Joanna, George and Henry: A Pre-Raphaelite tale of
art, love and friendship
The Boydell Press £25
Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT517 )
AFTER a rain-swept summer, we now have the warm colours of
autumn and Tate Britain's high-profile new exhibition
"Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde", with its roll-call of
As the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) is back in the public
consciousness, Sue Bradbury's biography of three young artists who
came into the orbit of the Brotherhood is well-timed. Drawing
heavily on family diaries and letters, Bradbury retraces the
interwoven lives and careers of the artist siblings Joanna and
George Boyce, and George's friend Henry Tanworth Wells.
Children who decide to become artists do not always gain
parental approval, but George and Joanna Boyce (born 1826 and 1831
respectively) were lucky exceptions, whose early talent was
encouraged by their prosperous parents, who ensured that their
artistic offspring received the appropriate training.
In an age when "the angel of the house" was the womanly ideal,
Joanna was fortunate to be able to study in Paris under the
renowned history-painter Thomas Couture. As a devout Christian with
a well-developed sense of duty, Joanna was, however, frequently
diverted from her artistic vocation by the demands of her
manipulative mother and sickly younger brother, Bob.
Despite this, Joanna exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855,
where her PRB-flavoured portrayal of Elgiva, a tenth-century Anglo-
Saxon queen, elicited praise from Ford Madox Brown and John
Joanna's watercolourist brother George also made his mark with
the PRB. His aptitude for vivid colour and detailed observation
made him a natural Pre-Raphaelite ally, and he became a friend and
patron of Rossetti, who even borrowed two of his landscapes as
cribs. But it was George's friend Henry Wells, a portraitist in
miniature, who had the most impact on Joanna.
Not wanting to compromise art for love, Joanna prevaricated
endlessly over Henry's proposals, but the couple eventually married
in 1857, and Joanna embarked on a modern-sounding life of juggling
child-rearing with a painting career. She continued to exhibit
successfully, and became a trenchant art critic for the
Saturday Review, before her early death in 1861.
Keeping her focus firmly on Joanna, Bradbury has written a rare
account of a professional woman artist in this period, interpreted
largely through her own words. Luckily for her biographer, Joanna
was an energetic and eloquent correspondent, who recounted
everything from toothache to family fall-outs, as well as her
artistic struggles. Joanna's death signals the end of the book, and
Bradbury concludes with a swift summary of George and Henry's later
Ultimately, this is Joanna's story; with her passing, one
obituarist wrote: "English art has lost more than it knows." Sue
Bradbury, 152 years later, has finally remedied this oversight.
Abigail Willis is the author of The London Garden
Book A-Z (Metro Publications), reviewed on page XVI.