Sunday, December 30, 2012

Beatrice visiting Virgil in Limbo

George Price Boyce

George Price Boyce
by Cundall, Downes & Co
albumen print on card mount, published 1864

Friday, December 28, 2012

Cherry Ripe

Hand and Soul

[Kelmscott Press] Hand and Soul.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel.
Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1895. 

First edition. 16mo. Original vellum, spine lettered in gold. Engraved title leaf and opening page border, initials throughout. The Kelmscott Press hand and Soul is "still celebrated today for the clarity and balance of its type, the intricacy and beauty of its wood-engraved illustrations and the craftsmanship of its printing and binding" (UCF Archives).

Two Walter Crane Letters

Cuillin Ridge, Skye, from Sligachan

Wooded Slope with four Figures

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Profound Secret

A Profound Secret: May Gaskell, her daughter Amy, and Edward Burne-Jonesby Josceline Dimbleby
Black Swan; New edition edition (2005)

Delaware Art Museum

Monday, December 24, 2012

Flora Symbolica: Flowers in Pre-Raphaelite Art

The Pre-Raphaelite Language of Flowers

Art of the Pre-Raphaelites [Calendar]

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah 1855

Study of Nimji for 'The Triumph of the Innocents'

Given to the Walker Art Gallery by Alderman John Lea, 1912.
The painting of 'The Triumph of the Innocents' (Walker Art Gallery) shows Mary with baby Jesus riding on a donkey escaping to Egypt, accompanied by the spirits of the children slain by Herod.
This is a preliminary study of a woman from Bethlehem, drawn by Hunt with her head inclined to one side, as seen in Mary's head in the painting. In the finished painting, Hunt gave Mary the features of his wife Edith. Hunt did much of the preparatory work for the painting in Jerusalem.

Study for Sponsa de Libano

Chalks on paper, drawn around 1891

In the large painting 'Sponsa de Libano' (The Bride of Lebanon) two female figures in swirling draperies hover over the bride. They represent the North and South winds, blowing fragrant breezes:
'Awake O North wind; and come then south; blow upon my garden that the spices thereof may flow out.'
The subject comes from the Song of Solomon in the Bible. This study for the wind on the left was made from a twelve year old cockney Jewish girl who posed for both North and South winds. The artist asked her to 'look wild and blow with your lips.'

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Eve

Price Realized

signed with monogram and dated '1887' (lower left) 
oil on canvas 
62 x 52¾ in. (157.5 x 134 cm.) 

This chilly but romantic picture was painted late in 1887 from the west side of Murthly Castle, Perthshire, the seat of Sir Archibald Douglas Stewart, 8th Baronet of Murthly, an octogenarian who would die, without heir, three years later. The tower in the painting dates from the fifteenth-century, and the scene remains almost exactly the same today. Millais and his family had taken Birnam Hall, a substantial lodge on the Murthly estate, for the seventh year running, the artist enjoying the generous shooting and fishing rights that went with the rental of £600.

The Millais' holiday at Murthly must have been unusually late this year. J.G. Millais records in his biography of his father that 'winter was already casting her mantle over the Northern hills' when the picture was started, and that it received its 'final touches' on Christmas Eve itself - hence the title. This presumably implies that the family spent Christmas at Murthly, perhaps returning to London in the New Year.

The picture is a fine example of Millais' late Scottish landscapes, of which he painted twenty-one in the last twenty-six years of his life. Nearly all are large, restricted in tone, and confined in subject matter to scenes he encountered during his autumn holidays on the banks of the River Tay. Although Millais combined their execution with sport, they represented a departure of considerable significance, unparalleled in the careers of any other major late Victorian artist.

Long overlooked or even disparaged, this aspect of Millais' work was dramatically re-assessed in the exhibition mounted by Tate Britain in 2007, in which Christmas Eve and eleven other examples were shown. The catalogue speaks of them as 'hauntingly elegiac images', in which the artist evoked a harsh, bleak and melancholy world, almost void of human life and in stark contrast to the social whirl of London which provided the context for his work during the rest of the year.

