Sylvia Gosse’s background was literary and artistic (fig.1). Born Laura Gosse on 14 February 1881, she was the youngest of three children of the poet, critic and librarian of the House of Lords, Edmund Gosse (1849–1928) and his wife Ellen Gosse (née Epps). Her mother and two of her aunts had all studied painting. Ellen (known as Nellie) had been a pupil of the painter Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), while Ellen’s younger sister Laura studied with and later married the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). While Sylvia was growing up there was a constant stream of distinguished visitors to the family house in Delamere Terrace, Paddington, and from 1901 in Hanover Terrace, Regent’s Park, including writers Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. Later, the list of social acquaintances included the artist Walter Sickert, who became Sylvia’s lifelong friend and colleague.
Gosse always wanted to be an artist. Following schooling from the age of thirteen in France she studied at the St John’s Wood School of Art and from 1906 spent three years at the Royal Academy Schools. In 1908 her work was shown to Sickert who was impressed by the younger woman’s talent and in a typically dominant fashion decided the best thing would be for her to learn etching (see figs.2–3). She therefore began to attend Sickert’s evening classes at the Westminster School of Art and in 1909 went as a pupil to his new art school, which he ran with Madeline Knox at 209 Hampstead Road. The following year Knox left, owing to the stress of running the school while Sickert was ill,1 and Gosse graduated from pupil to associate. She took over responsibility for the practical organisation and finances of the ‘Sickert and Gosse School of Painting and Etching’, now at 140 Hampstead Road, called Rowlandson House (see Tate N05088), and she also taught the beginners and less talented students. Harold Gilman painted two portraits of her at Rowlandson House in 1912–13 (fig.1 and Cleveland Museum of Art, USA).2 The school continued until 1914, and during this time Gosse’s own painting career also began to develop. She exhibited a domestic interior at the New English Art Club in 1911 and a portrait of her father at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1912. In 1913 she was elected to membership of the London Group (fig.4), with whom she showed work regularly until 1920, and in the same year she had her first individual show at the Carfax Gallery.