Homage to Joanna
Simon Poë applauds a masterful group portrait of the lives of three Pre-Raphaelite artists that serves as a slice of social history
Simon PoŽ, Friday, 24th August 2012
Joanna, George and Henry: A Pre-Raphaelite Tale of Art, Love and Friendship
Boydell Press, £25
In 1942, in Bath, an incendiary bomb destroyed the home of Alice Joanna Street, daughter to the painters Joanna Mary Boyce and Henry Tanworth Wells and daughter-in-law to the architect George Edmund Street. Most of the art and objects that had come to Street from her distinguished forebears were consumed in the fire, along with memorabilia including the diaries of her uncle, George Price Boyce, and letters that had passed between him and her parents. Fortunately, the Old Watercolour Society (OWS) had published extracts from the diaries the previous year. The 1980 reprint of the original OWS publication, with an introduction and notes by Virginia Surtees, is one of the essential documents of Pre-Raphaelite studies, since George Boyce was a close friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Almost as important, art historically, and much more exciting in terms of human interest – George could be a bit of a stuffed shirt – was the typed transcript of the letters that survived in the possession of Street’s younger sister, Joanna Margaret Hadley. This lay undisturbed and almost forgotten until quite recently. It forms the basis of this wonderful book.
Let’s pretend, since this is Apollo, that we’re mainly interested in Joanna Mary Boyce (1831–61), George Price Boyce (1826–97) and Henry Tanworth Wells (1828–1903) because of their painting; let’s get the art historical stuff out of the way before moving on to the real reason for reading Joanna, George and Henry. (Don’t mistake me: the book documents all this very thoroughly.) George Boyce was a watercolour painter of landscape and architectural subjects and a superb technician. Wells was a painter of portraits – a lot of them now in the National Portrait Gallery – and subject pictures.
The book contains a (typically high-quality) colour reproduction of Wells’ portrait of his daughters, aged 17 and 19 respectively. It is like a very good Tissot, without the brittle quality that often mars the French artist’s work.
Joanna Boyce was a different proposition altogether. Rossetti, in a letter soon after her death due to complications from childbirth, called her a ‘wonderfully gifted woman’ and suggested what she might have achieved had she lived; one obituarist even referred to her ‘genius’. I don’t think these were pious exaggerations – take, for instance, her exquisite 1861 portrait sketch of the Jamaican model Fanny Eaton, wearing the silk wrap that Joanna had worn to her own wedding. Though she fell early under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, sharing their aversion to ‘slosh’, she also studied in the Paris atelier of Thomas Couture (1815–79). She was still striving to accommodate what she had learned of Couture’s style – a via media between the Classical Academic tradition and the Romantic avant-garde – to her own underlying Pre-Raphaelite principles when she died.
The book is compulsive reading, partly, of course, because Sue Bradbury has done full justice to some terrific and important material, but mostly because of Joanna Boyce herself. I am, as a lot of other people will surely soon be, a little in love with her. She was no plaster saint. She came as close as any dutiful, Christian, Victorian daughter could to acknowledging that her mother was a lying, malicious, utterly self-centred woman. The difficulties that Joanna, George and Henry experienced with the awful Mrs Boyce form one of the book’s motifs. Another is Joanna’s own self-centredness – or at least, her conscious determination to be an artist whatever the cost to herself and the people around her. She was convinced that her vocation was incompatible with marriage, being liable to outweigh the proper commitment owed by a wife and mother to her husband and children. Persuaded on this evidence that she was cold and lacking in the capacity to love fully (a perception exacerbated by her growing recognition that she could not love her mother as a daughter might), she decided to stay single.
Wells secured an introduction to Joanna Boyce in 1851, when she was 19, and proposed four years later. She turned him down, saying that she ‘had no desire to take up the responsibilities of married life and wished to remain free to carry on her life’s work’, but he continued to press her. Eventually she succumbed; they became engaged; she continued to have misgivings. Her mother, who had initially supported the match, changed her mind and began making unfounded accusations against Wells. Joanna gave him back the ring. Wells wrote to George Boyce: ‘Although my engagement is now about to be broken, I will stubbornly hope that some future day Joney may be my wife.’ In the face of near-unanimous disapproval, Joanna and Henry continued to write to one another; she could not abjure the pleasure that his letters brought her, but was stubborn in her refusal to become engaged to him again. Wells never gave up, though, and finally, on 9 December 1857, the couple were married.
Of course, they were very happy. Wells, though a less complicated character than his brilliant wife, deserved her and cherished her in a way that not even her most ardent new devotee could fault, and together they had three children.Their story is as engrossing as any novel. I won’t spoil your experience of it by revealing its ending, but if the final paragraph doesn’t make you cry, then I really don’t know what to think about you.
Simon Poë is contributing to a new history of the Royal Academy, London, forthcoming from Yale University Press.
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