John William Godward. Part 2 – Life’s decisions and independence

John William Godward
Is this the artist ?

………………The year is 1887 and John William Godward had to make a decision about his life.  For twenty-six years he had lived with his parents and siblings and had to abide by his mother and father’s authoritarian rules.  They had mapped out his future which they expected him to follow.  The question was whether he had the nerve and the will to break the parental shackles and become an independent person.  Godward needed a push to set the ball of freedom rolling.  The initial push came with the Royal Academy’s acceptance of his painting for that year’s Summer Exhibition, and buoyed by that success in late 1887, he decided to get himself a small atelier in the Bolton Studios in Gilston Road, Kensington.  The studio space was tiny but often, rather than return home, he would sleep on the floor, occasionally returning to his parent’s Wimbledon home only to get a fresh set of clothing or an occasional meal, but this studio afforded him his own space, a place to think, a place to plan, a place to take back the control of his life.

There were about twenty separate ateliers in the Bolton Studios complex when Godward moved into his space.  Artists mainly occupied them, both male and female, most of whom were older than Godward. Such artist as Théodore Roussel, George Morton, Henry Ryland, Charles Irvine Bacon, Thomas B. Kennington, St. George Hare, George Lawrence Bulleid, Ernest W. Appleby and John Cooke all had their own space in the Bolton Studios.  It was an ideal meeting place for the artists and gave them an opportunity to exchange ideas and discuss techniques and it is probable that young Godward was in awe of his fellow painters.

Ianthe by John William Godward (1889)

It was in the late 1880’s that Godward’s art turned towards neo-classicism and an example of this is his 1889 oil painting entitled Ianthe.     Ianthe was a Cretan girl who is mentioned in Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses.  The garland of violet flowers upon her head probably relate to the fact that the name Ianthe is of Greek origin, and means “violet flower”.  One of the hallmarks of Godward’s classical depictions is the way he captures the veins and stains on blocks of marble.  It is thought that he perfected this when he worked for the architect and designer, William Hoff Wontner.

Violets, Sweet Violets by John William Godward (1906)

Violets were also the subject of another painting by Godward.  The 1906 tondo, or circular work, was entitled Violets, Sweet Violets and is viewed as one of Godward’s finest works. Violet flowers symbolize delicate love, affection, modesty, faithfulness, nobility, intuition, and dignity and are often depicted in Victorian Valentine cards.   The violet flower has a special place in Roman mythology.  The Romans placed emphasis on the plant and for them it represented the arrival of spring during which time they would scatter petals from the flower in their banquet halls and by drinking Violetum, a sweet wine formulated by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet and lover of refined luxury.  The ancient Greeks, who attributed the violet as the symbol of love and fertility, used them in love potions. The violet was considered the flower of Zeus.

It is a beautiful emotive depiction, awash with compassion and made up of the most charming and enthralling colours.  It is a painting which portrays beauty.  The beauty of the variegated marble backdrop, the beautiful tunic and sash the lady wears, the beauty of the woman herself and of course not forgetting the subject of the painting, the beauty of the violets she daintily holds in her hand.  Her head is bowed down and she seems lost in sad contemplation.

Exhibiting one’s work at the Royal Academy was a high point in an artist’s life and the inclusion of Godward’s painting brought his work to the attention of not just the public but also to art dealers and it was after seeing Godward’s work that he was contacted by Arthur Tooth a leading London art dealer and gallery owner.

The Engagement Ring by John William Godward (1891)

One of the first paintings by Godward that Arthur Tooth took was his 1888 work entitled The Engagement Ring.  This work, with its mosaic floor leading to a marble balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, was a composition similar to that used in the art work of Lawrence Tadema-Alma, who had a great influence on the young painter.

Expectation by John William Godward (1900)

Around the turn of the century we see more and more of Godward’s neo-classical works, an artistic style which would always be synonymous with him.  In 1900, he completed a work entitled Expectation which had a classical balcony setting. A young woman lies stretched out on a marble balcony seat, and faces towards the left of the picture. She lies on her front, on a tiger skin rug, and she supports her head with her right arm, whilst her left arm dangles downwards.  Her left-hand clutches the elaborate handle of a black feather fan which has an intricate and ornamental handle.  She is draped in a loose-fitting salmon pink dress with yellow patterned sash.   Her dark, voluminous silky hair is pinned at the back of her head. The ends of the balcony walls are strangely decorated with orange-coloured stone heads of gods. To the extreme left of the painting we see a single mature tree and in the right background, above the wall, we see the tops of more trees. The sea is visible in the background, with the coastline in the distance, below a bright blue sky.

After a short spell of working with the art dealer Arthur Tooth, Godward decided to switch his allegiance to another London fine art dealer and print seller, Thomas Miller McLean who had his premises next to the Haymarket Theatre.  McLean handled the majority of works by Godward and managed to sell a large number.  In late 1889 Godward finally broke the parental shackles and rented a room, for twenty-four pounds per annum, in a house in St Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea, close to his St Leonard studio.  Chelsea, at the end of the nineteenth century, was considered to be the centre of the London art scene.

