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Transcript of 'The Decameron' and 'The Enchanted Garden' podcast

Good afternoon everybody and welcome to the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

I'm Sandra Penketh, Head of the Lady Lever Art Gallery. I'm going to talk about two pictures by John William Waterhouse today. 'The Decameron' which is the picture here on the right-hand side and 'The Enchanted Garden' here on the left-hand side.

We're very fortunate that we've got a pair of paintings to talk about and also a pair of paintings that are hanging in a very suitable place within the gallery because of the style and who the artist was interested in.

John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849 and he was the son of a painter. From the very beginning he was brought up within an artistic environment. His family moved back to England when he was quite young, but he proceeded to help his father in the studio. He was immersed.

When you're thinking about the character of the artist and what he might be interested in, it's worth thinking about that.

From the 1870s he trained at the Royal Academy school. He was in the best and most academic training ground you could enter. Through that, presumably also through his father's associations, he got to meet a number of prestigious artists and certainly was exposed to work of a number of quite prestigious and well-known artists.

The artists that he took up and took the most interest in immediately were what we would call the Victorian Classicists. People like Frederick Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, both of whom are represented by work in this gallery. That's why I say these pictures hang in a very suitable place because right next to them we can see works by Leighton - his wonderful picture here on the bottom left 'Psamathe' by Frederick Leighton. The amazing and incredibly impressive 'Daphnephoria' which is this very large painting here.

Then there are two works by Lawrence Alma-Tadema just to the left over there - 'The Favourite Poet' and the very famous 'Tepidarium'. So it's worth taking a look at some of those works and thinking about the type of style that was influencing John William Waterhouse as a young artist.

As he grew a bit older he became very fascinated by the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and particularly the work of the later Pre-Raphaelites, principally Edward Burne-Jones. If you just have a look behind you, you can see works by Burne-Jones - 'The Beguiling of Merlin', 'The Annunciation' and 'The Tree of Forgiveness' - the three large works at the bottom of the wall.

In a way, it's a matter of looking at all these different styles and pulling them together and imagine Waterhouse being influenced by them, pulling them all together to produce work that looks 'The Decameron' and 'The Enchanted Garden'. He fuses the classical and the interests of the Pre-Raphaelites.

In looking at the pictures we can pick up hallmarks from both of those styles. You've got quite formal compositions, the way the pictures are laid out in both instances. Yet, you've got this wonderful intense colour and detail that you would normally associate with the Pre-Raphaelite artists. You can pick up the stylistic attributes in both works.

Waterhouse was very interested in depicting tales from Medieval history and literature. Very much like the Pre-Raphaelite artists. I mentioned that one of the titles of the Burne-Jones paintings you can see is 'The Beguiling of Merlin' and we've got works by Millais which represent medieval scenes and stories. That also interested Waterhouse and he picked on those subjects but gave them a classical leaning in the way he composed the pictures.

Here in these two pictures he's basing his illustrations on works by the very famous Italian medieval writer Giovanni Boccaccio. He's linked two aspects of this famous work 'The Decameron' by Boccaccio. The work was written in around 1350, when Florence had been subject to the plague and Boccaccio makes up a story where ten young people flee the city to escape the plague. Seven young women and three young men and they go out into the countryside and whilst there they entertain each other with various tasks and songs and storytelling to pass the time. To make the time go more quickly.

'The Decameron' illustrates or describes these stories and the subjects and the themes that they cover are vast in range but they cover all the principles of human life - love, lust, jealousy and so on. They are very much instructive as welll as entertaining for the readeers. What Boccaccio describes is that the young men and young women take it in turns being king or queen for the day. If you have a look at the picture of 'The Decameron' and you look at the fourth girl in from the left-hand side, you might just be able to make out that she's wearing a small crown.

In the picture she is the person who is queen for the day and therefore is directing the events that are happening that day. Obviously she has asked one of the young men to perhaps sing a song, tell a story. We presume a song because he is holding a musical instrument and he looks as though he is about to sing. Each of the young people would be expected to tell a story each day. Ten stories each day over a period of ten days. One hundred stories in total.

