Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2012
Charlotte Yeldham Maria Spilsbury (1776–1820): Artist and Evangelical Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. 230 pp.; 73 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754669913)

In her short biographical work Father and Daughter: Jonathan and Maria Spilsbury (London: Epworth, 1952), Ruth Young, a descendant of Maria Spilsbury (Spilsbury-Taylor, after her marriage in 1808), recounts a delightful anecdote in which the future King George IV visited Spilsbury’s studio on St. George’s Row, London. Impatient with how slowly work was progressing on his commission which, to his judgment, seemed complete, he exclaimed, “Really, Mrs. Taylor, I swear that you can do no more to that! You’ve finished it and a damned good picture it is.” Unconvinced, Spilsbury sought a second opinion from her maid. Upon close inspection, the maid astutely pointed out that, distressingly, the woman sewing in the painting still lacked a thimble. At this, the exasperated prince, Young writes, chased the maid out of the room, “her cap-strings flying” (32). Any other artist might have obligingly yielded to the prince, but such was Spilsbury’s notoriety that visits from the Prince Regent, her chief patron, were merely commonplace.

In spite of her success and popularity, astonishingly little scholarly attention has been given to Spilsbury. Redressing this problem, Charlotte Yeldham’s Maria Spilsbury (1776–1820): Artist and Evangelical fills a void that has remained embarrassingly vacant for too long. Additionally, Yeldham offers special attention to the influence of the Evangelical faith upon Spilsbury’s art, a topic which has also been largely ignored, not merely in the life of Spilsbury, but in the larger context of late eighteenth-century artists in general. On both fronts, this book will prove to be an invaluable and authoritative contribution to Spilsbury scholarship.

In the introduction, Yeldham writes that the intent of her book is to give attention to an artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of fifteen, was exhibited at the British Institution, is represented in public and private collections in England, Ireland, America, Australia, and New Zealand, and frequently present in auction houses, yet of whom very little is known (1). Two secondary aims are to offer special attention to the religious content of her work and to evaluate the specific role of religion in women’s lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To this end, the first two chapters focus on her familial and religious background. The next four examine the trajectory of her career, and the final chapter assesses her posthumous reputation.

Yeldham begins with an account of Spilsbury’s parents, who were both dissenters from the Church of England. Spilsbury’s father, himself an accomplished artist with connections to many notable artists and Evangelical preachers of his day, was a Methodist who became a Moravian. Yeldham explores the resultant Evangelical influence on Maria Spilsbury’s childhood and briefly outlines the history and beliefs of the Moravian faith, which is largely the same as Methodism (indeed, the Spilsburys were personal friends of the Wesleys), though, significantly, Moravianism did not share the iconoclasm of many other Protestant faiths, and in fact expressly encouraged the arts. In fact, her father provided her artistic education. Yeldham gives particular attention to Moravian ideals concerning childhood and education, as these were both ubiquitous themes in Spilsbury’s art. The Moravian child-centered approach to instruction was established in the catechisms of Nikolaus Ludwig zon Zinzendorf (1700–1760), which informed the works of later Evangelicals like John Bunyan, Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, Philip Doddridge, Joseph Priestly, and John Cennick (18). On this point, Yeldham also discusses the importance of the philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, who, like Zinzendorf, countered the belief that children were born into a state of sin, and instead held that children were born as a clean slate, a tabula rasa. Nature, a recurrent theme in Spilsbury’s art, was seen by Moravians as an inexhaustible source of religious instruction (24). Other Moravian beliefs that had particular resonance for Spilsbury were that women had a vital role to play in nurturing godly children (ultimately resulting in godly communities) and that the presence of God could be found even amid the seemingly trivial occurrences of day-to-day life (15). These first two chapters offer an interdisciplinary look into evolving Evangelical and educational practices of the late eighteenth century and are indispensible in fully understanding Spilsbury’s art, which was heavily informed by Moravian theology.

The subsequent four chapters focus on her artistic output and are arranged thematically and chronologically: “Early Career,” “Themes (1798–1813),” “Exhibition and Marriage,” and “Ireland (1813–1820).” Yeldham places Spilsbury’s few extant early paintings in the context of the widespread ideals expressed by Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke, namely, that art, and public art in particular, had a spiritual and moral benefit to society; as such, Yeldham views her art as a palpable extension of her Protestant faith (36).

