Mary Ellen Edwards – A Victorian Woman Illustrator

Mary Ellen Edwards (later Mrs Freer, later Mrs Staples) by Unknown photographer, albumen carte-de-visite with black masking paint, 1860s, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Illustrator Mary Ellen Edwards was born to Mary (née Johnson, c.1809-1898) and Downes Edwards (c. 1805-1882) on the 6th November 1838 on her father’s farm in Surbiton just outside London. The family had nine children of which two died in infancy. The Edwards moved frequently. Her father was an engineer and inventor and had by 1848 enough funds to built a family residence, Ravenscliffe in Douglas on the Isle of Man. Eventually they settled in London and lived there at various addresses in fashionable parts of town such as Pimlico, South Kensington and Chelsea.

The Edwards girls inherited the artistic talent of their mother’s family. Uncle Edward Killingworth Johnson (1825-96), a watercolour painter, and great-uncles, painters John Masey Wright (1777-1866), member of the Society of Painters in Water Colours (Royal Watercolour Society), and James Meadows, must have been a great source of inspiration and knowledge. Furthermore, friends of her uncle Edward Killingworth Johnson included apparently engraver Horace Harral (1817-1905), who engraved works by Edwards, and fellow illustrators Charles Keene (1823-91) and George du Maurier (1834-96). Mary was taught by Royal Academician Edward Armitage (1817-96) at Queen’s College, Harley Street, London, and briefly studied at the South Kensington School of Art (Royal College of Art). She also honed her skills within a circle of friends and family members, which might have included her sisters Catherine Julia (‘Kate’, c.1842-1924) and Jessica Alice (‘Jessie’, c. 1845-?) who became a watercolourist.

The Dictionary of Nineteenth-century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland states that “the prodigious career as a periodical illustrator of Mary Ellen Edwards, pseudonym ‘M.E.E.’, began in 1855 when she was sixteen.” However I could find no further evidence of this. Checkmate/d (?), an image published on the cover of the Illustrated Times in 1859, is mentioned in a few sources and thus definitely appears to be one of her first works. In the 1860s, she joined the staff at London Society, where her uncle Edward Johnson and sister Kate were also employed, and at The Graphic, where she was employed as a permanent staff member from 1869, its founding year, to 1880. Magazines such as the Illustrated London News, Sunday Magazine, Once a Week, Good Words and The Quiver also regularly gave her assignments. Popular author Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) employed her to illustrate her ‘sensation novels’, such as Birds of Prey (1866-7), in her own magazine Belgravia, as did Ellen Wood (‘Mrs Henry Wood’, 1814-87) for her stories in the Argosy. Edwards also created images for the novels of Charles James Lever (1806-72), for example The Bramleighs of Bishop’s Folly (1868) and That Boy of Norcott’s (1869), both serialised in Cornhill Magazine.

When it came to illustration assignments and payments, Edwards was quite on par with male counterparts, who included well-known artists such as Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) and Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1829-1904). The fact that she seemed to have a natural skill to draw directly on the engraver’s woodblock (coated in Chinese white) – in reverse, which many artists found difficult – must have also worked to her advantage in securing jobs, as it helped with speeding up the production of large numbers of illustrations.

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), who took a keen interest in British periodical illustrations, was an admirer of Edward’s illustrations in The Graphic, and according to Simon Cooke, sent illustrations designed by her to his friend and fellow artist Anton van Rappard (1858-92).

Edwards also painted in oil and watercolours and regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1862 and 1908, sending I wandered by the Brookside and Idle Hours for her first show there. She contributed 38 works in total to the Royal Academy shows. In addition, she exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists (1875-92), the Royal Glasgow Institute (1873-92) and the Society of Women Artists (1863-78). 

The artist married John Freer, who worked for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (these days better known as ‘P & O’), on the 1th of June 1866 at St. Luke’s, Chelsea. Her only son, John Edwards Leslie Freer, was born in November 1867. Unfortunately, her husband died in 1869 and their son in 1886 at only 18 years of age. In 1872 she married John Charles Staples, a children’s books’ illustrator. They adopted a girl, Faith Strong who was of Irish origin, a few years after the Mary Ellen’s son’s death. Despite her married status, she would continue to sign her designs for periodicals and magazines with her monogram ‘M.E.E’. Her paintings, however, would carry the names ‘Mrs John Freer’ and ‘Mrs John C. Staples’ respectively instead of the previous ‘Miss M. E. Edwards’.

