Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The best head in the rooms

Today marks the 190th anniversary of the birth of the painter, Joanna Mary Boyce, best known for her historical works and her association with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her brother, too, was a painter, a watercolorist associated with the Brotherhood. He kept a diary, and there are a few mentions - but only a few - of his younger sister. The more famous pre-Raphaelite Ford Madox Brown mentioned Joanna just once in his diary but in doing so he showed much admiration for her art - calling one of her portraits, ‘the best head in the rooms’.

Boyce was born on 7 December 1831 in Maida Vale, London, the daughter of George Boyce, a prosperous pawnbroker. Her father and George helped school her in the visual arts. She began formal study of drawing aged only 11, and aged 18 she entered Cary’s art academy. She worked under James Mathews Leigh at his school in Newman Street, London; and in 1855 she studied with Thomas Couture in Paris. That same year, she first exhibited her artwork publicly, at the Royal Academy, and one of her two paintings, Elgiva (pictured), drew praise from John Ruskin, and from Ford Madox Brown (see below).

Boyce spent 1857 painting in Italy, and late that year, in Rome, married miniaturist Henry Tanworth Wells. She also continued a lifelong practice of analysing the artwork of her contemporaries, and publishing art criticism in the Saturday Review. She died young, in 1861, after the birth of her third child, and Wikipedia says, her last completed painting, A Bird of God, was left on her easel. More information is also available from Reveries under the Sign of Austen. Select artworks by Boyce were exhibited recently (in 2019) at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of its Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition.

Also in 2019, Boydell Press published The Boyce Papers: The Letters and Diaries of Joanna Boyce, Henry Wells and George Price Boyce as edited by Sue Bradbury. However, despite the conjunction of words in the book’s title, the diaries quoted are those of her brother George. He does not mention his sister very often, but here are few extracts in which he does.

‘14 January. Got up at 20 m. to 6 this morning and met John Note on ice at Regents Park at 1/2 past 7. Skated till 9.30.
Sunday, 20 January. Tom Hakes and I took glorious walk by Primrose Hill to Kentish Town etc. etc.
25 January. To oratorio of St Paul by Mendelssohn, by far the greatest musical treat I have ever had. Exquisite music made the most of (Mem. at Wells’ met Mr Ganci about some sketches for lithograph. Agreement for sketches from a guinea to 25/- and travelling expenses besides).
Sunday, 27 January. Very cold and frosty - took Anne, Joney and Bob to Kensington gardens - skating going on.
30 January. Joined Anne and Joanna at Hakes 3rd meeting of Friendly Harmonic Society.
1 February. Large evening party at home - 64 guests.
7 February. Father and Mother, Anne and Joanna went to Mr Marsh’s. Did not accompany them on account of bad hip.
8February. Finished watercolour drawing of Stolzenfels Castle, old Welsh fiddler. Went with Wells to Hancocks studio. Saw there in plaster a splendid figure of Dante’s ‘Beatrice’ by him.’

‘6 July. My Father is in tears because Joanna is, and the latter because I will not be more helpless than needs be. O, that I were in the wilds of North Wales with one faithful but manly attendant and a few books and drawing materials. Come what would, tis the happiest life I can think of.
10 July. In donkey chaise. Father left.
11 July. Mother and Hester came. Sketching from Prout. Sat on beach.’

‘20 May. Bid goodbye to dear Mother and Joanna as affectionately as my cold heart would allow. To Russell Street whither Father brought my drawing board and set square from Westminster Abbey and helped me to pack up - Boat from Southampton - Tom Seddon soon took berth in cabin. I had supper and passed the rest of the time on deck. The growth of the dawn over the sea most impressive [. . .] the pointed rocks between Alderney and Sark looked very quaint. We touched at Guernsey for 1/2 hour then proceeded to Jersey and visited a friend of Tom Seddon’s at St Aubin - Rev. Mr King.’ 

‘22 September. Received a letter from Joanna in which she says that she, Mother and Bob start for Paris on Tuesday next. Her engagement to Wells was not yet broken off, but she intended doing it after the aspersions and slanders Mother had thrown upon his character were ---ly recanted. Mother (she more than suspects) has descended to writing or dictating an anonymous letter to herself - injurious to Wells’s character, which she had tried to blast in every way she could.
24 September. My birthday - received a letter from Mat [. . .] and one from Wells (containing others, one of which, a copy of an anonymous letter received by Mother on August 4th, a shameful piece of business, I believe, annihilating all respect for the writer of the letter. W., I think, successfully proves the authorship by analysis thereof. A copy of a letter from W. to Joanna with Mother’s written comments in pencil enclosed.
25 September. Wrote to H.T. Wells and enclosed the copies of his letter to Joanna, one of the anonymous letter and his analysis there of -’

It is also worth noting that Ford Madox Brown mentioned Joanna Boyce just once in his diaries (The might of genius) which were published in Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters, but that mention is worth quoting for it heaps some praise on Joanna: ‘Miss Boyce, the best head in the rooms’.

22 May 1855
‘To home to fetch Emma; ’bus to the R.A. Met William Rossetti by appointment. Millais’ picture more admirable than ever. Fireman perfect, children wonderful, but the mother ill-conceived; still as a whole wonderful. Leighton’s picture a mere daub as to execution, but finely conceived and composed, and the chiaro-scuro good; very difficult to judge how he will go on. So much discrepancy ‘twixt execution and conception I have not yet seen it is strange. Miss Boyce, the best head in the rooms. Martineau’s picture good as far as can be seen. Dyce pretty and mannered. Maclise, as usual, mannered. Herbert bad; the Cordelia beautiful however, but wrong in action. A lovely little picture by Inchbold high in the Architectural Room. No good sculpture. . .’

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