In John William Godward’s prolific oeuvre, he exquisitely renders scenes of idle contemplation and idyllic beauty, in which nothing is amiss and life is devoted to the daily pursuit of pleasure. The solitary, contemplative and unaffected women of Godward's paintings may well be seen as a reflection of the artist's own personality. Little is known about Godward’s life because his family burned all of his personal papers and documents after his suicide in 1922. What 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 who allegedly cut him out of every family photograph. 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 Greco-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.
Dated 1904, Heart on her Lips and Soul within her Eyes was painted while Godward was living in London, although in spirit it is entirely Italianate. The olive and cypress trees and the glimpse of azure blue sea and headland are reminiscent of the Neapolitan coast and an inscription on the reverse of an oil sketch for a contemporary painting A Melody implies that it was painted ‘at Capri’ and it is likely therefore that the background for the present picture was also based on sketches made on the island.
The re-appearance of this painting marks an important discovery for the artist. Until recently, the work had long been attributed to Godward’s contemporary, Tito Conti, whose signature had been added (and since removed). Similarly, Godward’s paintings were sometimes ascribed to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, for he and Conti commanded large prices in the early twentieth century, particularly in America, and attributions were sometimes altered in order to take advantage of high demand and unsuspecting patrons.
In the present work, Godward has placed his red-haired model in profile, lost in faraway thoughts, gazing towards the cypress trees, blue Mediterranean and mountains that plunge into the sea. The saturated colours of the drapery, warm tones of the model's skin, and realistically painted marble are familiar trademarks of Godward’s oeuvre. The painting’s title is from Lord Byron’s poem Beppo of 1818. Godward, and his audience, recognized the romantic allusions of this title and in the absence of props or any narrative, the literary association enhances the composition’s emotional and psychological charge.
'Heart on her lips and soul within her eyes,
Soft as her clime, and sunny as her skies.'
Beppo, Byron, 1818