Bristow, Lily (1864-1935)

Bristow, Lily (1864-1935)

Emily Caroline (Lily) Bristow was a remarkable British painter of landscapes and genre scenes in oils and watercolours. She trained at Clapham School of Art and Herkomer’s Art School in London. Exhibiting at the Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists and Society of Women Artists. She’s also celebrated as being the first female mountaineer to traverse the Aiguille des Grands Charmoz.

Lily’s early years were spent at the family home in Clapham Common, London. Her father, George, was a solicitor and a keen patron of the arts. As a young Victorian lady, her education would’ve been thorough yet tinged with the expectation that she’d ultimately become a wife and mother. Women seeking ‘professional’ careers, such as in medicine and law, were generally frowned upon as their male counterparts feared it would lower their status.

The same mutterings of disgruntled bigotry also surrounded those following an artistic path. Opportunities were limited, and even though numerous women exhibited at the Royal Academy, they did so in their own bubble. And it took 20 years of petitions before the Royal Academy Schools allowed ladies to study a ‘partially draped model’.

Clapham School of Art

Formed in 1884, this pioneering and quite extraordinary art school originated with a group of residents keen for local tuition. Led initially by Leonard Charles Nightingale, students were taught painting, carving, sculpture, gilding, embroidery, pottery and textiles. Lily enrolled and her father became a committee member. Little is known about her time here until a press report from 1888 refers to her receiving an award from the sparkling playwright, Oscar Wilde. During an enchanting speech, he lauded the achievements of the school while also remarking favourably on the number of female students.

Lily was a firebrand, undaunted, and tenacious. These early experiences would’ve fuelled a fire, which carried her, not only to artistic success but also up several of the world’s most challenging peaks.

The Herkomer Art School

Driven on, probably entirely at her own behest, young Lily left Clapham to enrol at The Herkomer School in Bushey. Established by the gritty Bavarian portraitist, Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914), it opened with a near-equal mix of males and females. All were told to find suitable lodgings within the village. Herkomer’s approach was unusual, free-thinking, and deliberately ignorant of societal preconceptions. His students diversified, learning to etch, enamel, and perform on stage. Residents were roped in as models and a local chapel was converted into a theatre. Bushey thrived as an art colony and Lily was right at home.

The census from 1891 records her living in Herkomer Road with another art student, Edith M. Petherick, who later became a suffragette.

An Upward Trajectory

With her artistic career flourishing, she began exhibiting in earnest. The Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters showing a number of her works. Intriguingly, she debuted at the latter with a piece titled ‘A Captive’, which seems poignant given her restless nature.

Perhaps it was through the galleries, or via family connections, that she made the acquaintance of mountaineer Albert F. Mummery and his wife Mary.

Albert Mummery

Albert Frederick Mummery

The pair were gaining notoriety having successfully climbed several imposing alpine peaks. Mary was the first woman to ascend the Teufelsgrat and wrote on the subject of female mountaineers in Mummery's book, ‘My Climbs in the Alps and the Caucasus’.

“...strong prejudices are apt to be aroused the moment a woman attempts any more formidable sort of mountaineering.”

“The masculine mind, however, is with rare exceptions, imbued with the idea that a woman is not a fit comrade for steep ice or precipitous rock…”

“...and that she should be satisfied with watching through a telescope some weedy and invertebrate masher being hauled up a steep peak by a couple of burly guides, or by listening to this same masher when, on his return, he lisps out with a sickening drawl the many perils he has encountered.”

It’s no surprise that given Lily’s stance on female equality, she joined the pair on their next climb.

Aiguille des Grands Charmoz

In 1892, the trio scaled the Aiguille des Grands Charmoz - Mary and Lily becoming the first women to successfully do so. The year after, tackling the Aiguille du Grépon, the Aiguille du Dru, the Zinalrothorn and the Matterhorn. Even today this feat is enviable but consider how perilous it was with Victorian equipment. To add further complexity, Bristow traversed the Grepon with a huge plate camera.

Lily Bristow, Albert Mummery

Albert Frederick Mummery. The 'Crack'. Photo by Lily Bristow.

Mummery described a particularly hazardous photo opportunity.

“On this aerial perch we then proceeded to set up the camera, and the lady of the party, surrounded on three sides by nothing and blocked in front with the camera, made ready to seize the moment when an unfortunate climber should be in his least elegant attitude and transfix him forever.”

Lily’s determination coupled with her self-depreciating modesty, wasn’t always received well. Rather than celebrate her prowess, there’s a sense that Mummery felt it undermined his accomplishments, writing:

"All mountains appear doomed to pass through three stages: An inaccessible peak, the hardest climb in the Alps, an easy day for a lady."

