Margaret Sarah Carpenter (née Geddes)

(1 February 1793 - 13 November 1872)

Portrait-painter, daughter of Captain Alexander Geddes, born at Salisbury, first studied art from Lord Radnor's collection at Longford Castle, and obtained a gold medal from the Society of Arts for the study of a boy's head. She went up to London in 1814 and established herself as a portrait-painter of much reputation. In 1817 she married William Hookham Carpenter [q. v.], keeper of prints and drawings in the British Museum, upon whose death in 1866 her majesty granted her a pension of 100l. per annum. Between 1818 and 1866 she exhibited 147 pictures at the Royal Academy, fifty at the British Institution, and nineteen at the Society of British Artists. Her last work was the portrait of Dr. Whewell. Among her other portraits were those of Lord Kilcoursie (1812), Mr. Baring (1815), Lord de Tabley (1829), and Archbishop Sumner (1852). Her portraits of Fraser Tytler, John Gibson, and Bonington are in the National Portrait Gallery. In the South Kensington Museum she is represented by ‘Devotion - St. Francis’ (a life-size study of the head of Anthony Stewart, the miniature painter), ‘The Sisters’ (portraits of her two daughters), ‘Oakham Church’ (a sketch), and ‘An Old Woman spinning,’ and also by a water-colour study from nature. A sister of Mrs. Carpenter married W. Collins, R.A., and was the mother of Mr. Wilkie Collins.

[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists, 1878; Bryan's Dict. of Painters (Graves); Graves's Dict. of Artists; Catalogues of National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery at South Kensington Museum; Artists of Nineteenth Century; Art Journal, 1873.; Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 09, by William Cosmo Monkhouse]

The most distinguished names, however, were to be found among the portrait painters. Never before or since have so many English lady artists obtained such honours in a most difficult branch. Miniature painting is now, for good or for evil, well-nigh extinct, the science of photography having driven the elder miniaturists into another field, and deterred newcomers from entering a narrowed, unprofitable path.

Margaret Sarah Carpenter was one of the most distinguished portrait painters of England. The daughter of Captain Alexander R Geddes, she was bom 1793, in Salisbury. The Geddes family counted among its members some men of considerable professional and literary reputation. In her early youth, Miss Geddes received instruction in figure drawing and painting from a resident master at Salisbury. Lord Radnor gave her permission to copy in his gallery at Longford Castle, and by his advice she sent pictures three successive years to the Society of Arts. On each of these occasions she received a public acknowledgment of her talent and industry. For a study of a boy's head, subsequently purchased by the Marquis of Strafibrd, the largest gold medal was awarded. By Lord Radnor's advice she came (1814) to London. At once she acquired a well-merited reputation. Immediately on her arrival, she exhibited at the Academy a portrait of Mrs. Sparkes, and at the British Institution "A Fortune Teller" and "Peasant Boy." From that time up to 1866, she rarely failed, year by year, to exhibit portraits and fancy subjects, all admirably painted, and treated with brilliant power.

In 1817, Miss Geddes married Mr. W. H. Carpenter. Her sister was wife of W. Collins, R.A., and mother of Mr. Wilkie Collins. Mr. Carpenter was, in 1845, appointed Keeper of the Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. He died, July 12, 1866. A pension of £100 per annum was then granted to Mrs. Carpenter, in recognition of her own merits, as well as in acknowledgment of the services of her husband.

This gifted lady died in London, November 13, 1872, aged eighty. Perhaps no sister artist in this country was more admired than she. Truth, firmness of touch, brilliancy of colouring, both in oil and in water colours, were her leading points of excellence. Many of her portraits and miniatures were engraved — the Viscountess Eastnor, Countess Ribblesdale, Viscountess Banington, etc.

Among the more remarkable portraits by her were -- Lord Kilcoursie, Lady Sarah de Crespigny, 1812; Lord Folkestone, 1814; Mr. Baring, 1815; Sir George Madden, 1817; Lord Mark Ker, 1819; Sir H. Bunbury, 1822; Lady Eastnor, 1825; Lord de Tabley, 1829; Mr. Justice Coleridge, 1830; Lady Denbigh, 1831; Mr. Herries, 1832; Lady King, daughter of Lord Byron, 1835; Lord John Manners, Dr. Whewell, John Gibson, the sculptor (now in the National Portrait Gallery); a life-sized portrait of Anthony Stewart, the celebrated miniature paiuter, entitled "Devotion" -- also the "Sisters," portraits of the artist's own daughters. These last two, with "Oakham Church," were purchased by Mr. Sheepshanks, and are now at South Kensington.

Personally, Mrs. Carpenter was genial and amiable. Her death was deplored by a large circle of friends. Two of her children -- Mr. W. and Miss Henrietta Carpenter -- have become artists. The former is especially well known.

