The artists of the Norwich School of Painters. Part 2 – John Crome

Portrait of John Crome, by Michael William Sharp

One of the founding members of the Norwich School of Painters was John Crome. Crome would become one of the three great landscape painters who came from East Anglia. The other two were Gainsborough and Constable. East Anglia was not known for its spectacular or romantic landscapes. Unlike North Wales or the Lake District, there was little to inspire a landscape painter and yet the quiet pastures of the Stour valley and the Dutch-like vistas of the Norfolk Broads attracted many nature lovers.

The Bell Inn by John Crome (1805)

Crome was born on December 22nd, 1768 at the small Norwich ale-house called The King and the Miller and was baptised three days later on Christmas Day at St George’s Church Tombland, Norwich. Crome’s father, John, was an impoverished journeyman weaver. He was also either an alehouse keeper or lodged in an alehouse in a very disreputable part of Norwich, known as Castle Ditches. Crome’s mother was Elizabeth Weaver. Crome had very limited schooling and left  at the age of twelve to become an errand boy to the distinguished Doctor Rigby. After a few years living with and serving the doctor, his employer arranged for him to be apprenticed to Mr Francis Whisler, a coach, house and sign painter, of 41 Bethel Street Norwich. Crome commenced his seven-year apprenticeship on August 1st, 1783. At first Crome’s job was to grind the coloured pigments and look after the brushes. He eventually was allowed to paint the signs, which meant that he had to learn the skill of making the depictions on the signs, stand out at a distance and this talent can be seen in many of his later paintings.

The Beaters by John Crome (1810)

During his apprenticeship he struck up a friendship with Robert Ladbrooke, another young apprentice, one who was training to become a printer. The two young men, both of the same age, had one underlying desire – that of becoming painters. The two decided to work together to achieve that aim and rented out a garret and bought some art prints from the local Norwich print-seller, Smith and Jaggers, which they could spend time copying, and thus, honing their artistic skills. Crome and Ladbrooke would go on drawing trips into the fields sketching the scenery and then sell some of their works to the local print-seller.  The print-seller was impressed with what the two young men could achieve and bought some of their drawings and it is very likely it is through Crome’s drawings that he gained the attention of Thomas Harvey, a local amateur artist and art collector. Thomas Harvey owned a number of paintings by old and modern Flemish and Dutch Masters, particularly Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael, which he had acquired through the good auspices of his Dutch father-in-law.  He also had a collection of works by Gainsborough and Richard Wilson, which he allowed Crome to study and copy.

Moonrise on the Yare by John Crome (c.1811-6)

Through Thomas Harvey, Crome met William Beechy, a leading portrait artist who studied at the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, and is thought to have studied under Johan Zoffany. Beechy first exhibited at the Academy in 1776. In 1781, he moved to Norwich. Beechy could see that Crome was a very talented artist and became his mentor.   Beechy, although living in Norwich, had a studio in London which Crome would visit regularly. Beechy wrote about the first time he met Crome:

“…Crome, when I first knew him, must have been about twenty years old, and was an awkward, uninformed country lad but extremely shrewd in all his remarks upon art, though he wanted words and terms to express his meaning. As often as he came to town he never failed to call upon me and to get what information I was able to give him upon the subject of that particular branch of art, which he made his study. His visits were very frequent and all his time was spent in my painting room when I was not particularly engaged. He improved so rapidly that he delighted and astonished me. He always dined and spent his evenings with me…”

Norwich River, Afternoon by John Crome (c.1819)

On October 2nd 1792, Crome married Phoebe Berney in the medieval St Mary’s Coslany church in the centre of Norwich. The couple went on to have eight children, six sons and two daughters. Two of his sons, John Berney Crome and William Henry Crome became well-known landscape painters.

One of Crome’s rare forays out of the country came in October 1814 when he and two friends crossed the Channel on their way to Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte had just been defeated and hundreds of Englishmen flocked to Paris to view the art treasures held in the Louvre some of which were the spoils Napoleon had collected during his victorious campaigns. On October 10th, 1814, Crome wrote home to his wife informing her that he had arrived safely:

“…My Dear Wife, After one of the most pleasant journeys of one hundred and seventy miles over one of the most fertile countreys I ever saw we arrived in the capital of France. You may imagine how everything struck us with surprise; people of all nations going to and fro – Turks, Jews etc. I shall not enter into ye particulars in this my letter but suffice it to say we are all in good health and in good lodgings…”

Boulevard des Italiens, Paris by John Crome (1815)

Whilst in the French capital Crome set about pictorialy recording his visit and from the sketches he made, he completed a number of paintings on his return home. In 1815 he completed Boulevard des Italiens, Paris. It is a wonderful work, full of life and energy as we see people milling around the flea market. Crome exhibited the work in the Norwich Exhibition in 1815.

Another painting which came from his many sketches he made whilst in France, was one he sketched whilst on his journey back home. It was entitled Fishmarket on the Beach at Boulogne and Crome completed it in 1820.

Boys Bathing on the River Wensum, Norwich by John Crome (1817)

Unlike many other English artists, John Crome, besides his one trip to Paris, rarely ventured outside his beloved country and preferred to explore the countryside of East Anglia. He preferred the home life surrounded by his family. His main focus was on the English landscape and especially the natural scenery of the Norfolk area. He maintained that he only painted what he saw and never took poetic licence with his subjects.  As he succinctly put it, I simply represented Nature as I saw her.  Of Crome’s choice of depictions, one art critic wrote:

“…Crome painted ‘the bit of heath, the boat, and the slow water of the flattish land, trees most of all, the single tree in elaborate study, the group of trees, and how the growth of one affects that of another, and the characteristics of each…”

The Poringland Oak by John Crome (c.1818-1820)

Crome was a gifted draughtsman and an authority when it came to depicting trees. He was one of the first artists of his generation to portray individual tree species in his works, rather than just painting simplified structures. His favoured tree was the English Oak tree. A fine example of this is his oil on canvas work entitled The Poringland Oak which he completed in 1820. Poringland is a village in the district of South Norfolk, England. It lies 5 miles south of Norwich city centre and the heathland around the village was one of Crome’s favourite haunts. The depiction centres on a large oak tree that would have been familiar to local residents. Look at the details of the tree Crome has given us. Look how he has masterfully depicted the clouds. This painting came many decades before the Impressionist works and yet it is a study of light, as the sun begins to set. The depiction we see before us is a perfect idyll. The sun is setting bathing the heath in a golden warmth. Bathers, wanting to relax, have taken to the lake after a hard day’s work.

Mousehold Heath, Norwich by John Crome (c.1818-20)

Another of Crome’s paintings featuring the area he loved so much was completed around 1820 and was entitled Mousehold Heath, Norwich. Mousehold Heath was a well–known stretch of common land which lies five miles north of the city of Norwich. It is a unique area made up of heathland, woodland and recreational open space.  Crome’s painting accentuates its vastness and lack of cultivation. In the foreground Crome has depicted clumps of wildflowers and, in the distance, we can just make out cattle grazing freely on the heath. The painting has the feel of a Dutch painting such as those by Aelbert Cuyp which Crome may have seen in the painting collection of Thomas Harvey. Although this painting was completed around 1820 it was probably a view of the Heath some five or ten years earlier as around 1814 a large quantity of land, including this area, was “enclosed”. Once enclosed, use of the land became restricted and available only to the owner, and it ceased to be common land for communal use. In both England and Wales, this process of allowing cultivation of open land was to boost the production of food.

Moonlight on the Yare by John Crome (c.1817)

Besides the money he received for his paintings his income was further increased by teaching art to the “great and good” and he often travelled around to various country homes in his profession as a drawing master. It was during these visits that he would once again have come across many paintings by the Dutch and Flemish Masters. Seeing such collections also gave him an interest in starting his own collection and soon he was fixated on attending sales at auction rooms and he soon built up his own collection of books, prints and drawings. He bought and bought and soon his home was cluttered by his purchases. One can only presume that his wife stepped in and told him that “enough was enough” for an advert appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle:

“…At Mr Noverre’s Rooms, Yarmouth on Wednesday the 23rd of September 1812 and two following days. A capital assemblage of Prints and Books of Prints; Etchings; Finished Drawings and Sketches by the best masters – Woollett, Strange, Fitler, Bartolozzi, Rembrandt, Waterloo etc. They are the genuine sole property of Mr Crome of Norwich – a great part of whose life has been spent collecting them. Descriptive catalogues, price 6d. each of the booksellers of Yarmouth, Norwich, Lynn, Ipswich and Bury…”

There was no mention of the name of the auctioneer and thus it is supposed that Crome himself ran the auction. Although Crome’s had lost his precious collection he was soon visiting sales rooms again, steadily building a new collection !

