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

Dolce Far Niente by John William Godward (1906)

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

Lycinna by John William Godward (1918)

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

Song Without Words by John William Godward (1919)

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

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

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

An Offering to Venus by John William Godward (1912)

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

Girl In A Peach Dress by John William Godward

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tryst by John William Godward (1912)

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

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

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

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

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

Nude on the Beach by John William Godward (1922)

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

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

The Fulham Gazette coldly reported the death:

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

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

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

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

John William Godward’s grave at Old Brompton Cemetery

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


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

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

John William Godward
Is this the artist ?

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

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

Ianthe by John William Godward (1889)

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

Violets, Sweet Violets by John William Godward (1906)

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

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

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

The Engagement Ring by John William Godward (1891)

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

Expectation by John William Godward (1900)

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

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

Summer by William Renolds-Stephens(1888-1890)

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

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

Waiting for an Answer by John William Godward (1889)

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

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

A Priestess of Bacchus by John William Godward (1890)

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

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

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

Innocent Amusements by John William Godward (1891)

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

Playtime by John William Godward (1891)

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

The Betrothed by John William Godward (1892)

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

The Playground by John William Godward (1892)

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

Endmyion by John William Godward (1893)

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

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

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

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

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing.

Yes or No? by John Wiliam Godward (1893)

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

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


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

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

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fair Persian by William Clarke Wonter (1916)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Idyll of 1745 by John Evetett Millais (1884)

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

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

Portrait of Lily Pettigrew by John Wilson Godward (1887)

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

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

The Reading Girl by Théodore Rousseau (1887)

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

Lily and Hetty Pettigrew (Photographer: Edward Linley Sambourne)

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

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

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

……………..to be continued


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

 

 

Neil Simone. The Visual Surrealist

Neil Simone

My blog today is quite different to most of my others for two reasons.  My love of art is quite traditional, some would say boringly middle-ground. If you imagine visual art as a spectrum, at one end of which we have Abstract Expressionism and at the other end there is Hyperrealism, then my predilection would be much closer to the hyperrealism end of the spectrum.  I like to look at the beauty of a painting.  I like to be amazed by the skill of the artist and marvel at the time they must have spent in completing a work.  Mere splashes of colour do not impress me, whether it be stripes or dots.  However, as I have said before I was told that to appreciate visual art one needs to embrace all types !  So, the first reason for this blog being different is that it focuses on the art genre of Surrealism and the works of a Surrealist painter.

Surrealism is a 20th-century form of art in which an artist brings together unrelated images or events in a very strange and often dreamlike way.  It stresses the subconscious significance of imagery.  Through their works of art, the Surrealist artists wanted to revolutionise our experience.  They want us to cast-off our coherent and balanced visualisation of life and, in its place, value the power of the unconscious and dreams. The artists want us to look at their works and share their feeling of mysterious enchantment and discover the perplexing beauty in the bewildering depictions which totally disregarded convention.

Alternative Path by Neil Simone

The second difference with my blog today, and this is more of a concern to me, is that my subject today is a living artist !  Why should that matter?  I suppose the answer is that I am delving into the life of somebody who has not given me permission to do so and secondly when one looks back and writes about somebody it is extremely important to have the correct facts.  You would be surprised at the number of times when I am researching a painter that I am finding differing facts, differing dates, differing names of family members and I never want to just guess at the correct information and so these inaccuracies drive me mad !!!  However, the deceased painter cannot complain at a mistaken fact quoted about them (albeit on some occasions I do get quizzed/censured regarding the authenticity/accuracy of what I have written by knowledgeable relatives or art historians).  With a living artist, they may take umbrage with my factual accuracy.

Having said all that let me introduce you to the English Surrealist painter Neil Simone.  The reason for this entry was that last week I was in the picturesque Yorkshire town of Harrogate and I visited Suttcliffes Contemporary Gallery, in the Montpellier Quarter of Harrogate and came across his works  and actually bought one of his prints, The Retreat,  as I was so fascinated by it. The one thing I like about some works of Surrealism, and I am a great fan of René Magritte, is that they are thought-provoking and quirky and I wonder how the artist ever came up with the ideas they put on canvas.

Nightfall by Neil Simone

Neil Simone was born in London in 1947. His parents rented rooms in a property in Burrows Road close to Kensall Green Underground station.  He was an only child and lived here for the first eleven years of his life.  In 1958, his parents bought their first property in Harrow, Middlesex.  This move to their own house finally gave their son his own room which as a teenager, was a godsend.

His progress in school was limited to success in graphic art and design in which he gained his “A” level and buoyed by that success he applied to enrol at the Harrow School of Art but was turned down due to not having achieved any academic qualifications in other subjects, in particular, the lack of “O” level English.  Like many setbacks in life one often find they were for the best and Neil Simone considered it was a narrow escape for him not to have gained admission to the art school as he believed that his erstwhile colleagues and friends who did attend the school were stymied as far as to their choice of a future artistic road map as their artistic path was dictated to them by the tutors, whereas Neil made all his own artistic life choices.

The Ocean Floor by Neil Simone

With no art college to attend, Simone had to both occupy his time, as well as finding a way of earning money.  Over the next few years he became a trainee lady’s hairdresser, helped a van driver deliver laundry, a petrol pump attendant and the nearest he got to the art world was a short spell as a layout artist for Moss Enterprises and a messenger for a commercial art studio, during which time he was attacked and robbed whilst carrying staff wages.  However the job which was to change his life the most was as a display artist at Sopers department store in Harrow for his immediate boss and team leader was Linda  who would in April 1968, become his wife.  The couple moved into a flat into a house owned by Peter Hale, the head of department at the Road Transport industry Training Board which made training films and artwork for use in lectures and promotions.  Peter had seen some of Simone’s work and offered him a job as creator of an exhibition to commemorate the opening of M.O.T.E.C. (multi-occupational training centre) which was held in Shrewsbury.  M.O.T.E.C. was the training centre for apprentices in the Road Transport Industry. The training unit was designed to provide realistic working conditions in which apprentices could have experience of all aspects of the trade.  The commission Peter gave Simone was so big that he needed help and so he took on his wife on a freelance basis to help him with the task.

