Little detail or attention is given to Victorian artist, John Melhuish Strudwick (1849–1935). A portrait of Strudwick by Frederick Hollyer (1890) can be found in the V&A collection but it is not available on their website and although it is accessible to those who subscribe to the Oxford Dictionary National Biography, it cannot be reproduced from there because of legal restrictions. Thus Strudwick remains elusive. Even major Victorian art collector, the Tate offers little biographical detail on Strudwick and the one painting they have in their collection (A Golden Thread, shown below) is only given a single paragraph which hasn’t been updated since 1997, despite the Tate overhauling the content of their on-line catalogues a mere two years ago.

John Melhuish Strudwick ‘A Golden Thread’, exhibited 1885
Strudwick, A Golden Thread (exhibited 1885, Tate)

Despite this uncharitable response, recognition in Strudwick is beginning to grow: partly due to his association with Pre-Raphaelitism, partly because several of his works have been recently exhibited (which we will come on to), and partly due to the popularity of his images which are now beginning to be replicated on-line with increasing ease. The internet is certainly a valuable resource in making art democratic but despite this change in approach to Strudwick’s art it hasn’t, as yet, contributed to any significant repositioning of his art within the Pre-Raphaelite canon. However, when it comes to rarely discussed artists, such as Strudwick, digital replication is a promising sign: particularly when we consider the merit an obituarist afforded him when he commented that Strudwick ‘must have been the last of the Pre-Raphaelites’. [1]

'Oh, swallow, swallow'
Strudwick, ‘O swallow, swallow’ (1894, Sudley House)

Strudwick was born in London in 1849. As early as the 1860s he was active within the art world: his initially conventional training took place at the Royal Academy Schools although he showed little of the delights that can be found in his later works. His 1860s works are described by Landow as being influenced by Scottish genre artist, John Pettie.[2] Although born in Edinburgh, Pettie spent most of his career based in England. His Self Portrait (1882, Tate) can be found in the Tate.[3] Pettie’s works are a far cry from Strudwick’s best known works and this radical difference has to be put down to Edward Burne-Jones’ influence. Strudwick‘s style and career can only have changed direction due to his brief position as both Burne-Jones’ and Spencer Stanhope’s studio assistant in the 1870s. From this point Strudwick’s painting style explores similar chivalric themes to Burne-Jones, whilst carrying within it an echo of his lyrical, sensual quality. His Golden Thread (1885, Tate) has a clear relationship with Burne-Jones The Morning of the Resurrection (1886, Tate). It is interesting to note the Tate gives the Strudwick a date which precedes the Burne-Jones by one year (although we should bear in mind Burne-Jones’ often drawn out time-lines for completing paintings). Strudwick also seems to have absorbed the sharp eye for detail which Stanhope had, and we know that side of his art was important to him; he must have been looking intently at the works by other Pre-Raphaelite artists who worked in this manner, for he often employs the same labour intensive attention to detail as that found within William Holman Hunt’s works.

When Sorrow comes to Summerday Roses bloom in Vain
Strudwick, When Sorrow comes in Summer Days, Roses Bloom in Vain (1910)

Perhaps through association with Burne-Jones, Strudwick’s career took off. In the 1870s it certainly seemed as though his star was on the ascendancy. He exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and the New Gallery as the leading lights also did, and like Burne-Jones, Strudwick’s patrons were wealthy industrialists, e.g. William Imrie and George Holt. Strudwick’s retirement in 1909 suggests a certain amount of dissatisfaction, particularly when he lived for a further thirty years. Landow even describes the unfinished 1910 work ‘When Sorrow comes in Summer Days, Roses Bloom in Vain’ as ‘an indication of the disillusionment he [Strudwick] felt at the collapse of his career’.[4] Certainly by 1910 the Pre-Raphaelite style was unfashionable, and artists such as Frank Cadogan Cowper can also be seen struggling with similar issues. Their mock / late / inherited Pre-Raphaelite style was considered outmoded and outdated. Picasso, Braque, Cezanne etc. had all invigorated art and the centre was definitely Paris, not London. It may be Strudwick’s inability to develop his style precipitated the end of his career, or as Landow points out, it may be that his decision to exhibit was a decisive one; when he last exhibited in 1909 it was at the final exhibition of the New Gallery, and the year he turned sixty.[5] So perhaps it was age coupled with an awareness of the changing times which made Strudwick put his paintbrushes away.

Even the title, When Sorrow comes in Summer Days, Roses Bloom in Vain, seems to imply a feeling of disillusionment, so there may be some truth in the matter. It would no doubt be a continued disappointing to learn that Strudwick’s art continues to be overlooked by art historians. Reinvigorating Strudwick’s reputation first began in the ‘Last Romantics’ exhibition in 1989, at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. It has now been further taken up by the 2015 ‘Victorian Obsession’ exhibition at Leighton House, London. Both of these exhibitions are a commendable start but there is still much to be written and researched.

Strudwick, The Passing of Days (1878, Pérez Simón Collection)

The Pérez Simón Collection is an astute one, pulling together the so called ‘followers’ (a most patronising term) of Pre-Raphaelitism and presenting them alongside works by Burne-Jones (surely himself technically a ‘follower’) and Rossetti (a bona fide original). As an exhibition ‘Victorian Obsession’ was an intimate view of the Victorian art world, a mere fifty two paintings from the Pérez Simón Collection were displayed, but it offered the likes of Spencer Stanhope and Strudwick the chance to compete alongside the names we are more familiar with. And rightly so, for compete they do. Not only with each other, but with the better known Pre-Raphaelites whether in this context, or beyond. Consider, for example Stanhope’s, The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium (1880, Manchester) alongside Strudwick’s Circë and Scylla (1886, Sudley House); the influence of Mantegna is palpable in both works: I refer you to The Agony in the Garden (1455, National Gallery).

