Born in poor circumstances in 1830, Frederick Lee Bridell received no formal art training, yet at just 18 years, his natural talent was recognised by a travelling picture restorer, to whom he then became apprenticed. He travelled to Germany, and when released from his employer, he established his own studio in Southampton. On visiting Italy in 1858, he became part of the Anglo-American artistic circle to which the Brownings belonged. There he met and married the painter, Eliza Fox, a daughter of William Johnson Fox MP. The following passage, which begins our excerpt from Hull's book, comes from a letter by Lady Eastkake that describes a Victorian experiencng the remains of both imperial and Christian Rome.
'Yesterday morning we drove to the Coliseum, turning off through more remote parts of the city, wretched and filthy as the worst parts of the old town of Edinburgh. Soon traces of a race of giants began to appear — masses of masonry stamped with grandeur, fragments of columns — things I had always known though never realised before. Then came to the Capitol, the columns of the Temple of Concord, the triumphal arches — some whose feet lay deep buried in the earth, others which stood cleared in pits below the road. Then grand forms and colours, and the Temple of Peace, making one breathless with excitement. At last we saw, through other objects of ineffable grandeur, the great circle of the Coliseum. We drove under the Arch of Titus (this seemed profanation) past the remains of a fountain, where, the coachman said, the Romans washed their hands from the blood of the martyrs. It might be true, it might be false — but the few words filled to overflowing the mingled feelings which oppressed me, and, as we slowly approached the tremendous pile, my tears were falling. I got down and entered its vast precincts with awe — the martyrs much in my thoughts, but also that noble race, so great, selfish, wise and cruel, which did all man can do without revelation. It was in utter solitude, an old world of itself, dedicated to the worst passions of humanity, and yet the triumph and exponent of almost Godlike power. The blue sky shone through the bare spaces of the windows, bluer than you can conceive, thus enframed within the glowing colours of these sunny piles, as blue to me as it had been for ages to them; and as I looked around at all the grand adaptation of means to an end, and at the overpowering majesty and beauty which were the result, I felt proud that my nation was more truly the descendant of that matchless race than of any other in the world. Indeed I felt that I belonged to both the Christian martyr and the Roman decemvir, and perhaps I pitied and admire, the last as much as I did the first.'48
Rome was the magnet which drew artists and sculptors of all nationalities to live and work closely together. A small group of German artists, the Nazarenes, were working there at this time. They had formed a brotherhood under the guidance of Overbeck, and sought to unite the purity of art with the primacy of religion. Of the American artists in Rome at the time was William Story, who has left a record of his experiences here. He was a sculptor in Rome and was also a great friend of Robert Browning, Mrs Gaskell and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Nathaniel Hawthorne had been employed as consul in Liverpool since 1853 and had moved to Rome in early 1858 with his wife and two children. Here they remained for eighteen months as he worked on the book The Marble Faun. They took a keen interest in art throughout their travels, and both sketched when the opportunity arose. His Notebooks and also those of his wife provide us with an interesting and sometimes amusing account of life in Rome, contemporaneous with Bridell's stay. He eloquently describes the atmosphere of Rome at this [44/45] period and provides us with vivid descriptions of the daily sights that Bridell also saw. He and his family resided in apartments in an area close to Bridell's studio.
Palazzo Larazani Via Porta Pinciana
'Cold, narrow lanes, between tall, ugly, mean-looking, whitewashed houses, sour bread, pavements most uncomfortable to the feet, enormous prices for poor living; beggars, pick-pockets; ancient temples and broken monuments, and clothes hanging to dry about them, French soldiers, monks and priests of every degree; a shabby population, smoking bad cigars — these would have been some of the points of my description. Of course there are truer and better things to be said . . . '[French and Italian Notebooks, p. 183]
His wife records her first impression in her diary of 14/2/1858:
'We have been in Rome since 20th January and have not written a word of my journal. Till the 2nd it was bitterly cold and afterward but little milder, and not sufficiently so to make my fingers flexible enough to hold a pen. On the 5th it began to rain, the weather previously having been clear and brilliant. The rain softened the air, or it rained because the air was softer and rained on till the 12th. Now again it is glorious sunshine and cold; but everyone says the winter has gone . . . .I have walked about and seen glimpses of what is before me. I have walked through the Forum Romanum and seen the Arch of Septimus Severus, the portico of the Temple of Saturn, the three beautiful columns of the Temple of Minerva Chalcidica, the single column erected to the Emperor Phocas terminated by the Arch of Titus.' [Notes in England and Italy, p. 198.]