Landscape by John Crome

John Crome’s life came to an end, after a sudden illness, on April 22nd 1821. He was fifty-two years old. Crome’s thoughts were constantly directed towards the art he so passionately loved. It is believed that on the day of his death he spoke to his eldest son, twenty-seven year old John Berney Crome. He begged him never to forget the dignity of Art, saying:

“…John, my boy, paint but paint for fame, and if your subject is only a pigsty – dignify it…”

It is said that Crome’s last words on his death bed were a cry from the heart and a loving testament to his favourite landscape painter:

“…Oh, Hobbema !  my dear Hobbema, how I loved you…”

John Crome was buried in the medieval church of St George’s-at-Colegate, Norwich and according to The Norwich Mercury, the local newspaper,  an immense concourse of people bore grateful testimony to the estimation in which his character was generally held.

John Berney Crome by George Clint (c.1820)

 

John Crome was often referred to as “Old Crome” to differentiate him from his talented son the artist John Berney Crome who was referred to as “Young Crome”.

 

 

 

 


A good deal of information about the Norwich School of Painters came from a book published in 1920, entitled The Norwich school; John (“Old”) Crome, John Sell Cotman, George Vincent, James Stark, J. Berney Crome, John Thirtle, R. Ladbrooke, David Hodgson, M.E. & J.J. Cotman, etc. by Charles Geoffrey Holme.  This book can be read on-line at:

https://archive.org/details/cu31924014891992/page/n3

 

The artists of the Norwich School of Painters. Part 1 – John Sell Cotman.

John Sell Cotman by his son, Miles Edmund Cotman

In the art world one often hears about Schools. Not just meaning art establishments but denoting a group of artists who work from a specific location. Prime examples of this are the Barbizon School, which was active from about 1830 through to 1870, and takes its name from the village of Barbizon, France, near the Forest of Fontainebleau. Probably the best known School in Britain was the Newlyn School, an art colony of artists based in or around Newlyn, a fishing village adjacent to Penzance, on the south coast of Cornwall, from the 1880s until the early twentieth century.  A few blogs ago I wrote about Francis Danby who was part of the Bristol School.

Village in Normandy, France, Noon by John Sell Cotman (1817-1820)

In this blog I am looking at a group of artists who worked out of the county of Norfolk, specifically the town of Norwich. These were painters of the Norwich School, or Norwich Society of Artists, which came into being in 1803 in the town of Norwich and was the first provincial art movement in Britain. The area around Norwich was very picturesque and a landscape painter’s idyll. The Scottish miniaturist, Andrew Robertson who was a friend of Constable, visited Norwich in 1812 and was full of praise for the town’s vitality, writing in a letter:

“…I arrived here a week ago and find it a place where the arts are very much cultivated….some branches of knowledge, chemistry, botany etc are carried to a great length.   General literature seems to be pursued with ardour which is astonishing when we consider that it does not contain a university, and is merely a manufacturing town…”

Robertson continued, talking about the quality of music in the city and then turned his thoughts to the city’s art:

“…Painting and Drawing are as much esteemed, and many are nearly as great proficient….The study of landscape about the town are infinitely beautiful and inexhaustible. The buildings, cottages etc are charming and have invited people to the general practice of drawing, or rather painting in watercolours from nature, assisted by man of considerable abilities as a teacher and landscape painter…”

The Norwich Society of Artists was founded in 1803 by John Crome and Robert Ladbrooke and their idea was that artists could meet and exchange ideas. The Society set down its aims as being:

“…an enquiry into the rise, progress and present state of painting, architecture, and sculpture, with a view to point out the best methods of study to attain the greater perfection in these arts…”

Drop Gate, Duncombe Park, Yorkshire by John Sell Cotman (1805)

The Society, once formed had their first meeting in a local tavern, The Hole in the Wall. Two years later they moved to new premises and the extra space allowing the members to use as a studio and also exhibit their work. Their first exhibition was held in 1805 and it was a great success, so much so, that they held an annual exhibition there for the next twenty years. Unfortunately, the building had to be demolished but three years later, in 1828, the Society members regrouped and became the Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts.

The leading light of the Norwich School of Painters was John Crome who then attracted many friends and pupils until his death in 1821. Leadership of the Society then fell on John Sell Cotman, who had been a member of the society since 1807, and who continued to keep the Society together until he left Norwich for London in 1834. The Society effectively ceased to exist from that date.

Portrait of John Sell Cotman by Alfred Clint

One of the most well-known artists associated with the Norwich School was John Sell Cotman. Cotman was born on May 16th 1782 in the East Anglia town of Norwich, the son of Edmund Cotman and his wife Ann. He was the eldest of ten children. His father, Edmund Cotman, formerly a barber but latterly a draper by trade, had married Ann Sell. John Sell Cotman initially studied at the Norwich School, which is one of the oldest schools in the world having been founded in 1096. John’s father had intended that once his son had completed his education, he would join him in the family business. However, during his time at school John Cotman had developed a love of art and was determined that he would not spend his working life behind a shop counter. At the age of 16, he left home and went to London to study art.

Houses at Epsom by John Sell Cotman (1800)

Whilst living in London he managed to earn some money by colouring aquatints for Anglo-German lithographer and publisher, Rudolph Ackerman, who had, in 1795, established a print-shop and drawing-school in The Strand. Ackermann had set up a lithographic press and begun a trade in prints.

Doctor Thomas Monro

It was whilst Cotman was in London that he also met Doctor Thomas Monro, who was an avid art collector. Monro was Principal Physician of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and one-time the consulting physician to King George III. Besides being an amateur painter and art collector, he was also a patron to a number of young aspiring artists including Thomas Girtin. Monro had a house in Adelphi Terrace, London where he had his studio and a country house in Merry Hill, a suburb of Bushey just fifteen miles from the capital. Monro liked to surround himself with other artists and J.M.W. Turner was a frequent visitor. He ran an art Academy where he would offer evening art classes, some of which were attended by John Sell Cotman.

The Devil’s Bridge North Wales by John Sell Cotman (c.1801)

John Sell Cotman managed to gain the patronage of Monro and through him met many of the leading British artists of the time and it was through his friendship with Turner, Girtin and Peter de Wint that Cotman continued his artistic development. He enjoyed taking trips out to sketch and it is believed that in 1800 he accompanied Thomas Girtin on a sketching trip to North Wales. A painting which came from one of his trips to North Wales was his 1801 work entitled The Devil’s Bridge, North Wales. A pencil drawing of this subject can be found in Leeds City Art Gallery, and it may well have been the inspiration for this very finished example of a Cotman watercolour.

Harlech Castle by John Sell Cotman (c.1800-1802)

Considering Cotman had had no formal art tuition it is amazing the artistic standard he had reached for someone of such a young age for when he was aged just eighteen, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy showing five works, four depicting scenes from the Surrey countryside and one was of Harlech Castle. When touring North Wales in 1800, he made a series of drawings and watercolours of Welsh subjects during the following years. This watercolour of Harlech Castle in North Wales is related to a sketch he drew on July 30th 1800. The castle at Harlech was built in the thirteenth century by Edward I, and was often represented by artists at this time. It features in watercolours by Girtin, Varley and Turner as well as Cotman.

The success Cotman believed would come about in London never materialised and in 1806 he returned to his hometown of Norwich and began earning his living as an art tutor. When he returned to Norwich he also joined the Norwich Society of Artists.  Cotman exhibited 20 works, including six portraits, at the society’s exhibition in 1807, and 67 works including some oils, in 1808. In 1811 he became president of the society.

Greta Bridge by John Sell Cotman (1806)

One of my favourite works by Cotman is a watercolour entitled Greta Bridge measuring just 22cms x 33cms. Cotman completed the small work in 1805 which can be found in the British Museum. A second version of the painting, a much larger one, (30cms x 50cms), was completed by Cotman in 1810 and is housed in the Norwich Castle Museum. Both of these watercolours recreate the rural solitude and tranquillity of the Greta area of North Yorkshire, where Cotman spent the summers of 1803 – 1805. The Greta Bridge in this painting spanned the river Greta in North Yorkshire near the gates of Rokeby Park. John Cotman had arrived at Rokeby on the evening of July 31st 1805, accompanied by his friend and patron, Francis Cholmeley. It had been arranged in advance that the two men were to stay as guests of the owner of Rokeby Park, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt. Cotman stayed at the house for about three weeks and when his hosts left on business, he remained nearby, taking up lodgings in a room at the local inn, which is the large building to the left of the bridge. Cotman then continued the work he had begun along the river Greta that skirts the park. It is a wonderfully balanced composition depicting the Greta Bridge, with its striking, single arch, which runs horizontally across the picture, in some way dividing it in two and yet uniting it into a single scene. The arch of the bridge epitomizes a great feat of engineering, which Cotman, with his love of architecture, admired. The structure we see before us was designed by John Carr of York, and built in 1773 for Morritt’s father, John Sawrey Morritt, who was a well-known collector of classical antiquities. The bridge replaced a Roman single-arched bridge of the same design.

Chateau Navarre, near Evreux, Normandy by John Sell Cotman (1830)

Cotman had a love of bridges and sketched many. For him, a bridge was a meeting point or landmark for travellers and would often be a point of reference on maps where rivers and roads meet. Cotman was fascinated by the interaction of this man-made feature and how it harmoniously interacted with a natural setting.

