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  • John William Godward
    Aug 9, 1861 - Dec 13, 1922
  • An Edition de Luxe - Godward excelled in oil and watercolour. His work remained consistent throughout a remarkable career spanning almost forty years, over which time he created a vital stylistic niche for his oeuvre. Godward is best known for his highly finished paintings of pretty girls attired in classical robes, indeed, he became known as the master ‘classical tunic gown’ painter.
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An Edition de Luxe
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  • An Edition de Luxe

  • John William Godward
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  • 1920
    Oil on canvas
    100 x 100 cm (39.5 x 39.5 in.)
    Private collection, Italy.

    'His last tondo painting, An Edition de Luxe was a masterpiece. It depicts an Italian beauty sitting on an abalone inlaid chair wearing a green tunic, crimson stola, crimson and pink ribbons, holding a scroll she is reading.’ (Vern Grosvenor Swanson, J.W. Godward 1861-1922 – The Eclipse of Classicism, 2018, pp.165-166)

    'Godward displayed a stunning degree of draughtsmanship and brilliant paint handling quite different from the methods and practices of his contemporaries. His emphasis on saturated colour, a purity of tone and a remarkable rendering of the material environment resulted in an opulent gestalt achieved without fussiness in effect or coarse taste…’ (Vern Grosvenor Swanson, J.W. Godward 1861-1922 – The Eclipse of Classicism, 2018, p.199)

    An Edition de Luxe was unlocated when Vern Swanson published his first monograph on Godward in 1997 but is reproduced in its full glory in his revised book of 2019 where he describes it as a 'masterpiece’. It demonstrates Godward’s exceptional ability to render fabrics in exquisite detail and to contrast soft, warm, living flesh with cool polished marble and tactile animal-skins. The details of the inlaid decoration on the back of the chair and the bronze bowl reflecting the variegations of the table-top are cleverly wrought and it is probable that Godward took joy in demonstrating what he was capable of conveying in his art. He was a shy man, who did not court fame or accolade but the way he painted showed great confidence and a technical ability, which was rare amongst those of his contemporaries who followed the path set by the likes of Edward Poynter and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. John William Godward devoted his entire career to the depiction of feminine beauty, painting favourite models again and again in immaculate studies of beauty and colour. He favoured subjects with little narrative or emotional meaning other than a generalised sense of calm, idle leisure and repose. Typically, women are posed leaning against marble balustrades, draped in languid reverie on garden benches or beside fountains. They sew embroideries, pick flowers, read love-letters or hold water-jugs or tambourines but they rarely play the instruments they are holding, and it is as though they have momentarily paused to daydream. The titles are equally arbitrary and meant to evoke an idea of the classical past rather than specifically depicting it in archaeological detail. A title that he often used was Dolce far Niente, which translates as 'pleasant idleness' and this term could be applied to many of his pictures. There is never any suggestion of threat or danger in his pictures, or even any importance of narrative and in many ways Godward's work is similar to that of Albert Moore and James McNeil Whistler. Godward, Moore and Whistler shared an approach to art which, in the twentieth century, became increasingly prevalent. Their work was essentially without narrative or dramatic charge, decorative and consciously devoid of any suggestion of movement or emotion. The women are always content, alluring and absorbed but what or who they dream of is not explained or significant.

    Godward was the son of an investment clerk and born into a conservative and respectable family living in Battersea in London. His family were not supportive of his desire to become a painter but against their wishes he is believed to have studied 'rendering and graining' alongside fellow classicist William Clarke Wontner, probably learning to paint fake marble for fireplaces and furniture. Details of more formal artistic training have not been found but it is likely that he was a student at one of the many art schools in London, or possibly in Europe. In 1887 Godward had a picture accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy in London for the first time, The Yellow Turban. It was around this time that he began renting one of the Bolton Studios in Kensington in the heart of the London artist community. Godward continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy for almost two decades but by the first decade of the twentieth century he felt that his style of painting was no longer receiving critical acclaim and he ceased to exhibit and sold his pictures through an agent and various art dealers. Despite his withdrawal from the public eye, Godward enjoyed commercial success during his lifetime and the fact that he did not have to paint to please critics and the hanging committees of art galleries meant that he was able to paint what he wanted; the languid ladies in Roman garb surrounded by beautiful objects and flowers.

