Born in 1860, the son of a coachman, Arthur John Elsley joined the South Kensington School of Art at the age of fourteen. He submitted his first exhibit to the Royal Academy in 1878 and continued to paint thereafter until 1917. Well-aquainted with his contemporaries Frederick Morgan and Charles Burton Barber, Elsley quickly rose to fame as one of the most beloved and commercially sought after "chocolate box" artists of late Victorian England. His depiction of children and animals and idealized portrayal of their world appealed to the middle and upper classes of society. In light of the high rate of infant and child mortality in Victorian England at the time, this genre became enormously popular and artists like Elsley could command high sums for their work. It comes as no surprise that the commercial success of Elsley's paintings was also due in grand part to the wide diffusion of his work in the public realm. It is fair to say that his cozy interpretations of family life and the often humorous interactions of children and animals became associated with 'popular culture' of the day. His paintings were routinely reproduced for use in color calendars published by the American firm Thomas D. Murphy Company, soap advertisements, as well as for the cover of publications such as Bibby's Quarterly.
Painted in 1908, the present work features two children involved in a game of Hide and Seek, the unsuspecting St. Bernard playing a particularly important role! Hiding behind the dog is Marjorie, Elsley's only child. Born in 1903, she was five years of age when this work was created. She was, not surprisingly, a favored model appearing in numerous compositions over the course of her father's career. It was a common practice among Victorian artists to immortalize their own children or nieces in major works. In Pomona (see lot 69 of this sale) Millais' niece Margaret sits for the portrait and Frederick Morgan includes his wife Mary, son Courtney and daughter Dorothea daughter in His First Birthday (see lot 72 of this sale). Although the name of the St. Bernard is not known, this gentle giant makes regular appearances in Elsely's work (fig. 1). Ironically, the "staged" quality of the composition suggests that the little boy, girl, and dog were never in each other's company, but in fact were probably painted separately in different sittings.
As with the work of his contemporary Frederick Morgan with whom Elsley shared a studio for a time, the use of particularly bright colors is a defining characteristic central to his artistic technique. The strong light source, almost as strong as a spotlight, on the little girl and the dog stand in stark juxtaposition to the dark color of the velvet curtain. It is known that in preparation for compositions that depict characters in an outdoor setting, Elsley actually painted his figures in an indoor studio and was known to borrow scenic countryside panoramas from photographs in Country Life Magazine to work up his backgrounds.
fig. 1 Source photograph for Hide and Seek.
Copyright Terry Parker.