Annie Louisa Swynnerton. Part 3 -The later years and the Royal Academy

Portrait of Annie Swynnerton by Gwenny Griffiths (1928)

In my third and final blog looking at the life and works of the talented Victorian artist, Annie Louise Swynnerton I wanted to firstly concentrate on some of her best loved paintings.

In 1880 she completed a work entitled The Tryst sometimes referred to as The Factory Girl’s Tryst. This remarkable painting was bought by Henry Boddington Jnr., the owner of the brewing empire which was not only Manchester’s largest brewery but one of the largest in the North of England. He later gave it to the Salford Art Gallery.

Tryst by Annie Swynnerton (1880)

The depiction features a night-time background scene with distant twinkling lights reflected on water behind the female figure. It could be that Annie got the idea of this background after seeing some of Whistler’s Nocturne paintings featuring the River Thames at night, which he completed in the 1870’s. The setting for Annie Synnerton’s work is thought to be Peel Park Lake, an urban park in Salford, Manchester and the park is situated on the flood plain of the River Irwell.  In the top right of the painting you can just make out an illuminated windmill and it is known that a mill stood on the bank of the river in the 1880’s.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, (1874)

The meaning of the word tryst in the title of the painting refers to a secret meeting between lovers and this subject is a very popular one for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. The figure is of a young girl who is clutching her shawl around her body to fend off the cold. She has a worried expression on her face, a look of desperation, but why? We cannot hep feel for this vulnerable young girl. Her eyes are staring out as if she is looking for something or somebody, but what or who is she searching for?

The answer lies in a Manchester legend which Annie would have been familiar with. It is a legend of the love affair between a poor local girl, a mill worker, the daughter of a miller, and the son of the wealthy landowning Stanley family. She had come to the windmill to meet the young man, but he never arrived. His family had found out about the affair and were horrified by the liaison and so, to put an end to the relationship, they sent him away from home. The young girl was heartbroken when she heard what had happened and being so distraught threw herself into Peel Park Lake and drowned. The Stanley’s son on hearing of the death committed suicide. The boy’s father was so remorseful about sending his son away from home which resulted in the two suicides made it known that the windmill, the trysting place of the young lovers, must endure forever.

The Letter by Annie Swynnerton

Another painting which causes you to wonder what the depiction is all about is Swynnerton’s painting, The Letter, which is part of the Royal Academy collection in London and is a depiction of a favoured subject by many artists of the past. Receiving, reading, and writing a letter was a much-loved subject of artist for many centuries. Looking back at genre works by sixteenth and seventeenth century Northern Renaissance and Dutch painters many featured this subject.  It was a depiction that made viewers wonder about the story behind the painting.

Woman Reading a Letter by Gabriel Metsu (1665)

I can recall two wonderful paintings by Gabriel Metsu, prints of which I have on one of my walls at home, Woman Reading a Letter and Man Writing a Letter (see My Daily Art Display, Jan 22nd, 2014).

The Letter by Leonard Campbell Taylor

The subject was also popular in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century with British artists such as The Letter painted by the British painter Leonard Campbell Taylor.

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer (1659)

Annie Swynnerton’s painting besides being about letter reading has another connection with a famous painting of the same subject, Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, as like Vermeer the person reading the letter is illuminated by natural light coming through a window, which symbolised the outside world. In the work by Swynnerton the way she has formulated the composition (101 x 48cms) its narrowness gives us a feeling that the girl is in some way confined in a restricted space which gives us a perception of claustrophobia. The contrast between the dark background and the illuminated figure of the girl with the painted highlights on her face, hair and dress enhances the three-dimensionality of the depiction. What is in the letter remains a mystery but whatever it is, it has the girl’s full attention.

Cupid and Psyche by Annie Swynnerton (1891)

Annie Swynnerton’s paintings often depicted nudes but couched them with mythological connotations probably to make them more acceptable to the Victorian public. Her best-known work of this genre was her 1890 painting Cupid and Psyche. The pair from Roman mythology were the favourite subject of many artists. According to mythology Cupid was sent by his mother Venus, who was jealous of Psyche’s beauty, to wound Psyche with one of his arrows and by so doing she would fall in love with a lowly man. The twist to the story is that Cupid falls in love with Psyche and makes her his wife, but he forbids her to look at his face to ensure the marriage remains a secret. The story then gets more complicated………

