Anna Mary, William, Alfred William, Howitt family

Member of The Hundred

Anna Mary, William, Alfred William, Howitt family
Birth and death
1792 - 1908
Profession details
Anthropologist, Artist,Translator, Writer
Related places
Anne Wright and Alistair Grant

Mary Howitt [née Botham], (1799-1888), writer and translator, mother of Anna Mary and Alfred. Whilst living at Esher she published Hymns and Fireside Verses (1839)and became editor of the Drawing Room Scrapbook, earning £150 per annum by providing poems for the publisher's engravings. After 1840 she began the translations that made her famous: the novels of Swedish writer Frederika Bremer and translations of Hans Christian Andersen.

William Howitt (1792-1879), writer, lived with his wife Mary [née Botham] and family (Anna Mary and Alfred) at West End Cottage (now West End Gardens) from 1835-1840. Whilst there William wrote The Rural Life of England (1838), The Boy's Country-Book (1839), and Visits to Remarkable Places (two vols, 1840, 1842). These works document the old English countryside in the style of Cobbett, but are more optimistic and less nostalgic. Howitt saw country traditions as the foundation on which modern democracy could be built, rather than a lost idyll. His books promoted of popular tourism by foot and by rail. They later moved to 'The Orchard' in Hare Lane, Claygate.

Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908), anthropologist. After home tuition at Esher, in 1840 his parents took their children to Heidelberg before returning in 1843. Alfred moved with his father to Australia in 1852, where he remained until his death.

Anna Mary Howitt (1824-1884) : Please see below for in-depth biograpy.

Life beyond Elmbridge: Anna Mary Howitt (married name Watts)

Anna Mary Howitt was a painter, illustrator, author, feminist activist and spiritualist. She was born on 15th January 1824 in Nottingham to William Howitt (1792-1879) and Mary Botham (1799-1888). Her parents were Quakers who were prolific writers and believed in peace, free trade and civil liberty. Anna Mary was the eldest of five surviving children and grew up in a household rich in culture and intellectual interests; through her parents she met Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Elizabeth Gaskell. The Howitts were not rich materially and went bankrupt in 1846. At this point Anna Mary had already embarked on her artistic career, having illustrated her mother's book 'Hymns and Fireside Verses' in 1839 and started attending Henry Sass's Art School in London, one of the few places where female students could receive the best tuition. Her talent had been recognised by the principal, Francis Cary, who let her continue her studies despite not being able to pay the fees. It was here that she came into the circle of some of those who would form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Anna Mary became engaged to marry Edward Bateman, a decorative designer and illustrator, but the engagement was broken off in 1853 when he left for Australia hoping to make his fortune in the gold mining boom.

Francis Cary was a great supporter of Anna Mary Howitt and was known to arrange sittings 'expressly for her'. One such is believed to be that of John Banvard (1851-91) in 1849. Banvard was the American artist who had produced the Panorama of the Mississippi; this was a quarter of a mile long and twelve feet high and was mechanically pulled along between two large vertical cylinders! It had caused a huge sensation in America when exhibited in Boston and New York, accompanied by Banvard's lectures. In 1848 he brought his 'masterpiece' to London and hired the Egyptian Hall, a huge exhibition centre. As many as 604,524 people paid to see it here. 'It is a great work,' the London Morning Advertiser opined, ' which not only astonishes by its magnitude and grandeur, but is highly instructive and interesting.' Banvard sat for his portrait by Miss Howitt during February 1849 and it was during one of these sittings that he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to be told that the Queen and Prince Albert would like a private viewing of his Mississippi Panorama at Windsor Castle during the Easter holidays. This engagement helped to secure his continued success. Banvard's biographer, John Hanners, considers the Howitt portrait to be a fine one '...technically well executed and a good representation of the aesthetic sensibilities of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.' The American artist returned home in 1852 and subsequently went broke and sold off his possessions in 1883 but retained the Howitt painting.

One of the reoccurring themes of Anna Mary Howitt's life is the frustration of her artistic ambitions by the limitations on women's education in Victorian Britain. Unable to study at the Royal Academy Schools, Howitt, accompanied by a fellow artist, Jane Benham (later Hay), went to Munich in 1850 to study with Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Ironically, her literary career flourished during the Munich years. Articles on Munich life and society and her two year apprenticeship were collected into a book, 'An Art Student in Munich' and published in 1853. The New York Times' review of 11 May 1854 is effusive in its praise: 'The Art Student in Munich leaves little to be desired, and possesses a fascination to which few works can lay so reasonable a claim.' and the review concludes with the following recommendation: '...Of all the books published this season - aye, and for many seasons past - none will be found better worth reading and preserving than 'The Art Student in Munich'.' The reviewer was particularly struck by the skill and maturity of her writing. Two serialised stories also appeared in the 1850s, the first, 'The School of Life', concerning two young male artists was published in The Illustrated Magazine of Art with Howitt's illustrations and was produced in book form in 1856.The New York Times (25 June 1855) was again positive in its review, '...we cordially speak of it as a very agreeable, well-written and true hearted work.' Anna Mary Howitt was described as 'an authoress of some little note'. The other publication, 'Sisters in Art', concerning the professional ambitions of the Langham Place feminists, led by Howitt's friend, the landscape painter, Barbara Leigh Smith (married name Bodichon), appeared in the Illustrated Exhibitor in 1853. Further contributions were made to Langham Place publications including the English Woman's Journal in the early 1860s. Anna Mary Howitt's connection with Barbara Leigh Smith led to her involvement in feminist causes, including collecting signatures for Leigh Smith's petition to Parliament advocating the reform of the Married Women's Property Acts.

