Study of Ellen Smith, head & shoulders

GEORGE PRICE BOYCE RWS (1826-1897) Biography
PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Study of Ellen Smith, head & shoulders (United Kingdom, c.1868)

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Oil on panel

Dimensions

19.00cm high
14.00cm wide
(5.51 inches wide)
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Provenance

Alice Joanna Street (neé Wells), daughter of the artist's sister, Joanna Wells and her husband, Henry Tamworth Wells; by descent to:
Philip Edmund Wells Street, her son; by descent to:
George Street, his son; to 1991

Literature

Virginia Surtees ( editor ), The Diaries of George Price Boyce, Real World 1980, pages 38, 41-43, 46, 47, 49, 51, 57, 98, 101, 108,

Description / Expertise

Described in a rather old-fashioned way by Virginia Surtees as 'a laundry girl of uncertain virtue', Ellen Smith was a popular model in the 1860's sitting not only for Boyce but Rossetti and Burne-Jones, as well as many others. George Boyce noted in his diary on November 21st 1865 that: 'Nelly Smith called. She was not looking well. Has been sitting to Simeon Solomon, Poynter, Stanhope, Jones, Pinwell, and a man of the name of Linton.' Perhaps her most famous appearance is as the bridesmaid in the left foreground of Rossetti's The Beloved, 1965-6 (Tate Gallery).
In addition to the present picture, Boyce, who owned several of Rossetti's studies of her, painted Miss Smith in two watercolours of 1866-7 (George Price Boyce Exhibition, Tate Gallery, 1987, numbers 5-6, reproduced in the catalogue). She also appears many times in his diaries.

Boyce first mentions her in his diary on April 13th 1863 when, 'He [Rossetti] made me a present of a lovely study in pencil of the head of a girl who is now sitting to him'. On 5th May 1863 Rossetti asked for it back. 'Rossetti sent for the study he gave me, a pencil head of Ellen Smith, said it was by inadvertence he had parted with it, as he particularly wished to dispose of it with other studies of the same picture (Bride in Song of Soloman) to the purchasers of the picture. He promised me “good measure” in exchange.'

In May 1868 Boyce gave her an alpaca dress, 'thinking it might be useful', and the following year he lent her £15 when she was trying to acquire a laundry business in Keppel Street (new Sloane Avenue). She was still sitting for him in November 1870, but it was perhaps shortly after this that she lost her good looks in unfortunate circumstances. According to Rossetti's assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn, 'Ellen Smith sat for several of his sweetest pictures until the poor girl got her face sadly cut about and disfigured by a brute of a soldier and then of course she was of no more use as a model' (Recollection of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1984, page 32).

She makes her last appearance in Boyce's diary on 17th February 1873; Ellen Smith, now Mrs. Elson, called on me to tell me she had been married about 3 weeks ago to an old acquaintance and suitor, a cabman. She wishes to do some laundry work on her own account, as her husband's earnings are small.

The present study is unusual in Boyce's work in being an oil. Only one other oil by Boyce is known today, a landscape in the Tate Gallery dated 1857, although two more are known to have been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858.