Nellie Syrett (1874-1970), born “Ellen” (Registry, 463) and also known as “Helen,” was a British artist who made a name for herself as a Yellow Book illustrator and a painter of silk fans. She was one of thirteen children of Ernest Syrett (d. 1906), draper and silk merchant, and Mary Ann, née Stembridge (d. 1923) (1871 England Census), who supported their daughters’ creative careers. Nellie is better known as the younger sister of New Woman writer Netta Syrett (1865-1943). She excelled in the arts from a young age, winning prizes for drawing and botany at Ramsgate High School for Girls in 1891 (Thanet Advertiser, 8). She went on to become a prizewinning student at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, winning prizes for figure drawing, antique drawing, and figure composition. She attended the Slade in 1892-96 and re-entered the school in 1912-13, when she studied fresco and tempera painting (University College, np). Nellie may have produced an amusing pencil-and-wash caricature portrait of Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942), Assistant Professor of Painting at the Slade School of Art (1893-1930), in 1923. Although this has been attributed to fellow Slade-trained artist Ernest Heber Thompson (1891-1971), Nellie’s married name “Helen Thorp” is written clearly in ink in the bottom-right corner (papers of Mary Hope Allen, 1898-2001).
The Syrett sisters formed a creative coterie in London. Nellie, Netta, and Mabel shared a household together when they moved to London to access training and employment. In the 1890s, Nellie and her sisters (Netta and Mabel, and for a time also Kate and Georgiana) cohabited at 3 Morpeth Terrace in Victoria, close to Westminster Cathedral, hosting and attending parties unchaperoned (Syrett, Sheltering, 65). Netta Syrett’s connections to The Yellow Book and its circle, including Henry and Aline Harland and Aubrey Beardsley and his sister, Mabel, gave Nellie access to the avant-garde authors and artists of the day from her teenage years. Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) sent Nellie his sketches, and at the height of his fame he wrote to her advising her to seek artistic independence as he had done (Syrett, Sheltering, 84). Nellie owned Aubrey Beardsley’s monogrammed pencil-and-ink sketch of Professor Fred Brown (1892), which she presented to The Tate under her married name, Mrs. Helen Thorp, in 1927 (Tate website). In 1892 Beardsley studied briefly under Brown, who was a founder member of the New English Art Club (NEAC); Nellie was a member (under the names Nelly Syrett and Helen Thorp) along with Beardsley, Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) and other famous artists (Tate Archive, np).
At the heart of Nellie’s work is sisterhood in content and collaboration. Nellie, Netta, and Mabel all contributed to The Yellow Book. Nellie’s illustrations, including those for the Yellow Book, typically feature groups of women. Nellie produced an illustration for Volume 10, as well as the title page (cherubs and birds) and cover image for Volume 11, of the Yellow Book. Her detailed pen-and-ink illustration “The Five Sweet Symphonies” (vol. 10, July 1896) focuses on five female figures gathered together in a garden, and particularly on the decorative aesthetic details of their dress and hair. Nellie’s more stylised cover image (vol. 11, October 1896) features three young women in forward motion, with billowing dresses and open-mouthed profiles tilted toward the sky. The sequence and dynamic poses of the trio, with their raised or entwined limbs, create a graceful fluidity and sense of female community. Nellie’s sister Mabel Syrett (1871-1961) designed the cover of The Yellow Book the following year (vol 13, April 1897).
