Culture Magazine

Sunday 10th December - Florence White (1857-1932)

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata

 Well, we have made it to the 10th which is brilliant, and today's lady is from Steyning in East Sussex.  For those of you who don't have to spend time with me, Steyning is of course the birthplace of Fanny Cornforth, but it seems that our subject came into the world just as Miss Cornforth was having her hair faffed about with by Rossetti so it seems unlikely they met. So far, I have one great painting and some miniatures and not a vast amount of information, so say a nervous hello to Florence White...

'I always drew ... and my "girls of the period" were very popular with my school fellows.'

This is how one of the few substantial mentions of Florence White begins, interviewed in the Queen in August of 1895. At that point, Florence had been a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, as well as the Society of Lady Artists, Society of British Pastellists and other such groups, as well as a frequent flier in the Queen, the Gentlewoman and other publications of the period. She is praised for her miniatures and her portraits, so it is a little puzzling that one of the few pictures we still have electronic access to is this one...

Sunday 10th December - Florence White (1857-1932)

White Treasures as seen in Walter Sparrow's book on Women Painters

A problem I have with this rather lovely picture is that I cannot find any further information on the damn thing.  In 1904 Florence exhibited Treasures at the Royal Academy, but I can't find any mention of her in the reviews so have no idea if the two paintings are the same. What doesn't help is that there are two other famous Florence Whites, alive at the same time - one formed the Spinster Society, uniting women who were left after the First World War with no chance of marriage and unequal working conditions.  The other wrote cook books, but painting Florence is neither.  So who is she?

I can tell you a bit of her story as she had a famous brother, the author Percy White (1852-1938) and she gave a very vague hint of her family in the piece in the Queen so here are her origins. Miss Florence White seems to have been born in Steyning near Brighton in 1857.  In all subsequent census returns, she always claimed to have been from either Brighton or Hove, but seeing as all are fairly geographically close, I give her the benefit of the doubt. Her father was Charles (1801-1876), a school master who had taught Tsar Nicholas the English language. In the first census they appear in, 1861, the White family are settled in Hove, comprising of Charles, Elizabeth (1813-1884) and their eight children, of whom Florence was the youngest.

Sunday 10th December - Florence White (1857-1932)

A Girl and a Dog (undated) (currently on eBay if you fancy it)

Unlike some of the other young ladies we have met with this month, Florence did not seem to have pursued the arts for anything other than amusement to begin with.  Deciding she enjoyed it more than most other things, she attended the local art school classes in Brighton.  It was there she met with other girls who were working towards entry to the Royal Academy schools.  Something competitive stirred in Florence and her future was set.

She gained entry to the Academy school with a full-length figure drawn from the antique and spent many happy, industrious years working her way through the school. She told an anecdote of being in a painting class, painting a helmet and a gauntlet, when she became aware that a well-known and imposing Academician was in the doorway.  He came across the room and planted himself behind Florence who tried to keep painting with a very shaky hand.  He finally exclaimed 'You'll never do any good dabbing on paint in that meaningless way!' He moved forward and gave her a full lesson, returning every so often to offer more helpful advice on the pieces she was working on.  His interest in any student's work was seen as unusual as Academicians were never seen in the school, but she said that she gratefully remembered the man her school fellows referred to as her 'pantomime giant'.

Florence entered her first painting into the Royal Academy in 1884, which was also the year her mother died, shortly after the May exhibition. Her work The Little Messenger did not get any mentions in the newspapers, but she fared better the year after.  Her work Margaret sold at Manchester Art Gallery for £15 15s in the October of 1885 and her painting for the Royal Academy was Mrs Charles White, presumably a posthumous portrait of her mother.

