Charlotte Wyllie (or 'Wylie' as she signs the picture; both forms are found in the records) was one of the many women who exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. Launched in 1877 as a liberal alternative to the Royal Academy and a flagship for the Aesthetic Movement, the Grosvenor went out of its way to encourage women, the trend being set by Blanche Lindsay, the wife of Sir Coutts Lindsay, the Gallery's owner, who was a prolific contributor. Charlotte Wyllie showed a picture a year from 1878 to 1886. She also appeared at the inaugural exhibition at the New Gallery, which succeeded the Grosvenor in 1888, and occasionally sent work to Manchester or Liverpool. She was never represented at Burlington House.
Born Charlotte Major, Wyllie was married to the artist Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923), brother of the better known exponent of marine and shipping subjects, William Lionel Wyllie, R.A. (1851-1931). Her own work, which included portraits, genre scenes and symbolical subjects, was never extensive and is now rare. Only two examples are found in her Witt Library file, a mysterious half-length figure, veiled and crowned, and a likeness of a little girl with a dog.
It is no coincidence that the child in this picture is dressed in the Dutch style and is reminiscent of the work of Laura Alma-Tadema. Laura was a fellow exhibitor at the Grosvenor, and the two women were probably close friends. In the 1880s and 1890s the Wyllies are recorded as living or working at three addresses in St John's Wood, none of them far from the Alma-Tademas at 17 Grove End Road. Charles Wyllie, moreover, was one of the artists who painted the series of forty-five panels that adorned the entrance hall of the Alma-Tademas' studio house, a famous feature of a spectacular decorative scheme generally regarded as being among the sights of London. A small but exquisite portrait that Alma-Tadema painted of Charlotte was almost certainly a quid pro quo for her husband's contribution (fig. 1). The picture was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1893 and sold in these Rooms on 10 June 1999, lot 28.
We know all too little about Charlotte Wyllie, even her dates being uncertain, but such references as we have show her in an attractive light. She was a good friend to Lionel Smythe, her husband's older half-brother, when he was going through a difficult time (see Rosa M. Whitlaw and W.L. Wyllie, Lionel P. Smythe, R.A., R.W.S., His Life and Work, London, 1923, pp. 109-10), and she was very resourceful when G.F. Watts was leaving Little Holland House. Discussing the house's demolition in 1875, the artist's widow wrote: 'It was now that his old friend Mrs Charles Wyllie, dismayed at the thought of the destruction of all the frescoes at Little Holland House, asked him if she might try to remove them from the walls. There was much correspondence between them, he being reluctant to allow her to undertake such a labour of love. But as she insisted, he consented; and so, with two workmen under her, she saved a great many.'
Watts was worried about the expense she must have incurred, both financial and otherwise. 'The saving of the frescoes having cost Mrs Wylie so much time and labour, Signor [i.e. Watts] begged her to accept them for her own studio; but she, knowing his ways, thought this was as usual the too generous return he liked to make for anything done for him, and refused to accept the gift.' In the event, the murals were stored in crates and eventually given to Mrs Russell Barrington, Watts's next-door neighbour in the artists' colony that grew up in Kensington on the land formerly occupied by Little Holland House. She later presented them to Leighton House, where they remain to this day.
Other details emerge from Mary Watts's account. Even after his marriage in 1886, Charlotte continued to visit Watts. 'Mrs Charles Wylie had her hour on Sunday morning..., and often came to discuss grounds, recipes, and methods of the old masters; sometimes to spar over social and political questions, upon which they differed profoundly.' But the most interesting revelation is that Charlotte was involved with Watts's own work, and even acted as his assistant: 'Mrs Wylie had a considerable knowledge of the methods employed by the old masters, and possessed a fine artistic gift that, unfortunately, her parents had not allowed her to cultivate; otherwise she would certainly have made her mark. Her married life did not leave her much opportunity for study, but a copy she made for Signor of a portion of Titian's "Bacchus and Ariadne", he liked to keep constantly before his eyes; and Sir Frederick Burton, who, as Director of the National Gallery, had seen so many fail in their attempts to copy the picture, was amazed when he first saw this copy and considered that she had entirely mastered the quality of Titian's colour. Signor liked to have her advice, and often sought her help for the preparation of canvases; and she sometimes laid in work for him in monochrome.'
One of her tasks was to copy in tempera on canvas the figure of a cupid from his frescoes in Carlton House Terrace. On this he later developed the picture known as Good Luck to your Fishing, a rather twee and sentimental work that enjoyed great popularity (see M.S. Watts, George Frederic Watts, London, 1912, I, pp. 290-3; II, pp. 98, 104).
The present picture has only recently come to light, and is by far the most exciting example of Wyllie's work we have seen. Certainly it is infinitely more impressive than either of those in her Witt Library file. It was the last of the ten pictures that she showed at the Grosvenor Gallery, appearing there in 1886 and being illustrated in Henry Blackburn's Grosvenor Notes. This is fortunate, enabling us to identify a work that seems to have received no critical attention. In fact no review of any picture by Wyllie has yet been traced.
The Elysian fields were the abode of the blessed in classical mythology, so the subject of the picture is presumably a soul in heaven. The image confirms Wyllie's feeling for symbolism and particularly her interest in the symbolism of flowers, in this case roses and lilies. Flowers clearly played a prominent part in three of her other Grosvenor exhibits, even though we only know them by name: Rosa Mystica (1880), Roses (1882) and Calliope: A Portrait with Flowers (1884).
The picture could hardly be more characteristic of the Grosvenor ethos. The colouring is very Aesthetic, instantly recalling the famous phrase 'greenery yallery, Grosvenor Gallery' to which W.S. Gilbert had given currency in the comic opera Patience, his satire on the Aesthetic craze first staged in 1881. There are also obvious echoes of Burne-Jones, the undisputed star of the Grosvenor since its opening in 1877. The gentle, high-souled mood, the flower symbolism, the androgynous type, the fluttering or finely-pleated drapery, the circlet of flowers at the neck - all these betray his influence. In fact the figure has almost been lifted from The Days of Creation (Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard), one of the eight large pictures with which he had made such an overwhelming impression in 1877. Wyllie would not only have seen the work Burne-Jones showed at the Grosvenor but probably met him there too - it was a very social organisation, famous for its receptions. She may even have enjoyed the sort of relations with him that she did with Watts.
Whatever the case, Wyllie was clearly an eclectic artist, looking at a number of sources. In the light of our picture, it is not surprising that she had 'considerable knowledge of the methods employed by the old masters', and used to discuss them with Watts. There is a distinctly 'old mastery' feel to the picture in terms of tone, touch, and such details as the spray of roses. Watts himself is not far away either, especially in the dry and crumbly nature of the paint. In fact the picture could be described as a Burne-Jonesian vision seen through the medium of the old masters and Watts.
All in all, the picture is a fascinating discovery which amply bears out Mary Watts's comment that Wyllie 'possessed a fine artistic gift'. It suggests that she was one of the best of the many women artists that were fostered by the Grosvenor, and we can only regret that parental discouragement, marital commitments and, surely, lack of critical recognition, combined to limit her production so severely.