Waller, Mary Lemon (1851-1931)

Waller, Mary Lemon (1851-1931)
Waller, Mary Lemon (1851-1931)

Often compared with the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mary Lemon Waller was a distinguished portrait painter who was highly regarded for her depictions of children. She trained at Gloucester Art School and Royal Academy Schools where she boarded with several other aspiring painters including Helen Allingham RWS (1848-1926).

Her portrayals are refined, yet not overworked, and retain a sense sitter’s underlying spirit. In this regard, The Queen newspaper described her as possessing a “sense of beauty” and a “cultivated natural taste”. In 1877, she debuted at the Royal Academy and soon established a solid reputation as one of Britain’s finest child portraitists. As such, she undertook numerous commissions including those from Italy, the USA, and South America. In 1891, she was elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and she holds the accolade of being the first female honorary member.

Her works are held in numerous public collections.


Royal Academy, Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Society of Women Artists, Walker Art Gallery, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, Grosvenor Gallery, Manchester City Art Gallery, Royal Scottish Academy, World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Public Collections

National Trust at Cragside, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Somerville College at the University of Oxford, The Literary & Philosophical Society of Newcastle, University of Sheffield.



Born in Bideford, Devon, to Reverend Hugh Fowler and Mary A Fowler (nee Weekes).


Lived in Gloucester on the grounds of King’s School where her father was the headteacher. Hugh Fowler is regarded as one the finest headmasters in the school’s illustrious history.

Studied at an art school in Gloucester.


Enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools.
Boarded in Bloomsbury with a governess, students, and three other artists. Helen Allingham RWS (1848-1926), Clara Fell (b. c. 1845), and Flora Davis (b. c. 1842).
Debuted at Dudley Gallery with "An Unexpected Meeting”.


Married the artist Samuel Edmund Waller (1850-1903).


Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘The Pets’.


Stayed with the Walker family at a property in Elswick, Northumberland.


Reviewed in The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper.

“Graceful addition to the not over-long list of names of really clever English women portrait painters is that of Mrs Mary Lemon Waller, wife of the able artist Mr S. E. Waller. It is scarcely possible for any lover of art to pass through one of the public exhibitions in which this lady's works appear without pausing before the specimens of her skill. There is no great difficulty in finding the reason why her pictures always please.

Mrs Waller's perception of character amounts to an instinct, her sense of beauty - especially in children - her cultivated natural taste, and the refinement so noticeable in her designs are the outcome of the feelings of a lady. She was born at Bideford in Devonshire, the daughter of the Rev. Hugh Fowler, M.A., and any talent she at first exhibited appeared to lie rather in the direction of literature and music than of art. But success has been due in Mrs Waller to an inborn desire for real work in life.

Blessed with a nature the reverse of slothful, and with a sense of responsibility fostered by her parents, she early desired some occupation or profession that should prove her talents had not been wasted. Her first efforts were with the pen, and writing some quaint little stories she was inspired with the desire to illustrate them. These juvenile efforts were succeeded by attempts with the pencil at portraiture of her family and friends, which appeared to indicate so unusual an ability that the young lady was sent to the School of Art at Gloucester, where she underwent a course of freehand drawing and study from the antique under Mr J. Kemp*.

With a nature like Mrs Waller's, it was impossible to study the highest ideal of beauty met with in the antique without a growing love of art, the germ of which already existed in her mind. Her decision was soon taken. She always intended that her span of existence should bear some fruit, and she determined to devote herself to art. It is but fair to add that she had always met with the measure of success that spurs one on to further effort. A careful drawing of the Discobolus secured, in 1871, admission to the Royal Academy Schools, where she remained studying hard for two or three years.

Her introduction to artistic life as an exhibitor also took place in 1871, as she in that year painted, and got accepted at the Dudley Gallery, a study called ‘An Unexpected Meeting,’ a child curiously regarding a snail, in a garden walk. This was a decided success, but it was not until some years later Mrs Waller appeared as an exhibitor at the Royal Academy, with a charming portrait of her little two years old son. Since then she has been a pretty regular contributor to the parent institution.

The lady's chief works have been a head portrait of Lord Armstrong in the Academy, 1883, and a full-length of his Lordship, presented to the town of Newcastle in the same year, a work which was not publicly exhibited. In 1884 a portrait of Mildred, daughter of Col. Tryon, was Mrs Waller's Academy contribution, and the following year her ‘Little Snow-white,’ a fair-haired, blue-eyed child, sitting in a wood, fairly fascinated the public, and greatly added to the artist's reputation.

Other works followed in due succession. ‘The Secret of the Sea’ and ‘Rita, Daughter of Wilberforce Bryant, Esq.’ (1886); ‘Dorothy, daughter of J. G. Leeming, Esq.’ (1887); ‘Leila’ (1888), and in the same year ‘Eve,’ a child with an apple, exhibited at the Institute, Piccadilly, and reproduced in the Christmas number of the Illustrated News; ‘Perdita, a portrait,’ in 1889, and in the Grosvenor Gallery, ‘Girl Fencing;’ whilst in this year's Academy she had ‘Gladys, daughter of Major Lutley Jordan,’ a work rich in the qualities of the art of portraiture. We regard as unnecessary further multiplication of the artist's works, or might mention ‘Mrs Montague,’ in the Grosvenor Gallery, 1888, and ‘The Rev. Alfred Gatty, D.D.,’ Sub- Dean of York, and many more equally valuable specimens of the limner's art. But those we have mentioned constitute an art reputation, and on them the lady may be well content to take her stand.

Mrs Waller is essentially a portrait painter. She is naturally gifted with keen perception of character, enabling her, with her innate and improved graphic power, to succeed in what is popularly known as ‘catching a likeness.’ The taste with which she is endowed dictates to her what is the best and most appropriate view of her sitter. In addition to this she likes the large lines and simple arrangement of portraiture. Her talent, like that of Reynolds and Lawrence, is less in the ideal than in the excellent management of what she sees before her, and the power of perception, rather than of invention, has enabled her to produce those works which have from time to time delighted the public.

In conclusion, it may be said without fear as without favour, that when the name of Mrs Mary Lemon Waller has become a matter of history, the memory will be that of an artist who has left a record on the sands of time.”

*John Kemp (1833–1923).


Elected a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.


Shown at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.


Lived in St John’s Wood, London, with her son, sister-in-law, and two servants.


Lived in St John’s Wood, London, with her sister, son-in-law, two servants and the daughter of one of the servants.


Died in St. John's Wood, London.


Hampstead News

“Mrs. Mary Lemon Waller died on Thursday at 30 Grove End Road, St. John's Wood, at the age of 79. She was the daughter of the Rev. Hugh Fowler, and was born at Bideford, in Devon. She married S. E. Waller and when this artist devoted himself to subject pictures she turned her attention to portraits. She became a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1891, and on her resignation last year was made the first honorary woman member.

Early in her career she painted two portraits of the first Lord Armstrong (then Sir William), one of which was for the City Council of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Later she turned her attention almost exclusively to painting children, and she became one of the best-known child painters, exhibiting regularly in the R.A. and in the R.S.P.P.. Fame spread beyond her own country, and she painted children from Italy, from the United States, and the Argentine. She leaves one son, Sir Maurice L. Waller, C.B., who, till lately, was chairman of the Prison Commission. The funeral service was held at St. Mark's, Hamilton Terrace, last Saturday.”

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