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25 Nov 2021

Hannah Lorimer and the pursuit of education

Written by Nicola Law, MLitt graduate, University of St Andrews, and edited by Antonia Laurence Allen, Curator Edinburgh and East
Hannah Lorimer aged 4 years and 4 months, dated March 1859, photographic print in a gilt metal frame, Kellie Castle collection
For my MLitt dissertation, to complete the Museums and Heritage Studies course at the University of St Andrews, I chose Hannah Lorimer as a case study in order to examine how women are represented in museums and heritage organisations. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as an initial survey found scant information.

However, as I started to examine her artwork and extensive collection of letters, I discovered a determined, intelligent and caring woman. Hannah Lorimer spent her life in the pursuit of knowledge, whether that be in art or science, during a time when higher education was not a right for women but rather something they had to fight for.

In the 19th century it wasn’t deemed necessary for women to receive the same level of education as men. It was considered improper for a woman of means to earn a living. However, it was important for them to be educated in literature and the arts, in order to make polite and interesting conversation in society.

There were varied expectations for women of differing social classes; the ideal for a middle-class husband was to ensure he earned enough to allow his wife to remain at home. This separated them from the working class married women who tended to work in the domestic and ‘sweated trades’.[1] Women who had received secondary education were often preparing for the role of housewife. Anyone fighting too hard for further education was ‘considered unfeminine and off-putting in the way that they attempted to usurp men’s “natural” intellectual superiority.’[2]

Art education had its share of restrictions for women. Life classes were essential to art studies, but in the early Victorian period it was considered immoral for ‘ladies’ to study the naked human body. This meant that women couldn’t attend, which in turn limited their progress as artists. Life classes were considered essential, as being able to represent the mechanics of the human body was one of the key attributes of a skilful painter. The argument against women observing these classes, was a moral one – men were required to ‘safeguard female morality’ in the Victorian era.[3] A respectable woman was supposed to ‘retain her chastity even as a wife or mother’.[4] Therefore, regular attendance at classes that required her to study the naked body would have made it impossible for her to maintain her place at the centre of the family. Ironically, however, it was not considered immoral for art schools to use women as models.

Hannah learnt to paint the traditional way, by copying ‘masters’ who had come before. Oil on Canvas Thomas Reid by Hannah Lorimer (after Raeburn’s 1796 painting now at Fyvie Castle)

When Hannah was a child in the 1860s, women were slowly being given access to increasing amounts of education, but it would be a long time before they were on equal terms with men. In 1860, Laura Hereford was the first women in Britain to be admitted to the Royal Academy art school in London, after she applied using only her initials. An investigation proved there was no official rule preventing her attending and she was allowed to enrol. Women were starting to register for classes at universities in Britain, although it wasn’t until 1920 that they would be allowed to officially graduate. Hannah was born in 1854 and the Edinburgh Academy of Arts started accepting female students in principle from 1861. By the time she died in 1947, the first woman had been elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy (Josephine Haswell Miller, 1890–1975, in 1938). Women were slowly being given access to knowledge they had previously been denied.

Who was Hannah Lorimer?

Hannah was the eldest daughter of Hannah (née Stodart) and her husband James Lorimer. Growing up she was very close to her mother and five siblings. The relationship she developed with her younger brother, the painter John Henry, was especially close due to their shared love and skill for art. The children’s parents fostered a respect for learning, which must have been why Hannah was so passionate about education throughout her life. When she was a teenager, her mother attended the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association and won prizes in moral philosophy, two years in a row.

Hannah’s mother led the charge for educating her daughters, and their enthusiasm for learning is obvious in the letters they sent one another. Hannah married and moved abroad in later life, and the letters to and from mother and daughter are filled with discussions about the books they were reading, from politics to science. In 1897, for example, Hannah recommends her mother read a book of political essays. And in another from Paris in the same decade, Hannah writes, ‘I must stop as I am going to my anatomy class at J:K AT 6:15.’

The anatomy class she refers to was possibly with the Académie Julian. In 1880, women were not allowed to enrol at the École des Beaux-Arts but were accepted by the new Académie Julian. Anatomy classes were attended by many artists; it was a practice that was started by Italian Renaissance painters to help them understand the inner workings of the body. These classes would have helped women who could not attend life drawing classes, and may have filled gaps in Hannah’s art education. Studying anatomy certainly seems to have helped her create sensitive studies of people, her skill being particularly evident in surviving paintings, drawings and sculpture.

The Lorimers and education

Hannah and her siblings were in a privileged position: their father was a professor of law at the University of Edinburgh, and they had a townhouse in Bruntsfield, a leafy area south of the city. The Lorimer’s were a family of means, which provided opportunities (but, in many ways, also restricted the girls’ choices). Crucially, the family did invest in higher education for their girls. Following her mother’s example, Hannah completed a University of Edinburgh Certificate for Women in Moral Philosophy and Geology in 1880. This was a time when women could not graduate university with the same degree as a man, but instead were given ‘certifications’ of study.