Island in the Sky by Neil Simone

The August Bank Holiday of 1969 proved a turning point in Neil and Linda Simone’s lives.  Their landlord and Neil’s employer invited the couple to visit his other home, The Priory, in the picturesque town of Harrogate in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside.  For Neil this was the first time out of London but he was immediately taken by the beauty of the area.  Peter and his wife Elizabeth persuaded Neil that Harrogate and the surrounding countryside would be a perfect base for him to carry on with his painting and they offered to rent Neil and Linda the basement of their house.  It must have been a big decision for Neil and Linda to have to make, whether they should give up their jobs and move two hundred miles away from their home and families in London and for Neil to take up painting professionally.  It was probably Linda’s belief in her husband that he could succeed and the fact that it was just the two of them that Neil decided to take the plunge and start a new life in Yorkshire with his wife.

As Autumn Leaves by Neil Simone

Once the decision was made and the couple had moved to Harrogate Neil reckoned that to survive financially he needed to sell a minimum of two paintings per week.  He started to build up a collection of his work so that he could show his work at the 1970 Valley Gardens exhibition in Harrogate.  The exhibition went well and he sold twenty of his paintings.  However with every success comes failure and after the exhibition the sale of his paintings dried up and during the winter months of 1970 he was forced to go door to door with them to try to get a sale.

In the Spring of 1971 he exhibited at the Lounge Hall, Royal Baths, Harrogate and it was during this show that he met a fellow artist Judy Pyrah.  The two of them talked about the dream she had of opening her own gallery and suggested a joint venture when they had sufficient money.  Neil’s financial situation was improved by another person, Mr Rivlin, whom he also met at the exhibition.  Mr Rivlin liked Simone’s artwork and offered him employment at his company as the resident artist in charge of packaging designs and corporate identity material for his company, Endura Lamps of Horsforth.  In October 1971 Neil Simone started working for Mr Rivlin and in November Neil and Judy Pyrah opened their gallery, the Eye-Glass Gallery, in John Street, Harrogate.  The gallery remained open for just twelve months and this coincided with his work for Mr Rivlin being terminating in January 1973.

Exploring the Alternatives by Neil Simone

Neil and Linda’s stay in the basement of The Priory came to a sudden end in the autumn of 1974 when Harrogate was subjected to a series of storms and their basement flat was flooded and so the couple moved to another flat in Harrogate which also had room for a studio and a workshop for framing and was both light and airy.  During the next two years the sale of Simone’s paintings did well and he exhibited at galleries as far north as Edinburgh.  When Neil and Linda had taken the decision to permanently leave London and take a chance with life in Harrogate there was just the two of them and so if the venture failed then it would just hurt them as they had no children to support.  However seven years on, with their finances at a reasonable position, they believed they should start a family and in July 1976 their son, Lee, was born.

Within six months things turned for the worse for the family with galleries not wanting his paintings and with sales tumbling, they were in trouble. For Neil, it was a time of introspection, a time to figure out why things had gone wrong and more importantly work out what people wanted from art.  He needed time to reassess his art and, to give himself a chance to do this, Linda took their son and went back to live with her mother.  He realised the most important question he had to answer was what did he want from his art for he realised his mistake of suffocating his own imagination which once set ablaze his passion for art.  Neil thought long and hard and eventually hit on the idea that people may like to view works which would transport them into an alternative vision of reality.  He wanted observers of his work to question what were they actually looking at.  This was of course a form of surrealism, which he had dabbled with eight years earlier but had abandoned believing that he must paint what the public wanted and not what he wanted.

The Dropleaf Table by Neil Simone (2006)

His new style of artwork soon became an art with a sense of humour, as Neil put it “they would be paintings with an element of realism that invite conjecture”  It was quirky but would it sell?  He decided that he had nothing to lose and so in 1977, Neil Simone’s art became different.  It was a new direction.  In August 1979, the Harrogate Advertiser described it as

“…a fusion of fact and fantasy…”

It was the start of an exciting journey.  With the mental turmoil dissipated on having finally decided on the future of his art, he asked Linda to return to Harrogate.

The public and art critics both liked and were excited by this new style and his works of art were in great demand at exhibitions and sales rocketed.  His gamble on changing his artistic style had paid off and his paintings were in great demand.  Neil struggled to keep up a collection of his work due to all the sales.  His brain was awash with new ideas and his artwork was in great demand.  With all this came a healthy bank balance and in July 1978 Neil bought and moved into a house with Linda and two-year-old Lee in Grasmere Crescent, Harrogate.  This was the first home they had purchased and was an ideal place for an artist with a bright studio in the loft conversion.

Realms of the Imagination by Neil Simone (1992)

Neil decided to launch his first set of limited editions prints but to do this he needed some financial backing which he got from family and friends and this proved a financial success and soon he could pay back his friends and from then on, he was able to fund any subsequent print editions, the second of which was launched in February 1980.  With all these print runs space at home became critical and it was soon obvious to Neil that the family needed a larger house.  In June 1980, they moved into a large house on Harlow Hill, one of the highest points around Harrogate, which he had bought when it was only partially constructed which allowed him to agree to some design alterations with the builder.

Another break came in March 1981 when a Dutch art dealer called at Simone’s studio. The dealer, Kees De Jong, had been told about the success Simone was having with his new style work and came to offer him a chance to exhibit some of it at the prestigious London Department store, Harrods.  Simone accepted the invite and in May his works were being showed in the windows of the prestigious department store.  More invites rolled in for Simone to exhibit works at various exhibitions and he now had to continually produce works.  Although this was time consuming and tiring Simone was very aware that the popularity of one’s artwork is ephemeral and that he had to make the most of his popularity.  The downside to this success was Neil had less time to spend with his wife and son.

The Sea Bed by Neil Simone (2000)

In 1983 Neil Simone met Barbara Dutton who had come to look at his paintings.  She was just about to open her own gallery at Pately Bridge, a village some four miles from Harrogate, and wanted some of Neil’s prints and originals but had a limited budget.  Neil and Barbara came to an agreement that she could take all his works on a sale or return basis.  The gallery opened in May and later that year there was an exhibition of Neil’s latest works.

In June 1984, Neil and Linda had an addition to the family with the birth of a daughter, Gemma.  Over the next ten years Neil was inundated with work to satisfy exhibitions he had committed to.  Life was hectic but profitable.  He had taken his son to Paris for his eighteenth birthday in 1994 and in 1996 his son had gone to university and his daughter was about to start secondary school.  Everything was going so well and yet around this time, Neil sensed all was not well.  He had a foreboding that things were going to change.  This sense he had of imminent change in his life was converted into two paintings he completed entitled The Ephemeral Nature of Beauty and the Persistence of Art and Our Thoughts Stray Constantly Without Boundary, both hinted at Neil’s concern that things in his life and marriage were about to change and not necessarily for the better.

