John William Waterhouse, Study for Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus. Courtesy University Gallery and Baring Wing
A new exhibition offers an exciting opportunity to see a collection of Victorian and Edwardian paintings, representing significant works by important artists, which has never been exhibited in public before.
Hidden Treasures: The Sena Collection is showing at the University Gallery and Baring Wing, Northumbria University, until June 1 2007. It comprises eight oils and two watercolours and is the first glimpse of a collection that has been in storage for the past 20 years.
The jewel in the crown of these hidden treasures is undoubtedly Study for Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, shown above, by the distinguished Edwardian Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).
By the time he commenced the painting in 1899, Waterhouse’s reputation as the leading second generation Pre-Raphaelite painter was secure. His The Lady of Shalott (now in London's Tate Britain) had been purchased for the nation, while paintings like Ophelia were enduringly popular.
With Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, Waterhouse engaged a classical theme. The story, derived from Virgil’s Georgias IV, is an extension of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the distraught poet wanders the world after the loss of his love.
Eventually, Orpheus strays into a Bacchic orgy in which the women of Ciconia tear him limb from limb and hurl his dismembered head and lyre into the river Hebrys. In Virgil’s account, the head goes on singing of the beauty of Eurydice even after death.
This painting relates to the lower portion of a larger composition of 1900 and is an exceptional example of the artist’s mature style.
Henrietta Rae, Psyche Before the Throne of Venus: A Study for the Finished Picture. Courtesy University Gallery and Baring Wing
Psyche Before the Throne of Venus by popular Victorian painter Henrietta Rae (1859-1928) is another significant work, and an exciting rediscovery. Rae was particularly notable for her graceful and poetic nudes of which this painting is the best known.
In Greek mythology, Psyche and Venus were rivals and following the loss of her lover Cupid, Psyche was captured and brought before the court of Venus to whom she became a slave.
In visualising the court, Henrietta Rae drew upon the account supplied by William Morris in the Earthly Paradise. The work was commenced in 1892 and the finished version exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1894. Shortly thereafter it entered the collection of the mining millionaire George McCulloch.
The present sketch, which does not significantly differ from the now untraced Academy piece, shows the distraught Psyche pleading at the steps of the throne of Venus. The handling of the sketch, as one would expect from a painter trained in France, is free, spontaneous and richly coloured.
Much to Rae’s consternation, this work was described by one critic as “a glorified Christmas card” but is now given the credit it deserves.
Frank Bramley, Oil sketch for Saved. Courtesy University Gallery and Baring Wing
Another rediscovery is this dramatic painting by Frank Bramley (1857-1915). Recently identified as the sketch for Saved, his Royal Academy exhibit of 1889, this work now hangs in the National Gallery of South Africa, Cape Town.
Following the exhibition of his highly successful A Hopeless Dawn at the Royal Academy in 1888, Bramley planned a companion piece, the composition of which is worked out in this oil sketch.
Living at Newlyn, Cornwall, as a leading member of the artist’s colony, Bramley committed himself to representing the lives of the fishermen’s families. A Hopeless Dawn, as its title suggests, shows two women in a cottage interior who have been waiting throughout a stormy night for the return of a fisherman.
Bramley’s painting of the following year shows the news reaching the cottage that the fisherman’s life has been saved.
Albert Ludovici, Columbine. Courtesy University Gallery and Baring Wing
Columbine by Albert Ludovici Jnr (1852-1932), who spent his career working between London and Paris, offers a different perspective on the painting of the period.
Here, Ludovici espouses the mythical and romantic subject matter typical of many paintings of the day, to produce a surprisingly modern looking figure within a domestic interior.
Looking at the sumptuousness of his brushstrokes and the simplicity of his composition, it’s easy to see why Ludovici's work is renowned for its universal appeal.
Sidney Richard Percy, Landscape. Courtesy University Gallery and Baring Wing
And what collection of Victorian art would be complete without a landscape painting? This group contains a couple of fine examples, including this one by Sidney Richard Percy (1821-1886).
In spite of frequent trips abroad to Venice, Percy fell in love with the British landscape and, as can be seen in this painting, it was the dramatic Welsh landscape that really fired his imagination.
Other hidden treasures in the exhibition include a landscape painting by Alfred Vickers (1786-1868) and a figure painting by Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-1880).