John William Godward was one of the finest exponents of what has become known as the Greco-Roman style which flourished in the mid 19th to early 20th century, the qualities of his art in several respects even rivaling that of Alma-Tadema and Leighton. Yet little is known of the private life of this reclusive, shy yet talented painter – a life which was to end so tragically – since details concerning it were protected by both himself and his family. What we do know results from recent scholarly research conducted by Vern G Swanson who summarizes Godward‘s position in the history of art thus:
“In Godward‘s work we see the final summation of half a millennium of classical antique influence on Western painting … It vanished during Godward’s generation – killed, as it were, by contemporary nihilistic philosophies … What Godward does represent is a microcosm for all classicists during a period aptly called The Twilight of the Gods or The Eclipse of Classicism.”
John William Godward was born into a respectable and financially secure Victorian family living in Battersea, London. His father was an investment clerk in a life assurance office in Fleet Street. His mother, née Sarah Eboral, lived to be over a hundred years old, dying in 1935, outliving John William who was the first of five children.
As a boy, he had a sheltered and somewhat claustrophobic home life dominated by his father who had in mind that his sons should follow the stable and respectable family profession of insurance and banking. The others did , but John William only for a short time. Evidence points to the family being acquainted with the noted architect, designer and renderer William Hoff Wontner (1814-1881), and, John William exhibiting some early drawing skills, they apparently saw little harm at the time in allowing their son to study at least rendering and graining with him during the period 1879-1881 – on a recreational basis in the evenings. This he did together with the architect’s son, William Clarke Wontner, who was to become his lifelong friend. Godward was destined to become an acknowledged master of faux marble and his skill in rendering perspective and architectural elements surely had their origin in this period.
The death of W H Wontner left the twenty year old Godward undertrained without his mentor and it is thought that William Clarke Wontner, four years his senior and an art teacher himself, assumed the responsibility for his continued training.
There is no evidence of Godward attending the Royal Academy of Art School, it being more likely that he enrolled at the Clapham School of Art which offered special instruction to students who wished to obtain the “Art Class Teachers’ Certificate”. They also taught evening classes which would have enabled him to continue working for his father during the day.
Godward’s interest in the classical subject genre probably owes much to his acquaintance with the St. John’s Wood group (Dicksee, Poynter, Waterhouse et al.) via Wontner’s move to a studio there and his teaching at the St. John’s Wood Art School.
1887 saw his first accepted entry into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – A Yellow Turban. Although it attracted little attention it did herald his acceptance as a ‘real’ artist, enabling his painting to be taken more seriously and gain some acceptance from his disapproving family. He continued to exhibit there regularly until 1905 – possibly for this reason.
His paintings were first placed with a sales gallery of note in 1888 – that of Arthur Tooth and Sons of Haymarket Street in the West End of London. However he soon settled with the competing dealer Messrs. Thomas Miller McLean who had premises just next door to Tooth and who also represented Alma-Tadema and Poynter.
At the age of 26 he had finally gained sufficient confidence to leave his parents’ home (now in Wimbledon) – at least for part of the time – and take an atelier at No. 19 Bolton Studios in Kensington. These 27 studios were a hotbed for classical artists in the area and tended to be occupied on a shared basis. Amongst the other artists working there at the time were Henry Ryland (1856-1924) and George Lawrence Bulleid (1858-1933). The three became friends and seemed to inspire each other’s work.
Godward’s final break with his parent’s home came in 1889 after a period of financial success selling through McLean, when he moved into a leasehold house in St. Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea (50 yards from the home of the novelist Bram Stoker). Just around the corner he was also able to occupy his own studio at No.1 St. Leonard’s Studios – a spacious single-storey building. These moves gave him all-round greater accessibility – to his dealer, to other artists and to the models.
The year of his move, Godward painted about 25 oils, mostly for McLean, of which two of the most ambitious works were Sewing Girl and Waiting for an Answer The latter painting possibly incorporates a self-portrait – the similarity of the male figure to Godward’s brothers as seen in various photographs is quite striking (there are no known extant photographs of the artist). The girl in the painting is his regular model with whom he might have had an amorous liaison. It is certainly noteworthy that he painted very few men, and then never alone – a constant reminder possibly of his own loneliness and unrequited love.
The following year, 1891, saw at least 21 oils by the prolific artist including some of the finest to receive media recognition. Amongst them was Sweet Siesta of a Summer Day which hung in the RA Summer Exhibition that year.
McLean’s 18th annual London exhibition of 1892 featured the academic At the Garden Shrine, Pompeii . McLean had purchased it for £75 – a large amount at the time for such a small canvas an an indication of the growing esteem in which his paintings were increasingly held. The Betrothal was another important work of that year since it introduced the ‘polka-dot’ stola into his repertoire of props, and it was also his first work to be accepted into the permanent collection of a major art museum, being donated in 1916 to the Guildhall Art Gallery.
1893 might be regarded as Godward’s creative watershed in which his style matured and his career became fully established. It was also at this time that some of his canvases were reproduced and published by McLean as photo-engravings. One of these was The Betrothed. Some were also widely publicized through magazines. The two most impressive works of this year are Endymion and “Yes or No?” .
In 1894 Godward moved out of the St. Leonard’s Terrace studios, taking a 40 year lease on a more prestigious property at 410 Fulham Road. Like Alma-Tadema, he used his home as an instrument of his art and decorated it internally as an ancient Roman building set in a garden of pergolas and fountains. After his death, an Italian sculptor, Mario Manenti, acquired this building in West Kensington and turned it into numerous small ateliers called “The Italian Village”. But, unlike Alma-Tadema’s home which was always open to parties, “artist’s Tuesdays” and drop-in visitors, conversely Godward’s home was more of a hermitage which he left only to visit the shops and East End dealers in marbles and antique paraphernalia.