In the depiction we see Cupid on the right kissing Psyche. The depiction of the nudes differs from the normal idealized Academic-depicted nude paintings which were common in works by artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Frederic Leighton. Swynnerton has once again gone for an un-idealized portrayal of the human body. Look carefully at the way the artist has use an assortment of colours in the portrayal of the naked flesh including blue for the veins. Their bodies are illuminated by moonlight whilst, behind them, we see the light of the breaking dawn. The painting received mixed reviews from the critics, some of whom were startled by the depiction. Claude Phillips from the Art Journal praised Swynnerton writing:

“…her flesh-painting has a certain quivering reality not to be found in many renderings of the nude by contemporary English artists…”

But the art critic and one of the two ‘non-artistic’ members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Frederic George Stephens, writing in The Athenaeum commented on Swynnerton’s depiction of Psyche:

“…her features are coarse and blubbered, and her flesh is without the sweetness, evenness or purity of youth…”

Oceanid by Annie Swynnerton (1908)

Another of Annie Swynnerton’s mythological paintings, Oceanids, was completed in 1909 and is thought to have resulted from some plein-air painting at one of the crater lakes close to Rome and then completed in her studio in central Rome. Oceanids were goddess-nymphs who presided over the sources of earth’s fresh-water, from rain-clouds to subterranean springs and fountains. Along with the Oceanid there is another creature depicted in the painting but barely discernible in the bottom right of it. It is a sea serpent which co-habits with the Oceanid in the lake. What is so magical about this painting is the way Swynnerton has illustrated the translucency and movement of the water and could only have been achieved by carefully studying the water conditions of the lake and the way light played on the surface. It is also remarkable the way she has depicted the dappled light on the body of the woman. The expression on the woman’s face is one of great pleasure as she draws her hair out to be warmed by the rays of the sun. The painting was bought by Christiana Jane Herringham who was the daughter of Thomas Wilde Powell, an artist, and later a wealthy patron of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1880 she married the physician Wilmot Herringham, (later Sir Wilmot Herringham) with whom she had two sons, Geoffrey, and Christopher. Lady Herringham was committed to women’s suffrage from 1889 onwards and had probably met Swynnerton through their mutual friendship with Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The painting is now part of the City of Bradford Museum collection.

Geoffrey and Christopher Herringham by Annie Swynnerton

Annie Swynnerton completed a painting, of Jane Herringham’s two sons, Geoffrey, and Christopher Herringham in 1889 and the following year was exhibited at the New Gallery in London and at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition. The rural setting is at the onset of evening with the sun setting in the blue-hilled background. Again, like so many of her figurative works, Swynnerton has focused on the natural light which illuminates the rosy-cheeks of the boys but also look at how the glimmering light is captured on the velvet jumpers worn by the boys. It is a depiction of happy childhood but alas their future was destined to be anything but happy. The younger son, Christopher, died of acute rheumatoid arthritis soon after the painting was completed, and Geoffrey was killed in 1914, during the first months of the Great War. He was 31. Their mother Jane died aged 77 in 1929 but spent many of her last years in a mental institution suffering from delusions of pursuit and persecution.

Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais (1856)

The painting is often likened to that of John Millais’s 1856 work Autumn Leaves with its twilight setting and blue-hilled backdrop. Millais’ work is housed in the Manchester Art Gallery and must have been seen on many occasions by Swynnerton.

Margaret and Chrystian Guthrie by Annie Swynnerton (1907)

Another painting commission Annie Swynnerton received due to her connection with the woman’s rights campaign was to produce a portrait of the two daughters of American-born Mary Guthrie, the wife of David Charles Guthrie, 5th Baron of Craigie and East Haddon Hall. Mary Guthrie was a leading campaigner in the Northampton area for the Woman’s rights and it is through that connection that she met Swynnerton. In the painting entitled Margaret and Chrystian Guthrie we see her two daughters sitting on a window seat in East Haddon Hall. In the background we can see the extensive and opulent gardens. The children seem a little bit edgy and probably don’t like to waste time sitting for the portrait and prefer to be off playing. Look at the elder of the sisters on the left. She is almost desperate to lift herself off the seat and run away. The younger, with her back to us, looks over her shoulder and smiles but seems to prefer to concentrate on the sunny garden. The painting is a mass of colour and tones from the yellows, greens, and blues of the garden in the background to the pinks and reds of the sumptuous curtains and cushions we see in the room itself. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1907.

