Jane 'Jeanie' Elizabeth Hughes, Mrs Nassau John Senior (1828-1877)
George Frederic Watts, OM, RA (London 1817 - Compton 1904)
Watts has painted the golden-haired Mrs Nassau Senior in the midst of profusion of flowers, objects and patterns. She is watering a lily of the valley which symbolised the return of happiness for the Victorians. In 1855 she had been the model for the young mother in The Rescue by Millais and became the Watts’ confidante. He exhibited the portrait at the Royal Academy in 1858 under the pseudonym of F. W. George, along with two other portraits, out of curiosity to see whether his style was recognisable. It was and he was identified. Jeanie Senior, who devoted herself to social causes, was the sister of Thomas Hughes, the Christian Socialist and author of Tom Brown's Schooldays and daughter-in-law of Nassau William Senior (1790-1864), the economist and creator of the 1834 Poor Law. She became the first female Inspector of Workhouses and Pauper Schools (1874) and helped the co-founder of the National Trust, Octavia Hill, with the accounts of her housing schemes.
Oil painting on canvas, Jane 'Jeanie' Elizabeth Hughes, Mrs Nassau John Senior (1828-1877) by George Frederick Watts OM, RA, (London 1817 - Compton 1904), 1857-58. A full-length portrait of female, turned to right, in an informal blue bell-shaped dress with no undersleeves and low-cut neck, kneeling on crimson armchair, watering lilies of the valley on gilt console table. Flowers and carafe in foreground to right; in the background green wallpaper with floral pattern. Watts' best known portraits are the 'Hall of Fame' series; a collection of serious, honest, head-and-shoulders paintings of great Victorians, mostly male, such as William Morris. He regarded portraiture as less important than his morally uplifting and symbolic works such as Time, Death and Judgement. But portraits such as Mrs Nassau Senior also rely heavily on symbolism.
Watts is not primarily thought of as a portrait-painter, and when he is, it is for the high seriousness and painful honesty of the portraits comprising his 'Hall of Fame' (1846 onwards -part of a memorable installation at Bodelwyddan Castle). He himself set a low estimate on portraiture, by comparison with the rendition of abstract and morally uplifting conceptions. Yet almost the first record of his artistic activity is of his earning a living at the age of sixteen, by making pencil or chalk portrait drawings at five shillings a time; whilst perhaps his most celebrated portrait of all is 'Choosing', that of his child-bride, the actress Ellen Terry, making the choice between showy but scentless camellias and a humble clutch of sweet-smelling violets held to her heart (around 1864 in National Portrait Gallery). There was clearly some special significance for Watts in the association of women with flowers, for it is the unusual action of watering lilies of the valley in a pot that he has used for his portrait of this other woman to whom he was -more happily - devoted, Mrs Nassau Senior. She was the daughter of the author and artist John Hughes of Donnington Priory (1790-1857; although his mother was the daughter of a Reverend George Watts, there was no connection with the painter's family), and thus the younger sister of Thomas Hughes (1822-96), Christian Socialist, founder of the Working Men's College, and author of Tom Brown's Schooldays. In 1848 she was married to Nassau John Senior (1822-1891), who should perhaps be known as Nassau Senior Junior, since he was the son of the celebrated economist and creator of the 1834 Poor Law, Nassau William Senior (1790-1864). He was described by Ellen Twistleton as: "not one of the souls that Nature tried her finest touch on. At the bottom of everything, there is a little coarse commonplaceness about him ...." . With such family connections, it is unsurprising that she too devoted herself to social causes, becoming the first female Inspector of Workhouses and Pauper Schools (1874), and the founder of the Association for Befriending Young Servants. She also helped Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust, with the accounts of her housing schemes . Watts's friendship with 'Jeanie' Senior began when he was living as the house-guest of the Prinseps at Little Holland House, in Kensington. Watts's second wife, Mary Fraser-Tytler, rather surprisingly claims in her memoir of him , that it was "her naturally bright and spontaneous out-of-door nature" that appealed to him, which does not seem to correspond either to his ideal of female friendship or to his use of her as a sounding-board for the whole series of letters setting out his physical and spiritual afflictions, that he wrote to her up to the time of her premature death. Rather, it was their joint concern to do good - he through his art, she by practical action - combined with her physical attractiveness, that drew him to her. Her chief physical attraction was her "rippling golden hair" - that self-same enchantment that had helped to draw him to Ellen Terry, whom Mrs Stirling so memorably describes once, as she "loosened the pins from her hair, which tumbled about her shoulders like a cloak of shining gold" , when bored on a visit to the Spencer-Stanhopes whilst she was still married to Watts. When painting his frescoes for Lord Somers in Carlton House Terrace in 1856, the painter even wrote to 'Jeanie' Senior, asking her "to lend me your hair .... and a hand or an arm occasionally". Nor is it only the golden hair that links the portraits of Ellen Terry and 'Jeanie' Senior: the outstretched, yearning attitude of their heads is also strikingly similar, showing off - as Mrs Russell Barrington says of 'Choosing' - "a beautiful fair girl's