Arthur John Elsley – the painter of idyllic life.

As in life itself, snobbery pervades the arts. When asked what our taste in literature is, does one admit to liking romantic fiction or, do we, to save face, rattle on about our love for the novels of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. When it comes to our love in classical music, do we avoid saying we like the Strauss’ waltzes and the 1812 overture and, talk about our passion for Mahler and Schönberg so as to gain kudos, and to bolster our image as a music savant. Our taste in art and artists can be the same. I remember a collector of pre-Raphaelite paintings being somewhat apologetic about his taste in art maybe thinking that his love should be more on the lines of the great Masters or the avant-garde artists such as Pollock, Picasso and Miró. I remember being on a ship and talking to a passenger who was a well-known port wine producer and he was drinking a glass of port with a cube of ice in it and I queried whether that was the accepted way to drink the wine and he just said that he always drinks what he likes and how he likes it, so maybe we should not be backward in coming forward and saying what we like without fear of condemnation by the elitists of this world.

Weatherbound by Arthur John Elsley (1898)

So why this long introduction to today’s featured artist? The artist I am looking at today produces paintings which many would dismiss as “sugary” or “chocolate-boxy” and yet there is a wonderful beauty about his depictions. Let me welcome you to the world of the English painter of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, Arthur John Elsley. During the middle of the nineteenth century, genre paintings featuring happy family life became very popular in England. The newly wealthy middle class chose in particular those genre paintings that depicted scenes of beautifully dressed young children with their pets in playful settings and this is exactly what Arthur John Elsley gave them. The paintings proved so popular that many were reproduced as prints, and others were often used in calendars, adverts, books and magazines.

Hold Up, Here He Comes by Arthur Elsley (1901)

Elsley was born in London on November 20th 1860. He was one of six children of John Elsley and Emily Freer. His father plied his trade as a coachman but had to give up the job and retire with the onset of tuberculosis. John Elsley was also an amateur artist and had achieved a standard which allowed him to exhibit his work, A Group of Horses, at the British Institution Exhibition of 1845. This Institution had been founded in 1804 for promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Young Arthur Elsley, like his father, developed a love of art and on family trips to the Regent’s Park Zoo he would make sketches of the animals. In 1875, aged fourteen, Arthur Elsley enrolled at the South Kensington School of Art, which later became the Royal College of Art.

Mother’s Darling by Arthur Elsley

In 1876 Arthur Elsley was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer. It was during his time here that he came under the influence of the historical and biblical painter, Edward Armitage, who was the Professor of Painting, Henry Bowler the Professor of Perspective and his professor of anatomy, John Marshall.

A Helping Hand by Arthur Elsley (1913)

Two years later in 1878 Elsley submitted his first painting (A Portrait of an Old Pony) and had it accepted at that year’s Royal Academy Exhibition. The one setback he had to contend with at this time was a problem with his eyesight which was brought on when he contracted measles. He remained at the Academy Schools until 1882 and on leaving he began to receive portrait commissions especially for ones featuring children with dogs and horses. Many of his portrait commissions came from the Benett-Stanford family of politicians who lived at Preston Manor in Brighton. His first known published work was a line engraving entitled April Floods In Eastern Counties printed in the Young England magazine in 1885.

Goodnight by Arthur Elsley (1911)

Elsley became friends with Solomon Joseph Solomon, a British painter, a member of the Royal Academy and founding member of the New English Art Club. He was also a friend of George Grenville Manton, and he and Elsley shared a studio in 1876. Manton specialised in portraiture but also painted genre subjects with Pre-Raphaelitesque subjects as well as large-scale religious works.

Feeding the Rabbits, also known as Alice in Wonderland by Frederick Morgan

It was through Manton that Arthur Elsley met Frederick Morgan, who was an English portrait artist and painter of domestic and country scenes. He was well-known for his idyllic genre scenes of childhood. This was also the art genre favoured by Elsley and in 1889 he moved into Morgan’s studio, and the two came to an artistic arrangement in which Elsley would paint the animals in Morgan’s paintings as this was his forte and was proving problematic for Morgan.

