Emma Sandys: A Lesser Known Pre-Raphaelite Woman Artist

Emma Sandys, an English painter, acquired importance as the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites and a crucial female artist who created rich canvases portraying women.

Emma Sandys

The mold of Pre-Raphaelite broke upon Britain in 1848 when a group of seven men met with piety, exaltation, and high spirits for adopting the contemporary means of art and accepting the nobility against ignoble and material things. Making through their artistic careers during the Victorian era, also known by the industrial changes, these men imagined creating a brotherhood, similar to monastic rules, that would set an inspiration for the civilization. Sooner as they expanded to several more artists, their exhibition showcased devout feelings and worldly possessions, unlike the Renaissance. Though this group never defined their religion, they shared characteristics with a group of Germans who settled in Rome in 1811. According to the latter, the art before Raphael was pure and austere, portraying faith. However, after Raphael was artificial and self-assertive, and to reciprocate, their establishment began by following Early Italian painters and named themselves Nazarenes. Nazarenes worked under cold and hard style with a Teutonic thoroughness that was lacking in their admired masters. The technique of this group spread across Europe, and it is only logical to say that the young English men from 1948, who called themselves Pre-Raphaelites, picked it. The group evolved with their portraiture of devotion, and among them were a few women who created unforgettable art. In this read, we will look back at one of them, who went by the name Emma Sandys.

Artist Abstract: Emma Sandys.

Emma Sandys, the second child of the Sandys family of Norwich, was born in 1943 to a jobbing painter, Anthony Sandys, and under his guidance through brother (also painter) Fredrick, 14 years older, learned the art of painting. Fred and Emma were known for their portraitures across Norwich and other regions and followed the movement successfully. The former among these brother-sister duo was mistaken not less than commonly for Emma’s frames, given the similarity between the two. However, during Emma’s career, she worked on various commissions, including by Aristocrats, and produced work until November 1877 in Norwich, when she died of congestion of the lungs. To understand the importance of her career, which deteriorated by her early death, resulting in being overlooked throughout history, Emma Sandys presented her work at the Norwich Fine Arts Academy in 1868 and at the Royal Academy till 1874. The same year, the Pre-Raphaelite woman exhibited Fair Rosamind at the Society of Women Artists.

Emma Sandys Photograph
Emma Sandys, Photograph | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons
ArtistEmma Sandys
GenrePortraiture and Landscape
Famous PaintingsPreparing for the Ball, Viola, and Elaine

Snooping Inside the Life of Emma Sandys.

Emma Sandys (1843-77) was born in the local family of the Norwich region to her mother being a textile worker and her father who turned from the dyeing trade to creating Portraitures professionally. As a second child, 14 years younger than her brother, Anthony Frederick, she lived under the shadow of Fred and learned the art of painting through her father, as Fred had been. By the time Emma began painting her journey to an approved painter of the region Norwich and soon Britain, her brother had already mastered the art and owned a studio in London. It is evident from the record and the 1861 census that Emma, unlike many others, went to school and didn’t become an artist before Nineteen.

The life of this proficient woman painter is traced through her work and a few government records, suggesting that we know little to nothing about her in personal classification. Further, the 20th century confused her frames with Fred and regarded them as his work. However, if we look back at the exhibitions Emma held and presented at, it is quite clear about the first and the last, as well as a few commissions that supported her career to a great extent. Reasoning the confusion between the works of Fred and Emma, we can note how closely they applied their work and the importance of the artist’s brother to influence her in following the Pre-Rapahelitism. We will discuss the minute difference between their paintings in a bit, but before that, I will first take you through the exhibitions of Emma to be clued up on her professional life.

Among Emma Sandys’ earliest exhibitions were at Norwich and Eastern Counties Working Class Industrial Exhibition of 1867, which presented Girl with a Butterfly as a listed property of William Dixon, a local art collector who later owned two other pictures by the Pre-Raphaelite accounted by the names Pleasant Dreams and Devotion. Though early, the exhibition is also of value to get an idea of when Emma took on the reputation of a professional artist (as mentioned, she was not one in the 1861 census). Another work at this exhibition was Preparing for the Ball.

Pleasant Dreams by Emma Sandys
Pleasant Dreams by Emma Sandys | Source: ArtUK

Some of the early works of Emma Sandys are Portrait of a Saxon Princess, Adeline, and A Maid of Athens, making an appearance at the London Society in 1865.

Portrait of a Saxon Princess by Emma Sandys
Portrait of a Saxon Princess by Emma Sandys | Source: Fine Art America

Some of the crucial presentations, however, happened at the Royal Academy when Emma showcased Enid in 1868, Two Child Portraits in 1870, Undine in 1873, and a chalk head of Duchess of St Albans in 1874. Lastly, her only exhibition in London after these was Fair Rosamund at the Society of Lady Artists in 1874.

You might have noted the medium-sized oil heads that Emma painted and exhibited in her early career. It later became one of her specialties and represented the women from literary narratives with rich colors, vivid costumes, and almost near to the drama of womanhood, one that made Emma the second generation Pre-Raphaelite Artist. As discussed before, Fred brought an influence on the movement and poured it into Emma. Still, the influence never benefitted the artist’s success to a known extent. It can be noted by the words J.M. Gray as he mentioned Emma while writing about Frederick in Art Journal 1884. He briefly remarked,

“a sister, Miss E. Sandys, who died recently after having produced much interesting though far from perfect work.”

