Every so often a painter produces a picture which by common consent is his masterpiece, one which expresses his artistic personality in a particulary rich, telling and memorable form, and the loss of which would immeasurably lessen the impact that personality makes. To look no further afield than the Victorians, Dadd's Fairy Feller's Master Stroke is one example, Frith's Derby Day another. Significantly enough, both pictures are in the Tate.
Spencer Stanhope's Love and the Maiden is in the same category. The artist's rare early paintings are fascinating, rather quirky, essays in the classic Pre-Raphaelite idiom. But ultimately Stanhope was not a Pre-Raphaelite as the term was defined by the movement's original 'truth to nature' and 'meaningful subject' programme. Quickly outgrowing this phase, he went on to become one of the leading exponents of the 'aestheticism' which developed in the 1860s out of a heady mixture of Pre-Raphaelite, early Italian, classical and Far Eastern sources. Love and the Maiden is his masterpiece in the sense that no other work so completely embodies his intentions at this central stage of his career. Utterly characteristic in style and sentiment, it was painted when he was at the height of his powers on an exceptionally ambitious scale which must reflect its inclusion in the first exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, that event of unique significance in later Victorian art.
Unlike nearly every other artist in his circle, Stanhope came from an aristocratic background. His father, Walter Spencer Stanhope, was a Yorkshire landowner, whose brother, Charles, was an important patron of the sporting and animal painter J.F. Herring. His mother, Lady Elizabeth, was the youngest daughter of Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, well known as 'Coke of Norfolk', one of the greatest agricultural reformers of the time. From his mother, who had grown up surrounded by the art treasures of Holkham, he inherited a strong sense of beauty, while from his father, who combined farming with classical scholarship and made pioneering expeditions to Greece, he acquired a certain independence of mind and an indifference to conventional opinion. These values were to find expression in his painting.
Stanhope was educated at Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford. Despite parental opposition, he was determined to become an artist, and in 1850 Dr. Henry Acland, Lee's Reader in Anatomy at Chirst Church and a close friend of Ruskin, introduced him to G.F. Watts. Watts had recently met Thoby and Sara Prinsep, and the following year he was to move with them to Little Holland House, the dower house of Holland House, the famous Whig stronghold, in Kensington. Thoby was a wealthy retired Indian civil servant; Sara, a woman of boundless energy, was one of the celebrated Pattle sisters who also included Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, and Virginia, Countess Somers, who was admired as a great beauty. Sara's ambition, which she quickly realised, was to create a salon frequented by celebrities in the worlds of art, literature, politics and science. Watts became her resident genius, a permanent guest at Little Holland House, where studios were specially constructed for his use.
Stanhope now joined this self-consciously artistic circle, receiving informal instruction from Watts, helping him to paint murals, and accompanying him on visits to Italy (1853) and Greece (1856-7). But Watts was not an exciting or charismatic teacher. Terrified of imposing ideas on his pupil, he did little but make him draw objective studies with a hard pencil. 'Watts utterly condemns all mannerisms', Stanhope reported, 'and says that nothing ought to be studied (the Elgin marbles excepted) but nature'. It is not surprising that the young man soon fell victim to the powerful personalities and emotive art of D.G. Rossetti and his follower Edward Burne-Jones, both of whom were among Mrs Prinsep's 'lions'. In the summer of 1859 he joined them and others in painting the famous if ill-fated murals illustrating the Morte d'Arthur in the Oxford Union, his subject being Sir Gawaine and the Damsels at the Fountain. Watts's younger pupil Val Prinsep, Thoby and Sara's second son, was another participant, having felt Rossetti's magnetism no less than Stanhope.
