Heavens above! There’s a nun in the garden

I’m sure lots of you are as familiar with this painting  by Charles Collins as I am. It’s one of those well known, if slightly unusual, pictures  that you wonder why anyone painted it.  What I hadn’t realised until I was researching a recent post on Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale and  saw her painting of St Clare  in  a convent garden that I began to realise there were in fact  several other paintings by Victorian artists on a similar theme.


Time perhaps to put two and two together and see if there was a reason why nuns, and particularly nuns in gardens, were  such an attractive subject for painters of the period.  So I’ve just spent an interesting day flicking through the websites of art galleries and the pages of academic journals trying to find out.


In the late 1530s when Henry VIII broke with the Pope and  the Church of Rome  there were nearly 900 religious houses in England including 142 nunneries with some 2,000 nuns living in them.  In one of the most far-reaching and revolutionary acts in English history Henry suppressed all these religious houses and seized their assets. Some monks and nuns went into exile, but most were pensioned off and the possibility of a cloistered spiritual life  effectively disappeared for about 300 years.

After that although many people continued to adhere to what we now call the Roman Catholic faith it was often in secret or at risk of fines and considerable intolerance.

The Swarbrick Nun” a rare English wooden doll c.1680 which has  many similarities to other examples of wooden dolls of this period, although she is not as well dressed as Lord and Lady Clapham in the V&A                             Sold at Bonhams for £30,000 in 2009

Even when monarchs like Charles I and Charles II married Catholic princesses their freedom to worship freely was effectively limited to their own household, although both Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza supported small groups of nuns in secret.  After the Restoration legal restrictions were placed on Catholics holding public office or even graduating from university. Yet it’s clear from some  surviving paintings, ceramics and even toys, that the idea of convent life and/or of being a nun did not go away for some women.

Some of the curbs were lifted during the 18thc,  and this coincided with  images of nuns and convent life – not always very flattering of course – becoming more common.


However it was not until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 that almost all the rest of restrictions were finally lifted. The final one  which prevented the heir to the throne  marrying a Catholic finally disappeared  in 2013 with  the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.






This all tied in very nicely with the revival of interest in Britain’s  mediaeval heritage, and the fashion for  Gothic architecture. Ancient monastic ruins  became popular subjects for painters, and even inspired new garden buildings. While most of  these were usually mock abbeys or priories there was the occasional faux convent too, notably the  one at Stourhead built for Henry Hoare in 1765.



Hoare’s  Convent is a Gothic fantasy cottage with a thatched roof, originally used as a stopover for carriage and riding excursions on the route from Stourhead House to King Alfred’s Tower. Now Grade 1 listed, it was said to have contained painted panels depicting nuns of different orders as well as stained glass from Glastonbury.  It was restored and converted into a house and sold for around £850,000 in 2015. Click here or the sale brochure 

A Young Novice at her Devotion Preparatory to her Taking the Veil                                                     by Susanna Duncombe late 18thc

The first real new  Catholic convent opened in England in 1794 and there were still only a handful by the time the 1829 act was passed. Thereafter there was a rapid expansion until by 1900 there were 114 different Catholic orders working in Britain, with nearly 550 houses between them.  At the same time the Church of England also saw women starting to establish  religious communities of their own and by 1900  the Official Year-Book of the C.E. (1900) lists 26 Anglican sisterhoods and  10 institutions of deaconesses, many of whom live in community under a rule.

There was , however, one distinctive difference with the past. As Gloria McAdam discovered in her researches into the revival of convents and female religious life.  Whereas in the past women in convents  live an enclosed, contemplative existence, in the new foundations the nuns usually worked outside in the community.

That’s at least partly because she argues “whilst the former had been the prerogative of women of wealth and status, who funded their religious life by means of a dowry, the latter allowed women of lesser means to follow the religious life, financing their convents by way of their work efforts.”



