Women of Guildhall Art Gallery

City of London Corporation

Explore women's role as both artists and subjects in the Guildhall Art Gallery's collection.

Alfred Stevens' seasons
This work is an allegory of the vitality and renewal of springtime, depicting a woman in a blue dress with a dove on her shoulder. It is part of a set depicting the four seasons, by the Belgian artist Alfred Emile Leopold Joseph Victoire Strauss, commonly referred to as Alfred Stevens.

The painting emphasises the ripeness of summer through the dappled light and the peachy hue of the woman’s dress. She fans herself in the warmth of the sun. The lush flora and fauna described in the background are mirrored by Summer’s bouquet.

In this allegory of autumn, the figure is shown in a thoughtful pose, clutching a book as if in quiet contemplation. The pose suggests meditation on the change of seasons, from summer to a colder, darker time of the year. Her arms are enfolded into her body, suggesting a shift to cooler temperatures. The wooded area behind her indicates the turn of the seasons. Her dress mirrors the autumnal tones of the changing leaves, creating a direct analogy between her and the tall trees.

Stevens’ painting of Winter highlights his synthesis of model, colouring, dress and background which work to create an overall mood.

From 1855 onwards, Stevens gained an increasing interest in Japanese art, artists and artistic practice, leading him to create works with greater emphasis on pattern and design. His particular talent for the accurate and nuanced depiction of dress fabric was also inspired by Dutch masters of the Golden age such as Vermeer.

The woman’s costume is treated with particular attention to the difference of fabrics, layers, and surface textures.

The Aesthetic Movement
From the 1860s there was a shift in the Victorian art world, as artists moved away from producing images with moral messages or specific stories behind them, and began to create pictures designed purely to be aesthetically pleasing. This ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ or Aesthetic movement (which was championed by Oscar Wilde and James MacNeil Whistler), promoted art without narrative, for the sake of creating and appreciating beauty. 

The focus of this portrait, as suggested by the title, is the woman's luxurious clothing. In the late nineteenth century, tightly laced corsets ceased to be fashionable, and looser, free-flowing styles such as this were adopted.

However, the painting was originally titled 'Miss Giles', acknowledging the identity of the sitter, and indicating that the focus was very much on the beauty of the model. Miss Giles eventually became the artist's wife.

Sir John Gilbert was largely a self-taught artist. The model for this painting was likely a woman carrying a basket in Covent Garden, and the piece was originally done in watercolour as a study for an illustration of the 1001 Arabian Nights. The fruit basket used by the model is transformed into a golden dish in the oil painting version.

Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes was a Canadian-born painter based predominantly in the UK. This work evokes an idealised country scene set within rolling hills.

The rural setting may be influenced by Forbe’s immediate surroundings at her home in Newlyn in south-west Cornwall, where she lived most of her adult life.

This piece aims to blend the beauty of landscape with the beautiful figures, lending it an unreal, mythical air. Paintings which depicted an imaginary medieval past were popular in this period, as they offered escapism from the industrial realities and increasingly stressful pace of modern life.

This painting by John Byam Shaw is based on two stanzas from a poem by artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, inscribed on parchment in the bottom right of the painting. The 'Damozel' herself is dressed in white, standing with her lover in the right of the composition.

The scene illustrates Rossetti's description of the lovers entering a heavenly grove and encountering the Virgin Mary, who sits in the centre dressed in a blue mantle. The poem contains mystical but unspecific symbolism, but deals with physical and spiritual love.

Byam Shaw was heavily influenced by Rossetti's own paintings, and uses a range of vivid, bright colours and finely drawn lines in the manner of the Pre-Raphelites.

George Adolphus Storey was a member of the ‘St. John’s Wood Clique’, an artistic circle based in St John’s Wood from the 1870s to the 1880s. They sought to paint historical scenes with a new vigour.

The Violinist here wears a dress influenced by Renaissance style. The high collar and ruff, damask pattern, loose back and cuffs were associated with the Aesthetic movement, which is also evoked by the Chinese wallpaper in the background. Aestheticism prized 'art for art's sake', and sought to represent refined beauty in all forms.

Aestheticism was not only a movement in visual culture, but also one that was regarded by its proponents as a way of life, encompassing fashion, literature, interior design, demeanour, language and the affectation of specific behaviour.

This work was purchased just two years after the Guildhall Art Gallery opened. Alfred Temple, the Gallery’s first director, bought it from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.

La Ghirlandata was translated by the artist’s brother, writer and critic William Michael Rossetti, in 1884 as ‘The Lady of the Wreath’. The work was painted at Klemscott Manor in 1873, a house he shared with fellow artist and designer William Morris.

The main figure was modelled by Alexa Wilding, an aspiring actress, while May Morris (daughter of William Morris), posed for the angel heads.

However, at this point in his life, Rossetti was obsessively in love with Jane Morris, William's wife and May's mother. Her features can be seen in the main figure, blending with those of Alexa Wilding to create an uncanny tripling of Morris women.