One of these pictures, Dew-Drenched Furze (1889-90; Tate Britain), was included in the exhibition Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 held at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, July-October 2012 (cat. p. 89, fig. 62) and previously seen at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

J.G. Millais recounts how when painting Christmas Eve the artist left the picture overnight in a painting hut in the grounds of Murthly Castle, its wet face turned to the wall. During the night there was a violent snowstorm, and Millais was convinced that in the morning he would find both hut and picture blown away. To his delight, however, he found the hut still standing. Braving the elements, the village carpenter, who had built it, had come down at midnight to make it secure.

M.H. Spielmann described the picture as 'extremely effective, if somewhat theatrical...There is a touch of poetry in the air, as the setting sun lights up the windows of the castle'. A sense of romance is also created by the cold winter light and the footprints and cart-tracks in the snow, hinting at a recent human presence. Helpful, too, is Millais, choice of a highly evocative title, even if it was suggested by the date on which the picture received its 'final touches'.

Studies for the jackdaws in the foreground are in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

View from Bidston Hill

The Dragon's Den

This tiny canvas was painted from nature. It shows a cave known as 'Dunald Mill Hole' close to the village of Nether Kellett, near Carnforth in Lancashire. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The House Builders

Price Realized

signed and dated 'FRANK DICKSEE/1880' (centre left) and inscribed 'AWB 1879' (lower centre, on a sheet of paper) and further signed, inscribed and dated 'The House Builders/(Portraits of Sir W.E. & The Hon. Lady Welby-Gregory)/Frank Dicksee/-1880-2 Fitzroy Square/W.' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
54½ x 61½ in. (138.4 x 156.2 cm.)
in the original frame

This evocative picture, much written about and exhibited in the context of late Victorian domestic architecture and the Aesthetic movement, was unveiled at the Royal Academy in 1880. Dicksee was then twenty-seven and a rising star in the ranks of the Academy, which elected him to associate membership that very year. The picture shows Sir William Welby-Gregory, fourth baronet (1829-1898), and his wife Victoria, only daughter of the Earl of Wharncliffe, poring over the architect's model and drawings for Denton Manor, the house they were building near Grantham in Lincolnshire. When the picture was exhibited the house had been in progress a year, and it would be completed four years later. Like so many projects of the kind, it was destined to be short-lived, falling victim to rapidly changing social conditions. Apart from the stable-block, the house was demolished shortly before the Second World War, thus existing for little more than half a century.

Denton Manor was designed by A.W. (later Sir Arthur) Blomfield in a 'domestic Gothic' style which, as Gervase Jackson-Stops observed in cataloguing the picture for the great Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition held in Washington, D.C., in 1985-6, 'looks back to Augustus Welby Pugin's country houses of the 1840s and 1850s, such as Bilton Grange in Warwickshire'. The style represented 'a cautious and conservative approach compared to the polychrome fantasies of William Burges and S.S. Teulon, but one that might have appealed to a squire who was already fifty, and who was rebuilding his family seat not so much to make his mark in the country as to provide a home for the pictures, furniture and other works of art inherited from his father's cousin, Gregory Gregory of Harlaxton'. The model that the baronet and his wife are discussing is seen from the same viewpoint as a perspective drawing published in The Building News on 10 October 1879 and it is conceivable that Dicksee used this as source material, although there are minor differences in the fenestration of the model as he represents it. The drawing held by Lady Welby-Gregory shows the two-storey oriel window over the front door, and bears Blomfield's signature and the date 1879. A portfolio of further drawings seen beyond her right arm conceals the immense service wings that were built round two courtyards, a far bigger space than the family's own quarters.

