Emily Mary Osborn was one of the most important artists associated with the campaign for women’s rights in the nineteenth century. The daughter of a clergyman, she was brought up in Kent and Essex until 1842 when the family moved back to London. It was here that she trained as an artist at Dickinson’s academy in Maddox Street and then at Leigh’s in Newman Street. During the 1850s Osborn established a reputation as a genre painter specialising in figurative subjects of ‘unpretending character’ – the most significant of which were pictures of modern women in pathetic situations, similar to works by Richard Redgrave and Rebecca Solomon. Home Thoughts, which was painted in 1856 and exhibited at the Royal Academy that same year, was followed by her most famous work Nameless and Friendless in 1857. A full-scale, squared-up preparatory design for the latter exists in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and a smaller version in oil in York Art Gallery.
Nameless and Friendless focuses on the predicament of the single woman in the modern metropolis by offering a female version of the traditional ‘Choice of Hercules’ theme. The picture shows an orphaned female artist (as suggested by her black dress), accompanied by a boy, presumably her brother, diffidently offering one of her paintings to a dealer whose disdainful expression suggests rejection. An assistant looks down cursorily at her canvas from his position on a ladder, while the woman is eyed up from behind by two rakish men otherwise engaged in examining a hand-coloured print of a ballerina – the bare legs of whom suggest other choices facing the impoverished and desperate young woman. Isolated in the centre of the composition between leering and contemptuous glances, the woman’s vulnerability is accentuated by her downward gaze and fingers nervously pulling a hoop of string. The mud-splattered crepe of her skirt, her dripping umbrella and protective cape hint at the distance she has travelled and the conditions she has endured to brave the encounter.
The title of the painting and the quotation from Proverbs that accompanied the work when it was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1857 accentuate the idea of the city as a man’s domain within which women occupy a precarious position. In alighting on the subject the artist may have been influenced by a passage in Mary Brunton’s novel Self-Control of 1811 which was reprinted twice during the 1850s. Determined to improve the family’s finances, Laura, the heroine of the novel, decides to sell her pictures but successive visits to London dealers all end in failure. Whatever its source, the picture clearly addresses what art historian Deborah Cherry has defined as ‘the sexualised encounters and economies of the modern city, its spaces of pleasure, exchange and consumption’ (Cherry 2000, p.28). By including in close proximity three different models of femininity – the ballet dancer, the comfortable bourgeois matron confidently leaving the shop with her son, and the respectable but indigent protagonist in the foreground – the artist highlights three distinct ways in which women of all classes inhabit the urban realm: as figures of sexual desire and consumption, as ‘invisible’ wives secure in a family unit, and as unmarried women struggling to earn a living.
Nameless and Friendless was almost certainly conceived as a political statement, Osborn being closely associated with the feminist and artist Barbara Bodichon’s Langham Place circle and their campaign for women’s rights. She was also a member of the Society of Female Artists established in 1857 (the year the picture was first exhibited) to help overcome the difficulties experienced by female artists in exhibiting and selling their work. In 1859 Osborn was one of the signatories of the women’s petition to the Royal Academy of Arts to open its schools to female students, and in 1889 to the Declaration in Favour of Woman’s Suffrage. In 1885 Osborn’s large portrait of Bodichon was presented to Girton, the first Cambridge residential college to admit women.
Despite the artist’s feminist sympathies, it would be misleading to equate her own career as a single female artist with the predicament of the woman in the picture. As a student Osborn had been encouraged by her family and was later able to finance her own studio through the sale of a group portrait. She had the support of wealthy female patrons including Queen Victoria who purchased Osborn’s My Cottage Door and The Governess. Nameless and Friendless sold for the substantial sum of £250 to Lady Chetwynd, following whose death it was lent by her husband to the 1862 International Exhibition in London. That year it was reproduced as a wood engraving by Edward Skill and published as a full-page print in the Illustrated London News. Another engraving of the work by J. Cooper was published in the Art Journal in 1864 where it accompanied a feature on the artist by James Dafforne (see Dafforne 1864, pp.261–3). Osborn went on to enjoy a long and successful career, her last recorded exhibit being in 1905.
James Dafforne, ‘British Artists: Their Style and Character. No. LXXV – Emily Mary Osborn’, Art Journal, 1864, pp.261–3.
Sunshine and Shadow: The David Scott Collection of Victorian Paintings, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh 1991, p.24.
Deborah Cherry, Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture in Britain, 1850–1900, Routledge, London 2000.