3 More

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May
signed and dated 'J.W.Waterhouse. 1908.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
24 3/8 x 18 1/4 in. (62 x 46.4 cm.)
in the original frame
Purchased from the artist in 1908 by
Frederick M. Fry (†); Christie's, London, 18 June 1943, lot 15, as A lady, in green dress, holding a bowl of roses (18 gns to de Casseres).
Private Collection, UK.
Anonymous sale; Christie’s, London, 11 June 2003, lot 6, sold after sale.
with Christopher Wood, London, from whom purchased by the present owner.
R.E.D. Sketchley, 'J.W. Waterhouse, R.A.', Art Journal, Christmas Number, 1909, pp. 13, 32, full page illustration.
A. Hobson, The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse, R.A., London, 1980, pp. 133, 138 (illustrated pl. 141), 190, no. 165.
A. Hobson, J.W. Waterhouse, Oxford, 1989, pp. 89, 97, pl. 69 (the study).
P. Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse, London and New York, 2002, pp. 197, 229; illustrated p. 178 (detail) and p. 196, pl. 168.
E. Prettejohn, P. Trippi et al., J.W. Waterhouse 1849-1917: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, exh. cat., London, 2008, pp. 170-171, illustrated front cover and p. 171, no. 51.
London, Royal Academy, 1908, no. 669.
Glasgow, Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, 1910, no. 217, lent by Frederick M. Fry.
Groningen, Groninger Museum; London, Royal Academy; and Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, J.W. Waterhouse 1849-1917: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, 14 December 2008 - 7 February 2010, no. 51.

