John William Godward

John William Godward
09.08.1861 (Wimbledon, England) - 13.12.1922 (London, England)

Nationality: English


John William Godward can be considered the best of the last great European painters that embraced Roman and Greek Classical antiquity in their art. In his work we can see the final summation of half a millennium of Classical antique influence on Western Painting. With his tragic suicide in 1922, this tradition more or less disappeared with him. 

John William Godward was born into a bourgeois Victorian family living in Battersea, London. Not much is known about Godward’s youth but given the "loner" image he later projected, one can imagine he was shy and non-assertive and had an average school-boy career, with the possible exception of his grades and drawing ability. Although all of the children seem to have been successful in acceptable professions, John William, against his parent’s wishes, choose his own path. Evidence points to the family being acquainted with the noted architect, designer and renderer William Hoff Wontner (1814-1881). Since John William exhibited some early drawing skills, his parents apparently saw little harm in allowing their son to study with the architect from 1879 to 1881. This probably took place in the evenings since John William kept his day job as a clerk at his father’s insurance company. During these lessons in rendering and graining he met the architect's son, William Clarke Wontner, who also took part and was to become Godward’s lifelong friend. Godward’s later recognition as master of faux marble and his skill in rendering perspective and architectural elements surely had their origin in this period.

The death of W.H. Wontner left the twenty year old Godward undertrained, but Wontner’s son William Clarke, four years older then John William and already becoming a successful portrait painter, probably assumed responsibility for the continued training of his friend. There is no evidence of Godward attending the Royal Academy of Art School; it was more likely that he enrolled at the Clapham School of Art which offered special instruction to students who wished to obtain the "Art Class Teachers' Certificate," which would satisfy his parents. The school also offered evening classes that would have enabled him to continue working for his father during the day. 

Godward's interest in the classical genre probably owes much to his acquaintance with the St. John's Wood group (Dicksee, Poynter, Waterhouse et al.) via Wontner, who had a studio there and taught at the St. John's Wood Art School. 1887 saw Godward’s first accepted entry into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition at Burlington House in London: "A Yellow Turban." Although it attracted little attention, it did initiate him as a "legitimate" artist, and raised his esteem in the eyes of his disapproving family. He continued to exhibit there regularly until 1905, possibly for this reason. With his oil Poppaea, Godward also became an exhibitor at the Royal Society of British Artists (R.B.A.) in Suffolk Street during their Winter Exhibition of 1887-1888. Godward’s paintings were first placed with a notable sales gallery in 1888 - that of Arthur Tooth and Sons of Haymarket Street in the West End of London, who also represented Alma-Tadema and Poynter. He soon settled instead with the competing dealer Messrs. Thomas Miller McLean, located just next door to Tooth.

At the age of 26 he had finally gained sufficient confidence to leave his parents' home in Wimbledon - at least for part of the time - for an atelier at No. 19 Bolton Studios in Kensington. These 27 studios were a hotbed for classical artists in the area and tended to be occupied on a shared basis. Godward's final break with his parent's home came in 1889 after a period of financial success through McLean, when he moved into a leasehold house in St. Leonard's Terrace, Chelsea (50 yards from the home of the novelist Bram Stoker). Just around the corner he was also able to occupy his own studio at No.1 St. Leonard's Studios - a spacious single-storey building. These moves gave him greater access to his dealer, to other artists, and to the models.

The year that he moved, Godward painted about 25 oils, mostly for McLean, of which two of the most ambitious works were Sewing Girl and Waiting for an Answer. The latter painting possibly incorporates a self-portrait - the similarity of the male figure to Godward's brothers as seen in various photographs is striking (there are no known extant photographs of the artist). The girl in the painting is his regular model with whom he might have had an amorous liaison. It is certainly noteworthy that he painted very few men, and then never alone - a constant reminder possibly of his own loneliness and unrequited love.

The following year, 1891, saw at least 21 oils by the prolific artist, including some of the finest to receive media recognition. Amongst them was Sweet Siesta of a Summer Day which hung in the RA Summer Exhibition that year. McLean's 18th annual London exhibition of 1892 featured the academicAt the Garden Shrine, Pompeii. McLean had purchased it for £75 - such a large amount at the time for such a small canvas indicates the growing esteem in which his paintings were increasingly held.The Betrothal was another important work of that year since it introduced the "polka-dot" stola into his repertoire of props, and it was also his first work to be accepted into the permanent collection of a major art museum, being donated in 1916 to the Guildhall Art Gallery.

1893 can be regarded as Godward's creative watershed in which his style reached maturation and his career was established. It was also at this time that some of his canvases were reproduced and published by McLean as photo-engravings. One of these was The Betrothed. Some were also widely publicised through magazines. The two most impressive works of this year are Endymion and Yes or No?.

In 1894 Godward moved out of the St. Leonard's Terrace studios, and took a 40-year lease on a prestigious property at 410 Fulham Road. Like Alma-Tadema, he used his home as an instrument of his art and decorated it internally as an ancient Roman building set in a garden of pergolas and fountains. After his death, an Italian sculptor, Mario Manenti, acquired this building in West Kensington and turned it into numerous small ateliers called "The Italian Village." Unlike Alma-Tadema's home which was always open to parties, "artists' Tuesdays" and drop-in visitors, Godward's home was more of a hermitage which he left only to visit the shops and East End dealers in marbles and antique paraphernalia.

The new century arrived with Godward still painting prolifically and becoming recognised as a major exponent of classical figure painting. However, his passive nature prevented him from making major progress in his career, and by the turn of the century, classical painters seldom received critical acclaim beyond the walls of the Royal Academy. Notwithstanding this, a major work from this period is Ionian Dancing Girl, which was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1902 to great critical praise. Then, with a subtle change of style, his 1903 canvas Summer Flowers was the first in which flowers became a dominant feature. He had used the effect before, but never so profusely.

In 1904, the artist's father died. Far from being disheartened by the sad news, however, Godward produced two of his finest paintings in this year - Dolce Far Niente and In the Days of Sappho. The former was one of 7 paintings bearing this title and it depicts an Italian model wearing a luxurious saffron robe as an exhausted Bacchante collapsed after a frenzied dance. The viewer's eye is led to the recumbent girl via her peacock fan and bear and lion furs. The latter canvas is a beautifully composed and rendered piece notable for its original and subtle colour scheme with the girl capturing the viewer's attention by gazing out of the picture.

1905 saw Godward's last RA Summer Exhibition - possibly he gave up trying to attract the attention of the greater British populace - although he still continued to exhibit in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent. He also made his first trip to Italy and it is thought that he stayed in Capri from where he ventured out to paint oil studies near Sorrento, Pompeii, and the Bay of Naples. Works from this period include the monumental Nerissa and Drusilla, possibly inspired by his Pompeian visits.

The artist's reputation was firmly established between 1908 and 1910, particularly through the sale of prints. 1908 also saw the death of his long-term dealer Thomas McLean, whose business was then taken over by Eugène Cremetti & Son. Fortunately they continued with the sale of Godward's paintings which now also began appearing for sale through dealers in Northern England. One of his finest works from this period is Noonday Rest, depicting a reclining beauty on a marble ledge with the attractive yet poisonous oleander bush appearing from behind a column symbolising the Victorian view of the fickleness of women - the composition bound in a fine synthesis of the contrasting textures of marble, fur, fabric and flesh.

In 1910 William Clarke Wontner and his wife, Jessie, moved from their Kensington home to reside at Godward's address at 410 Fulham Road. It is likely that the latter rented out the main house to the couple while Godward occupied his preferred studio house at the bottom of the garden. Wontner, going through a low point at this time, stayed there until 1921. From this time onwards, Godward's style and the scenery in his home had a clear influence on the subsequent work of his friend.

By 1912 Godward had left England to reside in Rome. The reason for his departure is unknown, although critical acclaim in London was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and living in Italy might have added an air of authenticity to the work of such a "classical" artist. Certainly, in Rome there existed a flourishing classical school at this time, including many foreign artists. Unfortunately, little detail is known concerning his years in Italy. Milo-Turner, however, tells that he left England in a hurry with his Italian model, an act for which his mother never forgave him. The large paintingAbsence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder marked the beginning of his Roman period - a felicitous trompe d'oeil work combining the typical sensuous innocence of the model with still life irises. In a similar vein, one of his best works of that year was A Tryst. While in Rome, Godward lived in an artist studio at No. 2 Villa Strohl-Fern which was situated on Monti Parioli near the main entrance to the Gardens of the Villa Borghese. There was a pervasive Bohemian feel to the studios surrounded by shaded terraces with the nearby large garden filled with Roman statuary. The Villa was home to many artists, amongst the most notable being the Russian Ilya Repin (1844-1930).

In 1913 Godward was awarded the gold medal at the Rome Internationale exhibition for The Belvedere. Most of his works were now set out of doors, and in Tranquillity of 1914 a greater section of the canvas is devoted to landscape. However, from 1915 onwards his output seemed to reduce significantly, which may have been caused by his declining health, or the difficulty of communication with his dealer Cremetti during the War years (1914-1918). The most significant work of 1917 isUnder the Blossom that Hangs on the Bough, inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest. It is a work of stunningly harmonious colour transitions superimposed on a marble background. The following years saw not only a striking increase in the number of artist studios in the Villa grounds (to about 100) but also their commensurate decline and dilapidation - coinciding with the aging of the owner and founder Alfred Strohl-Fern. During the next four years Godward is thought to have returned to London about as many times - just after the War in 1918, for his nephew's funeral in 1919, his brother's wedding in 1920, finally returning to spend his remaining days in Fulham from 1921 until his untimely death in December 1922. Upon his return to his Fulham home, the Wontners moved out of the main house, returning to West Kensington, making way for his brother Charles Arthur and his pregnant wife Gertrude. Godward re-occupied the garden studio. His health declined further and under-nourishment from a spartan existence likely led to dyspepsia (the same illness which took Alma-Tadema's life a decade earlier). Without a doubt he was also mentally affected by the belligerence of the intellectual modernism of the Bloomsbury Group, particularly after the death of Edward J. Poynter in 1919. The latter was President of the RA, a last bastion of the classical movement.

Rather than continue with the misery of ill health and seeing his art suffer, John William Godward committed suicide on December 13th, 1922. Returning from work that evening, his brother found him dead in his studio, having gassed himself over a gas-ring in the wash-room, the word "GAS" in his handwriting left pinned as a warning to the outside of the door. He was interred in the plot he had purchased in 1904 at the Old Brompton Cemetery close to his studio and near to the graves of the other Victorian artists Sir Henry Cole, James Godwin, Val Prinsep and Frederick Sandys.


V.G. Swanson, John William Godward, The Eclipse of Classicism, Woodbridge 1997;
E. Kepetzis, 'Vom Paradox eines Viktorianischen Antikenraums John William Godwards "Die Liegende"', Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 63, Keulen 2002, p. 319-344.


The work of John William Godward is among others represented in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Dahesh Museum in New York and Manchester City Art Gallery in the U.K.

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The Sweet Siesta of a Summer's Day

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