Narrative art from Southampton City Art Gallery’s Collection

Narrative painting can be traced back to 17th-Century genre painting which depicted scenes and narratives of everyday life, but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that it became enormously popular. Subjects might include religion, history, myth and legend or literature and it was expected that audiences would be familiar with the story being told. 

20th Century art has been influenced deeply by narrative artwork, although many modern artists and groups have frowned upon narrative, concentrating more on form and purely visual aspects of their work. Yet coded references to political and social issues or events important to the artist are still commonplace.

This selection highlights the theme of narrative found in the City’s diverse holdings. From early works to the present day, sometimes obvious and other times hidden, the works all tell a story in their own way.

Abraham Solomon (1824–62)
First Class, the Meeting, c.1850
Oil on canvas

Solomon was a major exponent of Victorian narrative painting. These were detailed, realistic and highly-finished scenes of contemporary life, usually with a moralising sub-text. They were immensely popular with the public especially as engravings. Viewers naturally reconstructed the past and imagined the futures of the protagonists.
This is one of a pair of paintings (the other: Second Class, the Parting) showing the contrasting families and destinies of two young seafaring men from different backgrounds. The setting is novel as the railway was a relatively new form of transport in the 1850s. An earlier version of the painting caused a scandal as it showed the elderly chaperone asleep and the young naval officer engaged in lively conversion with the girl.

Purchased in 1939 through the Chipperfield Bequest Fund
© the copyright holder. Image © SCC Cultural Services

Abraham Solomon (1824–62)
Second Class, the Parting, c.1850
Oil on canvas

This is the second in the pair of paintings showing the contrasting families and destinies of two young seafaring men from different backgrounds. 
Here, in a plain second-class railway carriage, a widowed mother and her sorrowful daughter accompany their young man who is leaving for the sea. An old sailor looks on in sympathy. The port of departure is near as ship’s masts are visible from the right-hand window. 
From the adverts at the rear of the carriage, he is possibly leaving for Australia. Emigration to the colony was at a peak in the 1850s. A reviewer in the 1854 Punch magazine noted: ‘I find the public understand the picture and are touched by it’.

Purchased in 1939 through the Chipperfield Bequest Fund
© the copyright holder. Image © SCC Cultural Services

Francesco Curradi (1570–1661) 

Tobias and the Angel

Oil on canvas

This magnificent painting presents a scene from the apocryphal Book of Tobit in the Old Testament. The young Tobias is sent by his father, the blind pious Jew Tobit, to collect a debt. The archangel Raphael, the angel of healing and travellers, accompanies Tobias and his faithful dog on their journey. Whilst bathing in the river Tigris, Tobias is instructed by his guardian angel to take a fish that can cure his father’s blindness.

Archangel Raphael was especially popular in Florence. The city had a confraternity devoted to him. The Florentine Curradi trained under the Mannerist painter Giovanni Battista Naldini and produced many works for the churches and chapels of his home town.

Gift from Mrs D. Villiers, 1953
© the copyright holder. Image © SCC Cultural Services

Leonard Daniels (1909–98)

A British Restaurant at Winchester 

Oil on canvas 

Daniels began his art studies at the Royal College of Art in 1929, winning the Royal College Portrait Prize in 1932. He was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee and this painting is of a Winchester Restaurant in the Second World War. He was the Principal of Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts from 1948 until his retirement in 1975.

The painting depicts a ‘British restaurant’, which were communal kitchens created in 1940 to help people who had been bombed out of their homes, had run out of ration coupons or otherwise needed help. This one opened in 1942 under the name ‘Alfie’s Kitchen’, after King Alfred. The premises still operates as a restaurant today, as Brasserie Blanc.

Gift from War Artists’ Advisory Committee, 1947
Leonard Daniels, A British Restaurant at Winchester © the copyright holder. Image © SCC Cultural Services

Francis Hayman (1708–76)

Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlowe

Oil on canvas

Francis Hayman was born in Devon but moved to London in 1718. He worked as a scene painter in the theatre and as an illustrator with a studio in St Martin’s Lane. Hayman was a versatile artist much influenced by the French Rococo style, producing portraits, conversation pieces and modern history paintings. He was one of the founders of the Royal Academy and in 1771 became its librarian. 

This picture shows an episode from Samuel Richardson’s highly popular novel Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady (1747–48).

In this rather theatrical composition the debonair and evil Lovelace is tricking poor Clarissa into eloping with him.

Purchased in 1965 through the Chipperfield Bequest Fund with a 50% Government grant through the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund
© the copyright holder. Image © SCC Cultural Services

John Bellany (1941–2013)

Bethel, 1967

Oil on wood

Bellany grew up in the fishing village of Port Seton near Edinburgh. Deeply religious fishing communities and human existence are the subjects of his large-scale paintings.

In Bethel, three weather-beaten and somewhat menacing fishermen confront the viewer. They are surrounded by their gutted catch, most noticeably a skate, a leitmotif in Bellany’s work, and a fish said to have almost-human features. The fish is an ancient symbol for Christianity and Christ. The fishing boat’s name is the term for a seaman’s chapel and is also Hebrew for ‘House of God’. Bellany painted Bethel the same year he visited Buchenwald concentration camp; the work comments on persecution, suffering and religious faith.

Purchased in 1979 through the Chipperfield Bequest Fund and a V&A/MGC Purchase Grant Fund
John Bellany, Bethel. © the artists estate. All right reserved 2020/Bridgeman Images. Image © SCC Cultural Services

George Morland (1763–1804)  

The Wreckers, 1791

Oil on canvas

It has been suggested that The Wreckers was inspired by one of Morland’s visits to the Isle of Wight. Indeed, he was known to have patronised an infamous alehouse called the Cabin, which was the haunt of local wreckers and smugglers. Morland’s wreckers are set against a rocky shore, an appropriate setting for such activity and individuals. William Collins, a biographer of Morland, wrote approvingly of… 

‘…that hardy, rough-hewn race that inhabit the coast denying the utmost vigilance of the government’. 

Morland’s determined and heroic wreckers fighting against the stormy seas also suggest the elemental struggle between man and nature.

Purchased in 1947 through the Chipperfield Bequest Fund
© the copyright holder. Image © SCC Cultural Services

Lucy Kemp-Welsh (1869–1958)

Timber Run in the Welsh Hills, c.1932

Oil on canvas

Kemp-Welch specialised in painting working horses. They are important as a record of this vanished age and made all the more valuable by her empathy with the subjects. The horse’s labours and emotions are beautifully captured without descending into sentimentality. The image of the powerful yet gentle and obedient worker is her most enduring legacy. She is best known for her illustrations of the 1915 edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1932.

Kemp-Welch was born in Bournemouth and made regular trips to the New Forest as a young girl. She immediately identified with the beauty of the Forest landscape and in particular the wild ponies. Kemp-Welch was the first President of the Society of Animal Painters, a not inconsiderable achievement for a woman at that time.

Purchased through the Chipperfield Bequest Fund 1932
Lucy Kemp-Welch, Timber Run in the Welsh Hills. Image © granted by the David Messum Fine Art Ltd. Image © SCC Cultural Services

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