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Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale, by Sir George Scharf, 28 December 1857 -NPG 1784 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Florence Nightingale

by Sir George Scharf
Pencil on wove paper, 28 December 1857
5 7/8 in. x 3 5/8 in. (149 mm x 93 mm) overall
NPG 1784

Inscriptionback to top

Inscr. in pencil at bottom: ‘Miss Florence Nightingale. / At Embley. / December 28th 1857.’; in faded ink at top left-hand corner: ‘49’ (the page no. of Scharf’s notebook).

This portraitback to top

At first sight this drawing by George Scharf, a penetrating study of Florence Nightingale, seems secure in terms of identity, place and time. The head is finely pencilled, lifelike and expressive, and the sheet clearly inscribed: ‘Miss Florence Nightingale. / At Embley. / December 28th 1857’. According to his diary Scharf spent Christmas 1857 with William and Fanny Nightingale at Embley Park, during a tour of Hampshire. [1] Earlier that year he had been nominated the first secretary of the National Portrait Gallery.

But Florence was not at Embley that Christmas. Still ill from a serious collapse in August, she was living in deliberate seclusion at the Burlington Hotel in London, forbidding family visits, saving her energies for work. In January 1858 she wrote to her mother, hinting regret at the distancing: ‘If I could give companionship or receive it, I would beg you to come and share it with me.’ [2]

Scharf stayed with the Nightingales from 24 to 29 December 1857. [3] During this time he made two careful records, one of a painting in the house, [4], the other of a recent photograph of their famous, absent daughter. [5] (Florence disliked the photograph, joking it made her look like Medea after killing her children. [6]) An inscription at top right, no longer visible, indicated that the portrait was drawn between 26 and 28 December. [7]

Many years later, in 1917, in the course of examining Scharf’s immense bequest to the Gallery, the Nightingale portrait was discovered on page 49 of his Sketch Book 50 and, after consultation with the Trustees, it was accessioned, snipped out and framed for public display:

The Director reported [to the Trustees] that he had lighted upon a pencil drawing obviously done from life, by Sir George Scharf at Embley on December 28th 1857, of Miss Florence Nightingale, that he had written to Sir Edward T. Cook, her biographer, and asked permission of the Trustees, should the drawing prove to have been taken from life, to remove it from the sketchbook and have it suitably framed for exhibition in the Gallery. The Trustees were much interested in the discovery of this most valuable record of Miss Nightingale’s features, and approved of the Director’s suggestion. [8]

How quickly it was realized the drawing was not from life – and thus in contravention of the Gallery’s acquisition policy – is unclear; it was anyway welcomed by the Trustees, and entered the Primary Collection as NPG 1784.

Nightingale’s descendants when informed of the ‘discovery’ were also pleased, adding rather poignantly: ‘We have always regretted very much that there was not a more satisfactory picture of Miss Nightingale in the Gallery, and that there really has been no portrait of much value that any of us could offer.’ [9] From the moment of its discovery it was recognized that Scharf’s exquisite drawing was a curiosity, and a significant addition to Nightingale’s iconography.

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Sir George Scharf Papers, Personal diary 1857, NPG Archive, NPG 7/3/1/14.
2) Bostridge 2008, pp.325, 329.
3) See note by C.K. Adams, 16 Apr. 1952, NPG RP 1784: the discovery, in Scharf’s 1857 diary, of travel expenses to Embley Park, 24 Dec., and of date of departure, 29 Dec.
4) Scharf’s watercolour of a painting hanging at Embley is undated, but as Scharf never recorded another visit to that house it can be assumed it was painted at Christmas 1857. See Sir George Scharf Papers, Sketchbook 13, 1851–63, p.1, NPG Archive, NPG7/3/4/2/16.
5) See ‘All known portraits, Photographs, later 1856–early 1857, pose (a)’ or a close variant. Scharf’s drawing is a faithful copy except he omitted the cap strings under the chin.
6) This information from Mrs Rosalind Nash, Nightingale’s great-niece, inscr. on reverse of carte-de-visite (NPG x16139).
7) The inscription was recorded in NPG Report of the Trustees 1916–17, p.5; and in an unsigned and undated note, RP 1784. The inscription is faintly visible on an old photograph, NPG SB (Nightingale).
8) NPG Archive, minutes for Trustees Meeting 322, 8 Feb. 1917.
9) Letter from Mrs. R. Nash to J.D. Milner, 25 Feb. 1917, NPG RP 1784. The portraits of Nightingale held by the NPG in 1917 were NPG 1578 by Augustus Egg (likeness rejected by the family), now catalogued as Unknown Woman; and NPG 1748, a bronze bust by Sir John Steell, given by Nightingale’s descendants in 1915.

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length, vignetted bust, slightly to left, with head facing, lace cap covering ears, black ribbon choker, wearing dress with braid and buttons on shoulders, and a turned-down lace collar.

Provenanceback to top

Bequeathed by Sir George Scharf, 1895.

Exhibitionsback to top

Double Take: Comparing the Art of Graphic and Photographic Portraiture, NPG and nine other venues, 1991–4.

Reproductionsback to top

Rideal 1991, p.29.

View all known portraits for Florence Nightingale

View all known portraits for Sir George Scharf