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Sister and brotherhood

by
23 November 2012

Abigail Willis reads of a Victorian woman artist's life and love

PRIVATE COLLECTION

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1862: Bird of God, 1861, by Joanna Boyce Wells, completed a few weeks before her death. From the book

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1862: Bird of God, 1861, by Joanna Boyce Wells, completed a few weeks before her death. From the book

Joanna, George and Henry: A Pre-Raphaelite tale of art, love and friendship
Sue Bradbury
The Boydell Press £25
(978-1-84383-617-9)
Church Times 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 auburn-haired maidens.

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 Ruskin.

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 lives.

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.

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