Dutch Boats off Yarmouth, Prizes during the War by John Sell Cotman (1824)

In 1809, Cotman married Ann Mills, the daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Felbrigg and the couple went on to have five children. During his time as a drawing master he taught the local banker, botanist and antiquary Dawson Turner and his children. They became close friends and Dawson Turner introduced him to many prospective students. Cotman began to be interested in etchings and issued the first of his in 1811. He moved from Norwich and for the next ten years he lived in the Norfolk coastal town of Yarmouth and this gave him the opportunity to complete a number of seascapes such as his oil painting Dutch Boats off Yarmouth which depicts a coastal scene at Yarmouth and is a reminder of British naval triumphs over the Dutch navy. England and the Dutch Republic, despite having been allied for a century when they again went to war in 1780, a conflict that lasted four years and became known as the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.  The conflict followed secret Dutch trade and negotiations with the American colonies, who, at the time, were in revolt against England.  In the background of the painting we can just make out Yarmouth’s monument to the Norfolk hero, Lord Nelson.

Cley Church, Norfolk by John Sell Cotman

It was around this time that Cotman concentrated on printmaking. The majority of his etchings were architectural in nature, with numerous ones of old Yorkshire and Norfolk buildings. It is more than likely that this move towards etchings and printmaking was due to, and inspired in part by his friend and patron, Dawson Turner. Unlike academic, London-based painters who romanticized the English countryside, John Sell Cotman and other members of the Norwich School painted landscapes in their immediate surroundings. An example of this is his 1818 drawing Cley Church, Norfolk which is a depiction of Saint Margaret’s in the village of Cley-next-the-Sea. It exhibits Cotman’s heightened attention to perspective and architectural detail as opposed to vegetation and atmospheric effects. It is now part of the Art Institute Chicago collection.

Church of St Paul at Rouen

In 1817, Cotman, with help from his patron, made the first of three tours of Normandy and out of these journeys came a book in 1822 entitled, Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, one of various books he illustrated with his etchings. The Etching on Chine Colle entitled Church of St Paul at Rouen was one of Cotman’s illustrations for his book.

Church of Querqueville, Near Cherbourg, from the series Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, etching by John Sell Cotman (1822)

Another etching from the series ‘Architectural Antiquities of Normandy‘ was his work, Church of Querqueville, Near Cherbourg.

In January 1834, through the good auspices of J.M.W. Turner, Cotman gained the post of Master of Landscape Drawing at King’s College School in London, which he held until his death. He and his family left Norwich and relocated to the London borough of Bloomsbury. Two years later, his eldest son Miles Edmond Cotman was appointed to assist him. The taking up of the position at King’s College could not have come at a more fortuitous time as Cotman was beginning to have financial problems. Sadly, with these financial problems, which had afflicted him during most of his working life, came bouts of depression, ill health and despondency brought on by the poor sales of his work. During John Cotman’s tenure at King’s College he taught many artists including Dante Rossetti.

John Sell Cotman’s grave in St. John’s Wood, London

Cotman’s last visit to his home town of Norfolk was in the autumn of 1841, just nine months before his death in London on July 24th, 1842. He was buried in the cemetery at St. John’s Wood Chapel.  The 20th century art historian and painter, Charles Collins Baker, said of John Sell Cotman:

“…a great colourist, whose earlier palette produced that rare plenitude that only masters of exquisite simplicity and restraint compass: from his palette the brown glebe, the black reflection of massed trees in a still river, the grey and gold of weathered stone and plaster, the glinting gold on foliage and the gilded green of translucent leaves have a special and supernal quality of dream pageants rather than of actuality…”

For most of the twentieth century, Cotman was the most widely admired English watercolourist, surpassing even Turner in popularity.

Francis Danby. Part 2.

Financial problems, plagiarism and marital difficulties.

Francis Danby

In 1821, Francis Danby fathered a fourth son, Thomas, and the family were still living in the Bristol suburb of Kingsdown.  Aross the River Avon, on the south-west side of the Avon Gorge, was a large area of woodland known as Leigh Woods.

Rownham Ferry from the Somerset side in 1797 by John Hassell

This was a magnet for artists who had a large range of picturesque views to paint and sketch en plein air. However in the 1820’s, there was no Clifton Suspension Bridge which did not get built until 1864 and so, to cross the Avon Danby and fellow painters living in Bristol would have to traverse the river by means of the Rownham Ferry and then walk along the tow path before ascending Nightingale Valley.

A Scene in Leigh Woods by Francis Danby (1822)

Francis Danby completed his painting A Scene in Leigh Woods in 1822. This oil on panel painting measuring 35 x 50 cms is awash with many tones of green but such variation of tones and tints is well managed. The sunlight coming from the right hand side has struggled to penetrate the dens foliage and this results in the shadows not being so dense. The artist has moved away from his two companions who are busily sketching and by distancing himself from his friends he has been able to give us a very relaxed scene. The Revd. John Eagles, a writer and amateur artist, wrote about the friendship between artists when they descended on Leigh Woods and how Leigh Woods was the best painting-ground. In an article, he wrote about the colours one could find there:

“…they were of all shades, but rich as if every colour had by turns blended with them, yet unmixed, so perfect in predominance was the green throughout. So varied likewise was the texture, whether effected by distance, by variety of shade, by opposition, or by character of ground. There was much of emerald, not in colour only, but in transparent depth…”

View of the Avon Gorge by Francis Danby (1819)

Danby also completed another painting in 1822, View of the Avon Gorge, which is a companion piece to A Scene in Leigh Woods. This painting depicts a view looking downstream across the entrance to Nightingale Valley which was a favourite spot for the artists of the Bristol School. In the painting we can see a quarry barge moving slowly up the River Avon. In the distance you can just make out the Sea Walls and to the right you can just see the construction of the Bridge Valley Road which eventually ran around the riverbank on the right.

Boys Sailing a Little Boat by Francis Danby (c.1822)

Another of Danby’s captivating paintings was one he also completed in 1822 which was entitled Boys Sailing a Little Boat. It depicts four young boys and a young girl on a riverbank and a small stone bridge. They are fascinated watching their small model boat floating in the water. A basket of potatoes lies on the riverbank and presumably the children had been taxed to peel them but the thrill of watching their boat in the river has been a distraction. It should be remembered that at this time Danby had four sons and it is thought he could also have a daughter so this may have been his idea of portraying them all in this scene.

Sunset at Sea After a Storm by Francis Danby (1824)

In 1824, all was not well with Francis Danby. He was heavily in debt and he decided his only recourse was to take flight. He and his family left Bristol in April and headed to London where he believed he could make more money selling his work. The breakthrough for Danby came in July that year when he exhibited his painting, Sunset at Sea after a Storm at the Royal Academy which was then bought by the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, who became Danby’s mentor. Not only did Lawrence buy Danby’s painting but he put him forward as an Associate of the Royal Academy. Danby was duly elected in November 1825.

Francis Danby – An Enchanted Isle

Following the good reviews of his painting, Sunset at Sea after a Storm, he followed it up with An Enchanted Isle which had been commissioned by his patron, John Gibbons, and which was shown at the British Institution, to great acclaim.

Danby, Francis; The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt; by Francis Danby (1825)

However his next painting, The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt, which he exhibited at the 1825 Royal Academy Exhibition, was a veritable triumph and was immediately bought by the Marquis of Stafford who was the President of the British Institution for £500. The story of the sale of the work is fascinating. The Marquis saw the painting at a private viewing and immediately mounted his horse and rode of to Danby’s house and bought it. An hour later Lord Liverpool rushed into Danby’s house wanting to buy the work, only to be told he was too late.

The Opening of the Sixth Seal by Francis Danby (1828)

In 1828, Danby completed a somewhat different painting from his light and airy Bristol landscapes. It was entitled The Opening of the Sixth Seal. He actually started the painting in 1825 but gave up on it accusing fellow painter, John Martin, of plagiarising the depiction with his Deluge work. It caused quite a controversy at the time. He returned to the work two years later and completed it in 1828. The depiction was based on the biblical text from the Book of Revelations (6:12-17):

“…I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?…”

It tells of the opening by God of the sixth seal on a scroll, the earth is rent and mankind descends into disarray. The sun becomes black and the heavens collapse; a king slumps among now worthless symbols of his sovereignty (crown and sceptre), people cower in fear of the wrath of God, and a city falls to rubble in the background.