The House of Glass by Neil Simone (1991)

In 1997 Neil struggled with the effort to have to paint more pictures and became physically and mentally run down. He had to continually paint to satisfy clients and fulfil exhibition commitments but found it difficult to achieve sufficient work during a day at the studio so would leave home in the evening, returning to the studio to continue working through part of the night.  He began to worry about all the pressure to keep people happy but would not talk about it to his wife. He admitted that he became morose and withdrawn but he just hoped the problem would be short term. The strain on his marriage got so bad that in January 1998, in a hope that things may improve, he and Linda decided to separate and he left the family home and went to live in his rented studio.

The Retreat by Neil Simone (1999)

Some years earlier, Neil became very friendly with a lady called Heather who worked at an art materials shop where he bought most of his supplies.  Although she worked in Centagraph, an art supply shop, she had never painted and she was pleased to accept Neil’s offer of artistic tuition.  They became great friends and Heather proved to be the support Neil Simone needed to get him through life.  Living in his studio where he stored his artwork was proving to be untenable and so he decided he needed to buy somewhere larger.  The time also coincided with Heather and her young son Ben wanting to move out of rented premises and contemplate owning somewhere and so Neil and Heather, for financial reasons, decided to jointly buy somewhere and to fund his part of the purchase, Neil reluctantly sold some of his original paintings he had been keeping for himself.  In May 1999, the couple moved into a first-floor apartment in Langcliffe Avenue, Harrogate.  It was ideal for these two artists as it had a hexagonal sun room and a private roof terrace.

Rock Formation by Neil Simone (1999)

In late 2000, fifty-three-year-old, Neil Simone suffered a heart attack and was forced to rest and in January 2001 he underwent a triple bypass operation.  After a long period of rehabilitation under the watchful eye of Heather, Neil resumed painting.  Although they loved their apartment there was just not enough wall space to hang their work and so decided to search the property market for something larger and room for a gallery and workshop. Their search proved fruitful in September 2003 when they found the ideal home in the village of Whixley.  A month later Neil and Heather moved in to their new home and were able to hold exhibitions in their own gallery.  Heather and Neil are now married and still live in their Whixley home.

 Of his painting style which he termed visual surrealism, Neil wrote:

“…I paint the way that I do because I see the world as a dimension of shadows, shapes, contradictions and ever changing fragile boundaries…”

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The majority of the information for this blog came from Neil’s own autobiography, Neil Simone.  The Memoirs of an Artist.  How long does it take? which is an excellent book with many reproductions of his work.

Neal and Heather’s gallery is at 2a High Street Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire which I look forward to visiting in the summer.  The website is   http://www.simonegalleries.com/.

John Charles Dollman

Salford Museum and Art Gallery

My blog today stems from a visit I made to an art gallery in one of our major cities, Manchester.   I have been to the two main galleries, the Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth Art Gallery, in the city before, but I had never been to the Salford Museum and Art Gallery.  The Salford Museum and Art Gallery was the UK’s ‘first free public library’, which opened in January 1850, followed in November by a museum and art gallery. The building was a mansion house known as Lark Hill, which had been built in the 1790s and has given its name to our famous Lark Hill Place; a Victorian street within the museum.

I had originally thought of featuring five or six of my favourite paintings from the gallery but the more I looked at one of the works of art, the more I wanted to know about other works the artist had produced.  The painting in question was Famine and the artist was the Victorian painter John Charles Dollman, who I had not heard of before. I was intrigued by both artist and the atmospheric painting and I needed to find out more.  Dollman, during his lifetime, was a celebrated artist but since his death just over eight decades ago he has almost been forgotten, so let me introduce you to a very talented Victorian artist.

During the Time of the Sermonses by John Charles Dollman (1896)

John Charles Dollman’s ancestors originated in France where their surname was spelled ‘Doleman’. Both Dollman’s grandfather and great-grandfather were prestigious hatters to the British royal family and it is believed that their work was well-liked by the courtiers.  Dollman’s father, also John, and his wife Mary lived on the south coast of England,  in the East Sussex coastal town of Hove where they had a bookstore and ran a stationery business.  John Charles Dollman, their first son,  was born on May 6th, 1851 one year after his sister, Selina, was born.  Ten years after John entered the world the family had expanded by a further four children, with the addition of Thomas Frederick, Herbert Purvis, Gertrude Eleanor, and the six-month old baby, Kate Maria.

The Rising Generation by John Charles Dollman (1891)

By the time John Dollman was a teenager his artistic talent had been recognised.  Some of his early work featured animals and at one local exhibition the art critic of the Brighton Guardian commented on Dollman’s work:

“…Mr Dollman’s forte seems to be for animal drawing. The strong-looking limbs, the well-rounded forms, and the symmetry of the horses show them to be types of a thoroughly serviceable animal…”

The Dogs Refuge by John Charles Dollman (1871)

Dollman studied art at both South Kensington and the Royal Academy Schools and soon gained a reputation as an animal painter and many at the time saw him as a natural successor to the renowned animal painter, Edwin Landseer. Many of Dollman’s works featured dogs and the plight of stray dogs.  An early painting by Dollman completed in 1871, entitled The Dogs Refuge, was a classic example of this genre and is housed in the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

Table d’Hote at a Dogs’ Home by John Charles Dollman (1879)

Dogs had been companions to humans for tens of thousands of years but the acceptance of one as part of a family really only came about during Victorian times.  With this sentimentality over the dog came the concern for the fate of abandoned animals roaming the streets and it was this concern that led to the foundation of homes for these canine waifs.  In 1860, the Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs opened its doors in Holloway. London which eventually moved south of the Thames and became the well-known Battersea Dogs Home.  Paintings featuring abandoned dogs pulled at the heart strings of the Victorians and were in much demand.   Another work featuring the plight of stray dogs is his painting Table d’Hote at a Dogs Home which was exhibited at the 1879 Royal Academy and is now housed at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

A London Cab Stand (Les Miserables) by John Charles Dollman (1888)

Probably his most famous works was one which also featured animals.  It was the atmospheric painting entitled A London Cab Stand which he completed in 1888 and is now housed at the London Museum.  It is a depiction of a group of forlorn-looking horses tethered to their cabs standing in pouring rain awaiting their next fare. The work is often known as Les Miserables for obvious reasons.  Dollman composed at least three variants of this picture.

