A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell.
© CC BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated; image copyrights are listed in the credits and they are not licensed for re-use.
Pattledom, the Little Holland House Circle and Julia’s ‘training of life’1
Julia – Indian and French legacies
Julia Prinsep Jackson left India when she was two years old, but it was forever in her blood. Stories from there shaped her perception of her world; and as she grew up they shaped others’ perceptions of her.
She was shaped too by people from India. In part this was from French India, from the Chevalier and especially from her great-grandmother Thérèse de L’Étang, who was still the redoubtable matriarch of the family as Julia was growing up, ensuring that her French connections remained strong. Powerful legacies too were from her grandparents, James and Adeline Pattle, and from the six surviving Pattle sisters: Julia’s mother, Mia, and her aunts Julia Margaret (Cameron), Sara2 (Prinsep), Louisa (Bayley), Virginia (Somers)3, and Sophia (Dalrymple).4
The Pattle Sisters
Collectively the Pattle sisters were called Pattledom5 – a rich source of extraordinary stories in England as in India. Drawing on these stories, and adding more hyperbole, Virginia Woolf described them:
Half French, half English, they were all excitable, unconventional, extreme in one form or another, all of a distinguished presence, tall, impressive, and gifted with a curious mixture of shrewdness and romance. No domestic detail was too small for their attention, no flight too fantastic for their daring.6
Julia Stephen grew up surrounded by their exuberance and their daring, in a colourful, bohemian, cosmopolitan world, very different from a stereotypical English Victorian girlhood. She too grew up to be tall with a distinguished presence. She also embodied their antithesis of shrewdness and attention to domestic detail, set against a culte of romance, imagination and creativity.
Supportive family, domestic and social networks, vital in India, were still all important for the Pattle women in England. Coping with their long hazardous journeys, separations from their parents and later their husbands, the many deaths of their babies, and frequent reversals of fortune, had made them independent, resilient and resourceful. They were constantly moving and having to make homes wherever they found themselves. In London they managed as they had done in India – welcoming friends and family into the security and noise of large gatherings, usually around tables loaded with an abundance of food, often Indian curries, with what Virginia Woolf called a ‘fervour of hospitality’.7
Their education in France, supervised by their grandmother Thérèse de L’Étang, had given them practical and social skills.
Madame de L’Étang had solved the problem of education for her granddaughters by having them taught all sorts of housewifely arts, rather to the neglect of lesson-books and accomplishments. Listening to Mrs. Prinsep’s description of her early life, and her regrets that she had what she called “no education,” riveted all the while by her power of vivid description and her originality of expression, one could but acknowledge the perfect success of the omission. It was a remarkable group of sisters, each so individual in her own way.8
Thanks largely to Thérèse they had more domestic skills than most English women of their class at that time. They could cook, even if they did not necessarily do so themselves, and they could run a house efficiently, albeit with several servants. Food was hugely important, representing comfort and security, and was often used as gifts. ‘Mrs Cameron arrives with two legs of Welsh lamb from Eastnor,’ noted Emily Tennyson.9 When Virginia Somers went visiting, ‘She brought flowers and books, or it might be a loaf of home-made bread.’10
They were life-long nurturers and carers; thoughtful, kind, altruistic and practical, scooping up lone children, young widows, the sick and the needy. Emily Tennyson remembered, ‘Mrs. Cameron’s wonderful acts of love and all the orphans and the desolate creatures she receives under her roof.’11 Sara and Thoby Prinsep looked after numerous children whose parents were in India.
As she grew up, Julia observed and absorbed all these skills and concerns. They were the qualities most often associated with her as an adult.
Anglo-Indian networks in England
Arriving in London in April 1848, Mia and Julia were immediately welcomed into Sara Prinsep’s noisy, generous, extended family at 9 Chesterfield Street, Mayfair, the large house to which they had recently moved. Julia’s older sisters, Adeline and Mary, had already been cared for by the Prinseps for four years. They had also taken in the youngest Pattle sisters, Sophia and Virginia, when they arrived bereaved and traumatised after the deaths of their parents, James and Adeline Pattle.12 Virginia, still unmarried, remained there. Soon more Pattle families gathered in the area. Julia Margaret and Charles Cameron and their children, returned from Calcutta to live at 10 Chesham Place, Belgravia. Louisa Bayley was temporarily home from India.
The following year Sophia, with her two babies, was also home from India staying with her widowed mother-in-law Lady Dalrymple, at 11 Chesham Place. Many of the family visited Julia’s great-grandmother Thérèse in Versailles often for weeks or months at a time. She also came to England to visit them, and was remembered,
when upwards of eighty, down on her knees in a passage in the house at Chesterfield Street, keenly playing a game of chuck-halfpenny with her great-grandsons.13
Though the Pattle sisters’ homes and lives were increasingly in England, with many visits to France, their links with India were never broken. Sara Prinsep’s granddaughter, Laura Troubridge, judged that their ‘spiritual home was India. In England they were sojourners, though, not strangers’.14
Kinship and entrepreneurial networks were still very important. The Pattles, Prinseps, Thackerays, Ritchies, Lushingtons, Impeys, Dalrymples, Bayleys, Camerons, Stracheys and other Anglo-Indians banded together for mutual, like-minded support, as they had done, and some were still doing, in India. They had been outsiders there and they were now outsiders in England. They socialised together, went on holidays and health cures together, and found houses near each other grouped mostly in spa towns like Tunbridge Wells, or around Mayfair or Knightsbridge in London. Writing in 1846, Thackeray noted how many ‘new suits of black clothes appear to be about Harley Street and in the “India District”,’ since so many there had relatives fighting and being killed in the Sikh Wars in India.15 The Oriental Club in Hanover Square replaced the Bengal Club in Calcutta.
There was constant communication with family members and friends still in India, where many, like the Bayleys and Dalrymples, found welcome hospitality at John Jackson’s home in Chowringhee Road, Calcutta. The Camerons had their coffee estates in Ceylon, which Charles Cameron frequently visited, and to which they eventually returned. Thoby Prinsep still worked for the East India Company as one of the Directors in their London headquarters.
So Julia Stephen, and her sisters Mary and Adeline, grew up amid an abundance of aunts, uncles, cousins and close family friends, who were constantly arriving from, or departing for, India. Packets of letters and boxes of presents would be packed to send there, and excitedly unpacked from there. The docking and sailing of ships was as anxious and frequent a topic of conversation as it was in Calcutta.
John Jackson’s letters which had been sent to Adeline and Mary,16 now also included those to Mia and Julia, though sadly only those to Adeline are now extant. He was concerned to send things which would interest and amuse them – maps, unusual coins, and curiosities such as a handkerchief made from pineapple leaf fabric. Once there was a special present for Julia:
a little leaf sent for Baby, it flew into my Carriage the other day when I was driving with your Aunt Louisa. It is not pretty but if you put it under a Microscope I daresay it will look like the wings of a fly and will amuse you.17
It was from this time that Julia was nicknamed Babe by her older sisters and parents; a family name which stuck even when she was adult.
John Jackson recommended particular books, atlases, music and wanted Adeline to learn chess and them all to play the piano. He was genuinely interested in what they were all doing. He ‘listened’ and responded in a genuine two-way conversation in spite of the long periods between sending and receiving letters. He took an interest in their education and all their activities, telling Adeline,
Your Mamma has sent me by your Aunt Sophie’s Box, a little packet of your School Exercises which has interested me very much, and I have been glad to find that Miss Barton has adopted such a nice Method of causing you to think and express yourself in writing and perhaps when you make any little journey you will be able to send me an account of what you see, for you know dear Addy that I am always so delighted to receive your letter and to observe the progress you make.[…] Your darling Mama tells me that she is a little stronger so that I hope before she leaves Brighton that she will be able to take a little walk with you. […] Tell little Julia that next month Mrs Ellerton is sending her a little Box of letters and I now send her a kiss and must ask you dear Addy to give it to her with her Papa’s fond love.18
Boxes to him from Adeline contained embroidered slippers she had worked but sometimes not quite finished, their drawings and writing, and most treasured of all, their portraits.
Soon Julia was beginning her life-time habit of prolific correspondence, sending her own letters to her father, who happily told Adeline that by,
the last mail I received a long and very interesting letter from you, and one from Mary and little Julia.19
Julia also seems to have been an early reader and lover of stories. When she was just five, John Jackson wrote to Adeline that,
I have sent a little Book to Julia & you must get her to read some of the little tales to you..20
Few infants can have travelled so much or lived in so many places as Julia did. Mia Jackson’s fragile health did not improve as quickly as had been hoped and, instead of returning to India as planned, she embarked on long visits to various spas and seaside resorts in the hope that the popular water treatments and sea air would relieve her disabling rheumatism. Julia’s first summer in England was mostly spent in Brighton, where her father supposed she would be happily running on the sands. She remained there for the autumn and the following spring, joined at times by her aunts Sara, Virginia and Louisa, whose son, William de L’Etang Bayley, was born there in January 1849. Julia was never short of company; as well as her sisters, there were always lots of cousins to play with. The Camerons’ fifth child, Charles Hay Cameron, was born in Chesham Place in February.
That summer and autumn Julia and her mother and sisters stayed in Hastings, Tunbridge Wells and then Malvern. Malvern was then one of the most exclusive and expensive of the English spas, thanks in part to the reputation of the famous Dr Gully.21 Visitors included such eminent sickly Victorians as Charles Darwin, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale. Thoby and Sara Prinsep were there early in 1850, as was Watts who stayed with his friend Charles Somers at his nearby home Eastnor Castle on the way.
In November 1849 John Jackson told Adeline that he had,
accounts of your arrival at Malvern and of the admirable plan which dear Mamma adopted of sending you all in a coach, she has given me a full account of your meeting at Malvern [which] was so quiet and so healthy that I expect to find that the place has suited dear Mamma better than either Brighton or Tunbridge Wells.
He included a scarf as a birthday present for Adeline, thanked her for the sketches she sent in Mia’s box to him, and hoped she would sketch Malvern for him.
However, Mia seems always to have been seeking a new cure and Julia’s fourth birthday, in February 1850, was spent in Leamington Spa where, John Jackson hoped, they would stay ‘another year or 10 months that your Mamma will be strong enough to return to India’,22 but the autumn was spent in Spa in Belgium from where they also visited Antwerp and Cologne.
Thackeray and Pattledom
During this time Mia and her daughters renewed their friendship with William Makepeace Thackeray, now much less impecunious than he had been when he hoped to marry Mia.23 He was a regular contributor to Punch magazine and author of the highly acclaimed new serial Vanity Fair, set in India, England and France.
Thackeray had long been a close friend of all the Pattle family. When he was living in Paris in 1832 he had visited Thérèse de L’Étang in Versailles on several occasions and there met Adeline Pattle, her daughters and her sister Virginia Beadle who were visiting from India. He also visited Edward and Julie Impey and their boisterous sons in their home in Paris. More recently he and the Pattle sisters met again in Brighton and in London. His letters to his friends were full of accounts of these visits. He was particularly enticed by Virginia Pattle’s beauty, Sara Prinsep’s dinner parties, and energetic horse-rides in Hyde Park and along Brighton beach with Louisa Bayley.
In the June 1850 issue of Punch Magazine, Thackeray, in the guise of Dr Solomon Pacifico wrote an article ‘On a Good-Looking Young Lady’. This was in praise of Virginia Pattle, whom he fictionalised as Erminia, ‘this peerless creature’. He had, he boasted, known this lady’s family since before she was born, including her mother, Victorina (Adeline Pattle), her aunt Boa (Virginia Beadle), her grandmother Chinchilla (Thérèse de L’Étang) and her sister Sabilla (Sara Prinsep). Dr Pacifico had, he claimed, ‘a cover laid for him whenever he chooses’ with this sister. Thanks to Sara Prinsep’s ready hospitality, Thackeray did indeed have an open invitation to eat with them whenever he chose. But he angered all the Pattles by including in his article an account of the verses sent to Virginia by an infatuated Henry Taylor, a close friend of Julia Margaret Cameron’s, thinly disguised as the poet Timotheus. Thackeray finally apologised to the Pattles and Henry Taylor for this offence and was forgiven.