Their First Swim by Arthur Elsley (1897)

In the summer of 1891 the Great Exhibition was held in London. It was to be the first in a series of World’s Fairs, and within it there was exhibitions of culture and industry. The Great Exhibition was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, husband of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. At this exhibition Elsley was awarded a silver medal in for his painting The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington.

I’se biggest by Arthur Elsley (1892)

The following year his painting entitled I’se Biggest was published, and it was so popular that it had to be re-engraved to cope with public demand. Elsley depicted a young girl comparing her height with that of a large St. Bernard dog.  Terry Parker describes the depiction in his 1998 book, Golden Hours: Paintings of Arthur J Elsley, 1860-1952:

“…one of those simple and unaffected pictures which readily lend themselves to reproduction and has so much nature and so admirable a touch of humour in it that no doubt a great number of those who admire it at Burlington House will be delighted to have an opportunity of hanging a version of it upon their walls…”

The paintings of Elsley were so popular with the public that the Illustrated London News printed one of Elsley’s paintings, Grandfather’s Pet as their Christmas choice for 1893.

Victims by Arthur Elsley (1891)

Arthur Elsley married his second cousin Emily Fusedale on November 11th 1893. Emily, who was ten years younger than Elsley, had worked for Arthur for over ten years modelling for his paintings. This role, as artist’s model, was passed down to their daughter, Marjorie, who was born in 1903 and who as a young child, would appear in many of Elsley’s paintings. After the marriage Elsley set himself up in a new studio and continued with his paintings depicting young children and animals in idyllic countryside settings.

Suspanse by Charles Burton Barber (1894)

With the death of the leading Victorian painter of this genre, Charles Burton Barber, in 1894, Elsley took up the mantle as the most revered painter of children and pets.  The Illustrated London News, 25 January 1896, wrote:

“…Mr. Elsley appears more distinctly as a follower, though not an imitator, of Mr. Burton Barber, differing from him by allowing his children more than a pet at a time, and going beyond the limitations of a fox-terrier, or a collie. He has a keen sense of humour, especially in his treatment of puppies’ backs, which, as students of dog-life well know, are their most expressive features…”

The close relationship between Elsley and Morgan soured around the turn of the century when the latter accused Elsley of artistic plagiarism as he believed Elsley was using his ideas in his paintings.

The First World War broke out in 1914 and for its four-year duration Elsley contributed to the war effort by working on bomb-sights in a munition factory, which put a terrible strain on his already failing eyesight. Elsley’s output of paintings dwindled and he only managed to complete four during the first three years of the war, one of which was a portrait of his daughter, which, although he would not sell it, allowed it to be exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Never Mind by Arthur Elsley (1907)

Marjorie Elsley featured in many of her father’s paintings and I particularly like the one entitled Never Mind which he completed in 1907. The St Bernard dog we see in the painting featured in many of Elsley’s works.

Golden Hours Paintings of Arthur J Elsley by Terry Parker

In his 1998 book, Golden Hours: Paintings of Arthur J Elsley, 1860-1952, Terry Parker, who interviewed Elsley’s only child and principal model, wrote:

“…Marjorie remembers that the St Bernard featured in Never Mind was owned by Miss Mumford, a nurse who lived at South Woodford ………..Elsley was the most popular ‘chocolate box’ artist of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. The appealing quality of his paintings were easily understood and presented a cosy, idealised world of happy, smiling children and their animals…”

In the years that followed, Elsley continued to paint mostly for pleasure and exhibited some of his works until 1927. His failing eyesight eventually curtailed his art work and by 1931 the only hobby he could still manage  were his love of woodwork, metalwork and gardening.

Arthur John Elsley (1860-1952)

Arthur John Elsley died at his home in Tunbridge Wells on 19 February 1952, at the age of 91. At the height of his career from 1878 to 1927, Elsley exhibited 52 works at the Royal Academy.

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Sophie Gengembre Anderson

Sophie Gengembre Anderson

The art genre I am highlighting today gets very mixed responses from people  One either loves or hates the depictions. On one hand, the depictions are looked upon as delightful portraits of innocence and on the other they are viewed as mawkish, fluffy, and oversentimental.   As always, the choice is yours, for, as we know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Let me introduce you to a foremost exponent of child portraiture and one whose style has often been compared to the Pre-Raphaelite painters or the French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau Today my featured artist is the French-born English Victorian nineteenth century painter Sophie Gengembre Anderson.

