[George P. Landow based the following text upon the online Internet Archive's version digitized from a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Landow added formatting, links to text and illustrations in the Victorian Web, some not present in the original. Click on thumbnals for larger images.]
It is not difficult, even after the lapse of twenty years, to recall the thrill of pleasure I felt when first I came to know something of the work of Frederick Sandys. It was the late J. M. Gray, a critic of true insight, and no mean judge of a beautiful and artistic creation, who wrote the article which first showed me something of the strength, and something of the tragic glamour pervading the drawings and the pictures of this artist; and though since then thousands of pictures and drawings have passed before me, the pleasure that I derive to-day from the works of Sandys, and the emotion with which they thrill me now, are as fresh and as true as in the days when critical faculties were less keen and enthusiasms more readily stimulated.
Left: The Death of King Warwulf, an illustration of a work by George Borrow.
Right: Amor Mundi, an illustration of a poem by Christina Rossetti.
[The original article does not reproduce these plates].
The lovely study of Tears and the stately woodcuts of and The Death of King Warwulf led me to seek for other reproductions of the same man's work, and fortunately the library to which I then had access contained the volumes of "Once a Week," in the pages of which shine such further masterpieces as The Old Chartist and Rosamund. To see these was to wish to possess, and so began the collection of reproductions of Sandys' work in all genres which is now one of my treasures, coplete as it is in every respect save that the beautiful woodcut of Amor Mundi still eludes my search.
And then came the red-letter days when in some exhibition there was to be seen one of his pictures or some examples of his superb draughtmanship, and the fatigue and discomfort of the consequent pilgrimage from the provinces to London were amply repaid by the delight to be obtained from seeing the handiwork of the master. Since those youthful days, as may be imagined, one's outlook has broadened and one's taste has become more fastidious; but so far as the work of Frederick Sandys is concerned, disillusion has not yet come. When the opportunity came to me to write something about the Preraphaelites, I was brought into touch with the painter by correspondence, and later into personal relationship with him; and some of my pleasantest recollections are of hours spent in his company, listening to his keen comments on men and matters, enjoying his fund of good stories of the great men of his day (Rossetti and Tennyson, Meredith and Swinburne, Millais and Whistler, he knew them all), and tempting him to dream aloud of the pictures he meant to paint — pictures now, alas! never to be seen of any man. There is in the members' book of a certain unique little artistic club a slight and rapid sketch by Raven Hill which gives an excellent idea of his features, but I know of no portrait which conveys to the spectator the dignity which belonged to his tall figure, or the aspect of strength and distinction which seemed to me to be so emphatically characteristic of the man. And of his grim and delightful humour, of the quiet, level voice in which he related reminiscences grave and gay, of the queer admixture of cynicism and poetry that characterised his more intimate conversation, and of the fascination of his scholarly mind and magnetic personality, there can be no record but that which remains in the memory of the few who were privileged to know him. A man of retiring disposition, he would never be lionised; he hated to find his good stories in print, and he was apt to feel that with his life, apart from his art, the public had no concern.
To turn over the portfolio in which are stored the photographs of his pictures and drawings, and the signed proof of his woodcuts, is a perennial pleasure, so strong, so varied, and so accomplished are even the least complete of them. In the ideal subjects, the artist's dreams, what beauty lies; what emotion in the splendid woodcuts and pictures; what truth and mastery in the portraits! Another great painter who survived him but a few days, George Frederick Watts, once said, "Some artists see, some feel, some imagine — the greatest do all," and Sandys not only saw and imagined, he felt as well. He was able, too, to visualise his ideals, to realise his dreams, and to render them with that un- erring touch, that resolute draughtsmanship, which is so notable a feature of his work; that masterly handling to equal which we must go back to the drawings of Dürer and the panels of the Van Eyck. The earliest of the three groups into which his work naturally falls comprises the woodcuts and the drawings made for them, and it is very interesting to see that even in the earliest of these — the illustration to George Macdonald's story of The Portent — the artist's powers seem mature; his touch is unfaltering, his long, sweeping lines are full of strength, and the figure is rendered with a fine feeling for form and contour — is instinct with a dignity almost sculptural.
Fortunately for us a large number of the pen-drawings, of which these woodcuts are facsimiles, still exist, and many are in the possession of a friend of mine, so that I have been able to compare the drawing with the engraving, and to realise how beautifully these blocks were cut in Swain's workshop. It is customary to-day to say that any adequate reproduction of a pen-drawing must be made by a photographic process, and to lament the fact that the original drawings by the artists of "the sixties" perished in the cutting of the blocks, while their beauties and their character suffered irreparably at the hands of the engravers, and Rossetti, for one, made lamentation loud and deep about this mutilation; but my study of these engravings and of many of the originals has only resulted in a deep respect for the skill the cutters displayed, and a sincere admiration of the way in which they preserved the style and the characteristics of each artist, so that at a glance we can tell Walker's work from Keene's, Millais' from lawless'.