Strudwick, Circë and Scylla (1886, Sudley House)

Strudwick’s decorative style is quite simply flat, it is the only suitable word to describe it really. His images are ironed out, flattened, they are condensed into the frame in a way that is not only directly comparable to the early Florentine masters but dialoguing with the techniques employed by William Holman Hunt. This can be easily witnessed if one compares Hunt’s The Shadow of Death (1870- 1873, Manchester) alongside Strudwick’s Elaine (1891, Pérez Simón Collection). Even if Strudwick’s themes do not have the same theological or didactic meaning that Hunt’s do, his attention to detail is impressive, and the resulting highly decorative nature of Strudwick’s works is worthy of notice.

Strudwick, Elaine (1891, Pérez Simón Collection)

The most beautiful of Strudwick’s works, which I suspect Rossetti would have heartened to, is Elaine, a beautiful Arthurian subject drawn from Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ (1859). Elaine, the very poorly treated lover of Lancelot, gazes despairingly at his shield which is propped up in front of her. The colours are so muted, that you take a moment to settle upon the shield. Elaine’s features are exquisite and the pathos is compelling. Strudwick’s attention to detail is, in itself, legendary: the Marian lilies, the dowry chest, the rug, her sandal, the angelic filled walls. As G.B. Shaw wrote in 1891 ‘Holbein, Hogarth, Bellini were not more exact and straightforward than Strudwick.’[6] The beautifully muted palette of Elaine is so tender and golden, that her forlorn expression feels all the more strained. Her romantic love is displayed for us as having taken on sacramental qualities, as she sits before a pulpit. This painting is a beautifully testimony of all that is wonderful about Pre-Raphaelitism and British art of the nineteenth century. It may, by some, be considered wistful or whimsical, over sentimental, and somehow cloying, but the attention to detail, the mastery of line, colour, and composition is superb.

Strudwick, Acrasia, (circa 1888)

It is this concern with minutiae which limited Strudwick’s output, he only painted approximately thirty paintings in this style. Perhaps it was also a contributory factor to his career decline / retirement decision? None the less, as a follower of Burne-Jones and as a contributor to Pre-Raphaelitism, John Melhuish Strudwick deserves more attention. His capacity for rendering a highly decorative surface, for conveying beauty and grace, for reinvigorating the early Florentine style works of the original Brotherhood, surely mean we should now consider reinvigorating Strudwick’s reputation. An exhibition planned for July 2016, in Japan, will include Strudwick’s St. Cecilia (1895 – 1896, Sudley House) and his ‘O swallow, swallow’ (1894, Sudley House) so perhaps Strudwick’s time has finally arrived?

St Cecilia plays a piano while woman with halo looks on
Strudwick, St. Cecilia (1895 – 1896, Sudley House)

Sales listings of Strudwick’s works can be found here:

http://www.sothebys.com/en/search-results.html?keyword=john+strudwick

http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/john-melhuish-strudwick-isabella-5563215-details.aspx?from=searchresults&pos=4&intObjectID=5563215&sid=09e5dee9-ee9a-4612-b08f-7ca5b4f812a5&page=1&lid=1

http://www.invaluable.com/artist/strudwick-john-melhuish-y3ye03bme1/sold-at-auction-prices/

A collection of Strudwick’s paintings can be found here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/john-melhuish-strudwick

http://www.artmagick.com/pictures/artist.aspx?artist=john-melhuish-strudwick

Details of paintings can be found here:

http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/sudley/collections/drawingroom/st_cecilia_strudwick.aspx

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/john-melhuish-strudwick-536

Footnotes:

[1] The Times, 20 July 1937, p. 18

The term ‘The Last Pre-Raphaelite’ is an increasingly complex one that has, of late, been variously used to describe Strudwick, Burne-Jones, Cadogan Cowper and probably others. The value or meaning of this term is still undetermined and as such, it is a dangerous assignation. We need to consider why we, in this current time frame, need to define when Pre-Raphaelitism ended. I suspect that says more about us than the artists we are labelling. What and why does it matter to whom this title is posthumously awarded to, and why are critics and researchers finding this useful currency. I have not yet heard of this term being applied to female Pre-Raphaelite style artists such as Stokes or Brickdale? I am not convinced it is a useful term: at best it may be useful to those working outside of the period in question (e.g. perhaps twentieth century specialists).

[2] http://victorianweb.org/painting/strudwick/index.html Accessed 26/06/2015 11:01

Note Landow actually says ‘Pettle’ but this is a typo.

[3] Interestingly, Pettie’s 1884 work, The Vigil (also at the Tate) has a definite Pre-Raphaelite theme to it.

[4] Peter Nahum of Leicester Galleries, says similar and also confirms the painting remained within the family’s possession, perhaps as a memory of this artistic struggle.

http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/john-melhuish-strudwick/11836

Accessed 26/06/2015 11:40

[5] http://victorianweb.org/painting/strudwick/index.html Accessed 26/06/2015 11:01

[6] George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Strudwick, ‘Art Journal’ (1891) pp. 99-101.

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