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?

…………… 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.



“Moonlights” by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Moonlight, Wharfdale by Atkinson Grimshaw (1865)
Moonlight, Wharfdale by Atkinson Grimshaw (1865)

Today I am featuring some works by the English Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw, who was born in Leeds in 1836.  His father, David, at various times during his life, served as a policeman, worked for Pickfords and then as a Great Northern Railway worker in Leeds.  His mother was Mary Grimshaw née Atkinson.  John Atkinson Grimshaw was the eldest of six children.  He and his siblings were brought up in a very religious household with both his parents being strict Baptists.  He left school at the age of sixteen and became a clerk at the Great Northern Railway headquarters in Leeds.  It was whilst working and living in Leeds that he was able to visit one of the many art galleries and see the works of some of the Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Holman Hunt and Henry Wallis.  He also loved and was influenced by the works of the Leeds-born Pre-Raphaelite landscape artist John William Inchbold.   While he was employed as a clerk much of Atkinson’s free time was taken up by his love of art.  He was a self-taught artist who received no formal training.

In 1857 Atkinson Grimshaw married his cousin Frances Theodosia Hubbard and the couple went on to have twelve children although sadly only six survived to be become teenagers.  Of those who survived, many went on to become artists like their father.  In 1861, much to his parents’ horror Grimshaw, gave up his work at the railway company and decided to become a professional artist.   He first exhibited som of his art work in 1862 and at this time he had concentrated on still life works depicting fruit and blossom and some paintings of birds.  He also managed to gain his first commissions from the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.  Over time, Grimshaw developed his own highly individual style, and subject matter.   He became a talented painter of autumnal scenes and also works which depicted twilight and night time scenes, lit by moonlight reflected on the wet cobbled streets, sometimes depicting horse-drawn traffic and handsome cabs.  These were known as his “moonlights”.  His paintings would often depict street scenes swathed in fog and smog from pollution that so often enveloped cities and towns at that time.

Shipping on the Clyde by Atkinson Grimshaw (1881)
Shipping on the Clyde by Atkinson Grimshaw (1881)

 He also painted many nocturnal harbour and dockyard scenes with the spiky outlines of the ships’ masts rearing up against a darkening sky.  Examples of this type of work can be seen in his paintings such as Liverpool from Wapping (1875), Nightfall down the Thames (1880),  Shipping on the Clyde (1881),  The Thames by Moonlight (1884),  Liverpool Quay by Moonlight (1887) and Prince’s Dock, Hull (1887).   Grimshaw’s works were more varied than just this as he painted many portraits, fairy pictures, and the most elaborate pictures of attractively dressed young women in opulent interiors.  During his early period he signed his paintings “J.A. Grimshaw” or “JAG” but in 1867 Grimshaw dropped his first name, John, and from then on signed his works “Atkinson Grimshaw”.

Atkinson Grimshaw always considered himself to be a Northerner, a Yorkshire man and Leeds, for most of his life, remained his base.  Grimshaw rarely travelled to London although he did set up a studio and live there for a short time in the mid 1880’s, and it was during this time he became friends with James McNeil Whistler.  His reputation as an artist was further enhanced when one of his paintings was accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy.   However the fact that over the years, he only ever submitted five of his paintings to the Royal Academy  probably meant that he set little store by what the RA could do for him and he knew he had numerous northern business men queuing up to buy his work.  Over time, he slowly built up a large clientele for his work, including some London art dealers, especially the William Agnew Gallery, and with this artistic success came wealth, so much so that in 1870 he was able to move his family into Knostrop Hall on the outskirts of the city.

Knostrop Old Hall, Leeds by Atkinson Grimshaw
Knostrop Old Hall, Leeds by Atkinson Grimshaw

Knostrop Hall was a magnificent 17th century stone-built manor house, which featured in many of his paintings.  He also had a house in Scarborough for use in the summer.  He called it Castle-by-the-sea.

Atkinson Grimshaw died of cancer in October 1893 at Knostrop Old Hall, and was buried in Woodhouse cemetery in Leeds. He was especially appreciated by middle-class clients, many of whom were northern industrialists.   Grimshaw’s dock scenes of Liverpool, Hull and Glasgow, and the manor houses seen at the end of leafy, stone-walled suburban lanes, along which a single figure walks, were especially popular.

