In 19th century British art, much has been written about the male artists such as William Morris, William Turner and John Everett Millais, but until relatively recently, there was little written about the female artists who were also working during this period. As times change, we can now see that there is a wealth of work to be uncovered and a great deal of research that needs to be done to give these artists an equal footing on the world stage and to make them household names.
One of the most important artistic groups from this period is the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). As the name suggests, this was a group of men who sought to align their art with an idealised mediaeval world, drawing on Arthurian legend as a key source of inspiration. Headed by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, this group of artists changed the British artistic landscape and paved the way for the ground breaking works of the 20th century.
Emma Sandys 1843-1877
Born in Norwich, in the east of the UK, it would appear that she spent much of her life in this city and died there in her early thirties. Her brother, Frederick, was a young member of the PRB and is generally considered to be a great painter and a central member of the group. Emma, despite living in Frederick’s shadow, is still considered a Pre-Raphaelite artist and learned from his technique, producing equally fine works of art (National Trust, n.d.). However, she is barely known outside - and even within - art history circles, but her works are held in collections throughout the UK.
The tragic figure of Elaine, painted between 1862-65, is taken from Arthurian legend. She fell deeply in love with the great knight Sir Lancelot who did not return her affections but instead embarked on an affair with Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife (Tennyson, 1859–1885). The unerring love Elaine had for Lancelot eventually led to her death after she had lovingly nursed him back to health (National Trust, n.d.). It is a perfect parable for the consequences of the ills of love when given to the wrong person.
"Most noble lord, Sir Lancelot of the Lake,
I, sometime called the maid of Astolat,
Come, for you left me taking no farewell,
Hither, to take my last farewell of you.
I loved you, and my love had no return,
And therefore my true love has been my death.”
Thanks to the popularity of the legends from Tennysons’ ‘Idylls of the King’, Elaine became a well known image of pathos and unfulfilled longing. Her image was depicted often by men and, more regularly, by women. In fact Sandys herself painted three versions of this work; clearly she felt some deeper connection with this figure that manifested itself in these portrayals (National Trust, n.d.).
We see a young woman reclining at a somewhat uncomfortable angle gazing upwards to something unknown to us as the viewer. We are incredibly close, almost voyeuristically so, to this contemplative figure. Her hand touching her face seems to be almost unconsciously raised without breaking her concentration or musings. The gleam in her large, slightly sad eyes is highlighted by the glimmer of the pearls that adorn her ears, neck and hair, whilst her skin, too, is pearlescent. In contrast, her deep, richly coloured Morrisian surroundings of heavy blue velvet, red and black drapery, and pale auburn woven overcoat - not to mention the animal skin behind her shoulders - serve to heighten her pale complexion and increase the attention the eyes give to the face and the personality which Sandys makes so visible.
Elaine’s copper curls are as luxurious as the materials which clothe and surround her. However, we must remember that her hair has been adapted to fit the male gaze as Victorian women wore their hair up in a severe fashion (Gibson, 2018). Thus, her flowing tresses were far more associated with life behind closed doors. It was a motif common to works of the PRB, but equally it has always been a relatively good indicator of a fallen immoral or non-conformist woman in western artistic history for the last 1000 years or more (Gibson, 2018). Often we have a redheaded Magdalene or Venus, or as a symbol of feminine strength, we have Elizabeth I (Gibson, 2018).
Arguably there are two different conclusions that could be drawn about the expression of Elaine. On the one hand, it is a representation of an intelligent woman who is aware of her own agency. Having been smitten by love, she does not show despair in my opinion but rather an acceptance and a willingness to carry on down another path that she must decide. In this, one can see Sandys contemplating what it means to be an independent woman trying to understand the direction or meaning of her life. On the other hand, it is simply an imagining of a mythical character painted in a contemporary setting, echoing works by other more famous and male artists.
Tennyson, A. (n.d.). Lancelot and Elaine 1859–1885 | Robbins Library Digital Projects. Robbins Library Digital Projects. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/tennyson-lancelot-and-elaine
National Trust. (n.d.). Elaine. National Trust Collections. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1288985
Gibson, R. (2018). Why are artists infatuated with red hair? | Art UK. ArtUK. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://artuk.org/discover/stories/why-are-artists-infatuated-with-red-hair
National Trust & ArtUK. (n.d.). Elaine [Painting, Oil on Panel]. Elaine. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/elaine-131467
Emma Sandys. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Emma Sandys - Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. http://preraphaelitesisterhood.com/emma-sandys-2/