Henrietta Rae was clearly what her Victorian male counterparts would describe as ‘feisty’.
When the prominent (then – who’s heard of him now?) Pre-Raphaelite Valentine Prinsep dipped his thumb into some cobalt blue paint and deliberately marked one of her paintings, she set fire to his hat on her stove – completely by accident, of course.
And when at the age of 25 she married another well-known Victorian painter, Ernest Normand, she kept her maiden name as she was already well established in her own right – a relatively rare thing in those days.
We like her already…
Henrietta was born in Hammersmith, London, on the penultimate day of the year in 1859, the youngest of seven children. Her father was a civil servant; her musically talented mother had been a student of Felix Mendelssohn. An uncle on her father’s side, Charles Rae, had been a student of George Cruikshank, the caricaturist and illustrator who worked extensively with Charles Dickens.
By 13, the talented Henrietta was studying art – she was to be educated at Heatherley’s School of Art, where she was the first ever female pupil (more evidence of that feistiness!) and later at the Royal Academy schools.
She had ambition, doggedness and self-confidence, too: it’s said she applied to the RA schools at least five times before she was finally accepted on a seven-year scholarship, to be taught by artists such as William Frith and, perhaps the most lasting influence on her work, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whose lush classicism probably most famously found expression inThe Roses of Heliogabalus and Silver Favourites.
From 1881, Rae was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, often showing dramatic and sensual classical and mythological scenes painted on a vast scale – her Psyche at the Throne of Venus measured no less than 12 feet by 7 feet, dwarfing even today’s exhibit, Roses of Youth, which at a little under six feet either way, is one of the biggest paintings in Scarborough Art Gallery.
Both she and Normand, whose work could easily be mistaken for hers, were criticised for their overly sensual approach, and this can be seen even in Rae’s most famous work, the 1891 painting Miss Nightingale at Scutari (1854), a lithograph reproduction of which, under the title The Lady with the Lamp, became exceptionally popular with the British public.
Draped in a voluminous cream shawl, Florence Nightingale is depicted on her hospital rounds looking more like an Italian movie star of the 1950s than the rather plain and severe figure of the 1850s which contemporary photographs show her to have been.
Normand and Rae had two children, a son born in 1886 and a daughter in 1893, and lived in Holland Park, where many other famous Victorian artists including the Scarborough-born Frederic Leighton made their home.
Leighton was a regular visitor to their home, as were eminent Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais and the symbolist George Frederic Watts. Rae didn’t always appreciate their visits, apparently, finding them overbearing and patronising – it was around this time that she burned Val Prinsep’s hat!
An early feminist and supporter of the suffrage movement, Rae also supported her fellow women artists – in 1897, she organised an exhibition of work by female painters to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Rae lived long enough to see the late Victorian world which was so familiar to her torn apart by world war – she died in 1928.
The extremely romantic and sensual Roses of Youth is one of Scarborough Art Gallery’s most popular paintings. It went back on display last year after conservation work on both the painting and the elaborate frame, paid for by a grant of £5,000 from the Association of Independent Museums Pilgrim Trust Conservation Grant Fund, and £1,500 from the Friends of Scarborough Art Gallery.
Roses of Youth is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org or 01723 384510.