ISABEL DE STEIGER AS A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST
THE BIRTH OF MODERN ART
Isabel de Steiger lived from 1836 to 1927, through a period of unprecedented change in European art. She was born before the Pre-Raphaelites and died during the early years of Surrealism. During her lifetime, the Renaissance ideas of what painting should consist of, and the academies which taught those ideas, were being assailed from every side. Influences were coming in from countries as far away as Japan and cultures as different as those of the African tribes. Advances in technology and chemistry brought new colours; and paints in tubes, which made painting out-doors so much easier. And photography was challenging art on many fronts while freeing artists (if they wanted to be freed) from the need to paint one-d representations of what was – supposedly – ‘real’ or ‘natural’.
In the midst of all this upheaval, what kind of artist did Isabel choose to become?
Well, that’s a tricky one! It has been a surreal experience, trying to figure out what kind of paintings Isabel did, when I’ve only ever seen one of them in real life. Most I know only by their titles. However, I think that those titles, and Isabel’s writings on art, do give her away, as a would-be academician.
Sources for this introductory section:
Genre painting, the most widespread but also the most unsung challenge to the art of the academies:
Popular Nineteenth Century Painting: A Dictionary of European Genre Painters. By Philip Hook and Mark Poltimore. Antique Collectors’ Club 1986. Isabel is not listed in this book. The only GD artist member who is, is Henry Marriott Paget, listed with the painters of children when in fact he did very few pictures of that kind. The book does seem rather limited in its attitude: it doesn’t allow for artists painting in more than one genre. However, I did find the introduction very helpful.
A short definition of “the modern aesthetic”, seen on the wall at the Sargent Watercolours exhibition Dulwich Art Gallery 24 August 2017: “formal structure and surface pattern”.
Wikipedia pages on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – founded 1848; Impressionism – first exhibition 1874; Surrealism, a reaction against Dada, and using Freud’s ideas on dreams – two separate manifestos, both 1924. Wikipedia on mauve – invented 1856, named 1859; paint in tubes – invented 1841.
ISABEL’S TRAINING AS AN ARTIST
In Memorabilia Isabel was looking back at her life. Knowing that eventually she became an artist, she remembered childhood lessons and incidents that point in that direction. However, in talking about her schooling she remembered music as much as painting and drawing; and also admitted that in the early years of her marriage she did no art at all for several years. That said, Isabel does seem to have shown more promise as an artist, and more willingness to work at painting and challenge herself, than most schoolgirls.
Lessons in sketching were part of the curriculum of the average school for young ladies in mid- 19th-century England. In that respect, Isabel was lucky to be spending her 1830s and 1840s childhood in Liverpool: her first school, run by the Hackney sisters, sent its pupils to the studio of a professional artist, the landscape painter Alfred Hunt, for their drawing lessons. Alfred Hunt made Isabel and her fellow pupils imitate “Jullien’s chalk heads” but his daughter Maria brought all sorts of art works for them to copy. Isabel remembered being thrilled by the “glamour” of painting “a dewdrop on a purple convolvulus” on “Bristol board” in one of the lessons. Isabel got to know Alfred Hunt’s children very well and as all of them – the daughters as well as the son – were professional artists, she will have taken in the extra lesson that a woman could make a living out of art.
Alfred Hunt told Isabel that she had more talent than most. He suggested that she ask her father to pay for a proper training, but she never did approach her father on the subject. The opportunity to have an art education paid for by her father was lost in any case in 1847, when he died. Before his death, Isabel did paint copies of some old masters her parents had in their house, copies of originals - almost certainly all portraits - by van Dyck, Kneller, Lely and Lawrence. At his death, her father’s collection of books and paintings was sold, but even decades later Isabel had a vague memory of one in particular, one of the van Dyck copies. She had always wanted to paint something along the same lines and thought she had finally done so with her Castles in the Air.
Isabel continued to draw but had no more art lessons until she was at her last school, Miss Steven’s school in North End Road Fulham. As Isabel doesn’t name the person who taught art at the school I guess lessons were taken as they usually were in such schools, by one of the staff members, not by a professional artist. Isabel refused to do the copying work she was set. She doesn’t say why but perhaps she found it not challenging enough. Instead, she borrowed a portfolio of “classical line drawings” she had noticed in Miss Steven’s drawing room; and copied those. She kept up her drawing practice after she left school and ‘came out’ – a point at which most young women gave up art for good – and began to try her hand at portraits. But at this stage in her life, Isabel had no thought at all of being a professional painter, and when she married Rudolph von Steiger in 1861 she did no painting or sketching or copying for several years.