Rossetti invites multi-sensory appeal in this work by including allusions to sound through the harp and songbird, and to scent via the flowers. Musical instruments in Rossetti’s later work are often seen as a metaphor for sexuality.

The sensuous image evades narrative, instead using symbols, rich colours and textural detail to create an overall effect of beauty.

Rossetti himself thought highly of this painting, and described it as “the greenest picture in the world."

The Net Mender is one of comparatively few paintings painted by a female artist in the Guildhall Art Gallery’s collection.

Marianne Stokes was born in Gratz, Austria, and settled in Britain in the early 1880s after marrying fellow painter, Adrian Stokes. Her paintings were influenced by their travels in Europe. A trip to Holland in 1900, during which Marianne made studies of villages and villagers’ lives, is thought to be the inspiration for this painting.

A woman is shown mending a fishing net in a simple, sparse room. Behind her, a crucifix is mounted on the wall, lending the picture an air of sober reflection and a devotional atmosphere. The scene is reminiscent of paintings of earlier centuries, specifically Dutch Old Masters of the sixteenth century, which often showed women at work in surroundings that suggested humble living and personal spirituality.

The skill of Stokes’ approach is evidenced by her ability to portray the translucence of the net. She often chose simple subjects and treated them in a flat, decorative manner, contributing to an historic fresco-like effect.

The Net Mender, however, is less purely decorative and more intimate than most of her works. It stands out from the vividly coloured or innovative impressionistic style of many contemporaneous paintings, and instead offers a muted, pared-back vision of women’s work as fundamental to society. Without the contribution of the humble net mender, the fishing villages could not survive.

American born, of Irish extraction, Hazel Lavery was a celebrated society hostess renowned for her beauty.

The Laverys’ home in Cromwell Place, London, was famous for its luncheons and dinner parties, where painters and writers rubbed shoulders with judges and cabinet ministers.

Hazel developed a passionate interest in Irish politics, and was rumoured to have had an affair with the Sinn Fein MP Michael Collins. Her position in society enabled her to act as an unofficial go-between to the opposing factions over the issue of Home Rule.

She may have helped Collins accept the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921, which ultimately led to his assassination by hard-line Republicans in 1922.

After his death, a description of this portrait, together with a picture of Hazel and a lock of her hair, were reportedly found on his body.

The story of Naomi features in the Old Testament, in the Book of Ruth. She undergoes many misfortunes and losses, becoming a widow in a strange land, who also has to grieve for both of her sons. She finds great solace in closeness to her daughter-in-law Ruth and her grandson Obed.

Naomi is often read as an inspiring figure, representing fortitude in the face of hardship. This was all the more poignant for those facing similar losses at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the year the picture was painted.

Fildes and his wife had themselves lost a son, to illness rather than war. Fildes depicts the Biblical figure as young, statuesque and dignified, though her dark tired eyes give a suggestion of her sufferings. She was often a source of admiration within Victorian culture as a model for female nobility and endurance.

John Phillip was famous for depictions of nineteenth century Spanish life after travelling to Spain in the 1850s (so much that he became known as 'Spanish Phillip').

This thematic picture both personifies the concept of Faith itself as an idealised beautiful woman, and serves as an aesthetically pleasing portrait of a Spanish Catholic woman who represents the practice of religious faith.

The woman's clothing, rosary beads, and the background of the picture, offer elements of continental exoticism for the largely Protestant British audience that first viewed it.

In Greek myth Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces which besieged Troy during the Trojan Wars. Before setting sail for home, Agamemnon sacrificed their youngest daughter Iphigenia to ensure a favourable wind for his fleet.

When he returned home, he returned with his lover, the prophetess Cassandra, the captured daughter of King Priam of Troy. Enraged and grieving, Clytemnestra and her son murdered them both in revenge.

The dramatic image reflects Collier’s interest in the theatre. He shows us Clytemnestra moments after the murder, depicting a vivid moment of psychological intensity, captured in the facial expression and wild eyes. Collier brings the same attention to detail to her blood-spattered garments as to the archaeological details of the doorway and column.

The somewhat androgynous figure of Clytemnestra asserts physicality and dominance - qualities not usually ascribed to women in the Victorian era.

It is possible that Collier took his inspiration from an 1880 performance of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon at Balliol College, Oxford, in which Clytemnestra was played by a male student. Collier was very involved in the theatrical world of London, and was greatly influenced by fellow-artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who eventually went on to create stage sets. Alma-Tadema also encouraged Collier’s focus on archaeological accuracy.

In this image, Collier included a column from the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. He incorrectly placed the capital of the column at its base. In all likelihood, he observed it at the British Museum, where it was inadvertently displayed upside down.

The architecture depicted in The Music Lesson is based on studies Leighton completed during his 1873 journey to Damascus. The costumes worn by the women were most likely made of luxe; lustrous fabrics purchased by the artist on this trip. The instrument, a Turkish ‘saz’, was probably his own. These non-Western elements provide an exoticising flair to the work.

This kind of painting - essentially subjectless but highly Romanticised, often showing very beautiful women or girls holding instruments, with exotic tiles/fabrics in warm, sensual colours - was being exhibited by high-profile artists, such as Rossetti, Burne Jones, and Albert Moore, around the same time.

