The Ionian Dance Motus doceri gaudet Ionicos,
Matura virgo, et fingitur artibus
signed with initials and dated '18EJP95' (lower left) oil on canvas 38.5 x 51cm (15 3/16 x 20 1/16in).
PROVENANCE: Robert English Esq. (1849-1914), purchased from the artist Sale, Christie's, London, property of the late Robert English of 21 Portman Square, London, 9th July 1915, lot 106, purchased by Sampson, almost certainly the art dealer William Walker Sampson (1865-1929), for 250 guineas Private collection
EXHIBITED: London, Royal Academy, 1895, no.270 Melbourne, Federal Exhibition, November 1902
LITERATURE: Henry Blackburn, Academy Notes, 1895, p.12, with a description of the work and p.70, illustrating a sketch of the painting Royal Academy Illustrated, 1895, p.163 The Sunday Times, 7th April, p.12, under the title of 'Show Sunday' Art Journal, 1895, pp.172-4, "The cares of the directorship of the National Portrait Gallery have not prevented Mr. E. J. Poynter's contribution of a beautifully painted and exhaustively learned classical composition called 'The Ionian Dance'. Of this we print a large wood engraving by Mr. R.W. Paterson [p.173, noting underneath that Robert English, Esq. was the owner of the picture and its copyright]. Within a pillared court, of which the details betoken the refined scholar, dances a beautiful maiden, her diaphanous gauze betraying every grace of her slim figure. In delightful attitudes of ease, reclining on the marble benches, or peering between the pillars, are draped comrades of the dancer. It is painted with great finish in a high joyous key, consonant with its subject; and the texture of flesh, drapery, and marble is as distinguished as the balance of the composition." The Athenaeum, 1895, p.415, "Mr. Poynter has placed the scene of his picture for the Royal Academy in a hall, the roof of which is supported by lofty columns of yellow and white Oriental alabaster with gilded caps and richly moulded bases. The walls are lined with marbles of full deep colours, and pierced so as to show without a garden and trees, flowers, and patches of sunlight and shadow. The pavement is resplendent with mosaics and tarsia work set in geometrical patterns, and its design is borrowed from the floor of a room in the Palace of Tiberius at Rome. The portion of the hall on our right is semicircular and filled with a bench, or ambo, on which are grouped a company of damsels of the finer Graeco-Roman type which many modern painters, familiar with the mural pictures at Pompeii and Rome select. The girls are listening to the music of one of their number, who, leaning with crossed feet against a column on our left, performs with spirit upon double pipes. The shrill notes fill the hall and mark the time for a charming, rose-crowned brunette near the middle of the picture, clad in a loose tissue of rather pale rose, who dances with graceful energy upon the polished floor. With both hands she holds up daintily the skirts of a semi-diaphanous robe which only half conceals her polished limbs and beautiful figure, while the looser part of her chestnut tresses swing behind her shoulders as she turns suddenly upon one foot. This is a delightfully brilliant figure, elegant in every line and contour the joyful face, the parted rosy lips and glad eyes, affirming the girl's delight in that music of motion in which she is adept. First on our left, among the groups on the ambo, reclines a comely damsel, dressed in purple, and beside her, almost in her arms, lies a young girl whose dress is a tissue of pale blue, and whose expression and attitude indicate the interest she feels in the dance. A little nearer our right stands a cluster of four fair ladies, one of them in sea-green and white, while behind her a younger maiden is dressed in rose colour. Still more on our right is the loveliest and most brilliant of the whole set, a brunette with sparkling eyes, wearing a circlet of gold round voluminous black tresses. Leaning sideways on the bench, she rests upon her elbow, and looks on which delight. Her dress is a bronze green, the full depth of which emphasizes her figure in the composition, as well as in the chromatic and tone schemes of the picture, which, as becomes a work of high art, has exhaustively studied in all these respects. Equally entranced is the next figure, a maiden clad in a loose and ample robe of citron colour, who sits, or rather lounges, on a low cushion. At her feet lies a scarlet lyre. It is observable that the local colours of this fine design, not less than its colouration in general and the varied carnations of the women, instinct with almost Titianesque wealth of rosy and golden hues, surpass anything of the sort Mr. Poynter has yet painted...." The Athenaeum, 1895, p.576, "We described Mr. Poynter's Ionian Dance in March last [see above].....The vivacity of the maiden is as exceptional as the grace and precision of her movements; and she is one of the best figures Mr. Poynter has produced, and, as we said in March, exceptionally elegant in every line and contour, the joyful face, the parted rosy lips and glad eyes indicating the girl's pleasure in the dance. Not are the colours and ornaments, the treatment of the flesh in its rosy and warm morbidezza with an under golden hue, and the exquisite draughtsmanship less creditable to the artist. Well may the spectators be delighted with her intense vivacity.....In the figures of the onlookers Mr. Poynter shows that he has greatly improved in painting flesh clearly and with that semi-transparent surface which, revealing the under gold, roses, and gold, is the despair of artists in general, and the highest triumph of the great Venetians. Last year, as we said at the time, he made a considerable step in advance in this respect; his progress is still greater now, and leaves but little to be desired...." The Magazine of Art, 1895, p.244, illustrating the drawing (acquired by the British Museum), for the mother and child who watch the dancer and noting "A study is also given from Mr. Poynter's dainty picture, illustrative of the lines of Horace's Ode... a picture, it is understood, that is one of a long Horatian series to which the artist is devoting himself henceforth." The Times, 4th May 1895, p.12, which refers to this painting as a "delicate little work.....one of the most happily conceived of his classical pictures, in every way more successful than the large outdoor scene from last year." The Sunday Times, 1st May 1895, p.8, under "A brief list of pictures that must not be missed." The Sunday Times, 5th May 1895, p.2 The Antiquary, 1895 p.168, describing this painting as "a gem". The Liverpool Mercury, 2nd May 1895, p.5 The Builder, vol. 72, 1897, p.339, in speaking of the illustration of The Ionian Dance in the Easter Art Annual the writer notes "It is a pity the 'Ionian Dance' was not reproduced photographically, the line engraving does not do justice to the exquisite grace of the dancing figure." Cosmo Monkhouse, The Life and Work of Sir Edward J. Poynter, Easter Art Annual, 1897, p.27 The West Australian (Perth edition), 15th September 1902, p.5, noting that this painting had been selected by Mr. Christmas for the Federal Exhibition. The Argos, 22nd November 1902, p.17, with a review of the Federal Exhibition: "The pride of place must be assigned un-hesitatingly to 'The Greek Dance' [an alternative title] by Sir Edward Poynter. The subject conforms to the best traditions of the office of President of the Royal Academy. Culture and scholarship, a genuine sympathy with the classic period rather than the mere fad for archaeology, which so often takes its place, a refined and exacting taste, brilliant draughtsmanship, and masterly technique are all to be felt in this successful attempt to realise a couple of lines of Horace, in which the poet hits off the delight of the Roman lady at learning the graceful movements of the Ionian dance from an exiled Greek girl. There is a capital proof engraving of this picture, bearing the painter's signature, in the corridor of the state Parliament-house, but no reproduction can adequately convey the charm of the work, the pose of the Greek dancer, instinct with grace and alive with motion, the beautiful young form showing through the diaphanous draperies, the rose-crowned head with eyes half-closed, the dainty bare feet reflected in the marble mosaic of the atrium, and the whole effect of youth and grace and gaiety with which the central figure is invested. There is no elaboration of unnecessary detail, but neither is there any shirking, and the subordinate figures have been painted as carefully as the central one. One notes especially the ease with which the painter has overcome all technical difficulties. The reflections of the dancer's feet, of the forms of the onlookers, and even of the roses that have fallen from the dancer's garland are beautifully indicated in the painting of the marble mosaic, with its inlaid pattern, varying from jade to amethyst. This truly delightful picture should exercise a potent educational influence over young students who care to see what can be accomplished by refined taste and feeling when supported by ripe knowledge and thorough craftsmanship." Malcolm Bell, Drawings of E J Poynter Bart, 1905, p.11, with reference to the work. The Times, 10th July 1915, p.9, with a review of the sale of this painting. The Times, 17th January 1920, p.9, mentioning the British Museum's recent acquisition of drawings by Poynter and with specific reference to The Ionian Dance being one of his more important paintings.
When The Ionian Dance was first shown to the general public at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1895, it was singled out for its charm, its grace, colouring and realism and was aptly described by one critic as "a gem". By then Poynter was at the forefront of the British art establishment as well as Victorian classicism. That however was not the reason for the painting's critical acclaim rather it was simply because it was considered one of his finest pieces so much so that when Cyrus Cuneo (father of Terence Cuneo) executed a portrait of Poynter for the Illustrated London News (9th May 1908, p.677), he showed the artist at his easel upon which was an imaginary canvas portraying details from his most famous paintings, of which The Ionian Dance was one.
The Ionian Dance dates from the year after Poynter became Director of the National Gallery and the year before he was elected President of the Royal Academy, following the successive deaths of his predecessors Sir John Everett Millais, PRA and Frederic Lord Leighton, PRA. It was from Leighton that Poynter gained some of his greatest inspiration, particularly during his earlier career. In this instance we can see how the artist shares Leighton's quality of observation and detailing, notably in his description of the diaphanous drapery. However the overall content differs, for now instead of the grand classical or heroic themes that Leighton often advocated, Poynter focuses upon decorative aspects within a more intimate narrative. In this respect this oil can be likened to the work of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Such a comparison did not go unnoticed by the critics, especially as The Ionian Dance and Tadema's painting entitled Spring hung close to one another at Burlington House and as one critic for The Liverpool Mercury noted "this charming little bit of classicism has qualities which in some respects place it above the great Belgian's art."