Sunday 10th December - Florence White (1857-1932)

Child in a Sailor Suit (undated)

In 1887, Florence had a piece entitled Chrysanthemums at the Royal Academy, which was also shown and admired in at least two regional exhibitions, and The George Inn, Charmouth at the Society of Lady Artists, described as 'a work painted with much care' in the newspapers. She was also commissioned to paint the President of the Amersham Conservative Club, a painting which was (according to the Bucks Herald) 'remarkable and life-like' and was 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet, enclosed in a handsome gilt frame. I wonder as her flower painting had been a comparative success, if that was the reason she followed Chrysanthemums up with Tulips in 1889 and Azaleas in 1894.

1890 saw no entry into the Royal Academy, but the Globe reported on the Society of Lady Artists exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly where Florence showed a large pastel drawing of a lady reclining 'in an attitude of spontaneous grace.' They went on to say that the work 'deserves notice for its excellent quality and skillful arrangement of colour, its refinement of style and finished workmanship.' The Gentlewoman also mentioned her portrait of Mrs Stoball in the Society of British Pastellists at the Grosvenor Gallery which was 'one of the prettiest portraits in the gallery.'

Florence's output for the 1890s was a combination of miniatures and portraits, including 1897's Peggie and 1898's Priscilla. Her 1892's Society of Portrait Painters exhibition piece was Mrs Cecil Lee, a woman in a white brocade evening dress and a gray opera cloak trimmed in fur and lined with pink.  The following year, she was awarded a medal by the Calcutta Art Society for the best life-size head in any medium. I'm convinced Florence seemed to pick up speed as she approached the end of the century as there were four entries in the 1898 Royal Academy, then another four in 1900, which include three miniature portraits - Mrs Walter Richardson, Baby, Son of Coster Edwards Esq and Portrait of a Child. From her studio at Redcliffe Road, she became known as a portrait painter of talent, especially when it came to female subjects.  If we start a drinking game for Blogvent, I want one of the conditions for a drink to be 'lives on Redcliffe Road, like Alexa Wilding' because it seems to have been a very popular road indeed.

Sunday 10th December - Florence White (1857-1932)

Lena Ashwell (unknown photographer)

At an exhibition of miniatures at Mr Bonner's Gallery in Kensington in 1904, Florence won praise for her 'individuality of style and skill of execution.'  Her portrait of rising actress Lena Ashwell won much attention in 1901, 'in which the rapt expression of that artist - an expression which could never be arrested by a camera - is most feelingly interpreted.' She also did the occasional 'fancy piece', such as the intriguingly titled "Where as in silk my Julia goes", exhibited at the Royal Academy twice, once in 1907 and again for the War Relief exhibition of 1915. It is during this period that White Treasures appeared in Walter Shaw Sparrow's book on women painters with no context given at all other than she is an example of a modern female painter. As she was, at this point, well-known for being a portraitist, and there is no listing or mention of any painting called White Treasures in the newspapers (even 1904's Treasures didn't exactly make a splash if it is indeed that painting), why this fancy, late renaissance-styled painting was judged as typical of her work or a popular modern piece is somewhat of a mystery.

Sunday 10th December - Florence White (1857-1932)

Portrait of a Lady (no date)

Florence's last years in the Academy are by-and-large miniature portrait based. She was missing from the 1912 Royal Academy and it is tempting to think that she might be the same 'Florence White, artist', who was arrested for suffragette-related criminal damage to the amount of £10 in Coventry Street and received 4 months imprisonment along with other like-minded professional women. However, the suffragette gave her age as 48 in 1912 which would make her a few years younger than our Florence.  It's not out of the question that she lied about her age but I need more info.

I think Florence died around 1930.  By that time Florence White and her Spinsters were in full revolt and Florence White and her cook book were published so it is difficult to see if there is any mention of artist Florence, who hadn't really been exhibiting for a while. Florence suffers from the problem facing many unmarried artists, there are no family members writing them up and reminding us all. If anyone has any information on White Treasures or knows of its whereabouts, I'd love to know.  I bet it's smashing in color and it was enough to get into Walter Sparrow's book, so we definitely need to know more.

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