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Some Women Models by Harry Furniss

An excerpt from 'Some Victorian Women: Good, Bad, and Indifferent' by the Punch caricaturist Harry Furniss (1923, John Lane, The Bodley Head Limited)

Chapter V: Some Women Models

An artist writes: "The woman model is a peculiar creature! Sometimes charming, generally irritating, but more amenable than her colleague of the other sex. She is invariably late. The work on hand may be a drawing that some unreasonable editor is waiting on, and for an hour or more you have fumed and fretted yourself into a state of nervous excitement. You vow that when she arrives you will throw her downstairs or do something equally desperate. She bounces in at last, expresses her regrets, and in the same breath asks you what you think of her new hat; or, with a sudden twirl of her skirts, she will stand in a graceful pose before the mirror, and, a coquettish smile parting her lips, inquire if the colour of her costume suits her complexion, if you like the way her hair is done up, or if you consider the wearing of veils bad for the eyes. And what do you say? That you never saw her look smarter, nor with a dress that became her so well, and that she must be fatigued after so long a journey and would be better for a cup of tea. During the sitting she chatters. "Have you been to the Academy? Did you like the girl in Brown's "Water Nymph"? Isn't Green a nice gentleman, and don't you think Mrs. White charming, and the children perfectly lovely?" Some models are intelligent and helpful. One young lady who used to sit for most of the leading artists was highly appreciated for those qualities. You told her the incident you wished to represent, and she invariably assumed an attitude in keeping with your ideas. A model who requires posing is a great worry to the artist. Strive as he may to place her in the position wanted, she remains stiff and ungraceful. Several models may sit for the same figure. One damsel may sit for the arms, a third for the body. Trilby's foot was incomparably beautiful, but the feet of the female models of to-day are in almost every case crushed out of shape."

I have no idea who wrote the above dissertation on models, not where he found ladies he so describes. I should think possibly in the pages of the novelette, for in all my long experience of all sorts of models, I never met one who arrived at a studio showily attired in a smart gown, who twirled her skirts, or posed with a "coquettish smile parting her lips," asking him if the colour of her costume suited her complexion, if he liked the way her hair was done up, or if he thought the wearing of veils bad for the eyes. I have a strong suspicion that the writer--who signed himself "An Artist"--was but an amateur and the model knew it; no professional artist would tolerate for half a minute such unprofessional behavior on the part of the young lady. As a matter of fact, models are plainly--even dowdily-dressed, their manner is anything but coquettish: they are, as a rule, hard-working, serious, professional women. The very antithesis to the fanciful model described above.

Models are little understood by the outside public. Some of the most refined, pure-minded, and best of women I have met have been artists' models, but there are undoubtedly others.


During this picture-making boom of the seventies [1870s], many young artists, needless to say, started studios, and consequently those dependent upon art for a living, such as models, costume-sellers, and others connected with the profession, became very active.


Du Maurier, in writing Trilby, aroused the curiosity of the ordinary domesticated women, and the publication of that entertaining novel, dealing with Bohemian art life, was therefore eagerly devoured by the Puritanical provincials in America. It was largely due to the studio life depicted so charmingly by Du Maurier, and Trilby sitting for the "Altogether," and the fact that it was published in a high-class magazine emanating from a publishing firm, made the novel such a commercial success. Its dramatization only heightened its interest.

After this there was a boom in studio life, and female models in particular. Society women became positively jealous of them. "What charm has the professional model that I do not possess?" has probably perplexed many an outsider, giving rise to curiosity or jealousy. "Bohemia must be open to us." At private dinners in Society more than once I have been questioned and cross-questioned upon this subject. What model sat for my Miss Parliamentina? Was she as dainty as I depicted her, had she such pretty ankles and feet and hands, and did she pose in the positions I drew her, or was I in possession of some model no one had seen but myself?

