William Roberts, The Birth of Venus

Copyrighted material on this page is included as 'fair use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner. Text © David Cleall, from Christie's London, Modern British Art, 10 July 2013 (lot 26).

The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus, 1954
Oil on canvas, 125 cm x 85 cm

The Birth of Venus, exhibited in 1955, was the fourth in a series of spectacular, eye-catching compositions by William Roberts that were to become a feature of Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions throughout the 1950s and '60s. Perhaps following the example of his Slade contemporary, Stanley Spencer – who had returned to exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1950 – Roberts launched an assault on the mediocrity that too often characterised the RA summer shows at this time. While modestly scaled works diminished into insignificance on the packed walls of Burlington House, Roberts's colourful, uncompromising canvases certainly held their own. Neville Wallis, commenting on the 1955 show, bemoaned the generally restrained approach shown by many artists and found it very welcome to 'come upon the natural extravagances of a Spencer or a Roberts' (The Observer, 1 May 1955). The Times critic was disappointed by some of the 'subject paintings' on display but drew readers' attention to 'a vastly entertaining "Birth of Venus" by Mr. William Roberts' (30 April 1955).

In so far as Roberts's work was known in other contexts, it was for his representations of urban life. However, for the Royal Academy he often returned to the type of classical or biblical subjects that he had first been introduced to while at the Slade. His working year was now dominated by the production of a Royal Academy 'set piece'. The large canvas was preceded by detailed pencil and watercolour studies that were squared for transfer – a study for The Birth of Venus is in the Tate collection. It was audacious of Roberts to choose 'The Birth of Venus' for the 1955 show – a subject so widely known through Sandro Botticelli's Renaissance masterpiece of 1486. Roberts retains Botticelli's blonde-haired vision of idealised female beauty, but in other respects his Venus is a more 'earthly' goddess. With little money available and no studio space, Roberts rarely hired professional models. For Venus, Roberts looked to a family friend, Daphne Dennison. Born in Jamaica, and later a student at the Slade School of Art, Daphne had met the Robertses in Oxford during the Second World War. She eventually made her home in London and became an exhibiting artist herself.

Roberts brings a satirical eye to the tale by placing the mythical apparition in the context of a down-to-earth Cypriot fishing scene, finding humour in the fishermen's reactions. The degree to which the subject matter would be regarded as risqué at the Royal Academy in 1955 can be seen in a comment by René MacColl in the Daily Express of 30 April 1955: 'There are going to be some very raised eyebrows among the crowds who visit the Academy, for never in its 187-year history have the nudes been quite so explicitly nude as they are this year . . . even my blasé old jaw fell slightly agape once or twice as I made the rounds.' But The Birth of Venus was not among those singled out by MacColl.

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