In 1922 Annie Louisa Swynnerton was finally elected the first female Associate Member of the Royal Academy. One has to remember that Swynnerton had been regarded as a highly accomplished and talented artist since the late 1880’s so why the long wait for recognition by the Royal Academy? To find a possible answer to that question one must look at the Royal Academy establishment.

A 19th century illustration of the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy was founded in 1768 to publicise the arts, to deliver free tuition which would enable the talented, notwithstanding their means, to be taught to the highest standards. It was also committed to hold an annual exhibition which would be free to exhibitors and at which the works would be selected on merit. Thirty-six artists and architects petitioned King George III seeking his permission to establish a society which would promote the Arts.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Zoffany (1772)

In a group portrait of the thirty-six founding members of the Royal Academy completed by Johann Zoffany in 1772, we see the members gathered around a nude male model at a time when women were excluded from such training to protect their modesty. For that reason, the two female founding members, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman could not be depicted as being present at the life drawing class but Zoffany added them as portraits hanging on the wall.

King George III agreed to the request and accorded it Royal status and helped subsidise it for the first decade. Its first president was Joshua Reynolds. To preserve the excellence of the establishment the numbers of Academicians would be limited to artists, sculptors and architects.  Later engravers were included. The 1768 Instrument of Foundation allowed total membership of the Royal Academy to be 40 artists. When Annie Swynnerton was elected the maximum permitted number was 42 and since then there have been two more changes to the rule and the maximum now stands at 80, but within that number there must always be at least 14 sculptors, 12 architects and 8 printmakers with the balance being painters. The maximum age of an Academician is set at seventy-five and once Academician reach that age they stand down and become Senior Academicians. So, when this happens or on the death of an Academician, a vacancy occurs.

Nominations Book of the Royal Academy

Anyone is eligible to become a Royal Academician, if they are under seventy-five years of age and professionally active as an artist or architect in the UK. Potential new Royal Academicians are first nominated by an existing Academician, who writes their name in the weighty Nominations Book. Signatures must then be elicited from eight other Royal Academicians in support of the nomination. At this stage the nominee becomes a candidate. In March, May, and December each year, all the Academicians meet at a General Assembly to vote in new Members from the list of candidates. There is no postal voting, so this is done entirely in person.

Oreads by Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1907)

So, to go back to the case of Annie Swynnerton. She was a respected artist. She was under seventy-five years of age and so she should have been a prime candidate, or was she? The Royal Academy in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was very male orientated and talk of electing a woman into the hallowed ranks was anathema to many Academicians. In 1907, when Annie was 63, her name was put forward by George Clausen following the positive response to her paintings which were shown at the Academy’s 1906 exhibition and by her painting Oreads shown in 1907. However, she failed to be elected. Seven years later, in 1914, her name was once again put forward by George Clausen but once again she failed to be elected. Annie may have been totally disillusioned with the way in which she had been treated by the R.A. and did not exhibit again at the Royal Academy for six years.

The breakthrough finally came in November 1922 when she was finally elected the first woman Associate Royal Academician. Full coverage across all newspapers hailed this not only a success for Annie but a success for women. She was delighted, and the Daily Mail of November 25th printed an interview they had with her and recorded her feelings at being so honoured:

“…I am much gratified at the honour bestowed on me, but true art needs no incentive; its work is its own reward. Professionally, though, this recognition of women artists should be a great help. It marks such a very long stage from my younger days, when women were not admitted to the Academy schools and it was difficult for them to get their best work exhibited…”

And that ended the saga – or did it? Those of you who are good at maths, knowing Annie Swynnerton was born in 1844, will have realised that when she was elected a Royal Academician in November 1922 she was 78 and that was three years past the cut-off date for being eligible to become a Royal Academician !!!!!!   It was thought that she would have to resign immediately. The proposed treatment of Annie outraged the national press. In an article in November 28th Daily News they did not mince their words:

“…Today the world sinks back in its chair overwhelmed with laughter and despair and the Academy is covered with ignominy. Surely there has never been so egregious a blunder, if indeed it was not something worse…”

They, like many people, could not decide whether it had been the Academicians’ carelessness and incompetence for not realising the age of Annie Swynnerton when her name was put forward on the third occasion or they were being devious and there was an element of conspiracy about the whole issue.  A compromise was finally reached and Annie Louisa Swynnerton was made a Senior Associate Academician but, because of her age, could never be raised to full membership.