In another shared venture, Netta and Nellie contributed fiction and illustration (respectively) to The Quarto in 1896, which primarily showcased work of Slade School students. Many of its contributors also contributed to The Yellow Book, including Evelyn Sharp (1869-1955), Walter Crane (1845-1915), and Laurence Housman (1865-1959). In Nellie’s title-page design for Volume 2 of The Quarto, peacock tailfeathers frame a woman engulfed by her dress and deeply engrossed in a book. This volume also features Nellie’s pen-and-ink illustration ‘“Time is short, life is short”’ (fig.1)— inspired by the poem “The Prince’s Progress” (1866) by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) – as well as her headpiece of vines and cherubs for an essay on Robert Browning’s influence on his wife’s poetry. Christina Rossetti’s poem “The Prince’s Progress,” which subverts the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale when the procrastinating prince arrives too late and finds the princess dead, evidently captured Nellie’s imagination. Her large illustration depicts the deceased princess, mourned by two foreground female figures at her bedside. In Nellie’s image, the focus is not the traditional male-female dynamic – indeed, she excludes the prince altogether – but rather the sororal bond of women that is characteristic of her work and of Rossetti’s own Goblin Market (1862). Nellie’s image may also pay homage to the poem’s original illustrations by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), whose title-page and frontispiece vignettes of 1866 focus (respectively) on the waiting princess and the dead princess with grieving women.
The Syrett sisters’ creative partnership is best exemplified by Nellie’s illustration of Netta’s fairy-tale collection The Garden of Delight (1898) and children’s annual The Dream Garden (1905). Nellie provided Beardsley-esque black-and-white illustrations for The Garden of Delight and designed its cover; the yellow bindings perhaps pay homage to the Yellow Book, which had ceased publishing the previous year, and to its first art editor, Beardsley, who died in 1898. The Dream Garden was edited by Netta and published by New Zealand-born artist and art gallery owner John Baillie (1868-1926), who brought out the second issue of The Venture: An Annual of Art and Literature (1903, 1905) in the same year, also with the Arden Press. There was significant overlap between the annuals’ artistic and literary contributors, and some contributors to The Venture (which included Netta Syrett) exhibited their work at John Baillie’s exhibitions, which supported women and specialized in “neglected artists” (Exhibition Culture in London, 2006).
Notable contributors to The Dream Garden include writers Evelyn Sharp, Constance Smedley (1876-1941), Laurence Housman (1865-1959) and Arthur Ransome (1884-1967); both men were also contributors to The Venture. Illustrators who contributed to The Dream Garden include Helen Stratton (1867-1961), Mary Corbett [Headlam] (1874-1959), and Dora Curtis (1873-1920). These women artists were Nellie’s friends, along with Scottish painter Dame Ethel Walker (1861-1951), who admired Nellie’s work (Syrett 1939: 75). In addition to producing the large drawing for the monogrammed front cover of The Dream Garden (a fairy child in a flower chariot led by a Pierrot), Nellie illustrated both Netta’s titular story “The Dream Garden” (fig. 2) and Osman Edwards’s “Recollections of a Japanese Baby.” These works reflect her aesthetic interest in dreamscapes and japonism whilst remaining focused on female figures. In the late 1890s, Nellie travelled with her sister Netta to Rome and Florence (Syrett, Sheltering, 138); Italian influence can be seen, for example, in Nellie’s illustrations of stretching landscapes framed by cypress trees. Nellie later provided two watercolour illustrations for the cover and frontispiece of Netta’s The Old Miracle Plays of England (1911). That Nellie’s work graced the front covers of the Yellow Book and publications by both her sister and their friend Evelyn Sharp shows the high regard in which her illustration was held at the time.
Nellie illustrated The Other Side of the Sun: Fairy Stories (The Bodley Head, 1900) by Evelyn Sharp. Sharp was a fellow Yellow Book and Quarto contributor, children’s author and prominent feminist who lived next door to Netta Syrett at the New Victorian Club (Syrett, Sheltering, 89). Nellie’s creative collaboration with a leader of an increasingly militant women’s suffrage movement suggests she shared, or was at least sympathetic to, Sharp’s views and the campaign. Her association with Sharp also increased Syrett’s public profile, expanding her network and audience. Sharp’s eight short children’s stories include full-page, monogrammed, colour interior illustrations by Nellie Syrett, and these – along with her cover design (fig.3) – are commended by contemporary reviewers for their novelty. One says her “pictures are in the latest style of drawing” (Liverpool Mercury, 1899, p.9) and another says these “drawings are sure to commend themselves to the new generation” (Globe, 7). Nellie’s illustrations typically feature childlike princes and princesses, striking costumes and liminal spaces.
