A new exhibition celebrates the work of Pre-Raphaelite painter Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, reports Laura Davis
NOBODY does eccentric attention grabbing quite like the Pre-Raphaelites – Rossetti exhuming his wife’s coffin to reclaim the book of poetry he buried alongside her; Holman Hunt famous for dragging a fidgety goat to the Dead Sea where it refused to stand still for painting.
But while most of the Brotherhood continue to be household names well more than a century after their deaths, not all those who followed in their footsteps are as well recognised today as they were at the height of their fame.
By the time Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was born the original seven Pre-Raphaelites were slowly dying off – James Collinson in 1881 and Rossetti, of kidney disease after a lifetime of drug use, the following year.
It was 34 years after the group originally formed to reject classicism and return to the vibrant colours and complex details of earlier Italian and Flemish art. But while the Brothers were heading for extinction, their ideas were not.
“There were commemorative exhibitions and books published so they were very much in the public eye as she was growing up and forming her own idea of what sort of artist she might want to be,” says art historian Pamela Gerrish Nunn, who is guest curating an exhibition of Fortescue-Brickdale’s work for the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight.
“People tend to associate the Pre-Raphaelites with the 1850s but in fact there were three generations of artists who continued the tradition.”
Born into a middle class Sussex family, Fortescue-Brickdale was encouraged to draw by her father and brother, an amateur painter, who were both acquaintances of John Ruskin – the influential Victorian artist, critic and patron who championed the Brotherhood at the start of their career and financially supported them.
A hard worker, she studied at the Crystal Palace School of Art and the Royal Academy schools, which decades earlier had come under huge criticism from the Pre-Raphaelites for promoting only classical style. It was there that she met the Indian-born British painter Byam Shaw, a protege of John Everett Millais, in whose school she would later teach.
At the art school, Fortescue-Brickdale won a £40 prize in 1896 for her design for the decoration of a public building and, the following year, made her debut with a black and white work in the RA’s exclusive Summer Exhibition.
“Although she was from an upper class, professional, comfortable family she took her art very, very seriously,” says Nunn.
“There were, over the centuries, a lot of women who we could designate amateur. They were very keen on art but because they didn’t have to earn their living and they never ventured beyond the personal or the domestic sphere then their work doesn’t necessarily engage with the aesthetic or cultural issues of their time.
“But, when we look at Fortescue-Brickdale’s work, we can see it as one woman’s attempt to engage with the issues of the time, to make her own decisions about contributing to the making of contemporary culture.”