It was a matter of indignation that so eminent and able an artist should have been debarred the honour of becoming an Academician. The Art Journal made some severe, but justifiable, remarks on the subject. "Had the Royal Academy abrogated the law which denies a female admission to its ranks, Mrs. Carpenter would most assuredly have gained, as she merited, a place in them; but we despair of ever living to see the rights of women vindicated in this respect; the doors of the institution are yet too narrow for such to find entrance." It cannot be denied that since the days of Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, and the female honorary members of the same period, the Academy has studiously ignored the existence of women artists, leaving them to work in the cold shade of utter neglect. Not even once has a helping hand been extended, not once has the most trifling reward been given for highest merit and industry. Accident made two women Academicians -- the accident of circumstances, and the accident of birth. Accident opened the doors to girl students -- accident aided by courage and talent. In other countries, women have the prizes fairly earned quietly placed in their hands, and can receive them with dignity. In free, unprejudiced, chivalric England, where the race is said to be to the swift, the battle to the strong, without fear or favour, it is only by slow, laborious degrees that women are winning the right to enter the lists at all, and are then viewed with half contemptuous indulgence.

[English Female Artists (1876) By Ellen Creathorne Clayton]

Born Margaret Sarah Geddes in Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1 February 1793, to Alexander Geddes, a retired army officer, and Harriet Easton. Moved with her family to a farm at nearby Alderbury, 1798. Taught to paint in oils by Thomas Guest in Salisbury, c. 1805, then copied old masters in the Earl of Radnor's collection at Langford Castle near her family home. Visited London, 810-1812; received financial help from Lord Radnor to move there permanently, 1813. Awarded silver medal, 1812, lesser gold medal, 1813, and principal gold medal, 1814, Society of Arts. Married William Hookham Carpenter, son of Bond Street bookseller and art dealer James Carpenter, 1817; eight children, only five surviving infancy, of whom three, William, Percy, and Henrietta, also became artists. Husband appointed Keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, 1845; lived in museum residence, 1852-66; received pension after his death in 1866. Died in London, 13 November 1872.

Principal Exhibitions:
Royal Academy, London: 1814-1825, 1828-1863, 1865-1866.
British Institution, London: 1814-1817, 1819-1824, 1826-1833, 1835, 1837-1840, 1842-1853.
Royal Institution, Edinburgh: 1822-1829.
Paris Salon: 1827.
Society of British Artists, London: 1831-1836.
Exposition Universelle, Paris: 1855.
Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester: 1857.
Society of Female Artists, London: 1858, 1863.
National Portrait Exhibition, London: 1868.

[Richard J. Smith, Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1793-1872); A Brief Biography, Salisbury; Salisbury Museum, 1993]

Margaret Carpenter's career bridges what some historians call the "vacuum" in British art between the Georgian school of portrait painters, culminating in Thomas Lawrence, and the later Victorian schools, from the Pre-Raphaelites onwards. She was at her peak during the 1830s and 1840s, when she was seen by many as the natural successor to Lawrence. This timing, as well as the fact that she was a somewhat lone figure and a woman, helps to account for her quite unjustified neglect ever since her death.

Even as a child, Margaret show a prodigious talent for drawing portraits, and was in demand from families in the surrounding area, and apart from some limited instruction from Thomas Guest in Salisbury she was largely self-taught. The Earl of Radnor recognized her talent and allowed her to copy the old masters in his collection at Longford Castle. In her early days in London, she was a part of a circle of young artists that included William Collins (future brother-in-law and father of novelist Wilkie), the Scottish painter Andrew Geddes (no relation), David Wilkie and James Stark. Her oil portraits of James Stark (c. 1814-19; Castle Museum, Norwich) shows a confidence and quality also seen in the smaller oil portraits of her future husband William Carpenter (1816; National Portrait Gallery, Bodelwyddan) and the watercolours of herself and William (1817; British Museum, London). The claim that Thomas Lawrence was her teacher has not been fully substantiated. She was, however, influenced by his work and that of Reynolds, although she spoke with an individual voice and was never accused of imitating either.

Lord Radnor's early patronage was important, but Carpenter's determination and ambition, combined with her talent, ensured that she continued to build on it all through her life. Her Account Book (copy in National Portrait Gallery, London) lists almost 600 clients from all walks of life -- and even that is not exhaustive; in all she produced more that 1100 pictures, mostly portraits in oils, but many in chaks, and some watercolour landscapes. There were also subject pictures, many of which she exhibited at the British Institution. Two good examples are 'A Gleaner' (1820; South London Gallery, Camberwell) and 'The Young Artist' (829; private collection), showing a young girl drawing her dog.

