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  • John William Godward
    Aug 9, 1861 - Dec 13, 1922
  • The Engagement Ring - 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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The Engagement Ring
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  • The Engagement Ring

  • John William Godward
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  • 1888
    Oil on canvas

    'Perhaps the finest painting of 1888 was his Alma-Tademasque The Engagement Ring.'
    Vern Grosvenor Swanson, John William Godward - The Eclipse of Classicism, 1997, p.30

    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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Other paintings by John William Godward:

The Posy
The Posy
Heart on Her Lips and Soul within Her Eyes
Heart on Her Lips and Soul within Her Eyes
Study of a Head in Drapery, Miss Ethel Warwick
Study of a Head in Drapery, Miss Ethel Warwick
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.