Anonymous Letters from an Artist’s Model



A Painter’s Studio with a Model Wrapped in Japanese Silk. Louis Emile Ada 1890s. National Gallery of Art Washington.

One day in the summer of 1875 a postman approached 21 Wilton Crescent, a tall thin property in London’s Belgravia. Among the contents of his postbag was a well-sealed package marked for the attention of a Thomas Thornycroft.

With an exasperated sigh Thornycroft took the package from the postman. He then perused the accompanying note, in which the Superintendent of the South-West London Postal Service explained that he was sending him, under cover, a number of obscene postcards addressed to Miss Alyce Thornycroft. Miss Alyce was Thornycroft’s daughter. She was thirty-one and unmarried.

He is very poor

The Thornycrofts were a well-known and well-connected family of artists. Sixty-year-old Thomas, the respectable paterfamilias, was a sculptor who had produced works for the House of Lords, the Great Exhibition and part of the Albert Memorial. His wife, Mary Thornycroft née Francis, was also a sculptor and the main bread winner in the family. She was favoured by Queen Victoria — who commissioned and owned many of her works, among them a series of statues of the royal children representing the four seasons — and she was sufficiently trusted to undertake the art education of the monarch’s sixth child, Princess Louise, and to teach her how to sculpt.

The Anglo-Catholic Thornycrofts had six children of their own, four of whom were practising artists living at home. Mary Alice was known as Alyce to differentiate her from her mother. Theresa was known as Theresa, William Hamo as Hamo and Helen as Nello. They were encouraged to excel in their artistic endeavours and were expected to earn their own livings, for Thomas and Mary Thornycroft, although successful, were not wealthy. Not that this fact escaped Queen Victoria, who asked that Thornycroft be included among the sculptors decorating the Albert Memorial on the grounds that ‘he is very poor’.

Thomas Thornycroft. Ernest Edwards 1864. National Portrait Gallery.

At the Royal Academy

In 1863, with her application endorsed by the Irish sculptor John Foley, who was responsible for the brooding figure of Prince Albert on the Albert Memorial, Alyce gained admittance to the Royal Academy Schools.

She was one of only a handful of women who attended under the watchful eye of a housekeeper-chaperone. They followed a more limited curriculum than the male students, and it would not be until 1893 that women were permitted to draw from the nude, although even then they only drew from the semi-nude as the models wore voluminous loin cloths.

Theresa, Helen and Hamo also studied at the Academy Schools, and Hamo was eventually knighted for his contribution to the art world. With the benefit of superior training, and an abundance of opportunities, he enjoyed considerably greater success than his sisters. Of course, he may just have been more talented.

Emily Howard

At home Alyce and her sisters used their mother’s studio for painting and sculpting and had access not only to lay figures — jointed doll-like models — but also to human models. In September 1874 Alyce hired a young woman by the name of Emily Howard to model for herself and her sisters.

Emily was about twenty-eight years old. She was five feet three inches in height with a fresh complexion, light brown hair and a scar on her forehead. She visited the Wilton Place studio on fourteen occasions from September to November 1874, but, given that she was being paid to sit in silence and hold the required poses for hours at a time, there is nothing to suggest that she had any sort of personal relationship with the artists.

Portrait of the artist’s mother. Alyce Thornycroft 1885. Leeds Art Gallery.

The business of modelling

As educated middle-class women, paying for her services, the Thornycrofts were unlikely to have shown more interest in Emily than as a useful prop for their art. Familiarity would not have been encouraged, and Frances Borzello points out in The Artist’s Model that

the fact that until (the twentieth) century the women who earned their living from modelling were drawn from the lower classes boosted the notion of their sexual availability, as did the fact that theirs was a job no respectable woman would undertake.

As for the actual business of modelling, Weedon Grossmith had the following to say in a volume reminiscences with the title From Studio to Stage:

In my experience, the generality of models are hard working respectable girls. But there are two distinct classes of models, those who sit for the figure and those who are draped and only sit for the costume or for the face and hands. The latter I have found excessively nice girls.

Possibly Emily modelled nude for other artists — we do not know — but for the Misses Thornycroft she was only a costume model.

Libel by postcard

Beginning in June 1875 Alyce began to receive some disturbing and anonymous poison pen postcards. Initially the messages were unpleasant and accusatory. Later they were crude and alarming. Once alerted, Alyce’s father had taken it upon himself to intercept the post. He destroyed some of the more extreme communications.

