Annie Louisa Swynnerton. Part 3 -The later years and the Royal Academy

Portrait of Annie Swynnerton by Gwenny Griffiths (1928)

In my third and final blog looking at the life and works of the talented Victorian artist, Annie Louise Swynnerton I wanted to firstly concentrate on some of her best loved paintings.

In 1880 she completed a work entitled The Tryst sometimes referred to as The Factory Girl’s Tryst. This remarkable painting was bought by Henry Boddington Jnr., the owner of the brewing empire which was not only Manchester’s largest brewery but one of the largest in the North of England. He later gave it to the Salford Art Gallery.

Tryst by Annie Swynnerton (1880)

The depiction features a night-time background scene with distant twinkling lights reflected on water behind the female figure. It could be that Annie got the idea of this background after seeing some of Whistler’s Nocturne paintings featuring the River Thames at night, which he completed in the 1870’s. The setting for Annie Synnerton’s work is thought to be Peel Park Lake, an urban park in Salford, Manchester and the park is situated on the flood plain of the River Irwell.  In the top right of the painting you can just make out an illuminated windmill and it is known that a mill stood on the bank of the river in the 1880’s.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, (1874)

The meaning of the word tryst in the title of the painting refers to a secret meeting between lovers and this subject is a very popular one for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. The figure is of a young girl who is clutching her shawl around her body to fend off the cold. She has a worried expression on her face, a look of desperation, but why? We cannot hep feel for this vulnerable young girl. Her eyes are staring out as if she is looking for something or somebody, but what or who is she searching for?

The answer lies in a Manchester legend which Annie would have been familiar with. It is a legend of the love affair between a poor local girl, a mill worker, the daughter of a miller, and the son of the wealthy landowning Stanley family. She had come to the windmill to meet the young man, but he never arrived. His family had found out about the affair and were horrified by the liaison and so, to put an end to the relationship, they sent him away from home. The young girl was heartbroken when she heard what had happened and being so distraught threw herself into Peel Park Lake and drowned. The Stanley’s son on hearing of the death committed suicide. The boy’s father was so remorseful about sending his son away from home which resulted in the two suicides made it known that the windmill, the trysting place of the young lovers, must endure forever.

The Letter by Annie Swynnerton

Another painting which causes you to wonder what the depiction is all about is Swynnerton’s painting, The Letter, which is part of the Royal Academy collection in London and is a depiction of a favoured subject by many artists of the past. Receiving, reading, and writing a letter was a much-loved subject of artist for many centuries. Looking back at genre works by sixteenth and seventeenth century Northern Renaissance and Dutch painters many featured this subject.  It was a depiction that made viewers wonder about the story behind the painting.

Woman Reading a Letter by Gabriel Metsu (1665)

I can recall two wonderful paintings by Gabriel Metsu, prints of which I have on one of my walls at home, Woman Reading a Letter and Man Writing a Letter (see My Daily Art Display, Jan 22nd, 2014).

The Letter by Leonard Campbell Taylor

The subject was also popular in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century with British artists such as The Letter painted by the British painter Leonard Campbell Taylor.

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer (1659)

Annie Swynnerton’s painting besides being about letter reading has another connection with a famous painting of the same subject, Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, as like Vermeer the person reading the letter is illuminated by natural light coming through a window, which symbolised the outside world. In the work by Swynnerton the way she has formulated the composition (101 x 48cms) its narrowness gives us a feeling that the girl is in some way confined in a restricted space which gives us a perception of claustrophobia. The contrast between the dark background and the illuminated figure of the girl with the painted highlights on her face, hair and dress enhances the three-dimensionality of the depiction. What is in the letter remains a mystery but whatever it is, it has the girl’s full attention.

Cupid and Psyche by Annie Swynnerton (1891)

Annie Swynnerton’s paintings often depicted nudes but couched them with mythological connotations probably to make them more acceptable to the Victorian public. Her best-known work of this genre was her 1890 painting Cupid and Psyche. The pair from Roman mythology were the favourite subject of many artists. According to mythology Cupid was sent by his mother Venus, who was jealous of Psyche’s beauty, to wound Psyche with one of his arrows and by so doing she would fall in love with a lowly man. The twist to the story is that Cupid falls in love with Psyche and makes her his wife, but he forbids her to look at his face to ensure the marriage remains a secret. The story then gets more complicated………

In the depiction we see Cupid on the right kissing Psyche. The depiction of the nudes differs from the normal idealized Academic-depicted nude paintings which were common in works by artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Frederic Leighton. Swynnerton has once again gone for an un-idealized portrayal of the human body. Look carefully at the way the artist has use an assortment of colours in the portrayal of the naked flesh including blue for the veins. Their bodies are illuminated by moonlight whilst, behind them, we see the light of the breaking dawn. The painting received mixed reviews from the critics, some of whom were startled by the depiction. Claude Phillips from the Art Journal praised Swynnerton writing:

“…her flesh-painting has a certain quivering reality not to be found in many renderings of the nude by contemporary English artists…”

But the art critic and one of the two ‘non-artistic’ members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Frederic George Stephens, writing in The Athenaeum commented on Swynnerton’s depiction of Psyche:

“…her features are coarse and blubbered, and her flesh is without the sweetness, evenness or purity of youth…”

Oceanid by Annie Swynnerton (1908)

Another of Annie Swynnerton’s mythological paintings, Oceanids, was completed in 1909 and is thought to have resulted from some plein-air painting at one of the crater lakes close to Rome and then completed in her studio in central Rome. Oceanids were goddess-nymphs who presided over the sources of earth’s fresh-water, from rain-clouds to subterranean springs and fountains. Along with the Oceanid there is another creature depicted in the painting but barely discernible in the bottom right of it. It is a sea serpent which co-habits with the Oceanid in the lake. What is so magical about this painting is the way Swynnerton has illustrated the translucency and movement of the water and could only have been achieved by carefully studying the water conditions of the lake and the way light played on the surface. It is also remarkable the way she has depicted the dappled light on the body of the woman. The expression on the woman’s face is one of great pleasure as she draws her hair out to be warmed by the rays of the sun. The painting was bought by Christiana Jane Herringham who was the daughter of Thomas Wilde Powell, an artist, and later a wealthy patron of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1880 she married the physician Wilmot Herringham, (later Sir Wilmot Herringham) with whom she had two sons, Geoffrey, and Christopher. Lady Herringham was committed to women’s suffrage from 1889 onwards and had probably met Swynnerton through their mutual friendship with Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The painting is now part of the City of Bradford Museum collection.

Geoffrey and Christopher Herringham by Annie Swynnerton

Annie Swynnerton completed a painting, of Jane Herringham’s two sons, Geoffrey, and Christopher Herringham in 1889 and the following year was exhibited at the New Gallery in London and at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition. The rural setting is at the onset of evening with the sun setting in the blue-hilled background. Again, like so many of her figurative works, Swynnerton has focused on the natural light which illuminates the rosy-cheeks of the boys but also look at how the glimmering light is captured on the velvet jumpers worn by the boys. It is a depiction of happy childhood but alas their future was destined to be anything but happy. The younger son, Christopher, died of acute rheumatoid arthritis soon after the painting was completed, and Geoffrey was killed in 1914, during the first months of the Great War. He was 31. Their mother Jane died aged 77 in 1929 but spent many of her last years in a mental institution suffering from delusions of pursuit and persecution.

Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1856)

The painting is often likened to that of John Millais’s 1856 work Autumn Leaves with its twilight setting and blue-hilled backdrop. Millais’ work is housed in the Manchester Art Gallery and must have been seen on many occasions by Swynnerton.

Margaret and Chrystian Guthrie by Annie Swynnerton (1907)

Another painting commission Annie Swynnerton received due to her connection with the woman’s rights campaign was to produce a portrait of the two daughters of American-born Mary Guthrie, the wife of David Charles Guthrie, 5th Baron of Craigie and East Haddon Hall. Mary Guthrie was a leading campaigner in the Northampton area for the Woman’s rights and it is through that connection that she met Swynnerton. In the painting entitled Margaret and Chrystian Guthrie we see her two daughters sitting on a window seat in East Haddon Hall. In the background we can see the extensive and opulent gardens. The children seem a little bit edgy and probably don’t like to waste time sitting for the portrait and prefer to be off playing. Look at the elder of the sisters on the left. She is almost desperate to lift herself off the seat and run away. The younger, with her back to us, looks over her shoulder and smiles but seems to prefer to concentrate on the sunny garden. The painting is a mass of colour and tones from the yellows, greens, and blues of the garden in the background to the pinks and reds of the sumptuous curtains and cushions we see in the room itself. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1907.

In 1922 Annie Louisa Swynnerton was finally elected the first female Associate Member of the Royal Academy. One has to remember that Swynnerton had been regarded as a highly accomplished and talented artist since the late 1880’s so why the long wait for recognition by the Royal Academy? To find a possible answer to that question one must look at the Royal Academy establishment.

A 19th century illustration of the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 to publicise the arts, to deliver free tuition which would enable the talented, notwithstanding their means, to be taught to the highest standards. It was also committed to hold an annual exhibition which would be free to exhibitors and at which the works would be selected on merit. Thirty-six artists and architects petitioned King George III seeking his permission to establish a society which would promote the Arts.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Zoffany (1772)

In a group portrait of the thirty-six founding members of the Royal Academy completed by Johann Zoffany in 1772, we see the members gathered around a nude male model at a time when women were excluded from such training to protect their modesty. For that reason, the two female founding members, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman could not be depicted as being present at the life drawing class but Zoffany added them as portraits hanging on the wall.

