The tip of a quill pen pressed against her lower lip, this brown-eyed girl muses, “How shall I reply?” to the letter she holds in her hand. Her own stationery rests on a green leather blotter on the writing desk. A silver pot holds either ink (but no stopper) or sand for blotting.
Perhaps the young woman sits at a table rather than a desk. Knowing my own desk clutter, it’s hard to believe that highly polished surface is kept clear at all times of everything but one blotter and a silver pot!
Of course, quill pens were no longer the writing instrument of choice by the latter half of the 19th century when Sir Samuel Luke Fildes painted this charming portrait. Pens with metal tips had been mass produced for decades. However, the soft tip of a feather pressed against her lip evokes a very different mood than a wood and metal pen. Everything about her is soft, from the tendrils of hair curling at her forehead to the wispy, lace-edged scarf tucked around her bodice. Her dreamy reverie is the personification of innocence and perhaps young love.
Fildes, a British artist, was born in 1843 — the beginning of the Victorian age. Strongly influenced by the social realist movement as a young man, he joined the staff of The Graphic, a social reform weekly dedicated to the idea that visual images could help alter public opinion. In other words, if people saw the plight of the downtrodden, they might be more willing to support charities that helped them.
The 26-year-old Fildes provided black and white illustrations of London’s poor. His drawing of people lined up to spend the night in a shelter inspired Charles Dickens to commission Fildes to illustrate his final (unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Fildes left The Graphic after a year to work on his oil painting full time. In stark contrast with his dark depictions of London’s slums, he turned his attention to romanticized scenes of life in Venice, joining a group of artists loosely referred to as the Neo-Venetian school. Fildes also painted numerous portraits, including the young woman with a pen.
Edward VII knighted Fildes in 1906. Was it because the king really liked the artist’s well-known portrait of him in full coronation robes? Always flatter the monarch.
For your own writing needs, you can find Fildes’ charming painting — as well as other Ladies with Letters images — on cards and other products at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle.