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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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John William Godward was a British Neo-Classicist artist of the Victorian era who is known to have been influenced by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton.

Whilst the end of Godward's life was overshadowed by shame and tragedy, his career contributed some beautiful paintings which were best remembered for an extraordinary attention to detail. His artistic style fell out of favour towards the end of his lifetime as new art movements started to hold sway but we can now appreciate his career and all of the strengths that he possessed as an artist.

The settings used by this artist was typical of Ancient Rome and Greece. He would study the architecture of these two periods in depth in order to ensure his depictions were accurate. John William Godward would generally use these marble features as background elements, with classically dressed woman placed in the foreground. One will immediately see similarities with the figurative work of artists like JW Waterhouse, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones and William Holman Hunt but the overall theme was much more akin to Alma-Tadema and Leighton.

There has been a growing interest in recent years within the art public for both Neo-Classicist artists as well as members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Both provide something of an escape from normal life, harping back to a time of innocence. Whilst academics have not always embraced work from these artists, there is a general acceptance that there is art here worthy of merit and undeniably popular.

During the late 19th century many in the UK were particularly knowledgable about the various elements of classical societies and this ensured that those depicting these styles would need to be particularly faithful and accurate to their chosen periods. Godward would study architecture and fashion in order to accurately capture the supposed settings of Ancient Greece and Rome.

John William Godward was a Neo-Classicist from the Victorian era, and hence, in theory, Frederic Leighton's follower. However, when it comes to his artistic style, he's more closely allied to the Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (born Lourens Alma Tadema), with whom John shared a passion for the Classical architecture rendering, especially static landscape features that were created from marble.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the classical civilisation secrets were revealed through excavations of lots of well-known archaeologists. This resulted in an unprecedented public interest all over Europe in the classical period and many European artists continued the tradition and the representation re-assessment of the art's classical subject. Although the antiquity was already studying in a traditional historical context, the 19th-century artists developed a Victorian genre that was focused upon the domestic as well as the classical civilisation daily life. In England, this particular genre was mainly dominated by Lawrence's work, who influenced the work of Victorian artists including John.

The vast majority of John's existing paintings feature women seen in Classical dress and posing against the landscape features, but there are some fully nude and semi-nude features included in the artist's oeuvre; for instance, In The Tepidarium, which he executed in 1913, a title which was shared with his controversial Alma-Tadema picture of the same subject residing in the museum called Lady Lever Art Gallery. These titles reflect the artist's source of inspiration, which was Classical civilisation, in particular, that of Ancient Rome (a subject that also binds John closely to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema artistically). Also, Ancient Greece sometimes features, therefore providing more limited ties with Leighton artistically.

Since Classical scholarship was more popular among the potential audience for John's paintings during his time on earth than today, meticulous research when it came to detail was important to attain a reputation as an artist in that genre. Lawrence was also an archaeologist who attended historical sites collecting artefacts that he later used in his work. John also studied such details as dress and architecture to make sure that his paintings bore the authenticity stamp.

Additionally, in his paintings, the artist meticulously and painstakingly rendered other important features, including wildflowers (Summer Flowers (1903) and Nerissa (1906) are examples of this) and animal skins (the paintings A Cool Retreat (1910) and Noon Day Rest (1910) comprise examples of such rendition). The appearance of attractive women who are in studied poses in numerous John's canvases causes most newcomers to the artist's work to mistakenly categorise him as Pre-Raphaelite, especially as his palette is usually a vibrantly colourful one.

When it comes to the choice of subject matter (for example, ancient civilisation versus Arthurian legend) is certainly more properly that of a Victorian Neoclassicist. It is, however, appropriate to mention that in common with many painters contemporary with him, John was undoubtedly a 'High Victorian Dreamer' and produced beautiful pictures of a world which was romanticised and idealised, and which in the instance of both Lawrence and John, came to be scrutinised as 'Victorians in togas' world-view.

John rapidly established a reputation for the paintings he executed of beautiful women in a classical background and his capability of conveying with sensitivity plus technical knowledge in feeling of contrasting fabrics, fur, marble, flesh and texture. John's penchant for producing works of art that are set in the classical era most likely came from the time in which the artist was born. In western painting, the latest full-scale classical revival bloomed in the 1860s in England and then flowered here for the next 30 years.

John exhibited at the RA (Royal Academy of Arts) from 1887. One of the artist's best- known paintings is the 1904 Dolce far Niente, which was bought in 1995 for Andrew Lloyd Webber's collection. As in the case of many other paintings, he produced more than one version, and in this instance, an earlier and less known 1897 version with another version in 1906.

A Classical Beauty is one of the fine and subtle examples of John's early work where the technical quality of the artist's paint is definitely at its best. It was the result of a gradual build-up of thin, translucent glazes that created a luminosity of colour. His reputation for his capability of creating a realistic rendering of marble rivalled outstripping that of Lawrence. John's interest in Classical antiquity can be seen in the setting and in the drapery details. In the 2nd half of the 19th century, that revival of interest when it comes to classical history, which was used by artists like Lawrence, Poynter, Leighton and John, proved very popular amongst notable members of society because it mirrored their sense of justice and affluence.

In the painting His Birthday Gift, a dark-haired Greek maiden who is wearing a green tunic is seen carefully examining a new bracelet, a birthday gift she was given by her lover; she has mixed emotions. Looking at the composition, it's displaying rather more objects when compared to most of John's paintings of this time, with an ornamental bronze table that is supporting a variety of ointment jars, an animal fur is seen on a tessellated floor, plus other objects, all of which show John's concern for the adornment of a classical interior.

In his 1911 work In Realms of Fancy, the artist has painted the blue Mediterranean sea in circular oil. The curvature of the body of the young girl imitates the canvas' tondo shape. Again a classical maiden is seen in a recumbent pose, which emphasises her vulnerability. Like most of the tondo pictures by the artist, this oil is depicting the model in profile.

In A Pompeian Lady (1916), it's interesting to note that John chose to associate the maiden in the painting with the city, which was inspirational to 19th-century artists. In the painting, the painted decorations seen on the wall in A Pompeian Lady background are similar to those Lawrence had studied in merchant's villas and house at Pompeii and reproduced in numerous Victorian journals and books as the perfect example of classical decoration.

Undraped nudes are very rare in the artist's oeuvre. However, in In the Tepidarium, the carefully modelled flesh tones have been set against a master display of technique in this picture of the contrasting marble slabs, and the delicately receding tesserae and gently rough of the Tepidarium floor. Mixed with the delicately modulated tones of the dropped draperies, the different elements are combined to create a masterpiece.

John was born to in the year 1861 and during his lifetime, he lived in Wilton Grove, in a district and town called Wimbledon. The artist was born to John Godward and Sarah Eboral. The artist was named after his grandfather William and his father John. On 17 October 1861, he has baptised St. Mary's Church located in Battersea. The overbearing attitude of John's parents made him shy and reclusive later in adulthood.