John William Godward was born in 1861 in Battersea to a wealthy middle-class family. Little is known about his private life. His family disapproved strongly of his wish to become a painter instead of following the family tradition and establishing himself in the areas of investment, insurance or banking. Against their wishes he is believed to have studied 'rendering and graining' alongside fellow classicist William Clarke Wontner, probably learning to paint fake marble for fireplaces and furniture. Details of more formal artistic training have not been found but it is likely that he was a student at one of the many art schools in London, or possibly in Europe.
A Yellow Turban was Godward's first work to be exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1887. He continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1905 after which he sold his paintings primarily through an agent and various dealers. Godward is regarded as one of the 'Last Classicists' following in the footsteps of Leighton and particularly Alma-Tadema. Throughout his life he did not receive much critical acclaim as interest in classical Greco-Roman subject painting was rapidly declining at the turn of the twentieth century.
Godward was a quiet and ultimately tragic man (he committed suicide in 1922) but the bleakness of his solitary life is never hinted at in his pictures which depict a perfect world of happiness and sunshine. Consumed by an almost obsessive interest in female beauty, Godward toiled away in his studio at a series of paintings which explore the varying aesthetics of luscious female sexuality. Glamorous, youthful and sultry, his young Grecian maidens are iconic in the eternal perfection of those lovely soft cheeks and elegant white necks. Gossamer robes compound the exotic sensuality and suggest links to those smouldering courtesans of the ancient world; of Helen of Troy, Phryne and Campaspe whose passions seem all the more inflamed by the contrast of cool, hard marble. The greatest appeal of Godward's paintings is the sensual rendering of textures and harmonious colouring, from the coolness of the marble to the warm blush of the girl's expectant lips.
During his career Godward spent much time in Italy, but unlike many artists of his generation who were drawn to Florence and Venice with their Renaissance treasures, Godward was drawn to the classical splendours of Rome and Naples. He was greatly inspired by the ruins of Pompeii and Rome and the Classical art housed in the museums. They were the sources of many of the details in his pictures which invariably depict women in classical settings. He often chose classical names for the women he painted but they were rarely, if ever, depictions of figures from mythology – the names were chosen to add to the vague classicism of the paintings rather than referring to particular women from the poetry and legends of antiquity.
The Answer illustrates Godward's greatest talent and skill at rendering textures and fabrics and his arrangement of beautiful forms to create an aesthetic ensemble. He devoted his entire career to the depiction of feminine beauty, painting his favourite models again and again. In these exquisite studies of beauty and colour; his women are always content, alluring and absorbed. There is never any threat or danger, or even any importance of narrative in his pictures. His work is typical of the Aesthetic movement, being essentially without narrative or dramatic charge, decorative and consciously devoid of any suggestion of movement or emotion. The women are always content, alluring and absorbed, but what or who they dream of is not explained or important.
In 1918 Godward painted a small watercolour version of The Answer (listed as unlocated in Vern Swanson’s catalogue but almost certainly the same picture listed as Distant Thoughts, sold in these rooms 20 October 1981, lot 18). Around this time Godward appears to have been painting a favourite model, who wore her hair in a plait across her forehead and wound around a chignon and the back. She appears in Eurypyle, Matrona Superba, Watchful Eyes, The Time of Roses and A Lily Pond. Her regularity in Godward’s work makes it tempting to think that she may have been the Italian model for whom (according to family tradition) Godward left London to live in Rome. This led to a rift within the Godward family that never healed as his mother never forgave him. Her name is not known but the artist William Russell Flint, who visited Godward in Rome in 1912, gave this description; ‘He worked steadily at his Greek maidens in Liberty silks from a Roman model whose name in English meant ‘Sweetest Castaway.’ This heavy-jowled beauty was a star among the models, but she aimed at being taken for something better. One day at Godward’s for tea, Dolcissima, after taking a maddening time to complete her re-attirement, at last proceeded to make her dignified departure. My wife, with kind intention, called her notice to a long white thread sticking to her coat. It proved a mistake to do so because we were afterwards told that the thread had been placed there deliberately as an emblem of what Dolch thought a superior class – the dressmakers.’ (Vern Swanson, John William Godward – The Eclipse of Classicism, 1997, p.96) According to Flint, Dolcissima lived with her parents and her six brothers and sisters in one room of a house where they all slept in the same bed: the parents lengthways and the children sideways. She was given furniture and rugs, a sewing-machine and beddings which she wrapped with newspaper and suspended from the rafters of the house for safekeeping until she married.
We are grateful to Vern Swanson for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot which will be included in his forthcoming monograph.
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