In 1863, Frederic Leighton, as he was then, was an up-and-coming artist who moved in Pre-Raphaelite circles. Well-travelled in Europe, he had studied in both Florence and Paris, but was then living and working in London. At a time in his career when most artists are concentrating on their own art and reputation, Leighton returned from Europe with a young protégé, Charles Edward Perugini (1839–1918).
Perugini had already spent a lot of his life in Britain. Born in Naples, he lived in England between about 1845-1856, and it is towards the end of that stay that Leighton had painted this portrait of him: Portrait of Charles Edward Perugini (1855).
Perugini then trained in Italy before living in Paris and apparently studying under the great history painter Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), although that must have been during the last year or so of Scheffer’s life.
In Leighton’s tutelage and company, Perugini flourished. His I Know a Maiden Fair to See, Take Care from about 1865 refers to a translation of a German ballad by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1843, in which the reader is cautioned that the maiden can be both friendly and false, and may be fooling them: a femme fatale. Note that she wears rings on the ring finger of her left hand, indicating that she is already married.
Perugini’s rendering of different fabrics and their textures here is very accomplished indeed.
Leighton introduced him to members of Charles Dickens’ family, and in about 1870, he painted the portrait of the novellist’s youngest daughter, Kate, while she was married to another artist, Charles Collins. Although this portrait is known as that of Kate Perugini, she was Kate Collins before her first husband’s death from cancer in 1873 and her subsequent marriage to Perugini the following year.
Perugini also painted a later portrait of Kate, which is more widely known, showing her in more demure dress.
At about the same time, Charles Perugini painted Oh for the Touch of a Vanished Hand (c 1870). This refers to a short poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, written in 1835 and published in 1842. This decribes his feelings of loss after the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, although here Perugini casts a young woman in the role of the mourner. Once again, the fabrics are exquisitely detailed.
In 1882, Perugini posed two beautiful women for his painting of the classic Aesthetic theme of Dolce Far Niente. Although interacting very little, in their idleness they are enticing a snail with a fragment of leaf. A trivial act, it starts raising questions of narrative or symbolism which endanger its Aesthetic ideals.
Perugini seems to have flourished by painting portraits and small groups of affluent young women. In A Summer Shower, from about 1888, three are caught out playing badminton in the summer, by a sudden shower. The game was then also known as battledore and shuttlecock (which was strictly speaking played according to different rules), and had only been imported from India in the middle of the nineteenth century.
In Perugini’s undated Ephemeral Joy, a young woman who has been picking flowers in a garden pauses with a brimstone butterfly on the back of her hand. The butterfly is a general symbol for the ephemeral, and the brimstone was seen as a quintessentially British species, although widespread throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa.
The Ramparts, Walmer Castle is another of Perugini’s undated works, containing portraits of the Countess Granville (probably at the far left) and the Ladies Victoria and Mary Leveson-Gower. Although it is unclear exactly which Countess Granville is shown here, she belonged to the Leveson-Gower family too; they have royal connections, with the fourth Earl Granville marrying the elder sister of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1916.
Walmer Castle is on the east coast of Kent, overlooking the approach from the North Sea into the Straits of Dover. The second Earl Granville was its warden from 1865-1891, making it most probable that this work was painted during that period, and the Countess Granville his second wife, Castilia Rosalind Campbell, who died in 1938. That Earl Granville was a prominent Liberal politician for a period of fifty years in the late nineteenth century.
Charles Perugini’s wife modelled for several of the major British figurative painters of the day. One of the most interesting paintings of her is John Everett Millais’ Kate Perugini from 1880, which is surprisingly informal, and shows her tiny waist.
Kate painted as well as her husband, but even fewer of her works remain accessible. Those that have survived are almost exclusively portraits of children.
Among them is Kate Perugini’s niece, Charles Dickens’ grand-daughter, Mary Angela Dickens, seen here in 1882, when she would have been just twenty. Later in life, Mary Dickens published children’s books in which she re-told some of the novels written by her grandfather. Those were illustrated by Harold Copping.
Charles Perugini, master of fabrics, died in London on 22 December 1918, at the age of seventy-nine. Kate his wife lived for another decade, dying on 9 May 1929 at the age of eighty-nine.