Legends of England in Paint: Lady Godiva

John Collier (1850–1934), Lady Godiva (1898), oil on canvas, 142.2 x 183 cm, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The legends of Robin Hood, which I examined yesterday, are long and involved, and seem to have been depicted mainly in illustrations to accompany the text. Today’s look at paintings of popular English narratives considers a far simpler story, that of Lady Godiva.

There is reasonable historical evidence that Godiva, real name Godgifu, was the wife of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, in the years prior to the Norman invasion of 1066. Both Leofric and Godgifu are known from their generous benefactions to religious houses from about 1040, and she is thought to have died in the twenty years after the invasion.

Godiva’s legendary claim, though, was about her husband’s swingeing taxes on the people of Coventry, in England. She supported the people, and tried to persuade her husband to relent. Despite repeated appeals, he refused to reduce them, finally offering to do so only if she stripped naked and rode a horse through the streets of the city.

The Countess of Mercia decreed that everyone should remain indoors, with their window shutters closed, when she rode through the streets, covered only in her long hair. One person, a tailor named Thomas, disobeyed, and was either struck dead or blinded by the other citizens as punishment.

Curiously, this legend was not recorded for about two hundred years, but since has been repeated frequently, and the story of the original Peeping Tom added later from oral tradition. During the seventeenth century, the Godiva Procession became an established feature of the city’s annual fair, although the naked rider was usually a young man.

For the visual artist, this legend offers both rich opportunities, and great danger: until the inclusion of nude women in paintings became acceptable in British art in the nineteenth century, its prominent theme was taboo. I have been unable to find any paintings of it prior to 1833.

George Jones (1786–1869), Godiva Preparing to Ride through Coventry (1833), oil on mahogany, 74.9 x 61 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Robert Vernon 1847), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/jones-godiva-preparing-to-ride-through-coventry-n00390

Then, George Jones risked baring one breast in his Godiva Preparing to Ride through Coventry (1833). If there is any historical basis to the story, this may be more accurate than the legend, in that the Countess would have more plausibly ridden while wearing a penitential white shift, as shown here.

Jones is quite thorough in showing several elements of the story: at the left, affixed to the wall, is the sealed proclamation instructing everyone to remain behind shuttered windows, and on the flagstones in the foreground are red roses expressing the love of the people. Godiva also has very long and thick hair.

William Holmes Sullivan (1836-1908), Lady Godiva (1877), oil on cardboard, 40 x 30 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

It was over forty years before the next painter plucked up the courage to use this motif. In 1877, William Holmes Sullivan painted Lady Godiva setting off alone on her horse. Her face is downcast and her eyes closed: perhaps it is the horse’s expression which is the more telling. She here appears with white doves, which presumably are symbols of peace.

Thomas Stevens (1842-1883), The Lady Godiva Procession (1875-1888), ‘Stevengraph’ of Jacquard woven silk, dimensions not known, Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, HI. Image by Hiart, via Wikimedia Commons.

My next depiction was not painted, but woven in silk using a proprietary technique invented by the Coventry textile manufacturer Thomas Stevens: The Lady Godiva Procession (1875-1888). This ‘Stevengraph’ shows one of the annual processions held as part of the city’s fair, suggesting that by this time the role was filled by a woman who at least appeared to be naked. By some strange quirk of history, this beautiful work, made in Coventry by a local man, has ended up in Honolulu.

Godiva’s story had been confined to England, but aroused the interest of the great French academic painter and teacher, Jules Lefebvre, who painted her at least twice.

Jules Lefebvre (1834–1912), Lady Godiva (1891), oil on canvas, 62 x 39 cm, Musée de Picardie, Amiens, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Lefebvre’s first painting of Lady Godiva from 1891 shows her passing over deserted narrow cobbled streets, covering her breasts and appearing in some distress. Her horse is being led by a maid, and flying alongside are three white doves. She now appears almost saintly in her mission, as if undergoing some sort of psychological martyrdom.

Edmund Leighton (1852–1922), Lady Godiva (1892), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Edmund Blair Leighton (who was not related to the more famous Baron Frederic Leighton) was known for his paintings of old European history. His Lady Godiva from 1892 ducked the issue of nudity by showing an early scene from the legend, in which the Earl of Mercia tells his wife of the terms under which he would reduce Coventry’s taxes.

Although he had several opportunities to give the viewer clues as to the rest of the story, in the reliefs carved on furniture and above the arch of the doorway, the viewer is left to rely on their memory of the legend.

John Collier (1850–1934), Sketch for Lady Godiva (c 1897), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This is John Collier’s sketch for his later painting of Lady Godiva, from about 1897. It is delicately composed using a side view which minimised her female form, so avoiding the risk of causing offence.

John Collier (1850–1934), Lady Godiva (1898), oil on canvas, 142.2 x 183 cm, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Collier’s superb finished painting of Lady Godiva from 1898 emphasises her nudity by clothing the horse, but make no reference to any other part of the legend. I find this curious: Collier was at the time well-known for his ‘problem pictures’ which gave the viewer multiple clues with which to resolve a narrative.

Jules Lefebvre (1834–1912), Lady Godiva at Prayer (1905), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Lefebvre exhibited this painting of Lady Godiva at Prayer (1905) at the Salon that year, and I presume that this is a monochrome reproduction of a full colour original. The heroine is now clearly approaching a religious transition, standing in front of a psalter, her eyes looking up to heaven. However, the artist doesn’t offer any visual clues as to what she is about to do.

The legends of Robin Hood and that of Lady Godiva are both concerned with social inequality and justice, the actions of individuals to try to redress the balance, and to aid the poor. These were themes which came to the fore in ‘social realist’ and Naturalist painting during the late nineteenth century, but none of the depictions of these legends shows any link to those themes.

Instead, artists have focussed their attention on their superficial stories: the swashbuckling hero of Robin Hood, and the incongruity of a noblewoman riding naked through an Anglo-Saxon town. Only Lefebvre attempted a deeper reading of the legend, and seems to have recast his accounts in terms of a religious experience at variance with literary versions.

In that sense, these paintings of English legends perhaps highlight some of the difficulties which narrative painting encountered in the nineteenth century.


Wikipedia on Lady Godiva.
Wikipedia on Thomas Stevens and Stevengraphs.