Interviews with a succession of artists about their favourite works. None of the artists are particularly well known these days, but were very popular in the late-Victorian period. Notes on some of them:
- Lawrence Alma-Tadema lived until 1912, and was most popular in the ‘high Victorian’ era. From Wikipedia (but reading like they took it from some other source first!): His artistic legacy almost vanished. As attitudes of the public in general and the artists in particular became more sceptical of the possibilities of human achievement, his paintings were increasingly denounced. He was declared “the worst painter of the 19th century” by John Ruskin, and one critic even remarked that his paintings were “about worthy enough to adorn bourbon boxes.” After this brief period of being actively derided, he was consigned to relative obscurity for many years. Only since the 1960s has Alma-Tadema’s work been re-evaluated for its importance within the nineteenth century, and more specifically, within the evolution of English art.
- The ‘thinker’ G. F. Watts died in 1904, spending most of the subsequent period out of fashion (although people apparently quite like his later more symbolist work, none of which I’ve seen).
- W. P. Frith seems to have had an interesting personal life. From Wikipedia: Frith was married twice. He had twelve children with his first wife, Isabelle, whilst a mile down the road maintaining a mistress (Mary Alford, formerly his ward) and seven more children.
- William B. Richmond‘s Wikipedia page has a much better (and colour) version of his favourite painting than the rather muddy black-and-white one in this article.
- Frederick Goodall seems to have been quite rich and well connected, entertaining the future (present in 1901) king at his house. Most of his pictures had eastern/Egyptian themes.
- The landscape painter B. W. Leader has a marvellous moustache in his self portrait on the Wikipedia page.
- Solomon J. Solomon did get his RA (in 1906), and was an influential camouflage artist in the First World War.
Volume 22, No. 127 (July 1901). Pages 3-15.
It is a moot point whether successful artists are good critics of their own pictures. They should certainly know when their own purpose has been well achieved; but the public, of course, to say nothing of the professional critics, forms its judgment irrespective of the artist’s purpose. To what extent does the personal predilection of the painter harmonize with the declared taste of the public? With a view of obtain some answer to this interesting question I have interrogated a number of our leading artists as to the work of their brush which has pleased them most.
“If you ask me,” said Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, R.A., as we chatted over a cigar, “which of my own pictures I like best, I shall possibly mention some trivial thing, with little intrinsic value, because of some pleasant associations which it may have for me personally. But if you ask me by which one picture I would soonest by represented I must reply, by my Academy picture of last year, ‘The Baths of Caracalla.’ But this choice, again, may be entirely due to my mental environment for the time being. If I were to ask which incident in English history you considered of most interest, you would probably mention some recent event which looms largely in your mind, because of the thoughts and feelings that are uppermost just now. Still, remembering this, it does seem to me that ‘The Baths of Caracalla’ does show the different sides to my art, does exhibit its best qualities at their best. I should like to have been represented by this picture at the Paris Exhibition instead of what I have there, but unfortunately this was not possible. The picture was bought by an American, and is now in the United States.”
“Did you paint this picture after a recent visit to Rome, Sir Lawrence?”
“No; until my visit a short time ago I had not been in Rome for some years. I have seen the site of the Baths of Caracalla, but when I was there I had no idea of painting the picture. The picture, like much of my recent work, is a picture of ancient Rome as it was, and for this work of reconstruction I have had to get my information mainly for archæological drawings. I was occupied with the picture for two years, and when it came back to my studio from the Academy I found that it wanted some altering, and I worked at it again for some time with help of pencil-drawings and models.”
Such alterations after the return of a picture from exhibition, Sir Lawrence explains en passant, are not very unusual with him. One of his pictures, as he related, was radically altered as the result of a Punch caricature. This was “The Shrine of Venus”–or, “the powder-and-puff picture”, as Sir Lawrence calls it. As originally painted, a prominent feature on the canvas was a balustrade, and in the humour of Punch this became a switchback railway! The distinguished artist saw that there was point in the criticism, though humorous, and re-painted the picture as it was recently reproduced in this Magazine (Vol. XVIII., page 606).
