Painting the Gardens of History with Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

What’s in a name? Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale sounds like an escapee from a Victorian 3-volume bodice-ripper or maybe the wicked governess in a  1920s girls comic – well that’s what I thought when I first saw her name.  That will teach me to be prejudiced and  judge a book by its cover or somebody by their name.

In fact she was one of the most popular artists in Britain at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. She specialised in historical and legendary scenes often incorporating gardens into her work. Her work later fell from popular favour as tastes changed, and she was according to her obituary The Times  “the last survivor”  of the pre-Raphaelites. That may explain why after her death in 1945 her work largely  disappeared from sight.   That is, as I hope you’ll agree when you’ve read the post and seen some of her work, a great pity.

Queen Katherine – with Henry lurking in the background

I’m not sure I should be calling her just “Eleanor ” rather than the Miss Fortescue Brickdale  or even the plain Miss Brickdale she would probably have been used to but that’s what I’ m going to do… although its better than  Bricky which is how was addressed by some of her friends.

Eleanor was born in 1872 the youngest of five children  to Matthew Fortescue Brickdale, a barrister at Lincolns Inn, and his wife Sarah.   Her father had been at Oxford with Ruskin and was involved with  both him and Charles Eastlake, the future director of the National Gallery,  in  the, Arundel Society,  founded in 1849 to promote the knowledge and conservation of the art works of early [ie pre-Renaissance] old master painters. The family, who lived in a large villa in Upper Norwood, were more than comfortably off so Eleanor was educated at home by a governess, although in an interview in 1902 she claimed to be “incorrigibly lazy”. However her father’s love of art meant that there were lots of visits to galleries and this must have inspired her to follow her muse and take up painting seriously.

Byam Shaw & EFB

In 1889, at the age of 17,  she joined the nearby Crystal Palace School of Art, Science and Literature,  where she was awarded a annual scholarship and a silver medal for her watercolours, before moving on to the more prestigious St John’s Wood School of Art  where amongst her fellow students was John Byam Shaw. They became friends and later worked  together until his early death in 1919. It was while she was at St John’s Wood that she had her first illustration published in Pall  Mall Magazine.

In 1895, on her third attempt she was admitted to the Royal Academy schools where again she won prizes including one  in 1897 for “the decoration of a public building” with a painting of Spring. This featured in The Studio in February 1898.

She was taught by George Clausen and John Singer Sargent amongst others,  but it was not Clausen’s realism or Sargent’s elegant society style that she adopted. Instead she was influenced by the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and their coterie, who had wanted to return to the intense colours, densely detailed,  and complex compositions of  Quattrocento Italian art which had been superseded by the classical revival of the Renaissance. By the time Eleanor began her training, of course, the original founders of the Brotherhood were mostly dead but   there was  a second generation of their followers including Edward Burne-Jones  and it was in their footsteps that she was to follow.

from A Cotswold Village

But how was she to make a living?  She was a single young woman with no real network in the artistic world in which she wanted to move. Her advantage came instead from her family’ and their social circle.  Her first breakthrough came through her much older brother Charles. He had become a lawyer and was working on reforming the Land Registry, for which he was later knighted. Eleanor designed their certificate of registration. He then got her a second break when she was asked to  provide twenty sketches for chapter headings  for a book A Cotswold Village written  his brother-in-law which was published in 1899.

Her family network was “in microcosm the readership of the new large format upper class weeklies such as Country Life and The Ladies Field and so “part of the liberal trend for appreciation of English country life  and rural traditions that embraced enthusiasm for Helen Allingham’s cottage portraiture, the establishment of the National Trust and the success of gardening guru Gertrude Jekyll.” [from A Pre-Raphaelite Journey, by Pamela Gerrish Nunn.] 

