By Casey Lee and Carolyn Peter
We recently uncovered a connection that took us on a journey back to Victorian England into the studios and sitting rooms of a close-knit group of young, idealistic artists. This group evolved from a secret society of seven artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that formed in 1848.
Rather than embracing the Royal Academy of Art’s focus on idealized, classical figures, loose brushwork, and unnatural lighting effects, the Pre-Raphaelites found inspiration in the spiritually uplifting work and principles of artists who predated the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. First and foremost, they sought to create a visual truth based on direct observation of nature. They created vibrantly colored compositions with subjects from literary, religious, contemporary, and historic sources. See for example John Everett Millais’ The Ransom.
George Price Boyce was one of the artists who was pulled into the orbit of the Pre-Raphaelites. We recently discovered that he owned two photographs and one drawing now in the Getty Museum’s collection. Delving deeper, we explored fascinating links between Boyce, the artists, the sitters, and the aesthetics that wove their art and lives together.
Born to a prosperous family, Boyce was the eldest of five children. His father, George Boyce, was a wine merchant who had a second successful career as a pawnbroker. With the support of his parents, Boyce was able to travel widely and pursue his own interests, first training as an architect, and later as an artist. Through his studies, Boyce befriended members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and met such cultural elites as art critic John Ruskin.
Boyce’s ties with the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers provided him an entree into different realms of Victorian England’s artistic world, where he participated in drawing classes, sketching trips, exhibitions, and gatherings at clubs and artists’ homes. He documented these occasions in his diary, providing glimpses into his daily life between the years 1848 to 1875. He wrote of one festive evening on October 23, 1849:
“The Seddons and Warren brought up some of their sketches–I exhibited mine. Books, chess, etc. Supper ¼ to 11. Pigeon pie, fowls and ham. Songs after, Warren excruciating, John Seddon so-so, and Bailey capital.”
Boyce was an avid art collector, and the objects he acquired brought him personal enjoyment while further illustrating his bond with the tastemakers of his day. By the 1860s Boyce was collecting at a rapid rate. As a wealthy man, he supported his friends, such as Rossetti, with purchases of their art. Boyce also bought pieces at galleries and received others as gifts from his friends. In a November 21, 1865 diary entry, he wrote of a Julia Margaret Cameron photography exhibition where he picked up five works at a 50% artist’s discount. By the time Boyce died, he had amassed so many objects that a multi-day auction was required to disperse his collection.
Thanks to Boyce’s practice of consistently noting the date of acquisition along with his name on the backs of artworks as they came into his possession, we were able to tie Getty’s two photographs and one drawing together. All three pieces focus on a young woman for their subject. While known for his landscapes, Boyce also sketched women often employing the same models—including Ellen Smith, Annie Miller, and Fanny Cornforth—as the Pre-Raphaelites. He seemed to notice beautiful women wherever he went. In the same diary entry about Cameron’s exhibition, he mentioned “a very pretty fair girl with lovely tender eyes and light brown hair in attendance.”
Boyce received this drawing of Fanny Cornforth (born Sarah Cox) as a gift from Rossetti on December 7, 1862, after one of his many evenings spent at Rossetti’s home. Rossetti met Cornforth in 1856 when, struck by her beauty, he got her attention by pulling out one of her hairpins, releasing her locks. Soon after she became Rossetti’s model, muse, and mistress. Boyce also liked Cornforth, and wrote in his diary on December 15, 1858, that she had an “Interesting face and jolly hair and engaging disposition.”
In Rossetti’s drawing, Cornforth is shown sleeping on a couch, her face resting on one of her hands. Rosetti focused a great deal of attention to an attribute both he and Boyce admired: Cornforth’s hair, which is arranged on top of her head in waves. Boyce recorded the gift in his diary and wrote the date on the back of the sheet. Rossetti memorialized another get-together with his two friends in an earlier sketch now owned by the Tulle House Museum and Art Gallery.
Boyce may have bought the two Getty photographs to use as studies for his own art. He acquired Oscar Rejlander’s image of a young woman washing clothes around January 1, 1866. The second, by an unknown maker also portrays a woman in profile. Boyce was probably drawn to the dramatic play of light and shadow in both photographs.
He and the Pre-Raphaelites painted outdoors in order to capture the minutest details of nature, whether blades of grass bathed in the sunlight or the veins of a rock concealed in the shadows. Boyce may have learned of Rejlander’s works through the author/photographer Lewis Carroll, who collected Rejlander’s work and photographed Rossetti and his family.
Operating on the fringe of the Pre-Raphaelites, Boyce, nevertheless, was an important contributor to the group and its legacy. While his own art never saw the same level of appreciation as some of his friends, his writings and collection are instrumental in understanding the dynamics of this social and vibrant group. His companionship and patronage contributed to the well-being and livelihoods of his friends and through his collection, he helped to ensure that the art of his time was appreciated and preserved. Dispersed after his death, happily, these three works were reunited here at Getty over one hundred and twenty years later. If only they could talk!