Savoyard Hospitality by Thomas Matthews Rooke

This charming image of two female travelers entitled Savoyard Hospitality, by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Thomas Matthews Rooke (1842-1942), is a recent gift to the Museum. Rooke, who worked primarily in watercolor, received his early training at the Royal College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. At age 29 he applied for a job at William Morris and Company and was shortly thereafter assigned to assist the painter, Edward Burne-Jones in his studio. Rooke acted as the older artist’s studio assistant until his death. The two developed a close working relationship with Burne-Jones endearingly referring to his assistant as “Little Rooke” or “Rookie.”  As their mutual affection developed, Rooke began keeping a record of the daily conversations transacted as they worked side by side. Their discussions reveal as much about Rooke’s gentle, humble and selfless personality as they do of Burne-Jones’ working methods and thoughts. In 1878 Burne-Jones recommended Rooke to the respected Victorian art critic John Ruskin, writing,”… there is a very high place in Heaven waiting for him and He Doesn’t Know It’. Ruskin was looking for artists whom he could send to Italy to capture in paint the great Renaissance monuments, many of which were in poor condition, and in danger of ruin or overzealous restoration. (These watercolors are now in the Ruskin Museum in Sheffield). For the next fifteen years Rooke split his time between meticulously documenting architecture in Italy for Ruskin and assisting Burne Jones in his studio in London.

Despite his numerous responsibilities, Rooke continued to paint and exhibit his own work, at institutions including the Royal Academy, the Old Watercolor Society, the Grosvenor Gallery, and the New Gallery, where this painting was on view in1888. The subject matter is slightly obscure. Two well dressed, assumedly English travelers are being offered food and rest in the rustic cottage of Savoyard peasants. The two visitors dominate the simple setting visually, as well as what one imagines as figuratively. Other partakers of the meal are depicted in rather smaller scale and in some awe of their imposing visitors. The foreigners are scrutinized with varying degrees of curiosity by the inhabitants of the cottage, one of whom holds up a lantern to further illuminate the proceedings. A simple stool is offered to the figure in red who holds a walking stick, suggesting their mode of travel. The remainder of the room is lit with a warm and welcoming glow by the fire over which the meal is being prepared. Rooke has populated the interior with authentically rustic accoutrements including earthenware dishes, wooden serving utensils and an oil lamp.

The painting is executed in a mixture of watercolor and gouache (an opaque substance mixed with gum arabic). This combination of media was one favored by Burne-Jones himself for the density it contributed to the otherwise ephemeral watercolor medium. The paint combination allows for a richness and depth that imitates oil paint, and yet can be (and demands to be) painted more quickly.

2012-49 At Burne-Jones’ death Rooke gave his notes on their shared conversations to Burne-Jones’ wife, Georgiana, who consulted them in the writing of herMemorials of his life (first published in 1904). Rooke went on painting until the end of his life. He died in his one hundredth year!

Savoyard Hospitality came to the Museum through the generosity of The Forbes Collection, New York, one of the greatest assemblages of Victorian art of the last century. We are deeply indebted to Christopher Forbes and his family for their appreciation of Victorian art and generosity in sharing it.

Margaretta S. Frederick
Chief Curator/Curator, Bancroft Collection

Savoyard Hospitality, 1888
Thomas Matthews Rooke
Watercolor and gouache on paper
The Forbes Collection, New York

This Curator Corner was posted on March 7, 2013.