Lady Welby-Gregory belonged to the group known as 'The Souls', an aristocratic coterie devoted to intellectual and artistic pursuits and disdainful of the more worldly pleasures indulged in by the Prince of Wales's Marlborough House set. Her father, the Earl of Wharncliffe, was a patron of Edward Poynter, who painted enormous mythological subjects round the billiard room at Wortley Hall, the Earl's country house near Sheffield, in the 1870s. Other 'Souls', such as Violet, Duchess of Rutland and Lady Brownlow, were either related to or neighbours of the Welby-Gregorys, and their daughter, Nina, married yet another member of the circle, Harry Cust. Lady Welby-Gregory herself was something of a bluestocking. She wrote obscure philosophical works, possibly under the influence of Arthur Balfour, a pre-eminent 'Soul' who published more than one treatise of this kind. She was also an accomplished needlewoman, founding the Decorative Art Needlework Society, an offshoot of the Royal School of Needlework at South Kensington.

Lady Welby-Gregory's tastes and talents are amply alluded to in the picture. She is dressed lavishly but in the Aesthetic style, and her surroundings are eminently cultured. She sits on an ebony chair of a seventeenth-century Goanese type, generally thought of by the Victorians as 'Elizabethan'. Behind her are an old lacquered cabinet and a large blue porcelain vase, the latter the quintessential symbol of Aesthetic sensibility since Rossetti, Whistler and other trendsetters had pioneered the taste for 'blue-and-white' in the 1860s. As for Lady Welby-Gregory's needlework skills, these are reflected in the table-cover, richly embroidered with a swirling naturalistic pattern that could easily have been designed by one of the moving spirits behind the Royal School of Needlework, William Morris. It is complemented by the spray of chrysanthemums on the table and the lilies in the vase, further tokens of Aesthetic credibility and reminders that art depends on the painstaking study of nature, a theory that had long since gained currency thanks to Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1880 the R.A. was a newcomer to Burlington House, having moved there from Trafalgar Square only the previous year. Placed prominently in Gallery 1, Dicksee's picture won almost universal acclaim. As always, there were quibbles. F.G. Stephens, writing as usual in the Athenaeum, thought the effect a little 'hard' and complained that the table-cover, though 'brilliantly painted' and 'a tour de force', was 'much too obtrusive and vivid'. But the general view, as the Spectator put it, was that this was 'the greatest work yet produced by (the) artist,' even surpassing his immensely popular Harmony (Tate Britain), shown at the R.A. in 1877 and bought for the Chantrey Bequest. Several critics agreed with the Illustrated London News that the 'care and skill' that Dicksee had lavished on the details of the composition, giving it an 'almost illusory' presence, were reminiscent of the old masters. Stephens described the picture as being 'in the manner of Moroni', and for the Times it was 'a very potent and rich piece of colour, of Venetian audacity.'

According to E. Rimbault Dibdin, writing on Dicksee in 1905, the success of The House Builders caused the artist to receive portrait commissions 'in embarrassing profusion', but this was not the path he wished to follow and he did not exhibit another portrait at the R.A. until 1901. This may be true, but in later years, as the subject pictures that had sustained the Victorian art economy for so long finally went out of fashion, Dicksee was glad enough to turn to portraiture for a living.

Emma Thompson Wins 'Effie' Lawsuit

Screenwriter and Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson has prevailed in a lawsuit against another writer who penned a script about a love triangle involving art critic John Ruskin, his teenage wife Effie Gray and pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.

By the Cradle


Cecily Ursula, aged three years

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Laura reading

signed with monogram and dated '1885' (lower left) 
oil on canvas 
36 x 15 in. (91.5 x 38 cm.) 

W. Crane, An Artist's Reminiscences, London, 1907, illustrated opposite p. 274, showing the picture in Crane's studio at Beaumont Lodge, 1885. 

Laura was a young woman for whom the poet Petrarch (1304-1374) nursed an unrequited passion. Although born in Arezzo, he was brought up in Avignon, and it was there that he fell in love. When Laura showed no sign of returning his ardour, he retired to Vaucluse, a romantic spot near Avignon, where he poured out his amorous feelings into sonnets for which he is famed.

