Recently discovered albums of Roddam Spencer Stanhope Photographs

John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope (1829-1908), uncle of Evelyn de Morgan, was a pre-Raphaelite and symbolist painter. He was one of the group of artists which worked on the Oxford Union murals, and went on to have a quietly distinguished career as a professional artist despite his professional being at odds with his class and status as the second son of son of a wealthy family of landed gentry.

Whilst studying at Oxford University, Roddam became G.F.Watts' assistant, working on his architectural paintings. Despite Britain being at war with France, Stanhope accompanied Watts to Italy and the battlefields of Greece, with the personal permission of Napoleon! Stanhope's passion for Italy and his chronic asthma led him to leave England permanently and move to Florence, often residing at Edward Burne-Jones' house in England during the summer months. At Florence, he was frequently visited by his niece Evelyn de Morgan, who shared his interest in biblical, mythical and allegorical subject matter. The influence of the Renaissance Old Masters and mythology can be seen in Evelyn's work Flora (1880).

Two albums containing professional photographs of Stanhope's paintings have been discovered. They had lain forgotten and mis-catalogued in Wandsworth Libraries Archives, where many of Mrs Stirling's possessions were stored after Old Battersea House was vacated. Wandsworth Archivist Ruth MacLeod contacted the De Morgan Foundation after a recent audit of their collections.

Upon closer inspection, these volumes of photos are particularly interesting as they document work which has been destroyed and untitled pieces yet to be identified. Among the unidentified work is a portrait of a woman depicted as Venus. Her long flowing hair is intertwined with a belt of scallop shells around her waist and she is shown stepping out of a larger shell, reminiscent of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1486).

The better known pieces in the album are Eve Tempted (1877), now displayed in Manchester Art Gallery, and The Millpond (c1870), currently owned by the The Huntingdon Library and Art Collection in California. These two  paintings were exhibited at the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery and praised by Oscar Wilde and Watts, who was particularly taken with the dim colours and peaceful atmosphere of The Millpond. However Stanhope was generally overshadowed by the work of Watts and he did not achieve the recognition during his life time that he deserved. The critics' main complaint was that his figures had androgynous aspects, for example in Eve Tempted, the serpent has a human head of indeterminate sex. Close friend Burne-Jones said of Stanhope, 'he wasn't keenly criticised, but he wasn't noticed, and that isn't cheering.'.  The Italian influence is also once again present in Eve Tempted in both his choice of medium (egg tempera) and background landscape, where he depicts Eden as a medieval Italian walled garden.

Further work has yet to be completed on the unidentified paintings, so the possibility remains that they could shed new light on Stanhope's career as a pre-Raphaelite painter.


Miranda Willis (Volunteer), September 2012