If your general impression of Pre-Raphaelite women is that they all drooped languidly among the lilies, beautiful and passive, their role confined to inspiring the famous men around them...well, think again. There were many fine women artists and artisans in Pre-Raphaelite circles and the Arts & Crafts movement, including the painters whose work is above: Kate Bunce, Evelyn de Morgan, Maria Spartali Stillman, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Emma Sandys, and Joanna Mary Boyce. They pushed against restrictive Victorian norms of gender, class, and sexuality to lead creative, courageous lives, making art and craftwork that still inspires their fellow Romantics today.
One of my personal favorites is Barabara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a painter of landscapes and nature studies faithful to the plein air doctrine of early Pre-Raphaelitism. Few of her paintings survive today -- and those that do, I have to admit, don't place her in the top tier of Victorian artists. But viewing her life in its entirety as a work of art, I stand in awe of what she created.
How could we not be inspired by Barbara Bodichon? She palled around with Morris, Rossetti, and Elizabeth Siddal; she was best friends with George Eliot; she foraged and botanized with the great landscape designer Getrude Jeckyll; and she was a hugely important figure in the early British feminist movement. When she wasn't off climbing remote mountains with her women friends, her rucksack crammed with art supplies, she published the influential English Women's Journal, established the Society of Female Artists (while pressuring the Royal Academy schools to open their doors to women), ran a popular London salon for discussion of art and politics, and was the co-founder (with Emily Davies) of Britain's first university college for women: Girton College at Cambridge.
As part of the Langham Place Group, Barbara fought for four fundamental rights which benefit every woman in Britain to this day: the right to vote, the right of access to education, the right to work and keep ones own wages, and the right for married women to retain their own legal identity and property. She changed the world she lived in, while also pursuing love affairs, international adventures, and living a rich, full artist's life. She was vivid, she was brave, she was beloved by her many friends, she was mourned by thousands when she died, crowds thronging the streets as her funeral passed by...
...and then she was largely forgotten.
Historian and feminist scholar Pam Hirsch suggests one reason why. Barabara, she notes, "did many things, and historians seem to find it easier to understand and write about a man who pursued one 'great' goal. Women's lives and women's histories often look different, more diffuse and (perhaps) harder to evaluate."
Born in Sussex in 1827, Barbara was the daughter of a radical Member of Parliament, Ben Leigh Smith; granddaughter of the abolitionist William Smith; and cousin to Florence Nightingale. Her parents were never married, although they had six children together -- a shocking breach of Victorian propriety which strongly impacted Barbara's early life. The family was financially comfortable (Ben Leigh Smith had inherited property in Hastings), well-connected politically, but were not welcome in the more respectable circles of society.
"When each of his children reached 21," writes Sussex historian Helena Wojtczak, "Ben broke with tradition and custom by treating his daughters the same as his sons, giving them investments which brought each an annual income of £300. The combination of an unconventional upbringing and a private income placed Barbara in an extraordinary position for a mid-Victorian woman. Whereas most women were raised to be obedient and expected only to marry, bear children and live in subordination to a husband, Barbara was free to live her life almost as she pleased. Money could not buy everything, however; for example her brother Ben went to Jesus College Cambridge in 1848, but Barbara was denied such academic opportunities, since no university would admit women. But she did not succumb to housewifery; she became a painter and social reformer. Despite her wealth Barbara eschewed high society and allied herself with the bohemian, the artistic, and the downtrodden."
Barbara herself said, charmingly:
"I am one of the cracked people of the world and I like to herd with the cracked, such as...queer Americans, democrats, socialists, artists, poor devils or angels; and am never happy in an English genteel family life. I try to do it like other people, but I long always to be off on some wild adventure, or long to lecture on a tub at St. Giles, or go off to see the Mormons, or ride off into the interior on horseback alone and leave the world for a month."
I wish I could have known Barbara Bodichon, and her whole vibrant circle of smart, fearless women. I'd like to gather them all around the dinner table, along with a few smart, fearless friends of my own. We'd open a bottle of wine and sit back to to hear their stories -- marveling at all the things that have changed, and commiserating about all the things that haven't. And then we'd tell them, thank you. We'd tell them that we never take the rights they won for us for granted. And we hope that we, too, can make the world better for those who follow after us.
Pre-Raphaelite Women: To learn more about the Barbara Bodichon, I recommend Pam Hirsch's fascinating biography: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Artist and Rebel (Chatto & Windus, 1998), and Charlotte Moore's reminiscence: "Aunt Barbara's Fireplace" (The Spectator, June 2010). To learn more about the women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, I recommend two excellent blogs: Stephanie Graham Piña's Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, and Kirsty Stonell Walker's The Kissed Mouth.
Credits: The quote by Helena Wojtczak is from a short article on Bodichon which appeared on the Hastings Press website, and now can be found on the Victorian Web; all rights reserved by the author. Some of my text above first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2011 (in the "Inspiring Women" series of posts).