[From Mannin, #3, 1914]
MANY men are the favourites or victims of their early environment, and it was among distinctly unfavourable surroundings that Joseph William Swynnerton, the fourth son of Charles Swinnerton and Mary Collister his wife, was born in Douglas on July 6th, 1848. Those youths who have now all the advantages of a properly equipped School of Art, Art Guilds, and so on, can hardly understand the difficulties that beset the aspirant to artistic distinction in Douglas before those things came into being. Nevertheless, despite these disadvantages, Douglas has produced two notable artists.
His schooling he had at the old Middle School, now the Grammar School, Douglas, but at the age of fourteen he was withdrawn, as it was intended that he should follow his father's business, monumental sculpture. This, under the circumstances, was the best thing that could have happened to him, as to this he owed at least whatever training of eye and hand he received up to his twentieth year, and it may be observed that his father before him had aspirations to artistic distinction.
I do not intend to dwell upon this period of his life, "wasted time" as he afterwards emphatically called it. Not altogether so, as during it his natural artistic ability was strongly displayed, and created considerable interest in the young man. It is needless to say that John Nicholson and he found much in common to discuss, and indeed, much to dispute, in religion and art, and lucky it was that each found in the other someone to sympathise with his artistic aspirations. But they had to depend largely upon books, as the Art Journal, etc., for their knowledge of current art, and John Nicholson was an early disciple of John Ruskin.
At the age of twenty he went for a few months to Edinburgh to study at the Academy in that city. There, for the first time, he was initiated into the mysteries of modelling in clay, and there he gained a prize. Returning to the Isle of Mann, he executed busts of his father, his brother Robert, and Mr. Brearey, which in spite of small defects due to want of proper training, were highly promising works, and showed that he possessed a fine sense of form and proportion curious in one who had hardly, if at all, drawn from the human figure. After carrying out some work for his father, studying anatomy meanwhile, he was sent to Rome in his twenty-first year, that is to say he began the serious study of his art at an age when most sculptors have almost completed their education. It would be vain to deny that in this he was heavily handicapped, and it may also be said that in selecting Rome and not Paris a great mistake was made.
Upon arriving in Rome in 1869 he at once entered the Academy of St. Luke. This famous institution was founded in the sixteenth century, its first director being Federigo Zuccaro. Many of its directors and pupils have been distinguished painters, sculptors, architects and engravers. It contains a fine collection of casts from the antique, and some of modern works, as Canova's and Thorwaldsen's, and an indifferently good collection of pictures by the old masters. There is a fine theatre for the study of the living model, besides anatomical painting, and modelling class-rooms. There he passed two years of assiduous study among a cosmopolitan crowd of students drawn from every nation in Europe, whose absurd pranks at times, caused laughter in after years.;
In his first year he won Pope Pius IX's second (silver) medal, and in his second year the first (gold) medal for Sculpture, the silver medal being probably the last that bore that Pope's effigy. This was an astonishing success, it must be owned, for the "raw Manx boy,"as he afterwards described himself, competing with so many men from the academies of various cities of Europe, especially considering the nature of his previous training. But so it was, and this fact speaks more strongly than anything else in favour of his natural talents. Had they been properly developed from his boyhood it would have made a vast difference to him. But after this too short study he had immediately to fend for himself.
I have little to say about his student days in Rome. It was still under Papal government for part of the time, insanitary, and despotically ruled it may be, but yet with all those semi-medieval features and associations dear to artists which modern improvements" have destroyed. It was still the Rome of Ducas" Count of Monte Cristo," the home of long-haired artists and of Papal "sbirri," where foreign newspapers were vigorously censored, stabbings and religious functions the most prominent events, where the inhuman "mazzolato" executions drew as great crowds as did an occasional "miraculous" picture, where picturesque contadina models waited for hire on the Scala di Spagna, where the streets were with few exceptions narrow and ill-lighted, but where living and wine were ridiculously cheap. Life was joyous and picturesque. Upon one occasion he accompanied an artist friend who wanted to make a sketch of one of those artificial caverns which have been hollowed out of the soft tufa rock of the Campagna to procure the well known volcanic ash used in building. They tied one end of a string to the entrance to guide them out of the labyrinth, but the string breaking they passed a very anxious space of time wandering by candle light among the interminable pillars of rock before they hit upon the exit. He became a member of the British Academy in Rome. He made the acquaintance of many foreign artists of various nationalities, and besides Italian. He studied German and French sufficiently to be able to read the works of Moliere and Schiller in their proper languages.
