Friday, February 5, 2010

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope - Juliet and the Nurse

oil on canvas

43 by 50 in

estimate : 200,000—300,000 GBP (not sold)

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s 1863 painting Juliet and the nurse takes its subject from Act III, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The moment represented is that which follows the nurse’s telling Juliet that Romeo, to whom Juliet has been secretly married, has killed Tybalt and is banished from Verona. Juliet gazes out over the city of Verona as she absorbs the news. Moments later, despairing of ever seeing her husband again, she tells the nurse to take away the ropes that had been prepared so that Romeo might climb to Juliet’s room in her father Lord Capulet’s palace.

Take up these cords. Poor ropes, you are beguil’d,
Both you and I; for Romeo is exil’d:
He made you for a highway to my bed;
But I, a maid, die maiden-widowed.
Come, cords; come, nurse; I’ll to my wedding-bed;
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!

Hearing these words, the nurse tells Juliet that she knows where to find Romeo – at the cell of Friar Lawrence – and undertakes to go to him. Juliet exclaims: ‘O, find him! give this ring to my true knight, and bid him come to take his last farewell’.

In Stanhope’s painting we see Juliet standing at the open casement, its glass decorated with shields showing cardinal's hats in sets of three, while lying on the carpeted floor at her feet are the coils of rope. Juliet’s nurse is seated on the right, and watches her mistress with an expression of concern. In the chamber beyond is the bed where that night Romeo and Juliet will lie together. A triptych of the Mother and Child with Saints (loosely based on Duccio's altarpiece of c.1315 in the National Gallery), is displayed on the wall, as if to bless their union. The tragic sequence of events which will lead to the deaths of the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ are thus unfolding.

Other interesting props shown in Stanhope's painting are the chair of ebony and inlaid ivory upon which the nurse is sitting, and which was loaned to Stanhope by Holman Hunt (and which Hunt himself had included in his own painting Il Dolce far Niente (ex Forbes Magazine Collection, New York)), and the arrangement of seven small mirrors set together into a circular wooden frame, of the type that Burne-Jones had used in paintings of the early 1860s showing medieval interiors, such as Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (private collection).

From a young age Stanhope had read the plays of Shakespeare, as he had jokingly told his mother in a letter of about a decade earlier when he was a pupil of George Frederic Watts and was spending much of his time at the home of Mrs Thoby Prinsep, Little Holland House: ‘I have seen nothing of the Prinseps lately. I have none the less got on very happily with the assistance of gentle Will Shakespeare, whom I read regularly at breakfast and dinner, when I find it acts as a first-rate digestive pill’ (A.M.W. Stirling, A Painter of Dreams, London, 1916, pp.309-10). Subjects from Romeo and Juliet were popular with artists in Stanhope’s circle of friends. John Everett Millais’s early painting The Death of Romeo and Juliet (Manchester City Art Gallery), of c.1848, shows the tragic outcome of the liaison. Frederic Leighton’s Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets (ex Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia), of 1853-5, shows the moment when both families realise the tragic consequences of their long enmity, while in 1867 Ford Madox Brown painted a watercolour showing Romeo’s departure from Juliet’s chamber (Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester). The popularity of such subjects is testified by William Powell Frith’s having contributed a painting of the seated figure of Juliet and with the title ‘O that I were a Glove upon that Hand’ (Sotheby’s, 7 June 2005, lot 28) to the 1863 Royal Academy, the same exhibition where Stanhope’s Juliet and the nurse was first shown.

As Gail-Nina Anderson and Joanne Wright observed in the catalogue of the 1994 exhibition, Heaven on Earth: The Religion of Beauty in late Victorian Art, both the composition and the psychological theme of Juliet and the nurse represent a reprise on Stanhope’s part of his modern-life subject Thoughts of the Past (Tate, fig.1), of 1858-9. Common to both is the placing of the figure of a beautiful young woman before an open window, with a view out over an urban landscape on the one side, and on the other a glimpse of the room in which she lives. Thoughts of the Past may show a ramshackle and impoverished London lodging, while Juliet and the nurse displays the private quarters of an aristocratic Renaissance palazzo; nonetheless, it is not fanciful to suggest that this duality of the immediate and the distant – represented by the conjunction of interior view and panorama – is intended to indicate the protagonist’s sense that the familiar pattern of her life is to be disrupted and that the future is uncertain.