The two models featured here reoccur several times in Leighton’s oeuvre. The younger is Connie Gilchrist, who famously sat for Whistler and Holl, and was photographed by Lewis Carroll. She was twelve when the work was first shown and, in 1892, she married and became the Countess of Orkney.

This painting depicts the view from the artist’s drawing room window in his house at Wallingford on Thames. Beyond his garden, on the opposite riverbank, one can see a lush meadow. Leslie claimed that the entire work was painted from life.

The sunflowers are intended to symbolise devotion to art. The title’s “moonflowers” refers to the two young women depicted. Some argue, however, that the moonflowers are the paler blooms in the girls’ arrangements although, of course, such flowers do not actually exist.

One of the girls is the artist’s friend, whilst the other is a model the artist frequently featured in his work.

The clothing depicted does not exemplify the norm of the period. Instead of tight lacing and bustles, Leslie portrays the softer, more free-flowing aesthetic which was gradually coming into fashion. This representation is more in keeping with the aesthetic tastes of Oriental China, which was particularly admired in Britain in the 1870s and 80s.

Leslie underscores this cultural interest through the women’s dress, the flowers, and the blue and white vases. The vases depicted, however, have been identified as Western reproductions in the Chinese style rather than originals.

Of his artwork, Leslie once said: ‘My aim in art has always been to paint pictures from the sunny side of English domestic life, as much as possible to render them cheerful companions to their possessors. The times are so imbued with turmoil and misery, hard work and utilitarianism, that innocence, joy and beauty seem to be the most fitting subjects to render such powers as I possess useful to my fellow creatures.’

The Garden of Eden depicts a young couple walking through Kensington Gardens by Lancaster Gate on a rainy day.

It is a touching scene of two otherwise ordinary people made extraordinary by the love they bear each other. Their fixed gazes show the depth of their affection that converts, for them, the dreariness of the chilly city into paradise; a transformation underscored by the title’s biblical reference.

The pair are rapt in their own little world, isolated from the bustling realm of the city cabs by the park railings, and from the natural world by the low-level boundary rail. This isolation highlights that their respite from busy urban life is man-made and fleeting.

The grey and blue tones convey the atmosphere of a London in winter, with bare trees and cold light. This contrasts with the warm flesh tones of the woman's face, which stands out from the bleak background.

The couple who modelled for the painting were engaged to each other at the time: Beatrice Langdon-Davies, Rivière’s sister-in-law, and her fiancé Percy Silley, an architect. The pair were closely chaperoned during the making of the work and were married not long after it was completed.

A Sonata of Beethoven was painted using light colours and muted tones. This, combined with the title’s suggestion of music, creates a sense of serenity but perhaps also a sense of mystery, further emphasised by the spatial relationship between the two figures.

There was a rising trend in late nineteenth-century Europe to paint unseeable subjects. The subject of music was particularly prevalent, with artists such as Fernand Khnopff in Belgium employing the trope with his Listening to Schumann (1883).

It is possible to interpret the painting as a simple domestic scene, where the viewer of the painting is encouraged to consider sound through a visual medium. But it is equally possible to view it as a more mysterious, symbolic scene.

The gentleman in the background is not dressed in the same period costume as the woman. Could this be the spirit of Beethoven himself, conjured by her playing? Is she playing the notes he is writing? Or is the image a metaphor for the distance within a personal relationship, with the two figures separated for some other reason, whether by death, or by a breakdown in the relationship?

The painting’s frame was specially designed for the work, and its pattern is a copy of the mirror’s frame in the composition. This may also indicate a more mysterious interpretation - none of the mirrors have reflections in. We may be encouraged to see that this room is an imaginary space of self-reflection.

Creativity through music creates a separate imaginary space, a refuge from the real world, for the player and the listener, just as art does for artist and viewer.

Emslie was a portrait painter belonging to a family of artists: his father was a famous engraver whilst his wife, Rosalie, was a talented painter of miniatures.

Rosalie donated this painting to the Guildhall School of Music after her husband’s death in acknowledgement of his adoration of music. The work was later transferred to the Guildhall Art Gallery.

The little girl is the artist's five-year-old daughter Effie and this was the first time that he used any of his children as models.

She is sitting in one of the old high-backed pews in All Saints Church, Kingston-on-Thames, which Millais hurried to paint in December 1862 shortly before they were removed.

This painting was extremely popular when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, causing queues around the block. It was praised as a charming depiction of childhood innocence and piety.

After the success of My First Sermon at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1863, Millais painted a companion piece the following year, showing the same little girl - his daughter Effie - in church after the novelty of going has worn off.

In his speech at the next Royal Academy Banquet, the Archbishop of Canterbury claimed the picture was a warning against ‘the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses’.

Millais (and his largely middle class audience) were well aware of the gap between ideals and reality, and this witty follow-up to First Sermon reveals a taste for amusing, affectionate imagery that was relatable to many Victorian parents.

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