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A Woman’s World: Elaine by Emma Sandys

Sandys, Emma, Elaine, 1862-65, Oil on Panel, Norwich, Wightwick Manor

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.

Photographer Unknown, Emma Sandys, mid 19th Century


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.