The story has obvious parallels with that of Dante and Beatrice, but it attracted far less attention from artists working in the romantic tradition. It is not easy to think of examples, apart, perhaps, from Petrarch's First Meeting with Laura by Ford Madox Brown's friend William Cave Thomas, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861 (see Heaven on Earth, exh. University of Nottingham, 1994, cat. no. 68, illustrated).

The origins of the present painting lie in a fancy-dress ball that was planned in 1884 to celebrate the re-organisation of the Institute of Painters in Watercolours and its move to new premises in Piccadilly. The Institute's Committee undertook to arrange a masque representing different epochs in the history of art from Pheidias to Romney.

As a member of the Committee, Crane was closely involved with the project, which he describes at length in his autobiography, An Artist's Reminiscences (1907). Charged with portraying the art and architecture of Italy, a task so perfectly tailored to his talents that he can have needed little persuading, he decided to visualise the figures in terms of a triptych. In the central section, figures emblematic of Florence were placed against a view dominated by the campanile of the Palazzo Vecchio, while similar groups symbolising Venice and Rome were seen to either side.

The masque was considered such a success that the Lord Mayor commanded a repeat performance at the Mansion House, and Henry Irving commissioned Crane to recast his tableau as an elaborate watercolour. Dated 1885-6 and exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in the latter year, this remained in Irving's possession until his death in 1905, when it was sold at Christie's. Crane reproduced it in his autobiography, and it is now in the City Art Gallery, Manchester.

In the central, Florentine, section of the triptych, Laura and Petrarch are seen in the middle distance, together with Dante, Beatrice and other figures, while Cimabue, the young Giotto (still as a shepherd boy) and Niccolo Pisano occupy the foreground. Many of these figures, as well as those in the flanking groups representing Venice and Rome, were modelled by Crane's family and friends. Crane portrayed himself as Cimabue, while his wife Mary posed for Laura, his son Lionel for Giotto, and his daughter Beatrice for an early Florentine angel.

Our picture is a version of the figure of Laura as she appears in the triptych. It not only shows the entire figure, which in the triptych is partly obscured by Dante, but is on a larger scale and in the more durable medium of oil. Crane does not tell us if Mary Crane played the part of Laura in the original pageant, but the mere fact that she modelled for her in the triptych is enough to explain why he decided to make an independent and more substantial record of her in this role. He was a devoted husband, and over the years had painted her in many guises.

Washing Hands

Price Realized

signed with monogram and dated '1865' (lower left) and further signed, inscribed and dated 'Washing Hands. painted in watercolour by D.G. Rossetti./Aug. 1865' (on a label attached to the backboard)
pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour and with gum arabic, on paper
17½ x 14¾ in. (44.5 x 37.5 cm.) 

According to Rossetti himself, in an unidentified letter quoted by H.C. Marillier, Washing Hands 'represents the last stage of an unlucky love affair. The lady has gone behind the screen (in the dining room perhaps) to wash her hands; and the gentleman, her lover, has followed her there, and has still something to say, but she has made up her mind. We may suppose that others are present, and that this is his only chance of speaking. I mean it to represent that state of a courtship when both of the parties have come to see in reality that it will never do, but when the lady, I think, is generally the first to have the strength to act on such knowledge. It is all over, in my picture, and she is washing her hands of it'.

The picture was one of three watercolours that Rossetti painted in the summer of 1865 for Frederick Craven, a Manchester calico-printer. Craven was a new patron who would eventually own five works by Rossetti in this medium. Not all his pictures were watercolours - he was to acquire Burne-Jones's Pygmalion series (1878-9; Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery), which are oils. But this was certainly his preferred medium, as Rossetti himself acknowledged when describing him to Ford Madox Brown in June 1865: 'Craven is a very good paymaster and not a haggler at all, - a grave and, let us say in a whisper, rather stupid enthusiast of the inarticulate business type with a mystic reverence for the English water colour school...Besides this I think a thoroughly good fellow. Not a very rich man I should fancy'.

