The Artist’s Model: From Etty to Spencer

by Martin Postle and William Vaughan

This book is a catalog of figurative artwork produced in Britain from the mid-1800s to the early-1900s, published in conjunction with an exhibition held in 1999. The works, featuring nude and clothed figures, range from anatomical studies to finished drawings and paintings, as well as a few photographs and sculptures. In addition to the artwork, there are four interesting chapters about artists, models, and attitudes of this period. Extensive captions provide additional insights about particular artists and models. A sampling of the artwork follows this review.

Chapter One is about the evolution of art schools in Britain, particularly with regard to restrictions on drawing from nude models. The book includes an interesting anecdote about John Everett Millais, who was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1840 at age 11—the youngest student. As a teenager, he “was allowed to work only from the male model, the female model being available only to students who were aged twenty and above or were married. However, the existence of studies by Millais made from the female model, dated 1846 and 1847, indicate that he was also attending life classes outside the Royal Academy–possibly at Leigh’s School or Sass’s.”

“The importance of private art schools in providing access to the living model is increasingly evident by the 1840s, both in London and in the provinces.” The Slade School was founded in 1871. “The impact of the Slade School on art education went far beyond artistic technique or the question of access to the living model to issues of the class and of gender. For the first time women were permitted to work in public from the semi-naked living model, a right which was not extended to women students at the Royal Academy until 1894—by which time women at the Slade were working from the nude male model.”

“Those artists who had benefited from a Continental art education found the Royal Academy’s attitude byzantine.”

Apparently, instructors did not generally treat art models respectfully. A noted exception was Henry Tonks, who was “unusually considerate to the models, ensuring that they took proper rests and that the room was warm enough for them when posing nude.” Tonks was a surgeon prior to becoming an art instructor.

Chapter Two is about models posing in artists’ studios. “An essential feature of many exclusive artistic establishments was the incorporation of a separate entrance, staircase, or even changing rooms for models (Millais, at Palace Gate, incorporated a trap door in the floor of his studio through which large canvases and visiting models could be transported). One reason for the provision of the special facilities for models was to maintain a sense of propriety and social hierarchy. Marcus Stone had three gates to his house: one for friends and family; one for servants and tradesmen; and, furthest away, a models’ entrance. For others the strict division of domestic arrangements was a means of maintaining absolute privacy.”

Chapter Three is titled Models and Muses.

Mary Lloyd was a popular model with a tragic story. “Her classical good looks and tall, graceful physique ensured her popularity among the most successful and fashionable artists of the 1890s.” She worked for Millais, Alma-Tadema, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, Herbert Draper, Frank Dicksee, Holman Hunt, William Blake Richmond, Thomas Brock and Lord Leighton. “Mary was a particular favorite of Leighton, who used her intensively from 1893 to 1895… Although she prospered initially, her fortunes were clearly tied to the artists to whom she modelled. ‘One by one the artists died. Each year I grew poorer and poorer, and moved, as I did so, to humbler apartments.’ A serious illness around 1913 left Mary without money or friends. By 1933 she was living in a garret in Kensington eking out a living as a cleaner and seamstress.”

Not all models fit the pauper stereotype. Maria Zambaco “was extremely wealthy and a sculptress in her own right. Posing as a model for Burne-Jones was an act of pure volition. However, while free of the social and financial pressures that constrained less fortunate women in Pre-Raphaelite circles, she was not exempt from scandal. When Burne-Jones exhibited Phyllis and Demophoon in 1870 it created a sensation because the profile of the half-naked Phyllis bore too strong a resemblance to Zambaco. A similar incident occurred when Burne-Jones’s Depths of the sea in 1886 had a naked mermaid in it with the face of another wealthy model, Laura Lyttelton. As Mrs. Lyttleton had died the year before, this was taken to be a posthumous tribute—though an embarrassing one.”

Besides Zambaco, the book includes other examples of artists serving as models. Gwen John worked as a model for Rodin. Nina Hamnett posed for a couple of the pieces in this book: a painting by Roger Eliot Fry and a sculpture by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. “‘Don’t forget, I’m a museum piece, darling,’ she told one admirer. On another occasion she announced, ‘I’m in the V&A with my left tit off,’ referring to the slight fracture on the marble’s left breast.”

