Victor Hume Moody (1896-1990)
"Victor Moody’s distinctive voice has yet to find a large, enthusiastic and
appreciative public. He is not alone. He is in good company with other
British artists from the period, whose work is strikingly recognizable and
yet at the same time almost permanently out of vogue: Robert Weir Allen,
Harry Morley, William Strang, Charles Sims, Charles Shannon, Ambrose
McEvoy, Stanley Lewis, Albert Victor Wood.
All displayed remarkable technical skill - grounded in a profound and thorough training in draughtsmanship, combined with acutely observed narratives. They are infused with humour and idiosyncrasy. While the skill might be beyond dispute, the subject matter and composition can make the work inaccessible to a modern day audience.
There is a sense of melodrama, a distortion of beauty, a heightening of colour which unsettles. Most viewers are drawn to conclude, sometimes reluctantly, more often readily, that the work produced by such artists does not merit serious consideration. But what today is seen, at best, as an enchanted backwater, might well be understood by future generations to represent a more mainstream current of the art of its day.
The inherent quality of their work and the originality of their vision begs a reassessment of their individual and collective place in twentieth century British Art. All of the works in this catalogue have come from the Estate of Catherine Moody and represent the most important body of Victor Moody’s oeuvre to have ever come on the market.
We are especially grateful to Stephen
Whittle for the introductory essay to this catalogue. As the culmination of
two decades of research it provides an excellent context for Victor Moody’s
Essay by Stephen Whittle:
Victor Hume Moody created timeless images of an Arcadian idyll at a time when most artists had turned their backs on the classical tradition. The centuries old heritage of Western art was too inspiring and too valuable for him to simply abandon. Over a working life of nearly 70 years he tirelessly researched and worked to revive traditional painting techniques. At the same time he created a unique fusion of classical figure composition and the pastoral English landscape. Very little survives of Victor Moody’s thoughts on art and he published nothing to explain the evolution of his distinctive and idiosyncratic style of painting.
His daughter Catherine Moody, who took over from him
as Head of Malvern School of Art, felt that he had expressed “...all that
he wished to convey through his brush and not with the supplement of verbal
We do know that Moody’s approach to art originated and was largely
formed at Battersea Polytechnic of Arts and Crafts during and immediately
after the Great War. Enrolling in 1913, Moody studied for a lengthy seven
In a rare interview 1 he recalled life drawing classes under the direction of the artist Henry Cogle, who instilled in him a taste for imaginative figure compositions. Moody also became a good friend of the artist Anna Airy, the wife of another tutor Geoffrey Buckingham Pocock. Airy painted portraits in the grand manner but it was the elaborate arrangements that she made in her studio for figure compositions that most impressed him.
At Battersea there was a strong focus on technique, self-reliance and learning “good and useful skills” 2. Groups of fine art students as well as those in the ‘trade classes’ were taken each week to study in the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Gallery. The foundations of Moody’s style were laid down in these early years; life drawing, study from the antique cast, a thorough grounding in perspective followed by classes in monochrome under-painting, teaching him to create a convincing illusion of solid form.
Moody could hardly have failed to be aware of the changing face of British art in the early years of the twentieth century but his growing familiarity with the great works of Western art instilled in him a strong conviction that the modernist avant-garde held little interest for him. He was instead fascinated by the animated portrait style of Van Dyck, making a copy of the National Gallery’s ‘Cornelis van der Geest’, as well studying the works of Reynolds and Raeburn very closely. ‘The Flapper Dress, Portrait of Miss Willoughby’ (Cat. 3) is one of Moody’s most charming early portraits and must have been made shortly before he married the sitter in 1919.
May Olive Willoughby was a fellow student at Battersea Polytechnic.
She helped Victor Moody to design the college’s stage productions
and would support him in what Catherine Moody described as his
“missionary impetus” to communicate a love of art through painting and
teaching. Despite picking up a number of portrait commissions in the
early 1920s, Moody could not see a place for himself in the London art
world. Quiet and self effacing, he had little taste for the growing confrontation
between the academic old order and the emerging modernist
He decided to get away from the noise and bustle of the city, left his house in Clapham and bought a smallholding in Walliswood, Surrey. Moody moved to Little Meadows in December 1922 with his wife and his younger brother Arthur where they lived on a small private income from his father who had been a successful brewer in Lambeth. Catherine later described this period of rural retirement as “...a William Morris-like Earthly Paradise.” Victor Moody continued portrait painting and gave private tuition to the children of local landowners.
This time of retreat was very important to Moody who had always held a deep attachment to the English countryside stretching back to his early childhood. Many years later he would paint ‘Milking Time’ (Cat. 4) entirely from memory, an evocation of family visits to rural Wiltshire at the turn of the century. Moody established a good reputation locally and he was persuaded by a deputation of local artists to think about renewing a full-time career as an artist.
At the end of 1926 he returned to London with his family and enrolled at the Royal College of Art. The experience wasn’t entirely satisfactory however. As we can see from the self-portraits painted in the late 1920s (Cat. 17-19), Moody wore extremely powerful spectacles to combat his short-sightedness and he struggled to see the model in the life drawing classes from the regulation distance imposed by his tutors. Consequently many of the paintings and drawing from this time were made at home and were based on studies of his family, notably the drawings for ‘The Annunciation’ and ‘Crossing the Red Sea’ (Cat. 35-38 and Cat. 13).
The great advantage of studying at the RCA for Moody was the opportunity
it afforded him to renew his study of Renaissance and later paintings
in the national collections, particularly the work of the Baroque artist
Stanzioni and the Mannerist portraitist Agnomo di Cosimo, better known
as Bronzino. The geometric compositions and simplified forms of Georges
de La Tour, then only known to Moody through reproductions, were also
a key early influence. If much of his study was self-directed, Moody did
benefit greatly from the support of the College Principal William Rothenstein.
