John Melhuish Strudwick (1849 - 1937)

Lot 21: John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937)


June 9, 2004
London, United Kingdom

More About this Item

Description: The Ten Virgins
oil on canvas
29 x 60 in. (73.6 x 152.4 cm.)
Artist or Maker: John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937)
Exhibited: London, Grosvenor Gallery, 1884, no. 45.
Literature: Athenaeum, no. 2950, 10 May 1884, p. 603.
G.B. Shaw, 'J.M. Strudwick', Art Journal, 1891, p. 100, illustrated.
R. Muther, The History of Modern Painting, 1st edn., London, 1895-6, vol. 3, p. 625, illustrated; 2nd ed., London, 1907, vol. 3, p. 191, illustrated.
Provenance: William Imrie, Holmstead, Mossley Hill, Liverpool.
Anomymous sale; Christie's, London, 13 June 2001 lot 12.
Notes: Strudwick was born in Clapham, and educated there at St Saviour's Grammar School. Refusing to contemplate a career in business, he studied art at South Kensington and the Royal Academy Schools, but was a singularly unsuccessful student. The only visitor to the RA Schools who encouraged him was the Scottish artist John Pettie (1839-1893), whose fluent brushwork, typical of the pupils of Robert Scott Lauder at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, he emulated for a time. A picture illustrating the ballad of 'Auld Robin Gray', exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1873 and sold in these rooms on 5 November 1993, lot 181, is an interesting record of this early phase.

Strudwick eventually found his feet in the mid 1870s when he acted as a temporary assistant first to J.R. Spencer Stanhope and then to Burne-Jones. Songs without Words, the picture with which he made his first and only appearance at the Royal Academy in 1876, shows his mature style formed, and it underwent little development from then on. Like so many of the younger 'aesthetic' painters and Burne-Jones followers, he exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, at the Grosvenor Gallery from its dramatic opening in 1877, and finally at the New Gallery, which inherited the mantle of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1888. Despite this inauspicious start, he enjoyed considerable success; as George Bernard Shaw was to write in an article on him in the Art Journal for April 1891, 'there is no such thing in existence as an unsold picture by Strudwick'. Songs without Words was bought by Lord Southesk, a Scottish peer with antiquarian interests. A Golden Thread (1885) was acquired for the Chantrey Bequest as part of the Royal Academy's current campaign to woo the Burne-Jones school; and two wealthy Liverpool collectors, William Imrie and George Holt, became long-standing patrons. Bernard Shaw's article was a further sign of success. Shaw's main thesis is that Strudwick's very incapacity as a student was the making of him as an artist; he quotes his comment that 'he could not draw - never could', and interprets this as a 'priceless gift', saving him from the empty virtuosity - 'execution for execution's sake' - that had become so common among young artists, especially those who had spent 'a couple of seasons in Paris'. Shaw also recorded that the artist had 'a fine sense of humour', something one could hardly guess from his pictures; and that he never visited Italy, although critics often complained that his pictures were mere pastiches of early Italian work.

Strudwick lived all his adult life in Hammersmith or Bedford Park, not far from Burne-Jones and his fellow assistant in Burne-Jones"s studio, T.M. Rooke. His daughter Ethel, born in 1880, was to become High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School, situated locally, in 1927. Strudwick was still contributing to the New Gallery in 1908, when it held its last but one exhibition, but he seems to have ceased painting about this time although he lived on until 1937. His Times obituary described him as 'a beautiful old man... (and) a charming personality, exceedingly kind to young artists.'

The Ten Virgins illustrates the famous parable recorded in St Matthew's Gospel, chapter 25. Like nearly all of Strudwick's work, the picture is not signed or dated, but it was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884, when the artist was thirty-five, and is wholly characteristic of his mature style. Strudwick's paintings depend for their effect on their gentle, pensive mood, often articulated by music, and their elaborately wrought surface detail. It is as if a jeweller or a goldsmith, rather than a painter, has been at work.

The picture's composition would appear to be inspired by Burne-Jones's pen-and-ink drawing of the same subject, executed 25 years earlier, in 1859 (fig. 2). True, Burne-Jones places the action, incongruously enough, on a bridge crossing the river, with the wedding taking place in a wooden shed over a lock or weir, while Strudwick opts for dry land and a more conventional building made of bricks and mortar. But the way in which both artists show the Foolish Virgins approaching the house from the left, only to find its door shut against them, while Christ and the Wise Virgins are seen through a window (windows in Burne-Jones's case) on the right, leave little doubt of the connection between painting and drawing. Strudwick even adapts the rich vegetation with which Burne-Jones festoons his wooden lock-house, a reflection of the ideals of Ruskin, who was trying so hard to influence Burne-Jones's development in 1859.

The only question is how Strudwick would have known his master's composition. The drawing had been bought from Burne-Jones by the Leeds stockbroker T.E. Plint, one of the Pre-Raphaelites' staunchest early patrons. It had appeared at Plint's sale at Christie's in March 1862, probably too early to have been noted by Strudwick, who was only thirteen at the time, and then disappeared into the collection of another major Pre-Raphaelite patron, George Rae of Birkenhead. Nor does it seem to have been reproduced for public consumption until Henry Wilson illustrated it in an article in the Architectural Review in May 1897, thirteen years after Strudwick's picture was exhibited. It is not inconceivable, however, that Strudwick had encountered a photograph of the drawing before 1884, possibly when he was working in Burne-Jones's studio.

