Charles Samuel Keene – “Draw a thing as you see it!”

Photo of Charles Keene seated looking to the left.
Charles Keene by Elliot & Fry (Wikipedia)

Charles Samuel Keene was born into a middle-class family in August 1823 in Hornsey, Middlesex (these days, it is part of the London Borough of Haringey). His father, Samuel Browne Keene, was a solicitor of Furnival’s Inn and his mother Mary was a member of the prominent Sparrow family of Ipswich, Suffolk. Keene was first educated at a boarding school in Bayswater, together with his younger brother Henry. His family then moved to Ipswich, probably a couple of years before 1838, and they lived in his mother’s old family home. He and Henry entered the Grammar School in Foundation Street there. Apparently, Keene had quite delicate features and was called ‘Miss Keene’ by his schoolmates. According to an anecdote told by one of his sisters and recorded by his early biographer George Somes Layard, he and one of his cousins dressed up as girls one day and applied for a servant position in the Sparrow household. Legend has it that one of them succeeded in securing a situation; sadly, it is not known, which one of them.

Biographer Simon Houfe assumes that Keene’s later love for antiques, books and art developed during this time in Ipswich as the Sparrows were very cultured, and his uncle William Sparrow was an artist. Like his fellow illustrators John Leech (1817-64) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63), he also seems to have enjoyed doodling during his school lessons. Keene fell irrevocably in love with Suffolk, the birthplace of famous painters Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and John Constable (1776-1837), and would spend holidays in his favourite county as an adult. However, tragedy struck when Keene’s father died in early January 1838 and his mother was left a widow with five children – Charles and Henry, and their sisters Mary, Anne and Kate. By late 1839, they had moved back to London and teenager Charles entered his father’s firm at Furnival’s Inn.

It turned out that the legal profession was not for him, so he was placed with the architect William Pilkington. He continued to draw in his spare time, and his mother appreciated and encouraged her son’s talent. She even took it upon herself to find buyers for his work. At first, it seemed a hopeless enterprise, but her persistence was eventually rewarded, and his drawings were sold to a dealer for modest sums. His images caught the attention of one of the Whypmer brothers, the well-established wood engravers. As a result, he was apprenticed to their workshop for five years in 1842.

For the first part of his apprenticeship, he still lived with his family, but when his mother decided to move to Lewisham with his siblings, he took his own lodgings in Bloomsbury. In addition, he rented a ramshackle studio in the Strand. That place certainly left a lasting impression on those who visited him. A Mr W. L. Thomas described the place as follows:

“[…] a gabled house with his room projecting, and the floor sloping in an alarming manner over the street.  One had to climb a dark, rickety staircase, and, after fumbling among some old woodwork, you found the door. You then had to make your way by dodging and stooping your head amongst clothes-lines drawn across the room, carrying all sorts of old costumes and properties […].”

As for the young Charles Keene himself, Henry William Dulcken (1832-1894), for whose translation of German Songs from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (1856) Keene did some of his first book illustrations, describes him as “[…]a very grave, saturnine-looking young fellow, with a face like a young Don Quixote […].” He was rarely seen without one of his ancient, little clay pipes, some of which had been recovered from building sites or even the mud of the Thames. He preferred smoking ‘dottles’ – tobacco leftovers scraped out of previous pipes and kept in little tins for reuse. He would light his pipes the old-fashioned way with flint and steel rather than matches. Just like his bohemian lifestyle, his attire was unconventional and always seemed a little out of date; Layard mentions that he, for example, never wore a top hat. As Forrest Reid writes, he “was a man of strong individuality, and from boyhood pursued his own way.”

Like many of his contemporaries, he had a passion for antiquities. He enjoyed searching for old books and prints and collected music and flints. His acquisitions were discussed at length in letters to friends. He had a good singing voice and was a member of various choirs such as the ‘Jermyn Band’ and ‘Leslies’ Choir’. The ‘Jermyn Band’, named after the street near Piccadilly where they first met, was later re-christened the ‘Moray Minstrels’ after Moray Lodge in Kensington, where the choir relocated to. It was the residence of well-heeled silk merchant Arthur James Lewis and his wife, the actress Kate Terry (1844-1924), sister of actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928). Many of the Punch staff took part in those vespertine musical get-togethers. Keene also taught himself to play the bagpipes and achieved a considerable level of skill.

Frederick Walker (British, London 1840–1875 Perthshire, Scotland)
The Moray Minstrels (Invitation card of Arthur J. Lewis), 1865
Wood engraving; Sheet: 5 13/16 × 8 1/4 in. (14.7 × 20.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1958 (58.503.2)

Although an avid draughtsman from early age, Keene never had any formal training. From around 1848, he would visit the weekly life drawing sessions of what would become known as the Langham Artists’ Society. Here, he could study the nude and dressed model and enhance his natural talent. He kept attending those meetings for over a decade. During his holidays in the countryside of Surrey, where he rented a cottage for many years, and in Suffolk, he always extensively studied and drew the landscape.

The frontispiece of American author Samuel Griswold Goodrich’s (1793-1860) novel The Adventures of Dick Boldhero (1842) appears to be one of Keene’s earliest works as an illustrator, created whilst he was still in the employ of the Whymper Brothers. Another early commission was James Burns’ 1847 edition of The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Keene carried on working for the Whymper Brothers as and when required and also started contributing to the Illustrated London News together with his friend and fellow wood-engraving apprentice Samuel Read (1815-83), the future manager of that journal’s art department. They were both, for example, involved in creating depictions of Sebastopol and the Crimean War (1853-56). Keene did not particularly enjoy this sort of journalistic illustration, but it was a steady source of income for the time being.

From 1851, Keene had begun contributing illustrations to Punch magazine. At first, his designs were made for one of his friends, the journalist Henry Silver (1828-1910). As Silver commented himself: “I was writing then for ‘Punch’ as an outsider, but my ambition was to draw, and for this I had no talent.” So, Keene undertook the task to illustrate the writer’s texts but without signing them. Silver wrote to Layard that this left editor Mark Lemon (1809-70) under the impression that he did his own illustrations and complimented him on his skills. This led the journalist to induce Keene to sign his works, so that he would not get into trouble for getting the credit. The first initialled work in Punch by Keene appeared thus in 1854. Although he had worked for the periodical since the early 1850s, he did not appear at the infamous Punch table before 1860. It was there, where every Wednesday the ‘big cuts’ – full page cartoons, mainly commenting on current political affairs – were discussed over dinner.

Like John Leech (1817-64), he was an observer of society, especially street life and the ‘lower’ classes, and had a real knack for emulating local accents and dialects in his captions. He would be very upset if an editor changed his ‘legends’ – as he called them – at all, be it the tiniest of alterations. He rarely invented his own jokes but would get his inspiration from his friend Joseph Crawhall, who jotted down and sketched jokes in a collection of albums. When Leech died in 1864, Keene took over as the main illustrator of daily life at Punch. Just as Leech before him, he would leave the political cartoons and big cuts to John Tenniel (1820-1914). As one of the chief illustrators, he would also contribute to the annual Punch Pocket Book for many years and design its fold-outs and hand-coloured frontispieces. The Pocket Books were a mixture of business calendar, notebook and a light entertainment section, and published before Christmas between 1843 and 1881. They were created as an extra source of income, just as the annual Punch Almanack. Although he created between two- and three thousand drawings for Punch, Keene never became a salaried member of staff; instead, he preferred to be paid for each piece he delivered.

Punch illustrations in the School of Art Museum collection by Charles Keene (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

The tendency to consult Crawhall’s albums for his commissions did not mean that the illustrator no ideas of his own. Reid explains that Keene carried a small bottle of self-manufactured ink attached to his jacket, and steel pens and sketchbook in his pocket to always be ready to record what caught his attention. He had a great talent to catch people’s expressions. These sketches would find their way into the pages of Punch, and the landscapes he studied so carefully during his holidays would be faithfully rendered in the background of his images.

Although Keene had been a wood engraver’s apprentice and was therefore well aware of the challenges to transfer an illustrator’s drawing onto the woodblock, he seemed to consider this issue very little when it came to his own designs. He had a preference for drawing on odd ‘bits of paper’, including old envelopes, and would sometimes make any imperfections of the paper or its texture part of the image. Apart from using pencil, he would work with inks and Chinese white and in different colours, and apply them with pens, brushes or even his fingers for great tonal effects. This mixture of techniques made it a nightmare for the engravers, who could only work in solid black lines on white paper, to achieve an equally quality result.

