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John William Godward was born into a respectable and financially secure Victorian family living in Battersea, London. His father, an investment clerk in a life assurance office, and his mother, née Sarah Eboral. His childhood was dominated by his father, who believed his son should follow the family profession of insurance and banking. Subsequently, John William had a sheltered and somewhat claustrophobic home life.
John William's father was acquainted with the noted architect and designer William Hoff Wontner. After John William exhibited some early drawing skills, his family apparently saw no harm in allowing their son to study rendering with him during the period of 1879-1881, on a recreational basis only in the evenings. This he did together with the architect's son, William Clarke Wontner, who became his lifelong friend.
After the death of W. H. Wontner, the twenty year old Godward continued to study with William Clarke Wontner, four years his senior and an art teacher himself. Godward would reciprocate by being a major influence on Wontner's art.
In 1887, Godward's first entry was accepted into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Although the work attracted little attention, it did help his family accept him as a "real" artist, allowing him to be taken seriously and gain some acceptance from his disapproving family. He continued to exhibit there regularly until 1905.
In 1890 after a period of financial success selling, Godward was able to finally leave his family home. He was also able to occupy his own spacious single-storey studio. During the same year of his move, Godward painted about 25 oils. The following year, 1891, saw at least 21 oils by the artist including some that would receive media recognition and gave his financial success.
In 1894 Godward moved out of his studio, taking a 40 year lease on a more prestigious property. Like Alma-Tadema, he used his home as part of his art and decorated the inside like an ancient Roman building set in a garden of pergolas and fountains. Unlike Alma-Tadema's home which was always open to parties, Godward's home was more of a hermitage which he left only to visit the shops and dealers in marbles and antique paraphernalia.
The new century arrived with Godward still painting prolifically and became recognized as a major exponent of classical figure painting. However, his nature still hindered him significantly in furthering his career and, by the turn of the century, "beauties" painters had difficulty in receiving acclaim beyond the walls of the Royal Academy.
In 1905 Godward entered his last Summer Exhibition. He gave up trying to attract the attention of the greater British populace but he still continued to exhibit in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent. He made his first trip to Italy and it is thought that works from this period were inspired by his Pompeian visits.
By 1912 Godward and his wife, left England for Rome. Critical acclaim in London was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain by this time with the prudish Victorians and living in Italy added an air of authenticity to the work of such a classical artist. Certainly, in Rome there existed a flourishing classical school at this time, including many foreign artists. Unfortunately, little detail is known concerning his years in Italy.
The following years saw not only a huge increase in the number of artist studios to nearly 100 in the Villa but also their commensurate decline and dilapidation - coinciding with the aging of the owner and founder Alfred Strohl-Fern. During the next four years Godward is thought to have returned to London about as many times. He finally returned to England to spend his remaining days in Fulham from 1921 until his death in 1922.
Upon his return, the Wontners moved to West Kensington, making way for his brother Charles Arthur and his pregnant wife Gertrude. John William re-occupied the garden studio. However, his health declined and under-nourishment from a spartan existence led to dyspepsia . Without doubt he was also mentally affected by the belligerence of the intellectual modernism.
Rather than continue with the misery of ill health and seeing his art suffer, John William Godward committed suicide in 1922. Returning from work that evening, his brother found him dead in his studio, having gassed himself over a gas-ring in the wash-room. He was interred in the plot he had purchased in 1904 at the Old Brompton Cemetery close to his studio and near to the graves of the other Victorian artists of his time.
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John William Godward; Eclipse of Classicism, Vern Grosvenor Swanson, 1997
Art Renewal All articles on John William Godward
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