Annie Swynnerton’s Grave, St Mary’s Church, South Hayling

Annie Swynnerton’s sight began to deteriorate towards the end of her life, but she continued to exhibit pictures at the Academy, although they were often works she had painted years earlier. She died on October 24th, 1934 at the age of eighty-eight at her home on Hayling Island, near Portsmouth, leaving a studio full of 170 pictures, all but 12 of them unfinished and unframed.

Annie Louisa Swynnerton, besides being a very talented painter, was a fighter. Her determination was the key to success. She overcame many difficulties and what she achieved was a beacon of light which inspired many female artists who followed to press ahead with their fight against institutionalised prejudice against female artists.


Most of the information for my three blogs about Annie Swynnerton was found in some excellent books which I bought at the Painting Light and Hope exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, which you should try and visit.

Annie Swynnerton, Painting Light and Hope by Kate JT Herrington and Rebecca Milner.

The Life and Works of Annie Louise Swynnerton by Susan Thomson.

Annie Swynnerton, Painter and Pioneer by Christine Allen and Penny Morris.

Henry Herbert La Thangue – the pictorial documenter of rural life

Henry Herbert La Thangue  (photo c.1893)
Henry Herbert La Thangue
(photo c.1893)

A few blogs ago I looked at the life and works of George Clausen and termed his art as rustic realism and today I want to delve into the life and the art work of another such painter, the English realist rural landscape artist Henry Herbert  La Thangue.

Henry Herbert La Thangue was born in Croydon, Surrey on January 19th 1859. He attended the renowned public school, Dulwich College, where two of his contemporary school friends were fellow aspiring artists Stanhope Forbes and Frederick Goodall. He enrolled briefly at the Lambeth School of Art in 1873 before enrolling on a five year course at the Royal Academy schools in 1874. The culmination of his studies at the Academy came in December 1879 when he won a gold medal for his work as well as a three year travelling scholarship to study in Paris at the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  It was during this time, whilst staying in the French capital, that he became influenced by the works of Whistler and the many paintings he saw at the Salon by artists who favoured rustic naturalism. He was also influenced by the landscape works of the en plein air artists of the Barbizon school. So how did the Barbizon School come into being ?

The Last Furrow by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1895)
The Last Furrow by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1895)

As far as the French Academy was concerned aspiring artists should be taught in the Neoclassical tradition and copy the style of the painters of the Renaissance and Classical era.  Landscape art was not looked upon as an important genre unless the landscape , usually an idealized version, was combined with some historical connotation.  In 1816 the Academy even encouraged this genre by introducing a Prix de Rome in paysage historique (landscapes with a historical nuance), the winner of which would travel to Rome to live and paint at the Villa Medici.  By making this award the Academy had hoped to encourage artists to paint not just landscapes but by adding the historical aspect to the work it would ensure history painting would not die.  It actually had the opposite effect as many artists turned to simple landscape work and this desire was further enhanced when in 1824 John Constable’s landscape works were exhibited at that year’s Salon.

The Plough Boy by Henry Herbert La Thangue (c.1900)
The Plough Boy by Henry Herbert La Thangue (c.1900)

In the warm summer months artists would leave the French capital and move to the tranquillity of the Parisian countryside around the Forest of Fontainebleau with its dense forest and meadowlands.  Small hamlets were situated around the periphery of the forest which made ideal stopping-off places for the artists and one such hamlet was Barbizon which proved to be the ideal temporary home for many landscape painters, such as Théodore Rousseau and Constant Troyon, who had rejected the Academic tradition of historical landscape painting and embraced a more realistic representation of the countryside and life in the country.  Later in the 1840’s, artists such as Jean-François Millet and Charles-François Daubigny came to Barbizon.

The Boat Builder's Yard by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1881)
The Boat Builder’s Yard by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1881)

In 1881 after completing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, La Thangue travelled to Brittany, another popular region with landscape painters, and worked alongside the English landscape painter, Stanhope Forbes.  Whilst here, he met the renowned master of rustic realism, Jules Bastien-Lepage.  That year, he visited the small coastal commune of Concale, east of St Malo and completed his painting entitled The Boat Builder’s Yard. He remained in Brittany until mid 1882 and the following year he travelled south to the Rhone Valley commune of Donzère with his friend, the sculptor James Havard Thomas.

