision, a book of poems by A E Waite, published London: Philip Wellby 1902, limited edition of 250 copies. Isabel’s illustration is to the poem on p12. Roger Wright found it on the web via archive.org and you can see Isabel’s illustration there; but actual copies of the original book are very rare - the only one we could locate in the UK was at Cambridge University, not even the British Library had one.
A E Waite is the connection here: author of The Book of Mystery and Vision, producer and editor of Unknown World; and member of the GD. As I haven’t found any other illustration work by Isabel, I think she did the work for Waite as a favour to a friend. I think working as an illustrator did not chime with the view Isabel had of herself as a painter of ‘high art’ subjects (scripture, literature, myth, historical events) in a ‘high art’ style.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
24 July 2016mailto:Amandragora@attglobal.net