Monday, December 26, 2011
John William Waterhouse - St Cecilia 'In a clear walled city on the sea, Near gilded organ pipes... ...slept St Cecily'
'In a clear walled city on the sea,
Near gilded organ pipes...
...slept St Cecily'
oil on canvas
48½ x 79 in. (123.2 x 200.7 cm.)
Bought from the artist's studio in 1895 by George McCulloch
London, Royal Academy, 1895, no. 97.
Kneeling on a crimson cushion, the Saint has been playing a small organ in a garden overlooking the sea. Her labours have tired her and she has sought rest in a marble chair, studying an illuminated song-book over which she has fallen asleep. It is twilight; the sun sinks beyond the mountainous horizon, piercing the cypresses with its dying rays. The only sounds are the plash of water from an ancient fountain and the lapping of waves against the hulls of the triremes anchored in the distant harbour. Then, as the shadows lengthen, a more unearthly sound is heard. Two youthful angel musicians appear to serenade the Saint with violin and rebec, imparting an ineffable sweetness to her dreams.
St Cecilia was a Roman virgin martyr who lived in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. Her relics, which are thought to be genuine, are preserved in the basilica of S. Cecilia in Trastevere, a church of very early foundation. Brought up as a Christian, she took a vow of chastity, and, on marrying a Roman nobleman named Valerius, persuaded him to accept sexual abstinence. He agreed on condition that he was allowed to see her guardian angel, whereupon the angel descended and placed garlands of roses and lilies on their heads. Both Valerius and his brother Tiburtius were baptised as Christians, and in due course they and Cecilia suffered martyrdom for their faith.
Cecilia is famous in Christian iconography as the patron saint of music. Her connection with the art appears to stem from the fact that in early accounts of her life she is said to have rejected the sound of musical instruments that greeted her as she entered the house of her betrothed; she had ears only for the heavenly music that required her to remain stainless in soul and body. The connection was established by the 15th century, and from then on she was constantly depicted in her patronal role. While usually shown playing an organ, she does not disdain other instruments, and the idea of her listening to celestial music is frequently introduced by means of upturned eyes and accompanying angel choirs.
Waterhouse has clearly made free use of these traditions. His picture's mise-en-scène is vaguely Roman, although this does not preclude such wilful anachronisms as the medieval book and musical instruments. The Saint is portrayed not only as a performer on the organ but as capable of strumming a tune on the lute which lies discarded beside her throne-like chair. The notion of angels as both guardians and musical accompanists is obviously dominant, while the roses which flourish in the walled garden are often St Cecilia's attribute, referring to the wreath with which she was miraculously crowned. The other flower which abounds in this hortus conclusus, the poppy, is a well-known emblem of oblivion and sleep.
Waterhouse's serene and poetic picture is one of his most important works, comparable in scale, ambition and intensity of feeling to such well-known examples in public collections as The Lady of Shalott (1888; Tate Gallery), Hylas and the Nymphs (1896; Manchester Art Gallery), or Echo and Narcissus (1903; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). The picture was not included in the Last Romantics exhibition which was mounted at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1989, but it could well have been. Indeed, it perfectly represents one vital element in the complex phase of British romantic art which the exhibition celebrated, namely the survival well into the twentieth century of Pre-Raphaelite themes and sensibilities under academic forms.
St Cecilia was painted at the height of Waterhouse's career. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the very year, 1895, that he was elected to full membership, and may well have helped to secure him this accolade. Forty-six at the time, he had been born in Rome, where his father, a minor artist and copyist, belonged to the expatriate community. When he was six, the family had returned to London, and in 1870, at the age of twenty-one, he had entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he was a contemporary of Frank Dicksee, Alfred Gilbert, Stanhope Forbes and other luminaries of the coming generation. He made his debut at the RA four years later, and it remained the central showcase for his work, although he occasionally supported the Grosvenor and New Galleries, as well as showing at Suffolk Street and regularly sending work to the Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions.
