SPARTALI STILLMAN, Marie (1844–1927)
Plaque erected in 2023 by English Heritage at The Shrubbery, 2 Lavender Gardens, Battersea, London, SW11 1DL, London Borough of Wandsworth
Artist and model
MARIE SPARTALI STILLMAN 1844-1927 Pre-Raphaelite artist and model lived here
Marie Spartali Stillman is commemorated with a blue plaque at The Shrubbery, 2 Lavender Gardens, Battersea. During her long association with the house (1864–85), she established her reputation as a professional artist, while also modelling for painters including Sir Edward Burne-Jones, D G Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown.
Mary (known as Marie by 1871) Spartali was born in Page Green, Hornsey, in 1844. She was the eldest child of Michael Spartali, a merchant (later Greek consul-general in London), and his wife, Euphrosyne, née Valsami (Varsini). Marie was home-educated to a high standard – she spoke Greek, studied French and German (later Italian), and was immersed in philosophy, mythology, literature and the arts.
The Spartali family was part of a close-knit Anglo-Greek community. Marie’s childhood friends included Maria Cassavetti, (later Maria Zambaco, sculptor) and Aglaia Ionides (later Coronio). The three friends, admired for their beauty, charm and intelligence, were referred to as the ‘Three Graces’. Tall and classically beautiful, with waist-length dark hair, Marie so moved the poet Algernon Swinburne that he exclaimed, ‘She is so beautiful I feel as if I could sit down and cry’.
The London social circle around the Spartali and Ionides families included artists, poets, literary figures and politicians – among them William Rossetti, his brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who became an important influence), and William and Jane Morris. In 1864, Michael Spartali agreed that Marie would begin artistic training with Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown.
THE PRE-RAPHAELITE BROTHERHOOD’S INFLUENCE
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) formed in 1848, looked to early Italian sources in painting and literature, and followed John Ruskin’s call to pay close attention to nature. Spartali’s paintings were influenced by these ideals. Her first public showing of work was at the newly established Dudley Gallery, London, (1867) and was of paintings in watercolour, a medium she preferred. She continued to be invited to show at London galleries, including the Royal Academy, and in Manchester and Liverpool. Early critical reception was mixed: The Times reviewer awarded Spartali’s Love Philtre (1869, private collection) ‘the prize for bad drawing’, although stating that ‘it would be unfair to deny [her] the uncommon quality of rich and solemn colour’.
AN ARTIST AND MUSE
From the mid 1860s, as Spartali pursued her artistic ambition, she was often invited to sit as an artist’s model. Julia Margaret Cameron took portrait photographs and in 1866 Spartali and her friend Zambaco became models for Burne-Jones’s Cupid and Psyche (c.1870; Yale Center for British Art). Marie is also Danae in his Danae and the Brazen Tower (1878; Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum), which was considered by contemporaries to be a true likeness of Marie.
It was probably through William Rossetti that Spartali met William James Stillman (1828–1901), an American painter and freelance journalist, and a widower. Against her parents’ wishes, they married in 1871. Spartali Stillman became stepmother to Stillman’s three children; and the couple’s daughter, Euphrosyne (‘Effie’), was born in 1872, and their son, Michael, in 1878. Spartali Stillman continued to paint at home. Increasingly confident in her art, she had her paintings shown at the American Society of Painters in Water Color in New York in 1875. Her name was also included in Ellen Clayton’s English Women Artists (1876).
LIFE IN EUROPE
When William Stillman took a freelance role for The Times to cover the Balkans in 1875, he moved to Florence, Italy, and the family joined him in 1878. Spartali Stillman had a studio near their apartment and socialised with Anglo-American expats, including the artist Charles Fairfax Murray and the writer Violet Paget (pen-name Vernon Lee). In 1878, Spartali Stillman represented Britain at the Paris Exposition Universelle.
By 1883, they reluctantly returned to England. In May 1886, Stillman was appointed the Italian and Greek correspondent for The Times. With a base in Rome, he travelled there with daughters Lisa and Bella, while Spartali Stillman stayed in London with the younger children. The 1880s were a productive painting period for Spartali Stillman: Love’s Messenger (1885); Dante at Verona (1888); Messer Ansaldo Showing Dianora his Enchanted Garden (1888); and The First Meeting of Petrarch and Laura in the Church of Santa Chiara, (1889) were all completed in London.
The family’s Roman sojourn ended when Stillman retired in 1898 and they settled in Surrey. Spartali Stillman continued to paint until her death (aged 83) on 6 March 1927 at the London home of her stepdaughter Bella. She was buried at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, alongside her husband.
The Shrubbery, a grand mansion in Battersea, which Marie’s father owned from 1864 until 1885, was her London home until her marriage in 1871. Her connection to the house then continued for the next 14 years. It is associated with two important aspects of her life: first, as a young woman, when she was a model for Pre-Raphaelite artists; and secondly, when she began to establish her reputation as an artist. The Shrubbery was her base from which she painted, prepared her works for exhibition, and sent items out for display.
In her lifetime, Spartali Stillman was recognised for two roles within the Pre-Raphaelite circle: as an admired painter in watercolour and as an artist’s model. She was one of a small number of professional women artists in the late 19th century and successfully exhibited in galleries in London, Liverpool, Manchester and America. Within her lifetime, women painters were regarded as amateurs and critical response to her work was mixed; George Bernard Shaw pointed out ‘technical infirmities’ in her work but thought her paintings had ‘a rare quality of being memorable’ (The World, 16 May 1888).
After her death, interest in the PRB grew. Yet the stories of their life and loves, entwined with the women portrayed in their paintings, often overshadowed any appreciation of the women. Hence, little was written of Spartali Stillman as an artist. Critical attention reassessed this in the later 20th century with the development of academic studies into women’s history. The Manchester exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists’ (1998) highlighted this change and her works are now included in major group exhibitions on the Pre-Raphaelites. A dedicated show at the Delaware Art Museum in the United States – which holds the largest public collection of her art – travelled to the Watts Gallery, Surrey (2015).
More recently, she was selected as one of 12 women to be shown in ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ (National Portrait Gallery, 2019). An illustrated biography shared with her husband (A Pre-Raphaelite Marriage, by David Elliott, 2006), and entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and in specialist compendiums have further established Spartali Stillman’s reputation.