Resting after the game, Kate La Thangue by Henry Herbert La Thangue
Resting after the game, Kate La Thangue by Henry Herbert La Thangue

When he returned to England in 1884, La Thangue first lived at South Walsham on the edge of the Norfolk Broads before moving to Rye in East Sussex for a brief time in 1885.   This was an eventful period in La Thangue’s life for in 1885 he married the actress, Kate Rietiker.  It was also at this juncture in his life that he became interested in politics surrounding art and art establishments.  La Thangue was a radical thinker and believed fervently that the Royal Academy had to change.  La Thangue proposed that it should be a more democratic society open to all and based on the principles of ‘universal suffrage’  Much was written about his views in the press but ultimately nothing changed.  La Thangue remained unhappy with the administration of the hallowed society and so he, along with a number of his like-minded contemporaries, having failed in their attempt to revolutionise the establishment, founded the New English Art Club in London in 1885 as an alternate venue to the Royal Academy

Portrait of the Artist's Wife by Henry Herbert La Thangue
Portrait of the Artist’s Wife by Henry Herbert La Thangue

In 1886, despite his misgivings surrounding the Royal Academy, he continued to exhibit works at the art establishment.  The Royal Academy was not the sole outlet for his works as the paintings were also exhibited Royal Society of British Artists and the Grosvenor Gallery, which had opened in 1877 by Sir Coutts Lindsay, and was a welcoming home for those painters, such as Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Crane, whose works the more conservative Royal Academy shunned.  His paintings could also be seen at the New Gallery which was founded in Regent Street in 1888 by Comyns Carr and Charles Edward Hallé who had once been co-directors of the Grosvenor Gallery but because of all the Grovesnor Gallery problems, had resigned and set up this new gallery.  The New Gallery was also a home for the works of the Pre-Raphaelite and  Aesthetic movement artists and artists such as Lawrence Tadema-Alma, William Holman Hunt, Lord Leighton and George Frederic Watts exhibited works at this establishment.  La Thangue also exhibited at the Royal Institute of Painters which he had joined in 1883.

The Return of the Reapers by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1886)
The Return of the Reapers by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1886)

In the summer of 1886, La Thangue  moved home to the Norfolk countryside and the small fenland village of South Walsham.  During these years La Thangue produced head studies of farm hands and fisherfolk and it was whilst living here that he completed his landscape painting entitled Return of the Reapers.  This was a typical example of La Thangue’s rustic realism style.  La Thangue was probably influenced by the works of the French artists Jules Bastien-Lepage and Gustave Courbet and the en plein air works of the French Impressionists.

Study of a Boy with a Black Hat, before a Cornfield by Henry Herbert La Thangue

Five years later La Thangue left Norfolk and moved home south to the neighbouring county of Suffolk and the coastal village of Bosham just a few miles from the town of Chichester.  He carried on painting rural scenes, often large-scale works, with their realism connotations.

I

The Man with the Scythe by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1896)
The Man with the Scythe by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1896)

n 1896 he completed a work The Man with the Scythe, which is now housed in the Tate Britain gallery in London.  This proved to be a controversial work.  At first glance one ponders as to the reasoning behind the title.  However, look closely and in the background you can make out a man carrying a scythe but this is not just a country scene with a man off to work in the fields whilst the mother tends her daughter.  This is a more solemn and symbolic piece,  as what we are witnessing is a mother horrified to discover that her young daughter has died,.  At the very instant of her tragic discovery a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, which is one of the traditional symbols of death, often referred to as the ‘grim reaper’.    This tragic and somewhat melodramatic depiction by La Thangue was a definite change in his subject matter and may have been influenced by the pair of paintings by Frank Holl in 1877 entitled Hush and Hushed (See My Daily Art Display Feb 9th 2012)

The March Month by Henry Herbert La Thangue
The March Month by Henry Herbert La Thangue

His English base from 1898 and into the early 1900’s was in the West Sussex village of Graffham.  His painting motifs still concentrated on rural life.  His works, depicting both arable and livestock farming, documented life in the fields from the harrow and the harvest, to  animal husbandry and fruit growing.  He was always searching for the perfect portrayal of the countryside and countryside practices during the different seasons.  In his painting entitled The March, completed around 1900,  he depicted the orchard near his house which was also used as nursery areas during lambing time.   We see the farmer scattering turnips from his cart which would feed the sheep and fatten up the lambs.  It could be that this depiction by La Thangue was influenced by the famous novelist and gentleman-farmer Rider Haggard, a contemporary of the artist, for in his 1899 book A Farmer’s Year  he talked about fattening lambs:

“….’The flock is being penned at night on the three-acre [field] with a view to improving the bottom of his young pasture which has grown somewhat thin. In the daytime they run out to one or other of the meadows, where root is thrown to them, and every night they are shut in a new fold on the three-acre and receive a ration of corn, hay and beet…”

Selling Chickens in Liguria by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1906)
Selling Chickens in Liguria by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1906)

At the turn of the century La Thangue became more and more interested with the work of the French Impressionist painters and their fascination with light and in 1901 he travelled to Provence.  From 1903 to 1911 he spent much of his time in the Italian region of Liguria building up a large collection of work. Despite La Thangue’s earlier outspoken criticism of the Royal Academy he became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1898 and became a full Member in 1912.

Violets for Perfume by Henry Herbert La Thangue (ca. 1913)
Violets for Perfume by Henry Herbert La Thangue (ca. 1913)

His diploma work for the Royal Academy was one entitled Violets for Perfume.  The notable English artist, George Clausen (see My Daly Art Display May 30th & June 8th 2015) wrote about La Thangue’s work:

“…Sunlight was the thing that attracted him: this and some simple motive of rural occupation, enhanced by a picturesque surround…”

This work stemmed from his time in Provence and depicts a woman tipping a basket of freshly picked violets onto a muslin sheet in preparation for perfume making. All through his artistic career La Thangue developed his subject matter from labourers working in fields, vineyards and orchards. The depiction of the lady working in this work highlighted the back-to-basic work practice.  Gone was the mechanised practice of harvesting which La Thangue disliked and which he saw creeping into the rural life of England, destroying the old-fashioned rural practices which he had so loved to paint.

A Mountain Frontier by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1910)
A Mountain Frontier by Henry Herbert La Thangue (1910)

In 1914, just prior to the beginning of the Great War, the Leicester Galleries in London  staged a one-man exhibition of La Thangue’s southern European landscape works,  which concentrated on his paintings completed whilst he was in Provence and Liguria.  One of the works exhibited was entitled A Mountain Frontier which La Thangue completed around 1910.  The exhibition was a great success and praised by the critics.  The artist William Sickert wrote about La Thangue’s skill as a painter in the May 1914 issue of the British literary magazine The New Age stating:

“…What renders La Thangue’s work particularly interesting is that while using the language of the day in painting, that is to say an opaque mosaic for recording objective sensations about visible nature, he is using it in a personal manner…”

Sickert went on to write that La Thangue, through his talent at developing relations of colour with a warm colour at the base,  was able to build on it a series a series of beautiful and interesting sensations of nature which is what he,  and not somebody else, had to say.

A Ligurian Bay by Henry Herbert La Thangue
A Ligurian Bay by Henry Herbert La Thangue

In the 1920’s after the Great War had ended La Thangue returned to Liguria and the motif of his paintings changed from the arable land of the English countryside to the sunlit orange groves and gardens of Italy.  La Thangue spent those days in southern Europe painting en plein air directly on to large canvases.  This belief is based on the fact that very few smaller versions of his paintings or sketches exist.

Wreck of the S.S. Manuka December 16th 1929
Wreck of the S.S. Manuka December 16th 1929

Henry Herbert La Thangue died on December 21st 1929, just a few weeks before his seventy-first birthday.  Less than a week before his death La Thangue had been devastated and depressed when he was given the news that a vessel, the S.S. Manuka, during a voyage from Melbourne/Bluff/Dunedin was wrecked on Nugget Point near Long Point, South Otago.  Part of the cargo on the vessel was two of La Thangue’s paintings.  La Thangue was never to know, that five days after his death, the paintings were recovered and said to have been in “reasonable condition”.

 His wife Kate died in 1941.

The Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johan Zoffany

The Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johann Zoffany (1772-77)

Johan Zoffany was born Johannes Josephus Zoffaly in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1733.  His father Anton Zoffaly was a court cabinet maker and architect to Alexander Ferdinand, Prince of Thurn and Taxis and it was at the Prince’s court that young Johan was brought up.  When the Prince took up residence in Regensburg, Zoffany served as an apprentice to the local painter, Martin Speer.  In 1750, at the age of 17 when he had completed his apprenticeship Johann travelled to Rome and studied with the portrait painter, Agostino Masucci.  In 1757, now back in Germany, Zoffany was commissioned by the Elector of Trier to paint frescoes and paintings for his new palace at Trier and his Ehrenbreitstein Palace in Koblenz.