As well encouraging Moody to research the history of classical composition,
Rothenstein offered him the opportunity to assist with his mural
commission at St. Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster, a 4.4 metre
wide painting of ‘Sir Thomas Roe at the Moghul Court’.
It was not until Moody left the RCA in 1929 that he began to develop that very distinctive combination of elements which characterises his most important body of work. Settling in Stroud, he began teaching at two schools during the day and at the School of Art during the evening. He also began work on the first of his major classical compositions ‘Perseus and the Nymphs’ (Cat. 12), in which he drew heavily on his study of Greek vase painting and Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum. Like ‘The Pleading Chryses’, Moody’s first Royal Academy exhibit in 1930, ‘Perseus and the Nymphs’ is a dramatic and sensual re-imagining of classical myth.
The landscape elements are pared down and heavily stylized, adding to the sense of dynamic tension, of motion arrested at a critical and decisive moment. Colour is heightened by Moody’s use of a gesso panel, prepared using Cennino Cennini’s early 15th century instruction manual ‘Il libro dell’arte’. Shortly after settling in Stroud, Moody struck up a close friendship with Charles March Gere R.A., a well established artist and illustrator who famously designed the frontispiece for the Kelmscott Press edition of William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’. Gere and Rothenstein welcomed Moody into the Cheltenham Group of Artists in 1934.
As well as confirming Moody’s passionate belief in the importance of the arts & crafts ethos, Gere’s atmospheric Italianate landscape style also had a marked effect on the subject-matter and mood of Moody’s paintings. A number of key works from the 1930s combine an idealised Cotswold landscape with arrangements of draped figures, notably ‘Crossing the Brook’, bought by the Harris Art Gallery in Preston from the Royal Academy in 1934, ‘The End of Summer’, bought from the R.A by Lord Fairhaven in 1935 and ‘Youth is Nimble’ (Cat. 8), shown at both the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.
Rather than focusing on a dramatic narrative turning point, these works are set in a deeply personal, imagined idyllic world and communicate calm and poise, rhythmically arranged or interlocking figures harmonising with a responsive landscape backdrop. No single influence ever dominated in Moody’s work and the artist returned to classical narrative painting in major exhibition pieces such as ‘The Vengeance of Diana’ and ‘The Judgment of Paris’ (Cat. 10 and Cat. 14).
Moody went to extraordinary lengths to develop appropriate landscape settings that would heighten the drama of these compositions. ‘The Vengeance of Diana’ features an entirely imaginary landscape setting inspired by Charles Darwin’s description in ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ of the beech woods at the foot of the glaciers of Tierra del Fuego.
In 1935 Moody had taken up the post of Head of Malvern School of Art,
giving him the opportunity to create his own centre of excellence for arts
and crafts in emulation of Charles Gere’s work at the Birmingham School
of Art in the 1890s. Moody remained as Head until 1962, introducing
classes for silversmithing, book binding and letterpress printing as well as
traditional painting techniques. ‘The Bathers’ (Cat. 7), shown at the Paris
Salon in 1937, was a true arts & crafts production. The textiles in the
painting were designed and printed by Moody’s students and for many
years after they adorned the lay figure in his studio (Cat. 24). He supervised
the production of the poker-work frame and made numerous figure
and nature studies, recording in his diary how he was resolved “...to paint
my new picture giving close attention to nature”.
Moody produced much of his best work in the 1930s and ’40s, alternating subjects from the Greek myths with pastoral figure compositions at the R.A. annual exhibitions as well as exhibiting at the Royal Society of British Artists and the New English Art Club.
Towards the end of the ’30s his career was gathering momentum and in 1939 he was given a one person exhibition at the Goupil Gallery which featured most of the important compositions as well as a group portrait commissioned for the Malvern Literary Festival. Individual sitters included George Bernard Shaw, J.B. Priestley and Ernest Thesiger.
In 1940 Moody’s painting simply titled
‘Nude’, also known as ‘The Bellini Nude’ (Cat. 5), was initially hung on the
line at the R.A. but was later re-hung in another part of the building when
the gallery suffered bomb damage. At this time ‘Youth is Nimble’ was missing
somewhere in France having been sent to the Paris Salon for the 1939
exhibition, only to be returned after the war.
The approaching war also had a more direct effect on his work, prompting Moody to paint a small number of unusually topical subjects. ‘The End Of Summer’ and ‘Europa and the Powers’, both bought by Lord Fairhaven from the Royal Academy, and ‘The Return of the Hunting Goddess’ (Cat. 9) all make veiled reference to the approaching conflict and the eventual restoration of peace. ‘The Vengeance of Diana’ was Moody’s last exhibit at the R.A. in 1956 and was shown again at the Paris Salon in 1958. The painting had been substantially complete in 1947 and although Moody continued to paint classical compositions well into the 1980s the later works invariably took years, if not decades, to complete.
After the war most of his exhibited works were commissioned or family portraits, a number of which were shown at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Since Victor Moody died his work has been widely seen and his reputation has steadily risen. The Harris Museum in Preston held a retrospective exhibition, ‘The Last Classicist’, in 1992 and more recently his work featured in the 2010 exhibition ‘Counterpoint - Modern Realism 1910-1950’ held at the Fine Art Society. The dispersal of works from the Estate of the artist’s daughter, which has made this present catalogue possible, represents a further important moment in the rehabiliation of Victor Moody’s reputation. It is hoped that his work will, as a result, continue to become more widely seen and better understood. Stephen Whittle July 2012
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