This beautiful portrait is clearly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, who were friends of Louisa Starr. The Pre-Raphaelites often included symbolic elements in their work, and the background of ivy in this painting, symbolising everlasting life, is a reference to that. This is an early work by Starr as she uses her monogram of a letter L with a star, which can be seen bottom right. The photograph below shows the painting in her studio, top left.
Louisa Starr was born in Liverpool of American descent. Starr attended Heatherley’s Art School. During this period artistic training was dominated by the Royal Academy Schools, which gave students a rigorous grounding in life-drawing and painting, presided over by Frederick Leighton and staffed by some of the leading artists of the time. Competition to enter the RA schools was very great, and at sixteen Louisa Starr became the youngest student ever to attend, being one of two students selected out of thirty eight entrants. The fact that she was a woman is very significant.
She signed her work ‘L Starr’ so that her gender was not apparent, and when her identity became known, she was told that it was not permitted by the constitution to admit female students. (Women had attended the RA Schools before but not in any great number and not for some time). When she asked to see the clause, it could not be found, and they ended up admitting six women students so that they could chaperone each other.
She had an outstanding career as a student, winning a Silver medal for the best copy of Murillo’s ‘Beggars’ in 1865 – which was the first medal ever awarded by the RA to a woman, and a Gold medal for the most successful historical painting in 1867.
She met her future husband, Enrico Canziani, an Italian cousin, whilst visiting relatives in Italy. Her independent outlook and progressive thinking were somewhat at odds with traditional Italian village life, but Enrico understood and encouraged her work by setting up a studio space and helping to find local models for her to paint. He was a civil engineer, who had built a sugar refinery in Italy and established paper-mills and chemical product factories.
They married in Dover in 1882, when Starr was thirty seven, and her attitude to life and work continued to be assertive and uncompromising. For example, she removed the ‘obey’ from the marriage service, and it was decided that she would continue to live and work in England, and Enrico would be the one to move. He settled in England, but as much of his business was in Italy he continued to visit at least three times a year. Their daughter Estella was born in 1887. She became a portrait and landscape painter, an interior decorator and a travel writer and folklorist.
Estella reports that her mother dreamed of an ideal house and recognised it while driving in Kensington Gardens, seeing a board up advertising it to let. She telegraphed to her husband to come back from Paris and they secured the property just five minutes ahead of a gentleman who was also waiting for the office to open. Estella was born there two years later. The address was 3 Palace Green, Kensington.
Louisa was good friends with many of the prominent artists of the day including Frederick Lord Leighton, Val Princep and his family who lived next door to Leighton as well as G F Watts, Holman Hunt, Luke Fildes and John Everett Millais. She also recalled visiting the studios of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and W P Frith, and attending fancy dress parties at Walter Crane’s house.