The Forerunner by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

The Forerunner by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1920)

Today I am going to continue looking at the life of Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale and feature another of her paintings.   Whilst most of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood continued to be household names even though it was 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.

When Eleanor was growing up she would have been aware of the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as there were still commemorative exhibitions and books being published about their work.   There is no doubt that even at that early age the publicity surrounding the art work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would have influenced Eleanor.   She was a painter, who continued the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, reworking romantic and moralising medieval subjects in naturalistic and often intense colour and elaborates detail.

In my last blog I had reached 1895 and Eleanor had just been accepted at the Royal Academy Schools in London having previously studied art at St John’s Wood School.   Whilst attending the Royal Academy School she met Byam Shaw and their friendship and working relationship endured for almost twenty-five years until his untimely death, aged forty-six in 1919.  Byam Shaw was a painter, decorator and illustrator, who was the same age as Eleanor, and had been born in Madras in 1872.   Byam was to become a big influence on her artistic work and like Eleanor he had been commissioned to do numerous pen and ink drawings and watercolours for books.

Whilst at the art school, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale won a £40 prize in 1896 for her design for the decoration of a public building and, the following year, she made her debut with a black and white work in the RA’s exclusive Summer Exhibition.  Following this success she progressed to colour illustrative work and by the end of the century she was making a name for herself as a painter with oils which she began exhibiting at the Royal Academy and in my last blog I featured the first oil painting she had exhibited there, entitled The Pale Complexion of True Love.  In 1899 she received a commission for a number of watercolours from Charles Dowdeswell who with his brother, Charles, were art dealers who owned the Dowdeswell and Dowdeswell art gallery in New Bond Street, London.   She completed the commission in 1901 by producing forty-five watercolours and her work was shown at the Dowedswell gallery under the Shakespearean title Such Stuff as Dreams are Made of.  The press greeted the exhibition as a spectacular success and her work was immediately likened to that of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters of the 1850’s.  In the June 1901 issue of The Artist, her exhibition was reviewed:

“…Rarely, if ever has a woman painter made a great reputation as quickly and as thoroughly as Miss Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, whose series of watercolour drawings has, during last month, drawn the whole of artistic London to the Dowdeswell Galleries……She combines great technical skill with extremely felicitous, quaint imagination and rare poetic feeling…. [This exhibition] should be sufficient to secure her a leading position among the women artists of this country…”

All but two of her works were sold and with the money she received she acquired her own studio in Holland Park, in west London, which was the home of many artists.   This was to be her artistic base for the rest of her life.  She had been living at home with her sister Kate and her mother Sarah.  Her father had been killed in a climbing accident in the Alps in 1894.  In 1908 Eleanor, her mother and sister moved house and went to live in West Kensington where she would remain for the next thirty years.  Her mother died the following year.

Her name as an artist was indelibly made after the Dowdeswell exhibition and numerous journals and newspapers wrote about her and her work.  In 1905, despite the large number of painting commissions she received, she decided to take up teaching art and, along with her old artistic friends Byam Shaw and Rex Vicat Cole, taught one day a week at the art school of King’s College for Women. By 1909 these three were looked upon and advertised as leading the art courses at the college.  However the following year Cole and Shaw were disillusioned with the teaching at the college and, along with Eleanor, they left.  They set up their own art school known as the Byam Shaw School of Art.  Shaw and Cole were the joint principals and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was in charge of the Watercolour and Composition sections.    In 2003, this school of drawing and painting was integrated with Central Saint Martins, but maintained its individual title and teaching approach.

Eleanor carried on with her work as an illustrator of books and was never short of commissions.  She was a hard and diligent worker.  Maybe she worked too hard as in the early 1920’s she was struck down with a long and unexplained illness which prevented her working and affected her eyesight.  It was this problem with her eyesight that made her concentrate on larger works rather than the finely detailed watercolours in which she had specialised.  The appearance of her works at various exhibitions started to decrease and it was during this time that she made a number of glass designs which were seen in churches around the country, and which no doubt mirrored the stained-glass work of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones.  One such window, which she designed in 1928, was for the Bristol church of All Saints’ Clifton commemorated the passing of her brother John in 1921.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale remained artistically active well into her sixties although she bemoaned the fact that in her mind, Pre-Raphaelitism was no longer wanted.  In 1938, aged sixty-six she suffered a stroke which put an end to her art.  She died seven years later in March 1945, aged 73.