“When in Rome, recently,” said Sir Lawrence, reverting to the picture of his choice, “I took my daughter to see the site of the Baths of Caracalla. As soon as the ruin came into view she exclaimed that it recalled my picture perfectly. This was no little triumph for me, I can assure you.”
As we found it impossible to obtain the consent of the owners of the copyright to the reproduction of “The Baths of Caracalla,” Sir Lawrence kindly suggested “A Kiss” as “second-best” in his own estimation. This fine painting is here reproduced in the frontispiece opposite.
Mr. G. F. Watts, R.A., who received me by his London fireside in Melbury Road, Kensington, protested at the outset that he did not himself regard his pictures as works of art.
“I am a thinker,” he declared, “who happens to use the brush instead of the pencil. The picture of my own, therefore, which I like best is that in which I believe I have been more successful in expressing my thought. This is, undoubtedly, ‘Love and Life.’ I have expressed my meaning, perhaps, best in this picture because this meaning is of the simplest–that love, by which, of course, I mean not physical passion, but altruism, tenderness, leads men to the highest life. I don’t know whether this preference is shared by other people. I have never cared much for contemporary opinion, although of course I am always glad when I hear that any picture of mine has given pleasure.”
“Love and Life,” which was painted in 1884-1885, when Mr. Watts was sixty-eight, is one of the number of pictures which the artist presented to the nation and are to be seen at the Tate Gallery. This picture is thus described in the catalogue of this gallery:–
“Love, strong in his immortal youth, leads Life, a slight female figure, along the steep uphill path; with his broad wings he shelters her, that the winds of heaven may not visit her too roughly; violets spring where Love has trod, and as they ascend to the mountain-top the air becomes more and more golden. The implication is that, without the aid of Divine Love, fragile Human Life could not have power to ascent the steep path upward.”
It was the good fortune of Mr. Marcus Stone, R.A., to be able to send to the Paris Exhibition the picture by which he would have chosen to be represented at such a gathering of the world’s art. This was “A Sailor’s Sweetheart,” exhibited at the Royal Academy five years ago.
“It was bought,” said Mr. Stone, “by an Aberdeen gentleman, but the owner kindly allowed it to be shown in Paris. A few days ago I had a letter from a Parisian, who had seen it there, stating that he wished to buy the picture and would be glad to know my price. This rather surprised me, because I did not suppose that the work would be much to the taste of the Parisians, although engravings of several of my pictures sell largely, I believe, in various parts of the Continent.”
I asked Mr. Stone for the story of “A Sailor’s Sweetheart.” But he replied, in effect, that the circumstances under which all his pictures came into being were much the same.
“I never paint actual scenes nor actual people. As regards the scene, I may get hints from places as well as from books, but I have never yet come across an old garden, for instance, quite the same as I have painted. As regards the figures, for ‘A Sailor’s Sweetheart,’ as for my other pictures, I had sittings from quite a number of different models. I would get one feature from the first, something else from the second, and so on. One girl sat to me for the colour of her hair, the second for the expression of the eyes, a third simply because the costume I had obtained for the picture fitted her best. In these respects I am quite different from such a painter as Stanhope Forbes, say, who paints graphic facts–and paints them admirably, let me add. In my method I am like a novelist who does not put portraits of his acquaintances into his books, but takes features from one or the other in making one character. but it is difficult to get people to understand this. If I looked about for living figures and real places to transfer bodily to my canvas I am afraid I should never find them. If I wanted to paint Don Quixote there would be sure to be a scarcity of thin models.”
We talked in an ante-room overlooking Mr. Stone’s pleasant garden in Melbury Road, Kensington, and on its walls were little original studies of nearly all his pictures, the memory of which the artist thus preserves. Looking at these I learn that “In Love” comes second in Mr. Stone’s own estimation, whilst “Two’s Company, Three’s None,” occupies the third place.
