Following the launch of her volume, The Boyce Papers: The Letters and Diaries of Joanna Boyce, Henry Wells and George Price Boyce, at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in April, we asked Sue Bradbury for her thoughts on the three artists and the extraordinarily rich correspondence they generated.
When Richard Barber first introduced me to Joanna, George and Henry, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was a publisher long enough to know that genuine treasure in the attic is much rarer than we suppose, so a plastic bag crammed with the correspondence of three Pre-Raphaelite period artists was by no means a sure fire hit. What’s more, these survivals were in the form of a transcript: the originals were destroyed in one of Hitler’s bombing raids on Bath in 1942, shortly after Alice, the elder daughter of Joanna and Henry, had finished typing them up.
I read them and was hooked. Not only did they tell the story of three young artists making their way through an artistic revolution – their paths crossed those of Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Ruskin, Burne-Jones, Lizzie Siddal, William ‘Topsy’ Morris and a host of others – but it was a family saga and a love story too. Joanna and George Boyce enjoyed the luxury of a wealthy and supportive father, and could pursue their art without regard for financial reward, but Henry Wells was expected from the start to earn a living. Apprenticed at an early age, he came to specialise in miniature painting, commissions often carried out in the homes of the aristocracy. Henry met Joanna through her brother and promptly and irrevocably fell in love with her. Perhaps the sheer vehemence of his passion made her nervous, but she was also convinced that one could not be a good artist and a good wife and mother, and a good artist is what she wanted to be. So she kept her suitor at bay for nearly six years, and during that time they never ceased to correspond, with George commenting laconically, and at length, from the sidelines.
To read the letters and diaries of all three is to enter into their world wholesale. We experience their medical crises (the Boyce family was in constant search for a cure for their youngest son’s epilepsy); their training, which, for Joanna, included studying in Paris under Thomas Couture); the annual challenge of preparing for the Royal Academy (Henry’s first portrait was exhibited when he was only 16), and their many travels.
But it is the detailed conversation between the three of them on the subject of their art that gives this book its heart, and the key to it all is Joanna. Eye-witness accounts of what it was like to be a woman artist at any period are rare, and Joanna’s account of herself is irresistible – forthright, self-critical, exasperating, invigorating – and touchingly humble: I have talents, or a talent, and with it the constant impulse to employ it – not for notoriety or fame, but the love of it and the longing to work.’ When she eventually succumbed and married Henry, she was blissfully happy. Her death, at the age of 29, following the birth of her third child, brought to an end an extraordinary flowering. Though George and Henry both lived on for many years, the conversation that had sustained them all for so long came to an end.
Following the publication of my biography, Joanna, George and Henry: A Pre-Raphaelite Tale of Art, Love and Friendship, the Boyce family and Boydell generously entrusted me with the complete Boyce Papers. I can only say that, now the book is published, I’m bereft. It’s fair to say I fell in love with them all.
This guest post was written by Sue Bradbury. Sue was Editorial Director of the Folio Society for 25 years and was awarded an OBE for services to the publishing industry in 2010.