Saturday, October 27, 2012

Edward John Poynter - A Corner of the Marketplace

signed with initials and dated l.r.: 18EJP87
oil on canvas, in original frame
53 by 53cm., 21 by 21in.

Bought from the artist by James Hall Renton of 39 Park Lane, London and 11 Queen's Gardens, West Brighton until his death in 1895 and thence to his wife Alicia Ellen Renton (nee Ward) until her death in 1898

Grosvenor Gallery, 1887, no.42

'Sir Edward Poynter has seldom painted a more pleasing work, and it unites within it nearly all his best qualities.' (Cosmo Monkhouse, Sir Edward J. Poynter, President of the Royal Academy, His Life & Work, special Easter edition of Art Annual, 1897, p.22)

In a secluded corner of a Roman flower-market a young woman clad in a green robe and with coral beads at her throat and a golden ribbon in her hair, sits on a marble seat beside the waters of a babbling fountain of clear spring water, enjoying the midday heat of the siesta. Another girl is weaving a garland of leaves, flowers and silk ribbons and all around are baskets of blooms brought from the viridarium (Roman garden) and bronze vases and garlands ready for sale in the macellum (Roman market). The rich attire of the woman seated on the bench suggests that she is a customer of the younger girl who is dressed in a simple white diaphanous gown and with her hair tied-back with a scarf. The little florist has given the infant a white flower to play with and her sweet smile is reciprocated by her new playmate. The Corner of the Marketplace is a carefree image of the theme of dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing), the subject of many nineteenth century paintings of Greco-Roman life, in which the sun is always shining, the flowers are always in full-bloom, the women are always beautiful and the children are always joyous.

Although Poynter initially painted the classical world in the grandiose, melodramatic style of Frederic Leighton, he eventually adopted a style more akin with that of his friend Lawrence Alma-Tadema. His biographer made this connection in 1897: 'They challenge comparison with the work of Mr. Alma-Tadema, because their subjects are
similar, and they are distinguished by their careful execution and the dextrous painting of marble and other accessories, but there the parallel stops. One is the most personal, the other the most impersonal of painters; one seeks for colour rather than form, the other for form rather than colour; one has a livelier humanity, the other a purer style. The similarity between the two artists is on the surface, but there is a deeper affinity between Poynter and Leighton, both of whom were actuated by the same aims and ideals.' (ibid Monkhouse 1897, p.23). Poynter's excellent rendering of the white marble courtyard, the variegated golden marble columns and the fountain carved from one large porphyry block rivals Alma-Tadema. 'It is sufficient to say that these little pictures of Sir Edward, so carefully arranged, so exquisitely wrought, charm by their daintiness and refinement, and often also by the delicate opalescence of their colour. Nothing that is not beautiful is allowed to enter into their composition.' (op.cit).A Corner of the Marketplace is one of a group of small pictures painted by Edward John Poynter in the 1880s depicting female models in classical settings, without melodrama or strong mythological narrative. Monkhouse described the group thus, 'Indeed he may be said during these ten years to have made a separate reputation for cabinet pictures of which the creation of beauty was the sole aim. They are generally classical in subject, gem-like in colour, and exquisitely finished, and not from want of individuality, but from similarity of subject, college comparison with Leighton on the one hand and Alma-Tadema on the other – interiors, mostly of Roman or Greek temples, houses, and baths, or scenes on marble terraces and steps with sparkling glimpses of sea or landscape in the distance, and slightly draped figures of women and children engaged in some simple or playful occupation, like teasing a beetle or feeding pigeons' (op.cit). The first of this series was the oil painting Psyche in the Temple of Love of 1882 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) in which the subject of the mortal Psyche's love for the God Cupid, which had so inspired Poynter's brother-in-law Edward Burne-Jones, but treated in more domestic terms. The theme of Psyche dreaming of Cupid in an opulent marble palace was repeated by Poynter in a watercolour of 1884 (sold in these rooms, 17 December 2009, lot 7). In 1884 Poynter painted another in the series Diadumene (Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter), a naked girl binding her hair after bathing in her thermae (Roman bath). This picture was also square in format like A Corner of the Marketplace exhibited three years later and of a similar size. Poynter had exhibited little of importance between 1884 and 1887, the exception being a taller version of Diadumene in 1885 (sold in these rooms, 20 June 1989, lot 38) which had caused a scandal when it was accused of being indecent. It is possible that The Corner of the Marketplace had been painted partly to restore Poynter's bruised reputation. It was the contrast of the textures of warm human flesh and cold marble that was the quality of many of these paintings (and caused offence in the case of the second
Diadumene), as Monkhouse observed; 'The human figure and architecture – human flesh and marble – may be said to be the primary motives of nearly all these dainty works, and none of them are more charming in feeling and colour or more irreproachable in technique than Mrs. Renton's "Corner of the Villa" and "Corner of the Market-place".' (Cosmo Monkhouse, British Contemporary Artists, 1899, p.259) The second picture that Monkhouse noted was The Corner of the Villa painted in 1889 (sold in these rooms, 11 December 2011, lot 19), which formed a pair with A
Corner of the Marketplace. 

The Corner of the Villa and A Corner of the Marketplace were both owned by the stock dealer James Hall Renton (1821-1895), whose art collection also boasted exceptional paintings by John Everett Millais, including The Order of Release 1745 of 1853 (Tate), The Black Brunswicker of 1860 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), Yes of 1877 (Sotheby's, New York, 24 October 1989, lot 116) and Afternoon Tea of 1889 (Christie's, 22 November 2006, lot 220). 

After the death of Renton's widow in 1898 the picture was bought by the art dealer Thomas Agnew, probably on behalf of Renton's son-in-law Sir John Aird who had presumably admired the picture when it hung at Renton's home on Park Lane. John Aird was the archetypical Victorian man of industry, probably the most famous and wealthiest engineer of his generation, best-known for his involvement in the building of the Aswan Dam on the Nile and for moving the Crystal Palace to Sydenham. His London residence at 14 Hyde Park Terrace contained one of the finest modern art collections in England and although he owned an early picture by Rossetti, his taste was for the High Victorian paintings that were the epitome of the Royal Academy annual exhibitions. He owned Frank Dicksee's medieval romance Chivalry of 1887 (Christie's, 19 February 2003, lot 35) and his exotic odalisque Leila of 1891 (sold in these rooms 8 June 1993, lot 39) and pictures of elegant women by Marcus Stone. He particularly liked pictures with classical settings and in his collection were two early Graeco-Roman subjects by John William Waterhouse (both are now lost) and Alma-Tadema's A Summer Offering and When the Flowers Return (private collections) which, like A Corner of the Marketplace depicts girls with garlands of flowers. The two most famous paintings in his collection were The Roses of Heliogabalus (Christie's, 11 June 1993, lot 121) for which he paid the enormous sum of £4,000 and The Finding of Moses). (Sotheby's, New York, 4 November 2010, lot 56). Aird also owned two other pictures by Poynter, the watercolour Egyptian Water-carriers (Sotheby's, New York, 11 December 2003, lot 89) and An Eastern Beauty.

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