Friday 1 May 2015

Sandys and Howell

The Victorian artist Frederick Sandys was born on this day in 1829. That's not him in the picture, though - it's a portrait by Sandys of one of the shadier figures from the Victorian art scene, Charles Augustus Howell. Howell, a man of considerable personal charm, ingratiated himself with Ruskin in the 1860s and became his secretary, a position from which he attempted to gain control of the great man's finances - until Burne-Jones managed to persuade Ruskin to sever the connection. Howell was very close to the Rossetti family, and oversaw the grisly venture in which Dante Gabriel retrieved his poems from the grave of Lizzie Siddal. That connection is believed to have ended when Howell got his lover to fake Rossetti drawings.
 Howell was also a business adviser and intimate of Swinburne - until he was (or so Swinburne believed) involved in a blackmail attempt on the poet. After Howell's death, Swinburne wrote that he hoped he was 'in that particular circle of Malebolge where the coating of external excrement makes it impossible to see whether the damned dog's head is tonsured or not'. Nice. As for Howell's death, at the age of 50, that was a bizarre affair. He was found dead outside a Chelsea public house, his throat slit and a gold coin in his mouth. The cause of death was given as 'pneumonic phthisis'...
 Howell was a rather more interesting figure than Sandys, who lived a fairly quiet life, painting subjects from mythology and fearsome, firm-jawed 'stunners' in the manner of Rossetti. But, as the portrait of Howell shows, he was an accomplished portraitist - and also a fine wood engraver, who made his mark with the uncharacteristically light-hearted squib, The Nightmare. Based on Millais's Sir Isumbras at the Ford, this show Millais with Rossetti and Holman Hunt, all seated on a donkey bearing the initials 'J.R., Oxon.' [John Ruskin].  

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