John William Godward's Outside the Gate of Pompeii, 1905, £120,000-£180,000.

LONDON - When I was in Pompeii last year I was determined to find the location of a painting from a valuation I had recently undertaken. The picture is one of John William Godward’s beautiful reconstructions of the every-day life of the people of the Roman Empire in which a mother and daughter are conversing with a young flower-seller in a sunlit street. I was sure that it was based on the artist’s observations of Pompeii but hadn’t expected to be able to stand in the spot where Godward had painted the scene and see most of the details still in place.

At the side of the wide paved road that leads from the Forum to the Villa dei Misteri with its beautiful frescoes, is the circular marble bench decorated with a lion’s-foot from Godward’s painting As I stood and looked at it, I could see the tombs stretching away from me just as Godward had painted them. The paved road, with its stepping-stones between the pavements to prevent pedestrian’s feet becoming wet in inclement weather, was unchanged in the century that has passed since Godward painted Outside the Gate of Pompeii.

Pompeii, 2012, the spot chosen by Godward for the scene in his painting.

It had also changed very little in the thousands of years that elapsed since Pompeiians going about their everyday life had occupied the street. The buried city was so well preserved, that, since its rediscovery in the 1700’s, archaeologists, poets and painters have been drawn to the site, using imagination and artefact to reconstruct the past.

A recently opened exhibition at the British Museum, “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum”, brings 250 objects from these lost cities—both recent finds and historic discoveries. Like Godward’s paintings, it hopes to stage the daily life of Pompeii for modern London audiences.

Godward had managed to breathe life back into the quiet streets and picture what it would have looked like on an idyllic summer day before the eruption. This painting and four other works by the artist are included in the British & Irish Art sale on 23 May.