Atkinson Grimshaw had campaigned for a number of years for the building of Leeds City Art Gallery.  After much wrangling and a prolonged struggle with the authorities the Leeds Art Gallery opened in October 1888 and was financed by public subscription, collected in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. The artist Hubert Herkomer formally opened the building, and presented an example of his work to the collection.  The Gallery mounted annual spring exhibitions in which Grimshaw always put forward works for inclusion.

 Atkinson Grimshaw had a unique style and is remembered as one of the minor Victorian masters and his place in art history will be assured by his depiction of Victorian life and his haunting moonlight which became his trademark.

Having said that, there was an element of controversy about his work.  As I said at the start of his biography, Atkinson had not received any formal artistic tuition, got married at the age of twenty-one and four years later despite now being a family man, had given up his job as a railway clerk to become a professional artist.  He had now to make money from his art work and to do this had to reach a level of artistic competence which would guarantee that his work would sell.  So how did he achieve such a feat?   John Ruskin, the art critic had recommended that artists should paint directly from nature but to do this one had to have had some training in draughtsmanship and perspective and so Atkinson Grimshaw in a way decided to “cheat”.   He discovered that by projecting a photograph or a lantern slide on to a blank canvas he was able to produce an immediate composition.  Then he would go over the outlines in pencil.  Over which he would add colours and the end result was a glossy finish which had removed all traces of the pencilled outline.  The finished landscapes and cityscapes sold well and for a time made him very wealthy.  However despite his success, other artists who had studied and trained in traditional academic methods for years despised his productions and in one of Grimshaw’s obituary notices it was written:

  “…[his pictures] excited considerable controversy among contemporary artists, not a few [of whom] were doubtful whether they could be accepted as paintings at all…

To be fair to Grimshaw the technique he used would not have caused such controversy nowadays and the question remains, does the end justify the means?  So let me finish with a kinder obituary notice which simply stated:

“…A Leeds artist of very great ability has passed away.  He may be regarded as self-taught in all that gave character and distinction to his art. His methods, treatment and colouring were quite unlike anything in ordinary practice…”

Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg

Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg (1862)

Today I am once again featuring a Victorian painter.  His name is August Leopold Egg and he was born in London in 1816.  He was the third son of Joseph and Ann Egg.  His Swiss-born father, like his family before him, was a gunsmith and today one of his guns or rifles commands a high price at auction.

In 1834 Augustus studied art at the Sass Academy in London.  Henry Sass was an English artist and teacher of painting who founded this London art school and it provided training for those seeking to enter the Royal Academy.  Two years later, in 1836, the twenty-year old August Egg enrolled as a Probationer to the Royal Academy Schools.  The following year, he joined up with a number of fellow aspiring artists and formed a sketching club, known as The Clique.  This small grouping, which included the founder, Richard Dadd, also included Alfred Elmore, William Powell Frith, Henry Nelson O’Neil, John Phillip and Edward Matthew Ward.  The Clique was characterised by its denunciation of academic high art in favour of the simpler genre painting, and the group were influenced by the great English narrative painter William Hogarth and the Scottish historical painter David Wilkie.  For them, art was for public consumption and for the public to judge.  They believed that works of art should not be judged solely on how well they conformed to academic principles.

August Egg was at pain to combine popularity with moral and social activism in his paintings which was similar to how his friend, the writer Charles Dickens managed to do with his novels.   Egg and Dickens became great friends and  jointly founded the “Guild of Literature and Art”, which was a philanthropic organisation which provided welfare payments to struggling artists and writers.  Egg’s early works of art were mainly illustrations of literary subjects as well as historical incidents taken from the accounts of the seventeenth century diarist, Samuel Pepys.  He also showed great interest in Hogarth’s narrative works, which often had a moral theme such as Marriage à la Mode and The Rake’s Progress and it was probably these works that inspired Egg to complete his moral narrative painting, The Life and Death of Buckingham.  Many members of The Clique were vociferous critics of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood because, to them, their art was deliberately unconventional, but Egg disagreed and became a great friend and admirer of William Holman Hunt.  In 1848 Egg completed his much lauded work entitled Queen Elizabeth discovers she is no longer young.  This won him critical acclaim and earned him the position of Associate Member of the Royal Academy (ARA).  In 1860 he was elected to the position of Royal Academician (RA).  That same year he married Esther Mary Brown.

