Posts Tagged ‘Joanna Mary Boyce Wells’

Joanna Boyce, Heathgatherer (1859)

A passionate desire and an unwearied will can perform impossibilities of what seem such to the cold and feeble. If we do but go on some unseen path will open among the hills. We must not allow ourselves to be discouraged by the apparent disproportion between the result of simple efforts and the magnitude of the obstacles to be encountered. Nothing good and great is to be obtained without courage and industry — from Joanna’s notebooks, quoted by Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Victorian Women Artists, 151)

Dear friends and readers,

Between my last woman artist, in 18th century studies and women’s art, a well-known figure, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and my choice for this evening, a return to obscure women artists, overlooked by most, their pictures not printed nor place with the school they belong to, Joanna Boyce (for short), I found myself composing “a life in nature” artist’s biography about the far more famous Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) out of my own memories of my husband’s fondness for her unique original art, and a lecture I heard and my reading about her achievement as a conservationist and farmer, carer for animals (and people too) in the Lake District. I urge anyone who comes over here for my woman artist series, to peruse my sketch. Unlike Kauffman and Potter, but like too many other women artists and writers, Joanna Boyce did not have time to fulfill and develop her genius as she died shortly after her third childbirth aged 30.

I draw attention first to her Heathgatherer (just above — the strong teal blue is perfect, Boyce has captured the thick linen shirt, the pale sky, the bristly heather), with its pale earthly feel, a painting even the few sources I found on her tend to overlook: according to Bridget Hill’s Women Alone: Spinsters in England, 1660-1850, gathering heath was a primary way women in agriculture made a hard and poverty-stricken existence if this was their only source of income through gleaning fields and selling what could be picked (21-27).

Boyce paints from a woman’s point of view and experience. She pictures young babies and women in ways a man might be embarrassed to paint:

Bo-peep (1861) — it’s earnest and alive with feeling (and in color)

Like her brother, George Price Boyce (1826-1897), her art also fits into that terrain of Pre-Raphaelitism which rigorously tries for precise landscapes to achieve a kind of photographic truth to nature:

Shanklin, Isle of Wight 1860joannaMaryboyce (Large)
Shanklin in the Isle of Wight (1859).

Christopher Newell describes this as a “delicious landscape sketch, with its beautiful effect of light through trees on the right and focus on the large block of rock standing in the foreground (in Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature, 69)

Newell has an entry for a painting of Holmbury Hill (in Surrey, where there is an iron-age fort), about which Joanna wrote she and her brother were

“‘hard at work sketching …. I have accomplished very little as yet but have three good subjects (landscape) commenced.’ The North Downs landscape was untouched, she thought, by the modern world, for there were ‘no visitors or tourists and very few human beings at all within the mile or two of us, but plenty of other beings. numerous from their being so seldom disturbed”

but Newell reprints no image. This anonymous impressionist image of the quiet countryside around the hill is not by her:

On Holmbury Hill

I include it to offer a Victorian painting of the area around Holmbury Hill. Numbers of paintings by her brother have survived which combines precision with atmospheric impression:

George Boyce, Black Poplars at Pangbourne (1868)

Joanna’s unfinished Sybil (1860) is not a witch (brother Pre-Raphaelites favor sorceresses as a theme) nor semi-pornographic with the same face so typical of the male Pre-Raphaelites. The delicacy of mood and apprehension of the woman’s face, and the absorption of the figure in choosing from sheets of paper she will work on makes it my favorite of all her work I’ve seen. She had been working on it when she died:


It’s just not true that there are no great, distinctive, and strong women Pre-Raphaelite artists. I’ve written of Rosa Brett (1829-82), included various images from the work of Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919), Eleanor Fortesque Brickdale as book illustrator), e.g.,


Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62), listed them and others, and mean to add a number more from Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists, including eventually Marie Spartali Stillman (1824-1927)’s strange melanges:

Love’s Messenger (1885).

What is noteworthy about Boyce is how she does not rely on the spectacular, bizarre, or preciously antique, but more in the vein of Brett, leaves us with quiet exquisitely rendered presences and precise naturalism.