In addition to illustration, Nellie produced silk paintings, fire-screen panels, and decorative fans, and in at least one instance painted a silk dress for a child dancer to wear on stage. Her work was exhibited at antiquarian Mr. Montague Fordham’s showroom at 9 Maddox Street (Regent Street) in 1902. These decorative pieces were mounted and framed on the walls along with other handcrafted work by both prominent and lesser-known artists, including Ellen Mary Rope (1855-1934) and May Morris (1862-1938) (Woman’s Exhibition, 80). Nellie’s silk works are unanimously praised in the press for their imagination, technique, decorative qualities, poetic charm, and originality – which, one reviewer claims, exceeds that of her illustrations (St James’s Gazette, 6). Titles of these, indicating theme, include: The Nightingale, A Garden by the Sea, Waterbabies, Cinderella, At the Opera, and In Arcady. Some are painted in rich Pre-Raphaelite colours while others are more delicate in colour. Nellie’s silk works typically feature fantastic seas, skies, and landscapes, and female figures in fashionable Victorian dress. A figure in one of Nellie’s fans displayed in Fordham’s showroom, according to a newspaper report, is a self-portrait of Nellie and another is a portrait of her “no less distinguished sister,” Netta (Derby Daily Telegraph 1902, p.4). This further reveals the pervasive theme of sistership in Nellie’s diverse oeuvre.
Before the age of 21, Nellie had her own exhibition at a gallery near Oxford Circus, where she sold many of her sketches and fan designs for small sums (Syrett, Sheltering, 84). This reflects Nellie’s early assertion of her professional artistic identity as well as the commercial appeal of her work. One of her fan designs was later seen by Netta displayed in the window of a Charing Cross shop with a price of forty pounds, having been mistaken for the highly-rated work of Charles Conder (1868-1909). Conder, who mixed with Beardsley and became associated with Aestheticism, similarly painted figures on silk panels for fans and screens, and produced watercolours of women in sumptuous dresses engaged in conversation or attending the theatre. Netta recalls correcting the London shop-owner about the work’s provenance with some satisfaction, announcing “it’s a Syrett” and leaving him “gasping and mystified” (Syrett, Sheltering, 84).
Three of Nellie’s painted silk fans appear in a special issue of The Studio (1902) titled Modern Design in Jewellery and Fans (edited by Charles Holme), signalling her success in the field. One fan foregrounds three female figures in a rose garden, and another depicts five female figures in a curtained scene, where the furtive sideways glance of one elaborately dressed woman is evocative of Beardsley’s work (fig. 4). Nellie’s fan illustrations have a hazy, dream-like quality to them in contrast to the sharp lines of the more stylised and symmetrical fan illustrations by her contemporaries Christine Angus (1877-1920) and Ethel Larcombe (1876-1940). Nellie’s works are praised by The Studio for “the tender beauty of the colouring” and “the exquisite pen-work […] with which such features as the faces, hair, and hands are executed”; she is hailed by respected critic Aymer Vallance (1862-1943) – who also features in the Yellow Book – as “a clever artist” representing British talent (Holme, 9).
Nellie married Joseph Peter Thorp (1873-1962) – a journalist, typographer and Punch theatre critic better known as “Peter” or “T of Punch” – at Westminster Cathedral in 1905 (Surrey Times, 1). Peter Thorp was recommended to Netta by John Baillie – the eventual publisher of The Dream-Garden – in her quest to get the book printed, since he was then “making a special study of the art of beautiful printing” (Syrett, Sheltering, 148). The sisters visited him at an ecclesiastical shop opposite Westminster Cathedral that then housed the Arden Printing Press, and he eagerly received the idea of the book. Nellie and Peter became engaged soon after meeting, and Netta gifted the couple a specially bound copy of The Dream-Garden – the book that had led to their meeting – as a wedding present (Syrett, Sheltering, 149). Around the time of their engagement, Thorp spent much time at the Syrett sisters’ flat, and in the first two years of their marriage, Netta shared a flat with Nellie and her husband at 15 Prince of Wales Mansions in Battersea Park (Syrett, Sheltering, 159).