Danaë in the Brazen Chamber, an illustration of a poem by Swinburne. [Not reproduced in Bate's article.]
But this is by the way. that Swain's rendering of his drawing of Danae was perfect, and he was not uncritical; and others, such as The Old Chartist (his own favourite), seem to me to be equally satisfactory. This fact is possibly due to the artist's method of working on the block after he had made the pen-drawing on millboard. He told me that his first box-wood block was a puzzle to him when he received it, with a request from Thackeray that he would supply an illustration to a story of George Macdonald's for the "Cornhill." He knew nothing of the correct method of preparing it; it was impossible to work on its smooth surface with either pencil or pen, and he finally drew The Portent line by line with a brush and Indian ink, and found the process so simple and the result so satisfactory that he always thereafter employed the same method.
Besides these small drawings, a few inches square, there exist several on a much larger scale lyjudith and Morgan-le-Fay are examples) in which Sandys used a pen, as he afterwards used chalk, to produce a finished and elaborate study for a picture; but it is in the woodcuts in question that we find him at his very best. Indeed, there is nothing like them in British art. Each is as much a masterpiece as an etching by Rembrandt; in almost everyone we find deep poetic feeling and lofty emotion allied to a wonderful decorative charm and an unexcelled mastery of the method. Turn the portfolio, and we pass from gem to gem. How unaffected they are, and yet how individual! What style is there, what serene vigour! Here is the grim tragedy of Manoli, here the opulent "body's beauty " of Danae, here the emotion of If, here the statuesque grace of Amor Mundi; and surpassing all these in poignant intensity of tragic emotion is the superb Rosamund, than which scarcely a finer black-and-white exists in the art of England — masterly in the beauty of its design, unexcelled in the strength and suavity of its line.
The last fifty years are notable in British art for one thing — they are years that have been fruitful, and over-fruitful, in the production of pen-drawings. From 1850 to 1900 extends the epoch 'A the rise and culmination of the art of pen-drawing among us, and from amid all the practitioners of the method there stand out four unequalled men of genius — Phil May, Charles Keene, George Reid, and Frederick Sandys. The achievement of each is in its way unique, and Sandys is not the least notable of the four. Had we no other work by which to judge him but these marvellous woodcuts — as virile, as accomplished, and as charged with emotion as Dürer's own — we must have hailed him great; and his other work, his paintings and his chalk drawings, are far from justifying any weakening of the epithet.
One of these woodcuts, the notable illustration entitled Harald Harfagr, possesses in addition to its intrinsic beauty the extrinsic interest of being the basis of one of his delightful works in oils, a charming panel known as The Valkyrie, in which he added to the dignity of the black-and-white the beauties of colour fine and pure, of handling at once delicate and strong. Had he similarly transformed others of his designs, how welcome they would have been! What a picture Amor Mundi would be, endowed with the charm of rich colour that delights us in Vivien, with the precise and exquisite manipulation and the beautiful treatment of accessories that are so notable in Morgan-le-Fay! For, indeed, we have too few of his pictures for our delight; and if there were more they might be better known — and to a wider circle of admirers — even though they could not be more sincerely appreciated. For, closely and delicately painted, searching in drawing and rich in colour, the canvases of Frederick Sandys are among the very finest fruits of the wonderful days of Pre-Raphaelism.
The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis. [Not repoduced in Bate's article.]
One of the ablest of our younger generation of artists once said to me, that to paint like Van Eyck was to set back the clock, that the method of the great primitives was not suited to the necessities of artistic expression in the nineteenth century, and still less in the twentieth, and that the man who handled paint as Sandys did perpetrated an artistic anachronism. Of course, if this is admitted, the whole of the pictures produced by the English Preraphaelites are dismissed as monstrosities. Burton's Wounded Cavalier, Millais' Proscribed Royalist, Wallis' Chatterton, and Windus Burd's Helen are consigned with Sandys' Medea to the limbo of futility, and this is surely sufficiently absurd. But even if the intrinsic quality of such pictures were not sufficient refuUtion of my artist friend's statement, surely his theory can be traversed on other grounds. Is not — or, at any rate, ought not — a painter's technique to be the outcome of his own ideas and requirements, and not the result of the fashion of the moment, the fad of the day? And this method of Frederick Sandys, this fine and Memlinclike touch, was part of the man himself. He once said to me that he never was a Pre-raphaelite, and strictly speaking this was so, for he was not a member of the Brotherhood; but his spiritual kinship with them was undeniable, his inspiration was identical, and he evolved for himself the fashion of painting that he always adhered to, the method of Millais in his early days, the method for which we have no word but Preraphaelism. Thus was he inspired, thus he saw things, and thus he rendered them, and it is possible that his reward will not be lacking, and that pictures so painted will outlast hundreds of the perfunctory and sloppy canvases that are fashionable to-day.
