Walter Langley the Social Realist painter and the Newlyn Art Colony

Walter Langley, from a chalk drawing by Hubert Vos. From Newlyn and the Newlyn School, Magazine of Art, 1890

In eighteenth century France, Rococo was the popular style of art. Painters such as Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher had given art lovers a highly ornate and decorative form of art with its elegant, delightful, if somewhat voyeuristic, depictions of the good life. There was a playfulness about the depictions and all thoughts of seriousness was substituted by eroticism. The minority who were able to live the lifestyle shown in the Rococo paintings were pleased with what they saw but of course this was not real life for many of the citizens. Change had to come, and it did in the form of Realism. One of the leaders of this movement was the French artist, Gustave Courbet and he set out a manifesto, La Réalisme which stated that art should be about truth and depictions must be objective records. Realism was to be an art in which the painter put on his canvas what he saw, “warts and all” and not be concerned as to whether it was appropriate or inappropriate. This new form art was to move away from bourgeoise tastes.

The Artist’s Studio by Gustave Courbet (1855)

Probably Courbet’s most famous painting was pure Realism. It was entitled The Artist’s Studio, which he completed in 1855. The work baffled many, so much so Courbet clarified the ideas behind the depiction, declaring:

“…It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death…”

The group to the right……..

The painting depicts two groups of men and women. In the first group on the right, there is the bearded profile of the art collector Alfred Bruyas, and behind him, facing us, the philosopher Proudhon. Jules François Felix Fleury-Husson, who wrote under the name Champfleury.  He was a French art critic and novelist, and a prominent supporter of the Realist movement in painting and fiction, and is seated on a stool, while the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire is absorbed in a book. In the right foreground we see a couple who exemplify a pair of art lovers, and in the background, near the window, we see a couple unashamedly wrapped in a loving embrace and they have been included to symbolise free love.

…………….and to the left

However, the group on the left symbolise the reality of life. There is a priest, a merchant, a hunter, and even an unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolising poverty. These last two insertions were controversial. Look on the floor by the dog and you will see a dagger, a guitar and large hat with a black plumed feather. Courbet added these items alluding to what was often seen in Academic art.

Courbet and the landscape painting

In the centre, Courbet sits at his large-scale painting of a beautiful landscape with its blue sky and verdant background and this is in direct contrast to the depiction of his grimy and crowded studio. This is a reminder of the difference between real life and an idealised life. This work was destined to be exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition but was rejected on the ground of it being too big but maybe it was because it was too controversial. Courbet, however, was determined that the work should be seen by the public and so, not to be deterred, Courbet, at his own expense, built a Pavilion of Realism close to the official Universal Exhibition site and showed this work and thirteen others including his famous A Burial at Ornans.

Hope by Frank Holl (1883)

From this eighteenth century Realist movement came Social Realism which developed to pictorially arouse concerns about the squalid living conditions suffered by urban poor, and farming and fishing communities. In Britain, artists such as Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer, Frank Holl, and William Small were at the forefront of this movement. In America the beginnings of Social Realism started life with the Ashcan School painters, who in the early 20th century depicted through their art, the everyday, stark, and unglamorous truths of city life. Artists such as John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and George Luks were prominent members of this diverse group who painted scenes from everyday life.

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1870-1873)

In Russia, Social Realism came in the form of paintings by Ilya Repin who declared that the reason for his art was to show and criticize all the monstrosities of our vile society of the Tsarist period.  One of his most famous Realist paintings was his 1883 work entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga.

Waiting for the Boats by Walter Langley (1885)

The reason for this introduction regarding Realism and Social Realism is that the artist I am looking at today is an English Social Realist painter. His name is Walter Langley. He was born in Birmingham, England on June 8th, 1852. Although attending normal school, because of his interest in drawing and painting and artistic ability, at the age of ten, he was also enrolled for evening classes at the Birmingham School of Design. He left school at the age of fifteen and was taken on as an apprentice to a lithographer, August Heinrich Biermann, but still continued with his classes at the School of Design. Langley began to teach himself to paint, and first exhibited three water colours at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in 1873. His wish was to become a professional artist and that year, at the age of twenty-one, he won a scholarship to the National Art Training School in South Kensington, now known as the Royal College of Art. It was there that he took part in a two-year design course and began to exhibit his works of art.

Photographic portrait of Clara, Walter Langley’s first wife, taken in the studio of Robert Preston photographer

It was also around this time that he married Clara Perkins, with whom he had four children.

Hard Times by Hurbert von Herkomer (1885)

In 1875, when his course had ended he had to decide whether to stay in London or return home. The decision was made for him as August Biermann, his former employer, offered Langley a partnership in his lithographer business and so he returned to Birmingham to resume his career as a lithographer. However, Langley did not give up his love of painting and, because he decided that he needed to make progress with his artwork, he enrolled in classes firstly at the Midland Art Guild and then at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. It was during this period that Langley became influenced by the works of Realist painters and one who had his works exhibited at the Birmingham Society  was the German-born British realist painter, Hubert Von Herkomer, who took a realistic approach to the conditions of life of the poor.

A Reverie by Walter Langley (1883)

Langley would have probably continued his career as a lithographer but in 1876 the demand for such items fell drastically and he soon realised that his artwork was needed to bring him a living wage. In 1877, Langley married Clara Perkins and the couple went on to have four children. In 1879 he left Biermann’s lithographer business and concentrated on his art. In his early years Walter Langley painted rural scenes close to his home in Birmingham and it was not until the summer of 1880 that he first visited Newlyn in Cornwall with his friend William Pope whilst on a sketching holiday.

Memories by Walter Langley (1906)

In 1881 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, which is one of the oldest Art Societies in the United Kingdom. The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists played an important part in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and Sir John Everett Millais and Sir Edward Burne-Jones both served as presidents. Other eminent presidents were the painters, Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Between the Tides by Walter Langley (1901)

Whilst plying his artistic trade in Birmingham a well-known and wealthy Victorian photographer, Robert White Thrupp, approached him and offered him a commission of £500 to go to Cornwall and paint a series of twenty pictures of the local Newlyn scenes and so in 1881 Langley left his wife and family behind in Birmingham, and rented a property, Pembroke Lodge. The Penwith Local History Group wrote about Langley’s new home:

“…Pembroke Lodge was a grand house that had been home to bankers and gentry since it was built in 1791.Langley’s first year’s rent of £62 (payable in advance) gave him two parlours, two kitchens, a dairy, pantry, four good bedrooms, and a dressing room. It also had a studio in the garden. The house was a good size for Langley, his wife Clara and their four children who moved into their new home in March 1882. Clara had not long given birth to her fourth child, a son Cecil born in February that year. The other children were son Lorraine (born September 8, 1877), daughter Eleanor (born March 15, 1879) and son Gabriel (born November 21, 1881)…”

Thoughts Far Away by Walter Langley

Once settled in, Langley began to paint local scenes and portraits featuring the people of Newlyn, most of which depicted the women and their role in the community. Langley could empathize with the plight of the fishermen and their families because 0f his own working-class origins in Birmingham and his socialist beliefs.

Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves, by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his first paintings he completed after his arrival at Newlyn was his 1882 watercolour work entitled Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves. It is a depiction of a local woman, believed to be Grace Kelynack. It is a portrait of great compassion and one that detects Langley’s understanding of the plight of the elderly. There is a sense of loneliness and solitude in this depiction of the woman as she ponders the hardships she has had to endure during her long life. In the painting we see her sitting at a table, with her right elbow on an open Bible. She rests her cheek on her fist as she gazes downwards, lost in her own thoughts. It was the first work that Langley exhibited in London and was widely acclaimed by both critics and the public. The watercolour painting led to Langley being elected to the prestigious Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour.

The Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Forbes (1885)

Walter Langley soon became a leading figure in the Newlyn School, which was an art colony of artists based in or near Newlyn. Another of the founding members of the Newlyn School was Stanhope Forbes who arrived at the Cornish fishing village in 1884.