Stanhope held his own in this new gallaxy of talent. Years later Burne-Jones was to tell his studio assistant T.M. Rooke that Stanhope's 'colour was beyond any the finest in Europe; an extraordinary turn for landscape he had too - quite individual. Rossetti was in a perfect state of enthusiasm about it'. In fact Stanhope's work, at whatever stage of development, is always instantly recognisable. Nonetheless, having thrown in his lot with the Pre-Raphaelites, he was open to their influence. His best known early work, Thoughts of the Past (Tate Gallery), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859, owes an obvious debt to Rossetti, treating the theme of prostitution that he had explored in his never-completed picture Found (Wilmington) in terms of a very Rossettian composition, a figure in a cluttered, claustrophobic, and symbol-laden interior. The picture was actually painted in a studio below Rossetti's rooms in Chatham Place, Blackfriars, while his mistress, Fanny Cornforth, was the model. Pre-Raphaelite influence is also very strong in the recently rediscovered Robins of Modern Times, which was sold at Christie's in London on 7 June 1996 (lot 578) for £221,500, Stanhope's record price to date. This picture, which was exhibited at the Liverpool Academy in 1860 and exemplifies Stanhope's 'extraordinary turn for landscape', finds its closest parallel in the work of Arthur Hughes, another artist who contributed to the Oxford Union murals.
But as Stanhope's style developed the contemporary artist who had the greatest impact on him was Burne-Jones, his junior by four years. This is already apparent in a picture such as Our Lady of the Water Gate, offered by Christie's in London on 13 November 1992 (lot 120), which dates from about 1870, and the relationship is still evident in Love and the Maiden. Having struck up a close friendship when working in the Oxford Union (their murals were adjacent), the two men remained in touch. A martyr to asthma, Stanhope was forced to move frequently for the sake of his health. After his marriage in 1860 he lived at 'Sandroyd', a house designed for him by Philip Webb at Cobham in Surrey. Burne-Jones stayed with him in the summer of 1863, finding the background for his watercolour The Merciful Knight (Birmingham) in nearby woods. Stanhope later moved to the vicinity of Cannon Hall, at Barnsley in Yorkshire, which had been his childhood home, and by 1873 he was living at the Villa Nuti at Bellosguardo outside Florence. Burne-Jones visited him there that spring in the company of William Morris. 'Yesterday', he wrote to his young son Philip, 'I walked up a hill to see Mr. Stanhope who has a pretty house that looks all over Florence, and you go up to it by a long wall with roses in full flower showing over the top, and trees that you have never seen the like of all over the country, and there are Appenine Mountains at the back'.
Burne-Jones had come to Italy to study the works of the quattrocento and early High Renaissance masters who so profoundly shaped his later style, and Stanhope's work betrayed the same influences from the time he settled near Florence. He continued to live at Bellosguardo until his death in 1908. The Villa Nuti became a centre for the local English community, as well as for visitors from home. Among those who came most frequently were Stanhope's niece and her husband, Evelyn and William De Morgan, a connection which goes far to explain the close relationship which exists between Evelyn's paintings and those of her uncle. Stanhope's debt to the Italian masters, particularly Botticelli, is not only reflected in his later style but in his technique. Many of his pictures from the 1870s were in tempera, and together with Walter Crane, Joseph Southall, J.D. Batten and others, he helped to found the Society of Painters in Tempera in 1901. He was also interested in mural painting, carrying out schemes in Marlborough College Chapel in the 1870s and later in the Anglican Church in Florence. The enthusiasm for the Florentine masters shown by Stanhope, Burne-Jones, and indeed Rossetti, has a much wider art-historical context. Botticelli in particular was one of the great heroes of the Aesthetic Movement, and there were at least three powerful voices encouraging the cult. Swinburne's pioneering article on Florentine drawings, 'Notes on Designs of the Old Masters at Florence', appeared in the Fornightly Review in July 1868. Pater's famous essay on Botticelli was published in the same journal in August 1870 and reprinted in his Studies in the History of the Renassance three years later. Meanwhile Ruskin was deep in the study of Botticelli, one of five great artists whom he claimed to have interpreted to the world. The results were seen in a series of lectures, 'Sandro Botticelli and the Florentine Schools of Engraving', which he gave as Slade Professor at Oxford in the early 1870s and published under the characteristic title of Ariadne Florentina in 1873-76.
Although Stanhope exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1859 to 1902, he was not a regular contributor after 1872 and it was never his true spiritual home. Like so many of the Pre-Raphaelites and the 'aesthetic' painters who emerged as their followers in the 1860s, he preferred less conventional venues. He was a regular contributor to the Dudley Gallery which opened in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in 1865 and specialized in the work of this school, and it was inevitable that Sir Coutts Lindsay should invite him to contribute when he opened the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street in 1877. Launched amid great publicity, with all the glamour attaching to a major social event, the Gallery was conceived as a liberal alternative to the Royal Academy, reflecting the taste of its proprietor and allowing the work of the chosen artists to be seen to greater advantage than in the crowded exhibitions of the older institution. True, many Academicians were represented, including Frederic Leighton, who was to become P.R.A. the following year; but the Grosvenor was never intended to be other than a showcase for the most advanced tendencies in modern British art, and it was immediately perceived as the flagship of the Aesthetic Movement.
