Turning a Lady’s Pastime into a Profession

Ellen (1769-1849) and her daughter Rolinda (c1793-1838) are the best known but often poorly documented of a famously talented family  of painters, some of whose work is in the Bristol City  Museum and Art Gallery. Ellen, the last of the clan, is fondly  remembered for leaving funds to establish what is now the Royal West of England Academy. she can also be largely held responsible for turning amateur painting for women into a respectably paid profession, as well as training her talented   daughter, who has left us priceless visual records of their times.

Much of he family’s fame and fortune were made whilst travelling the new colonies of North America, providing originals and copies of small affordable pastel and oil paintings. Their work includes portraits of many famous people in the colonies, often the  originals done by father James and then copies made by Ellen, often so accurately that attribution is often impossible, and perhaps unnecessary  as they  sold for the same price. Portraits were of George Washington, the exiled chemist Joseph Priestly, politician Alexander Hamilton and French diplomat Talleyrand.

The Sharples went to America about 1794; en route their shop was taken by pirates. They often travelled in a carriage built by James to carry the family, their collection of work for show, and their equipment. With war looming, they returned to Britain, where they worked in Bath until their return in 1806.

In 1803 Ellen commenced a journal at this time, a valuable record of her life, thoughts and work, and a lively account of her times. She did some pastel portraits from life at this time, and some of her miniature portraits on ivory were shown at the Royal academy in 1807, her only known exhibition.

Rolinda began pastel portraits and the age of 13 and was so highly praised, and rewarded, she was inspired to improve.

In 1806 the family at last returned to the states, with their sons James Jr and Felix having gone on ahead but in 1811 James died of heart trouble, and the family  – minus Felix – returned to Britain, settling in what is now the very posh inner suburb of Clifton, Bristol. They were active artists and in local society, though none of the children ever married. Rolinda exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1820-24 and then at the  Society of British Artists and several others. Her work was all done in England, signed and in oils, so is easier to establish than the rest of the family’s.

Ellen was born a Quaker, so had very progressive ideas on her children’s education and her range of subjects, from a respectful portrait of a North American Indian, James Brockden Brown, the first professional writer in North America, and the humanitarian physician Benjamin Rush, all showed a sense of enlightenment.

Ellen wrote “I had frequently thought that every well educated female, particularly those who had only small fortunes, should at least have the power, if they did not exercise it, by the cultivation of some available talent, of obtaining the conveniences and some of the elegances of life, and be enabled always to preserve that respectable position in society  to which they had been accustomed. Many circumstances had led to the formation of this opinion; not only the French Revolution, which occasioned the entire loss of fortune to the great number of ladies and gentlemen, who sought refuge in this, and other countries; the reverse o fortune had been frequently observed in married, and single ladies, a few the loss of their whole income, others of a part, obliging them to observe the strictest economy. ”

Part of Rolinda’s education involved visits to artists and art galleries, and breifly studied under Philip Reinagle, and was influenced by Bristol artist Edward Bird who was highly praised by died in poverty. What she is now famous for is her lively social scenes.

Her first, ‘Cloakroom, the Clifton Assembly Rooms’ is the only view that survives of such a gathering, so for that alone, she deserves fame. her paintings have often been compared with the writings of Jane Austen, full of characters and energy. Her Stoppage of the bank’ shows a street scene of devastated savers, and her ‘Trial of Colonel Brereton After the Bristol Riots’ is again a valuable historical record, though she included herself and her mother in the crowded room.

Her ‘A Market’ was shown at London’s Royal Academy in 1820; of 540 artists in the show, 41 were women.

In 1834 she completed another lively historically valuable scene, The Clifton Racecourse’  Unfortunately she developed cancer and died in 1838, at 45 years. Her brother died over a year later leaving mother Ellen to reach 80 years. with no heirs, she left £2,000 to help found the Bristol Royal Academy for  the Promotion of Arts (Now the Royal West of England Academy). the first classes began in 1845, and included special life classes for women. This was 15 years before London’s Royal Academy accepted women.

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