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oseph Edward Southall was born in Nottingham on 23rd August 1861, the son of a grocer, Joseph Sturge Southall, and his wife Elizabeth Maria Baker, both scions of distinguished Quaker families. The elder Joseph died the following year aged only twenty-seven and his widow and baby removed to her mother's house in Edgbaston, Birmingham. The young Joseph's childhood and schooling followed the tradiiional pattern for a family of his class and background; he attended the Friends' School at Ackworth and later, in 1872, the Friends' School at Bootham, York, where he was taught watercolour painting by Edwin Moore, a brother of the marine painter Henry Moore and the even better known artist, Albert Moore, whose stylish arrangements of classically-draped young women came to epitomise the Aesthetic Movement of the 1870s. After Bootham he went to a school at Scarborough, whilst continuing to take lessons with Edwin Moore; then, on 1st September 1878, a few days after his seventeenth birthiLu, he entered the offices of the distinguished Birmingham architectural partnership of Martin and Chamberlain, where he was to work for the next four years. During these years he pursued his art studies at evening classes and also immersed himself in the writings of Ruskin and William Morris, which were to remain central to his concerns for the rest of his life.
A few months before leaving Martin and Chamberlain Southall made his first trip to Northern France; inspired by his reading of Ruskin and Morris he visited Bayeux, Rouen and Amiens, where he was deeply impressed by the ancient cities, including their Gothic cathedrals. Martin and Chamberlain's main work was in the Gothic Revival style popularised by Pugin, Scott and Street, and it was the young architects from Street's office Morris, Webb and Sedding - who were to evolve and develop the tenets of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Amongst these was a profound belief that architecture was in urgent need of reinvigoration from a craft-base upwards, and it was with this very much in mind that Southall left the architectural practice to pursue his studies in painting and carving. Early the following year, in the company of his mother, he visited Italy for the first time and took with him, as a guide to Venice, a copy of Ruskin's St Mark's Rest. which had been appearing in parts since 1877. The two of them visited Pisa, Florence, Siena, Orvieto, Rome, Bologna, Padua, Venice and Milan, before returning through Switzerland. Southall came back from this trip with a profound admiration for the Italian Primitives and a desire to study and practise the art of painting in tempera. Over forty years later he recalled that he could never forget
the thrill of joy which I experienced when, without any knowledge of what I was about to see, I stepped inside the enchanting cloisters of the great Campo Santo of Pisa. There I found myself at 21 years of age face to face with a vast series of frescoes, so quiet and yet so gay, so reticent in manner and so lively in essence that words must ever fail to convey even the faintest expression of what I felt. [South, "Graphic Arts," p. 142]
On his return, inspired by the impact of Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes, he made his earliest experiments in tempera painting at the Birmingham School of Art, and it was here that he met Arthur Gaskin (1862-1928), who was to become his closest friend and confidant. Under the inspired headmastership of Edward R. Taylor Birmingham had become one of the leading schools of art in Britain, and the foremost for the study of the crafts. Taylor believed that students should be encouraged to increase their "art power" by acquiring various skills in addition to painting and drawing, and that they should learn to express themselves in a variety of techniques. [For a fuller description of Taylor's beliefs and teaching methods see Charlotte Gere's Introduction to The Earthly Paradise, The Fine Art Society, June-July 1969.]
By this time Southall was installed at 13 Charlotte Road, Edgbaston, a house which belonged to his uncle, George Baker, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. George Baker was a friend of Ruskin's as well as being Master of the Guild of St George, to which he had given a substantial amount of land in Worcestershire adjacent to his own home near Bewdley. Baker was to play an important role in his nephew's life, both by showing some of his 1883 Italian drawings to Ruskin, and also, probably, in stimulating his interest in radical politics. The Bakers had been radicals since the seventeenth century, and the earliest evidence of Southall's political interest is a sketch of John Bright addressing the Borough Meeting in January 1885 (private collection; Skipwith, p. 65). The septuagenarian Quaker MP, described as the "most effective radical speaker of the Victorian years" (DNB), had, like the young artist, been educated at Ackworth and Bootham. Ruskin's interest in his drawings, and his appreciation of Southall's grasp of architecture, had a more immediate result with a summons to Brantwood and a commission to design a museum to be built on the property his Uncle Baker had so generously given. However, nothing came of this in the end as Ruskin resolved a long-running dispute with Sheffield Town Council and reverted to his original intention of establishing the museum there rather than at Bewdley, but not before Southall had made a second trip to Italy during the spring of 1886 partly with a view of seeking inspiration for the museum building. This visit took him to Pisa, Florence, Siena and Assist. The next few years were hard for Southall; he was not only deprived of the chance of becoming an architect and realising Ruskins vision, but progress with tempera was slow and frustrating, leading him to abandon it for a time in favour of oil.
Joseph Southall, Beauty Seeing the Image of her Home in the Fountain. Click on image for larger picture and catalogue information.
After a third visit to Italy in 1890, and a brief infatuation with the works of Titian and Veronese, he fell once again under the influence of the Italian primitives and gradually resumed his experiments with tempera. Over the next few years he was given considerable encouragement by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a fellow Birmingham artist, who he had probably originally met as a visitor to the School of Art. Burne-Jones was personally responsible in 1897 for sending Southall's tempera self-portrait, Man with a Sable Brush, to the New Gallery, along with his own work, and he expressed particular admiration for Beauty Seeing the Image of her Home in the Fountain (cat.no.4). These works, among others, established Southall as one of the foremost tempera painters in the country and led to his participation in the exhibitions of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and the exhibition of Modern Paintings in Tempera at Leighton House, which immediately preceded the foundation of the Tempera Society, of which he became one of the leading members.