He was in Rome during the historical breaching of the ancient wall of Aurelian by the troops of King Victor Emmanuel. His curiosity on that occasion carried him within the danger zone, so that he was witness of a shell rolling among a group of Papal artillery-men, exploding, killing and wounding six of them. A piece of the same shell struck an iron pipe just above where he had thrown himself on the ground.
Immediately upon leaving St. Luke's he executed a half-life sized statue of "Cain," which manifested a healthy feeling of naturalism, and called forth commendation from Mr. Ruskin in a private letter. It was well placed in the Royal Academy, and was favourably noticed by the critics. Upon exhibiting this in Manchester he was given numerous orders for Manchester magnates, which, perhaps, was not an unmixed blessing, as it may have interfered with purely creative work. He was elected a member of the Manchester Literary Society, and of the Manchester Academy of Art. He brought "Cain" to the Isle of Mann, and exhibited it in Douglas. This was followed next year by his "Cupid and Psyche," and during this visit to the Island he executed some exquisite small busts of his father, mother, and his brother Charles. He also modelled busts of Mr. Speaker Goldie-Taubman and his eldest son, and then, or afterwards, Mr. Robert Collister of Ramsey.
Space forbids following his career closely. For many years after he produced "Cain" he exhibited at the Academy, and there are numerous single figures, groups, and busts in England, the Isle of Mann, and elsewhere, to witness to his powers and industry although always frail in physique he was a hard and cheerful worker, and was never so happy as when busy in his studio in Rome. For several years this was in the Piazza Trinita de Monti, and we lived close by in the Via Gregoriana. Afterwards he had his studio on the ground floor of the house he built himself, in the new part of the city No. 2 Via Montebello, overlooking the British Embassy garden. In the earlier period we used to have frequent excursions together, nor shall I forget how we went riding among the Alban woods and vineyards, mounted on our hired nags, whether horses or mules, tilting at each other with long canes to the amusement of the countryfolk. Or, on foot, generally with congenial friends, we have climbed Mount Soracte, the Alban Hill, and Monte Gennaro, the highest peak of the Sabines, crossed Lake Bracciano in a ramshackle canoe and were nearly sunk in a storm, and have tramped through the innermost recesses of the Sabine and Volscian mountains, visiting their classical sites or prehistoric cities, buying ancient coins or majolica pottery, not forgetting, as an accompaniment to rather coarse rustic fare, the famous vintages of that beautiful country. He was a genial companion.
About his thirty-second year he belonged to the Roman Section of the Italian Alpine Club, and with its members he climbed the highest peaks of the Apennines. In one descent while negotiating a knife-like ridge between two peaks, the party being roped together, and he the last man, several of the leading men slipped on the steep and hard snow slope, and had it not been for his cool and timely dispositions the whole party would probably have perished. In spite of his frail build he was an indefatigable walker.
He extended generous hospitality to his friends and relations' and when John Nicholson visited Rome he was the guest of his fellow townsman.* His father was also his guest in Rome on two separate occasions, which visits probably added several years to the old gentleman's life. Among those who called on him in Rome were Deemster Sherwood and Mr. A. W. Moore.
His favourite authors were Dickens and Moliere, and latterly Tom Brown the poet. He did not care much for the remains of antiquity outside art. During his last years he acted as Hon. Treasurer to the Committee of the British Academy in Rome.