Famine in Armenia illustration by John Charles Dollman

Dollman was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy for over forty years from 1870 to 1912, and was elected a member of the Royal Watercolour Society.  To subsidise his income from selling his art he worked as an illustrator for magazines in the 1880’s such as the British weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic.  In some artistic quarters Dollman was referred to as a “black and white artist” which undoubtedly was based upon the amount of illustrations he did for newspapers and magazines.

Famine by John Charles Dollman (1904)

As I said earlier this blog was brought about when I saw Dollman’s haunting oil painting entitled Famine, which he completed in 1904.  It depicts a tall emaciated figure going forward through a wasteland whilst being surrounded by hungry wolves and ravens.  It is a troubling work of art and one wonders what it is all about.  Some believe it is all about starvation with its visualisation of death in the form of the grey shrouded man who is being surrounded by ravenous wolves.  The artist, on the other hand, said he intended it to portray a famine of human spirit, or death of the soul after its neglect.  One amusing story behind this painting is that Dollman went to the zoo to sketch wolves for use in the painting but was disappointed to find that they all seemed well fed and all of them were too healthy-looking, which did not fit in with the idea of the work!

Frigga Spinning the Clouds by John Charles Dollman (c.1908)

Many of Dollman’s illustrations featured Viking mythology. His work conveys a powerful sense of drama. In 1908 Ethel Mary Wilmot-Buxton used eight of Dollman’s images in her book Told by the Northmen, and in the following year nine were reproduced in Hélène Adeline Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen:  From the Eddas and Sagas.  One of these illustrations which Dollman completed around 1908 was Frigga Spinning the Clouds.  Frig, or the anglicised version of the name, Frigga, which translated means “beloved” was the wife of Odin, the chief of the gods and thus she was the highest ranking of Aesir goddesses.

There is a woman who weaves in the sky

See how She spins, see Her finger fly

She’s been before us from beginning to end

She is our mother, lover and friend

She is the weaver and we are the web

She is the needle and we are the thread.

From the poem Changing Woman by Adele Getty

Frigga was goddess of the clouds, and was usually depicted as wearing either snow-white or dark garments, which was dependent on her disposition.  She was queen of the gods, and she alone had the privilege of sitting beside her husband, Odin, on the throne, Hliðskjálf, which in Norse mythology was the high seat of the god Odin allowing him to see into all realms. From that lofty throne it was said she too could look over all the world and see what was happening, and, according to the belief of our ancestors, she possessed the knowledge of the future. Although she often appeared seated beside her husband, she preferred to remain in her own palace, called Fensalir, where she assiduously worked her jewelled spinning wheel producing golden thread and weaving long webs of bright-coloured clouds. Fensalir was also where Frigga invited husbands and wives who had led virtuous lives on earth, so that they might enjoy each other’s companionship even after death, and never be called upon to part again.

The Village Artist by John Charles Dollman (1899)

Paintings since the days of the cave drawings have been a means for us to learn about the past.  Paintings are often pictorial histories and without them the past would have been just our imagination gleaned from what we read but we lacked the graphic detail.  If we look at the seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish genre paintings we get an idea what life was like for the peasant classes in those days.  At the other end of the scale, in the eighteenth century paintings by the likes of Francois Boucher we get an idea of how the well-off lived in France.  Whereas the paintings looking at life of the rich could well be more stylised versions of the truth with elaborate furnishings added to the picture to enhance the status of the sitters, the peasant paintings were more realistic and it is this realism in a painting that appeals to me.  Add a story behind what we see before us as in narrative paintings then it is the icing on the cake.

The Immigrants Ship by John Charles Dollman (1884)

Narrative art is art that tells a story.  It may be a single moment in a continuing story, often based on history, mythology or the Bible or as a sequence of events unfolding over time, such as the set of six paintings entitled Marriage a’la Mode by William Hogarth. Narrative paintings were especially popular in the Victorian era and John Dollman produced a classic entitled The Immigrant’s Ship in 1884.  In the painting, we see a young girl playing with a doll whilst her exhausted mother, who is almost drained of life, tries to get some rest as she leans her head on her husband’s shoulder.  He stares blankly at the wooden deck of the ship as if he wonders what they have all got themselves into and what was their future.  Unlike the wealthy man, who is sitting nearby with a top hat on his head, his family is living in very cramped quarters in the lower deck, a space which probably measured only a couple of square meters.  Beggars cannot be choosers, and this family was almost at beggar-level having received an assisted passage so that they could make a new life for themselves in Australia.  For people travelling on an assisted place this was no luxurious cruise.  Such passengers had to provide their own bedding and eating utensils and were fed biscuits, gruel, potatoes and occasionally preserved meat.

A Very Gallant Gentleman by John Charles Dollman (1913)

Dollman captured a very poignant moment in history with his 1913 painting entitled  A Very Gallant Gentleman which depicts Captain Laurence “Titus” Oates walking out to his death in the blizzard, on Captain Scott’s return journey from the South Pole, in March 1912. Oates had been suffering from severe frostbite which became so severe that he could hardly climb into his sleeping bag and the “killer”, gangrene, had set in. Oates realised his physical condition was now hampering his three other colleagues’ safe return and he pleaded with them to leave him behind, but they refused. The next day he awoke, and knew what he must do.  He left his colleagues knowing that this may help them and uttered his immortal line:

“…I’m just going outside; I may be away some time…”

Captain Scott recorded in his diary that day that Oates had gone out into the blizzard never to be seen again. The final three members of the expedition party struggled on for a few more days before they too died before ever reaching safety.

John Charles Dollman died in London on December 11th 1934 aged 83.  In his will he bequeathed a sum of ten thousand guineas to the Royal Academy to fund scholarships for promising young artists.  Dollman was a most amazing and yet forgotten artist.

