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Eastlake [née Rigby], Elizabeth, Lady Eastlakelocked

  • Rosemary Mitchell

Lady Elizabeth Eastlake (1809–1893), by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, 1843–1848

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Eastlake [née Rigby], Elizabeth, Lady Eastlake (1809–1893), journalist and writer on art, was born in Norwich, Norfolk, on 17 November 1809, the third child and second daughter of Dr Edward Rigby (1747–1821), physician, and his second wife, Anne (1777–1872), daughter of William Palgrave of Yarmouth. Elizabeth Rigby was one of their twelve children.

Childhood and education, 1809–1827

Both family connections and the region of her birth placed Elizabeth Rigby at the centre of impressive intellectual and social connections. Her father, who came from Lancashire, had been a pupil of Joseph Priestley; he moved to Norwich in 1762 to study medicine with Dr Norgate. A friend of Edward Jenner, he brought vaccination to Norwich but was not just a gynaecologist and obstetrician, but also a classical scholar, social reformer, and an expert on agricultural matters. He had important friends and his children had the advantage of 'mixing freely with such visitors' (Journals, 1.5). Norwich, where Elizabeth Rigby passed her childhood, was pivotal in the development of middle-class dissenting and liberal intellectual circles in the south of England. Through her father she was connected to leading Norwich families, such as the Taylors, the Meadows, and the Martineaus; relatives on this side of the family included Henry Reeve, political writer for The Times, Lucie Duff-Gordon, the travel writer, and Sir William Edward Parry, the Arctic explorer. Her connections were equally impressive on her mother's side. Her mother's sister was married to Dawson Turner, the botanist, antiquary, and patron of John Sell Cotman, and Elizabeth's relations through this marriage included Francis Palgrave, the historian.

Elizabeth Rigby early showed a love of art: she began drawing when she was eight, and left some 2000 specimens of her work. Her father brought in masters to teach his daughters French, geography, Italian, and arithmetic, and he encouraged them to read widely, a habit Elizabeth never lost. After his death in 1821 his widow moved to Framingham Earl, where the family had a small estate. Here the children seem only to have had a French governess, and Elizabeth Rigby was 'now permitted to educate herself' (Journals, 1.5).

Travel and early writing career, 1827–1842

In 1827 Elizabeth Rigby had typhoid fever: her family took her to Heidelberg and Switzerland to recuperate, a two-year visit which acted as a catalyst for her writing career. She began learning German, and translated and published J. P. Passavant's essay on English art collections as Tour of a German Artist in England (1836); this début performance was apparently followed by the publication of a short story for Fraser's Magazine, 'My Aunt in a Salt Mine', which has proved difficult to trace. Despite this promising start to authorship, she still seems to have hoped for an artistic career as well: her portraits were praised by E. T. Daniell, and in July 1832 she moved to London, where she spent a year studying literature and art in the British Museum and the National Gallery. She became a pupil of Henry Sass, who held art classes for ladies in Bloomsbury.

Travel soon claimed Elizabeth Rigby's attention again: in 1835, she returned to Germany, and subsequently wrote an article on Goethe for the Foreign Quarterly. Then, in October 1838, she travelled to Russia, and spent a year and a half there, staying mainly in Estonia with a married sister who owned both a country estate and a town house in Reval (Tallinn). Her letters home during this prolonged stay were published in 1841 by John Murray, to whom she was introduced by Henry Reeve. A Residence on the Shores of the Baltic (1841) is a very readable travel book, which reflects her enquiring mind: she describes everything from the high-society events of St Petersburg (where she stayed on her way to and from Estonia) to Baltic marriage customs, from the impact of Russian government in Estonia to a duty-free shopping spree in Helsinki. The manuscript was read by J. G. Lockhart (who may have later developed a tendre for her), and he asked her to write for the Quarterly Review, of which he was editor. Although she claimed that 'my pen has never been a favourite implement with me; the pencil is the child of my heart' (Journals, 1.10), a career as a professional writer was becoming increasingly appealing. Her first article in the Quarterly Review appeared in March 1842: it discussed three travellers' accounts of Russia. She was the first woman to write regularly for the Review. A flow of articles followed, including reviews of recent evangelical novels (May 1843) and—appropriately enough—travel books by women writers (June 1845), which were judged as much on the feminine and domestic characters of their writers as their intrinsic value as aperçus into the cultures of other countries. Livonian Tales, a collection of three stories, based on her Baltic experiences, was published by Murray in 1846.

