Emily Mary Osborn was one of the most interesting and significant women artists of the Victorian period. Her talents were nurtured by leading figure painters in both Britain and Germany, and she established herself first with portraits and genre scenes, and then, from the 1870s, with landscapes. Her energy and independence of spirit led her to create distinctive work that was recognised through prizes and reviews, and also to involve herself in the women’s suffrage movement. Emily Mary Osborn was born in Kentish Town, London, on 11 February 1828, the eldest of nine children of the Reverend Edward Osborn and his wife, Mary (née Bolland). Ordained as a priest in 1829, her father held the position of curate at Boughton Monchelsea, Kent (1829-30), Headcorn, Kent (1830-34) and West Tilbury, Essex (1834-42). While the family was living at the parsonage at Gun Hill, West Tilbury, Emily began to show a talent for art through her drawings of her siblings, and received encouragement from her mother, who had also hoped to become an artist.
In about 1842, the Osborn family returned to London, settling in Howland Street, north of Oxford Street, and worshipping at St Anne’s Soho.
During the decade, Edward seems to have divided his time between London, where he worked as a clerk, and West Tilbury. However, in 1850, and in quick succession, he became lecturer at St Anne’s Soho, curate at St Magnus the Martyr, near London Bridge, and vicar of St Lawrence’s, Asheldham, Essex. By then, the family’s London address was 37 Bernard Street, in Bloomsbury.
Despite her father’s initial reservations, Emily Osborn was allowed to pursue studies in art in London during the 1840s. She attended classes at Dickinson’s Academy in Maddox Street, first in the evening, under a ‘Mr Mogford’ (who was probably Thomas rather than John), and then in the morning, under James Mathews Leigh. Leigh soon invited her to study privately at his house, alongside another female student, and at his General Practical School of Art in Newman Street.
In 1851, Emily Osborn began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, and established a reputation as painter of portraits, still life subjects and, especially, genre scenes. In 1855, one of her earliest patrons, the stockbroker, Charles James Mitchell, married her sister, Louisa, and his brother, William Mitchell, commissioned her to produce the portrait, Mrs Sturgis and her Children, which was shown at the Royal Academy. With the 200 guineas that she received for it, she added a studio to her new home at 30 Upper Gower Street (which became 133 Gower Street in 1864). Another of her exhibits was bought by Queen Victoria (the first of two of her paintings to enter the Royal Collection). Two years later, in 1857, the Royal Academy exhibited Nameless and Friendless (Tate), her best known work and a highly characteristic example of her early contemporary genre paintings (the type that Christopher Wood described, in The Dictionary of Victorian Painters, 1978, page 352, as the ‘damsel in distress’). Tough and Tender, exhibited at the RA in 1859, won a silver medal in 1862, when it was shown at the Society of British Artists. It was then bought by William Mitchell. In 1859, Osborn also signed the petition for the admission of women to the Royal Academy Schools, and early indication of her interest in women’s rights.
From the early 1860s, Osborn expanded her repertoire to include historical genre, as was signalled by The Escape of Lord Nithisdale from the Tower, 1716, exhibited at the RA in 1861. Three years later, in 1864, her painting, Half the world knows not how the other half lives, was awarded £63 at the Crystal Palace Picture Gallery as ‘the best historical or figure subject in oil by a British artist’. Her ambitions were spurred by travels in Germany, including Hesse, Württemberg and Munich, and paintings with German subjects – and titles – resulted. It was at this time that she probably met the painter, Carl Theodor von Piloty, a Professor at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. Certainly, she studied with Piloty in 1866, at the Accademia in Venice, and then went on to Munich, where she continued to receive his advice. One of her most important works on a German subject – painted in 1866 and showing Württemberg peasants returning from a festival – was in the hands of the French Gallery in Pall Mall when it became a victim of the fire that destroyed Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1867. By 1869, she was living at 9 Amalienstrasse, Munich, where she was visited by ‘Malpas’, a journalist for The Spectator, who described her as ‘a double martyr to art and neuralgia’. Still at the address in 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, she spent six months nursing the wounded at Heidelberg, alongside one of her sisters.
Returning to England in 1873, Osborn lived at various addresses in London (and a studio in Glasgow in 1876). She continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy and the Crystal Palace Picture Gallery (winning silver medals at both venues), and in the provinces at the Birmingham Society of Artists and the Royal Manchester Institution. She also showed more intermittently at the Society of Lady Artists, the Dudley Gallery, the Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Paris Salon.
In 1877, Osborn settled at 10A Cunningham Place, St John’s Wood, the former studio of Thomas Landseer, and it would remain her home for the rest of her life. She may have moved there to be close to her friend, Emily Davies, a pioneering campaigner for women’s rights to higher education, who lived along the street at no 17. From this time, Osborn focussed increasingly on landscape painting, and was stimulated in this activity by travels in Britain and abroad. In the early 1880s, she visited Algeria, where she possibly stayed with Barbara Bodichon, the artist, educationalist and leading activist for women’s rights, who became a friend. She painted two portraits of Bodichon, a large oil that was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884 (but is now lost), and a smaller picture, possibly exhibited at the Society of Lady Artists in 1899 and/or 1913 (and now at Girton College, Cambridge).
By 1885, Osborn was sharing her home with her close friend, Mary Elizabeth Dunn, who is described as a ‘lady’ and ‘living on her own means’ in censuses, and who subscribed to the anti vivisectionist periodical, The Animal’s Defender and Zoophilist. In that year, they provided a home for Ellen Cobden before her marriage to the painter, Walter Sickert, and acted as the witnesses at the ceremony. In 1913, long after Ellen had divorced Sickert and become an author, writing as ‘Miles Amber’, she would dedicate her second and final novel, Sylvia Saxon – Episodes in a Life, to Osborn and Dunn. Ellen’s sister, the suffragist and radical, Jane Cobden, also lived with them for a while, in 1889, at the time that she successfully stood for the seat of Tower Hamlets for the London County Council. Osborn painted a portrait of Jane, which was exhibited at the National Gallery in 1890. Then, three years later, in 1893, she exhibited a portrait of Mary E Dunn at the Society of Lady Artists, becoming a member in the same year. All of them joined in signing the declaration in favour of women’s suffrage in 1889.
As a landscape painter and pastel artist, Osborn worked regularly in the Norfolk Broads from the mid 1880s to the mid 1900s, and held two solo shows of the results at the Goupil Gallery in 1886 and 1887. During this period, she also worked in Venice (1890-1902), Devon (1900-04) and Moret-sur-Loing, in northern France (1902-06), and exhibited at the New Gallery and Grosvenor Gallery – including all three of the Grosvenor’s pastel exhibitions, in 1888, 1889 and 1890.
Emily Mary Osborn died at home on 14 April 1925, at the age 97.
Further reading: Susan P Casteras, ‘Osborn, Emily Mary (b London, 1834; d c 1913)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 23, pages 598-599; James Dafforne, ‘British Artists: Their Style and Character, no LXXV, Emily Mary Osborn’, Art Journal, 26 (1864), page 261-263; Charlotte Yeldham, ‘Osborn, Emily Mary (1828-1925)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 41, pages 985-986