Samuel Palmer. Part 2 The Shoreham Ancients, William Blake and later life

Samuel Palmer by George Richardson (1829)
Samuel Palmer by George Richardson (1829)

Samuel Palmer was seventeen years old when he met the painter John Linnell and they would remain friends for life, a period stretching almost sixty years, albeit on occasions their relationship was somewhat strained during Palmer’s marriage to Linnell’s daughter. Linnell was born in London in 1792.  His background was very different to the middle-class prosperity of Palmer’s family.  His father, although a respectable carver and gilder, was not a wealthy man and whereas Palmer, who lived in the semi-rural outskirts of London, and was indulged and pampered by his parents, Linnell had to survive the murkiness of the depressing bleak streets of Bloomsbury.   Linnell was a landscape artist and portrait painter who found himself constantly in competition with the great John Constable.  At the time Linnell met Palmer the latter had rather lost his way artistically. Palmer wrote honestly about his worries regarding his art:

“…by the time I had practised for about five years I entirely lost all feeling for art … But it pleased God to send Mr. Linnell as a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art…”

John Linnell inspired Palmer.  He offered artistic advice and instruction.   He took him to art galleries and introduced him to other artists, most notably William Blake who was to have a profound influence on Palmer.

The Rising of the Lark by Samuel Palmer (c.1839)
The Rising of the Lark by Samuel Palmer (c.1839)

Linnell’s mentoring of Palmer was of great importance as it was Linnell who brought to the attention of Palmer  the artists of the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods, such as Albrecht Dürer, and the fourteenth century muralists, Francesco Traini, Buonamico Buffalmacco and Benozzo Gozzoli who were responsible for decorating the cemetery, Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, Italy.

Interior hallway of Campo Santo showing restoration work of some of the murals
Interior hallway of Campo Santo showing restoration work of some of the murals

This magnificent building was said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Fourth Crusade in the 12th century.  An inscription near the right gate tells us that the construction of the Camposanto started in year 1277 and finished in the late 15th century.

Another influence on Palmer around this time was the works of art of Henry Fuseli.  The National Gallery in London was not built until 1824 so Palmer would spend time at the Dulwich Gallery (opened in 1817) copying the works of the Masters and was fortunate to be allowed to view the private collection of the German merchant and insurance agent Carl Aders which included many works by artists of the Primitives movement.  However one of the greatest influences on Palmer was William Blake.  Blake was introduced to him by Linnell in 1824, who at the time, because of his art work, was viewed by many of the art establishment as an obscure and impoverished figure and thought to be just a harmless madman.  Palmer had always been a visionary and this was enhanced once he entered the world of William Blake

Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)
Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)

In 1824, Palmer’s health once again deteriorated.  He suffered from asthma and bronchitis, and so he decided to follow his mother’s old remedy of leaving London and heading to the South Coast.  He visited the Kent village of Shoreham, and two years later he moved there permanently, buying himself a small run-down house, which he called Rat Abbey maybe because of his fellow dwellers in the old building!  A short time later, his father sold up his book selling business and left London and joined his son in Shoreham.  He rented half of a large house with the name Waterhouse which was situated on the banks of the River Darent.  Samuel Palmer’s nurse, Mary Ward, and his brother William joined Samuel snr. and also came to live there. The Water House proved to be of use to Samuel as it often housed visiting guests and fellow artists when there was no room at Rat Abbey.  Finally in 1828 Samuel Palmer left his small house and went to live with his father at Water House and stayed there for the rest of his time in Shoreham and it was during those heady days in Shoreham that Samuel first encountered John Linnell’s daughter Hannah whom he would later marry.  Palmer loved his new home and we can witness his contentment shown in his autobiographical letter published in The Portfolio art journal of that time.  He wrote:

“…Forced into the country by illness, I lived afterwards for about seven years at Shoreham, in Kent, with my father, who was inseparable from his books, unless when still better engaged in works of kindness. There, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes visited by friends of congenial taste, literature, and art and ancient music wiled away the hours, and a small independence made me heedless, for the time, of further gain; the beautiful was loved for itself …”

It was during his time in Shoreham that he founded, along with George Richmond and Edward Calvert, an artistic group of painters that were all inspired by William Blake.  The group were known as The Ancients or the Shoreham Ancients.  They were an artistic brotherhood who would meet both in Shoreham at Palmer’s home and at Blake’s apartment home in London.  This like-minded group of painters were followers of William Blake and were attracted to archaism in art, a style which has the deliberate intention to emulate a style of the past to suit contemporary vision.  With the exception of Palmer, most of the members of the “brotherhood” were former students of the Royal Academy, who had broken away from the confines of academic teaching and concentrated on their idealized vision of the past.

Samuel Palmer by George Richmond, watercolour and body colour on ivory, 1829
Samuel Palmer by George Richmond, watercolour and bodycolour on ivory, 1829

The Ancients were in existent around the same time as another art group was formed in Rome by some nineteenth century German painters.  They were known as the Nazarenes a derisory title which was used against them by detractors because of the biblical manner in the way they dressed and their Christ-like long hair and beards.  Samuel Palmer used to wear revivalist-type clothes and in a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London we see him with long hair and a full beard wearing a round-necked pleated smock under a coat.  It was during this time that critics believe that Samuel Palmer created his best works of art.  They were small landscapes which were almost composed of just a single colour using watercolour or ink. The depictions enforced Palmer’s religious belief which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God and all the food derived from the fields were gifts from God.

An example of a Samuel Palmer painting of this time and type is one he completed in 1825 entitled The Valley Thick with Corn which is part of the six so-called Oxford Sepias, a group which now belongs to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.   The six pictures were completed between 1825 and 1835 at a time when Palmer found inspiration in the landscape around his home village of Shoreham.  The area was inspirational for him and it allowed him to produce, what some believe to be, some of the greatest English pictures of the 19th century.

The Valley Thick with Corn by Samuel Palmer (1825).
The Valley Thick with Corn by Samuel Palmer (1825).

The Valley Thick with Corn is a beautiful brown ink pen drawing which has been finished off with a layer of varnish.  This coating has aged over the years and has now given the work a rich yellow-brown finish.  The setting for the painting is undulating cornfields.  The darkness of the picture suggests it is late evening with the full moon rising over distant rounded hills and a tall thin church spire. A horse drawn cart can just be made out in the top left of the picture, as it trundles up a steep track.   In the foreground we see an elderly bearded man dressed in what looks like Elizabethan clothes lying on the ground surrounded by ears of corn.  He is stretched out and rests on his elbow.  On his lap lies an open book so he could be reading, albeit he looks as if he has fallen asleep.  Behind and to the right of him we see two cows slowly making their way through the cornfields.  To the left, in the mid ground, we see upright sheaves of corn which have been harvested and awaiting collection and behind them are sheep tended by the shepherd who sits under a tree and plays music to them on his pipes.

