Beeton Virginia Surtees
Beeton, Virginia Surtees (1953)

Virginia Surtees outlines in her acknowledgements just how much time and work she went to in order to edit and verify the diary contents of G.P. Boyce. No stone was left unturned, and the notes are fastidious in answering any questions the diaries raise. Her efforts were international, and her attention to detail exemplar. The acknowledgements page is itself a list of who’s who in the Art Historical clique today, and certainly shows Surtees status as an esteemed colleague and formidable expert. Her Rossetti catalogue raisonné (published in 1971 and which now fetches a very high price) is an amazing consolidation of all things Rossetti and is gainfully referenced in the Rossetti archive as a reliable and invaluable source (the archive is, sadly, a rapidly diminished technology). The book itself has yet to be surpassed by anyone else, the archive being its only real contender. Surtees, herself an expert collector of Victorian art, has a fine grasp of the artistic community of the nineteenth century, and this edited diary is a fascinating insight into that often romantic sounding world.[1] As an author, a photographer, a collector of British art, there are few better equipped to make sense of these diaries.

https://i1.wp.com/ww2today.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/royal-crescent-bath-bombed.jpg
The Royal Crescent Bath during the Bath Blitz of WWII.

Her introduction starts with a firm contextual reminder of the far ranging consequences of World War II, the bombing of Bath which sadly destroyed the original manuscript diaries. However, fortune was at hand because the diaries in this collection were sent the previous year to be printed in the Old Water-Colour Society’s Club Nineteenth Annual Volume, 1941. A shell perhaps of the original but an informative, lively series of references to many of the well-known Pre-Raphaelite figures: Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Stanhope, Stephens etc. In fact, Surtees qualifies Boyce’s insights by depicting him as an ‘intimate’ of Rossetti, and by further references to Stephens letters at the Bodleian. She is quite right in making these assertions, and Boyce’s general affection and fondness of Rossetti certainly comes through – not least because of his determination to live near to Rossetti.

As a figure in the Pre-Raphaelite world, Boyce was a confidante, an intimate, a dinner guest, an artist, and a collector. With money behind him, Boyce often funded Rossetti and seems to have been most gracious in his expectations. As an artist himself, Boyce seems to have realised his own limitations in comparison to those giants of the art world, Millais, Hunt and Rossetti (although Hunt ‘with nose high in the air’ was clearly not his favourite figure and remains a mere aside in the diaries).[2] Boyce’s expectations in relation to his own works was reasonable and often underplayed; he frequently sold his often landscape watercolours as the diary details (see example below). His sister Joanna is mentioned, and although a promising artist herself, neither she nor the brother Matthias, who Boyce appeared to be very fond of, feature much at all. Perhaps a 1941 editing decision?

The tit bits people interested in the Pre-Raphaelites will desire relate to: The Great Exhibition, the Royal Academy, art works, sociable dinners and convivial discussions, character portraits of Whistler and Hunt, anecdotes of Rossetti’s menagerie and his declining mental health etc. The other more subtle detail which one also sees within these diaries is an illumination upon the role of religion, the importance of marriage, the role of servants, and the often difficult, restricted life of Woman (childbirth, illness etc.) The real people’s stories in amongst the privileged life of those Boyce socialised with, shine a light upon the complexities of Victorian social hierarchy. This is where the diaries excel, and having both parts makes this text an invaluable one to all researchers of British Art in the nineteenth century.

George Price Boyce, by Unknown photographer, 1850s - NPG x25221 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Unknown Photographer, George Price Boyce (1850s, NPG, London).

Whilst the main impetus for this publication seems to be to enhance the understanding of the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates, there is one figure whose reputation does not seem to stand out. That of Boyce himself. It seems Boyce is true in print to the man he was in life; a man who was ‘kind, tolerant, even-tempered, cultivated, with an almost self-effacing modesty’. His gentle character comes through, and there are moments of genuine surprise at his clearly heart felt loneliness or sense of isolation, particularly when he questions who were his real friends. It is also rather telling that Boyce’s focus was external and not internal, he didn’t much lament, and was ever stoic in the face of conflict whether that was resistance to his intended bride, his somewhat lackadaisical maid, Elizabeth, or his sturdy mother. His stories and snippets are heart-warming, endearing, and a wonderful record of the narrative journey of a Victorian gentleman’s life from youth to adulthood. The diary is satisfyingly left with Boyce’s marriage to his clearly well matched bride, Caroline de Soubeiron. Caroline and George Price Boyce remained happily married right up until his death in 1897.

The only disappointment about these diaries is that there is not more detail, or just more. The loss of the original diaries never quite departs the reader’s mind; what changes or omissions were made in 1941? What do we not know? The blight of a historian.

Boyce, Abinger Mill-Pond, Surrey – Morning in Late Autumn (1866 – 1867, Private Collection)

 

[1] Surtees own relative, Louisa Ruth Herbert, was drawn by Rossetti on more than one occasion.

Surtees collection was sold at Christie’s June 2014, see: http://www.christies.com/presscenter/pdf/2014/RELEASE_ROSSETTI_SCHOLAR_VIRGINIA_SURTEES_CHRISTIE%E2%80%99S.pdf

 

[2] Virginia Surtees, The Diaries of G.P. Boyce (London; Real World,1980) Page VIII.

 

 

 

 

 

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