I think two acts of Fate changed the situation for Isabel and drove her back to her art work. Firstly, she and Rudolph had no children. That was something that would make more difference in the future. Making an increasing difference in the 1860s present was Rudolph’s TB. At some point in the late 1860s, a warm climate was recommended for him, so Isabel had to leave Liverpool and the social life she had there, and go with her husband to Egypt. Increasingly worried about her husband’s health, and with time hanging on her hands, Isabel began to paint and draw again, and for a few months she was also able to take more lessons.
Her teacher in Egypt was another professional artist, an Italian who was in Egypt temporarily to work on portrait commissions from the Khedive and the European community there. In Memorabilia Isabel calls this man Dunielli and says he specialised in picturesque scenes (so he was a genre painter). I haven’t been able to find out anything about Dunielli, even allowing for her having possibly spelled his name wrong. It’s a pity, because he helped Isabel over a very important artistic hurdle – he taught her how to take a sketch and make a finished painting from it. After those lessons Isabel felt herself to be “a fully fledged artist”. She began to paint portraits of her friends in Alexandria, and scenes she describes as “Bedouins, palm trees” - which sound like the first paintings she ever exhibited in public.
Rudolph von Steiger died in December 1872, leaving Isabel a widow at 36. If he and Isabel had had any children, Isabel’s choices at that point would have had to be different. As it was, she had been left an income, enough to make her financially independent, but she had to find a new purpose for her life. As she remembered it nearly 40 years later, she made up her mind to become a professional artist very soon after her husband’s death; but it’s clear that there were several false starts in the process, and a lot of moving on from one art training to another.
The first false start was Isabel’s decision to go to London and study at the Slade School of Art. This was during 1873 and I think it came a bit soon after her bereavement. Staying in lodgings, and having not lived in London since her teens, Isabel knew no one and she was very lonely. She also soon got tired of what the Slade required of its new students - “drawing from the casts”. She’d done all that before.
She left London for Florence. She found rooms in a pensione there and went to be a pupil of the artist she calls Belucci (with one ‘l’) but who is correctly spelled Bellucci. Giuseppe Bellucci (1827-82) was part of the post-Renaissance Italian painting tradition that still continued in Florence. He had studied with Giuseppe Bezzuoli (1784-1855), some of whose works Isabel might have seen at the Royal Academy in the 1840s. She had probably seen Bellucci’s own Death of Alessandro de’Medici in Paris in 1865; later, his The Treaty of Bruzzolo got a royal accolade when the king of Italy acquired it for his collection. Paintings of historical subjects, displayed at the RA and bought by a king: what Isabel was going for in this bit of training was the academic tradition with a vengeance. However, it turned out to be another false start. Bellucci told Isabel that he could make her a great artist, like he had “the Great Inglese, Miss Thomson”; but she would have to stay as his pupil for two or three years. Isabel decided she couldn’t afford it. This was probably the autumn of 1873. She left Italy to go back to Egypt; where over the winter of 1873/74 she thought long and hard about her future, deciding to continue with her art - “to begin a real Art life” - but in London.
Isabel adds “not in Paris” to that decision; which is why I suggest early 1874 for a false start not mentioned in Memorabilia. Perhaps it occupied such a short time that, decades later, she had forgotten all about it, but at some point, she went to Paris to study in the studio of Carolus Duran.
Carolus Duran (1837-1917 – he was younger than Isabel) is the dapper-looking man on the front cover of the catalogue of the 2015 John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Sargent trained with him from mid-1874. By 1874 Duran was one of France’s most sought-after portrait artists, and training places in his studio were also highly prized, so Isabel was going straight to the top in choosing his studio for her next phase of training. Though best known for portraits, Duran also did landscapes. And nudes – so that working in his studio Isabel would have been able to overcome one of the main problems facing women who wanted to train as artists: not being able to learn to draw the human body by studying naked human models.
Duran’s technique is well-understood and given in great detail on the web. I’m not going to talk about it here, because when Isabel began to paint pictures for exhibition and sale, she imitated a very different artist. What Isabel might have taken away from Duran’s studio is his enthusiasm for Velázquez’s idea that nature could be seen as a manifestation of the Divine.
