During the Victorian era there was a flourishing market for all manner of women's magazines. The public's imagination was caught by lavishly illustrated periodicals that offered a more or less constant supply of thrilling, serialised fiction, alongside more practical features on fashion and home-making, even the latest sheet music to be played on the parlour piano.

In 1852, the husband and wife team of Samuel and Isabella Beeton achieved great success with their own creation of Beeton's Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. 

For this, Isabella provided recipes and articles that covered household management. However, the magazine offered a great deal more than that, for apart from the usual fashion and fiction there were biographical features, instruction on gardening and medicine, and also a regular letters page. 

Initially priced at 2d a copy, by 1856 the magazine boasted a circulation of 50,000 copies.

Such commercial success inspired the couple to think of other formats. In 1861, they produced the society newspaper with the title of The Queen ~ another success that continued to run until the year of 1970.

Fashion plate from 'The Queen' circa 1890

The first edition of The Queen cost 6d, and that contained a specially-commissioned photograph of Queen Victoria. The paper also specialised in the latest Parisian fashions, providing paper patterns and directions for elaborate needlework. And, although it may not have gone as far as publications such as The Female's Friend  (a short-lived magazine with the worthy aim of campaigning against the scourge of prostitution), it did not shy away from offering its readers intelligent debate on politics and the place of women in society.

The English Woman's Journal (1858-1864) was another paper that sought to educate its readers on politics, at home and abroad. And then, from 1892-1900, Shafts was a radical magazine with features on birth control contributed by Marie Stopes, as well as other articles that ranged from the reporting of sporting achievements to news of the latest activities of the Independent Labour Party.



The story of four women who shared the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites

Kate Forsyth’s novel, Beauty in Thorns, is set in the Victorian era where, as its central theme, it explores The Sleeping Beauty fairytale.

This fairytale has long-inspired aspects of Forsyth's written work, and here the idea is reprised within the artwork of Burne-Jones, the exquisite creation of which is strongly woven through the novel’s plot.

Spanning fifty years and almost 500 pages, the story explores the Pre-Raphaelites, concentrating most specifically on four women the artists knew and loved, revealing how those women sought to find their own autonomy, or else submitted to the passive female roles expected then.

Lizzie Sidall, by Rosetti

Kate Forsyth gives an honest, sometimes brutally exposing view of the life of Lizzie Siddal, the tragic muse and lover of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who longed to be an artist too, who was brave and bold and passionate, despite the demons gnawing through the beauty of her fragile soul ~ as illustrated in this poem by Rosetti’s sister, Christina ...

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream

Jane Morris, by Rosetti

We meet the stunning Jane, an Oxford slum girl of fierce intelligence who married William Morris, the man who paid to have her tutored in acceptable speech and manners, in music, and embroidery, so as to elevate her in his world with the least embarrassment. What pain his wife's infidelity with a fellow artist must have caused, although she never left him, eventually forced to chose between Rosetti (who as time went by was tortured by insanity, due to his enduring guilt over poor Lizzie Siddal’s fate), and devotion to her children.

 Margaret Burne-Jones, as painted by her father.

Kate Forsyth also brings to life the complex life of Georgie, the long-suffering wife of ‘Ned’ Burne-Jones, along with that of Margaret, their daughter, and the muse who posed as the subject of his greatest works: a monumental series inspired by The Sleeping Beauty tale ~ though rather than becoming enslaved for a hundred years or more, Margaret did eventually escape Edward's obsessive hold, defying her father to marry and live with the man she truly loved.

In this satisfying novel Kate Forsyth does not shy away from the culture of drink and opiates that pervaded this artistic group. She shows the heartbreak of the women who are now enshrined in works of art but, who, within constrictions of their time were often deemed as unconventional, or ‘fallen’ in a morally rigid society where anything the least bit free or decadent was frowned upon.  

Meticulously written and researched this novel is a gripping read. Compelling, also heartbreaking. A must for every fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, and those they loved.

For more about Kate and Beauty in Thornsyou can find her author website here.



This painting of Una and the Wood Nymphs by Caldesi and Montecchi, was photographed by W E Frost. He then submitted it to be displayed along with some 1009 other images created by fellow photographers at the Victoria and Albert museum (then known as the Kensington Museum) for an exhibition in 1858.

Such a method of reproducing great art was softer and truer than that achieved by the older method of engraving. It was soon to become a commercial success with many people buying prints of art works to show in their own homes.

However, some photographers preferred to go a step further, using real human models when recreating their own scenes from literature or history. For instance, the albumen print below, photographed by William Lake Price, shows Don Quixote in his Study ~ surrounded by all the requisite props to fully reconstruct a scene from the novel by Cervantes.

The new science of photography was thus exploited as an art form. But, it was also used as a method of recording industrialisation. 

In the image below Robert Howlett showed work on the SS Great Eastern (also known as The Leviathon) which was then the largest steam ship to have ever been constructed. Symbolising the Empire's greatness it was, nevertheless, a commercial failure. The ship was scrapped in 1888. 

Still, it is an astonishing print because it really does convey the scale of Victorian ambition in invention, and engineering design. And, as an added bonus, dwarfed below the ship itself, is the engineering 'giant' of the times ~ the top-hatted Isambard Kingdom Brunel.


Photography was also used as a record of place and travelling ~ another aspect of Victorian Empire. 

Below is the Rameseum of El-Kurneh, Thebes, as photographed by Francis Frith, which is a fine example of how the wet collodian negative process allowed for exquisite detail to be captured in shadow, light, and texture. This scene surely captures everything that entranced the Victorian public regarding the myths, the exotic romance, and the fallen grandeur of the East.



Edward Linley Sambourne first began his working life as an apprentice draughtsman in a marine engineering works in Greenwich. His artistic career was to blossom when his cartoons came to the attention of the editor of the satirical magazine, Punch ~ for which the cover shown above is a fine example of his style.

However, his talents did not end with illustration work. He also developed a passion for photography, growing rapidly as an art form in the second half of the nineteenth century. Very soon, one of the attic rooms in his home in Stafford Terrace was converted into a studio. A bathroom became his dark room, the walls of which were covered with many examples of his work ~ with images of his family, and also of the household staff who he asked to pose as models.

Below, you can see his coachman dressed as the Emperor Nero while plucking away on a fire screen lyre ~ a pose that later on became the basis of a political cartoon...

When he was commissioned to illustrate Charles Kingsley's story, The Water Babies, Linley Sambourne used his daughter Maude to pose for the character, Ellie. His son, Roy, became the model for Tom, Charles Kingsley's child chimney sweep.

Now and then Sambourne's wife, Marion, was also persuaded to model, though she was said to be more concerned with the running of her household than playing at such frivolities. And then there were occasions when she took the children off from home for seaside trips and holidays ~ when her husband was far 'too busy with work' to think of leaving London ~ when he used his freedom in the house to acquire professional models.

For his portraits of naked females, Sambourne was always careful to use the plainest, non-descript backdrops and to hide his models' identities ~ many of whom he lured away from the local Kensington Camera Club. But, in one somewhat provocative pose a girl is clearly sitting in Marion's favourite armchair, her face masked and, somewhat ironically, holding a puppet of Mr Punch.

Whether or not Marion ever saw that particular photograph, she was most certainly aware of her husband's racey activities, very often referring to 'Lil's secrets' when writing in her diaries.

Edward Linley Sambourne, looking a little bit guilty and glum! (1844-1910)