These landmarks, in becoming so familiar to Bridell, provided the inspiration that was to spur him on to completing large works of these impressive ruins.
Elizabeth and Robert Browning were also resident in Rome at this time. They usually spent the winter in Rome and then returned north to Florence or Siena, for the summer. They resided in a crowded, less airy part of the town, less than half a mile from the Pincian Hill. They were spending the winter here on account of Elizabeth's health. Regarded as the greatest woman poet of the time, she was a passionate but frail individual. Mrs Hawthorne records a striking description of her when she visited her in Florence.
'At one o'clock I took U & R (her abbreviations for her children) to Casa Guidi to see Mrs Browning. She does not see people till eight in the evening; but as R is fast asleep at that hour, she requested me to come at one with her. We rang a great while, and no one answered the bell, but presently a woman came up the staircase [45/46] and admitted us; but she was surprised that we expected to see Mrs Browning at such a time. I gave her my credentials and so she invited us to follow her in.
We found the wondrous lady in her drawing room, very pale and looking ill yet she received us affectionately and was deeply interesting as usual. She took R into her lap and seemed to enjoy talking to and looking at her, as well as U. She said 'Oh, how rich and happy you are to have two daughters, a son and such a husband'. Her boy was gone to his music masters which I am very sorry for, but we saw a picture of him. Mrs Browning said he had a vocation for music but did not like to apply to anything else more than a butterfly and the only way she could command his attention was to have him upon her knees and hold his hands and feet. He knows German pretty well already and Italian perfectly being born a Florentine.
I was afraid to stay too long or to have Mrs Browning talk because she looked so pale and seemed so much exhausted, and I perceived that the motions of R's fan distressed her. I do not understand how she can live long, or be at all restored while she does live.
I ought to say that she lives so ardently that her delicate earthly vesture must soon be burnt up and destroyed by her soul of pure fire'. [Notes in England and Italy, p. 361.]
Elizabeth doted on her son Weideman whom she called Peni, or sometimes Penini. As she had suffered several miscarriages, he was the focus of her existence. He is recorded as a tense little boy, taking life as seriously and as emotionally as his mother. Both of them revered Louis Napoleon. 'Now we Italians (such as Pen and I) . . . ' She did not approve of the British political stance by Lord Derby, believing in Napoleon as 'the agent for a free Italy'. Her disappointment over England's reluctance to engage in the struggle is given expression in her Songs Before Congress of 1860. By her marriage to Robert Browning, she had severed the strong family tie with her father. He had, by this date died without a reconciliation between them. There was no legacy left to the daughter who had once been his favourite child. Fortunately their modest wants were catered for due to her benefactor, a Mr Kenyon. In speaking of her work, she declares . . . ' I have worked at poetry — it has not been with me reverie, but art . . . Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself; and life has been a very serious thing; there has been no playing at skittles for me in either.' [Letters to Arabella, p. 313]
Elizabeth Browning, writing regularly to her family, provides us with much of the social background to their lives in Italy. It is in a letter to Arabella her sister, in February 1859 that she describes a social occasion. For her and her husband, it was a small social gathering. But for Bridell and Eliza Florance Fox, it was an event of great importance, their marrriage. In the letter, we discover that the artist had visited the Brownings in Rome on several occasions. He had known his intended bride only a matter of a few months. The couple had met earlier in 1858 in London, as Eliza later records. Bridell had not met members of her family, but rather than delay matters and return to England, they made their vows in Rome. The wedding was a [46/47] quiet and simple affair. It may not have entirely been coincidental that she happened to meet him in Rome at the latter part of the year. There is a hint from one source, that this headstrong and capable woman had 'followed' him to Italy.
The Brownings had ten rooms of varying sizes, none of them very big, but the sitting room was adequate to accommodate themselves and at least 13 named guests. It was used early in 1859 for a smaller more intimate affair.