Having decided to make a go of living and painting in London (mid-1874); and presumably immediately after the false start in Paris, Isabel stepped over the threshold from student to professional, by signing up for at least one term at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art. Heatherley’s was founded in 1845. It still exists and still keeps to its original purpose of giving artists who have finished their training some help at the outset of their career, by offering space in which to paint, and the use of models at shared cost. Future GD members Henry Marriott Paget and his wife-to-be Henrietta Farr were both at Heatherley’s – that’s where they met; I haven’t been able to find out when exactly, so I don’t know whether they and Isabel coincided.
Sources for Isabel’s training:
- on the Hackney sisters’ school: p14, p42. On p44 Isabel remembered having a drawing by Alfred Hunt, perhaps given to her by the artist: a scene painted at Drachenfels on the Rhine. Like so much else, it was destroyed in the fire of August 1900.
- on copying her father’s paintings: pp57-58.
- on Miss Steven’s school: p53.
- on the mysterious Dunielli: pp77-78.
- on the months at the Slade; in Florence and in Egypt: p78.
- on renting space and models at Heatherley’s: p78.
Wikipedia on Andrew Hunt 1790-1861.
Bénézit’s Dictionary of Artists a vast work. Published in English: Editions Gründ Paris 2006.
Volume 7 Her-Koo pp454-455: Andrew Hunt and his family though the daughters are not named.
A short entry for the father and son Hunts but not the daughters in Dictionary of British Art. Volume IV: Victorian Painters I: The Text. By Christopher Wood. Published Antique Collectors’ Club 1995 p268.
Bénézit’s Dictionary of Artists published in English: Editions Gründ Paris 2006.
In Volume 6 Cos-Dyc. No entry for him as Dunielli. I also tried every mis-spelling I could think of, without any luck. Just noting though that p521 there’s no entry for Isabel as de Steiger. Nor is Isabel in Volume 13 Som-Val p275 as Steiger, de. So despite the supposed comprehensiveness of this reference work, some artists have been missed out.
SLADE SCHOOL OF ART: see wikipedia and other websites. The bequest which enabled a professor to be employed at University College London was made in 1868. There’s a good list of well-known graduates of the Slade on its wikipedia page, but two not well-known students at the Slade in the late 1880s were future GD members Mina Bergson Mathers and Annie Horniman.
Bénézit’s Dictionary of Artists published in English: Editions Gründ Paris 2006.
In Volume 2 Bed-Bül: on p120 no artist spelled Belucci was listed. However p111 there was a Giuseppe Bellucci 1827-1882 born and died in Florence. Same volume p415 on his teacher Giuseppe Bezzuoli. If I made enough effort going from pupil to master, I could probably trace the line back to Renaissance Florence.
I’m still trying to figure out who Bellucci’s ex-pupil Miss Thomson is.
If I hadn’t been reading through Light on the hunt for something else, I never would have known. The only reference I’ve come across is a mention in passing by Isabel, in a letter she sent to the magazine about the Ancient Mysteries: Light: A Journal Devoted to the Highest Interests of Humanity, both Here and Hereafter. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 4 New Bridge Street Ludgate Circus. Volume 1 Jan-Dec 1881 p87 issue of 19 March 1881.
For Duran see wikipedia and also
- www.studiorousar.com/2011/03/21/carolus-duran-methods for his painting technique and influences.
HEATHERLEY’S SCHOOL OF FINE ART
Its website is www.heatherleys.com
References to the Pagets at Heatherley’s; though neither give any clues about the dates they were there.
The Collected Letters of George Gissing 1892-1895 by Gissing and Paul F Matthieson, Arthur C Young and Pierre Coustillas. Ohio University Press 1994 p272 footnote 8.
The Corresp of Samuel Butler with his Sister May edited and with introduction by Daniel F Howard. University of Cambridge Press; University of California Press 1962: pp80-81, a letter written in August 1879 in which Butler says he’d known both the Pagets about ten years ago (so taround 1869). The Pagets aren’t named in the letter – presumably May didn’t know them – but they’re identified p81 footnote 2 from Samuel Butler: A Memoir Part 1 by Henry Festing Jones, p307.
ISABEL’S WORKING LIFE AS AN ARTIST
In the autumn of 1874 Isabel showed her first paintings at a major exhibition venue. For the next 13 years she was a professional artist first and foremost, painting several works each year for sale or for friends. Her output only slowed down after 1887, when she seems to have made a not-necessarily-conscious decision to give more time to her study of western hermeticism.
