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Octavia Hill

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Octavia Hill

by John Singer Sargent
oil on canvas, 1898
40 1/8 in. x 32 3/8 in. (1020 mm x 822 mm) overall
Bequeathed by Octavia Hill, 1915
Primary Collection
NPG 1746

Sitterback to top

  • Octavia Hill (1838-1912), Social reformer. Sitter in 2 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Portrait and landscape painter and muralist. Artist associated with 72 portraits, Sitter in 5 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This portrait was commissioned from John Singer Sargent by Hill's friends and supporters to mark her sixtieth birthday. She was reluctant to have her portrait painted but one of Sargent's numerous talents as a portraitist was using conversation to make his subjects feel relaxed during sittings. In the resulting painting, Sargent's skilful handling of Octavia's face captures her kindly yet determined expression.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 79 Read entry

    Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was a housing and social reformer, devoted to the promotion and provision of affordable housing. She understood the potential for women to enhance the lives of the poor, identifying her vocation in social housing. Hill’s art tutor, the aesthete, critic and reformer John Ruskin, helped launch her ambition, purchasing London slum properties for her to manage. Her plan was to make ‘lives noble, homes happy and family life good’. Henceforth, with ever more dwellings, she transformed slums and created thriving communities. Her methodical approach and use of trained volunteers paved the way to professional housing management. Hill’s magazine articles, collected as Homes for the London Poor (1875), highlighted her work and methods, which spread internationally. A leader of the open-space movement, her other charitable activities included co-founding both the Charity Organisation Society in 1869 and the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty in 1895.

  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 59 Read entry

    Octavia Hill (1838-1912) devoted herself to housing reform and to supervising the building and management of working-class dwellings. She was influenced by Christian Socialism and encouraged by John Ruskin in her schemes for improving the housing of the poor. She was also widely involved in other charitable activities, especially parks and open spaces and was a co-founder of the National Trust. This portrait was commissioned from Sargent by her friends and was given to Hill on her sixtieth birthday.

  • Sargent, John Singer, John Singer Sargent, 2018, p. 97
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 302
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 109 Read entry

    Carved and gilt pine, butt joint, the top cushion planted on the main frame which in turn is planted on the back frame, some of the fruit, the leaves at the corners and the tongues on the bask edge punched. 4 3⁄ 8 inches wide.

    This portrait of the philanthropist, Octavia Hill, was given her by her friends on her sixtieth birthday. It has a fine carved frame of leaves and fruit not unlike some Italian mid-seventeenth century frames.1 In a richer version in compo, made by Chapman Bros, the design was used both by Sargent, for example on his 1906 Lord Roberts (National Portrait

    Gallery), and by William Orpen, as on H. M. Butler of c.1911 (anonymous loan to Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).

    1 For instance the slightly more elaborate frame reproduced in Franco Sabateffi, La italiana dal Rinascimento al Neoclassico, Milan, 1992, pp 208-9.

  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 175 Read entry

    To mark the occasion of her sixtieth birthday, supporters of the social reformer Octavia Hill commissioned John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) to paint her portrait. By 1898 Hill’s housing schemes, publications and role in the foundation of the National Trust had garnered her an international reputation, yet she remained averse to commemorations of any kind. Hill reluctantly agreed to the commission, but remained anxious that the memorial would become a ‘real oppression and pain to the contributors’. Inevitably, the sittings in Sargent’s Chelsea studio began awkwardly. However, he employed his considerable experience to break through Hill’s initial reserve.

    The artist was at this point at the height of his powers as a society portraitist. His reputation as the painter of a fashionable elite was such that, by the mid-1890s, he was painting up to three sitters a day. According to Hill’s friend Mary Booth, ‘he engaged her in conversation, and had the happy instinct to differ with her categorically on a point where she felt strongly … her face lit with all her characteristic force and fire’. The portrait was bequeathed to the National Portrait Gallery in 1915.

Events of 1898back to top

Current affairs

The UK Parliament passes the Irish Local Government Act, which establishes a mixed system of local government in Ireland similar to that in Great Britain, notably creating new, directly elected county councils, and extending the electoral franchise to include all male householders and occupiers.
Charles Pelham Villiers, Britain's longest-serving Member of Parliament, dies. Villiers entered Parliament in 1835 as Liberal MP for Wolverhampton.

Art and science

The French physicists Pierre and Marie Curie discover the strongly radioactive elements polonium and radium, paving the way for cancer therapy and nuclear physics.
H.G. Wells's highly influential science fiction novellaThe War of the World is published, describing an invasion of England by aliens from Mars.


The Spanish-American war takes place after Spain fails to meet America's demands to peacefully resolve the Cuban fight for independence. America secures victory after a series of quick naval and military victories in the Philippines and Cuba. Later this year, the Treaty of Paris gives the US ownership of the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, the US also taking control of Cuba, ending the uprising and granting independence.

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