Throughout his career, Keene would be inspired by a wide variety of sources such as fellow illustrator Tenniel and the Pre-Raphaelites. Of the latter, he counted John Everett Millais (1829-1896) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) among his friends. He was influenced and collected works by German painters and printmakers Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki (1726-1801) and Adolph Menzel (1815-1905). Menzel specialised in history paintings and was devoted to depicting scenes naturalistically. Art historian Gert Schiff (1926-90) explains that Menzel was compelled to “draw whatever he saw”, which echoes Keene’s own motto “Draw a thing as you see it!”. The two artists began a friendly correspondence and exchanged examples of their work. Paul Goldman suggests that Menzel took out a subscription for Punch only because of Keene’s images. In 1901, an anonymous Times critic of the ‘Exhibition of Modern Illustration’, which included works by Keene, called Menzel even the “Father of Modern Illustration”. This seems to reinforce the idea that the English illustrator was inspired by his Prussian counterpart.

Despite of working for Punch for almost 40 years, Keene never achieved the huge popularity that John Leech had before him. He also illustrated for the periodical Once a Week and created images for popular authors such as Mrs Henry Wood (1814-1887) and George Meredith (1828-1909), which should have made him well-known to an even wider audience. Nevertheless, many fellow artists saw him as one of the finest draughtsmen of his time. His colleagues at Punch and others, such as American James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), admired his work. Degas owned about 215 wood engravings by Keene at the time of his death. Walter Sickert (1860-1942) went as far as to declare that “The Impressionist painters were great admirers and students of his drawings. The painting of trees in sunlight by Monet and Sisley is based on his drawings.”

Images for Evan Harrington by George Meredith, Once a Week vol. 2 & 3, 1860, in the School of Art collection (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

Etching was a common interest he shared with Whistler, with whom he was good friends. The fellow artist even tried to persuade him to be a witness in his famous court case against writer and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). American printmaker Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) describes Keene as a “master” of etching. However, the illustrator did not regard printmaking as a career move or a means of gaining financial profit, although his prints won him a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1889. Keene didn’t even enter the etchings himself; it was Mrs Edwin Edwards, who also happened to do the actual printing of his designs, who submitted his work.

The Edwards were a wealthy couple; Edwards (1823-1879) himself was a painter and etcher. The three of them became intimate friends in the 1860s. When they first met in early 1863, Mrs Edwards wrote in her diary:” C. Keene seems full of pleasant fun and humour. Tells a story well.” Keene, always fond of giving his friends nicknames, affectionately named them ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’. The couple had contacts to artists across Europe, especially France. This might have also helped making Keene’s work known to people such as Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). The Edwards and the illustrator would spend their holidays together at Clifford Cottage, Southwold, in Keene’s beloved Suffolk.

Although Keene had a wide circle of friends, of which only a few are mentioned here, and enjoyed company, he never married. He had a very close bond with his family and had lived with his mother and sisters in the family home in Hammersmith, since he had quitted his lodgings in Bloomsbury in 1855. His sister Kate, who had modelled for him many times, died March 1881 and his mother only two months later at the beginning of May. In a letter he sent to a friend the same day, he writes: “I could not feel her pulse; she drew a few breaths calmly; another – she was gone! I can’t write any more just now, but my heart it lighter now she is released from pain.” He loved animals and had a little Dachshund that lived with him to the grand old age of seventeen. He described her as a “quiet, affectionate little animal, always sniffing about for mice and such small deer.”  According to Layard, the last drawing Keene made was that of her little, dead body in 1890. He also kept a jackdaw and a crow as pets at some point in his life and would even feed the rats in his studio in the Strand.

An advocate of exercise, the illustrator would walk longs distances from Hammersmith to his various studios: first the aforementioned place in The Strand, then in Clipstone Street (the old rooms of The Artists’ Society), Baker Street and after that, two places in Chelsea – first in Queen’s Road West (now Royal Hospital Road) and then in King’s Road. He gave up the last studio with a heavy heart in 1889 due to his declining health. Apart from a temporary break, when he mysteriously developed a disgust for tobacco, he had always been a heavy smoker, and eventually paid the price for that unhealthy habit. He also suffered from rheumatism and dyspepsia. The last two years leading to his death were marked by pain and a growing physical weakness. However, he continued to go out and visit friends as much as possible. When he was finally confined to his home, many friends, including Holman Hunt and Millais would see him and bring tasty food along for him. His old servant, Mary Ann Smith, was devoted to his care and he gratefully bequeathed an annual pension to her in his will. He died on the 4th January 1891. Layard writes that his last words, after noticing that it had snowed, were: “Oh what will the little birds do?”