Burne-Jones showed eight large works at the opening exhibition and was universally hailed as the star of the show, a postition he maintained until he transferred to the Grosvenor's successor, the New Gallery, in 1888. Many of his followers and satellites were also present in force, but none more so than Stanhope, whose four contributions suggest that he too was making a bid for fame. He was, after all, forty-eight in 1877, high time to gain recognition if he was ever to do so. Love and the Maiden was joined by Eve Tempted, On the Banks of the Styx, and The Mill, which was lent by William Graham, that staunch patron of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites. Eve Tempted (or, according to some, another version) is in the Manchester City Art Gallery. On the Banks of the Styx and The Mill seem to be missing, although there are other works by Stanhope in existance which are comparable in theme and may give some idea of their appearance.
Love and the Maiden seems to be Stanhope's own invention. It is obviously a secular version of the subject of the Annunciation which had been treated by so many of his beloved Italian artists, or perhaps he intended it to be a lighter and more romantic variation on the theme of 'Death and the Maiden' which had inspired a song and a string quartet by Schubert, a musical parallel that would gain resonance in the 'aesthetic' context. Young girls confronted by Death had also haunted the imagination of Western artists. They appear in the engravings of Holbein and Dürer that had enjoyed such a vogue in Pre-Raphaelite circles in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and in the 1890s the subject would be taken up by Legros in a pair of designs that were cut on wood by Ricketts. No doubt other examples could be found in the Romantic - Symbolist tradition.
Whatever the genesis of the concept, Stanhope's treatment is characteristic. The subtle harmony of pink, blue, white and dark green, enriched with passages of gold, justifies his reputation as a colourist, which his 'turn for landscape' is as evident here as it is, under a different guise, in the earlier Robins of Modern Times. Stanhope's idyllic surroundings at Bellosguardo - the approach to the house with 'roses in full flower' appearing over the wall, the 'trees that you have never seen the like of', and the far-off Appenines - all seem to find reflections in the picture, although these clearly mingle with motifs borrowed from Botticelli's two great allegories in the Uffizi. The flower-strewn foreground (also a feature of Eve Tempted) and the screen of cypress trees seem to be suggested by the Primavera, while the treatment of the distant coast line and the pink oleander blossoms have close parallels in the Birth of Venus. Even the Maiden's braided coiffure seems to owe something to the Anadyomene's windblown locks escaping from a scarcely restraining ribbon. As for the general relationship between the two principal figures, the startled and troubled Maiden and the courteous but insistent god of love, this surely echoes another Botticelli in the Uffizi, The Annunciation, with its swaying, almost dancing movement expressive of the giving and receiving of the divine message.
Needless to say, these iconographical connections are reinforced by the technique of Stanhope's picture which, again like the Manchester Eve Tempted, is in tempera with gold paint and even some gold leaf. Technical analysis suggests that he started the painting in Italy and completed it in London, no doubt at his father's house in Harley Street, the address inscribed on the stretcher. He has reworked the composition extensively, canceling passages with opaque white, over which he has painted again in transparent tones to preserve the sense of luminosity. This procedure is not surprising. Watts did the same in oils, and Ruskin had advocated a similar method for watercolour in his handbook The Elements of Drawing, which had had a considerable influence in Pre-Raphaelite circles when it was published in 1857.