For my featured painting today I have chosen a work by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale which I saw last week at the Lady Lever Museum exhibition of her work.  It was a painting which immediately caught my eye and I was curious to know what it was all about.  The work, which she completed in 1920, is entitled The Forerunner and has the subtitle:  Leonardo da Vinci showing a model of his flying machine to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and his Court.

The Forerunner title derives from a novel entitled The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci: The Forerunner by Dmitry Merezhkovsky and was a fictional tale about the conflicted life of Leonardo da Vinci: genius on the one hand,  counterbalanced by the pagan world, in conflict with the fanatical religious climate in which he lived.

The painting is set in the court of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and depicts Leonardo, the artist, theoretician, designer and scientist, demonstrating his model flying machine to his patrons Ludovico Sforza and his wife, Beatrice d’ Este.   In the painting, Beatrice d’ Este is seated on the left and appears totally indifferent to Leonardo’s presentation.  On the other side of Leonardo stands the Duke.  He seems bemused and somewhat sceptical of what Leonardo is showing him and what he is being told.   Leonardo had a troubled relationship with his patron Ludovico Sforza.   The Duke had rubbished many of Leonardo’s ideas and on occasions failed to pay Leonardo for his commissioned work.  There was also little love lost between Leonardo and the Duchess, Beatrice d’ Este, as she was angry with the artist for painting a portrait of her husband’s mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, a painting, which we know as Lady with an Ermine.  In this painting Fortescue-Brickdale has included Cecilia in the painting standing next to the seated duchess and to her left is the Duchess of Albano.  Positioned behind the seated duchess, in a hooded monk’s habit, is Girolamo Savanarola, a much feared Dominican friar and preacher who was known for his prophecies of civic glory and calls for Christian renewal. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor.  In a way his addition to the painting is a reminder of his and the Church’s antagonism towards scientific advancement.  Savonarola was to become very powerful in Florence after the fall of the Medici family in 1494.  For all those in the painting who doubted the wisdom of Leonardo’s new invention there was one avid believer.   In the centre of the painting, with his back to us, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale has added the small figure of a boy who looks up at Leonardo, mesmerised by what the great man holds in his hands.  The boy is Ludovico’s son Cesare.

It is a sumptuous painting measuring just 60cms high and 122 cms long.  Brickdale’s interest in the subject reflects her enthusiasm for Renaissance art and her fascination with Leonardo da Vinci.   Another possible explanation for the choice of the theme of this painting could be due to Eleanor having personal connections with Charles Rolls the aviator and the fact that she had always shown an interest in aeroplane technology.

The painting was bought by Lord Leverhulme in 1920.  In the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool there is a preliminary watercolour study for ‘The Forerunner’ .

The Pale Complexion of True Love by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

The Pale Complexion of True Love
by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1898)

Today I want to look at the life of Pre-Raphaelite painter, Mary Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, who was born thirty-four years after the original seven English Pre-Raphaelites painters formed an artistic group, known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose aim it was to reject classicism and return to the vibrant colours and complex details of earlier Italian and Flemish art. But while the Brothers were starting to go their own way artistically and the Brotherhood was heading for extinction, their ideas were not.

When I visited the Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at the Tate Britain a week ago I was struck by just the few paintings on display which had been painted by women.  There were a couple of watercolours by Dante Rossetti’s model and mistress, Elizabeth Siddall.  There were some early photographs taken by Julia Margaret Cameron and some embroidery by Jane Burden who later became Mrs Jane Morris, but little else from any other female Pre-Raphaelite painters.  So it was very pleasing to find that a local art gallery, not too far from me, The Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight, Wirral had just put on a small exhibition of work by a feminine Pre-Raphaelite painter entitled A Pre- Raphaelite Journey which showcased the art of Mary Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.  In my next couple of blogs I want to look at the life of this gifted female artist and feature some of her paintings.

Mary Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale was born in the prosperous London suburb of Upper Norwood, Surrey in 1872.   She was brought up in an affluent household which, besides the family, also housed four live-in servants and a governess.  Eleanor was the youngest of five children.  Her father Matthew was a Lincoln Inn’s barrister who had married Sarah Anna Lloyd, the daughter of a judge from Bristol.   At this juncture in Victorian England, parents expected their sons to prosper at school and go onto university, after which they would secure well paid, high status professions.  Daughters were not expected to achieve any great academic status but would harness all their efforts into securing a “good” marriage.  Mary Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s two brothers achieved all that was expected of them.  Both Charles and John Fortescue-Brickdale graduated from Oxford University, following which Charles, like his father became a lawyer and John followed a career in medicine.  Of the three daughters, Anne had died at the age of six leaving Eleanor and Kate to fulfill their parents’ plans of finding themselves “good” husbands.  However, unlike their brothers, they were not to realize their parent’s wishes as neither married.

