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Eggs and shades of gold

Painter Christiana Herringham, in focus

Co-curator and scholar Elizabeth Prettejohn recounts pre-Raphaelite painter Christiana Herringham’s recipe for success, in the following interview, conducted by Linda Falcone. It involves a bit of Botticelli and a fourteenth-century crafters’ handbook called Il libro dell’Arte

In the context of our exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Modern Renaissance’, visitors notice that, as they go through, there are more and more women artists as time goes on. Women were also becoming increasingly skilful at interpreting the Renaissance material they were working with. Christiana Herringham (1852–1929) is a third-generation pre-Raphaelite artist, working in the 1880s, or even up to 1910, right at the end of our period. Herringham made a fundamental contribution to the study of Italian Renaissance art, as well as creating her own compelling work. 

Christiana Herringham, Head of the Magdalene, after Sandro Botticelli 1445–1510, c. 1897, Egham, R

oyal Holloway, University of London at ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Modern Renaissance’, Museo di San Domenico, Forlì

Thinking about materials and techniques was important in the pre-Raphaelite period, and British artists sought out resources that could give them the information they needed about a new way of studying. Cennino Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte from the very early 1400s is a key document. As we now know, a woman, Mary Philadelphia Merrifield, provided us with the first English translation of it, publishing this very important text in English in 1844. Women were often translators, and translation continues to be regarded as a secondary profession, but it shouldn’t be. While nineteenth-century men were studying their Greek, Latin and the Classics, the women were becoming highly skilled in modern languages. Ultimately, they were intermediaries, building bridges between countries in the modern world, as in the case of Britain and Italy. 

Merrifield published her translation of Cennini’s text eight years before Herringham was even born, so by the time she, Christiana, emerges as an artist in the 1880s and 1890s, and starts to conduct her own experiments in tempera, she builds on the previous generation of female scholarship. Herringham’s own translation of Cennini’s seminal work, published in 1899, is closely related to her practical experience with the tempera medium. 

The first thing to note about the artist is the beauty of the way she used tempera, reinventing and remaking this Italian Renaissance medium, for her own time. It wasn’t easy to convince our Italian colleagues that it was important to include Herringham’s paintings in the exhibition, but that was before they had seen them, and understood how wonderful her works are or the role they play in this story. We ended up including three of her signed works in tempera. We don’t know when they were made, but we know the exact dates of the Italian Renaissance works they are based on, which is the wrong way around! Usually more recent art is better documented than ‘the older stuff’, but that is not what we see in this case, with Botticelli and Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora.

Christiana’s copy of Gherardo’s The Combat of Love and Chastity – in the National Gallery of London as of 1885 – demonstrates how her execution is remarkably accomplished. With many copies, you think, ‘That is nice, as a record, but it doesn’t measure up to the original’. This one measures up to the original! If you’ve read about Herringham, you know she was a sophisticated scholar of Italian Renaissance materials and technique, so you may think she put her knowledge into practice by making studious copies that are dry and scholarly. We might imagine her dutifully trying to recreate something, when, in fact, what you see is alive, exciting… and extremely beautiful, as well as being very faithful to the Pre-Raphaelite precedent. 

One of the premises of our show was that we would not attempt to borrow Italian Renaissance works from British collections, only from Italy, so the exhibition features another wonderful work by Gherardo, from the Galleria Sabauda in Turin. His Triumph of Chastity was not the work Herringham was copying from, which makes the comparison even more interesting. There is the suggestion that Chastity – which is the female figure – is going to be victorious, and this is indeed what happens in the poetic source, a series of poems by Petrarch called Triumphs. Chastity is the upright figure with the confident stride, and she is gaining the upper hand, which we can assume was pleasing to Herringham, as a campaigner for women’s suffrage, engaged in feminist causes. She wasn’t a militant person, but liked the idea of the female figure being victorious in this mythical battle. For visitors to the exhibition, being able to look at the two paintings together gives a strong sense of what Christiana was doing and the sheer brilliance involved in being able to respond to the earlier source and making it come alive again. 

Triumph of Chastity, Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora, c.1485 at ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Modern Renaissance’,

Museo di San Domenico, Forlì Ph. Wikimedia, Musei Reali di Torino

You can see how sensitively she is capturing the technique needed for working in tempera, recreating the medium based on her study of Cennini and other sources. Tempera is a difficult medium. It is quick drying, and requires a sure touch, absolute precision. You need a steady hand and relatively quick work, in very fine detail. One of the reasons she made her copy of the National Gallery painting was to demonstrate that it was possible to make it using tempera. There was an open debate among scholars in her era about whether Gherardo’s work was tempera or oil, because it seemed too refined, its execution too perfected and complete. Herringham’s picture is an experiment, which shows that ‘it can be done’ in that medium. In 2018 and 2019, her claims about Gherardo’s work were proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, through technical analysis with tools that did not exist in her day. 

We have two other Botticelli-based works by Christiana, which are different in character. Botticelli was a new interest for artists in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was not particularly treasured or valued by earlier generations, but when he garners increased attention in the 1860s, she helps interpret his distinctive character and mystique for nineteenth-century audiences. In her Head of the Magdalene, after Sandro Botticelli, she takes the head and shoulders of Mary Magdalene, who forms part of a larger ensemble from a Sant’Ambrogio altarpiece at the Uffizi, and chooses to concentrate solely on the Magdalene’s head. Mary Magdalene was famous for having golden locks, and Christiana’s approach to the golden tonalities for her hair and halo produces a haunting result that is mystical… magical. Through this very careful copy of the figure chosen, and by bringing out this golden tonality, Herringham is making it into a work of art in its own right. I think a contemporary artist would really see the point to this endeavour – taking the fragment of a larger composition and transforming it into a story all by itself. 

Christiana Herringham, Portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli,

copy after Botticelli, c. 1880-1897, Egham, Royal Holloway, University of London

Christiana’s role in making Botticelli visible has been forgotten, due to the fame of better-known artists, including Evelyn De Morgan, who responds quite directly to the big allegories, like the Botticellian work Flora. Christiana’s copy of Botticelli’s Portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is not allegorical or mythological. It is a portrait – quite a simple thing, and Christiana has copied the entire painting accurately and sympathetically. Dante Gabriel Rossetti found the painting on the art market at a bargain price [something like 15 shillings!] because Botticelli wasn’t all that famous. He purchased it and the painting informed his art-making for the rest of his life – the diaphanous drapery of the figure’s dress can be found in many of Rossetti’s later works, and the same can be said of the way the figure’s gaze catches your eye. The Herringham copy is so beautiful I wonder if many people walking past it would recognise it is not an original Botticelli. Numerous scholars have written on the Botticelli revival, and you can certainly say that artists’ interest in Botticelli is a solid reason why he shoots up in fame. Christiana Herringham’s role in his rise to fame is significant and forgotten, and we need to bring that to the fore.

Elizabeth Prettejohn is Professor of History of Art at the University of York. Her research is motivated by curiosity about the vexed status of British art within art-historical narratives about modernism and modernity. Her books include The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, Beauty and Art 1750-2000Art for Art’s Sake, and most recently Modern Painters, Old Masters: The Art of Imitation from the Pre-Raphaelites to the First World WarShe has co-curated exhibitions on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John William Waterhouse. Her co-curated exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Modern Renaissance is on view at the Museo Civico San Domenico Forlì until 30 June 2024.

This article was originally published in Restoration Conversations,

Issue 5 - Spring/Summer 2024

Interview conducted by Linda Falcone


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