Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Arthur Hacker, King of Beauty

Whenever I show this picture on my blog or on Facebook I always get loads of comments...

The Temptation of Sir Percival Arthur Hacker
Of all the pictures I have ever shared with you here, this may well be a strong contender for the most beloved by you lot.  It's a winning combination of beautiful and unintentionally funny that people can't help falling in love with.  It seems to encourage no end of captions and all I can say is that Leeds City Art Gallery are very lucky indeed to have it.  This made me start to wonder about Arthur Hacker...

Christabel Cockerell (1900)
Here's a bold statement for you: if I had to be a Victorian artist, then I think I fancy being Arthur Hacker.  Yes, his quality (in subject if not technique) was patchy, but when he got it right, he blows you away.  When I was gathering the images for this post I did a fair amount of squealing, clapping and, conversely, scratching my head in puzzlement.  I also had a little snigger at some over-the-top drama, such as this...

The Cloister or The World (1886)
Oh no!  What a choice!  Sod this for a lark, I'm off into the world to randomly lob petals at people like a right hussy.  You have been warned.  I love how the purity angel is looking at the naughty girl's bowl, like she's hiding a load of malteasers in there.  It's enough to make a nun go funny.

Right, a little background on Arthur Hacker:  His father was an animal engraver and his mother was the daughter of an attorney.  They lived a rather nice comfortable life in St Pancras, the Hampstead areas of London.  Arthur had a brother Sidney, who ended up being coroner for Devon, and a sister Adeline, who remained home and unmarried until both of her parents had passed away (both at quite a ripe old age).  Just after his father died, Arthur painted this rather touching portrait of his mother...

Portrait of the Artist's Mother (Sophia Hacker) (1907)
I didn't realise that Hacker painted quite a number of portraits, some of them rather beautiful and delicate, despite their very formal nature...

Sir Frank Short (1918)
This rather lovely image of the engineer and engraver Frank Short tells you so much about the subject.  He looks industrious but with a smile, a warm humour and an enthusiastic love of his work.  I think he is smiling under that impressive mustache.

Charlotte A. Ferguson of Largham, Donor of Victory Park
This reminds me of the portrait of Annie Russell-Cotes (of the Art Gallery fame), and no doubt countless other images of wealthy women of the late Victorian period, but there is something eminently tactile about that boa of fur and the great bundle of bows on the front of her dress.  It treads a very fine line between respectable and glam, which is nice to see in a woman of a certain age. She looks jolly.

Arthur Hacker (1858-1919) was a well-known painter of moderate success, a classicist with a strong vein in genre and fantasy.  His scenes of everyday life remind me of the Cornish fishing scenes of Holl but without the utter doom...

The Fisherman's Wife
We know her husband's line of work thanks to the tangle of nets and baskets behind her, but what is the message of the piece?  She looks at her baby with a mixed expression, both blissful and fearful.  What clues do we have?  There is a clock, there are daffodils, so are we looking at time running out?  The daffodils are to do with Spring and life, but a number of them have been left from the bowl.  I'm putting money on a fishing accident and a number of sailors lost from their boat.  Mind you, I don't always look on the bright side...

A Difficulty
Again, a clock ticks just out of shot, symbolising time.  I think the little girl and the old woman are the same person.  Time has ticked on and the little girl who used to think sewing was fun has now gone blind and can no longer thread her needle and will starve, which is a bit 'difficult'.

I think we probably know Hacker for his religious and legend subjects, like lovely Sir Percival.  It was what he was primarily known for at the time, probably because of the magnificence of some of these...

By the Waters of Babylon
Pelagia and Philammon (1887)
The first of the religious images should be familiar to you as the subject of a Boney M song.  The second is from a now-obscure Charles Kingsley novel Hypatia and shows the monk Philammon giving the holy sacrament to his nudey sister in the desert.  That's alright then, nothing strange there.

Daphne (1890)
The lush image of Daphne goes in my collection of fictional Amos Roselli paintings (from The Arrow Chest by Robert Parry).  The picture of Persephone is a bit overwrought but seems rather more up-beat than Rossetti's take on the subject.

Yes, Hacker could be dismissed at times as being a painter of pretty girls with pink bits, but he is much more than that.  He can also be a painter of extreme oddness...

Vale or Farewell
So many questions!  Who is going where?  Is the figure on the left leading the one on the right, is she leaving her or are they both going off but in separate directions?  Is one of them death? Is one of them dead?  It has a sepia-silence about it, not telling the viewer anything other than this is a painting about saying goodbye.

The Drone
So does the title refer to the sound of bees, filling up the flowers that surround the beautifully dressed young woman?  Or is she the drone?  A drone is a bee that doesn't 'work', just exists for breeding purposes, so maybe he is making a comment on the position of the woman whose posture echoes the flowers.

Imprisoned Spring (1911)
This has to be a contender for my favourite picture by Hacker.  Again, it's 'woman as nature', with both the girl and the flowers trapped in the meagre space, looking sadly towards the gay sunshine, streaming through the window.  I wonder if this reflected upon his sister at all, remaining home until both her parents died, only then going out into the world, getting married to the preposterously named Edmond Jean Marie Louis De St Quentin, at the age of 71.  She died the year after, in 1922.

Fire Fancies
It's not hard to fall in love with Arthur Hacker, his art is so beautiful and, at its best, celebrates the beauty of this world and a world beyond ours.  He paints women with skin like pearly shells and fabric that could slide through your fingers like silk.  His muse is often unknowable; who can tell what the woman in The Drone is thinking, and what is happening in Vale or Farewell?  Sometimes it is not a subject he gives us, just a mood, a feeling that is unsettled.  This is at odds with his traditional genre images, but even then he gives us unfinished stories, no guarantee of a happy ending.  His glory exists in a canvas of uncertainty, but the beauty will always remain true.

Musicienne du Silence


  1. Thank you for sharing of this wonderful artist's works.

  2. Dear Kirsty
    I knew the first picture, but the rest are new to me, I think. Thank you so much for a wonderful introduction to Arthur Hacker. I really like the way he doesn't give the viewer all the answers - just poses lots of questions.
    Best wishes

  3. Thank you for the comments, m'dears. We are indeed loving Arthur Hacker, look out for him at a gallery near you!

  4. Thank you for a superb blog, Mrs Walker. Lovely stuff as always.
    The Pelagia is a real creepy number, verging on the uh-oh, and in 'Cloister' it looks a little as though the nun has taken a goodly sniff of the flowers and discovered that, after many years of not doing so, she now suffers from hay-fever. And how did whoever-it-was-who-grew-them get those foxgloves to grow so tall??

  5. Thank you. I am only vaguely familiar with this incredible artist but was so moved by his painting "The Cloud" (found on a Facebook group called: "The Mysterious World of the Pre-Raphaelites") that I wanted to know more about him. I shall direct the members to this blog entry!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx