The art detectives find Stanley’s feminine side

Our art expert Dr. Debbie Challis gets down and dusty to give a masterclass in Stanley Halls’ artistic heritage, with help from Judith Burden

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Thornycroft’s The Parable of the Great Supper
Image curtesy of Croydon Museum and Archives

One of the intriguing aspects of William Ford Stanley’s collection of paintings – that used to be on display in the Stanley Halls’ gallery when it was first opened to the public – is the number of women artists represented. Most are unknown, such as Edith Gillman, but Theresa Thornycroft (1853-1947) belonged to a family of relatively successful artists. Her mother, Mary Thornycroft (1809 -1895), nee Francis, was the daughter of the sculptor John Francis and married one of his apprentices Thomas Thornycroft. Her brother, Sir Hamo Thornycroft, was a sculptor, as was her sister Alyce, who was also a painter along with Theresa and her other sister Helen. Their eldest brother Sir John Isaac Thornycroft, however, bucked the artist career trend and became a naval engineer, founding the Thornycroft Ship Building Company.

The Parable of the Great Supper by Theresa Thornycroft is a biblically-themed painting depicting the different attitudes, from adulation to suspicion, towards the serene figure of Christ on the night before he is denounced by one of his disciples. The costume and framing of the scene makes it very much in the style of the so-called Victorian Olympian painters such as Alma Tadema and Leighton, but closer observation also traces the influence of Ford Maddox Brown, under whom Theresa trained.

Theresa’s mother was a highly successful artist who produced portrait statues of Queen Victoria’s children and later trained Princess Louisa. Her work provided a steady income, unlike the work of her husband Thomas, and it is likely that Theresa could flourish and train as an artist due to the encouragement of, and example set by, her mother.

It looks likely that Theresa gave up most of her work after marrying Alfred Ezra Sassoon, of the famous Iraqi Jewish dynasty, and having her eldest son Siegfried Sassoon in 1886, who of course became the famous writer, best known for his poetry from WW1. Before the couple separated, Theresa had two other sons, Michael and Hamo, who died in WW1, and she then lived at Matfield in Kent (near Tunbridge Wells).

This is just an overview of Theresa’s life. It would be intriguing to find out more about why Stanley bought this work and whether he knew the family, possibly through her brother.

If you want to see more of the paintings that once graced the gallery at Stanley Halls, have a look here at a previous blog entry.

Further Reading:

Nancy Proctor, ‘Thornycroft , Mary (1809–1895)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27368, accessed 10 May 2013].

Deborah Cherry (1993), Painting Women. Victorian Women Artists, London: Routledge.

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