Watercolour artist

Plaque erected 16 May 2018  at 14 Clifton, York YO30 6AE

Mary Ellen Best was born in York on 26 October 1809 and grew up in Little Blake Street by the west end of York Minster. Formerly known as Lop Lane, the street was widened at a later date to become the present Duncombe Place. Both her parents came from educated, well-to-do families. Her father, Dr Charles Best, was the third son of Francis Best, rector of South Dalton in the East Riding of Yorkshire and her mother, born Mary Norcliffe Dalton, was the third daughter of a prominent landowner, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Norcliffe Dalton, and his wife, Ann. The Daltons lived at Langton Hall in Langton, a village a few miles south of Malton. Charles and Mary were married at the church of St Michael-le-Belfry on 3 June 1807. He was 28 years old and she was 17. They had two daughters, Rosamond and Mary Ellen, known to the family as Ellen.

Lunatic Asylum controversy

Very early in their young lives their father became involved in controversy. In 1804, he had taken the post of assistant to Dr Alexander Hunter, the physician to York Lunatic Asylum (now Bootham Park Hospital) whom he succeeded in the spring of 1809, when Dr Hunter died. Treatment at the asylum had come under scrutiny before. Following the death of a young Quaker widow, Hannah Mills, in 1790, in appalling circumstances, William Tuke, together with other York Quakers set up the Retreat in 1796, pioneering a much more humane regime for the treatment of the mentally ill. Samuel Tuke, William’s son, published a book in 1813 to promote the Retreat, in which he criticised the management of York Lunatic Asylum which still adhered to the old treatment of “lunatics” which included chaining them to the walls and leaving them naked and dirty. A critical article also appeared in the York Herald, written by a magistrate, accusing the Asylum of seriously mistreating its patients. Naturally the public became very concerned. Many enquiries were carried out and, although it was felt that Dr Best’s medical care was adequate in the circumstances, lack of resources had become a problem; unlike Dr Hunter, he had no assistant. In addition, from its opening in 1777 to 1813 the number of patients had increased from 54 to199, putting a great strain on resources with no increase in staff.

Dr Best’s physical and mental health suffered and, in 1815, he resigned his post taking his wife, younger daughter and a servant to live in Nice. Ellen missed her older sister terribly and she also suffered from liver problems from which her parents thought she might not recover. Dr Best, too, became increasingly ill. Apart from tuberculosis, from which he had suffered for some time, he now had to contend with severe attacks of rheumatism. Eventually he died on 30 July 1817.

Training in the domestic arts

Ellen, now eight years old, slowly recovered from her illness and she and her mother returned to England in July 1818. They appear to have lived for a while at Langton Hall before moving to a series of lodgings in York, including, over the years, ones in Blake Street, Coney Street, Lord Mayor’s Walk and Gillygate. Dr Best had, among other bequests, left £1,000 to each of his daughters to inherit at the age of 21. Mary, their mother, also received the substantial sum of £6,250 on the death of her father in 1820, so finance was not a problem. At this time, young ladies of means were expected to become proficient in domestic and artistic skills including drawing and painting to improve their marriage prospects. It is thought that both Rosamond and Ellen may have had lessons from one of the drawing masters in York of whom Henry Cave is probably the best-known. Ellen already loved painting and it was said she even made paint brushes out of her own hair.

Like many girls of their social status, Rosamond and Ellen were sent away to boarding school in the early 1820s after beginning their education at home. Their first school was in Doncaster run by Ann Haugh, whose husband, George, was a painter, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy. As might be expected, painting was a very strong subject at the school and, by the age of 12, Ellen was already painting portraits. One of the teachers at Mrs Haugh’s school was a writer with an enlightened approach to the teaching of geography. It is thought that Ellen’s later love of travel may have been inspired by the work she did at this school.

In 1824, the sisters were sent further away from home, to a school for older girls at Bromley Common in Kent. This was run by a pioneer in girls’ education, Fanny Shepherd, a disciple of the Swiss educationalist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He believed that children should be allowed to learn at their own pace and become as independent and self-sufficient as possible. Both Rosamond and Ellen were greatly influenced by this philosophy and stayed in touch with Miss Shepherd long after they left her school in 1828. Ellen visited her when she returned to England from her homes on the continent and Rosamond sent three of her own children to Miss Shepherd’s school.

Training as an artist

Ellen had regarded herself as a semi-professional artist from the time she left Miss Shepherd’s school, but knew that she still had a lot to learn including the mastery of perspective which she found very difficult. Unlike her male contemporaries, she could not study at the Academy Schools and the first art school to admit women, in Bloomsbury, did not open until 1835. At this time, Ellen’s paintings were primarily portraits, often commissioned by her family and friends and by people in the wider area around York. A large proportion of these were of women. She also painted still life subjects and, in May 1830, won an award “for the best original composition, painted in oil or watercolours … by persons under the age of twenty-one”. Gradually, she extended her subject matter from still life into capturing buildings and their interiors and introduced people into the compositions, thus recording the costume of the time.