Amongst the Missing by Walter Langley (1884)

Like other artist colonies such as the Barbizon and Skagen Schools, as well as the artist colonies scattered along the coast of Britany, the attraction of Newlyn was its fantastic light, and mild climate which made it an ideal location for plein air painters. It also provided many opportunities to paint seascapes, and for the Realist painters, the chance to record the harsh life endured by the fishing community. Another attraction was the ability to live there cheaply and employ local people as models at much lower rates than would have been the case in big cities. This magnetic pull towards Newlyn was summed up in the Victorian writer, Mrs Lionel Birch’s 1906 book, Stanhope A. Forbes, and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, in which she quotes Stanhope Forbes’ take on Newlyn:

“…I had come from France and, wandering down into Cornwall, came one spring morning along that dusty road by which Newlyn is approached from Penzance. Little did I think that the cluster of grey-roofed houses which I saw before me against the hillside would be my home for many years. What lode-some of artistic metal the place contains I know not; but its effects were strongly felt in the studios of Paris and Antwerp particularly, by a number of young English painters studying there, who just about then, by some common impulse, seemed drawn towards this corner of their native land… There are plenty of names amongst them which are still, and I hope will long by, associated with Newlyn, and the beauty of this fair district, which charmed us from the first, has not lost its power, and holds us still…”

The Old Book by Walter Langley

Walter Langley was always an advocate of the working class and was noted for his left-wing views. Whilst a young man in Birmingham, he was influenced by the stance taken by the firebrand politician and advocate of trade unionism, Charles Bradlaugh, a radical socialist who fought for the rights of the working class. It was these strong-held beliefs of Langley that ensured he empathized with the harsh life of the Newlyn fishing folk and their families. It was through his paintings depicting their hard life and their worries that classed him as a Social Realist painter.

For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his most poignant paintings is a watercolour entitled For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep which he completed in 1883 and focuses on the plight of wives and mothers who are left behind when their husbands and sons head out to sea. The title of the painting comes from a line of a poem by Charles Kinsley, The Three Fishers:

Three fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Though the harbour bar be moaning.
Three wives sat up in the light-house tower,
And they trimm’d the lamps as the sun went down;
They look’d at the squall, and they look’d at the shower,
And the night wrack came rolling up ragged and brown!
But men must work, and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
And the harbour bar be moaning.
Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
For those who will never come back to the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep—
And good-by to the bar and its moaning.

Old fisherman at Newlyn Harbour (c.1906)

Newlyn was a mix of the good and the bad. The good was the picturesque landscape and the bad was the terrible poverty suffered by the local people who struggled to eke out a living from the fish they caught. Add to this the ferocious storms and tumultuous seas which brought death to many of the fishermen and made widows out of many of the women.

His one-year commission was completed at the end of 1885 and he moved back to Birmingham to be with his wife and children. He returned for a brief visit to Newlyn in 1886 to complete his unfinished watercolour which was shown at the Institute’s Spring Exhibition that year. In the Spring of 1887, Walter Langley, along with his family, moved permanently to Newlyn,

But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand by Walter Langley (1888)

Another title of one of Langley’s paintings was based on a poem. His 1888 work, But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand was a line from Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break which he wrote in 1835 and was about his sorrow at the death of his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Hallam, who tragically died at the age of twenty-two:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead,
Will never come back to me.

Fradgan, Newlyn in 1906

On his return to Newlyn with his family, he was unable to secure suitable accommodation in Newlyn and decided to live in Penzance but as his work and models lived in Newlyn he bought a small cottage in Fragdan, the old part of the coastal village, which he converted into his studio.

Cornish Light, The Nottingham 1894 Exhibition

In June 1890, he brought his family back to Newlyn, and took a two-year lease on Pembroke Lodge. When the lease expired Langley moved his family to Penzance. In 1894, along with other Newlyn artists, he exhibited his work in the exhibition Painters of the Newlyn School at Nottingham Castle. In David Tovey and Sarah Skinner’s 2015 book, Cornish Light – the Nottingham 1894 Exhibition Revisited they discuss the exhibition:

“…The 1894 Nottingham Castle exhibition of Cornish painters was, in its way, ground-breaking. It brought a burgeoning new style and range of subjects to a much wider public and fostered awareness of painters from Newlyn, St Ives and Falmouth.
Much of the work was, in typical Victorian style, both art and social commentary and much of it is romanticised – craggy-faced fishermen gaze knowingly towards the horizon and the young women working on the shore have suspiciously lustrous complexions…”

This was the high-point of the Newlyn Colony’s achievements.

Self-portrait by Walter Langley
Courtesy of Archivi Alinari, Firenze

In 1895, forty-three-year-old Langley was invited, by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, to contribute a self-portrait to hang alongside those of Raphael, Rubens, and Rembrandt in their Medici Collection of portraits of great artists.

That same year, Langley’s wife Clara died at the young age of 45. This left Langley a widower with four children. Two years later, Langley married his second wife Ethel Pengelly in St Johns Parish Church Penzance on June 24th, 1897. The couple went on to have one child. During 1904 and 1905, Langley made visits to Holland and a trip to Belgium in 1906.

Walter Langley in his studio

Walter Langley died in Penzance on March 22, 1922, a couple of months before what would have been his seventieth birthday. Today his work is described as being fundamental to the representation of the Newlyn School and he was, together with Stanhope Forbes, the most unswerving in style and his large output of works depicting life around Newlyn.


Besides the normal internet sources I gained a lot of information from the websites of the Penlee House Museum and the Penwith Local History Group.

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Mary Dawson Elwell

Bedroom, Bar House, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire by Mary Dawson Elwell (1935)

In a recent blog (My Daily Art Display, October 15th, 2017 – The Alma-Tadema Ladies. Part 2 – The Two Daughters, Anna and Laurense), I highlighted the artwork of Anna Alma-Tadema, the daughter of the great painter, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and marvelled at some of her interior paintings. In today’s blog I am going to look at another female painter who had mastered the art of depicting the interior of houses. She is the nineteenth century artist, Mary Dawson Holmes Ewell. I had featured her in a series of blogs about her husband, Frederick Elwell but for this blog I want to concentrate on her outstanding ability as an artist.

The Landing in Summer by Mary Elwell (1930)

Mary Dawson Bishop was born in Liverpool on August 13th, 1874. Her father, John Bishop, was a ship broker. Her mother, Mary Ellen Dawson, was the daughter of a Liverpool boot maker, Thomas Candlin and his wife Sarah who was a milliner and dress maker. Mary and her younger sister, Elsie, lived in the Fairfield district of Liverpool. Tragedy struck the family in 1879 when Mary’s thirty-six-year-old father died. Shortly after the death of her husband, Mary and her two daughters moved to Heaton Chapel, Manchester to live with her bachelor brother Henry who was fifteen years her senior. It was here that Mary and Elise went to kindergarten and primary school.

The Front Door by Mary Elwell (c.1940)

Having completed her primary schooling in 1885, eleven-year old Mary enrolled at Manchester’s prestigious Ellerslie College and it was here that she received her early artistic tuition, to ensure she had this “must-have” social skill for young Victorian ladies. The pupils attending this school were mainly from merchant families and it was probably due to Mary’s Uncle Henry and his business connections that allowed her to gain entrance to the college. Mary Bishop completed studies at Ellerslie around the early 1890’s. Not much is written about her life after leaving college but it is believed she carried on her art studies influenced by two of her uncles, Henry and Walter were not only successful business men but avid art collectors.

The next we hear of Mary Dawson Bishop was that she married George Alfred Holmes at the Church of All Saints, Heaton Norris, Stockport in June 1896. Mary was twenty-one years old and her husband George Alfred was forty-one. So why did Mary marry a man twice her age? This has been the topic of much speculation. George Alfred Holmes lived and had his office in Hull and was a prosperous oil broker and so there was the element that on her marriage to him, Mary would be financially secure. Hull, like her birthplace, was a seaport and maybe Mary looked on the prospect of living in Hull with her husband. Maybe she looked upon her husband as a father figure, having lost her own father at the age of five. But, of course, it could simply be that Mary fell in love with George Alfred Holmes.

Mary and Alfred Holmes set up their home in the small inland market town of Beverley which was just ten miles north of from Hull, a town where she would stay for the rest of her life.

