Florence and Adelaide were the daughters of painter Marshall Claxton (1813-1881), who specialised in historical scenes and portraiture. Florence was born during her parents’ stay in Florence, where her father furthered his artistic skills. By the time Adelaide was born, the family already lived in London again.
It was moving time for the family again in 1850, when Marshall Claxton decided to try his luck in Australia. Despite being a Royal Academy gold-medallist he had had only middling success in England. Relatives of his wife’s had emigrated there before which must have given them a good idea of what life was like on the other side of the world. Despite receiving some commissions and credit for staging Australia’s first art exhibition, his career did not get the boost that he had hoped for. The family thus relocated to India in 1854, where he managed to sell some of the paintings he had brought all the way from England. The Claxtons returned to London, travelling via Ceylon and Egypt, around 1857. Catherine Flood observes in an article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that these early travels equipped “them with something of an outsider’s perspective on Victorian society,” which might have helped with their satirical portrayals of their contemporaries.
There were few opportunities for women to train as professional artists at that time so the Claxton sisters received most of their artistic education from their father. Marshall Claxton gave ‘ladies only’ classes at his home in Kensington to supplement the family income. Florence and Adelaide also studied for a short time at Cary’s Academy, an art school that had been founded by artist Henry Sass (1788-1844) in 1818 and one of the first to admit female students. It was impossible for women to enrol at the Royal Academy (RA), although their works were accepted for its exhibitions. A group of female artists, including Florence Claxton, launched a petition to the Royal Academy in 1859. The letter was sent to all members of the RA and published in the Athenaeum. They demanded a change in the rules to allow female students, but unfortunately without success.
Florence and Adelaide Claxton embarked on their careers as illustrators supposedly for financial reasons. It is conceivable that they would have preferred to make a living solely as painters, but it was difficult for female artists to become established in the male-dominated art world. Florence highlighted this problem in a series of six satirical pen and ink drawings called Scenes from the Life of a Female Artist, which she exhibited at the Society of Female Artists in 1858. The society had been founded by writer Harriet Grote (1792-1878) and artist Mrs Robertson Blaine in 1857 to give support and training to women artists. It exists to this day and is now called The Society of Women Artists.
Florence started working for the Illustrated Times in 1858 and according to Ellen Clayton, author of English female artists (1876), was the first woman to draw her designs directly on the woodblock. Catherine Flood, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, explains that it was believed “that women were physically and mentally better suited to dextrous and repetitive crafts than expressive art” which meant that they were rather employed to engrave the woodblock than to design and draw an image on the wood. The idea was that women simply lacked the imagination and technical skill to produce quality illustrations. Florence and Adelaide Claxton, and their contemporary Mary Ellen Edwards (1838-1934), proved these assumptions wrong and led the way for other female illustrators.
Adelaide Claxton followed her sibling’s footsteps when she received her first illustrating commission from the London Society in 1862. She became a frequent contributor to Judy, the great competitor of Punch. Flood observes that the sisters carved “a niche” for themselves with their humorous depictions of society. They avoided vulgarity and aggression – undoubtedly also to uphold their respectable reputation, which was imperative for a Victorian woman – but nevertheless cast a critical and satirical eye on their contemporaries. This was received well by publishers, in fact they became so well-known that magazines used their names to increase sales. Henry Vizetelly (1820-94), co-founder of the Illustrated London News, Pictorial Times and Illustrated Times, described the Claxton sisters as “very smart young ladies” who “cleverly satirised the social follies of both hemispheres.”
Although the Claxtons and Edwards were trailblazers of their profession, they were not the first female illustrators of the 19th– century. One of the earliest was probably Louise Sheridan. She contributed to Comic Offering and Comic Magazine during the 1830s. Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916) and Jemima Blackbourn had already created images for magazines during the 1850s, but they had no real need to earn money and saw themselves as ‘amateurs’. In general, Victorian middle-class women who made their own living were often looked upon with suspicion and had to work hard to be accepted by male peers and the public. It is therefore remarkable that the burgeoning periodical press, from the 1850s onwards, became an important industry to offer women the chance to earn a regular income as engravers, illustrators and even as editors and contributors of articles. Charles Henry Ross (1835-97), editor of Judy employed not only Adelaide Claxton but also his wife Marie Duval (real name Isabelle Émilie de Tessier, 1847-90), a cartoonist of French origin. Editors such as James Hogg (1806-88) of London Society would even pay female illustrators the same rates as their male counterparts. Given that equal payment is still an on-going topic in the 21st century, this might seem surprisingly progressive.