Thackeray had recently leased a house, 13 Young Street, where he was living with his young daughters, Anny and Minny, just older than Julia and destined to be her good friends. They too led cosmopolitan, peripatetic lives. Their mother, Isabella, became mentally ill after the birth of Minny and the sisters were removed from her care. They had grown up living with their grandmother, Mrs Carmichael-Smyth, in Paris.
G. F. Watts joins Pattledom
George Frederic Watts, a handsome young artist, also entered the Pattles’ world about this time. According to one story, he had by chance seen Virginia Pattle in the street and, struck by her remarkable beauty, and distinctive, unusual dress, had asked a mutual friend to introduce him.24 It was a momentous meeting. Watts would play a major role in determining the future course of all their lives, not least Julia’s.
Watts, like many Victorians, had poor health. Throughout his life he was plagued by stomach upsets, migraines and depression. Always fearing an early death, he actually lived to be 87, constantly cossetted by many women friends and later his second wife, Mary. His debilitating illness at the beginning of 1850,
appealed to the large mother-heart of Mrs. Prinsep, with her genius for all sorts of confections in the way of delicate foods, and endowed as she was with untiring energy, especially when nursing was required.25
Ruskin, a mutual friend, even claimed rather dramatically, that to Sara Prinsep’s,
kind watching over him in his failing health, Watts certainly owes his life […].26
Sara and Virginia cared for Watts as he convalesced. In return, he began a life-time of drawing and painting portraits of the Pattle sisters and their families.
Watts’ portraits of Mia, Adeline, Mary and Julia soon found their way into boxes sent to John Jackson. Louisa Bayley, back in India and staying with John Jackson, also received portraits of her little daughters, left in Sara Prinsep’s care. John Jackson wrote to Adeline,
I hope little Addy Bayley and her sister are very well. Her Mamma is often talking about them and has a little picture of Addy. It is a very pretty picture but I like the one of you much better. When you next see Mr Watts you must tell him how very much obliged I am for all the trouble he has taken. The picture of your dear Mamma is most beautiful, & so it should be should it not dear Addy.27
Mary Watts, George Frederic’s second wife, considered that Mia Jackson,
always seemed to me in her old age to be the most beautiful of the sisters; for, as my husband explained to me, the structure of her face was so fine that the beauty of line only increased with age. A drawing of her was in the Royal Academy Exhibition of the year 1850, as well as one of her daughter Adeline.28
Mary Watts remembered that the,
first portrait for which [Virginia] stood to Mr. Watts is in delicate silver seen on that first morning; the next almost a profile outline also in silver point, showing the deep lids drooping over the beautiful eyes. But these studies are many, one so minute that her sister, Mrs. Cameron, always carried it inside her watch-case. Through all the adulation she remained unspoilt and unaffected – ‘great’ as her painter used to say, ‘in the absence of self-consciousness.’29
It was no wonder that Watts was eager to have the Pattle sisters as his models. With the exception of Julia Margaret, they were outstandingly beautiful, but Virginia’s beauty was truly amazing. Stories were told of how,
at a day when mobbing of fashionable beauties was unknown, she was so watched and surrounded whenever she left her house that there is a story of her shopping in Oxford Street and leaving by the side door to avoid the crowd.30
After one fancy dress ball to which she and Sophia went dressed as Night and Dawn, they were said to have received sixteen proposals of marriage the next day. There are different accounts of how Watts’ friend, Charles Somers-Cocks, Viscount Eastnor, fell in love with her. Some relate how he saw the stunning, and very unusual, portrait of her in her grey cloak, in Watts’ studio and was immediately captivated. Mary Watts recalls how, when Charles was ill, it,
was decided that he was to have the advice of Dr Gully at Malvern, the Prinseps being already there. On his way to join them he spent some days at [his family home] Eastnor Castle, and the beautiful Virginia and her sister drove over to fetch him from the place which was afterwards her home. It is said that Lord Somers – then Lord Eastnor – first saw her portrait in Mr. Watts’s studio and fell in love with it. However that may be, he certainly captured the original.31
New homes: Eastnor Castle and Carlton House Terrace
So in October 1850 Pattledom gathered for the grand society wedding of Virginia Pattle and Charles Somers-Cocks, Viscount Eastnor, at St George’s Hanover Square. Thackeray was a guest, reporting excitedly,
I was at Virginia’s marriage. She looked beautiful and has taken possession of Eastnor Castle and her rank as Princess and reigns to the delight of everybody. The paper’s full.32
Mia had still been in India when her sister Sophia had married Sir John Warrender Dalrymple of the Bengal Civil Service, in this same church three years earlier. This time she was able to come back from Spa to be there, bringing Adeline. Julia and Mary were left in the care of nursemaids.
Virginia, Lady Eastnor, moved to the family estate, Eastnor Castle, near Malvern, and to their town house 7 Carlton House Terrace, Westminster.
Soon after the wedding, Watts accompanied them all on a nostalgic outing to the Old Gallery of Illustrations at Waterloo Place to see a diorama called ‘The Overland Route’ which represented all the principal ports of call between Calcutta and Southampton. The Pattles were clearly in high spirits, as described by Watts’ student, Roddam Spencer Stanhope, who was also with them:
On Thursday evening, I went with a huge party of Pattles to see a Diorama of Calcutta. There was Lord and Lady Eastnor, Mr and Mrs Prinsep, Mrs Dalrymple and Mrs Jackson with a daughter [Adeline] and Watts and myself completing the party. We had very good fun, the chief amusement of the ladies being to bully poor Watts, who was in a very High Art mood at the time. We finished up with tea at the Eastnors. She is certainly A.1. for beauty.33
New homes: Little Holland House
Watts was a protégé of Lord and Lady Holland. When the Prinseps decided that they wanted to move to somewhere more spacious and rural he introduced them to the Hollands, who were looking for a tenant for the Dower House on their Holland Park estate.
