Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Sass’s Drawing Academy: A Pre-Raphaelite Prep School

Dinah Roe

Sass’s Drawing Academy: A Pre-Raphaelite Prep School (Another London Venue In Which Rossetti Misbehaved)

If ever there was a London building crying out for a blue plaque, it is number 10 Bloomsbury Street, former headquarters of Sass’s Drawing Academy, a feeder school for the Royal Academy. It was here that aspiring painters John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Walter Howell Deverell took their early training. Rossetti and Deverell met at Sass’s, but child prodigy Millais had already entered the Royal Academy Schools by the time they began their studies. Other distinguished graduates include Augustus Egg, Edward Lear, Charles West Cope, Henry Hugh Armstead and William Powell Frith, most famous for his work Derby Day (1858).

Sass is also notable as for admitting female pupils from 1832. Graduate Henrietta Ward (1832 – 1924) went on to found her own art school for women and was proposed for election to the Royal Academy in the 1870s, despite the fact that the RA did not accept women members. Three of her children became artists. Eliza Fox went on to become a successful painter of history and genre subjects and was a close friend of feminist Barbara Bodichon (a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal). Anna Mary Howitt, also a friend of Rossetti and Bodichon, was so talented that she was allowed to remain at the Academy even after a financial disaster meant her family could no longer afford the fees.

Henry Sass himself was better at producing artists than producing art. He kept exhibiting, despite receiving little encouragement. One critic noted witheringly that he had produced ‘a study of something which he persists in calling a head.’ In My Autobiography and Reminincences (1888) Frith recalls his two years as a student boarder at Sass’s, where he learned the rudiments of drawing by laborious exercises. It took him six weeks to copy a plaster sphere to Sass’s satisfaction. This particulary task was so resented by the boys that one student was expelled for sketching a hanged man in the middle of his effort. After mastering the sphere, Frith was permitted to learn about light and shadow by drawing a bunch of grapes, and after that was permitted to draw a hand from a plaster cast. It was a long time before he was allowed to attempt a whole human figure ‘from the Antique’ (meaning from plaster casts of famous statues).

Sass clearly had a sense for drama that often makes a good teacher, and this was reflected in the set-up of his classroom. A door to the left of the building’s entrance led to a passage lined with drawings done by successful former pupils. At the bottom of the passage were curtains which could be could be thrown back to reveal a circular hall lit from the top ‘in an angle of light copied from the Pantheon at Rome’. Copies of famous statues such as Laocoön and His Sons, Apollo, and the Venus de Medici were posed dramatically around this space. A staircase led to a circular upper gallery.

Mottoes decorated the gallery spaces: ‘Those models which have passed through the approbation of ages are intended for your imitation, and not your criticism’; ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed’; ‘Laborare est orare,’ [‘To work is to pray’]. Frith confesses that the young and boisterous students largely ignored these: ‘I don’t think the motto system did us any good’.

Though the details are foggy, it seems Sass’s dramatic eccentricities shaded tragically into madness, and minor oil painter Francis Stephen Cary took over the Academy.

Cary’s father Henry was a famous English translator of Dante Alighieri’s Commedia and consequently a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s father. William Rossetti tells us that at Sass’s, young Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘acquired the bare rudiments of his art and … made a small reputation for eccentricity.’ One fellow-pupil recalls Cary asking Rossetti why he had not attended school the day before. ‘I had a fit of idleness’, Rossetti replied, and proceeded to distribute freshly-written sonnets among his classmates.

For this anecdote alone the building deserves a blue plaque. Yet, as the UCL Bloomsbury Project notes, ‘its listed building information makes no reference to its interesting history, and historians of Sass and his art school do not seem to realise that the building still exists.’


  1. Dear Mrs Roe,
    First of all, congratulations with your ‘Rossettis in Wonderland’, which I recently read.
    I am currently studying the life and work of Henry Wallis, a former student at Cary’s Academy, and I was wondering whether a list of pupils was available somewhere.
    I have of course read Frith’s reminiscences, but I don’t remember having seen one.
    Could you find anything during your investigations?
    Many thanks.
    Ronald Lessens

    Ronald Lessens responded at 04:12pm on 07/25/2012
  2. Hello Ronald and many thanks!

    And please call me Dinah. ‘Mrs. Roe’ is my mother, and she wouldn’t have anybody taking her hard-earned title…

    I’m so glad to hear that you are working on Henry Wallis, a character I would very much like to know more about. I wish I could be of more help, but I’ve never come across an official list of pupils at Cary’s. I’ll keep an eye out and contact you if ever I do come across one. Meanwhile, you might try getting in touch with the contacts listed on the UCL Bloomsbury Project Dr Juliette Atkinson .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) Garfoot .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

    Best of luck with your investigations. Thanks for getting in touch, and please come back and let us all know if you find anything!

    Dinah responded at 02:31pm on 08/01/2012
  3. Thanks for the defense of my name Dr. Roe.. Also, although he was mad, I loved Sass’s set up for teaching!

    Mrs. Roe responded at 05:18pm on 08/07/2012
  4. It was at Cary’s School of Art that Edward Sterling convened a meeting of the life class to discuss the setting up of a Volunteer Corps of artists. In time this became The Artists Rifles - Nearly all the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were members, as were the St John’s Wood Clique and many other well-known members of the artistic community of the late 19th century. Even William Morris (that most unmilitary of men) was a very enthusiatic member. You can see some images produced by artist members of The Artists Rifles here -

    Patrick Baty responded at 11:35am on 08/11/2012
  5. Very much enjoyed your little anecdotes of the 19th century art world. Also your sketches of William and Christina Rossetti in your biography. I just discovered this amusing blog which caricatures the Pre-Raphaelites.

    By the way will you be doing another book on Christina? Among the siblings I found her the most interesting, partly because there was very little that seemed to go on in her life, and you wonder where she got her muse from.

    Caroline responded at 08:59pm on 08/12/2012
  6. Hi Caroline,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about William and Christina, both of whom I think suffer the fate of the introverted in biographies (to be overlooked) in contrast to the attention-seekers (Dante Gabriel).

    I’d love to write a biography of Christina one day, but there are so many great ones out there already. In particular, I’d recommend Jan Marsh’s ‘Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life’ because it is so well-researched and elegantly written.

    Thank you so much for that link to the Pre-Raphaelite caricatures. They are brilliant! And I hope everyone has a look.

    Dinah responded at 11:56am on 08/13/2012
  7. Patrick, thank you so much for your fascinating note about the Artists Rifles. Clearly, this adds to the argument for a blue plaque on the building!

    Dinah Roe responded at 12:01pm on 08/13/2012
  8. I am researching the marine artist, Sir Oswald Brierly (1817-1894). It is widely stated that he studied at Sass’s Academy but I have been unable to confirm this. i would be delighted to know of any records relating to the enrolments of the Academy?

    Trevor Armstrong responded at 08:21am on 11/02/2013
  9. Hello Trevor,

    Apologies for the delay in replying. I somehow missed your message.

    I don’t know offhand where such records might be kept, but I would suggest contacting The Bloomsbury Project for more information:

    It’s a great UCL website about the area, and does cover Sass’s. Best of luck with your search!

    Dinah responded at 06:06pm on 01/05/2014

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.