'We have had a wedding here' writes Elizabeth to Arabella, 'and Robert has "given away" the bride, who is no other than Miss Fox. She came out here this winter for purposes of art & chose to begin my portrait, as I think I told you, — and fell in with Mr.Bridell a landscape-painter of much talent who brought letters to us in Florence & whom we have seen a little since. A week ago the two arrived in company to pay me a morning visit — Said Bridell, "Miss Fox has something to say to you, Mrs Browning — Had I better go out of the room?". . .to Miss Fox. I exclaimed . . . ."You frighten me — what is it?" Before I had settled into a decided [47/48] Elizabeth Barrett-Browning tremble, came the information from the male visitor . . . ." The fact is, we are thinking of being TIED, & it would be a great gratification to both of us if you would consent to be witnesses." — Such a surprise! So Robert went as witness, & I should have done the same if a cold wind had not forbidden it — To make up for which omission bride & bridegroom & bride's cousin were invited to dinner the same day with us. Do you think they came? Yes, most willingly. We dined at six, had champagne & everything in order, & our visitors remained till half past ten — Seldom in the course of my life have I been so tired to death — And they . . . you would think the bride had done nothing else but be married every day. An extraordinary serenity of mind & spirits for the occasion, certainly. Immediately after the ceremony they went to the Corso (where the carnival is carried on) then to dinner (with us) at six. This was on Saturday: on Monday they were at their respective studios as usual. Mr. Fox had written from England to entreat Robert to take his place at the ceremony — and so, went. Then she is an energetic little creature, to whom I wish well — and really have proved my goodwill by submitting to be "sacrificata" in sitting for my portrait . . .' [Letters to Arabella, Letter 202, p. 394]
The marriage had taken place at the British Consulate Office in Rome on February 26 1859. Eliza Florance Fox, was some six years older than her husband. The marriage certificate is witnessed by an Emily Friell, a friend of Eliza, George E. Fox, Eliza Fox's cousin and travelling companion, and Robert Browning. The occupation of Bridell's father is given as 'builder' and that of his bride's father, as 'Member of Parliament'.
Of those who knew Eliza well, we have a little description by Mrs Gaskell, just after she had met Charlotte Brontë in 1850. She records the following comparison. 'Miss Bronte is a nice person. Like you, Tottie, but without your merriment: poor thing she can hardly smile. She has led such a hard, cruel (if one may dare to say so) life. She is quite sensible, unaffected, with high, noble aims.' (Gaskell, Letters, no. 79) Another description of Eliza says 'she had a lovely expressive dark face, such eyes, and a low broad Grecian brow.'55
Eliza had communicated regularly, for the previous ten years, with Mrs Gaskell. She had visited the family in Cheshire and was often consulted regarding the education of her daughters). Mrs Gaskell had published Mary Barton in 1848 which had made a deep impression on Victorian Society.) When Mrs Gaskell learned that Eliza was to visit Rome with her cousin George in the summer of 1858, she was rather taken by surprise at the hastily arranged trip. 'I think I can give you some nice introductions in Rome, and to George too... but not to Monsignors (I only know one) or Cardinals . . . But you and George should know our dear Mr Story, who would know what you should do, and Mr Page, the American artist.' (Gaskell, Letters, no. 404)
Mrs Gaskell was overwhelmed to read of Eliza's sudden marriage in The London Times. Just the [48/49] minimum of three lines in the Marriage column recorded that the event had taken place. She had had no inkling of the affair and wrote an impassioned letter to William Fox, demanding the details.
42 Plymouth Grove
March 10th 1859
My dear Mr Fox,
Our Times of today — well of yesterday — well, tomorrow it will be of some day in dream land, for I am past power of counting — Our Times of today has taken away my breath — Who — What, Where, Wherefore,Why — oh! do be a woman, and give me all possible details — Never mind the House of Commons: it can keep — but my, our, curiosity CAN'T — Oh! please telegraph back anything about him — how long known what is he — what has he (I live in Manchester city sacred to Mammon,) when did she first see him — Where are they going live — Whole love story, &c., &c.,&c. Write for 26 hours consecutively, and you can't write enough.
WELL TO BE SURE
I THINK I AM
Yours most truly
Subsequently, from Mrs Gaskell, we learn that the couple are now residing in the Piazza Barberini. She writes to Eliza (sic) on March 21st, their letters having crossed in the post.