In 1804 the original Dower House had been enlarged by connecting it to an adjacent farmhouse, and had been lived in by Lord Holland’s sister Lady Caroline Fox until her death. An advert was placed in The Times, 21 June 1850, for:
KENSINGTON. – LITTLE HOLLAND HOUSE, to be LET, Furnished – a capital detached family house, making up about 17 beds, well suited for an invalid, or family with children, having beautiful lawn and extensive pleasure grounds, kitchen garden, green house, &c., and good supply of excellent water.
In December 1850, Thoby Prinsep signed a 21-year lease on the property. In January 1851 the Prinseps moved into,
a place of enchantment called Little Holland House, an old-fashioned nest of gables in a beautiful garden; in fact, there was nothing little about it but its name. 34
The Little Holland House Circle
At Little Holland House Sara and Thoby Prinsep created a bohemian celebrity circle, centred on Watts, which was the home of Pattledom for the next 25 years. They brought all the social skills and love of entertaining, learned in India, with them:
Mr Thoby Prinsep, then a member of Council at the India Office, had previously lived for about thirty-five years in India, and there his wife, witty, fascinating, and popular, had been in the habit of entertaining upon an extensive scale. On acquiring Little Holland House some time after her return to England, she introduced into her new home a cosmopolitan and liberal spirit to which people of that date were little accustomed. […] As Holland House had provided a salon for the political aristocracy, so did Little Holland House for the intellectual and artistic middle class.35
Such a salon was unusual in England but popular in France and it has been thought that ‘the fusion of social and intellectual society at Little Holland House was no doubt due in part to Mrs. Prinsep’s French ancestry and childhood’.36 It was, according to Nicholas Tromans, a,
type of idealized community of taste and talent, somewhere between the political salons of the eighteenth century and the artists’ colonies of the late nineteenth.37
It has been called ‘a bucolic Bloomsbury’38 and in many ways anticipates, on a larger scale, the ambiance and aesthetics of the circle at Charleston Farmhouse in the twentieth century, centred around Julia’s daughter, Vanesa Bell and her friends.
Also moving with them was George Frederic Watts, for,
under the hospitable roof of Little Holland House went in and out an ebb and flow of various members of the family: some staying for days, some for weeks and some for years, but all claiming Mr. Watts as one of its members.39
There are many versions of the story of how George Watts came to stay at Little Holland House and remained for 25 years. His second wife Mary Watts, recorded:
How Mr. Watts came to live there was once picturesquely described to me by Mrs. Prinsep: “He came to stay three days, he stayed thirty years,” she said, with a little descriptive action of her hand; and it seems a pity to destroy such dramatic summing up by mere fact. But Mr Watts’ recollection was different, and he felt certain that the arrangement was made from the first. Perhaps neither memory was quite at fault, the arrangement most likely being proposed at first, but not carried out, and some months later initiated somewhat accidentally.40
Watts was quickly nicknamed Signor, a sign of informality but also reverence and respect. Anny Thackeray portrayed him as Mr Royal, a kindly sensitive painter, in her novel Old Kensington. He spent his time drawing and painting and was noted for always carrying,
in his pocket a small notebook of indelible paper with a metal point in the sheath, and when his eyes fell on any particularly beautiful arrangement in posture or line he would call out, with a gesture of his hand, ‘Oh, pray, stay where you are for a moment’ and the notebook was taken out to receive a monumental outline on the tiny page. These drawings, perhaps the least well known of his artistic expressions, may be placed, I venture to say, beside his greatest. They are chiefly drawn from Mrs. Prinsep, Lady Dalrymple, Mrs. Jackson and her three daughters Adeline, Julia and Mary, who from their childhood were much at Little Holland House. 41
Invitations to Sara Prinsep’s Sunday afternoons ‘At Home’ became sought after. One attraction was the location, which was so beautifully green and rural and yet so conveniently within reach of central London:
Little Holland House, with its rambling passages and many stairs and quaint rooms, showing clearly that formerly two houses had been made one, and its garden and fine trees and its paddock, and beyond again the farm, which later Mr. Prinsep also rented, lay only two miles from Hyde Park Corner, with much untouched country still around it.42
In her novel Old Kensington, Anny Ritchie fictionalised Little Holland House as ‘the house in Nightingale Lane’, which was the earlier name for Holland Lane:
[…] the lawns and fields sloped to where the old arcades and the many roofs and turrets of Holland House rose, with their weather-cocks veering upon the sky. Great trees were spreading their shadows upon the grass. Some cows were trailing across the meadow, and from beyond the high walls came the echo of the streets without […]. It looked like a farm-house, with its many tiles and chimneys, standing in the sweet old garden fringed with rose-bushes. There were poplar-trees and snow-ball trees, and may-flowers in their season, and lilies-of-the-valley growing in the shade. The lawn was dappled with many shadows of sweet things. From the thatched porch you could hear the rural clucking of poultry and the lowing of cattle, and see the sloping roof of a farm-house beyond the elms.43
Another attraction was the relaxed, informal atmosphere, so different from a conventional Victorian Sunday gathering; and the range of interesting, influential, beautiful people one could be sure of meeting among the celebrity ‘lions’ Sara was famous for ‘hunting’.
