While 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 history, 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 seem 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!