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William Blake Richmond first visited Italy in the winter of 1865-6 with the purpose of studying Renaissance painting and architecture. Although he was full of enthusiasm for the works of Giotto and Michelangelo he was also struck by the beauty of the Italian landscape. He wrote of the Campagna and its different moods:
The glad, gay morning; the solemn, shadowless midday, white with the full glory of light- silver and glistening, silent and drowsy, when the body is inactive and seeks shade from the perpendicular rays, throbbing in the pale blue- a time when the gods sleep and the shepherds speak low lest they should be wakened, when even the birds are silent. Then the golden afternoon, when the shadows lengthen, when the colour increases in intensity as the sun lowers from the meridian, and a sharp distinction cuts out each form incisively. Next, when the sun is sinking and the Alban hills are flushed, when the Claudian aqueducts stretch in long, golden lines towards the purple mist rising from the wet earth among the lower spurs of the hills, and a faint shadow is creeping slowly over the gentle ondulations of the mighty plain in which Rome lies. What was golden is grey, what was gay is grim, and with the swift oncoming twilight there steals over all that sadness which is inseparable from the highest, strangest beauty, till all has vanished in the dark, enshrouding night.(1)
Such appreciation of the Italian landscape ensured a sympathy between Richmond and Costa. Leighton, returning from Egypt in the spring of 1866, brought them together in the Caffe' Greco. Richmond summarised Costa's influence upon him:
... (he) gave me good advice, criticised my work and made me cut from it small detail(2)
and pronounced to Olivia Agresti:
This I should like to say- if what I have painted in landscape has any merit, it is largely due to the early influence of Giovanni Costa...(3)
English artists searched the Italian landscape for its association with a romantic tradition in literature to which the painters and writers of Victorian England, from Pre-Raphaelitism through to the Aesthetic Movement, felt a sense of lineal descent.
William Blake Richmond was a fine portrait painter, at his best in `aesthetic' images of women and young girls. He was also a protege of Leighton and produced large-scale dramatic paintings with mythological and religious subjects.
He was born on William Blake's birthday, son of the artist George Richmond. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1857, where his fellow students included Albert Moore and Simeon Solomon. Around 1860, he was strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites writings:
I tried to paint like Holman Hunt for a while, but I could not.(4)
Around 1860, he began to paint portraits, exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1861. Of particular interest are the Sisters (exhibited, British Institution 1865; private collection), his portrait of Dean Liddell's daughters, the youngest of whom inspired Alice in Wonderland. His portraiture financed several visits to Italy where he studied Renaissance art.
He married in 1864. In 1866, he returned to Italy after the tragic death of his first wife. There he became a close friend of Giovanni Costa (indeed he painted landscapes in the Etruscan style) and of Frederic Leighton. His art took a new direction. The large Procession in Honour of Bacchus was well hung at the 1869 Academy exhibition through Leighton's influence, leading to charges of favouritism. Until the end of his life Richmond painted both portraits and ideal subjects, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the Grosvenor Gallery and the New Gallery, the Fine Art Society and British provincial exhibitions.
His most important imaginative work was the mosaic decoration in the choir of St Paul's Cathedral designed between 1891 and 1894. He also travelled extensively; to Algeria, the Aegean and Egypt. He became Slade professor at Oxford in 1879 on Ruskin's resignation where, unlike Ruskin, he praised Michelangelo. He also taught at the South Kensington Schools between 1901 and 1907.
He was made Associate of the Royal Academy in 1888, Academician in 1895 and was knighted in 1896. A. M. W. Stirling's The Richmond Papers (1929) on George and William Blake Richmond is still the best source for his life. His painting is surveyed in the Christmas Art Annual for 1902.
1. Academy, 10th June 1882 quoted in Christopher Newall, The Etruscans, Painters of the Italian Landscape 1850-1900, Tate Gallery, London 1989, pages 19-20
2. Royal Academy Archive, quoted The Etruscan School
3. Agresti 1904, page 132
4. A M W Stirling, The Richmond Papers, Heinemann, London 1926, page 168
Milan, Circolo della Sampe, Nino Costa ed i suoi amici inglese, 1982, number 44
York Art Gallery; London, Leighton House and Stoke-on-Trent Art Gallery, The Etruscans, February- May 1989, number 64