Edwards joined her second husband in his illustrating children’s books. They often collaborated on books by Frederick Edward Wheatherley (1848-1929), barrister, author and songwriter, such as Told in the Twilight (1883) and The Adventures of two Children (1884). Husband and wife also catered for the new market that targeted teenage girls. Popular and prolific authors of that genre were Elizabeth Thomasina Toulmin Smith (1844-1914) who published under the pseudonym L. E. Meade (Meade being her maiden name), and Mary Louisa Molesworth (1839-1921). Edwards provided illustrations for Meade’s books A World of Girls: The Story of a School (1886) and Deb and the Duchess (1888), and for Molesworth’s Hoodie (1882) and The Boys and I: A Child’s Story for Children (1883). Meade also founded the girls’ magazine Atalanta of which Charles Staples became co-editor. Furthermore, she worked with well-known fellow illustrators such as Kate Greenaway on Ellen Haile’s The Two Gray Girls and Their Opposite Neighbors (1880). Other adult fiction that Edwards illustrated includes Her Object in Life by novelist Isabella Fyvie Mayo (1842-1914).

There appears to be some confusion with the regard to Mary Ellen Edwards’s date of death, which is variously given as 1906, 1910 or 1934. However, I would imagine that the Meadows’ family tree website is quite a reliable source. It mentions that the illustrator died on the 22nd of December 1934 in Ealing, London.

374px-picture_of_anthony_trollope - wikimedia
Anthony Trollope (Source: Wikipedia)

George Murray Smith (1824-1901), proprietor of Cornhill Magazine proposed Edwards as an illustrator to Anthony Trollope (1815-82) for his novel The Claverings. Simon Cooke, author of Reading Victorian Illustrations, 1855-1875 and Illustrated Periodicals of the 1860s, assumes that the latter never consulted face-to-face, and the artist chose the scenes from the story that she wanted to illustrate herself without the author’s consultation. Edward’s designs were used for both, the serialization in Cornhill Magazine (1866-7) and the book version (1866). Edwards created sixteen full-page illustrations and sixteen vignettes for the novel’s publication in Cornhill Magazine, but we only have the full-page images in the collection.

In the novel, the beautiful Julia Brabazon turns down young Harry Clavering’s love and marries Lord Ongar for financial security and rank instead. Although Clavering is already a fellow of his old college and plans to become an engineer, she thinks that he won’t be able to offer her much in life. Ongar, a cold-hearted, older husband conveniently dies after a short and unhappy marriage and leaves Julia, now a countess, a wealthy widow. She returns to England from the continent with a damaged reputation thanks to (unfounded) rumours about her being unfaithful to Lord Ongar.Despite that she is quickly pursued by several suitors who are enamoured by her money and beauty: Harry Clavering, despite now being engaged to comparatively plain and poor but loving and loyal Florence Burton, falls for his old love again and fails to tell Julia about his fiancée. Archie Clavering, a ne’er-do-well relative of Harry’s, and Count Pateroff, a friend of her deceased husband, also make advances. Count Pateroff is the reason for the rumours and claims to have some power over Lady Ongar, which she resolutely resists. He is also the brother of Sophie Gourdeloup, a middle-aged foreigner, who presses her friendship onto Julia. Julia has very few friends as a result of her difficult position in society and hence, unwillingly tolerates the older woman’s company. However, towards the end of the story, she manages to free herself of the siblings’ presence and influence.

