This volume of Emily Dickinson's Poems (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891) includes 26 watercolor botanical illustrations by Boston artist Ellen Robbins.
In 1891, Boston collectors Kingsmill and Laura Marrs received a very special volume for Christmas—a beautifully bound, gilt-edged copy of Emily Dickinson's Poems, edited by her friends Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. What made this volume special was not Dickinson's verse, nor the lovely gilt depiction of Indian pipes on the cover designed by Mabel Loomis Todd, but the 26 botanical illustrations sprinkled throughout the text. The illustrations are not mentioned on the title page, and lay unseen and unappreciated among the Marrs Library books given to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1919. The illustrations were likely commissioned by either Kingsmill or Laura Marrs from the artist Ellen Robbins, a largely self-taught watercolorist who had a studio at 6 Beacon St. in Boston. Each delicate vignette—ranging from bees to grasses to Massachusetts' iconic mayflower—is signed "Ellen Robbins 1891." The quiet beauty of the illustrations perfectly complements Dickinson's ethereal verse.
Ellen Robbins was born in 1828 in Watertown, Massachusetts, the youngest of seven children of James and Sarah (Swift) Robbins. Her father died when Ellen was two, leaving the family in dire financial straits. As soon as they could, the daughters helped support the family by doing needlework, but Ellen always yearned to paint. Her cousin William Abijah White, noting her artistic bent, suggested she be sent to the School of Art and Design in Boston kept by Albert Bellows. Ellen later worked at the Merrimac Printworks and Manchester Printworks, sketching designs to be made into fabric, but was not particularly successful in this endeavor. She returned to Boston and attended classes at a school of design run by Stephen Salisbury Tuckerman, after which she began to paint highly realistic leaves and flowers, subjects that would bring her great renown and some measure of financial security.
In 1849, Ellen first exhibited her works at the Studio Building at Boston, leading to a number of sales and requests for her to teach watercolor painting. She later sold her paintings through the gallery of Doll & Richards in Boston, where Henry Ward Beecher became one of her best patrons. She was a friend of the poet Celia Thaxter and spent summers in the Isle of Shoals, painting flowers from Thaxter's garden. Sculptor Harriet Hosmer and painter Childe Hassam were also among her acquaintances. Later in her career, the famed lithographer Louis Prang created chromolithographs of Robbins's works, expanding the market for her works and her fame. Robbins never married and died in Boston at age 74; she is buried in Watertown's Common Street Cemetery along with her parents and sisters.
Dobrow, Julie. After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America's Greatest Poet New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2018.
Robbins, Ellen."Reminiscences of a Flower Painter," New England Magazine, new series, vol. 14 (Mar. 1896-Aug. 1896), p. 440-451, 532-545.
For more information about Laura and Kingsmill Marrs and their library, see A Curiosity of Early Printing and Science from the Library of Laura Norcross Marrs.