Archive for July 6th, 2016

Women’s Work: a Medley (1861) [I have not come across an image in color]

She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself. — Jane Austen, Emma (precursor to Yonge’s Clever Woman of the Family, illustrated by Claxton)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m happy to be able to say that my second choice for 19th century women artists, Florence Anne Claxton (1838-1920) is no longer as obscure as I had flattered myself she was. From recent books on Victorian women artists, and articles on Florence’s life and art, I can offer a brief life, information about her sister, Adelaide Sophia Claxton [Turner] (1841-1927), also an illustrator and painter, and more than the two famous images of Florence’s work that I first center on. I was drawn to her satire of the hegemonic stereotypical ways women were depicted in her era and Pre-Raphaelite depictions of women, and then startled when I read that she had killed herself. Although during my time writing foremother poet blogs, I all too often came across suicide as the close of a poet’s life, Claxton is the first suicide I’ve encountered among women artists.

Florence Claxton’s one known (and when she is mentioned most frequently reprinted) painting is Women’s Work: A Medley, a parody of Ford Madox Brown’s Work


It also fits in with large-scale group paintings like Frith’s Railway Station (1862), G.E. Hicks’s General Post Office (1860), and Egley’s Omnibus Life in London (1859). While Brown earnestly inculcates the work ethic as conferring dignity and value on people of all classes, Claxton exposes the limited nature of what women were permitted to work at (and not for money). Here is Deborah Cherry’s exegesis from her Beyond the Frame (one of my central sources of information for Claxton):

At the dead centre of the painting is a seated man. Two young women practise their accomplishments, another gazes at her reflection in a mirror. Behind him, on either side of an image of the golden calf, are family groups. To the right, a woman in brilliant yellow consults lengthy tabulations; she is closely watched by two professional men. Three governesses crowd around a small child in the left foreground, while on the right a woman is slumped on the ground before a closed door. The only figure to escape the pit-like centre of the painting is an artist who, having scaled the wall, sits sketching landscape; another attempts to follow her. In a fissure in the wall, an imperious figure points out to a group of indigent gentlewomen a view of sea, ship and shore.

Cherry quotes Susan Casteras (who wrote of Claxton in her review of Cherry’s Beyond the Frame in Victorian Studies, 45:2 [2003]:35-58), who calls it “one of the most soul-searching, acerbic and incisive paintings about the plight of contemporary womanhood (37-39):” women could not own their own property while married; it was extremely difficult for an unmarried woman to support herself independently doing respected satisfying work.

Claxton’s Choice of Paris: an Idyll (1860), “a detailed satire of the subjects, theories and techniques of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood executed in watercolor” (Catherine Flood, ODNB) is said to have caused a sensation:

ChoiceofParistwosides (Large)

Linda Hutcheon (quoted by Cherry) says it goes beyond this and ridicules vice and follies, urges a reform of attitudes and manners; it’s not assured because she could not rely on viewers to grasp its message (42). Jamie Horrocks provides a full exposition (“Broken Vows and Broken Homes: The politics of Pre-Raphaelitism in Florence Claxton’s The Choice of Paris, The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 24 [2015]:5-34, with a large scale reproduction of the interior side); William E. Freedman quotes a very long contemporary exegesis, which accompanied some reprints, showing that the painting probably puzzled many people not “in the know.” Just some of it: on the one side, the

interior, the left-hand compartment, the principal group is that of Mr. Millais present- ing the apple to a Pre-Raphaelite belle-ideal, whom he prefers to a figure of Raphael’s (from the well-known picture of “The Marriage of the Virgin”), and to a pretty, modern, English girl, dressed in the mode of the day, with plaited hair and crinoline complete. He carries in his hand a volume of Mr. Ruskin’s, and on the ground is a treatise “On Beauty”, by the same author. On the floor, also, are some of the famous apple-blossoms which Mr. Ruskin invoked the artists of England to paint, and the onions, as painted by Mr. Hunt, which that gentleman was so enthusiastic about last year. Behind these we see another Pre-Raphaelite worthy examining the feet of a female through a magnifying- glass, the textural surface of which he is copying minutely in his sketch book.

On the other, the exterior

we discern a young lady who is being dragged in at the window by the hair of the head, having lent too favourable an ear to the serenading monk beneath. Her fiery red hair has partly given way under the severity of the tension to which it is subject. Behind this figure is the famous Sir Isumbras of 1857, and in the foregound a picnic, where Mr. Hunt’s “Scapegoat” is anxiously waiting for some of the milk which a female (somewhat after one of the figures in Mr. Millais’s “Spring”) is drinking. The grave-digging-nun, and the sprawling figure of the girl sucking a straw, in the foreground on the right, will at once be recognized as of the same paternity.