As the attractions of Little Holland House gradually became more widely known, an unusually interesting society gathered there; especially on Sunday afternoons, when Mrs. Prinsep was “At Home” and Mr. Prinsep and Signor were known to be at leisure. Women remarkable for their gifts of talent and beauty went there, as well as statesmen, soldiers, painters, poets, and men famous in literature […] But when to this was added a hostess who, with a genius for hospitality, drew wit and beauty and talent together, the entertainment was irresistible. 44
Friends brought friends – ‘a breezy bohemianism’
Life at Little Holland House was always lively. Sara’s granddaughter remembered her presiding there
with a restless energy that knew no bounds and the vivacity inherited from her French mother. She was the kind of woman who would have turned a convent into a scene of tumult. There was no such thing as quiet where she was.45
The Prinseps and Watts eventually lived at Little Holland House for 25 years, so there were many changes over time. However what everyone who went there agreed on was that Sara and Thoby Prinsep created a place of unusual hospitality and relaxation; that the conversation would be stimulating; the guests would include the most famous and interesting artists, writers, musicians and eminent people from different classes and backgrounds; and that everything would be colourful, exotic, lively and above all beautiful:
In the delightful garden of Little Holland House, amid surroundings planned to enhance its natural attractiveness, she received her guests on Sunday afternoons. […] At a time when, it cannot again be too strongly emphasised, genius was tolerated as an eccentricity rather than courted as a divine asset, when an artist and a gentleman were terms held to be antipodean, men met there on a footing which had the attraction of novelty. Statesmen, men of letters, painters, poets, strivers who had not yet blossomed into achievement, there found themselves in a society where each was received upon his individual merit and intellect was the only rank. A breezy Bohemianism prevailed. That time of dread, the conventional Sunday of the early Victorian era, was exchanged for the wit of cynics, the dreams of the inspired, the thoughts of the profoundest thinkers of the age.46
Friends brought friends, many with Anglo-Indian connections. Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Hardinge, and Sir John Wrottesley, continued long political discussions with Thoby Prinsep and Charles Cameron on events unfolding in India.47 Virginia and Lord Somers brought aristocrats and politicians: Lord Palmerston and Lord Landsdowne, cousin of Lord Holland. Thackeray and his two daughters were frequently there. He introduced colleagues from Punch: the editor Tom Taylor and illustrator, Richard (Dicky) Doyle. Other writers came: Henry James, Robert Browning, George Meredith, George du Maurier and Tom Hughes, who introduced his beautiful sister, Jane (Jeanie) Nassau Senior. Julia Margaret Cameron introduced her old friend Sir John Herschel, the astronomer. He first saw the great comet from the garden at Little Holland House in 1857.
Julia Margaret also brought her friends and neighbours, Henry and Theodosia Taylor, who, according to Virginia Woolf ‘suffered the extreme fury of her affection. Indian shawls, turquoise bracelets, ivory elephants, ‘etc’, showered on their heads.’48 Theodosia Taylor introduced her cousin the acclaimed Irish poet Aubrey de Vere, who became a close friend of Mia Jackson’s.49 The Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, and his wife Emily were friends of both the Camerons and the Taylors. Tennyson in turn introduced some of his and Thackeray’s fellow Cambridge Apostles, James Spedding, Edmund Lushington and John Kemble, who brought his sisters, the actress Fanny Kemble, and the opera singer Adelaide Sartoris.
George Frederic Watts at Little Holland House
Watts built a large studio at Little Holland House where the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was soon a regular visitor. Over the years it attracted fellow Pre-Raphaelites Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, William Morris, William Holman Hunt, Thomas Woolner and Lord Leighton as well as patrons and art collectors, such as Louis and Helen Huth and Percy and Madeline Wyndham.
So, unlike most Victorian clubs, societies or social gatherings, Little Holland House was a fascinating, ever-changing, mixing pot of classes, ages and interests. One June evening in 1858, for instance, the guests included Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Richard Doyle, Coutts Lindsay, artist and founder of the Grosvenor Gallery, Tom Taylor, and Adelaide Sartoris, who sang his own poems to Tennyson. Music was nearly as important as art.
The violinist Joachim was a frequent guest, as Virginia Woolf must have heard from Julia’s stories:
In imagination one can see him standing there bow in hand and chin upon violin, in that room with its wealth of colour from floor to ceiling, the art upon its walls answering so nobly to the music. Hallé at the piano, Joachim with eyes that seemed only to hear, not to see, the lamplight falling softly on the faces of the beautiful women.50
Ellen Terry, Watts’ first wife, remembered Little Holland House as a paradise,
where only beautiful things were allowed to come. All the women were graceful, and all the men were gifted.51
One of the gifted men was of course Thoby Prinsep, who financed the whole venture and was as instrumental as his wife in making the Little Holland House Circle a success. Now retired from India he was a Member of Council at the India Office. According to Mary Watts he had as imposing a presence as Sara:
Large and philosophic in mind, grand in his stature, his learning, his memory, his everything, even to his sneeze! (once received with an encore from the gallery of a theatre), childlike in his gentleness and in the sweetness of his nature, it was no wonder that Mr. Watts was quickly attracted to him. [He had] an encyclopedia (sic) of valuable information on every sort of subject. It was just like turning the pages of a delightful book, and, like it, open if you wanted it and shut when you did not. Like a child in the perfect unconsciousness of his wonderful knowledge and absence of display – as simple as a child, and with its charm.52
Mary Watts said of her husband’s portrait of Thoby Prinsep:
‘It will be granted, however, that there is a whole biography in the portrait head of him […] The surface is there rendered as it was in life, the blood circulates, the bones lie beneath, but the man is there also: the brain at work, the eye alive with thought; and yet through all these appears the charm of his childlikeness’.53
Thoby Prinsep spoke several languages including Persian. Julia passed on stories of him ‘reading his translations from the Persian poets’.54 According to his granddaughter, Laura Troubridge,
he was acknowledged to be one of the best men who ever lived, and the creature does not exist who ever heard him say a word against any human being. His religious opinions were unorthodox, but few believers can boast of having shed so much happiness around them.55
He early became a favourite uncle of Julia’s and she remained close to him for the rest of his life. Virginia Woolf remembered that Julia,
adored her uncle Thoby. His walking stick, with a hole in the top through which a tassel must have hung, a beautiful eighteenth-century looking cane, always stood at the head of her bed at Hyde Park Gate. She was a hero worshipper, simple, uncritical, enthusiastic.56
Sara and Thoby Prinsep clearly complemented each other:
his nature had all the balance that that of his wife needed, though she made up for this lack by the impulsive warmth which came from her French mother.57
Julia – ‘training of life’ at Little Holland House
Julia Stephen grew up at the centre of the Little Holland Park Circle. It was her spiritual home, where she and her mother and sisters visited often, sometimes staying for several days; ‘her world’, according to Virginia Woolf, ‘a summer afternoon world’.58 For Julia, being there was a hugely formative experience, and a source of happy memories and stories to pass on.
