There are several questions surrounding these artworks. Did the Slee sisters model for each other’s paintings or were they done without a reference? Were they painted indoors or en plein air (outside)? . Finally, why did the women of the Slee family create these artworks? The paintings could be viewed as a study of fashion based on real subject-matter or outfits invented by the artist. Or, the artists may have had other intentions. It is interesting that each painting only features a solitary woman. A woman rows a boat, wades in the water, or ventures out for a day of horse riding, visually unaccompanied by an escort. Especially in the bridal painting, a groom is presumably on the side of the altar, just out of view.

Intentionally or not, these paintings centre Victorian women as the focal point, independently and actively engaging in activities and capturing the viewer’s attention. At the same time, the paintings reproduce the acceptable upper class attire and pastimes of the period – accurately and aesthetically rendering a system that expected women to be subservient. Subscribing to Victorian fashion trends was a double-edged sword. Wearing the “correct” attire could signify respectability and grant entry into upper class activities, which offered some freedom to socialize and exercise recreationally. Yet, a Victorian woman’s appearance was almost synonymous with her value and self-worth. There is a complicated relationship between fashion and societal control depicted within these artworks.

We cannot fully uncover why Clara Westwood and other women in the Slee family decided to create these paintings. However, it is certain that these watercolour artworks demonstrate their strong artistic ability and creativity, as well as represent the changing fashion trends and lifestyle of nineteenth-century Victorian women.

All of the watercolour artworks by the Slee family can be viewed here. Special thank you to Amanda Hill for the support throughout the creation process.


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