Craven's posthumous sale, held at Christie's in May 1895, bears out this description, including no fewer than thirteen works by David Cox as well as examples of Turner, Prout, W.H. Hunt, Holland, de Wint and other luminaries of the 'English water colour school'. But he was also a loyal supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites, buying not only from Rossetti and Burne-Jones, but from Madox Brown, Shields, Inchbold and Simeon Solomon. Nor can he have been as 'stupid' as Rossetti claimed. It showed real perception and courage to collect these artists in the 1860s and '70s, when incomprehension and ridicule were the usual response to their work.

Washing Hands was painted six years after the famous Bocca Baciata of 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), in which Rossetti first established his later pictorial formula: a half-length female figure painted in oils and embodying the Aesthetic or Symbolist ideal. To some extent, in other words, it represents a return to his earlier manner, the small scale, watercolour technique, narrative subject and psychological intensity all being reminiscent of his work in the 1850s. Even its eighteenth-century setting, though rare for Rossetti, looks back, finding parallels in two previous watercolours: The Laboratory (1849; Birmingham) and Dr Johnson at The Mitre (1860; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). All three works reflect the Pre-Raphaelites' admiration for Hogarth, more consistently betrayed by Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown.

Although the subject was evidently Rossetti's invention, it may have had some 'real life' counterpart in his Bohemian circle, where love affairs were by no means uncommon. His own infatuation with Jane Morris dates from the summer of 1865, the very moment when Washing Hands was conceived and executed. They had of course met in 1857, when Rossetti was in Oxford painting a mural in the Union, but in July 1865 Jane posed for a series of photographs taken by an unidentified professional photographer under Rossetti's supervision. This event is often seen as heralding their later intimacy.

The photographic session took place in the garden at 16 Cheyne Walk, the romantic old house on the Chelsea embankment where Rossetti had settled in 1862. The house's interior is well documented in images and descriptions, and it seems to determine the picture's background, with its green-painted panelling and shadowed light. As for the lacquered screen, the wall-sconces, the convex circular mirror and the globular urn or water-cistern, they were all among the picturesque bric-à-brac with which the house was lavishly furnished.

The urn or water-cistern is a particularly interesting detail. Rossetti had long since discovered this motif in a woodcut by Dürer, but at some stage, possibly about the time that Washing Hands was painted, he encountered a 'real', three-dimensional version in the possession of his friend the interior decorator and marchand amateur Murray Marks. Whether copied from Dürer or studied from life, the object re-surfaces time after time in his work from the early 1850s onwards, but two examples are particularly relevant to our picture. In both Lucretia Borgia, a watercolour begun in 1860 (Tate Britain), and La Bella Mano, an oil of 1875 (Wilmington, Delaware), the female protagonist washes her hands in a brass basin into which the water from the cistern falls. Lucretia Borgia even offers a thematic comparison, the heroine washing her hands to rid them of poison just as the girl in Washing Hands rinses hers to show symbolically that an old love affair is over.

Incidentally, the 'real' urn still exists. When the contents of 16 Cheyne Walk were dispersed, it was acquired by Rossetti's admirer and former assistant, Charles Fairfax Murray. For some years Murray kept it at The Grange, Burne-Jones's former home in Fulham in which he housed his extensive collections, but in 1911 he gave it to the Fitzwilliam Museum. It is now on loan to Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton (National Trust).

Rossetti originally planned to show the girl alone, and to charge Craven 150 guineas. By 24 June 1865, however, he had decided to add the male figure, telling Craven that this would be a 'great advantage to the picture' and more in keeping with his patron's 'preference for two figures'. He still intended to charge him 150 guineas, but it was not long before the price had risen and he eventually received no less than £286-5-0, nearly double the original asking price. (William Michael Rossetti mentions a figure of £157, but this is evidently wrong).

