Monday, 22 March 2010

Redheaded Venus of the Week 3: Venus binding her hair by John William Godward

Venus binding her hair (1897)

This week's redheaded Venus is a rare nude by the last great Victorian Classicist, John William Godward (1861-1922). Many of Godward's pictures are instantly recognisable as they are now popular as prints and postcards but, like most Nineteenth Century Classical artists, he was ignored through much of the Twentieth Century. Godward's obscurity was compounded by the fact that he was rather reclusive, did not write or make declamations about himself and was seen, at best, as an imitator of "better" painters like Lord Leighton or Alma-Tadema. Even now, very little is known about his life and there is only one known photograph of him, as an infant.

The artist (right) with his mother, Sarah, and brother and sister Alfred and Mary.

Godward was born at home in Battersea on 9th August, 1861. His father worked in life insurance and Godward followed him into that profession. When Godward was young the family moved to Wimbledon (where Agent Triple P lived for a time as well-only about 500 yards from the Godwards' home!) and that was where he went to school. Living not far away was the architect William Hoff Wontner (1814-1881) and it seems that when Godward failed to take to life insurance his family felt that perhaps architecture might be a suitable profession instead. Whilst staying on at the insurance company Godward probably studied rendering and graining under Wontener between 1879 and 1881. Certainly this training would account for Godward's later amazing facility to paint marble, for which he would often use a feather rather than a brush. The earliest known painting by Godward, a portrait of his grandmother, appears about this time.

Godward's family probably never envisaged that he would want to become a painter but when Wontner died in 1881 his eldest son William Clarke Wontner, who was becoming a successful portrait painter at this time, may have taken over teaching Godward. Godward may well have then sudied at an art school in his free evenings: possibly The Clapham School of Art. When Wontner moved to a studio in St John's Wood, however, Godward would have come into very close proximity to the likes of JW Waterhouse, Sir Frank Dicksee and Edward Poynter; all well known Classical painters. Certainly his first exhibited work, The Yellow Turban (now lost), which appeared at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition in 1887 suggests an Orientalist theme, which was certainly an interest of Wontner's. However by this time he was already starting to do the Classically themed pictures for which he would become famous.

Unlike many other Classical painters, Godward's women actually look like they were born in the Mediterranean (the Venus, above, is a rare exception) and don't have the "English rose in a toga" look of so many of his contemporaries. One influence on the look of the women in his subsequent paintings was an introduction, through Whistler, of the famous artists' models, the Pettigrew sisters: Harriet, Lilian and Rose. They were gypsy girls from the West Country and were the most famous models in London at the time; sitting for Whistler, Poynter, Millais and Sargent.

Godward joined an artists studio in Gilston Road named the Bolton Studios where he was probably influenced by Henry Ryland who, when he left the Bolton studios, then shared a studio with Classical painter Herbert Draper. Unusually, nearly 40% of the artists at the Bolton Studios were women painters. The studio, as a result, developed a somewhat racy reputation; with rumours that some of the lady painters were earning a living in ways that weren't relating to their painting!

1 St Leonard's Studio is the low building on the right. We had our first Chinese on the roof terrace!

By this time Godward was becoming a reasonably well-known artist and established his own studio, for the first time, in 1889. This was at 1 St Leonard's Studio, Smith Street in Chelsea, where he painted many of his great early Classical pictures including The Betrothed; the first of his pictures to be put into a permanent collection. It was donated to the Guildhall Art Museum in 1916 where it reamins to this day. Agent Triple P has a meeting nearby tomorrow so may go along to have a look at it.

The Betrothed (1892) Another redhead

Agent Triple P actually went to a Fouth of July party at 1 St Leonard's Studio over twenty years ago and ended up with a rather luscious Chinese-American lady. Oddly, although we did talk about art, Triple P had no idea of the Godward connection at that point! The sleeping area was on a gallery overlooking the studio itself, an idea we have always quite fancied.

We will return to Godward in another post but to return to the redhead in question she was Godward's entry for the 1897 Royal Academy Summer exhibition; so ten year after his first exhibit there. She was one of Godward's largest paintings to date (90"x44") and an obvious attempt to emulate the grand Classical painters of the time. In truth, like most of Godward's nudes, she is not as successful as his clothed figures but she was given the place of honour in gallery VII at the exhibition.

Several of Godward's Summer Exhibition paintings at this time are generally agreed to have been unsuccesful. His previous year's entry was a similarly epic sized nude: Campaspe (1896) (Alexander the Great's mistress) which, whilst popular at the time has beenn heavily criticised since. Yet Godward persisted with these often clumsy epic paintings as he was desperate to become a Royal Academician, which would have offset the doubts as to the suitability of painting as a career to his disapproving father. These large Academic, in every sense of the word, paintings were intended to be Godward's key to being accepted at Burlington House. Unfortunately, Godward's withdrawn manner and lack of social skills meant, however, that he never got enough support in the Academy to achieve this.

Godward is one of Triple P's favourite artists but is still under-rated, even at a time whem Alma-Tadema and Leighton have been largely rehabilitated. Godward eventually came to a tragic end
which we will explore the next time we look at some of his more succesful female figures.

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