“‘In Love,'” says Mr. Stone, “was an attempt to depict the old theme in what–for a picture–was rather a new phase, I fancy. I painted the lovers–or tried to do so–in what is perhaps the most interesting stage in the passion, the stage when both are fervid, but are neither quite sure of the other. ‘In Love’ was lately given by a Nottinghamshire gentleman–the original purchaser–to the Nottingham Municipal Gallery, where I hope it will keep its colour as well as it has done hitherto.”
I suppose nine people out of ten would associate the name of Mr. W. P. Frith, R.A., with “Derby Day” or “The Railway Station.” But although engravings of both these famous pictures are to be seen in the drawing-room of Mr. Frith’s house at Clifton Hill, St. John’s Wood, it is not of either of them that he speaks in reply to my inquiry.
“The picture of mine I like best is comparatively little known, having for its subject the Court of Charles II. It was suggested by a passage in Evelyn’s ‘Diary’ describing the gaiety and dissipation which prevailed there till within a week of the King’s death. It was exhibited at the Academy in 1864, and at the time attracted a good deal of attention. It was at first sold for 3,000 guineas, but it changed hands a few years ago, at a time of commercial depression, for little more than half that sum. The picture measured 6ft. in length.”
“Was it a work which cost you much effort, Mr. Frith?”
“No, less that most of my pictures. I had at the outset a clear idea of what I intended doing, and no occasion arose for changing my plan. I remember that the idea pleased me very much at the time, and I have since always felt that this picture is about the best thing I have done. Since its first sale the work has never been exhibited, and I haven’t seen it for many years, But I have still my original sketch, and this will give you some idea what it is like.”
In this sketch Mr. Frith pointed out some of the historical figures grouped around the King who had but a week more to live–his brother James, the Duke of Monmouth, the Duchess of Portsmouth, Evelyn, and others. As he frankly avows, the introduction of two King Charles spaniels into the scene was a painter’s licence, these dogs not coming into vogue until a long time after the Sovereigns whose name has been given to them.
“A remarkable incident,” relates Mr. Frith, “happened in connection with this picture. I had some difficulty in getting a suitable model for the figure of Charles–none of the professional models who came to me was at all satisfactory. I was out walking one day near my studio when I passed a man who was extraordinarily like Charles II.: a broken-down gentleman he seemed to be, and he looked ill, just as I wanted the King in my picture to look. I entered into conversation with him, and he readily agrees to sit for my picture if I paid him to do so. The man gave me a good many sittings, until at last I told him that I should require him no longer. About a week later, in putting some finishing touches to the portrait of Charles, I thought I should like to have still another sitting, and so I went round to the address which the man had given me. ‘Yes, you can see him,’ said the landlady, ‘but he is dead.’ The poor fellow had died just a week after his last sitting.”
“Charles the Second’s Last Sunday” was painted in Mr. Frith’s professional prime, during the period which produced also “Derby Day” and “The Railway Station.” Mr. Frith is now on the retired list of the Royal Academy, like Mr. Watts, but, although eighty-one, he has contributed a picture this year to Burlington House. In 1899 he was represented by a canvas also related to the “Merry Monarch,” Charles II. and Lady Castlemain being the subject.
I met Sir William B. Richmond, R.A., just after he had renewed his acquaintance with a picture of his, painted in 1890-92, which has been lent by its owners, the Liverpool Corporation, for the annual exhibition of last year in the London Guildhall. Sir William’s visit to the City Art Gallery had confirmed him in an impression he had already formed that “Venus and Anchises” was the best work he had done.
“An artist,” Sir William remarks, “is the best critic of his own work a year or so after its completion. He always hates the work he is engages upon–its faults are then so painfully obvious to him. But in a year or two he can take a saner and juster view of it, remembering the ideas with which the picture was painted, and realizing to what extent he has succeeded in giving them form and colour.
“Like every man’s best work, I fancy, ‘Venus and Anchises’ suggested itself to me as the idea of a moment. But if the conception was easy the work itself cost me a great deal of pains–I was about two years painting it. But in painting as in poetry–you remember the lines of Keats referring to this–a spontaneous conception is the great thing.”