The new century arrived with Godward still painting prolifically and becoming recognized as a major exponent of classical figure painting. However, his retiring nature still hindered him in significantly furthering his career and, by the turn of the century, beauties painters had difficulty in receiving critical acclaim beyond the walls of the Royal Academy. Notwithstanding this, a major work from this period is Ionian Dancing Girl , which was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1902 to great critical praise. Then, with a subtle change of style, his 1903 canvas Summer Flowers was the first in which flowers became a more dominant feature. He had used the effect before, but never so profusely.
In 1904 the artist’s father died and, following from this, he bought for himself an interment plot in Brompton Cemetery, just behind his home. However, far from being set back by these sad times, in the same year Godward actually produced two of his finest paintings – Dolce Far Niente and In the Days of Sappho . The former was actually one of 7 paintings bearing this title and it depicts an Italian model wearing a luxurious saffron robe as an exhausted Bacchante collapsed after a frenzied dance. The viewer’s eye is led to the recumbent girl via her peacock fan and bear and lion furs. The latter canvas is a beautifully composed and rendered set-piece notable for its original and subtle color scheme with the girl capturing the viewer’s attention by gazing out of the picture.
1905 saw Godward’s last RA Summer Exhibition – possibly he gave up trying to attract the attention of the greater British populace – although he still continued to exhibit in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent. He also made his first trip to Italy and it is thought that he stayed in Capri from where he ventured out to paint oil studies near Sorrento, Pompeii and the Bay of Naples. Works from this period include the monumental Nerissa and Drusilla , possibly inspired by his Pompeian visits.
The period 1908-1910 saw the consolidation of the artist’s reputation, particularly through the sale of prints. 1908 also saw the death of his long-term dealer Thomas McLean, whose business was then taken over by Eugène Cremetti & Son. Fortunately they continued with the sale of Godward’s paintings which now also began appearing for sale through dealers in Northern England. One of his finest works from this period is Noonday Rest which depicts a reclining beauty on a marble ledge with the beautiful yet poisonous oleander bush appearing from behind a column – symbolizing the Victorian view of the fickleness of women – the whole bound in a fine synthesis of the contrasting textures of marble, fur, fabric and flesh.
In 1910 William Clarke Wontner and his wife, Jessie, moved from their Kensington home to reside at Godward’s address at 410 Fulham Road. It is likely that the latter rented them the main house whilst he himself occupied his preferred studio house at the bottom of the garden. Wontner, being down on his fortune at this time, stayed there until 1921. From this time onwards, the influence of Godward’s style and the scenery in his home had an obvious influence on the subsequent work of his friend.
By 1912 Godward had left England to reside in Rome. The reason for his departure is unknown, although critical acclaim in London was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain by this time and living in Italy might have added an air of authenticity to the work of such a ‘classical’ artist. Certainly, in Rome there existed a flourishing classical school at this time, including many foreign artists. Unfortunately, little detail is known concerning his years in Italy. Milo-Turner, however, tells that he left England in a hurry running off with his Italian model, an act for which his mother never forgave him.
The large painting Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder marked the beginning of his Roman period – a felicitous trompe d’oeil work combining the typical sensuous innocence of the model with still life irises. In a similar vein, one of his best works of that year was A Tryst .
While in Rome, Godward lived in an artist studio at No. 2 Villa Strohl-Fern which was situated on Monti Parioli near the main entrance to the Gardens of the Villa Borghese. The studios were custom-built to high standards and there was a pervasive Bohemian feel to the maze of studios lining shaded terraces surrounded by rare plants with the nearby large garden filled with Roman statuary. The Villa was home to many artists, amongst the most notable being the Russian Ilya Repin (1844-1930).
In 1913 Godward was awarded the gold medal at the Rome International exhibition for The Belvedere . Most of his works were now set out of doors, and in Tranquillity of 1914 a greater proportion of the canvas begins to be dedicated to landscape. However, from 1915 onwards his output seemed to reduce significantly, possibly due to declining health, but these were also the War years (1914-1918) and it is possible that communication with his dealer Cremetti just became more difficult. The most significant work of 1917 is Under the Blossom that Hangs on the Bough , inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is a work of stunningly harmonious colour transitions superimposed on a marble background.
The following years saw not only a huge increase in the number of artist studios in the Villa grounds (to about 100) but also their commensurate decline and dilapidation – coinciding with the aging of the owner and founder Alfred Strohl-Fern. During the next four years Godward is thought to have returned to London about as many times – just after the War in 1918, for his nephew’s funeral in 1919, his brother’s wedding in 1920, finally returning to spend his remaining days in Fulham from 1921 until his untimely death in December 1922.
Upon his return to his Fulham home, the Wontners moved out of the main house, returning to West Kensington, making way for his brother Charles Arthur and his pregnant wife Gertrude. He himself re-occupied the garden studio. However his health declined further and under-nourishment from a spartan existence likely led to dyspepsia (the same illness which took Alma-Tadema’s life a decade earlier). Without doubt he was also mentally affected by the belligerence of the intellectual modernism of the Bloomsbury Group, particularly after the death of Edward J Poynter in 1919. The latter was President of the RA, a last bastion of the classical movement.
Rather than continue with the misery of ill health and seeing his art suffer, John William Godward committed suicide on Wednesday 13th December 1922. Returning from work that evening, his brother found him dead in his studio, having gassed himself over a gas-ring in the wash-room, the word “GAS” in his handwriting left pinned as a warning to the outside of the door. He was interred in the plot he had purchased in 1904 at the Old Brompton Cemetery close to his studio and near to the graves of the other Victorian artists Sir Henry Cole, James Godwin, Val Prinsep and Frederick Sandys.