One hundred years ago today, on 11 February 1921, the eminent British artist William Blake Richmond (1842–1921) died in London. Unless you’ve seen his portraits of Pre-Raphaelites and other prominent Victorians in London’s National Portrait Gallery, or his mosaics in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, you’ve probably never come across his name.
As you might have guessed, he was named after his father’s close friend, the artist and poet William Blake, who had died in 1827. George Richmond (1809-1896), William Richmond’s father, was a major portraitist himself, a close friend of Blake, and one of The Ancients, a group of Blake’s artistic followers including Samuel Palmer.
William Blake Richmond lived up to his name: he was a precocious artist, gaining himself a place at the Royal Academy of Art when he was only fourteen years old.
After only two years of study there, he painted The Mirror of Narcissus (1860). This shows an unusually feminine figure standing on a chaise admiring themself in the mirror. By this time, he had toured Italy, where he was most enthused by the work of Michelangelo, Tintoretto and Giotto.
The following year, one of Richmond’s portraits was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and won him praise from the foremost critic of the day, John Ruskin, who became his mentor. He returned to Italy in 1865, where he lived in Rome for four years. During that time, he befriended Frederic Leighton and Giovanni Costa. His career progressed well on his return to Britain, and within a decade – in 1878 – he was appointed successor to John Ruskin as Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, one of the most prestigious positions in academic art.
Richmond retained a deep appreciation of the art of Michelangelo, which brought him into conflict with Ruskin, who had little regard for the master. This led to Richmond resigning his chair at Oxford, although he and Ruskin remained friends. It also freed Richmond to paint more, and in the 1880s he was able to visit several Mediterranean countries, including Greece and Egypt.
An Audience in Athens During Agamemnon by Aeschylus from 1884 is a thoroughly Aesthetic painting, a study of the enraptured audience of a play. Its classical setting has strong formal symmetry, with its central figure perhaps representing the playwright himself. Richmond uses greatly exaggerated aerial perspective, with intense chroma in the foreground falling off rapidly towards the back of the theatre, to give depth to what would otherwise have appeared flat and frieze-like.
Richmond’s The Slave, from just a couple of years later, couldn’t be more contrasting. The figure of an overtly distressed woman slave stands with two young children, one still at her breast, in a dark cell, with straw on the floor. His inspiration isn’t clear: it could have been a response to something he’d seen during his visit to the Middle East the previous year, or perhaps to a social campaign about the victimisation of women.
Sadly, many of his best portraits are subject to copyright claims, despite his death a century ago. Portrait of Mrs Ernest Moon from 1888 is a little different, in its Aesthetic influence. This young Australian woman married into Victorian society, and this commissioned portrait was to celebrate that marriage. She had apparently embroidered the coat she’s wearing.
Richmond painted many other fine portraits of notable contemporaries, including William Morris and the novellist Robert Louis Stevenson.
When Richmond was travelling, he seems to have made copious drawings and some oil sketches, including this of The Libyan Desert, Sunset from 1888, a relatively small work on a wood panel. In this he may have been following the example of Frederic Leighton, who painted many landscape oil sketches which remain little-known.
Venus and Anchises, painted by Richmond between 1889-90, shows an unusual narrative, and reveals his extensive classical education. Anchises, father of Aeneas who was made famous to the Romans in Virgil’s epic Aeneid, was the mortal lover of Venus/Aphrodite, according to legend. Jupiter challenged Cupid to shoot an arrow at his mother, which in turn caused her to fall in love with Anchises when she met him as he was herding sheep on Mount Ida. Aeneas was the result of that relationship, and the legend the explanation for Venus watching over the safety of Aeneas during his prolonged journey from Troy.
During the 1890s, Richmond worked on the design and installation of mosaics for Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, which now decorate the choir and apse in over seventy panels. In addition, he collaborated with Harry James Powell, one of the leading stained glass makers of the day, and designed windows for several churches across England. He also sculpted during this later period of his career.
In 1895, Richmond was appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy, in 1897 he was knighted, and in 1920 he became senior Academician.
Around the turn of the century, Richmond painted Joan of Arc in pastels.
This pastel portrait of St Joan of Arc probably dates from about the same period. Her face appears made up, with lipstick and honed eyebrows and eyelashes, and her armour fancifully faired and scooped into wings, showing a more Symbolist approach.
The Virgin of Consolation is another undated pastel painting which may be from this period. It shows the Virgin Mary in her popular role of consoling other women, and appears very painterly in style.
The last painting which I have of Richmond’s dates from 1902, and shows another story from classical mythology, this time Hera in the House of Hephaistos. This title is puzzling, as the painting shows a young man apparently in post-coital repose as a young and beautiful goddess robes herself by his bed. It’s generally agreed that Hera (Juno) was the mother of Hephaistos (Vulcan), and that Hephaistos’s wife was Aphrodite, who is commonly associated with the doves flying around the lower part of the painting. Neither is there any sign of a peacock, which would be Hera’s expected attribute.
William Blake Richmond died in London on 11 February 1921, at the age of seventy-eight.