Sunday, January 31, 2010
John Melhuish Strudwick - Summer Songs
Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 848,000 GBP
London, New Gallery, 1901, no.96 (as Summer Songs);
Port Sunlight, 1902;
Steven Kolsteren, ‘The Pre-Raphaelite Art of John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937), The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies, vol. I:2 Fall 1988, pp. 1-16
Of all the painters who formed the late nineteenth-century manifestation of Romantic Pre-Raphaelitism- a movement which owed much to te example of Edward Burne-Jones and more remotely to Dante Gabriel Rossetti- John Melhuish Strudwick is the most remarkable. Because he painted so slowly, and in such a meticulous style which he never attempted to adapt or simplify so as to be less technically exacting, he is represented by a small but precious corps of works. The painting which was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1901 as Summer Songs (and which in recent years has usually been known as Summer Hours), is one of the most celebrated of Strudwick's paintings and one that exemplifies the essential qualities of refinement and other-worldliness of his art.
The subject shows four beautiful female figures in a garden or courtyard. On the left stands the singer, holding a song-book. Beside her a girl is seated at an organ, the richly decorated side of which forms a vertical divide approximately at the centre of the composition. On the right is a kneeling figure, working the bellows of the organ. Seated at the side is a figure holding a book. All of the girls are wearing long flowing dresses of rich but sombre colours, while each has her hair tied back with lengths of cloth, or in one case a golden chain. Behind the figures there is an arcade, with pairs of arches separated by pilasters decorated with relief patterns in blue and gold. Below the arcade’s sill, on the surface of the wall, is a painted decoration showing figures against a gold ground. On the entablature of the arcade is an inscription, the words masked by the golden fruit, leaves and branches. Through the spaces of the arches is glimpsed a wide Mediterranean landscape, with distant mountains and a line of umbrella pines. A group of three mounted knights, wearing armour and carrying pennants, are seen in the distance, but whether they are approaching the four maidens or are riding past on an unknown martial mission is not explained.
Summer Songs is without any ostensible subject, and is therefore a characteristic product of the English Aesthetic movement in the course of which since the 1860s painters had freed themselves from the need to paint subjects which might be interpreted or understood in narrative terms. Summer Songs has within it two central themes of Aestheticism, each of which conveys a sense of mood to the work and captures the imagination. The first is an allusion to a season of the year. The luxuriance of growth, the warmth of colour, and the sense of heat, in the painting convey subliminally a feeling of summer as well perhaps of experience of the south. The second theme, allied to the first in the painting's title, is that of music. The work follows in line of succession to various St Cecilia subjects that Strudwick produced in the late 1890s (figs 1. & 2.). That now at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool shows St Cecilia, with a companion saint, and with her hands resting on the keys of the organ, and also features an arcade and distant landscape view of the type which is elaborated in Summer Songs. A larger and more complex work entitled Evensong (private collection), exhibited at the New Gallery in 1898, anticipates even more closely the present work, with four principal figures and with the richly decoated organ seen side on and with its keyboard in an obliquely-angled perspective. As John Christian has written, 'Like Burne-Jones, Strudwick loved to paint compositions in which a mood of wistful sadness is evoked by a group of female figures playing musical instruments' (The Last Romantics- The Romantic Tradition in British Art- Burne Jones to Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, London, 1989 (under the discussion of Strudwick's 1897 St Cecilia), p.94).
The two themes of Summer Songs – the season of the year and music – are allegorically linked. Each represents an imagined continuum, from which the figures will emerge in a transformed condition. The ripeness of the fruit that hangs in the branches overhead, and the scattering of dead leaves on the pavement, are reminders that summer must give way to autumn and that the effulgent bounty of one season will be succeeded by the bleakness of another. The cycle of the seasons are therefore here intended to remind the spectator of the phases of life itself. Similarly, the attention that a player or an audience might give to a piece of music, as represented in the playing of the figures, is intended as a metaphor of the span of life. Thus, Strudwick’s paintings are meditations upon the passage of life and the inevitability of death, cloaked in a guise remote from mundane experience.
The pattern of Strudwick’s own career as an artist is intriguing. Although biographical details are few, it seems that he was not a man who relished public exhibitions or sought the kind of popular fame which might lead to further commissions or flattering reviews. Having trained at the South Kensington school and then at the Royal Academy, he commenced his professional career by painting in a fairly conventional style derived from the example of John Pettie (1839-1893). A crucial formative experience in his move towards a style of art of technical refinement and aesthetic subtlety occurred in the early 1870s when he was employed as a studio assistant first by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope and then by Burne-Jones.
Strudwick’s works were repeatedly rejected by the Royal Academy and his professional prospects were uncertain. However, in 1876 his painting Song without Words (Sotheby's, London, 8 June 1993, lot 22) did gain admission (it was in fact his only contribution to the Royal Academy summer exhibitions in his entire career). The work caused a great stir among those who were curious to know how such a quaint and yet technically demanding work could have been undertaken by an otherwise unheard of artist. According to George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the article about Strudwick which is the principal source of information about the artist, the sale of Song without Words marked the critical turning-point in the painter’s fortunes. He ‘promptly hired a studio for himself; and since that time his vocation as an artist has never been challenged. There is no such thing as an unsold picture by Strudwick; and so the story of his early struggles may be said to end there’ (‘J.M. Strudwick’, Art Journal, 1891, pp.97-101). From this time forward Strudwick gained a following among a circle of collectors and connoisseurs who appreciated the complexity and intensity of a style of art that was alien to the gaudy and mechanical confections so often seen in the public exhibitions. Two Liverpool collectors – William Imrie and George Holt – were his most loyal supporters.
In reply to the accusation that Strudwick was merely an imitator of an historical style of painting, Shaw wrote: ‘There is nothing of the fourteenth century about his work except that depth of feeling and passion for beauty which are common property to all who are fortunate enough to inherit them’. Strudwick’s art made great demands both upon the artist and the spectator, and for this reason he remained outside the artistic establishment of the day. His paintings are, nonetheless, highly sophisticated expressions of an anti-Utilitarian counter-culture in the late Victorian world, and were esteemed for their complete indifference to all that was modern, or indeed distinctly of any age.
Summer Songs belonged to the Birkenhead patron and collector Joseph Beausire, presumably having been bought by him at the New Gallery in 1901, and once again demonstrating the particular enthusiasm that was felt for Strudwick’s work by the great merchant patrons of the north-west. Beausire had set up a trading company which operated between Liverpool and the West Indies and Latin America, and was chairman of the West India and Pacific Steamship Company. Although Beausire died in 1907, it was not until 1934 that the main body of his collection was sold, with works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Sandys and Poynter, as well as landscapes by Turner, Constable and Cotman, and works by members of the Liverpool School being represented. In 1970 C. F. J. Beausire made a bequest of watercolours from the Beausire family collection to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.