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Meet Rolinda and Ellen Sharples: Bristol’s mother-daughter painting duo

Rolinda and Ellen both left amazing legacies, encouraging education and artistic empowerment for women artists in the 18th and 19th centuries

By Rosalind Fursland

Although the art world has been hit with closures due to the current virus outbreak, here’s a little treat to look forward to when the museums and galleries reopen! Why not duck into Bristol Museum and Art Gallery on a wet and windy day (as I did) and be sure to go to the red room on the second floor. Here, among the many male names associated with the Bristol School of Artists in the early 19th century, you’ll find the work of Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838), a pioneer artist and one of the first women genre painters, who captured on canvas realistic scenes from the lives of ordinary people. Rolinda’s mother Ellen (1769-1849) was also a painter who was commissioned to produce copies and miniatures on ivory. Get to know this mother-daughter painting duo, who created a fantastic legacy in Bristol during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ellen was a professional painter

Rolinda’s family trade was portrait painting and her mother Ellen produced high-quality copies of her husband James’ pastel portraits, which she wrote in her diary “were thought equal to the original, price the same.” Ellen contributed significantly to the family income and after the Sharples relocated from Bath to New York in 1793, Ellen created perfect copies of James’ portraits of notable people including the first president George Washington, the first lady Martha Washington, and the philosopher Joseph Priestley. Ellen proved that her artistic talent certainly had a place in the ‘man’s’ art world of the time.

Ellen nurtured her daughter’s artistic talent

As Ellen’s only daughter, Rolinda benefitted from her mother’s progressive beliefs in the importance of education and independence for women. She wrote 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.” In this light, Ellen nurtured her daughter’s artistic talents from an early age and passed on her love of art and literature. She taught Rolinda to draw and showed her that women could be professional, paid artists by giving her pocket money for her work. By her early teens Rolinda had joined the family business as a portrait painter, but she also had her own aspirations.

Rolinda produced portraits of herself and her mother

When Ellen’s husband James died in 1811, grief-stricken, the Sharples returned from America and settled in Bristol. Here Rolinda really came into her own as an artist, switching from pastels to oils and revealing the true scale of her talent and ambition. In 1814, she produced a self-portrait, Portrait of the Artist, and also painted her mother drinking tea in Portrait of Mrs Ellen Sharples. In her diaries, Ellen expresses her pride at Rolinda’s dedication to art, “pursuing her profession with the greatest ardour, most desirous to attain excellence.” In The Artist and her Mother (1816), one of her most visually striking paintings, Rolinda captures the closeness of her bond with her mother, who looks upon her painting with tender admiration.

Rolinda became one of the first women genre painters

From this time onwards, Rolinda developed her style and departed from the family portrait trade, broadening her canvas to practise genre painting and depicting scenes from everyday life in Bristol. She became one of the first professional women genre painters and her work was displayed at the Royal Academy and the Society of British Artists (where she was made an honorary member), as well as being exhibited in Liverpool, Dublin, Southampton, Leeds, Birmingham, and Bristol.

Her paintings sold at a competitive price in comparison to her male contemporaries. One of Rolinda’s best known works The Cloakroom, Clifton Assembly Rooms (1818) shows the fashions and social interactions of Bristol’s high society as they gossip and bustle, preparing to leave or enter the ballroom. A servant is helping a lady into her “overshoes” to protect her delicate satin shoes from being damaged in the muddy streets. This painting has often been used to illustrate the middle- and upper-class culture described in Jane Austen’s novels.

Another insightful piece by Rolinda is The Village Gossips (1828), a self-explanatory work featuring two bonneted ladies outside a country cottage on a sunny day, drinking tea, and deep in conversation while another figure listens intently from the doorway. Rolinda carried a sketch pad and drew observations from her daily life, producing true-to-life outlines on which she based her paintings.

Ellen and Rolinda’s legacy lives on

Much to Ellen’s great sadness, she outlived both of her children, Rolinda died at the age of 44 in 1838, and James Jr. (also a painter) died the following year. After inheriting the estates of her husband and children, and with no living descendants, Ellen gifted most of her fortune to the founding of The Bristol Academy of Fine Arts (now the Royal West of England Academy), Bristol’s first art gallery. She wrote of her hopes that “to all lovers of taste it will afford an elegance ever varied and delightful source of amusement.”

After Ellen died in 1849, one of the executors of her will remembered her as “a most courteous, kind, and intelligent lady” who had “alluded with much feeling to the loss of an accomplished daughter.” Rolinda and Ellen both left amazing legacies, Rolinda in her magnificent body of work as an empowered and educated woman artist, and Ellen in her generosity, not only in fostering her daughter’s artistic abilities, but also in supporting and providing a space for future artists.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is hoping to open again on 1 May 2020, but if you can’t wait to see more of Rolinda Sharples, check out this online gallery.

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