After tentative beginnings, Waterhouse rapidly gained assurance. During his early career, he tended to specialise in modern subjects inspired by visits to Italy and in classical themes somewhat in the Alma-Tadema mode. He was elected ARA in 1885, and the following year his picture The Magic Circle (Tate Gallery) was bought for the Chantrey Bequest. From then on he never really looked back, becoming an increasingly respected figure in London's artistic establishment. Having married in 1883, he and his wife settled in Primrose Hill, north London, where St Cecilia would have been painted; but in 1900, five years after Waterhouse had achieved RA status, the couple left this bohemian quarter for that select enclave of successful academicians, St John's Wood. Both in the local art school, at that time an important training ground, and in the RA Schools themselves, Waterhouse was a highly regarded teacher, while his work gained an ever more devoted following. Many of the new regional museums bought pictures, and he had a loyal circle of private patrons, including George McCulloch, who acquired St Cecilia, Sir James Murray of Aberdeen, and Sir Alexander Henderson, later Lord Faringdon, and his family. Waterhouse's reputation abroad was no less secure. His pictures were widely exhibited in Europe and America. St Cecilia was shown at the International Exhibition in Rome in 1911, although Mariamne, a masterpiece of 1887 (Forbes Magazine Collection), was the most travelled of his works, winning a medal at the great exhibition in Paris two years later, and going on to receive plaudits at comparable shows in Chicago (1893), Brussels (1897) and Dublin (1907). In the 1880s and 1890s, major pictures by Waterhouse were bought for no fewer than three museums in Australia, those in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney.
Mariamne, a subject from Josephus, marks the culmination of Waterhouse's 'Alma-Tadema' phase. The following year, 1888, he exhibited the famous Lady of Shalott (Tate Gallery), thus marking a dramatic change to a more Pre-Raphaelite manner. This was sometimes reflected in a choice of specific themes that the Pre-Raphaelites had already explored; at others it was more a matter of moods and soulful facial types that had something in common with those of Burne-Jones. There seems to be no actual record of the two artists meeting, and they were certainly never on intimate terms, but they probably did encounter one another at some stage. They might well have done so at the Grosvenor or New Galleries, bastions of aestheticism of which Burne-Jones was the undisputed star; or perhaps they met when each was elected ARA in 1885, even though the circumstances which had brought them to this point were very different. For Waterhouse, it was an important step on the career ladder, never to be repudiated. Burne-Jones, sixteen years older and well established as the leading light of the Grosvenor, had agreed to stand against his better judgment, persuaded by the President, Sir Frederic Leighton, who wished to broaden the Academy's membership and attract talent from the rival establishment. Whereas Waterhouse went on to full membership of the RA and a leading role in its affairs, Burne-Jones soon realised his mistake and, in 1893, resigned.
Whatever the nature of their relationship, Burne-Jones's influence on Waterhouse was never limiting; on the contrary, it seemed to release the younger man's powerful artistic personality. Nor did it ever extend to matters of technique. Even in his early work Waterhouse had realised his Alma-Tadema-like subjects in terms of a robust handling of paint that was far removed from the Dutchman's meticulous touch, and this remained true when he adopted a more Pre-Raphaelite manner. His broad brushwork, though looser than it had been by the time he painted St Cecilia, is comparable to that of such contemporaries as Stanhope Forbes, Henry La Thangue, George Clausen and John Lavery, the first two of whom had been his fellow students in the RA Schools, or of his close friend William Logsdail, a neighbour in Primrose Hill, who specialised in London views. (It is worth noting that when St Cecilia was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895, paintings by La Thangue, Clausen, Logsdail and Lavery hung with it in the same room.) The only difference was that while Waterhouse was painting literary subjects executed in the studio, other artists were concerned with realism and were often painting en plein air. Indeed these artists' approach to technique derived ultimately from the French arch-realist whom they all passionately admired, Jules Bastien-Lepage. Waterhouse was not alone in England in attempting to revivify the indigenous literary tradition by casting it in a form which, because of its close association with French realism, seemed excitingly modern; but no one else bridged the gap with more consistency or flair. That he brought off the synthesis so triumphantly is possibly his greatest achievement, and the one that gives him most significance in the art history of his time.
