Sands inherited a taste for socialising from her American parents, her father Mahlon Sands and her mother Mary Morton Hartpence, who had been a famous society beauty of her day, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1893–4.1 Their daughter and eldest child Ethel was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on 6 July 1873, but the following year the family moved to England where they settled permanently, returning to America for only two years when Ethel Sands was four. In London, the Sands enjoyed an extremely full social life, moving within fashionable and important circles that included the Marlborough House set, centred on the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. In 1888 her father was killed in a riding accident, and her mother continued to bring her children up alone. Aged twenty-one, in 1894 Sands chose to go to Paris to study painting and it was here she met her lifelong partner Anna (Nan) Hope Hudson. In 1896 her mother also died prematurely, leaving Sands with the responsibility of caring for two younger brothers as well as a considerable fortune. The conferral of independent means enabled Sands to pursue painting without the necessity of supporting herself through the sale of works.