Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


HENRY TANWORTH WELLS (London 1828 – London 1903)

The Red Carnation

signed Henry T. Wells and dated 1869 in the lower left

oil on canvas

58 x 48 inches          (147.5 x 122 cm.)


An old label on the verso is inscribed no. 4 Henry T. Wells ARA



By descent in the family, Soughton Hall, Flintshire, Wales until 2010


A red carnation traditionally symbolizes passion and love as well as marriage.[1] The flower’s meaning is also the key to comprehending Henry Tanworth Wells’ vivid portrayal of the lovely inhabitants of Soughton Hall. Executed in 1869, Wells’ adherence to the tenets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is daringly displayed. Strikingly modern, two sisters are viewed in the sumptuous interior of their boudoir surrounded by the trappings of wealth and status. Such access to female lairs was viewed as highly sensuous, imbuing the sitters with “the double edged attributes of unobtainable beauty and irresistible power”.[2] Unbound, cascading hair, a style popularized by the Pre-Raphaelites, was regarded as a woman’s most voluptuous feature.[3] Although previously considered ugly, the red hair they favored for their heroines had become all the rage by the late 1860s. The color was equated with unabashed sexuality.[4] In a society which categorized women as either saint or sorceress, such hair was simultaneously viewed as offering “both a comforting refuge and a drowning pool”.[5]

The lilies in the glass vase, prominently displayed on the dressing table, are emblematic of purity. The pink of the sisters’ gowns is the color most commonly associated with love, while white further emphasizes their virtue.[6] Stressing the up-to-datedness of the work is the style of their dresses which derive from the aesthetic movement which began with the Pre-Raphaelites and was based on the simpler lines, forms and colors of early medieval art. Women of their class were constricted by a myriad of rules which governed their behavior. Etiquette books, which were best sellers, outlined in minute detail proper behavior for every situation, as well as what clothing was regarded suitable for all events. If such rules were ignored the result could be ridicule or being shunned by one’s set. Although such dresses were regarded as healthier and more comfortable, the look was widely regarded to reflect an undressed state and therefore never achieved a wide following.[7]

While one sister gazes into the unseen mirror of the vanity table adjusting the carnation in her hair, the other has turned her back on the standing mirror and with folded hands directly engages the viewer. Simultaneously sensual and reserved, they reflect the emboldened imagery of the Pre-Raphaelites’ feminine ideal that cut across class lines.[8] An unusual note in the portrait is struck by the standing mirror’s reflection of a curtain decorated with the branches of a willow tree, a motif that is echoed in the carving of the wood panel near the center of the composition. It is an allusion to the Willowwood Sonnets by Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The sonnets deal with themes of passion and loss as well as the hope for love. By 1869, Wells had been a friend of Rossetti’s for at least twenty years. The sonnets would have resonated with Wells who had lost the love of his life in 1861 with the death of his wife and fellow artist Joanna Boyce Wells. Sue Bradbury in her 2012 biography of Wells, Joanna and her brother George (Joanna, George and Henry, a Pre-Raphaelite Tale of Art, Love and Friendship) wrote “For Henry, his Joney – so intensely wooed, so hardly won, so passionately loved – remained forever the focus of his life”.[9] A similar motif of a mirror reflecting willows, in this case fronted by two unlit candles, can be viewed in Rossetti’s 1867 depiction of Lady Lilith (Metropolitan Museum, New York). In The Red Carnation, Wells continues this emblematic imagery but places a single empty candlestick before it to signify the entrance into a world of shadows. In March 1869, the Willowwood Sonnets were published in The Fortnightly Review, one of England’s leading intellectual magazines. Their evocation of love in highly sensuous terms was labeled as obscene.[10] Judging by the clothes, The Red Carnation was painted in the summer of 1869. The sisters must have delighted at the hint of scandal its inclusion added to their portrayal.

