Culture Magazine

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata

I have recently become interested in married couples where both are artists.  What must that dynamic have been like?  How did it work and what sacrifices needed to be made? What always makes me feel like an idiot is when I find two artists who I already knew about and they turn out to be married.  To be fair, although I knew of Ernest Normand, I didn't know very much about him so it is unsurprising that I was oblivious to the fact he was married to the subject of today's post, Henrietta Rae...

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

You tell 'em, Henrietta!

Anyway, Henrietta Rae was a ridiculously busy and talented artist, who battled the rampant sexism of the artistic world and became known as Mrs Ernest Normand (despite being more famous than her husband).  Born in Hammersmith in London in 1857, her artistic parents provided lessons of hard work and enjoyment in their subjects.  Her mother was at one point a pupil of Mendelssohn and her father, a civil servant, was also honorary secretary of the Whittington Club, a literary club for gentlemen on the site of Dr Johnson's favorite pub in Arundel Street, West London.  Mrs Rae, faced with seven children and not enough money, trained her children in music. Her plan was that Henrietta, her youngest daughter and third youngest child, should become a singer; the other girls learned musical instruments but Henrietta couldn't manage that.  Unfortunately, she had precious little talent for singing too.  One of her older sisters showed a talent for art, so their uncle, Charles Rae, who had been a pupil of artist and illustrator George Cruikshank, gave her artist materials and exercises to do.  Little Henrietta showed an enthusiasm for that, but little apparent talent, but nevertheless stuck at it.  Using his influence, Charles Rae got Henrietta into Louisa Gann's School of Art in Queen Square. Being a school for young ladies, there was no life drawing (the horror) and so Little Henrietta used to sneak into the boy's school art classes where you could see nudey bits and had to be frog-marched back into the girls's classroom. 

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Azaleas (1895)

After Miss Gann's School, Henrietta took herself off to the British Museum to draw from the antique (as they say) with a view of competing with her fellow students for a coveted place at the Royal Academy school.  She supplemented this with an evening class at Heatherley's School of Art, where she was the first female student. While studying, she had many well-known artists as her rivals and companions, including Simeon Solomon, Thomas Cooper Gotch and Blair Leighton, also Ernest Normand, whom she married in 1884.

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Mariana (c.1905)

If ever you feel you will never achieve something, Henrietta Rae should provide some inspiration to you as it took her a reported five times (at least) to get into the Royal Academy.  This fact is relayed in wonderful euphemistic terms in contemporary interviews and books on her and her work. However, with heroic levels of perseverance, attend the RA she did in 1877 and there she studied under Herkomer and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, exhibiting her first RA painting in 1881, a 'fancy head placed on the line' (which is the best hanging position) as reported in The Magazine of Art (1895) before making a bit of a splash with Lancelot and Elaine (1884), described as 'large and important' by The Queen journal and 'a bit silly' by everyone else who has ever had the pleasure of seeing it...

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Lancelot and Elaine (1884)

I don't know where to start, other than to really not comment on that helmet.  I mean, really.

More importantly, Henrietta got married, which is far more important than having a major work in the Royal Academy and so the newspapers could start calling her Mrs Ernest Normand.  Well, thank goodness for that. The couple moved to Holland Park, close to Lord Leighton and Val Princep, who were always popping round with helpful advice and mentorship which Henrietta either absolutely loved or found a touch patronising, depending how you read the commentary on this situation.  At one point she threw Val Princep's hat in the boiler fire, so I think some of the advice was not always welcome, but the couple loved their neighbor enough to call their first born son Rae Princep Normand. Their daughter Florence, or Fanny as she was known, was born in 1892.  Interestingly, Henrietta does not seem to have done what many female artists with kids did, which is have an official professional photo taken with her children or include them in her art.  

By the 1890s, Henrietta Rae's art was being taken very seriously, especially in pieces by women journalists.  In the 1895 piece in The Magazine of Art, H L Postlethwaite proposed that Henrietta and Lady Butler both deserved to be members of the RA because of their contribution to art. Henrietta's 1891 piece Miss Nightingale at Scutari (1854) became an instant hit with the general public and reproduced repeatedly for an adoring public, becoming fondly known as 'The Lady with the Lamp'. The Madonna-like veil and glow to Florence Nightingale gave a biblical quality to the Crimean scene, almost forty years after the fact.

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Miss Nightingale at Scutari (1854) (1891)

Arguably, the point where she was seen as a real contender was around 1894 on the exhibition of her work Psyche at the Throne of Venus...

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Psyche at the Throne of Venus (1894)


This is an absolute whopper of a picture at 12 feet by 7 feet. It has to be said that the public adored this really pretty picture but a fellow (male) artist, not realising who she was, stood beside her on varnishing day at the RA, looking at Psyche which had again been given an advantageous hang - he complained 'How they can give a thing like that the line and sky mine, I'll never know!' It was so huge she couldn't even fit it in her studio to work on so borrowed studio space from neighbor William Richmond. The work has fourteen female characters and was received with love from public and critics, although it was mentioned that Venus was not as menacing as she should have been, but then I have to say that Henrietta also painted one of the most adorable Hylas and the Nymphs I have seen too...

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Hylas and the Nymphs (1910)


Yes, they will all kill you, but I'm not sure we're angry about it.  Same goes for her sirens...