St Cecilia exhibits all the traits of Waterhouse's particular brand of late, academic Pre-Raphaelitism. It is based on a poem by Tennyson that had been illustrated by D.G. Rossetti in the famous Moxon edition of the poet's works published in 1857 (Fig. 1). As is well known, this book had been a landmark in the current revival of book illustration, providing a showcase for the work of Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt and contrasting it with that of artists such as Richard Redgrave or Daniel Maclise, still cast in the old conventions. Tennyson's poem 'The Palace of Art' had first appeared in print in 1833. Inspired by a friend's remark that 'we cannot live in art', it attempts to show the numbing sterility of the aesthetic existence, the life dedicated to the cultivation of beauty and deliberately isolated from the outside world. Much of the poem is taken up with images which adorn the 'lordly pleasure-house', one if which is described as follows:
Or in a clear wall'd city on the sea,
Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
Wound with white roses, slept St Cecily;
An angel look'd at her.
Waterhouse was clearly obsessed with the Moxon Tennyson and its Pre-Raphaelite illustrators, drawing inspiration for no fewer than four major paintings from this source. The first was The Lady of Shalott of 1888 (Tate Gallery), already mentioned as the pivotal work which introduced the artist's Pre-Raphaelite phase. It was followed by another illustration to this poem, shown at the RA in 1894 (Leeds City Art Gallery). In this the heroine is not seen drifting down the river to Camelot, as she is in the Tate painting, but weaving her fatal tapestry, a subject that Holman Hunt had treated in the Moxon edition. Like 'The Palace of Art', Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott' is concerned with the futility of aesthetic seclusion, and it would be interesting to know if this moral dilemma, as distinct from the graphic images in which Tennyson cloaks it, was of interest to Waterhouse. Whatever the case, St Cecilia, with its further underlying reference to the issue, was exhibited the following year. Finally, in 1897, Waterhouse showed the fourth of his Tennysonian pictures, Mariana in the South (private collection). This takes its subject from the poem of the same name and, like St Cecilia, deliberately challenges comparison with Rossetti, who had illustrated the subjects of both pictures in 1857.
Although our picture's imagery can, as we have seen, be discussed within the general context of the saint's legend, it is clear that Waterhouse has borrowed extensively from Tennyson's brief but graphic account. The 'wall'd city on the sea', the 'gilded organ-pipes', the sleeping saint and the watchful angel, all these find their equivalent in the painting. As for Rossetti's illustration, here, too, the walled city, the organ and the angel re-appear. What is equally if not more interesting, however, is the question of whether Waterhouse knew Rossetti's dictum that in making an illustration an artist should 'allegorise on his own hook', that is to say he should not feel constrained to stick slavishly to the text but use his imagination to create a design that has independent life and meaning. Rossetti's St Cecilia composition puts this theory into practice with a vengeance, showing the angel not merely 'looking' at the saint but giving her a passionate kiss, interpreted by the artist's brother William Michael as 'the kiss of death'. It is hardly surprising that Tennyson, according to Rossetti, 'loathed' the result, or that Madox Brown described it as 'jolly quaint'. Waterhouse's approach to the problem is less controversial, yet he too evidently felt at liberty to 'allegorise' within the terms of his vision. Two angels, not one, watch the sleeping saint, and the white roses which entwine her hair in the poem flourish on a bush to the left in the painting.
Spotting influences can be a tiresome art-historical conceit, but in the case of Waterhouse, a deeply eclectic artist open to all kinds of impressions, it is tempting to pursue this line of enquiry further, encouraged by the transparent relationship between our painting and Rossetti's illustration. There are, first, we may surely assume, early memories of Italy at work in St Cecilia, reminiscences of warm summer evenings, cypress groves and Roman antiquities, even if the marble seat, with its acanthus decoration in low relief, had some source in a museum, or even a book, nearer home. There is also an 'early Italian' dimension to the picture, the mood of virginal purity and innocence, as well as the composition itself, recalling some Florentine Annunciation. Leonardo's early painting in the Uffizi (Fig. 2) is a telling example, and one which Waterhouse would almost certainly have known. What he would not have been so aware of were the Bolognese and Roman baroque masters whom today we associate particularly with accounts of St Cecilia and her angel choir. Rendered deeply unfashionable by Ruskin, their work perhaps hardly registered with Waterhouse, and certainly plays no part in his picture's conception. Nor, it is safe to say, would he have been thinking of these artists' passionate English admirer, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had painted two of his female sitters, Mrs Billington and Mrs Sheridan, in the role of music's patron saint.