The viewer could also pick out portraits of Raphael, Van Dyke, Joshua Reynolds, Millais, Ruskin (“Pre-Raphaelites in Caricature,” Burlington Magazine, 102:693 [1960):523-29). As one might imagine, one criticism of her work was that the images didn’t stand alone, needed explanation. The truth is satire often demands words: Hogarth, Rowlandson, need their titles and the lines that often accompany them, and occur in narrative series. Florence Claxton’s Scenes from the Life of the Female Artist (shown in the second exhibit of the Society of Female Artists in 1858), seems to have disappeared, and all we have is the description:

there is the ‘ladies class’, the studio, the woodland wide-awake, all the aspirations, difficulties, disappointments, which lead in time to successes. The little dog barks … the plaster head on the shelf winks with a certain dry amusement at its mistress, who is represented as painting a picture of the ascent to the Temple of Fame; the picture is rejected, and the disconsolate young painter is seen sitting back in comical despair, gazing at an enormous R, chalked on the back (Cherry, Painting Women, 85).

She meant to amuse, entertain, and teach, as will be seen in the title of her 1871 book of cartoons, The Adventures of a Woman in Search of her Rights, containing more than 100 pictures. Satire also comes from personal as well as ethical anger, from hurt. As with Joanna Boyce Wells, her words rather than her pictures have survived and must substitute. The following explication is from an exhibition where Florence’s pictures had scrolls, circles with words in them (Flagstones: “Ennui”), and funny references (“prickly thorns of Ridicule”)

The Four Ages of Man are represented: in the centre … all are equally the objects of devotion from surrounding females. The ‘sugar plums’ dropping from the bon-bon box represent the ‘airy nothings’ alone supposed to be within the mental grasp of womankind. A wide breach has been made in the ancient wall of Custom and Prejudice, by Progress – Emigration – who points out across the ocean. Three governesses, seen in the foreground, ignorant apparently of the opening behind them, are quarrelling over one child. The upright female figure to the right is persuaded by Divinity, and commanded by Law, to confine her attention to legitimate objects. Another female sunk, exhausted, against a door, of which the medical profession has the key; its representative is amused at her impotent attempts … (Cherry, Beyond the Frame, 40)

Florence depicted women’s worlds in the way of later Victorian or Edwardian women artists (Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, Helen Allingham) as in this of women fending for themselves and their children getting off a train and on a train station:

FlorenceClaxtonaTrainstation (Large)


Like a large number of the women artists I’ve covered, Florence was born to a family of painters: her father, Marshall Claxton (1813-81) had taken his wife, Sophia (nee Hargrave) and family to Florence, Italy, so he could study and there. Florence was born 26 August 1838. He seems not to have been commercially successful, and the family moved about. When her sister, Adelaide was born, three years later (1841), they were living in London, Southampton Street, Fitzroy Square, where many artists lived. He took them, a governess and 200 paintings to Sydney, Australia in August 1850, where the Hargrave brothers were trying to make a living: Richard was a settler-landowner in New South Wales; later a cousin, Lawrence Hargrave became an aeronautical pioneer. Four years later they sail to Calcutta, India; 1857 they return to England (but via Ceylon or Sri Lanka and Egypt).

An artistic career was not just a vocation for the daughters, but a necessary means of making a living. Catherine Flood lists the art schools they trained in. Florence signed a petition to the Athenaeum, calling for the admission of women into regular art academies, but regular money was in illustration where a woman’s lack of prestige did not weigh so heavily. Sketches by Florence from the 1850s show she had already show her talent for humor, and it was from these younger adult years before her marriage that the exhibited works described above emerged. The sisters were prolific, living together independently in London for a while, producing pictures commenting on topic issues for (among others) Illustrated London News, the Illustrated Times, London Society, English Women’s Domestic Journal.

secenes-from-women-artistsFlorenceCaxton (Large) (2)
From Florence’s Scenes from the Life of a Female Artist

It’s upon Florence’s marriage to a French photographer that we begin to lose sight of her. She moved outside the art world she had been in to Paris. The Woman in Search of her Rights came from these later years, and on the basis of this and a few other projects, Catherine Flood objects to Ellen Clayton’s characterization of Florence has having left “the artistic world” upon her marriage (English Female Artists, 1876). But again she had moved, this time to a periphery: she is said to have spent many years in Morocco whether as wife or widow is not clear (her husband died between 1881 and 1891). There is a difference between a life in London or Paris, and exhibiting and making books there, as opposed to selling paintings on china, porcelain plaques and teaching, which is what she did mostly. Flood then locates her in 1911 living in the Isle of Wight, estranged from her sister, Adelaide (who had become a successful commercial artist-businesswoman), living on an annuity from her mother. There are no children, and she takes “a fatal overdose of veronal” in a “carefully planned suicide” on 3 May 1920, it’s said because of “failing health, rising food prices, and a horror of losing her independence” (Flood).