One of the most successful models of the 1920s and 1930s was Marguerite Kelsey, who posed for John Singer Sargent, Charles Wheeler, Alan Beeton, and Meredith Frampton. “She was valued for her slenderness and elegance and for her ability to hold a pose for an unusually long period. She could pose for as long as four hours at a stretch. Her former training in dancing helped her perform such feats… Perhaps almost inevitably Kelsey finally married one of the artists who painted her. The period is littered with stories of liaisons and marriages between male painters and young models.” On a side note not mentioned in the book, John Everett Millais married Effie Gray, who posed for him before and during their marriage.

In 1920, Sir Gerald Kelly married Lilian Ryan, “a young model from a working-class family whom he had met in 1916, when she was posing under the guidance of Sir George Clausen. Kelly painted many portraits of her, exhibiting them under the nickname that he had given her, Jane, with the addition of a roman numeral which corresponded with the year of the exhibition. Jane XXX was exhibited in 1930… The Jane portraits were legendary during the period, and when Queen Mary was introduced to the sitter for them she exclaimed, ‘Jane, of the many Janes!’”

“Quentin Crisp began working as a model in art schools during the late 1930s. He later became famous for his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968)… A former art student himself, Crisp could judge the experience of being a model from both sides. ‘What every model needs are two apparently contradictory attributes—abject humility because, while at work, he is really only a thing, and unshakable self-assurance without which he could never survive the contempt in which he is held by students.’”

Some artists preferred not to use professional models. “When Millais painted Christ in the house of his parents, for example, the body of St. Joseph was based on that of an actual carpenter. Similarly, Hunt used a real farm hand to model for the shepherdess in The hireling shepherd.”

William Powell Frith, “who made extensive use of models in his crowded narrative pictures, made frequent reference to them in his autobiography: they included Brunskill, the male model too drunk to hold a pose; the modest Miss B___, compelled to model nude in the Academy to prevent her father going to debtor’s prison; Jim Bishop, part-time model and pig breeder; Mr. Bredman, the ‘pious’ con-man model; and the venerable Ennis, who he believed had sat to Reynolds as a boy.”

The Aesthetic movement prompted “an influx of Italian models, many coming over from Paris, where they had long been established… In Italy there was a strong tradition of professionalism amongst models and whole families—males, females and children—specialized in the practice. Apart from appealing because of their business-like approach, they were also attractive on account of the warm tones of their skins… Unlike earlier British artists, those in Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic circles treated their models with respect. One of them, Gaetano Meo, complained that, in contrast to painters in Paris, most British artists ‘treated their models like dirt.’ But he added, ‘Not so Richmond and Rossetti, and Burne-Jones—God bless him!—they treated their models as human beings.’ Meo, indeed, became a close friend of Richmond’s and general manager of his studio.”

Chapter Four is about the attitude toward nudity in art during the period.

“It is striking that the Pre-Raphaelites—the brotherhood that sought to reform the academic tradition by simultaneously emulating the ‘honesty’ of medieval art and portraying the contemporary world realistically—should have steered clear of the nude. While they studied unclothed figures—in the academic tradition—as a preparatory phase in developing their pictures, they did not display nakedness in their finished works… Rossetti finally risked an exposed breast in Venus Verticordia of 1864-1865, but it was not until 1870, with Millais’ Knight Errant, that a full frontal nude went on display, precipitating much controversy. Millais had, by this time, long since ceased to be a Pre-Raphaelite.”

Sir Edward Poynter’s Outward Bound “was painted at the height of the debate on the role of the adult nude in art, and at a time when the nude child was becoming an increasingly popular subject for artists—Anna Lea Merritt’s Love Locked Out had been exhibited at the Royal Academy the previous year. Such pictures also coincided with more radical attempts by artists such as Tuke in England and Eakins in America to paint plein-air nudes using young male models, and with the efforts of photographers such as Gloeden to turn images of naked childhood into an acceptable art form. The subject of Poynter’s picture, a young boy and girl, no doubt aimed to promote the concept of childhood innocence… However, given the hostile climate towards painting the adult female nude, it is possible that he wished to divert this interest in the nude model towards less contentious subject-matter—a decision which may strike the modern viewer as somewhat ironic.”

