Bird's Nest and Flowers
Research by Catherine Sing
Ensor was born Mary Annie Gregory in Delamere, Cheshire, around 1837. She was married to Henry George Ensor (1820-1881), who was born in 1820 in Lisburn, Glamorganshire. In the absence of Mary’s father’s name, which the marriage certificate would have provided, it is difficult to establish anything further about her origins.
In 1861 Ensor was living in Vine Street in the centre of Liverpool with three small children. Henry, who initially worked as a dentist, then described himself as a landscape painter. Mary, listed beneath him, has ‘do’ (ditto) listed for her occupation. The family moved to Cheshire in the early 1860s where their fourth child was born. Henry continued to work as a landscape painter but Mary appeared to specialise, describing herself as a fruit and flower painter in 1871 and simply a flower painter in 1881. The family seemed to operate as a small business with their two sons, William and Frederick, both living in the household, working as landscape and fruit painters respectively. However, by 1881 Henry had reverted back to making his living as a dentist despite being a prolific and widely acknowledged painter.
Many family historians have tried to establish a link between Mary’s husband and modernist painter, James Ensor (1860-1949), who was born in Belgium to an English father and Belgian mother, but there appears to be no clear connection between the two men.
Ensor was widowed in 1881 and died, aged 49, on 29 July 1886 in Birkenhead, Cheshire: cause of death, fibroid phthisis, a form of pulmonary consumption.
Birds Nest and Flowers, with three speckled eggs inside a nest, is typical of Ensor’s style and she painted a number of works on this theme. The eggs resemble blackbird’s eggs, although the shape and texture of the nest with woven moss appears to be more finch-like. The dog roses and other wild flowers in the left hand corner add colour and interest to the painting and further details include smatterings of green foliage and traces of feathers. Like most of Ensor’s paintings it is small in size. The painting is undated and signed 'M Ensor' in the right hand corner.
Note: The only other painting attributed to Mary Ensor in the Public Art Foundation Catalogue/BBC Your Paintings website is The Man Pit owned by the Williamson Art Gallery & Museum in Birkenhead. This is a landscape and quite different from Ensor’s other surviving works. The signature in the left hand corner is unlike Ensor’s, as seen in Birds Nest and Flowers and similar works, and the initial is clearly H. The Man Pit is undated but seems likely to have been the work of Henry Ensor.
Acc No 148
Artist Mary Ann Ensor
Artist dates c.1837-1886
Medium oil on panel
Size 22.8 x 27.9 cm (9 x 11 in)
Date painted unknown
Date donated unknown
No definitive source can be traced for Ensor’s date of birth but the 1837 year of birth is estimated from census entries and death certificate. Her date of birth is listed as 1837 in the PCF catalogue and online listings of her paintings but none list a reference for this date.
Ensor’s maiden name was extracted from the birth certificate of her son, Frederick Ernest, born 10 April 1861.
GRO Ref: Liverpool: April-May-June 1861, 8b p163
Census entries provide year and place of birth for Mary, Henry and their children and track their movements over 30 years.
1861 Class RG 9, Piece 2683, Folio 28, Page 50, GSU roll 543012
1871 Class RG10, Piece 3746, Folio 2, Page 2, GSU roll 842137
1881 Class RG11, Piece 3585, Folio 88, Page 2, GSU roll 1341858
GRO index provides Henry’s year of death
GRO Ref: Oct-Nov-Dec 1881 Birkenhead, 8a p204
Death certificate of Mary Annie Ensor provides date and
cause of death
GRO Ref: July-Aug-Sept 1886 Birkenhead, 8a p288
Detailed Ensor family trees on Ancestry.com show no links between Henry George and the artist James Ensor. Correspondence with Ensor descendants confirm that a number of researchers have been trying to establish a connection for several years without success.
Advice on identifying the bird’s eggs and nest in the painting came from a member of staff at the RSPB Ribble Discovery Centre, Lytham St Annes, Lancashire.
Images of other paintings by Mary Annie Ensor available
Information about Belgian artist James Ensor available
The two paintings attributed to Mary Annie Ensor (one it seems incorrectly) in the Public Catalogue Foundation can be found @
The Your Paintings website has now been superseded by Art UK at artuk.org
If you have information about this painting or any of the artworks in the Lytham St Annes Art Collection please contact the Tagging the Treasures project.