Sophie is the one who tells Julia about Harry’s engagement to Florence, and the latter finds out about her fiancé’s fickleness as well. Eventually, Harry, with a little persuasion by his mother, decides to be true to Florence. Julia, although disappointed and irrevocably resigned to a quiet life, nevertheless finds it in her heart to meet her and wish the couple all the best. She even tells her victorious rival that she hopes to be received as a friend in their house sometime in the future, which good Florence agrees to. Conveniently, Harry also finds himself in much improved circumstances with regard to his prospects. The holder to the Claverings’ baronetcy, Sir Hugh Clavering, his infant son and his only brother Archie all perish in the course of the story. Harry’s father, a rector, thus inherits the title and family fortune, and the son can look forward to a prosperous future henceforth without having to bother about his professional career anymore.

A digital version of the book can be found here:

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Let’s take a look at some of the images:

‘A puir feckless Thing, tottering along like -‘, The Claverings, Cornhill Magazine Vol. ?, 1866, Mary Ellen Edwards, PL1232

The newly married couple is leaving the church. Julia, now Lady Ongar, looks ravishing in her sumptuous wedding dress and long veil. However, instead of acting the happy bride, she makes no secret of her disdain for her husband and doesn’t even care to look at him. He, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be able to take his eyes of his lovely wife. Whatever goes through their respective minds during that moment is probably better left unsaid. Although Lord Ongar is only 36, Edwards depicts him as a much older- and weaker-looking man and with that closely adheres to Trollope’s description of him, coming from the mouth of an old farmer’s wife: “A puir feckless thing, tottering along like – not half the makings of a man.” Prior to the wedding, the author explains that the gentleman looked ten years older than he really was, wore a wig and was “weak, thin, and physically poor, and had, no doubt, increased this weakness and poorness by hard living.” In short, he is a “worn-out debauchee” with no redeeming features but his money and title. The wedding guests seem to know that this is a match of convenience rather than love; there are no smiling faces around the couple, only worried, pitying or possibly spiteful glances; the artist captures the strange mood of the day perfectly. Nevertheless, Julia Brabazon has chosen her lot with open eyes and, despite almost guaranteed future misery, walks “out from the church every inch a countess.”

‘Was not the Price in her Hands?’, The Claverings, Cornhill Magazine Vol. 13, 1866, Mary Ellen Edwards, PL1235

This image shows the countess at Ongar Park, which had been bequeathed to her by her late husband in addition to an annuity of £7,000, a huge sum in those days. She is standing in her widow’s weeds in the farmyard belonging to the stately home. At that moment, she is still convinced that she would make the best of that “price in her hand” that she had earned by willing herself into marrying Lord Ongar. Edwards’s drawing even appears to suggest that she is physically holding something in her gloved hand. Turned into a social outcast by the rumours about her unfaithfulness, she is determined that she will learn to enjoy being involved in the running of the estate and make life for the labourers and the poor easier. Her erect, elegant figure dressed all in black stands out from her surroundings like a sore thumb. However, Julia has never been to Ongar Park before and has decided to escape the lonely, gloomy house and inspect every aspect of her price. The lady of the house would usually not bother with visiting the farmyard, but send the steward if anything needed doing; so it is no surprise that the old labourer and the child behind her stare at her in utter surprise. Initially they have no idea who the lady might be. Unlike the countess, the old man and his granddaughter almost blend in with the background hinting possibly at the fact that their family has been working at the farm for a very long time, so long that they have literally become part of it. On the other hand, Edwards might be indicating their supposed insignificance opposed to her ‘ladyship’, which would make her attention to them even more significant. It is her loneliness and her attempt to find a purpose in her life away from society that makes her approach and talk to them. However, soon after that encounter, she realises that Ongar Park and its people have no attraction for her and that she is unable to form an attachment to them. Towards the end of the book, she even hands it back to her deceased husband’s family. Julia’s discomfort and the incongruity of her presence at Ongar Park is clearly demonstrated in Edwards’s design.

‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.’ The Claverings, Cornhill Magazine Vol. 14, 1866, Mary Ellen Edwards, PL1242

The heir to the Clavering title and fortune, little, sickly Hugh, has died and his father Sir Hugh has just returned to Clavering Park from his town house in London. His wife, Julia’s sister Hermione, is already dressed in black and tries to comfort him despite her own bereavement. She quotes “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” to give him some relief, but he brushes the words off as “twaddle”. He appears to predominantly mourn losing the only heir to the family name rather than the loss of a beloved, little boy, an impression that grows when he makes some comments that sound, at his own confession, utterly heartless.  It might be his way of hiding genuine grief, but considering the way in which Trollope portrays him throughout the story, that seems unlikely. In previous chapters, he writes that when “a feeble squeak from the infant” was heard, “there was a cloud at once upon Sir Hugh’s brow.” For Hermione on the other hand, her son was all she had to make her life at her husband’s side bearable. There is thus no ‘togetherness’ in Edwards’s image, which she bases closely to the author’s description of the scene. Clavering’s arms are tightly folded to his body, his head is bent and he avoids looking at his wife. The hand that she has placed soothingly on his arm will be brushed off in a moment; even in that moment of despair, he is not there for her and does not want to become emotionally involved.

‘Husband and Wife’, The Claverings, Cornhill Magazine, 1867, Mary Ellen Edwards, PL1260

This image shows Hermione and Sir Hugh saying good-bye to each other the night before Hugh’s long trip on a yacht to Norway. He has not been looking forward to this moment and, very apparent in Edwards’s drawing, is very keen to get away from his spouse. He is standing with the candle in his hand, ready to go to bed and waiting for his wife to release him from her embrace. Despite his indifference and the emotional coldness he constantly displays to her, she still – here literally – clings to him. His expression and posture betray his feelings eloquently: he frowns, stands stiffly and barely returns her hug. Especially since the death of their only son, his sole heir, he has no further use for her and thinks that she should be happy enough with “her house, her carriage, her bed, her board and her clothes.” He has no qualms about leaving her alone in that big, unwelcoming house that his ancestral home is. She, on the other hand, blesses him and begs him to take care of himself, although deep in her heart she must know how little he cares for her. Little do they know that they are destined never to see each other again. Hermione almost looks like a young, innocent girl again in this image; tiny against her towering husband and dressed all in white, quite contrary to her motherly and wifely appearance in her mourning dress in the previously discussed image. Interestingly, in both pictures there is a discarded object close to them on the ground, and I wonder whether Edwards included those on purpose. In the first image, a handkerchief lies on the ground near Hermione. Does that indicate that she is disposed of now that she lost her purpose in her husband’s eyes? Equally, a newspaper lies on the floor near her husband in the farewell scene. Does that hint at the fact that the author will let that uncharitable character (and his brother Archie) die in order for the remaining Claverings to live happily ever after?

Having read the book, I would conclude that Edwards stuck very closely to the descriptions that Trollope gave of the various situations and that she interprets his text very well in her illustrations.

Karen Westendorf

Cooke, Simon, Goldman, Paul. Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875; Spoils of the Lumber Room. Ashgate, 2012.

Cohen, Jane R., Jane Marjorie Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Ohio State UP. 1980.

De Maré, Eric. The Victorian Woodblock Illustrators. Gordon Fraser, 1980.

Fletcher, Margaret, Hall, N. John. Trollope and his Illustrators. Palgrave Macmillan, 1980.

Gray, Sara. The Dictionary of British Women Artists. James Clarke & Co. Ltd., Lutterworth P, 2009.

Hadjiafxendi, Kyriaki, Zakreski, Patricia eds. Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain. Ashgate, 2013.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the eighteen sixties: an illustrated survey of the work of 58 British artists. Constable, 1975.

Sutherland, John. The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford UP, 1990.

Trollope, Anthony, Trollope, Henry. An Autobiography. Oxford UP, 1953, 1974.

Van Remoortel, Marianne. Women, Work and the Victorian Periodical: living by the press. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Click to access 438297.pdf (for author’s image)

One thought on “Mary Ellen Edwards – A Victorian Woman Illustrator

  1. Colin Cruise January 10, 2019 / 10:13 pm

    Really intersting article, Karen. There is a little bit about Edwards in Susan Casteras and Linda Peterson’s catalogue ‘A Struggle for Fame: Victorian Women Artists and Authors’ (1994) – the articles put the works of several women artists in the context of Victorian publishing. Colin

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