It was in 1904 that Frederick Elwell was to enter the life of Mary Bishop Holmes. Following a somewhat unsuccessful period in London as far as his art sales were concerned, Fred Elwell had left London, a somewhat defeated man, and returned to Yorkshire. In the capital there were just too many artists chasing a small amount of commissions and this sudden realisation that the London streets were not paved with gold affected Elwell and there was a suggestion that he had suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by his financial situation. On hearing of his son’s state of health and financial predicament, his father travelled from Yorkshire and brought his son back to Beverley where his family and friends were and where he could expect a more profitable future.

Portrait of Frederick William Elwell by Mary Elwell (1913)

His year in London and his struggle to survive had taken a toll on him so the first thing the family had wanted him to do was to relax and enjoy the tranquillity of the Yorkshire countryside. Elwell also enjoyed the freedom offered by sailing and he would often take a small boat and cruise along Beverley Beck which joined the River Hull. Many like-minded painters would do the same as the clarity of light and the beautiful countryside including the East Riding flatlands surrounding the river was an idyllic setting for landscape artists. On occasion he would tie up the boat alongside a jetty and would welcome visitors to look at his artwork and, by so doing, would often receive commissions. Elwell’s love of landscape painting coincided with the English public’s change of attitude of what they wanted to see in a work of art. Depictions of city life were becoming less popular, displaced by depictions of the tranquillity of the countryside. This was a period when people wanted to “go back to nature”. They worked in cities but hankered for the fresh air of the countryside. They wanted to soak up country life by sailing along inland waterways or get themselves horse-drawn caravans and lose themselves in the peacefulness and serenity of the rural areas.

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1911)

For complete tranquillity Elwell made his home on a houseboat which he had borrowed from a friend. Not only did he travel up and down the river he would tie up alongside a local hostelry, the Brigham Arms, and his boat acted as his own selling gallery. He also had a “gypsy-type” horse-drawn caravan in which he would wend his way around the country lanes, sketching the beauty of the area. His artwork which depicted the tranquillity and the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside sold well and soon both his health and his finances had improved significantly.

Fred Elwell would also take on portrait commissions and often would visit the client rather than have them come to his studio. It was in 1904, that he received a visit from Alfred Holmes, a luminary of the Beverley community. Holmes asked Elwell to paint a portrait of his wife, Mary. Elwell agreed and went to the Holmes’ family home where he met Mary Holmes for the first time.

Mary Dawson Holmes by Frederick William Elwell (1904)

Elwell completed the Portrait of Mary Dawson Holmes that year and had it exhibited at the Royal Academy. It is a beautiful work of portraiture with Mary shown as a lady of gracious elegance. Her clothes remind one of the French fashion of the time. We see her adorned in a tight-fitting dress finished off with a fine white lace collar. She tilts her head to one side but holds an upright stance. Her eyes are dark and almond-shaped. Her expression teases us into imagining her thoughts. Does she look a willing participant as a model for this portrait? There is a hint of reticence in her facial expression. Was she unwilling to sit for Elwell or was it simply that she was shy and slightly embarrassed with all the attention.

Les Parapluies by Renoir (c.1886)

The depiction of Mary has often been compared to Renoir’s 1886 work Les Parapluies, which Elwell would have seen, because of the similarity between the way Mary stands, tilts her head, and similarly carries a basket.

In the Trossachs by Mary Elwell (c.1900)

Alfred and Mary Holmes became good friends of Fred Elwell and they even had joint ownership of a sailing boat and the three of them took many trips on the Beverley Beck to the upper reaches of the River Hull, a tributary of the Humber. The three of them would often travel to Europe, visiting Venice and Switzerland where Fred Elwell and Mary Holmes would take the opportunity to sketch and paint the local landscapes.

The Wreath by Mary Elwell (1909)

Mary had her work exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1904 onwards and in 1908 she completed one of her most famous works, The Wreath, which was on display at the 1909 Royal Academy annual exhibition. It depicts a recently widowed woman grieving for the loss of a loved one. Queen Victoria had died in 1901 and this solemn period and the Victorian period prior to her death saw many artists concentrate on human loss and the grief felt when a loved one died. Queen Victoria suffered the loss of her beloved husband, Albert in 1861, and continually wore mourning clothes for ten years after he died. Many paintings compared the happiness of life before the death of a loved one with the inconsolable grief of those left behind. Violet Prest, a local girl, a costumier of Minster Moorgate West, in Beverley, modelled the woman in the painting. Ironically, six years after the painting was completed, her husband was killed in the Great War.

Chamonix, France by Mary Elwell (1938)

She was a much-admired artist and her popularity as an artist and that of Fred Elwell rose amongst the public and the art critics. Mary, and her future husband, Elwell, as far as their artistic ability was concerned, should never be looked upon as pupil and master as was the dictate of social expectation in the early twentieth century. They were truly equals.

A Quiet Hour by Mary Elwell (1942)

The health of Alfred Holmes began to deteriorate in 1910 and he sold his business and gave up his part ownership with Fred Elwell of their beloved sailing boat. That year May and Alfred moved from their large Westwood Road house in Beverley and bought Bar House which was also in Beverley, situated on North Bar Within. Alfred Holmes’ health had got so bad that by 1913 he realised he was dying and it is thought that due to his very close friendship with Fred Elwell he intimated that Elwell and Mary should get together when he died. George Alfred Holmes died on August 5th, 1913 aged just fifty-eight, leaving his widow comfortably provided for and allowing her to employ staff to help run the house.

North Bar Within, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire by Mary Elwell. (1916)

Holmes’ dying wish with regards his wife and Fred Elwell came to fruition on September 28th, 1914 when they married, and Elwell came to live with his new wife at her beloved Bar House. In 1916 Mary Elwell painted a scene entitled North Bar Within, Beverley which depicted a view from the front steps of Bar House. It is interesting work set during an overcast day and one of predominantly brown tones.

At the Mirror or Bedroom, Bar House by Mary Elwell

Mary painted many depictions of Bar House including a bedroom scene, which was entitled At the Mirror. There are two large double beds each covered with a purple quilt. In the central background there is a large window which frames the view of Wylies House. The using of a window as a framing device for a townscape was very popular at the time and was typical of the practice of the Camden Town Group of artists. It allowed viewers to catch a glimpse of the outside world, seen through the framing device of a window. The large full-length mirror, next to the window, reveals a reflection of the room. The light which shines through the windows of the room lights it up and the polished brass fender casts its reflection on the dark polished wooden floor. To the right of the window, we see a young woman standing before a mirror attending to her hair. She is oblivious of the outside world that we see through the window. The model used by Mary for this work was Annie Towse, the daughter of one of their employees.

Bar House Garden by Fred Elwell (1914)

Mary’s mother, Mary Ellen Bishop had died in 1901 and Mary Elwell’s uncles Henry and Walter died in 1917 and 1924. Neither had married and their wealth and properties were divided between Mary Elwell and her sister Elsie. Mary also received her late uncle’s art collection.

Interior Study by Mary Elwell (1937)

One of my favourite interior works by Mary Elwell is one she completed in the 1932 entitled At No.14 Newbegin, Beverley with an alternative title Interior Study. It is a depiction of a sitting room at No.14 Newbegin a house belonging to Reverend Wigfall the curate at Beverley Minster, who we see sitting at his writing desk. The room itself was light due to it having three large windows. The window we see in the painting allows a shaft of light into the room illuminating the large ornately carved bookcase on top of which are three glass cases, each of which contain stuffed birds. A cushion with its bold design and rich colours is placed for decorative effect on the arm of the sofa. The richness of colour of this painting is brought about by the liberal use of reds. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1932.

Beverley Minster from the Friary, by Mary Elwell (1934)

Beverley Minster from the Friary is a painting Mary Elwell completed in 1934. It is a comparative composition. The imposing edifice of Beverley Minster looms over the modest dwellings we see in the middle ground, which lie close to the railway track. The gable ends of the houses in the middle ground seem to reiterate the shape of the Minster’s transept. Elwell captures the spirit of the time with her depiction of the washing lines laden with clothes in the back yards of the houses. One of the houses on the right was occupied by Miss Woodmansey who ran a wash-house and who would, after washing the clothes, hang them out in her back yard, every day except Sunday. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1934.

