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Birmingham Daily Post Obituary

The obituary of Waterhouse published in the Birmingham Daily Post on February 13, 1917 , was written by its anonymous art critic "F.S.R.". The critic who preceded "F.S.R." was Alfred Feeney, a cousin of Waterhouse's sister-in-law's husband Peregrine Feeney.


Mr. John William Waterhouse died at his house in St. John's Wood on Saturday, after a long illness, in his sixty-eighth year.


The careers of few artists have been marked by so complete a change of aim as that of Mr. Waterhouse. He began, broadly speaking, as a painter of historical pictures and "genre" subjects, in both of which there was often to be found a strong dramatic and even tragic note. He ended in a series of works in which his chief concern was a suave tranquility and decorative effect.

To the first, dramatic, period in which the story was regarded as of high importance belong "The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius" (1883), "Consulting the Oracle" (1884), and "St. Eulalia" (1885), this last, perhaps, his sole conscious effort at a "tour de force" in draughtmanship by the wonderful fore-shortening of the dead maiden's body.

These three pictures did much to win him his Associateship in 1885, after a strenuous exhibiting career of fifteen years. Then followed "The Magic Circle" (1886), that striking presentation of a witch's spells, and "Mariamne", wife of Herod the Great, going to her execution, a most noble and queenly figure (1887).

The pictures of this first period, harmonious in colour, are his nearest approach to the academic in painting, but in truth an academic painter Mr. Waterhouse never was. That mere surface finish to attain which the genuine academic will risk truth of tone and freshness of colour was ?? ?? Waterhouse desired .

His subjects might occasionally confound him with the academic class, but his paintings never. It was always suggestive, never sought to worry out all the folds and convolutions of a drapery, the vast articulation of a tree, the unnumbered petals of a flower, for mere local completeness's sake at the expense of unity. Yet with this comparative freedom of execution, or rather contempt of tight finish, Waterhouse contrived to give an appearance of reality, truth to nature, and the freshness of first intention which no amount of merely conscientious labour can achieve.

He was a realist in so far that he was not content with elaborate colour schemes divorced from nature such as may be found in the work of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. No old-master-like brown tinge pervades his pictures. The colour of his flesh painting has ranked for years with the very best; some, indeed, would rank him as the protagonist in this respect amongst his contemporaries. But realism with Waterhouse was never carried to its ruthless conclusion. He understood that a picture should be a decorative whole, and that minor truths of nature may fairly be subordinated to this great end.

So in that very original "Ulysees and the Sirens" (1891), which England has lost to the Melbourne Gallery, there is not a cast shadow to be seen, yet such is the intensity of colour on ship and figures, rocks, and deep toned sea that the impression of Mediterranean sunlight is triumphantly attained.

Waterhouse had a receptive mind as regards the work of other painters—he had early leanings towards the sterling art of Alma Tadema—but he never allowed his admiration of other men's work to swamp his own individuality. His style is his own, and he has had many young imitators.

The year 1886 was important for him, as then he first saw the early Pre-Raphaelite pictures of Millais. They did not make him a Pre-Raphaelite, but their themes and feeling caused him to divide his interests in future between the classical subjects to which he was always faithful and those derived from Shakespeare and the English nineteenth century poets such as Keats and Tennyson.

Though, too, he was wise enough not to attempt the meticulous Pre-Raphaelite delineation of Nature—a quest of the impossible—he found in their wonderful efforts at complete realisation direct from Nature confirmation in his belief that there is no reason why the treatment of the most poetical themes of any period should be divorced from natural truth.

Waterhouse was the most virile draughtsman, and he painted with a vigorous full brush. There was no softening of angles at the expense of truth; there was always accent, but never any ostentation or cleverness in brushwork. His skill in two matters of details may be observed in all his pictures, the beautifully expressive, and apparently effortless, drawing of the hands, and the tender modelling of the turn of the brow toward the eye-sockets which gives a charming spirituality to so many of his heads.

After 1892 the dramatic leaning may be said to have ceased, and henceforward Mr. Waterhouse aimed at a decorative serenity and a fairness of colour completely in harmony with his often very personal renderings of poetical motives, be they from his long-loved Homeric tales, and classical myths or from the later English poets of his choice.

Thanks to the early insight of the late Sir Henry Tate, Waterhouse is well represented in the National Gallery of British Art, while many other public collections contain examples of one of the best painters and colourists our British school can show.


Obituary Overview

John William Waterhouse died on 10th February 1917 and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in northwest London. Although by 1917 Waterhouse's work had fallen out of fashion, and the country was in the midst of the Great War, several newspapers covered his death and printed obituaries.

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