There was something in the letters that led Alyce to suspect that they were the work of her former model. Accordingly Hamo Thornycroft and a family friend, Charles Henry Perkins, decided to visit Emily Howard to find out what was behind the disturbing messages and to instruct her to stop immediately. Emily claimed that she had been forced to send the postcards because Alyce was conspiring with a man called E. S. Kennedy to ruin her good name. She showed her visitors some anonymous advertisements from The Times newspaper, which she said had been placed by Alyce for this purpose.

Although Thornycroft insisted that his sister had done no such thing and that they knew nobody by the name of Kennedy, his intervention was unsuccessful, and the postcards continued to arrive at an alarming rate. In all Alyce received over a hundred missives, which, incidentally, would have been at no little cost to Emily, for the halfpenny postage per postcard and the cost of the cards themselves would have added up to at least a day’s earnings for a model who earned about a shilling an hour.

Tricky relationship between painter and sleeping model. William Powell Frith 1853. Royal Academy of Arts.

The case must continue!

Thomas Thornycroft decided to keep the newly arrived postcards as evidence. The nuisance could not go unpunished, as in casting these aspersions Emily Howard was threatening Alyce’s reputation as well as that of her family. He consulted a solicitor, the clever and effective George Lewis.

On 27 December 1875 Emily Howard, who was described as a sculptor’s model, found herself charged at Westminster Police Court with sending over a hundred malicious and defamatory postcards to Mary Alice Thornycroft. The case was adjourned to allow Emily to find legal representation, which would have been an expensive undertaking for a working-class woman.

Four days later Emily’s solicitor, Thomas Duerdin Dutton, tried to persuade the Thornycrofts to halt the trial if she promised to stop sending letters. But with more information seeing the light of day, Thornycroft remained adamant that the case was to continue. Alyce must have her say and restore her reputation. The trial was set for January 1876 at the Old Bailey, and Emily, who was unable to raise the twenty-five pounds bail, would remain on remand in Newgate Prison.

A photographer of sorts

So who was Emily Howard? She was actually Emily Puddick, and, as it appears that she never married, we must assume that she adopted the ‘Howard’ as more befitting an artist’s model. She was the daughter of Charles and Rebecca Puddick and had been born in late 1844 in Nutbourne, a small hamlet near Chichester in West Sussex. When her mother died, her father, who was a grocer, married a younger woman called Harriet. The family then moved to London, to Marylebone, where Emily’s step-siblings were born and where Charles in his turn died.

Among the ten occupants of 205 Marylebone Road on the night of the 1861 census were Harriet Puddick, aged thirty-five, her children, Louisa and Charles and Henry, aged nine and four and two, and her stepdaughter, Emily, aged fifteen. Harriet and Emily worked as dressmakers. Also living in the house was a twenty-four-year-old photographic artist, Alfred Paine, and his common-law wife, Ellen, who was Emily’s older sister.

In the 1871 census Emily was still in Marylebone but lodging at Boscobel Yard. She described herself as a photographer, but whether she actually took photographs, or simply worked in a photography shop, or even posed for photographers, is not known. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that it was through this work that she began to meet the artists who employed her as a model, giving her an earning potential described by Borzello as ‘a little above a housemaid’s salary and way above the slavery of seamstresses, who right up to the 1890s were earning fifteen shillings for a twelve-hour week, six days a week’. Although not exactly well-paid, Emily could still earn five times more as a model than as a dressmaker.

Prince Alfred as ‘Autumn’. Mary Thornycroft c.1847. Royal Collection Trust.

Kennedy …

The court case has given us the names of two of Emily’s clients, although we have to assume that there were others who did not make themselves known. One was Edward Sherard Kennedy — the E. S. Kennedy of her letters — for whom she modelled in about 1869 when she was in her early twenties.

Kennedy was the illegitimate son of the actress and singer Emma Love and the 6th Earl of Harborough. He was a genre painter, and, although it is not clear what sort of modelling he required of Emily, nor how far their relationship went, it is certainly the case that Emily believed that he was trying to ruin her good name. In court Edward admitted that he too had been a victim of her epistolary activities.

… and Wheen

The other client was an amateur artist who lived at 104 Lancaster Gate in Bayswater, the daughter of a wealthy soap manufacturer by the name of Richard Wheen. Even after her employment with this Miss Wheen ended, Emily continued to bother the family by sending letters and continually calling at the house.