My questioner, on one occasion, not satisfied with my explanation, drove up to my house, Trilby mad, and implored me to draw her as my "bewitching Miss Parliamentina." This lady was neither "dainty" nor young. I invited her into my studio where my Trilby was sitting in a long black gown similar to that worn by the Speaker of the House of Commons and K.C.'s in which I always attired my Miss Parliamentina in Punch. This was my usual model, "Nellie," whom I shall now describe.

For eight or nine years a very pretty model sat to me regularly two days a week. She figures in nearly all my illustrations in the eighties, and, as I have just said, as "Miss Parliamentina" in my Punch drawings; also as the heroine in the stories I illustrated for the novels and articles in the Illustrated London News and for various magazines. Of course black-and-white artists like myself only use models to assist the imagination, they are mere suggestions, not models in the sense that painters use them for exact representation of colour, form and portraiture. I know of one very popular and eccentric artist in my line of work who never-or hardly ever-looks at his model. He draws-we all do-"out of his head", referring to life now and then, but he finds it sufficient to have a model "knocking around" in his studio most of his time he works away with his back to her. My model, as I have said before, came regularly to my studio two days a week whether I might be drawing Gladstone or other politicians. She was quite a child when she began sitting to me, with a beautiful face, fair short-cut curly hair, an exquisite neck and shoulders, and well-shaped arms.

In all those years I believe she only sat to three artists, each appealing to widely different styles of work. She gave us each two days a week. One of the artists was Sir James Linton, President of the Institute of Water-Colours; a very painstaking and slow worker who painted costume pictures. The third was Albert Moore, the painter of beautiful women in classic costume posed on delicately painted settees, often represented asleep and surrounded with flowers. We all know his beautiful work. Even those who did not see it in the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Academy are familiar with it in the reproductions. The classic women he painted--for it was always the same head--and it was always the portrait of my little model, Nellie. Nellie was an ideal model, she seldom spoke: she was not endowed with much brain, but had sufficient intelligence to understand the pose you required, and, what is more, the sense to keep it. She was an innocent, pure-minded, automatic sitter, and as I say a silent one, and, therefore ideal. She never even troubled to look at "what you've made of me," like other models, nor attempted to question you as some do. Apropos of the late-named trait, an artist I know had a "figure model" -- I might say that Nellie was not a figure model, she only sat in costume or ordinary dress-who was new to studio work. In the first sitting the artist sketched in the girl's figure in charcoal; she looked at his effort for a minute and then said, "Ain't you going to pink it?" She was a novice. One who was not however, sat to me one day, and pretended to be horrified that I had used her as a model for a drawing I was doing for Punch (I engaged other models on Nellie's off-days), and drawing herself up said: "For Punch, is it? Well, I do hope you won't mention that I sat for you-you see I only sit to fashionable portrait painters for hands, and if it were known I sat to a comic artist I should lose my prestige." As a matter of fact the model was, like many of them are, very anxious to impress the artist engaging them with their own value and importance. She was talking rot and I told her so.

I have seen it stated more than once by art critics that artists who employ models to complete their portrait pictures, that the fashionable sitter only sits for her head and so on. A fallacy I disproved one year when three if not four portraits of a "fashionable beauty" then the rage were exhibited in London all painted by separate artists. Pretty as the beauty was, her hands I noticed were both large and ugly in shape, and every one of her portraits showed her hands. They were ugly hands--now no artist would dream of engaging a model for a fashionable portrait who had ugly hands, so that proved they were all painted from the original. With elaborate costumes no double portrait painters do get professional models to sit for the drapery, but, if they are conscientious, surely not for the hands-there is as much character in hands as in faces.

As I say, Nellie was a rara avis among models. She was quite happy all day reading cheap little magazines, "The Buttercup", "The Daisy" and such-like light current literature, which she produced out of her handbag, and so she continued until quite matured. Then she informed me with great volubility, and to my immense surprise, that she had taken singing and dancing lessons, and was going into "the profession". With all my powers I tried to dissuade her from running the risk. She was too pretty and too stupid, but some evil companions had told her of the great future she was bound to make, and then one day she said that she had actually got an engagement. I went to the music-hall and saw Nellie's "turn". She looked charming and sang with confidence but with little voice some stupid doggerel:

"I am an innocent child, a pretty little thing,
With a pretty little finger for a real gold ring."