She knew the eminent guests socially. She saw their drawings and portraits and listened to them play, sing and recite. As a child she played with their children. As she grew up she joined in their conversations and gossip. Many became her life-long friends. Watching her mother and aunts, she learned how to entertain, how to provide food and a warm hospitable setting, how to converse and draw others into a conversation.
Julia observed and absorbed their concerns for caring, nurturing, generosity, sociability and philanthropy. These values formed her and were most associated with her adult self. It was at Little Holland House, Virginia Woolf concluded, that Julia,
had that training which was more important than any she had from governesses – the training of life at Little Holland House.59
Female role models
Women were as prominent as men at Little Holland House. Many of the women were painted and drawn by Watts and his Pre-Raphaelite friends, but they were not there merely as passive artists’ models – stunners and muses. They were for the most part formidable women with ambition, education and social consciences. Jeanie Senior was the first female civil servant and an energetic social reformer concerned especially about the conditions of women’s lives including in the workhouse. She worked with the philanthropist Octavia Hill, co-founded the British Red Cross, and was lauded by Florence Nightingale as ‘an Army of One’.60 She has been thought to be the inspiration for her friend George Eliot’s depiction of Dorothea, the philanthropic heroine of Middlemarch.
Fanny Kemble, as well as being a leading actress, from a famous theatrical family, was an anti-slavery activist. She had been appalled at conditions she found on the cotton and tobacco plantations which her husband, from whom she was later divorced, inherited in Georgia. She was a great friend of Henry James and also a prolific writer, publishing travel journals, plays, novels and poetry, in both America and England. Her memoir Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, was hugely influential in the abolitionist cause.61
Caroline Norton was a writer and a campaigner for women’s rights. Based on her own tragic experiences with an abusive husband, she was instrumental in changing the divorce laws so that women were not deprived of their children and property.62 Her friend, the novelist and poet George Meredith, used her as inspiration for his fiery, intelligent heroine, Diana Warwick in Diana of the Crossways.
For the young Julia Stephen, these women provided powerful role models of active, intelligent, independent, philanthropic women. They also provided examples of how real people could be fictionalised in stories, and fact and fiction merged; as she would merge them herself in her own short stories and pass on this genre to Virginia Woolf.
Watts and social activism
Watts and many of his fellow artists, were also social activists, using their art to address the over-riding humanitarian issues of Victorian England, especially poverty, hunger and disease. While Watts was famous for his portraits, which were a vital source of income, he was at heart a social realist. Julia would have seen his disturbing works such as Found Drowned, The Song of the Shirt and The Irish Famine with their clear messages about the desperate lives lived by many, and the need for reform.63
Julia’s appearance was also influenced by Pattledom and Little Holland House. As a child, her dress and hairstyle were chosen by her mother, and the aunts who often looked after her when her mother was ill, according to their own unconventional taste. As a young woman she chose to favour their free, flowing, style of dress which had so drawn Watts’ gaze to her aunt Virginia, and was to draw many gazes to her. This idiosyncratic, very distinctive, Pattle style was formed in India and in France. The colour and exuberance of their dress was an aspect of their personality, but the loose style and cool fabrics were also a practical solution for the problems of a hot climate, many pregnancies and long journeys.
Back in England, they still preferred Indian muslins or silks. They wore loose, flowing draperies, huge cashmere shawls, chunky beads, large silver and gemstone brooches and rings, silver clasps and lots of bangles, all from India. John Jackson’s boxes to his family frequently contained cashmere shawls or lengths of cashmere or muslin to make into dresses or capes, as well as unusual items of silver jewellery. Virginia Woolf could always imaginatively ‘hear the tinkle of her [mother’s] bracelets, made of twisted silver’, and remember Julia’s three rings: a diamond, an emerald and an opal.64
The Pattle style, which Julia adopted, was in stark contrast to the restrictive crinolines, and later figure-shaping corsets, bustles and stays which were then fashionable. Mary Watts recalled that the,
dress of the sisters was not quite of the fashion of that time, but was designed by themselves along simple lines: it depended upon rich colour and ample folds for its beauty, and was very individual and expressive.65
The quality and texture of the fabrics, the decorative embroideries and lace, the unusual accessories, and above all the confidence and flair with which the sisters and their daughters wore their clothes, owed much to their upbringing in France and to their grandmother Thérèse de L’Étang’s French chic. They famously,
scorned fashion, wore neither crinoline nor stays, and in long flowing garments designed by themselves they walked serenely like goddesses through the London streets.66
Anny Thackeray said that,
to see one of the sisterhood float into a room with sweeping robes and falling folds was almost an event in itself […] They had unconventional rules for life which excellently suited themselves, and which also interested and stimulated other people. They were unconscious artists, divining beauty and living with it.67
William Dalrymple remembers that, ‘We had all heard the stories of how our beautiful, dark-eyed Calcutta-born great-great-grandmother Sophia Pattle, with whom Burne-Jones had fallen in love, used to speak Hindustani with her sisters and was painted by Watts with a rakhi – a Hindu sacred thread – tied around her wrist.’68
The personal taste of the Pattles for colour and for liberating fashion anticipated the free flowing dress, and the emphasis on the texture and colour of fabrics, which would later become associated with the women of the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements, especially in the circles around Watts, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Whistler in the 1850s and 60s.69 The Pattle sisters and many of their daughters, including Julia, also had the tall statuesque posture, masses of reddish brown hair, long necks and plush mouths characteristic of the stunners in pre-Raphaelite portraits.
Typical of the pre-Raphaelite portraits are Rossetti’s paintings of Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris. Jane, when an insecure young working-class girl, was one of Sara Prinsep’s strays, ‘taken up’ by her and welcomed into the Circle. Rossetti also drew Sophia Dalrymple in similar style.