Sir William added that the suggestion for the picture came from reading, as might be inferred from the fact that with its catalogue title he quotes these lines from Shelley’s “Epipsychidion”:–
Athwart that wintry winderness of thorns
Flashed from her motion splendour like the morn’s,
And from her presence life was radiated
Through the grey earth, and branches bare and dead;
Sot that her way was paved and roofed above
With flowers as soft as thoughts of budding love.
As regards the legendary subject of the picture, probably few who see it will remember that Venus is supposed to have visited Anchises, whose handsomeness was celebrated far and wide, on Mount Ida; that, at the capture of Troy, Anchises, then old and feeble, was borne out on Æneas’s shoulders and died on the voyage to Italy, his death being commemorated for many years by the Trojans.
Sir William Richmond now resides in a pleasant, old-fashioned house on the borders of Hammersmith and Chiswick; but “Venus and Anchises” was painted in a studio in Holland Park Road. It was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1892, and was taken to Liverpool in the autumn of that year.
“I agree with the critics,” said Mr. Phil Morris, A.R.A., to me in the drawing-room of his house in Clifton Hill, St. John’s Wood, “in regarding ‘The First Communion’ as my best work. It was painted shortly after my election as an Associate in 1877. The picture was 10ft. high, and before my election I had not felt justified in painting so large a picture. The subject suggested itself to me in Brittany on seeing a procession of maidens such as usually takes place at the ‘first communion’–which corresponds, of course, to our confirmation service in England. Some time afterwards I saw a similar procession at Dieppe, on their way from the church to a Calvary close to the harbour, and it at once occurred to me that the subject could be much more effectively treated with the harbour and the sea as background.”
“Was the picture itself painted at Dieppe?”
“Well, I made all my studies for it there. I went over to the fishing quarter of Le Pollet and got the girls to pose for me by giving them a few francs–a local belle of the name of Francine being, I remember, very useful to me in finding my models for me. I painted the picture from these sketches in my London studio, which was then in St. John’s Wood Road. It was sold before the opening of the Academy, and I renewed acquaintance with it recently at the Guildhall Loan Exhibition.”
Mr. Frederick Goodall, R.A., I found, on calling at his residence in Avenue Road, Regent’s Park, was not so certain which of his own pictures he preferred. He first mentioned “The Flight into Egypt,” a big canvas measuring 12ft. in length, which, from want of room in his own house, had been warehoused since its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1884. But although he evidently regarded this as the supreme effort of his brush, two other pictures had pleased him as much in the painting, “David and Bathsheba” and “The Ploughman and Shepherdess.” The subject of the first was suggested to the artist by the late Sir Moses Montefiore, the picture being purchased by him on its completion, and hung in his well-known residence at Ramsgate. The second picture represents Mr. Goodall in the Tate Gallery, being purchased at the Royal Academy and presented to the nation by a number of subscribers in 1897.
Finally, with Mrs. Goodall’s kindly assistance, the artist’s choice fell upon “The Ploughman and Shepherdess,” the subject of which he explained to me as follows:–
“It is a pastoral scene such as is common to Lower Egypt. The shepherdess has met the shepherd at the drinking-pool, but at the moment of the encounter he is standing upon his praying carpet engaged in evening prayer, and while he is so occupied she dare not even look at him, and is sitting patiently by with her face turned away. I have seen such an incident more than once in my Egyptian ramblings.
“The sheep, you will notice, are quite different from our European breeds. To make myself familiar with Egyptian sheep I imported a whole flock in 1884, and kept them on a farm at Harrow Weald, where I could constantly sketch them. But, unfortunately, with the greatest care they will not live long in our climate, and although a number lambed they have now all died off.”
“What did you do for your models of the figures, Mr. Goodall?”