In choosing a more intimate subject, Poynter nevertheless remains close to the Ancients by visualising a few lines from Horace's Odes, (book three, ode VI) which loosely translates as 'The young girl early takes delight in learning Greek dances, in being dressed with all the arts'. Lord Lytton, in his 1872 work The Odes and Epodes of Horace, a metrical translation into English, offers a more poetic interpretation of these lines:
The ripening virgin, blushless, learns delighted Ionic dances; in the art of wantons Studiously fashioned; even in the bud, Tingles, within her, mediated sin.
Horace tells of a young Greek exile who performs a native dance to her Roman mistress so that she too may learn the Ionian steps. The mistress and her aides, arranged behind the dancer, are seated upon a marble bench or ambo as they watch the Grecian girl move to the music of a female piper. In effect we too are invited to observe the dynamic scene and likewise to admire the young girl's thin flowing dress that barely disguises her nudity. At the same time we can study the archaeological reconstructions such as the tessellated marble floor, modelled on one from the Palace of Tiberius in Rome, that perfectly offsets the women's brilliant coloured robes.
Like Alma-Tadema and John William Godward, Poynter's attention to detail in rendering marble is exquisite. Here, the columns to the left are of Egyptian Alabaster, the panels between the back columns and windows are of Cipollino Verde, and Alabastro Albarese is used for the central decoration in the background. The bench, and the marble between the columns and the floor, is Marmo a Preconesso. The floor is a complex pattern including five different marbles; the main roundel decorations are Porphyry, flanked by Green Porphyry, and surrounded by Porta Santa. The floor also contains Gallo Antico, while the remainder of the floor is the distinctive Pavonazzetto.
In 1902 The Ionian Dance was one of a number of paintings selected by Mr. Christmas to represent the best of British Art at the Federal Exhibition in Melbourne that year. Poynter's 'gem', then valued at £1300, was applauded by the Australian public, whose appreciation was summed up by a writer for The Argos who wrote "The pride of place must be assigned un-hesitatingly to 'The Greek Dance' [as noted an alternative title]." Poynter too must have thought highly of this painting since he worked it up into a larger oil titled The Skirt Dance, which when shown at the Royal Academy in 1898, (no.222), included the same lines from Horace's Ode. As a brilliant draughtsman and true academic, Poynter executed numerous studies before working upon his final paintings. Among a number of preparatory studies for the present work is a chalk drawing of 1893 for the mother and child to the left of the dancer, which was acquired in 1919, shortly after the artist's death, by the British Museum.
The present oil was purchased direct from the artist by Robert English (1849-1914) and was almost certainly bought prior to the 1895 Summer Exhibition since by the time it hung at Burlington House it was no longer for sale. This was not unusual at that period since artists of Poynter's calibre often opened their studios on 'Show Sunday', held over the weekend before the main event, when critics and potential buyers could select the best on view. Robert English was one such collector. Born in Somerset, the son of a brick maker, by 1871 he was working as a grocer's assistant; he then went to South Africa, where he married Mary Ann Mayne in 1880 and made his fortune. English's wealth (amounting to just under £345,250 at the time of his death) came from diamond mining and having merged his interests in the Kimberely Fields with De Beers, he became a director of the latter. During the 1880s, he, his wife and their growing family returned to Britain, where he acquired Scatwell House, an impressive 17th century Scottish mansion, north east of Inverness as well as a London residence. They firstly lived at 13 Berkeley Street and then at 21 Portman Square, where among their neighbours was the picture dealer William Agnew, the Duke of Fife, his wife the Princess Royal and Thomas Baring, the banker.
Robert English's impressive collection included a number of large oils such as Spirit of the Summit by Lord Leighton, PRA (1894; Auckland City Art Gallery) Psyche et l'Amour of 1895 by W. A. Bouguereau and two other sizeable works by Peter Graham. They and the present oil were all included in English's deceased sale held in 1915. By then Britain had entered WWI and the art market was beginning to suffer. Nevertheless The Ionian Dance sold for 250 guineas. Its buyer was 'Mr. Sampson', almost certainly the art dealer William Walker Sampson (1865-1929), whose gallery at 13 Air Street, just off Regent Street, specialised in English and Continental pictures. At that period Sampson was one of the major buyers at auction; this was because he generally bought on behalf of a ring of fellow dealers to ensure that they didn't bid against one another in the saleroom. After the main sale the ring then conducted their own discrete auction for Sampson's successful purchases. For this reason it is difficult to know if Sampson held onto The Ionian Dance or if it was immediately secured by one of his fellow dealers. We know however that the oil has remained in the same private collection for many decades - probably dating back to the years immediately after Robert English's sale. From then until its recent rediscovery this masterpiece was essentially considered 'lost' and was only known through engraved reproductions; however none could ever do justice to the true beauty of the original.
We are grateful to Alice Munro-Faure for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.