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Florence Nightingale; Frances Parthenope, Lady Verney

Florence Nightingale; Frances Parthenope, Lady Verney, by William White, circa 1836 -NPG 3246 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Florence Nightingale; Frances Parthenope, Lady Verney

by William White
Watercolour, with traces of pencil and some bodycolour, on Whatman wove paper, circa 1836
18 1/4 in. x 14 1/8 in. (462 mm x 358 mm) overall
NPG 3246

Inscriptionback to top

Two labels removed from original backboard (see NPG RP 3246):
(a) brown paper label with typed inscr. ‘Water Colour Portrait / by / William White of / Florence Nightingale / (sitting) / and / Frances Parthenope Nightingale / (standing) / 1839’;
(b) printed paper label, ‘Rowley / 140–2 Church St / Kensington W.8’;
On backboard (removed during conservation in 1987 and now untraced) illegible pencil inscr., visible in a 1990 photograph (see NPG RP 3246).

This portraitback to top

Portraits – paintings, sculpture, photographs – which Florence Nightingale would have actually posed for are rare. So the gift of this watercolour, though showing her still young, was welcomed by the National Portrait Gallery in 1945.

Now little known, William White was sufficiently successful in the 1820s and 1830s to exhibit portraits at the Royal Academy and at the Royal Society of British Artists. [1] A sketch of his mother Mrs White, presently at the British Museum, shows a similar precise handling of paint to NPG 3246. [2] White was at one time the drawing master to Florence’s Bonham Carter cousins, and this was probably the source of the commission. [3]

This large watercolour shows Florence seated, eyes lowered over her embroidery while her sister Frances Parthenope looks out at the viewer. Both girls are wearing day dresses with fashionable wide collars and dropped shoulders; Florence also wears black mitts and a striped apron. Their attributes seem strangely reversed: Florence sews while her older sister holds a book. Yet when William Nightingale took over his daughters’ education in the 1830s, it was Parthenope who excelled at things artistic, while he and Florence formed a ‘college of two in the library’. [4] Florence was prodigiously bookish. Her commonplace book for 1836 (about the time of White’s portrait) reveals that her lessons included ‘rudiments’ of chemistry, geography, physics and astronomy, mathematics, grammar, composition, philosophy and history; and her languages were French, Italian and German. [5] According to her Aunt Mary she also displayed ‘industrious tendencies … on music & needlework’. [6]

William Nightingale’s academic programme was noted by the biographers; and one, Marion Holmes, wrote: ‘Luckily for his daughters, he did not believe that a girl’s education was complete when she had [merely] acquired a knowledge of Berlin wool-work, and a few elegant accomplishments.’ [7] The decision to show the younger girl absorbed in ‘wool-work’ is partly a pictorial convention – and, as Harriet Martineau pointed out, Florence’s youth was ruled by conventions, in common with ‘[other] little girls who have wealthy parents, and carefully chosen governesses, and good masters’. [8]

The double portrait may have been commissioned to mark Parthenope’s presentation at Court, which took place in the summer of 1836; and it records the Nightingale sisters in their mid- to late teens, as they may have looked before the family’s continental tour of 1837–9.

The offer to the Gallery came from Sir Harry Lushington Stephen, Bt, [9] whose wife Barbara, Florence’s great-niece, had lived at Embley Park, Hampshire, and Lea Hurst, Derbyshire. Barbara died in March 1945 and in May her husband offered the portrait, framed, [10] and another portrait of Nightingale (NPG 3254), writing that ‘both have always been in the possession of the family’. [11] The double portrait was ‘unanimously accepted’ by the Gallery trustees on 25 October 1945.

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Graves 1895, p.301; Graves [1905–6] 1970, vol.4, p.257, exh. 1824–38; and Johnson 1975, p. 498. White seems to have come from Swansea: see Mallalieu 2002, vol.2, p.261 (‘William White of Swansea’); and Joyner 1997, p.127.
2) William White, Mrs White, dated 1836, BM, 1971,1011.7. With thanks to Kim Sloan for this information.
3) Bostridge 2008, p.57.
4) Bostridge 2008, p.39.
5) Bostridge 2008, p.38.
6) Bostridge 2008, pp.70–71. There are also sketches of Florence sewing by Parthenope, coll. NT, Claydon, Bucks.
7) Holmes 1910, p.3.
8) I. Scott [H. Martineau], ‘Representative Women’, Once a Week, 17 Mar. 1860, p.260.
9) See NPG 1748 for a Nightingale gift by Sir Harry and Lady Stephen in 1915.
10) According to note from NPG conservator, 16 Aug. 1993, NPG RP 3246, an ‘Edwardian compo oil gilt frame’.
11) Letter from Sir H. Stephen to NPG, 26 May 1945, NPG RP 3246. He dated the White watercolour 1839 (without supporting evidence). The date was corrected to ‘c.1836’ in the 1947 NPG catalogue, on the basis that the girls’ physique and style of their dresses pointed to an earlier date; see note by J. Kerslake, 29 June 1955, NPG, RP 3246. Rogers 1993 reverts to 1839 date.

Physical descriptionback to top

Florence whole-length seated to right in a high-backed chair, wearing a striped apron over a pink dress, hair plaited and curled into a bun at crown of head, working at embroidery; Parthenope standing at right in a yellow dress; curtain, balustrade and landscape in background.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1987.

Provenanceback to top

The Nightingale family; given by Sir Harry Lushington Stephen, Bt, October 1945.

Exhibitionsback to top

Master Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery, London and seven other venues, NPG, 1993–4 (59).

Florence Nightingale, Florence Nightingale Museum, London, 2010.

Reproductionsback to top

Huxley 1975, facing p.27.

Rogers 1993, no.59, p.115.

Bostridge 2008, pl.13.

View all known portraits for Florence Nightingale



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