Landscape by Charles Gengembre

Sophie was born in Paris in 1823. She was the first-born child of Charles Antoine Colomb Gengembre, a French architect, engineer and landscape artist and his English wife. Gengembre’s career as an architect began at the age of nineteen and he worked primarily on municipal commissions, such as the Mint of the City of Cassel, which he designed and helped to build. In 1814, aged twenty-four, he won second place in the Architecture category of the Grand Prix de Rom. In 1830, during the three-day July Revolution (révolution de Juillet), which saw the overthrow of King Charles X, Gengembre suffered a bayonet wound to his leg. This harrowing event occurred on the same day his son and second child, Philip, was born. Following this incident, he decided to take his family out of France and they went to live in London where he worked as an architect for the French Utopian Socialist, Charles Fourier. Gengembre and his family did eventually return to his homeland and they went to live in a small town in a remote part of France with his family, but because of his participation in the earlier revolution he was always under threat.

Its Touch and Go to Laugh or No by Sophie Anderson (1857)

When she was seventeen years of age, Sophie Gengembre Anderson received some art lessons from an itinerant portrait artist who had visited the small town where she lived. In 1843, whilst staying with friends in Paris, she received some portraiture and figurative training from Baron Charles Auguste Steuben, the German-born French Romantic painter and lithographer, but mostly, she was self-taught. In 1845 her brother Henry was born.

The Bird’s Nest by Sophie Anderson

Three years later, in 1848 another French Revolution broke out – this one, sometimes known as the February Revolution, was one of a wave of revolutions that were happening  in Europe at the time and one which ended the Orleans monarchy and led to the creation of the French Second Republic. Fearing for his life and that of his family, the Gengembre family left France and went to live in Cincinnati. Once settled in America Sophie began to earn money by taking on portraiture commissions from well-to-do families around the neighbourhood. Her artistic talent was soon recognised and in 1849 she began to exhibit her work at the Western Art Union Gallery in Cincinnati.  It was while collaborating on an album of portraits of the Protestant Episcopal Bishops of the United States that she met the British artist Walter Anderson.

Historical Collections of the Great West by Henry Howe

Walter Anderson was an English painter, lithographer, and engraver. He was a painter of still lifes, landscapes and genre work and had moved to Cincinnati in 1849 where he met Sophie.   She and Walter collaborated on many illustrative commissions including her work on illustrations for Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of the Great West, which was published in 1851. She also worked for Louis Prang and Company which specialised in chromolithography, a technique for making multi-colour prints.

A Stitch in Time by Walter Anderson (1890)

 Sophie and her family left Cincinnati in 1853, closely followed by Walter Anderson who was by this time engaged to Sophie, and the couple settled down in Manchester, a neighbourhood of Allegheny just north of Pittsburgh. In 1854 Sophie and Walter travelled to England where they married. Whilst there she entered paintings into the exhibitions held by the Society of British Artists and later exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts.

No Walk Today by Sophie Anderson (1856)

In 1856 Sophie produced one of her best loved and most famous works, entitled No Walk Today. The work is testament to Sophie’s fine attention to detail. It is almost photographic in quality. One cannot help but be mesmerised by the amount of work she has put into the detail of the lace curtains we see behind the child. Look at the child. By the way she is dressed, she appears to be part of a wealthy family. She wears her outdoor clothes as a prelude to setting off on a walk but we can see by her facial expression, all is not well ! The inclement weather has curtailed any thoughts of going out of the house and the sullen and disappointed expression on her face perfectly sums up feelings.

Victorian Painting book cover

The painting was reproduced on the cover of Graham Reynolds’s important 1966 book Victorian Painting. The work was bought in 1926 by David Montagu Douglas Scott, a grandson of the 5th Duke of Buccleuch for fourteen guineas. It was an astute buy as this painting genre at the time had fallen out of favour, hence the low purchase price. In November 2008, the painting was sold at Sotheby’s, London for a world record price, for her work, of more than £1 million pounds.