Alas, the real gold ring was soon on her pretty finger! She married a low comedian, one of the most popular and most highly remunerated music-hall stars of the time.

Not hearing of her for a long time, when I was riding one day up Haverstock Hill I turned down a side road and rang the bell of a villa where I was informed she and her husband lived. After waiting some time the door opened slowly and there stood a bent-up woman--evidently in pain--it was Nellie. She said she was suffering from acute rheumatism, and after my few words of condolence she closed the door gently and disappeared. To tell the truth her husband was a drunken brute who grossly ill-treated her. She died soon after. The man who married her paid the meritable penalty-to him a pleasant one-and died a dipsomaniac.

There was once an old woman who lived by supplying young models. I do not know where she got her stock of good, bad and indifferent "models". They seemed inexhaustible. One had only to write and tell the old lady what style of child was required and one was immediately presented. She remained all day in the studio and took her charge-in both senses of the word-away. She had never been a model herself. She would never "bemean myself by sittin'." She had a wonderful face for a caricaturist, and yet under no circumstances would she allow me to sketch her.

I therefore asked her one day to sit close to the child so as to keep it quiet. She did so, but she talked hard all the time. I must confess that I encouraged her, for I employed my time drawing her, and not the child model.

After the usual complement of scandal about other artists, the inevitable topic of those women living among the studios, I switched her off into her own particular line of business-the children she supplied to artists and sculptors.

"Then there's Rosie Nuggles. I used to always 'ave to carry 'er home I did-now Rosie carn't supply enough furs for 'er to wear, it carn't. She does the skippin' turn at the Gaiety Theatres an' the toffs are mad about Bessie. She's real good to me she is, an' promises me her next cast-off."

"A toff?" "Na! Don't Granny know better-a 'toff!" Well, I likes that! I mean her fur coat. Just to keep Granny warm if the moths don't get it fust."

But having finished my sketch of the garrulous old woman I paid her for "darling's" presence and so got rid of both.

Women who sit as models have a much easier time of it in private studios than at art schools; they have only one man to please and one, moreover, who understands his work. In the latter they have several who do not, and are up to every sort of mischief, and pranks common to all students.

Some artists marrying women who have been models naturally pose them for their pictures; and some wives who have not been models sit, at least, for the heads. Lady Alma-Tadema's portrait crops up in many of her husband's pictures; and there are several others.

A well-known Royal Academician painted a full figure of the nude--his wife sat for the head; at the Exhibition Sir Francis Burnand and I came across the lady, and Burnand, who knew her well, remarked: "Capital portrait of you, madam, capital. I did not recognize it as such as first, as I had never seen you thus unarrayed before."

Other women have been drawn and painted who are not models. A celebrated beauty, a Duchess, sat for Titania in Landseer's well-known picture of "The Midsummer Night's Dream." Years ago a very pretty girl--I think she was on the stage, but of that I am not sure--Miss Maud Branscombe, who had a sweet girlish little face and a profusion of golden hair, was more drawn by artists and more photographed than any woman of that period.

The professional model is quite a different woman from those one frequently sees depicted in picture shows. Artists often prevail upon their daughters to sit as their models; brought up in the environment of studio life it is only natural they should be excellent sitters. Firth's "Dolly Varden" was a portrait of his own children. I have had the advantage of my own daughter to sit for Sylvie in Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno, and later on she sat to me frequently--until she became herself an artist and was, therefore, too busy.

Artists and Beauty: The Opinion of Eminent Painters

The sole record of John William Waterhouse's model selection preference is found in a 1907 article, where he chose an artist's model from a set of photos.

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