07 December 2013

Art for Advent (7): ‘The Blessed Damozel’
by John Byam Liston Shaw

‘The Blessed Damozel’ by John Byam Liston Shaw (1872-1919)

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of art for Advent this morning [7 December 2013] is The Blessed Damozel, painted in 1895 by John Byam Liston Shaw (1872-1919), commonly known as Byam Shaw, an Indian-born British painter.

Tomorrow [8 December] is marked in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church as the Immaculate Conception, a dogma that was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. However, a feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God was celebrated in Syria on 8 December perhaps as early as the fifth century. Critics and opponents of the spread of the feast in the West included Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Albertus Magnus and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Pope Sixtus IV authorised the introduction of the feast in 1476, but in his bull Cum praeexcelsa in 1477, he referred to the feast as that of the Conception of Mary, without using the word Immaculate. Indeed, in 1483, he referred to the feast as that of “the Conception of Immaculate Mary ever Virgin.” Pope Pius V included the feast in the Tridentine Calendar, but he removed the adjective “Immaculate.”

In the Church of England, Common Worship designates 8 December as a Lesser Festival of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, without the adjective “immaculate.” The Eastern Orthodox Church says Mary was without sin for her entire life, but objects to the dogmatic declaration of her immaculate conception.

This morning’s painting was inspired by a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). The scene shows the Blessed Damozel in heaven yearning for her lover on earth. The Virgin Mary is seated in the centre, surrounded by the handmaidens Cecile, Gertrude, Magdelen, Margaret and Rosalys. The pair of lovers can be seen in white on the right.

This oil on canvas painting is now in the Guildhall Art Gallery in London.

Byam Shaw was one of the most prolific artists of the late Victorian and Edwardian era. He excelled as a painter, illustrator, printmaker, theatre designer, teacher and muralist. He was born in Madras on 13 November 1872, the son of John Shaw, Registrar to the High Court of Madras, and his wife Sophia Alicia (Gunthorpe) Byam.

When he was still a boy, Shaw returned to England with his parents in 1878. His early talent was recognized by the Pre-Raphaelite Sir John Everett Millais and in 1887, on the advice of Millais, Shaw went to the Saint John’s Wood Art Schools. There his fellow students included the painters George Spencer Watson, Roland Wheelwright, Rex Vicat Cole and his future wife Evelyn Eunice Pyke-Nott.

Many of Shaw’s paintings are influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites in their subjects, colours and composition, but his style also echoed that of the illustrators of the 1860s.

Shaw’s painting, The Judgment of Solomon won the Armitage Prize in 1892. The following year he moved into Whistler’s old studio in Cheyne Walk with another art school friend Gerald Metcalfe, and exhibited his first painting at the Royal Academy, Rose Mary, based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

This was followed up by two more paintings inspired by Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel, now in the Guildhall Art Gallery, and Silent Noon, which is on loan to Leighton House. His masterpiece, Love the Conqueror, is a 10 ft canvas with around 200 figures.

In the late 1890s, he began to focus more upon book illustration, working on his plates for Tales from Boccaccio by Joseph Jacobs (1899) and the Chiswick Shakespeare.

In 1899, Shaw married Evelyn Eunice Pyke-Nott (Evelyn CE Shaw). Their five children included the actor and theatre director Glen Byam Shaw and the art historian James ‘Jim’ Byam Shaw.

An exhibition at Dowdeswell’s in 1902 included 30 canvases in the Ecclesiastes series, and further works were shown at the Glass Studio in Leighton House later that year.

Shaw was commissioned to produce 34 illustrations for the Historic Record of the Coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, published in 1904, and helped to design the costumes for Beerbohm Tree’s Much Ado About Nothing at the ‘His Majesty’s Theatre.’ Around this time, he joined Rex Vicat Cole as a part-time teacher at the Women’s Department of King’s College in Kensington Square, but he continued to produce oil paintings, watercolours and book illustrations.

He worked with Edwin Austin Abbey and other artists on a mural scheme to decorate one of the corridors in the Palace of Westminster.

In 1910, Shaw and Cole resigned from King’s College and opened their own school of art in Campden Street, Kensington. Further commissions followed for drawings of George V’s coronation (1911) and for watercolour illustrations for Laurence Hope’s The Garden of Kama (1914).

At the outbreak of World War I, Shaw enlisted in the United Arts Rifles along with his life-long friend Cole, although Shaw later transferred to the Special Constabulary, and his war cartoons were published in newspapers.

Shortly after the war ended, Shaw collapsed and died on 26 January 1919. He was buried at Kensal Green after a funeral service in Saint Barnabas Church, Addison Road.

His art school produced some of the finest and most innovative artists of the 20th century, but ceased to bear his name when it was amalgamated with the Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in 2003.

Today’s painting was inspired by ‘The Blessed Damozel’ which is probably the best known poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was first published in 1850 in the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ. Rossetti revised the poem twice and republished it in 1856, 1870 and 1873. He also used the same title for one of his best known paintings, now in Fogg Museum of Art in Harvard University.

The poem was partially inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, with its depiction of a lover grieving on Earth over the death of his loved one. Rossetti chose to represent the situation in reverse. The poem describes the “damozel” observing her lover from heaven, and her unfulfilled yearning for their reunion in heaven.

The poem also inspired Claude Debussy’s La damoiselle élue (1888), a cantata for two soloists, female choir, and orchestra.

The first four stanzas of the poem are inscribed on the frame of the painting:

The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.

Her robe, ungirt from clasp to hem,
No wrought flowers did adorn,
But a white rose of Mary’s gift,
For service meetly worn;
Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.

Herseemed she scarce had been a day
One of God’s choristers;
The wonder was not yet quite gone
From that still look of hers;
Albeit, to them she left, her day
Had counted as ten years.

(To one, it is ten years of years.
… Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she leaned o’er me – her hair
Fell all about my face ...
Nothing: the autumn fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)

Tomorrow:The Peaceable Kingdom’ by Edward Hicks.

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