These pictures, linked together as a series by the individuality of the painter, are yet full of varying inspiration — are the outcome of diverse moods. Some are monumental in their intensity, others are simple records of beautiful themes. Of the first type is the Morgan-le-Fay, which has been already alluded to; of the second are Vivien and Gentle Spring. Sandys was always attracted by the beauty of a scornful face, and in Vivien he renders the proud beauty of Merlin's temptress with great power, emphasising and accentuating the loveliness of the statuesque head and shoulders by a background of charmingly painted peacock's feathers; in the Magdalen he painted with equal skill the simple pathos of grief; and in Gentle Spring he strikes a note that is purely idyllic. In this beautifully decorative panel the stately and gracious woman chosen by the artist as symbolic of spring is seen advancing to the spectator, while behind her a rainbow gleams against grey clouds and an orchard glows with a wealth of blossom. Her white robe has a border of blue, and in its folds she carries flowers; around her crown of auburn hair copper butterflies hover and flutter, and beside her spring poppies, gorgeous in colour and exquisitely painted. The whole composition is peaceful and serene, and its motif is in strong contrast to the power shown in Oriana and the sombre tragedy that characterises Medea.
It is in the last-named that this phase of his art may be said to culminate; indeed, in this picture we find to the full the artist's perfect manual equipment fitly employed to render a mighty theme of poetry and passion. The canvas shows at half-length the unfortunate wife of Jason, distraught with grief, at work with spells and enchantments, the instruments for which lie on a marble slab before her. In a gleaming shell lies clotted human blood, from a strangely shaped vessel of glass she feeds the flame of a brazier, and its radiance shines on her white dress and on her pallid face and terrible eyes. She clutches with one hand her necklet of coral and turquoise, while from her anguished lips issue irrevocable words of dreadful power. The exquisite drawing of the hands, the lovely painting of the pearly shells with which her dark hair is adorned, and the masterly treatment of the other accessories need not be enlarged on here, but it may be interesting to note (as characteristic of the artist) that though the subject is chosen from a classic myth, the informing spirit is rather that of Gothic romance. The picture is conceived as Cranach or as Van der Goes might have conceived it; in treatment it is akin to the work of the early painters of the Teutonic schools, and the brooding intensity, the dark overwhelming horror that characterise the work as a whole inevitably recall the hopeless tragedy that pervades the stern sagas of the North. Altogether it is a mag- nificent conception fitly rendered, a work worthy to rank amongst the finest imaginative creations painted in Eng- land in the nineteenth century. It is always interesting to discuss the differing ideals of portraiture, to consider the inspiration of Holbein as contrasted with that of Hals, of Velasquez as compared with Watts; and it would be far from unprofitable to treat at some length of Sandys' unique achievements in this field of art, and to endeavour to see (if space did but permit) just where as a portrait painter he must be placed. That he painted some notable portraits is well known, and it is equally well known that the same searching after definite truth that we find in his other work is to be found in these canvases, which are as far from superficiality as from inaccuracy, while they are as fresh, as vivid, as individual and as complete as are the portraits of Holbein himself. Sandys was not concerned to make a portrait the likeness of a man's soul; he sought the likeness of the physical man, deeming that the soul expressed itself in the countenance. Nor did he treat his subjects as items in a decorative arrangement; he gave us his sitter clearly seen and searchingly rendered, and not his ghost or his shadow. This may not be the fashionable portraiture of to-day, but certainly some of the greatest portraits of all time have been painted on this basis.
Some of these portraits are oil-paintings, the superb Mrs. Lezvis and Mrs. Anderson Rose among them; others are chalk drawings, and with these drawings we come to the third phase of Sandys' art. But whether they are in oils or in chalks, they are alike in their characteristics. The portraits of men are virile and forceful and redolent of character, the women serene, gracious and graceful, and the children as delicious and lovable as any in the whole range of art. To all great artists children have been strangely inspiring, and for Sandys they would seem to have had many attractions. Not for him are the little airs and graces that point to an artificial and premature development, not for him the eyes of adult coquetry in a baby's face, the false charm of Greuze; to him they are sincere and natural creatures, now dainty, now full of the un- conscious joy of life, and he drew them wide-eyed in a world of wonder, happy and unspoiled.
Illustrations that accompany Bate's article, which he does not mention in his text: Winifred, A Study, The Red Cap, Portrait Study “Adele”, and Study.