Matterhorn from Zermatt, Switzerland by Mary Elwell (1939)

In 1947 Mary suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes which meant that she had to have round the clock nursing.  Her sister Elsie came to stay for longer periods.   Having made her final appearance at the Royal Academy in 1949, she withdrew from the world outside.  Mary Dawson Elwell died on the 28th August 1952, aged a fortnight before her seventy-eighth birthday.  She was buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Beverley and according to her husband’s wish her gravestone was carved with an artist’s palette.. Her second husband, Fred Elwell died in January 1958 and was laid to rest in the same grave.

Fred Elwell gave a number of her paintings away to people who had cared for her, inscribing them:

“…in grateful remembrance of Mary D. Elwell…”

The Alma-Tadema Ladies. Part 2 – The Two Daughters, Anna and Laurense.

(Detail from full-length portrait) Miss Anna Alma-Tadema by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883)

In my last blog I looked at the lives of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s two wives, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard and Laura Theresa Epps and how, in a way their two lives were intertwined.  In this second part of the blog I am looking at Alma-Tadema’s Ladies but in this blog I am looking at the lives of his two daughters, Laurense and Anna Alma-Tadema.

In the painting above, entitled Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, which her father completed in 1883 we see fifteen year old Anna, standing at the door of the library at Townshend House.  In her hand is a vase of carnations and she wears an Aesthetic dress probably made of Indian cotton, with a shell necklace.  Look how the artist has mastered the depiction of the different textures of the various surfaces whether it be clothes or inanimate objects.

Hall in Townshend House by Ellen Epps (1873)
Painting of Laurense and Anna painted by the sister of their step-mother

On September 24th, 1863, twenty-seven-year-old Laurens Alma-Tadema married a French lady, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard in Antwerp City Hall and the couple went on to have three children.  Their first-born, a son, died aged six months of smallpox.  The couple then went on to have two daughters, Laurense in August 1865 and Anna in 1867.  Both children were born in Brussels.

Laurense, Anna, their father, and his sister Atje moved to London in 1870, a year after Marie-Pauline’s death.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema re-married in 1871.  His second wife, who was sixteen years younger than him, was Laura Epps the English daughter of a homeopathic doctor.   Laurense and Anna were home-schooled by their father and step-mother.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – The Sculpture Gallery (1874)

In 1874 Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted one of his largest works, The Sculpture Gallery which measured 223 x 174cms.  In this work, which depicts an Ancient Roman temple setting, he has included depictions of his two wives and two children as well as himself.  We see his second wife Laura Theresa wearing a gold armlet in the centre of the work, and to the right of her are her two children Laurense and Anna.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema is seated on the left and to his right, sitting upright hold a purple feather fan is thought to be a portrayal of his late wife, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard who died five years earlier.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study, Townshend House, London, (1884)

Anna developed her father’s and step-mother’s love of art and by the age of seventeen had become a talented artist.  She focused on painting the elaborate interiors of the family home, as well as portraits and flower paintings. Her gift as an artist can be seen in a set of watercolour and pen and ink depictions she completed in 1884 and 1885 of the family’s first London home, Townshend House close to Regents Park.  The detail is truly amazing and these works were almost certainly due to the influence of her father.   Her painting entitled Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study in Townshend House, London was completed by Anna in 1884.  The interior of Townshend House was designed and furnished by her father.  He managed to create a set of ornate and diverse interiors in a variety of styles ranging from traditional Dutch to Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Pompeiian, Byzantine, and Japanese based on his journeys.  The setting in this work is the interior of a comfortable library.  The intricate detail amazes me.  At the back of the room we see a very comfortable couch made even more so with the addition of a fur covering. It is almost a day-bed to be used by a weary reader who has come to the library for some peace and quiet.  The room is bright due to its dual aspect stained-glass windows and in the evening the candle-lights of the bronze chandelier, which Alma-Tadema designed, will illuminate the room.  The room has many pieces of heavy Dutch oak furniture which probably reminded Anna’s father of his birthplace.   On the ceiling to the left there seems to be a Japanese lantern or it could be an upturned parasol.  The floor is covered by a tatami matting, which was used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms.  Hanging from the fireplace is a large palm leaf fan and on top of the fireplace mantle is a vase full of peacock feathers.  Just take your time and look at everything that Anna has painstakingly depicted in this very busy room.

The Drawing Room, Townshend House by Anna Alma-Tadema (1885),

In a small (27 x 19cms) watercolour and ink painting The Drawing Room which Anna completed in 1885 we see another room in Townshend House.   We are standing in the Gold Room and looking through the archway into the Columned Drawing Room albeit the columns themselves are hidden.   In the work we see one of a suite of ornate drawing rooms in the family’s home.  In this work take a close look and see how she has mastered light and the texture of the objects.  Look at how she has depicted the full-length brocade curtain which seems to act as a room-divider.  Look at the way she has illustrated the shiny surface of the floor lit by a light source emanating from an unseen window to the right.  Anna exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893.

The Gold Room by Anna Alma-Tadema (1884)

Finally, we have her work entitled The Gold Room which she completed in 1884.   This watercolour depicts a view into the Gold Room which was named thus because its walls were overlaid with gold leaf.  The centre of the painting is dominated by the large ornate piano which has inlays of ivory and tortoiseshell.  On the right we see a sumptuous full-length curtain made of Chinese silk.  If you look carefully at the window in the background you will see that the leading of it forms the family name, “Alma-Tadema”.  We cannot but be amazed by the talent of this seventeen-year-old girl at how she has managed to create the rich and bright surfaces we see as well as the various textures of the objects.  The inclusion of an antique bust on a pedestal was probably testament to her father’s interest in Roman and Greek history.  The painting was shown at the 1885 Royal Academy exhibition and is housed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Missouri.

Eton College Chapel by Anna Alma-Tadema

Another 1885 painting highlighted Anna’s ability to replicate detail onto canvas.  It was her watercolour work entitled Eton College Chapel which she completed when she was just twenty years of age and was exhibited at the Royal Academy.  Of Anna and her great artistic skill her father’s biographer, Helen Zimmerman, wrote in her 1902 biography, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema R.A., that she was:

“…a delicate, dainty artist who has inherited much of her father’s power for reproducing detail…”

The Closing Door by Anna Alma-Tadema

In 1886, the family moved to a larger house, No. 17 Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood, London, which had previously been owned by the painter James Tissot.  Anna’s father carried out major refurbishments to the house and had extra studios added so that all four in the family could paint!   A room, thought to be on the upper floor in this house was the setting for Anna’s 1899 painting, The Closing Door.  It is a beautiful painting, full of mystery and atmosphere.  Once one has enjoyed the detail of the inanimate objects in the room our gaze goes to the central character of this work, the lady and soon our head is filled with questions.  So what story is unfolding before us?  Look at the woman – how is she feeling and why?  I suppose we recognise that something has badly upset her.  Look how she has roughly grasped the bead necklace and broken it.  If you look carefully you can see beads on the carpet.  Look at her facial expression –wretchedness, bewilderment, and fear are all recognisable.  So, what has brought her to this state of bleak despondency.  A lover’s tiff, a break-up of a relationship?  All possible.  Maybe if we look at some of the objects on the table we may get a clue.  A small vase of anemones symbolising the death of a loved one for in Greek mythology, the anemone sprang from Aphrodite’s tears as she mourned the death of Adonis.  In Victorian times, the anemone was looked upon as a symbol of dying love or departure of a loved one to the “point of no return”.  So, has her “loved one” died or abandoned her?  Next to the vase is a bottle of violet ink, the colour of which has associations with modesty and humility which probably tells us more about the lady herself.  The final mystery associated with this painting is the door.  Look closely at it and you will see fingers grasping it as if to close it.  Is this another sign of somebody “leaving”?  Or is this somebody about to enter which is causing the lady to be afraid?  So many questions and only the artist knows the answers.

