Ida Nettleship

Bohemia was never a safe country for women. If they didn’t all die of consumption in a garret, many of them might as well have done.

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Bohemia was never a safe country for women. If they didn’t all die of consumption in a garret, many of them might as well have done. In the 1890s, when the ‘new woman’ sprang, as Max Beerbohm put it, ‘fully armed from Ibsen’s brain’, their cases tended to follow a pattern. Attracted by the idea of freedom from social and sexual convention and the chance to live among artists, even to be artists, they found themselves not in a new world but in a mirror image of the old, with as many constraints and fewer comforts. The hoped for careers rarely developed. The bohemian man may have idealised women as muses and models but he was unhampered by bourgeois obligations to be faithful or to earn money, though rarely was he so unconventional as to undertake any housework or childcare. The bohemian woman with children was as much shackled to domesticity as any solicitor’s wife, but without the staff a middle-class household would command or the security. Meanwhile the door to a respectable life had slammed shut behind her.

Such, more or less, is the story of Ida Nettleship, the first wife of Augustus John, who died of puerperal fever at the age of 30 in 1907 and was soon lost to view. In John’s unfinished mural Lyric Fantasy, painted soon after her death, Ida stands to one side of the group of women and children who make up the extended John ménage, a monumental figure in deep shadow. In his memoir, Chiaroscuro, published in 1952, John made no mention of her. Her five sons, the eldest of whom was five when she died, seem to have known little about their mother. The letters, published here for the first time, go a long way to recovering her and tell a painful story of an emotionally sophisticated, morally honest woman struggling with the trap in which she finds herself, trying by turns to escape and to take control of the situation. To different correspondents she showed different facets of her predicament and the result is a portrait both fragmentary and poignant.

The Nettleships were an artistic family. Ida’s father, John Trivett, was a painter of some repute, though remembered by W.B. Yeats chiefly for his ‘melodramatic lions’; her mother, Adaline, was a dressmaker and theatrical costumier. She created the famous iridescent gown, covered in beetle wings, in which Ellen Terry played Lady Macbeth and in which Sargent painted her in 1889. The picture, ‘the sensation of the year’ according to Terry’s diary, shows her snakelike in her glistening robe holding the crown of Scotland above her head, an embodiment of dangerous female sexuality. When it was painted she was 41 with three marriages behind her. Ida was 12 and whether or not she saw the painting she grew up in a milieu where such lives were known to be possible. It was this, perhaps, that made her mother determined to keep a tight rein on her three daughters. Adaline’s moral code was worked out in what Michael Holroyd in his introduction memorably terms the ‘moral gymnasium’ of the last Victorian decades. He characterises it, too harshly, as a culture of ‘conceit and condemnation … complacency and fear of change’, but it was a period when conventions hardened in reaction to the fin-de-siècle stirrings of the Aesthetic Movement, The Yellow Book and talk of votes for women. Increasingly one was either in or out of respectable society.

Ida was 15 when she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, where her father had studied, arriving just in time for the Slade’s golden age, at the heart of which were Augustus John and his sister Gwen. They had come to London to study under the irascible but inspiring Henry Tonks and soon attracted a group of talented students around them. ‘Those Johns you know have a hold that never ceases,’ Ida wrote to a friend. She stayed for six years, working hard to be an artist and making friendships that lasted all her life. Among her fellow students were some of the 14 children of the wealthy Salaman family whose father had made a fortune in the ‘feather boom’ of the 1880s when fabulous prices were paid for ostrich plumes. Ida became engaged to Clement Salaman. She liked him perfectly well. He was reliable, suitable and fond of her. They might have been happy enough had not her ‘beautiful warm face’ caught the eye of Augustus John. Then she knew what it was to have a grand passion and to be on the horns of a dilemma. Her parents would not agree to a marriage and she would not agree to sex without one. Augustus visited the Nettleship home in Wigmore Street, thereby making matters worse. His long-haired Gypsyish appearance was against him and since he was afraid of saying the wrong thing he said nothing. He and Mrs Nettleship regarded one another in hostile silence until, in 1901, the deadlock was broken with a discreet trip to St Pancras Registry Office.