In 1877, as Emma passed away from congestion of the lungs at 34, her death became a subject of vague press interest, with one of the local newspapers mentioning her death as a mere notification. The artist painted some of the most beautiful artworks of the time, and it is now time you learn about a few of them.

Looking at Emma Sandys’ Paintings.

1. Elaine.

Yearc. 1862
MediumOil on Panel
Size38.3 x 40.7 cm
Where is it housed?The National Trust: Lanhydrock, Cornwall

Before we look at the painting to appreciate it, let me tell you about the subject, Elaine. She is a heroine of the Tennyson’s Idylls of the King 1859, whose love for the Lancelot is non-reciprocated. Often used as the subject in the mid-Victorian period, she is a figure of imagination painted extensively by women artist.

Emma Sandys Elaine
Elaine by Emma Sandys | Source: Reed Enger, in Obelisk Art History

About the painting, this is one of the earliest artworks of Emma Sandys. According to the historical context, there are three versions of it. The first one is attributed to the artist’s brother, Fred, which is identified as the Portrait of the Actress Ruth Herbert. Another version has similar dimensions but dates from 1865 and bears Emma’s monogram. Now, there is only a slight disparity in the format, which makes it confusing to recognize them. One of the characteristics of Sandys’ work and her brother’s joint compositions is the sharing and repetition of models, studio props, and costumes. The artwork shows a young woman reclining in an uncomfortable angle, looking upwards at something unknown, or maybe contemplating something in her mind. With sad eyes, glimmering pearls, and shining skin, her beauty is almost luring to the viewer in contrast to the deep, richly colored Morrisian surroundings of heavy blue velvet and red drapery background. Also, not forget, her luxurious copper-colored curls almost make her beauty undefinable with words.

2. Preparing for the Ball.

MediumOil on canvas
Size61 x 43 cm
Where is it housed?Private Collection

The artwork was well-known in terms of history as it was one of the paintings from the two exhibitions of the artist at the Norwich and Eastern Counties Working Classes Industrial Exhibition in her hometown of Norwich in 1867. Another artwork (currently unlocated) present in these exhibitions was Girl with a Butterfly.

Preparing for the Ball Emma Sandys
Preparing for the Ball by Emma Sandys | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

The painting holds an intimate importance in the artistic career of Emma as it was the only full-length figure in the artwork, which we currently know. It hints at the success she enjoyed despite having informal training by her father and brother. We do not know the provenance of the artwork, but luckily, we can witness its beauty. Though the subject is mirrored in the artwork, it displays two different personalities. One who looks towards the mirror has pride, which one can witness through her posture and shoulder raise, but at the same time, the mirrored figure has sorrowful eyes and facial expressions. The color contrasts of the dress go well with the background and even the long red shawl.

3. Lady in a Yellow Dress.

MediumOil on panel
Size37 x 29.5 cm
Where is it housed?Norfolk Museum Service (Norwich Castle Museum)

The painting’s exhibition records are not present, which makes it strenuous to get the entire background of the artwork. However, it bears all the hallmarks of Emma’s mature artworks, showing a sophistication in the portraiture. We know nothing about the subject, but through the medievalising background, one can see that Emma used a flemish tapestry, owned by a Norwich Castle museum since 1861. This similar Flemish Tapestry is also seen in another artwork of Emma, Olive, or The Talking Oak of 1868.

Emma Sandys Girl in a Yellow Dress
Girl in a Yellow Dress by Emma Sandys | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

The subject looks half back through her side face, looking at a lower viewpoint in melancholy and grief. The brightly colored brown bead necklace, shining face, black curled hair, and a pinkish blush over the cheeks and ear of the subject portrays the subject as beautiful.

4. Viola.

MediumOil on canvas
Size53 x 40.2 cm
Where is it housed?Board of Trustees of the National Museum and Galleries on Merseyside (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)

The artwork bears the following lines from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene IV,

“Duke: And what’s her history? Viola: A Blank, my Lord, She never told her love.”

The scene occurs when the viola (which is the subject) is disguised as a cesario and banters with the Duke about love. Now, one of the crucial points to note is that many artists have portrayed the subject as Androgynous, of Greek mythology (hermaphrodites that possessed a perfect balance of male and female traits), but Emma shows her as a woman.

Viola by Emma Sandys
Viola by Emma Sandys | Source: National Museums Liverpool

A few characteristics of Emma’s painting, Viola, are emphasis on the figure’s jewels and costuming, marmoreal jaw and hand, use of a mirror to showcase the domestic setting, and a continuous provoking gaze to the viewer.

Final Words.

Emma Sandys was a woman with an ordinary life and a career that gave her a reputation that never exceeded the scandalous Frederick but became memorable for her depiction of womanhood through her colorful canvas. If I put it close enough, Emma is a shimmering fragment of Pre-Raphaelitism who stands alongside the many women who enlightened us the women sight.


1. The Pre-Raphaelite Dream by William Gaunt.

2. Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement by Jan Marsh.

3. Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists by Jan Marsh.

4. The Dictionary of British Women Artists by Sara Gray.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who was Emma Sandys?

Emma Sandys was an English painter without formal training in art who became one of the widely known Pre-Raphaelites often receiving commissions for Portraits and Landscapes.

Who was Emma Sandys’ brother?

Anthony Frederick, a Pre-Raphaelite painter, was the brother of Emma Sandys who influenced and taught Emma Sandys the art of the time.

When did Emma Sandys die?

Emma Sandys passed away in 1877 due to the congestion of the lungs.


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