Girl in a Bonnet with her Head on a Blue Pillow by Anna Alma-Tadema (1902),

In 1902 Anna Alma-Tadema painted Girl in a Bonnet with Her Head on Blue Pillow   It is a haunting painting with the girl seeming to stare at us as we observe the work but, on closer scrutiny, it is a blank stare.  She shows little interest at what is going on her around her.  Something is troubling her.  She feels helpless and alone.  Her hands are clasped tightly together in a pleading manner.  What solace does she crave? We, the observers, want to help her but how?  Is this simply about an unknown stranger or is this about the artist herself and her mood?

Following the death of her father in 1912, the value of his paintings fell drastically, and this loss of family revenue adversely affected the finances of his two daughters who lived their latter years in poverty.  Anna Alma-Tadema, who never married, died in 1943, aged seventy-six.

Photograph of Laurence Alma-Tadema from the US Library of Congress

Anna’s elder sister was born Laurense Alma-Tadema in August 1865 but she is always referred to as Laurence Alma-Tadema.  For this portion of the blog there will be few paintings as Laurence, unlike her sister, father and step-mother was not an artist.

Love’s Dream by Laurence Alma-Tadema

She was a novelist, playwright, short story writer, and poet. Her first novel, Love’s Martyr was published in 1886.  She wrote in various genres during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.

The Yellow Book periodical

She also submitted work to various periodicals such as The Yellow Book, a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897.  She also edited a periodical.  Many of her works were privately printed.

She left the family home and went to live in the Kent village of Wittersham in a cottage named The Fair Haven.  She became an active member of the local community, and involved herself with music and plays.  She even had a place built which could accommodate a hundred people and was to be used by the villagers to stage music concerts and plays and where the children of the village could be taught many local handicrafts.  She named it the Hall of Happy Hours.  In 1907 and 1908 she gave a series of readings in America on her literary work The Meaning of Happiness, which proved to be very well-liked by her American audiences.

World War I Propaganda Poster

She was an ardent activist and often spoke on the plight of the Polish people who were being displaced from their homes by the Austro-German troops in World War I.  She was a close friend and ardent admirer of Jan Paderewski, the Polish concert pianist and composer, politician, and spokesman for Polish independence.  Laurense was secretary of the Poland and the Polish Victims Relief Fund from 1915 to 1939 and her name appeared on many of their propaganda posters.  On her book tour in America, she spoke on the plight of the divided Poland and asked her audience to support the Polish people’s cause.

Laurense died in a nursing home in London on March 12th 1940, aged seventy-five.  Laurense like her sister Anna never married and one wonders whether either ever loved somebody and whether they missed “married bliss”.   Laurense’s poem If One Ever Marries Me would make one believe at least she was resigned to a solitary life.

 If no one ever marries me,—

And I don’t see why they should,

For nurse says I’m not pretty,

And I’m seldom very good—

 If no one ever marries me

I shan’t mind very much;

I shall buy a squirrel in a cage,

And a little rabbit-hutch:

 I shall have a cottage near a wood,

And a pony all my own,

And a little lamb quite clean and tame,

That I can take to town:

 And when I’m getting really old,—

At twenty-eight or nine—

I shall buy a little orphan-girl

And bring her up as mine.

————————–

I visited the exhibition At Home in Antiquity which features many paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.   It is being held in London at the Leighton House Museum until October 29th.  It is a “must-see” exhibition of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s works as well as works by his daughter and second wife.

 

 

Briton Rivière

Portrait of Briton Rivière by Philip Hermogenes Calderon

Sentimentality in art was very popular during Victorian times.  I have looked at many artists whose motifs often depicted “cute” little boys and cute little girls in pretty dresses.

Bubbles by John Everett Millais (1886)

Even the great artists, such as John Everett Millais, with his famous 1886 painting Bubbles, realised such paintings of young children were money-spinners.  This painting shows a boy blowing bubbles with a pipe and a bowl of soap suds. The boy was Millais’ four-year-old grandson, Willie James.   A. & F. Pears bought the painting from Millais in 1886.

Fidelity by Briton Rivière (1869)

Another motif which was popular at the time in Victorian England was small animals, especially dogs.  Add to that motif a touch of pathos and the painting is sold!   My artist today was a master of such depictions.  Let me introduce you to Briton Rivière.

His Only Friend by Briton Rivière (1871)

Briton Rivière was born in St Pancras, London on August 14th 1840. He was the youngest child and only son of William Rivière, who was the third of twelve children, and Anne Rivière (née Jarvis) whom he had married in 1830. Briton had three elder sisters, Marion born in 1833, Henrietta Fanny born in 1835 and Annette Louise born in 1837.  Briton’s love of art probably came from his parents. His mother was a still-life painter and his father trained to be an artist at the Royal Academy when he was eighteen years old and two years later began to exhibit his work at the Academy.

Jilted by Briton Rivière (1872)

William Rivière was appointed Master of the drawing academy at Cheltenham College in 1849, a town at which the family then lived. There he succeeded in establishing a drawing-school which was unique of its kind, and was hailed as the best school of art outside of London. Briton Rivière’s paternal uncle Henry Parsons Rivière was also a noted watercolourist, who had exhibited his paintings at the Royal Watercolour Society, London, and the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.

Much happened in his family life when Briton was thirteen years of age.  In 1853 his eldest sister Marion married and a year later his sister Henrietta, then aged nineteen died in Brighton

The Long Sleep by Briton Rivière (1868)

Briton’s father resigned from Cheltenham College in 1859, and he, his wife and two children, Annette and Briton left Cheltenham and moved to Park Town, Oxford, where he convinced the University to initiate the study of art for undergraduates and he set up his own drawing school.  His son Briton studied painting and drawing at the university.  Briton Rivière had some of his works hung at the Royal Academy exhibitions from 1858 onwards but he had yet to make a breakthrough with his paintings.  That all changed in 1869 when he exhibited his work, The Long Sleep.  The painting pulled at the heartstrings of the viewers and was an immediate hit with Victorian art lovers.  It was to be first of many which featured domestic animals and their owners intertwined with a sense of pathos.  In this work we see and old man sitting in his chair besides the fire.  His head lolls forward on to his chest.  His clay pipe, which has slipped from his life-less fingers, lies broken on the stone floor.  He is not asleep.  He has died and his two faithful friends, his dogs, become agitated at his lack of movement.  One jumps up to lick his face in the hope that this may awaken their master but, of course, to no avail.

Sympathy by Briton Riviere (c.1878)

In 1878 Rivière completed a work entitled Sympathy. In this work we see a young girl sitting on stairs, all alone except for her beloved pet.  The story behind the painting is that she has been naughty and, as punishment, has been sent to sit on the “naughty step”.    The only comfort she receives is from her beloved four-legged friend.

Companions in Misfortune by Briton Rivière

His work, Companions in Misfortune, similarly depicts a solitary human having only his animal friend as company and for many observers of the work, they can empathise with the man as in their lives they often only have the love of an animal to look forward to.

Giants at Play by Briton Rivière (1882)

Rivière’s painting were not always sad depictions as he had the ability to inject humour into his depictions as we see in his 1882 painting Giants at Play.  Rivière depicts three men at rest, enjoying themselves by playing with a tiny young bull-pup. They tantalise the dog by dragging a feather attached to a piece of string always just out of reach of the puppy.  Just a harmless game or as some will have you believe it may have been the initial stage in the training that will prepare the dog for fighting and baiting

A Blockade Runner by Briton Rivière (1888)

Another humorous painting was Rivière’s 1888 work entitled A Blockade Runner in which we see a cat escape across the top of a wall to escape the clutches of its four canine assailants.

