The mysterious Emma Sandys

20140706-093540-pm-77740670.jpgWhile preparing for a recent lecture, I spent some time investigating Emma Sandys, the sister of the more famous Frederick. This is because one of her paintings, Lady holding a Rose, hangs on the wall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, though it does not appear in their online catalogue and there is virtually no information about it. But I wanted to talk about it because I wanted to make sure that a woman was represented in my narrative, and not just as a model or ‘muse’. Consequently, I decided to explore a bit more widely, but discovered that the usual sources of information on Pre-Raphaelite women (Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s books – though I gather that more recent editions than mine contain more) barely mention Emma Sandys. In fact, there is hardly anything written about her at all – though she does have a very basic Wikipedia entry which tells me her dates (1843-1877), that she painted portraits, often in a medieval style, and may have shared a studio with the debauched Frederick.

Not a great deal to go on, then. I feel a research project coming on. It transpires that many of her paintings have only recently been attributed to her: they were previously considered to have been the work of her brother, and recent research (which I haven’t been able to find out much about) has led to a number of paintings (several of them owned by the National Trust) finally being acknowledged as the work of Emma rather than Frederick. This is a common problem in art hisElainetory, of course – that the default is that paintings were probably by men, though the last thirty years have seen considerable redressing of the balance.

Emma Sandys’ paintings are fascinating: her medievalism clearly owes a great deal to Pre-Raphaelitism, and she is keen on picturing women in a reverie, gazing wistfully out of the frame and away from the viewer. She captures women who are enclosed in their own worlds, and I rather like this. Her medieval aesthetic extends to several Arthurian-based paintings (as does her brother’s), including ‘Elaine’, owned by the National Trust. Elaine was the Maid of Astolat, who fell in love with Lancelot du Lac in the myths of Arthur. Her love was doomed to be unrequited, and Emma Sandys’ painting shows her dressed richly, gazing longingly and sadly as she waits for a love that will never be hers. Similar in concept is ‘Enid’, of which I haven’t been able to track down an image. Enid was the wife of Geraint, a knight of the court of King Arthur, whose relationship with her husband sours after a misunderstanding, and who is put to the test and proves her love and loyalty after many trials. These patient, enduring women Emma Sandysseem closely related to the unnamed ‘Lady holding a Rose’ at BMAG, and my (wild, but harmless) speculation is that this woman might be Guinevere herself, with Camelot in the background, pondering her difficult situation as she is torn between her love for her husband Arthur (represented by the honeysuckle, meaning loyalty in the Victorian language of flowers) and Lancelot, indicated by the roses, which stand for passion.

We know so little of Emma Sandys’ life that we have little more than speculation to go on, but I hope to find out more. If you have any suggestions, please get in touch!



  1. Thank you so much for this Serena – I have a theory about the flowers which I am happy to share – but first – can you confirm if there are flowers to the right of the central figure – the pictures I have are not very clear? From what I can make out they look as if they may be iris? Also, is there a flower by her right eye – lilac? Is the picture exhibited in Birmingham? (If so, I feel another trip coming on!)

  2. Hi Julie, I’d love to hear your theory! I have a slightly different theory now to the one I had when I wrote this! I think there are green leaves which look like iris leaves but not a flower, and I don’t think there are other flowers. Might be wrong though… yes it is on display at BMAG so if you fancy a trip to Birmingham let me know and we could look at it together.

  3. For some reason, Serena, only just saw this note ….. I went down to the Gallery several weeks ago and had a bit of a study and have had an exchange of correspondence with Victoria Osborne. I think it could be Guinevere but my theory is it is more likely to be Isolde (thinking The Lay of the Honeysuckle from 12th century Marie de France). What are your new thoughts?

  4. Hi Julie, Isolde is a good suggestion, yes. Someone else has suggested Fair Rosamund – I can’t remember if I mentioned that, but I’m not convinced. Embarrassingly I actually can’t remember what my new thoughts were! – I’ll have a look for my notes when I’ve finished marking! Sorry we didn’t get to chat about it a couple of weeks ago!

  5. I found this blog whilst looking for information on the painting and found it to be very interesting. As I understand it the painting was done in 1874-6 in her brother Frederick’s studio, and it was originally thought that only the pencil sketch was still in existence until the painting emerged on antiques roadshow (s20 ep4, Walsall Town Hall) in 1997. There it appeared with my Grandmother who still owns it today and has loaned it to the art gallery. It was bought by my Great Grandad just after WW2, I believe either at a carboot or in a charity shop, which he purchased believing it to be the work of Emma’s brother until it was verified as Emma’s work. It was passed on to my Grandmother after his death where it was displayed in her house until antiques roadshow came to town and she learned of the significance of the painting, resulting in her decision to have it displayed in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I couldn’t tell who the painting is of but I thought you may want some more info about the painting grom what I have been told by my Grandmother. Interesting theories though. 🙂

  6. Thank you so much for commenting – I’m delighted to hear of the painting’s history. It’s wonderful that your grandmother has loaned it to BMAG.

  7. I can confirm my cousin Emma’s story. My mother (Nee Preston) described the painting that her father bought and the story behind its purchase and seeing the episode on Antiques Roadshow Walsall years later on Australian TV. I look forward to visiting the BMAG one day once overseas travel returns.

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