Jane Benham Hay

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File:Benham Hay.England Italy.jpg
Jane Benham Hay, England and Italy, oil on canvas, 1859
File:Cmglee Cambridge Homerton College hall hdr.jpg
The Burning of the Vanities (right) in the Homerton College dining hall

Jane Benham (born 1829) (also Jane Benham Hay and Jaine Benham Hay) was a prominent female painter and illustrator of the Victorian period. She was associated with two important artistic movements of the mid-nineteenth century: the Pre-Raphaelite painters of Britain, and the Macchiaioli of Italy.


Jane Benham was born in London in 1829 to a family of iron and metal workers. She travelled to Munich in 1850 with her friend Anna Mary Howitt (1824–1884).[1] Together, they hoped to engage in serious study of drawing and painting. After their arrival in Munich, it became clear to them that women would not be permitted to study at the Academy in Düsseldorf. Undeterred, they approached Wilhelm von Kaulbach, then the director of the Academy, and requested the privilege of private study in his studio. He agreed, and permitted them to work in his studio at liberty, although it is not clear how much formal instruction he gave them. Jane stayed in Munich until December 1850, when she was compelled to return to London. Anna Mary remained in Munich for two full years, returning to London in 1852. Upon her return, she compiled her diary and personal letters into a text, An Art Student in Munich, which was published in 1853 and reissued in 1880. In this text, Anna Mary uses the pseudonym Clare to refer to Jane Benham.[2]

Jane married artist William Hay in 1851 and they had a son the following year. However, their marriage did not last long and Jane left London to move to Florence in the mid-1850s. Around the same time, she met Francesco Saverio Altamura (b. 1822 or 1826- d. 1897), a painter who had associated with Macchiaioli painters of Tuscany, who are considered the Italian precursors to impressionists. Altamura had had a colorful life, and had a predilection for historical and religious paintings. They married and had two children together.

Jane Benham Hay exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1848, 1849, 1859, 1861, and 1862.[3] Her two entries of 1859, England and Italy and Portrait of a Boy in Florentine Costume, established her reputation. Painted just prior to the unification of Italy, England and Italy was a powerful statement in favor of democratic unification, as well as a compelling work of art. John Ruskin noted that both works were "masterly complete in effect,".[4] although he did not care for the political overtones. In 1867 Jane achieved her greatest professional success with The Florentine Procession, also known as The Burning of the Vanities, which was exhibited by Henry Wallis at the French Gallery in London. This painting is now in the collection of Homerton College, Cambridge.

Her later life is not well documented, and her date of death is not known.

See also

English women painters from the early 19th century who exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art


  1. Marsh and Nunn, Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1997, p. 109
  2. Nunn, ed. Canvassing, 1986, p. 24
  3. Orr, Women in the Victorian Art World, 1995, p. 120.
  4. Ruskin, Academy Notes, Cook and Wedderburn, editors, Library Edition of the Collected Works of John Ruskin, London, 1903-1912, vol. 14, pp. 211-212.


  • Howitt, Anna Mary. An Art Student in Munich, Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1854
  • Jan Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn, editors. Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1997. ISBN 0-901673-55-2
  • Nunn, Pamela Gerrish (Ed.) Canvassing: Recollections by six Victorian Women Artists London: Camden Press Ltd., 1986 ISBN 0-948491-01-9
  • A. Chapman and J. Stabler, editors. Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-century British women writers and artists in Italy, Manchester University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7190-6130-X
  • Orr, Clarissa. Women in the Victorian Art World, Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-7190-4123-6