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Sweethearts and Wives, by John Lee


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About the artwork

The view in this picture is from the Liverpool dock shore looking towards Birkenhead and Tranmere. St Mary's Church in Birkenhead can be clearly seen as can the, still extant, windmill on Bidston Hill and another above Tranmere. Although the architecture is a rather generalised mixture of chimneys and houses some sense of the substantial distinctive new stone terraces of Hamilton Square in Birkenhead is conveyed.

Dockside parting scenes were popular pictorial subjects during the 1850s. The most famous of these was a picture by Henry Nelson O'Neill, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857, entitled 'Eastwood Ho August 1857'. It showed soldiers leaving for India after the Indian Mutiny. An engraving after O'Neill's picture was published in 1860 and may have part-prompted Lee's choice of subject. 

The figures of women and men on the dockside are probably all portraits, or if not, then certainly based upon studies made from real people. The artist himself appears on three occasions - as the sailor facing the viewer from the right-hand corner, as the young sailor talking to the woman holding a green umbrella and as the sailor in profile, this time bearded, embracing the woman in the Paisley shawl. In the rowing boat an older bearded man appears twice. Although we do not know his name he was also used by the artist as a model in another picture. Of particular interest is the just visible black sailor in the rowing boat. He too appears in naval uniform. There were many black sailors in Liverpool and this one appears to be of South-east Asian origin.

Anchored in the centre of the River Mersey is HMS Majestic, an obsolete 80 gun wooden warship. She had been used during the Crimean War and was not only sail-powered but also screw-driven. Between 1860 and 1866 she was part of the river defences of Liverpool and was scrapped in 1868. Her most memorable achievement during her period on the Mersey was the prevention from leaving the river of two American Confederate warships that had been built at Laird's shipyard in Birkenhead. The men who are leaving to board her may only be going on a tour of duty lasting a week or two. The provisions that they appear to be taking with them include a barrel of the beer, which, according to the inscription on its top, is from Alsopp's brewery.

The use of models, the precise delineation of specific fabrics, the attention to topographical accuracy and above all the use of very bright colours applied in small brushstrokes onto a white ground makes this a Pre-Raphaelite picture in the manner of Holman Hunt. In the very small group of pictures that can with certainty be ascribed to John Lee this one is usually considered to be his masterpiece.  For this reason it was bought in 1980 to add to the Walker's collection.

So strong was the feeling within the Liverpool Academy for and against Pre-Raphaelite principles that it eventually lead to the institution itself splitting into fragmented exhibiting societies.  This was not in the interest of any of the artists involved. It was not really until the founding of the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1873 that major exhibiting opportunities for artists from within and outside of Liverpool again arose.

John Lee (active 1859 -1867) was one of the group of Merseyside artists who, during the 1850s and 1860s, admired and emulated the brightly-coloured, minutely detailed painting style of the London based Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Very little is known about Lee. He exhibited at the Liverpool Academy between 1859 and 1867 and at the Royal Academy in London between 1863 and 1867.  He lived in Rock Ferry near Birkenhead and had a studio in Liverpool. In 1866 he moved to London, possibly in part prompted by the demise of the Liverpool Academy.

Liverpool was unique among provincial towns in having a substantial Pre-Raphaelite following among its artists.  In part this arose as a result of the exhibiting opportunities that were available to outside artists who were able to show at the annual Liverpool Academy exhibition.  There was a £50 ‘non-member prize’ awarded by the Liverpool Academy that was won on seven occasions between 1851 and 1859 by London Pre-Raphaelites or their associates. John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, and William Dyce all won this prize on one or more occasions.

In part, Pre-Raphaelitism developed in Liverpool because of the vigorous advocacy of its principles by the artist William Windus, who, having first visited the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1851, returned to Liverpool full of enthusiasm for the new movement. Windus became in effect the leader of a younger group of artists within the Liverpool Academy who sought to distance themselves from more traditional figures like the topographical view painter Herdman and the animal painter Huggins. Also among the several prosperous individuals buying pictures in Liverpool was a tobacco merchant, John Miller of Everton, who bought a number of works by both London and Liverpool Pre-Raphaelite painters.