Landmark acquisition brings work of English artist and feminist to University of Delaware Library
The name Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) is unfamiliar to most people in 2016, even those who study nineteenth-century British feminism and Pre-Raphaelite art. Despite her obscurity, however, the intelligent, talented, and visionary Bodichon played a vital role in the society and culture of the Victorian age, particularly in the realms of women’s educational and political rights, and women’s involvement in the arts. The Mark Samuels Lasner Collection at the University of Delaware Library has recently acquired a collection of paintings that comprises the largest single assemblage of Bodichon’s works in existence today. By bringing these artworks to the UD Library, faculty, students, and visitors to campus will enjoy the opportunity to peer into the life and work of an important female Victorian cultural figure.
Barbara Leigh Smith was born in 1827 into unusual, upper-middle-class circumstances. Her father was a rich and well-known Whig political figure and anti-slavery advocate, her mother (whom her father later married) a milliner. Naturally intelligent, Barbara developed an interest in advocacy for women’s rights and devoted much of her substantial independent income to the cause, simultaneously beginning a career as a professional artist that brought her into contact with the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. Smith’s marriage to Eugene Bodichon, an eccentric French physician who spent much of his time in Algiers, allowed her considerable flexibility to pursue her radical interests. In 1858, Barbara founded the English Women’s Journal and, eight years later, was involved in establishing Girton College, Cambridge, for the education of women.
The feminist aspects of Bodichon’s life—in particular her close association with George Eliot and her role in the founding of Girton College— have been studied in far greater depth than her artistic achievements, making the acquisition of so significant a representation of her ouvre by the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection all the more important. As a young woman, Bodichon’s grandfather brought her to see the famous painter Turner at work. She studied under William Holman Hunt and exhibited her watercolors at the Royal Academy and the Salon. Hercules Brabazon was a mentor, and she developed a lifelong friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who memorably described Bodichon as “blessed with large rations of tin [money], fat, enthusiasm, & golden hair, who thinks nothing of climbing up a mountain in breeches or wading through a stream in none, in the sacred name of pigment.”
The new acquisition consists of thirty-eight separate paintings by Bodichon, ranging from juvenile works to late landscapes from her travels to the Continent and to Algeria. There are, in addition, several autograph letters and materials connected with Bodichon exhibitions organized by the former owner, John Crabbe. Already present in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection are a watercolor of Hastings harbor and a a pencil portrait of Elizabeth Siddal. The collection also holds the copy of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1870 Poems inscribed to Bodichon. A selection of the paintings are presented below.
John Crabbe described Bodichon’s style as follows: “Her own pictures had a thrusting, sometimes almost unfinished quality, which distanced her stylistically from the Pre-Raphaelites, yet she sometimes contrived a remarkable appearance of fine detail which caused her to be grouped with them.” As Crabbe noted, “In 1856 Rossetti’s brother William Michael touted an Isle of Wight landscape exhibited at the Royal Academy as an example of what he called ‘real Pre-Raphaelism’” (Crabbe 1989, 101).
Useful secondary sources on Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s life include Sheila R. Herstein, A Mid-Victorian Feminist: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (Yale University Press, 1985) and Pam Hirsch, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891: Feminist, Artist, and Rebel (Chatto & Windus, 1998), both available in the UD Library. John Crabbe’s March 2, 1989 Country Life article “Wild Weather in Watercolour” (pp. 100-101) offers a succinct overview and analysis of Bodichon’s paintings.