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This portrait of Ellen Dana Conway was painted by Arthur Hughes, an artist associated with (although not one of) the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These artists were inspired by Italian art from before the Renaissance, often drawing on literary themes. This portrait, though, arose from friendship. Ellen Conway was the wife of Moncure Conway and with him was a key force in the move away from religion and towards humanism at the South Place Religious Society, which became South Place Ethical Society under Stanton Coit (Conway’s successor). The Conways had a rich circle of friends, comprising artists, writers, and activists of all kinds – English and American. This followed the tradition of William Johnson Fox, a predecessor of Conway, who surrounded himself with a similarly cultured and politically active circle while ‘minister’ of the society during the early 19th century. 

As well as a reminder of the often overlooked influence of women in the humanist movement, this painting’s connection to the pre-Raphaelites and their circle recalls the freethinking that characterised many of them – notably William Michael Rossetti, Walter Crane, William Morris, and Ford Madox Brown. In his autobiography, Conway noted the irony of so many of these religious sceptics painting churches and religious scenes:

Notwithstanding all that Christian painting, Holman Hunt was not the artist chosen to decorate churches; most of such work was done by [Edward] Burne-Jones and William Morris—sceptics. The history of the introduction of Christianity into England was painted on panels in Manchester Town Hall by [Ford] Madox Brown, who believed in no form of Christianity. The seal of the London County Council was designed by Walter Crane—freethinker and socialist.

In addition to friendship and freethought, this painting – today in Conway Hall’s Humanist Library – recalls the joy many humanists today, and throughout history, find and have found in the arts. Sometimes humanism is associated with a purely rational, scientific outlook on life, but, for many humanists, the arts also provide a source of wonder and connection in the one life we have. As the Amsterdam Declaration made clear: 

Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

Image: © Conway Hall Ethical Society

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