The slave

It is interesting to note that Danby added to his depiction a topical reference to slavery. If you look to the left of the painting you can make out a crouching figure, similar to that adopted as the symbol of the abolitionist movement, and at the centre of the painting there is the figure of a liberated slave, who has broken the shackles that were wrapped around his wrists. This liberated figure in some way answers the question at the end of the biblical text.  So why did Danby choose to paint this very different depiction? The answer probably lies with the fact that the slave trade had been discontinued in 1807 in Britain but the Bill for the abolition of slavery itself was not passed until 1833. Danby was not known to have had any particularly strong feelings for the religious subject in his works, but was opposed to slavery and was conscious that there was a prevailing appetite for the apocalyptic in art. In this work he has excelled at depicting dramatic phenomena in nature, from spectacular sunsets to lightning storms. The painting proved the most popular work at the Royal Academy in London in 1828.  It was a triumph, loved by public and critics alike. Danby had been elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy in November 1825 and now, following the success at the Academy exhibitions, he had high hopes that he would be elected a full member of the Academy. However there was one problem. The other candidate who stood for election was John Constable and Danby began to fear the worse as he anxiously awaited the result of the ballot, saying:

“…the awful moment is coming…..if Constable is put in, I think I will run out…”

As a full member of the Academy he could apply for funds and he knew that Constable would have no reason to ask for money as his wife had just inherited £30,000 and thus Danby believed that the Academy may look on that factor as a reason for choosing Constable. Danby’s fears were well founded and in February 1829 Constable beat Danby by one vote.   Danby was both furious and bitter. He accused Constable as being underhanded and that the Academy had chosen the rich over the poor adding:

“…for the Academy I have much cause to be ashamed as it lowers their value when it is so evident that the have elected Constable for his money…”

His accusation against the Academy held some credence with the National Press, which must have hurt Constable. Even worse for Constable the President of the Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, was openly disappointed with the Academy’s choice.

A Study for The Golden Age (pencil and bodycolour on grey paper) by Francis Danby (1827)

A Danby painting of around this time had an interesting tale to it. Around 1826 when Danby was working on a Cleopatra painting for John Gibbons he mentioned to his patron that he had conceived an idea for a large work. It was to be called The Golden Age but he promised it would not hinder the Cleopatra painting although that work was causing him problems. Lord de Tabley, a patron of Turner, had shown an interest in buying one of Danby’s paintings and so Danby sent him a preliminary study of The Golden Age (above), but unfortunately Lord de Tabley was too ill to look at it and so Danby turned to his patron, Gibbons. In a letter to Gibbons in January 1827 Danby included a small sketch of his ideas for The Golden Age. He had to temper his enthusiasm for this new venture with the promise that Cleopatra had not been forgotten. He also once again told his patron he was in financial difficulty and in danger of debtor’s prison and asked for a loan of £300. Gibbons gave Danby more money and agreed to take the finished Golden Age painting.

Boy Fishing, Stapleton by Francis Danby (1823)

Despite the money, Danby’s life became even more problematic and turbulent. It was anxious times on two fronts for Danby as he had both financial and marital problems to contend with. Despite selling his paintings he was continually asking his patron John Gibbons for money to pay off his debts which were mounting. In December 1829 Danby left London for Paris in order to escape his creditors only returning briefly the following January to attend the funeral of his friend, the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, but he had to make a hasty return to the French capital when his creditors were about to serve him with writs.

Conway Castle by Francis Danby

In June 1830, Danby with four of his seven children, moved to Bruges. He once again contacted John Gibbons expressing his parlous situation and also informing him that his marriage to his wife Hannah was at an end due to her infidelity with a Bristol artist, Paul Falconer Poole and her having also abandoned their children. In later letters to John Gibbons, Danby stated that he only married Hannah out of kindness and implied that she was already pregnant. He ended by saying that the marriage had resulted in a precarious and unhappy life.  Ironically, Danby was now living with his mistress, Ellen Evans, who would give him three more children.

The Deluge by Francis Danby (1840)

The last painting of Danby’s that I am showcasing is his monumental work, The Deluge, which he completed in 1840. It measures 285 x 452cms and is one of the largest works Danby ever painted. He had been away from England for eleven years, living in Europe but had, in 1839, returned to London. The subject of the painting could well have been chosen as to compete directly with his nemesis John Martin who had also exhibited two of his trilogy of Deluge themed paintings at the Royal Academy in 1840. Martin had decided to depict the story of the deluge in a number of paintings whereas Danby decided that the story should be depicted in a solitary work. The writer and critic William Makepeace Thackery wrote about the painting in in Fraser’s Magazine a literary journal published in London, praising Danby’s treatment of the subject, which he considered to be superior to  those by John Martin, Turner and even Poussin, :

“…He has painted the picture of “The Deluge”; we have before our eyes still the ark in the midst of the ruin floating calm and lonely, the great black cataracts of water pouring down, the mad rush of the miserable people clambering up the rocks…”

The painting which is now housed at Tate Britain, London is described by the Gallery as:

“…As well as such meteorological portents as lightning, a comet, and a blood-red setting sun, Danby has also extended his theme by the use of symbolic references to destruction, in particular the juxtaposition of the serpent and the drowning lion, and the angel weeping over the dead giant. This giant may have been included by Danby on account of the references to venerable giants and heroes that occur in Genesis vi, 4, at the beginning of the account of the Deluge…”

The background is believed to have been derived from the coast of Brittany, a place Danby is known to have visited in 1838. The picture also shows the effects of Danby’s three years stay in Paris, such as the rising pinnacle of figures struggling up the rocky promontory which could have been inspired by a similar compositional form of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa and Poussin’s Deluge painting which we know he copied during visits to the Louvre in 1837.  The national press liked the work but the public were less impressed in comparison to the notable success he had had with his Opening of the Sixth Seal work.

Landscape near Clifton by Francis Danby (1823)

Danby remained in England for most of the rest of his life. He lived in London until 1842 and then moved to Kent. In 1846 he was living in Exmouth, Devon where he not only painted but enjoyed sailing and boat building. His ever-loyal patron John Gibbons died in August 1851 and in 1856 Francis Danby took a long lease on Shell House on the Maer. where he devoted time to boatbuilding. He constructed his yacht ‘Dragonfly’ on the Maer.  This boat was shipwrecked off the coast at Axmouth in 1860.  It is thought that his studio in Exmouth was just off Exeter Road where he would have had a good view of the river Exe. Francis Danby died at home on February 10th, 1861, aged 67. He was buried at St John -in-the-Wilderness at Withycombe, Exmouth.

Francis Danby. Part 1, the early days.

Francis Danby

My featured artist today is the Irish-born painter Francis Danby who was one of twins born in the small village of Killinick, just south of the county town of Wexford, on November 16th 1793. His father was James Danby, a small-time farmer, whose family had lived in the area since the 1730’s. James Danby had first married Susanna Harvey in 1762. She was the daughter of a Wexford vicar and the couple had two children, John Henry and James. His second marriage took place in 1781 when he married the Dubliner, Margaret Watson, who gave her husband three children, twins Thomas, who died young, and Francis as well as a daughter, Frances Olivia.

A View in County Wexford by Francis Danby (1813)                                                                                               A View in County Wexford (Saint Nicholas’ Clonmines and Bannow Bay)

In 1798, at the age of five, Francis and his family suffered the emotions and terrors associated with the Wexford Rebellion which has gone down in Irish history as one of the most bloody, the most bitterest and yet the most successful insurrections. It began in May 1798 and lasted a month. It was the Society of United Irishmen’s Rising against the British domination of Ireland. The leaders of the rebellion maintained that the rebellion was purely political and not an issue of religion but some of the bloody massacres which occurred did indicate sectarian tensions as motives. There was also the factor that grain prices had collapsed in 1797 and 1798, and also new taxes were being levied by the British government on the malt industry which caused tremendous hardship in many regions, but especially Wexford. The rebels fought for a reform of legislature and the redistribution of political power.

As a protestant and feeling unsafe in the small village of Killinick, James moved his family to the city of Wexford in 1799. He wrote to a friend:

“…My family like many others were destroyed by political and party feeling, many of them lost their lives on both sides of the unhappy question…”

Francis Danby’s father’s fear for his and his family’s lives is borne out with the wording of the preface to his will which he made the following year:

“…Having lately escaped assassination and being convinced of the savage disposition of the majority of people, I am more than ever reminded of the uncertainty of life…”

Panorama of the Coast at Sunset by Francis Danby (1813)

In late 1799, the family were once again on the move. This time they travelled to Dublin, the home town of Francis’ mother. In 1807 James Danby died and through the vagaries of the inheritance laws, whatever money he had was left to the children of his first wife and Francis Danby received nought. Francis finished his schooling in 1811 and decided he wanted to become a professional artist. His mother considered his request and agreed to his ideas, since there seemed little hope in her son moving towards any other meaningful professions.

Conway Castle by Francis Danby

Francis Danby enrolled at the drawing schools of the Dublin Society and it was here he met and became great friends with two aspiring landscape painters, George Petrie and James Arthur O’Connor. In 1813, at the age of nineteen, Francis had his first painting, entitled Landscape – Evening, exhibited at the Society of Artists of Ireland and it was sold for fifteen guineas and with that princely sum Francis travelled to London in June 1813, along with Petrie and O’Connor, to see what the England capital had to offer young artists. Francis, like his two travelling companions, headed for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and he wrote about it and how it inspired him:

“…the wonders of which I was so struck that they increased my ambition, and from my twentieth year I have been an English Artist…”

It is thought that Francis Danby never returned to Ireland and he never declared any love for his birthplace. The journey of the three friends ended after two weeks when Petrie was summoned home from London by his father. Francis Danby and O’Connor had not managed to make any money whilst in London and decided that they too must return to Ireland. They knew a captain of a sailing packet who would give them free passage from the port of Bristol back to Ireland, so all three, who had very little money, set off to walk the hundred and twenty miles to the seaport.

