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Sisters in Life, Sisters in Art: Ella and Marion Hepworth Dixon

ContributorsFehlbaum, Valérie
Published inMichael Field and their World, Editors Stetz, Margaret D. & Wilson, Cheryl A., p. 107-115
PublisherBuckinghamshire, United Kingdom : Rivendale Press
Publication date2007

“Ceci n'est pas une critique” might well be the leitmotiv of Ella and Marion Hepworth Dixon's representations of their contemporary art world. It was a world which, thanks to their upbringing and artistic training, they knew from both sides of the canvas. It was not, however, a world easily accessible to women. As late as 1921 Ella Hepworth Dixon wrote, “In Art, as in Literature, it is only during the last few years that women have become completely emancipated…. For fifty years men have been assiduous in assuring women that they had no creative talent, and that no woman would ever achieve a masterpiece.” With uncharacteristic solemnity, she concludes, “It was a depressing period.” (Lady's Pictorial. January 29, 1921, p.140). Ella (1857-1932) and Marion (1856-1936) were the younger daughters of William Hepworth Dixon (1821–1879), for many years the renowned, or notorious, editor of The Atheneaum, then the leading literary journal. Such a “literary lion” was naturally in contact with the most eminent members of the higher echelons of London society and, to quote from the Sunday Times' review of Ella Hepworth Dixon's memoirs, “celebrities of all kinds used to go to their house in Regent's Park”. (Sunday Times, March 30, 1930, p.11) Their mother also appears to have been a remarkable woman in her own right, as, according to the above-mentioned memoirs, she “went to all Ibsen's plays (by herself) when they were first produced; and was almost the first woman in London to call in a woman doctor when my youngest brother, Sydney, was born. It was she who presented me, on my return from school-days in Germany, with a petition to sign for women's suffrage”. (As I Knew Them, p.14) It is hardly surprising that such parents brought their children up in rather avant-garde ways, in particular giving to their daughters the same education as to their sons. Ella and Marion Hepworth Dixon, therefore, grew up surrounded by artists, sometimes even serving as models, and, at a time when for women of their class marriage was seen as the ultimate career, they initially intended to pursue artistic careers. To this end, they trained in London and Paris, and in the late 1870s/early 1880s exhibited works, watercolours and oils, notably at the Society of Lady Artists. For various reasons, however, primarily in order to earn a living, they were thereafter obliged to exchange their paint brushes for pens. Nevertheless, the world of Art remained omnipresent in their lives and in their writing. Even in her last published work, her memoirs, Ella Hepworth Dixon actually introduces herself in the “Foreword” as both an object of art, a portrait, and as a practising artist. Indeed, she continually drew on her knowledge of art and artists for both her fiction and her non-fiction, not always, it has to be acknowledged, in the most respectful fashion. Her background provided her with the necessary insight to see through the artifices of the artistic world, whilst her witty pen enabled her to draw memorable portraits of both the producers and the consumers of art/Art. For example, at the beginning of My Flirtations (1892), Margaret Wynman, the first-person narrator, declares, “Father is a Royal Academician, and paints shocking bad portraits, but the British public is quite unaware of the fact.” Moreover, even when not dealing with artistic topics, Ella Hepworth Dixon's prose reveals her painter's fine eye for detail and colour. In careers which spanned more than four decades, Ella and Marion Hepworth Dixon met and worked with most of the luminaries of their day including Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Aubrey Beardsley, H. G. Wells, George Meredith, Sarah Bernhardt, Cecily Hamilton, Elizabeth Robins, as well as media magnates such as William Heinemann and Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe. They were alternately journalists, critics, essayists and fiction-writers, contributing to various prestigious periodocals and publications such as The Yellow Book. Ella Hepworth Dixon even became that rara avis a woman Editor of a woman's magazine, albeit for a very short time, before also trying her hand at drama. Such multiplicity of output was not then uncommon; many eminent men and women of letters, better known today for one aspect of their writing, engaged in a wide variety of literary enterprises. What is more significant is that at the same time as the fourth estate, and consequently mass media as we know it, was developing as never before, when transmitting information and news became secondary to selling an image, women were entering spheres previously considered beyond their bounds, and enjoying a certain success. Such changes in woman's ascribed, prescribed and proscribed roles were not always greeted with enthusiasm by either sex. In this paper I would like to explore the ways in which, to use Ella Hepworth Dixon's own words, she and her sister managed, like “Michael Field”, “to make (their) way in the world and compete with men”.

  • Women Artists
  • Academie Julian
  • Royal Academy
  • Women Writers
  • Fin de siècle
  • Marion Hepworth Dixon
  • Ella Hepworth Dixon
  • Michael Field
  • Marie Bashkiertseff
Citation (ISO format)
FEHLBAUM, Valérie. Sisters in Life, Sisters in Art: Ella and Marion Hepworth Dixon. In: Michael Field and their World. Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom : Rivendale Press, 2007. p. 107–115.
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Book chapter (Published version)
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