Saturday, September 10, 2011

Adonis from Fulham


In 2009, London's Royal Academy put on an exhibition called J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite. I went not once, not twice, but thrice. I was – and still am – working on a book about the most beautiful boy in the Roman Empire in the year AD 96.

The Siren c. 1900
The paintings were glorious. Waterhouse was inspired by classical writers to paint passionate, luscious scenes from Greek Mythology. Full of jewel-like colours and beautiful models, my favourites were the ones based on passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Each of these paintings tells a rich, dense, symbolic tale full of love, pain and transformation.

I was so inspired that I went home an wrote an ode about Orpheus called Thracian O.

That almost never happens. I rarely write Odes.

But that is what great art does. It inspires you.

Ovid inspired Waterhouse and Waterhouse inspired me.


When I was studying Classics at Cambridge, I had the poster of Hylas and the Nymphs on my bedroom wall. I loved the fact that Waterhouse seems to have used the same girl model for all the water nymphs. He only deepened or lightened the chestnut tint of the hair. It makes them look like divine clones.


did the same girl pose for all the water nymphs in Hylas & the Nymphs?

But as I was walking around the  Royal Academy exhibition, studying the beautiful young men in the paintings, I noticed that they all looked similar, too. Adonis, Narcissus, Hylas... even the doomed young sailor in Waterhouse's painting of The Siren.

Could it be that the same male model posed for all of them?

If so, who was he? I wanted to know. A Google search quickly took me to this excellent article by art historian Scott Thomas Buckle. While looking through some old sketchbooks in the V&A, he found a notebook with the names of some of Waterhouse's models. On the top of one page was the sketch of a young man and the notes: Harry Beresford, 19 St Olafs Rd, Fulham, SW, age 16 June 1896... dark hair

One of J.W. Waterhouse's sketchbooks

Scott Thomas Buckle did a bit of sleuthing and found an 'artist's model' aged 21 by that name living at that address in the 1901 census, so it all fit perfectly. Young Harry was living with his 42 year old widowed mother. Buckle thinks Harry might have been of Italian descent like several other Italian artists' models in Fulham.

Harry Beresford & flipped sailor
Henry Beresford was born in 1880, so he would have been 16 when he modelled for Hylas; 19 years old for Adonis; 20 for the doomed Siren-enchanted sailor (up above); 20 for the head of Orpheus and 23 for Narcissus. But wait! The man in the sketchbook looks a bit bloated, doesn't he? Not really an Adonis, is he?

There is a stern warning in the form of a small print note about Hylas & the Nymphs in The Royal Academy Catalogue: It is dangerous to speculate on the models for Waterhouse's figures; not only did he generalise and idealise the features of his models; so that the resulting figures conform to a small number of types, but he may also have used his well-trained visual memory to import reminiscences of favourite types into drawings made from other models.

St. Olaf's Rd, Fulham, London
Having taught art for ten years at primary level, I'm not sure I agree. My mantra in every lesson was: "Draw what you see, not what you know." Watch David Hockney sketching, for example. He spends 90% of the time looking at his subject and only 10% of the time looking at the paper.

Instead of having a small number of types, might not Waterhouse have had a small number of favourite models?

So I am going to blithely ignore that caveat and claim that Waterhouse liked Harry Beresford so much that he used him over and over. Without any expertise on the subject, I choose to believe that just over a hundred years ago a beautiful Adonis/Narcissus/Hylas/Orpheus lived in Fulham, just a few miles from where I am sitting now.
The Decameron 1916

One evening last week I did a mini-pilgrimage, to see if there was a blue plaque (a kind of historical marker put on houses where famous people have lived). I found a long street of post-Victorian apartment blocks. Not only was there no blue plaque, but Harry's house was no longer there. His street had been redeveloped, probably in the period between WWI and WWII.

I like to think that maybe Harry posed for the man with the lute in this 1916 painting called The Decameron (right). If it was Harry, he would have been 36 years old. It would mean that he collaborated with Waterhouse for twenty years, off and on, right up to the end.

J.W. Waterhouse died in 1917, a year after The Decameron was painted.

But what happened to Harry Beresford, the Adonis of Fulham? I would love to know.

P.S. You can see my blogs about some of Waterhouse's other paintings:
AdonisAriadneCirceHylasNarcissusOdysseus and Orpheus.

P.P.S. I know much more about the Greeks and Romans than I do about J.W. Waterhouse. I write The Roman Mysteries, a series of history mystery books aimed at children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greek Myths. The glossy BBC Roman Mysteries TV series did adaptations of some of these books. The DVDs are available in the UK and Europe. 

1 comment:

  1. Adonis is one of the most complex figures in classical times. His name is often applied in modern times to handsome youths, of whom he is the archetype.

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