The National Museum’s Liverpool touring exhibition (which has just finished at the Watts Gallery in Compton, Surrey) was a rare treat. Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s work has not been given serious art historical attention, nor has the public been permitted to make up their own minds since Brickdale’s work has not been exhibited for forty years. This exhibition, guest curated by Pamela Gerrish Nunn a scholar of Victorian Women Artists, has hopefully overcome many indifferent attitudes.
Whilst the peak of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood could be described as being in the 1850s, their stylistic legacy was clearly felt for decades. If we were being generous, we could even say that as late as 1950 traces of their style can be found in Cadogan Cowper’s, The Ugly Duckling (1950, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum).* Brickdale’s career, however, began somewhat after the 1850 peak, for she was not even born until 1872.
Born to a relatively well off Sussex family, Brickdale was encouraged to study first at the Crystal Palace School of Art and then the Royal Academy schools, which is where she met Millais protégé, John Byam Liston Shaw. Nunn says that despite Brickdale coming “from an upper class, professional, comfortable family she took her art very, very seriously”. Her familial acquaintance with Ruskin, coupled with her friendship with Byam Shaw, means it was hardly surprising her methodology and style was drawn from Pre-Raphaelite tenets. Nunn’s laboured defence of Brickdale’s sincere approach seems unnecessary and yet despite her earnestness, Nunn is right to consider the reasons we have failed to take Brickdale’s art more seriously, when she clearly did.
Nunn describes Brickdale as the ‘Last Pre-Raphaelite’ but we should not forget other Art Historians who have assigned the label to artists who lived prior and post Brickdale, e.g. Burne-Jones or Cowper. The need to assign this label seems to be a desperate attempt on the part of art historians, to define some sort of boundary or territory where Pre-Raphaelitism exists and more importantly where it ceased to exist. Are there better terms, e.g. Neo Pre-Raphaelite? The difficulty with using this ‘Last’ label is that life offers no such strict boundaries. Pre and post are terminally difficulty terms. If someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly, their clothes will still remain within their home and there will still be photos of them in existence. Perhaps there may even be letters written by their own hand, in transit but not yet delivered. Their presence could easily feel alive, they could still affect the world and the people that are within it. Their existence could still be palpable. The Grim Reaper may well have removed their bodily presence but for those that loved the departed, they still exist. If we translate this to a wider, less personal, sense of influence then we can easily see that influence has no cut off. Burne-Jones himself consistently referred back to the death of his mother, are we then to deny this self acknowledged impact on his adult life? Did the consequence of his mother’s death shape the way he treated his wife during pregnancy, or his daughter Margaret during hers? Did it alter the way Burne-Jones parented? Subtleties like these are almost impossible to confirm but we have to acknowledge they exist and influence history. Likewise, understanding the influence of where an aesthetic style starts and ends is a irresolute task, one which will always remain intangible and therefore debatable. Why must we receive Brickdale as the last of a dying breed? Is this an attempt to assert her authority as an artist, or perhaps to provide her greater authenticity? Is Nunn asking us to accept Brickdale’s version of Pre-Raphaelitism as a finite solution to the issues Millais et al, set about fifty years prior? I don’t think she is, and realistically, we must consider how anything fifty years apart could be considered closely related. In historical terms it suits us to consider fifty years a mere drop in the ocean and to accept these influences as palpable, tangible identifiers but in reality Brickdale was not a Pre-Raphaelite. She did not associate or live under the same auspices that the Pre-Raphaelites did.
This is not to exclude the concept of Pre-Raphaelitism within Brickdale’s work and Nunn is well meaning and accurate in assigning such a prestigious heritage. Who could deny that The Little Foot Page (1905, Walker Art Gallery) doesn’t reek of Pre-Raphaelitism? Who could deny her considered botanical drawings are similar both to those of Ruskin and Hunt? Again, her The Forerunner (1920) shouts out similarities with many Pre-Raphaelite themes and approaches. But does this make her work consistently viewable in a Pre-Raphaelite context? I ask, rather than provide the answer, for I am not yet convinced. I made a two hour train journey and nearly a two hour walk to even get to this exhibition, so my commitment to this woman is not indifferent. However, seeing her body of work for the first time was nearly, almost, a disappointment.
There were many moments of brilliance, there were many moments of pure gem like colour but as a replete body of work I felt somewhat disappointed that the final elements of Pre-Raphaelitism were assigned to an artist whose work felt a little precarious in quality. There was something missing. It pains me greatly to acknowledge this and I know works such as The Little Foot Page demonstrate quite clearly what Brickdale was capable of. But should artists be judged on moments of brilliance or coherent consistent portrayals of brilliance? I cannot yet decide. It is worth remarking that other works like The Uninvited Guest (1906) also demonstrate moments of brilliance but this piece was not within the exhibition.
Perhaps The Little Foot Page should be considered as a calculated offering by Nunn, one which offers more than just a nod to Pre-Raphaelitism: perhaps the figure of the Page stands before us reminiscent of the female struggle against the pre-ordained rule of male antecedents? After all the education which Brickdale sought was still restricted (it was as late as 1860 when a female artist, Laura Herford, fully entered the R.A. A shame her name is virtually unknown to us today). The traditional appendage syndrome of female artists is obviously present within the Victorian period, from women like Christina Rossetti to the wives of famous artists, e.g. Marianna Stokes, Lizzie Siddal and Sophie Anderson. And if endorsement from your spouse was not available, then it was essential you came from a well heeled family. What has changed, I ask.
As a final thought I would like to record the words of Watts, who once said “What are my things by the side of such stuff as hers?” And having seen both artists works, side by side, in Watts’ house at Compton, I have to say I would always choose Brickdale. Regardless of whether I am convinced in the consistent quality of her work, I am convinced by her appreciation of colour, her authority of theme and her approach to detail. At best her work is illuminating, refreshing, considered, masterful and at worst it is unfinished and small minded in scale and ambition. Are these really faults? Perhaps it is ironic that Brickdale’s humility and modesty have been both her ally and her enemy. Is this why we don’t take her work more seriously? More fool us.
*Cowper, alongside Byam Shaw and Brickdale, is another ‘Neo-Pre-Raphaelite’ (a term which is not entirely accepted but is perhaps the most informative label offered by art historians to date).