In her day Carpenter was one of the few women painting full-scale canvases, as opposed to miniatures, and it is remarkable how she managed to obtain her commissions. As a woman she could not call upon the nobility and gentry, as her brother-in-law used to do, although occasionally Collins recommended her. Yet in spite of marriage and several children, her professional output rarely flagged. With an unbusiness-like husband, and the need to help support her poverty-striken parents, money was a crucial factor; but Carpenter's work was also driven by a streak of compulsiveness, resulting in conflick with her family responsibilities, which attracted critical comment. In 1826, John Constable noted that her painting was clearly giving her physical problems, and he suspected that her children were neglected for it (John Constable, Correspondence, ed. Ronald Brymer Beckett, iv, London HMSO, 11966, p.137). Not only that, for most of her career she earned more than her husband.

Eton College was a fruitful source of work, through the influence of the Rev'd Edward Coleridge, for many years an assistant master. Carpenter painted up to 26 "leaving portraits" of boys, which are now in the official College collection, besides some 60 small oil panels for Coleridge himself. After his death, these were dispersed to the families of the sitters; a good example is The 6th Duke of Roxburghe (1831; Floors Castle, Kelso).

Carpenter's subjects all have a straightforward reality and energy. She concentrates on bringing the face, and especially the eyes, to the fore. She lights the forehed and hair, and softens the mouth and chin to give the whole face a warmth of personality. It is almost as if she and the sitter were having an animated conversation while she worked. She was also a superb draughtswoman; her small paintings often have the qualities of a miniature, while she could capture equally the swagger of a full-length portrait. From a small panel such as John Tregowell (1833; 25.5x20.3 cm.; Russell-Cotes Gallery, Bournemouth) to the magnificent portrait of Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1836; 213x122 cm.; Government Art Collection, London) she in in total command of her medium. Her qualitites were nearly summed up by Walter Shaw Sparrow: "[she is] among those quiet unpretentious portrait-painters whose thoughts are so wrapped up in their own determination to be true that they never think of striving after exhibition-room effects." We see "the character of her sitters, and not technical displays of her own cleverness".

[Sparrow, 1905, p.60.]

After Lawrence's death in 1830, Carpenter's career reach new heights. He work was constantly praised in the art press as being "unaffectedly natural", "gracefully managed", "of classic simplicity". Her pictures of women and children, for example, "The Sisters", a portrait of her two daughters Henrietta and Jane (1839; Victoria and Albert Museum, London), and "Spring Nosegay" (1831; Castle Museum, Nottingham), found especial favour. Her children are always natural and engaged in their own activities - a spontaneity born of the artist's years of observation of her five siblings and of her own children, unstifled by academic schooling. Over and over again, reviewers asked why she was not a member of the Royal Academy (she exhibited 156 pictures there, more than almost any other woman artist in the 19th century). Eventually in 1844 she was nominated, but as the only woman among some 60 candidated for two vacancies, she never really stood a chance.

Of the tiny fraction of Carpenter's work hanging in public galleries today, most are portraits of men. Of these, the portrait of the sculptor John Gibson (1857; National Portrait Gallery, Bodelwyddan) is very fine, but the posthumous portrait of the painter Richard Bonington (c.1833; National Portrait Gallery, London) is disappointing and untypical. Most of Carpenter's portraits of women and children are still with the families who commissioned them, but among those in collections open to the public are the beautiful Lady Musgrave (1825; Dalemain, Cumbria), the striking Lady Eastnor (1828; Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire), the softly delicate Lady Mary Vyner (1836; Newby Hall, Yorkshire), Mrs John Marshall and Her Son (1838; Leeds City Art Gallery), Anna Maria Theobald (1840; both Brodsworth Hall, Yorkshire), Henrietta Baillie (1845; Royal College of Physicians, London), two lovely portraits of members of the Frewen family (1846 and 1853; Brickwall House, Northiam, Sussex) and Mrs Collins, the mother of William Collins, R.A. (1826; National Gallery of New Zealand, Wellington). No pupils or "followers" of Carpenter have been identified, apart from her daughter Henrietta, although she probably influenced a number of her contemporaries. Often misattributed, Carpenter's work is gradually coming to light, to show her true stature and importance.

[Richard J. Smith]

"Obituary. Mrs. Margaret Sarah Carpenter." Art Journal (January 1873):6.
The noted portrait painter Margaret Sarah Geddes Carpenter has died at the age of eighty. She was born at Salisbury and received her early are training there. She moved to London in 181 and was much in demand as a portrait painter of important people. Her work can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery. She was married to the Keeper of Prints and Drawings for the British Museum, is aunt to author Wilkie Collins, and mother to painters W. Carpenter and Henrietta Carpenter.