Beyond Man’s Footsteps by Briton Rivière

In 1894, in total contrast to these works Rivière exhibited at the Royal Academy a completely different type of work with his painting Beyond Man’s Footsteps.  The setting for the painting is the Arctic, a region where no human had ventured but through Rivière’s depiction the viewer was able to imagine what it was like to be in this bleak and remote region.  The foreground is dark and shadowy which contrasts with the colourful beauty of the sky brought about by the setting sun in the background.   Atop the overhanging rock we see a solitary polar bear looking out over its terrain.  It is thought that Rivière based the depiction of the animal on sketches he made of a polar bear he saw in London’s Regent Park zoo.  The depiction of Rivière’s Arctic, free of mankind, is awesome.  The Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Fridtjof Nansen’s narrative of The First Crossing of Greenland was written and published in 1890 and it is believed that Rivière had read the translated version and based his painting on what he had read.  One passage from the book described what Nansen had witnessed during his journey:

“…when the sun sank lowest, and set the heavens in a blaze … the wild beauty of the scene was raised to its highest’. At the foot of the ‘spires’ of huge, glittering icebergs, ‘there were marvellous effects and tints of blue, ranging to the deepest ultramarine … a floating fairy palace, built of sapphires, about the sides of which brooks ran and cascades fell … in fantastic forms…”

Saint George and the Dragon by Briton Riviere

During the 1870’s Rivière began to exhibit Classical and Religious paintings.  His depiction of this classic story of George and the Dragon is somewhat unusual.  Normally Saint George would be portrayed astride his horse, lance in hand but in Rivière’s work we see the dragon’s conqueror lying on the ground, exhausted, close to his fallen adversary.

Daniel in the Lion’s Den by Briton Rivière (1872)

His painting Daniel in the Lion’s Den was based on the biblical story about Daniel which tells how Daniel is raised to high office by his royal master Darius the Mede, but jealous rivals trick Darius into issuing a decree which condemns Daniel to death. Hoping for Daniel’s deliverance, but unable to save him, the king has him cast into the pit of lions. At daybreak he hurries back, asking if God had saved his friend.  In the Old Testament (Daniel 6:20-22) the story unfolds:

“…When he had come near the den to Daniel, he cried out with a troubled voice. The king spoke and said to Daniel, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you constantly serve, been able to deliver you from the lions?”   

Then Daniel spoke to the king, “O king, live forever!

“My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths and they have not harmed me, in as much as I was found innocent before Him; and also toward you, O king, I have committed no crime…”

(c) Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

However, for most people the name Briton Rivière was synonymous with painting of animals and in an interview, he did for the Chums Boys Annual in August 1897 he explained how he mastered the drawing of both wild and domesticated animals:

“…I have always been a great lover of dogs but I have worked at them so much that I’ve grown tired of having them about me. However, you can never paint a dog unless you are fond of it. I never work from a dog without the assistance of a man who is well acquainted with animals….. Collies, I think, are the most restless dogs….greyhounds are also very restless, and so are fox terriers….. The only way to paint wild animals is to gradually accumulate a large number of studies and a great knowledge of the animal itself, before you can paint its picture…… I paint from dead animals as well as from live ones. I have had the body of a fine lioness in my studio….. I have done a great deal of work in the dissecting rooms at the Zoological Gardens from time to time…”

A Study in Black and White, Mrs Henrietta Riviere. (Briton Rivière’s daughter-in-law) (c.1910)

Early in his career, Rivière became an illustrator for the Punch magazine. Briton Rivière married Mary Alice Dobell in 1867.  She too was a talented painter.  The couple went on to have seven children, four sons, Hugh Goldwyn, Clive, Philip Lyle, and Bernard and three daughters, Millicent Alice, Evelyn, and Theodora.   In 1878, when he was thirty-eight, Rivière was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts and three years later, a Royal Academician.  He stood for election to become President of the Royal Academy but failed in his bid – the position being awarded to Edward John Poynter.

Briton Rivière died in London on April 20th 1920, aged seventy-nine.

John William Godward. Part 3 – Italy and the sad end to life.

Dolce Far Niente by John William Godward (1906)

…………………John William Godward made his first visit to Italy in 1905, a year after his father died.  He travelled around visiting the islands of Ischia and Capri.  He also journeyed around the Gulf of Naples and visited Sorrento and the historical site of Pompeii, the latter being one of his favourite places, during which time he painted many oil studies.   Probably one of his best-known works of the time is a painting he completed in 1906 entitled Dolce far Niente (Beauty doing nothing).  Like most of his paintings there is no symbolic meaning or a connected narrative to it.  We are just left to study this ageless place, with its sumptuous luminous surfaces of veined marble.  We absorb the dark red coloured, classically-inspired fabrics which adorn the body of the beautiful woman, who reclines against the lush textures of a leopard skin. Her long dark hair cascades over the marble stonework.  She seems lost in thought and her eyes are languorously unfocused as if she is daydreaming.  She is the epitome of relaxation.  Look how the undulation of her breasts, waist, hips, and legs seems to be a mirror-image of the Phlegraean Islands in the Gulf of Naples which we see in the background.

Lycinna by John William Godward (1918)

After his short stay in Italy he returned home but returned for a much longer stay setting off for Rome around May or June of 1912 and he remained in the country for eleven years.  So why did he leave his native England?  Various theories abound.  It could be that he lost his desire to paint in England as his output around this time had fallen dramatically, and yet, London was where his art was selling.  Maybe he sought Roman inspiration.  It should also be remembered that the great Classicist painters like, Tadema-Alma, Edward Poynton, Bougureau and Jean-Léon Gerôme had all studied or worked in the Italian capital.  However, a more probable reason was his love for one of his models, an Italian girl, who had grown tired of living in England and decided to return home.  Once again, we need to understand Godward’s relationship with this girl.  It was not a case of mutual love.  Godward’s love for and devotion to the woman was, sadly for him, not reciprocated.  She put up with him and was happy to accept the fees for modelling but as far as she was concerned that was all it was.

Song Without Words by John William Godward (1919)

Godward had already disappointed his family by not following the footsteps of his father and brothers into the financial world.  He had chosen, in the minds of his parents, the dubious path and lowly status of a professional artist which was looked upon as a slight on the family values.  Now the family were informed by him that he was leaving the country and going to live in Italy with his Italian model.   Can you imagine how that was greeted by his mother and siblings, especially his brothers?  A family relation, Dr, Gilbert Milo-Turner recounts:

“…He left in a rush, running off with his Italian model to Italy.  His mother never forgave him for this breech of conduct. He shocked the family by living with his model…”

Milo-Turner continued that the family already felt betrayed by him for becoming an artist, “and now this!”

An Offering to Venus by John William Godward (1912)

On arriving in Rome, Godward moved into a studio at the Villa Strohl-Fern hoping to find inspiration in the Italian capital. The Strohl-Fern had been converted into a group of artist’s studios and was close to the beautiful gardens of the Villa Borghese and the recently completed Museo Nazionale Arte Moderna.  One of the first works Godward completed whilst living in Rome was his 1912 oil painting, An Offering to Venus depicting a thoughtful priestess.   It is his homage to the Roman goddess of love.   Her voluptuous figure is barely hidden by the purple diaphanous coa vestis tunic and deep crimson stola.  Coa vestis is an ancient type of fabric named after its point of origin, the Greek island Kos and was made using the wild silk of Pachypasa otus, a Mediterranean moth.  The priestess is seen offering a vase of pink and red roses to a bronze statue of the Venus of Arles.  It is more than likely that the model Godward used for this work was the lady who travelled to Italy with him.

Girl In A Peach Dress by John William Godward

So, who was this woman who so beguiled the quietly-spoken introverted painter and turned him into a besotted suitor?  What was her name?  A clue to her identity comes from the Scottish painter and illustrator, Sir William Russell Flint who recalls meeting Godward in Rome:

“…I had an introduction from Lee Hankey to J. W. Godward in Rome … Godward was exceedingly kind and helpful. He knew all the ropes and didn’t mind showing us how to use them. He worked steadily at his Greek maidens in Liberty silks from a Roman model whose name in English meant “Sweetest Castaway.” This heavy-jowled beauty was a star among the models (I found them a sorry lot after Londoners), but she aimed at being taken for something better. One day at Godward’s for tea, Dolcissima, after taking a maddening time to complete her re-attirement, as last proceeded to make her dignified departure. My wife, with kind intention, called her notice to a long white thread sticking to her coat. It proved a mistake to do so because we were afterwards told that the thread had been placed there deliberately as the emblem of what Dolch thought a superior class — the dress-makers…”

Another entry in Flint’s diary hints at the tragedy which later befell Godward.  He wrote:

“…Good, kind Godward, what a difference he made to our Roman sojourn! Let these grateful words mask a tragedy…”

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder by John William Godward (1912)

Godward’s completed his large canvas, measuring 131 x 80cms (51 x 32 inches), Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder in 1912 and this was looked upon as the start of his Roman Period. It is a beautiful painting which oozes with charm, beauty and innocent opulence which were familiar characteristics in Godward’s works.  The lady looks thoughtful and sad and by the title we are to presume that her lover has left her and maybe the ship in the background alludes to the couple’s parting.  She is dressed in a plum-coloured tunic.   Lying next to her on the marble seat is her fan.  In the foreground, Godward has included a floral still-life of irises. The flower symbolises faith, wisdom, and cherished friendship.

