John William Godward

John William Godward

A 'High Victorian Dreamer'

This May, we were delighted to present a superb work by John William Godward entitled 'Poppies'.  A piece with an esteemed provenance, this beautiful work was a highlight of our Five Centuries auction reaching a final selling price of £447,000 (inc premium)

A Life of Dreams and Tragedy

The details of Godward’s personal life are relatively vague. His choice to pursue a career as a painter went against his family wishes and this disapproval was compounded when he left England for Italy with one of his models. It is believed that at this point he became estranged from his relations to such an extent that they removed his likeness from family pictures. He remained in Italy for almost a decade, only returning home in 1921. In 1922 he died by suicide, with notes left by him indicating that he was struggling with his place in an artistic world that was now largely interested in the modern and contemporary. The circumstances of his death were considered a source of great shame to his family and so they destroyed much of his archive and papers; it is believed there remains only one photograph of the artist.




Classical Elegance

There was drama and sadness in his personal life but this never spilled over into Godward’s painting. A loyal follower of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and similarly inspired by classical civilization, particularly Ancient Rome, his works depict elegant women in classical dress, lounging against architectural features. His paintings are characterised by exquisite and meticulous detail. There had been a widespread taste for this style of painting and subject matter in-line with a wider cultural interest in classical study and so to be successful in this style of painting required a high level of accuracy and precision; Godward carefully researched architecture and dress to make sure every detail in his painting was right.


Signed and dated '98, oil on canvas | 76cm x 61cm (30in x 24in) | Sold for £447,000 incl premium
Provenance: The Late Dr Helen E C Cargill Thompson


View Lot 420 ⇒


He often exhibited at the Royal Academy and as the eminent scholar on Godward’s work, Dr Vern G. Swanson, indicates; he "quickly established a reputation for his paintings of young women in a classical setting and his ability to convey with sensitivity and technical mastery the feel of contrasting textures, flesh, marble, fur and fabrics."




This is evident in the offered work, where Godward beautifully renders the cool, smooth marble framing the figure in marked contrast to the soft fabric folds of her gown while behind her a verdant expanse of overlapping lavender and red poppies unfold before further architectural columns and sculpture appear. The scene is a vision of sumptuousness and beauty, meticulous depicted by a talented hand.

Godward’s approach has been referred to as that of a ‘High Victorian Dreamer.’ Technically, he can be considered a Victorian Neo-Classicist, though at times his strong colour and posed subject have seen him be grouped with the Pre-Raphaelites, despite a differing inspiration source. Within his lifetime, this approach fell out of fashion and though Godward remained committed to the art he loved, he did struggle to find his place as taste moved away from his work. Fortunately, his mastery of his craft and the enduring human interest in the beautiful and sumptuous means favour has returned to his work since his death. Fashions evolve but quality and harmony endure and this exquisite work is rich in both.

We are grateful to Dr Vern G Swanson for his assistance in cataloguing this entry. It is no.7 in his catalogue raisonne which he has updated.


Esteemed Provenace | The Estate of Collector and Patron Dr Helen E C Cargill Thompson

Dr Helen E C Cargill Thompson (1933-2020) has been recognised for her contribution to both librarianship and the art world. Born in Burma in 1933, on the outbreak of World War II she returned to live in the West End of Glasgow aged 6, along with her parents and two brothers, and her love of art developed in the city’s Kelvingrove Galleries. Dr Cargill Thompson was educated at Cheltenham Ladies College and then read Physiology and Pharmacology at St Andrews University. She then went on to do a PhD at Edinburgh University which was research into the contraceptive pill. In 1970, Dr Cargill Thompson began work at the Andersonian Library at Strathclyde University, being appointed as the head of the library’s new Reference and Information Division in 1982. Close to retirement in 1999, she was awarded the Princess Royal Medal for services to the discipline.

Dr Cargill Thompson’s collecting and patronage was the family tradition A well kent character in the West of Scotland, especially at exhibition opening and private views she lived frugally using public transport around the city and never viewed her passion for collecting art as a monetary investment. Dr Cargill Thompson was a truly public spirited Glaswegian, throughout her time at Strathclyde University she supported the Collins Gallery (closed 2013) and in 1999 she gifted her collection of contemporary art to the University and a portion of her Contemporary Silver collection to The Glasgow School of Art, of which the remainder has now been bequeathed.

The Cargill family history dates back to the 19th century. Her Great Grand Uncle David Syme Cargill (1826-1904) founded The Burma Oil Company in 1876 and the family held interests in the East India Trading Co. In the early 20th century two of his five children made a conscious effort to collect French Paintings, including works by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The collections of David W T Cargill (1872-1939) and his brother William Cargill (d.1962) were renowned and three Impressionist paintings from William’s collection are now on display in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery: a Corot, a Courbet and a Seurat. David’s collection was sold and proceeds were used to form The Cargill Fund.

Dr Cargill Thompson leaves her end of terrace home in the West End of Glasgow to the National Trust for Scotland. Largely untouched since it was designed and built in the Scots Renaissance style in c. 1906 by John Archibald Campbell the interior boasts the original Edwardian fixtures and fittings. The Dining Room walls are covered in crocodile skin wallpaper and panelled in Austrian oak that came from the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901.

We are delighted to continue offering a selection of items from Dr Cargill Thompson’s collections of which the proceeds will form an Education Endowment Trust in Dr Cargill Thompson’s name.


Auction Information



Furniture, Paintings & Works of Art

19th & 20th May 2021 | Live Online


View the auction results ⇒


Recent Articles