Youthful love was a subject that reappeared in Godward’s art throughout his career and added a romantic frisson to his paintings of beautiful languid Pompeian and Roman women. With pictures like Expectation of 1887 (private collection) and Midday of 1900 (Manchester City Art Gallery) girls await their lovers in secret trysting-places on terraces overlooking the sea. The agony of lovers waiting for their affections to be reciprocated or rejected was the subject of pictures like Waiting for an Answer of 1889 (private collection) and Yes or No? of 1893 (Hessiches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt). The present picture depicts a more conclusive romance of a young woman admiring her engagement ring and dreaming of her fiancé. The open door and glimpse of a male statue beyond perhaps hints at his approach. On the marble floor of her grand apartments is the scroll declaring his intentions to marry her. The same subject inspired The Betrothed of 1892 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and also The Ring of 1898 (private collection).
The Engagement Ring is a relatively early picture by Godward, painted only a year after he made his debut at the Royal Academy with a picture titled The Yellow Turban. The Engagement Ring has all the qualities of a picture painted by a young artist showing his impressive dexterity. The folds of the draperies are beautifully studied and the depiction of the marble interior is exquisite. Godward added archaeological details such as the marble herm of the poet Homer and the vase painted with an acrobat (both based on examples in the British Museum), which recall the work of Alma-Tadema. A similar picture entitled Ianthe was exhibited by Godward at the Academy in 1888 and attracted the attention of the art dealer Arthur Tooth who had a gallery on Haymarket Street in London. Godward either sold Ianthe and The Engagement Ring to Mr Tooth or entrusted them to him for sale in 1889. They were the first of ten pictures purchased or exhibited by Tooth on Godward’s behalf. These works were painted while Godward was making his first tentative steps towards independence from his parents, who did not approve of his precarious choice of profession. After his success at having a picture accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy, Godward felt secure enough to take rooms at 19 Bolton Studios in 1887. The group of purpose-built studios were in the heart of Kensington, only a stones-throw from the studio of the most famous painter of classical pictures Frederic Leighton. The Bolton Studios had been built a few years before and predominantly intended to be working spaces – there was little provision for comfort and it is likely that Godward either slept on the floor of the studio with perhaps occasional returns home to his parents in Wimbledon.
Kensington - in comparison to his home in Wimbledon - offered Godward the ready supply of models to choose from. The Engagement Ring depicts a model who appears frequently in his pictures from this period and it is likely that she was one the many professional models who lived in the neighbourhoods of Fulham and Shepherd’s Bush, within close proximity to the artist’s studios of Kensington. She was probably one of the Italian community of west London who were particularly favoured for their looks and professional attitude to work. Whole families posed for artists, including the di Marco, Antonelli, Mancini and Ciava families and many of them were from Picinisco, a small village in the Abruzzi mountains of central Italy. When word spread to their homeland that artists would pay for them to pose, many of the most beautiful men and women of that village embarked for London with little to offer other than the willingness to be studied by the artists. The woman in The Engagement Ring appears to have been a favourite for Godward and her fine looks also appear in A Beauty in Profile of c.1888 (private collection), Grecian Reverie of 1889 (private collection), Waiting for an Answer of 1889 (private collection) and most of the other pictures from the late 1880s and early 1890s.
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