The fourth and largest chapter, “Themes (1798–1813),” forms the fulcrum of the book, and broadly categorizes Spilsbury’s later works into Biblical subjects, education, mission, and moral values, each category replete with examples and analysis. Yeldham views many of these paintings against the backdrop of a spiritual revivalist movement that, like William Blake, viewed art as a “political tool” in a spiritual crusade (57). In these paintings, Spilsbury visualizes the abstract Moravian, Lockeian, and Rousseauian concepts of childhood, particularly in their emphasis on childhood education and Sunday school. In nearly all these paintings, women and children are the primary subjects, After School (1802) being a representative example. In this painting, Yeldham observes that the mother is bathed in light, a recurrent motif in many of Spilsbury’s works, symbolic of her role as the enlightened mother, as her son dutifully reads his lessons. All the women in the scene are engaged in some form of industry. Many of her paintings exclusively feature children, in keeping with the Moravian perception of childhood as intrinsically pure and vulnerable, a notion underscored by the foreboding and threatening landscapes in which she often placed these children (94). A singular, rather humorous inverse of these ideals is her Hogarthian Confusion, or the Nursery in the Kitchen (1811), a scene of the resultant mayhem incurred by the absence of a nurturing mother.

Different themes emerged in her work after Spilsbury moved with her husband, John Taylor, to Ireland in 1813. An abundance of portraits of Evangelical preachers emerges, and the garden as a backdrop is frequently replaced by the library study. Yeldham observes that Spilsbury’s portraits of women in Ireland demonstrate an increased range of style, though, as ever, they remained conscientiously unpretentious and were instilled with Moravian morals. An entirely new theme that Spilsbury explored in Ireland was the genre scene, which depicted the Catholics of Ireland as unenlightened (in a very literal sense) and superstitious, as in All Hallow’s Eve (1817), which shows a presumably Catholic family, hidden in shadow, performing a ritual as a presumably Protestant woman and all the children present, bathed in light, ignore the offending proceedings (152).

The final chapter explores Spilsbury’s critical reception. Her work was celebrated for its delicate gracefulness, but Yeldham suggests that perhaps the “feminine qualities” of her work have been overemphasized. This gracefulness, Yeldham argues, was simply the general practice of the day as articulated by Reynolds and James Northcote. It was also an expression of Moravian faith, illustrative of the “radiant spirit” received at conversion (167). In this regard, Yeldham suggests that Spilsbury has been interpreted incorrectly.

This book is exhaustively researched, impressive in light of the curiously scant literature about Spilsbury, the only other book of note being Ruth Young’s from sixty years ago. Yeldham’s study is replete with black-and-white illustrations of representative paintings. She robustly supports her interpretations of Spilsbury’s paintings, offering specific catechisms, hymns, works of literature, and sermons, all demonstrably shown to have been known to Spilsbury, and all of which provided a repository of visual imagery from which she drew. A significant portion of the book catalogues known works painted by Spilsbury and offers information about their size, date, location, provenance, and exhibition history. The only mild disappointment is the rather terse chapter on Spilsbury’s critical reception. Although it convincingly reevaluates the celebrated feminine qualities of her work, the unanswered question the reader is inevitably left with is why, if Spilsbury was so successful, has she fallen into comparative obscurity? And how was she received between 1820 and the present day? These questions are issues that further research may one day resolve. Perhaps this book will serve as the catalyst.

Maria Spilsbury (1776—1820): Artist and Evangelical is an indispensable resource for Spilsbury scholarship, and for the present may well be her best extant biography and catalogue raisonné. In addition to illuminating her life and work, it also serves to underscore the often overlooked influence of Evangelicalism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British painting. In her book, Yeldham delivers a robust, welcome, and long overdue examination of this artist, and I hope that it will instigate continued scholarship concerning both Spilsbury and the interplay between Evangelicalism and visual culture.

Jonathan Rinck
Affiliate Instructor, Department of Art, Spring Arbor University