Among his works may be mentioned "Cain"; "Cupid and Psyche"; "Cain and Abel," an amplification of "Cain"; "Hiawatha and Minnehaha," a fine group executed for Benjamin Whitworth, Esq., Manchester; "The Victor," now, I believe, in Peel Park collection, Manchester; ' Immortal Youth," a large fountain twenty feet high, of graceful design surmounted by a group of three life-sized youths. This last was greatly admired by many of our leading artists, and after the Royal Academy was exhibited at Rome in the National Exhibition, and was awarded the medal. ' Love's Chalice,' another fountain, remarkable for the beautiful figure of the faun, now in the Camberwell Gallery; 'Santa Francesca Romana," a statue in coloured marbles, a return to ancient and mediaeval usage, and a Christ Bound," both in the lesuit Church, Farm Street, London; a colossal bust of Cromwell; a colossal bust of Garibaldi, to model which he visited the hero at his home in the Island of Caprera, both these in Peel Park collection; "St Winifred" for Holywell, which had to be carried into the Vatican to be inspected by the Pope, on which occasion he had a long talk with Pope Leo XIII; a colossal public statue of Queen Victoria, at Southend-on-Sea; one of Hugh Mason, etc., Ashton-under-Lyne; another of Joseph Verdun,Northwich; busts of many public men as Lord Russell; the Nizam of Hyderabad, and Vicar-ul-Mulk, Hyderabad; Abel Heywood, Mayor of Manchester, Manchester Town Hall; a bust in plaster of Mr. Hall Caine, a splendid likeness; various half-life size statues as "Virginia"; Ganymede"; Mona"; St.John"; Daniel"; ideal busts and bas-reliefs, Among his notable busts of ladies were those of Mrs. Matheson in marble, and Mrs Boddington in bronze. This list, while not pretending to include all his works, shows that he possessed considerable versatility.
During his career he was necessarily brought into contact with many of the principal English artists of his time, and he is referred to by Mr. Crofts, the eminent painter, who was his guest at Carrara, in his book of reminiscences lately published. Also in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 10th edition, among the leading English artists.
About his thirty-first year he married Annie L. Robinson, a very talented artist, one of whose pictures has lately had the distinguished honour of being purchased by the French Government for the Luxembourg Gallery, Paris. With her he lived in the greatest harmony and affection until his death. He left no children.
He loved Rome and knew it well. It was a pleasure to walk with him through the Eternal City, as he was versed in much lore concerning its churches, palaces, and so forth. In advanced years he told me that he loved to perambulate its silent streets at night, and doubtless there was much in his character which gave him a melancholy pleasure in thus wandering among the scenes of his early manhood. Naturally, as he lived so much in Rome it became a second home to him. He had many Italian friends, and hence, upon invitation, he took part in an educational movement among the Italian troops, and this resulted in his presentation to H.M. Queen Margarita, the Patroness of the movement.
His love for the Isle of Mann was however still greater, and he delighted in books concerning it. Small wonder then that he was a constant reader of Brown's poems. He generally visited it upon his returns from Italy, and spent a few weeks near the sea, generally at Port St. Mary. Not long before he died he executed a bust of Tom Brown. And this brings the reflection that if we take the three men, Brown, Nicholson, and Swynnerton, as Manx exponents of their several arts, it is curious that they all lived and died about the same time.
He early rebelled against the classicality of Roman tradition, and many of his works show a strong leaning to naturalism. This was perhaps over emphasised in his "First Steps," a group of a woman and a child in ordinary garments. But such efforts were in the nature of a forlorn hope against convention, which hide-bound tradition viewed askance. The traditionists of every age run in their rut, until there comes a Rodin who, as with his "Burghers of Calais," liberates men from mental servitude. His works show that he was gifted with poetical imagination of a high order, joined to originality of idea, perfect drawing, and a correct knowledge of human anatomy. As a bust modeller, not the least difficult branch of his art, he had few superiors. His "Immortal Youth" may be regarded as his masterpiece, and one cannot but regret that it cannot be set up in his native town, as it would honour it and him, for it may fairly claim to be pronounced one of the greatest efforts of art that any Manxman has produced. In it he successfully coped with that most difficult of all branches of art, the representation of ideal human beauty adapted to utilitarian purposes unassisted by the charm of colour. It is well to remember that the study of the human figure teas always been regarded as the highest aim in art.
He had been affected with an aneurism for many years and that it should have culminated just when he might have looked forward to a pleasant rest from his labours and manifold worries, is a matter of infinite regret. He was taken ill in Rome. Towards the end he went to a specialist in London, whence he wrote to me two weeks before he died expressing a wish that I were with him to go for some fishing to the Port." There, indeed, he went soon afterwards, a dying man, accompanied by his wife, and after a slight rally he died on the 10th August, 1910, attended in his last moments by his wife and by his niece, Miss Katherine Blakeley. He was buried in Kirk Maughold Churchyard, where some years before he had expressed a wish to lie.
*To this visit I owe it that I possess one of the two paintings done by John Nicholson in Italy' a memory sketch painted for me, of the launching of the Douglas life-boat on the occasion when it overturned and six of its crew were drowned F.S.