Hannah’s youngest sister Caroline Louise – known to her sisters as Caro – also went to Edinburgh University, and earned three certificates in 1882 and 1886. At first she studied the preliminary subjects of reading and arithmetic, history and geography, plus ‘special subjects’ of French, English and geology (for which she earned a prize). She then went on to study Literature, Philosophy and Science, gaining an honours in English Literature, Moral Philosophy and Political Economy in 1886.

It is interesting that both Hannah and her sister chose to study geology. Research has shown this was quite typical for British women in the 19th century. The field of geology was a fairly new one with no patriarchal tradition, and was therefore an area in which women could make an impact early on. 65% of geology research papers published between 1800 and 1900 were by women, which is a direct result of the subject being taught to girls in school for the first time: ‘...formal instruction in the earth sciences in a number of leading girls’ secondary schools… led to significant numbers of women studying geology when full university-level training became available to them from the 1870s onwards.’[5]

Hannah as a teacher

Hannah wasn’t just concerned about her own education, and throughout her life she spent time teaching. In her early life, she ran a European art course from the small Pittenweem post office near Kellie. Unfortunately, we know very little about this class. There is a passing mention of it in a letter to Hannah from her brother John Henry, who wrote, ‘I met a pupil of yours a Miss Macgregor who was with the Wbr [Wedderburn?] Ogilvies – she said you have given her very difficult things to do!’.

This one reference tells us that John Henry knew Hannah’s students by sight, so they clearly ran in the same social circles as the family. The Wedderburn Ogilvie’s were a high-profile Scottish family who held a Baronet title, one of the highest ranking titles in the UK. This suggests Hannah’s art class was popular with women who wished to access more formal art education, but maybe felt it was improper to attend public art school classes. Hannah was therefore purposefully filling a gap in women’s art education, likely inspired by her own experience. The fact John Henry also mentions Hannah’s ‘difficult lesson’, clearly suggests she took the class very seriously.

Later in life Hannah lived in Guyana (then British Guiana), Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), and Fiji, places that gave her new opportunities to be creative. Some of the best-preserved examples of her work include sculptures, held now in the National Museum of Guyana, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the British Museum. The maquette for the Pitt Rivers Museum sculpture of a ‘Singhalese boy’ is currently on display at Kellie Castle. It is a sensitive depiction of a young boy, made by Hannah while she was living in Sri Lanka.

Plaster maquette painted to resemble a bronze sculpture, depicting the bust of a Singhalese (or Sinhalese) boy, Kellie Castle collection

Children were often the subject of her art, perhaps because she spent a lot of her time around children while in Scotland (particularly with her nieces and nephews at Kellie) but also because she spent time with children when she lived abroad. She writes in her letters about taking the local children to the river and sketching with them. One letter describes handing out Christmas presents to young people: ‘We had all the women and children in to get their presents + and they all looked very pleased.’

Hannah’s letters from this time express her anxiety about getting lost when out for the day with villagers, whom she noted were ‘marvellous about finding their way even in places they don’t know and they have plenty of provisions...still I can’t help feeling anxious.’ Not only was she living in remote areas where she could not speak the language, but she was often left alone because her husband, Sir Everard im Thurn, would be away on expeditions in his capacity as a colonial administrator. But they were both passionate about the local flora and fauna – he photographed the area and she sketched.

In one letter she writes, ‘My young companion is a sweet lass and very intelligent and very chatty and it makes it very much less lonesome to have her.’ This suggests Hannah was alone a lot of the time, and, as was common for a colonial wife, was given a maid to help her navigate the local area and language. During this time, Hannah spent days outside sketching, and it is not hard to imagine that she also taught the locals specific art skills.

Throughout their time abroad, Hannah wrote regularly to her mother in Scotland. One such letter mentions a class that she had started for a group of local girls. ‘We have started… a weekly afternoon for the girls when we read aloud something good but not too recondite and have some music… they get hardly any schooling as there isn’t a decent school here…’. Hannah would have been teaching these children in English, providing the girls with a different, anglicised, perspective.

Hannah was a proficient artist, and this sketch of cows in a field is from her 1876 sketch book. She was 22 at the time. Kellie Castle collections, on loan from a private lender.

Having spent some time researching Hannah’s life and works, she has left a lasting impression on me. I had no preconception of what I would discover, and found a passionate, talented women who has inspired me to value my education and pursue a career in archival research. In so many ways, Hannah fit the mould of what was expected from an upper-middle class 19th-century woman; yet she also quietly fought against the idea that she had no agency, as a creative artist.


[1] Esther Breitenbach, Linda Fleming, S. Karly Kehoe, Lesley Orr (eds.) Scottish Women: A Documentary History, 1780-1914, (Edinburgh: 2013)

[2] Kathryn Hughes, ‘Gender Roles in the 19th Century ’, The British Library, 2013.

[3] Nunn, Pamerla Geraldine, Mid Victorian Women Artists: 1850-1879, University College London, 1982, accessed Nov 2021, Pg. 78

[4] Holly Furneaux ‘Victorian Sexualities’, The British Library, 2014, accessed 3 November 2021,

[5] Mary R. S. Creese and Thomas M. Creese, ‘British Women Who Contributed to Research in the Geological Sciences in the Nineteenth Century’, The British Journal for the History of Science 27, no. 1 (March 1994): 23–54,