The Avon Gorge from the Stop Gate below Sea Walls, pen and ink drawing by Francis Danby (1818)

They arrived and Petrie left them and returned to Ireland. Danby and O’Connor managed to sell two watercolour paintings of the Wicklow Mountains to a Bristol bookseller, John Mintorn and later they completed four drawings of the Avon Gorge which again they sold to Mintorn. They had now accumulated some money but it was not enough to buy two tickets on the boat to Ireland. Danby, knowing that his friend O’Connor, had four young orphaned sisters at home in Ireland, gave him the ticket.

The Eagle’s Nest, Killarney by Francis Danby

Francis Danby was now the only one of the three Irish travellers left in Bristol and was lodging at a baker’s shop on Redcliffe Hill, close to the River Avon. Danby was approached by his landlord, named Fry, who lived in Winscombe, Somerset, asking him to travel down from Bristol, stay with his son and paint some family portraits and this he did and it was during his stay at the home of the landlord’s son that he came across a young woman, Hannah Hardedge, who was one of the servants. Francis Danby was immediately attracted to this young woman and soon they were married. Danby described the lead up to the nuptials in a letter:

“…I was invited down to Somersetshire to paint some portraits amongst the farmers and drank cider. I took a great fancy to one of their servants, a little red-faced bare-footed wench, my Irish brogue I suppose was against me. I could not succeed however in any way but by promising to marry her. She, on the word of a young gentleman who was confoundedly out at the elbows, willingly consented to come with me to Bristol…”

“Out at the elbow” was a seventeenth century phrase meaning poverty stricken. The girl’s condition for going back to Bristol with Danby was on the understanding they would be married. The couple were married on July 4th 1814 at Winscombe parish church. In the parish register it was noted that Hannah was illiterate and she marked her name with a simple cross. Danby was twenty years old. The couple remained in Somerset at the home of her family and Danby rarely returned to Bristol. The first child the couple had was Francis James, who records show was baptised on August 13th 1815, followed eighteen months later by his brother, James, who was baptised on April 27th 1817. According to the Bristol Index, Francis Danby and his family left Somerset in 1817 and moved back to Bristol, staying at 21 Paul Street, Kingsdown. In 1818, Danby and Henriette had a third child, another son, John. A year later, in 1819 the family moved to 9 Kingsdown Parade.

Francis Danby – The Upas, or Poison-Tree, in the Island of Java – painting by Francis Danby, (ca. 1820)

Francis Danby had concentrated on watercolour painting but in January 1820, he had his first oil painting shown in London at the British Institution. It was entitled The Upas or Poison Tree in the Island of Java. It was a large work measuring 169 x 235cms and he had started work on it in 1819. The subject of the painting, the Upas Tree, comes from the poem The Loves of the Plants by Erasmus Darwin. Part of the poem (lines 237-8 of canto III) describe the plant and its deadly properties:

“…There is a poison-tree in the island of Java, which is said by its effluvia to have depopulated the country for 12 or 14 miles round… With the juice of it the most poisonous arrows are prepared; and, to gain this, the condemned criminals are sent to the tree… to get the juice…and are pardoned if they bring back a certain quantity of poison. But…not one in four are said to return. Not only animals of all kinds… but all kinds of vegetables also are destroyed by the effluvia of the noxious tree…the face of the earth is quite barren and rocky intermixed only with the skeletons of men and animals, affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described or painters have delineated…”

The fable about the tree and its deadly properties was based on the poisonous anchar tree. The tale was further embellished in an article which appeared in the London Magazine in December 1873, six years prior to Erasmus Darwin’s poem.

This submission to the British Institution was Danby’s entry to the London art scene. Sir Richard Redgrave, an English landscape artist, genre painter and administrator, was full of praise for Danby’s painting, saying:

“…a wonderful first attempt……..and to succeed in such a subject required a poetical mind, joined to powers of the highest order: no mere landscape painting, no mere imitation of Nature, would suffice to picture to us the gloomy horrors of this land of fear…”

Disappointed Love by Francis Danby (1821)

In 1821 Danby’s fourth son, Thomas, was born and this was also the year that Danby had his first painting accepted by the Royal Academy for their annual exhibition and it became one of his best-known works. It was entitled Disappointed Love. The depiction is of the dark recesses of the River Frome near Stapleton, a north-eastern suburb of Bristol. Stapleton was a favourite destination for Bristol-based artists, such as George Carmichael, Edward Rippingille and Edward Bird and all three had completed works depicting a girl seated alone in a wooded landscape. However it is considered that Danby’s work was far better than theirs.

The painting depicts a heartbroken young woman who has just been jilted. Her hands cover her face as she sits weeping on the bank of a lily pond surrounded by dark and murky woodland. The occasional small white flowers, dotted around, struggle to lift the dark green and browns of the undergrowth. This gloomy undergrowth mirrors the depressed mind of the young girl. Her long dark tresses hang down over her white dress. Beside her, we see her discarded bonnet, her scarlet shawl , a miniature portrait of her lover and other letters which she has not yet destroyed. Her sad figure dressed in white is reflected in the water and it almost seems that the water is drawing her to it so that she can end her life and her misery, in an Ophelia-like fashion. Floating on the surface of the pond are pieces of a letter which she has torn up and discarded. Eric Adams wrote a biography in 1973 on Francis Danby entitled Francis Danby: varieties of poetic landscape and he believes the model for the painting was a model at the Bristol Artists newly founded Life Academy. There was a lot of criticism of the painting, not so much for the poetical nature of the work but for its technical faults, in particular the lack of proportion of the plants in the foreground.

When the painting was put forward to the Royal Academy jurists to see if it should be allowed in to the 1821 Exhibition it was not wholly loved. An account of one of the jurist’s comments on seeing Danby’s painting was reported some twelve years later as:

“…An unknown artist about ten years ago sent a very badly painted picture for the exhibition. The committee laughed but were struck by “something” in it and gave it admission. The subject was this. It was a queer-coloured landscape and a strange doldrum figure of a girl was seated on a bank, leaning over a dingy duck-weed pool. Over the stagnant smeary green, lay scattered the fragments of a letter she had torn to pieces, and she seemed considering whether to plump herself in upon it. Now in this case, the Academicians judged by the same feelings that influence the public. There was more “touching” invention in that than in the nine-tenth of the best pictures exhibited there the last we do not know how many years. The artist is now eminent…”

It is a beautiful painting, full of pathos, and one cannot but feel sympathy for the young girl. It was for this reason that I was surprised to read an anecdote about this painting and the depiction of the girl. Apparently the Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, was being shown the painting by its owner, the wealthy Yorkshire cloth manufacturer, John Sheepshanks and commented that although he was impressed by the deep gloom of the scene, it was a shame that the girl was so ugly. Sheepshanks replied:

“..Yes, one feels that the sooner she drowns herself the better…”

With that unfeeling comment I will close the first part of my blog on Francis Danby !

Alfred Robert Quinton, the chocolate box painter.

People’s taste in art is a very personal thing. What some of us like is anathema to others. The main consideration when we choose our favourite paintings or favourite artist should be that they or their work make us feel good, inspired and happy. Why should we decry art that others like even if we consider it to be trivial or amateurish? What makes people who are critical about a certain painting or certain genres think that they are the great experts on art. Let us just like what we like and allow others to like what they like.

Alfred Robert Quinton

This is all a round about way of justifying the art genre of today’s featured painter. It is a genre which is liked by many but decried by others. My featured artist today is Alfred Robert Quinton, an English nineteenth century watercolour painter who was known for his depictions of villages and landscapes. Detractors label his work as being chocolate-box art. This term derives from scenes of a highly stereotypical nature found on biscuit and chocolate boxes. They were often scenes of the English countryside depicting charming cottages with little girls adorned in pretty dresses dancing happily with their pets. Now the term chocolate-box art is more of a judgemental and derogatory expression. The decriers call these works over-sentimental and kitsch and yet, at the time, they were very popular, albeit in recent years they have fallen slightly out of favour.