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

The Sirens (1903)


Yes, they will lure you to your death but I'm not sure you'd mind. Anyway, as you can imagine, Henrietta became massively popular with her winning combination of pink naked bits and delightful subjects. I must admit that I've never written about someone who had so much written about them by their contemporaries and it is interesting to see how much emphasis is placed on her status as a married woman ('Mrs Ernest Normand') but when her husband does appear in her interviews, such as The Sketch article 'A Chat with Mrs Ernest Normand' from 1894, they are seen as equals, colleagues rather than a couple, telling tales of their work, not family, life. Even the photograph of them together is of the hanging committee at Liverpool, where they both served.

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Ernest and Henrietta are seated on the left


The couple moved out to Norwood, closer to Henrietta's family, where they had an enormous studio built but when the couple received commissions to paint vast canvases for the Royal Exchange, the problem came with how to assail the height.  Normally, a painter would have a scaffold to climb, but the Normands came up with a more unusual solution by having to cellars carved each end of the studio, forming deep trenches with stairs leading down to them.  The canvases were then lowered into the trench enabling the artists to climb up and down to paint.
Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae
Completed by 1905, it had to be worked on for years before due to the sheer size of it, eighteen feet by 12 feet.  Following this commission, the Belfast Yacht Club requested a portrait of its commodore, the Marquess of Dufferin...

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Henrietta, the Marquess and the portrait (1901)


Incidentally, Lord Dufferin collected books and liked to request a copy of an artist's favorite book for his collection, complete with a sketch inside it.  Henrietta donated a copy of William Morris's Earthly Paradise complete with a sketch of Venus from her Psyche Before the Throne of Venus, which she had taken from Morris's poem.

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

The Right Honourable Thomas Sinclair (c.1914-16)


For an artist who produced so many beautiful, color canvases, you would be forgiven by looking at ArtUK that she had specialised in blokes wearing robes, but therein might hold the key as to why she is not better known these days.  Henrietta had a good line in portraiture which undoubtedly paid the bills but not many of her public-pleasing creations seem to have made it into public collections in the UK, an exception being this one...

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Roses of Youth (1906-7)


Well done to Scarborough Museums and Galleries on having that extremely pink canvas in their collection. Otherwise, I think her best known work in a public collection is easily this rather shadowy piece in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool...

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Ophelia (1890)


As paintings of Ophelia go, this is remarkably restrained and concentrates on not just her madness but the response of those around her, which makes a change from 'pretty girl and river'. I love the tension in Gertrude's arm - no-one ever talks about Gertrude, who obviously feels responsible for the entire pickle. I wrote a piece for A Level on the agency of Gertrude as I was quite outraged and a teenager. Poor old Queen. Anyway, I love how theatrical this piece is, it looks like a painting of a performance and is markedly different from Henrietta's other 'boobs and flowers' paintings. I love that the West Somerset Free Press calls Ophelia in this painting 'witless but still womanish' (which is written on my business cards) and many papers hail it as the painting of the year. The Dundee Evening Telegraph of 1906 called it the best known of all Ophelia paintings, in a piece about Millais's Ophelia which is a bold stance indeed.

Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae

Spring's Awakening (The Snow Maidens) (1913)


It is interesting in the few things you can read about Henrietta now (she has appeared in a few modern books on Victorian women artists, naturally) her role as a feminist is hailed.  Her retention of her maiden name for painting, despite the repeated reference to her as Mrs Ernest Normand, and her separation of her private life and professional life is striking for a woman of any period. The fluff piece written in the 1903 The Sketch has no images of her children nor very much mention of them, even in the many photographs included. However, in Professional Women Upon Their Professions from 1895, a book of conversations between Margaret Bateson and various 'professional women' including Henrietta, the artist is remarkably downbeat and unfortunately realistic about women in art.
'"I must tell you," she wrote, "that I can never consciously hold out the flattering hopes of success for women in art that most people seem to expect from me. I have seen so many hundreds of girls start in the race with more than the average meed of success in the preliminary stages of art tuition, only to fall short entirely when opposed by the difficulties of original creation, that I have come to the conclusion that the sex generally labours under the disadvantage of some curious inability to rise above mediocrity in art..."'

Blimey, that doesn't feel particularly feminist and the proof Henrietta gives is that women drop off the face of the earth after they graduate art school.  She gives no quarter to the pressures of womanhood, of being a wife and mother, in Victorian society, or any gender bias from critics or patrons.  Margaret Bateson says that she believes women would succeed in art if they cared more, but obviously they don't.  Yet again I am left thinking that feminism has really changed over the years...
Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae
You'll be relieved to hear that Rae Prinsep Normand came through the First World War, I always worry about anyone of fighting age in 1914.  Anyway, he became a coal contract manager and died in the 1950s.  Florence lived on until a very impressive 1989.  Ernest and Henrietta died in the 1920s, Ernest first in 1923, then Henrietta in 1928, both leaving impressive sums of money in their probate.  They are buried together, with Rae, at Brookwood cemetery.  The question is, as Henrietta was so well known in her life time, written about widely and even had a biography written in 1905 (available for free here) why is she so unknown now? Undoubtedly the lack of her works in public collections is a major obstacle.  If, for example, the Walker Gallery had bought more of her commercial, pretty canvases, they would have again been hits with the public and a retrospective would have ensued. If the Tate had bought her nudey flower paintings, much would have been made of her suffragist work and modern attitude to her work-home separation, but this is not going to happen while her canvases are dispersed and unavailable.  While lacking the obvious gravitas of Pre-Raphaelitism, it shares much of its subject matter.  Possibly then Henrietta should have been in Girl Gang.  Either way, it is time for a retrospective of Henrietta Rae because she should never have been forgotten as she certainly made enough impact in her lifetime.Henrietta Emma Ratcliffe Rae
Alright, I'm going....

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

Magazine