This tied in with the revivalist streak in 19thc religion particularly the anglo-catholic  Oxford movement led  by men such as Edward Pusey, John Keble and John Henry Newman.  Newman, who later converted to Catholicism himself,  was adamant that sisterhood could “give dignity and independence to the position of women in society”. Perhaps that’s  no surprise because the Victorian ideal of womanhood was quite “nunlike”.  Women were expected to be virginal, docile, dedicated, modest as well as showing religious sensibility and while marriage was expected to be their chosen path in life.  However, demography caused a problem. Just as later after the First World War, there was in the mid-19thc around half a million more women than men, which meant that marriage was not going to be an option for many of them.

Newman argued that convents could offer a protective refuge to these  “surplus” women while Pusey saw how useful such sisterhoods could be in helping to deal with the social problems of the day.  Nuns in these new religious houses could, set a new high moral tone and work in hospitals, prisons, asylums and with “fallen women”. Since spinsters were often seen as something of a social embarrassment of the family choosing to enter a religious community seems to have become an acceptable – indeed sometimes “fashionable” alternative.

This  revival of Catholic and Anglican sisterhood generated considerable controversy, with many Victorians shocked  by the idea of this  withdrawal from the world, seeing it as an unnatural abandonment of family values in a society that idolised the sanctity of the family and of motherhood.  As new convents began to open so a stereotypical image of them began to develop. Susan Casteras, who is the only person to do any serious research on the portrayal of religious communities in the 19 century,  concludes that the way nuns were portrayed was also often a reflection of male fantasy and repressed sexuality  which “reinforced the Protestant belief that no woman could possibly prefer the life of a nun to that of a wife and mother.”


Sometimes images of nuns were over-sentimentalised: making them look pretty  in much the same way as the popular press carried  lots of images of blandly  pretty  secular young women.   At other times convents or the priests who were their spiritual advisors were lampooned  as grasping, trying to lure wealthy heiress in for their money, with further  criticisms echoing Henry VIII’s claims that religious houses were places of debauchery and sin, rather than sanctity and grace.

Punch led the way in satirising  Catholicism and conventual life often quite cruelly. In 1850 alone I  counted 9 articles there – mostly with caricatures -about nuns, none of them flattering, and many smacking of bigotry.


Its against this fervent often controversial background that artists begin to see something special   in the calling of sisterhood, which doesn’t appear to be reflected in contemporary portrayals of monks and friars. But interestingly it is not the “modern” calling of work that attracts them but the traditional calling of a cloistered or semi-cloistered existence.

Casteras has compiled a long list of paintings of nuns/convent life exhibited at the Royal Academy, the British Institution and the Society of British Artists, although many are now lost. What is not included on her list however are works by members of the royal family. Both Prince Albert  and Queen Victoria are known to have sketched or engraved images of nuns, as did their  daughter Princess Helena. A whole host of princesses and future queens dressed up for  living tableaux at Balmoral such as the one shown above, while the royal children were painted with a nun in the garden in another illustrating a poem by Milton.

Tableau illustrating John Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, Princess Royal as Melancholy, the “pensive nun”; Prince Alfred as Bacchus; Prince of Wales with pipe; Princess Alice as Euphrosyne; Princesses Helena & Louise as Graces by Edward Henry Corbaud, 1852



There isn’t the time or space to explore the backgrounds to all of the images of nuns and convent gardens that I’m using in todays post, often because very little is known about them.  However one picture has to be mentioned before I return to Collins’ Convent Thoughts.

It is by John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was apparently his favourite of all his work.

The title – The Vale of Rest – and the subtitle, ‘Where the weary find repose’, both come from a Mendelssohn’s part-song ‘Ruhetal’ from Sechs Lieder, Opus 59, no.5. Millais heard his brother William singing the song and felt it suited the picture perfectly.




Millais’s wife Effie wrote that  ‘It had long been Millais’ intention to paint a picture with nuns in it’  and in fact he was to do several including some illustrations for a story by Harriet Martineau.

But talk about intimations of mortality!

In the Vale of Rest we have one nun digging a grave, while the second sister’s rosary has a skull attached to it. In the background a coffin-shaped cloud, which is a harbinger of death, according to Scots legend.

