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Egg tempera on very thin gesso ground over linen weave, hemmed along edges
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Inscriptionback to top
Signed and dated lower left: 1911 / EJS;
inscr. in pencil over ground along top edge: COLOUR BEGUN 18.VIII.1911.
On left upper stretcher inscr. in pencil centre: 39 3/4 x 20 1/8 rebate;
typed label from City Museum & Art Gallery, Birmingham: Exhibition: Joseph Southall. Cat E2. Artist: Joseph Southall. Date: 8.8.80 to 30.9.80. Title: The Agate, 1911. Lender : Jane & David Livingstone.
This portraitback to top
Entitled The Agate,  this double portrait shows the artist with his wife Anna Elizabeth (Bessie) Baker Southall, depicted as if on a beach. In 1911 they were aged 50 and 52 respectively. He holds in his hand some pebbles (others are seen at their feet) from which she has lifted a delicately lined agate, which provides the works title. Their hands, arrested in mid-gesture, are suggestive of conjugal affection. Married in 1903, the couple spent their honeymoon and many subsequent visits in Southwold, Suffolk, which is probably the setting for this picture, and where gemstones like agate and amber can be found on the seashore.
Joseph wears a dark knickerbocker suit, which was typical gentlemens leisure-wear in the Edwardian era. Bessie is formally clad, her grey-brown woollen dress offset by a black-and-white silk stole with tassels and a highly fashionable hat.  She carries a small green bag on a long chain. The greying waves of her pinned-back hair are lightly echoed in the lines of the stone in her hand. The couple were both members of the Society of Friends and despite the stylish dress the painting has a sober Quakerish tonality in its sequence of light and dark greys and blacks, discreetly offset by Bessies bag and Josephs just-glimpsed red tie, echoed by the red band on the boat behind them, which visually links the couple like a ribbon. This colour scheme differs markedly from the warm coral and ginger hues of Josephs portrait of Bessie painted in 1895 (The Coral Necklace; see All known portraits: Anna Elizabeth Southall, By other artists, 18945).
As a self-portrait, the depiction presents a more urbane image than Southalls earlier essay in the genre, Man with a Sable Brush (exh. RA 1897; see All known portraits: Joseph Edward Southall, Self-portraits, 1896). Together with his smart black socks and black-and-white garter chiming with Bessies stole, the knickerbocker suit shows off his legs and slim figure, and the confident pose seems to reflect his success in the art world. In March 1910 his solo show in Paris prompted an invitation to join the Union Internationale des Beaux-arts et des Lettres, and was followed by participation in international exhibitions in Rome (1911) and Ghent (1913).
Thanks to the medium, the surface of the paint is matt and in keeping with Josephs usual practice of building strongly delineated but flat colour areas without chiaroscuro (very slight shadows are glimpsed in the drapery and behind the handbag chain): the image has the look of a dull day, despite sunshine and blue sky. The subdued hues are tonally harmonious, relieved only by touches of brighter colour. Although Bessie is sartorially more resplendent, Josephs direct gaze endows the two figures with equal pictorial weight. They stand close to the picture plane within a tall rectangle that gives an illusion of height, accentuated by visual cropping at the top and sides of the composition. This cropping, together with the clear colour fields and the contrast between the beach setting and their well-polished shoes, give the image a slightly surreal quality that looks forward to the Modernist mode;  more accurately, they would seem to reflect Southalls endeavour to combine the techniques of Tuscan fresco painting with modern-life subjects. As he once wrote: I am struck afresh with the fact that Nature is so Primitive in the matter of light and shade and colour. 
A pencil-and-wash study for his head, wearing a dark hat, was formerly with the Fine Art Society (see All known portraits: Joseph Edward Southall, Self-portraits, 1910) while his wifes profile features and aspect are shown in earlier portraits, such as a silverpoint of 1893 (All known portraits: Anna Elizabeth Southall, By other artists, 1893) and The Coral Necklace of 1895.
Bessie commonly prepared the gesso ground for Josephs tempera paintings; the present work is on a linen fabric, possibly obtained from the Langdale homespun industry promoted by Ruskin. Also a skilled gilder, she decorated Josephs frames;  that for the present work was lost sometime in the 1950s.
Three early exhibition records are known (see Exhibitions). The portrait remained with the Southalls until Bessies death, after which it was acquired by the owner of a Birmingham department store. Reportedly, it was hung in the ladies restroom, where it was so unpopular, that it was covered with a mirror, which pleased the public much more. According to George Breeze, the story admirably illustrates the point that people are seldom neutral in their reactions to Southalls work.
It was placed on long-term loan to the National Portrait Gallery in 1998.
Dr Jan Marsh
Footnotesback to top
1) Sometimes The Agate (Portrait of the Artist and his Wife) as in Manchester 1922 (Manchester AG Archives: our thanks to Melva Croal for this reference).
2) Breeze (1980, p.58) notes Southalls love of splendid hats, several of which feature in portraits of Bessie.
3) He paints with jewel-like precision and his settings are contemporary and frequently bizarre. These elements have encouraged a number of critics to judge Southall a Surrealist painter: Virginia Fitzroy, review of Joseph Southall 18611944: Artist-Craftsman, Birmingham MAG, 1980 in Connoisseur, Oct. 1980, p.152.
4) Letter from J.E. Southall to Arthur Gaskin, c.1909, quoted Breeze 1980, p.18 n.43.
5) In 1900 she recorded a total of 82 hours work on ground and frame for a portrait of herself, for which she was paid 30 shillings; see Breeze 1980, no.E10.
6) Breeze 1980, no.E2, p.55.
Physical descriptionback to top
Joseph Southall: whole-length, standing, nearly full-face, wearing pale hat, dark knickerbocker suit, black socks and shoes, holding pebbles in right hand.
Anna Southall: whole-length, standing, profile to left, holding stone in right hand.
Conservationback to top
Conserved, 1997; and 1998.
Provenanceback to top
The artist; his widow; Donald Hope; Richard Barrow; his daughter Jane Livingstone (1980); her heirs, by whom placed on long-term loan 1998.
Exhibitionsback to top
Liverpool, autumn 1912 (736).
Oldham Art Gallery, spring 1913 (24).
Joseph Southall, Manchester Art Gallery, 1922 (32, as The Agate [Portrait of the Artist and His Wife]).
Joseph Southall 18611944: Artist-Craftsman, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Fine Art Society, London, 1980 (E2, as The Agate).
Reproductionsback to top
Breeze 1980, no.E2, pl.1 (as The Agate).
Connoisseur, October 1980, p.152.
View all known portraits for Joseph Edward Southall