Howitt's artistic career prospered during the mid to late 1850s. She made her exhibition debut in 1854 at the National Institution of Fine Arts (also known as the Free Exhibition, old Portland Gallery, Regent Street) with a painting inspired by Goethe's Faust, 'Margaret Returning from the Fountain'. This elicited a positive response from D.G.Rossetti who commented in a letter to his sister, 'She has painted a sunlight picture of Margaret (Faust) in a congenial wailing state, which is much better than I fancied she could paint.' Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddal had encouraged Howitt to take up painting as a serious occupation and Howitt had joined Rossetti's Folio Club on her return from Munich. This painting received a glowing if at times patronising review from the London Athenaeum (1854), '....It is tenderly conceived, full of more heart than women usually show to the sorrows of their own sex, and painted by a hand with the firm delicacy of a man's execution....Of course, this able and promising picture was immediately sold.......' However, the article went on to lament that ' of the best pictures........ ever painted by a woman was rejected as unworthy of a place on the walls of the British Institution !' (At this time Pall Mall, admitted connoisseurs rather than practising artists and had conservative taste). Miss Howitt continued to seek exposure for her work through the same channels as the Pre-Raphaelites. Her diptych, 'The Lady', a response to Shelley's poem, 'The Sensitive Plant' was also exhibited at the National Institution in 1855. In the same year she had a painting displayed at the Royal Academy; 'The Castaway' portrayed a woman who had fallen into prostitution, an example of what the critics called her 'strong-minded' work. It was bought by Thomas Fairburn, a patron of the Pre-Raphaelites. Her friend, Barbara Leigh Smith sat for Miss Howitt more than once, including as Beatrice in a picture of Dante and Beatrice and as Boadicea inspired by Tennyson's poem. The latter work was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1856, but rejected by the Royal Academy. Criticism of this painting in a letter from John Ruskin and the marriage of Barbara Leigh Smith led Miss Howitt to suffer nervous breakdowns in 1856-57 that resulted in her destruction of her paintings and a determination never to exhibit again. Her only extant original drawing is of Elizabeth Siddal (1854; pencil on paper).

On 18 October 1859 Anna Mary Howitt married her childhood friend Alaric Alfred Watts (b.1823/4). They shared literary ambitions and a belief in spiritualism. She produced spirit drawings in vermilion ink during trance-like states and continued to illustrate her mother's works. Anna Mary published two books in the 1880s, both concerned with spiritualism, 'Pioneers of the Spiritual Reformation' (1883) and, with her husband, 'Aurora: a Volume of Verse' (1884). On 23rd July in the same year, on a visit to her mother (now a Catholic) at Mayr am Hof, Dietenheim in the Austrian Tyrol, Anna Mary Howitt Watts died suddenly of diphtheria and she was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery there.

Anna Mary Howitt Watts's optimism of the early years in Munich seems to have dissipated in the struggle to revolutionise the world of Victorian art. Despite her talent she was ill-equipped to deal with the criticism and set-backs that came her way. She was crushed by this and her over reliance on Barbara Leigh Smith and diverted her energies into spiritualism. However, she had helped to promote the role of women as serious professional artists and writers and might have flourished in a more favourable environment.

Life in Elmbridge

The Howitt family moved to Esher in 1836 and lived at West End Cottage (later The Cedars, since demolished, now West End Gardens) opposite the 'Lodge' until 1839. Anna Mary's mother described their Esher home in one of her letters as, ' old fashioned, roomy dwelling, lying at the foot of the ridge on which extends the mile - long village of Esher.' William and Mary Howitt found their new home a tranquil place in which to work, '...You could walk for hours among the pine woods and heaths without meeting a soul: you might be a hundred miles from the city...', Mrs Howitt wrote in 1836.They had two more children in this period, Herbert Charlton in 1838 and Margaret (Meggie) in 1839. The family attempted to live the 'good life', benefitting from their abundant orchard, paddock and fine meadow by the River Mole. They even invested in livestock including in Mary Howitt's words, 'two amiable swine'. She compared her Esher home favourably to the Garden of Eden! This lifestyle must have been such a contrast to their previous urban existence as in 1836 West End had neither a church nor a school. In 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne, Mary noted that 'Poverty in its squalid sense, as we knew it in the manufacturing districts we have never seen here...the cottagers are seldom without a pig, and they all have a garden...the men appear always employed....' Life in Esher may well have informed William Howitt's books, 'The Rural Life of England' and 'The Boy's Country-Book' published in 1838 and 1839.

Mary and her daughter Anna Mary must have worked on Mrs Howitt's book of 'Hymns and Fireside Verses', illustrated by Anna Mary that appeared in 1839. In the same year the family moved to Heidelberg; William Howitt returned to Esher in 1866 taking The Orchard in Hare Lane, but left for Rome in 1870, never to return.


  • Ian G. Anderson, History of Esher, Wolsey Press, Esher, 1948
  • Anon., The Social Geography of Early & Mid Victorian Esher, BA Dissertation, University of Sussex, 1987
  • Marion Barker, Esher Memoirs, London, 1972
  • John Hanners, A Tale of Two Artists: Anna Mary Howitt's Portrait of John Banvard, Minnesota History, vol. 50, No.5 (Spring 1987), Minnesota Historical Society, collections.minhs/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/5L
  • Pam Hirsch, 'Howitt [Watts], Anna Mary (1824-1884)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn., Jan. 2011 [ accessed 21 June 2011]
  • Anna Mary Howitt, An Art Student in Munich, 1853, University of Michigan,
  • Lisa Hutchins, Esher & Claygate Past,, London, 2001
  • Ian D. Stevens, The Story of Esher,1966
  • Book Reviews, New York Times, 11 May 1854,
  • Book Reviews, New York Times, 25 June 1855,
  • Top
  • Privacy and cookies