Millais  got the idea on his honeymoon, and his wife Effie wrote  “On descending the hill by Loch Awe, from Inverary, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion”.  On a practical note Millais painted most of the canvas, including the figures, in the open air  in  the garden of Effie’s family home, while the grave itself and gravestones were added later copied from a nearby churchyard.   I’ll leave you  to decide what, if anything, the picture means , but if you want to know more read an article in the Independent by  Tom Lubbock who called  it “a picture that uses its power to conjure up and not to declare.”


Now finally let’s return to the title picture “Convent Thoughts” by Charles Collins.  It was intended to be an illustration for Shelley’s poem “Sensitive Plant”  which  describes a garden that  depends for its life and beauty on a woman.  In his earliest studies for the painting Collins portrayed the woman in secular clothes.

However, Collins was an anglo-catholic and  later sketches transform her into a novice holding a book and looking at a passion flower. In the final version she is dressed in  the pale grey habit of a Poor Clare nun, with a white wimple, suggesting she has not taken her final vows.

Collins was  staying in Oxford where he finished the painting, sketching the flowers in  the garden of the Clarendon Press.  It was executed in the minutely detailed style of the early Pre-Raphaelites, though Collins was never a member of the Brotherhood, and was exhibited at the RA in 1851.

The arched and gilded frame, with its long stemmed lilies, was designed  by Millais, and  at the top he added an inscription from the Song of Solomon   SICUT LILIUM  meaning  ‘As the lily among the thorns’,  which has always been  traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary.

It is an intensely emblematic painting. The novice is intently studying  a single passion flower, long associated with  the crucifixion of Christ. In her other hand she has an open book,  ornately illustrated and reminiscent of a mediaeval illuminated manuscript. The pages that are visible  shows images of the crucifixion and the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, both of which symbolise  obedience to God’s commands.

The wall in the background suggests an enclosed garden – probably a hortus concludes as seen in many mediaeval and early modern paintings, and again very much associated with the Virgin.   The garden contains a colourful selection of flowers and plants many of which, according to the language of flowers  beloved by the Victorians, have particular significance.

Central to the painting are Madonna lilies which represent purity. Six of them are  in full bloom  and  lean in towards the novice reinforcing the connection with the Annunciation and the part played by the young Madonna. There are rosemary and forget-me-nots for remembrance,  blue salvia for wisdom, the orange trumpet honeysuckle for  constancy, and the pink [moss?] roses which are associated with Mary’s childhood.  In the pond the white water lily was to stand for purity of heart and trust in god while even the dark hedge in the background which looks like laurel was supposed to represent glory. And of course  the Passion flower is still in her hand.  The only flowers included that don’t seem to have attracted connotations in the Victorian language of flowers are the agapanthus and gladiolus.   [For more on the language of flowers see Brent Elliott’s The Victorian Language of Flowers, Lindley Library Occasional Papers vol.10, April 2013 ]

So the message of the painting  is that if the novice takes her vows and becomes a nun, she will be a Bride of Christ—or rather, resurrected into her new eternal life akin to Mary within the hortus conclusus.

None of this cut any ice with Punch which, as you can see,  mocked the painting mercilessly when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851.

So to conclude what can we tell from all this nuns in all these gardens? I suspect it’s a pretty mixed picture – both literally and metaphorically. The revival of convents, both Catholic and Anglican is the driving force behind these images. There’s a sense of curiosity and maybe notoriety as well, and plenty of  stereotypes. Some paintings trivialise the vocation, others are  over sentimental, with a constant play between innocence and sexual repression and of course there’s anti-Popery too.  The artist and the viewer play voyeur looking over the wall of  the convent garden wall imagining the life, devotion and sacrifices of the inmates who are  mysterious, but unattainable and at the same time like their secular sisters available to portrayed by men in whatever way they wanted.

For more information I can only suggest Susan Casteras, Virgin Vows, Victorian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Winter, 1981), available via JSTOR for free, although you must register, and Gloria McAdam, Willing women and the rise of convents in nineteenth-century England, Women’s History Review, 1999



About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.