Although Florence’s name is cited in a number of histories of illustrated books, where illustrations are reprinted, titles are missing, little is reprinted. According to wikipedia, the story of the woman who searched for her rights did not end well, and may be read as part of what Norma Clarke explains as the self-policing of Victorian women writers who hid their real lives and reinforced the system that crippled them (Ambitious Heights: Writing Friendship, Love, The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle 57-97):

a young woman falls in love with a dashing youth, but her parents do not approve and her lover leaves. She decides to pursue her rights. She loses her looks through the study of John Stuart Mill and; now made ugly, she pursues various careers, becoming a lawyer, a politician and a doctor, but eventually fails in all of her pursuits. She finally emigrates to the United States and marries Brigham Young, the polygamous Mormon leader. In the end, it turns out to have been all a dream and she ends with the words ‘thank goodness it’s only a midsummer night’s dream and I’m not emancipated’

The cover

Claxton apparently also ridiculed women in “Married Off: a Satirical Poem by H. B. (Henry Bergh)” (Walton, see directly below).

She did, though, illustrate Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family in ways that show real sympathy for a story of a clever ambitious young woman who wanted to make it on her own. Susan Walton (“Suitable Work for Women? Florence Claxton’s Illustrations for The Clever Woman of the Family by Charlotte Yonge,” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies, 11:2 (2015), describes, reprints and argues both Yonge and Claxton’s attitudes were by no means antagonistic to extending the kinds of remunerative “suitable work” for “gentlewomen” outside the home. The novel first appeared in a conservative Christian magazine, Churchman’s Family Magazine. Walton thinks the life and work of Florence Nightingale played an important role in changing women’s minds about how work outside the home is not just selfish, ambitious, about a need for money, but and quotes Audrey Fessler’s reading of Yonge’s novel as about making “a good society to be one where the interconnectedness of every person in the community was fostered – that a web of relationships and responsibilities should be maintained in parish and neighborhood.”

We should remember that beyond hostility to women artists as such, the art world (high and low) presented women artists and women as deeply sexual (and therefore suspect). In this context, Claxton had been praised in the English Woman’s Journal based on Claxton’s Life of an Old Bachelor and Life of an Old Maid as “the one female exhibitor who means something, and says what she means … every stroke instinct with thought. … We think they are … the best pictures here, being so good of their kind.” She adds Colleen Denney’s voice to the way Claxton’s Work: A Medley was seen: “a “multi-layered allegorical portrait,” “a biting satire of women’s service to men; in essence, it reveals the state of women’s lives in 1861 and the ways in which their society marginalized them, whether they sought to stay in the domestic realm, or ventured beyond it into the public one.” Claxton might then be a good choice for Yonge’s book. Here is just one of the several illustrations reprinted and analyzed by Walton:


To me and those interested in Jane Austen, it’s telling that Yonge’s novel has been linked back to Austen’s Emma for its subject, stance, techniques.

One can also glimpse satire on the social life imposed and sympathy for women and girls, in these four panels from the Illustrated London News attributed to both Adelaide and Florence:

florenceandAdelaideIllustraedLondonTimes (Large)

Florence’s woman artist is stranded in a flower show (taken so seriously from Mrs Miniver to Downton Abbey)

ArtistatFlowerShow (Large)

In 1863 she laughed at a “singing lesson at Minerva House:”


As I am of a serious disposition, and am often perverse enough to prefer the small mood images and vignettes in the New Yorker to their cartoons, I like the few in that vein I found:

Forence Anne Claxton -  watercolour over pencil, signed and date 1859 . This watercolour is a study for a larger work entitled "the Lower jetty, Margate" engraved for the Illustrated London News Oct 1 1859 p330

Florence Anne Claxton – watercolour over pencil, signed and date 1859 . This watercolour is a study for a larger work entitled “the Lower jetty, Margate” engraved for the Illustrated London News Oct 1 1859 p330

Another from this series:

Lower Jetty 1859watercolor

But her forte was the detailed satire and commentary, such as this:

Testimonials (Large)

She was, though, not laughing when she died, an old ill woman living alone whom her society would not provide adequately for and had actively worked (in the sense of its norms) to prevent her doing so for herself.


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