Bowles's Drawing Book for Ladies; Or Complete Florist is a manual for drawing or embroidering flowers, consisting primarily of coloured plates. The earliest edition in the Library’s collections is from 1753. This edition was published in 1785.
The first section in the book is a guide to drawing and the use of colour. This is followed by several pages which show how to paint a flower, starting with the outlines, and then developing the picture to include colour. If a woman was using the book for needlework, she would copy the line drawings with thread onto fabric, and fill in the colour afterwards. The rest of the book shows colour representations of different species of flowers.
The word ‘Ladies’ in the title tells us that the book is aimed at women of a certain social class – women who wouldn’t have to work for a living. Drawing and painting were important accomplishments for young ladies in the late 18th and 19th centuries, alongside music, dancing and knowledge of languages such as French and Italian. They marked out the woman as belonging to a certain class, and having such accomplishments was part of what made a young woman marriageable.
Before a woman married, she usually wouldn’t have a household to run, and needlework, painting and drawing were ways she could fill her time that weren’t disruptive or controversial. Some critics have suggested that encouraging women to copy from already-existing works of art, rather than creating their own, was a way of constraining originality, ensuring women artists remained amateurs rather than professionals.
Some 19th-century moralists encouraged women to draw and paint because they believed that such activities had religious purpose. In Enquiry Into The Duties Of The Female Sex, Thomas Gisborne writes that drawing should ‘[heighten] devotion’ in a young woman, since it will lead her to observe closely the wonders of God’s creation.
In Jane Austen's Emma, Emma Woodhouse decides to paint a picture of her friend Harriet Smith, in an attempt to encourage a romance between Harriet and Mr Elton. Learning to draw and paint would have been part of Emma’s education, and we discover that she has already painted the portraits of many members of her family. When Mr Elton is praising Emma’s artistic abilities, he says that Hartfield, Emma’s home, is ‘rich in specimens of [her] landscapes and flowers’.
In ch. 29 of Pride and Prejudice, a fraught exchange between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh focuses on the accomplishments of the Bennet sisters. Lady Catherine tells Elizabeth that she and all her sisters should be able play and sing. When Elizabeth says that none of the Bennet sisters draws, Lady Catherine says, '“That is very strange. But I suppose you had no opportunity. Your mother should have taken you to town every spring for the benefit of masters."'