head and a perfect throat stretching forward" . Significantly, these features - the throat and its stretching - appear to have been accentuated in the painting, by comparison with the pencil study for the head of the portrait alone . Just as Watts's portrait of Ellen Terry is, as its title indicates, also a moral allegory expressed through the language of flowers, so is 'Jeanie' Senior's. In giving her lilies of the valley to water, in a rich pot on a fantastically ornate plinth, and by scattering, as if rejected, cut flowers - including an arum lily - in the foreground, Watts appears to be setting up a deliberate contrast between the natural simplicity of the growing lilies, and the richness, profusion, and artifice with which they are surrounded. The inclusion, not just of the glass carafe she waters with, but also of the clear crystal jug of water in the foreground, suggests both purity and temperance; whilst Watts himself subsequently told Mrs Barrington that, by showing 'Jeanie' Senior in the act of "watering and bending over her flowers with loving care, .... he had tried to suggest .... her beneficent gracious nature" . Nor was it only Mrs Senior whom Watts painted at this time; he also painted another full-length of her daughter, Miss Senior, "surrounded in her portrait by the beautiful sky and the grand laurel leaves, put in as the great Venetians would have painted them", and her mother, Mrs Hughes, silhouetted against an endless expanse of landscape . He also later painted her only son, Walter, as a gift to his mother, just two years before she died . Curiously, it is the picture of her mother - which is, if anything, more reminiscent of the portraits of Sir William Blake Richmond - and not this, that both Mrs. Barrington and Wilfrid Blunt describe as showing a Pre-Raphaelite side to Watts. Although never a Pre-Raphaelite (and indeed, repudiated for a time by Ruskin for that reason) Watts was susceptible to the influence of its members. At no time more, perhaps, than when he was painting the present portrait - with its curious premonitions of Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne) - at the same time as working on his fresco of Justice at Lincoln's Inn (1853-59), executed in true fresco, as the Pre-Raphaelites themselves insisted on, and using Holman Hunt as the model for King Ina; and as he was sending off his assistant, Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and his hosts's son, Val Prinsep, to assist with the Pre-Raphaelites' own great scheme of fresco-decoration, the murals of the Oxford Union, which he described as "plunging him [Prinsep] in the Pre-Raphaelite Styx" . He was further influenced at this period by Pre-Raphaelite techniques of oil-painting, having discussions with Rossetti, Millais, and perhaps Ruskin, on the respective advantages of various paint mediums; and for some years, under Rossetti's influence, painting his pictures with copal varnish as a medium, including this one . Only later did he go over to benzoline, and - ultimately - a special preparation of petroleum made up by John Bell & Co., and called by them rock oil, with a small admixture of linseed oil. The result of these influences was, as his widow says , that the portrait of Mrs Nassau Senior is "brilliant in colour, and as delicate in handling as a miniature" - two of the distinguishing characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Notes: (i) Letters of the Hon. Mrs Edward Twistleton, 1928, p.248. (ii) Gillian Darley, Octavia Hill, 1990, pp.108 & 124-25. (iii) George Frederick Watts, 1912, vol.I, pp.160-61. (iv) Ronald Chapman [Watt's adoptive grandson], The Laurel and the Thorn, 1945, pp.61-63. (v) Mrs. Russell Barrington, G.F. Watts: Reminiscences, 1905, p.2 (these Reminiscences are dedicated "To the memory of Janie Senior"). (vi) A.M.W. Stirling, A Painter of Dreams, 1916, p.000. (vii) Wilfrid Blunt, 'England's Michelangelo', 1975, p.99. (viii) Mrs Barrington, op.cit., p.3. (ix) Ditto, pl. opp. p.4. (x) Ditto, p.7. (xi) Ditto., pp.3 & 9n., & pl. opp. p.8. (xii) M.S. Watts, George Frederick Watts: Annals of an Artist's Life, 1912, Vol.I. 196. (xiii) Barrington, op.cit., p.9 & Blunt, op.cit., p. 102. (xiv) M.S. Watts, Vol.I., p.172. (xv) Ditto, Vol.II, p.174. (xvi) Ditto, Vol.II, p.175. (adapted from author's version/pre-publication, Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation, exh. cat., 1995)
By descent from the sitter to Oliver Nassau Senior (1901-1992), grandson of the subject, by whom lent to Wightwick from 1947, and from whom bought by National Trust with the encouragement of Lady Mander in 1955
Wightwick Manor, The Mander Collection (National Trust)
Makers and roles
George Frederic Watts, OM, RA (London 1817 - Compton 1904), artist
Liberating Fashion: Aesthetic Dress in Victorian Portraits, Watts Gallery, Surrey, 2015, no.31 In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.14
Sketchley 1904 R. Sketchley, Watts, London 1904, p. 177 West and Pantini 1904 W. K. West and R. Pantini, G. F. Watts, 1904, pl. 54 Barrington 1905 Mrs Russell Barrington, G. F. Watts: Reminiscences, 1905, pp.2,7, pl. opp. p. 6 Bell 1905 Malcolm Bell, Watts, 1905, p.44, illus. p. 50 Watts 1912: M. S. Watts, George Frederick Watts: The Annals of an Artist's Life, 1912 (3 vols.), i, pp.174-5 Hare W. L. Hare, Watts, n.d., p. 47 Blunt 1975 Wilfred Blunt, 'England's Michelangelo', 1975, p. 102, pl. 14 Spielmann, 1886 Marion Harry Spielmann,'The Works of Mr George F. Watts, R. A., with a complete catalogue of his Pictures', Pall Mall Gazette, Extra Number, 22 Liberating Fashion: Aesthetic Dress in Victorian Portraits (ed. Rhian Addison and Hilary Underwood), Watts Gallery, 16 February- 7 June 2015, pp. 46-47, fig. 31