The care which the artist had taken to construct the composition owes much to Stanhope's knowlege of the works of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, as well as the formative training he had received from Watts. Furthermore, Stanhope was interested in the works of the old masters, visiting museums and collections in the course of his foreign travels and always looking for ways to include into his own art the lessons learnt from these examples. He had written on one occasion from Venice: ‘I have been studying Tintoret a great deal lately. He is a most extraordinary genius and I think deserves the comparison that a Frenchman made to me the other day at the Table d’Hôte which was that he thought the genius of Tintoret very much resembled that of Shakespeare both in power and quality’ (A.M.W. Stirling, A Painter of Dreams, London, 1916, p.322). More particularly, Juliet and the nurse shows the interior space of the room and its contents with a meticulousness that suggests the study of north European Renaissance art, familiar to British painters through the examples on display in the National Gallery and from visits to the Low Countries. In addition, the influence of contemporary Flemish art on Stanhope’s art was suggested in a review of the 1863 Royal Academy exhibition. The critic of the Art Journal observed that the painting betrayed ‘mediaeval influences, probably reflected from the work of [Hendrik] Leys’, and suggested that Stanhope may have had the opportunity to study such works when they had appeared at the 1862 International exhibition.

The painting has a wonderful depth and richness of colour, carefully modulated but also striking in contrasts. Stanhope’s friend Edward Burne-Jones is reported to have said once when they were young men, perhaps at the time of their collaboration with Rossetti on the murals from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur for the Debating Chamber of the Oxford University Union building, that ‘[Stanhope’s] colour is beyond anything the finest in Europe’. Many years later, shortly before his death, Burne-Jones weighed up the particular attributes that made Stanhope’s art so admirable: he reckoned him still ‘the greatest colourist of the century’, but thought that in his later career he had lost something of the close attention to detail of which he had once been capable: ‘But accuracy of technique never goes together with great colourists and great draughtsmen’ (both references, A.M.W. Stirling, A Painter of Dreams, London, 1916, p.334). Juliet and the nurse was perhaps the type of painting by Stanhope that Burne-Jones was remembering, done in the earlier years of the artist’s career and at a time when his lyrical feeling for colour was still allied to the careful representation of surfaces and textures.

Juliet and the nurse was presumably painted at Sandroyd House at Cobham in Surrey, built by Philip Webb for Stanhope in 1860. Burne-Jones may in fact have seen it in the studio there, because he is known to have visited Stanhope at about the time it was in hand. Apparently it was placed at the Royal Academy in 1863 where it was difficult to see. Nonetheless, the painting was applauded by the critic of the Athenaeum, who believed that, ‘notwithstanding slight evidences of inexperience in painting, and something of the like in composition, this work tells its tale with great spirit and success’. The writer concurred with Burne-Jones that Stanhope’s strength was as a colourist: ‘Mr Stanhope has an excellent perception of colour and a love of rich tone’.

The painting was one of a total of fourteen works that Stanhope exhibited at the Royal Academy, between 1859 and 1902. He later participated in the exhibitions at the Dudley, Grosvenor and New galleries, all venues more sympathetic to the progressive school than the Royal Academy. In 1880 Stanhope went to live in Italy, establishing himself at the Villa Nuti at Bellosguardo near Florence, where he was a central figure in the community of visiting and resident English artists. In the spring of 1909, the year after Stanhope’s death, an exhibition of his works was held at the Carfax Gallery in London.

We are grateful to Mr Peter Trippi for preparing this catalogue note.


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