In a Shoreham Garden by Samuel Palmer (1830)
In a Shoreham Garden by Samuel Palmer (1830)

In 1829 Palmer completed his work entitled In a Shoreham Garden.  It is a wonderful work at a time which is looked upon as the height of Palmer’s achievements. The picture is a small watercolour heightened with gouache on stiff smooth cardboard often referred to as Bristol Board.  The work, measured just 28 x 22 cms and remained in Palmer’s own collection, no doubt in memory of Shoreham, the village he had loved so much.   It now resides in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.  It is full of light and colour with the dominating feature being an apple fruit tree in full blossom on the end of a path within a walled garden.  The tree is loaded with flowers.  In fact, besides the side of a wooden building in the right foreground the picture is an abundance of colourful flowers, bushes and trees which reach up to the sky.  In the background we see a lady wearing a long flowing red dress gazing out to something out of view to the right of the painting.  It is thought that the painting was a scene from the garden of his and his father’s Water Garden house.  It is now part of the V&A collection.

The Magic Apple Tree by Samuel Palmer (1830)
The Magic Apple Tree by Samuel Palmer (1830)

What is thought to be a companion piece to In a Shoreham Garden is one of his other 1830 works, The Magic Apple Tree.

Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star by Samuel Palmer (c.1830)
Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star by Samuel Palmer (c.1830)

Around 1830, Palmer also completed a work entitled Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star.  It was a small painting measuring just 19 x 30cms.  The painting is now considered one of Palmer’s finest moonscape paintings.  We see a man carrying a staff, dressed in a long smock and wearing a wide brimmed hat walking through a cornfield with his dog.  In the foreground there are again sheaves of corn.  The sky is dark, lit up by a waxing sickle moon and an evening star, which could be, because of its brightness, the planet Venus.  The light emitting from the moon is probably much stronger than it would be for such a moon but it serves to illuminate the land.  There is no documentation to tell us the location of the scene but the rolling hills we see was characteristic of the Shoreham area.

In 1835, after ten years in the Kent village, Palmer left Shoreham and went to live back in London.   He had hoped to earn some money by selling some of the work he had accumulated whilst at Shoreham and he also hoped that he would be able to make some money by teaching art in the capital.

Samuel Palmer and Linnell’s eldest daughter, Hannah, married on 20th September, 1837 after an engagement which lasted several years.  Linnell had always been supportive of the match unlike his wife who was somewhat opposed to the liaison.  Samuel Palmer, funded by his new in-laws, and his new wife Hannah set off on their honeymoon to Italy in October 1837, a journey which would last two years and one that Palmer’s mother-in-law was vehemently opposed to..

 Dream in the Apennines by Samuel Palmer (1864)
Dream in the Apennines by Samuel Palmer (1864)

A later painting by Samuel Palmer, one of his largest watercolours measuring 94 x 130cms, may have come from sketches he made during the honeymoon.  It was exhibited in 1864 and entitled Dream in the Apennine.  The depiction is a view of Rome as seen from the south-east.  It is now owned by the Tate in London.  When it was first exhibited it came with a note which read:

“…Suddenly, at a turn in the mountain road, we looked for the first time on that Plain; the dispenser of law, the refuge of philosophy, the cradle of faith. Ground which Virgil trod and Claude invested with supernatural beauty was sketched – but with a trembling pencil...”

In the foreground we see a young girl peering over the edge of a stone wall at the fast flowing river below.  She is throwing stones into the valley below.  There are goats standing behind her which may well be in her charge.  Behind and to the left of the girl we see a fully laden cart being pulled by a pair of mighty oxen which are being controlled by a young man.  A small child rushes towards the cart to add a few more bunches of flowers to the already filled large wicker baskets.  In the distance, on the plain we can see the Eternal city and the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.

The Lonely Tower by Samuel Palmer (1879)
The Lonely Tower by Samuel Palmer (1879)

The last work of Samuel Palmer which I am looking at was an etching which he completed in 1879 entitled The Lonely Tower.  The scene before us was first exhibited as a watercolour at the Watercolour Society by Palmer in 1868.  Along with the watercolour there was a quotation from Il Penseroso (The Serious Man), a poem by Palmer’s favourite poet, John Milton.

“…Or let my lamp at midnight hour,

Be seen in some lonely tower,

Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,

With thrice great Hermes…”

Palmer and his family were living at Furze Hill House in Reigate and from his study he could look out towards Leith Hill and the folly, built in 1765 which is at its summit.  It could be this that he saw when he painted The Lonely Tower.    It is a depiction of a remote hilltop tower standing on the edge of a cliff with its single light shining out against a darkening sky.  It is now the remains of what once had a greater purpose.  We see a crescent moon against a horizon which is filled with clouds and stars which sparkle brightly.   Below and to the left of the light we see a man struggling to get his ox-cart up a steep track.  On the opposite side of the deep ravine we see two shepherds gazing up at the light and the night sky.  Flying over the ravine we see a barn owl. It is such an atmospheric and haunting picture. The Irish poet W B Yeats referred to the work in his poem Phases of the Moon:

“…He has found, after the manner of his kind,

Mere images; chosen this place to live in

Because, it may be, of the candle-light

From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist

Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:

The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,

An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;

And now he seeks in book or manuscript

What he shall never find…”

This was by far the most evocative of Palmer’s late works.

Leith Hill Folly
Leith Hill Folly

Hannah and Samuel’s first son was born on January 27th 1842.  He was named Thomas More Walter George Palmer, Thomas More, after the famous fifteenth century statesman and philosopher who was councillor to Henry VIII, and George after Samuel’s good friend George Richmond.  He was a boy who grew to be a studious young man during which time he survived many boyhood scrapes whilst in Grammar school prior to going to Oxford University.  Sadly his father’s dream that his son would get to Oxford was dashed when the young man’s health deteriorated in 1859 and eighteen months later, after a long and painful illness, died on July 11th 1861.  He died at the tender age of nineteen.  Both Hannah and Samuel were devastated.  Samuel Palmer never got over his loss.  In his work The Lonely Tower the Great Bear star constellation depicted in the sky in the background is said to be as it was on the night his son died and as he looked skyward in grief. It was forever engraved on his mind.

The couple had another son Alfred Herbert Palmer who was born in 1860.  He went on to publish a biography of his father The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer in 1892.

Samuel Palmer's grave in St Mary Magdalene Church Reigate
Samuel Palmer’s grave in St Mary Magdalene Church Reigate

Samuel Palmer died on May 24th 1881 aged seventy-six.  Palmer’s father-in-law and mentor John Linnell died six months later.  Palmer’s wife Hannah died twelve years later and the two are together in a cemetery in St Mary Magdalene churchyard in Reigate.  A strange twist to this story is the fact that in 1909, many of Palmer’s Shoreham works were destroyed by his surviving son Alfred, who burnt a great quantity of father’s sketchbooks, notebooks and original works. His reasoning behind the destruction was that he believed that nobody would not be able to make head nor tail of the material and that he wished to save it from a more “humiliating fate”.   Alfred Herbert Palmer died in 1931.

Samuel Palmer in Old Age by John Linnell
Samuel Palmer in Old Age by John Linnell

There is so much about Samuel Palmer I haven’t included in the two blogs but I hope that there is enough in them to tempt you to read more about the artist and I recommend an excellent book which will tell you all you about the great man.  It is written by Rachel Campbell-Johnston the chief art critic and poetry critic for the Times.  The book is entitled Mysterious Wisdom.  The Life and work of Samuel Palmer.

Samuel Palmer Part 1. The Early years, portraiture and the rural idyll

The Prospect by Samuel Palmer (1881)
The Prospect by Samuel Palmer (1881)

My featured artist today is one of the great English landscape painters, draughtsmen and etcher of the nineteenth century.  He was a major player in the art of Romanticism.  His landscape works were special, conjured up by his inventive and far-sighted imagination.   There was a magical feel about his work.  Palmer was not just an ordinary every day painter; his works were poetical and he himself, through his art, seemed to have the ability of a mystical seer. Let me introduce you to Samuel Palmer.

At the time of Samuel Palmer’s birth there was a worrying tension brought on by conflict.  It was a troubling time.  It was a time of tumult in Europe.  Sixteen years earlier France had been affected by the storming of the Bastille and the fall of the rich and the nobility of the ancient regime.  Initially, there was probably a delighted sense of schadenfreude in the minds of many in England, including the “establishment” at the fall from grace of what they perceived was the cruel and greedy French aristocracy but soon that enthusiasm dwindled with the thought that such revolutionary behaviour may cross the English Channel.  In 1793, twelve years before Samuel was born France declared war on Britain, a war which would last more than two decades.  Although the battlefields were not in England Napoleon Bonaparte used another weapon against the British by blockading European ports and by so doing deprive Britain of lucrative trade.  The war however proved fortuitous to Samuel’s family who were hatters and hats were in great demand since the government, to add to their much needed war chest, had imposed a hair powder tax and this ended the era when elegantly puffed and powdered coiffures which were once de rigueur, now could not be afforded.  The fashion was now for the “topper”, the nickname given to top hats.

Portrait of Samuel Palmer by Henry Walter (1819)
Portrait of Samuel Palmer by Henry Walter (1819)

Samuel’s father, also named Samuel, had set forth to study to become a surgeon but his squeamish nature put an end to that dream and he ended up in his father, Christopher Palmer’s, millinery business.  Samuel Snr. was somewhat of a dreamer and this along with his love of books led him to forego the safe and lucrative job as a hatter to set himself up as a bookseller.  This decision did not go down well with his family as the trade of a bookseller seemed a lowly trade not fit for a “gentleman”.  Samuel Snr. was, besides being a dreamer, a very determined person and cared little about status and the financial position of his family.

Samuel Palmer Snr. met and fell in love with Martha Giles and they married in October 1803.  Samuel Palmer, their first child, was born in Newington, London on winter Sunday morning, on January 27th 1805.  The couple lived in Surrey Square in Newington, which at the start of the nineteenth century, was a semi rural area populated with lush gardens, fields and orchards.  It was a haven for those who loved the countryside; a love young Samuel would have all his life.  It was a time when survival at birth was somewhat of a lottery with a third of babies not surviving to see their first birthday and amongst the poor and deprived the survival rate would drop even further.  However Samuel Palmer was lucky in as much as he was born into a prosperous middle-class family.

Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825) Pen and ink and wash, mixed with gum arabic, varnished,
Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)
Pen and ink and wash, mixed with gum arabic, varnished,

Samuel was not a healthy child and his mother and grandmother would often take him to the Georgian seaside resort of Margate in the hope that sea air would improve his health.  This once fishing town was a favourite of Turner.  It was during his boyhood stays in Margate that he would listen to his grandmother’s tales of ghosts and restless spirits who wandered around the town.  Stories of such apparitions would remain with Samuel and would interest him all his life.  His mother’s continued concern about her son’s physical health led her to employ a live-in nurse, Mary Ward, who set about improving his health by improving his diet.   It was also this lady who was to have such an influence on the young boy.  Unlike most servants who were illiterate Mary was well read with the Bible and Jacob Tonson’s pocket illustrated book of Milton’s poems being her favourites.  She, like Samuel’s father, loved books and would often read Milton’s poems to Samuel.  When Mary died she bequeathed the book of poems to Samuel who would carry it round with him wherever he went.  Of Milton’s poems, Samuel wrote:

“…I am never in a “lull about Milton”…….nor can tell how many times I have read his poems… He never tires….I do believe his stanzas will be read in heaven…”

Samuel gained a brother in 1810 with the birth of William, who was to be the only other surviving child of Samuel Snr. and Martha.  Samuel Palmer did not have many boyhood friends as he was more than satisfied to immerse himself in his books, including works by Dickens, which featured the English capital.  It was a trait, which delighted his father.  Samuel would often go for walks on Dulwich Common with either his father or his nurse during which they would often read to him as they strolled the countryside.  His love for reading and the joy books brought him can be seen in one of his letters (The Letters of Samuel Palmer – Raymond Lister, 1974) in which he wrote:

“…There is nothing like books of all things sold incomparably the cheapest, of all pleasures the least palling, they take up little room, keep quiet when they are not wanted and, when taken up, bring us face to face with the choicest men who ever lived at their choicest moments…”

Samuel, maybe because of his poor health, tried to avoid the necessity of going into the heart of London with all its pollution from coal fires and the often dank fogs emanating from the Thames.  He was a lover of the countryside and being of poor health abhorred the polluted city life.