There are one hundred stories in the Decameron covering all those subjects I've mentioned. It's a wonderful idea, this idea of being king or queen for the day, especially for these young people, dictating what's going on. It's a wonderful composition that Waterhouse has put together. That sense of rapture and expectation by the young people waiting to hear the next tale. Hints of the song-making as well that will go on, with the lutes lying on the ground and being held.

It's a wonderful evocation of the beginning. What I thought I'd do is I'd just read a little bit from the beginning of the Decameron where the writer Boccaccio describes why he's written these stories. Just to give you some preamble to it, he talks about obviously there is a lot going on at the time in terms of illness. Also he talks about the occupations of young people. Falling in love and the trauma that this can bring in to a person's life. That one might need distraction from this. He says for men that's easy, it's easy to get relief and diversion as he describes it. 'They may hear and see many things. They may hawk, they may hunt, they may fish, they may ride, they may play'. But he says that for women it's harder to find diversion. A nice comment there!

He says that what he wants to do is provide these stories as a means of diversion for young people. 'I want to provide this diversion as such of them as love do intend to recount 100 novels or fables or parables or stories as we may please to call them. Which were recounted in 10 days by an honourable company of 7 ladies and 3 young men in the time of the late mortal pestilence. As also some cantanets sung by the said ladies for the delectations'.

Then he goes on to explain that he hopes these stories are instructive as well - 'Ladies who shall read them may derive both pleasure from the entertaining matters set forth therein and also good counsel in that they may learn what to shun and likewise what to pursue'. As you might expect the literature of the time meant to be for the female population quite instructive. That does tie in with a lot of examples of literature we might read at the time. Also for things like medieval books of ours which might also contain examples of how a young woman should behave.

It all becomes very interesting when you read that and then you start to read the individual stories and see what messages are coming out of those.

That's the introduction in the Decameron.

If we move across to 'The Enchanted Garden', what we have illustrated here is one of the specific stories from that collection. This is a story told on the tenth day and it's the fifth story of the day. So we can link it back exactly to the work in the Decameron. Basically it's a story of lust and honesty and also cleverness I suppose as well.

It tells the story of a young man Ansaldo who falls in love with a married woman Dionora. It's Dionora that you can see on the left-hand side of the painting. Dionora is married to Gilberto but Ansaldo doesn't let this put him off. Not at all. He pursues her and pursues her and despite her doing all she can to deter him he continues to pursue her. In the end to try and get rid of him she gives him what she believes is an impossible task to do.

She says I'll only return your love, become your lover, if you can do this task for me. The task that she sets him is in January in the midst of winter to produce a summer garden. You'd think you'd come up with a really cunning plan wouldn't you if you set somebody that task and that in no way would they be able to do that and you'd be quite safe.

So Dionora doesn't make public to her husband what she's done, this task she's set or the whole situation. She just gives Ansaldo this task and thinks that's the end of it. But Ansaldo being rather clever finds a magician who can do the task for him and he makes a deal with the magician which is basically, of course, money. The magician successfully produces a summer garden in January. He sends Dionora fruits and flowers from that garden.

You can imagine can't you? Knock at the door, basket's there in front of you and the shock and horror that she must have felt when she received these gifts must have been incredible. She's quite inquisitive so she arranged with her companions that she would go and look at the garden. That's the scene you see here in the picture. She's going to see the garden. Of course, when she gets there and she sees how beautiful and wonderful it is. And how successful Ansaldo has been, then she realises with horror that she's in this predicament now. She's promised to become Ansaldo's lover if he could do this task.

What does she do now? It's that moment of dilemma and shock and horror that Waterhouse has wanted to depict in the painting. It's that sort of turn of Dionora as she slightly turns towards us looking out of the picture at an angle, clasping her hands in front of her as if to say 'What am I going to do? Help! I'm in a real situation here'. Of course her friends seem almost oblivious to what's going on because they're just so overcome by the beauty and spectacle of this garden, this summer garden in January.

If you look to the left of the painting, the extreme left, as though you're looking out of that gateway. Can you see that snow is falling? The winter conditions outside of this beautiful summer garden. Also, it's like two worlds juxtaposed which I might talk about a little more later. Again what I'll do next I'll just read a little bit from the actual Decameron just to give you a feel for what it sounds like.

The story is told by the character Emilia. 'Now this lady, Dionora, for her high qualities was in the last degree beloved by a great and noble Baron Ansaldo, whose fame for feats of alms and courtesy was spread far and wide. But though with all the lover's ardour he left nought undone that he might do to win her love, it was all in vain. The lady being distressed by his importunity and chat refused as she might all that he asked of her he none the less continued to love her and pressed his suit upon her. Bethought her how she might rid herself of him by requiring of him an extraordinary and, as she deemed, impossible feat'.

Of course, it's not going to be an impossible feat, but that gives you a sort of flavour of how the whole thing is set up. I'll just read you the end bit of the challenge and what happens with the garden. So this is relating in the first instance what happened when this garden is first created.

'There appeared in a meadow hard by the city one of the most beautiful gardens that was ever seen with no lack of grass and trees and fruits of all sorts. Ansaldo was overjoyed and caused some of the finest fruits and flowers that it contained to be gathered and presented to his lady who he bade come and see the garden that she had craved. That thereby she might have assurance of his love. When she, Dionaro, saw the flowers and fruits, the lady, who had already heard not a few folk speak of the wondrous garden, began to repent her of her promise. But for all that, being fond of strange sights, she hied away with many of her ladies of the city to see the garden and having gazed on it with wonderment and commended it not a little, she went home the saddest woman alive'.

It really is a great, great shock! I think Waterhouse has captured that look in her face, really quite wonderfully there. I suppose in painting these pictures Waterhouse is following quite a Pre-Raphaelite tradition, this idea of illustrating medieval tales. You can see why he might have become interested in it. Boccaccio's Decameron was taken up by writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Chaucer and later by Tennyson and so on. People that the Pre-Raphaelite artists and later Victorian artists like Waterhouse would have read for inspiration. It's like a double translation isn't it?

You might read someone's excerpts from it and then go back to the original. Something that the Pre-Raphaelites did a lot in their interpretations of literature. It fits very much within that framework

Looking at these two pictures, I know a lot of you have read a bit about them before you've come, but looking at them you'd probably date them towards the end of the 19th century. When you see they were painted in 1916 and 1917 that can be quite shocking in a way. They look older. They are in a very traditional Victorian style.

I think it's interesting therefore to ask a couple of questions. First of all Lever bought them direct from the artist's or just after the artist's death. Therefore what were his interests in terms of style. Also, how do they fit into the gallery's collection as a whole and what Lever was trying to do - William Hesketh Lever who founded the Lady Lever Art Gallery and put together the fantastic art collection that you see here.

For Lever these were very much in his taste, the sort of thing that he liked. He was quite a traditionalist in terms of what he collected. Particularly as far as painting was concerned. If you think what was happening in 1916/7, the major art movements that we've been through, impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism and so on. None of that was of interest to Lever. Even after the 1911 post-impressionist show that Roger Fry had organised Lever was still collecting quite traditional works.

He was essentially a Victorian/Edwardian man. That was his framework, the style he was interested in. It was a style that fitted in with the other paintings he was collecting principally. So Victorian genre painting, Pre-Raphaelite painting, Victorian classicism and so on. In that sense Waterhouse is great, he pulls together some of those threads.

For Lever these were the last contemporary paintings he collected. After this he concentrated on historic examples of British art, 18th century early Victorian painting and so on. In that sense very important paintings within the collection. What's also interesting is that Lever was a very good patron of John William Waterhouse. He bought a number of works by him. Some works that were originally in Lever's collection were sold off after Lever's death in 1925, but these are still here in the collection.

It's an example of Lever patronising a living artist. Not just going to a sale, but having a relationship with that artist and buying things from him directly. 'The Decameron' Lever bought after Waterhouse had exhibited it at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1916. 'The Enchanted Garden' was actually unfinished when Waterhouse died in 1917. Lever bought the painting from Waterhouse's widow through the help of the dealer Arthur Tooth. Essentially directly from the widow.

I'm sure Lever was very keen to have the pair, these two pictures illustrating the same piece of literature and he would have known that they would have made a fantastic and quite dramatic pair of pictures to hang in the gallery he was currently planning and thinking about because when Lever bought these pictures he was in the midst of planning this gallery and thinking about what works of art from his collection would work really well in here and augmenting them with some purchases.

It was quite an unusual purchase when Lever bought 'The Enchanted Garden'. He did correspond with the artist's widow and it's quite nice what she says. I'll just read you a little bit from the letter that she wrote to Lord Leverhulme:

'I was pleased that you should have my husband's picture 'The Enchanted Garden' from 'The Decameron' which was painted as a companion to the work you already had. It has also a very special and pathetic interest to me as being the last big work my husband had done'. I think when she says last work there she's referring to painting because we know that Waterhouse was done still sketching right up until his death. 'The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1917 and so Edward Poynter wrote to me that he thought it was one of the most beautiful that my husband had ever painted'. Edward Poynter another well-known Victorian artist. That's a lovely accolade that she includes with the letter there.

There's various writing then about his work with the dealer. Lever writes to the dealer who's helping him with the purchase, to Arthur Tooth. He says 'I have proposed to present Mr Waterhouse's picture of 'The Enchanted Garden' to the art gallery of my native town of Bolton' (Bolton was where Lever was born), 'who I am sure would be glad to have it to add to their collection. Hence my offer of £400. I would still stand by that offer if Mrs Waterhouse is agreeable to the price I've offered. At the price of £500 I would not bind myself as to what it's destination might be. It might still go to Bolton or it might be to one of my homes but I would not bind myself at £400 that it would go to the Bolton Art Gallery. I would give £500 without any commitments to its destination. It's quite repetitive what he says.

It's really unusual because he's offering two prices. He's saying £400 and it'll definitely go to Bolton. Perhaps what he's thinking is that Waterhouse's widow would really like to be assured that the picture goes into a public gallery. That that's a fitting accolade for her husband's work. At the higher price of £500 he'll have it but he won't guarantee where it will go. What would you do? Of course, she accepts the £500 and it's ended up in a public gallery anyway. Very, very unusual purchase. Lever is trying to conduct quite a wily business deal and inevitably the widow asks for the higher price. Who knows what the truth is behind that but a very unusual approach to the purchase.

One last thing I wanted to talk about before we finish looking at these two pictures is to think about when they were painted - 1916/7 and obviously what was going on at that time. The start of the First World War, a time of horrific bloodshed and anguish and what it meant to a lot of the population. It's interesting that there's very little said about these pictures when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy. Normally with well-known artists, if the critics were interested or indeed critical of a work, you'd get quite lengthy comment on the pictures.

For both works the comments are very minimal, they're not critical at all. They perhaps say this is the best picture by Waterhouse at this exhibition or a good picture by Waterhouse, I'm paraphrasing there. Not the sort of lengthy in-depth analysis that you might expect. I think that's very much about what the subjects of these pictures are and the style and all that.

It's a very interesting subject for us to read, fantastically illustrating medieval literature. But I suppose in many ways they are quite fanciful subjects. Luxurious subjects you might say. They are about noble people in 14th century Italy. For everyday people what was going on in 1916/7, there is no connection is there? I think critics were somewhat reluctant to say a lot about these works which I suppose might have seemed out of place in 1916 and 1917.

Some critics looking at the pictures make something of those two worlds in 'The Enchanted Garden' that I hinted at earlier. That summer garden contrasted with the winter cold of outside. The interior and the exterior almost. Given that this was Waterhouse's last painting and he was suffering with cancer when he painted this and probably knew that he didn't have very much longer to live. Some critics hint at that idea of two worlds - a heavenly and a harsher that are in the picture. Perhaps quite a fanciful interpretation but it is I think worth considering. Is there something going on with that if we talk about it from a very personal standpoint of the artist? I'll let you think about that one.

Thank you very much everybody.