In 1760 Zoffany travelled to London.  Here he was initially employed by Benjamin Wilson, the painter and printmaker and it was from his connection with Wilson that Zoffany came to the attention of one of Wilson’s patrons, the actor and theatre impresario, David Garrick, and he commissioned Zoffany to paint a number of theatrical works which featured the actor in famous theatrical roles.  Garrick also had Zoffany paint some conversation pieces of he and his wife set in the grounds of his Hampton estates.  The term Conversation Piece is an informal group portrait, often full length but usually small in scale in a domestic interior or garden setting and was a very popular art genre in 18th century England.   They would often portray a group of people apparently engaged in genteel conversation or some activity.  Usually the group would be members of a family, but sometimes friends would be included.  In some conversation pieces groups of friends or members of a society were depicted.  It was for these works that Zoffany made his name in England.

Zoffany’s fame spread among the London elite and commissions started to roll in for his portraiture and conversation pieces.  One such commission came from the Prime Minister, John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, who wanted Zoffany to paint portraits of his three sons and another portrait of his three daughters.  It was thanks to Bute that Zoffany was introduced to King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte in 1763.  Both were impressed by his work and commissioned Zoffany to paint portraits of their family.  The Royal Academy of Arts had been founded in December 1768 through a personal act of King George III.  Its task was to promote the arts of design in Britain through education and exhibition.  There were originally thirty four founder members, with Sir Joshua Reynolds its first President.  The rules stated that there would be forty Academicians.  In a Council of the Royal Academy in November 1769 it was reported to those present that “his Majesty had been pleased to appoint Mr Johan Zoffany to be one of the forty Academicians”.  Zoffany was now a Nominated Member of the Academy.

The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Zoffany (1771-2)

George III also set him a task to paint a group portrait of the Royal Academy members which Zoffany duly completed in 1772 and was entitled The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy.  Zoffany himself is seen with brush and palette in his hand at the far left of the painting.  The king and his wife were delighted with the painting and Queen Charlotte commissioned Zoffany to paint an even larger and more elaborate conversation piece set in the Tribuna of the Uffizi, which would depict the art treasures held within the octagonal room.   Zoffany travelled to Italy to carry out the commission in 1772 and did not complete the ambitious work until 1777.

Zoffany returned to England with his masterpiece but was distressed to find that his genre of conversation pieces had gone out of vogue and his work was no longer required by his wealthy and fashionable clients.  He could have reverted to his other artistic forte, that of portraiture, but at the time he had many very successful rivals for that type of work, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds as well as the emerging “new kid on the bloc” George Romney.

By 1783 Zoffany had all but given up hope of receiving commissions for his work in England and decided to travel to India in his search for rich patrons.   For the next six years Zoffany bided his time in the sub-continent travelling between Calcutta and Lucknow completing commissions he received from the wealthy British colonials and the local Lucknow aristocracy.  Once again he had the opportunity to carry on with his beloved conversation pieces.  Such was the popularity of his work that he was inundated with commissions and by the time he returned to England in 1789 he had made his fortune.

Zoffany died in 1810, aged 77.  He was one of the greatest exponents of the English Conversation piece with its Rococo flamboyance and will also be remembered for the charm of his theatrical works depicting scenes from popular plays of the day.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today by Zoffany is looked upon as one of his greatest works.  It is his grand conversation piece entitled The Tribuna of the Uffizi, which he started in 1772 and completed in 1777.   Going to Italy at the behest of his Royal patrons, George III and his wife Queen Charlotte, to paint this work had not been his original plan as in 1772 he had hoped to secure a passage on Captain Cook’s vessel when he set sail on his second voyage to the South Seas but the offer of a sea voyage never materialised and so he took up the commission from Queen Charlotte to travel to Florence and record in a painting the collection of art and sculpture which the Grand Duke of Tuscany had put together in the Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  Queen Charlotte had envisaged this work would be a pendant to Zoffany’s earlier work owned by the English rulers entitled Academicians of the Royal Academy which he completed in 1772 and was well received by the royal family.