Cottages at Lake, Nr Salisbury, Wiltshire, from The Cottages and the Village Life of Rural England by Alfred Robert Quinton published by Dent and Sons Limited, 1912

Alfred Robert Quinton was born in Peckham, London on October 23rd 1853. He was the youngest of seven children, the fifth son of John Allan Quinton and Eliza Quinton (née Cullum). His parents came from the county of Suffolk. John Quinton was from Needham Market and his wife, whom he married in 1840, was from Ipswich. John and Eliza Quinton moved from Suffolk to 5 Ellington Terrace, Islington, London in 1850. John Quinton, a printer, editor of periodicals, and supporter of the Liberals, was staunch Congregationalist and worked for the Religious Tract Society, an organisation which published Christian literature intended originally for evangelism, but also incorporated literature aimed at children, women, and the poor. John eventually became editor of titles such as The Boys’ Own Paper, The Girls’ Own Paper and The Sunday at Home. Alfred was influenced by his father, who lived to be eighty-eight, and was a regular Congregational Church attender and supporter of the Liberal Party.

Marlow by Alfred Robert Quinton

Alfred attended the Hornsey School in North London and excelled in art. He was a hard working pupil and when he was fourteen years old, received a book prize for his hard work, entitled Drawing From Nature. A Series of Progressive Instructions in Sketching To Which are Appended Lectures on Art Delivered at Rugby School. It was to be one of his favourite possessions and an inspiration to him on his artistic journey.

The Bell Inn Waltham St Laurence, Berkshire by Alfred Robert Quinton

Alfred left school and went to study at Heatherley’s Art School, which boasted Burne Jones, Rossetti, Millais, Lord Leighton, and Walter Sickert amongst its former students. From there Alfred became an apprentice engraver but soon decided to concentrate on becoming a professional artist. Initially Quinton worked in oils but his last-known work in that medium is dated 1885. From then on he concentrated on watercolour painting and black and white drawings. He exhibited his work at many London galleries and exhibited a large painting, Above Wharfedale, Yorkshire at the Imperial Jubilee Exhibition in Liverpool on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. In 1879 his watercolour work, At Gomshall, Surrey was his first work to be exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Rottingdean near Brighton by Alfred Robert Quinton

Although Quinton was not a member of the Academy, his paintings were seen there on a regular basis, in fact, he had twenty works of art exhibited on the walls of the Academy between 1879 and 1919. Later however, his work was banned by the Royal Academy because they disapproved of what they termed, his ‘commercialisation’ of art. Quinton also exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists and the New Watercolour Society, which later became the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Quinton’s original London studio was in Bolt Court, Fleet Street but in 1880 he moved to a studio in New Court, Lincoln’s Inn which he shared with a contemporary of his, the artist Henry Bailey.

Granny’s Cottage, Henley Common, near Midhurst, Sussex by Alfred Robert Quinton

Alfred Quinton regularly travelled throughout Europe in the early 1880’s. His favourite foreign trips were his sea voyages to Spain and the coastal town of Malaga and it was during one of his return trips home from the Spanish port that he met his future wife, Elizabeth Annie Crompton. The couple married at Bolton, Lancashire on May 20th, 1885. He was thirty-two and she was twenty-seven years of age. The couple went to live with Quinton’s parents who had a house in Finchley, London and they stayed there until his mother died in 1886. That year, on March 5th 1886, their son Leonard was born at Hampstead, London. A second son, Edgar, was born in 1891. Sadly, Edgar, who suffered from heart problems, died aged twenty-one, in 1912.

Dudging-Exhall Shakespeare Village by Alfred Robert Quinton

Quinton had a routine for each year. He would go off on his travels for three months during the summer and during this time would make hundreds of sketches and took and bought photographs of the places he visited, and then settle down at home to convert the sketches into paintings during the autumn and winter months. Quinton’s paintings were very popular and sales of them allowed him to purchase Westfield, a large eleven-roomed house with its own studio in Finchley, which, at the time, sat alone among the fields in the countryside. This home remained in the family until 1974, forty years after Alfred Quinton’s death.

Windsor Castle, from the Brocas by Alfred Robert Quinton

Not only did Quinton sketch during his summer journeys but he also kept a diary of his travels in England and Europe and these would be published in articles with accompanying illustrations by him. One such journey happened between May and October 1895 when he and his cycling companion, thought to be his artist friend, Henry Bailey, travelled from Land’s End to John O’Groats and this mammoth cycling trip was serialised in the journal, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Of the long journey, Quinton wrote:

“…Our idea was to tour leisurely from end to end, to enjoy varied scenery which our native land presents in such variety to those who care to see it and to study the life and character which we might meet with on the road…”

This was just one of the many he completed during his lifetime and was typical of the Victorians desire to travel.

The Cottages and Village Life of Rural England.by P H Ditchfield with Coloured and Line Illustrations by A.R. Quinton

The well-known English historian and a prolific author, Peter Hempson Ditchfield (P.H. Ditchfield) wrote a book The Cottages and the Village Life of Rural England in 1912 and Quinton provided seventy-one illustrations for it. Quinton recalled the collaboration fondly:

“…We have explored together some of the quaint nooks and corners, the highways and byways, of old England, and with the pen and brush described them as they are at the present time. We have visited the peasant in the wayside cottage…..entered the old village shop, and even taken our ease at an inn…”

The Historic Thames by Hilaire Belloc with illustrations by Alfred Robert Quinton

He provided illustrations for other books and magazines including a set of illustrations featuring the Wye Valley and Wharfedale in 1902 for the Art Journal. One of his most prestigious collaborations was his fifty-nine illustrations for Hilaire Belloc’s 1907 book The Historic Thames, which is considered a minor classic during the early part of the twentieth century.

Victoria Statue, Castle Approach, Windsor by Alfred Robert Quinton

The illustrations included views of Lambeth Place, Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle and it took Quinton the summers of 1905 and 1906 to complete the illustrations, many of which were exhibited at the Suffolk Street Gallery which was the home of the Royal Society of British Artists. Two of the paintings on display were purchased by The Duke and Duchess of York for their private collection.

Chiddingstone, Kent by Alfred Robert Quinton

During the 1870’s and 1880’s Quinton struggled to sell his paintings, achieving a top price of fifteen guineas if he was lucky. But his fortunes changed by the early twentieth century and by 1920 his large 4 x 5ft works were fetching around one hundred guineas. In the early days of his career, most of his money came from book and booklet illustrations, but during the late 1890’s and the early 1900’s when he became a recognised landscape painter his paintings began to sell well

Village Cross, Crowcombe, Somerset by Alfred Robert Quinton

The postcard publisher Raphael Tuck began to produce images from Quinton’s watercolours in a series called Village Crosses.

However Quinton’s main outlet for his work came from Joseph Salmon, the Kent printer and art publisher who founded and owned J Salmon Limited.  Joseph Salmon, who had a personal interest in photography, had begun to publish black and white reproductions of photographs of the Sevenoaks neighbourhood in Kent as postcards. By the end of 1903 Salmon decided that picture postcards reproduced from paintings would be the way forward and he commissioned local artists to paint pictures of their local area.

A By-lane at Houghton, Sussex by Alfred Robert Quinton

Around 1911 Joseph Salmon visited the Selfridges Store in London and visited its art department where he noticed an art display featuring watercolour paintings of cottages and countryside scenes mainly of the Worcestershire area. The signature on all the works was A R Quinton. Salmon bought six of the watercolours and arranged with Quinton to have the copyright of the works and then had them reproduced as postcards. They proved a great success and it was to be the start of a collaboration between artist Quinton and printer J. Salmon which would last until Quinton’s death in 1934.

Footbridge, near Porlock, Somerset by Alfred Robert Quinton

Quinton was a prolific painter. In 1924, he completed one hundred and forty-three paintings which were delivered to J. Salmon for reproducing as postcards. Even in the last year of his life he managed to complete forty-seven commissioned works and one, an unfinished work, was on the easel where he had left it, the day before he died. His total artistic output was approximately two thousand watercolour paintings for Salmon postcards. For Quinton it was a lucrative association with Salmon as up until November 1922 he received four pounds for each painting, then his fee increased to five guineas per work. The artistic genius of Alfred Quinton was his ability to capture the flavour and colour of English rural life at the turn of the century. In his paintings, he was able to combine accuracy with an impression of rural peace and harmony which made his work so popular with the public. He was in love with the English countryside.

Alfred died at his beloved Finchley home, Westfield, on 10 December 1934, aged 81. His wife Elizabeth died ten years after her husband on February 16th 1945. She was 86. Their eldest son Leonard died on January 14th 1981.

Why was his work so popular? It is probably the nostalgia of the carefree days spent in the countryside, away from the fast paced towns and cities. P.H. Ditchfield, the author, whom Quinton collaborated in 1904 and 1912 summed it up, writing:

“…Agitators are eager to pull down our old cottages and erect new ones which lack all the grace and charm of our old-fashioned dwellings. It is well to catch a glimpse of rural England before the transformation comes, and to preserve a record of the beauties that for a time remain…”

John William Waterhouse. Part 5.

Sirens, mermaids, nudes and controversy

In my last look at John William Waterhouse’s life and artwork I am reverting to his love of mythological subjects and his love of women regaled in verse by well-known poets and story tellers. It was Waterhouse’s ability to depict beautiful women which made him popular with the public of the time.