Edinburgh years, 1842–1849

In October 1842 Anne Rigby sold her Framingham estate and moved her family to Edinburgh. There Elizabeth Rigby's connections with Murray and Lockhart secured the entrée into intellectual circles which included individuals such as Lord Jeffrey, Professor Wilson, Sir William Drysdale, and D. O. Hill, who photographed her. She clearly established herself, her nephew commenting that she was 'A strikingly handsome, imperial-looking woman, of commanding figure'—she was 5 feet 11 inches tall—who 'had the additional attraction of great conversational powers' (Journals, 1.30). Hill's and Adamson's photograph of 1844–5 largely confirms the physical side of this description: rather more striking than handsome, Elizabeth Rigby was unusually tall and commanding. As for her powers of conversation, these were supported by wide-ranging reading—her diary in the early 1840s records books by Robert Southey, Walter Scott (an old favourite), W. E. Gladstone, Francis Bacon, Maria Edgeworth, and Sarah Tytler—while she also took a lively interest in contemporary events such as the Disruption in 1843.

Tours continued too. Some were near home: in summer 1843 the Rigby family stayed in the highlands at Dunoon, where Elizabeth admired the scenery but not so much the highlanders themselves. But some trips took her further afield: early in 1844, for instance, she stayed in London with the Murrays and met literary and artistic lions, including Thomas Carlyle, George Borrow, J. M. W. Turner, and Agnes Strickland. In 1846 she repeated the visit, going to the Royal Academy exhibition, where she admired the works of Etty, Landseer, Turner, and Eastlake. Eastlake took her into dinner at a party on 19 May, and she found him 'most refined and amiable' (Journals, 1.187). Elizabeth Rigby also continued to visit the continent. In 1844 she again visited her married sisters in Estonia, travelling back through Stockholm, and in 1845 she spent two months in Germany. Two Quarterly Review articles resulted from this latter trip—one on modern German paintings (March 1846) and one on the cathedral of Cologne (September 1846). In 1848 she again visited Germany for two months, meeting Passavant in Frankfurt.

In October 1848 Elizabeth Rigby began her most famous Quarterly Review article of all, the review of Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre which was published in December that year. While the article delighted in Becky Sharp's amoral wickedness, it condemned Jane Eyre as 'an anti-Christian composition … a murmuring against God's appointment' and described its heroine as 'the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit' (QR, 84, Dec 1848, 173–4, 171). Nevertheless Rigby (somewhat uneasily) acknowledged the power of the novel, commenting that it was 'a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste' (ibid., 163). Some of her criticisms—for instance, of the unrealistic dialogue of the lady visitors to Thornfield—are well made. The most curious feature of all remains Rigby's famously inaccurate identification of the author as a man. This was made on the basis of errors in details about dress and cuisine which (she argued) no woman would have made, an insight which—as she was herself writing as a man—she was obliged to attribute to an imaginary female friend.

Marriage and London society

In February 1846 Elizabeth Rigby commented in her diary that in civilized countries it was no wonder that many women remained single: there were many compensations, and spinsters did not attract the opprobrium which was their lot elsewhere. Despite this heartening reflection, in her fortieth year she became engaged to Charles Lock Eastlake (1793–1865); they were married in Edinburgh on 9 April 1849, and three weeks later began their London life together in 7 Fitzroy Square. The match was a good one, in both senses of the word (although without children—their only child was born dead in June 1851). Eastlake, who was knighted in 1850, was a painter more distinguished for his broad knowledge of the history of art and his pivotal role in the London art world than for his artistic output.

Lady Eastlake quickly became part of London society. In the first few years of her marriage she attended a round of concerts and dinners, mixing with individuals as varied as Lady Lovelace (Byron's daughter), Lady Marion Alford (an expert on needlework), the mathematician Charles Babbage, the historian Macaulay, the antediluvian Misses Berry, Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, and the notorious Caroline Norton. In 1851, following Eastlake's election as president of the Royal Academy, the Eastlakes held a series of dinners for artists; guests included both Landseers, the Chalons, Charles Cope, David Roberts, and William Dyce. These dinners included foreign visitors on occasion: in May and June 1850 both Passavant and Gustav Friedrich Waagen, director of the Royal Gallery in Berlin, came to stay with the Eastlakes. Lady Eastlake attended all major social and cultural events, including the opening of the Great Exhibition and the funeral of the duke of Wellington in November 1852; in that year she also apparently made an appearance at Turner's deathbed.

In 1854 Lady Eastlake was involved in a minor social scandal, when she found herself confidante to Effie Ruskin, in her attempt to annul her marriage with John Ruskin. She had met the couple in 1850, and never seems to have warmed to John Ruskin. She certainly did not admire his art criticism: her review of volumes 2 and 3 of Modern Painters (which appeared in the Quarterly Review of March 1856) roundly condemned his work as 'morbid and diseased', characterized by 'active thought, brilliant style, wrong reasoning, false statements, and unmannerly language' (QR, 98, March 1856, 402, 387). Lady Eastlake never abated her dislike of Ruskin himself: as late as February 1870, having heard Ruskin address the Royal Institution, she commented acidly in a letter to A. H. Layard that the lecture was 'a brilliant, ridiculous, and interesting performance' (Journals, 2.214).