The Pale Complexion of True Love                                                  And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain

But by the time she left the Academy Schools in 1898 it’s clear she was already making a success of things on her own.  Her first illustration had appeared in Country Life in January 1898 while the sale of the sketches for Spring and her Royal Academy prize gave her the freedom  to her to start work for the first time on a large scale oil painting.  Inspired by a scene in Shakespeare’s As You Like  It The Pale Complexion of True Love was exhibited at the RA in 1899 to critical acclaim. [Nothing to do with gardens but I had include an image just for the look on the woman’s face].  Meanwhile following on from the success of Spring  she had been  interviewed very positively by The Studio in March 1898 – anonymously but more than likely  by Byam Shaw’s wife

Yet in many ways her other big success that year was even more important. The father and son team of Bond Street gallery owners, William and Walter Dowdeswell,  asked  Eleanor to produce a series of of watercolours for an exhibition they had planned for 1901 called  Such stuff as dreams are made of, a line taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She chose subjects not just from the bard himself, but from poets like Coleridge and Browning as well as the Bible. The commission was so large  that she felt the need to have proper dedicated studio space which she found at 55, Holland Park Avenue in what  had become something of an  artist’s quarter. It remained her base until it was severely damaged by bombing during  the Second World War.



The Stuff of Dreams was a virtual sellout.  The Studio Magazine covered the show extensively while the June edition of The Artist commented“…Rarely, if ever, has a woman painter made a great reputation as quickly and thoroughly as Miss Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, whose series of watercolour drawings has, during the last month, drawn the whole of artistic London to the Dowdeswell Galleries…”.  She was also the subject, the following year,  of a long laudatory article “Our rising Artists: Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale“in the Magazine of Art.

As a result she won  an appreciative circle of collectors  who liked her interest in literary sources, allegories and historical narrative  – especially in Arthurian legends and mediaeval romance – and more private commissions followed.

She was elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, where  she exhibited work regularly for the rest of her career, while in 1902 she became the first woman member of the Institute of Painters in Oils.  The same year she exhibited most of the watercolours from the Dowdeswell exhibition, along with some oils and drawings, at Leighton House in Kensington, the home of Frederick Leighton, the former President of the Royal Academy, and just round the corner from her studio.

Nor was it  just the critics and audience who liked her work. So did fellow artists like Frances Hodgkins who raved about them: “colour flashed jewel-like from every frame – oh happy woman to paint like that and give such pleasure” while George Watts declared:  “I feel inclined to throw away my palette and brushes. What are my things by the side of such stuff as hers?”

Of course not everybody admired her style – one particularly sour comment came from the Morning Leader, a London paper, which labelled her as “the latest adherent to the ranks of what may be called Neo-Pre-Raphaelitism..[they] .have no real interest in life. They do not seek to represent human actions and passions, but to make decorative patterns and arrangements of figures, whose elaborate habiliments and accessories far outweigh the significance of the actors.”

All the while this is going on she was still busy producing illustrations for magazines such as Pall Mall, The Ladies’ Field and Country Life, where her work featured in every issue until January 1909.

She was also exhibiting an oil painting at the Academy most years until 1904, with highly decorative works on allegorical themes with  a cast of visually glorious angels, cupids, and historically costumed figures.

On top of that  she began a new career line by taking a one day a week  teaching job at the King’s College for Women, a constituent department of King’s College London.


But it was through illustrating books where she was to reach her widest audience. The first was her black and white drawings for a collection of Tennyson’s poems in 1905.

Next came paintings for a collection of Browning’s poems in 1909. These were slightly different because they did not feature her usual range of costumed figures in mediaeval or “Shakespearean ” dress, although there were plenty of some of her her other trademarks – white winged angels and bare-bottomed cupids added for visual commentary.



The same year, 1909, Eleanor  provided a few delicate flower studies for Horace and Walter Wright’s Beautiful Flowers and how to grow them which also featured in a recent post about Margaret Waterfield. They show a completely different facet of her work: an ability to captures the delicacy of flowers almost photographically.



However, the most important event of 1909 was the  commission she received from   Ernest Brown a partner in  the important Leicester Galleries,  to illustrate a deluxe edition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a retelling of  the legend of King Arthur.  The 28 watercolours took her 2 years to produce and the book was finally published in 1912.

These allowed her to create a series   of  highly romantic images with a strong emphasis on vivid colours, elaborate detailing and  rich materials. But,  since this is a blog about garden history, and I can be pedantic, very little historical accuracy as far plants are concerned.