Lamia by John William Waterhouse (1905)

In 1905 Waterhouse completed a work entitled Lamia. Although the name conjures up a gentle soul, it couldn’t be further from the truth. The word lamia means vampire, witch, sorceress, ghoul, or enchantress and the character emanates from Greek mythology. According to Greek myth, following the killing of Lamia’s children by the goddess, Hera, she sought vengeance by sucking the blood of men she seduced and devouring their children. Waterhouse was drawn to the subject through John Keats’ 1819 narrative poem Lamia. The poet however does not openly condemn the animal-woman as evil, but rather dwells on her beauty and the sexual excitement she offers. In the painting we see the foot of the soldier treading on the tail of the serpent Lamia and we see the scales she has shed wrapped around the back of her legs.  These colourful scales contrast with her pale arms which she holds out towards the soldier. In all, Waterhouse completed three versions of this work, all around the same size. The original one, which was exhibited at the 1905 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, was purchased by Sir Alexander Henderson, Baron Faringdon, whose family members were keen patrons of Waterhouse.

La Belle Dame sans Merci by John William Waterhouse (1893)

Another of Keats’ maidens featured in a work by Waterhouse. In 1820 Keats penned his poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci (The Beautiful Woman without Mercy). It tells of a knight who meets a beautiful enchantress.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

The knight has fallen in love with this beautiful delicate creature but is she all that she seems? The knight is besotted and falls into a sleep and dreams of how he first met the female. However, in the knight’s dreams he is warned against a liaison with this beautiful maiden.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!

On waking from his sleep, he finds the maiden has gone and he is heartbroken. The setting for this work is a dense wood which symbolises both a sense of entanglement and moral confusion. Waterhouse’s painting is at the point in the poem when the knight meets the woman. He is depicted bending down towards her. He is totally bemused by her beauty as he looks at her upturned face. On the right sleeve of the woman there is a heart. She entraps the knight coiling her long hair around his neck like a serpent capturing its prey. She is tying her hair in a knot so as to entrap the knight. She pulls him towards her. She stares at him and he is lost, almost as if he has been hypnotised by her beauty. He has dropped his lance to the ground which metaphorically is a sign of his defencelessness, a powerlessness against her wiles and also symbolises a loss of his masculine virility. This beautiful sprite has emasculated him. It is a highly sensual work as we look upon the knight and the woman gazing into each other’s eyes. There is a tenseness about the depiction but as we know, once their lips meet, the knight will be lost. In a way Waterhouse’s depiction plays on the fears of men about their vulnerability at the hands of the fairer sex. It is also a statement regarding woman’s constant need to be loved.

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse

The interaction between males and females was of continuing interest to Waterhouse and he would often depict such interplay between the sexes by portraying mythological stories.  In his 1896 he completed a painting entitled Hylas and the Nymphs, the setting of which is somewhere deep in an overgrown woodland surrounding a murky pond with its clumps of reeds and lilies. It is very reminiscent of the setting in John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting Ophelia. The depiction comes from the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Hylas, a very handsome youth, was one of Jason’s crew. When Jason’s boat landed on an island during his search for the Golden Fleece, Hylas was sent ashore to bring back some fresh water for the men. Hylas found a pool in a clearing and he reached down and put his pitcher into the water but before he could raise his pitcher, he looked up to discover water nymphs encircling him and we know that he is doomed. They were enticed by his beauty, and one of the nymphs reached up to kiss him. Immediately Hylas disappeared without trace, never to be found again and after a protracted search for his missing crewman,  Jason decided to leave the island and continue with his travels.

Preliminary sketch for Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

The painting depicts the woodland pond in which we see the seven bare-breasted nymphs bathing, whilst, on the bank, we see Hylas kneeling down with his pitcher immersed in the water. There is a gentle sexuality about these captivating naked nymphs in the translucent water. Hylas’ olive skin tone is darker than that of the cream skin tones of the nymphs which contrasts with their dark hair. Although the legend describes Hylas as a very handsome man, our eyes immediately alight on the central nymph, who has hypnotised Hylas with her beauty and in some way has mesmerised us, the viewers of the painting. The painting was not complete by the time of the 1896 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and instead, was shown at the Manchester Autumn Exhibition, and was, following the event, purchased by the Manchester Corporation. They then allowed it to be displayed at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1897. The painting was later loaned to a number of international exhibitions including the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle.

Hylas and the Nymphs (detail) by John William Waterhouse

The painting was the centre of a controversy in 2018 when the curator of the Manchester Art Gallery decided to remove the painting from the walls of the permanent collection. What triggered the removal? Some believed because of the nudity on display in the work. The official stance was that removal of the painting was part of an art project by British Afro-Caribbean artist Sonia Boyce inspired by the MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns. A film of the removal of the picture was screened at the gallery with the intention being to inspire debate about the presentation of women ! There was an instant backlash from the public with regards this removal and the national press had a field day when the curator had to reverse her decision. The Daily Mail of February 5th 2018 splashed the headline:

Offensive nymphs are back on display at Manchester Art Gallery after backlash when artwork was taken over fear it was offensive to women.

Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs was taken down, it was ‘offensive to women’.  A curator had claimed that the 1896 artwork perpetuated ‘outdated and damaging stories’ that ‘women are either femmes fatale or passive bodies’
A gallery accused of censorship after removing a pre-Raphaelite masterpiece for supposedly being offensive to women has made a humiliating U-turn.
After a furious backlash against Manchester Art Gallery for taking down John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, the painting returned to pride of place over the weekend.

The Manchester Gallery had then to formulate a statement explaining the removal and subsequent return.  Amanda Wallace, Interim Director Manchester Art Gallery, said:

“…We’ve been inundated with responses to our temporary removal of Hylas and the Nymphs as part of the forthcoming Sonia Boyce exhibition, and it’s been amazing to see the depth and range of feelings expressed.  The painting is rightly acknowledged as one of the highlights of our Pre-Raphaelite collection, and over the years has been enjoyed by millions of visitors to the gallery.  We were hoping the experiment would stimulate discussion, and it’s fair to say we’ve had that in spades – and not just from local people but from art-lovers around the world.  Throughout the painting’s seven-day absence, it’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised, and we now plan to harness this strength of feeling for some further debate on these wider issues…”

Hylas and the Water Nymphs by Henrietta Rae (1909)

It is ironic that such a supposed declaration by the Manchester gallery that the painting was somewhat sexist and against feminist principles in the way it depicted naked women as the great Victorian painter and staunch supporter of feminism and women’s suffrage, and organiser of an exhibition of female artists for the Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Henrietta Rae, produced a similar painting in 1909.

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse (1900)

In traditional folklore, the mermaid was looked upon as being a traditional siren who lured unsuspecting sailors to their doom with her mesmerising songs. She was half fish, half human and longed for the company of men. It was these legendary figures that inspired Waterhouse to complete a number of paintings featuring mermaids and sirens. In 1900 he completed the painting entitled A Mermaid which is now part of the Royal Academy collection. Waterhouse’s interest in this subject was because of its mystical temptress whose beauty and charisma proved deadly to men. Yet it was the mermaid’s inability to form a meaningful relationship with a human being that was in itself a curse which fated her to live an unfulfilled life. It could be that Waterhouse’s interest in this aspect was more to do with how men became anxious when confronted by an enchanting female as capitulating to such feelings could have a tragic outcome. In the painting we see a mermaid combing out her long red hair whilst singing a hypnotic song and by combining these elements Waterhouse is making the connection between the narcissistic trait of females with man’s vulnerability when it comes to beautiful women. Before the mermaid, there is a large shell containing pearls, which legend has it are formed by the tears of dead sailors. The mermaid is perched on a rock and her tail has coiled around her, almost as if she is hugging herself. Once again Waterhouse’s depiction could have been influenced by Tennyson’s 1830 poem, The Mermaid, with the lines:

Who would be
A mermaid fair,
Singing alone,
Combing her hair
Under the sea,
In a golden curl
With a comb of pearl,
On a throne?

The Siren by John William Waterhouse (1900)

That same year, 1900, Waterhouse completed a similar work entitled The Siren. This was his belated (by five years) Royal Academy Diploma Picture after being elected a full Academician in 1895. In this work Waterhouse has the mermaid perched on a rock and the shell we saw in A Mermaid painting has been supplanted by a musical instrument, the lyre. In The Siren, Waterhouse has depicted the siren looking down upon the drowning sailor. The expression on the siren’s face is somewhat mystifying as it is one of inquisitiveness and not one would expect from a “creature” who is about to watch the sailor drown in the raging sea. It is almost a look of compassion. The expression on the sailor’s face is one of pleading to be saved.