I’ve only seen Isabel’s last painting in real life and I think it probably isn’t typical of her earlier work. There are a couple of reproductions of her paintings on the web, but on the basis of three pictures I don’t fancy making dogmatic statements about her style or technique at different times. One thing that she said herself about her early works, however, is that they were very influenced by the paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
There’s no suggestion in Memorabilia that Isabel ever met Alma-Tadema so she probably never went to his studio. However, she could have seen his pictures on show in Europe from as early as 1861 and at the Royal Academy from 1869. As a student of painting, perhaps even the finished article could tell her something of his technique and style, but it’s obvious from the titles of some of her paintings that she also liked the subjects and the backgrounds he chose to paint.
Alma-Tadema did do portraits and landscapes but he had trained to be a history painter and his history paintings were what was most popular with British buyers. His earliest works focused on the history of the Low Countries but in the 1860s he branched out into scenes of ancient Egypt, ancient Rome and ancient Greece. He had been trained to be as accurate in his detail as was possible and he had always had a fascination with architecture and sculpture. On a visit to London in 1862 he had spent time in the British Museum, making sketches of bits of classical statuary and architecture; later he spent several months doing the same in Rome and Pompeii and the results of all that effort are easily seen in his paintings.
After her time as a student in Florence Isabel’s finances wouldn’t stretch to another long spell in Italy, but she did spend time in the British Museum copying probably the same exhibits that Alma-Tadema had done, to put them in her paintings as he did. Even her very last work, Castles in the Air, has classical temples in its background and – if you go by her titles – some of her earliest paintings had even closer links with Alma-Tadema.
Scenes of ancient Egypt were popular, and Alma-Tadema regularly painted them. Some of Isabel’s earliest exhibited works were Egyptian landscapes and genre scenes, but when she started to gain confidence she also painted several works , presumably in conscious imitation, with titles that Alma-Tadema might easily have picked for his own paintings. Though of course I don’t know what it looked like, Isabel’s very long-titled Athyrtis Divine Daughter of Sesostris, Showing Herself at the Gate of the Temple (1880) can be thought of as a woman artist’s riposte to, or a ‘part two’ to, Alma-Tadema’s Grand Chamberlain of Sesostris the Great, the portrait of a young, black man exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871. A reviewer described Isabel’s painting as a “decorative, classically rendered figure”, giving me the impression of a work very much in the Alma-Tadema style. Isabel’s A Daughter of the Gods (1879) and perhaps her Nature and Art (from as late as 1884) also sound like the kind of subject Alma-Tadema painted - figures in front of classical architecture. In 1876 Alma-Tadema’s Cleopatra was shown at the Royal Academy, one of his most erotic paintings. Isabel was inspired to make another riposte: in 1879/80 she showed four paintings whose titles suggest her Cleopatra wasn’t just the desired object of Roman commanders, but also the last pharoah of Egypt, failing to prevent its conquest by Rome, but failing gloriously.
Although she might still have envied Alma-Tadema his art training in an academy and two academic studios, and the ease with which he entered the English art establishment; later Isabel suffered a revulsion of feeling about his style, describing it in Memorabilia as “cold and soulless” and “not the right technique for me to have imitated”. It’s not clear when her attitude towards his style began to change; and unfortunately Isabel didn’t elaborate in her memoir on the style she developed after she left Alma-Tadema behind. I would cautiously suggest, though, that the ‘moving on’ process began in the early 1880s. A painting she exhibited in 1882 – which might be her Mariamne, her Semiramide or another painting altogether – was described by a reviewer as “French in technique” so perhaps she was reverting to the method she learned during her short time with Carolus Duran.
Most of her exhibited paintings in the 1880s seem to show continuity with her ‘Alma-Tadema’ phase, at least by their titles. She continued to paint classical subjects – A Dream of Hermes (1884); Andromeda Abandoned (1892); and a couple of what sound like allegories – Nature and Art (1884) and Harmonia (1887). There were paintings which illustrated poetry, though one of her earliest exhibits – Basking in Heaven’s Light – had been accomanied by a quote from Lalla Rookh, so that strand in her work was also not new. The Arabic or Egyptian theme continued, with one, probably several, eastern dancing girls; and characters from The 1001 Nights. Only one post-1880 theme was new: myths from northern Europe – The Valkyrie painting (or possibly paintings) of 1881 and other years; and the Lorelei… (1883).