In the course of their illustrating careers Adelaide and Florence Claxton worked for publications such as The Churchman’s Family Magazine, Illustrated London News, Illustrated Times, London Society and Queen, a magazine especially for female readers.
However, the pioneering sisters not only created innumerable images for magazines, but also exhibited paintings. Adelaide’s The Standard-Bearer, for example, was exhibited at the Society of Female Artists’ exhibition in 1859. It plays with the military term and turns it into a newspaper boy running after an omnibus and carrying The Standard in his hand. An engraved version of the oil painting was published in the Illustrated Times in March 1859. In 1860, Florence showed her watercolour The Choice of Paris: An Idyll at the Portland Gallery, London, in which she satirised the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It lampooned the brotherhood’s obsession with medievalism, red-haired ‘stunners’ and their ‘true to nature’ painting style. It caused such a stir that a large reproduction was published in the Illustrated London News in June the same year.
In June 1868, Florence married Ernest Farrington (died between 1881 and 1891), a French photographer and engineer, in Paris and, apart from exhibiting her watercolours occasionally, ceased her artistic career. She might have lived abroad for several years; however, she was back in the UK at the time of the 1881 census and stated her profession as ‘artist china painter’, a role that she might have taken up for financial reasons. She taught the technique and exhibited her works as well. Around 1911, she moved to the Isle of Wright; there she was found dead at her residence Grafton House, Sandown, in 1920. It is believed that she ended her life deliberately by taking an overdose of barbiturates; she sat in her armchair and had made her bed and prepared some presents. Although her decision was most likely down to worries about failing health and money, the coroner probably officially concluded that she took the medication while ‘of an unsound mind’. Otherwise, she would have been denied a burial on consecrated ground as committing suicide was regarded a sin.
Adelaide married George Gordon Turner (1852-1905), the son of a clergyman, in 1874 and had a son at the age of 43. Unlike her sister, she carried on working as an illustrator during the 1870s and 1880s, particularly for Judy. Both, she and her husband gave their profession as ‘artist’ in the 1881 census and lived in Chiswick, West London. Adelaide showed her watercolours at exhibitions, and her ghost paintings, were much in demand. She also created drawings for advertisements for women’s clothing. In the census of 1891, she still called herself an ‘Artist in Colour Black & White’. In addition, she tried her hand at inventing from the 1890s onwards and patented, for example, the ‘Claxton Ear-cap’ which was still in production in the 1920s. She also invented the ‘Claxton Classical Corset’ that was less restricting than conventional ones – she was a member of the Rational Dress Association. The reputation she had gained as an artist helped promoting these products and she designed the adverts herself. By 1911 lived with her son in Barnes, South London. She died aged 86 in 1927.
These are just some examples of their work (larger versions of the examples via the ‘gallery’ below):
Riddles of Love
Riddles of Love is the only novel by Sidney Laman Blanchard (1825-83), son of journalist and poet Samuel Laman Blanchard (1804-45). After his parents had died shortly one after the other, Blanchard became a journalist and editor; he also worked as Benjamin Disraeli’s (1804-81) private secretary in 1851. In 1854, he moved to Calcutta where he worked for an Anglo-Indian newspaper, a job he quit during the Indian Munity in 1857. He also married whilst on the subcontinent. Having returned to Britain in 1864, he supported himself with writing articles for various publishers. Blanchard then returned to India in 1873 and took on the role as assistant editor for the Times of India. However, he left the paper after having problems with the management. He tried but ultimately failed to manage The Indian Statesman, and returned to England in 1880. He died in Brighton in 1883.
Adelaide Claxton illustrated Blanchard’s Riddles of Love for London Society. It was serialised between 1869 and 1870 and published as a three-volume edition in 1871 by Hurst and Blankett. The novel is set partly in England and India. Whilst the story is quite conventional and deals with – at that time – typical issues such as the trials of finding a suitable partner and making a respectable living, it also offers a tiny glimpse into the life of the Brits in India during the Raj, obviously based on the author’s own experience. However, sadly, the only irredeemable villain happens to be an Indian. As much as this would be thought of as wholly politically incorrect to readers nowadays, many Victorians would not have bat an eye-lid at such race-related prejudice.
