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Daily Telegraph Obituary

Daily Telegraph Obituary, 13th February 1917, by Sir Claude Phillips.


We regret to announce the death of Mr John William Waterhouse, R.A., who passed away on Saturday, after a long illness, in his 68th year.

There are painters who are known as painters' painters. In other words, there are artists whose vocation would seem to lie in catering for the great public, and others who use palette and brush from sheer delight in their handicrafts. A modern of the moderns, Mr Waterhouse may be said to have spent his life in experimenting in and perfecting himself in his technique. An eclectic and a devout believer in "art for art's sake", the late Academician passed through many stages in the drastic business of educating himself for his life task. A symbolist, to start with, it was impossible for a painter of Mr Waterhouse's susceptibilities not to be caught in the great naturalistic wave which swept Europe in the early eighties. Thus we find him for a considerable number of years going direct to nature for the inspiration, while, like many other realists, he went the length of posing his models out of doors in the brilliant sunlight. Plein air was the gospel of the movement, and it is certain that Mr Waterhouse succeeded in giving his canvases those vibrating, atmospheric qualities which were the aim of the new prismatic school. It is true that the critics have sought to establish the fact that Mr Waterhouse was at the time influenced by Alma-Tadema. The fact that he interested himself largely in classic subjects no doubt gave colour to the idea that he was at heart a classicist. But this was far from being the case. With the late Academician the manner and not the matter was the thing. For whether he was depicting Miranda, Diogenes, or St Eulalia, it was a colour problem that the artist envisaged his subject. Who, for instance, does not recall the exquisite harmonies of the picture called "The Magic Circle", where the subtle juxtaposition of mauves and blues recall the happiest inspirations in Persian art? And a dozen other instances might be cited. It was as no cold formalist that Mr Waterhouse envisaged scenes historical. The glamour of the born colourist is to be traced on nearly every canvas to which he put his hand.

John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in the year 1849, and was fortunate in possessing a father who not only devoted his life to art, but encouraged his son to follow his own profession. Thus the boy had leisure to spend his days studying the art treasures accumulated with such profusion in London. The National Gallery, the British Museum, and South Kensington became the happy haunts of a student who devised the most original modes of familiarising himself with the work of the great masters. For not only did he model from the antique (it was modelling rather that painting that the youngster essayed in those early days), but established a system of drawing from memory, which he believed to be of great assistance to him in his after-work. Thus, the picture closely scrutinised and examined in the National Gallery by day would be reproduced from memory at night, a valuable aid to training the retentive qualities of the artistic mind. It was while he was thus engaged in sitting at the feet of the old masters that Mr Waterhouse conceived the idea of painting that first series of allegorical subjects which dwelt with the mysteries of human existence. The artist, indeed, was only twenty-five when he exhibited in the Royal Academy the important picture called "Sleep and his half-brother, Death" an allegorical work which attracted a good deal of attention in the spring exhibition of 1874. It was a year later that Mr Waterhouse sent "Miranda" to Burlington House, when he also contributed the canvas called "Whispered Words". It was not, however, till the year 1876 that Mr Waterhouse was honoured to the extent of being placed on the line. This coveted privilege was accorded the picture called "After the Dance";, since when the later artist may be said to have been invariably well hung. For, apart from the brilliance of his technique, his shapely way of laying on paint (a subject we have already touched upon), many of Mr Waterhouse's themes were calculated to attract popular attention. Such, for instance, was the work of 1875, called "A Sick Child Brought into the Temple of Aesculaplus", and such, again, was undoubtedly the historical picture named "The Remorse of Nero after his Mother's Death". A canvas called "The Tibia" was exhibited at Burlington House the same year, while the painter completed the work entitled "La Favorita" the following year.

Passing to the year 1882, we find Mr Waterhouse engaged on a "Diogenes", while the ensuing season he exhibited the most important picture he had as yet essayed, "The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius". Another canvas, called "The Bubbles", was also seen at Burlington House the same spring, while two years later the artist was elected as Associate of the Royal Academy. In truth Mr Waterhouse would seem to have been working at white heat at this particular time, for we find him tackling in succession such difficult subjects as "Consulting the Oracle" (the oracle Mr Waterhouse presents us with is the far-famed human head of the Teraph), "St Eulalia" and "The Magic Circle", already alluded to. In the canvas called "St Eulalia" the painter shows us the saint lying in the forum, covered with "the miraculous fall of snow", which Prudentius describes as "shrouding the body after her martyrdom." After such a theme the subjects of Ulysses and Circe would naturally present no difficulties to an artist, and accordingly we find Mr Waterhouse busying himself in 1891 with the canvas entitled "Ulysses and the Sirens". In natural sequence Circe followed, the painter breaking away from the traditional representation of the enchantress turning men into swine to the less hackneyed episode of "Circe Poisoning the Sea". A Danae was the output of the same year, the two pictures "A Hamadryad" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" following in 1893, a year Mr Waterhouse also exhibited a canvas called "A Naiad" at the New Gallery. "The Lady of Shalott" occupied the painter's attention next, and this subject, with the picture called "Field Flowers" represented his labours for 1894, yet it was neither with Tennyson's nor Keats' mystic heroine that Mr Waterhouse reached the high-water mark of his popularity. This was attained with his "St Cecilia" in the year 1895, when the Associate was raised to full Academic honours. "Pandora", another notable success, was the artist's next venture, and in 1897 we find the Academician exhibiting "Hylas and the Nymphs" at Burlington House, and picture entitled "Mariana in the South" at the New Gallery. It was to the last-named gallery that Mr Waterhouse sent a "Juliet" in the succeeding spring, his Royal Academy exhibits being two classic themes, namely "Flora and the Zephyrs" and "Ariadne".

Of Mr Waterhouse's subsequent work it is hardly necessary to speak. His style, settling in the early nineties into the more or less definite groove that we have all come to know it by, had not materially altered since. Hence we need no more than refer to Mr Waterhouse's diploma picture "A Mermaid", his "Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus" (exhibited in 1901), or "Echo and Narcissus", given to the world the following year. Other classic subjects include "Psyche opening the Golden Box", "Boreas", and "Psyche opening the Door into Cupid's Garden". Of the few portraits executed by the late Academician we have left ourselves small space to speak. But they were not the happiest inspirations emanating from his hand. Of the half-dozen limned by the painter in late years, Mrs Schreiber, Miss Molly Rickman and Mrs Charles Newton Robinson are perhaps most familiar to the public.

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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