Isabel exhibited very few portraits. If she had been hoping for a regular income from portraiture, she was disappointed. Though she mentions several in Memorabilia, they were all done as gifts for friends. She did two, possibly three, religious paintings, one of which was never exhibited. She hardly did any still-lifes - she must have been aware that they were looked on in academic circles as women’s work; and she only ever exhibited one, small, sculpture.
Isabel was moving in spiritualist circles by the mid-1870s and in occult ones from June 1879. Her first painting with a ‘western mysteries’ theme was Consuelo (1878), based on a novel by George Sand in which there is a secret society holding its meetings in a cave; and during the 1880s, she did what sound like several more. You might include her Dream of Hermes (1884) in that list; with The Enchantress (1883) (though this was also a popular subject with artists who had no particular occult leanings). The Veiling of Isis (1884); The Lost Pleiad (1886); and particularly A Legend of the Soul (1887) could also have a ‘western mysteries’ theme, though A Legend of the Soul is also an illustration of the classics – the legend of Persephone in the Underworld.
Virtually all the works Isabel exhibited up to the late 1880s were in oils, the chosen paint of the academies. Around 1888/89, however, she experimented with pastels, newly popular again after decades of neglect. As 1890s progressed, she exhibited more landscapes and even one or two flower pictures – another type of art seen as women’s art – and more of her exhibited works were watercolours. These changes did not seem to affect her reputation as an artist: in 1900 she was excitedly preparing for the ultimate art accolade of a one-person show. But in August 1900 a break-point came with the warehouse fire that destroyed all the paintings Isabel still had in her possession, and all her sketch books and other preparation work. Although she did exhibit some art works after that, the momentum had been lost and she never recovered it.
Isabel’s last known painting – Castles in the Air – was worked on in parallel with Memorabilia, between 1910 and 1925. In Memorabilia she writes of it wistfully, as showing “what I could have done” - meaning, what she could have achieved if she hadn’t opted to spend so much of her time and effort on her other interests. Castles.. is a summing-up, though, of both her painting and her investigations into the western occult tradition. It shows her young, against a background of clouds but also of Roman architecture; surrounded by the paraphernalia of the occult, and with her GD motto – Alta peto – written to her left. Looking at it, you would not know that even Turner had happened; let alone Kandinsky. But it is a fitting end to both her careers.
Isabel said that she was never a “great enough” artist to inspire jealousy in other artists., but by the age of 45 (around 1881) she was a “moderately known professional”, aware of the limitations she faced.
She knew her imagination was limited, saying about her Aurora at Dawn painting that she had to have a large number of props when painting it, because she couldn’t conjure up just from her head a picture of the goddess flying across the sky. Unnamed members of her family puzzled her by saying that all her faces looked the same; something she thought was true of Burne-Jones but not of herself – her faces all looked different to her.
Her small income was not a limiting factor to start with, though she always had to be careful with her money. In the mid-1870s she was able to sell some of her capital to buy the remainder of the lease on 8 Hornton Street Kensington with a studio in its basement; and at the end of the 1880s she was able to live for three years in a house with no studio, so that she had to rent a studio separately. However, at the end of the three years, she left that house because of the cost of the two sets of rent. From the early 1890s rents began to eat into her income more and more; so that in her last few years I don’t think she had a studio at all but made do with rooms in wherever she was renting. Though not all exhibition venues welcomed them and Alma-Tadema didn’t do them in his early years, big canvases were something that got you noticed as an artist; but increasingly, Isabel had to paint small.
Other limitations were nothing much to do with Isabel’s abilities or her attitude. They were faced by all women artists and in Isabel’s case were played out especially in her ‘longing but resentful’ relationship with the Royal Academy.
How Isabel would have loved to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy! It was particularly the academies that made it difficult for women to learn their kind of painting to the highest standards, by refusing to let them in as students and often as exhibitors as well. In a fine example of how difficult the academy system was for women to negotiate, Isabel set out to cultivate the only RA member she was acquainted with – Edwin Long – visiting his studio and inviting him into her own. He duly promised that if he got elected to the annual exhibition hanging committee, he would help get her submissions selected and hung prominently. He may have helped usher Isabel’s Mariamne through the selection process in 1882, but no other picture of hers was ever shown there and she even felt that she had probably got herself onto an RA black-list.