There is a whiff of opportunism about all this. Constantly suffering from cash-flow problems, Rossetti was a hard bargainer when it came to selling his pictures, and to a certain extent he was taking advantage of Craven's good nature as a 'paymaster' and reluctance to 'haggle'. At the same time he had clearly involved himself in a considerable amount of extra work, more than he had anticipated, and this prevented him from turning to other and more lucrative commissions. He was particularly anxious to complete The Beloved (Tate Britain), an ambitious oil that he was painting for the Birkenhead banker George Rae, but he was unable to give it his attention until, after a spell of 'incessant work', he finally completed Washing Hands and despatched it to Craven on Monday, 14 August. He packed and took the picture to the post himself, explaining to his friend and patron James Anderson Rose, who called while he was out, that he was currently without a servant who could run such 'errands'. The label in his hand that survives on the back was probably written that day, its hasty scrawl betraying his eagerness to get rid of what had now become 'that blessed water colour'.

G.P. Boyce, in a diary entry dated 6 August 1865, identified the model for the female figure as Ellen Smith. Described by Virginia Surtees as 'a laundry girl of uncertain virtue', Ellen often sat to Rossetti at this period, as well as posing for Boyce himself, Burne-Jones, Poynter, Spencer Stanhope and others. In Washing Hands she wears a dress of rich white and gold brocade, very similar to the fabric in which another model, Alexa Wilding, sits swathed in Monna Vanna (Tate Britain), a much more Aesthetic conception painted in oil a year later. 
The model for the male figure was Charles Augustus Howell, one of the most colourful and flamboyant, some might say sinister, figures in Pre-Raphaelite annals. At this date he was in great favour with the circle, acting as Ruskin's secretary and as agent or dealer for Rossetti, Burne-Jones and others, but by the early 1870s he had fallen dramatically from grace. His mendacity and shady business practices had earned him general mistrust, while his meddling in the Zambaco affair had inspired Burne-Jones's undying hatred. He was sitting to Rossetti for Washing Hands in July 1865, dressed in the eighteenth-century costume that must have gone so well with his good looks and swashbuckling personality. Rossetti told him to hire a coat at Nathan's, the theatrical costumiers in Tichborne Street, Haymarket, adding that a waistcoat and ruffles would also be needed.

According to William Michael Rossetti, Craven wanted to lend Washing Hands to the National Exhibition of Works of Art held at Leeds in 1868, but withdrew it when Rossetti, who was morbidly sensitive about his work being seen in public, objected. Once Rossetti was dead, however, he lent it to no fewer than three exhibitions in quick successsion: the Exhibition of Works by Modern Artists held at the Manchester City Art Gallery in 1882, the Artist's Memorial Exhibition that was mounted at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London in 1883, and the Great Exhibition held in Manchester to mark Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887.

Craven died in 1894, and when his collection (a total of sixty three lots) was sold at Christie's in May 1895, Washing Hands was bought by the London dealers Gooden & Fox. They must have sold it quickly to Sir Cuthbert Quilter, since it was he who lent it to an exhibition of watercolours held at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, the following year. Cuthbert Quilter was the elder brother of Harry Quilter, sometime art critic on the Times and, famously, the victim of Whistler's mercilessly caustic wit. He lived in South Audley Street, Mayfair, and was a wealthy corporate capitalist who invested in the nascent telephone system, entered parliament, and was rewarded with a baronetcy in 1897. He tended to like large, well-reviewed academic pictures, which he lent generously to international exhibitions. J.W. Waterhouses's early masterpiece Mariamne (private collection), which travelled eighteen times across Europe and America during his twenty- two-year ownership, picking up medals in Paris, Brussels and Chicago in the process, is the classic example.

But not all Quilter's pictures were of this type. He also had an eye for more sensitive works by artists as varied as Turner, Constable, Fred Walker and Burne-Jones. One of his finest Fred Walkers, The Bouquet, and an equally impressive example of W.H. Hunt's work, The Eavesdropper, have been sold in these Rooms in recent years. Rossetti's Washing Hands belongs to the same category, but there may have been a special reason why Quilter acquired it. He also owned Rossetti's La Bella Mano, the later and much larger oil in which the motif of a woman washing her hands is repeated and the metal urn seen in our picture re-appears. The two works remained together until 1909 when Quilter disposed of his London house and sent many of his pictures to Christie's. La Bella Mano was sold but Washing Hands was withheld from the sale, descending in Quilter's family to this day.