The Tryst by John William Godward (1912)

Another painting which incorporates a “Roman beauty” and a floral depiction was also painted in 1912 with the title The Tryst.  It is thought that, as it is the same size as Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder it could have been meant as a pendant piece with that work.  This painting depicts a young Roman woman dressed in a pale-yellow diaphanous tunic who is seated on a marble terrace waiting for her lover. She looks directly towards us, searching for a sign of her beloved.  The Mediterranean sun blazes down on her and she has raised her hand to shade her eyes from the dazzling brightness.   In the foreground, we see the still-life element of the painting in the form of poppies of various colours and varieties and a colourful oleander bush which acts as a great contrast to the clear blue sky.  There is probably little symbolism in their inclusion as Godward’s classical paintings centred on decorative beauty rather than tales of mythology and any narrative, which one gained from viewing the work, was probably in the observer’s mind rather than that of the artist.  Godward’s works were all about pleasure.  Beautifully adorned women in charming sunny settings overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea, pristine marble surrounded by colourful flowers.  They all made for the perfect idyll

Still Life of Peach with Twig by John William Godward (c.1912)

Once in Italy Godward became more interested in still-life. Fresh fruit was easily accessible in market places and they appeared more and more in his paintings.  Around 1912 he completed the still life work entitled Still Life of Peach with Twig.

Seascape with Rock, Capri by John William Godward (c.1913)

Although most of Godward’s works featured single figure depictions of women in classical settings, he did complete some pure landscapes and seascapes.  An example of this from around about 1913 was his seascape, Seascape with Rock, Capri.

Nude on the Beach by John William Godward (1922)

Godward painted many nudes during his lifetime and one of his last paintings was one entitled Nude on the Beach which he completed in 1922, the year of his death.

Godward returned to England around  the early part of 1921.  He was suffering physically with insomnia and chronic dyspepsia and mentally with bouts of severe depression.  His classicism genre of painting had fallen out of favour with the public, and it said that he believed there wasn’t enough room for him and Picasso, whose art genre had become so popular.  He was all alone having been introverted all his life.  Whatever was depressing him and how he was feeling was never talked about as he had no close friends to unburden himself.  He saw no reason with continuing with life and on Wednesday December 13th, 1922 he ended his own life by gassing himself.

The Fulham Gazette coldly reported the death:

FULHAM ARTIST DEAD BEFORE BLANK CANVAS: AMAZING GAS TRAGEDY: CHEQUE FOR WORK ON DOOR!

With his head lying in a packing case and his mouth touching the turned-on jets of a gas-ring, Mr. John William Godward, an artist in oils, aged 62, was found dead on Wednesday night in his studio at Fulham. The studio is at the rear of a house 410 Fulham Road, Fulham, where his brother and sister-in-law live.  The brother of deceased, Charles Arthur Godward, a fire insurance official, living at the same address, said that his brother had been a very reserved man and lived entirely alone. On the Wednesday morning Witness [C.A. Godward] had seen him in the Garden when he seemed all right. As far as he knew deceased had not financial worries or troubles of any kind. On the previous Sunday deceased had asked him to send a telegram to his mother stating that he would not be able to go and see her as he was not feeling well.

The death of Godward was greeted by his mother and siblings not so much with outright heartbreak but with a sense of indignation which was directed at the disgrace the eldest son’s suicide had brought upon the family, so much so that his elderly mother eradicated him from all the family records, destroying any photographs she had of him. even to the point where she cropped him out of photographs in order to remove the offending sections depicting her son, John William Godward.

Sadly, by the medium of his paintings, Godward created an imaginary world to take the place of the real world he lived in and which he disliked so much.  In a way, his art was a form of escapism.  His lonely and tedious world, full of anxiety, had been, through his art, replaced with an excessively joyous one, which came in the form of his idealised paintings of a tranquil bygone era endowed with perfect peaceful beauty.  Maybe on December 22nd, 1922 Godward finally entered his own idyll, finally free from depression, loneliness, and unhappiness.

John William Godward’s grave at Old Brompton Cemetery

Godward was buried in London’s Old Brompton Cemetery which was just a hundred yards from his studio.  He had bought himself a burial plot there when his father died in 1904.  At the time of his death he was interred at this family plot along with his father and one of his sister’s, Nin’s, sons.  Godward’s mother, Sarah Eborall, lived until 1935.


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

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.

John William Godward. Part 1 – Early life and works and the notorious Pettigrew sisters.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Observing things of beauty is one of the pleasures of life and in my blog today I am looking at the life of an artist who constantly depicted feminine beauty in his paintings.  My featured artist is the Victorian Neo-classicism painter John William Godward.    Victorian Neoclassicism was a British style of historical painting inspired by the art and architecture of Classical Greece and Rome.  During the 19th century, ever more Europeans made the “Grand Tour” to the Mediterranean lands. For them, the highlight of the journey was visiting the ancient ruins of Italy and Greece and learning about the exotic cultures of the past, and it was this fascination which led to the rise of Classicism in Britain.  Godward’s portrayals of female beauty was not merely “things of beauty” but of classical beauty which during his early days was very popular with the public.

William Godward (1801-1893),
John William Godward’s paternal grandfather

John William Godward was born on August 9th, 1861.  He was the eldest of five children of John Godward and Sarah Eborall.  John’s father and the artist’s grandfather, William Godward, had been involved in the life assurance business and his grandfather had become quite wealthy through some wise investments in the Great Northern Railways which had been formed in 1846.  John Godward Snr., the artist’s father, followed in his father’s footsteps and worked   as an investment clerk for The Law Life Assurance Society at Fleet Street in London’s financial district.  On the death of his father, John Godward Snr. inherited a sizeable amount of money and he and his wife Sarah, whom he married in June 1859, lived a comfortable life in their home in Bridge Road West which was then in the ashionable London district of Battersea.  They lived an “upright” and were devout followers of the High Church of England.

John Godward (1836-1904)
John William Godward’s father

Sarah Eborall, John Godward Snr’s twenty-six-year-old wife, gave birth to their first child on August 9th 1861 at their Battersea home. The baby was christened that October and given the names John and William after his father and paternal grandfather. Two years later in December 1863 their second child, Alfred was born.   In 1864 the family moved from Battersea to Peterborough Terrace, Fulham, later renamed Harwood Terrace.  Fulham at the time, and unlike today,  was a rural area with its farms and market gardens.  In February 1866 Sarah gave birth to her third child, a daughter, Mary Frederica, who was known affectionately as “Nin”.  With a growing family John Snr, Sarah and their three children moved to larger rented premises in Peterborough Villas, close to their previous home.

Two further children were born, Edmund Theodore, known as Ted, in November 1869 and their youngest, Charles Arthur, in June 1872.  The Godward family was now complete with five children and the size of the family probably dictated that they needed larger accommodation and somewhere around 1872 they all moved to Dorset Road Wimbledon

Little is known about John William Godward’s schooling but as his family were well-off middle-class parents he may have been enrolled at one of the many private schools in the Wimbledon area. It is thought that he developed a love of drawing during his schooldays.  He was brought up in a very strict household in which maternal and paternal love was in short supply.  Both his parents were very controlling and John William had few friends.  His father, a devout Christian and church-goer, was both strict and puritanical and expected his word to be law and as far as he was concerned all his sons would, on leaving school, follow in his footsteps into the business world and, in particular, into the world of insurance and banking.  Whereas John William’s three brothers, Alfred, Edmund, and Charles happily entered the world of insurance much to their father’s delight, John William Godward, his eldest son proved, in his mother and father’s eyes, to be a disappointing failure who although forced, at the age of eighteen, into working as an insurance clerk with his father, hated every minute of this alien world of finance.