The Fortescue-Brickdale family had tentative ties to the world of art with Eleanor’s father being a fellow Oxford university student of John Ruskin and later Eleanor’s brother Charles, who was an amateur artist, would attend Ruskin’s lectures at Oxford.  Eleanor had originally shown an interest in painting and drawing but merely as a pastime.  As she grew older, she began to take art more seriously and consider it as a possible future profession.  In 1889, aged seventeen, Eleanor enrolled at the Crystal Palace School of Art, Science and Literature.  It was not considered a prestigious art school and did not have any famous painters on the staff but it was close to where Eleanor lived and so was deemed fit for purpose.  The school was open to both boys and girls but the science classes were only for young men whilst the art classes were solely for young women.  The only mingling of the sexes occurred in the music classes.

In 1894, tragedy was to strike the Fortescue-Brickdale family with Eleanor’s father being killed whilst climbing in the Swiss Alps.  Eleanor having gained a basic knowledge of art and artistic techniques whilst at the Crystal Palace School of Art, realised that to become a professional artist she needed to attend a much more professionally run art establishment and in the mid 1890’s she enrolled at the St John’s Wood Art School.  The aim of this school was to train students for the Royal Academy Schools and it was very successful at this, as between 1880 and 1895, 250 out of 394 students admitted to the Royal Academy had come from St John’s Wood Art School and furthermore, of the 86 prizes awarded to students by the Royal Academy, 62 had been ex-pupils of St John’s Wood Art School.   To achieve entry to the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer one had to submit certain prescribed pieces of work.  If the submitted works were considered acceptable, the candidate then had to endure a three month probationary period before being allowed on to a full-time course.   In January 1895, on her third attempt to become a probationer, Eleanor was admitted.  Despite the initial problems of being accepted as a probationer, her work during her probationary period was looked upon as being so good that she was allowed to embark on a full-time course after just three weeks.

Eleanor managed to cover the costs of her first year at the Academy by selling some of her work which she used to work on before and after attending the Academy School.  Although this was a financially good option for her,  it made her days very long.  Two years later in 1897 she was awarded a prize for her design work and the recognition she received for this led to a number of commissions, including one from her brother Charles’ legal practice, and one for illustrating a book entitled A Cotswold Village, which was written by her brother-in-law, J Arthur Gibbs.  Soon she became one of the most visible female artists of her time.  One must remember that Eleanor was a single woman, had not gone to a public school instead had been home educated, did not go to university and so lacked the opportunity in later life to cultivate connections with ex students.  The one thing that was going for her was the sector of society in which she grew up.  Their neighbourhood family friends included well-to-do bankers and lawyers, landed families who had houses in town, all of which needed decorating and acquiring paintings to hang on their walls.  These were people with disposal incomes.  They were also readers of upper-class publications such as Country Life and The Ladies Field and Eleanor managed to find work at these magazines using her well-loved artistic design skills.  She contributed illustrations to these magazines for over ten years and from people seeing and admiring her work she began to build up a sizeable patronage

In 1898 she had her first major work of art entitled The Pale Complexion of True Love accepted for the Royal Academy Exhibition of that year.  This is my featured painting of the day.  The title of the work is taken from Act 3 Scene IV of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It, when the elderly shepherd, Corin speaks of the shepherd, Silvius’ unrequited love for the shepherdess, Phebe:

“…If you will see a pageant truly play’d,
Between the pale complexion of true love
And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain,
Go hence a little and I shall conduct you,
If you will mark it…”

The first thing that strikes you with this painting is the sumptuous red of the lady’s gown.  It is interesting how the artist has used such a bright spectrum of colours.  To many people, the Pre-Raphaelite painters use of bright colours is too garish and lacks subtlety.  To others it is this vibrancy of colour which enhances the work.   I will let you decide which camp you find yourself in.

In my next blog I will continue the life story of Eleanor Fotrtescue-Brickdale and look at another of her paintings.