Prinsep the artist

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V. C. Prinsep, Home from the Gleaning, 1875

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V. C. Prinsep, The Queen was in the Parlour, Eating Bread and Honey, 1860. Of this picture Stephens wrote, "Prinsep’s next picture, 1858, was in oil, and represented the queen who “eats bread and honey” while standing and feasting before a cupboard of quaint device.  This work possessed such fine qualities of tone and colour that John Phillip, a master in these matters, commended it warmly when, in 1859, it appeared at the first Hogarth Club."

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Valetine Prinsep, Ayesha, 1877, Tate. 

Val C. Prinsep was born in Kolkata, India, where his father was a civil servant, but by the time he was five his parents had retired to London. The family settled at Little Holland House in Kensington, where they were soon joined by the artist George Frederic Watts. Prinsep, educated at Haileybury College, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Civil Service, but he decided to become an artist. His choice was likely influenced by Watts and other leading members of the Victorian art world, including John Everett Millais and Frederic Leighton, who frequently visited Little Holland House; indeed, throughout his artistic training Prinsep received tuition from Watts. In 1859, Prinsep traveled to Italy with another rising young English artist, Edward Burne-Jones, and from 1859 to 1860 he studied at Charles Gleyre’s atelier in Paris. Prinsep’s early works, such as The Queen was in the Parlour Eating Bread and Honey (1860) and How Bianco Capello Sought to Poison her Brother-in-Law the Cardinal de Medici (1862), reveal his interest in Pre-Raphaelitism; Bianco Capello was the first painting he exhibited at the Royal Academy (1862). Another major influence on his artistic career was the eclectic St John’s Wood Clique, a group of artists concerned with professional visibility and known for their historical genre style,[1] as evident in works by Prinsep such as Home from the Gleaning (1875) and The Linen Gatherers (1876).

Prinsep’s closest friend was Frederic Leighton. Both joined the 38th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps, and later purchased neighboring plots of land on Holland Park Road, where they constructed studio houses. Prinsep was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1879, and one year later completed The Imperial Assemblage Held at Delhi, an enormous work commissioned by Lord Lytton, viceroy of India, who requested a painting “commemorative of the assemblage rather than a faithful reproduction of the scene.”[2] Measuring 120 by 285 inches, the painting required fourteen skilled men to move it from Prinsep’s studio to the Royal Academy in 1880. Prinsep created a number of paintings based on his travels in India in the late 1870s, including A Nautch Girl (1878) and The Roum-i-Sultana (1879). Following his time in India, Prinsep painted almost entirely Eastern subjects, described by Wilfred Meynell as “thoroughly authentic and trustworthy presentments of landscape and of architecture.” He also wrote an account of his travels, Imperial India: an Artist’s Journals, in 1879, which according to one critic, “showed the possession of a ready writer’s pen.” [3]

By 1884, when Artists at Home was published, Prinsep had become a wealthy man. On July 28, 1884, he married Florence Leyland, daughter of a Liverpool shipping millionaire and patron of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and James McNeill Whistler, further increasing his fortune. With Florence, he had three sons: Thoby, Anthony, and Nicholas.

Prinsep continued to paint, and he exhibited at the Royal Academy every year until his death on November 11, 1904, at Welbeck House, home of the surgeon Sydney Gray MacDonald[4], following a prostate operation. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1894 and appointed Professor of Painting in 1901. His later works include Ayesha (1887), an orientalist painting, and La Révolution (1896), set in the time of the French Revolution. After his death, Prinsep was remembered as “well known in Art and highly esteemed in Society . . . a thorough artist in his aspirations, a fine painter, and a right good honest man.”[5] 

-Jenifer Norwalk

[1] "St John's Wood Clique,” National Portrait Gallery, accessed October 18, 2016. http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/group/1128. 

[2] “The Imperial Assemblage Held at Delhi,” Royal Collection Trust, accessed November 01, 2016, https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/407181/the-imperial-assemblage-held-at-delhi-1-january-1877.

[3] Wilfred Meynell, The Modern School of Art, 4 vols. (London: Cassel, 1886), 2:34.

[4] John Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates, and Holders of Office, from the Earliest Times to 1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 261.  

[5] Jehu Junior, quoted in The Royal Academy of Arts: a complete dictionary of contributors and their work from its foundation in 1769 to 1904, by Algernon Graves, (London: Henry Graves and Co., 1906). 

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After Val C. Prinsep, The Linen Gatherers, 1876

Variety of artistic impulse, frankness, manliness, boldness of design, and decorative feeling are some of the characteristics of the art of Valentine Prinsep, A.R.A. At present it has been mainly tentaative, and is representative of his age principally as an instance of that intellectual vacillation which results from the possession of natural gifts unaccompanied by a strong instinct as to the best way to employ them. Such at present seems to me the reason why Prinsep has not yet fulfilled the promise of such pictures as the elegant "Minuet" (1875), the poetical "Linen Gatherers" of the following year, or even his "Venetian Gaming House" of 1867. . . . Nevertheless, "What will he do with it?" is a question still to be asked in reference to the undoubted talent of Valentine Prinsep.

--Cosmo Monkhouse, "Some English Artists and Their Studios," Century Illustrated Magazine 24 (August 1882): 90.

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V. C. Prinsep, La Festa di Lido, 1864, painted in Venice while his house was being built in London.

Prinsep was a thorough artist; his pictures always showed originality in their conception, and their execution was manly and vigorous. He possessed a fine natural sense of colour, a gift of which, it seemed to me, he might have made greater use than he actually did, for although his colour was at all times wholesome and pure, many of his early works were richer and fuller in this respect than those he painted at a later period. He was entirely devoid of affectation of any sort. His modesty, when showing his pictures to us, in his studio or at the Academy on a varnishing day, was very remarkable: I have often seen him blush like a girl of sixteen when I have expressed my admiration for them.

--G. D. Leslie, The Inner Life of the Royal Academy (London: John Murray, 1914), 186.