August Egg was, besides being a talented artist, a great organiser and spent a much of his time organising exhibitions for his fellow artists.  In 1857 he was one of the organisers of the The Art Treasures of Great Britain exhibition, which was held in Manchester from  May to October of that year.  To this day, it is said to remain the largest art exhibition ever to be held in the Great Britain, possibly in the world with over 16,000 works on display. It was so popular that it attracted over 1.3 million visitors in the 142 days it was open, which at the time, was about four times the population of Manchester.

Egg loved the theatre and it was through this love that he became friends Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and at times they would all take part in amateur theatricals.  In 1849, Egg was elected to the Garrick Club, a gentleman’s club, which was named after the well-known thespian of the time David Garrick.  At the end of that year, Egg who often travelled extensively around the Mediterranean countries, set off on a journey to Switzerland and Italy and was accompanied by Dickens, who had just completed his novel Bleak House,  and his other writer friend, Wilkie Collins.  Egg’s health was never good and in his later years he tried to remedy this by living in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean countries.  He died in Algiers in 1863 of asthma aged 46.  He was always well loved and his friend, Charles Dickens, described him as:

“….always sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved…”

My featured painting today by August Egg is entitled Travelling Companions which he completed in 1862 and can now be found at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  This has a connection with Egg’s travels as the setting of the painting is a railway carriage and through the open window of the carriage one can just make out the shoreline of Menton, a popular health resort in Victorian days, which lies close to Monte Carlo on the French Riviera.   Look how the artist has cleverly depicted the motion of the carriage by painting the tassel attached to the window blind at an angle away from the vertical.  There are no other people in the carriage besides the two females which may have been an indication that in those days, males and females rode in segregated train carriages.  There is almost a perfect symmetry about the women in this painting as they sit across from each other in the carriage.  They wear almost identical billowing voluminous grey dresses.  Their hats rest on their laps.  Their faces are each framed with a mass of beautiful brunette hair and each wears a black choker around their neck.  At first glance, they almost look like mirror images of each other but once we look more closely, there are obvious differences.  One sits with a basket of fruit by her side, whilst the other has a bouquet of flowers next to her.  One reads whilst the other lays back with her eyes closed.  There is no interaction between the two females.  Neither seems to be interested in the other or what sights can be seen from the carriage window.  Did August Egg want us to take the painting on face value, that is, did he want us to just to accept that this is simply a painting of two women travelling in a railway carriage?   I did, but many do not see the painting in such simplistic terms.  Maybe it is because Egg had painted many moral narrative works that people looked for hidden meanings in this work.  I am not convinced, but let us look at some of the suggestions that have been put forward about how we should interpret what  we are looking at and then I will let you be the judge as whether they are too fanciful to believe or there is a modicum of truth in what they want us to accept as the true meaning behind the painting.

So, if you, like me, look on the painting as simply a depiction of two women travelling by train let me “muddy the waters” for the more I investigate this painting the more I am wondering whether I am missing something.  Is this simply a painting of two almost identical women on holiday travelling in a railway carriage?  Are we simply observing a young lady sleeping and a young lady reading?  First of all, are we looking at two separate women?  That would seem a silly question but some people would have us believe they are one and the same person and that the artist is portraying them in different moods.  Some again who believe in the “one woman” theory would have us believe that perhaps the waking woman is the product of the sleeping one: in other words, she is the dreamed projection of the other.  Another theory is that the one who sleeps is a portrait of inactivity and the one who reads is a portrait of activity – a pictorial depiction of “Industry and Idleness”.  I also read that Egg’s painting was a statement of past and future with the one woman with her eyes closed dreaming of the future whilst the other reads of the past?

And so the theories about the interpretation of this painting mount up but I suppose one has to remember that in Victorian times, tales with a moral were all the rage and Augustus Egg painted many pictures which told a moral tale, so is this yet another one?     

