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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Now You See Us: Positioning Ann Mary (Severn) Newton as a British Female Artist

On Friday 7 June I visited the exhibition Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520 – 1920 at Tate

Two women in front of black and white print of women painting
Amara and I outside Now You See Us

Britain with my friend and colleague Amara Thornton. We obviously did the ‘selfie moment’ inside a blown-up image of the Royal Female School of Art from 1868 that framed the exhibition as you entered. It is fair to say we were both excited and eager to see the exhibition and how it aligned with our own recent research.

Although I expected it, the appalling misogyny the women encountered was shocking. I stepped back and looked at the women’s work, wondering how much more they could have achieved had they not met such hostility. Here, though, I will place the artist Ann Mary Severn Newton’s life and work within a greater context so the focus will mainly be on the 19thC. She did not appear nor was she mentioned in the exhibition, though her friend and colleague Gertrude Jekyll briefly was. Her work did not fit the focus on the drive to exhibit, yet her career fitted the profile of a professional working artist in many ways. When she married she did create work simply for exhibiting, as she no longer needed to financially support her family. Although Mary had exhibited since 1852, she did this more in the few years between her marriage in 1861 and her death in 1866 at 33 years old. There were many themes that helped me understand the context of her work much more.


Family Background: It helps to come from a family of artists where a father or brother is also an artist, whether Artemisia Gentileschi in the 17thC to Gwen John in the early 20thC. The critic and academic Deborah Cherry pointed this out long ago as you have access to art training, studios (or space) and materials at an early age and are – not least – used to the lifestyle. Mary’s father was the artist Joseph Severn and two of her brothers became artists too – though the eldest Walter also worked in the civil service. Ultimately Mary was the most successful in terms of earning money and arguably expertise.

It is also useful to marry an artist as Annie Swynnerton and Evelyn de Morgan did, though, like Laura Alma Tadema, this can mean that your own career is overlooked and have to take on domestic responsibilities and childcare too. Mary Severn married an archaeologist who admired her work – it’s how they met – but there has been some discussion about how much he supported her in her work. Her drawings wryly poke fun at her lack of ability with running a household after marriage. Yet, they also show them working together - as above - or teaching each other skills.


Training: There were limited opportunities for formal training though, again, if your family were artists

that would help. George Richmond (1809 – 1896), an old friend of Severn's from Rome, tutored Mary Severn and was a specialist in portraiture, in pencils, watercolours and crayons. Above are two drawings that Mary made of two of his daughters Julia and Mary from one of her sketch books. Until the opening of the school at South Kensington and then the Slade School of Art in 1870 there were few formal opportunities for women to train and none for (even lightly clad) life drawing.


Women went to Paris if they had the means and connections. Mary studied with artist Ary Scheffer in Paris in 1853 as male artists there were ‘more sympathetic’ to giving access to the male aetelier’s system, including life drawing, than the drawing schools and academies in Britain.


Double Standards and Threat of Sexual Violence: The rape of Artemisia Gentileschi at the age of 17 in 1611 is relatively well-known since the more recent exhibition and recognition of her work. She endured a 7-month trial but her attacker was convicted – unlike that of so many women today. The difficulty of being in an occupation and one that meant working alone or – in the case of portraiture – prolonged intimacy with a sitter meant was the threat of sexual violence. Sexual slurs were used against female artists and are quoted throughout the show, such as that from the sitter Messenger Monsey in 1764 against Mary Black when she dared to ask for what he thought was too high a fee for her work. She was in his words a ‘slut’.


Selling your work had overtones of selling yourself sexually – or at least could have as Emily Osbourne has depicted in Nameless and Friendless (1857): a female artist is trying to sell her work in a printer’s while being leered at by two men behind her. Joseph Severn, who had an illegitimate son in his youth, wrote to Mary’s mother about his fears of over Mary’s conduct with sitters in 1856 as:

I don’t think Mary’s manner to her young men is quite the thing (angel as she is) to save her and insure her from the world’s worst word & I am not sure that she is not sensible of so much herself. (No 128, 11 February 1856, Joseph Severn to Elizabeth Severn in Scott, 2005).

In order not to be accused of ‘coquetry’ by her own father, Mary needed behave in a different manner. Shortly after a tutor at Eton did attempt to kiss her, much to her own and her parents’ consternation and when she went back to paint there, she was chaperoned by her younger sister. N.B. I do need to check the primary sources for this Obviously, it helped with the above if you had money, like Barbara Bodichon, and did not need to sell your work for an income or follow a money-making pursuit such as portraiture, as Mary did.


Women and Rome: Rome was more of a long-term haven for female artists from the mid 18thC on and from the 1750s Katherine Read was an early figure in the artists’ community there – I would like to have known more about her subsequent departure for India. They could train in Paris but make a living and support each other in Rome. Some artists, such as Mary Thornycroft (wife of Thomas Thornycroft, a sculptor who was her father’s assistant) just spent time there, while others, such as Edmonia Lewis set up their studios in Rome. Lewis was Black and Native American. She encountered severe racism in America and faced racist violence in New York. From 1865 she made her home in Rome’s art community. This also speaks to the fictionalised experiences of female creatives finding freedom in Rome and Italy to write or make art as captured by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (1856) or Amelia Edwards in Barbara’s History (1864)


The Severns would have been part of this community and known some of these women and the artist community in Rome until their departure for London in 1841, when Mary was 8. This background must have had an impact on Mary’s upbringing and attitude to women becoming professional artists. It possibly affected her exposure to drawing from the antique. At the age of just 15, she was admitted by the Royal Academy to study the antique sculpture in the British Museum on 12 December 1848 (Scott, 2005: 78). It is quite clear from the restrictions placed on women to life drawing and drawing from ancient sculpture that Mary’s commission in 1858 by Charles Thomas Newton to draw ancient sculpture at the British Museum from his excavations in Halicarnassus was highly unusual.

Basically, to be a successful female professional artist you needed family connections, spousal support (or to be able to not marry), a secure income, good health, have constant vigilance about your reputation as well as safeguard against sexual violence and find a place or community you can be supported in. And you will be better known today if your work has been bought by national or large regional galleries. It is some what alarming to reflect that over the last 25 years I have found that much of this is still true for women working in the arts and heritage. . .


Overall, I came away from Now you See Us wanting to know more. A lot more and not just about my own period of study in the 19thC, which beckoned in an explosion of female talent and activism for rights. A good sign for an exhibition and a very long reading list for me!



Cherry, Deborah (1993), Painting Women. Victorian Women Artists, London: Routledge.

Scott, Grant F. (ed.) (2005), Joseph Severn. Letters and Memoirs, Aldershot: Ashgate.

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