Inside Look: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s Ventnor, Isle of Wight (1856) and “the Garden of England”
March 29, 2019
In early February, I was invited to facilitate a discussion in the galleries focused on a work of art in the Delaware Art Museum’s collection: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s Ventnor, Isle of Wight (1856). As a light-sensitive work on paper, this exquisite landscape is only on view for a few months each year. Museum visitors were lucky enough to see this recently acquired, large-scale watercolor when it was installed in the Pre-Raphaelite galleries accompanying the temporary exhibition Politics and Paint: Barbara Bodichon and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I appreciated the opportunity to spend time with museumgoers looking closely at this work. As we studied it together, we noticed that the idyllic scene evoked a sense of calm and serenity. As we continued to look, our discussion soon led to questions about the artist herself and the significance of the landscape she chose to depict.
We discussed the artist’s inscription—“Ventor IoW”—which helps to locate this scene. The view is actually to the east of Ventor, near the village of Luccombe, and includes a blanket of grasses, moss-covered boulders, and bare, sheer cliffs on the far left that descend into the pale blue of Shanklin Bay. Culver Cliff can be seen in the distance, obscured by the glowing pink and yellow wispy clouds streaking across the sky. . Once we knew where Bodichon was when she made this picture, it was natural to ask why she choose that spot.
One might assume that the artist was simply drawn to the Isle of Wight by the promise of charming vistas. The island featured a variety of inviting landscapes, fresh air, and rich, fertile soil. This locale boasted views that, as one nineteenth-century visitor’s guide exclaimed, “at once charm the eye and animate the soul!” Located only four miles off the southern coast of England, nearest to the coastal city of Portsmouth, the island had become a magnet for artists and tourists by the mid-nineteenth century. After Queen Victoria built Osborne House (her summer home and rural retreat in East Cowes on the northern part of the island), Isle of Wight quickly became a favored holiday destination. Lord Alfred Tennyson and Charles Dickens, as well as the French painter Berthe Morisot and various members of European royalty, all flocked to the newly built coastal resorts.
Isle of Wight also earned a reputation early in the century as a popular health retreat. Physicians of the time extolled the health benefits of the local water and air. It is likely that Bodichon completed this scene during two months spent on the island in January, 1856. She initially traveled to the Isle of Wight on a painting expedition with her friend and fellow artist, Anna Mary Howitt. She extended her stay through February to help care for her sister, Bella, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Bodichon accompanied Bella to the Royal Hotel at Ventnor to recover.
After our discussion of the history of the island, and its significance to Bodichon, the visitors and I turned to aspects of the artist’s technique—from the scratching-out she employed in the foreground to depict the woody brush to the thin washes of color used in the clouds, dappled with the rich warm tones of the setting sun. Bodichon followed many of the founding precepts of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including a realistic style, use of brilliant colors, and a desire to work outside to capture precise light effects. John Ruskin, a leading art critic and early supporter of the movement, advocated for this. He encouraged the young artists of England to “go to nature, rejecting nothing.” And, indeed, it seems that Bodichon took this appeal to heart. Dante Gabriel Rossetti once noted that she “thinks nothing of climbing up a mountain in breeches, or wading through a stream in none, in the sacred name of pigment.” The lush wilderness Bodichon depicts in Ventnor, Isle of Wight suggests such a journey. The visitors and I imagined the difficulties she must have encountered while hiking through brush and scaling boulders to find just the right landscape.
When the work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1856, it was hailed by William Michael Rossetti as an example of “real Pre-Raphaelism.” We wondered if it was these technical aspects of the picture that stood out to Rossetti. This focus on technique led the visitors to the delightful discovery of two rabbits frocking in the foreground. Thinly painted in a blue-green hue, they almost disappear in to the greenery of the surrounding grasses. We wondered whether this was a hidden treasure left by Bodichon for her viewers to find. If so, our pause for a long, careful look at this peaceful landscape was rewarded with a deeper appreciation for the artist and the history surrounding the location she depicted.Genevieve Westerby
University of Delaware