“Frank Sutcliffe was one of the noted art photographers of his day… He lived for most of his working life in Whitby, and achieved great success with his records of the life of fisherman and other local figures. He achieved his greatest success in 1885 with Water-rats, a photograph of young boys disporting themselves naked in Whitby harbor: the boys were truants from school, who were in the habit of taking off their clothes and dashing into the water so the attendance enforcer could not reach them. Sutcliffe paid the boys one penny each for a day’s photography. The work was praised for the naturalness of its effects and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) ordered a copy of it. However, it was also censured for its display of nudity and implicit condolence of juvenile delinquency.”

The catalog includes 120 works of art by these 82 artists: Alan Beeton, Vanessa Bell, Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Samuel Butler, Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dora Carrington, George Paul Chalmers, William Coldstream, Charles West Cope, Raymond Coxon, Sir Jacob Epstein, William Etty, Marguerite Evans, Thomas Faed, Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, Sir William Russell Flint, William Powell Frith, William Edward Frost, Anthony Fry, Roger Eliot Fry, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Mark Gertler, Eric Gill, Thomas Gillot, Harold Gilman, Isabel Lilian Gloag, Sylvia Gosse, Nina Hamnett, Barbara Hepworth, Sir Charles Holmes, Sir Charles Holroyd, John Gerald Hookham, George James Howard, Arthur Hughes, William Holman Hunt, Augustus John, Gwen John, Glyn Jones, Sir Gerald Kelly, Harold Knight, Jacob Kramer, Alphonse Legros, Frederic Leighton, Edward Long, L.S. Lowry, Sir William McTaggart, Joseph Maclise, Ana Lea Merritt, Sir John Everett Millais, John Minton, Henry Moore, William Mulready, Sir Alfred Munnings, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, Sir William Orpen, Victor Pasmore, Glyn Philpot, Richard Polak, Sir Edward Poynter, Dod Procter, Ernest Procter, Oscar Gustav Rejlander, Gordon Richards, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Linley Sambourne, John Singer Sargent, Walter Richard Sickert, Sir Stanley Spencer, William Strang, Frank M. Sutcliffe, Barbara Austin Taylor, Sir John Tenniel, Sir William Hamo Thornycroft, Henry Tonks, Henry Scott Tuke, Edward Wadsworth, Dame Ethel Walker, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Rex Whistler, and Sir David Wilkie.

Postle, Martin, and William Vaughan. The Artist’s Model: From Etty to Spencer. London: Merrell Holberton, 1999. (The book is out of print, but new and used copies can be ordered from third parties on

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William Etty. Study of a standing female nude, Oil on paper, 1830s-40s?
Sir William McTaggart. Life study of two nude female models, oil on canvas, ca. 1855.
Charles West Cope. Abraham Cooper drawing the female model, pen and ink, 1864.
Sir Alfred Munnings. Male nude model, Oil on canvas, 1902.
Henry Tonks. Girl eating apple, Black chalk on paper, ca. 1920s.
Thomas Gillot. A life class, oil on canvas, 1912.
Augustus John, Male nude, black chalk on paper, ca. 1896.
Nina Hamnett, Life class at the Westminster Technical Institute, pen and black ink on paper, 1919.
John Gerald Hokham, Seated female nude, Slade School of Art, oil on canvas, 1923.
Rex Whistler. Seated female nude, Slade School. oil on canvas, 1923.
Sir David Wilkie, Female nude climbing a ladder, black and red chalk with watercolor, 1840.
Sir William Orpen. The studio, oil on canvas, ca. 1910.
Henry Scott Tuke. Our Jack, oil on canvas, 1886.
Augustus John. Study of Gwen John, seated, watercolor and chalk on paper, ca. 1898.
Alan Beeton. Marguerite Kelsey, oil on canvas, 1936.
Sir Gerald Kelly. Jane XXX, oil on canvas, 1930.
Marguerite Evans. Quentin Crisp, oil on canvas, ca. 1943.
Sir Edward Poynter. Outward bound, oil on canvas, 1886.
Anna Lea Merritt. Love locked out, oil on canvas, 1889.
Frank M. Sutcliffe. Natives, carbon print, ca. 1885.
Edward Linley Sambourne, Standing female nude, cyanotype, 1900.
Sylvia Gosse. Female nude looking in a mirror, ca. 1914.
Roger Eliot Fry. Nude on a sofa (Nina Hamnett), oil on canvas, 1917.
Henry Moore. Seated female nude, chalk and wash on paper, 1929.
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst. Adolescence, oil on canvas, 1932.