Sunday, January 20, 2013

Isabella 'Piteous she looked on dead and senseless things, Asking for her lost Basil piteously [sic]'

John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937)
Isabella 'Piteous she looked on dead and senseless things, Asking for her lost Basil piteously [sic]'

Price Realized

oil with gold paint on canvas
39¼ x 24 in. (99.7 x 61 cm.)

Percy Bate, The English Pre-Raphaelites, Their Associates and Successors, 4th ed., London, 1910, illustrated facing p. 110.

Strudwick was born in Clapham, and educated there at St Saviour's Grammar School. Refusing to contemplate a career in business, he studied art at South Kensington and the Royal Academy Schools, but was a singularly unsuccessful student. The only visitor to the RA Schools who encouraged him was the Scottish artist John Pettie (1839-1893), whose fluent brushwork, typical of the pupils of Robert Scott Lauder at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, he emulated for a time. A picture illustrating the ballad of 'Auld Robin Gray', exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1873 and sold in these Rooms on 5 November 1993, lot 181, is an interesting record of this early phase.

Strudwick eventually found his feet in the mid 1870s when he acted as a temporary assistant first to J.R. Spencer Stanhope and then to Burne-Jones. Songs without Words, the picture with which he made his first and only appearance at the Royal Academy in 1876, shows his mature style fully formed, and it underwent little development from then on. Like so many of the younger Aesthetic painters and Burne-Jones followers, he exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, at the Grosvenor Gallery from its dramatic opening in 1877, and finally at the New Gallery, which inherited the mantle of the Grosvenor in 1888. Despite his inauspicious start, he enjoyed considerable success; as George Bernard Shaw was to write in an article on him in the Art Journal for April 1891, 'there is no such thing in existence as an unsold picture by Strudwick'. Songs without Words was bought by Lord Southesk, a Scottish peer with antiquarian interests; A Golden Thread (1885) was acquired for the Chantrey Bequest as part of the Royal Academy's current campaign to woo the Burne-Jones school; and two wealthy Liverpool collectors, William Imrie and George Holt, became long-standing patrons. Bernard Shaw's article was a further sign of success. Shaw's main thesis is that Strudwick's very incapacity as a student was the making of him as an artist; he quotes his comment that he 'could not draw - never could', and interprets this as 'a priceless gift', saving him from the empty virtuosity - 'execution for execution's sake' - which had become so common among young artists, especially those who had spent 'a couple of seasons in Paris.' Shaw also recorded that the artist had 'a fine sense of humour', something one would hardly guess from his pictures, and that he had never visited Italy, although critics often complained that his pictures were mere pastiches of early Italian work.

Strudwick lived all his adult life in Hammersmith or Bedford Park, not far from Burne-Jones and his fellow assistant in Burne-Jones's studio, T.M. Rooke. His daughter Ethel, born in 1880, was to become High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School, situated locally, in 1927. Strudwick was still contributing to the New Gallery in 1908, when it held its last but one exhibition, but he seems to have ceased painting about this time although he lived on until 1937. His Times obituary descibed him as 'a beautiful old man... (and) a charming personality, exceedingly kind to young artists.'

Isabella has been exhibited so widely in recent years (from Denver to Tokyo, Newcastle to Madrid) that it must be Strudwick's best known picture. It appeared first at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879, one of two works by the artist of which the second was the illustration to the Song of Solomon mentioned below in connection with lot 6. The subject is taken from the well-known poem by Keats, Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, which in turn derives from one of the stories in Boccaccio's Decameron. A couplet from Keats's poem was quoted in the Grosvenor catalogue, but the word 'amorously' at the end of the second line was changed to 'piteously'. No doubt this slip of the pen was due to the fact that the word 'piteous' had already occurred a line earlier. All hard-pressed cataloguers will recognise the phenomenon.

Set in medieval Florence, the story tells how Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, an employee in her brothers' business. Having hoped she would make a profitable marriage, the brothers are angry and murder Lorenzo, burying his body in a forest and telling Isabella that he has been sent away on urgent affairs. When Lorenzo's ghost appears to Isabella and reveals his true fate, she exhumes the body and cuts off his head, concealing it in a pot beneath a basil plant which she waters with her tears. Eventually the brothers discover and steal it, and Isabella dies of a broken heart.

The story's theme of unhappy, frustrated love, laced with a strong element of sadism and set against an Italian medieval background which was not only colourful in itself but tied up with their interest in early Italian painting - all this made a powerful appeal to the Pre-Raphaelites. It inspired John Everett Millais' first major work in the Pre-Raphaelite style (fig. 2). Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849, only a year after the Brotherhood was founded, the picture shows Isabella, Lorenzo and her brothers all seated at table. Gazing at her intently, Lorenzo offers Isabella a blood-orange while one of her brothers aims a savage kick at her dog, just two of the many details symbolic of impending doom which the picture incorporates. Nineteen years later, visiting Florence with his new and pregnant wife Fanny, Holman Hunt embarked on a large picture of Isabella cradling the pot in which her lover's head is buried, a subject somehow curiously appropriate to his tortured, obsessive genius (fig. 3). The picture was exhibited by the dealer Ernest Gambart at his premises in King Street, London, in 1868, and sold to a Newcastle collector two years later.