In May 1817, at the age of eleven, Samuel was sent to Merchant Taylors’ public school.  This was a prestigious institution founded back in 1561 but for Samuel it was a nightmare.  Samuel who had been cosseted by both his mother and nurse and had a quiet solitary home life, which suited his nature, suddenly was thrust into a maelstrom of lively and loud boys in which a pale-faced asthmatic boy fared badly.  Samuel disliked the public school system with all it entailed and in another of his letters he wrote:

“…the fag crawls to be kicked, and, in his turn, kicks the fag who crawls to him………it perfectly represents and so admirably prepares for the requirement of public life for what is statesmanship but successful crawling and kicking….”

His time at Merchant Taylors lasted only six months as his pleading to come back home was answered in the Autumn of 1817.

The death of Samuel’s mother in 1818 came as a harsh blow to her thirteen year old son.  He struggled to cope with the loss and shed many tears.  The loss of his mother came at the same time as he and his father considered what career he should follow.  Samuel favoured becoming an author.  He had already written some prose and poetry and although the latter never attained the quality required to have them published his stylistic prose gave him hope of a fulfilling career.  However it was not to be as his father believed, because of his son’s early talents as a draughtsman that the visual arts should be the career his son should follow.  The family’s decision that Samuel should follow a career in art was thought to have been down to a belief that it was what his mother would have liked her son to do.

Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. by J W Turner (1819)
Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. by J W Turner (1819)

The family employed William Wate, a run-of-the-mill landscape artist, to tutor Samuel.  In 1819, when Samuel was just fourteen, he made his first visit to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.  He was amazed by the colour in Turner’s painting of the Entrance of the Meuse and fascinated by Turner’s Liber Studiorum, a series of his landscape and seascape compositions which were published as prints in etching and mezzotint, has been once described as perhaps comprising of ‘the pith of all that is best in his life and work’.

At this time Palmer was just a developing artist who was still learning the basic skills of art through Wate’s tuition.

Samuel Palmer a Self-Portrait (1826)
Samuel Palmer a Self-Portrait (1826)

I recently attended a portraiture workshop at which the guest artist and presenter talked about how the portrait he would produce would not necessarily be a photographic image of the sitter but how he envisaged the model.  With those words still in my head I gaze at Samuel Palmer’s self portrait which he completed around 1826 when he was twenty years of age.  Is this how he envisioned himself?  There is something quite disturbing about this self-portrait.  Palmer gazes directly towards us but it is a blank stare as if he is looking through us.  The question that immediately springs to mind is what is he thinking about.  What is going on in his mind as he looks into the mirror?   It is not an image one would associate with an aspiring artist who is looking forward to the future.  What is troubling him?  Look at his physical appearance.  He has not readied himself for the painting.  It is more of a “this is who I am, take it or leave it” stance.  He is unshaved.  His thick hair looks uncared for.  The collar of his shirt is crooked but he knows all this as he puts brush to canvas.  Maybe he wants us to disregard his physical appearance and concentrate on what could be on his mind.  We are looking at the face of a troubled dreamer.  We are looking at a man whose vivid imagination would influence his art and those who view some of his imaginative paintings will be transported into a magical world which in her book Mysterious Wilderness, The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer, the author Rachel Campbell-Johnston describes the artist and some of his works:

“…It is a place in which magical shines through the material, in which nature and heaven are intertwined, in which God in all his mildness blesses man’s harvests and the darkness of night can be innocent and day.  This is not the haunt of any workaday painter.  It is the home of the artist as mystic and seer and poet…”

The Shearers by Samuel Palmer (1834)
The Shearers by Samuel Palmer (1834)

One of his best known works is The Shearers which he completed in 1835.  It is a painting which is rich in colour.  There is the juxtaposition of golden sparkling light and gloomy shadow.  I have already said the Palmer was looked upon as a seer and this painting was his vision of paradise.  Raymond Lister in his book, Catalogue Raisonné of the works of Samuel Palmer describes the work and a similar one entitled The Sleeping Shepherd which uses the same setting of the entrance to the barn we see in the above work:

“…A group of richly textured and abundantly coloured paintings of this period includes some of Palmer’s greatest and most attractive work. Such work reached its ultimate expression in The Shearers and The Sleeping Shepherd…”

Geoffrey Grigson, in his 1960 book Samuel Palmer’s Valley of Vision, wrote of the work:

“…Great richness of technique was used to realise The Shearers. In this Palmer combined oil and tempera so as to render every nuance of texture from the light on the distant hills and in the sky to the detailed depiction, almost Dutch in its realism, of the group of implements on the right. There is also an advance in the drawing of the figures, the shearers and their helpers; rarely if ever before this had Palmer portrayed figures so convincingly in movement…”

The setting of the painting is the great barn,  the doors of which are open and we look out at the scene before us.  The doors and the roof beam in some way form a frame for the painting.  A group of six people work in the shade of the trees outside the barn, three men and three women can be seen in the mid-ground.  The men are in the process of shearing the sheep whilst the women collect and bag the wool.  In the background we see an expanse of rolling hills which are lit up by the rays of the sun which light up the beautiful countryside.  Samuel Palmer never forgot his walks with his father over the hills and through the fields of Dulwich.   The idea for the painting must have been in his mind years earlier because he once wrote about his plans for depicting such a scene:

“…A group of different sex and age reaping, might be shewn in the foreground going down a walk in the field toward the above cottage island, and over the distant line that bounds this golden sea might peep up elysian hills, the little hills of David, or the hills of Dulwich or rather the visions of a better country which the Dulwich fields shew will to all true poets…”

Still life detail
Still life detail

In a way the painting is not just a rural landscape scene but part is also a still-life work in the way Palmer has painted the farming equipment inside the barn which we see on the right hand side along with a wide brimmed straw hat which the artist’s son, Alfred, said was one of his father’s most cherished possessions and an item which would appear in many of Samuel Palmer’s works.

In my next blog I will continue to look at the life of Samuel Palmer and explore the help he received from the landscape artist and portraitist John Linnell and  how he was so influenced by William Blake, the poet and painter who was an influential figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.