Yet more recent British artists were certainly not far from Waterhouse's thoughts. There is still perhaps an echo of Alma-Tadema in the harbour reached by a flight of steps from an opening in a marble balustrade, just the sort of device which the master often employed to fill his backgrounds and introduce figures in dramatically different planes. But the really significant image here is St Cecilia herself. Like so many Victorian artists of an idealising tendency, Waterhouse saw the reclining female figure as an indispensable part of his visual vocabulary, automatically appropriating it as a vehicle of beauty and eroticism on the authority of the great sculptures of classical antiquity which, at one level or another, still haunted every artist's mind. He had already considered the motif in the first of his pictures on the theme of Ophelia, dating from 1889 (see Hobson, op.cit., 1980, pl.74), and he would return to it on several occasions, notably in Ariadne (ibid., pl.75), a painting of 1898 which is virtually a pagan version of St Cecilia, repeating the harbour scene in the background and substituting leopards for angels. Making every allowance for subconscious assimilation as distinct from deliberate borrowing, it is hardly far-fetched to relate at least St Cecilia, with her virginal mien and context of roses, to the figure of the sleeping princess in Burne-Jones's Briar Rose paintings (Fig. 3). Waterhouse can hardly have failed to be among the crowds that flocked to see these famous works when they were exhibited at Agnew's in 1890. He would have seen them again when he visited Buscot Park in Oxfordshire, the country seat of his patron Alexander Henderson, who bought them and installed them there in the saloon.
But the artist who most consistently returned to the theme of the reclining woman (and it is of course no accident that he was a thoroughgoing classicist) was Frederic Leighton. Leighton had taught Waterhouse in the RA Schools and, as President from 1878, had occupied a position of supreme authority for almost the whole of the younger artist's Academy career. It may be that Waterhouse remembered seeing Leighton's first image of this type, Ariadne abandoned by Theseus, which was shown at the RA in 1868, and he would certainly have studied the sequel, Hercules wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis, which was shown in 1871, when he was a student. Anthony Hobson, in his monograph on Waterhouse, makes a point of comparing this picture with St Cecilia, observing that it foreshadows all its main elements, the sleeping figure, the massed trees to left and right, and the sea glimpsed through a 'hole' in the middle of the composition. Over the years, Leighton was to show other variations on the theme, Idyll in 1881, Cymon and Iphigenia in 1884, Summer Slumber in 1894. The last again seems particularly relevant, appearing at the RA only a year before St Cecilia and anticipating in secular terms the picture's themes of languor and oppressive heat. Leighton was to paint one more work in this vein, the now celebrated Flaming June (Fig. 4), exhibiting it at the RA the same year as St Cecilia. By the time the next exhibition came round, he was dead.
Two more pictures are perhaps worth mentioning in this context. One is Albert Moore's A Summer Night (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). Exhibited at the RA in 1890, this has the same sort of relationship to Waterhouse's picture as Leighton's Summer Slumber or Flaming June. In a composition which evokes a sense of almost stifling heat, a group of young women, semi-nude and very classical in inspiration, prepare themselves for a night's rest on the water's edge. The other picture is Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Gallery), which had appeared to ecstatic acclaim at the RA of 1887. This may seem a rather eccentric comparison, but, like St Cecilia, the picture has a strong symbolist dimension, presents us with figures of virginal purity, and brilliantly creates an effect of dusk in a flower-filled garden. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that at some perhaps subconscious level, Waterhouse was attempting to rival Sargent's controversial but popular work, which had been bought for the Chantrey Bequest?