Continental connections, 1852–1865

In autumn 1852 Lady Eastlake visited the continent with her husband, as she was to do every year afterwards until his death, except for 1853 and 1856. These trips had as their final destination Italy, but en route the Eastlakes would visit France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland; in 1859 they even visited Spain. These tours greatly enriched Lady Eastlake's art-historical knowledge, teaching her a wide appreciation of continental art and architecture. The tour of 1852 was typical of these journeys. In this year the Eastlakes visited Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Prague, and Venice.

The tour of 1855 was equally impressive, and illustrates the Eastlakes' involvement in purchases for the National Gallery. It began in Paris, where they saw the Universal Exhibition in the Palais des Beaux-Arts. They travelled on to Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, and then Switzerland, where Lady Eastlake admired the honesty and cleanliness of the people. Then they went on to Bergamo, Milan, Parma, Modena, and Carrara, before reaching Tuscany. They arrived in Lucca, and visited Pisa before spending a week or so in Florence. Lady Eastlake reflected on the Italians' neglect of their artworks, and on her own growing fondness for early Italian art: she wrote that 'I am now fairly bitten with all the true pre-Raphaelites' (Journals, 2.76). The tour continued to Ferrara and Venice, before they returned to London.

Publications, 1849–1865

After her marriage Elizabeth Eastlake remained a prolific writer, often collaborating to some extent with her husband. She continued to popularize German art-historical research among British readers with the publication in 1851 of Handbook of the History of Painting, Part I: The Italian Schools, her translation of the second edition of F. T. Kugler's original, a work which her husband had translated originally in 1842. In October 1852 she began a translation of G. F. Waagen's monumental work, published as Treasures of Art in Great Britain (1854). For her next book she was required to do more than translate: in 1860 the pioneering woman art historian Anna Jameson died, and Lady Eastlake was asked to complete her History of Our Lord, a study of the iconography of Christ. She finished the book in 1863, having effectively maintained Jameson's feminist approach, and it was published in 1864. Lady Eastlake continued to contribute frequently to the Quarterly Review in the 1850s and early 1860s, writing articles on subjects as diverse as the Crystal Palace (March 1855) and photography (April 1857). This last article—besides accurately summarizing the history of photography—intelligently discussed its relationship to art.

Widowhood and later years

In August 1865 the Eastlakes set off as usual on their continental tour; however, Charles Eastlake was already unwell, and he died in Pisa on 24 December. Although grief-stricken, Lady Eastlake faced her bereavement with her characteristic resilience, writing Fellowship: Letters Addressed to my Sister Mourners (1868), a sensible but rather moving book of advice which reflected her conventional but deep Anglican piety. She also increasingly cultivated her circle of friends, among whom the most stalwart was Austen Henry Layard, the archaeologist, who advised her to write the memoir of her husband which was published in 1870. She also became close to Harriet Grote, the former muse of the utilitarians, and wrote an appreciative memoir of her (1880). Dean and Lady Augusta Stanley and the illustrator Eleanor Vere Boyle were also close friends, as too the curious Mme Mohl.

Lady Eastlake retained her interest in travel and continental art: in September 1871 she toured Germany, the focus of her visit being the Holbein exhibition then in Dresden. She visited Paris in the following spring, and in autumn 1873 Scotland, staying at Lochgilphead at Sir John Orde's. Her most ambitious tour was in 1877, when she spent half the year in Venice, publishing 'Venice defended' in the Edinburgh Review for July 1877. In 1878 she returned to the Baltic provinces and St Petersburg.

At home Lady Eastlake often visited exhibitions, including those of Fred Walker and George Pinwell (1876). In February 1883 she visited the Rossetti exhibition in Savile Row, London, and described the paintings to her nephew as 'horrors, without a single merit' (Journals, 2.277). Current affairs also attracted her attention. Her political sympathies had always been Conservative, and this tendency increased with age: she developed a dislike for Gladstone as vehement as that of Queen Victoria. She opposed compulsory elementary education, but took a more moderate line on women's suffrage:

it is simply a matter of sense and consistency. Low as the qualification is now, it is still a property-, not a sex-qualification; and if women can hold property, then that should give them the vote.

ibid., 2.283–4

Later publications, 1865–1893

In a letter to Layard in December 1873 Lady Eastlake wrote that 'I lack spirit for company, and find work a more congenial filler up of my days than any amusement' (Journals, 2.233). This is certainly borne out by her publications in the last decades of her life. She continued to write for the Quarterly Review on topics including reform of the British Museum (with Harriet Grote; January 1868), the dangers of drink (October 1875), and women's education (July 1878). However, the majority of her art-historical articles appeared in the Edinburgh Review between 1872 and 1883: on Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael. These articles—together with one on Dürer in the Quarterly Review—appeared as Five Great Painters (1883). She also published a memoir of her friend the sculptor John Gibson, in 1870, and re-edited her translation of Kugler, the Handbook of Italian Art, 'importing into it all Cavalcaselle's latest information' (ibid., 2.214). In 1880 she published her edition of her father's letters, written while he was detained in Paris during the French Revolution.