Ida’s letters before her marriage suggest a lively mind emerging from the chrysalis of late Victorian girlhood with its peculiarly prescribed emotional range. Like many of her contemporaries she wrote to other women in extravagant terms: ‘I am so lonely,’ she told her fellow student Edna Waugh, ‘I love you dear dear – & please love me.’ But there are also flashes of Wildean sensibility. ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to be free … just be a beautiful mind growing from outward impressions. I think self-consciousness is like gin – it stops the growth.’ Beyond the warm world of female confidences growth was inhibited in other ways. Edna Waugh had been spotted at the age of 14 by a friend of her father, a barrister called William Clarke Hall, who urged him to send her to art school. By the time she was 16 Hall was ‘determined’ to marry her and she and Ida were in fraught correspondence about what to do. Ida sensibly argued with both parties that Edna was simply too young to know her own mind, which may well have been precisely the reason Clarke Hall and so many other 19th-century men wanted to marry teenage girls. Ellen Terry had been 16 when she married the 46-year-old artist G.F. Watts, Ruskin was the same age when he proposed to the 18-year-old Rose La Touche. More than the obvious attractions of youth or the anachronistic charges of paedophilia sometimes levelled against the Victorians, there was something like a desire to preserve that quality of indeterminacy, to keep a woman like a bonsai specimen, clipped at the root to be perfect and miniature for ever.

Ida advised her friend to stick to her course and be an artist: ‘Don’t get down side paths … look the thing in the face and be a man for a time.’ In the end, however, their paths forked. Edna married Clarke Hall and Ida, having broken her engagement to Salaman, went to Florence, where she stayed in a pensione full of ‘Americans & poets & grey haired spinsters who drink hot water’, blew smoke rings and painted the Arno before going to Paris, where she embarked on the true vie de bohème. The ‘very excellent’ flat she shared with Gwen Salmond and Gwen John had ‘a charming studio room and nice spots of drawings & photographs on the walls’ and ‘two … Jap prints’ bought for 2d from the bouquinistes by the Seine. ‘Gwen John is sitting before a mirror carefully posing herself,’ Ida wrote. ‘She has been at it for half an hour. It is for an “interior”.’ The letters themselves are a series of still lives of Paris in the Belle Epoque. Ida, who inherited her mother’s interest in clothes, debates what to wear to a dance in Whistler’s studio, thinking of white muslin with old gold ribbons; she discovers a restaurant ‘where anarchists go & seem to live an intense life in common’ and concludes that altogether this is ‘the most interesting time I have ever spent’. Her parents seem to have been untroubled by her independence and to have hoped that she was forgetting Gwen’s brother, but Augustus was never far in the background. He seemed to embody all that Ida was enjoying of the artistic life, the alternative to the Clarke Halls of the world.

Adapted from lrb

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17 Comments


  1. Introduces ideas pertaining to the lives of Victorian women, shedding light on the path to individualism and artistic freedom, while also supporting the Victorian ideal of young Victorian women married to older men being too young to make decisions. Ida Nettleship serves as an example, a woman who believed in making her own decisions and increasing a woman’s role in society.

    Reply

  2. Bohemia = nonsafe for Women + many constraints/ few comforts

    Story of Ida Nettelship (visualized details)

    Reply

  3. MI: Bohemia = women less freedom, I and family of artists, Ida tried to break barriers in a woman restricted environment

    Reply

  4. MIP: Bohemian women were oppressed people; Ida and the nettleships were artistic

    Reply

  5. Woman struggle to change gender role with art, traditional conventions resist

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  6. Women overall had no voice in bohemian society. However, Ida was one of a kind, where she became educated and had a powerful personality

    Reply

  7. There was not much freedom for women in Bohemia. Their careers were ruined by Anachronistic charges by old men wanting to possess/marry Victorian minded women in their teens.

    Reply

  8. Women in the Victorian age or the idea of Bohemia did not have much say in their lives but Ida went against the view of that era.

    Reply

  9. Bohemia = not safe for women. Family = artists + Ida.

    Reply

  10. Bohemian society is not decent or fair to women, Ida’s life and family = arts

    Reply

  11. MI: Ida Nettleship’s story is one of a typical Bohemian woman- emerging from Victorian girlhood wanting freedom, but not finding it in her marriage. During time women thought they were better off being with artists or involved in art, but were just as restricted.

    Reply

  12. Bohemia = unsafe for women, bohemian woman = domestic

    Ida serves as example, author tone neutral

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  13. women constrained, marrying young bad, Ida independent

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  14. MIP: Bohemia = decreased opportunities for women. Ida Nettlefield’s life (+ interactions with others) used as an example.
    Author’s tone = neutral

    Reply

  15. Bohemia = no career for a woman, not many opportunities. Description of Ida Nettleship’s life as example.

    Reply

  16. Bohimian women= not independent, Ida= was different/ independant

    Reply

  17. MIP: B Woman = trapped from tradition … escape with art Author = Positive about Art

    Reply

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