When all the comparisons have been made, all the possible influences suggested, St Cecilia remains a picture of great originality. It could never for a moment be mistaken for the work of anyone but Waterhouse. He may be an eclectic artist, but his capacity to absorb impressions and turn them to his own account never ceases to astonish. If there is something slightly Burne-Jonesian about some of his faces, they are also instantly recognisable as his. Indeed, like Burne-Jones, he used the same models over and over again, and all those in St Cecilia re-appear in other works. Recent research on this subject of Waterhouse's models has identified one of his favourites as Muriel Foster. Born in 1878, she began to sit for him in 1893, when she was fifteen. Among her many roles in his work are those of the two angels in St Cecilia, painted two years later. Never marrying, she trained as a nurse in the early 1900s and died as recently as 1969.
One of the most original features of the picture is its colouring, a rich harmony of blues, greens, purples and browns, enlivened by passages of white and dramatic touches of red, pink and gold. The two crimson cushions are the details which anchor the scheme and do most to create visual excitement, but they are ably supported by the red, mauve and white flowers, set like jewels in their more sombre setting. Then there is Waterhouse's impressionistic handling of the paint itself, free and gestural yet never stooping to vulgar bravura. As we examine the surface, we sense the artist searching for his effects with a touching honesty and humility, yet having the confidence to stop when his purpose is achieved, even at the cost of some roughness. The pink drapery on which the Saint is seated is a particularly telling passage. It is not difficult to think of comparable paintings in which every detail has been brought to a high degree of finish, robbing the spectator of that opportunity to exercise his own imagination on which so much of the effect of St Cecilia depends.
The picture had a warm reception when it appeared at the Royal Academy. F. G. Stephens, the veteran art critic on the Athenaeum, who had been a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood back in 1848, found it 'poetical', thought its colouring 'brilliant', and generally 'recommended' it to his readers. The Illustrated London News observed that 'for those who seek...ideal subjects..., Mr Waterhouse's "St Cecilia"...is the best example (in the exhibition). It follows...the field once occupied by Rossetti, but is wanting in his oppressive sensuousness'. The Magazine of Art felt that
In 'St Cecilia' Mr Waterhouse has taken another stride forward. There is not, perhaps, the mystery which has invested so many of his pictures with indescribable charm; but there are here greater merits, as compensation, in the composition, fine and well balanced, and a true sense of poetry, in its wider significance of conception, handling, colour, and painter-like quality. The artist's imagination....has been well supported by his generous palette; and his wealth of colour, of mauve and white, of green and blue and red, are resolved into a harmony exquisitely adapted to the subject.
The Art Journal also joined the chorus of praise, in doing so making some interesting comments on Waterhouse's popularity and influence:
Mr J. W. Waterhouse, RA (elected to full membership May 16),...has a very large personal following. No British painter at the present moment can with justice be called a maestro di scuola; but in the canvases of the students of the Academy the active working influences will be found to be those of Mr Waterhouse, first, then Mr Tadema, and, in landscape, Mr Alfred East. Seeing that Mr Waterhouse is essentially a painter's painter, he has always enjoyed an astonishingly broad popularity. In 'St Cecilia', the important work which represents nearly two years' unremitting toil and experiment, the aim is wholly decorative, the colour superb, and the painting swift and direct, that of a man who has reached his goal...The effect is...somewhat ecclesiastic; entirely remote from realism and the world of our daily life.
But the most enthusiastic response of all came from Harry Quilter, the art critic of the Times. In 'the second room....', he wrote, 'Mr Waterhouse shows one of the most brilliant and essentially modern performances of this eclectic age. A hundred artists have painted St Cecilia, but none, so far as we remember, has set the legend in precisely this way, as remote from the studied simplicity of Sir Joshua as it is from the classicism of Raphael'. After describing the imagery, he continued:
The pleasant thing about this picture is that Mr Waterhouse has chosen, so to speak, a pre-Raphaelite subject, and yet has treated it in a way that is not pre-Raphaelite any more than it is impressionist, or touched with any other affectation. He speaks in his own language, follows his own colour scheme, and even - though perhaps those who have studied many of his pictures might wish for a little more variety in this respect - has evidently taken for his St Cecilia the same model that he took for his 'Belle Dame sans Merci' and for many another picture. Mr Waterhouse's work is now so well known that to make it the subject of a discourse would be to waste words. Enough to say that, while it is without the commanding force that we ask for and find in the greatest painters, it has many beautiful qualities of invention and colour, and that of all his pictures 'St Cecilia' seems to us to be in both these way the happiest.