Peter Thorp’s autobiography Friends and Adventures (1931) is dedicated to “Helen” (Nellie) in the envoi, which praises her intelligence and artistry, and celebrates their 25-year relationship as modern spouses who debated on art, sex, and politics. They had no children. Thorp’s autobiography includes a photographic reproduction of Nellie’s “decoration” (fig. 5) of the cabinet containing the first Cambridge edition of the authorised version of The Bible. Her work prioritises female figures in a patriarchal narrative: on one panel, Eve stands nude in a forest; on the other, a regal Virgin Mary rides independently on horseback; and the cabinet is crowned by an image of the Madonna and Child.
The Syrett sisters continued to collaborate after Nellie’s marriage, and collaborated in theatre production, too. Netta produced the plays In Arcady, The Gift of the Fairies, and The Dream Lady (performed in 1904) for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children at the Royal Albert Hall Theatre. Nellie played the role of the princess in The Gift of the Fairies, and painted a fan/silk screen titled In Arcady (exhibited 1902). Her sister Kate Syrett produced the costumes for Netta’s play White Magic of 1905 (Syrett, Sheltering, 129). Nellie contributed two drawings of those costume designs from White Magic to The Fresh Air Fund Book (1905) – a souvenir programme for a performance raising money for slum children (Syrett, Sheltering, 128) – which also contains a story by Netta. Fellow illustrators of this book include author-artist Hilda Cowham (1873-1964) and poster designer John Hassall (1868-1948). Netta’s later collection The Old Miracle Plays of England (1911) features two watercolour illustrations by Nellie under her married name “Helen Thorp.” The Review of Revues, and Other Matters (1930), edited by Charles Blake Cochran, includes a contribution by Netta, while the half title page features Helen Thorp’s illustration Comedy and Tragedy.
Nellie and Peter Thorp owned a country house, a thatched cottage called “The Decoy,” near Arundel Castle in Sussex. Though it was originally intended as a holiday home, the couple moved out of London soon after taking it and lived all year round at the cottage. Netta loved its mysterious, romantic atmosphere (Syrett, Sheltering, 163-4). From 1937, Nellie lived with Peter Thorp at the White Cottage in Portmeirion, an Italian-style village in north Wales created by a member of the Romney Street Group (Clough Williams-Ellis), which was founded by Peter Thorp in 1924 to discuss current affairs (ODNB 2008). Nellie died in Gelli Fair nursing home, Porthmadog, North Wales – a Regency villa built by William Madocks (1773-1828) and now a grade II listed building (of special interest, warranting preservation) – on 25th September 1970 (England And Wales National Probate). Nellie, largely overshadowed by the legacy of her more famous sister Netta, has been neglected in the context of art and craft history. This is perhaps compounded by the diversity of her work in various media, and her use of multiple names over the course of her career. A reclamation of Nellie Syrett as a successful and respected professional artist enhances an understanding of women’s important contribution to visual culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
©2023, Dr. Lucy Ella Rose, University of Surrey, UK
Selected Publications about Nellie Syrett
- British Newspaper Archive:
—The West Surrey Times, 19 August 1905, p.1
—Thanet Advertiser, 21 March 1891, p.8
—Globe, 19 December 1899, p.7
—Liverpool Mercury, 20 December 1899, p.9
—Derby Daily Telegraph, 18 March 1902, p.4
—St James’s Gazette, 17 February 1902, p.6
—Surrey Times and County Express, 19 August, 1905, p.1
- 1871 England Census. Ancestry, 2004,
- England & Wales, National Probate Calendar
(Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995, Helen Thorp, Ancestry,
- Holme, Charles, ed. The Studio: Modern Design in Jewellery and Fans. London: The Studio, 1902 pp. 9, 34, 38.
