The women who made us
Celebrating the women both past and present who have helped to shape the artwork, collections and history of our museums
Both in the nineteenth century and the years that have followed, an abundance of women have helped to shape the artwork, collections and history of Leighton House and Sambourne House, as well as the surrounding Holland Park Circle. Here, we share a glimpse at some of the fascinating stories of these remarkable women, including models, artists, photographers, biographers, philanthropists, and musicians.
Leighton's principal model for the later years of his life, Dorothy modelled for Bianca (1881), Desdemona (1888) , Leighton's final painting Clytie (1895-6), and is also thought to have modelled for his celebrated Flaming June (1895), amongst many others. She trained as an actress and managed to establish a reasonably successful career, including performances in New York. Dorothy was one of the few admitted to Leighton’s bedroom to take leave of him as he lay dying.
Leighton began to paint Mary Lloyd around 1893 and continued to until his death. She features in several of Leighton’s pictures including Corinna of Tanagra (c.1893), Lachrymae (1894-5) and Twixt Hope and Fear (1895). She was the daughter of a prosperous squire, who eventually lost his fortune; Mary came to London determined to sustain herself through modelling for prestigious artists - but she always refused to pose unclothed.
Hetty and Lily Pettigrew
The Pettigrew sisters were successful models of the time and sat for both Leighton and Sambourne, as well as other prominent artists including Millais, Whistler and Burne Jones. Whilst Leighton would have drawn studies from life, Sambourne turned towards photography to capture poses later used to create his illustrations.
In 1870 Leighton commissioned the eminent landscape gardener and craftswoman, Gertrude Jekyll, to embroider a cover for the dining room table. Leighton had seen Jekyll's embroidery work at the London International Exhibition Society in New Bond Street, and described it as "of remarkable merit in point of colour and arrangement." Jekyll went on to complete three more commissions for Leighton, including two strips of silk used to decorate the cushions on the staircase seat at Leighton House (a reproduction of Jekyll's work is now on display).
Julia Margaret Cameron
A pioneering photographer known for her soft-focus portraits of famous Victorian figures and scenes from literature and mythology. Our museums hold a collection of twelve of her works. Julia was the sister of Sara Prinsep, who was associated with the Holland Park Circle through her artist husband and son. The women of the family in general were known for their beauty, their artistic manner of dressing and cultivated conversation.
Emilie Russell Barrington
Biographer and novelist, Emilie was a friend and neighbour to Leighton, within the Holland Park Circle. Starting out as a contributor to the Fortnightly Review and The Spectator, she wrote several stand-alone works including the biographies of G.F. Watts and Leighton. Emilie was instrumental in establishing Leighton House as a museum.
A sculptor best known for her work portraying Queen Victoria’s many children, Mary was at the centre of a remarkable artistic family who were amongst those to build a studio house as part of the surrounding Holland Park Circle. As is often sadly the case with female artists, her male relatives’ careers in many ways overshadowed her own, and her reputation has since faded.
A devoted wife to Linley Sambourne and their two children, Roy and Maud, Marion had a good head for money management and proficiently ran the family home at 18 Stafford Terrace. Though often reluctantly, Marion also occasionally assisted Linley in his work by posing for photographs he then used to create his illustrations.
Maud Messel (neé Sambourne)
The daughter of Linley and Marion Sambourne , Maud inherited her father's talent for drawing and had lessons with artist Blanche Vicat-Cole. She had several drawings published in Punch and the Pall Mall Gazette. As was typical at the time, she gave up her career after her marriage.
Anne Messel, later Countess of Rosse
Maud's only daughter, Anne, later Countess of Rosse, was instrumental in establishing the Victorian Society at Sambourne House in 1958, with the aim of preserving Victorian and Edwardian architecture. This also led to the transformation of the house into a museum in 1980.
Long-term museums volunteer, Shirley Nicholson, has given decades of dedication to transforming the knowledge and appreciation of Sambourne House and Leighton House. As well as researching for numerous publications and writing two books: A Victorian Household: Based on the Diaries of Marion Sambourne and An Edwardian Bachelor: Roy Sambourne, Shirley has compiled and edited a wealth of information used in both museums, and hosted thousands of guided tours to museum visitors.
In March 2022, Shirley was recognised with a well-deserved Mayor’s Award in the category of Individual Contribution. Congratulations!
Shahrzad is the first female artist commissioned to create a contemporary artwork for permanent display at the 'new' Leighton House. Her spectacular 11-metre-high mural, Oneness, due to be completed in March 2022, decorates the walls of the new helical staircase in the modern wing.
Hailed as ‘queen of the qanun’, Maya is a globally renowned and award-winning qanun player (a 78 stringed plucked zither traditionally played by men). Maya has been commissioned by Leighton House to compose a new piece of music inspired by the house, which will be performed live in Leighton’s studio when the museum reopens and launch a collaborative programme of creative events, made possible thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Listen to a performance of 'Samai of Trees' the first single from Maya's upcoming album 'Finding Home' .