One of the innovations of the Grosvenor was that an artist's works were shown together so that his personality could be clearly perceived. Stanhope's were displayed in the principal room, the West Gallery. Immediately to one side were Burne-Jones's contributions, including The Beguiling of Merlin (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), The Days of Creation (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, Mass.) The Mirror of Venus (Gulbenkian Collection, Lisbon) and pictures now in the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Conn., and the art galleries of Vancouver and Dunedin. The work of two other closely affiliated artists, J.M. Strudwick and Walter Crane, also hung nearby, Crane's contribution being The Renaissance of Venus (Tate Gallery). Other major artists represented in the room included Whistler, Poynter, Watts, Millais, Alma-Tadema, William Blake Richmond, Holman Hunt, Albert Moore and Legros, and they too were nearly all showing major works. Here, for instance, were Whistler's Old Battersea Bridge (Tate Gallery) and The Falling Rocket (Detroit), together with his portrait of Irving as Philip II, provocatively entitled Arrangement in Black No. 3 (Metropolitan Museum, New York). Here were Watts's Love and Death (Tate Gallery) and his magnificent portrait of Mrs Percy Wyndham (private collection), Alma-Tadema's Pheideas showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (Birmingham), Holman Hunt's Afterglow in Egypt (Southampton), Albert Moore's Sapphires (Birmingham), and a group of portraits by Millais. All had to contend with the strident decor of the gallery, in which walls hung with crimson damask vied with a dado of green velvet and a roof painted a strident blue and decorated on the coving , possibly by Whistler, with a design representing the stars and the phases of the moon. Richly upholstered couches and giltwood and marble tables supporting bowls of flowers, Chinese and modern porcelain, and gas lamps shaded with globes of rainbow glass, completed the ornate decorative ensemble. It was generally agreed that the crimson damask killed the pictures and drained them of colour. 'Mr Stanhope's...look thin, one looks blackish', wrote F.G. Stephens encouragingly in his review in the Athenaeum.
The reaction to the Grosvenor's concentrated challenge to conventional artistic values was predictably shrill. Satirists had a field-day, Du Maurier in endless cartoons poking fun at the dottier manifestations of the 'aesthetic' craze, Gilbert and Sullivan in their comic opera Patience ('Greenery, yallery, Grosvenor Gallery'), first staged in 1881. Ruskin, already suffering from mental instability, went overboard in condemning Whistler's nocturnes, leading to the famous libel trial in 1878.
But it was the dramatic revelation of the work of Burne-Jones and his followers that made the greatest impact. When the Grosvenor opened, Burne-Jones to all intents and purposes had not exhibited for seven years. He had resigned from the Old Water-Colour Society in 1870 after objections were raised to the male nude in his picture Phyllis and Demophoön (Birmingham), and had been supported ever since by loyal patrons like Graham and the Liverpool shipowner F.R. Leyland. Stanhope had been no less reclusive, absent in Italy for several years and not seen at the Academy since 1872. Suddenly late Pre-Raphaelitism was bursting upon an astonished world, fully-fledged, abundant, and all too obviously elitist, appealing over the heads of the philistine hordes to a select and cultured minority. As The Times put it, 'to a great many...these pictures are unintelligible puzzles, of which they do not care to attempt the solution; to others they are occasions of angry antagonism or contemptuous ridicule. To the large majority of the crowd who will soon be thronging the Academy galleries, such pictures as these seem unaccountable freaks of individual eccentricity, or the strange and unwholesome fruits of hopeless wanderings in the mazes of mysticism and medievalism'.
Stanhope's pictures in particular evoked a mixed response. Even F.G. Stephens, who had close links with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, having been one of the original Brotherhood back in 1848, found it hard to come to terms with Love and the Maiden. He thought it 'a beautiful design elaborated to the highest degree'. Love's face was 'full of beauty', and the figures showed 'exquisite delicacy and finish,...fine drawing and charming colour'. The 'local colour' of Love's wings was particularly 'delicious'. But Stephens continued to worry about what he saw as the work's 'affectations of style' and 'wilfully defective drawing', stemming in his view from too great a dependence on Italian prototypes. 'How can the painter of Love's head and body repeat the imperfections and whims of his masters?'
Curiously enough the generally more conservative Times went further in trying to understand Stanhope's approach. 'In Mr. Stanhope's work', the paper's critic wrote, 'as in Mr. Jones's, we see the influence at once of a haunting ideal and forms of old Italian Art - the one reappearing in every face, the other imparting what looks like imitation of early Tuscan or Paduan work, as the case may be. It is hard to see why men should go back to the forms of an immature art, however pure, and manifestly inspired in its own time, for artistic clothing of their inventions; but it is evident that the idiosyncracies of these men do so impel them, that the result, however remote from common sympathies, has both a decorative beauty and an imaginative delight, which it may require special cultivation to feel, but which really and honestly exists for the initiated'.