Aesthetic dress, certainly as worn by the Pattle sisters, their daughters and many of their friends, gave freedom of movement, and also signified freedom of thought. It chimed with Watts’ theories which he developed throughout his life, for instance in Aglaia, the journal of the dress-reform Healthy and Artistic Dress Union.70 Elizabeth Prettejohn argues that the,
dress itself is simple in shape, colour, and decorative detail, and all the more so in comparison with the elaborate dress of contemporary high fashion. It becomes beautiful through the way that it is worn and the way it is painted – that is, in a collaboration between the sitter and the artist […] between the women who devised and wore the garments and the artists who painted their portraits.71
The Pattle women were happy to collaborate and they and their families soon became artists’ models:
Artistic to their finger-tips, with an appreciation – almost to be called a culte – for beauty, the sisters were quickly at home in the studio, and in love with the work and its aims.72
As Julia grew up, her spiritual home was Little Holland House, surrounded by the Pattle sisters’ passionate, artistic, exciting, noisy, extended family and friends. Julia’s actual home from 1851, when she was five years old, was 9, Well Walk, Hampstead, where she was living a sort of parallel, very much quieter, life.
From: A Vision of Beauty: A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell. © CC BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated; image copyrights are listed in the credits and they are not licensed for re-use.
I am very grateful to the Watts Gallery Trust for permission to reproduce drawings and paintings by G. F. Watts. In particular I would like to thank Chloe Ward, Judi Barrett and Stacey Clapperton for their assistance.
My thanks to John Beaumont for sending me a copy of his research paper, ‘Pattledom’, lodged at Dimbola, Freshwater Isle of Wight, which is an invaluable resource.
My thanks to Virginia Nicholson for sending me a copy of her image of the young Julia, and to other family members who wish to remain anonymous for allowing me to use images in their possession.
- The Sisters. © Watts Gallery Trust.
- Sara Prinsep. ©The Royal Academy. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/portrait-of-mrs-prinsep (accessed 08/08/21).
- Julia Jackson, aged about 5. Family possession, courtesy Virginia Nicholson.
- Adeline. ©The Royal Academy. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/a-seated-girl-in-profile-possibly-adeline-jackson (accessed 08/08/21).
- Vanity Fair. Public Domain. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7b/Vanity_Fair_01_cover.jpg (accessed 08/08/21).
- A sketch of W. M. Thackeray. © British Library Board. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/307158001 (accessed 08/08/21).
- Thackeray’s drawing of himself. Public Domain. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7b/Vanity_Fair_01_cover.jpg (accessed 08/08/21).
- Thackeray’s home at no. 13 Young Street, Kensington. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/william-makepeace-thackeray-1811-mary-evans-picture-library.html (accessed 08/08/21). © Mary Evans Picture Library.
- Watts’ Self-portrait aged seventeen. © Watts Gallery Trust.
- Watts’ pencil study of Mia, Mrs Jackson, c. 1851. © Watts Gallery Trust.
- A head study of Virginia Pattle. Auctioned at Christies in November 2000. https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-1939076 (accessed 08/08/21).
- Virginia Pattle in her grey cloak. © Watts Gallery Trust.
- Portrait of Virginia Pattle, 1850. Eastnor Castle archives.
- Eastnor Castle by Mary Smirke. Public Domain.
- Marriage in High Life. The Observer, 6 October 1850.
- Little Holland House – the west front. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Holland_House (accessed 08/08/21).
- Little Holland House – rear view. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_Holland_House.jpg (accessed 08/08/21).
- Signor. © Watts Gallery Trust.
- The Cedar Tree 1868. © Watts Gallery Trust.
- Sara, Mrs Thoby Prinsep. https://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_268342/George-Frederick-Watts/page-1 (accessed 08/08/21).
- Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1856. © National Portrait Gallery licensed for use CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw90139/Thomas-Babington-Macaulay-Baron-Macaulay (accessed 08/08/21).
- Robert Browning, 1865. Public Domain https://wellcomecollection.org/works/yfgbyka3 (accessed 08/08/21).
- Thomas Herschel, 1867. © The Met, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Robert Rosenkranz Gift, 2005. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283097 (accessed 08/08/21).
- Madeleine Wyndham, 1867-71. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Frederick_Watts_-_Madeline_Wyndham_-_1877.jpg (accessed 08/08/21).
- Helen Rose Huth, 1857-8, by G. F. Watts. © The Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
- A Lamplight Study, 1868, by G. F. Watts. © The Art Institue of Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/16558/a-lamplight-study-herr-joachim (accessed 08/08/21).
- The Terry Sisters, 1862-3. https://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_164642/George-Frederick-Watts/The-Terry-Sisters (accessed 08/08/21).
- The Garden at Little Holland House, 1854, by Emily Prinsep, sister of Thoby Prinsep. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- Henry Thoby Prinsep, 1871, by G. F. Watts. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- Sara Prinsep c.1864 by G. F. Watts. Private Collection.
- Julia Jackson. Family possession.
- Jeanie Senior. https://www.civilservant.org.uk/women-jeanie_senior.html (accessed 08/08/21).
- Fanny Kemble. https://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/slaveowners_civil_war/2/ (accessed 08/08/21).
- The Irish Famine c.1848-1850. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- The Song of the Shirt, 1850. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- Found Drowned c.1848. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- Sara Prinsep and her sister Virginia. Accessed Caroline Dakers The Holland Park Circle Artists and Victorian Society, Yale University Press, 1999, fig.12.
- Sophia Dalrymple, 1851. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- Miss Virginia Julian Dalrymple, 1872. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- Jane Morris, posed by William Morris, 1865. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jane_Morris_1865.jpg (accessed 08/08/21).
- Jane Morris, ‘The Blue Silk Dress’, 1868, by D. G. Sophia Dalrymple and George Watts, unknown photographer. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- Sophia Dalrymple and George Watts, unknown photographer. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
- Pen and pencil drawing of Sophia Dalrymple, c.1858-1862, by D. G. Rossetti. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Public Domain. https://risdmuseum.org/art-design/collection/portrait-lady-sophia-dalrymple-21117 (accessed 08/08/21).
