A voluptuous dark-haired and starry-eyed maiden leans languidly against a cool marble wall, her body twisted in a sensual, inviting pose. Although the title of Godward’s painting is ‘Contemplation’, her soft, heavily-lidded eyes, gently pursed lips, and serene expression suggest that she is lost in an even sweeter reverie. This warm, fleshy woman, delicately clad in vibrant, diaphanous fabric, and set against a backdrop of cool, swirling marble, is the last of the ‘Classical Beauties’ in Godward’s extensive oeuvre, and in many ways, his most poignant heroine.
The gentle tranquillity of Godward’s image is further reinforced by the harmonious interplay of rich colours and textures, demonstrating the artist’s unparalleled mastery of fabric and tone. Godward excelled at single-figure compositions – perhaps a tribute to his lonely personality - which allowed his brush to dwell lovingly on the model’s face and flow fluidly over the surface. Godward was a prolific painter of classical subjects and throughout his forty-year career he focused solely on an imaginary, idyllic Greek and Roman world. Unlike many other artists, Godward did not need to paint for a living, and thus his compositions came ‘directly from his soul.’ In terms of subject matter, drapery, architectural settings, and paint handling, Godward was the equal of Alma-Tadema, Leighton, Poynter, and Moore, but during his life, he never received a comparable amount of acclaim or public recognition. This was largely due to the fact that as Godward’s painting reached its zenith, Classical genre painting was being eclipsed by the onward surge of modernity and the bitter disillusionment of mankind after the First World War. Thus, Contemplation
is not only Godward’s last painting, but also one of the last paintings in the entire classical movement in British art.
Not much is known about Godward because his family burned all of his personal papers and documents after his suicide in 1922. The little we can piece together about his life creates a portrait of a determined, isolated, and reclusive man ‘passionately enthralled with feminine beauty’ and stubbornly committed to his classical ideals. Godward was the eldest of five children born to a hard-working, prosperous middle-class family in London. His father, an investment clerk in a life assurance office, strongly encouraged his oldest son to follow his career path, and for some time, Godward acquiesced. However, Godward also took lessons in architecture from William Hoff Wontner, and we can trace Godward’s masterful perspective and exceptional portrayal of marble in his paintings back to these early years. After W.H. Wontner’s death, Godward studied under his son, William Clark Wontner, and then most likely went on to train at one of London’s many local art schools, much to his family’s chagrin.
In 1887, Godward secured his entry into the Royal Academy with his painting, A Yellow Turban
, and he would continue to exhibit there until 1905, when he moved to Italy. Godward’s work was admired by the prominent art dealer, Arthur Tooth, and he purchased ten of the artist’s early oils. The following year, Godward transferred to the art dealer Thomas Muller McLean, who was one of his greatest champions. Godward was a productive and consistent artist, producing on average fifteen to twenty high quality paintings a year. His income was supplemented by engraved reproductions of his images, making him fairly popular with the middle-class Victorian market.
For the next twenty years, Godward would live and work in various artist studios throughout London, including Bolton Studios, a hive for classical artists, and the quiet, reclusive No. 410 Fulham Road. He filled his studios with marbles, ancient statues, and antique objects to create a Graeco-Roman environment and bring his imaginary world to life. He selected his models from a small pool of professionals and had a strong preference for those with Italian features, which he believed made his images convincingly classical. In his portrayal of these women, he eschewed the ‘classical’ ideal to capture their personalities, true features, and warm bodies. Godward then clothed these bodies in a variety of brightly coloured, ethereal robes and stolas and set them against stunningly depicted classical scenes.
The years 1910 and 1911 mark the height of Godward’s fame in the British and international art world. A year later he relocated to Italy, where he would reside for the next ten years, While in Rome, Godward lived and worked at the eccentric Villa Stohl-Fern, a collection of artists studios with an extensive sculpture garden, luscious foliage, and exotic wildlife. At first Godward found this villa a haven for the classically-minded but as more and more artists were drawn to modernism, he began to feel the gnaw of isolation. In poor health and with low spirits, Godward eventually returned to London in 1921.
Only three oil paintings, including Contemplation
were produced after Godward’s return to London. His agent Eugene Cremetti purchased Contemplation
for £125, suggesting that Godward was not in any serious financial difficulties. In December 1922, Godward committed suicide, perhaps driven to this tragic end because of a painful illness or deep depression, leaving the cheque from Cremetti and a blank canvas. As the last of his paintings before this bitter conclusion, Contemplation
is infused with profound significance.
The details of the inquest into Godward’s death revealed the likely name of the woman who posed for Contemplation
. An artist’s model named Marietta Avico of Tottenham Court Road gave evidence that she was one of the last people to see Godward alive. She stated that she had known him for eighteen months which places their meeting in the spring of 1921 when the artist returned to London from Rome. It is likely therefore that she was the model for all of his last pictures of 1921 and 1922 which appears to depict the same light-brunette woman with a strong profile; including the profile portraits entitled Praxilla
(sold in these rooms, 12 June 2003, lot 215), Ismene
(Christie’s, South Kensington, 16 January 1980, lot 67), Crispinella
(Sotheby’s, Belgravia, 12 June 1973, lot 144), Megilla
(offered in these rooms, 13 November 2012, lot 15). She clearly knew him well enough for him to confide in her of his gloominess and his belief that sixty was an old enough age for any man; a curiously intimate comment for an artist to make to a professional model. A photograph in the Godward family collection dated c.1921 probably depicts Marietta.
We are grateful to Vern Swanson for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot which will be included in his forthcoming monograph.