Golden Age Illustrator Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s ‘Famous Women’

April 15, 2021 Updated: April 15, 2021

Born in Surrey, England, in 1871, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1871–1945) was a well-respected illustrator and painter of her day. In 1896, she created a lunette titled “Spring,” which was used in the Royal Academy Dining Room. In 1902, she had the honor of becoming the first female member of the Institute of Painters in Oils.

She illustrated many books, including “Poems by Tennyson,” and “Story of St. Elizabeth of Hungary” by W.M. Canton, and “A Diary of an 18th Century Garden,” by Dion Clayton Calthrop, to name a few.

In 1919, “Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s Golden Book of Famous Women” was published by Hodder & Stoughton, which was a compilation of stories about some of the most famous women in history and legend, as written by some of the most famous authors in history, such as William Shakespeare, Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and John Keats among others.

Although this book contains no introduction to explain whose inspiration it was to put the book together or who chose the content, it seems clear from the title that Fortescue-Brickdale must have been the mastermind behind it.

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Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s allegorical painting, “The Deceitfulness of Riches,” was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1901. (Art Renewal Center)

Her works are always styled in the manner of the Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti or William Holman Hunt, using vibrant jewel-like colors and representative 19th-century subject matter. Take for example her allegorical painting titled, “The Deceitfulness of Riches,” which after being first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1901, was subsequently included in an exhibition titled “Such Stuff as Dreams are made of,” in 1902, a reference to William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Many classical artists from the 19th century would put to vision what famous writers and poets put to pen. There was a great love of storytelling and without television or other modern-day technologies; drawing, painting, and theater were the only ways to express subject matter in a visual context.

The symbolism in this painting, “The Deceitfulness of Riches,” was highly debated when it was first put on view, and today, its deeper meaning is still up to interpretation.

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Detail of “The Deceitfulness of Riches”. (Art Renewal Center)

A princess sits in a stately garden, coddling a sleeping kitten. Her jealous attendants close in about her, isolating her from the outside world. The child in the upper left of the painting appears to speak, though her voice can’t be heard over the musician who sits between her and the princess. A second attendant motions for silence toward an approaching woman who appears to sneak a view. A holy figure is depicted in a decorative tablet, slightly above and behind the princess, their backs to each other.

Like the kitten, the princess remains ignorant, pampered, and isolated from the world around her, providing a false sense of contentment and security. The expression of the princess has a sad undertone, and it’s possible that the only intentions she can trust are that of the kitten she holds to her chest.

Kate Barlass

Her illustration for “Kate Barlass,” which was used in her book of famous women to illustrate “The King’s Tragedy,” must have been inspired by a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The lines read:

And now the rush was heard on the stair,
And ‘God, what help?’ was our cry,
And was I frenzied or was I bold?
I looked at each empty stanchion-hold,
And no bar but my arm had I.

This illustration is a particularly powerful depiction of the heroine who tried to save King James I of Scotland in 1437.

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“Kate Barlass” illustration in Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s “The Golden Book of Famous Women.” (Art Renewal Center)

Kate Barlass, before the incident known as Catherine Douglas, was a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Joan Beaufort. The assassins had cleverly removed the bolt from the door of the king’s chambers in advance of the attack, so that they couldn’t be barred from entering. When the king and queen retreated to their quarters and found the door-bar missing, Catherine sprang to the door and placed her arm through the staples.

In this illustration, we see a lion-hearted Kate standing as stone against the door. The stone arch and walls behind her represent her internal strength and the straw at her feet reminds the viewer of her physical fragility. One could believe by looking at this image that the intruders could be fended off with her courage alone. Unfortunately, as the story has it, her arm was broken and the intruders killed the king.

The Little Foot Page

“The Little Foot Page” from 1905 depicts a scene from “Child Waters” in Thomas Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” written in 1765. This painting illustrates Ellen, who was impregnated out of wedlock by a knight. She begged him to take the child as his heir, but he told her he was leaving. Upon hearing this, she begged him to accompany him as his foot page. He agreed but told her she must disguise herself as a boy, instructing her to cut her dress and hair which this scene illustrates.

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Detail of “The Little Foot Page” by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale. (Art Renewal Center)

[Thoughe I am not that lady fayre,
Yet let me go with thee.]
And ever I pray you, Child Watèrs
Your foot-page let me bee.

If you will my foot-page be, Ellèn,
As you doe tell to mee;
Then you must cut your gowne of greene,
An inch above your knee:

Soe must you doe your yellowe lockes,
An inch above your ee:
You must tell no man what is my name;
My foot-page then you shall bee.

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“The Little Foot Page” by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale. (Art Renewal Center)

As the poem continues, the knight seems quite cruel, forcing her to run barefoot in her pregnant state as he rode on his steed, as well as forcing Ellen to suffer other indignities and trials. Ellen remained true, meeting every challenge, and at the end, once the child was born, the knight agreed to marry her and accept the child.

A strange story by today’s standards, but during the Victorian Era, Fortescue-Brickdale would have read this story as emphasizing feminine strength and epitomizing an ideal of Victorian womanhood, that being the heroine, through self-sacrifice and loyalty, was able to win the heart of her male counterpart.

Tragically, her career was cut short when she suffered a stroke in 1938 and could not paint for the remaining seven years of her life. Today, her paintings are in the collections of several museums including the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Leeds City Museums and Art Galleries, and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University. There was also a major retrospective of her work held at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, England in 2012.

Her work demonstrates great skill and it is clear that she is one of the reasons the turn of the 19th to 20th century has become known as the Golden Age of Illustration.

Kara Lysandra Ross, the chief operating officer for the Art Renewal Center (ArtRenewal.org), is an expert in 19th-century European painting.