    In the last two decades of his life Godward spent increasing amounts of time living and working in Rome and from 1911 Italy was his semi-permanent home. Throughout the next decade he worked industriously and quietly on his paintings in his studio at the Villa Strohl Fern in the heart of the city but he was not the sort of personality to seek out solidarity with his fellow artists or form strong friendships and his life appears to have largely revolved around his art and his desire to capture perfect beauty. In 1920, when he painted An Edition de Luxe, Godward was plagued by ill-health which restricted his artistic output (only five pictures are accounted for but there were probably a few more), including A Red, Red Rose (private collection) and A Souvenir (sold in these rooms, 8 June 1993, lot 43) which depict languid women involved in leisurely activities. The pose of the model in An Edition Deluxe was also used for A Favourite Poet (Wigan Art Gallery), which is a more expansive (and less successful) composition. A similar pose had been adopted for The Time of Roses of 1916 (Sotheby’s, New York, 5 May 2011, lot 64) in which the woman is holding a rose rather than a scroll and also An Amateur (sold in these rooms, 11 December 2007, lot 18), where she holds a drawing of a nude male figure. An Edition de Luxe was painted during Godward’s last year living in Rome which had 'lost its charm’ according to a letter to his mother. He returned to London in 1921 but never recovered from his ill-health which had been brought on by the Spanish Flu pandemic, a peptic ulcer and by bouts of depression; he committed suicide later that year.

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Other paintings by John William Godward:

A Classical Beauty
A Classical Beauty
The Posy
The Posy
John William GodwardJohn William Godward was a painter of classical genre scenes. His works embody the aesthetics of the circle of artists around Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), often described as the ‘Greco-West Kensington School’, who saw the world of Ancient Greece as a Golden Age of poetic beauties and graceful languor. He excelled in oil and watercolour. His work remained consistent throughout a remarkable career spanning almost forty years, over which time he created a vital stylistic niche for his oeuvre.

Godward is best known for his highly finished paintings of pretty girls attired in classical robes, indeed, he became known as the master ‘classical tunic gown’ painter. The diaphanous fabrics of their Grecian tunics highlight their pearly flesh surrounded by marble statuary and balustrades amidst abundant flowers. He was admired for his archaeologically exact rendering of the surfaces of marble and the flowing movement of classical costume. These girls reminded one critic of ‘true English roses’ as much as Hellenic goddesses; it is this gentle beauty which is Godward’s greatest charm. He first worked in his father’s prosperous insurance firm before training with William Hoff Wonter (1814-1881) to become an architect. He became a friend of Wontner’s son, William Clarke (1857-1930) who was also a painter. Vern Swanson has persuasively argued that Godward probably attended the St John’s Wood Art School at Elm Tree Road and the Clapham School of Art in the early 1880’s.

Godward exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy between 1887 and 1905 and at the Royal Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, of which he became a member in 1889. Godward’s paintings were also often accepted to the Birmingham Royal Society of Artists’ Autumn Exhibitions. The art dealer Thomas McLean was an important champion of his work which was often included in his annual exhibitions. The prints made of Godward’s work by McLean and later by Eugène Cremetti introduced a wider audience to the artist’s work and guaranteed his popularity. He also exhibited internationally, making his début at the Paris Salon of 1899. In 1913 he was awarded the gold medal at the International Exhibition in Rome. The first years of the twentieth century saw a revival of interest in classicism, as prosperity rose throughout the British Empire. In fact, ‘the early Victorians believed that in ancient Rome they had found a parallel universe – a flawless mirror of their own immaculate world,” (cited in Iain Gale, ‘The Empire Looks Back’, Country Life, 30th May 1996, p.68.) This increased Godward’s popularity and success, with 1910 emerging as one of the best years for him as an artist.

Godward lived with his parents in Wimbledon until he achieved financial and critical success in 1889. He took a house at 34 St Leonard’s Terrace on the corner of Smith Street in Chelsea. He gave up his lease at Bolton Studios and rented a studio just around the corner. He filled his studio with marbles, ancient statues (mostly reproductions) and other antique objects, which he purchased from local shops and East End dealers, attempting to recreate a Graeco-Roman inspirational environment for his work. After a first trip to southern Italy in 1911, Godward moved to Rome where he remained until 1921. He took up residence in the Villa Stohl-Fern on the Monti Parioli near the Villa Borghese. The abundance of floral varieties and statuary in the villa’s elegant gardens appear in his work of this period. However, declining health and depression, meant Godward produced very few paintings in later life. Having returned to London in 1921, he committed suicide and was buried in Old Brompton Cemetery, Fulham.

The work of John William Godward is represented in the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth and the Manchester City Art Gallery.