- Houfe, Simon. Fin de Siècle: The Illustrators of the Nineties. Barrie & Jenkins, 1992.
- Prince, Alison. Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood. London: Faber & Faber, 2009, pp. 48, 109-10.
- Reference to Mrs Helen Thorp on The Tate website in relation to Aubrey
Beardsley, Professor Fred Brown (1892):
- Registry of Births July, August, and September 1874: Ellen Syrett, p.463, Ancestry.
- Syrett, Nellie. Artist Biographies, British and Irish
Artists of the 20th Century.
- Syrett, Netta. The Sheltering Tree: An Autobiography. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1939.
- Tate Archive and Public Records Catalogue, members register, 1888-1917, TGA
- “The ‘Yellow Book.’—Vol. XI.” Review of The Yellow
Book, vol. 11, October 1896, Westminster
Gazette, 21 January 1897, p. 3. Yellow Nineties
2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan
University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.
- Thorp, Joseph Peter [‘T’ of Punch]. Friends and Adventures. London: Cape, 1931.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Joseph
Peter Thorp, J. M. Lee, 2008,
- University College London Calendar, 1893,
1893-94, 1895-96. London: Taylor and Francis.
- Vallance, Aymer. “Modern British Jewellery and Fans.” The Studio, edited by Charles Holme. London: The Studio, 1902, pp.1-10.
Selected Works by J. Nellie Syrett
- Syrett, Nellie. “Front Cover.” The Yellow Book,
vol. 11, 1896. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited
by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2011-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for
Digital Humanities, 2020.
- Syrett, Nellie. “The Five Sweet Symphonies.” The Yellow
Book, vol. 10, 1896, p. 257. Yellow Book Digital
Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra,
2011-2014. The Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto
Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.
- Syrett, Nellie. ‘“Time is short, life is short.”’ The Quarto, vol. II, 1896, no page.
- Syrett, Nellie. Painted Silk Fans. The Studio
1902, Plates 13 and 15.
- Syrett, Nellie. Illustrations in The Garden of Delight: Fairy Tales, by Netta Syrett. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1898.
- Syrett, Nellie. Illustrations and cover design, The Dream Garden: A Children’s Annual, edited by Netta Syrett, London: John Baillie, 1905.
- Syrett, Nellie. Illustrations and cover design, The Old Miracle Plays of England, by Netta Syrett, A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1911.
- Syrett, Nellie. Illustrations in The Other Side of the Sun: Fairy Stories, by Evelyn Sharp. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1900.
- Syrett, Nellie. Illustrations in The F.A.F. [Fresh Air Fund] Book: the souvenir programme of the performance by children in aid of the Fresh Air Fund at the St. James’s Theatre, London: Fresh Air Fund, 1905.
- Thorp, Helen. “A Decoration,” in Friends and Adventures, by Joseph Peter Thorp [‘T’ of Punch]. London: Cape, 1931, p.86.
- Thorp, Helen (possibly). Phillip Wilson Steer,
15″ x 9″, [Slade School, University College, London]. In the papers of Mary
Hope Allen (1898-2001).
- Thorp, Helen. Illustration Comedy and Tragedy in Review of Revues, and Other Matters (1930), edited by Sir Charles Blake Cochran, London: Jonathan Cape, 1930.
- Exhibition Culture in London 1878-1908, John
Baillie Gallery, University of Glasgow, 2006.
- Woman’s Exhibition: Official Fine Art, Historical and
General Catalogue, London: Spottiswoode & Co. (printers),
Rose, Lucy Ella. “Nellie Syrett (aka Helen Thorp) (1874-1970),” Y90s Biographies. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2023. https://1890s.ca/syrettNel_bio/.