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Lot 72: JOHN MELHUISH STRUDWICK
19th Century European Art including an Important Collection of Sculpture
May 5, 2011
New York, NY, USA
Description: JOHN MELHUISH STRUDWICK BRITISH 1849 - 1937 PASSING DAYS with an old paper label inscribed Passing days/ by John Strudwick/ Painted in 1878 on the reverse oil on panel 15 by 44 in. 38.1 by 111.8 cm
A methodical painter, Strudwick produced relatively few compositions over his forty-year career. In his masterworks, he revisited two themes frequently: music as allegory and, as with Passing Days, time and mortality. While such subjects preoccupied many of Strudwick's fellow Pre-Raphaelites, the present work is a particularly complex and detailed composition that challenges the viewer to decipher its meaning. Thankfully, Strudwick provided a written "guide" to Passing Days when exhibited at London's Grosvenor Gallery in 1878. In part, Strudwick wrote:
"The days of childhood, represented by children's figures, have flown into the mist of the past. The days of youth follow and the figures hold back their hands to the man, to signify the memories of the past recalls to them.... Then the future comes, days of good and evil burden wearing days; a day that fears, and seems to see, approaching death. After, follow the last and oldest days, that heed nothing but the roughness of way. Then last of all death comes out of the clouds and mist of the future" (Blackburn, p. 45 as quoted in Kolsteren, p. 6)
Rather than effusive commentary, Strudwick's text reveals how carefully he considered his visual imagery. Set in the center of the composition, man sits on a throne, while grey-bearded Time "is seated on his cloud," and youthful winged Love hovers and "watches the procession sadly as it passes by." The long, golden scythe of Time bars the man's outstretched hands from the memory of his youth, symbolized by lovely maidens, walking among blooms. Helplessly focused on the past, man looks away from the future of steadily aging figures, and ignores the weeping woman representing the "present day," and the pair of figures, one with burning embers falling from her hand that suggest the ever-extinguishing life of man. Strudwick's complex processional is separated into three vertical sections: present at the center, birth and youth at the right, and old age and death at the left. The composition is also evenly divided horizontally. The shallow space at the center holds the story of the man's life, with scenes of his trials and triumphs carved into its marble balcony and throne. At the lowest level, a realm of silvery mist, dwell bat-winged, shrouded Death, and cherubic children of birth. At the top tier, a panoramic landscape further establishes the movement of time, with Arcadian fields at right, inhospitable cliffs, at left and, at center, a magnificent island with guarded castle (Kolsteren, p. 6). In this multi-directional and interconnected arrangement of allegory, Strudwick brilliantly relates the unavoidable, elliptical and paradoxical nature of time, as the present looks into the past while becoming the future.
The incredible detail and complicated structure of Passing Days is made all the more remarkable when considering it was completed only two years after Strudwick's first (and only) Royal Academy exhibition of Song without Words in 1876 (sold, Sotheby's, London, June 8, 1993, lot 22), and a year following his first Grosvenor submission of Love's Music (sold: Sotheby's, London, July 15, 2008, lot 3). Strudwick's highly crafted and otherworldly style owed much to his experience as a studio assistant to John Roddam Spencer Stanhope in the early 1870s, and later, Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Like Spencer Stanhope and Burne-Jones, Strudwick's painting manifests the aesthetic culture established in certain circles in London in the 1870s, with its particular affection for an Italianate world, and for remote, indeterminate historical epochs. In particular, the melancholic mood of Passing Days was detected by Frederick Wedmore, who believed "whether we like or do not like the sentiment of this work — the moral it is possible at least to deduce from it — it is easy to see the its poetical intention is supported by poetical power" (Wedmore, p. 342). In evaluating Strudwick's work, critics intertwined an emotional evaluation with their assessment of technical skill.
While Strudwick's work has been considered by some as derivative of the major figures of Pre-Raphaelite art, Passing Days evidences the originality and highly personal nature of his allegorical pictures (Kolstern, pp. 1, 6). As a pencil study for the central figure of the present work demonstrates, Strudwick was a meticulous draughtsman (see lot 73). Indeed, in his definitive 1891 essay on the artist, George Bernard Shaw (who was an art critic before becoming a legendary playwright) recognized the importantance of Passing Days as a "subject that could hardly be surpassed. It is not unlikely that it will be painted again and again by different hands" (Shaw, p. 97). In the final years of his career, the artist completed a second, larger version of Passing Days (oil on canvas, 30 ½ by 105 in., private collection) which, though compositionally similar, is different in detail. While these versions demonstrate the consistency of Strudwick's production, their allegorical nature suggests an artist reflecting on his career.
Interestingly both the present Passing Days and the larger version were owned by William Imrie (1837-1906), partner in the Liverpool shipping firm of Ismay, Imrie & Co., (the White Star Line). Like many of his fellow Liverpool ship-owners, merchants, and politicians, Imrie formed a major collection of Pre-Raphaelite works. Among the paintings hung in Imrie's impressive home were more than six compositions by Strudwick suggesting that he was one of the artist's most important patrons (Christian, p. 94).
William Imrie, Holmstead, Mossley Hill, Liverpool (in 1897)
Hon. Christopher Lennox-Boyd, Lord Lambton (and sold: Christie's, London, July 29, 1977, lot 88, illustrated)
Sale: Sotheby's, London, November 10, 1981, lot 39, illustrated
Christopher Wood, London
Acquired from the above
London, Grosvenor Gallery, 1878, no. 120
London, Guildhall, Loan Exhibition of Pictures, 1897, no. 157 (lent by William Imbrie)
Henry Blackburn, Grosvenor Notes, London, May 1878, p. 41
Frederick Wedmore, "Some Tendancies in Recent Painting," Temple Bar, A London Magazine, vol. LIII, May-August 1878, pp. 340-1
George Bernard Shaw, "J. M. Strudwick," Art Journal, 1891, pp. 97, 101, illustrated
Joseph A. Kestner, Mythology and Misogyny, The Social Discourse of Nineteenth-Century British Classical Painting, Madison, Wisconsin, 1989, pp. 109-10
Steven Kolsteren, "The Pre-Raphaelite Art of John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937)," The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies, Fall 1988, pp.4, 6, 11, illustrated fig. 9
John Christian, The Last Romantics, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1989, p. 94, mentioned in the catalogue entry for no. 47
Susan P. Casteras, "Burne Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle at the Palace of the Aesthetes," The Grosvenor Gallery, A Palace of Art in Victorian England, Yale, 1996, p. 85
Colleen Denney, At the Temple of Art, The Grosvenor Gallery, 1877-1890, Cranbury, New Jersey, 2000, p. 94