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Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale, by Sir John Robert Steell; Alessandro Parlanti, 1859-1862 -NPG 1748 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Florence Nightingale

by Sir John Robert Steell, cast by Alessandro Parlanti
Bronze bust on green stone socle, 1859-1862
28 in. x 18 1/2 in. (710 mm x 470 mm) overall
NPG 1748

Inscriptionback to top

At back of bust incised across shoulders: ‘JN. STEELL. R.S.A. Sculpt. Edinburgh. 1862’.
On supporting column circular bronze label lettered: ‘ARTISTIC / FOUNDRY / LONDON / A. PARLANTI’.

This portraitback to top

‘I really have a scruple against sitting … I only consented to the Steele [sic] bust because the soldiers asked for it, and thinking of me makes them think of their wives and mothers. I was very much the worse for sitting for that bust,’ Florence Nightingale recalled in 1864. [1] Earlier, on her return from Crimea in 1856, she had defied requests – except from Queen Victoria – for a portrait, fearing the idolatry contingent on ‘relics’. Another request she could not refuse was one issued by the British army, as their portrait of her was to be funded by ‘penny subscriptions’ from non-commissioned officers and men. That she finally agreed to sit for this to John Robert Steell, the Queen’s sculptor for Scotland, was due to Sir John McNeill, co-author of the McNeill–Tulloch report on the Crimean War, and a trusted adviser and friend since 1855.

Nightingale stayed with the McNeills in October 1856, after her visit to Balmoral; [2] and again in April 1857, when she admired the bust of McNeill in Steell’s Edinburgh studio. Steell apparently put out feelers regarding a Nightingale bust at this date – only to be rebuffed, as she drily reported to Lady McNeill: ‘I was delighted to be able to say, in answer to an application similar to that of Mr Steele [sic] to me yesterday, that I stood pledged to Sir John McNeill to dispose of my remains for the benefit of science only and to go down to posterity in a bottle (of spirits of wine) if I am curious enough. It is at once becoming and professional for me to have my portrait thus’ (cataloguer’s emphasis). [3] In 1858 Nightingale was pleased to receive photographs of the McNeill bust, commenting: ‘I think Steele [sic] may be very proud that he has made a work which will last,’ and adding that due to illness she was ‘very little likely ever to get so far [as Edinburgh] again’. [4] Given the obstacles, Steell’s bust of Nightingale, begun three years after her return from Crimea, was a great achievement.

In a letter written in April 1859 to Mary Elizabeth Mohl, a family friend, Nightingale’s cousin Joanna Hilary Bonham Carter, who was herself struggling to produce a portrait statuette of Nightingale (see ‘All known portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints from life, exh. 1862’), provided valuable background information to the commission:

I should tell you (tho’ it is at present a secret thing) that the bust of the soldiers with their penny subscription has been done … Please do not mention it to anyone, she begged that we should not do so, and I’ve seen what useless requests to sit etc. may be brought upon her. … She could not sit regularly, nor could she have had a stranger at all, nor could a stranger have done it. Fortunately she had known in Edinboro’ more than two years ago a sculptor of much talent, whom she liked too, so much that she said she would sit to him if ever she sat to anyone. (Her friends entreated her much to do so at the time but she always disliked the operation and had always so much to do that it is not wonderful she postponed it – and sine die.) So the sculptor was telegraphed for. He had thought and dreamed about making this bust, and I don’t think it could have been better. Under the circumstances it is astonishingly good – for she could only give two sittings and not long ones, they wearied her so. [5]

The Scottish press reported news of the commission in July 1859; and the bust drew visitors to Steell’s Edinburgh studio in early 1860. [6] As predicted, it acquired the status of a ‘relic’; and in 1861, while still in the studio, was visited by ‘“soldiers, widows, orphans & sweethearts” who greeted it, according to the sculptor, “with tears of gratitude”’. [7] The prime marble (National Army Museum, London) was presented to Nightingale by the soldiers in 1862, but she never lived with it, and indeed grew to hate it, writing in 1897: ‘I also utter a pious wish that the bust may be smashed.’ [8] That year she reluctantly lent it to the Victorian Era Exhibition; and as feared crowds flocked to view it.

In this portrait, Steell treads a fine line between the academic and the particular. He aimed for a retrospective, mid-1850s yet lasting image. The eyes are left unincised but are given the characteristic hooded lids; the cap over strictly parted hair is naturalistic; the cloak gathered at the throat is a classical feature but, combined with a solicitous tilt of the head, manages to suggest a chill night on the ward. The family generally liked the bust; one member thought it ‘particularly fine in giving the shape of the head and the set of the nose on her face’. [9]

Naturally there sprang a demand for copies. Including the prime version and NPG 1748, there seem to have been around three marble and seven bronze versions: for details see ‘All Known Portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints from life, 1859–65’. It should be noted that none of the Nightingale bronzes was cast at Steell’s own Grove Foundry in Edinburgh; [10]; and that NPG 1748 is a late cast, produced by Alessandro Parlanti at his Albion Works in Fulham (1899–1918), possibly around 1900–1915. [11]

The bust was offered to the National Portrait Gallery Trustees by Nightingale’s relations Sir Harry Lushington Stephen, Bt, and Lady Stephen, at a time when the only portrait of Nightingale in the Collection was the controversial painting by Augustus Egg (see ‘All known portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, Rejected portraits, undated rejected portraits’). [12] After the bust was accepted in February 1915 Lady Stephen wrote to the director, Sir Charles John Holmes, with an earnest request that it should be displayed in an appropriate context, ‘in a place among the soldiers’. [13]

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Letter from F. Nightingale to Sir H. Verney, 26 Aug. 1864, quoted in McDonald 2001, pp.567–8.
2) McDonald 2005, p.634.
3) McDonald 2005, p.635.
4) McDonald 2005, pp.636–7.
5) Letter from J.H. Bonham Carter to M.E. Mohl, 9 Apr. 1859, quoted in Woodham-Smith 1950, pp.361–2.
6) For press reports see Lieuallen 2002, vol.2, p.68. For reference to Steell’s studio, see letter from Lady Mary Ruthven to Sir W. Stirling-Maxwell, Jan. 1860: ‘I wish if you are in Edinburgh for an hour you would call at the studio of Steele [sic] the sculptor in Randolph Crescent behind Charlotte Sq. … I want you to see a bust of … Florence Nitingale [sic]’ (quoted in Lieuallen 2002, vol.1, p.164).
7) Bostridge 2008, p.266.
8) Woodham-Smith 1950, p.588.
9) H. Hake memorandum, 13 July 1938, NPG RP 2939, reporting on a visit to the Gallery by Mrs Rosalind Nash, a Nightingale relative.
10) Lieuallen 2002, vol.2, p.73.
11) See ‘British bronze sculpture founders and plaster figure makers, 1800–1980: P’. The bronze version at Florence Nightingale M., London, was also cast by Parlanti. For Steell catalogue raisonné references to NPG 1748, see Lieuallen 2002, vol.2, p.67, no.86.
12) NPG 1578, now titled Unknown Woman.
13) Letter from Lady Stephen to C.J. Holmes, 26 Feb.1915, NPG RP 1748.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, head turned down slightly to sitter’s left; a frilly-edged cap over parted hair, and cloak fastened at neckline.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1987.

Provenanceback to top

The Nightingale family; given by Sir Harry Lushington Stephen, Bt and Lady Stephen, 1915.

View all known portraits for Florence Nightingale


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