Death and assessment

From the late 1870s Elizabeth Eastlake increasingly suffered from rheumatism. However, she faced advancing age with humour, content to read interesting books as she became more confined to her room and missing only exhibitions and dinner parties. In August 1893 she became seriously ill with breathlessness and died on 2 October 1893 at her home, 7 Fitzroy Square, London. She was buried in Kensal Green cemetery on 6 October 1893.

Elizabeth Eastlake is best known for her extraordinary—and apparently contradictory—interventions in the lives of Charlotte Brontë and the Ruskins: historians of women can find much to ponder in the extremes of religious conventionality and liberal-minded feminist sympathy reflected in these two episodes—as too in the nature of the intellectual exchange between herself and her husband, which has recently been the subject of scholarly debate. But her long career as a journalist and a writer on art and art history is ultimately more significant. With Harriet Martineau and Frances Power Cobbe, she was a pioneer of female journalism; like women such as Maria Callcott, Anna Jameson, Lady Dilke, and Julia Cartwright, she played an important role in the development of nineteenth-century art criticism and history.

Elizabeth Eastlake's writing on art comes as a sensible if uninspired counterfoil in the age of Ruskin: she rejected literary approaches to art, stressing its autonomy, and she had little truck with the Romantic idea that art reflected the moral condition of society. Although at times there is little in her analysis of paintings that would surprise Sir Joshua Reynolds, she played an important role in the development of new standards in connoisseurship, reading and digesting new scholarship by Crowe, Cavalcaselle, and Giovanni Morelli. With her husband she was an important figure in the revival of interest in the Italian primitives. Her appreciation of artworks was eclectic, within the boundaries of better-known European artworks: she wrote with perception about more than six centuries of art. She had 'a readiness to appreciate, what was, at any given time, generally considered to be somewhat beyond the average range of approval' wrote Francis Haskell, somewhat unkindly (Rediscoveries in Taste, 1976, 20); her own view was that 'my heart is large, and catholicism in art is everything' (Journals, 2.266).


  • Journals and correspondence of Lady Eastlake, ed. C. E. Smith, 2 vols. (1895)
  • D. Robertson, Sir Charles Eastlake and the Victorian art world (1978)
  • M. Locchead, Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake (1961)
  • E. Rigby, A residence on the shores of the Baltic (1841)
  • A. M. Ernstrom, ‘“Equally lenders and borrowers in turn”: the working and married lives of the Eastlakes’, Art History, 15 (1992), 470–85
  • M. Lutyens, Millais and the Ruskins (1967)
  • C. R. Sherman and A. M. Holcomb, Women as interpreters of the visual arts, 1820–1979 (1981)
  • G. Paston, At John Murray's: records of a literary circle, 1843–1892 (1932)
  • W. S. Johnson, ‘The bride of literature: Ruskin, the Eastlakes and mid-Victorian theories of art’, Victorian Newsletter, 26 (autumn 1964), 23–8


  • AM Oxf.
  • NL Scot., John Murray archive
  • V&A NAL, corresp.
  • BL, corresp., mainly with Sir A. H. Layard
  • Holborn Library, London, Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, letters to Mrs Acton Tindal and others
  • NL Scot., letters to William Blackwood & Sons
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Hannah Brightwen
  • U. Nott. L., corresp. with R. L. Brown
  • University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, letters to Sir William Boxall [copies in National Gallery]


  • D. O. Hill, calotype, 1844–5, repro. in Robertson, Sir Charles Eastlake, 105
  • D. O. Hill, calotype, 1844–5, NPG; repro. in Ernstrom, ‘“Equally lenders”’, 472
  • W. Boxall, chalk drawing, 1850, AM Oxf.
  • W. Boxall, oils, 1854, repro. in Smith, ed., Journals and correspondence, frontispiece
  • Ferrier, woodcut (after photograph by J. & C. Watkins), NPG; repro. in Lady's Own Paper (9 March 1867)
  • D. O. Hill and R. Adamson, photographs, NPG [see illus.]
  • C. Smyth, watercolour miniature, NPG
  • lithograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£27,945: probate, Aug 1894, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

W. E. Houghton, ed., , 5 vols. (1966–89); new edn (1999) [CD-ROM]
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]