John William Waterhouse Biography

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born 1849, Rome, Italy
died 12th February, 1917, London, England

John William Waterhouse was born in Rome , and was always known by his family, and personal friends as Nino, the diminutive of the Italian Giovanino. Both his parents were artists. Today Waterhouse is possibly the most popular of all the artists on this web site. It is interesting to note, however, that little is known about his personal life today, considering he died in 1917, and was an active RA. What is known indicates he was a retiring, shy man, he left no diaries or journals, and, I suspect, quite deliberately covered his tracks. His friend, William Logsdail wrote his memoirs, but I have not been able to locate a copy of them. I set out below such information I as I have about Waterhouse.

Waterhouse became ARA in1885, and a full RA in 1895. In 1883 he married Esther Kenworthy at the parish church in Ealing in West London . There were no children. The newly married couple lived in a purpose built artistic colony in Primrose Hill, fellow residents, and close friends were Logsdail, and Maurice Greiffenhagen and his wife. The houses had studios. Around 1900 Waterhouse and his wife moved to St John’s Wood, evidence of both increasing prosperity, and the need to be part of the artistic community. He was I think one of the most accomplished British painters of the second half of the 19th century. He shared with many of them a fascination with events from antiquity and legend.

Early in his career Waterhouse established his style. It changed little, but he continually refined it, and his beautiful ladies were recognisable flesh and blood, with superb skin tones. He also painted a few excellent portraits of women, some of them being of the members of the Henderson family of Lord Faringdon, of Buscot Park fame. A lot of the pictures spent many years on the walls of prosperous Home Counties families, but the problems of Lloyds of London have, in many cases, forced their sale, just as their real value, and the artistic worth of Waterhouse’s achievement has come to be realised. He continued to do the same thing throughout his career, but he did it so well, who are we to complain?

In 1917 he died of cancer, but he had carried on working virtually to the end of his life, as evidenced by the two very late pictures bought by Lord Leverhume, still on show at the Lady Lever Gallery to this day.

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Onituary – The Times Monday February 12th 1917

Mr J W Waterhouse RA died at his house in St John’s Wood on Saturday, after a long illness in his 68th year. The first of his paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy was ‘Sleep and his Half-Brother Death,’ in 1874, and since then there have been few Academies without one or two of his works. He was elected an ARA in 1885 the year of one of his best paintings ‘St Eulalia.’ ‘The Magic Circle ,’ painted in 1886 which was purchased for the Chantry Bequest Collection, and ‘The Lady of Shallot,’ which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888 were others of his most popular works. He became an RA in 1895.

His painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs,’ shown at the Royal Academy in 1897 passed into the collection of the Corporation of Manchester, and by them was lent for Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901, and the Franco-British Exhibition 7 years later. At other loan exhibitions in Whitechapel, Manchester , City of London Guildhall , and Earls Court examples of his work have been on view from time to time. His wife several times exhibited paintings of floral subjects at the Royal Academy.

Mr Waterhouse was an eclectic painter. He painted Pre-Raphaelite pictures in a more modern manner. He was in fact a kind of academic Burne-Jones, like him in his types and moods, but with less insistence on design and more on atmosphere. His art was always agreeable, for he had taste and learning as well as considerable accomplishments; he was one of those painters whose pictures always seem to suggest that he must have done better in some other work. This means that he never quite ‘came off,’ that he raised expectations in his art that it did not completely satisfy; and a reason for this is to be found in his eclecticism. He never quite found himself or the method which would completely express him. One feels that his figures are there to make a picture rather than they are occupied with any business of their own. They do make it very skilfully, but neither they nor the pictures seem quite alive. He was at his best, perhaps, in the ‘Martyrdom of St Eulalia,’ now in the Tate Gallery which escapes more than usual from the Burne-Jones lethargy, which though very natural and expressive in Burne-Jones himself, seems to be a mere artistic device in Waterhouse. But he was at any rate, quite free from that theatricality which is the common vice of academic and subject painters. He painted always like a scholar and a gentleman, though not like a great artist.

Assessment

Waterhouse was yet another unhappy artist who had lived into the time of modernism in the early twentieth century, when in the art world the untalented became the fashionable, something, alas, still happening today. Thus newly dead Victorian artists were the subject of further attack in their obituaries. One wonders just what this reviewer would think were he alive today to see the high prices, critical praise, and popularity of the art of John William Waterhouse. On a more general point I have noticed whilst researching these obituaries, that it was felt to be intrusive to say virtually anything about the character of the deceased artist, surely one of the main purposes of any obituary.

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