John William Waterhouse (c.1886)

In 1915, John William Waterhouse was diagnosed as having liver cancer and two years later, he died at home on February 10th 1917 at the age of 68, and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London. Thirteen years after his death., his widow, through Christies, sold one hundred of her late husband’s works. Sadly, by that time, Waterhouse’s works had become unfashionable and his famous painting Ophelia was purchased for a meagre £450. However, by the 1960’s his work has become more popular and the postcard of his painting Lady of Shalott has become the Tate’s best-seller. His reputation was further enhanced in 2000 when his painting St Cecilia fetched £6.6 million at auction. It was the highest price ever paid for a Victorian painting. There was a major retrospective of his work at the Royal Academy in 2009 at which Waterhouse was described as:

“…one of Britain’s best-loved nineteenth century painters…”

In the exhibition catalogue which accompanied the exhibition, a biographer of Waterhouse wrote in the introduction:

“…Coursing through the pictures, across five decades, are Waterhouse’s fascination with melancholy, magic, and the thrilling dangers of love and beauty… they are lyrical in the truest sense of the word – imbued with the same hypnotic power possessed by the ancient poets who sang their stories. This was also a man particularly enthralled with female beauty and the power of women over men, over nature, over each other – no matter how sturdy or fragile they might appear physically…”

John William Waterhouse. Part 4.

Dolce Far Niente, Tennyson and Herrick

John William Waterhouse (c.1886)

In the last blog on John William Waterhouse I looked at his paintings which focused on sorcery, sorceresses and Homer’s famous work The Odyssey with tales of death and bloodshed. In the blog today I am taking a more relaxed and soothing road and consider the beautiful women who featured in some of his best loved works.

Dolce Far Niente by John William Godward

The phrase Dolce far Niente was the title of a number of eighteenth-century paintings by well-known artists of the time. The Italian phrase literally means “sweet doing nothing, or sweet idleness”. In essence it meant doing nothing and enjoying it. John William Godward was an English painter born in 1861 and lived during the end of the Neo-Classicist era. He was a protégé of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema but unfortunately his style of painting fell out of favour with the unstoppable progression of modern art. Saddened by this inexorable fact of life, he committed suicide at the age of 61 and purportedly wrote a suicide note in which he stated that the world is not big enough for [both] myself and a Picasso.

II Dolce ar Niente by William Holman Hunt (1866)

Another painter to have Dolce far Niente for the title of his work was William Holman Hunt with his 1867 painting, which was exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. His friend and lover, the professional artist’s model, Annie Miller, sat for Hunt for this work but due to a falling-out with the artist half way through the painting Hunt had to enlist the help of Fanny Waugh, the daughter of a chemist whom he later married.

Dolce Far niente by Auguste Toulmouche (1877)

Before I look at Waterhouse’s two paintings which have the same title, I will show you one more. Auguste Toulmouche was a nineteenth century painter noted for his luxurious portraits of Parisian women and he completed his painting Dolce far Niente in 1877.

Dolce Far Niente by John William Waterhouse (1879)

However, this blog is all about John William Waterhouse so let us look at his two versions of the subject. His first work was completed in 1879 and is a depiction of a sensual and elaborately dressed female, lying on a rug with her head on green velvet pillow, whilst white feathers flutter down and stand out against the paler white of the wall. Waterhouse loved his painting and when it was exhibited that year at the Dudley Gallery, he put an 80 guineas price tag on the work, which was treble what he usually asked for his works on sale at that gallery. Waterhouse’s choice of title for the painting suggests that he wanted to associate himself with the light-hearted Italianate subjects of several of his contemporaries who chose settings of the island of Capri for their works. In just a few years Waterhouse’s reputation would eclipse these very painters. Once again, when the painting was exhibited, many commented on the similarity of the depiction and the setting to the works of Alma-Tadema, who was thirteen years older than Waterhouse and still better known. In the top right we can see a Pompeian-style light. On the floor, stands a deep-blue glass vase out of which emerges a sunflower.

Dolce Far Niente by John William Waterhouse (1880)

The following year, 1880, Waterhouse completed another work with the same title, Dolce Far Niente. This much larger work (50 x 96cms) is housed in the Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. The painting depicts everyday life in the ancient world and is very much in the style of Alma-Tadema who often used a composition which was derived from ancient vase paintings which represented drinking parties, and often depicted women reclining on couches with small tables in front of them bearing vases of flowers, statuettes or drinking vessels. In this work by Waterhouse we see brilliant yellow daffodils and a small jug lying atop a marble and bronze table similar to what was found in Pompeii which Waterhouse would have seen when he visited the museum in Naples in 1877.

Scene at Pompeii by John William Waterhouse (1877)

Behind the couch there are a number of colonnades with their distinctive red and white colouring, examples of which were part of the interiors found at Pompeii. When Waterhouse returned to his birthplace, Italy, in 1877, it was the first time he had visited the country since his family left in 1854 when he was five years old. In 1860 the Italian archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli, introduced new excavation techniques which concentrated on clearing rubble from the ruins of Pompeii and restoring architectural spaces of the town. Waterhouse saw the fruits of the archaeologist’s work when he visited the site and completed a number of watercolour paintings of the cleared areas. In his watercolour entitled Scene at Pompeii we once again see the red and white colonnades which were present in his Dolce Far Niente painting.

In Part 3, I looked at Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shallott and talked about how it was linked to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem of that name. My next painting by Waterhouse is also linked to a Tennyson poem, his 1830 ode, Mariana. The poet was inspired by the character of Mariana in Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure which was first performed in 1604. Rejected by her fiancé, Angelo, after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, Mariana leads an isolated existence in a moated grange for five years. Her feelings of loneliness and yearning are spiralling out of control. Her incarceration is a metaphor for unfulfilled sexual longing. However, despite her loneliness, she is still in love with Angelo who has become Deputy to the Duke of Vienna and she yearns to be reunited with him. The poem follows a common theme in much of Tennyson’s work—that of hopeless isolation. Mariana is a woman who endlessly bemoans her lack of connection with society. This isolation defines her existence, and her yearning for a relationship with people leaves her desperate and left her wishing for death which is stated at the end of every stanza in the poem. The one subtle difference between Shakespeare’s story and the tale encompassed within Tennyson’s poem is that Shakespeare has Mariana’s lover return to her whereas Tennyson’s work ends before Mariana’s lover returns.  The depiction we see before us is based on a stanza of the poem:

With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
She only said, “The night is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!

Upon the middle of the night,
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, “The day is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarled bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said “I am aweary, aweary
I would that I were dead!”

And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
She only said, “The night is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!”

Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (1897)

Look how Waterhouse has painted the angled reflection of the oval mirror. The floor he has painted is made up of black and white tiles which stretch off towards the door giving a sense of emptiness and highlights Mariana’s solitude. Behind the mirror, at the top left of the painting, we can just make out the altar to the Madonna at which Mariana has been praying. In some ways Tennyson and Waterhouse seek to connect the imposed purity of Mariana with the purity of the Virgin.

Mariana by John Everett Millais (1851)

As was the case with the Lady of Shalott, Waterhouse was probably influenced by another of John Everett Millais’ famous paintings, that of his 1851 portrayal of Mariana which appeared at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition. Waterhouse probably saw the work when it was displayed at an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and later in an exhibition held in Birmingham. Millais depicted Mariana, isolated in a remote farmhouse awaiting the return of her lover. She is standing before a table on which is her embroidery depicting the garden outside and behind that is a stained-glass window showing the Annunciation, which he copied from the window of the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. The small stained-glass side window, to the right of the table, includes the motto In coelo quies which means In Heaven there is rest and this bears out the last line of each of Tennyson’s stanzas which refer to Mariana’s desire to be dead. It is Autumn and scattered around are fallen leaves symbolising the passing of time. Mariana in this painting is seen stretching her back after hours sitting working on her embroidery.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse (1909)

Waterhouse completed two works in the early 1900’s based on a verse of a poem written by the seventeenth century English poet and cleric, Robert Herrick, in 1684. The poem was entitled To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time and the first line is the title of two of Waterhouse’s paintings.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The poem is in the genre of carpe diem, which means “seize the day”, or “enjoy yourself while you have the chance”. The setting for this 1909 work is a warm sunny Spring day in the countryside, and a field full of wild flowers crossed by a small stream. In the foreground two women gracefully bend down to pick the flowers. One is dressed in blue/violet robes whilst the other, with bright red hair similar to that seen in many Pre-Raphaelite works, is dressed all in pink. In the background there is a distant mountain range depicted in various blue tones. In the mid-ground there is a wood and we can see two other women, standing amongst the trees, also collecting flowers. It is Waterhouse’s first in a series of works motivated by the story of the Greek goddess Persephone in which the virtuous young woman who had been out in the meadow picking flowers on the plain of Enna, is abducted by Pluto. Her mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, is so distressed and angered by the turn of events she curses the world with a long drawn out winter broken only by her daughter’s return to earth each Spring. The women have a seasonal time constraint for the picking of the flowers and so, as the painting’s title suggests, they are only able to gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May by John William Waterhouse (1908)

A year earlier Waterhouse completed a painting with a similar title which showed a red-haired woman presenting a bowl of flowers. Her head is reflected in a mirror behind her. The flowers in the bowl are beautiful roses but as Herrick’s poem reminds us in his carpe diem poem:

“…And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying…”

The beautiful roses of today would be dying tomorrow.

..………..to be continued.