'You are a good darling, for remembering to write to me, and tell me all about it. It does sound very nice. Fancy your meeting your fate at Rome.(I dreamt of you and your husband at Albano, in the gardens of the Villa Medici — think of me if you go there). I want to know a quantity more of course. Where were you lodging first in Rome? What were you married in? Roman scarves and cameos? Oh, and is not Rome above every place you imagined? And do you go to the Pamphile Doria villa, and gather anemonies, . . . .. and do you know the Storeys, and have you seen Mr. Page? Where are you going to when Rome gets unhealthy, if you are going to stay till August in Italy. And how come the Brownings in Rome? Will you give my very kindest regards to her, and my kind regards to him . . . .and can you bring me back anything from Rome that is not very large and handsome, or will it plague you, and the unknown man, who after all will look after your luggage, and must therefore be consulted. But I like the 'sound' of him 49 extremely, and I hope he will like me when we come to know each other, which must not be long first.' [Gaskell, Letters, nos. 419 (Fox), 412, and 422]
Mrs Gaskell, followed this letter, with one to her daughter Marianne in late March, in which she refers to the letter from Eliza . . . 'One from Tottie, which I am sorry to say I lost as soon as read, or you should have seen it. She describes her husband as very charming, & seems very happy. . . . .they come home in August; have rooms in the Piazza Barberini'. Further short notes, cited later, indicate that Mrs Gaskell continued to visit the couple on their return to England. (Gaskell, Letters, no. 428)
The friendship between Robert Browning and William Johnson Fox, Eliza Fox's father, was longstanding. Fox's own life story from impoverished beginnings to Member of Parliament provides interesting background to the struggles of the working class (see Appendix). We read in Elizabeth Browning's letter dated 30/8/55 that . . . 'Tomorrow evening however we go to meet Frederick Tennyson; and last night she, (Mrs Sartoris) the Tennysons, Mr Forster and Mr Fox spent the evening with us.' Robert Browning continued to acknowledge his gratitude and friendship towards Fox in his letters to him.59
Fox's recognition of genius was fortuitous for the young Robert Browning. His earliest poem, Pauline appeared in the Monthly Repository in April 1833. Fox was immediately impressed by the work and wrote in praise of its author 'these thoughts have been suggested by the work before us, which, though evidently a hasty and imperfect sketch, has truth and life in it, which gave us the thrill, and laid hold of us with the power, the sensation of which has never yet failed us as a test of genius.' Fox's recognition of genius was fortuitous for the young Robert Browning. Fox wrote, 'We cannot judge of the house by the brick, but we can judge of the statue of Hercules by its foot. We felt certain of Tennyson, before we saw the book, by a few verses which had straggled into a newspaper; we are not less certain of the author of Pauline (Argosy (Feb. 1890).) Subsequent editions, saw the first publications of Browning's works until 1841.
Eliza Fox recalls in the same article, a visit by Browning to her home. 'I see myself, a child, sitting drawing at a sunny cottage window in the then rural suberb of Bayswater. Puffs of sweet scents of hawthorn and roses came floating in at the open window as I drew.' On learning that William Fox was out and only Eliza at home, Browning entered the drawing room. "It's my birthday today; I'll wait until they come in", and sitting down at the piano, he added "If it won't disturb you, I'll play till they do". She remembers Browning as 'slim and dark, and very handsome; and — may I hint it — just a trifle of a dandy, addicted to lemon-coloured kid gloves and such things: quite 'the class of fashion and the mould of form. Full of ambition, eager for success, and what's more, determined to conquer fame and to achieve success'.
The political struggle which followed the Anti Corn Laws, was also one which attracted [50/51] another leading industrialist of similar character to Fox. This was John Platt, for many years the owner of the engineering company Messrs. Platt Bros & Co. in Oldham. He had received only local schooling but took the greatest of interest in local and national politics. As Mayor for Oldham in 1861 he had worked tirelessly to improve the water supply and accommodation in the town. In 1865 and 1868 he was elected as Member of Parliament for Oldham. John Platt had married the only daughter of another factory owner Samuel Radcliffe. Radcliffe was elected as Mayor of St James Ward in Oldham on four occasions. Both families were closely linked and they owned large residences in Werneth Park, Oldham. Both Platt and Radcliffe were patrons of Bridell, and of the pictures submitted to the 1887 Exhibition at Manchester, two were then owned by Mrs S. R. Platt.