Burne-Jones' drawing was itself probably influenced by D.G. Rossetti's pen-and-ink drawing of Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (fig. 3), executed a year before his own drawing was made, in 1858. The fact that Burne-Jones sat for the head of Christ that is seen though the window of Simon's house makes the connection all the more likely. Thus Strudwick's painting may be seen as the last link in a tradition, borrowing an idea from his master just as Burne-Jones had done from his.

When the picture appeared at the Grosvenor in 1884 it was placed in the principal exhibition space, the West Gallery. This was dominated that year by one of Burne-Jones's finest works, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (Tate Gallery), but it also contained a great variety of other talent. Strudwick was not the only Burne-Jones follower present; there were also pictures by T.M. Rooke, and two artists who had felt the master's influence in the 1860s, Robert Bateman and E.H. Fahey. Alma-Tadema and his wife were both represented, as were Millais, Blake Richmond, Val Prinsep, Herkomer, Holl and others who straddled the Academy Grosvenor divide. G.F. Watts contributed one of his finest landscapes, Rain Passing Away, an essay in misty symbolism, Uldra, and a group of portraits. Giovanni Costa, George Howard and Matthew Ridley Corbet represented the Etruscan School, while W.Q. Orchardson embodied the powerful Scottish dimension to London's art establishment. Stanhope Forbes bore witness to the ever-growing influence of French realism on British painting, a development that dismayed Burne-Jones and possibly Strudwick too. Albert Moore was the token 'aesthetic' painter, his chief ally, Whistler, being shown in another room.

The picture was bought by William Imrie (1837-1906) of Liverpool, a partner in the shipping line of Ismay, Imrie & Co., the White Star Line. Imrie was Studwick's most important patron. Bernard Shaw's article was entirely illustrated by pictures in the Imrie collection, and six examples featured in Imrie's posthumous sale at Christie's on 28 June 1907. The Ten Virgins, however, was not among them, and must have been retained by the family. Also absent were St Cecilia, which, like our picture, was illustrated by Shaw, and the pair of Angels from the same collection that were offered in these Rooms on 5 March 1993 (lot 109).

Imrie's taste was fairly catholic. Leighton, Alma-Tadema, John Brett, Frank Dicksee, Luke Fildes, C.E. Perugini, G.D. Leslie and Clarkson Stanfield were all represented on his walls. But his real interest lay in the later Pre-Raphaelite school. He had two major Rossettis, Veronica Veronese (Bancroft Collection, Wilmington) and the second large version of Dante's Dream (Dundee Art Gallery), a fine Burne-Jones, The Tree of Forgiveness (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), a Spencer Stanhope, and, in addition to the Strudwicks, eight or more paintings (depending on whether they were all in the sale) by Evelyn De Morgan. The Strudwicks, moreover, were a particularly impressive group. Two, Evensong (1898) and the larger version of Passing Days (1904), were included in the Last Romantics exhibition mounted at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, in 1989 (nos. 46 and 47). Another major example, The Ramparts of God's House (1889), was sold in these Rooms on 4 November 1994.

Imrie was one of a number of Liverpool shipowners and merchants who formed remarkable collections of pictures at this period. Others included his partner in the White Star Line, Thomas Henry Ismay (1837-1899); George Holt (1825-1896), whose collection still survives at Sudley House, now one of Merseyside's museums; and, most important of all, F.R. Leyland (died 1892), who patronised Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Whistler and others on a princely scale and created one of the greatest 'aesthetic' houses of the day at 49 Prince's Gate in London.

These collections all had something in common, and there were clearly certain links between their owners. Imrie, as already noted, was a business partner of T.H. Ismay, whose collection included Burne-Jones's Chant d'Amour (Metropolitan Museum, New York), first exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878. There was also probably a connection between Imrie and George Holt, who owned a less important Burne-Jones but almost rivalled Imrie as a patron of Strudwick in the 1890s. The two collectors lived near one another in Mossley Hill, a suburb of South Liverpool. They were also both businessmen of a reclusive type, not too strenuously engaged in public life, which was no doubt why they responded to the contemplative art of Burne-Jones and his school. As for Leyland, it is inconceivable that his dazzling example was not known to his fellow collectors in Liverpool. It should be stressed however, that his patronage of artists was conducted almost excusively in London, while in Liverpool his ruthless business methods and irregular private life made him a deeply unpopular figure. Nor can we attach much importance to the fact that Norman Shaw was employed both by Leyland, to create his palatial interior in Prince's Gate, and by Ismay, to build his country house, Dawpool, at Thurlaston in Cheshire. Shaw had an extensive clientele in the Liverpool area, and might have worked for the two men anyway.

We are grateful to Edward Morris, formerly Curator of Fine Art at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.

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June 9, 2004, 12:00 AM EST

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