Discoveries: Uncovered: a fine Victorian painting by a woman (why weren't there more of them?)

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A chance inquiry has led to the rediscovery of a major work of art which was last exhibited at the Royal Academy almost 150 years ago. Esther Leach reports.

The sought-after early Pre-Raphaelite painting, England and Italy, by Jane Benham Hay,is on show for the first time since 1859 at Manchester City Art Gallery.

The painting was uncovered after a request for information about the artist was made to Dr Jan Marsh, an expert in Pre-Raphaelite women artists, from a Boston art dealer.

The dealer had been offered the painting for sale by the Boston owners and was seeking more information. The couple, who had been unaware of its importance, have loaned it to Manchester for an exhibition on Pre- Raphaelite women artists.

The painting shows two young boys against a Mediterranean background: one an Italian street urchin and the other a well-dressed English boy, his arm around his companion in friendship.

Dr Marsh said the work is of historical importance to the history of women and painting; it had disappeared from public view many years ago. "It was politically controversial at the time because of its subject. Just at that moment Italy had been unified and become independent of Austria. The painting reflects support among the English for Italy," said Dr Marsh. "The painting shows some signs of ageing but it's otherwise in excellent condition. The find is very exciting. We imagine the painting has been in private ownership all this time and we hope more of her work will emerge."

Jane Benham Hay's greatest success was in 1867 with The Florentine Procession, known as the Burning of the Vanities, exhibited at the French Gallery in London.

The artist was part of an "Art Sisterhood" of Pre-Raphaelites that lasted from 1850 to 1900. Together with other women artists she fought to break down social barriers and prejudices which prevented them exhibiting and selling their work. Although women had not been pre-eminent in the art world, Dr Marsh said the Pre-Raphaelites had attracted them because the movement had occurred at a time of feminine emancipation in society.

"Everyone was talking about the Woman Question and women were beginning to surge ahead in many different fields."

Dr Marsh said there was more to learn about Benham Hay, said to have been an independent and emancipated woman. "... we know she was born in 1829, daughter of an ironmonger ... but we don't know when she died, although we believe it was abroad.

"She left her husband William Hay, said to have been a rather middle- of-the-road artist, and their child, to run away to Italy where she lived with an artist called Francesco Altamura and had more children. But really much of this is guesswork."

The exhibition at Manchester exhibits the work of 21 artists, and was brought together by Dr Marsh and a leading expert in Victorian women artists, Pamela Gerrish Nunn.