Elizabeth Rigby (later Lady Eastlake, 1809–93), the author of A Residence on the Shores of the Baltic, was thought by many of her contemporaries to be equally talented as a writer and an artist. She herself had no doubts as to which activity she preferred: ‘my pen has never been a favourite implement with me; the pencil is the child of my heart’. However, it is as a writer and critic that she made her name in the world of Victorian culture.
She had a good start in life – not that her family was especially prosperous, but they knew, and/or were related to, almost everyone. Her physician father, who died when she was eleven, had been a pupil of Joseph Priestley. He was a friend and supporter of Edward Jenner, and brought vaccination to Norwich, where his daughter was brought up in a highly cultured Dissenting circle which included the Taylor family (coming soon!) and the Martineaus. She was related on her mother’s side to Lucie Duff-Gordon and to the Arctic explorer Sir William Edward Parry. One of her cousins was the wife of William Jackson Hooker (who began his career in Norwich) and mother of Joseph, and she was also related to the remarkable Palgrave family.
Elizabeth and her eleven siblings and had tutors and instructors in French, geography, Italian, and arithmetic, and she loved drawing, and was encouraged in it, from an early age. This formal education came to an end with her father’s death, however, and in her teens she was ‘permitted to educate herself’ on the family estate at Framingham Earl, near Norwich.
In 1827, she caught typhoid fever, and became dangerously ill. Her family took her to Germany and Switzerland to recuperate, and stayed for two years, during which period she learnt German, subsequently translating the account by German artist Johann David Passavant of his tour of British art collections, which she published in 1836, believing that English readers would benefit from Passavant’s descriptions of little-known collections in their own country, as well as from his practitioner’s response to the works themselves.
In 1832 she spent a year in London studying art and attending art classes, but by 1835 was travelling to Germany again, and in 1838 she made the journey to Russia and Estonia recorded in A Residence, published in 1841 by John Murray. Murray’s reader, J.G. Lockhart (Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law), was also editor of the Quarterly Review, and he asked Elizabeth to contribute pieces – she was the first woman to write regularly for the periodical, though she did so under a male pseudonym, notoriously so when she condemned Jane Eyre (which she reviewed alongside Vanity Fair), as ‘a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste’.
During this period, she was living with her mother, who moved to Edinburgh in 1842. The Lockhart–Murray connection gave an entrée into intellectual society in the Athens of the North, but there were also frequent trips to London – where she met among others Agnes Strickland, George Borrow, Turner and Carlyle. She also travelled widely in Europe, both visiting family and touring art galleries.
She had first met Charles Eastlake, painter (a pupil of Benjamin Robert Haydon) and later arts administrator, in 1846. They were married in 1849, her fortieth year, and settled down to a life at the centre of the London artistic scene, with regular travel across Europe almost every year. Babbage, Dickens, and Angela Burdett-Coutts were acquaintances, and Elizabeth became the confidante of Effie Ruskin during the process of the annulment of her marriage and the surrounding scandal. (She did not apparently like Ruskin, and certainly disapproved of his art criticism.)
Eastlake became President of the Royal Academy in 1850, and in 1855 was appointed director of the National Gallery, which for some time had been in a state of financial and aesthetic chaos. His abilities, both artistic and administration, and the appreciation of early Italian art which he shared with Prince Albert, led to the reform of the institution and many important acquisitions: it seems certain that Elizabeth’s interest, knowledge and ability as a critic played a part in his success.
In 1854 she published a translation of Treasures of Art in Great Britain (coming soon!), by Gustav Friedrich Waagen, director of the Berlin Museum and a personal friend: like Passavant’s book, this was an outsider’s survey of British public and private collections. She continued to write, mostly for periodicals, until the late 1880s. (Sir Charles had died in 1865.) She also kept up her regular travels in Europe, and became a close friend and regular correspondent of Sir Austen Henry Layard, the archaeologist, and of Dean Stanley of Westminster and his family.
Her Journals and Correspondence, edited by her nephew Charles Eastlake Smith and published in two volumes by John Murray in 1895, are embellished by some of her accomplished drawings. They reveal a woman of independent mind, and firm opinions, with an eye for detail and an ear for anecdote. ‘To Miss Edgeworth’s: … I had the privilege of threading her needle…; said Mrs Siddons was awfully dull, except when she got upon her own profession…’. The duke of Wellington, at a reception given by Miss Coutts, looks sleepy, and has to be prodded awake from time to time by the Italian bass Lablache. In 1858 she meets Mrs Somerville in Florence at the time when Donati’s comet (the first to be photographed) is visible in the night sky: Mrs Somerville (‘a most gentle, intelligent old lady’) had been talking that day to Donati himself about it, and was full of information.
A fascinating read, full of snapshot-like glimpses of the great and good of the nineteenth century and their cultural interests (and prejudices!). I think we can be thankful that Elizabeth Rigby stuck with the pen as well as the pencil.