John William Godward’s art is the punctuation mark of the so-called Victorian High Renaissance. His Greco-Roman compositions reached maturity in the mid-1890s, more or less concurrently with the deaths of two of the movement's leading figureheads, Frederic, Lord Leighton and Albert Joseph Moore. To be sure, Godward’s more famous Victorian High Renaissance contemporary, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, was still active in the 1890s, and would be through the first decade of the twentieth century. But Godward outlived them all, and continued to create his placid and wistful Mediterranean figure paintings through the tumultuous years of World War I and into the early 1920s. As the last of his kind, and working in the face of the modern art movements that were overrunning Europe in the new century, Godward was an even greater anachronism than his mentors, and today, despite his prolific output over three decades, remains the High Renaissance artist most shrouded in mystery.
In 1997, art historian, museum director, and Alma-Tadema biographer Vern Grosvenor Swanson published the first study of Godward’s life and work, John William Godward: The Eclipse of Classicism, after twenty years of research. In his introductory remarks (p. 13), Swanson noted that, despite the “serene beauty and astonishing technical execution” of his paintings, Godward received little in the way of critical acclaim during his lifetime, and nothing in the way of art-historical evaluation since his death. Godward’s life has remained shrouded in secrecy, jealously guarded by his own reclusive and private demeanor and his family's reticence. Swanson’s research revealed much about the artist’s life, and his annotated catalogue raisonné in the same volume has shed light on the remarkable consistency of Godward's paintings.
John William Godward was born in the Battersea section of London to John and Sarah Godward, the first of five children. The Godwards were a prosperous but conservative middle-class family, and when their eldest son showed aptitude in drawing at an early age, they grudgingly permitted him to study architecture—in their eyes, an honorable artistic profession—with William Huff Wontner in the evenings, but only as long as he kept his clerking job at his father's insurance company during the day. When Godward’s interest evolved toward the fine arts, the family refused to finance his formal art training at an expensive and prestigious school in Paris or London. Thus, Godward’s name is notably absent from the roles of all the major art schools, so it is surmised that he received whatever formal training he had at a smaller, more parochial London art school, perhaps the Clapham School of Art, which was near the Godwards’ home, or Heatherley’s School of Art in Chelsea. Wherever he may have studied, Godward made his public début in 1887 at the Royal Academy of Art’s Summer Exhibition with his painting, A Yellow Turban (unlocated). The same year saw Godward's first documented Greco-Roman composition, Poppaea (unlocated), which was shown at the Suffolk Street galleries of the Royal Society of British Artists. With Poppaea, Godward had found his niche, and at a remarkably early point in his budding career.