Recently I heard a lecture by Dr Pamela Gerrish Nunn on the work of artist and illustrator Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, (1872-1945), a painter in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition whose work is often overlooked, but is currently the subject of an exhibition, ‘A Pre-Raphaelite Journey’. Her work is fascinating, and as Dr Gerrish Nunn pointed out, manifests some clear indicators of Pre-Raphaelite influence, such as the medieval-style ‘The Little Foot-Page’ (1905), with its detailed depiction of flowers and foliage. Fortescue-Brickdale was part of a third-wave Pre-Raphaelitism which also encompassed John Byam Shaw and Kate Bunce, and contemporary reviews noted her Pre-Raphaelite style and was highly complimentary about her work. Of course many Pre-Raphaelites died during the 1890s, and it seems likely that the retrospectives, obituaries, articles and books occasioned by their deaths may have led, perhaps ironically, to a third-wave for which there was clearly still a public taste.
She was frequently coupled with Byam Shaw in reviews, though her work was in many ways more sophisticated than his, but, as Dr Gerrish Nunn pointed out, Fortescue-Brickdale was in many ways the victim of a stringent gender politics: while men might be the ‘inheritor’ of a tradition, or ‘inspired by’ another painter, women artists were more likely to be seen as followers, pale imitators of an original, despite her original ideas and also creative original touches when clearly inspired by another artist. Her personal relationship with Byam Shaw also meant that she was more uncritical of his work than was good for her, and she suffered from an unfortunate tendency to see herself as slightly inferior as an artist, somewhat less inspired, than male artists. Contemporary reviewers also showed a strong desire to identify her with a particular Pre-Raphaelite painter – some chose Rossetti, others Millais, though Gerrish Nunn made a strong case for Ford Madox Brown.
Like the Pre-Raphaelites, Fortescue-Brickdale was an illustrator as well as an artist, illustrating contemporary poets including Browning and Tennyson. But she also described herself as an ‘artist-craftswoman’, and produced designs for Liberty pewter-ware, stained glass and memorial statuary. As a person, she apparently appeared to be a gentle, typical spinster, though with a wicked sense of humour and a tendency towards smoking cigars and going to the races! Her work also moved with the times: at some point during the Great War, perhaps, she seems to have moved on from Pre-Raphaelitism to something much more contemporary, but there is no doubting her Pre-Raph credentials, as her paintings testify.
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