Even before it left Waterhouse's studio, the picture had been bought by George McCulloch, a Scottish prospector and mining engineer who had made a fortune in Australia. He was currently building himself a house at 184 Queen's Gate, Kensington, and St Cecilia hung there in the dining room. McCulloch formed one the greatest late nineteenth-century collections of modern paintings and sculpture; its great strength lay in British academic paintings, although it also included major 'aesthetic' works and fine examples of leading European masters. Some of the greatest pictures now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, including Millais' Sir Isumbras, Leighton's Daphnephoria and Garden of the Hesperides, Luke Fildes' An Al-Fresco Toilette and Sargent's On his Holidays, belonged to McCulloch. Other highlights of the collection were Alma-Tadema's Sculpture Gallery (Rochester, New York), E. A. Abbey's Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne (Yale University), Dicksee's Funeral of a Viking (Manchester), Whistler's Valparaiso Bay (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington), Albert Moore's last masterpiece, The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons (Blackburn), and three late Burne-Joneses, Love among the Ruins (Wightwick Manor), The Sleeping Princess (Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin), and The Wedding of Psyche (Brussels). Almost every British academic artist of any standing was represented, and the foreign works included examples of Bouguereau, Gérome, Fritz Thaulow and Bastien-Lepage. Among the three Bastiens were two of his best-known works, Pauvre Fauvette (Glasgow) and Pas Mèche (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).
A photograph of McCulloch and his wife seated against some of their pictures in their palatial Kensington home forms the frontispiece of the catalogue of the exhibition Great Victorian Pictures: Their Paths to Fame that was mounted by the Royal Academy in 1978. The collector looks every inch a self-made man, and the scene is one of unbridled bourgeois opulence. There is something touching about this tough entrepeneur falling for a picture like St Cecilia, but in fact it represented a distinct aspect of his taste. He owned two more works by Waterhouse, the others being Flora and the Zephyrs (1898) and an Ophelia (1894) which was sold in these Rooms on 11 June 1993, lot 110; and there were other images of maidenly innocence in the collection, including the Burne-Joneses and T. C. Gotch's Child Enthroned. His commission from Morris & Co. for a set of Holy Grail tapestries, replicas of those already made for his business associate W. K. D'Arcy of Stanmore Hall, is further evidence of his response to otherworldly themes.
In the winter of 1909, a year after McCulloch's death, his collection was exhibited en bloc at the Royal Academy, and in May 1913 it was sent for sale at Christie's. There were over three hundred lots, and they took three days to disperse. St Cecilia fetched 2,300 guineas, nearly £100,000 in today's currency and at the time a record price for a work by Waterhouse. It was bought by the dealers Gooden and Fox for Sir Brodie Henderson (1869-1936), civil engineer, gallant soldier, and the brother of Alexander Henderson, first Baron Faringdon, whose family were by far the artist's most important patrons during his later years. Between them the Hendersons acquired many of his subject pictures, as well as commissioning several portraits of their wives and daughters.
Towards the end of his life Waterhouse suffered much from illness. This made the support of the Hendersons all the more valuable, especially as taste was rapidly turning against the literary subjects in which he specialised. His closeness to the family is further illustrated by their response to his death, which took place on 10 February 1917. Brodie Henderson himself did not attend his funeral, probably because he was in the army and this was the penultimate year of the Great War, but his wife, daughter, and another brother were all present. Research has yet to show when St Cecilia left the Henderson collection, but in a sense this is immaterial. The picture had already acquired a provenance which , for this particluar artist, could hardly be more distinguished, and one that surely reflects the quality of the work itself.
We are grateful to Peter Trippi, the author of a forthcoming biography of Waterhouse, for his help in preparing this entry.