George Price Boyce: Profile Portrait of Ellen Smith

Profile Portrait of Ellen Smith

Described in a rather old-fashioned manner by Virginia Surtees as 'a laundry girl of uncertain virtue', Ellen Smith was a popular model in the 1860s, sitting not only to Boyce but Rossetti and Burne-Jones amongst many others. George Boyce noted in his diary on November 21st 1865: 'Nelly Smith called. She was not looking well. Has been sitting to Simeon Solomon, Poynter, Stanhope, Jones, Pinwell, and a man of the name of Linton.' Perhaps her most famous appearance is as the bridesmaid in the left foreground of Rossetti's The Beloved, 1865-6 (Tate Gallery). Boyce, who owned several of Rossetti's studies of her and in addition to the present picture, painted her in two watercolours of 1866-7 (George Price Boyce exhibition, Tate Gallery, 1987, numbers 5-6, reproduced in the catalogue). She also appears many times in his diaries. 

Boyce first mentions her in his diary on April 13th 1863 when 'He [Rossetti] made me a present of a lovely study in pencil of the head of the girl who is now sitting to him.'On 5th May 1863 Rossetti asked for it back. 'Rossetti sent for the study he gave me, a pencil head of Ellen Smith, said it was by inadvertence he had parted with it, as he particularly wished to dispose of it with other studies of the same picture (Bride in Song of Solomon) to the purchasers of the picture. He promised me "good measure" in exchange.'

In May 1868 Boyce gave her an alpaca dress,'thinking it might be useful', and the following year he lent her £ 15 when she was trying to acquire a laundry business in Keppel Street (now Sloane Avenue). She was still sitting for him in November 1870, but it was perhaps shortly after this that she lost her good looks in unfortunate circumstances. According to Rossetti's assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn, 'Ellen Smith sat for several of his sweetest pictures until the poor girl got her face sadly cut about and disfigured by a brute of a soldier and then of course she was of no more use as a model' (Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1984, page 32).

She makes her last appearance in Boyce's diary on 17th February 1873: 'Ellen Smith, now Mrs Elson, called on me to tell me she had been married about 3 weeks ago to an old acquaintance and suitor, a cabman. She wishes to do some laundry work on her own account, as her husband's earnings are small'.

The present study is unusual in Boyce's work in being an oil. Only one other oil by Boyce is known today, a landscape in the Tate Gallery dated 1857, although two more are known to have been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858.

Commentary by Bil Waters

*** GEORGE PRICE BOYCE was the elder brother of the brilliant, and tragic Joanna Boyce, the great woman painter who died in her early thirties with her potential unfulfilled. This remains one of the great losses to English art of the nineteenth century.

George Boyce was initially training as an architect. Following a meeting with the artist David Cox, he decided that his real interest was in painting, and resolved to train as an artist. His father supported him in this change, as he also supported the artistic aspirations of his talented daughter. David Cox, whom Boyce met in 1849, was also instrumental in this new direction, and seems to have been his artistic mentor. He became a close friend of Rossetti, and member of his circle. He and had a close friendship with Fanny Cornforth, with whom I think he had a sexual relationship. He remembered her cheerful personality with warmth and affection in his diaries, not denying her existence like William Rossetti. Boyce’s diaries, published in the 1940s are a valuable source of information about the Pre-Raphaelites. He became an Associate of the Royal Water Colour Society in 1864, and a full member in 1877, which was felt by many people to be extremely late recognition of his considerable talent as a landscape painter. His watercolour landscapes are accomplished and beautiful. George Boyce was unmarried.

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