Summer by William Renolds-Stephens(1888-1890)

His next-door neighbour at St Leonard’s Terrace was the American- born British artist and sculptor, William Reynolds-Stephens, who unlike Godward had received artistic training at the Blackheath School of Art and the Royal Academy School where he won the Landseer Scholarship and also a prize for painting. His most famous work was his large classical canvas, Summer which he began in 1888 and completed in 1890.  Godward was truly inspired by the painting.

Godward was a year older than Reynolds-Stephens but it is clear by the similarity in some of their artwork, such as the marble exedras and colonnades as well as all the Greek and Roman artefacts which formed part of their paintings.  Undoubtedly, the two artists must have fed off each other’s ideas and of course Reynolds-Stephens also had dealings with Lawrence Tadema-Alma.

Waiting for an Answer by John William Godward (1889)

Godward’s artistic output in 1889 was remarkable.  He completed twenty-five oil paintings, many of which went to McLean his favoured art dealer.  One painting completed in that year was entitled Waiting for an Answer.  The strange story behind this work which features a man and a woman is that many believe that the man is a self-portrait by Godward based on the belief that the male figure looks very much like photographs of Godward’s brothers.  You may wonder why the likeness of the man in the painting could not be compared with a photograph of Godward himself but the sad fact is that no photograph of John William Godward exists and the reason for this will be explained in the next blog.  Another interesting aspect to this depiction is the belief that the man waiting for an answer from the woman is based on Godward’s own relationship with one of his models and his unrequited love of the lady.

Godward’s problem with his overbearing parents was not just affecting him but also his twenty-three-year-old sister Mary Frederica (Nin) who also suffered a similar downtrodden life at the hands of her mother and father.  In 1889, it is believed that they cobbled together an arranged marriage for her with a man fourteen years her senior and so, in order to escape the parental home, she accepted the arrangement.  It was a disastrous decision and despite giving birth to two children, the marriage ended in divorce and the social improprieties this caused resulted in her estrangement from her father and being shunned by her brothers Edmund and Alfred.

A Priestess of Bacchus by John William Godward (1890)

In 1890, one of the many paintings Godward completed was one entitled A Priestess of Bacchus.  In the painting we see a Bacchante, a priestess or female follower of Bacchus, resting on a marble exedra seat, situated on a balcony, high up overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea.  Her head lolls onto her right shoulder as she looks out at us.  In her left hand, she holds up a thyrsus, which is a staff or spear tipped with an ornament like a pine cone, which is carried by Bacchus and his followers.  It is a symbol of prosperity, fertility, hedonism, and pleasure/enjoyment in general.

The Sweet Siesta of a Summer’s Day by John William Godward (1891)

In 1891, he had his painting The Sweet Siesta of a Summer Day accepted into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

Innocent Amusements by John William Godward (1891)

Another work completed that year was Innocent Amusements with its depiction of an ancient Roman atrium with fountain and marble statue. We observe a lady who has broken off from her sewing to amuse herself by trying to balance a peacock plume on her finger.  Two younger girls watch her.  Through the doorway we see two men talking.

Playtime by John William Godward (1891)

Godward’s output of work in 1891 was reduced and this has been put down to various possible reasons.  He could have been unwell.  He could have spent time travelling and a factor may have been that whereas many of his earlier paintings featured a single figure he was more inclined to paint scenes featuring multiple figures which would have taken longer to complete.  An example of this is Godward’s 1891 painting entitled Playtime in which we see three figures on a balcony. Once again, historians believe there is a great resemblance between the man in the painting and an existing photograph of Godward’s brother and so surmise, rightly or wrongly, that it could be a self-portrait of the artist

The Betrothed by John William Godward (1892)

In 1892 Godward completed a work entitled The Betrothed and for the first time we are introduced to his polka-dot sash which would appear in many of his later works.  This painting by Godward was also the oil by the artist to be placed in the permanent collection of a major art museum when it was given to the Guildhall Art Gallery in London where it is still on show.

The Playground by John William Godward (1892)

One of his most complex and impressive multi-figure painting was completed in 1892, entitled The Playground.  The setting is a marble terrace which overlooks the Mediterranean.  In the painting, we see seven classically adorned maidens relaxing.  Three are sitting on the floor chatting and playing the ancient game of knucklebones whilst to the right we see two older ladies holding a skipping rope for a young child.  On the far left we see another lady lying on the marble exedra playing a musical instrument.

Endmyion by John William Godward (1893)

The year 1893 has been described as Godward’s “break-through” year, a year when he completed his most remarkable and inspiring works of art.  Endymion has been judged as one of his most impressive and is based on Keats’ poem.

“…A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing.

Yes or No? by John Wiliam Godward (1893)

And the other, Yes or No? in which the male figure again is believed to be a self-portrait.  Once more, the theme of the work is thought to be Godward’s relationship with one of his models.  His love for the woman was not reciprocated but he continued to pursue her love and whether she would return it was the basis of the painting’s title.

In my final blog I will look at Godward’s time in Italy and his sad and lonely demise.


Most of the information for this and my final blog about John William Godward came from a 1998 book by Vern Grosvenor Swanson entitled J.W.Godward: the Eclipse of Classicism.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

2 thoughts on “John William Godward. Part 2 – Life’s decisions and independence”

  1. B., Amazing how many of these excellent draghtsmen chose to do such sentimental, rigidly classical work. Can’t say I feel inspired or lifted by this sort of work.

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