Marie Euphrosyne Spartali Stillman (10 March 1844 – 6 March 1927) From Birth to Marriage
“Of all the women who elicited Gabriel’s (Rossetti) admiration, Marie Spartali was probably the most gifted intellectually. Of an ancient and noble race, austere, virtuous and fearless, she was not lacking in a caustic wit and a sharp tongue.” William Michael Rossetti speaking of Marie Spartali Stillman
The Spartali family grew up in South London in a place called Clapham Common in a family manor house nicknamed, ‘The Shrubbery’ when Marie Spartali was born on March 10, 1844. She was raised with conservative nineteenth century values by her father, Michael Spartali who worked for a respected London firm Spartali & Laskarides, bankers and grain merchants. He also served as Greek Consul General in London in 1866 replacing Alexander Ionides, lifelong family friend. Marie’s mother, Euphrosyne Valsami supported her husband as wife and mother to their two daughters. Family friend, George Du Maurier recalled, ‘the women will sometimes take one’s hand in talking to one, or put their arm round the back of one’s chair at dinner, and with all this ease and tutoiement, or perhaps because of it, they are I do believe the most thoroughly well-bred and perfect gentlefolks in all of England.’ The Spartali sisters, Marie and Christina were educated at home and nothing is really known of their childhood. However, what is known is that Marie spoke perfect English even though her parents spoke Greek at home. She was fluent in several languages: French, German and Italian. Her sister Christina was a pianist and could play at almost a professional level. Marie loved singing and she studied under Manuel Garcia who was the son of one of the greatest nineteenth century tenors.
Marie Spartali cabinet card photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, Private Collection
The summer of 1864 would inevitably change Marie Spartali’s life. During this year, several things occurred: through her cousins and nieces of the Ionides family, she frequently visited their friends at a place well known amongst all Pre-Raphaelite lovers, ‘Little Holland House!’ Toby and Sara Prinsep were like her aunt and uncle and she developed lifelong friendships with house occupants, G.F. Watts and a woman named Julia Margaret Cameron. It was Julia who talked Marie into sitting for several of her photographs first taking place at the salon in Little Holland House then taking place at Julia’s home ‘Dimbola’ she found on the Isle of Wight, along with her neighbors the Spartali family. Marie’s father owned several properties on the Isle of Wight already so they became fast friends.
Marie Spartali as Mnemosyne,the goddess of memory and mother of the nine Muses
by Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1866
When it came to painting Marie wanted Dante Gabriel Rossetti to be her mentor, though, she had not yet met him she was quite obsessed with him and his paintings. Rossetti was at this time at the height of his popularity and did not want to take on any pupils. He declined but thought of his good friend Luke Ionides but Luke declined but thought of his good friend Ford Madox Brown. Rossetti wrote to Brown, ‘I send you this from Ionides’ whose note said, ‘My dear Rossetti, thank you for your kind letter. I have already communicated with Mr. Spartali and hope to be able to call on Mr. Brown. Sincerely Luke A. Ionides.’ So Ford Madox Brown began formal training with Marie Spartali during the summer of 1864 first at 14 Grove Terrace, Kentish Town, and later at 37 Fitzroy Square.
Towards the end of the 1860s, it seems that William Holman-Hunt let it slip that Marie was seeing Lord Ranelagh and they were to be married. It was known amongst the Pre-Raphaelite set that he was quite the womanizer. Well, once Mr. Spartali found out, he put a stop to his daughter having anything to do with him and of course the marriage was off! I secretly believe that this was Marie’s first love and she never stopped loving him. As her marriage to Mr. Stillman never seemed to be the romantic kind but I’ll get to that soon enough!
Enter the frame American artist, critic, and writer, William James Stillman. William came to England in 1869 after the suicide of his first widow who left him with their three children. He was actively soliciting funds to help support the Cretan Christian population when he met the youngest daughter of Michael Spartali, on a visit to his house one evening. Twenty-four year old beautiful Marie Spartali sat and spoke with the forty one year old William J. Stillman much to her parent’s dismay. As they spoke and she learned about his personal situation she couldn’t help but feel a yearning to help him, help take care of him. Perhaps, she settled for a marriage of a different kind of love. Sadly, her parents never truly approved of William as a husband for their daughter and he married her against their wishes.
The London Meteorological Observer said, ‘It was as though Zeus and the Immortals had playfully devised a celestial allegory for the marriage of this unlikely pair of lovers.’
At Chelsea Register Office on 10 April 1871, William James Stillman, widower aged 42, of 50 Sydney Street, Chelsea, married by license Marie Euphrosyne Spartali, spinster aged 27 of The Shrubbery, Clapham. The witnesses were Ford Madox Brown who gave her in marriage, and his daughter Lucy, Marie’s close friend. Spartali close friends, Mr. M. Merrington and his wife Margaret were also witnesses. Marie’s parents were not present and the groom had no supporter. Although, this was not a whirlwind romance, The Stillman’s spent eighteen months getting to know each other amongst great opposition and much defiance. The family rift and non-acceptance of her new husband left Marie with a wound that truly never healed leaving a scar instead.
William came from a strict Baptist home and Marie was Greek Orthodox, so it was decided upon a civil ceremony. Civil marriages were fewer than one in ten during the 1870s, and were only popular within non-Conformists circles only because you could get around the legal requirement for a Registrar to be present at the wedding. Marie Spartali Stillman turned her back defiantly on her wealthy and socially-conventional parents even on an arranged marriage with the Greek community, rejecting the established values of the family she was born into, and marrying for love.
Mr. and Mrs. Stillman honeymooned on the Isle of Wight in a house owned by her father, Michael Spartali. If this was to be any indication of how the marriage would go, Michael’s letter to Madox Brown written on his first honeymoon night says it all, ‘We have got here alright, some the worse for wear-M was excessively fatigued and feverish but today she seems calm and stronger—the rain which considerately kept off for the wedding follows us here and shuts us indoors, while the landlord having a previous order for our room insists on turning us out. In the dilemma we go to Bournemouth by the next train. We went this morning to see the church which is interesting and I gave M a lecture on Gothic architecture which, if neither profound nor technical, was I think useful tho’ M says she didn’t take it in. I cannot say on the whole I like the town the hotel I certainly do not which makes the incivility of the landlord a godsend as an excuse for seeing nobody and so saving a shilling…We shall stay at Bournemouth until the rain stops and then go over to Freshwater. A beastly band has drawn up outside the front door and makes music worse than drawing teeth.’