Emily Mary Osborn

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Emily Mary Osborn
Born(1828-02-11)11 February 1828
Kentish Town, London
Died25 April 1925(1925-04-25) (aged 97)
Notable work
'Nameless and Friendless' (1857)
'Nameless and Friendless' (1857)

Emily Mary Osborn (1828–1925), or Osborne, was an English painter of the Victorian era.[1][2] She was best known for her pictures of children and her genre paintings, especially on themes of women in distress.

Early life[edit]

Emily Osborn was born in Kentish Town, London, on 11 February 1828,[3] the eldest of nine children of the Rev. Edward Osborn (1792-1859)[4] and his wife Mary (née Bolland, 1806-1868). Osborn took up the curacy of West Tilbury under its rector Edward Linzee during the spring of 1834, when Emily was about five. The family occupied the parsonage at the top of Gun Hill, which is pictured in a lithograph of 1845 by D. Walton. Osborn lived for some eight years at the parsonage, though she afterwards recalled that her "early surroundings ... were not such as to develope artistic proclivities, there being but little natural beauty in the country around West Tilbury ...".[5] There, her mother encouraged her "and watched with pride the clever portraits Emily drew of her brothers and sisters". The parent herself possessed a great love of painting and had, on her own account, "wished in vain to study Art professionally". The same article speaks of experimentation at this period, how the teenage girl, not always being able to obtain the paints she desired "devised a plan of making an extra supply of colours from flowers, by putting the petals into bottles with a little spirits of wine".

Education and exhibition at RA[edit]

Her father's final entry in the parish registers of St. James', was on 2 November 1842, after which the family removed to London – "to the great delight of his eldest girl, who rightly considered there was now some chance of realising the hopes she entertained of one day becoming an artist".[6] Thereafter she attended evening classes at the Dickenson academy in Maddox Street, where she was taught by John Mogford.[7] She then studied privately under one of the masters, J.M. Leigh from Maddox Street, and later at his academy in Newman Street for a year.[7] In 1851, at the age of seventeen, Osborn began showing her work in the annual Royal Academy exhibition, and continued to do so over a span of four decades until 1893. Her first paintings to be sent to the Royal Academy were a few portraits and figure subjects "of unpretending character", in the Great Exhibition year, 1851. In 1854 the R.A. exhibited a small picture by Osborn, titled Pickles and Preserves, which was purchased by the stockbroker Charles James Mitchell (1815–84), who later introduced the artist to his brother, Mr. William Mitchell (1807-), and who, the following year, married the artist's sister Louisa (1830–87). He, "hearing she was desirous of producing something of greater importance", gave Emily a commission for a group of life-sized portraits of a lady (Mrs. Sturgiss) and her three children. With the 200 guineas received for this work, she 'added a studio to her residence'. She had also, in that same R.A. exhibition (1855) hung a smaller painting called My Cottage Door, "which brought the artist well-deserved fame" and was purchased by Queen Victoria.[6]

Major works[edit]

Osborn's most famous single work is Nameless and Friendless (1857), which has been called "The most ingenious of all Victorian widow pictures."[8] It depicts a recently bereaved woman attempting to make a living as an artist by offering a picture to a dealer, while two "swells" at the left ogle her. Osborn's The Governess was shown at the Royal Academy in 1860, and purchased by Queen Victoria. Works of this type, which focused on the distresses of women in contemporary Victorian society, have earned Osborn the designation "proto-feminist artist."[9]

In 1861 Osborn exhibited her The escape of Lord Nithsdale from the Tower, 1717 at the Royal Academy. This historical painting shows Nithisdale eluding custody by dressing as a woman.[10] Osborn's interest in women and women artists is encapsulated in her 1884 picture Portrait of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, in which feminist artist Barbara Bodichon was portrayed at her easel. Osborn executed a second portrait of Bodichon in 1888.

Later life and work[edit]

A magazine article of the mid-1880s outlined the artist's later story. In 1868, Osborn lost her mother "and for two years did no work of importance", then for six months she and her sister devoted themselves to nursing the sick and wounded in the Franco-Prussian War. "Then came her visits to Venice and Algeria, made familiar (to gallery-goers) by her pictures in the Grosvenor and elsewhere". At home, she also toured and painted among the Norfolk Broads.[5]

Osborn exhibited her work at the Palace of Fine Arts and The Woman's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.[11]

In 1914 Ellen Sickert (daughter of Richard Cobden and first wife of Walter Sickert), writing under the pseudonym "Miles Amber," published her novel Sylvia Saxton: Episodes of a Life. Sickert dedicated her novel to Osborn and her companion Mary Elizabeth Dunn.[12]

Osborn never married and died aged 97 on 14 April 1925 in the home she had shared for many years with Mary Elizabeth Dunn, 10A Cunningham Place, St John's Wood, London.[13]


  1. ^ Charlotte Yeldham, Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France and England, New York, Garland, 1984.
  2. ^ Nancy Heller, Women Artists: An Illustrated History, New York, Abbeville, 1987.
  3. ^ London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Board of Guardian Records, 1834-1906/Church of England Parish Registers, 1754-1906; Reference Number: p90/jnb/005
  4. ^ VENN: Adm. pens. at PETERHOUSE, Feb. 3, 1818. Of Middlesex. S. of Samuel. ' Matric. Michs. 1819; B.A. 1823; M.A. 1826. Ord. deacon (London) May 29, 1825; priest (London, for Canterbury) June 14, 1829. In Clergy List (without cure), 1841-4; living at West Tilbury, Essex, 1845-8. Lecturer of St Anne's, Soho, London, 1850. C. of St Magnus-the-Martyr, London, 1850. V. of Asheldham, Essex, 1850-9. Latterly of Maldon, Essex. Died May 15, 1859, aged 67. (T. A. Walker, 401; Crockford; Clergy List (Osborne); G. Mag., 1850, I. 310.)
  5. ^ a b The Lady journal, 2 September 1886
  6. ^ a b The Art-Journal, 1864, p.261
  7. ^ a b Brian Stewart & Mervyn Cutten (1997). The Dictionary of Portrait Painters in Britain up to 1920. Antique Collectors' Club. ISBN 1 85149 173 2.
  8. ^ Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1999; p. 56.
  9. ^ Linda Nochlin, Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1989; p. 88.
  10. ^ Elaine Shefer, "Woman's Mission," Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring–Summer 1986), pp. 8–12; see p. 9.
  11. ^ Nichols, K. L. "Women's Art at the World's Columbian Fair & Exposition, Chicago 1893". Retrieved 30 July 2018.
  12. ^ Elizabeth Crawford, The Woman's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866–1928, London, Routledge, 2001; p. 467.
  13. ^ Ancestry.com. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, 1973-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

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