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Howitt [married name Watts], Anna Marylocked

  • Pam Hirsch

Howitt [married name Watts], Anna Mary (1824–1884), painter and writer, was born into a Quaker family in Nottingham on 15 January 1824, the eldest of the five surviving children of William Howitt (1792–1879) and Mary Botham (1799–1888) [see Howitt, Mary], both hardworking writers who founded Howitt's Journal of Literature and Popular Progress which espoused the causes of peace, free trade, and civil liberty. In 1846 they went bankrupt, so, although Anna Mary Howitt grew up in a cultured household, with introductions to many literary figures such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Anna Jameson, the family's finances were precarious and she always had to support herself by writing journal articles and books. Howitt showed precocious talent, which was encouraged by the painter Margaret Gillies, a family friend; at fifteen, her drawings were used to illustrate her mother's book Hymns and Fireside Verses (1839). In 1846 she attended Henry Sass's Art School in London, one of the few places where women could receive first-class tuition. When her parents could no longer afford the fees, the principal, Francis Cary, allowed her to continue because he was so impressed with her talent. Her fellow students included Eliza Fox (married name Bridell), Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Thomas Woolner. Howitt became engaged to marry Edward Bateman, a decorative designer and illustrator who worked with the architect and designer Owen Jones, and also became friends with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood [see also Pre-Raphaelite women artists].

As women were not allowed to study at the Royal Academy Schools, in 1850 Howitt and another woman artist, Jane Benham (married name Hay), went to Munich to study informally under Wilhelm von Kaulbach. She wrote articles about Munich life and society published variously in the Ladies Companion, Household Words, and the Athenaeum, later collected in her book An Art-Student in Munich (1853) together with more material about her two-year apprenticeship. She also wrote two serialized stories, 'The School of Life', whose protagonists were two young male artists, which appeared in the Illustrated Magazine of Art (1853–4) with her own illustrations and was published in book form in 1856, and 'Sisters in Art', which appeared in the Illustrated Exhibitor (1853). The latter elaborated the professional aspirations of the Langham Place feminists, whose leader was her close friend the landscape painter Barbara Leigh Smith (married name Bodichon). She contributed a poem to The Victoria regia (1861), a book designed to exhibit the skills of the women compositors in the press set up as one of the Langham Place initiatives, and contributed in 1862 to the English Woman's Journal (the Langham Place periodical).

Howitt broke off her engagement to Bateman in August 1853, after he had travelled to Australia to seek his fortune in goldmining. Following her return from Munich she joined D. G. Rossetti's Folio club together with Barbara Leigh Smith. In 1854 she made her exhibition début at the National Institution (also known as the Free Exhibition) with Margaret Returning from the Fountain, a picture inspired by Goethe's Faust. Her diptych, called The Lady (oil on canvas, each 30 × 25 cm) in response to Shelley's poem 'The Sensitive Plant', was exhibited at the National Institution in 1855. Howitt's paintings were often called 'strong-minded' by critics, as, for example, The Castaway (exh. RA, 1855), a painting of a woman who had fallen into prostitution. This was purchased by the Pre-Raphaelite patron Thomas Fairburn, who lent it to the ‘Art Treasures’ exhibition of 1857 in Manchester.

Howitt was connected with feminist activism primarily through her friendship with Barbara Leigh Smith and in 1856 was involved with collecting the signatures of women for Leigh Smith's petition to parliament urging the reform of the Married Women's Property Acts. Leigh Smith posed more than once as a model for Howitt. When she was commissioned by the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts to paint a picture of Beatrice and Dante, the red-haired Barbara was her unlikely choice to model for the medieval Italian heroine. It seems as if Barbara in some sense represented Beatrice—'she who makes blessed'—in the symbolic rather than the physical sense. Barbara Leigh Smith was more aptly the model for a large-scale historical oil painting, Boadicea, inspired by Tennyson's poem, which was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1856. This was rejected by the Royal Academy, and when Ruskin sent her a letter criticizing it and, it seems, rejecting the feminist iconography, Howitt suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1857, when Barbara Leigh Smith married Eugène Bodichon, a resident of Algiers, Howitt had another, more serious breakdown. She destroyed her paintings and determined never to exhibit again. Consequently her only extant original drawing is one of D. G. Rossetti's pupil and model Elizabeth Siddal, whom she drew in 1854 (pencil on paper; priv. coll.). The only subsequent exhibition of her work as a painter after 1856 was From a Window, exhibited by the Society of Female Artists in 1858.

In 1859 Howitt was baptized in St Michael's Church, Highgate, as a preliminary to marrying a childhood friend, Alaric Alfred Watts (b. 1823/4), an official in the revenue office. He held literary ambitions and he shared with his wife a belief in spiritualism. After their marriage on 18 October 1859 she produced only ‘spirit-drawings’ in vermilion ink, which arose out of trance-like states, although she continued to produce illustrations for her mother's books. There are some indications that it was a mariage blanc. From 1870 the couple lived at 19 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. She published Pioneers of the Spiritual Reformation (1883) which consisted of biographical sketches of Dr Justinus Kerner and of her father, William Howitt, but the purpose of which was as an apologia for spiritualism, mesmerism, and associated phenomena. Together with her husband she wrote Aurora: a Volume of Verse (1884) in which she eschews personal ambition in favour of spiritual salvation. That same year Anna Mary Watts died suddenly of diphtheria at Mayr am Hof, Dietenheim, on 23 July during a visit to her mother in the Austrian Tyrol. Her mother had been received into the Catholic church in 1882, and she arranged for her daughter to be buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Dietenheim.


  • A. L. Beaky, ‘The letters of Anna Mary Howitt to Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’, PhD diss., Columbia University, 1974
  • M. Howitt, An autobiography, ed. M. Howitt, another edn (1891)
  • C. R. Woodring, Victorian sampler: William and Mary Howitt (Kansas, 1952)
  • A. Lee, Laurels and rosemary (1955)
  • P. Hirsch, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827–1891: feminist, artist and rebel (1998)
  • J. Marsh and P. G. Nunn, Women artists and the Pre-Raphaelite movement (1989)
  • P. Gerrish Nunn, ed., Canvassing: recollections by six Victorian women artists (1986)
  • J. Marsh and P. G. Nunn, Pre-Raphaelite women artists (1997) [exhibition catalogue, Manchester, Birmingham, and Southampton, 22 Nov 1997 – 2 Aug 1998]
  • A. M. H. Watts, ‘A contribution towards the history of spirit-art’, Light: a journal of psychical, occult, and mystical research, 9 (13 April 1889), 176–7
  • Autobiographical notes of the life of William Bell Scott: and notices of his artistic and poetic circle of friends, 1830 to 1882, ed. W. Minto, 2 vols. (1892)
  • m. cert.


  • D. G. Rossetti, caricature, repro. in Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies (1989)
A. Graves, (1884); new edn (1895); 3rd edn (1901), facsimile edn (1969), repr. [1970], (1973), and (1984)