Posted: 6th November 2020
This tiny jewel-like portrait records the head and shoulders of a young woman in profile, tightly framed, with head slightly lowered and eyes cast down in thought. Her long red hair is loosely looped under a fine lace cap. Her hair’s soft russetts repeat in the richly patterned fabric of her dress sleeves. The background is a plain but vibrant green echoed by the dress bodice. Her features are aquiline, and recorded with great sensitivity and precision.
The image has been painstakingly built up using tiny, fine brushstrokes that are hardly visible to the naked eye- this provides a sense of the time, skill and care invested in its making. It’s an object that has been carefully and lovingly crafted.
It’s painted using the labour intensive and demanding medium of tempera- a fast-drying paint made using coloured pigments bound with egg yolk. Egg tempera was the main method of painting up to the 1500s when it was superseded by the invention of oil painting. The return to the use of tempera here, in 1898, is important to our understanding of this object.
The artist Arthur Gaskin shows us the head and shoulders of his wife, Georgie.
Georgie was an English jewellery and metalwork designer as well as an illustrator. Both she and her husband were two of the original members of the Birmingham Group formed in the 1890s.
Their work reflected the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, an international movement that began in Britain as a reaction against what was seen as a decline in standards due to machinery and factory ‘mass’ production associated with the industrial revolution. The Arts and Crafts movement emerged from the Pre-Raphaelite circle with the founding of the design firm ‘Morris and Co.’ in 1861, by William Morris. Morris wanted to improve the quality of design and make it available to the widest possible audience. His work is still well-known today through wallpapers and textiles.
His influence is evident here in the flat, stylised plant-form patterns of Georgie’s sleeves.
The style of her dress and strict profile format meanwhile reference Early Italian Renaissance portraits as well as linked nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite paintings by artists such as Rossetti and Millais.
Georgie and Arthur met as students at Birmingham School of Art and married in 1894, four years before this portrait was made. Both took to jewellery making as a second career as mature artists. Georgie was the dominant jeweller. They began exhibiting in 1899 and exhibited together at the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition, where Georgie was reviewed as the jeweller of the two.
There is a closely related portrait in a taller format, also of 1898, in the collection of Birmingham Museum Trust called ‘Fiammetta’, the title of the painting a reference to the sitter’s red hair.
There is also a suggestion that the Ferens painting shows Georgie wearing a wig as the result of hair loss due to mercury poisoning resulting from her work as a jeweller.
‘Georgie’ was purchased about 10 years ago as the result of a bequest from a former Friend of the Ferens who worked as a GP in Hull- Dr Gordon Drummond.
Written by curator of art at Ferens Art Gallery, Kirsten Simister.
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