Nelly Erichsen at the Royal Academy, 1880-1886: One woman’s fight to be accepted as a professional artist

To the President and the Council, we the undersigned students of the Royal Academy do hereby respectfully and earnestly petition that rearranging the schools of this institution you will reconsider the question of granting us a life class for the study of the partially draped figure. We beg to lay it before your notice that almost all of us rely on the profession we have chosen as our future means of livelihood. Therefore a class which is considered so essential to the training success of male students must be equally so to us. We venture to hope that the separation of male and female students in the upper schools of the Academy may have removed an important objection against the granting of our request.

Petition to the President and Council of the Royal Academy, 1883. Signed by 64 female students of the RA, including Nelly Erichsen.

Nelly Erichsen (1862-1918) was a pioneering artist, author and translator, and a friend of George Bernard Shaw. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to a middle class professional Danish family, she grew up in Tooting, South London, one of six children. Nelly was smart, highly intelligent, spoke several languages, but above all, she could draw, and she was lucky enough to have family who recognised and supported her talent. At a time when all young ladies were encouraged to learn to draw and paint, but only as a pastime, Nelly was singled out for extra support and her family aimed high in the tutor they found for her.

John Charles Lewis Sparkes was born in 1833, in Brixton, the son of a corn chandler, and received his initial art training under James Mathews Leigh, who had his own private art school off Oxford Street, and then joined the Royal Academy Schools. Leigh advised Sparkes to become a teacher, and in 1853 he entered the newly founded Art Masters’ Training Class, in the Government School at Marlborough House. Just a year later he took charge of the art classes set up by the Dean of St Paul’s at the school of St Mary-the-Less in Lambeth. This was the beginning of the well-known Lambeth School of Art, which began to attract students from all over the country and abroad. In 1873 Vincent Van Gogh lived briefly in Lambeth, and it is possible that he attended drawing sessions at the art school.

One of Sparkes’ particularly attractive qualities was the interest and encouragement he gave to young women artists. In 1868 he had married Catherine Adelaide Edwards, then 26, and an accomplished artist in her own right. She had been a pupil at Lambeth and then at the Royal Academy Schools, exhibiting in the Summer Exhibition in 1866. It may have been due to his wife’s encouragement, or genuine enthusiasm on his part for encouraging female talent, but according to the Entry Register at the Royal Academy in the 1870s and 1880s, John Sparkes was by far the most prominent sponsor of young women. This bias in favour of women students was to survive his death: when Sparkes died he left his whole estate to the RA on the instruction that it was to be used to fund scholarships for female students.

Entry to the RA Schools was free to anyone who passed the admission test. There were no academic qualifications required, so the fact that Nelly had not had any formal education did not count against her. To apply, all she needed was a letter of recommendation, from a recognised art master such as Sparkes, and then to submit a finished drawing, two feet high, of an undraped antique statue, or, if of a torso, with a head and a hand or foot. In early 1880 Nelly received her ‘bone’ – an ivory disc that guaranteed admittance to the Schools, on which was engraved her name and date of admission.

When Nelly walked through the doors of the Royal Academy in Piccadilly in April 1880, aged only 17, she was entering an institution in crisis. Founded in 1768 at the prompting of a group of prominent artists who were concerned that Britain was falling behind Continental Europe in artistic endeavour, it had first opened in 1769 with Sir Joshua Reynolds as its president. For most of the next century, it held its position as the pre-eminent training school for artists in Britain. However, the Academy was now facing major threats which it was struggling to resolve. Its teaching methods had changed little in the hundred or so years since foundation, and it was seeing competition from new ideas and fashions. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848, had fallen out dramatically with the art establishment, as personified by Sir Charles Eastlake, President of the Academy. Not only were the Schools under pressure to modernize their approach to art training, to take more notice of the methods being used on the Continent, for example, but they were also having to deal with the increasingly loud demands of women to be treated equally with men. New schools were being founded elsewhere, the most famous of which was The Slade in London, where men and women were taught on equal terms. To the great and the good who governed the Academy, the attempt to contain the challenge of the female art student was a proxy for the much larger shifts in the art world that they could not hope to control.

It had not been the intention of the Founders that the Schools should be a male-only preserve, but unfortunately, the Instrument of Foundation seemed to assume that all students would be male: ‘XXV No student shall be admitted into the Schools, till he hath satisfied the Keeper of the Academy…of his abilities’. And for most of the next century, women did not challenge the assumption, sending their works to the Summer Exhibition for display, but not attempting to be admitted as students.

However, by the 1850s, ambitions were beginning to surface. In 1856, Barbara Bodichon and Anna Mary Howitt, early campaigning feminists, set up The Society of Female Artists from their headquarters at Langham Place in central London. They were not just pursuing some point of feminist principle: they shared a very practical concern that women needed to be trained as professionals in many fields to become self-supporting. In 1859 a letter was sent to all Academicians and published in The Athenaeum magazine pointing out that as 120 ladies had been successful exhibitors at the Summer Exhibition in the previous three years alone, ‘the profession must be considered as fairly open to women’.[i] But in fact, as the 1860s arrived, the door to the Royal Academy Schools remained firmly closed. The stumbling block seemed to be that the Council could not imagine male and female students working together in the Life Schools. Victorian prudery was holding back progress.

