Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Ivory relief of Elizabeth Barrett, Mrs Browning (1806-61), c.1865 

Jacques-Pierre-Theodore Blard 

Ivory relief of Elizabeth Barrett, Mrs Browning (1806-61), c.1865, Jacques-Pierre-Theodore Blard
19th Century
3 in (76 mm) long
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Elizabeth Barrett's earliest years were extremely happy. She grew up as the eldest of twelve children of a sugar planter at their house in Herefordshire. From the age of fifteen, however, she began to suffer from the ill-health that plagued her early adult life. The frustration of remaining at home whilst her younger brothers went away to school exacerbated the weakness that was brought on by a bout of measles. Although she was properly incapicitated for a year she never properly recovered. The family was struck by successive misfortunes. In 1828 Mrs Barrett died, but this was only the culmination of family and business disasters which forced the Barretts to leave their house in Herefordshire and move to London. There, at a house in Wimpole Street Elizabeth lived - at number 50, the house with which she is forever associated - under the control of her possessive father, instructed not to venture outside for fear of the polluting air. Despite these handicaps she pursued her writing career as a poet and a critic, and acquired a sufficient reputation for Robert Browning to visit her shortly before her fortieth birthday. Although her father had instructed that none of his remaining unmarried children should marry during his lifetime, Elizabeth eloped with Browning to Italy, where her health rallied a little. At the age of forty three she gave birth to her only child, Pen Browning. In 1856 she published Aurora Leigh, a verse novel. In 1861 Mrs Browning died in Rome, where she is buried in the Protestant Cemetery.

Whether this ivory sculpture is based on a life sitting is not known. Elizabeth Browning was in Dieppe in 1858, as she was photographed there in what has become one of her best known likenesses. It is possible, therefore, that she could have sat to Blard, a native of Dieppe, at that time. Blard worked in a number of media, including sculpting in bronze, but he came from the tradition of the Dieppois ivoiriers. The Blards form a dynasty, as Theodore was the son of Jacques-Nicolas Blard (born 1796) and the grandson of the craftsman known simply as Blard l''ancien. The popularity of literary lionesses in the mid-nineteenth century may account for the existence of this ivory and the similar signed portrait of Mrs Gaskell (Historical Portraits q.v.). Not only was London in awe of these formidable and accomplished women, but it may also be that the more outrageous life of George Sand (1804-76) had made women writers intriguing and fashionable figures.
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