It was Henry James, in a review of the exhibition in the Galaxy, who provided the most intelligent appraisal of the new style. 'It is the art of culture', he wrote, 'of reflection, of intellectual luxury, of aesthetic refinement, of people who look at the world and at life not directly, as it were, and in all its accidental reality, but in the reflection and ornamental portrait of it furnished by art itself in other manifestations; furnished by literature, by poetry, by history, by erudition'. James went on to point out that such work, whatever its strangeness, offered 'a vast deal to enjoy', and although he was primarily concerned with Burne-Jones, his comments apply equally to Stanhope. The figures may sometimes look 'weak and weary', as hostile critics complained, 'but they have at the same time an enchanting purity, and the perfection with which the painter has mastered the type that seems to say so much to his imagination is something rare in a day of vulgar and superficial study. In the palace of art there are may chambers, and that of which [Mr. Stanhope] holds the key is a wondrous museum. His imagination, his fertity of invention, his exquisiteness of work, his remarkable gifts as a colourist, cruelly discredited as they are by the savage red wall at the Grosvenor - all these things constitute a brilliant distinction'.
But the last word on the subject must be that of Oscar Wilde, making his debut as a critic by reviewing the Grosvenor exhibition in the Dublin University Magazine while he himself was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford. He had attended the fashionable opening on 30 April 1877, decked out in a specially tailored coat in the shape of a cello. Having discussed Eve Tempted, he continued: 'Next to it is another picture by the same artist, entitled "Love and the Maiden". A girl has fallen asleep in a wood of olive trees, through whose branches and grey leaves we can see the glimmer of sky and sea, with a little seaport town of white houses shining in the sunlight. The olive wood is ever sacred to the Virgin Pallas, the Goddess of Wisdom, and who would have dreamed of finding Eros hidden there? But the girl wakes up, as one wakes from sleep one knows not why, to see the face of the boy Love, who, with outstretched hands, is leaning towards her from the midst of a rhododendron's crimson blossoms. A rose-garland presses the boy's brown curls, and he is clad in a tunic of oriental colours, and delicately sensuous are his face and his bared limbs. His boyish beauty is of that peculiar type unknown in Northern Europe, but common in the Greek islands, where boys can still be found as beautiful as the Charmides of Plato. Guido's "St Sebastian" in the Palazzo Rosso at Genoa is one of these boys, and Perugino once drew a Greek Ganymede for his native town, but the painter who most shows the influence of this type is Correggio, whose lilly-bearer in the Cathedral at Parma, and whose wild-eyed, open-mouthed St Johns in the "Incoronata Madonna" of St Giovanni Evangelista, are the best examples in art of the bloom and vitality and radiance of this adolescent beauty. And so there is extreme loveliness in this figure of Love by Mr Stanhope, and the whole picture is full of grace'.
As this passage shows, Wilde was able to make some impressive comparisons between Stanhope's pictures and Italian art. He had visited Italy in the summer of 1875. He knew Ruskin personally, having participated in his famous road-building scheme at Ferry Hinksey, and had attended his lectures on Florentine art in 1874. Pater he had yet to meet, but he was already a devotee of The Renaissance and fascinated by the disturbing and amoral philosophy that was Pater's ultimate concern. In fact Wilde's comments on Stanhope's painting, with their breathless references to Love's 'bared limbs' and 'Greek islands where boys can still be found as beautiful as the Charmides of Plato', owes far more to the paganism of Pater than to Ruskin's vision of art as the vehicle of moral and social values. Wilde himself seemed to acknowledge this when he sent Pater a copy of his effusion, receiving in reply a letter extolling his 'quite exceptionally cultivated tastes, and a considerable knowledge also of many beautiful things'. If Stanhope ever saw the review, he might well have felt that it went altogether too far, reading ideas into the picture that he himself had never dreamt of. But at least he could not complain that Wilde was being patronising, or failing to accept the picture on its own terms. Gone at last were the caveats and explanations that we find even in James, to be replaced by the voice of pure appreciation even if it has a somewhat fevered tone.
We are grateful to Catherine Hassall and Oliver Davies for their help in preparing this entry.