Two studies for the picture, one in the Fitzwilliam Museum, are recorded by Surtees (nos. 179A and B). There has also been some confusion over an item in the W.A. Turner sale at Christie's (28 April 1888, lot 94). Though entitled Washing Hands and identified as a watercolour by William Michael Rossetti, this was not the present watercolour or another version but a chalk study for La Bella Mano, now, like the painting itself, at Wilmington (Surtees 240A). It is conceivable, however, that Turner, another Manchester collector who may well have known Craven, was inspired to buy the drawing because of its iconographical relationship with our watercolour.

Did Rod Stewart buy this ?

Queen Guinevere’s Maying

Lorenzo and Isabella (from Millais' 1848 sketch)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Price Realized

indistinctly signed and dated 'FRANK DICKSEE/-1885-' (lower right) 
oil on canvas 
71 7/8 x 53¾ in. (182.7 x 136.6 cm.) 

Dicksee came from a family of artists: his father, Thomas Francis Dicksee, uncle, brother and sister were all painters. Like many other artists of the time, they lived in Bloomsbury, the bohemian quarter of the day, where Dicksee received his formal education at the Rev. George Henslow's school. After a year working with his father, he entered the Royal Academy schools in 1870, being taught by Millais and Leighton and proving a model student who won gold and silver medals. He also had a formative period assisting Henry Holiday with stained glass.

In the 1870s and 1880s much of Dicksee's creative effort was channeled into illustration, both for magazines - Cassell's, the Cornhill, the Graphic, etc - and books, notably Longfellow's Evangeline (1882) and two editions of Shakespeare's plays (1883-92), all published by Cassell's. A number of these designs were later developed as easel paintings. Dicksee began to exhibit at the R.A. in 1876. It was always his spiritual home, although he also supported the Grosvenor Gallery and other institutions. His name was made with Harmony (Tate Britain), exhibited in 1877; a winning combination of sentimental theme, 'aesthetic' decor and academic technique, it was hailed as the 'picture of the year' and became one of the first works bought for the Chantrey Bequest.

Dicksee was elected A.R.A. in 1881 and R.A. ten years later. In addition to literary and historical subjects, he specialized in the relatively new genre of the psychodrama, examples being The Crisis of 1891 (Melbourne) and The Confession of 1896 (private collection). Many of his pictures were widely disseminated through engravings, and in 1900 he scored another great success with The Two Crowns (Tate Gallery), which again became a Chantrey purchase. However, the fashion for such costume pieces was waning, and increasingly he turned to portraiture and landscape. Never marrying, he settled in 1898 at 3 Greville Place in St John's Wood, an area then popular with academic artists.

In later years Dicksee received many honours, both at home and abroad. The climax of his career was his election as President of the Royal Academy in 1924 in succession to Sir Aston Webb. He held the post with distinction and tact, and it brought him a knighthood in 1925 and a KCVO two years later. However, the advent of the Modern Movement, of which he was an outspoken critic, had left him an isolated figures. By the time he died, his art, once so popular, was generally dismissed as outmoded and irrelevant.

The present picture is one of his most attractive, a wonderful embodiment of late Victorian romanticism at its most theatrical and uninhibited. As Mark Girouard has shown in his book The Return to Camelot (1981), the ideal of chivalry preoccupied the Victorians. It is no accident that the concept was central to the frescoes in the new Palace of Westminster that were conceived as a great expression of national pride and sentiment. First embodied in Maclise's Spirit of Chivalry, painted in the House of Lords in the 1840s, the theme was taken up again in the Arthurian subjects in the Queen's Robing Room that engaged William Dyce for the last sixteen years of his life. The obvious literary parallel is Tennyson's Idylls of the King, in which the Poet Laureate retold the national epic in terms which were intended to have direct reference to contemporary mores. Not for nothing did Swinburne wickedly refer to the cycle of poems as the Morte d'Albert.

