Ellen Heaton (1816-1894)
Art Collector, Patron, and Benefactor

ELLEN HEATON (1816-1894)Today people from all over the world come to the Tate Gallery in London to see its exceptional collection of work by distinguished artists like JMW Turner and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Tate collection includes a number of pictures by these artists which 150 years ago hung on the walls of a house in Woodhouse Square, Leeds. Now the Swarthmore Education Centre, it was then the home of Ellen Heaton, who, unusually for a woman in the mid 1800s, commissioned and collected what was then daring modern art from little-known artists. Her guide and mentor was John Ruskin.

Ellen Heaton was born in 1816, the daughter and eldest child of Ann and John Heaton. Her father was a bookseller and druggist (a not uncommon combination!) whose business and home was in Briggate. She was a bright girl, but while her younger brother John Deakin Heaton was encouraged to study medicine and qualify as a doctor, her formal education followed the expected pattern for girls, ending with a ‘finishing’ school. But she was not content with conventional female domesticity. She was determined to pursue her interests in literature and the arts – she wrote poetry, joined the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, was a member of the private Leeds Library and various learned societies, and corresponded with authors she admired.

When her father retired, the family moved to Park Square, and after her mother’s death she stayed there, looking after her father until he died in 1852. He had already provided for her, perhaps when it seemed unlikely that she would marry, but on his death she inherited property and investments which gave her complete financial independence. She was free now to travel, to explore her interests in art, to buy what she wanted. She had read and admired John Ruskin’s book ‘Modern Painters’ and turned to him for advice. He responded enthusiastically, guiding her firmly towards Turner and the younger Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti. She mostly followed his advice (though rejected his recommendation of Holman Hunt!), and over the years bought eight paintings from Turner and eight from Rossetti, as well as pictures by Hughes and Inchbold. She got to know Rossetti well and also his sister, the much-loved poet Christina Rossetti. Both were later to visit her in Leeds.

In 1853, soon after her father’s death, she travelled to Italy with an older friend, (Euphrasia) Fanny Haworth, an author who had long been a friend of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, then living in Florence. Ellen was thrilled to meet the famous couple. From their letters we get a sense of the awkward, enthusiastic, provincial Ellen – they found her pushy and over-familiar, but recognised her true kindness. Later she insisted on commissioning and paying for portraits of them both by the artist Field Talfourd. The portrait of Elizabeth has become the most recognised image of her and was Elizabeth’s personal favourite. After Elizabeth’s death Ellen promised Robert Browning that she would donate both portraits to the National Portrait Gallery, and so she did.

In 1859 Ellen set up house at 6 Woodhouse Square, and lived there for the rest of her life, with her cook and maidservant. She continued to correspond with Ruskin, supporting his favoured artists, even lending them money, and sometimes helping in his research. She embarked on further travels, even daringly as far as Poland and Russia. In later life, encouraged by Ruskin, she took up various philanthropic causes, supporting women’s education and university extension classes for working men – she offered to pay all the men’s admission fees, regardless of cost. Her liberality and passionate enthusiasms were increasingly a thorn in the side of her brother Dr Heaton, now well-established and eminent in public life. His diaries reveal his growing irritation with her, his dislike of her artistic taste, his concern that she was being exploited, even his dismay at her careless appearance – ‘I fear she is rather mad’, he wrote! She seems to have been unmoved by his disapproval.

Ellen outlived her brother and most of his family. When she died in 1894 she left her collection of pictures to her one surviving nephew, a London solicitor, who bequeathed them in 1940 to the national collection – a great loss to Leeds, which had once been their home thanks to this feisty, spirited woman.

Eveleigh Bradford
October 2012