Sunday, January 20, 2013
John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937)
signed 'JM Strudwick/14 Edith Villas/West Kensington/.W./London' (on the artist's label attached to the stretcher) and inscribed '"Isabella"/Piteous she looked on dead &/senseless things/Asking for her lost Basil amourously [sic]/-Keats.' (on a label attached to the stretcher)
oil on board
12¼ x 9 1/8 in. (31.1 x 23.2 cm.)
Exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886, this picture is a much reduced version of one that had itself been shown at the Grosvenor in 1879. The latter, formerly in the collection of the artist W. Graham Robertson, was sold in these Rooms on behalf of the De Morgan Foundation on 28 November 2001 (lot 2). The small version was noted in the catalogue entry but described as apparently lost. This was clearly not the case.
The subject is taken from Keats's well known poem Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, which in turn borrows its theme from Boccaccio's Decameron. 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 the 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 of 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 was popular with the Pre-Raphaelites and had already inspired major works by two members of the Brotherhood: Millais' Isabella (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849, and Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne), which made its first appearance at the King Street premises of the dealer Ernest Gambart in 1868. Strudwick would have known both these celebrated works, either 'in the flesh' or through engravings, but he chose to illustrate a different incident to either. In his picture, the brothers have just stolen the pot of basil. They are seen through the open window, making their escape in the Florentine countryside, while Isabella stands forlornly in her chamber, hand on palpitating heart as she contemplates her loss. To the right stands the elaborate wrought-iron stand on which the pot formerly reposed, while the floor is strewn with basil leaves, hinting that the theft has not been effected without a struggle.
Although the composition remains basically the same in both versions, the colour schemes differ and there are many variations of detail. For example, two prominent features of the present version, the open book in front of the window and the pedestal supporting the wrought-iron stand, are absent in the earlier picture. The bench against which the heroine leans is also larger in the first version, and made of marble, embellished with reliefs, rather than carved wood, as in the second account.
It is no surprise that both pictures were unveiled at the Grosvenor Gallery. Strudwick had been an assistant to Burne-Jones in the mid-1870s. He remained one of his closest followers, and was among the many adherents who joined him in showing at the Grosvenor, where their mentor was the star attraction from the moment the gallery opened its doors in 1877.
Both versions of the picture won critical acclaim when they were exhibited. The Times observed of the artist's two contributions in 1886: 'Mr Strudwick, the ablest of the followers of Mr Burne-Jones, has made a considerable advance on any of his former works, both in "Circe and Scylla" and in the smaller and perhaps more desirable picture of "Isabella".' It is interesting that, of the two, the writer preferred Isabella, since Circe and Scylla had been reviewed at length by F.G. Stephens in the Athenaeum and is generally considered to be one of Strudwick's finest works. Now in the Holt Collection at Sudley, one of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, it was included in the Last Romantics exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, in 1989, no. 45 (illustrated in catalogue).