Strudwick would undoubtedly have known both these compositions. Millais' painting, a key work for any young artist intent on following the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, had appeared at Christie's in 1862, 1868 and 1875. The Hunt had not only been exhibited in 1868 but was so familiar through Blanchard's engraving of 1871 that in 1886 the Times could describe it as having 'long since become the classic rendering in art of the last episode of Keats's poem'. For his own picture, however, Strudwick chose a different theme to that of either of his precursors. The brothers have just stolen the pot of basil, and can be seen through the lattice window making their escape in the streets of Florence. Isabella stands forlornly in her chamber, hand on palpitating heart as she contemplates her terrible loss. To her left stands the elaborate wrought-iron stand on which the pot formerly reposed, while the floor is strewn with basil leaves, hinting that she has struggled to prevent the rape of her lover's severed head.

It was typical of Strudwick to hint at drama rather than making it explicit. No artist was ever less endowed with the dramatic gift. His talent lay almost exclusively in portraying wistful, love-lorn maidens in spaces pervaded by Aesthetic shadows and so encrusted with gem-like surfaces as to suggest that a jeweller has been the interior decorator. Isabella's chamber is typical, and so is the imagery of the marble or bronze reliefs. The more robust Millais and Hunt had employed a whole range of symbols to emphasise the horrific nature of the story. Millais not only goes in for blood-oranges and brutalised dogs but a majolica plate painted with a scene of execution by beheading and a hawk tearing up a white feather. Hunt gives Isabella's pot death's-head handles to suggest its grisly contents. Strudwick's reliefs, by contrast, seem to show only playful amorini and two scenes which hint vaguely at the story of Cupid and Psyche. This subject, which Burne-Jones had treated in the mid 1860s in his illustrations to Morris's Earthly Paradise, would indeed be appropriate in that Psyche loses Cupid, her celestial lover. However, she also regains him after many trials and tribulations. Was Strudwick being true to his gentle vision by opting for a story with a happy ending, or was he suggesting that Lorenzo and Isabella would also be re-united in death?
The picture was well received by the critics. Joseph Comyns Carr, who had an interest in the matter in that he was one of the directors of the Grosvenor, wrote in the Academy that Strudwick was

an artist who brings a system of highly-wrought and delicate workmanship to the rendering of ideas that are far removed from contact with the passing life of our time. Mr Strudwick has always been inspired by a fine poetical fancy, and his present performance shows that he is rapidly gaining the resource and power needed to do full justice to his ideas. There is still something to desire in the drawing of the figure; but all the subordinate parts of the design are expressed with the utmost care and patience, and with a sureness of touch that is worthy of the poet whose verse he has striven to illustrate.

F.G. Stephens was equally enthusiastic in the Athenaeum:

We turn to Mr Strudwick's Isabella with pleasure, which would be unalloyed if the artist, instead of appearing to glance at Mr Rossetti, or to adopt the exaggerated cultus of Mantegna that is now fashionable, had discarded affectations which can only be temporary. Keats's represented by a wan and wasted maiden standing before the tripod from which the tragic vase has been removed. Her face has a dazed and hopeless look, which ought to distinguish the picture in the galllery as one surpassed in inspiration by no example here, except, perhaps, by Mr Burne-Jones's virgin in the 'Annunciation' [his main contribution that year, now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight]. The attitude of Isabella is hardly, if at all, inferior to her face. The careful execution of the picture throughout is highly creditable to Mr Strudwick. There are many excellent points of local colour, such as the deep red rose of the dress, while the painting of the accessories and floor, the window and furniture, is capital. The careful studies which this picture displays are exceptional in these careless times.

The picture's first owner was almost certainly W. Graham Robertson (1866-1948), a young aesthete who studied under Albert Moore, knew and admired Burne-Jones, played a considerable part in the theatrical life of his time, and is now variously remembered as the subject of one of Sargent's finest portraits (Tate Gallery), the author of some delightful and witty reminiscences, Time Was (1931), and a passionate collector of the work of William Blake. Robertson certainly had the picture by 1892, when he lent it to an exhibition at the Guildhall, and he may well have bought it direct from the Grosvenor. Although he was only thirteen in 1879, he was wealthy, precocious, and had been a devotee of the Grosvenor since its opening two years earlier. 'The impression left upon me...', he wrote in Time Was, 'was unforgettable. To this day old fogeys speak of the first two or three exhibitions at the Grosvenor Gallery with undiminished enthusiasm: there has been no such delightful surprise in the world of pictures since.'

Robertson kept the picture until his death in 1948, presumably hanging it either in his London house (he lived consecutively at 21 Cleveland Square, Bayswater, 23 Rutland Gate, Knightsbridge (this address appears on a label on the back), and 5 Argyll Road, Kensington), or at 'Sandhills', his beloved country house near Witley in Surrey, which had formerly been owned by William and Helen Allingham. It must have been familiar to his wide circle of friends, including the young theatrical talents - Noël Coward, Lawrence Olivier, the Lunts and others - to whom he became something of a guru in his old age.

At his posthumous sale at Christie's the picture made a mere 15 guineas, but this would not have surprised him. He had long become used to the way the heroes of his youth had fallen out of fashion and been, as he saw it, derided. 'It was rather sad', he had written of the private view of the Burne-Jones centenary exhibition held at the Tate Gallery in 1933, 'a little crowd of forlorn old survivals paying their last homage to the beauty and poetry now utterly scorned and rejected...The whole thing was evidently...foredoomed to failure, and I am glad now that I never encouraged the idea when I first heard of it.'

On the other hand, the paltry prices fetched by such pictures when Victorian art was in the doldrums gave Mrs Stirling the opportunity to find things for her collection at comparatively little outlay. Presumably she wanted a picture by Strudwick because at one time he had been Spencer Stanhope's studio assistant.

Strudwick painted another version of the same subject, which appears to be lost. It was exhibited at the Grosvenor in 1886 - and this time Keats was correctly quoted in the catalogue

No comments: