The Ten Virgins represents John Melhuish Strudwick's extraordinary and most individual style of painting. The highly crafted and otherworldly style of painting which Strudwick adopted owed much to the formative experience that he had working as a studio assistant for John Roddam Spencer Stanhope in the early 1870s, and later while working for Burne-Jones. His painting, like theirs, is a manifestation of the aesthetic culture that established in certain circles in London in the 1870s, with its particular affection for an Italianate world and for remote and indeterminate historical epochs. Strudwick was accused of plagiarising certain early Italian Renaissance painters, a charge refuted by George Bernard Shaw in an important article describing Strudwick's art: 'There is nothing of the fourteenth century about his work except that depth of feeling and passion for beauty which are common property for all who are fortunate enough to inherit them' ('J. M. Strudwick', Art Journal, 1891, pp. 97-101).
Strudwick was slow to establish a professional reputation, with his works repeatedly rejected by the selection committees at the Royal Academy. However, in the mid 1870s he began to find opportunities to exhibit, with one painting of his - Song without Words - being shown at the Academy and in fact causing a certain degree of excitement and finding a buyer, and then the following year he exhibited at the first summer exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery. This new exhibition space, established in a purpose-built gallery in London's New Bond Street in 1877, was recognised from the start as representing the acme of artistic fashionability. Great excitement was caused by the display of works by several progressive artists, notably Edward Burne-Jones, whose paintings and drawings had been very rarely displayed in London since 1870. With Burne-Jones were also represented a group of what the Art Journal in 1878 dubbed 'thoughtful and gifted disciples of the quasi-classic, semi-mystic school', and who were regarded loosely as his followers. Works were sent to the Grosvenor exhibitions by the invitation of its proprietor, Sir Coutts Lindsay. He in turn took advice and canvassed opinion from artist-friends, always seeking to show works that were fresh and original, and often of the type that was considered exceptionable at the Royal Academy. How he first became aware of the then obscure figure of J. M. Strudwick is not known, but it can be assumed that either Burne-Jones or John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, for each of whom Strudwick worked as a studio assistant, would have recommended his work to Lindsay. In any case, Strudwick became a regular participant in the Grosvenor exhibitions, showing fourteen works there over the following ten years. The Ten Virgins was exhibited there in 1884 and placed in a prestigious position in the West Gallery where it was in the company of Burne-Jones' King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (Tate).
The Ten Virgins depicts the parable of chapter 25 of St Matthew's gospel with Christ visible on the right surrounded by the haloed 'Wise Virgins', seen through a window and the 'Foolish Virgins' in various states of anguish at the locked door to the palace where the ringing bells denote that the marriage feast has begun without them. The composition, and several of the poses of the figures, appears to owe much to Burne-Jones pen and ink drawing The Wise and Foolish Virgins of 1859 (private collection) but how Strudwick knew this picture is unexplained. Burne-Jones' drawing was in a private collection and not exhibited at a time when Strudwick could have seen it or been old enough to be influenced by it. However in the 1870s Strudwick worked in Burne-Jones' studio and it is possible that a photograph of the drawing was shown to him at this time. Alternatively it is conceivable that Strudwick may have seen the drawing in the collection of its owner George Rae of Birkenhead where Strudwick had several important patrons.
The Ten Virgins was one of several pictures by Strudwick bought by William Imrie (1837-1906) of Liverpool, the artist's most significant patron. Imrie was a partner in the shipping company of Ismay, Imrie & Co, the White Star Line infamous for being the owners of the ill-fated Titanic. He owned at least six pictures by Strudwick, including St Cecilia (private collection) Evensong of 1898 and the larger version of Passing Days of 1904 and The Ramparts of God's House of 1889 (Christie's, 4 November 1994). His collection also boasted fine examples by traditional Victorian artists Fildes, Leighton, Clarkson Stanfield and Thomas Francis Dicksee but his passion was for work by the Pre-Raphaelites hanging in his beautiful home in Mossley Hill. There were masterpieces by Rossetti, including Veronica Veronese (Bancroft Museum, Wilmington) and the second version of Dante's Dream (Dundee Art Gallery), Burne-Jones' The Tree of Forgiveness (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) and important examples of the art of Evelyn de Morgan and Stanhope.
There seems to have been a particular taste for Strudwick's art in Liverpool where there were notable collections of Pre-Raphaelite, including those formed by Imrie's business partner Thomas Henry Ismay (1837-1899), by Frederick Leyland (d.1892) and by George Holt (1825-1896) whose pictures by Strudwick Oh Swallow, Swallow, Love's Palace and St Cecilia are all now at Sudley House, part of the National Galleries on Merseyside. Strudwick's work was so well represented in Liverpool collections that when George Bernard Shaw wrote a review of the artist's work in 1891 all of the pictures illustrated were from collections in the city, mostly pictures from Imrie's collection.
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