Henry Tanworth Wells began his apprenticeship at Dickinson’s Drawing Gallery, Bond Street, London at the age of fourteen. There he mastered the art of painting miniatures and chalk portraits. He also studied under the history painter and playwright James Matthews Leigh. He exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1846 with a portrait of Master Arthur Princep. Having studied alongside a number of artists who joined the Pre-Raphaelite ranks, he shared their love of vivid coloration and striving for exacting detail. In 1857 he married Joanna May Boyce in Rome. By 1860 having chiefly forged a career painting miniatures, the encroaching popularity of photography forced a sea change and Wells took up full-scale portraiture. It is at this point his career flourished with commissions that included dignitaries, aristocrats, and royalty. In 1867 he was made an associate of the Royal Academy and in 1870 a full Academician. From 1846-1903, Wells exhibited a total of 239 works at the Academy besides the British Institution and Society of British Artists, among other venues. In totality, including engravings after Wells, more than 100 portraits by the artist are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Other museums in London with works by Wells are the Tate, Science Museum, Royal Academy of Arts as well as The Royal Collection. The museums of Aberdeen, Aberystwyth (National Library of Wales), Dublin, Hamburg, Lewes, Northampton, Norwich, and Oxford also included the painter in their permanent collections.[11]

The Red Carnation was deaccessioned from Soughton Hall in 2010. The work assuredly portrays Emma (b. 1848) and Frederica (1848-1926) Bankes. Their grandfather was Henry Bankes MP of Kingston Lacy whose three elder sons were all members of Parliament. Edward, their father, was the fourth and youngest son and as such might not have expected any great estate, but his eldest brother William John died childless in 1855 leaving Edward, Soughton Hall, itself a recent inheritance from Sir William Wynne MP, the brothers’ great-uncle.  Edward was Canon of Gloucester Cathedral and Chaplin in Ordinary to Queen Victoria. Emma and Frederica were the daughters of their father’s second marriage to Maria Rice granddaughter of Lord Dynevor. In all likelihood they were fraternal twins. On June 5, 1873 in a double ceremony held in Radipole, Dorset, Emma married Edward Charles Cameron and Frederica wed Brevet-Major John George Skene.[12]

In a painting that certainly hints at the duality of their natures, Wells has forever captured the sisters’ loveliness within the confines of one of his most modern recordings of contemporary society. Four years after the work was painted the sisters fulfilled the love prophesied by the red carnation and Willowwood Sonnets in what must have been a wedding ceremony of exquisite beauty.



[1] Lucia Impelluso, Nature and its Symbols, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2004, p. 115, 117; and Madonna Gauding, The Signs and Symbols Bible, Sterling Publishing Co., New York, 2009, p. 309.

[2] J. B. Bullen, The Pre-Raphaelite Body, Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry and Criticism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, p. 137.

[3] Lothar Hönnighausen, The Symbolist Tradition in English Literature: a Study of Pre-Raphaelitism and Fin de Siècle, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010, pp. 144-145.

[4] Galia Ofek, “Sensational Hair, Gender, Genre, and Fetishism in the Sensational Decade” in Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre, The Ohio State University Press, 2006, pp. 111-112.

[5] Elizabeth Bermann Loizeaux, Yeats and the Visual Arts, Syracuse University Press, New York, 2003, p. 72.

[6] Richard Webster, Magical Symbols of Love and Romance, Llewelly Publishers, Woodbury, MN, 2006, pp. 127, 129; and Lothar Hönnighausen, op. cit., p. 23.

[7] Anita Stamper & Jill Condra, Clothing Through American History, The Civil War through the Gilded Age 1861-1899, Greenwood, Santa Barbara, pp. 301-302.

[8] Hilary Fraser, Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century, Looking Like a Woman, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 58.

[9] Sue Bradbury, Joanna, George and Henry, A Pre-Raphaelite Tale of Art, Love and Friendship, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2012, pp. 15, 290.

[10] Trevor Hold, Parry to Finzi, Twenty English Song Composers, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2002, pp. 104-105.

[11] Biographical information taken from Thieme-Becker, “Henry Tanworth Wells” in Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler, volume XXXV, Veb E. A. Seeman Verlag, Leipzig, 1942; Malcolm Bell, “Henry Tanworth Wells, R. A.” in Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, volume V, Kennikat Press, Inc., Port Washington, N.Y., 1964, p. 354; Christopher Wood, “Henry Tanworth Wells RA” in The Dictionary of Victorian Painters, Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989, pp. 506-507; Christoper Wright, British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections, St. Edmundsbury Press, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, pp. 855-856, 891, 904, 911, 915; and Sue Bradbury, op. cit., pp. 9, 14, 290.

[12] Biographical information taken from J. Bernard Burke, Esq., “Bankes of Kingston Hall” in A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, Colburn and Co. Publishers, London, volume I, 1852, p. 51; and Pall Mall Budget, volume X, London, 1873, p. 38.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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