Wednesday, December 19, 2012

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 ?

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