John William Godward

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Nerissa (1906) by John William Godward

John William Godward (9 August 1861 – 13 December 1922) was an English painter from the end of the Neo-Classicist era. He was a protégé of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, but his style of painting fell out of favour with the arrival of painters such as Picasso. He committed suicide at the age of 61 and is said to have written in his suicide note that "the world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso".[1]

His already estranged family, who had disapproved of his becoming an artist, were ashamed of his suicide and burned his papers. No photographs of Godward are known to survive.

Early life[edit]

Godward was born in 1861 and lived in Wilton Grove, Wimbledon. He was born to Sarah Eboral and John Godward (an investment clerk at the Law Life Assurance Society, London).[2](pp17–19) He was the eldest of five children. He was named after his father John and grandfather William. He was christened at St. Mary's Church in Battersea on 17 October 27 1861. The overbearing attitude of his parents made him reclusive and shy later in adulthood.[2](p22)


A fair reflection, by John William Godward

He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1887.[3] When he moved to Italy with one of his models in 1912, his family broke off all contact with him and even cut his image from family pictures.[2](p122) Godward returned to England in 1921, died in 1922 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, west London.[3]

One of his best known paintings is Dolce far Niente (1904), which was purchased for the collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1995. As in the case of several other paintings, Godward painted more than one version, in this case an earlier (and less well known) 1897 version with a further version in 1906.[4]


Godward was a Victorian Neo-classicist, and therefore, a follower in theory of Frederic Leighton. He is more closely allied stylistically, however, to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, with whom he shared a penchant for the rendering of Classical architecture, in particular, static landscape features constructed from marble.

The vast majority of Godward's extant images feature women in Classical dress, posed against these landscape features, although there are some semi-nude and fully nude figures included in his oeuvre (a notable example being In The Tepidarium (1913), a title shared with a controversial Alma-Tadema painting of the same subject that resides in the Lady Lever Art Gallery). The titles reflect Godward's source of inspiration: Classical civilisation, most notably that of Ancient Rome (again a subject binding Godward closely to Alma-Tadema artistically), although Ancient Greece sometimes features, thus providing artistic ties, albeit of a more limited extent, with Leighton.

Given that Classical scholarship was more widespread among the potential audience for his paintings during his lifetime than in the present day, meticulous research of detail was important in order to attain a standing as an artist in this genre. Alma-Tadema was, as well as a painter, an archaeologist, who attended historical sites and collected artifacts he later used in his paintings: Godward, too, studied such details as architecture and dress, in order to ensure that his works bore the stamp of authenticity.

In addition, Godward painstakingly and meticulously rendered other important features in his paintings, animal skins (the paintings Noon Day Rest (1910) and A Cool Retreat (1910) contain superb examples of such rendition) and wild flowers (Nerissa (1906), illustrated above, and Summer Flowers (1903) are again excellent examples of this).

The appearance of beautiful women in studied poses in so many of Godward's canvases causes many newcomers to his works to categorise him mistakenly as being Pre-Raphaelite, particularly as his palette is often a vibrantly colourful one. The choice of subject matter (ancient civilisation versus, for example, Arthurian legend) is more properly that of the Victorian Neoclassicist: however, it is appropriate to comment that in common with numerous painters contemporary with him, Godward was a 'High Victorian Dreamer', producing beautiful images of a world which, it must be said, was idealised and romanticised, and which in the case of both Godward and Alma-Tadema, came to be criticised as a world-view of 'Victorians in togas'.

Godward "quickly established a reputation for his paintings of young women in a classical setting and his ability to convey with sensitivity and technical mastery the feel of contrasting textures, flesh, marble, fur and fabrics."[2](p91) Godward's penchant for creating works of art set in the classical period probably came from the time period in which he was born. "The last full-scale classical revival in western painting bloomed in England in the 1860s and flowered there for the next three decades."[5]

List of works by the artist[edit]



  1. ^ "John William Godward". Heritage Auctions. Retrieved 23 August 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Swanson, Vern (1997). John William Godward: The Eclipse of Classicism. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club. ISBN 978-1-85149-270-1. 
  3. ^ a b Barrow, Rosemary (2011), "Godward, John William (1861–1922)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 23 August 2015  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  4. ^ "John William Godward, R.B.A.". Sothebys. Archived from the original on 23 August 2015. Retrieved 23 August 2015. 
  5. ^ Gaines, Charles (1985). "Art: Those Victorian Ladies". Architectural Digest 42: 125. 

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