The Story-book (The Children's Story-book) by Sophie Anderson (1823-1903). 1872. Oil on canvas. H 100.3 x W 125.7 cm. Collection: Birmingham Museums. Accession no. 1892P25. Bequeathed by Mrs Turton, 1892. Photo credit: Birmingham Museums Trust. Image download Jacqueline Banerjee, and formatting by Banerjee and Gerrish Nunn. Image kindly made available under a Creative Commons Zero licence (CC0). This means it can be used in any way, for commercial or non-commercial purposes.
In the early part of her career in the UK, Anderson made her name as a painter of children, and the British auction-rooms are nowadays routinely graced with her small-scale "fancy pictures" featuring appealing little girls (her boys are less often seen) in head-and-shoulders compositions, skilfully done but what might in career terms be called pot-boilers. Given how many more of these exist than were ever exhibited, it must be concluded that Anderson received many commissions for this type of work. The present painting shows that she could, however, treat this subject-matter in a much more ambitious fashion.
In this respect, The Story-book follows on from an 1858 composition called Dinner! in which three children of comparable age to the The Story-book’s actors are seen in a sunlit rural scene of a similar shape (although Dinner! is a vertical composition). The mood is also similar, the children happily interacting while displaying various demeanours. Another step on the way to The Story-book is the 1869 painting Acorn Gatherers in which three children perform the task of the title, again in the open air, presenting the characters in the foreground absorbed in their own occupation(s), a large tree to one side and an open expanse beyond in a scene that celebrates the English countryside. All three works could have been drawn from the Surrey setting in which the Andersons lived at the end of the 1860s, prior to their departure for Capri, and The Story-book conjures up the rustic idylls of the distinguished watercolourist Myles Birket Foster, whom Anderson could well have got to know in that rural location, as he lived but five miles away from their home in Bramley.
While the subject here can be seen as a composite of four vignettes taken from the artist’s existing repertoire and skilfully combined together to make an unprecedentedly complex scene, the central theme that gives the work its title had a topicality that can easily escape the twenty-first-century viewer. A series of Education Acts, beginning in 1870, changed the situation of children such as these, gradually turning them from child workers to pupils, and thus able to substitute the central activity here – reading – for those that had previously weighed upon them – whether child-minding, helping in the fields and market gardens, or others more onerous not shown here such as hay-making and gleaning. That the two oldest girls are in effect engaged in a form of self-improvement gives this charming work a rather more serious subtext for those who would take it.
Exhibited firstly in Glasgow 1872, the painting was then shown at Birmingham later in the year. There it was reviewed positively as a work from an artist of reliable quality: "Mrs Anderson, whose peculiar talent in the representation of children is so well known," wrote the Birmingham Daily Gazette’s critic. It seems a fitting acknowledgement of Anderson’s calibre that when, in 1892, the painting was bequeathed to the city of Birmingham’s art gallery, it broke through a historic barrier, being the first painting by a female artist to enter that collection (following two watercolours by Hellen Allingham).
Arscott, Caroline in "Victorian Children and Childhood" (by various authors). Journal of Victorian Culture. 9.1 (Spring 2004): 107-113.
The Children's Story Book. Art UK. Web. 22 April 2022.
"Exhibition of the Royal Society of Artists." Birmingham Daily Gazette. 4 September 1872: 5.
Nichols, Kate. "Sophie Anderson, a cosmopolitan Victorian Artist in the Midlands." Midlands Art Papers. Birmingham: University of Birmingham. 2018.
Created 22 April 2022
Last modified 1 May 2022