These drawings of his must not be confounded with pastels. There is no similarity between them and the work of Russell, for instance; but if we seek in the art of older days for something analogous we shall find it in the drawings of Holbein, of Clouet of Dumoustrier. They are drawings in chalk, and the method employed was described by the artist himself. He said: "In making a chalk portrait I first faintly outline the features, and then, very lightly, with cotton wool, I put on a flat, even tint over the whole face. It is something like a flat wash in watercolours, only there is a little more colour. Then only do I begin to work up the features, with black and an ordinary red chalk only." It will be evident that the result is not a flesh-and-blood similitude of the sitter. What Sandys aimed at, and what he attained, was a true likeness conveyed by means of a convention at once beautiful in itself and charming in its results. For a number of years he produced these portraits, and his subjects ranged from Matthew Arnold to John Richard Green, from Marie Meredith to Dean Palmer, from Henry Graves to Alfred Tennyson; one of the most interesting of those executed in later years being a characteristically veracious presentment of the well-known sculptor Percy Wood, which shows him adorned with the eagle's feather and other accessories incidental to his rank as a chief of North American Indians; this chiefship being a unique honour conferred on the sculptor by the Indians themselves in recognition of the skill with which he recorded their traits and their outward seeming in imperishable bronze, and in appreciation too, one suspects, of his sympathetic outlook and genial attitude to all men. A wonderful series are these drawings of Sandys, and if they could be displayed together in some gallery there is little doubt as to the chorus of applause that would greet them. They are searching, almost unrelenting, in their drawing, exquisitely seen and handled, and as far removed from the trivial as from the fantastic; though thoroughly de- finite and detailed, they are not in the least "niggled" or tight — in short, they are beautiful examples of the draughtsman's art, learned, accomplished, and effortless.
Three drawings Bate mentions in his text: Mater Dolorosa, Cassandra, and Miranda
In the same category as these portraits must be placed the many elaborate imaginative subjects and ideal heads that Sandys executed in the same medium. Once more let us turn the portfolio, and as the pageant of fair women passes before us what loveliness is there, and what power and what variety in its presentation! Here is the petulant beauty of Proud Maisie, and the mystic radiance of Selene; anon we see the exquisite contours of Tears and the glorious cascade of the tresses that adorn Miranda; while the pallid, voiceless agony of the Mater Dolorosa is followed by the terror-stricken Cassandra, crying strident prophecies of woe, and the lonely Persephone is succeeded by another drawing as complete and as important, another dream as stately and as perfect, the exquisite Lethe. And so the tale of them grows, and Cleopatra and The Fayre Mayde of Avenel, Portia, and Perdita, and many another one, bring to us beauty and the sense of tears, so often does the artist seem to have felt the emotion voiced by Browning, to have echoed the sigh which haunts the poet's question:
"Dear, dead women, with
such hair, too — what's
become of all the gold
Used to fall and brush their
and echoing it, to have caught and immortalised the vision vouchsafed to him of all the lovely phantoms of the bygone years, so that again they live for our wonder and delight.
It is needless here to expatiate on the intrinsic beauty of these drawings, or on the fact that the same qualities are to be found in the very earliest as in those of his maturity. It has recently been my privilege to see in the house of a friend a simple black-and-white by Sandys, an early drawing of Devotion, which is entirely beautiful in its rendering of the exquisitely slender hands, charmingly tender in its whole motif; and in this, as in the latest of all, he shows himself the thorough artist that he was. All through the long series of them we cannot but recognise the power with which the artist deals subtly with the transitory and evanescent expressions of lovely faces — the perfect draughtsmanship of eyes and lips, the unfaltering surety and vigour of the touch, the delicate treatment of the hair, so lovingly lingered over, so beautifully drawn in its curves and waves, and withal so finely treated as a mass, despite the absolute rendering of every strand and coil.
And it would be futile to insist again upon the lofty inspiration of these imaginative works, in which majestic beauty alternates with tender grace, tragic power with poetic charm, and emotional intensity with monumental repose. Suffice it to say that in these drawings, as in the woodcuts and the oil-paintings, Frederick Sandys reached a level of sustained and perfect achievement such as few (and those only of the greatest) of his compeers have attained to, and showed himself possessed of a soul attuned to stately imaginings, and endowed with a manipulative and technical ability which enabled him to realise his conceptions to the full.
In that his works are comparatively few we who delight in them have cause for regret; in that they are very perfect we are fortunate. He was an old man when he passed from among us; his work was done and well done; but nevertheless we are indeed the poorer by the death of such an one, losing from the arena of art one of its mightiest figures, one of the giants of our day and generation.
Bate, Percy “The Late Frederick Sandys: A Retrospective.”The Studio 33 (October 1904): 3-17. Internet Archive digitized from a copy in the University of Toronto Library.
Last modified 24 December 2010