The Boer War by John Byam Liston Shaw

The Boer War by John Byam Liston Shaw (1900-01)

Once again, I am featuring an English artist.   My Daily Art Display’s featured artist was one of England’s most prolific painters of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, John Byam Liston Shaw.  He was actually born in Madras, India in 1872, where his father was the registrar of the High Court.  He and his family lived in India until he was six years old at which time they came back to Londond and settled down in Kensington.  Byam Shaw showed early promise as an artist and when he was fifteen years old some of his paintings and drawings were shown to the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir John Everett Millais who was very impressed by the artistic standards achieved by the boy.  It was on Millais’ advice that Shaw entered the St John’s Wood Art School.  Also at the school at the time were the portraitist George Spencer Watson, the animal painter Roland Wheelwright and the landscape artist Rex Vicat Cole.  However probably the most important art student he met there was Evelyn Pyke-Nott, whom he was to marry in 1899.

In 1890, aged 18 years old, Byam Shaw attended the Royal Academy Schools at which in 1892 he won the prestigious Armitage Prize for his painting The Judgement of Solomon.   In 1893 he and fellow art student the portraitist and miniaturist, Gerald Metcalf who like Byam Shaw was born in India, moved into a studio together that at one time had been owned by Whistler.  Byam Shaw’s early works showed the influence on him of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.     He had been a great admirer of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Millais and one of his earliest works, and the first one he exhibited at the Royal Academy entitled Rose Mary, was based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Looking at Byam Shaw’s works, it is easy to see the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites had on his work, not just in the subject matter but in his use of colour.

In 1899 Byam Shaw married Evelyn Pike Nott and they went on to have five children, four daughters and a son.  Besides his painting Byam Shaw spent a great deal of time on illustrations and drawings for books and in 1904 he was commissioned to produce thirty-four illustrations for the book, Historic Record of the Coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.  It was around this time that Byam Shaw also became interested in theatrical costume design.  In 1904, aged thirty-two, he and his fellow artist friend, Rex Vicat Cole, became part-time teachers at the Women’s Department of King’s College at which ladies were allowed to attend lectures on various subjects but had to have chaperones in attendance !  The two friends resigned from their posts at King’s College and set up their own school of art in Kensington, which still exists as Byam Shaw’s School of Art and which is an integral part of the world-renowned Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design.  Shaw’s wife Evelyn also had a major role in the school.

During the First World War, Shaw produced many war cartoons for the newspapers of the day.  Shortly after the war in January 1919 he collapsed and died aged 46.

My featured painting today is John Byam Shaw’s work entitled The Boer War which he started in 1900 and completed in 1901.  When Shaw first exhibited this painting he added two lines to the title which came from A Bird Song, a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti:

Last Summer greener things were greener

Brambles fewer, the blue sky bluer

This verse was a reflection of the mood of the young lady dressed in black.  She is heartbroken at hearing the news of the death of a loved one, killed in the Boer War.  She stands on the bank of the river and tries to remember happier days but she finds even that difficult.  In her eyes, the once beloved beauty of Mother Nature seems to have deserted her.  She struggles to come to terms with the death.  She is inconsolable.  However she is the archetypal English heroine who manages to bear her sorrows with a degree of stoicism as she deliberates on the death of a loved one who has given up his life for his country.

The model Byam Shaw used for this painting was his sister Margaret Glencair who at the time was in mourning  for her cousin who had been killed in the fighting in South Africa.   Byam Shaw drew on his knowledge of the banks of the River Thames near Dorchester to construct this beautiful picture.  Although Byam Shaw was influenced by the bright colours of the Pre-Raphaelites, the colours of the fauna in this painting are more subdued as if in the shadow of a dark cloud.  This muted colouring of the overgrown plants which kiss the water could well be part and parcel of the mood of the subject.  Look at the water in the right foreground and you can see a single feather of a swan.   It is more than likely that this symbolises loss as we are all aware that swans mate for life and if one dies, the other pines for it.  Could this then be drawing a parallel to the suffering of the woman who has lost her partner on the field of battle?  Another piece of symbolism in the painting is the way the artists has painted ravens in flight over the trees which is a sign of ill omen and thus amplifies the ominous atmosphere of the painting.

This is a truly beautiful painting, the subject of which is heartbreaking.