The story of how the first woman came to be admitted ‘by accident’ is well known. In the 1850s, Laura Herford was a student at Sass’s Academy who wished to join her fellow male students as they progressed to the RA Schools. Herford decided to challenge the authorities: in 1860 she submitted one of her works to the Schools with an application, signed only “L. Herford.” A return letter, addressed to “L. Herford, Esq.,” admitted the recipient to the Academy. When the Academy realised its mistake, it was simply too embarrassed to withdraw the offer, and Laura was duly enrolled. Four female students were admitted the following year, and six in 1862, and after this slow start the number gradually increased to about twelve a year. The tide had turned against the men in charge.

As a student at the Academy, Nelly was taught to draw principally by copying from an extensive collection of plaster casts. She attended classes on perspective, and there were also courses on painting, chemistry, sculpture and architecture. If she had been a man, she would also have joined the Life School, where models, male or female, were alive and naked. For this is where the Royal Academy was in danger of lagging behind other ‘upstart’ art schools – the governing body was struggling to cope with the demands of female students, as it was considered completely unsuitable for them to be allowed anywhere near a naked body of either sex.


In 1883, the female students decided that enough was enough. The petition to be granted access to the Life Classes was drafted by the female students, and Nelly’s name is among the first ten signatories on a list of more than sixty. Appended to the petition were letters of support from a number of well-known, established painters including Kate Perugini (the daughter of Charles Dickens); Helen Allingham, one of the most famous water colourists of the Victorian era; and Marie Spartali, perhaps the greatest female artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The signatories made the case that these women were serious artists, hoping and needing to make a livelihood from their talents, and therefore requiring proper training. The issue was debated at length by the Council of the Academy in December 1883 and approved by eight votes to two. But over the Christmas holidays the opposition gathered its forces and when it came back to a vote at the all-male General Assembly in January it was dismissed by twenty-four votes to nine. Nothing was to change until 1893, seven years after Nelly had left, when it was grudgingly resolved to allow female students to draw from a male model undraped except around the loins. It took another year to agree the exact manner of the drapes: ‘ordinary bathing drawers, and a cloth of light material 9 foot long by 3 foot wide, which shall be wound round the loins over the drawers, passed between the legs and tucked in over the waistband’ and to prevent accidents ‘a thin leather strap shall be fastened round the loins in order to ensure that the cloth is kept in place.’

Royal Academy medal. Source: The Rootham Family.

Nelly was one of a talented intake, but still she stood out from the crowd. In 1884 she was awarded the first prize, the Silver Medal, for her “Drawing of a Head from Life”. Tellingly, she was the only female prizewinner in a list of eighteen names. She soon became a prolific exhibitor at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, concentrating on this venue rather than the lesser known galleries or those reserved for women. Between 1884, only four years after her admission to the Schools, and 1897, she had sixteen paintings accepted and hung, at a time when many artists, particularly women, struggled to be seen at all.

Distinct connections were now drawn by commentators between women’s success as artists, and the growing campaign for political equality. On 7 May 1892, the leading article in the Woman’s Herald was the defeat, by only a small majority, in the House of Commons the previous week of the Women’s Suffrage bill. The review of the RA Summer exhibition, in the same newspaper, began ‘When two women have eight pictures in the Academy and one seven, when in the very first room of the gallery there greets one full length portraits by the hand of a woman, one thinks of the smallness of Wednesday’s majority and is fired into action full of hope.’[ii] Progress was being made, but it was painfully slow for women hoping to be treated as equals in the professional art world.

Nelly’s paintings sold for perhaps eight or ten guineas a piece, not really enough to make a living. By the early 1890s she was experimenting with book and magazine illustrations as an additional source of income – and by 1900 this became her major occupation. After 1897 there are no more exhibits by Nelly at the Summer Exhibition or any reviews of her art elsewhere. For the next twenty years until her death from Spanish flu, contracted while nursing war refugees in Tuscany, she built her reputation as a book illustrator, working at a phenomenal pace, travelling and drawing all over Europe. By 1900 there were many women working as professional artists and illustrators in Britain. But no woman was admitted as a Royal Academician until the election of Dame Laura Knight, in 1936.

Sarah Harkness (@sarahhark2) is a writer and biographer, currently studying for an MA at the University of Buckingham and working on a biography of Alexander Macmillan. Her first published work, ‘Nelly Erichsen: A Hidden Life’ , was longlisted for the 2019 William MB Berger Prize for British Art History. If you want to read more about the fascinating life of Nelly Erichsen, and see more of her artwork, you can find a copy at

Notes & references

[i] The Athenaeum, 30 April 1859, p. 581

[ii] The Woman’s Herald, 7 May 1891

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