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.