A fascinating piece of English porcelain has come to Moorabool, which if it wasn’t for the original 1876 exhibition label on the back, would just be an ‘interesting amateur-decorated decorative plate’. However, the name, date & place allows us to extract a story from this piece, which includes a close association with Charles Dickens, and a High Court Judge in Australia!
The porcelain is an anonymous blank, probably of Staffordshire manufacture. Onto it is painted an ‘Aesthetic Movement’ portrait, as was popular in the mid-late Victorian era. Such a piece is not unusual in the Antique World, as it was a favourite occupation for young ladies to learn to paint on porcelain. Watercolour painting was a standard part of any young ladies education, and it is noted that the artist of this piece, Ellen Ross, was a fine watercolorist. A step up from watercolour was painting onto porcelain. For this, studios ran classes, and for the more wealthy, a painting instructor would bring the materials to the students, take away their work to be fired, and bring back the results.
The important part of this plate is the paper label on the back. While it is signed with an elaborate monogram, there’s no record of this in the literature; the paper label, however, is the vital clue as it declares her name ‘Ellen Ross’.
Ellen Ross is not noted as an artist or decorator – but we have the entry in Howell & James’s exhibition catalogues, where she is recorded as ‘Mrs Mallam (Ellen Ross)’. Clearly she was married around this time, and with the dates, place & two names it is possible to pinpoint her;
Ellen Mary Anne Hyde Ross, born in St Pancras in 1837 (or 42, or 43 in other online records!?), she married solicitor Dalton Robert Mallam in 1868 in Kensington, London. They had 6 children.
Ellen Mallam came from an interesting family; they were well-off, and close to the Dickens family. Their father was a solicitor & well connected.
Ellen’s older sister Janet showed great promise as a miniature artist, and went on to become a miniaturist of note. Her work is held in major collections, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum. She married into the Dickens family, and was his aunt. Fascinatinly, one of her early works is an image regarded as the earliest depiction of Charles Dickens, now in the Charles Dickens Museum, London. In return, Dickens may have immortalised her in his book ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ as ‘Miss La Creevy’, a ‘miniature painter’….
As a young lady, part of Janet’s education would have included drawing & painting. For this, a ‘painting master’ would have been called on. His lessons would have included watercolour painting – and the skill of both Ellen and Janet would have led to their advancement to lessons in the art & technique of miniature painting.
We can imagine the young Ellen growing up with older sister Janet, and seeing her success as a miniature artist; perhaps they had the same painting master? Or did her older sister teach her? Certainly, there is a strong likeness to the technique of miniature painting in Ellen’s works, namely the use of pure strokes of colour in a series of lines.
That it was considered a prestigious occupation worthy of a Lady is shown in the list of the artists who presented pieces for the annual China Painting Exhibition held at the Regent Street store of Howell & James, Jewellers with premises on Regent Street and highly regarded dealers in luxury. Lady Willoughby, Viscountess Hood (neé Havell), the Countess of Warwick, and Colonel Hope Crealock of South Africa’s ‘Zulu War’ fame were all painters who exhibited. Indeed, Lady Augusta Cadogan, daughter of 3rd Earl Cadogan & Aunt of Queen Victoria was both a patron, and exhibited works by her own hand in 1877 and 1878.
In fact, the gentle art of China Painting was worth of the attention of Queen Victoria herself:
She also appears in the Yorkshire Industrial Exhibition, held in York 1879.
The Australian Connection
We’re always looking for links to ‘down-under’, which adds a local context to a piece. This work unexpectedly came up with one: a son of Ellen & Dalton Mallam,
Ross Ibbotson Dalton Mallam, was born in 1878. Like his father, he entered the legal profession, moved to Adelaide Australia in 1902, and ended up a Supreme Court Judge (1928-33) in the Northern Territory, before ill-health led to him relocating to Melbourne. You can read more about him on the NT Supreme Court’s website >
It’s been an interesting study, to discover the connections and stories circling around this portrait plate. Ellen Ross / Mallam was certainly born into an interesting place and time, being so familiar with the Dickens family, and receiving high praise for her artistic skills from none other than Queen Victoria……. There may be other pieces from Ellen’s early stages still to be discovered, signed with the monogram ‘ER’ as seen here – and definitely more with her full married name, Ellen Mallam. Let us know if you have any!