* * *
Eliza Fox and Barbara Leigh Smith, later Bodichon, were the first women artists to have their own exhibitions in London, at Mr Gambart's French Gallery (see Appendix). One of the leading writers of the day who visited these exhibitions as a matter of course was George Eliot, who was a good friend of Barbara Leigh Smith. She took a keen interest in art, visiting studios and exhibitions in London and when she travelled on the continent, recording impressions of these in her diaries and letters. In 1857 The Society of Female Artists held their first exhibitions and Eliza Fox exhibited here almost every year for the following thirty years. She also exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1859 until 1871, the first picture was a portrait of her husband. Until 1859, Eliza Fox had regularly exhibited at Suffolk Street since 1846. She was most drawn to portraits, but she also worked at imaginative and genre subjects. She appears to have had little interest in landscape but there is one indication of a joint venture in Italy. A picture, at auction at the Lawrences sale of 16 May 2003 in Crewkerne (lot 975) had an interesting inscription. The work was oil on paper 24x44.5 cms. In the sale catalogue it was described as follows: 'Coastal scene probably in the Mediterranean'. The inscription on the back read 'copy from F.Lee Bridell/by EFB'. It is possible that the work was completed during a trip from Rome, and they may have visited Sicily.
Throughout the early months of 1859, the artist was working on The Coliseum. A work which is in the tradition of poetical landscape, but combines drama, history, the passing moment and death. The painting so eloquently portrays these aspects to combine thought and feeling into a harmonious resolution of awe. The impressive edifice is a dark, gaunt shape against the prevailing moonlight. A group of barefoot Capuchins, bearing torches, head a dim funeral procession which steals along in the deep shadows. The movement of the monks and their torches, dwarfed in comparison with the magnificent building is again part of the grander theme of time and decay. There is a boldness in the conception and execution which is exhilarating. The artist has transformed the scene by the precise fixing of the clouds against [51/52] the moon, which heightens the work's dramatic impact, creating a silent and eerie spectacle.
Wolff had further commissioned a pair of large pictures to illustrate a classical theme in the setting of the Italian landscape. In this pursuit Bridell visited some of the lesser known areas away from Rome, as well as those more popular with the increasing numbers of tourists. In the event, he decided on the pine forest at Castel Fusano, an area of natural parkland north of Rome which bordered the coastline. Sending no works for exhibition himself, his wife submitted a portrait of her husband to the Royal Academy.
Returning to England, the couple resided for a time with Eliza's father in 3 Sussex Place, near Regent's Park. We know that Bridell had impressed Elizabeth Barrett Browning and she was eager to do what she could for the young artist. She proposed a meeting with her friend, John Ruskin. Mrs. Browning sent the following note to "John Ruskin Esq. Junior."
Mr Dear Mr. Ruskin
I am writing to you but not today. This time it is simply to introduce to you, Mr Bridell, a very clever landscape painter, married here in Rome to the daughter of my husband's old friend Mr Fox of Oldham, who, she also, is devoted to art — for art's sake, therefore, & ours, will you suffer them to take your hand?
Rome May 1
They also visited Eliza's brother, Franklin, who at this time owned a farm near Dorking. Some ten years younger than Eliza, he had been for most of his life, a master mariner in the Royal Navy. Evidently he gave some sketches to Bridell, who later worked on them and produced a work entitled Whaling off Desolation Island. Exhibiting at the British Institution in February, he submitted the recently completed pair of pictures for Wolff's collection. The Grotto of Neptune (72 x 49 ins.) at Tivoli and Pine Trees, Castel Fusano (72 x 49 ins.). The review in the Art Journal is eloquent and assesses the work in characteristic terms.
'The upright form of this picture has enabled the artist to give not only the grotto, but also the fall above it. The whole is rendered with impressive truth; the treatment of the subject elevates it to a passage of grandeur, everywhere fully sustained by well-ordered dispositions. We are here also near the Grotto of the sirens and innumerable sites hallowed to the classic reader.' [Art Journal (1860): 178]
He also exhibited a smaller work entitled Tombs of the Scipios which was described as a 'small and sparkling work, elegant in feeling'. [52/53]
Last modified 9 January 2009