Continental tours

In 1832, she visited Wales with her mother to paint and two years later, on 29 July 1834, mother and daughter left for the continent, travelling through Holland and eventually settling for the winter in Frankfurt, where, besides studying the work of classical painters, Ellen was introduced to contemporary German painters, two of them women. This interest in travel combined with painting continued when Ellen sailed from Hull on 4 July 1838, accompanied by her servant Elizabeth Alderson as chaperone, to begin another continental tour. They spent two months in Holland where she was impressed by the neatness and cleanliness, which she felt was lacking in England, and enjoyed painting interiors which had hardly changed for two centuries. They then moved on to Dusseldorf, Cologne and Frankfurt, returning to Yorkshire in October.

As always, Ellen enjoyed bringing back gifts for friends and family, particularly her Robinson nephews and nieces. Rosamond had married the York solicitor Henry Robinson in May 1830 and gave birth to 13 children in 20 years. Ellen celebrated Christmas and New Year with the family but was still keen to travel and began preparing for another study tour. She returned to Hull on 12 June to embark for Rotterdam on a three-month’s tour, again with her servant Elizabeth Alderson. This time they did not spend long in Holland but went on to explore areas in the east of Germany including Dresden, Berlin and Leipzig, reaching Frankfurt again at the beginning of September. Here Ellen began a whirlwind romance with Johann Anton Phillip Sarg, a Frankfurt schoolmaster a year younger than herself. By the time Ellen returned to York she was engaged to be married. Anthony, as Ellen called her future husband, arrived in York just before Christmas, in time to introduce the whole family to some of the German food and customs associated with the season.

Early domestic life

The wedding took place on 15 January 1840 at St Olave’s church in Marygate and the couple spent a short honeymoon in Whitby before returning to set up their first home at Ellen’s house in Clifton.

14 Clifton (formerly No. 1). The plaque is to the right of the front door.

Due to street widenings and renumbering, it is difficult today to identify the exact house but, from the evidence of Mary’s own interior paintings, it is likely to be the present-day No.14. The newly-weds spent only a few months in York before leaving the city to take up permanent residence in Germany. At first, they lived in Nuremberg where their first child, Francis Charles Anthony (Frank), was born on 21 December 1840. They then moved to Frankfurt in August 1841. On 18 January 1842, Ellen gave birth to Caroline Elizabeth and James Frederick (Fred) followed on 16 August 1843. Ellen had sufficient funds for the family to live comfortably. Anthony did not have to work and could indulge his passion for music whilst Ellen painted pictures of their children, the interiors of their homes and scenes in the streets when she took time off from her domestic duties.

After a visit to York in 1845, the family lived in Belgium for a while but returned to Germany when the education of their children became a concern. They settled in Worms where they remained until Ellen and Anthony retired to Darmstadt in the early 1870s to be close to their daughter, Caroline, who lived there with her German army-officer husband. Their two sons emigrated to Guatemala where they established a business in the coffee industry. In 1883, Frank settled in Guatemala City and became the Imperial German Consul. In spite of their love of travel in earlier years, Ellen and Anthony never visited Central America to see their grandchildren. Anthony died in 1883 and Ellen, from pneumonia, on 10 May 1891 in Darmstadt.

Scenes of everyday life

The Artist at Work 1838. Mary Ellen Best in her painting room at Clifton. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust :: https://yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk :: Public Domain

Ellen seems to have painted very little from the late 1840s and her last-known painting is one of a vase of roses, dated “Worms, June 1860”. Her legacy, however, is a fascinating one. She used her easel and sketchbook much as, nowadays, we use digital cameras and mobile phones, painting portraits of friends and family, of her children and her sister’s children growing up, and of favourite buildings and scenes in the streets as she went about her ordinary life. She was particularly interested in interiors, showing us European houses with their furniture and furnishings, with servants working in kitchens and maids in hotels. Her own homes featured largely in her work. Probably the most interesting for York residents are her paintings of the 1830s, the decade in which she was most prolific. Here she painted interiors of churches and of ordinary people in their homes, showing how they furnished them and the clothes they wore.

Street scenes include a view of Marygate in 1830 and the May Day village feast in Clifton in 1833. But the paintings which take us closest to Mary Ellen Best are the interiors of her own home in Clifton. Ellen leased the house after her mother’s death in March 1837 and gave instructions for its redecoration herself, so we see her love of strong colours. Our Dining Room, York (1838) shows how an early-nineteenth-century dining room was set out for Sunday dinner and Our Drawing Room at York (c.1838-1840) a formal room for entertaining. In Painting Room in our house at York (thought to be 1838), Ellen painted herself at work with her paints and easel, her dog on the hearth rug and portraits of her parents over the mantelpiece. This is surely a room that she loved and in which she would have spent many happy hours. Many of her paintings, estimated to be around 1,500, are still in private hands and may come to light fully in coming years. There is a small collection in York Art Gallery.


Caroline Davidson, The World of Mary Ellen Best (London, 1985)

‘York’, Holden’s Triennial Directory 1805,1806,1807 (London)

An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981)

© Dinah Tyszka