For people who like to add their own interpretation to a painting many feel the need to explore the sexual connotations in a scene and I read an article which does just that.  It is by far the most unusual interpretation (I initially intended to say “fanciful interpretation” of the painting but decided the word “fanciful”  sounded derogatory and that is not my intention).  The article I came across was on the website entitled Victorian Visual Culture and was written by Erika Franck as part of a degree course in Modern Literary studies.  She wrote:

“…Although Egg’s Travelling Companions (1862) is considered to be a reflection on railway travel and the way in which the different classes were segregated, one cannot ignore the sexual connotations that are evident in the painting. The painting displays two young ladies who appear to be identical, and yet upon closer inspection are not. It seems as though the girl on the left has been awakened sexually despite the fact that she is asleep. This can only be detected in comparison with the girl on the right. Firstly, the young lady on the right has flowers set beside her as opposed to the other lady who has a basket of fruit. The flowers convey the virginity and sexual virtue of the girl on the right whereas the fruit beside the girl on the left implies her virginity has been lost and her innocence has been replaced by sexual indulgence and consequently sexual maturity. This analogy continues as one studies the way in which the companion on the right has the curtain slightly drawn to shade her from the sunlight, as opposed to the lady on the left whose curtain allows the light to expose her fully. In addition, the companion on the left has removed her gloves and is thus further exposed physically. The hat of the lady on the left is positioned slightly to the left in contrast to her companion whose hat sits centrally upon her lap. Again it appears as though the girl on the left has exposed herself sexually in that she is less guarded than her sister. This notion is furthered when one considers the posture of the two companions. The one on the right seems more composed and is reading a book whereas the one on the left is leaning back exposing her neck, and is asleep. Although one could question that if this girl has been awoken sexually then why is she the one who is sleeping in the painting? However, it is possible to argue that this displays her overall lack of constraint and propriety that is portrayed by the other young lady. Even the hair of the companion on the left seems to have fallen out compared to the girl on the right whose hair is pinned back in a controlled manner. If one examines the shape of the carriage window in conjunction with the symmetry of the girls’ dresses one can observe there is a shape which resembles that of a chalice. This traditionally symbolizes the womb and fertility, thus accentuating the theme of sexual awakening. Therefore, Egg presents a young woman who appears to be sexually passive and another who is not. One can speculate that the two ladies are the same person and this consequently, would indicate that a transition from sexual unconsciousness to sexual enlightenment has occurred. However, if one is to argue that this picture depicts a girl who has fallen sexually in contrast to her companion, then this painting serves as a mere “freeze-frame”. It does not represent the consequences of the girl’s fall….”

I sometimes wonder whether I should write a book entitled My Interpretation of Great Paintings as I would be simply just one of many to offer an interpretation as to what I think we are looking at and as the artist is dead and cannot repudiate my suggestions, who is to say the hidden meanings I put forward are wrong !    Somebody once told me that if you want to write a successful biography of an artist you have to come up with at least one amazing, contentious even bizarre fact about the artist that nobody has ever heard before as that will get you the publicity needed to sell the book.   I wonder if the people who have interpreted Egg’s work were thinking along those lines !

On the Brink by Alfred Elmore

On the Brink by Alfred Elmore (1865)

Today I am featuring a work of narrative art.  Narrative art is one that tells a story and has been very popular in Western art.  It often depicts stories from the Bible, mythological tales and legends and were often pictorial recordings of great moments in history.  In the seventeenth century we began to see such narrative works in the paintings of subjects from everyday life, which were known as genre paintings.  They originated in the main in Holland with scenes of peasant life and drinking scenes in taverns.  In England in the sixteenth century the artist William Hogarth invented the Modern Moral Subject paintings which brilliantly brought to our attention and lampooned the manners and morals in his day.  I featured a set of these paintings in My Daily Art Display (May 4th to May 9th 2011).  Before I talk about today’s painting, I will briefly tell you a little about the life of Alfred Elmore.  In the meantime, I want you to look at the painting and see if you can surmise what is going on and why the artist chose the title of On the Brink.

Today featured work is a Victorian narrative painting by English painter of Irish birth, Alfred Elmore.  Elmore was a Victorian history and genre painter, who was born in Cork in Southern Ireland.  His father, John Richard Elmore was a retired surgeon from the British Army.   His family moved to London and Alfred attended the Royal Academy Schools in 1832.  Whilst at the Academy he briefly associated with a group of fellow art students who had just formed a sketching society which they called The Clique.  It was described as the first group of British artists to combine for greater strength and to announce that the great backward-looking tradition of the Academy was not relevant to the requirements of contemporary art.

In the late 1830’s Elmore studied at French atelier and then from 1840 to 1844 travelled extensively through Europe visiting Munich Venice, Bologna, and Florence and spent two years in Rome.  In 1844 he exhibited his work entitled Rienzi in the Forum at the Royal Academy and this led to him becoming an Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA) the following year.  He became a Royal Academician in 1857.  Elmore painted a number of literary subjects, especially depicting scenes from the plays of Shakespeare but many of his later works were historical narrative works, some of which were wholly anti-Catholic in spirit.  Elmore’s reputation was at its height in the 1850’s but he suffered a lapse into comparative obscurity during the latter portion of his life.  He died of cancer in 1881, aged sixty-five.

And so I return to today’s painting entitled On the Brink which Alfred Elmore painted in 1865 and was probably his best known work.  It is termed a moral genre painting which may give you a clue to what is happening in the painted scene.  What do you make of the title of the painting?  Have you any idea why Elmore would give the work such a name?  I suppose to discover the answers to these questions one has to first identify what we are looking at.  We are standing outside a house and looking through an open window into a room which is the venue for some sort of gaming.  A man leans out of the window and is talking to an unhappy-looking woman who is seated outside.  That is the scene and the man and the woman are the main characters.

This painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1865, clearly embellishes the concerns Victorian people had about gambling, especially when it involved young women. The artist has created a striking sense of depth within the painting. There is a great contrast in the colours used for the interior and the exterior.   In the foreground we have the outside tranquillity and paleness of the moonlight which contrasts with the dazzling red and gold gaudiness of the hustle and bustle going on inside the room.   Look at the garish colours of the gaming room.  The red wallpaper is lit by a chandelier and candles, which are reflected in gilt mirrors around the walls. A throng of people lean over a gaming table, totally absorbed in the action, which contrasts with the sorrowful state of the woman in the foreground. If we look to the left background we can see a curtained-archway which leads to another well-lit gaming room full of people.  We are almost certain we know the setting for this painting for there is a one word inscription, Homburg, on the reverse of the canvas.  In 1842, the German town of Bad Homburg had a casino and spa and had attracted a wealthy and cosmopolitan clientele to its gaming tables, of which many were British.

The woman with a decision to make.

The young woman, we see before us, sits unhappily outside in the darkness of the evening. Her figure is illuminated by the white light coming from the moon. We can only see one side of her face which is deathly white whilst the other side is hidden in the darkness of the night.  Her clothes are of a rich quality and the height of fashion.  Our first clue as to what the painting is all about is the empty purse which dangles from her right hand and a torn gaming card which lies discarded at her feet. From these clues we now know why she is in such a state – she has lost all her money at the gaming tables which we can see through the open window behind her.

The seducer

Still we haven’t reconciled the title of the painting but if we look at the shadowy figure of a man leaning out of the window talking to her all will be resolved.  His figure, apart from his hands, is neither illuminated by the light from the room nor the moonlight.  The way the young man is depicted, almost devil-like, adds a certain air of foreboding and menace and we feel that he is not a good companion for this lady.  It is interesting to see how the artist compares this mismatch with the couple in the middle ground.  They are standing in the room directly behind the shadowy figure and face each other in a loving stance.

The title of the painting can be understood a little better if we look at the flowers which are next to the woman.  There are two types of flower.  One is a white lily which symbolises purity whilst the other is the purple passion flower.  In the Punch magazine in the May of the year the painting was exhibited, an anonymous poet had written, about the scene and what we were looking at:

E’s [for] Mr. Elmore. She’s tempted to sin;
She’s fair. Will the lily or the passion flower win?

According to the poet’s understanding of the painting, it was all about the choice faced by the unfortunate young female who had just gambled away all her money and was now being propositioned by an unseemly man.   The question she is on the brink of answering is, should she retain her virtue and face the consequences of her new found poverty, or does she earn the money she needs to repay her debts by submitting to the proposition of the young man who is offering money for her body.  As we look at her she is “on the brink” of making her decision.  So we now know that the title of the painting derives from the situation in which a young woman s ‘on the brink’ of responding to the blandishments of a seducer, who is depicted as a Satan-like figure, luridly bathed in red light, and whispering corrupting thoughts in her ear.

There were a number of Victorian paintings which depicted “fallen women” and I will look at another in a few days time.  This one by Elmore, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, was to greatly enhance his reputation as a Victorian artist.

The painting is presently housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.