Fenwick excitedly envisions the subjects he'd like to paint

Ward here has the young artist imagining all the standard subjects of nineteenth-century painting in England and France.

And at the thought, fresh images, now in rushing troops, and now in solitary fantastic beauty, began to throng before the inward eye, along the rich background of the valley; images from poetry and legend, stored deep in a greedy fancy, a retentive mind. They came from all sources — Greek, Arthurian, modern; Hephaestus, the lame god and divine craftsman, receiving Thetis in his workshop of the skies, the golden automata wrought by his own hands supporting him on either side; the maidens of Achilles washing the dead and gory body of Hector in the dark background of the hut, while in front swift-foot Achilles holds old Priam in talk till the sad offices are over, and the father may be permitted to behold his son; Arthur and Sir Bedivere beside the lake; Crusaders riding to battle — the gleam of their harness — the arched necks of their steeds — the glory of their banners — the shade and sunlight of the deep vales through which they pass; the Lady of Shalott as the curse conies upon her — Oenone — Brunhilda — Atalanta. Swift along the May woods the figures fled, vision succeeding vision, beauty treading on beauty. It became hallucination — a wildness — an ecstasy. Fenwick stood still, gave himself up to the possession — let it hold him — felt the strangeness and the peril of it — then, suddenly, wrenched himself free. [22]

“All the best men were now outside the Academy”

[Speaking to Anna mason, the retired school mistress] He showed himself, in fact, intellectually at ease, expansive, and, at times, amazingly arrogant. For instance, in discussing a paragraph about the Academy in the London letter of the Westmoreland Gazette, he fired up and paced the room, haranguing his listener in a loud, eager voice. Of course she knew — every one knew — that all the best men and all the coming forces were now outside the Academy. Millais, Leighton, Watts — spent talents, extinct volcanoes! — Tadema a marvellous mechanic, without ideas! — the landscape men, chaotic, — no standard anywhere, no style. On the other hand, Burne-Jones and the Grosvenor Gallery group — ideas without drawing, without knowledge, feet and hands absurd, muscles anyhow. While as for Whistler and the Impressionists — a lot of maniacs, running a fad to death — but clever — by Jove! —

No! — there was a new art coming! — the creation of men who had learnt to draw, and could yet keep a hold on ideas —

'Character! — that's what we want!' He struck the table; and finally with a leap he was at the goal which Miss Anna — sitting before him, arms folded, her strong old face touched with satire — had long foreseen. 'By George, I'd show them! — if I only had the chance.' [33]

Watson's painting, which he and Cunningham discuss before Fenwick first arrives on the scene

The idea — of helpless pain, in the grip of cruel and triumphant force — had been realised with a passionate wealth of detail, comparable to some of the early work of Holman Hunt. The head of the victim bound with blood-stained linen, a frightened girl hiding her eyes, a mother weeping, a jester with the laugh withered on his lip by this sudden vision of death and irremediable woe — and in the distance a frail, fainting form, sweetheart or sister — each figure and group, rendered often with very unequal technical merit, had yet in it something harshly, intolerably true. The picture was too painful to be borne; but it was neither common nor mean.

Cuningham turned away from it with a shudder.

'Some of it's magnificent, Dick — but I couldn't live with it if you paid me!'

'Because you look at it wrongly,' said Watson, gruffly. 'You take it as an anecdote. It isn't an anecdote — it's a symbol.' [49]

Fenwick's Genius Loci

The three men gathered in front of the picture. Fenwick lingered nervously behind them.

'What do you call it?' said Lord Findon, putting up his glasses.

'The "Genius Loci,"' said Fenwick, fumbling a little with the words.

It represented a young woman seated on the edge of a Westmoreland ghyll or ravine. Behind her the white water of the beck flowed steeply down from shelf to shelf; beyond the beck rose far-receding walls of mountain, purple on purple, blue on blue. Light, scantily nourished trees, sycamore or mountain-ash, climbed the green sides of the ghyll, and framed the woman's form. She sat on a stone, bending over a frail new-born lamb upon her lap, whereof the mother lay beside her. Against her knee leaned a fair-haired child. The pitiful concern in the woman's lovely eyes was reflected in the soft wonder of the child's. Both, it seemed, were of the people. The drawing was full of rustical suggestion, touched here and there by a harsh realism that did but heighten the general harmony. The woman's grave comeliness flowered naturally, as it were, out of the scene. She was no model posing with a Westmoreland stream for background. She seemed a part of the fells; their silences, their breezes, their pure waters, had passed into her face.

But it was the execution of the picture which perhaps specially arrested the attention of the men examining it.

'Eclectic stuff!' said Watson to himself, presently, as he turned away — 'seen with other men's eyes!'

But on Lord Findon and on Cuningham the effect was of another kind. The picture seemed to them also a combination of many things, or rather of attempts at many things — Burne-Jones' mystical colour — the rustic character of a Bastien-Lepage or a Millet — with the jewelled detail of a fourteenth-century Florentine, so wonderful were the harebells in the foreground, the lichened rocks, the dabbled fleece of the lamb: but they realised that it was a combination that only a remarkable talent could have achieved. [38-39]

Fenwick's landscape project: “Westmoreland months”

Fenwick sat down upon a rock, ransacked his pockets for sketch-book and paints, and began to sketch. When he had made his 'note,' he sat lost a while in the pleasure of his own growing skill and sharpening perceptions, and dreaming of future 'subjects.' A series of 'Westmoreland months,' illustrating the seasons among the fells and the life of the dalesmen, ran through his mind. Nature appeared to his exultant sense as a vast treasure-house stored for him only — a mine inexhaustible offered to his craftsman's hand. For him the sweeping hues, the intricate broideries — green or russet, red or purple — of this winter world! — for him the delicacy of the snow, the pale azure of the sky, the cloud-shadows, the white becks, the winding river in the valley floor, the purple crags, the lovely accents of light and shade, the hints of composition that wooed his eager eye. Who was it that said 'Composition is the art of preserving the accidental look'? Clever fellow! — there was the right thing said, for once! And so he slipped into a reverie, which was really one of those moments — plastic and fruitful — by which the artist makes good his kinship with 'the great of old,' his right to his own place in the unending chain. [113-14]

Fenwick's idea where nineteenth-century painting had to go next

English poetic feeling, combined with as much of French technique as it could assimilate — there was the line of progress. Not the technique of these clever madmen — Manet, Degas, Monet, and the rest — with the mean view of life of some, and the hideous surface of others. No! — but the Barbizon men — and Mother Nature, first and foremost! Beauty too, beauty of idea and selection — not mere beauty of paint, to which everything else — line, modelling, construction — was to be vilely sacrificed. [173]

Fenwick's withdrawal from the Royal Academy

Some two years before, it had been the nine days wonder of artistic London. Fenwick, then a newly elected Associate of the Academy, and at what seemed to be the height of his first success as an artist, had sent in a picture to the Spring Exhibition which appeared to the Hanging Committee of the moment a perfunctory thing. They gave it a bad place, and an Academician told Fenwick what had happened. He rushed to Burlington House, tore down his picture from the wall, stormed at the astonished members of the Hanging Committee, carried off his property, and vowed that he would resign his Associateship. He was indeed called upon to do so; and he signalised his withdrawal by a furious letter to the Times in which the rancours, grievances, and contempts of ten chequered and ambitious years found full and rhetorical expression. The letter naturally made a breach between the writer and England's official art. Watson, who was abroad when the whole thing happened, had heard of it with mingled feelings. 'It will either make him — or finish him!' was his own judgement, founded on a fairly exhaustive knowledge of John Fenwick; and he had waited anxiously for results. So far no details had reached him since. Fenwick seemed to be still exhibiting, still writing to the papers, and, as far as he knew, still selling. But the aspect of the man before him was not an aspect of prosperity.[192]


Ward, Mrs, Humphry. Fenwick's Career. New York and London: Harper Brothers, 1906.

Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Fenwick's Career. [No publisher listed] Project Gutenberg E-text prepared by Andrew Templeton, Juliet Sutherland, Bill Hershey, and Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders. Last Updated: May 21, 2004 [eBook #12403]. Web. 20 July 2014.

Last modified 30 July 2014