Indeed, it’s said that Mary also held some resentment and forbade the pair from climbing together. The press, unhelpfully, speculating that Lily and Mummery were entwined in a romantic liaison.

Mary Mummery

Mary Mummery (nee Petherick)

By 1894, her mountaineering endeavours were effectively over. She didn’t accompany Albert or Mary on any further expeditions. However, little did she know that this decision would save her life. The following year, Albert F. Mummery was killed in an avalanche on Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas.

The Royal Academy

Lily continued to paint during her mountaineering years and debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘The Parting Gleam’. It was an oil painting, presumably a landscape, and hung near a piece by Newlyn artist Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912). She exhibited a further work in 1899.

At the turn of the century, with the drama of the Alps fading into distant memories, she settled in Haslemere in Surrey where her mother lived until her death in 1925. Here, as the decades passed, the heady experiences of her formative years were replaced with a gentler lifestyle in a close-knit community. In 1914, she received a prize for flower arranging. And in 1928, she designed a banner for the Mothers’ Union.

Her obituary was curiously understated. Omitting all details of her alpine achievements. Was it still frowned upon by her circle of friends? And did they even know?

“Death of Miss Lily Bristow.

Her many friends will learn with much regret of the death of Miss Lily Bristow, of Little Orchard, Haslemere, which took place on Monday. Miss Bristow who was 71, was the eldest daughter of the late Mr. G. L. Bristow, and of the late Mrs. Bristow, who she lived for many years at Barnfields. She had taken a very active part in the affairs of the Parish Church, and for 16 years was Secretary of the Church Council, and designed the banners for the Parish Church and St. Christopher's. She was a well-known artist and art worker, and many of her pictures and handicrafts had been seen at exhibitions in Haslemere. The funeral was at the Parish Church yesterday (Wednesday).”

Lily Bristow’s legacy is one of fearless conviction, abundant creativity, and boundless curiosity. If you could ask her today why she decided to climb, she’d probably shrug and say “why not?”


Royal Academy, Royal Society of Artists in Birmingham, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Society of Women Artists.



Born in Brixton, London to George Ledgard Bristow, a solicitor, and Mary Bristow.


Lived in Clapham Common, London.


Lived in Clapham Common, London.


Awarded a prize at the Clapham School of Art. Oscar Wilde provided an entertaining speech.

Local Press Report

“Having distributed the prizes with a kindly word of praise and encouragement to each recipient, Mr. Oscar Wilde gave a most eloquent address. He complimented the students on their work which he saw displayed on the walls, and said he marked with pleasure that their excellent master, Mr. Nightingale, had not repressed individuality. He was not surprised to see so many prizes carried off by women who, though until recent years had been comparatively debarred from competition with men in certain domains of art, had showed themselves able to carry off the chief prizes. He was glad to find that art flourished at Clapham. He had often wondered with Thackeray why artists so loved to congregate in the neighbourhood of the Middlesex Hospital, and he felt there were many reasons why South London should be a pleasant home for art.”

“Mr. Wilde closed a most interesting address by wishing the school every success. He felt that success must be achieved by young artists, whose works were so full of promise. A vote of thanks to Mr. Wilde was moved by Mr. Urwick, and carried with enthusiasm. The musical programme was resumed, and the evening-closed with a pleasant dance.”


Lived in Clapham Common, London.

Enrolled at The Herkomer Art School, London.

Awarded a prize in Tottenham, London, for her crewel work (embroidery with wool threads). 


Exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists.


Lived in Herkomer Road, Bushey with another art student Edith M Petherick.


Exhibited ‘A Captive’ at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

Climbed the Aiguille des Grands Charmoz in the Mont Blanc massif with Albert F. Mummery and his wife Mary. Lily and Mary became the first women to achieve this.


Traversed the Aiguille du Grépon in the Mont Blanc Massif and the Matterhorn. Also climbed the Aiguille du Dru and the Zinalrothorn. 


Lived in Bushey, Herts

Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘The Parting Gleam’.


Produced illustrations for ‘My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus’ by Albert Frederick Mummery.

Lily Bristow

'Goats' Lily Bristow


Lived in Clapham Common, London.

Exhibited ‘The Girdle’ at the Royal Academy. 


Lived in Clapham Common, London.


Exhibited ‘A March Afternoon’ at the Haslemere Society of Artists. Reviewed by the local press.

“Miss Lily Bristow has a beautiful little landscape in A March afternoon…”


Exhibited ‘A Nursing Sister of St John’ at the Haslemere Society of Artists.


Lived in Haslemere, Surrey.


Awarded a prize at the Haslemere Horticultural Show for flower arranging.


Death of mother at Barnfields, Haslemere, Surrey.


Designed a banner for the Mothers’ Union.


Died in Haslemere, Surrey.

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