Archive for August 31st, 2015

Rosa Brett, The Hayloft, 1858

Dear friends and readers,

Another woman artist who gets only minimal mention in surveys of women artists: Germaine Greer says of her and Antonietta Bandies they were “so sickened by the double standard [demanding ‘womanly qualities’ in their paintings] that they signed some works as men:” Rosa Brett (“Rosarius”). I was taken by and remembered ever after the effective photographic accuracy of her snug cat in a brick and wooden The Hayloft (above) in Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 Years of the Cat in Art (part of a history of growing knowledge and accuracy in portrayal): enigmatic symbolism is found at the bottom.

Brett painted in the closely scientifically observed mode of the Pre-Raphaelites; closely associated in art and life with her younger brother, John, many of his more numerous pictures and two of hers were reprinted in a brilliant a catalogue of an exhibition about an aspect of the Pre-Raphaelite Vision (by Allen Staley and Christopher Newall, subtitled Truth to Nature), which I was lucky enough to see in the National Gallery in DC. There we learned how much photography, especially of the landscape, had influenced the movement: it began with showing how photography itself began by imitating picturesque and sublime landscapes, but then as its techniques improved (to reproduce light, effects of shade and darkness), it began to enable people to see things in the landscape they couldn’t before, study the landscape in minute ways and thus captured the attention of artists (see my Boxing Day at the National Gallery).

Rosa and John Brett belong to this school, only with her there is a strong sense of order and pattern, a seeking for peacefulness and enclosure:

The Artist’s Garden

The leaves and flowers of the chestnut form a dense pattern across the composition’s upper register. Beneath the branches a view is given over beds and mown grass, across which is cast the shadow of the chestnut trunk, and beyond a dappled ring at the foot of a shrub. The wider landscape is hardly indicated: an enclosing wall appears to be suggested at the lawn’s far margin … [it all] speaks of the artist’s controlled but nonetheless emotional response to the beauty of familiar scenery at a particular time of year … Newall, p 50)

Not that Brett never traveled from the UK: she painted Lake Geneva during a 4 month stay in Belgium in 1855 (also described as “a trip to the Continent from April to July 1855”):

Lake Geneva

Of the few good images I’ve been able to locate, though, the one which best showed her meticulous mode is her

Study of a Turnip Field


Rosa Brett by her brother, John (oil on board)

Her life is told briefly by Deborah Cherry (Painting Women, p 31); Pamela Gerrish Nunn at least twice (in Victorian Women Artists [London: Women’s Press, 1987], pp 188-94; “Rosa Brett, Pre-Raphaelite,” The Burlington Magazine, 126:979 (Oct 1984):630-634); Charlotte Yeldham (an ODNB entry); and fleetingly by Alastair Grieve (“Pre-Raphaelite Vision, London and Berlin,” The Burlington Magazine, 146:1214, British Art [May, 2004]:341-342), and Newall and Staley (above). She is one of the many women artists in history who was able to develop, and yet hindered from fulfilling her talent, because of her family relation to an active, respected male artist and her immersion in what was the family business. The eldest of 5 children, born 7 December 1829, all boys but her. Her father a veterinary surgeon, with her mother, led a peripatetic from 1833-46, moving from Surrey, to Manchester, the English southcoast, to Ireland, Nottingham, Coventry and finally within the northeast outskirts by Maidstone, Kent, where her mother had been born, and whose place names appear in some of her paintings, viz., Pendenen Heath and

Detling Church (note the patterns in the gravestones)

Cherry says her “diaries and letters reveal an arduous routine” of housework and “art with domestic and familial responsibilities:” she would sit by musical brother Arthur, managed the home for her mother. She “helped her brother [John] with his pupils, packed his pictures, worked on his canvasses, her paintings being passed off as his.” Meanwhile she was never so happy as when she was out-of-doors drawing, sketching, painting in oil or watercolor “from nature.” While she eventually became chronically ill, she established a separate identity from John Brett’s and her work was exhibited (Royal Academy, Liverpool, Society of Lady Artists); she belonged to a watercolor society too. She is described as “frail” and died relatively young, 53 (1882). Her brother grieved strongly and missed her for herself; he described her as “ardent, impulsive and unbendable,” and died unmarried. The sources repeat that she didn’t mix outside her family much, did not become involved with individuals from the Pre-Raphaelite circles, was shy, self-effacing. So there is a lot more to say about the lives of Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) and other Pre-Raphaelite women artists. Nunn quotes Rosa’s first diary entry:

John went again to Lushington’s for his portfolio, they bought none of his drawings but chose one of mine, a view of York copied from one of Mr. Booty’s(?) done in pencil on coloured card, with Chinese white on the highlights, they of course thought it was John’s it having no name to it. They gave a guinea for it. I was very much surprised to hear they had chosen one of mine this being the first I ever sold… Burlington Magazine, 31)

After she had not put her name on her The Hayloft, her brother John wrote:

You must reconsider your determination about secrecy … Woolner to whom I spoke of a wonderful picture by an unknown PRB was agonising in his enquiries — as to how old you are — and whether you were a swell — no suspicion that you were a she (Newall, quoting Nunn, p 52)


Helen Nina Taylor describes how hard it was to break out of prescriptive ideals for mood, subject, images for women who wanted to, who worked in the Pre-Raphaelite school (“‘Too individual an artist to be a mere echo’: Female Pre-Raphaelite Artists as Independent Professionals,” The British Art Journal 12:33 [2011-12]:52-59). Choosing the landscape and nature mode, which obviously was her brother’s too, and not the literature and religious one, helped her be unsentimental, avoid impositions on herself of repressive controversy. In her landscapes and buildings there is a strong impression of passionate mood and rich color:

From Bluebell Hill

(memorializing, celebrating an) Old House at Farleigh

She liked painting small animals — Isobel Armstrong and Margaret Doody are among those who have suggested in their poetry women show an affinity for small animals:

A Mouse (among colorful leaves, underbrush and snails)

Rosa Brett - Study of Two Rabbits
A Study of Two Rabbits


Trees were a favorite subject and here is a softly beautiful shaded drawing from among her notes:


Some have such alluring titles: A Thrush in a Horse Chestnut Tree, The Field Mice at Home. Nothing was too home-y or humble. Rosa aroused animosity when she submitted as as a second piece at the Royal Academy Thistles:


In the conservative Art Journal it was remarked she “showed only thistles … and no means within the domain of art will magnify the down into importance, even though ever fibre were as fully represented as in nature” (Newall, p 51)

Rosa does seem to have detached herself, loved the familiar, and here she dedicates herself so to wayside flowers and plants, they seem aggressively entangling rather than sheltering her in the manner that her Hayloft shelters her cat.


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