Brought to you by

Alastair Plumb
Alastair Plumb Specialist, Head of Sale, European Art

Lot Essay

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite movement — and there are many — is how it kept evolving in style, tone, meaning, and impact, from its origins in the 1840s right through the 1920s. A particularly important practitioner of late Pre-Raphaelitism was John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), who was born just after the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed yet today remains closely associated with their legacy through the worldwide fame of such masterworks as his Lady of Shalott (1888, Tate, London).
Waterhouse did not address explicitly Pre-Raphaelite themes (such as Tennyson’s poetry) until 1888, the year he presented The Lady of Shalott at the Royal Academy. From that moment on, he shifted deftly back and forth between the Romantic literature and legends that his Pre-Raphaelite forerunners prized and the classical legacy inherited from Ovid, Homer, and other ancient storytellers. A telling example of this dexterity is the fact that he painted the heroines of Tennyson’s Mariana in the South and Ovid’s Ariadne within the same year (1897-8).
By the time Waterhouse turned his attention to the present canvas in 1908, art by the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was considered quintessentially British; though it did not appeal to all viewers then, it was seen as worthy of institutional acquisition and display. In 1897 Sir Henry Tate had inaugurated what was originally called the National Gallery of British Art — replete with major pictures by the Brotherhood — and important exhibitions and publications surveying their legacy were produced from the late 1890s onward by (younger) commentators like Percy H. Bate and J. Ernest Phythian. The critic William Michael Rossetti kept the flame of his late brother Dante Gabriel alive by editing such publications as Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters (1900), while an entirely new generation of talented artists such as John Byam Shaw, Frank Cadogan Cowper, William Reynolds-Stephens, and Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale created their own takes on Pre-Raphaelitism.
This context matters because Waterhouse — who turned 59 in 1908 — knew he was on firm aesthetic ground while channeling Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s renowned red-haired ‘stunners’ of the 1860s with one of his own — the unnamed model in this remarkable 1908 painting. He exhibited it for the first time at the Royal Academy of Arts; the ‘RA’ was no longer the London art world’s epicentre, as it had been when Waterhouse first showed there in 1874, yet it was truly his home ground. Over the years, he not only become a leading Academician but also taught and served on the governing council. He also knew there were still plenty of patrons who liked to buy directly from the RA’s summer exhibitions, as happened with Gather Ye Rosebuds while Ye May.
It is very likely that Waterhouse had admired Rossetti’s iconic Bocca Baciata (fig.1, 1859, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) in person when it appeared at the RA’s 1906 winter exhibition of Old Masters and Deceased Masters of the British School. Rossetti’s first major effort in this terrain, Bocca Baciata (Italian for ‘the mouth that has been kissed’) brings us close to the auburn-haired, firm-jawed model, who confronts us without embarrassment, posed in the full-frontal, half-length format Rossetti borrowed from Renaissance portraiture and explored for the rest of his career. This blend of beauty, luxury, and flowers must have appealed powerfully all over again to Waterhouse, who had — from the outset of his career — associated women with the beauty, simplicity, and decay of flowers. Moreover, he valued flowers and women as vessels of the seeds of new growth.
It was 1908, in fact, that marked the start of Waterhouse’s six-year exploration of what we might call flower-women, a series of gorgeous, non-narrative paintings. In them, maidens carry flowers in vases, arrange them in their hair as they gaze into mirrors, or inhale their scent in gardens. Gather Ye Rosebuds while Ye May was among the earliest, taking its title from the (then) well-known poem by Robert Herrick (1591–1674), To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, which warns that the ‘flower that smiles to-day,/To-morrow will be dying’. The inference of beauty’s inevitable disappearance is shot throughout the series.
The present painting is a masterwork of glinting historicism, featuring an array of Waterhouse’s favourite motifs. Most notable are the red lips and rosy cheeks of the proud Rossettian model, who raises her chin just-so as she — wearing a characteristically luxurious gown — presents us with flowers freshly arranged in an iconic Waterhouse prop — an expertly painted metal bowl. The brilliant reflections are sustained in the girl’s bejewelled armbands, the pearl strands that bind her braids, and the bottle-glass windows beyond.
Particularly effective are Waterhouse’s juxtaposition of complementary greens and reds in the composition’s lower half, and his illumination of the girl’s face, neck, and shoulders through the windows she faces in an otherwise darkened space. Waterhouse had long been fascinated by mirrors (e.g., The Lady of Shalott, Circe) and uses the one behind this figure to superb effect, encouraging us to admire the colourful armorial designs in the windows. (Oddly, their chevrons are pointing down rather than up.)
In its colourful antiquarianism, Gather Ye Rosebuds while Ye May reminds us strongly of the younger (‘third’) generation of Pre-Raphaelites working at this time: not only the aforementioned Byam Shaw, Cadogan Cowper, Reynolds-Stephens, and Fortescue Brickdale, but also their older heroes Edwin Austin Abbey and Edmund Blair Leighton. All revered the sumptuousness of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and indeed the word ‘pageantry’ is appropriate — the 1900s were the heyday of pageants in which citizens of all classes turned to the dressing-up box in order to re-stage the past.
Illustrated here is what seems to be an oil study for — or a variation of — Gather Ye Rosebuds while Ye May (fig. 2, Private Collection). Unfinished, unsigned, undated, and untitled, this larger canvas offers a brown-haired model standing in a garden presenting flowers she seems to have just picked. It is unclear what Waterhouse’s intentions were for this picture, but fortunately it has passed down safely through a series of private collectors.
Other paintings in the series offer different insights into the theme of women with flowers. In The Soul of the Rose (fig. 3, Private Collection), also introduced at the 1908 RA, he transferred his red-haired maiden to an enclosed garden, possibly intending its title to evoke the medieval French allegory of courtly love, Roman de la Rose. Two undated pictures from around this time, both entitled Vanity, present the traditional motif of a woman gazing in a mirror, adorning herself with flowers and jewellery.
Apparently Waterhouse was sickly, so we can appreciate what seems to have been a growing preoccupation with mortality at age 60. This had already expressed itself in such metamorphosis scenes as Flora and the Zephyrs (1897, Private Collection) and Boreas (1903, Private Collection), and now his flower-women began gracing the Persephone pictures. They started with a 1909 canvas, also titled Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May (fig. 4, Private Collection) but depicting multiple figures rather than just one. At first glance, it suggests the Edwardian taste for idyllic, plotless scenes of women picking flowers, but in fact it and its successors evoke the story of Persephone, a classical myth that is also supremely Romantic. She was gathering flowers when Hades carried her off to the infernal regions, so this scene shows us what is essentially her last moment on earth. (Persephone is literally gathering rosebuds while she still may.) Surprisingly, this ambitious scene with its curved top was never exhibited publicly, going straight into the collection of Sir Brodie Henderson, a member of the family that supported Waterhouse enthusiastically from the 1890s onward.
Thus, within the same year, Waterhouse produced two completely different scenes bearing the same title —Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May. It was, in fact, the present painting — the one with the simpler composition — that dominated an entire page in the most substantial monograph produced during Waterhouse’s life. Published at Christmas 1909, the Art Annual featured 42 illustrations (including a hand-printed etching of the 1888 Lady of Shalott.) It was authored by the art critic Rose E.D. Sketchley, who stressed the more metaphysical aspects of Waterhouse’s artistry.
Because he left behind no diaries and little correspondence, we may never know what Waterhouse really thought of the present picture, but we are sure it was purchased from the RA Summer Exhibition by the barrister Sir Frederick M. Fry. Ultimately, he came to own six paintings by Waterhouse (including the 1909 Lamia) and several of his drawings; he also owned works by other contemporary masters like Abbey, George Clausen, and Seymour Lucas. The two men were close enough that Fry attended Waterhouse’s funeral in 1917, and Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May remained in the Frys’ possession until his estate was dispersed at Christie’s in 1943. By then, Waterhouse and his peers were so far out of fashion that this painting was offered without its original title, called merely A lady, in green dress, holding a bowl of roses. It brought only 18 guineas, a reminder of how little such a painting mattered only 35 years after its creation, especially in the depths of a terrible war.
Imagine, then, how pleased Waterhouse and Fry would be to see the admiration Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May has enjoyed more recently. As illustrated here, it graced the cover of the catalogue (fig. 5) that accompanied the largest Waterhouse touring retrospective ever mounted (2008–2010), and in 2009 it was poignant to see it hanging at the RA once again, surrounded by other outstanding examples of Waterhouse’s genius (fig. 6).
In art, as in all of life, we must recognise such milestone moments as they happen, and indeed, gather our rosebuds while we may.
We are grateful to Peter Trippi for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

More from British and European Art: Part 1

View All
View All