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  • John William Godward
    Aug 9, 1861 - Dec 13, 1922
  • Heart on Her Lips and Soul within Her Eyes - 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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Heart on Her Lips and Soul within Her Eyes
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  • Heart on Her Lips and Soul within Her Eyes

  • John William Godward
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  • 1904
    Oil on canvas
    Private collection, United States.

    In John William Godward’s prolific oeuvre, he exquisitely renders scenes of idle contemplation and idyllic beauty, in which nothing is amiss and life is devoted to the daily pursuit of pleasure. The solitary, contemplative and unaffected women of Godward's paintings may well be seen as a reflection of the artist's own personality. Little is known about Godward’s life because his family burned all of his personal papers and documents after his suicide in 1922. What we can piece together about his life creates a portrait of a determined, isolated, and reclusive man ‘passionately enthralled with feminine beauty’ and stubbornly committed to his classical ideals. Godward was the eldest of five children born to a hard-working, prosperous middle-class family in London. His father, an investment clerk in a life assurance office, strongly encouraged his oldest son to follow his career path, and for some time, Godward acquiesced. However, Godward also took lessons in architecture from William Hoff Wontner, and we can trace Godward’s masterful perspective and exceptional portrayal of marble in his paintings back to these early years. After W.H. Wontner’s death, Godward studied under his son, William Clark Wontner, and then most likely went on to train at one of London’s many local art schools, much to his family’s chagrin who allegedly cut him out of every family photograph. In 1887, Godward secured his entry into the Royal Academy with his painting, A Yellow Turban, and he would continue to exhibit there until 1905, when he moved to Italy. Godward’s work was admired by the prominent art dealer, Arthur Tooth, and he purchased ten of the artist’s early oils. The following year, Godward transferred to the art dealer Thomas Muller McLean, who was one of his greatest champions. Godward was a productive and consistent artist, producing on average fifteen to twenty high quality paintings a year. His income was supplemented by engraved reproductions of his images, making him fairly popular with the middle-class Victorian market. For the next twenty years, Godward would live and work in various artist studios throughout London, including Bolton Studios, a hive for classical artists, and the quiet, reclusive No. 410 Fulham Road. He filled his studios with marbles, ancient statues, and antique objects to create a Greco-Roman environment and bring his imaginary world to life. He selected his models from a small pool of professionals and had a strong preference for those with Italian features, which he believed made his images convincingly classical. In his portrayal of these women, he eschewed the ‘classical’ ideal to capture their personalities, true features, and warm bodies. Godward then clothed these bodies in a variety of brightly coloured, ethereal robes and stolas and set them against stunningly depicted classical scenes.
    Dated 1904, Heart on her Lips and Soul within her Eyes was painted while Godward was living in London, although in spirit it is entirely Italianate. The olive and cypress trees and the glimpse of azure blue sea and headland are reminiscent of the Neapolitan coast and an inscription on the reverse of an oil sketch for a contemporary painting A Melody implies that it was painted ‘at Capri’ and it is likely therefore that the background for the present picture was also based on sketches made on the island.

    The re-appearance of this painting marks an important discovery for the artist. Until recently, the work had long been attributed to Godward’s contemporary, Tito Conti, whose signature had been added (and since removed). Similarly, Godward’s paintings were sometimes ascribed to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, for he and Conti commanded large prices in the early twentieth century, particularly in America, and attributions were sometimes altered in order to take advantage of high demand and unsuspecting patrons.

    In the present work, Godward has placed his red-haired model in profile, lost in faraway thoughts, gazing towards the cypress trees, blue Mediterranean and mountains that plunge into the sea. The saturated colours of the drapery, warm tones of the model's skin, and realistically painted marble are familiar trademarks of Godward’s oeuvre. The painting’s title is from Lord Byron’s poem Beppo of 1818. Godward, and his audience, recognized the romantic allusions of this title and in the absence of props or any narrative, the literary association enhances the composition’s emotional and psychological charge.

    'Heart on her lips and soul within her eyes,
    Soft as her clime, and sunny as her skies.'
    Beppo, Byron, 1818

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Other paintings by John William Godward:

The Engagement Ring
The Engagement Ring
Study of a Head in Drapery, Miss Ethel Warwick
Study of a Head in Drapery, Miss Ethel Warwick
Beauty in a Marble Room
Beauty in a Marble Room
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.