Henry Holiday · Music · Musical Portraits · Pre-Raphaelite · Research

The Mysterious Priscilla W: Pre-Raphaelite Model & Musician

My research on the connections between musicians and artists in late nineteenth-century London has led me towards a number of bohemian families. Often, I’m finding, the daughters of well-known artists became musicians – or vice versa. These women played a vital role in connecting the communities they were part of, and many were also extremely politically active. Uncovering their stories has been one of the most exciting revelations of this project so far, and I’m looking forward introducing them to you as my research develops.

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Henry Holiday, Dante and Beatrice, Oil on canvas, 1883, Walker Art Gallery

Today, though, I want to discuss a woman who was on the fringes of this bohemian community. She wasn’t a member of an affluent artistic family but was nevertheless able to capitalise on her connections in the art world in order to forge a career in music. I came across her story in the autobiography of artist Henry Holiday, whose family straddled the worlds of art and music in just the way I have described. A member of the Pre-Raphaelite school, Holiday is best remembered for his Dante and Beatrice, now at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. His Reminiscencesare a brilliant read, offering a great deal of insight into the worlds of art and music in late-Victorian and Edwardian London. Here’s the section that piqued my interest:

Portlands

Henry Holiday’s house in Kent, as it looks today

Our house, “Portlands” by name, near Knockholt, was seven miles from St. Mary Cray, our nearest station, so that it was impossible to have models for a few hours, and we had either to have them in the house or get a room out. Burne-Jones told me of a very good one, Miss Priscilla W., who stayed with us for two or three weeks at a time while I was painting the Muses. I remember that she told me during the sittings the greater part of the story of “Our Mutual Friend,” which was then new, and I had not read it. She had a wonderful memory and repeated whole conversations with a keen sense of the humour. During her second visit I heard her one morning singing to herself during a rest, and said to her, “That’s a Sonata of Schubert’s you’re humming.” “Yes,” she answered, “I know it is.” “But how do you come to know it?” “Mrs. Holiday used to play it when I was last here, and I love music.”

I was struck by her musical memory, and she, on hearing more of my wife’s pieces, developed so keen an interest in them that she saved up money enough to buy a piano, and Mrs. Holiday gave her some lessons. Later we introduced her to Miss Bondy, an admirable pianist, who kindly gave her lessons at a moderate charge, and in an incredibly short space of time she became an accomplished musician and had given up sitting for teaching the piano.

There are many reasons that this short passage jumped out at me. Firstly, I wondered, who was Priscilla W? I’ve had a dig around and can’t find any information about a model with that name – unless I’m missing something obvious. If she was recommended by Burne-Jones, does that mean she modelled for him too? We know a lot about some of the famous models who worked in Pre-Raphaelite circles – might Priscilla be worthy of further research?

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The frieze, as reproduced in Holiday’s Reminiscences

Details from the frieze, as reproduced in Holiday’s Reminiscences

All Holiday tells us is that Priscilla was the model he used for his frieze Apollo and the Muses, which he completed for the Clifton Theatre. I can’t find any information about this venue online, and it seems unlikely that the frieze survives. However, Holiday does reproduce a drawing of it in his memoirs.

Preparatory drawings for Holiday’s muses, recently sold at auction

HH Auction

Detail from preparatory drawing

While searching online, I also came across two preparatory drawings for the muses that were sold at auction recently– see here and here. These three sources give us some indication what Priscilla looked like. It seems that she had red wavy hair and a strong jaw – characteristic features of Pre-Raphaelite women.

The main reason Holiday’s description grabbed my attention, though, is that Priscilla sounds like a force! With an appetite for literature and music, and the ability to memorise Dickens and Schubert, she was clearly culturally engaged and extremely smart.

BondyAd

Miss Bondy in The Musical World

Most striking, though, is the way in which she was able to leverage the contacts her modelling career gave her access to. She set herself up as a piano teacher, which was both a more stable and more respectable form of work. It’s also notable that it was other women who facilitated this career move – the artist’s wife, Catherine Holiday (herself a noted textile artist who worked for William Morris) took the initiative in assisting Priscilla. Miss Bondy then offered lessons at a reduced rate. This is a great example of women helping women.

Without her full surname it’s difficult to research Priscilla’s career as a teacher, but I have found some adverts for piano recitals given by her own teacher, Miss Bondy. It’s possible that Priscilla also performed at some of these. I’ll continue to dig around in the archives and see what I find. In the meantime, if any readers have thoughts or suggestions about who this mysterious musical model was (and what else she might have modelled for!) I’d love to hear them…

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