Joseph Southall, Left: Hortus Inclusus. Right: Coral Necklace.
Click on image for larger picture and catalogue information.
In June 1903 Southall married his cousin, and long-time fiancée, Anna Elizabeth Baker. She was forty-four and he nearly forty-two; they had been intimate friends and companions for many years and had always intended to marry, but because of their close kinship had consciously waited until she was passed child-bearing age. The earliest image of his future wife in the present exhibition is The Coral Necklace (cat.no. 2) of 1895, but many earlier portraits exist, whilst the meticulous recording of hours spent by Miss Baker on the gessoing and gilding of the "frame for Joe for portrait of myself and Colin — Hortus Inclusus (cat.no. 5) — show both the intimacy and professionalism of their relationship. [See Joseph Southall: Artist Craftsman (Birmingham 1980), cat.no. E10 for full details.] The years between 1897 and the outbreak of the Great War saw Southall at the height of his powers and, after many struggles, finally receiving the recognition he deserved. His work was widely exhibited in Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and the United States and he was elected a member of the RBSA, the Art Workers Guild and the Union Internationale des Beaux-Arts et des Lettres. The two most significant exhibitions of his work were probably the Birmingham Group show at The Fine Art Society in 1907 and his highly successful one-man exhibition at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris in 1910, from which he sold over eight-hundred pounds worth of pictures as well as receiving a number of commissions. All this was brought to an abrupt end in 1914.
Southall's active involvement in politics is usually attributed to his opposition to the jingoistic reaction to the Jameson Raid of 1895, although we have already seen him drawing John Bright some ten years earlier at the Borough Meeting [See Skipwith, "Peace"]. His allegiance was first of all to the Liberal Party, but later he transferred this to the Independent Labour Party, whose Pacifism coincided more closely with his own beliefs. Many years later the Birmingham Post recorded that he had always been "an enthusiastic supporter of that Socialism or Communism which William Morris expressed in his News from Nowhere" (Obituary). His propagandist activities and assiduous attendance at tribunals and public meetings during the war years, as discussed by George Breeze [in a separate essay in this catalogue], mitigated against painting, though he still managed to find time to paint one of the huge murals for the great Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1916. This exhibition, orchestrated by Henry Wilson, was not only the largest Arts and Crafts Exhibition ever held, it also became the focus for a national patriotic celebration. Henry Payne and Charles Gere, fellow members of the Birmingham Group, also painted murals for the Hall of Heroes.
The interwar years were calmer with a regular pattern of spring or autumn travels to France and Italy, interspersed with sojourns at Southwold in Suffolk, where they went every July, and on the Fowey Estuary in Cornwall. These travels invariably produced a body of work, mostly in watercolour these days, which was regularly shown in exhibitions at the Alpine or Leicester Galleries in London and the Ruskin Galleries in Birmingham, as well as at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, the Royal Academy, and the Paris Salon. A great sadness at this time was the death in 1928 of Arthur Gaskin, who had not only been a friend, but had given practical encouragement and support at a period when it was most needed. A highlight, though, was provided by the 1930 Winter Exhibition at the Royal Academy devoted to Italian Painting, which stimulated a renewed interest in tempera painting, with the result that at the ensuing Summer Exhibition an entire room was set aside for works in tempera; this was in stark contrast to previous years when the Hanging Committee were ambivalent as to whether tempera should be classed with oil painting or watercolour.
Joe and Bessie Southall made their last trip to Venice in the Spring of 1937; later that year he was taken ill and had to undergo major surgery from which he never fully recovered. His illness, although never accurately diagnosed, necessitated frequent spells in hospital for the remainder of his life, but he still doggedly carried on painting, revisiting old themes such as The White Barque at Fowey (cat.no.27), painted the year before he died, and resurrecting earlier studies such as The Dish of Fruit (cat.no.26), and working them up into finished watercolours. The Dish of Fruit, a striking, almost art-deco, image bears the date 1941, but on the reverse of the sheet is a 1922 annotation concerning the Whatman board. Equally, although his energy was much reduced, he never ceased to work in the cause of peace. The last painting in tempera on which he was working was a memorial portrait of the Bradford MP, Frederick William Jowett (1864-1944), a founder member of the Independent Labour Party; on the table in front of him is a copy of the Independent Labour Party newspaper with a headline "IS THIS WHAT YOUR MEN FIGHT FOR?."Jowett had died early in 1944 and the painting was still not quite finished when Southall died ten months later; it was subsequently completed by Maxwell Armfield, before being presented to the City of Bradford. Southall died on the 6th November and was buried four days later in the Friends' section of Witton Cemetery. The Birmingham Post records that at his funeral his cousin, Evelyn Sturge, spoke of his courage and "great love of truth, and of his willingness to be unpopular in the cause of truth, and of his care for the downtrodden and for justice." Perhaps an even more fitting epitaph is provided by George Breeze in the Dictionary of National Biography where he states: "In his life Southall brought together the gathered stillness of a Quaker meeting, the jewelled calm of tempera painting, and the peace sought by pacifism."
Breeze, George. "Joseph Southall." Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
Breeze, George, Peyton Skipwith, and Abbie N. Sprague. Sixty Works by Joseph Southall 1861-1944, from the Fortunoff Collection. London: The Fine Art Society, 2005. [This catalogue can be obtained from the Fine Art Society, which can be reached by telephone [020 7629 5116] and e-mail [art at faslondon.com (replace "at" by "@")].
Skipwith, Peyton. "Peace, Politics and Painting." Country Life (January 30, 1992).
Last modified 4 December 2005