“Oh, I have any number of original sketches brought with me from Egypt from which to work, as you will see if you look around the walls, and there is no difficulty in getting models who are sufficiently dark-skinned in London. But I believe I was the first English artist to paint the Bedouin Arabs in their native habitat. They had never seen paints or paintings when I first went among them more than twenty years ago. It was hard work at first to induce them to allow me to sketch them, more especially the women. Of course, I had to ingratiate myself with plenty of baksheesh–presents of coffee, tobacco, and other things they most valued. After a time, when they were about to move their encampment, they would ask me to accompany them to their next halting-place, and I would consent on condition that I was allowed to paint any face I chose to pick out of the tribe.”
Mr. Goodall received 2,000 guineas for “The Ploughman and Shepherdess,” which is 7ft. in length. The fund for presenting it to the nation was started by Sir James Blyth, and several well-known South African millionaires were subscribers.
I found Mr. Edwin A. Abbey, R.A., one sunny Saturday afternoon hard at work in his London studio on his great scheme of mural decoration for the Public Library of Boston, U.S.A., painting from a fair model in costume, such as Tennyson might have described in “Idylls of the Kind.” I was not surprised to hear that his preference was given to one of these pictures illustrating the “Quest of the Holy Grail.”
“But I don’t know how you can reproduce the picture,” said Mr. Abbey, with a smile, “in The Strand Magazine. It measures 33ft. on the wall of the Boston Library, and is about 8ft. high.”
“It must represent a great amount of labour.”
“Well, I believe it cost me more effort than anything else I have done; but, on the other hand, I have the satisfaction of thinking that in this picture I have best achieve my ideal. It was not exhibited at the Academy on account of its great size–they are crowded enough there for room already; but, as you may remember, it was shown at the Fine Art Society’s rooms, in Conduit Street, just before being sent to Boston four or five years ago.”
“What is the total size of the scheme of which this picture forms a part, Mr. Abbey?”
“I have to cover 180ft. altogether, the width, about 8ft., being uniform throughout, and this mechanical limitation adding somewhat to the difficulty of my task. I have now finished about half this space, and I have been engaged upon the work on and off for the last nine years. But I am happy to think that I am more than half-way through the undertaking, the planning and arrangement of the whole series of frescoes taking a good deal of time at the outset. ‘The Grail Castle’ is the largest of the series.”
The distinguished artist–American by birth and British by adoption–then told me something about the circumstances in which this great work of his life was undertaken. He and his fellow-countryman, Mr. J. S. Sargent, R.A., were in Boston at the time the new Public Library was projected, and it was the happy thought of the architect that they should unite in the decoration of the building. A series of Shakespearean pictures was at first suggested to the artist, whose reputation rests mainly upon the realistic way in which he has transferred Shakespeare to canvas.
“But I proposed instead the legend of the Holy Grail. It had always been a matter of surprise to me that no painter had attempted to make adequate use of this, the first great romance of Christendom–of course, there have been numerous pictures of particular incidents, but no artistic treatment of the subject as a whole. Yet this legend, originating, I suppose, with the Welsh or Irish Celts, has spread in varying forms and phases to France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Spain. I have gone to all the different sources for my subjects, getting an idea from one author and a hint from the other, according to the way in which they lent themselves to artistic treatment. The library will be furnished with the whole story of the Holy Grail as it is told in my frescoes.”
“The Grail Castle” was painted, like most of Mr. Abbey’s work, chiefly at his country house, Morgan Hall, in Gloucestershire. “I can work so much better in country,” he remarks, “free from interruption or distraction. I spend only about four months of the year in town, taking my canvases back to Gloucestershire before the summer is over. My only trouble there is in obtaining sufficient variety in my models–for such pictures as ‘The Grail Castle,’ of course, I want a good many models.”
In the course of a chat at the Arts Club, Mr. B. W. Leader, R.A., who had torn himself away from his beloved Surrey in June, told me that his own favourite among his pictures was not a Surrey but a Worcestershire landscape, well known under the title “At Evening Time there shall be Light.”