- Jane [Jeanie] Senior, c.1857-1858, by G. F. Watts. © The National Trust. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/jane-jeanie-elizabeth-hughes-18281877-mrs-nassau-john-senior-131463
- Alice Prinsep, 1860, by G. F. Watts. © The Watts Gallery Trust.
Full publishing details of frequently used texts are in the Select Bibliography.
Frequent abbreviations in this chapter:
|E4||Andrew Mc Neillie (ed.), The Essays of Virginia Woolf Volume 4.|
|JJ||Letters from John Jackson, British Library OIOC papers F446. Unpublished.|
|M. Watts||Mary Watts, George Frederic Watts: The Annals of an Artist’s Life 3|
| Liberating |
|Rhian Addison and Hilary Underwood, Liberating Fashion: Aesthetic Dress in Victorian Portraits.|
|Sketch||Virginia Woolf, A Sketch of the Past.|
|Troubridge||Laura Troubridge, Memories and Reflections.|
- Sketch 97
- In her childhood and early life Sara often spelt her name Sarah, but from this time onwards it was almost always spelt Sara.
- For convernience I have used Virginia Somers throughout. Her husband was christened Charles Somers. His father assumed the name Somers-Cocks on the death of his father, by royal license, and Charles was known as the Hon. Charles Somers-Cocks as he grew up. In 1841 on the death of his grandfather, Charles became Viscount Eastnor. In 1852 on the death of his father he succeeded to the earldom and became Lord Somers.
- See Select family tree – Adeline and James Pattle and their family.
- Virginia Woolf uses this term for her essay ‘Pattledom’, attributing it to Henry Taylor (E4:282n3). However it was probably first coined by William M. Thackeray.
- Ibid. 280.
- M. Watts, Vol.1.129.
- Emily Tennyson 1 Feb 1860. Richard J. Hutchings and Brian Hinton (eds) The Farringford Journal of Emily Tennyson1853-1864.
- M. Watts, Vol.2. 124.
- Emily Tennyson 16 Feb 1871.
- See Chapter 4.
- M. Watts, Vol.1.129.
- Troubridge, 7.
- Letter from W. M. Thackeray to his mother 6 March 1846. Ray Vol.2 232.
- John Jackson’s letters, British Library OIOC papers F446. Unpublished.
- JJ 7 Feb 1850.
- JJ 8 Jan 1849.
- JJ Nov 7 1851.
- JJ May 1851.
- See Scraps, Orts and Fragments for more on Dr Gully and the famous water treatments at Malvern.
- JJ 8 March 1850.
- See Chapter 3.
- M. Watts, Vol.1 121-122.
- Ibid. Vol.1.125.
- Letter John Ruskin to Margaret Bell, 3-4 April 1859. Van Akin Burd (ed.) The Winnington Letters (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd 1969) 149.
- JJ 28 May 1849.
- JJ 28 May 1849
- Watts, 1.122-123.
- Troubridge, 6-7.
- M. Watts, 1.125.
- WM Thackeray to Mrs. Edward John Sartoris Oct -3 Nov.1850. Ray Vol.2 383.
- A.M.W. Stirling, A Painter of Dreams 298.
- Troubridge, 8.
- E.G.W. Bill, University Reform in Nineteenth-Century Oxford: A Study of Henry Halford Vaughan, 298, 220.
- Ibid. 221-222.
- Nicholas Tromans, The Art of G. F. Watts 16-20. 45.
- Bill, 220.
- M. Watts, 1. 128-129.
- Ibid.1. 128-129.
- Ibid.1. 157-158.
- Ibid. 1.128.
- Anny Thackeray, Old Kensington (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1995. First published by Smith, Elder & Co. 1873) 132,138.
- M. Watts, 1. 159.
- Troubridge, 20.
- A.M.W. Stirling, 299.
- Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) was succeeded by Charles Cameron, as a member of the Supreme Council of India. Viscount Henry Hardinge was the retired Governor General, for whom Julia Margaret Cameron had been official hostess in Calcutta. Sir John Wrottesley (1744-1787) was a powerful army officer and politician.
- Virginia Woolf satirises the relationship between Julia Margaret Cameron and the Taylors in ‘Pattledom’, E4 378-9.
- Henry Taylor (1800-1886) had been in the Colonial Office in Barbados, was a verse dramatist, and close friend and frequent sitter for Julia Margaret Cameron. See Virginia Woolf ‘Pattledom’ (E4 280-282) and ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ (E4 375-386). Woolf also drew on Taylor’s autobiography for her short story ‘The Searchlight’ and wrote a notice about his daughter Una Taylor’s memoir Guests and Memories (E4 10-11). Taylor’s wife Theodosia Alice Spring-Rice, was the daughter of Lord Monteagle, one time Chancellor of the Exchequer.
- M. Watts, 1.202.
- VW, E4 377.
- M. Watts, 1.123 and 124.
- M. Watts, 1.124
- Sketch 98.
- Troubridge, 6.
- Sketch 98.
- Ibid. 1. 124.
- Sketch 97, 98.
- Ibid. 97.
- See Sybil Oldfield, Jeanie, an ‘Army of One’: Mrs Nassau Senior 1828-1877: The First Woman in Whitehall (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008).
- A recent compilation, Fanny Kemble’s Journals, edited by Catherine Clinton was published by Harvard University Press in 2000.
- See Antonia Fraser The Case for the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2021).
- An Exhibition on this theme, Art and Action: Making Change in Victorian Britain, curated by Dr Chloe Ward, was held at the Watts Gallery, Compton, from 17 November 2020 to 21 March 2021. See also Nicholas Tromans, The Art of G. F. Watts (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2017) 16-20.
- Sketch 93.
- M. Watts, 1.122-123.
- Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Lady Henry Somerset(London: Jonathan Cape, 1923) 14.
- Anny Thackeray quoted Liberating Fashion 56.
- William Dalrymple, White Mughals xlvii.
- See Liberating Fashion.
- Liberating Fashion 75-80.
- Professor Elizabeth Prettejohn ‘Introduction’ in Liberating Fashion 11.
- M. Watts, 1.122.