Joanna Mary Boyce (possibly made from a death mask)

Joanna Boyce’s life follows a pattern for women artists seen in the Renaissance family workshops, and in the 19th century as necessary promotion, connection, instruction and support (Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: visual art as the “Family Business,” 19-44). Her brother was George Boyce, a Pre-Raphaelite artist well-trained in schools, continually active in several different Pre-Raphaelite circles and a successful architect, who painted buildings too.

George Boyce, Tomb of Mastino della Scala (1854)

George Boyce’s diary is an important source of information for Pre-Raphaelitism today

Joyce’s father, George John Boyce, a wine merchant and pawnbroker (they functioned as bankers) encouraged her talent from a young age, took her to exhibitions, lectures (to J. M. W. Turner’s funeral), allowed her to enroll at Cary’s School of art, and traveled with her to Paris (1852) so she could study contemporary French painting. They stayed at Betws-y-coed in Wales where her brother came under the influence of David Cox. Her father’s death in 1853 was a significant loss because her mother discouraged her from being an artist. Joyce was taken to Torquay during her early grief, and wrote:

I began painting my sketch — unsatisfactory — idle — Have a sense of something wanting to give me energy — the dear encouraging eyes of my darling father, to whom alone I was sure of giving pleasure (Nunn, from Joanna’s notebooks 150)

She met the man who was to become her husband by 1849, Henry Tanworth Wells (1828-1903) and true to form, he was an artist too, a friend of her brother, an established and conventional portraitist and miniaturist who did not appreciate her unusual approaches. Joanna reminds me of a later Victorian woman artist Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912) because for a few years she resisted Well’s pressure to commit to him. Joanna used stronger words than have come down frmo Forbes, like “slavery,” “dependence” and “degraded” in explaining why she was reluctant. They first became engaged in 1855.

In the meantime she had attended various schools (1853, Leigh’s school of art, 1854 Government school of design), traveled to Belgium and the Netherlands (it’s possible she was hoping to train in Dusseldorf or Munich); she had wanted to study with Rosa Bonheur (1822-99) in France, but was instead enrolled in Thomas Couture’s atelier where there was a life class. We’re told of works that have disappeared (not saved?), a portrait of her pension landlady, a “Rowena offering the Wassail cup to Voltigern” (according to her brother “painted from a handsome Polish girl in Paris”). As she had loved Bonheur’s natural studies (scroll down for Bonheur’s Sheep Reclining by the Sea<), so she admired Delacroix’s use of color.

Again we have her words at least. She wrote a column, “Remarks on some French Pictures at the late Exposition in Paris” (1855), a five-installment review of an academy show (1856). Her remarks fit into what John Barrell in a recent review of David Solkin’s new survey, Art in Britain, 1660-1815 (LRB, 38:11, 2 June 2016) suggested was occurring slowly over the later 18th century: English art was freeing itself from a cultural cringe to a false hierarchical vision of the classics, European history painting, and imitations of minor Italian Renaissance paintings. Like Anthony Trollope in his essays on his trips to galleries, Joanna praises the Englishness of recent English art: she defends the Pre-Raphaelites, naming Ruskin and an important painting:

The Pre- Raphaelite movement has done some good, and will do more; and the extravagances that its leaders fell into in some of their first pictures, such as Millais’s Carpenter’s Shop, were but the necessary results of a great change … they have taught us by their pictures, aided by Ruskin’s words, that an artist’s strength lies in a child-like sincerity, and in the shunning of pride, which is always allied to servility. If Frost and Pickersgill, and two or three other young men who were talked of as ‘rising artists’ some years ago, had learnt the lesson, we should not find them sinking deeper and deeper into the slough into which indolence and pride have led them … The ridicule and the narrow-minded criticisms that have abounded in the press against the Pre-Raphaelites and their champion have fallen harmless – so far, at least, as the principles for which they have fought are concerned. The great men in the group have walked calmly onward, heedless of the strife of trivial tongues, and the walls of the Academy during these last few years have been but the theatre of their triumph.

There is a touching aspiration, refreshing idealism, and she adheres Ruskin’s vision of ethical understanding through an aesthetics drawn from nature

Six picture exhibitions are now open in London, containing all that our artists have been able to accomplish for 1856. Have they worked that we may be mentally and morally the better for their labours, or merely that our purses may be lighter, and our rooms furnished with pleasing pictures? Money, we know, with artists as with other men [sic], is unavoidably, and not always prejudicially, a main incentive to sustained exertion; but let us hope that a simple love of nature and art, an earnest striving after excellence, and, with some at least, impatience to give forcible utterance to the multitude of thoughts within, have had their place too.

Her unfinished Gretchen (1861) suggests she would have taken themes from romantic poetry of the previous era

Gretchen 1861 Joanna Mary Wells 1831-1861 Presented by the artist's daughters 1923 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03814

From Vigue (Great Women Masters of Art 217): She adapted the languid expression of the model to a narkedly dramatic scene. The woman stands, observing the viewer frontally while she protects a frightened boy who takes refuge in her arms. Though the artist uses a cldearly Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, the influence of rmantic painting is evident in the woman’s expressive stance. In the formal conception of the painting lies a compositional simplicity that enhances the Romantic vision and emphasizes the maternal expression of the whole. The artist composed the work based on the expressiveness of gesture and emphasized the ephemeral instant of the embrace through tenuous illumination.

Joanne lists as works she means to do “Undine,” “Autumn, from Keats,” “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,” “Lady of the Castle” and “Charlotte Ridley as “Catherine Sforza” (Nunn 155).

She set out with friends for Italy in 1857. She learnt Italian, her notebooks are filled with sketches of passing people she saw, places visited, portraits. By the end of the year (December 7th) she had married Wells

Returning to England, they set up house in 1859 in Upper Phillimore Gardens, and had built a country house at Holmbury Hill in Surrey. Joanna had two children while continuing to paint and exhibit. From among other paintings, the forefulness of her La Veneziana was praised in the Saturday Review and Athenaeum:


A few months later an obituary notice appeared. After another baby (named Joanna Margaret) she succumbed to gastroenteric fever, July 15, 1861. Immediately after she was (naturally) highly praised but the terms used suggest her work: “remarkable for warm, deep colouring and a true feeling for pigment.” But it was the sense of a powerful presence in her figures that impressed people (Nunn 158).


Joanna’s Head of Mrs Eaton is her most frequently reproduced image, and perhaps the most familiar one by Victorian woman artists to readers and viewers today:

Head of a Mulatto Woman by Joanna M. Wells” (inscription on back of frame)

Critics today are attracted to the sitter’s identity as a woman of colour. She worked for D.G. Rossetti, Rebecca Solomon, Simeon Solomen, Albert Moore. In Beyond the Frame, Cherry describes it:

This delicately modeled and finely pointed oil study of a head in profile facing left portrays a woman with a calm, meditative expression, set before a deep green ground. Threaded through her hair are strands of turquoise beads, pearls decorate her ears, and over her shoulders are draped swathes of a shimmering fabric striped with white and dull gold (Cherry 140)

Compare Vigue (217): Mrs. Eaton’s face appears with a rigid expression that transmits strength and character. The painting represents the model in profile and perfectly renders the stylized form of her neck and the details of her coiffure. In the center of the image is an earring that centers the composition … On the basis of this small point of light, the artist designed a balanced and homogenous composition. The attention of the viewer is gained through a studied distribution of light. In the foreground, the light colors of the dress prevail and the eye ascends along the neck until it reaches the tenuous clarity of the face … this combination of different grounds of light … produc[es] a very structured visual path through the pictorial space. The same is true of the quality of the brushstroke: … fluid … in the dress … the face … much clearer

The most highly praised in her era (by Ruskin among others) is this delicate fresco-like Elgivra (1855), who, while facing right with head tilted towards the viewer, also like almost all of Joanna’s statuesque images of women does not make eye-contact with us:


Vigue: the artist used color as a medium of expression. The woman, with a dark blue dress that covers her to the head, is located in the center of the painting, inclined toward the right. The contrast between the blue of the dress and the grayish color of the background is serene.

While face is central (she is the heroine of the story), it’s “more brightly illuminated than the rest of the painting,” the ” woman has a downcast air, with a meditative, slightly sad expression (216).

There’s a subtle psychological moment to be read in all Joanna’s figures. I am intrigued by their quiet and meditative expressions which convey Joanna’s proud sense of women’s intelligence and fortitude (a favored word in the 18th century).


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