“As you know,” said the famous landscape-painter, “Worcestershire is my native county, and the scene of this picture had been familiar to me since boyhood, a village called Whittington. The church has been much modernized, however, and I painted this with the assistance of a pencil sketch of the old church which was lent to me by a friend in the neighbourhood. Otherwise the picture is a fairly faithful presentment of the view from the back of Whittington Lodge, which was my residence until I came into Surrey about a dozen years ago. It was painted during the winter of 1882 and exhibited at the Academy that year.”
“That picture had greatly pleased many people, Mr. Leader.”
“Yes, I suppose it had been one of my most successful pictures as well as my own favourite. It led to my election as an A.R.A., and when exhibited in the Paris Exhibition of 1889 won for me a gold medal as well as the Legion of Honour. It was bought by Agnew before he had seen it, and when, on the break-up of Sir John Pender’s collection, the picture came into the market recently, Mr. Arnold Morley gave 1,200 guineas for it. It has also sold very largely, I am told, as an engraving. I remember that when I first spoke of making an important picture out of this scene my wife tried strongly to dissuade me. She said that a churchyard in winter-time would make such a dismal subject, and she held to this opinion all the time that I was making my sketches. But somehow or other I always had a strong faith in this subject, and painting it was really a labour of love.”
By way of supplement to this little piece of autobiography I may add that Mr. Leader, who is now in his seventieth year, exhibited his first picture, “Country Children Blowing Bubbles,” at the Academy in 1854, and was delighted in selling it to an American visitor for £50.
Mr. Solomon J. Solomon, A.R.A., who had just returned to his house in Finchley Road from a round of country visits, had no hesitation in mentioning “Samson and Delilah” as the favourite child of his artistic imagination.
“The idea of the picture was with me for years. I made sketches for it even in my student days, and for a long time the picture was shaping itself in my mind. Yes, I put plenty of hard work, too, into the painting of it, although it is my experience that you can devote any amount of hard work to a canvas without getting what you want.”
“Samson and Delilah” was Mr. Solomon’s second important picture, “Cassandra” being his first. It was exhibited at the Academy in 1887, when the artist was twenty-seven, and did a great deal for Mr. Solomon’s reputation, although it was some years later before he became A.R.A.
“The picture I am about to begin,” was the smiling reply of Mr. G. A. Storey, A.R.A., when I asked him which of his own pictures he liked best. “I am disposed to agree with that painted who said that the work he was about to start was the best, and the last he had finished was the worst picture in the world. Seriously, I have no reason for preferring any of my pictures except ‘Scandal,’ which led me to the academy in 1876, although it was painted four years before.
“Where was ‘Scandal’ painted, Mr. Storey?”
“Oh, in my London studio. The picture is almost entirely imaginative. The only real thing about the scene is the little garden view, with the trellis arch, which was taken from the Star and Garter at Richmond. The picture itself was suggested to me by my mother, who, in her later years, became quite deaf, and was delighted if a neighbour were to drop in and talk to her through her ear-trumpet, giving her the gossip of the day.”
“The picture of my own,” said Mr. G. H. Boughton, R.A., “which has pleased me most–although I am afraid it hasn’t the public–is ‘The Vision at the Martyr’s Well, Brittany.’ When it was exhibited at the Academy in 1895 some people objected to it because they thought it ‘Roman Catholic in idea,’ while others considered that the picture pandered to superstition.
“I need not tell you that I had no thought of theology from first to last. The subject of the picture came to me when I was staying in Brittany. In one of the villages–I have for the moment forgotten its name–I saw a well, the water of which passes over some curious reddish stones, the streaks of colour being due, I suppose, to some mineral element. According to the local tradition, a village maiden who went to the well at twilight saw in a vision one of the Christian martyrs–it was in Pagan times, I suppose–at the well, and as she looked she saw the blood from the martyr’s wounds trickle on to the stones, where these blood-stains have remained ever since, giving the well a holy name. Of course, it is sheer superstition; but, then, if you abolished superstition altogether, you would lose a good deal of the poetry and art of the world.”
“Where is this picture, Mr. Boughton?”
“Well, it is now away on what may be called a provincial tour. I have lent it for several municipal exhibitions, and just now it is in the Leeds Art Gallery.”