An Amateur signed and dated 'J.W.GODWARD.1915.', inscribed 'AN AMATEUR/J.W.GODWARD/ROME `16' on reverse oil on canvas 59.5 x 76 cm. (23 1/2 x 30 in.)
Provenance: Purchased by the grandparents of the vendor, probably from Blairmans in Manchester, c. 1916; thence by descent.
The last of the British classical painters, John William Godward had a tragic life. Like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Godwards work draws on the classical past for inspiration; his paintings have a serene beauty and exhibit an astonishing technical virtuosity. He also used his home as a backdrop for his art, but unlike the much-feted Alma-Tadema, whose house was a social whirl of visitors, Godward's home was more of a hermitage, a place he left only reluctantly to buy antique paraphernalia. Apart from his introverted personality, Godwards other disadvantage was that he was born too late: he was the last great figure of English classical subject painting.
The son of an investment clerk, Godward was born into a respectable family in Battersea, South London. The family were firmly set against Godwards desire to be an artist, however, and it is largely thanks to their objection to his chosen career, and their shame following his subsequent suicide, that the details of his young life are sketchy. He is believed to have studied rendering and graining alongside fellow classicist William Clarke Wontner -with whom the artist maintained a close friendship for many years- although it cannot be ascertained where he received his formal artistic training.
Godwards first work to be accepted into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was A Yellow Turban in 1887. Although it received little or no critical reaction, Godward was nonetheless buoyed by his first Academy recognition, and took an atelier at the Bolton Studios in Kensington, a hotbed of classical painters, such as Henry Ryland and Thomas Benjamin Kennington. Godward continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1905, when, feeling he may be swimming against a critical tide, which found Classicism increasingly out of vogue, and considered his work to be limited in range, he seemed to lose interest in courting approval from the British public. As the decade continued, the steady move towards modernism was becoming more pronounced, and by 1911, with the establishment of the Camden Town Group, British modernism had truly arrived.
Godward began to spend increasing amounts of time in Italy; by 1912 the move to Rome had become permanent, no doubt hastened the scandal Godward caused by running off with his Italian model; this scandal further isolated him from his family. Godward found a studio in the impressive Villa Strohl-Fern, whose previous residents had included the Russian painters Vroubel and Repin. Godward could not escape modernism by fleeing to Italy, and the artist was clearly at odds with the general artistic milieu at the villa. But Godward continued to paint the same highly-wrought classical pieces, while admitting that admiration of classical painting wasnt what it used to be. This was the last fruitful period of Godwards career. From 1915, his output was reduced, possibly due to declining health. In 1921, he returned to spend his remaining days in Fulham; plagued by ill health, and feeling his own place within the artistic establishment increasingly anachronistic, he ended his life, by turning on the gas in his kitchen, in December 1922.
An Amateur dates from this last phase of Godwards creative output, and while he was only producing as little as a dozen works a year, his technical mastery had not waned. In the painting, a Roman patrician woman holds a gessoed panel upon which she has drawn the outline of the classical bronze statuette. She takes a moment to gaze and admire her commendable start. The male nude statuette in the composition is also found in Godwards oil of 1916, Rich Gifts Wax Poor When Lovers Prove Unkind. It may represent Adonis, the god of love, to which the young maid is paying homage through her art. The bouquet of roses on the table may be from her lover whom, she hopes, will draw back the curtain to the left and whisk her away.
Not listed in Vern Swansons catalogue on the artist, An Amateur represents a significant rediscovery, and an excellent addition to the oeuvre of an artist now regarded as a major figure from the waning years of British classicism.
Literature: Swanson, Vern, John William Godward: The eclipse of Classicism, Antique Collectors Club, Woodbridge, 1997, passim.
We are grateful to Professor Vern Swanson for his kind assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.