Ye Spring Fashions
With this image, Florence Claxton makes fun of her fellow countrywomen’s thirst for French fashion. It is quite possible that the lady, handing out the document – or might it be an edict – named ‘La Mode’ to one of her followers, is Empress Eugénie, given that the man at her side looks very much like France’s monarch Napoleon III. Eugénie had become a style icon during the Second Empire (1852-70) and thus was not only the ‘queen’ but even the ‘empress’ of fashion. Equipped with the latest examples of hats, bonnets, caps and patterns, her excited disciples tumble down the stairs of the vogue-heaven that is France towards the shores of Great Britain across the Channel. There, eager women and girls are waiting for news on what is fashionable that season. Even Britannia cannot resist the thrill of la mode and has donned a crinoline on top of her customary toga. A cash box and moneybags are at the ready to be spent on the most recent fads. A lone man stands bewildered in the background, probably worried about his hard-earned money soon to be lavished on expensive fripperies. Only the boy deliberately looks away in disgust as if to make it clear that he wants nothing to do with this nonsense.
Adelaide Claxton created this image to accompany a poem of the same name that was published in the London Society in 1867. The anonymous poet gives a satirical account of pretty young ladies at art exhibitions; of how they distract earnest (male) viewers from the art works and how the opinions on art of these young women cannot be taken altogether seriously.
Click: Academy Belles for the poem.
The Daily Governess
Unlike Adelaide Claxton’s many satirical designs, this is a more sober engraving which highlights the plight of the governess. Becoming a governess was a respectable way of earning a living for many single, middle-class women without sufficient private means or family support. They were often in the awkward position of being slightly too ‘genteel’ to be considered a servant and on the other hand, as a paid employee, they could not be considered as a member of the family. In other words, the status of the governess lay between the boundaries of the upstairs/downstairs world. Many of them lived with the families they worked for, but this governess seems to commute between her own home and her work place on a daily basis. On this particular day shown, the weather is dreadful; her clothes are dripping with rainwater and her veil is flowing in the wind, revealing her careworn face. The wet ground also obliges her to lift her skirt, and thus show her ankles – a risqué sight for any proper Victorian woman. Claxton appears to put her on par with the stray dog in the background – both are, in their own way, outcasts; who else would be seen outside on such an unfriendly day? Not only is she arriving at work in this pitiful state, she also has to endure the indignity of having to ring the bell for the servants’ entrance and not that for visitors. If she is lucky, she might get a hot cup of tea in the kitchen, a chance to tidy herself up and warm herself at the hearth before she goes to see her charges. If not, she might have to go ‘upstairs’ straight away and be vulnerable to possible criticism from her employer about being negligent about her appearance and ridicule from the children – not to mention a cold due to the wet dress. What humble abode she calls her home she might have arrived from and whether she will receive a friendly or a hostile welcome is left to the imagination of the viewer; however, Adelaide Claxton certainly manages to convey with this single image that the lot of a governess is not an easy one and should be considered with benevolence.
The Young Lady’s New Years Dream and The Young Gentleman’s New Years Dream
The Claxton sisters sometimes collaborated in their work. The Young Lady’s New Years Dream by Adelaide and Florence’s The Young Gentleman’s New Years Dream, for example, appeared on opposite pages in the London Society in 1862.
(Click on images to enlarge them.)
Karen Westendorf (Curatorial & Technical Assistant)
More examples are available on the School of Art collections database:
http://museum.aber.ac.uk/person/1550 (Florence Claxton)
http://museum.aber.ac.uk/person/1549 (Adelaide Claxton)
Blanchard, Sidney Leman. Riddles of Love. Spring Street Books, 2013.
Cherry, Deborah. Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists. Routledge, 1993.
Cooke, Simon, Goldman, Paul. Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875; Spoils of the Lumber Room. Ashgate, 2012.
De Maré, Eric. The Victorian Woodblock Illustrators. Gordon Fraser, 1980.
Hadjiafxendi, Kyriaki, Zakreski, Patricia eds. Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain. Ashgate, 2013.
Humble, Nicola, Reynolds, Kimberley. Victorian Heroines: Representations of Femininity in Nineteenth-century Literature and Art. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
Van Remoortel, Marianne. Women, Work and the Victorian Periodical: living by the press. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.