The Tribuna was an octagonal room within the Uffizi Gallery, designed in the late 1580’s by Bernardo Buontalenti in which the art collection of Francesco de’ Medici would be housed.  In 1737 it came into the possession of Pietro Leopoldo, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The commission was a great challenge to the talents of Zoffany as the Tribuna art collection was one of the greatest in all Europe.  Was it a true reproduction of what was there at the time?   Not quite, as Zoffany had to experiment and alter the perspective of the room in order to incorporate all the various pieces of sculpture and in some cases he had to reduce the size of individual pieces.  The collection of art in the Tribuna during the time Zoffany was painting it was also going through a slight reorganisation and this gave him the excuse to make his own decision as to what would be on display.   In doing so he omitted some paintings which were actually on display and added others which although housed in the Uffizi were never hung in the Tribuna.  One of these was Titian’s Venus of Urbino which we see in the central foreground.  There were also a number of paintings by Guido Reni which were housed in the Pitti Palace but were transported to the Uffizi just for Zoffany to copy!

There are twenty five paintings shown in this work.  How many can you identify?   All I will tell you is that amongst them there are six by Raphael, three by Guido Reni, two by Titian, two by Rubens and one each by Carracci, Corregio and Holbein.

Besides the works of art, sculptures and other artefacts, the painting is populated by no fewer than twenty two men all of whom were either connected with the Uffizi Gallery or were a miscellany of Grand Tourists.  So who were these Grand Tourists and what was the Grand Tour?  The Grand Tour was the traditional trip around Europe taken by mainly upper-class wealthy young European men, although primarily the term is associated with the British elite and nobility.   It reached the height of its popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and it was a kind of rite of passage for this wealthy elite.   One amusing aspect of Zoffany’s inclusion of the men was that during the many years he worked on the painting he would add and remove people as he saw fit and would tell some of the travellers they had to sit for him as the George III had specifically asked for their portrait to be included.  Of course that was never the case.  The one thing Zoffany was adamant about was that he would not portray a woman within the group.  It is thought that this could be due to the fact that he incorporated some lewd visual jokes into the painting.   Look at the group of men to the right who are staring at and fascinated by the backside of the Venus de Medici.  This sculpture had been well-known for the lewd comments made about it by the Grand Tourists.  In Vicci Coltman’s book entitled Classical Sculpture and the Culture of Collecting in Britain since 1760 she quotes a comment made by Charles Townley, the English country gentleman and antiquary who had made a couple of Grand Tours whilst Zoffany was painting his masterpiece.  Townley had said that he had been told that:

“…the sight of the Venus in the Florence Gallery will give you some yammering after a Tuscan Whore…”

It was not just the heterosexual innuendos that made Zoffany’s painting risqué, but his addition of two well known homosexuals, Thomas Patch, in the right foreground in conversation with another homosexual, Sir Horace Mann.  Patch is pointing at the sculpture The Wrestlers and their addition in the painting was to prove a step too far.

Zoffany returned to England in 1779 and delivered the painting to his royal patrons.   Queen Charlotte was horrified to see the room cluttered by so many men and worse still to incorporate lewd innuendos of both a heterosexual and homosexual nature.  She was especially shocked that Zoffany had included portraits of the two infamous homosexuals into the scene.  George III reluctantly paid for the work but had it placed out of sight in a room in Kew Palace.  The artist Joseph Farrington was active in the social, cultural, and professional art world of his time and he kept a daily diary from 13 July 1793 until his death, missing only a few days. This diary often referred to the London art world. The diary eventually constituted 16 volumes and in one of the volumes Farrington recounts a conversation between George III and the artist William Beechey in which he quotes the king as saying of Zoffany’s Tribuna of the Uffizi:

“…[The King] expressed wonder at Zoffany having done so improper a thing as to introduce the portraits of Sir Horace Man[n], [Thomas] Patch, & others, who were considered as men addicted to improper practices – He sd. The Queen wd. Not suffer the picture to be placed in any of Her apartments…”

It is thought it was not so much that Zoffany took it upon himself to add the twenty two Grand Tourists into the painting but it was the character of some of them that shocked and offended George III and his Queen.  Zoffany never again received a royal commission and from that day on lost their patronage.

This is a beautiful work and one of unbelievable detail.  I stood before it yesterday when I visited the preview of the Johan Zoffany RA, Society Observed exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.  If you are in London you should make a point on visiting this exhibition which runs until June 10th.

Tomorrow I will give you the answer to the names of the paintings and the artists who painted them