He was born in London, the son of a Covent Garden grocer, and attended the Bruce School in Tottenham where he showed a talent for science and, indeed, his father hoped he would become a doctor. However, it was art that called him and he attended the St. John's Wood Art School and the Royal Academy Schools. In 1889 he won the Royal Academy Travelling Scholarship and, as a result, was able to study at the Academie Julian in Paris and then in Rome. He also travelled to Spain, Holland and Belgium and even contemplated living in Europe but was disuaded from doing so by Lord Leighton who had, himself, led a peripatetic life and spent much time in Europe.
He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 and continued do so until his death although, inexplicably, he never became a RA, or even an associate, despite being proposed several times. At the point in his life when he could have expected to be inducted into the Royal Academy the president was Edward Poynter, another post-classical artist. Some have suggested that Poynter resented Draper whose style was similar. In fact, a more likely explanation is that compared to the cool classicism of Poynter and his contemporaries Draper's women were seething with aggressive eroticism. Were his pictures just deemed to sexy for the RA?
Draper was very keen on Greek mythlogical subjects and given his facility in painting both naked women and water it isn't surprising that many of his works feature both in combination. Here we will look at some of his watery (and other) Venuses.
Oil study for The Sea Maiden (1894)
Called the Duke's Song, some boy made ages back,
A song of drag-nets hauled across thwart seas
And plucked up with rent sides, and caught therein
A strange-haired woman with sad singing lips,
Cold in the cheek like any stray of sea,
And sweet to touch? so that men seeing her face,
And how she sighed out little Ahs of pain
And soft cries sobbing sideways from her mouth,
Fell in hot love, and having lain with her
Died soon? one time I could have told it through:
Now I have kissed the sea-witch on her eyes
And my lips ache with it; but I shall sleep
Full soon, and a good space of sleep."
The Foam Sprite (1895)
Study for Calpyso's Isle (1897)
In one of his original studies for the painting the figure of Calypso is shown admiring herself in her mirror rather than just holding it. The finished painting was exhibited, to critical acclaim, at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 where it won a gold medal although one critic thought that Calypso's figure was ".. not so plump as it ought to be."
Study for The Lament of Icarus
The models for the three nymphs were Ethel Warwick, Ethel Gurden and, one of his his favourite models, Florence Bird. All were Royal Academy professionals, as was the male model who would, of course, have been drawn in a seperate sitting from the women. It's been said that the painting was done as a memorial to either Lord Leighton or, more likely, his father who had died in 1898.
A Waterbaby (1900)
Our next painting certainly has a family connection as it celebrates the birth of Draper's only child, Yvonne Ida, who was born on 26th May 1899. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1900.
The Gates of Dawn (1900)
Prospero summoning nymphs and deities (1903)
Study for "Iris" from Prospero
Study for Prospero
The picture itself was painted in St Ives in Cornwall where Draper, attracted by the light, was able to find a large enough studio to accommodate the 20'x30' canvas.
Study of Florence Bird for Prospero
The Pearls of Aphrodite (1907)
It is a sensuousness seen again in his picture of Aphrodite, although her surrounding nymphs look more innocent than the ecstatically transported ones of Sea Melodies.
The Water Nixie (1908)
This is another of Draper's sexy "pin-ups". A nixie is the German version of a siren; a water dwelling spirit who is prone to luring men to their deaths. Although the nixie is depicted on her own early sketches show her seducing a man or a satyr. In the final painting Draper has chosen, instead, to depict the nixie focussing her attentions on the viewer.
Over the next ten years Draper would return to the theme of alluring but destructive woman from the sea and we will examine these in part two.