But chivalry was not the preserve of national or public aspirations. It could also be the focus of the Pre-Raphaelites' essentially private response to the Middle Ages. One thinks, for example, of Rossetti's Death of Breuse sans Pitié (private collection), one of the 'Froissartian' watercolours that he painted for William Morris in the late 1850s; of Burne-Jones's St George and Perseus series, executed for domestic settings a decade or more later; or of Millais' The Knight Errant (Tate Britain), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1870. It was typical of Dicksee to seek to express a Pre-Raphaelite subject in terms of a lush academic style; in this respect Chivalry is a sequel to the Harmony of 1877, while equally looking forward to a late painting such as The End of the Quest (Leighton House, Kensington), a re-interpretation of the theme of courtly love dating from 1921. When Chivalry was exhibited in 1885, more than one critic made the comparison with Millais' Knight Errant which, perhaps significantly, had been exhibited the very year that Dicksee entered the R.A. schools. Certainly the comparison is valid in so far as Millais's picture too represents an accommodation between Pre-Raphaelite sentiment and an academic idiom, including the monumental scale on which both pictures are painted. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that Millais dares to flirt with the issue, so fraught for the Victorians, of nudity, while Dicksee opts for a safer 'off-the-shoulder' solution in which revelation is nicely balanced by concealment, modesty by display.

Critics often described the picture's handling and colouring as Venetian - justifiably, since Dicksee was a great admirer of Venetian painting. He visited Venice in 1882, three years before the exhibition of Chivalry, and he told his students at the R.A. Schools to 'revel in the joyous company of Titian and Giorgione, Tintoretto and Veronese; all their windows are open to the sunny south and a golden light pervades them'. It is tempting to link Chivalry specifically with Tintoretto's St George and the Dragon in the National Gallery, London, which is comparable in terms of theme and composition. The picture had been in the collection since 1831, and Dicksee must have known it. But it would not be a case of straightforward borrowing for, as Amanda Kavanagh has shown, Dicksee's design is developed from an earlier illustration of his own to a modern story - R.D. Blackmore's novel Emma; or My Father's Sin, published in the Cornhill Magazine in January 1877. Kavanagh also convincingly suggests that the elegant poses of the figures owe something to sculptural prototypes, citing examples by Cellini, Mercié, Alfred Gilbert and G.F. Watts.

Not only the 'Venetian' palette but the rich, soupy texture of the paint and the feeling for dramatic yet subtle lighting are typical of Dicksee's style. Crepuscular light, as here, or the warm glow of light filtering through stained-glass windows, as in Harmony, are particularly characteristic. This willingness to explore the possibilities of light may well have been encouraged by Dicksee's early experience of working in stained glass with Henry Holiday.

The picture was commissioned by Sir John Aird, a wealthy contractor whose career embraced the removal of the Crystal Palace to Sydenham, the completion of the Manchester Ship Canal, and the building of the great dam at Aswan, finally opened after four years' labour in 1902. Aird's achievements brought him a baronetcy, a seat in Parliament and a handsome house at 14 Hyde Park Terrace, furnished with a fine collection of modern British pictures. Like the Liverpool shipowner F.R. Leyland, he tended to like large imposing works of obvious importance, but whereas Leyland favoured the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic masters, Aird's taste was more academic. Leighton, Poynter, Alma-Tadema, Orchardson, Waterhouse, Marcus Stone and Luke Fildes were represented in the collection in addition to Dicksee, whose Chivalry hung over the fireplace in the back drawing room at Hyde Park Terrace.

The two great Alma-Tademas in the Aird collection, The Roses of Heliogabalus and The Finding of Moses, have both appeared on the market in recent years.