Charles Samuel Keene was buried a week later at Hammersmith cemetery. The funeral was attended by most of his Punch colleagues and friends. On the same day, The Athenaeum published his obituary, in which they described him as “one of the most delightful companions, of the kindest spirit and most genial wit.” At one of their next ‘Morey Minstrels’ meetings in February, Layard relates that his companions sang a quiet requiem in his honour. The Art Journal called him “so rare an artist, who has unaffectedly held the mirror up to nature” in their March publication.   

Karen Westendorf (Curatorial & Technical Assistant)



For more images by Charles Samuel Keene in the School of Art collection, search here: 

Anon. ‘Exhibition of Modern Illustration’. The Times, 14 Jan 1901.

Buckler, William E. “Once a Week under Samuel Lucas, 1859-65.” PMLA 67.7 (1952): 924-941. JSTOR. Web. 24 Aug. 2022.

Chesson, Wilfrid Hugh, Pennell, Joseph. The Work of Charles Keene. Whitefriars Press for T. Fisher Unwin and Bradbury, Agnew & Co., 1897.

Gettmann, Royal A. “Serialization and Evan Harrington.” PMLA 64.5 (1949): 963-975. JSTOR. Web. 19 Aug. 2022.

Goldman, Paul. “The Artists’ Artist”: An Introduction to Charles Keene’s Work.

Houfe, Simon. Keene, Charles Samuel. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Houfe, Simon. The Work of Charles Samuel Keene. Scolar Press, 1995.

Layard, George Somes. The Life and Letters of Charles Keene.

Leary, Patrick. The Punch Brotherhood: Table Talk and Print Culture in Mid-Victorian London. The British Library, 2010.

Pimlott Baker, Anne. Read, Samuel. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Price, R. G. G. A History of Punch. Collins, 1957.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the 1860s: An Illustrated Survey of the Work of 58 Artists.

Schiff, Gert, Waetzoldt, Stephan. German Masters of the Nineteenth Century – Paintings and Drawings from the Federal Republic of Germany.

Spielman, M.H. The History of “Punch”.




John Leech – “Not an artist of the common type”

sepia photograph of Victorian illustrator John Leech, standing with his hands in his trouser pockets
Leech’s carte de visite (Wikipedia)

John Leech was born 29th August 1817. His father had moved from Ireland to London in about 1813 to work for his uncle, the proprietor of the London Coffee House in Ludgate Hill. By 1823, Leech senior owned the business. It was a well-respected and popular place, which must have been a very stimulating environment for a little boy to grow up in. Leech junior enjoyed drawing from an early age. Wood engraver and illustrator Frederick George Kitton (1856-1904) claims in his biography of the illustrator (1883) that the artist John Flaxman (1755-1826) first noticed the boy’s skills when he was only three years old and advised the parents: “Do not let him be cramped with lessons in drawing; let his genius follow its own bent; he will astonish the world.” When Leech was seven, he started attending Charterhouse School, first as a day boy and then as a boarder. Here he first met novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), who would become a lifelong friend when they met again at Punch in 1843. Continue reading

Frederick Walker – A brilliant Career cut short

Frederick Walker (Source: Wikipedia)

Frederick Walker was born in Marylebone, London, on the 26th May 1840. His father William Henry, a jeweller, died when Walker was still a young child. Mother Ann thus supported herself and her eight children by doing embroidery. At the age of 15, Walker was briefly apprenticed to architects Messrs Baker and Harris. When he was 17, he enrolled at Leigh’s Art School (est. 1848, it still exists under the name of Heatherley School of Fine Art) and in 1858 at the Royal Academy Schools. Both his early biographers, Sir Claude Phillips (published in 1894) and his brother-in-law John George Marks (published in 1896), claim that he was a very unreliable attendee at both establishments. He also sketched extensively from the antique sculpture at the British Museum, especially the Elgin Marbles of which he later had a plaster cast in his studio. Gleeson White, author of English Illustration ‘The Sixties’: 1855-1870 (published in 1897) even suggests that “[..] his male figures seem nearly always youth from the Parthenon in peasant costume.” Continue reading

Florence Ann (1838-1920) and Adelaide Sophia Claxton (1841-1927)

Adelaide Claxton, John and Charles Watkins, 1860s, albumen silver print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Wikipedia)

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.

Florence Claxton, John and Charles Watkins, 1860s, albumen silver print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Wikipedia)

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.

Wonderland, Adelaide Claxton, c. 1870, watercolour (Source: Wikipedia)

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.

Claxton Ear-Cap
One of three corrective ear cap of pink ribbon, elastic and net in box, patented by Claxton, English, 1925-1945. Three quarter top view, general arrangement. Black background. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY

These are just some examples of their work (larger versions of the examples via the ‘gallery’ below):

Riddles of Love, London Society Vol. 17, 1870, Adelaide Claxton, PL601
Riddles of Love, London Society Vol. 17, 1870, Adelaide Claxton, PL601

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, London Society Vol. 1, 1862, Florence Claxton, PL612
Ye Spring Fashions, London Society Vol. 1, 1862, Florence Claxton, PL612

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.

Academy Belles, London Society Vol. 12, 1867, Adelaide Claxton, PL591
Academy Belles, London Society Vol. 12, 1867, Adelaide Claxton, PL591

Academy Belles 

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, London Society Vol. 1, 1862, Adelaide Claxton,  PL563
The Daily Governess, London Society Vol. 1, 1862, Adelaide Claxton, PL563

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.

The Young Lady's New Year's Dream, London Society Vol. 2, 1862, Adelaide Claxton, PL566
The Young Lady’s New Year’s Dream, London Society Vol. 2, 1862, Adelaide Claxton, PL566

The Young Gentleman's New Year's Dream, London Society Vol. 2, 1862, Florence Claxton, PL611
The Young Gentleman’s New Year’s Dream, London Society Vol. 2, 1862, Florence Claxton, PL611

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Karen Westendorf (Curatorial & Technical Assistant)

More examples are available on the School of Art collections database: (Florence Claxton) (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.

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.

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Joseph Wolf – “The best all-round animal painter that ever lived.”

Joseph Wolf, Lance Chalkin, 1890, the Zoological Society of London (Source: Wikipedia)
Joseph Wolf, Lance Chalkin, 1890, the Zoological Society of London (Source: Wikipedia)

Joseph (Mathias) Wolf was born on the 22nd January 1820 in the little village of Mörz, near Koblenz, Germany. His father, Anton Wolf (1788-1859) was a farmer and headman of the village. As a boy, Wolf loved spending time outdoors, observing and sketching the local wildlife. Sometimes, he would shoot specimens to dissect them at home in order to achieve a better understanding of their anatomy, plumage or fur. He would also capture live birds and mammals to draw them. He built special traps to catch large birds of prey without harming them. His obsession, apparently, earned him the unflattering nickname ‘bird fool’ from his father. Watching wildlife became a lifelong passion and, although he killed some for study, he abhorred the mindless slaughter of animals that many Victorians regarded as a ‘manly’ pastime and sport. According to his biographer and friend Alfred Herbert Palmer (1853-1931), son of artist Samuel Palmer (1805-81), Wolf accused these ‘sportsmen’ of having “no desire to know about a thing. Their only desire is to kill it.” He also called man “the most destructive and carnivorous animal in the world.”

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The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens with illustrations by Phiz (Household Words, 1874)

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St. Valentine’s Day

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The origins of St. Valentine’s Day, or of the concept that a St. Valentine is the patron of lovers, are hazy.

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Wilkie Collins’s Armadale

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Wilkie (William) Collins was born on the 08th of January 1824 at 11 New Cavendish Street, St. Marylebone, Middlesex, and died on the 23rd of September 1889 in Wimpole Street, London. The successful author wrote popular, so-called ‘sensation novels’ such as The Woman in White, which was first serialised in Charles Dickens’ magazine All Year Round 1859-60 and then published in book-form in 1860, and The Moonstone which was also at first issued in instalments in All Year Round before being sold in book-form (1868).

Armadale was initially serialised in the Cornhill Magazine between November 1864 and June 1866 before being available in the bookshops. Collins received a generous commission of £5,000 for his story from the proprietor of Cornhill Magazine, George Murray Smith (1824-1901). The Illustrator, painter and wood-engraver George Housman Thomas (1824-1868) created the illustrations.

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