Dora by John William Godward (1887)
Study of a model, possibly Hetty Pettigrew

John Godward probably realised that his son was not going to remain in the insurance profession and because of his son’s propensity for art, decided that rather than let him idle his time as a fine artist he would arrange for him to study architecture and design.  In the eyes of his parents, an architect had a more acceptable and honourable ring to it than that of an artist.  Between 1879 and 1881, his father arranged for his son to study under William Hoff Wontner, a distinguished architect and designer and friend of the family, in the evenings whilst retaining his day job as an insurance clerk. John William Godward worked alongside Wontner’s son William Clarke Wontner, who was also interested in fine art and exhibited some of his portraiture at the Royal Academy exhibitions.  William Clarke Wontner soon became a popular portrait painter who received many commissions from patrons for landscapes and murals to decorate interiors of their homes. One can imagine that the youthful John William Godward was inspired by his friend’s blossoming career in fine art and was more than ever determined to follow a similar path.  The two men would remain good friends for the years that followed.  The other bonus in working in Wontner’s architecture office was that Godward was able to develop his skills in prospective and drawing of architectural marble elements which would feature in his later paintings.  In 1881 William Hoff Wontner died but his son carried on training the twenty-year-old, Godward and it is almost certain that Wontner’s success as an artist further intensified Godward’s desire to paint for a living, a decision which would cause havoc with his relationship with his mother and father.

Portrait of Mary Perkinton Godward by John William Godward (1881)

One of the earliest works completed by John William Godward was a small watercolour portrait (4.5 x 3.25 inches) of his paternal grandmother, Mary Perkinton Godward.  She had died in 1866 when the artist was just five years old and so it is thought that he used a family photograph to complete the work.

The Fair Persian by William Clarke Wonter (1916)

There is some doubt as to if, when and where John William Godward received formal artistic training.   Knowing his family’s vehement opposition to their son becoming a professional fine artist he is unlikely to have had his family’s backing to enrol at the likes of the Royal Academy of Art School and in fact there is no record of him attending any of their full-time courses.  However, we do know that in 1885, his friend and erstwhile mentor William Clarke Wontner taught at the prestigious St John’s Wood Art School, a feeder school to the RA School, and it may be that Godward also attended this establishment.  We also know that some of the visiting artists to this art school were Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Frederick Leighton, and Sir Edward John Poynter whose art certainly influenced Godward.

Giotto Drawing from Nature by John William Godward (c.1885)

Another reason to believe that Godward was receiving some formal training was a painting he completed around this time entitled Giotto Drawing on a Tablet which depicts the Italian artist, Giotto di Bondone, as a young shepherd drawing sheep.  The depiction is based on a passage from Giorgo Vasari’s1550 book, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), which recounts that Giotto was a shepherd boy, a merry and intelligent child who was loved by all who knew him. The great Florentine painter Cimabue, one of the two most highly renowned painters of Tuscany, discovered Giotto drawing pictures of his sheep on a rock. The depiction was so lifelike that Cimabue approached Giotto and asked if he could take him on as an apprentice.

Godward’s painting bore all the hallmarks of a “diploma piece” – a work of art which had to be submitted for critical assessment by tutors and it had to have the major genre elements taught in the art schools of the day.  It had a figure, a group of animals and a landscape, all of which were mandatory elements in order to demonstrate an artist’s technical expertise.  Having said all that, there are no definitive records of John William Godward attending any local art colleges.

Portrait of Mary Frederica ‘Nin’ Godward by John William Godward (1883)

Another early work by Godward was an 1883 portrait of his sister, entitled, Portrait of Mary Frederica “Nin” Godward.  The artist has depicted his sister shoulder-length in profile to the left. This was Godward’s first known oil painting.

Country House in the 18th Century by John William Godward (1883)

Godward’s 1883 painting Country House in the 18th Century shows his early style, so dissimilar to the Neo-classical paintings we now associate with him.  It is so different in style that it may just have been a copy Godward made of another artist’s work

What every artist needs at one time or another is a good model.  Artists’ models often worked for more than one artist and the best were in high demand.  Enter the Sisters Pettigrew.  On the death of her husband William Pettigrew, a cork cutter, and because of the dire need to feed her thirteen children, his widow Harriet Davies took the advice of her artist son that three of his sisters, Lilly, Harriet and Rose, all with their masses of hair and exotic looks  would make ideal Pre-Raphaelite artist’s models, and so in 1884, she took them to London where they became an instant hit with many artists such as John Everett Millais, Fredrick Lord Leighton, William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, James McNeill Whistler and John William Godward.  Rose Pettigrew wrote about the experience six decades later:

“…every great artist of the land” was clamouring for one of the “Beautiful Miss Pettigrew’s” to pose…”

An Idyll of 1745 by John Evetett Millais (1884)

Their first time the girls appeared as artist’s models was when John Everett Millais used all three sisters in his 1884 painting, An Idyll of 1745, which depicts three young girls listening to the music played by a young British fifer.  Behind the fifer is a Loyal volunteer, seemingly enjoying the moment.  In the background is a British Army camp, likely where the fifer and volunteer came from.  From what the artist’s son said the three young girls were almost more trouble than they were worth, saying:

“…more trouble than any [models] he ever had to deal with. They were three little gypsies … and with the characteristic carelessness of their race, they just came when they liked, and only smiled benignly when lectured on their lack of punctuality…”

Portrait of Lily Pettigrew by John Wilson Godward (1887)

John William Godward completed a portrait of the beautiful seventeen-year old Lily Pettigrew in 1887.  She was the most beautiful of the three as her sister later wrote:

“…My sister Lily was lovely. She had [the] most beautiful curly red gold hair, violet eyes, a beautiful mouth, classic nose and beautifully shaped face, long neck, well set, and a most exquisite figure; in fact, she was perfection…”

The Reading Girl by Théodore Rousseau (1887)

Nineteen year old Harriet (Hetty) Pettigrew featured in Théodore Roussel’s famous 1887 painting The Reading Girl.  Look what a fine model she is in the natural way she relaxes and seems so comfortable, naked in front of the artist.  Hetty had met Roussel in 1884 and from becoming his model, then, despite Roussel being married, became his mistress and gave birth to their daughter, Iris around 1900.   When Roussel’s wife died, instead of legalising his relationship with Hetty and their child, he married Ethel Melville, the widow of the Scottish watercolour painter, Arthur Melville. Once Roussel re-married in 1914, Hetty never sat for him again. Their close bond was over.

Lily and Hetty Pettigrew (Photographer: Edward Linley Sambourne)

The Pettigrew sisters are also thought to have introduced Godward to other artists who were members of the Royal Society of British Artists.  The Society had been founded in 1823 but had grown very little in its first fifty years of existence due to financial problems but then it came into its own around 1886 when its president was James McNeil Whistler.  Whistler wanted to inject some life into the Society by encouraging it to accept new young artists such as Godward, who for the next three years showed works at their exhibition.  Whistler’s tenure at the Royal Society of British Artists lasted only two years when he was asked to stand down.  Godward, however, was eventually elected as a member of the Society in 1890.

In 1887 Godward had his painting entitled The Yellow Turban accepted at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.  This of course was a great moment for the twenty-six-year-old artist and it was probably, begrudgingly, the first thing about their son’s desire to be a painter that pleased his parents’ middle-class values.  Whether their son was happy, mattered little to them.  His achievement or lack of it was everything in their eyes. Initially they hoped he would follow the family tradition and work in the insurance business.  They even “allowed” him to study art with Wontner in the evenings providing he stayed with the insurance company and there was even a hope he would, through his association with Wontner, enter the prestigious world of architecture.  Their dreams for their son were later lowered to believe he may become, as a last resort, a teacher of art – anything than have to suffer the ignominy of having their son become a penniless artist.

For Godward he was reaching a crossroad in his life.  He was twenty six years of age, still living at home with his parents who could not and would not share and support his ambition to become an artist.  He must have felt the overpowering parental pressure and for this reason suffered mentally.  He needed to break free but what price would he have to pay for this freedom?

……………..to be continued


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