When on Wednesday 3 June 1874 the footman opened the door to see her standing outside, he turned her away, mindful of his master’s instruction that she was not to be admitted to the house. Annoyed at this treatment, Emily rang the doorbell again and again until the butler was forced to summon a police constable. Finding herself with a summons, Emily promised not to repeat the nuisance. But within days she started again, and as a result she was brought before the Marylebone Police Court.

For official purposes she was a dressmaker, respectably dressed, living at 11 Broadley Street in Marylebone. But William Smiles, the surgeon at the House of Detention, where she had been held in remand, said that she appeared to be suffering delusions. The magistrate, Douglas Straight, ordered that she be sent to the infirmary of the St Marylebone Workhouse in Northumberland Street to allow her state of mind to be examined, with the proviso that, if she did not recover, he would commit her to a lunatic asylum. Within days Emily was ‘cured’ and released into the care of her sister. A few months later she began to work for Alyce Thornycroft, and the cycle resumed.

Artist’s models at work. Georges Seurat 1886-88. Barnes Foundation.

Nefarious designs

This brings us to the Old Bailey on a cold January day in 1876, when details of Emily’s letter-writing campaigns were revealed. Some of the postcards sent to Miss Thornycroft were considered so shocking that they could not be read in court: they were only shown to the judge. Not much content was reported in the newspapers.

The letters were written as if from a man and suggested that Miss Thornycroft was indulging in an improper correspondence, which was not the done thing for a nice unmarried lady. They also accused her of travelling alone with a man — again, not respectable behaviour — and conspiring with him to ruin the good name of the sender:

You must be no woman, Alice, to aid such a dirty blackguard as Mr E. S. K. in his nefarious designs towards widows and orphans. You and him ought to be burnt together.

From my darling Charlie or Willie or Ash-spoke.

A difficult verdict

Why did Emily feel the need to send the anonymous postcards? There is no clear evidence that she was genuinely wronged by Kennedy, or that Alyce Thornycroft really tried to damage her character. Then again, Kennedy had previously married a tailor’s daughter and then promptly deserted her, suggesting that he was perhaps not the most considerate of men. And Alyce Thornycroft was not an easy woman — the cause of many arguments with her siblings — and she may have refused to recommend Emily as a model over some trifling annoyance or offence.

Equally, they might have done nothing to incur the obsessive attention of Emily Howard, and certainly it was the opinion of John Rowland Gibson, the surgeon at Newgate Prison, that she was mentally ill. The anonymous poison pen letters might have been triggered by a paranoia, which at one end of the scale might have been no more than a feeling that she had been unjustly treated, and at the other a serious schizophrenic condition.

Gibson cited in support of his assessment observations of and five conversations with Emily during her time on remand, and the judge, Sir Thomas Chambers, instructed the jury that they should find her not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury said that they would find it difficult to return such a verdict owing to the defendant’s ‘intelligent demeanour’. But Chambers insisted that Gibson knew best, and that they should not be concerned as Emily would only be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure until she was cured.

Horn Room at Osborne House with Mary Thornycroft’s marble bust of Princess Helena on the fireplace. Joseph Nash 1848. Royal Collection Trust.

Throwing away the keys

Accordingly she was sent to the asylum at Fisherton Anger near Salisbury, where several London parishes housed paupers afflicted with mental illnesses. She remained there until she was moved to the West Sussex County Asylum at Graylingwell, near her birth place in Chichester. Sadly, though, in Emily’s case ‘Her Majesty’s pleasure’ lasted forty-two years, and when she died, on 27 September 1918, she had spent longer as an asylum patient than she had as a free woman.

I do not have access to her medical records, and so I cannot rule out the possibility that she was seriously ill and even posed a danger to the public. But a life sentence does seem an extreme punishment for sending a hundred obscene postcards.

Curiously Alyce Thornycroft also died in a mental institution. After the trial she had remained an unwilling companion to her mother, resenting the expectation that as the eldest child she would sacrifice herself to the care of parents, while her siblings married and had careers. She caused further upheavals, which Hamo recorded in his diary for 1882. ‘An elder sister that will not be happy,’ he described her, ‘nor let others be so and whose only pleasure seems to be in finding out how badly the world and her relations especially have treated her.’ Later in life she became unstable, and in 1906, at the age of sixty-two, she died in the Priory Psychiatric Hospital in Roehampton.

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