The academies had the ‘separate spheres’ arguments of the Evangelical churches to keep women out. This being the 19th-century, they could also make assertions about the immorality and impropriety of women artists painting or even seeing a naked artist’s model, particularly in a studio where male artists were also working. (They could, of course, have put men in one studio and women in another; but no.) In 1882, the academic attitude was summed up by arch-proponent J C Horsley RA in a lecture in Devon, the gist of which was printed in The Artist and Journal of Home Culture, which Isabel regularly read. Isabel was asked by a number of angry women artists to reply on their behalf. Her letter appeared in The Artist and Journal of Home Culture’s issue of 1 July 1882. When writing Memorabilia decades later, she felt that the letter had helped along the process of improving art training for women – in the long run; but she had made its wording too vehement. The result at the time had been that the Society of Lady Artists joined the RA in refusing to show her work. More helpful to women artists wanting to paint the nude, was Isabel’s decision (the year before her letter) to hire a model on Tuesday and Friday evenings and charge women painters and students for three hours’ time in her studio, drawing and painting him or her.
Isabel’s Mariamne was already up on the walls in the RA when her letter to The Artist and Home Journal was published, and it was hanging in a very advantageous position. However, Isabel soon discovered that the catalogue had got her name wrong; she was in it as Miss F Steeger. So even this small triumph over the RA was soured.
Of course, there were an increasing number of alternative exhibitions which noisily challenged the whole academic selection and rejection process, but for Isabel, they felt like venues where the failures went, the pictures that hadn’t been selected by the RA. She did exhibit at the Society of Lady Artists (now the Society of Women Artists) before the 1882 letter, and again after they had had time to forget it. She did so with reluctance, though – Isabel thought art did not have gender, and that the LSA’s exhibitions were a public statement of women’s art as separate and somehow lesser.
There were still hurdles to overcome even after your submission had been accepted for an exhibition. In Memorabilia, the importance of having your painting hung to advantage is a recurring theme; a place on the line of the eye of the beholder being the best. Of course, associates and members of academies got preference in this. For the less favoured, the results of your painting not being on that line could often be – no sale. Isabel was even told as much, by the collector who bought her The Greek Captive and Her Nubian Slave from the first exhibition of the Institute of Painters in Oils (now the Royal Institute of Oil Painters) in 1883/84. In 1879 Isabel’s Cleopatra Before the Battle of Actium had been hung on the line at the Walker Art Gallery; she thought the several bids she received for it came in part because it had been in that eye-catching position. The Walker Art Gallery is in Liverpool of course. It was a place – perhaps the only place – where Isabel had an ‘in’: there was a Rathbone on the hanging committee, and Isabel knew the family well. That’s not to say that Cleopatra.. didn’t deserve to be allotted a prime space; just that the Walker art exhibitions had huge numbers of paintings and not much room on the line; and every little helps. Even when Isabel exhibited a painting that was not for sale, she still wanted it to be hung to advantage, as an aid to new commissions. Consequently she was annoyed when her pastel portrait of Patience Sinnett was not hung well at the Grosvenor Gallery.
One limitation on Isabel’s career as an artist was of her own making. She did make a friend of Edwin Long; and she did live for three years in the artists’ colony of Bedford Park. But she chose not to cultivate acquaintances other than Long who might have put a word in for her where a word might have helped. She had the opportunities, but chose not to take them. Near the outset of her professional life as an artist, Isabel was introduced to various members of the group she called the ‘Chelsea’ set – Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt, William Morris and others. In the 1880s she also failed to follow up the opening given her by her acquaintance Lady Wilde, to become a member of the group around Oscar Wilde, the aesthetes. Neither group shared her enthusiasm for Alma-Tadema; and Burne-Jones’ style she actively disliked, thinking his figures not human enough to be convincing and disagreeing with those who said his paintings were spiritual.
On moving to Liverpool in the early 1890s she intended to make an effort to socialise in art circles there. However, she soon realised that it would involve some rather expensive entertaining. With a choice between socialising and renting a studio, she rented the studio.
Moving on to Edinburgh in the mid-1890s, she found her paintings given a moderate welcome by the Scottish Academy. She took the welcome a bit further by inviting some of the city’s leading artists to visit her studio; only to find herself treated as “a negligible woman foreigner”. However, on getting to know artist and designer Phoebe Traquair – an Irish woman living in Edinburgh – she found Mrs Traquair was not treated any better by the city’s male art establishment; so being left out in the cold wasn’t personal in this case.
