Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Anglo-Saxon Venus: Lady Godiva by John Collier

Lady Godiva (1897) by the Hon. John Collier

Other than Eve, Lady Godiva is probably the most famous naked woman of all time. Unlike Eve (unless you are Sarah Palin) Lady Godiva was a real person.

Lady Godiva (Godgifu in Old English) was the wife of Leofric (968–1057), Earl of Mercia and she is mentioned in the Domesday book which notes her as one of the few Anglo-Saxons and the only woman to remain as a major landholder after the Conquest (although she had died by the time the book was compiled in 1086). The legend goes that Godiva tried to persuade her husband to cut onerous taxes on the citizens of Coventry. Fed up with her incessant nagging he agreed if she would ride through the streets naked. She agreed to do this having told everyone to stay indoors with the windows shut. Peeping Tom disobeyed and was struck blind as a result.

The story is utter nonsense, of course, and is not supported by any contemporary accounts whatsoever, given that there is quite a lot about Godiva's activities in the records. The story first appeared in the early thirteenth century and all the Peeping Tom stuff didn't appear until the seventeenth century. Her long hair, which conveniently covered her nakedness, was also a later edition.

Collier's picture is pretty much the definitive one as seen through a post Pre-Raphaelite lens which makes her a redhead. Interestingly, some shards of 14th century stained glass of a likely portrait of her, found at the site of a priory she endowed, made her a blonde.

John Collier (1850–1934) was the son of a judge and attended Eton and Heidleberg. Initially he was destined for the City but declared that he wished to be a painter. His father introduced him to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema but he was unable to take him on as a pupil.

The painter's wife Marian Huxley in her wedding dress (1880)

Eventually he studied under Edward Poynter and attended the Slade school as did his first wife, Marian Huxley, the daughter of the President of the Royal Society. She died in 1887 and Collier then married her sister, Ethel. This was illegal in Britain at the time and so they had to get married in Norway. Their marriage was not regularised until the passing of the The Deceased Wife’s Sister Act of 1907. Their son later became British Ambassador to Norway.

Collier is best known for being a portrait painter, and there are many of his paintings of distinguished Victorians in the National Portrait Gallery. He painted Darwin, Kitchener, Ellen Terry and Kipling amongst many others. He also did some classical genre and mythological paintings.

Clytemnestra (1882)

Despite being a pillar of the establishment his painting of Clytemnestra got him into trouble, due to it's bloody nature and one northern city banned it from being exhibited. A frighteningly muscular looking (it was painted following a performance at Oxford where the part was played by a man) Clytemnestra stands with a giant axe dripping blood. That's also blood on her dress, not a pattern, something which becomes more obvious if you see the original which is in the Guidhall Art Gallery in the City of London. He returned to the theme in 1914 with a more lightly armed and lightly dressed, but just as scary image.

Clytemnestra (1914)

Circe (1885)

The Pharaoh's Handmaidens (1887)

Collier did a few other nudes such as Circe, Lillith (1887), which we will examine another time, The Pharaoh's Handmaidens and the much later, The Water Nymph.

The Water Nymph (1923)

His painting of Lady Godiva is on display in the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, naturally.

Collier and his wife's memorial at Golders Green Crematorium, London.

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