For example, the Crown Imperials behind Enid didn’t arrive from Turkey until c1580, while the beautiful chestnut tree behind Guinevere is even later, not being first reported until 1616. I’m sure you’ll be able to spot bother horticultural anachronisms in other paintings. [Look out elsewhere, for example for the echinacea.]




1909 also saw her leave King’s College for Women and go to work with Byam Shaw, who had with another mutual friend Rex Vicat Cole, set up the Byam Shaw School of Art where she ran the watercolour courses.



The serious side of her work was leavened slightly by a few diversions into another of those late Victorian/Edwardian obsessions: fairyland. Obviously there are much better known earlier exponents of this genre such as Richard Doyle and Richard Dadd, but her interest might well have also been inspired by the “discovery” of the Cottingley fairies which I wrote about earlier this year to say nothing of the popularisation of the  garden gnome which I’ve also written about on here.

In some ways that’s a bit strange because Eleanor was a devout Christian, and illustrated several lives of saints and other religious works. The Story of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary  by William Canton came out in 1912 and was followed in 1915 by The Story of Saint Christopher and the Story of Saint Cuthbert. She also illustrated a book of carols and other religious stories for children.

Also in 1915 came The book of old English songs & ballads  which gave her an opportunity to use her imagination on a wide range of subjects, with many of the images again set in gardens.


 Towards the end of the war she took on the editorship of a compilation of stories about some of the most famous women in history and literature, both real and fictional,  as told by great authors  including Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, Dickens, and  Edgar Allan Poe among others.

It was  published in 1919 as Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s Golden Book of Famous Women. Again the paintings were exhibited to acclaim and  led to her election to the Royal Watercolour Society.

Fair Rosamund… but in Tudor rather than early mediaeval dress

A book for children – Fleur and Blanchefleur – in a completely different style followed in 1922 but then she became ill. Her eyesight started to fail and she gradually lost the easy use of her hands. Unable to work she went to recuperate in a spa town in the Pyrenees.

After partial recovery she returned to work on a new edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury . It was to be her last “coloured book” – and showed a shift from her former mediaeval romantic vision to a new, more sober but equally detailed version of life in the  17thc. Unfortunately only 12 plates were included presumably because she could no longer manage to work on fine detail.

Post-1920 this style of art still had many admirers, people who found modern art unsympathetic and missed art that was both decorative and told stories.

from Calthrop’s Diary

Her final book illustrations were  completely different. She provided a series of very simple sketches termed  “decorations”on the title page  to accompany her friend Dion Calthrop’s A Diary of an Eighteenth-Century Garden in 1926.



But if her  failing eyesight and limited fine motor skills limited her watercolour painting it did not stop her working. Instead she began to concentrate on larger works and in media other than watercolour.

Amongst them are the altarpiece at St Barnabas church in Sutton, the chapel for the 1924  British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, and the rose-filled reredos in the Lady Chapel at All Saints, Newland in Gloucestershire.

She followed too in the footsteps of Burne-Jones and Morris and  designed stained glass windows, including several in and around Bristol, notably one in All Saints church in memory of her brother John. She also  designed some very powerful war memorials, include the  Kings Own Yorks Light Infantry memorial in York Minster which were very much as 3D versions of her Arthurian or angelic figures.

Unfortunately even designing was soon beyond her and her career ended in 1938 when she suffered a stroke and  for the last seven years of her life she was unable to work at all.  Eleanor had lived since 1908 with her sister in West Kensington, and she died in nearby  Fulham Hospital in 1945 at the age of 73.  She is buried in Brompton Cemetery.

Although after the very end of the 19thc the pre-Raphaelites were becoming a bit old hat  she is credited with reviving their style. The International Studio, in 1911  argued “it cannot be said that Pre-Raphaelitism is dead while Miss Fortescue Brickdale is alive”. Later her Times obituary claimed ‘it was the allegorical side of Pre-Raphaelitism that Miss Fortescue-Brickdale inherited, and her work was distinguished by brilliance of colour and great fidelity to detail’.  

For more information I’d suggest Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s catalogue/book about her,  and on-line take a look at John Howe’s blog  while a quick google search will show you many many more images of her book illustrations and other works.


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