Saturday, 23 June 2012

Joanna Boyce Wells

No works by Joanna Boyce Wells will feature in the forthcoming Pre-Raphaelite show at Tate Britain – a pity because of all the women artists who participated in the renewal of energy and sincerity that marked the movement’s beginnings, she was the most gifted and committed.  This is underlined by Sue Bradbury’s book  Joanna, George and Henry, which presents a full account of her career drawn from the family archive. Letters, diaries, artworks originally owned by Joanna’s widower Henry Wells were lost when WW2 firebombing hit the home of their now elderly daughter Alice, who had already begun to record her mother’s life.  Then Alice recalled having given transcripts to her sister – which in turn lay forgotten for 50 more years.
Pam Gerrish Nunn used some of the material in her writings on Joanna, who by common consent had more natural talent as well as seriousness than either her brother or husband. Reading Bradbury's narrative - a valuable addition to PR literature - it’s hard to credit  how after her reluctant marriage Joanna was able to paint so much and so well at the same time as producing three children in three and a half years.  The last birth killed her, at age 29.  ‘English art has lost more than it knows,’ wrote Alex Gilchrist, while Rossetti's comment was bitter: ‘a great artist sacrificed to bringing more kids into the world’.  The book also demonstrates that had she lived the boys of the Brotherhood might not now so dominate the story.


  1. Part1
    Dear Ms Marsh,

    I agree with your remarks regarding the omission of Joanna Boyce Wells from the PRB exhibition at Tate Britain. However, I think that it was just the symptom of a much more important failing : Namely that the exhibition ‘did not do what it said on the can’.

    It was certainly the ‘Greatest Hits Tour’ and seemed well attended- With one or two notable omissions(‘Blessed Dalmozel’, ‘Waterwillow’ etc) it contained pretty much what is currently regarded as the best- I am sure that many went away happy. But I have to say that it was another opportunity wasted and another occasion where we ‘shot ourselves in the foot’.

    The title of the exhibition was 'The Pre-Raphaelites-’Victorian Avant Garde'.Sewell is Sewell but the general gist of his criticism was that, apart from a clunking attempt to portray Lizzie Siddal as a pioneer of the modern naive style , in no way did it attempt to argue its case – and it all seemed a bit ‘bonkers’. By and large I have to agree with him.

    As usual the point was made that the PRB’s followed Ruskin’s instruction to return to nature and lifted Victorian art out of its ‘Sir Sloshua’ induced malaise. But where were examples of the pictures that the PRB’s influenced? (No photos even.) Where was the avant garde argument made in the catalogue/book?....a short article by Elizabeth Prettejohn stuck in at the back. An excellent and provoking article which should have been backbone of the exhibition rather than the best regarded examples of the disparate elements of PRB. (Which CAN look a bit bonkers). Incidentally Ms Prettejohn risks destroying a good argument by occasionally going a mischievous step too far: Quoting Rosenblaum comparing the crowded two-dimensional pattern of Hunt’s ‘Awakening Conscience’ with Pollock is not helpful. A bit of prudence is called for otherwise again the contribution will be filed under ‘Bonkers’.

    It is however a significant article and to expand the points within there are certainly one or two books that badly need to be written (and exhibitions that really DO need to be held). Firstly something is needed that properly presents how PRBism influenced art internationally. (Khnopff etc)

  2. Part 2

    Secondly, something is required that reflects the grievous error that was made when we accepted the Franco-centric view of art ‘lock, stock and barrel’ and threw our Pre-Raphaelite parented baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
    We should stop being so darned politely British and make the arguments. The Ruskin trial was a watershed. At the trial when asked for a critique of Imprressionism Burne-Jones said there was no subject to it and it lacked finish. The Impressionists would not have perceived that as a criticism but there is certainly an argument there. For example Hunt’s ‘Our English Coasts’ has a narrative , is just as ‘plein air’ and has a darn sight more realistic integrity than a lot of Imprressionism. Cezanne said Monet was ‘just an eye-But what an eye!’ - There is a strong argument for saying ‘Monet..What an eye!... but he’s just an eye’.

    As regards the symbolic element: The PRB symbolists were excellent at painting the unreal realistically – So the pictures have real dialogue and substance.

    This then is the context in which to hang Boyce Well's Elvira - Say next to Millais 'Sophie Gray' and a head by Lucien Freud. All 3 would display their individual brilliance whilst supporting the depth of emotional exploraton and integrity of each other.

    And we have the unsung genius that is G.F Watts...'Mammon' is surely the work that sums up our times..If he was French they would worship him.

    My theory is that if we had not become so Franco-centric we might have developed a form of sophisticated, figurative ,metaphysical symbolism along the lines of a modern day Edward Hopper. Certainly an art that demanded to be read rather than just 'felt personally' (or not!).

    So..we need to make the arguments. It’s akin to your desire for a level playing field for the exhibition/exposure of women artists. It’s futile to blame the Victorians for being Victorian ... Instead we have to present coherent , articulate arguments to break down current prejudices...and be critical of our failings.

    Great paintings:Bad exhibition.

    Sorry if it sounds like a rant!

    Mike Titterington.