Sadly, Mary Newton's life was indeed a brief one. The daughter of the artist (and friend of Keats) Joseph Severn (1793–1879) and his wife, Elizabeth, she was born in Rome on 29 June 1832, and was first taught drawing by her father. On the family's return to England in 1841, she took lessons with the portraitist George Richmond, who gave her some of his own portraits to copy, and was so pleased with the results that he "employed her for that purpose" (Rideal 40). She then studied in Paris with Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), the Dutch-born artist who was a favourite at the Orleans court, where he was engaged as drawing master to the Orleans' children. As his protégé, Mary soon started gathering her own commissions. What was more, Scheffer made a perfect link between the higher echelons of society in France and England: Edward Morris talks of him as opening a "new avenue for French cultural penetration into England" (298). Between talent and connections, Mary established herself well enough on her return to be a real help to her family, at a time when her father was (to put it tactfully) "dogged by financial difficulties" (Maas 23).

Yet it was still "considered most unbecoming for a lady to earn money from the accomplishment of painting, and indecorous for her to draw attention to herself in public spheres" (Lambourne 395-96). Like other women artists (the sculptor Susan Durant comes to mind), she mostly confined herself to portraits of chidren, "working in crayon, chalk, pastel, or watercolour travelling from one great house to another" (Fowler). Her reputation spread simply by word of mouth, but in 1852 she did show a portrait of her younger brother and sister, the twins Arthur and Eleanor, at the Royal Academy, and she continued to exhibit there in subsequent years. Not surprisingly, in view of her commissions from members of the French imperial court, and British nobility, she came to the notice of Queen Victoria, who commissioned her to make portraits of her children and nephew, and to copy certain Old Masters which the queen admired.

In 1861 Mary married the archaeologist Sir Charles Newton (c. 1816-1894), keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum, working and travelling with him, for example, drawing his archaelogical finds for his publications. They travelled with the young Gertrude Jekyll, with whom Mary sketched local scenes and people as well as recovered artefacts. Finished works that went beyond illustrations were shown in the Dudley Gallery of the Egyptian Hall. But she worked in oils as well, the best-known example being her self-portrait, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. This has garnered considerable attention in recent years, especially because of what it suggests about the woman artist's position in society (see Parry 125-26).

Continuing to work with child sitters — "perhaps as a consolation for the fact that she had none of her own," suggests Sue Brown (301) — Mary (now Newton) unfortunately caught measles from one of them, and the illness rapidly took a turn for the worse:

Weakened by the infection, and in low spirits, she was traumatized by the suicide of a young girl who threw herself from the second-floor window of the opposite house on gloomy Gower Street. A brain fever developed. In just four days she was dead.... Newton’s peremptoriness barely concealed his anger at his loss: "It has pleased God to take my dearest Mary back to himself," he informed Eleanor.... The condolences flooded in.... Wharton Marriott, the chaplain at Eton who conducted the funeral, aptly described "a truly lovely spirit, a bright happy disposition in combination with such deep feeling, so much genius with such entire simplicity and humility unconscious of itself"! [301]

According to Brown, "After Mary's death, Severn never quite recovered his old buoyancy" (301). The queen was another who grieved over her loss, sending her condolences to the family through Lady Augusta Stanley (wife of the Dean of Westminster, who had been the Queen's Woman of the Bedchamber, and still sometimes represented her). It was so sad that such a talented artist should have died unexpectedly and at such an early age.

Related material


Brown, Sue. Joseph Severn, A Life: The Rewards of Friendship. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Fowler, Rowena. "Newton [née Severn], (Ann) Mary (1832–1866), painter." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 8 January 2020.

Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.

Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painters, London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1978.

Morris, Edward. "Ary Scheffer and His English Circle." Oud Holland 99, no. 4 (1985): 294-323. Accessed via Jstor. Web. 9 January 2020.

Perry, Lara. History's Beauties: Women in the National Portrait Gallery, 1856-1900. Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2006.

Rideal, Liz. Mirror, Mirror: Self-Portraits of Women Artists Watson-Guptill Publications, 2002.

Sharp, William. Preface. The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1892. pp.v-xvi. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University ibraries. Web. 9 January 2020.

Created 9 January 2020