King George III agreed to the request and accorded it Royal status and helped subsidise it for the first decade. Its first president was Joshua Reynolds. To preserve the excellence of the establishment the numbers of Academicians would be limited to artists, sculptors and architects.  Later engravers were included. The 1768 Instrument of Foundation allowed total membership of the Royal Academy to be 40 artists. When Annie Swynnerton was elected the maximum permitted number was 42 and since then there have been two more changes to the rule and the maximum now stands at 80, but within that number there must always be at least 14 sculptors, 12 architects and 8 printmakers with the balance being painters. The maximum age of an Academician is set at seventy-five and once Academician reach that age they stand down and become Senior Academicians. So, when this happens or on the death of an Academician, a vacancy occurs.

Nominations Book of the Royal Academy

Anyone is eligible to become a Royal Academician, if they are under seventy-five years of age and professionally active as an artist or architect in the UK. Potential new Royal Academicians are first nominated by an existing Academician, who writes their name in the weighty Nominations Book. Signatures must then be elicited from eight other Royal Academicians in support of the nomination. At this stage the nominee becomes a candidate. In March, May, and December each year, all the Academicians meet at a General Assembly to vote in new Members from the list of candidates. There is no postal voting, so this is done entirely in person.

Oreads by Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1907)

So, to go back to the case of Annie Swynnerton. She was a respected artist. She was under seventy-five years of age and so she should have been a prime candidate, or was she? The Royal Academy in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was very male orientated and talk of electing a woman into the hallowed ranks was anathema to many Academicians. In 1907, when Annie was 63, her name was put forward by George Clausen following the positive response to her paintings which were shown at the Academy’s 1906 exhibition and by her painting Oreads shown in 1907. However, she failed to be elected. Seven years later, in 1914, her name was once again put forward by George Clausen but once again she failed to be elected. Annie may have been totally disillusioned with the way in which she had been treated by the R.A. and did not exhibit again at the Royal Academy for six years.

The breakthrough finally came in November 1922 when she was finally elected the first woman Associate Royal Academician. Full coverage across all newspapers hailed this not only a success for Annie but a success for women. She was delighted, and the Daily Mail of November 25th printed an interview they had with her and recorded her feelings at being so honoured:

“…I am much gratified at the honour bestowed on me, but true art needs no incentive; its work is its own reward. Professionally, though, this recognition of women artists should be a great help. It marks such a very long stage from my younger days, when women were not admitted to the Academy schools and it was difficult for them to get their best work exhibited…”

And that ended the saga – or did it? Those of you who are good at maths, knowing Annie Swynnerton was born in 1844, will have realised that when she was elected a Royal Academician in November 1922 she was 78 and that was three years past the cut-off date for being eligible to become a Royal Academician !!!!!!   It was thought that she would have to resign immediately. The proposed treatment of Annie outraged the national press. In an article in November 28th Daily News they did not mince their words:

“…Today the world sinks back in its chair overwhelmed with laughter and despair and the Academy is covered with ignominy. Surely there has never been so egregious a blunder, if indeed it was not something worse…”

They, like many people, could not decide whether it had been the Academicians’ carelessness and incompetence for not realising the age of Annie Swynnerton when her name was put forward on the third occasion or they were being devious and there was an element of conspiracy about the whole issue.  A compromise was finally reached and Annie Louisa Swynnerton was made a Senior Associate Academician but, because of her age, could never be raised to full membership.

Annie Swynnerton’s Grave, St Mary’s Church, South Hayling

Annie Swynnerton’s sight began to deteriorate towards the end of her life, but she continued to exhibit pictures at the Academy, although they were often works she had painted years earlier. She died on October 24th, 1934 at the age of eighty-eight at her home on Hayling Island, near Portsmouth, leaving a studio full of 170 pictures, all but 12 of them unfinished and unframed.

Annie Louisa Swynnerton, besides being a very talented painter, was a fighter. Her determination was the key to success. She overcame many difficulties and what she achieved was a beacon of light which inspired many female artists who followed to press ahead with their fight against institutionalised prejudice against female artists.


Most of the information for my three blogs about Annie Swynnerton was found in some excellent books which I bought at the Painting Light and Hope exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, which you should try and visit.

Annie Swynnerton, Painting Light and Hope by Kate JT Herrington and Rebecca Milner.

The Life and Works of Annie Louise Swynnerton by Susan Thomson.

Annie Swynnerton, Painter and Pioneer by Christine Allen and Penny Morris.

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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 “Annie Louisa Swynnerton. Part 3 -The later years and the Royal Academy”

  1. Your posts are always interesting — this one especially, because it shows how attuned to the modern day you are and how much work and care you put into your blog. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for another interesting article. I especially liked the Oceanid painting: one actually feels refreshed just looking at it. I like less the red cheeks the painter is so fond of because they look like the skin is bleeding.

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