The Children’s Story Book by Sophie Gengembre Anderson

Her painting Children’s Story Book was one of her works which depicts the joy of everyday life. In this work, we see a group of country children who are reading from a story book. By the way they are dressed and by the holes in the boy’s socks which he pokes his fingers through, we must deduce that they are poor. Despite such poverty we are left in no doubt that they are very happy. The boy fools around craving attention whilst the four female children are reading or listening to a story. I suppose this could be seen as a very stereotypical view ! The tallest and presumably the oldest of the girls is carrying a baby. This type of depiction was popular at the time. For many it was the stereotypical idyllic image of the English countryside, the innocence of childhood and the maintaining of old-fashioned standards. Such utopian ideas were clung to by many in the face of the onset of rapid industrialisation.

Young Girl with Pomegranates by Sophie Gengembre Anderson

The couple returned to Pennsylvania in 1858 for a long visit with Sophie’s family, during which time she exhibited at the Pittsburgh Artist’s Association in 1859 and 1860, and it was in that latter year that she and Walter both had work exhibited at the National Academy of Design. The couple returned to London in 1863 where they remained until 1871.

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, with Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending by Sophie Anderson (1869)

In 1869 Sophie Anderson completed a painting depicting a fairy and the title of the work, Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things,  which some believe was based on a passage from a poem by Charles Ede.

Elaine by Sophie Anderson (1870)

In 1870, Sophie completed a work entitled Elaine. The work is based on Tennyson’s cycle of twelve narrative poems by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King which retells the legend of King Arthur, his knights, his love for Guinevere, her tragic betrayal of him, and the rise and fall of Arthur’s kingdom. In this depiction, it is all about Elaine who fell in love with Sir Lancelot but, sadly for her, he abandoned her in favour of Queen Guinevere. Elaine died of unrequited love and here we see her faithful dumb servant rowing her to King Arthur’s palace at Camelot. In her hand she clutches a lily, representing purity, and a letter expressing her undying love for Lancelot.  It is a large painting, measuring 158 x 241cms (62” x 95”) and it was very unusual in the late nineteenth century for female artists to paint such grand history paintings. The Liverpool City Council selected this painting for purchase at the first of their Autumn Exhibition.

Capri Girl with Flowers by Sophie Anderson (1881)

Because of Sophie’s health problems he and her husband decided to move to a warmer climate and in 1871 relocated to Capri and lived in Villa Castello, a beautiful house with an extensive garden which was an ideal setting for entertaining fellow artists. Capri was a popular location for artists and at some time was home to the likes of Frederic Leighton, John Singer Sargent, and the French artists, Edouard Alexandre Sain, and Jean Benner.

The Song by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1881)

In 1881, whilst on Capri, she completed a work entitled The Song. In this painting, we see three young women dressed in roman costume in a wooded clearing. All the women are dressed in Greco-Roman style clothes. One is playing a lyre and singing while the others recline and listen attentively. This scene could have  a possible allegorical tone to it or may simply be a scene from every-day Roman life. Whichever is the case, this type of depiction was very popular in the nineteenth century especially with the middle classes who liked to show off their knowledge of Roman and Greek history. There is also a possibility that this depiction had moral connotations as during Victorian times the inclusion of the lyre or harp came to symbolise a faithful woman. The painting was exhibited the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1881.

The Turtle Dove by Sophie Anderson

Walter and Sophie Anderson moved back to England in 1894 and settled into Wood Lane Cottage in the seaside town of Falmouth, Cornwall. They both continued to paint and exhibit their work in London. Sophie Gengembre Anderson died at home in Falmouth, aged eighty, on the 10th March 1903, just two months after the passing of her husband of thirty-nine years, Walter. Their bodies lie together in the same grave at Swanvale cemetery in Falmouth. It is not known for sure whether the couple had any children but it is often speculated that some of her child paintings were depiction of their daughters.

The Last Tribute Of Love by Sophie Anderson

In Victorian days ladies were not expected to have careers but with Walter Anderson’s support Sophie Anderson managed to do just that and, furthermore, was very successful.  So I return to my original question about her art – love it or hate it?