When she moved to Birmingham, she didn’t bother much with art circles there at all!
I think that when Isabel writes “The fact was I did not trouble much about the artist community..” she is wondering if she should have tried a bit harder. But she preferred to move in occult circles; and wherever she was, she didn’t like cliques. I wonder myself how she would have reacted if given the opportunity to move in Royal Academy art circles; but even with Edwin Long’s friendship that would never have happened – RA art circles were strictly male.
Sources for Isabel’s working life:
Lawrence Alma-Tadema by R J Barrow. Phaidon Press Ltd 2001: pp13-76.
Royal Academy Exhibitors 1769-1904 Volume 1 published 1905: pp28-29.
- Isabel on Alma-Tadema: Memorabilia p58, p86, p105, p117, p163, p278.
- the reference to her 1882 technique being French in style: The Artist and Journal of Home Culture issue of 1 July 1882 p207.
- on her limited imagination: Memorabilia p112, p110.
- on Edwin Long and his promises: Memorabilia p107. Wikipedia gives his dates as 1829-91. Elected ARA 1870; full RA member 1881 so Isabel’s cultivating of him must have been after that. He’s also mentioned in Lawrence Alma-Tadema by R J Barrow. Phaidon Press Ltd 2001: pp69, as another painter who used Egyptian settings. Unlike Alma-Tadema, Long had travelled in the Middle East. He was in Egypt in 1874. And also unlike Alma-Tadema, his paintings featured nudes, especially nude women. In Alma-Tadema’s paintings the figures tend to keep all their clothes on.
- on women and the nude model: Memorabilia pp107-09; The Artist and Journal of Home Culture volume 3 1882 issue of 1 July 1882 p231.
- on opening her studio for study of the human nude: two adverts in The Artist and Journal of Home Culture volume 2 1881 issue of 1 November 1881 p352; and issue of 1 December 1881 p362.
- on having your painting hung on the line: Memorabilia p130 about Mariamne at the RA; pp131-21 about The Greek Captive…. Though Isabel doesn’t name the picture, it so happens she only ever showed one at that particular venue. And p208 for Cleopatra Before the Battle of Actium. And Memorabilia pp157-159 about the portrait of Patience Sinnett.
- on cliques and art circles in London in 1870s and 1880s: Memorabilia pp80-81, p124.
The friend who introduced Isabel to Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt and Morris was an American, woman journalist. Isabel doesn’t name her, but I wonder if she was future GD member Anna Blackwell. Anna was actually born in Bristol, England, but her family had moved to the USA while she was a teenager. See my biography of Anna, elsewhere on this website. As a woman, Anna found no English newspaper willing to employ her as a reporter, so she went to live in Paris, where she wrote columns for a number of English and French language newspapers.
- on art circles in Liverpool, Edinburgh and Birmingham: Memorabilia pp80-81; p183; p279.
Two short sections to round off with:
ISABEL AS TEACHER
Probably in 1897, while she was continuing her professional career as an artist in Edinburgh, Isabel had a pupil. She mentions the fact in passing in a letter about something else entirely and I haven’t been able to find out anything more about it – who the pupil was, how long the arrangement lasted; nothing.
Warburg Institute Gerald Yorke Collection in the group of letters with catalogue number NS73: letter from Isabel to Frederick Leigh Gardner; not dated by Isabel but Gerald Yorke gave the date as 11 November 1897.
WHERE ARE ISABEL’S PAINTINGS NOW?
Any that she still had with her in 1900 will have been destroyed in the warehouse fire. I don’t know how many that was. She names one or two which definitely suffered this fate: the oil version of The Flight of Aurora which Isabel also calls Aurora Clothed with the Dawn; and the pastel The Spirit of the Crystal.
Castles in the Air was not even begun until about 1910. It still exists in a private collection – mine. As at September 2017 I am in the process of loaning it to the College of Psychic Studies.
Two or three of her paintings have surfaced at auctions in recent decades. They too must be in private collections.
As for the rest of the works Isabel painted, although she signed and dated most of her work, none were known to be in any British public collection in June 2017 when I searched this website
which lists 212,055 works in public collections by 35000 or so artists.
Source for the paintings definitely destroyed in the fire: Memorabilia p110, p159.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
10 September 2017
Find the web pages of Roger Wright and Sally Davis, including my list of people initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn between 1888 and 1901, at: