Finding Emma Sandys

A few years ago I wrote a post about Emma Sandys, and how little seemed to be known about her. Finally, I have got round to working on her a bit more, and today, I feel a little bit closer to her! But first, a brief biography. She was born Mary Ann Emma Negus Sands, in Norwich, in January 1842; the family added the ‘y’ to their surname in or around 1853; I don’t know why, but such things were not uncommon, perhaps with ‘Sandys’ being considered more genteel. Her father was a portraitist who taught both Emma and her more famous (and disreputable) brother Fredrick to paint. In 1862, at the age of 20, Emma was baptised at St Peter Mancroft church in Norwich, and her profession is recorded as ‘artist’. Her earliest dated painting is in 1863, A Saxon Princess (private collection, below), and she went on to exhibit at a number of venues including the Royal Academy. We know from her brother’s letters that she stayed with him in London sometimes, and letters from Dante Gabriel Rossetti tell us that he knew her and introduced her to potential patrons, so she did, to some small extent, become a part of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. She died young, at the age of 34, at home in Norwich of ‘a lung complaint’. Emma Sandys’ work is mentioned, along with other Pre-Raphaelite women, in several works, mostly by Pamela Gerrish Nunn and Jan Marsh, with some paintings reattributed from Fred to Emma by Betty Elzea, and these works were my starting point for research.

However, it has taken a lot of detective work to piece together information from sale catalogues, information volunteered by private collectors (since so many of her works are in private hands) and other sources. I am not an art historian by training, and so my focus has been on the literary and historical characters which Sandys painted, and this research will form the basis of a chapter in my forthcoming book on Forgotten Women Pre-Raphaelites. This approach has been enlightening: for example, I am now quite convinced that Elaine (c.1862-5, National Trust) is based not on Elaine of Astolat, who appears in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, but Elaine of Corbenic, who features in Malory’s Morte DArthur.

I’m interested in the artist’s choice of a medieval subject from a medieval text, rather than the more obviously available (and popular) Tennysonian source. I’ve also been closely studying Rosabelle (1865, private collection, below left) alongside its presumed source text, Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Rosabelle’, from The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The headstrong heroine of the poem is linked to the St Clair family of Rosslyn chapel, and in fact one can – I think – just make out faint traceries which echo the stonework of Rosslyn in the background of the painting.

Today’s excitement has been actually seeing Emma’s handwriting, in three letters from her held by the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. She has a bold, impatient hand, and while I feared stilted, characterless little letters, these show a business-like, determined woman whose dedication to her art is paramount. In an undated letter to Frederick she writes:

I want you to write at once and tell me if you will want your studio to do it in, as then Jarrold has another room to let and I’ve asked him to keep it for a week that I may have time to decide about liking it – because if you want yours I must have one, it would be impossible for me to paint at home – so do write and let me know there’s a dear as it is important.

Emma Sandys to Frederick Sandys, unpublished letter, Manchester John Rylands Library, 1279:155.

She concludes by indicating that her brother has been showing her pictures to his friends with the plan of selling them, and then briefly concludes with affection. Like me when I’m working, she gets to the point and then belatedly realises perhaps she should be friendly too. Her letters to Charles Augustus Howell, who was selling some paintings for her, are similar in this regard: she discusses prices, notes that he needs to return a painting to her which has not sold, says she would appreciate his advice about selling through Christie’s – and then hastily regrets that his wife has been ill and wonders if it’s the weather.

Both of the Howell letters mention a ‘Siddons picture’ that he has been trying to sell for her. I puzzled over this for a bit, and then thought of this picture, known as ‘A Fashionable Lady’ or ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’, possibly c.1873. That nose seems distinctly familiar…

I think the chapter I’m writing is just a starting point; there is so much more I want to explore here, so if you are interested in Emma Sandys, if you know more than I do, or if you own one of her works (swoon) then please get in touch with me via the Contact page.

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